How to spend a day in Vancouver’s Chinatown

by Megan Jones

Did you know Canada’s largest Chinatown – and one of North America’s most historic Chinatowns – is located in Vancouver? This unique district is a thriving mix of traditional and modern – a one-of-a-kind blend of Asian green grocers, butchers and fish shops; hipster cafés, art galleries and boutiques; and cultural sites, museums, bars and theatres. Needless to say, it’s an action-packed place to be. Not sure where to start? We've got a few ideas about how to spend the day in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood. [Photo credit: iStock.com/Pglam]

How to spend a day in Vancouver’s Chinatown

A historic past

An original Chinese-Canadian enclave, where buildings date back to 1898, Vancouver’s Chinatown is a popular tourist destination has endured many challenges over the years. In the late 19th century, Canada’s Chinese Head Tax unethically restricted Chinese immigration, dividing families across continents. The Race Riots of 1907 saw white rioters destroy local shops and homes and, more recently, gentrification threatens original buildings and residents. Throughout a history of ups and downs, however, Chinatown has held on to its rich heritage. Since 2011, a city planning committee has been working to revitalize the neighbourhood, preserving buildings, shops, services and culture.

Morning wake-up call

There’s no shortage of places to get your early-morning caffeine fix in Chinatown. Skip the big-name coffee chains and start your day off right at one of the indie cafés that add character and charm to the ’hood. Vancouver’s own Matchstick Coffee Roasters is a favourite among the creative crowd thanks to its artisanal brews, knowledgeable baristas and heavenly double-baked almond croissants.

Tight Club Athletics

Now that you’ve got a jolt of energy, stop in for a morning sweat sesh at this one-of-a-kind fitness studio known for its emphasis on body positivity, creativity, balance and getting tight the right way. Get ready for gorgeous, strong (and beautifully tattooed) instructors to lead you in functional movements: stretching, running, jumping – you name it. Class types include the cardio-blasting Tight Sweat, TRX, Booty Love (self explanatory) and The Athlete, a combo of mobility, agility and stability with conditioning challenges.

Lunch hour favourites

You’re sure to feel a little hungry after all that fitness, so head on over to the corner of East Pender and Columbia Street to Bestie, a cozy-yet-classy sausage and beer parlour. In a modern cafeteria-style dining space, diners can choose from authentic pretzels, sausages, salads, crispy fries and currywurst, a popular Berlin street food of sliced sausage served with curried ketchup and fries. Alternatively, head over to stylish Italian deli Pazzo Chow for a healthy salad, soup or pasta on their pretty patio. Be sure to check their Instagram feed beforehand (where they announce daily specials) and don’t leave without browsing the shelves for hand-selected, hard-to-find dried pastas, sauces, pestos, olives, cheeses and olive oils.

Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Garden

With a full belly, you’re ready for some culture: kitty corner to Pazzo Chow waits a secret oasis with intriguing Chinese origins. Drawing on sacred landscaping traditions of Ming Dynasty scholars, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden is a hand-sculpted, intricate garden representing the natural movements and rhythms of nature in its design – and was the first of its kind to be built outside of China. Completed in 1986, the urban sanctuary is an ideal place for contemplation in solitude.

Heritage building tour

Now that you’re on a cultural roll, take a tour of the neighbourhood’s iconic heritage buildings – some of the most historic in Vancouver – such as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Canada, Chin Wung Chun Society, Chinese Freemasons Building and the Kuomintang Building. Don’t miss the Sam Kee Building, the world’s narrowest commercial building according to the Guinness Book of World Records. For directions and information about these stunning structures, visit the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Area website and download this free map.

Sun Fresh Bakery

Feeling tired from all that walking? Pick yourself up with a sweet coconut bun or savoury dumping from Sun Fresh Bakery on Keefer Street. Rated a top spot for traditional Chinese baked goods, here you can find perfectly square and chewy tarot and radish cakes, hot and steamy pork and/or veggie buns, dumplings and even Chinese sausage rolls all in a charming, friendly atmosphere.

The Chinese Tea Shop

Tea connoisseurs should make time to browse the specialty blends and beautiful teapots on display at The Chinese Tea Shop. Located on East Pender, this tea boutique is favourite among locals and visitors. Owner Daniel Lui is always happy to provide demonstrations on how to brew a perfect cup. His warm lessons on the health benefits of tea – from oolong to “silver needle” white tea – are paired with delicious samples served in dainty cups. High shelves are stocked with traditional teapots, cups, tealeaves, linens, and much, much more.

China Gate

One must never leave Chinatown without gazing up at this iconic gate, which the People’s Republic of China donated to the City of Vancouver in 1986. This elaborately carved and painted gate at Pender and Taylor was restored to its former glory – and then some – in 2005 during the visit of Guangdong province governor Huang Huahua. Today, the landmark remains the cultural and architectural focal point of the neighbourhood.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie

In a district where of-the-moment eateries mingle with age-old restaurants, you could choose between traditional or modern cuisine for dinner – or you could have the best of both words at Bao Bei. Owner Tannis Ling sits on the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee, and mixes her childhood memories of Chinatown with modern touches at this upscale Chinese Brasserie. Family photos complement a minimal aesthetic and dishes are an unusual blend of Chinese and French. Tip: the bar is a stylish place to share a cocktail and – occasionally – a celebrity sighting.

Rickshaw Theatre

After a delicious meal, consider ending your day in the neighbourhood with a performance or dance party at this eclectic theatre that hosts everything from punk bands to DJs. Constructed in 1971 by the Shaw Brothers – an important production company in Hong Kong cinema – the Rickshaw was once a popular spot for Kung Fu flicks. Today, it’s a music venue, but you can still experience the old cinema in the historic and beautiful building.

Chinatown presents endless opportunities for exploring, learning, playing, drinking and eating. Such an abundance of choice may seem overwhelming, but stick to this guide and you’ll be sure to get the most out of Vancouver’s one-stop spot for culture, history, food and nightlife.

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