Vancouver: Canada’s West Coast metropolis has become something of a mainstay in the top rankings of the world’s most liveable cities – and unsurprisingly so. Characterised by an impressive variety of cultures and incredible diversity, there is much more to Vancouver than the famous Gastown neighbourhood. South Main, Railtown and the “old-new” Chinatown are three up-and-coming districts that should not be missed.
Gastown, Vancouver’s historic entertainment district, is probably the first thing that comes to mind when giving thought to Canada’s West Coast metropolis. And understandably so: this downtown entertainment core with the famous Steam Clock is beautiful, diverse and truly fascinating. Having said that, several previously unknown city districts are currently experiencing a real boom. Cases in point are South Main, Railtown and Chinatown. Three new good reasons to travel to Vancouver.
From old to new – Railtown
Railtown, with its unmistakable industrial past, is wedged between the Gastown and Chinatown neighbourhoods. Decked with factory buildings, warehouses and –as the name suggests– railway tracks that were once used to transport goods, the true beauty of this city district is hidden behind its facades. Behind the ageing brick buildings are Vancouver’s creative minds and numerous galleries and art expositions that display alternative works of young artists rather than classical art. The district’s warehouses and factories are being converted into modern restaurants that feature exciting concepts, or concept stores that offer fashion, designer furniture, literature and art. Many start-ups, above all tech companies, have also discovered the district’s potential. The social media giant Hootsuite, for instance, has its roots in Railtown. Other examples are bag and backpack designer Herschel Supply Co and wood furniture manufacturer Union Wood Co, both headquartered in Railtown.
Visitors to Railtown should go there with an appetite, as there are some great restaurants and bars to enjoy in the area, including gems such as Ask for Luigi that specialises in house-made pastas and other Italian delicacies that would make an Italian nonna (grandmother) proud – with an added modern twist. Railtown Café is the place to go for delicious snacks. The freshly made sandwiches, salads and burritos have become so popular that the stylish café has expanded to beyond the former industrial district. True gourmets will love the Mackenzie Room. The menus are adjusted to suit the season and displayed on a large chalkboard. The interior of the restaurant is a bit eclectic, but the food is first-class, highly creative and prepared with local yet unusual ingredients, such as: Jerusalem artichoke, yoghurt made from goat’s milk and ash!
A blend of tradition and modern influences – Chinatown
Chinatowns are rarely associated with hipness, the widespread perception being that of kitschy gold-coloured plastic kittens, crammed Chinese restaurants and “designer” hand bags at giveaway prices. And, indeed, up until a few years ago that depiction would have rung true for Vancouver’s Chinatown as well. But the third-largest Chinatown in North America (after New York and San Francisco) has developed in almost meteoric fashion. The large Chinese community in Vancouver has banked on an exciting mix of traditional elements and modern influences. The traditional elements include the Chinese-style Millenium Gate and the beautiful Chinese Garden, an almost surreal oasis of tranquillity in the heart of the city with cherry trees set against a backdrop of glossy city skyscrapers. The modern elements include a large and continually expanding art scene. One particularly remarkable project is the first “Aboriginal Art Hotel” in Canada: the “Skwachays Lodge” is part art exhibition, part boutique hotel, part charitable organisation. The eighteen rooms of the hotel are individually designed by artists of First Nations origin, in other words, descendants of Canada’s aborigines. The profits from the hotel subsidise the twenty-four studios in the Lodge where natural body-care products, fabrics and other items are produced in keeping with traditional aboriginal methods. Even more art is on display in the Wing Sang building that houses a private exhibition space for the contemporary art collection of real estate mogul Bob Rennie. The collection can be viewed free of charge. Temporary expositions are also exhibited in the Wing Sang building.
In culinary terms, Asia still has a significant influence on many restaurants in Chinatown. However, in lieu of fried noodles and Co, a more modern take largely prevails, including a fusion of Italian and Asian cuisine in Kissa Tanto or contemporary creations like cardamom-carrot-puree in Bao Bei. Chinese cocktails are to be had in the Keefer bar. By the way, a large, symbolic neon sign has been installed at the corner of Keefer and Columbia that reads “Chinatown Plaza”. In 1953, as many as 19,000 neon lights “graced” the streets of Vancouver which, metaphorically speaking, translated into one neon sign for every nineteen inhabitants. Though the neon hype has since abated, Chinatown is looking to revive it by using the signs to illuminate the streets, cafés and restaurants. Just recently, the Museum of Vancouver dedicated an entire exhibition to old neon signs, so rescuing them from the electronic junk yard.
Hipster magnet - South Main
South Main –or SoMa for short– is quite simply one of Vancouver’s hippest districts. With no clear boundaries, it most definitely includes Main Street between East 2nd and East 33rd Avenue – which is also where life largely happens: eating, drinking, shopping and –most importantly- people watching. Nowhere else are people as interesting as in SoMa, which is largely thanks to the prevalent style: rather than opt for expensive designer shops, SoMa fans favour the numerous small thrift shops that sell unique garments, or the small local boutiques, such as Still Life For Him & For Her and Barefoot Contessa.
Perhaps the most important feature of South Main is the craft beer scene. In the 1880s, the area around South Main was also known as “Brewery Creek”. By and by, the small breweries were forced to close. Today, SoMa is making efforts to revive the erstwhile trend. Nowadays, there are more than half a dozen active breweries, including 33 Acres, Brassneck and R&B Brewing. No wonder SoMa craft beer tours are hugely popular and an exciting experience, particularly for visitors from abroad.
Vegans, vegetarians and anyone who enjoys a meat-free meal will feel catered to in South Main. The markets sell foods that are difficult to find elsewhere – which is also reflected in the restaurant scene. According to CNN, the Acorn is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the world. Meat or fish is occasionally served in Burdock and Co, but the guiding principle is: local and natural ingredients. The vegetables come straight from the field. The restaurant even has its own little garden. The wine served is “natural”, meaning it is processed without any specially grown additives.
And last but certainly not least: South Main is also the heart of Vancouver’s nightlife scene. This is where the “cool kids” hang out – and they are savvy about where to go. Because some of the locations are not easy to find. The Narrow Lounge, for instance, is unmarked. The only way to spot the bar is a red light above the entrance. Help is, however, at hand in the form of a map on the homepage of this insider bar. Once an adult movie theatre, Fox Cabaret is now a venue for performances by live bands, comedians and dance parties with DJs. The place to go for special drinks is the Shameful Tiki Room where hula dancers, a straw-shrouded ceiling and the overall ambience transport visitors to a Hawaiian island, far away from Vancouver. But, in saying that, who in their right mind would want to be transported away from Vancouver?