The Millenium Gate at Chinatown's entrance
Gastown-Chinatown is in the east end of downtown Vancouver between the central business area and East Van. It is one of the oldest parts of the city and much of the early architecture and character remains, giving it a different look and feel than the glass and concrete of the rest of downtown. Its precise boundaries are difficult to pin down, but it is roughly bounded by Gore St in the east, Dunsmuir St to the south, the railroad tracks to the north and Cambie St/Cordova St/Waterfront Station to the west.
Much of the neighbourhood's distinctiveness is derived from their early importance to Vancouver and subsequent decline. Gastown emerged from a collection of shanties around a sawmill in the 1860s, later becoming part of the city of Vancouver when it was incorporated in 1886. It was the early entertainment district of the city with a large number of saloons and drinking establishments. Hastings Street, on its south side, became a commercial area with many of the city's early office buildings. Chinatown, to the southeast, was settled primarily by Chinese immigrants who came to Canada in the late 1800s to build the national railroad. Many remained in Canada and started their own businesses that helped make Chinatown, and Vancouver, flourish.
The city's business district slowly shifted westwards towards the Granville Street area and after the Great Depression, Gastown and Chinatown began a long decline. A proposal to demolish much of the area to make way for an expressway in the 1960s started a debate about their future and helped spark interest in the neighbourhoods. Renewal has been uneven, and today, Gastown and Chinatown (and the broader Downtown Eastside which they are part of) are in varying states of decay and restoration. Tourist spots and trendy bars sit just a couple of blocks from streetfront drug deals and hip new condos look over what is called Canada's poorest postal code.
The Gastown of today has all the appearances of mass-market tourism and can generate a bit of a love/hate feeling. It's a popular spot for the tour buses and the tacky souvenir shops know it... there's a new one every few storefronts. But the wide sidewalks, street level patios and old brick and stone buildings lend a charm and almost give it a European feel. Water Street has many of the tourist shops and restaurants while Cordova Street is more run-down (particularly east of Cambie St) and has a number of shops selling vintage items.
Chinatown, the second largest in area in North America, is further from the tourist path and feels rougher around the edges than Gastown. It has the usual tea shops and ducks hanging in the windows, but there are also beautiful gardens and an active night market in the summer.
In between these neighbourhoods (Hastings Street) and east of them is the Downtown Eastside, an area known for its drug use, prostitution and homelessness. It's certainly walkable during the day, but some people may feel uncomfortable and it can be a dangerous area at night if you are not familiar with it. Other than cheap accommodation, there is little to attract the visitor so touring this area is not recommended.
Gastown begins outside of Waterfront Station (on Cordova St), so the easiest way is to walk in. Water Street, its main drag, will be the first street on the left.
Chinatown is also easily accessible on foot, just head east on Pender Street. The Millennium Gate, at Pender and Taylor, marks the entrance to Chinatown but most of the action is a few blocks further east and along Keefer Street, one block south. Another option is to take the SkyTrain and get off at the Stadium-Chinatown stop. Head north and just past the T&T will be Pender Street. The Millenium Gate is one block east.
A number of bus routes run through Gastown-Chinatown on their way to and from East Van. Routes 10 and 16 head out Hastings Street towards the PNE, Route 20 heads out Hastings Street and then down Commercial Drive and Route 3 heads down Main Street.
If travelling by car, Hastings Street is the major east-west street and connects with the Trans-Canada Highway in East Van.
The Man, The Legend, The Statue
Gastown is reputed to have got its name from one "Gassy" Jack Deighton, a steamboat operator, storyteller and the first proprietor of a saloon in Vancouver. Story has it that Jack rowed to the sawmill that had been built in present day Gastown, and in exchange for free whiskey, had the sawmill workers build a saloon within 24 hours of arriving. Business took off and the early townsite came to be known as Gastown. Jack passed away eight years later, but a statue stands today near the spot of his original saloon to commemorate his thirst-quenching contributions to Vancouver's development.
Both Gastown and Chinatown are interesting places to wander around in and of themselves. Some of the oldest buildings in the city are located here and Gastown has been refreshed with distinctive lamps and paving stone streets. Perhaps not authentic, but a nice contrast to the glass and steel towers just a couple of blocks away.
- Gastown. The oldest part of downtown. You will find cobble-paved boulevards and over-priced tourist traps selling every imaginable thing you can print "Vancouver" on. Popular with tourists are the Gastown Steam Clock, promoted as the only active steam clock in the world but in fact an electric clock that pumps steam rather an underwhelming experience; the Gassy Jack sculpture immortalizing the legendary Vancouver pioneer. The area is notorious for aggressive beggars-drug addicts who are quite unsettling.
- Dominion Building, 207 W Hastings St (Hastings & Cambie St, across from Victory Square). A distinctive red and mustard coloured building completed in 1910. It was the first steel-framed high-rise built in Vancouver and briefly was the tallest commercial building in the British Empire.
- Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, 578 Carrall St, ☎ +1 604-662-3207, . A Ming-dynasty style garden located in Chinatown. The gardens combines traditional Chinese buildings, plants, a small lake, and curved footpaths to create the illusion of a very big place within a single block. Tours are available. $10/$9/$8 (Adults/Seniors/Students)
- Gastown Steam Clock, corner of Water & Cambie streets. A clock that tries to look old and belches steam every 15 minutes may not be the most stunning landmark, but it has an endearing charm in a kitschy kind of way. Originally built to take advantage of the steam vents that are all over downtown Vancouver, it never lived up to its billing and now relies on electricity to count the minutes. It is one of a kind though and remains a photographic pilgrimage for thousands of Vancouver tourists.
- Sam Kee Building, 8 W Pender St. This two story building is the world's narrowest commercial building according to the Guinness Book of World Records, with a width of just 4'11" (1.5 m) at its base. Its slim size is due to the city expropriating most of the lot to widen the street. The owner went ahead and built anyway, and businesses have been operating out of its confines since 1913. If you do take a look, the perspective is better from the other (north) side of Pender.
- Sun Tower, 100 W Pender St (corner of Beatty & Pender St). A high-rise building built in the Beaux-Arts style. It was completed in 1912 and was the tallest building in the British Empire at the time. The tower is noted for its dome (painted to look like copper cladding) and its exterior was used in the TV series, Smallville.
- Vancouver Police Museum, 240 Cordova St E, ☎ +1 604-665-3346, . M-Sa 9AM-5PM. Exhibits on the history of Vancouver's police, unusual weapons that have been confiscated and notable Vancouver crimes. There are also a number of programs and activities geared towards kids. $7/$5 (adult/seniors & students).
- Victory Square, Hastings & Cambie St. A small park covering one city block. It has the cenotaph commemorating the dead from World War I and is the site of Vancouver's Remembrance Day ceremonies.
The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen gardens in Chinatown
- Chinese New Year. Because there is such a strong Chinese population in the city, the Lunar New Year period is often one of the most exciting and colourful in the city. There is usually a parade in Chinatown and many of the public schools usually have a day off on Chinese New Year. You can also catch celebrations at Tinseltown mall (1 minute from Stadium Skytrain station), and in Richmond at the International Buddhist Temple. There, visitors can experience Chinese New Year festivities with traditional snacks and foods, auspicious flower arrangements, Chinese calligraphy, exciting raffles, and much, much more.
- Chinatown Night Market, 100 & 200 block Keefer St. F-Su in the summer 6:30PM-11PM. Styled after Asian marketplaces these very popular nights have all kinds of stuff for sale. Watch out for the cheap imitation knock-offs that are commonly available.
- The Chinese Tea Shop, 101 E Pender St ((corner of East Pender & Columbia in Chinatown)), ☎ +1 604 633-1322, . Noon-6PM. Visit the specialty tea boutique, to purchase specialty teas such as oolong, green, white tea, black and pu-erh, as well as learn about the finer points of Gong Fu Cha and tea culture.
- John Fluevog, 65 Water St, ☎ +1 604 688-6228, . A shoe shop with interesting architecture that is built with glass panels between the two walls of an alleyway. Fine shoes.
- Livestock, 239 Abbott St, ☎ +1 604 685-1433, . 11AM-8PM. Selling trendy streetwear and footwear
- obakki, 44 Water St, . High-end clothing boutique
- Roden Gray, 231 Cambie St, ☎ +1 604 689-7302, . M-Sa 11AM-7PM, Su Noon-5PM. Boutique selling high-fashion goods
- Al Porto, 321 Water St, ☎ 604-683-8376, . M-F 11:30AM-10:30PM, Sa 5PM-10:30PM. Nice Mediterranean-themed decor with the standard Italian dishes. Mains $12-$27.
- Chambar, 562 Beatty St, ☎ +1 604 879-7119, . 5:30PM-midnight daily. Belgian restaurant with mussels and a variety of meat dishes on the menu. The beer list includes over 25 beers from Belgium. Starters $11-17, Mains $22-29.
- Chill Winston, 3 Alexander Street (At the intersection of Carrall, Water, Alexander, and Powell streets), ☎ +1 604 288-9575 ([email protected], fax: +1 604 288-9576), . daily 11AM–1AM. The food and the graphics on the menu fall somewhere between creatively elegant and pretentiously over-designed, but it's hard to argue with the urban plaza vibe of their patio on a sunny day. Unusual dishes like bison burger, poutine with a Jack Daniels demi-glaze, combine with good salads and friendly efficient service. Dinners $15-40/person.
- Cobre Restaurant, 52 Powell St, ☎ +1 604 669-2396, . Open daily 5PM to late. "Neuvo Latino" tapas, blending dishes from various Latin American countries. $8-$15 per plate.
- Guu Otokomae (Guu - Gastown), 105-375 Water St, ☎ +1 604 685-8682, . Open daily 5PM - Midnight. Dark, loud and busy, Guu serves up Japanese-style tapa dishes (izakaya). The top floor has the restaurant, while the bottom floor has a bar and seating where you can watch the chefs. Reservations are helpful, but they can only be made between 2PM and 5PM. $2-$10 per plate.
- Meat & Bread, 370 Cambie St (corner of Cambie & Hastings), ☎ +1 604 566-9003, . M-Sa 11AM-5PM. Simple menu but good food. There are four sandwiches, mostly focusing on roasted or braised meat (the Porchetta is the signature sandwich), and two sides that change daily. To finish it off you can get a bowl of Maple Bacon ice cream. The ambiance is interesting as well, with a couple of long tables for seating... in case you want to chat with your neighbours while chowing down your sandwich. Sandwiches $7-8, sides $4.
- Old Spaghetti Factory, 53 Water St, ☎ +1 604 684-1288, . M-Th 11AM-10PM, F-Sa 11AM-11PM, Su 11AM-9PM. Spaghetti and other standard Italian dishes, but well-priced and has sidewalk seating. Mains $9-$16.
- Salt Tasting Room (Salt), 45 Blood Alley, ☎ +1 604 633-1912, . No hot meals here -- pick your tasting plate of cheese, cured meats and condiments and pair it with some wine. The menu is fresh each day.
- Steamworks, 375 Water St, ☎ +1 604 689-2739, . Long standing brew pub that is popular with locals and tourists. There's a patio and restaurant at street level; pool tables and bar downstairs. Mains $11-$30, appies $6-$17.
- The Irish Heather, 212 Carrall St (at the east end of Gastown), ☎ +1 604 688-9779, . Open daily noon - midnight. Nice atmosphere, excellent pheasant, and apparently the only place in Vancouver that serves real Guinness. About $10 for lunch or $15 for supper (not including drinks).
- Water Street Cafe, 300 Water St, ☎ +1 604 689-2832. Su-Th 11:30AM-9PM, F-Sa 11:30AM-10PM. Elegant restaurant known for its pasta and seafood dishes. $20-$30 per person.
- Wild Rice, 117 W Pender St (between Abbott and Beatty Streets), ☎ +1 604 642-2882, . Lunch M-F 11:30AM-4PM. Dinner Su-Th until midnight, F-Sa until 1AM.. Wild Rice has a fresh, very tasty reinterpretation of Chinese cuisine, with pan-Asian and North American influences mixed in, set in a sleek black decor. Small plates $6-10, entrees $13-25, desserts $7. Fine teas $3-7 . Dinner for two $45-50 without wine.
- Nicli Antica Pizzeria, 62 East Cordova St (South Side of Cordova between Carrall & Columbia), ☎ 604-669-6985, . Daily 11:30am - Midnight. Vancouver's First VPN certified Neapolitan pizzeria. Award winning food, wine and design await you. No reservations, busy during rush times. $$.
- Verace Pizzeria Napoletana and Enoteca, 189 Keefer Place (Down the stairs from the Skytrain station, next to the T&T Supermarket), . 11:30AM - 11PM. Excellent, authentic Neapolitan pizza in a modern but unpretentious atmosphere. Pizzas $10-$20.
- Bourbon Country (The Bourbon), 50 Cordova St W, ☎ +1 604 684-4214, . F-Sa Noon-3AM, Su-Th Noon-2AM. Somewhat dive-ish but lays claim to be being the only country bar in Vancouver. There's a good sized dance floor, pool tables and cowboy hats. Ride the mechanical bull on Fridays and Saturdays. Sometimes has live music. Weekend cover charge $5-10.
- Fabric, 66 Water St, ☎ +1 604 555-5555, . Dance club with lots of hip-hop and dance music. Crowd is mostly under-30 and looking to party. Cover charge is $10+.
- Guilt and Company, 1 Alexander Street (downstairs, under Chill Winston), ☎ +1 604 288-1704, . Tu-Th 5PM-1AM, F-Sa 5PM-2AM, Su 7PM-midnight. Creative and artsy sort of bar. Features some unique beers on tap and a selection of board games; order cheese from the bar and play some giant Jenga. Often features indie rock performances. $6 pints, food $6-$20.
- Lamplighter, 210 Abbott St, ☎ +1 604 681-6666. One part sports bar and one part club gives this bar a dual personality which works for some and not for others. The crowd is a more mixed and mellow than Shine or Fabric. $10 cover after 10 pm.
- Shine, 364 Water St (down the stairs at the corner of Water & Cordova Streets), ☎ +1 604 408-4321, . Smallish dance club with a variety of music, depending on the night.
- The Alibi Room, 157 Alexander St, ☎ +1 604 623-3383, . Tu-Th 5PM-Late, Fr 5PM-1AM, Sa 10AM-1AM, Su 10AM-3PM. Offers an array of microbrews with an emphasis on British Columbia breweries, as well as a diverse food menu.
- The Black Frog, 108 Cambie St, ☎ +1 604 602-0527, . M-Th 11:30AM-1AM, F 11:30AM-2AM, Sa noon-2AM, Su noon-midnight. Smallish pub with some character. Good spot for pre-activity drinks or if you want somewhere not as loud. Also has a small but well prepared selection of burgers, sandwiches and fish and chips that are an excellent value. Meal $10-18.
- The Blarney Stone, 216 Carrall St, ☎ +1 604 687-4322, . Su-Th 11AM-2AM, F-Sa 11AM-3AM. Bit of an Irish bar, bit of a dance club. Attracts a 20-something crowd most nights. Irish showband Killarney are a regular feature. Cover is $8-$10.
- The Cambie, 300 Cambie St (downstairs from the Cambie hostel), ☎ +1 604 684-6466. Frontier-looking unpretentious bar with well-worn wooden benches and tables. Popular with the younger crowd and the nearby backpackers hostel. Lots of rock music and no dance floor. Pitchers are amongst the cheapest in Vancouver.
- Wine Tastings In Gastown, ☎ +1 604 230-3682 ([email protected]). varied. Long time Vancouver wine consultant Stephen Bonner hosts great wine tastings for small groups 6-10 in his loft in Gastown. Varied themes and prices but the BC wine and cheese tastings are a big hit with visiting foodies. $30 - $100.
Accommodation in Gastown and Chinatown is of the budget variety, primarily hostels. If you are planning to stay in a hostel, it is probably better to ensure it is located west of Main Street and caters mainly to backpackers (tourists on a budget). If you are planning to find a cheap (significantly less than $90) hotel in this area, it is likely to be located in the "East Side", infamous for its prostitution and drug problems.
- Cambie Hostel - Gastown 300 Cambie Street (at Cordova Street), +1 604 684-6466, toll free +1 877 395-5335, .
- Columbia Hotel, 303 Columbia St, ☎ +1 604-683-3757, . Hostel accommodations in an old historical building in the middle of Gastown. $39 and up.
- Grand Trunk, 55 Powell St, ☎ 604-681-8968 ([email protected]), . checkin: 9AM-11PM. Convenient central downtown location with bus stop in front of door, close to Sky Train, Sea Bus terminal, bus and train station, shopping, night life, and attractions. Single bed (shared room) $15, Single room $30.
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