A historic walking tour of Gastown in Vancouver

November 18, 2016

by Nancy Baye

Offering the perfect mix of old and new, Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood is home to iconic local landmarks and heritage buildings, as well some of the city’s trendiest restaurants, bars, galleries and boutiques. Take a walking tour through the cobblestoned streets and stop along the way to eat, drink, shop and soak up the area’s rich history. [Photo credit: Tourism Vancouver/ Jessica Wright, Bon Traveler]

A historic walking tour of Gastown in Vancouver

Gassy Jack

As one of Vancouver’s oldest settlements, Gastown must get tired of being asked how it got its name. There’s no gas produced here, although gas lamps once adorned the streets. Rather, the area was founded by British entrepreneur “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who was nicknamed for his long-winded story telling. He landed here in 1867 with barrels of whiskey and legend has it that he told local loggers and millworkers if they could build him a saloon, the drinks were on the house. The shack was up in one day and thus, the neighbourhood was born.

The area boomed as a result of Gassy Jack’s vision. It grew from a sawmill and seaport to a hub of trade and commerce, and was known as party-central (and still is to this day). It became the city of Vancouver in the 1870s, full of warehouses, shops, hotels, and residential homes. While the great fire of 1886 destroyed most of the thriving frontier settlement, locals quickly rebuilt and today the area’s historic architecture and landmarks offer a unique glimpse into Vancouver’s past.

A Historic Watering Hole

Given Gastown's booze-fuelled beginnings, it makes sense to start your walking tour at one of the city’s oldest pubs. The Lamplighter began serving alcohol in 1925 (four years after Prohibition ended) and was the first establishment in the city to allow women to drink. The alcohol ban stretched from 1917 to 1921, but the drinking never stopped. Speakeasies and bootlegging operations thrived in this neighbourhood. According to urban legend, secret tunnels ran under the post office and other buildings, enabling rum-running, contraband smuggling and providing criminal escape-routes. Once part of the historic Dominion Grand Hotel, The Lamplighter retains much of its original character, including tin-stamped ceilings, brick walls, railings and stained glass windows.

A Stroll on Water Street

Take a walk down Water Street and you’ll see a mix of Vancouver-born fashion boutiques (Kit & Ace, The Latest Scoop and John Fluevog Shoes to name a few) as well as remnants of the area’s early settlers. House of McLaren is a Scottish shop known for its selection of imported candies, tartan kilts, jewellery and novelties; all of the products are guaranteed to be genuinely Scottish. If your feet feel neglected, step into the Wild West of footwear at the OK Boot Corral. Here, you’ll find a dizzying selection of boots made with deer skin, elk, bull hide, ostrich, rattlesnake, arctic walrus, sting ray and more exotic materials.

Next stop along Water Street is Coastal Peoples Gallery, which showcases museum-quality Native artwork from master carvers and emerging West Coast talent. The collection of contemporary artwork focuses on the Northwest Coast and Inuit communities of Northeastern Canada.

If you haven’t stumbled upon the Gastown Steam Clock yet, you might have heard its distinctive whistles. Originally built to cover a steam grate, the local landmark now functions as a gathering spot and photo-op for tourists, and a way to track the time with its Westminster chime.

Speaking of smoke, Cigar Connoisseurs is the place to stock up stogies. The shop has been puffing along for 20 years and offers a variety of exceptional Cuban cigars. Connoisseurs and Hollywood-types delight in the perfectly temperate and moist walk-in humidor, the largest in the city.

Neighbourhood Novelties

A turn up Cambie Street will take you to a deadly end, or at least to Deadly Couture. This punk and goth-inspired shop carries corsets, fetishwear, costumes and custom clothing for all sizes and needs. If latex isn’t your thing, cut along Cordova to get groomed at The 18th Amendment Barber Shop. The barbershop melds tradition with the modern man, offering hot towel shaves and classic cuts, and the industrial-vintage vibe to make that ’stache trim even more fun. A nip up Homer Street will land you at Button Button; with buttons from around the world, this place is more than a novelty store, it’s a must see. Finish up at the legendary McLeod’s Books on Pender Street. The infamous used bookshop is a labyrinthine space where shelves overflow with well-worn paperbacks and rare tomes just waiting to be discovered.

As you loop back to the starting point of the tour, take a moment to appreciate the Victorian architecture, because it was hard to save. In the 1960s, Vancouver citizens began demanding these historic buildings be preserved. Public outcry prompted the provincial government to name Gastown an official heritage site in 1971, breathing new life into the area, which had collapsed into a skid row during the Great Depression. Gastown was later designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009.

Blood Alley

By now, you’ve landed close to Gastown’s infamous Blood Alley. Head down the alley to the saltshaker sign above the door at Salt Tasting Room and finish your tour with a taste of the Mediterranean. This Spanish-inspired tapas bar specializes in artisanal cheese, cured meats and a range of international wine and beer. Build your own board from the savoury options on the chalkboard menu or let the kitchen customize a tasting plate to pair with a glass of wine or a flight.

The Blood Alley area was Gastown’s original meatpacking district, the sordid street so named due to the streams of blood that ran between the cobblestones. Gaoler’s Mews – the courtyard beside L’Abbatoir, an elegant and aptly named restaurant – was reported to house the city’s first jail and was the site of public executions.

A popular destination for tourists and locals alike, Gastown is home to award-winning restaurants, cool cafés, eclectic shops and galleries, and historic tales of legendary characters. The area’s reputation as a deliciously wicked den of debauchery is a romantic story that keeps on rolling.

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