Vancouver had yet to turn 34 when Prohibition started in the United States, yet the young city experienced a financial boon from running alcohol to its neighbor 20 miles to the south. The city's most famous rum runner—the name given to ships that traded alcohol outside the maritime limit—was the 246-foot schooner Malahat, a.k.a. The Queen of Rum Row, which regularly brought 60,000 cases to California. The Vancouver Maritime Museum claims the Malahat "delivered more contraband liquor than any other ship," and pro-cannabis MP Randall Garrison referenced the boat in 2011 as an example of how prohibition doesn't work.
Despite having its own short-lived prohibition on alcohol consumption, Vancouver had an "open policy" allowing for most vices through 1934, and the forward-thinking city matured into one of Canada's leaders in progressive thought and culture. Today, British Columbia’s most densely populated city celebrates cultural diversity and urban cool in a postcard-perfect natural setting. For those headed to the city that some call Vansterdam, make the most of your adventure with these PRØ Travel tips.
Life's a Gas
Set on a water-ringed peninsula, downtown Vancouver features several attractive neighborhoods, including ritz-chic Yaletown, LGBTQ-friendly Davie Village and the Stanley Park-adjacent West End. When picking a place to stay, however, head to historic Gastown on the east side of downtown away from the glut of high rises. Before incorporating as the City of Vancouver in 1886, the original settlement was called Gastown after the owner of its first tavern, a long-winded storyteller named "Gassy Jack" Deighton whose nickname clearly didn't age well.
The city's oldest neighborhood boasts Victorian architecture, independent art galleries, youthful fashion trends and what's arguably Vancouver's most buzzworthy culinary scene. Gastown is also home to a longstanding cannabis culture that runs along West Hastings Street. The neighborhood is centrally located with several public transit options, including the Waterfront and Granville Stations, and bordered by Chinatown, Vancouver Harbour and the heart of downtown. Other perks? The famed Vancouver Lookout, which offers 360-degree views from its observation deck 553-feet up, sits near the neighborhood's western edge.
Two blocks south of Hastings Street, the Skwachàys Lodge (image above) is the ideal boutique hotel near Gastown. Self-described as the country's "first Aboriginal art hotel," the 18-room lodge celebrates First Nations culture with an indigenous art gallery, a traditional sweat room and a 40-foot rooftop totem pole, while themed suites pay visual tribute to drum circles, forest spirits, the Northern Lights and other cultural experiences. Staying at the hotel also helps subsidize living and studio space for First Nations artists-in-residence.
Up in Smoke
The jazz scene in New Orleans birthed cannabis culture in the states, and artists who moved on to other cities often brought the plant with them. Jazz made its debut in Vancouver in 1914, and the local scene flourished as bands played smokey standards like "Reefer Man" and "If You'se a Viper." The Pacific Northwest jazz scene eventually shifted to Seattle, and racism played at least a minor role in motivating Canada to prohibit cannabis in 1924. Nevertheless, the seeds of cannabis culture had been planted, and they eventually bloomed in the 1960s.
With the Beatniks helping set the stage, the revival of cannabis culture took hold during the Vietnam War and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. To avoid the draft, many Americans headed to Canada, and west coasters often gravitated to British Columbia, the provincial home of Vancouver. Many of the new arrivals brought cannabis, but more importantly, some brought seeds and cannabis-farming experience. Blessed with massive tracts of fertile land, British Columbia soon grew first-rate plants, including the venerable BC Bud. In pop culture terms, Los Angeles resident Cheech Marin escaped the draft by moving to Vancouver in 1967, and he brought back Canadian comedian Tommy Chong.
Then and now, Vancouver is widely considered Canada's capital for cannabis culture. In the 1990s, Vancouver became the first Canadian city to regulate compassion clubs, and longtime activist Marc Emery launched Cannabis Culture in 1994 and the British Columbia Marijuana Party in 2000. The New Amsterdam Cafe on West Hastings Street is rapidly approaching its 20th anniversary, and local producers include Aurora Cannabis, Harvest One, Tantalus Labs, Invictus MD and others. Even with legalization on the horizon, thousands still attend the annual 420 smoke-in at Sunset Beach to protest prohibition. Jimi Hendrix's father is from Vancouver, and his guitar-god son even has a shrine just off Hastings for those who want to light one up in his honor.
"It seems to me that all of Vancouver is cannabis culture," says local advocate Watermelon, whose annual BudBQ returns in early August. "My favorite place to smoke joints will always be Wreck Beach. Also, anyone who loves cannabis culture should take a stroll along Commercial Drive in east Vancouver—lots of restaurants, coffee shops and the cutest little Licorice Parlour, and the ever-present scent of our favorite herb is always in the air it seems."
Watermelon, who makes infused cookies sold at the local Weeds Gifts and Glass stores, adds that the city banned edibles from dispensaries but many still carry them. With full legalization pending, many dispensaries ask for ID to check age but do not ask for verification of medical need.
With so much cannabis culture in its history, Vancouver is an ideal spot for events like the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC), which also hosts events in Berlin, San Francisco and Kauai. The ICBC Vancouver (returning June 24 and 25) is particularly popular because it helps empower local cannabis businesses while giving international participants insight into the ready-to-rocket Canadian market. Featured speakers at this month's conference include Hilary Black of Canopy Growth, Anna Serin of the Canadian Securities Exchange, punk icon Henry Rollins, industry-leading lawyer Kirk Tousaw and beloved cannabis consultant Mary Patton.
The city boasts an ascendant craft beer scene, and Vancouver-based Faculty Brewing and Abattis Bioceuticals are even developing a cannabinoid-rich CBD beer utilizing hemp from Northern Vine Laboratories. Until the new craft beer is ready, the decade-old Alibi Room in Gastown is a top spot for local and imported drafts. With names that often sound like bizarre cannabis strains, a recent draft list included Tuff Sesh Amber Ale, Lazy D’Haze IPA, Twang-onometry Sour, Sloth O.G., Bjorn Again Farmhouse Pale, Pothole Filler Imperial Stout and Creepy Uncle Dunkel.
British Columbia is home to hundreds of wineries, and Vancouver-based companies take vinophiles on tasting tours in the nearby Fraser Valley. For those who prefer to stay local, check out the tasting room at the Vancouver Urban Winery, experience B.C. wine flights at Brix & Mortar or choose between hundreds of by-the-glass options at The Wine Bar. For the full craft cocktail and wine experience, find the Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar (image on left) at the Moda Hotel downtown and enjoy drinks like the Gin-Gin Donkey (gin, sage tea & ginger wine, ginger beer and grapefruit) and around-the-world wine flights.
For something a bit more unique, hop over to Granville Island—a shopping district within walking distance of Yaletown and Davie Village—and enjoy locally brewed premium sake at Artisan SakeMaker and handcrafted vodka, whiskey and gin distilled on-site at Liberty Distillery.
Grub Like a Grizzly
Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City all have stellar restaurant scenes, but Vancouver's the culinary leader for off-the-hook seafood, farm-to-fork feasts and a full range of Asian flavors. Start your gastronomic adventure at Forage (image below), chef Chris Whittaker's gift to Pacific Northwest Instagram feeds. The West End restaurant divides the menu into Land, Sea and Soil sections with dishes like lamb neck fettuccine, salmon ceviche with smoked sea urchin, and foraged mushrooms with Okanagan goat cheese. The charcuterie and local cheese board even comes with an IPA beer mustard.
During the day, hit up The Birds & The Beets in Gastown for housemade everything, including kombucha on tap. The Farmer's Apprentice is a walkup-only restaurant in South Granville that divides its tasting menu into Herbivore and Omnivore options packed with earthy plow-to-plate goodness. For those seeking the best local oysters, head to the Blue Water Cafe in Yaletown, while chocolate lovers can get their fix in the West End at the Thierry Café. Those seeking a view of Vancouver Harbour should consider the flame-seared sushi at Miku Waterfront, or enjoy live jazz and French-style seafood at Provence Marinaside on the False Creek inlet.
Did you want to dress up? Hawksworth Restaurant is the fine-dining king housed inside a century-old downtown hotel, and the namesake chef puts his Michelin-starred European training to good use with seasonal tasting menus and indulgent dishes like lobster tail with black truffle.
Asian gastronomy is exceptional in Vancouver with several options downtown, including the Cambodian-Vietnamese Phnom Penh and soup dumpling fave Dinesty Dumpling House. For truly authentic Chinese food, though, head south to the Richmond neighborhood. Utilizing the Skyline public transit system, take the Canada Line from Waterfront Station until its ends with four stops in Richmond. From the same station, you can also take the Expo Line to the Commercial-Broadway Station for a colorful neighborhood packed with multicultural dining options. Restaurants on Commercial Drive (a.k.a. The Drive) include Kishimoto (Japanese), Kin Kao (Thai), Kulinarya (Filipino) and a section designated Little Italy (with a street festival coming up June 10).
Stuffed, Buzzed, High and Then What
The Vancouver area represents Mother Nature at her finest, and it's an ideal place for hiking, camping, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, sailing, swimming, snowboarding and even grizzly bear watching. The most accessible green space is Stanley Park at the northwestern edge of downtown, and the park's Third Beach features Tuesday night drum circles. Unless it's in the middle of an ice-cold winter, runners should definitely jog the 17-mile Vancouver Seawall around the park's perimeter. Other popular spots include Lynn Headwaters Park and Burnaby Lake, while Trout Lake hosts a Wednesday Night Hoop Jam that's all about the hula. So no, the hoop isn't a basket, but it probably wouldn't matter to NBA great Steve Nash, who famously answered the "do you smoke" question with "I'm from Vancouver, bro."
All the beautiful landscape might spark a sense of déjà vu even for first timers, and that's because the city is home to one of North America's largest production industries. Vancouver served as the base for TV series like The X-Files, Fringe, 21 Jump Street, The L Word and Fear the Walking Dead and for films like Deadpool, Godzilla, Fifty Shades of Grey, Cocaine Godmother, the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, several X-Men sequels and the last four Twilight films. This can make for some fun social media posts, but please realize that recreating a Bella Swan-Edward Cullen scene will likely age worse than a name like Gassy Jack.
Speaking of visual arts, the Vancouver Art Gallery—which will eventually enjoy a long-awaited expansion—is the place to go for the classics, while the Museum of Anthropology is a great place to pack a lunch and picnic among the totem poles. For more underground art, boutique galleries can be found throughout downtown, South Granville and other neighborhoods. Fall's annual Eastside Culture Crawl (taking place this year from November 15 to 18) is a rowdy art event best described as a party-driven open house for more than 500 local artists. If you're one of the 30,000 visitors who come for the art crawl, dress warmly, and smoke 'em if you got 'em.