Heritage and History in Vancouver: A Visitor’s Guide

Heritage and History in Vancouver: A Visitor's Guide
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Incorporated as a city in 1886, Vancouver is a maze of old buildings, Victorian architecture, and streets littered with stories from the earliest years of this beautiful, vibrant city. Many neighborhoods are filled with buildings that have been around since the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and you can feel the past echoing back at your as you wander through these historic sites. Vancouver certainly has its share of towering skyscrapers with a modern gleam, but the number of designated heritage buildings within the city provides an impressive balance of both new and old.

Historical Neighborhoods

You’ll find rich history and old buildings on every block in Vancouver, but certain neighborhoods are simply teeming in the remnants of the past. These older neighborhoods allow you to peek into a bygone era while remaining a vibrant and lively community where arts and cultural events are held, festivals are planned, and people continue to live and thrive as they did over a century ago. 

Downtown Eastside Vancouver

Strathcona is one of Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhoods. Many of the houses in the area are designated heritage houses, with a good deal of homes having been restored to their original Victorian or Edwardian styles and colors. The Downtown Eastside is another old and storied neighborhood filled with rich history and many turn of the century buildings and homes.

Chinatown Vancouver

A visit to Vancouver’s Chinatown is a must if you want to gain a good understanding of this city’s past. Recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada in 2011, Chinatown is one of Vancouver’s most significant historical areas. Stops to the Chinatown Millennium Gate, the Chinese Freemasons building, and the Chinese Times building are only a handful of the historical attractions in this neighborhood. At the very least you’ll want to check out the gorgeous Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first full-size classical Chinese garden outside of China.

Gastown Vancouver

Gastown is one of Vancouver’s most interesting historic neighborhoods for both intriguing history and aesthetic appeal. Grown from a tavern founded in 1867 by John ‘Gassy Jack’ Deighton, the neighborhood is still a landscape of cobblestone streets, old fashioned lamp posts, and Victorian era homes and buildings. Gastown was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009 and many of the buildings in the area date back anywhere from 1886 to 1914. Some popular landmarks you’ll want to check out include the Gastown Steam Clock, the statue of Gassy Jack Deighton, and the renovated Woodward’s building that still features some of its original facade.

Yaletown Vancouver

Once a place of industry, warehouses, and working class housing, Yaletown is now a trendy neighborhood built on the preserved skeleton of these remnants of the past. While some of the buildings are modern and gleaming, many businesses have taken up residence in the old, converted brick warehouses. Loft style apartments, offices, shops, bars, and restaurants can all be found in the old buildings that line the streets of Yaletown. 

Heritage Buildings and Houses

The history and heritage within Vancouver isn’t contained only to certain specific neighborhoods. You’ll find old buildings, monuments, and historical sites throughout the entire city. Within Vancouver there are around 2200 registered heritage buildings as well as many other old parks, monuments, and archaeological sites teeming with historical significance. Check out the Vancouver Heritage Register for a complete list of buildings, sites, trees, and monuments around the city.

The Hotel Europe is one of Vancouver’s most recognizable buildings. This six-story heritage building was opened as a hotel in 1909 and was later converted into affordable housing in 1983. It can be found in the Gastown district within a triangular lot which is suited perfectly to the flatiron style design of this building.

Sun Tower Vancouver

At 269 feet tall, Sun Tower was once Vancouver’s tallest building. It was originally named the World Building then later renamed when purchased by the Vancouver Sun newspaper. The building’s dome is painted to look like patinated copper but is actually made of steel. This faux patina dome is an iconic landmark of Vancouver’s skyline.

Seaforth Armoury Vancouver

Another interesting sight to see is the Seaforth Armoury, a Canadian Forces armoury built between 1930 and 1936. It is the base of Canada’s Reserve Infantry unit, the Seaforth Highlanders. Here you can also find the Seaforth Museum which is filled with exhibits from the past tours of the Canadian Forces.

Old Hastings Mill Store Vancouver

One of the most historically significant areas in Vancouver is the Hastings Mill. This commercial sawmill operated from 1865 until 1928 and became the settlement that Vancouver was built around. History buffs who’d like to take a glimpse into this piece of Vancouver’s past can visit  the Old Hastings Mill Store Museum, which was moved to its current location on Alma Street in 1930 and holds the proud title of Vancouver’s oldest building.

Gulf of Georgia Cannery Vancouver

Another neat site to explore is the Gulf of Georgia Cannery located in the adorable Steveston village in Richmond. This seaside cannery was built in 1894 and was the largest cannery in BC until 1902. It now functions as a museum with interactive exhibits and tours that transports visitors back in time to learn about the history of the fishing industry within Canada’s West Coast.

Tours and Museums

It can be a lot of fun to explore Vancouver and simply keep an eye out for all of these old buildings as well as the thousands of others that are situated around the city. For a more focused tour of the heritage and history of Vancouver, you can also take a guided tour and hear all the old stories of the past from a knowledgeable guide. The Vancouver Heritage Foundation offers yearly heritage house tours as well as many walking tours throughout the summer months.

Vancouver isn’t a terribly old city but the history it does have is both interesting and very well preserved. Modern buildings and impressive new architectural designs can be found everywhere but it is always balanced by a splash of old brick, antique framework, and Victorian charm. Whether on a guided tour or a casual sightseeing stroll, the history and heritage of Vancouver can be glimpsed just about everywhere within the city. For even more history and stories of the past, check out some of the amazing museums in Vancouver.

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Nikki Bertrand

Nikki Bertrand

Nikki is a British Columbia native who was born in the Vancouver area. When she’s not busy being a tourist in her own city, you can find her exploring her passion for SFX makeup at Mixx SFX or reviewing subscription boxes at Unboxing Rocks.