As part of our Stay-cation activities we signed up for a two hour long walking tour of Gastown and Chinatown with Vancouver Urban Adventures. The tour is normally $25 but we bought vouchers on Groupon a few months ago for half price so it was really a great deal (thanks Groupon)! Our guides name was Amy, a history major at UBC in her summer job. She was upbeat, friendly and very knowledgeable. We were very lucky to be two of only 3 people signed up for that day’s tour joined by a lady tourist from Switzerland.
The tour started inside Waterfront station with the first hour a focus on Gastown. Being fairly familiar with the area (especially the restaurants) we did not think that very much on this leg of the tour would be new to us. However, we were surprised right away by how many things you do not notice when you walk by them all the time. For example, have you ever noticed the paintings lining the very top of the walls in the main foyer of the Station? They are Canadian landscapes painted by one of the first women to make the journey by train from the East coast to Vancouver. After the Station the tour we headed down Water Street to learn about the various buildings and of course the steam clock…a few more did you knows here… Did you know that the steam clock is no longer powered by steam? They had to wire it to electricity because the steam was not powerful enough to keep it on time… Did you know that the oldest building in Vancouver is the building that holds the Water Street Café? All of the other buildings in the area were destroyed by fire in 1886… Did you know that the third floor of Hill’s Native Art holds a gallery of pieces from across Canada? Check it out sometime it is quite interesting.
After walking down Water to the intersection of Carrell we turned up Carrell and stopped for a ‘taster’ at the Irish Heather. Did you know that owner Sean Heather lives above the restaurant so he can keep an eye on his ever-growing Gastown eateries empire (Irish Heather, Shebeen Whiskey House, Salty Tongue, Salt, Judas Goat and more to come)? After a peek into Blood Alley we continued down Carrell to Pender Street to the start of Chinatown.
This is where things got really interesting for us. Of all of the downtown neighborhoods (those within the confines of the bridges) Chinatown is the one that we know the least about and spend the least amount of time in. We started at the ‘China Gate’ and Shanghai Alley. The alley which runs off Pender was the first officially settled street in Chinatown in 1886. It also holds the ‘narrowest commercial building in the world’ according to the Guinness Book of Records which is home to Jack Chow insurance. It is also an area with many pieces of old glass sidewalk still visible that used to give like to the public baths below. We then headed up Pender towards Main Street passing many of the original historic Chinatown buildings (construction started in 1889). Have you ever looked closely at the buildings in Chinatown and seen that the 2nd floors are very short (maximum 6 feet high) while floors one and three are built at standard height? This was to avoid some of the construction tax which was levied per floor. Take a look one day; it is quite amazing how many buildings are built this way! Once at Main Street we turned right and walked past the row of Chinese Pharmacies offering medicinal remedies from 20 different kinds of ginseng to gecko on a stick. While the smells are quite overwhelming a walk through some of the shops is very interesting to see what items can be used for various ailments. After a stop at Ten Ren Tea (a great shop for purchasing bulk teas) we headed right down Keefer Street back towards Carrell.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park
We did not know that in addition to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese garden that there is a public Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park (operated by the Vancouver Park Board) open to the public for no charge seven days a week. The garden was the first full-size Chinese garden built outside of China and opened for the start of Expo 86. The park can be accessed off of Columbia Street between Pender and Keefer or off of Carrell Street just past the entrance to the garden. A few steps inside the park walls and the sounds of the city disappear.
The tour ended at the International Village mall which was built to be an Asian oriented mall and downtown’s answer to Richmond’s Golden Village. With a stop at the T & T market to check out the fresh fish and shellfish available our tour was complete (T & T has much better prices on fresh fish than most other places in Vancouver). The tour was very good and we learned a lot about both Gastown and Chinatown. We will definitely be back to Chinatown to check out the renovated Keefer Hotel lounge and perhaps the ‘best Dim Sum in Vancouver’ right across the street.
To view the full Flickr photo set of our tour click here.