Lonely Planet recently named Commercial Drive one of the world’s top 50 neighbourhoods and who am I to disagree.
But in an area that’s just as famous for its diverse bohemian character and fervent political activism as its rich Italian roots it can get confusing as to exactly why that is.
Is that where the charm lies? Let’s figure out this epic Vancity street together.
Here’s your VP neighbourhood guide to becoming a Commercial Drive pro.
WHERE IS COMMERCIAL DRIVE?
You’ll find Commercial Drive (‘The Drive’ to locals) in east Vancouver (‘East Van’) about 8 kilometres from downtown.
The 3.5 km street starts at 18th avenue to the south and stretches all the way north to the container ports of Vancouver harbour. However, the strip that will most interest visitors can be found between Broadway and Venables.
Commercial Drive is an easy trip from downtown Vancouver via public transit using the Skytrain or the R-5 Rapidbus.
Expect to pay about $15.00-$20.00 to get there with a Vancouver taxi.
Skytrain (Expo Line)
Commercial Drive is served by the Skytrain via Commercial-Broadway Station, which is located at the intersection of Commercial and Broadway, about a ten minute walk from the heart of “The Drive”.
The station is just 5 stops (10 minutes) along the Expo Line from Waterfront Station, Vancouver’s largest transit hub.
R-5 Rapid Bus
Alternatively, if you’re heading to an attraction along the Northside of the Drive you can take the R-5 Rapidbus, a new express which serves the Hastings corridor.
If you board at the intersection of Granville and Hastings Commercial Drive will be just 3 stops (10 minutes) away. You can then walk South towards Venables in about 5 minutes.
Before you attempt to navigate the Vancouver public transit system be sure to check out our Vancouver Public Transport mega guide.
COMMERCIAL DRIVE MAP
THINGS TO DO ON COMMERCIAL DRIVE
HIT UP AN ITALIAN DELI
Commercial Drive is Vancouver’s Little Italy but forget Ferrari or Fellini: when I think of classic Vancouver food I think about going here for meat between bread.
La Grotta del Formaggio is arguably the best sandwich in the city – they’ll fill two pieces of pillowy focaccia with all the imported meat and cheese you can handle.
If you want to go all out then go for the porchetta sandwich.
UNWIND IN A COMMERCIAL DRIVE CAFE
Vancouver is a city where residents take their coffee seriously. And Commercial Drive is the proverbial front line in the war between classic cafes and the modern espresso elite. Where do you stand?
For classic it’s Caffe Calabria with its fake marble pillars and Roman statues that’ll take you right back to 1970’s Vancouver – including the lack of WiFi.
If you’re looking for the perfectly crafted brew and attention to detail it’s Prado. It’s actually owned by a four time Canadian Barista Champion, so you know it’s top notch.
Both of my picks have got the baked goods and desserts to match.
TAKE IN A FLICK AT A 1930’S MOVIE THEATER
Vancouver’s #1 independent movie theater has been rolling projectors since 1938 – and has recently been upgraded to digital with surround sound.
The Rio is so influential that they actually convinced the government to change its liquor laws in 2012. There’s now full bar service, a local rarity in the theatre business.
You’ll get a great combination of hollywood blockbusters, classic movies, and local independent films to enjoy.
It has also expanded to offer concerts, comedy nights, burlesque, and more.
TAKE A FOOD WALKING TOUR
It goes without saying that to truly experience Vancouver’s Little Italy you have to sample the food.
If you’re a fan of Italian food there is no better way to do so than by taking the exciting Little Italy Walking Food Tour. Join your passionate local guide and a group of likeminded travellers to sample the best that the Drive has to offer.
From sweet to savoury you’ll try it all at 8 different stops, including; pizza, pasta, gelato and fresh cannoli. Then finish up with a frothy cappuccino at a local café.
There is simply no better way to experience Vancouver’s “OG” Italian community.
CHECK OUT JOHN HENDRY PARK
This 27 hectare park just off of Commercial Drive is known locally as ‘Trout Lake Park’ . However, it’s actually a wildlife habitat that tends to make you forget you’re even in the city.
Here it’s all about being active.
You’ll find a basketball court, a jogging trail, tennis courts, two playgrounds, and a picnic site. If the weather gets cold enough you’ll also be able to skate on Trout Lake, though thankfully that is a rare occurrence.
In the summer it’s a great alternative to Vancouver’s best beaches as the lakeside has a small sandy area to soak up the rays.
ARTS OFF MAIN
One of Vancouver’s best art galleries is found on Commercial Drive, though you wouldn’t know it from its less than artsy exterior.
Started as a coop-run by seven local artists, Arts Off Main’s gallery and shop has unique art, jewellry, cards, and other gift items that make great local souvenirs.
SAMPLE THE LOCAL BREWS
Affectionately known as “Yeast Van”, the East side of our city has become the beating heart of Vancouver’s rapidly expanding craft beer scene.
So it should come as no surprise that the area around Commercial Drive contains well over a dozen breweries fighting for the crown of having the best pint in the neighbourhood.
The best way to sample the local suds is to take part in an exciting and informative craft beer tour. You’ll get behind the scenes access along with a group of like minded travellers at different 3 breweries throughout the city.
Because after all, beer always tastes better with friends!
GET VINTAGE VESTURE AT MINTAGE
A fashionista friend recently told me that this unique clothing and footwear emporium was the ‘Cadillac of vintage stores’ – and the 3000 sq. feet of retail space doesn’t lie.
Mintage has the perfect mix of new, vintage, and reworked clothing for most occasions. Whether it’s a vintage band shirt, a leather jacket or an old pair of cowboy boots you can find it here.
There are also two jewellery stands with a strange emphasis on animal themes.
The $10.00/$20.00 dress rack or $5.00 t-shirt rack is where super vintage score dreams are made.
BEST RESTAURANTS ON COMMERCIAL DRIVE
While it’s technically not on Commercial Drive, Via Tevere is located two blocks east on Victoria Drive, so close enough. Besides, you’ll need the walk after stuffing yourself with their authentic Neapolitan pizza.
The pizzas cooked in their 900° wood fire oven have the distinguished AVPN Vera Pizza Napoletana certification which ensures the quality and authenticity down to the san marzano tomatoes and 00 flour.
The family run pizzeria also has a quaint patio adding to the small town/residential charm of the place.
They don’t take reservations so get there early!
SULA INDIAN RESTAURANT
The first thing you’ll notice about this traditional Indian restaurant is the untraditional nature of its Indian-inspired garden setting.
I say this in a good way though: it’s modern, colourful, and beautiful and I haven’t even started on the food. Their mix of northern and southern dishes are crafted with the finest house-made spice mixes.
The flavourful curry dishes here also have an often uninvited friend for a curry restaurant: cocktails.
Looking for a mojito with your madras? Here it is.
Whether you’re unfamiliar with El Salvadorian food or a veteran who grew up eating your grandmother’s pupusas in Queens this local spot is one stop stomach shopping.
Pupusas are small cornmeal flatbreads that come stuffed with spiced beef or pulled pork – though a bean and cheese vegetarian option is also available. One taste and you’ll quickly understand why they are the Salvadorian national dish.
Another hit is the surf and turf dinner platter with chicken, steak, and prawns – but don’t run before you’ve learned to walk!
Handcrafted pasta using seasonal and local ingredients is the mantra of this new Commercial Drive restaurant that stays true to the area’s Italian roots.
What’s great about this place is you can get a tasting menu of five different pastas to really indulge your pasta passion.
Early favourites include the shredded goose (oca in Italian) ragu with tagliatelle, hazelnut gorgonzola gnocchi, or butter and lemon tortelli. However, the small seasonal menu changes regularly, so keep your eyes peeled.
Don’t sleep on their hand cut salami plates either.
This Mexican-inspired restaurant serves vegetarian (and vegan/gluten-free) dishes that’ll convert a committed carnivore in cuatro segundos.
Just ask because I was one of them.
It started with an order of the Ronny Russell burrito and its roasted yams, black beans, guacamole, and salsa verde.
Struggling after a few too many at one of Vancouver’s best bars? There’s a fantastic all day breakfast option with eggs, beans, salsa, and two hand cut tortillas.
This neighbourhood French bistro is casual yet chic, simplified but polished. Perfect for this up and coming East Vancouver neighbourhood.
The small menu is what jumps out first. With just three starters, four mains, and three desserts there won’t be a lot of choice – but you won’t need it.
French sophistication can do wonders with Pacific ingredients, and the salmon tartare is testament to that.
You can also expect a rotating list of classics like beef bourguignon, slow cooked pork belly, and a fantastic creme brulee.
BEST BARS ON COMMERCIAL DRIVE
This haven for beer enthusiasts has over 40 taps of local craft beer, so if you’re looking for a boatload of local lager this is the spot.
If you’re looking for an import there’s also a premium selection of Belgian ales. If you’re intimidated by the massive beer list the flights here are good value at just $11.95.
It’s also a sneaky good place for food. The mussels marinier are a bangin’ ode to Belgium but what if you wanna try something local?
The $5.50 happy hour poutine special is the best value in the city for Canada’s national dish.
This gastro-pub is a hit neighbourhood locals because of its massive 80 seat patio which allows for fantastic people watching of the Drive’s numerous characters.
I head here for the ambiance and reasonable prices on their 17 draught beers. Toss in the elevated pub grub and signature cocktails like the East Van Sangria and you’ve got a winning combination.
Used to Happy Hour? Well here it’s called Party Hour and you can get any draught beer for $5.00 – and the ‘pick me up’ is a great espresso vodka shot.
It wouldn’t be Little Italy without an Italian spirit bar.
After taking one look of this slick, modern, dimly lit lounge you’d swear it was a swanky cocktail bar – until you see what looks like my nonno’s old meat slicer up front.
This is just how they roll.
Bar Corso is a place you can sip on a grappa or another amazing italian digestivo like a montenegro (they’ve got beer and wine too). But you can also load up at their meat and cheese station – served all night long.
However, the dynamite meatball della nonna appetizer is my personal favourite. Multiple people who’ve shared them with me have referred to them as “the best meatballs I’ve ever had”.
What more needs to be said?
We’ve already discussed the plethora of taps in the neighbourhood, but this selection is simply divine: you’ll get over 60 rotating taps at this bar named after the patron saint of beer.
And with a location on the Drive’s Southern end, its just a quick 2 minute walk from the Skytrain station.
All of their beers are from microbreweries (many local) and the $8.00 paddles are great for post work beers or beer connoisseurs. The list is IPA heavy.
This place gets packed and boisterous especially on weekends so it’s a great place to meet people.
FETS WHISKY KITCHEN
If you’re looking for a quirky whisky bar to satisfy your cravings for some of the old ‘gaelic coffee’ then look no further.
The first thing they’ll do is hand you a menu (a sort of boozer’s bible) so you can get started sampling from their collection of over 1300 whiskies and growing (around seven are added each month).
If you can’t choose just ask staff for a recommendation. Just name a flavour profile and a price point and you’ll have a new favourite whisky.
For me it was the delicious Glenglassaugh Peated Portwood.
The ‘kitchen’ part of the name alludes to their enu composed of hearty southern comfort food, such as; seafood jambalaya, fried chicken with whisky gravy and Maker’s mac and cheese.
Commercial Drive Festivals
This 300,000+ visitor street festival held on the second weekend of June closes off Commercial Drive from traffic and turns the city red, white, and green!
At Italian Day you’ll find wine tastings, eating competitions, three music stages, food trucks, a fashion show, DJ tent, and more.
All of the Drive’s best restaurants and bars open up and create patios on the street, giving it a true Italian piazza atmosphere.
There’s also an exotic Italian car show.
CAR FREE DAY
This 15 block long street party does exactly what the name says: ban cars on Commercial Drive for an afternoon and give it back to the people.
The dream here is a greener, cleaner city free of cars and a focus on public spaces – where artists, residents, performers, artisans, non-profits, and businesses interact car-free.
Locals literally pull up chairs and set up shop in the street. There are also parades, food trucks, shopping, live music, and more.
The event also takes place on Main Street, Cambie Street and the West End at different times throughout the year.
SHOPPING ON COMMERCIAL DRIVE
Commercial Drive has always been an area nearly devoid of chains, so much like Kitsilano you can expect a lot of local boutiques
Here the name of the game will be sustainable, environmentally friendly, and Canadian made.
The main shopping area on Commercial Drive is between 7th Avenue and William St.
Here’s a few of the top shops:
SPANK ON THE DRIVE
Some might say the toned down hippy stylings of Commercial Drive aren’t the most pleasing to the eye – but maybe they just need a spanking!
Cue Spank on the Drive.
This BC boutique is all about feel good clothing, individuality, and local flare.
If you’re the type of person who wants to seek our their own sense of style and support local family owned business then head here.
It’s a great place to find beautiful dresses, skirts, and blouses.
This Italian shoe shop has been doing their trade on the Drive for over 50 years. The story began when two Italian immigrants quit their jobs, got married, and went on a buying trip to Italy in 1967.
With the business now in the hands of their grandchildren, the store’s distinct Italian charm and quality remains.
If you’re looking for fashionable and durable shoes that’ll last years beyond your trip to Vancouver then don’t delay and head on over.
There’s also a substantial handbag and accessory section.
THE FOUND AND THE FREED
Nowadays antique shopping may be as old as the antiques themselves. But at Found and the Freed you’ll find all sorts of interesting furniture, artifacts, appliances, and more.
I found the maps from the 1960’s particularly interesting, as well as the mixers and kitchenware from some long gone Betty Crocker era.
They’ve also just recently launched a vintage clothing parlour.
The cherry on top? The two super friendly dogs.
COMMERCIAL DRIVE GENERAL INFO
Even though it’s merely a roadway on the Eastside of Vancouver, Commercial Drive is much more than that to locals: to us it’s a vibrant cultural hub that intimately connects us to a bygone era.
The neighbourhood is spread over 22 blocks and counts about 300 merchants.
It is most famous for its coffee houses, vintage shops, bars, and speciality food shops.
The name ‘Commercial Drive’ came as a replacement for its original name of ‘Park Drive’, likely to avoid confusion with another street with the same name.
THE HISTORY OF COMMERCIAL DRIVE
Like much of Vancouver the road was originally used to service the logging industry. It was originally a skid road to get logs down to the harbour.
Much development came with a streetcar line and the area experienced some heavy development leading up to the Great Depression.
It was only after WWII that the area really started to blossom with the arrival of Italian immigrants who opened up businesses in the area.
The downtown gentrification of the 1980’s brought lower income residents and counterculture to the area: lesbians, punks, activists, musicians and more.
Today you still see a mix of demographics mentioned above with a distinct Latino and Asian influence as well.
Commercial Drive FAQ
Where is Commercial Drive in Vancouver?
You’ll find Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. It starts at 18th avenue to the south and ends at the container ports of Vancouver harbour just past Powell Street.
However, the most important sights are generally found between Broadway and Venables.
How far is Commercial Drive from downtown Vancouver?
It’s about 5.0 km from Vancouver’s City Centre to Commercial Drive.
Expect it to take about 10 minutes by car or 25 minutes using Skytrain.
It will take about an hour to walk, though this will take you through the troubled Downtown Eastside area, so it’s not recommended.
Is Commercial Drive safe?
Vancouver in general is safe, and Commercial Drive is no different as a neighbourhood where violent crime is rare.
With a new police station in the area crime has decreased even more.
Like anywhere there will be unsavory characters so it’s still best to keep on your guard.
Let’s Keep the Ball Rolling
My Commercial Drive brain has run all but dry for now, but maybe I forgot something that you’re just dying to know?
If something isn’t clear or you need some custom advice then get at me ASAP.
You can do this by following us and messaging on our Facebook page or by writing in the comments below.
Enjoy the Drive 🙂