Tourists, newcomers, and even locals who have yet to explore their city, a visit to Gastown is a must if you want to get any sense of Vancouver’s rich and wonderful history. History lesson aside, the atmosphere of this neighborhood is simply gorgeous, with cobblestone streets, antique style lamp posts, Victorian buildings, and century old vibes. Gastown is pretty much where Vancouver all started, and even if you think history is a bore, the early days of this city are quite colorful.
Adjacent to the Vancouver Harbour, Gastown isn’t too hard to find. Nestled between Canada Place and the Downtown Eastside are the quaint and timeless streets of Gastown. The boundaries of this neighborhood stretch from the waterfront to East Hastings Street and from Richards Street to Main Street. Driving to Gastown is easy enough, just be aware that there are many one way streets around the city, Gastown included, and getting to your destination can be tricky if you aren’t paying attention. You can also hop on the Skytrain, get off at the Stadium-Chinatown station, and Gastown is only about a 5 minute walk away.
In 1867 John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, a steamboat captain and barkeep, arrived to the area where Gastown now stands and established the Globe Saloon. He enlisted in the help of the local sawmill workers, paying them in whiskey, to build the saloon for him. Eventually, Gassy’s Town formed around the saloon and it soon became known Gastown, thanks to the “gassy” nickname John Deighton had earned for himself by being quite the talker and story-teller.
The town was incorporated as a city in 1886 but the Canadian Pacific Railway president, William Van Horne, opted for a name change due to Gastown’s seedy reputation, suggesting the name Vancouver in honor of the British explorer George Vancouver who explored the area in 1792. However, shortly after its incorporation, a massive fire tore through the city, destroying almost every building. Luckily, the community came together quickly and the city was rebuilt bigger and better than before, with modern water, electricity, and the creation of the first police force in the city.
Built in 1977, the Whistling Steam Clock is possibly the most iconic fixture in Gastown. The clock uses both a steam engine, which is visible through the sides of the clock, and electric motors to run. The time is displayed on every side of the clock by each of its four faces and it chimes every 15 minutes, playing the Westminster Quarters. Every hour, on the hour, the clock releases its famous puff of steam from the top.
Nearly as iconic as the Steam Clock and certainly one of the most significant landmarks is the Gassy Jack Statue that resides on Water Street. The bronze statue stands on Maple Tree Square, in the same area where his famous saloon once stood. The statue is over 6 feet tall and features Gassy Jack casually standing atop a whisky barrel.
Also on Maple Tree Square, near Gassy Jack’s statue, is Byrnes Block, a two storey, Victorian Italianate building which was built in 1886, making it one of the oldest buildings in the city that is still located on its original site. The Hotel Europe, built it 1908, also resides on the square. It was built in the flatiron style so it could fit snugly on its irregularly shaped triangular lot.
Gastown is known for its many souvenir shops, which makes sense as so many tourists frequent this unique area, but there are plenty of indie art galleries, contemporary fashion boutiques, and home decor stores in the area as well. On West Cordova Street alone you’ll find clothing stores like Hey Jude, Nouvelle Nouvelle, Artemisia Clothing, and the Block. Check out Old Faithful Shop for various housewares or head to espace d. for Scandinavian home décor and local art.
You’ll find art galleries all over Gastown. On Water Street you’ll find Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery and on Cambie is the Inuit Gallery Of Vancouver. Hastings Street is lined with galleries, such as the Audain Gallery, Gallery Gachet, Interurban Gallery, and Gam Gallery. Gastown is filled with both the natural charm of the century old buildings as well as the contemporary beauty provided by the many local and featured artists that are celebrated so widely within the neighborhood.
Bars & Restaurants
It can be difficult trying to choose a spot for dinner in Gastown with so many chic eateries and gorgeously styled establishments filling the neighborhood. One of the most popular spots is definitely the Old Spaghetti Factory, as this particular location happens to be decked out in turn-of-the-century decor, including the “Number 53” old trolley car that sits in the middle of the dining area. Vegetarians and vegans must try the incredible menu options at MeeT in Gastown. Even meat lovers will try one of their vegan burgers and be nothing less than wowed.
For great food and local history combined, check out L’Abattoir, which means slaughterhouse and is an homage to this area’s colorful past. The restaurant is located between the historic streets of Gaoler’s Mews and Blood Alley. The first building on this site, Vancouver’s first jail, was built in the mid 1800’s. When it burned down the Great Fire of 1886, a brick fire hall was rebuilt and L’Abattoir resides in this very building. The space is now an industrial-chic atmosphere for Pacific Northwest cuisine and craft cocktails.
The Blarney Stone, one of the most iconic pubs in Vancouver, can be found just off West Cordova Street on Carrall Street. Here you’ll find Irish pub food, sports, live music, and plenty of beer and whiskey. The Portside Pub, an east-coast inspired maritime pub, is another notable drinking hole featuring an interesting interior of wood, brick, ropes, and a good deal of nautical themed decor.
Gastown was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009 and it’s no wonder this neighborhood was recognized for its rich and invaluable history. With so many buildings dating back from 1886 to 1914, the area is simply teeming with local lore. As soon as you step foot into the neighborhood the buildings begin to work their charm and you can’t help but feel somewhat transported into another time.