There’s something magical about Granville Island; something so magical, so enticing, that, during pre-covid times it attracted 10.5 million people a year. Locals love it for the market that envelops you in the mouth-watering aromas and dazzling colours of all the fresh food choices. And also for the restaurants. And for the street performers and musicians. And for the numerous small artisan workshops and galleries. Tourists, and there are many of them, love it for all the same reasons. Granville Island is alive!
It’s not actually an island, and never has been. It was originally a sandbar, used by indigenous fishermen, which later became industrialised. Today the “island” is a small triangle of land hiding under the Granville Street bridge that carries you from the southern part of the city to the downtown core. Until it was developed in the 1970’s most people would hardly have even known it was there.
It may not be an island but it is surrounded on three sides by the waters of False Creek. This watery setting adds to it’s allure; no matter where you go there are water views. On sunny summer days hundreds of people sit outdoors eating lunch bought from the food court and watch the tiny passenger ferries carrying people across this creek that’s so much more than a creek.
With modernization the city retained and repurposed the industrial buildings giving Granville Island it’s unique flavour: an old-fashioned timeless feel redolent of the past and at the same time brimming with modern appeal. The development was inspired: retain the original buildings, limit vehicular traffic, create a world-class fresh food market, and turn the rest over to artists – workshops, galleries, ateliers.
There is nowhere else in Vancouver quite like it so when my sisters visited in the summer of 2019 of course we had to go there. More than once.
Reflections in the window of an atelier,
and in the windows of the market.
Boys and lollipops,
and tourists checking photos.
The buttercup yellow Bridges Restaurant high above the jetty pylons,
and inside the market.
If Granville Island is up-market urban hip, Commercial Drive is all down-home hippie funk and vintage cool. It’s known as Little Italy for the congregation of Italian restaurants and more than sixty years of Italian heritage. This twenty-block strip, with its eclectic mix of cafes, restaurants, bars, humble boutiques, specialty food stores and bakeries, is bookended by parks, and is one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in Vancouver. It’s a counter-culture haven and a coffee culture hive.
I drink instant coffee because I’m too lazy to make anything else, and because I got used to it during years of travelling and being in places where instant was the only option. There’s a funky little cafe nestled in a residential neighbourhood of Vancouver called Le Marché St. George. We meet there with friends quite often after shopping at the local farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. It’s where I get to experience the pure bliss of really good coffee. Still, I continue to drink instant at home. Because instant.
Anyway, my sisters are coming to stay! Suzanne doesn’t drink coffee, but Julie is a coffee connoisseur. One of her favourite things is to go on an outing exploring a new place and then to sit in a cafe and have really really good coffee and a treat. But first I have to sort the coffee situation at home. Don researches and buys beans from what is reviewed as one of the best roasters in town. And I do have a coffee press even though I never use it. Alas after a few days Julie finally discloses to me that she likes espresso (and I can’t blame her – it’s always better than a press, and way better than instant) and says she might just have to cave and go to Starbucks across the street, though clearly this would be a desperate measure.
Anyway I know she’ll love The Drive, not only for the coffee, but also for the vibe and the vintage boutiques. Commercial Drive, the vibrant heart of East Vancouver, is justifiably included in Lonely Planet’s latest collection of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods.
Arriving early-ish in the day we peek into cafes that are just getting started,
then come to the best vintage shop in Vancouver.
The Drive is all striking street art,
and people hanging out.
At night it’s all about the bars, but during the day coffee culture rules,
and it’s not long before we join in.
Granville Island has a shininess and elegance to it, The Drive is all bohemian shabby chic. Neither place has any franchises but instead are sanctuaries for local artists and boutique stores. Both places are among the city’s most beloved destinations, and both tell something of the story of Vancouver, of why this city is so luminous and appealing. Plenty of foreign tourists visit Vancouver, but Canadians also flock to this city by the sea that has so much to offer. It feels as if the city is somehow sprinkled with an overarching grace. We are lucky to call it home.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.