A recent revitalization of Gastown Vancouver, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, has added some refinement to the mix.
It’s no longer a place for miners, drunks, and pool hall hustlers. We’re now treated to world-class restaurants, bars, and shopping.
Here’s how to enjoy this historic downtown Vancouver district as much as I do.
Gastown’s story closely parallels the history of Vancouver itself.
The once rough-and-tumble playground for off duty loggers, sailors, and all sorts of vagrants has evolved into a sophisticated and urbane neighbourhood full of some of the top things to do in Vancouver.
Despite these changes the area has managed to retain its historic charm and pioneer spirit, making it one of Vancouver’s most popular tourist attractions.
Look no further than its cobblestone streets, vintage black lampposts, and Victorian architecture and you’ll see a bit of New York City’s Lower East Side or London’s Shoreditch.
Things to Do in Gastown
The Gastown Steam Clock
The gold medal of things to do in Gastown goes to this famous landmark.
Built in 1977 to signify the completion of the Gastown Vancouver revitalization project, the clock steams away every quarter hour.
And what’s that distinctive whistle chime? It’s the Westminster Quarters, the same chime heard at London’s Big Ben.
The clock is on top of a steam grate that is a part of Vancouver’s downtown steam heating system.
Make sure to check your watch and arrive early as you may be jockeying for position with other tourists.
The Vancouver Lookout
Located at the top of the Harbour Centre, a 5 minute walk from the Gastown Steamclock, Vancouver Lookout is an observation deck located 553 feet (168 metres) above sea level.
Here you get stunning panoramic views of the North Shore Mountains, The Pacific Ocean and Vancouver’s skyline.
There’s also other faves like Stanley Park, the Lions Gate Bridge, and Canada Place.
Take advantage of the interactive displays or even a multi-lingual tour from a knowledgeable local guide to learn more about the city’s past, present and future.
The best part is that admission is valid all day! So you can head up in the morning and return at dusk for the breathtaking views of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.
Vancouver Police Museum
The Vancouver Police Museum offers and in-depth look at the history of crime and punishment in the city.
Located in the former home of the city’s morgue and coroners court, the museum was opened in 1986 to celebrate Vancouver’s centennial and the Expo ’86 World’s Fair.
Operated by the Vancouver Police Historical Society, a non-profit organization, the museum houses over 20,000 objects, photographs, and memorabilia.
Learn about notable historical crimes, the history of forensic science, and the evolution of crime scene investigation techniques. It is undoubtedly a must see destination for fans of murder, mystery, and intrigue.
For an even more arresting experience take the famous “Sins of the City” walking tour, which delves into Vancouver’s history of drugs, depravity, sex and scandal.
Water Street is Gastown’s beating heart.
I recommend embracing your inner sense of spontaneity by spending an afternoon tripping over the area’s signature cobblestone streets.
Named for it’s close proximity to Burrard Inlet, Water Street contains a wide variety of trendy cafes, independent boutiques, and stylish eateries that channel the energy of the neighbourhood’s rugged beginnings.
Start your journey at the historic street’s outset, located at 375 Water Street, a short walk from Waterfront Station. Then head East, stopping to check out Gastown’s marquee attraction, the Gastown Steamclock, located at Water and Cambie.
Make sure to time it right and arrive at the top of the hour!
After hearing the Westminster Quarters, walk a half block South along Cambie Street and take a left down famous Blood Alley, which runs between Water Street and Cordova Street.
The alley is said to have received its ominous name from bloodstains left by the numerous butcher shops that formerly called this area home. The now blood free alley offers visitors a myriad of unique Vancouver shopping and dining opportunities.
It’s also home to Tacofino: on my list of Vancouver’s top things to eat.
Blood Alley terminates at Carrall Street, where on your left you will see one of the top Vancouver sights: Gassy Jack Statue, proudly overlooking Maple Tree Square, the social hub of the neighbourhood that now bears his name.
Maple Tree Square is home to numerous bars, restaurants and cocktail lounges that are sure to offer something for every palette. Grab a seat on a patio and enjoy a happy hour cocktail (or two!) and plan the rest of your day.
Gastown Vancouver Tours
Lost Souls of Vancouver
Duration: 1.5 Hours | Cost: $35.52
Take a quick trip back into Vancouver’s gritty past with this unconventional 90 minute walking tour that recounts Gastown’s rough and tumble history.
Equal parts Gothic theatre adventure and walking tour, the Lost Souls of Gastown allows you to visit the neighbourhood’s most important sites while your guide reenacts tales of the vagabonds, beggars, and thieves that once called it home.
Intended for adult audiences, this Gastown tour recounts dramatic personalized tales of boom and bust. From gold rush fever to small pox outbreaks and the Great Fire of 1886, that nearly destroyed the entire neighbourhood.
- 90 minute Gothic theatre adventure on the streets of Gastown
- Visits to Gastown’s most important sites (Gastown Steam Clock, Maple Tree Square, Gassy Jack Statue)
- Professional theatrical guide
Related: Best Vancouver City Tours
Gastown Historic Walking Food Tour
Duration: 2.5 Hours | Cost: $124.95
A must for foodies, The Gastown Walking Food Tour allows travellers to wander the alleys and streets of Gastown while eating like there’s no tomorrow.
With an improv comedian as your guide, you’ll visit Vancouver and all of Gastown’s major attractions while learning about the area’s dramatic transformation from its Wild-West outpost beginnings to the sophisticated urbaness we see today.
The tastings vary by season but typically include beer-battered fish and chips, hand-made chocolates and the best cheesecake in the city!
All washed down with a sampling of local wines and craft beers!
- Visits to top Gastown attractions
- 8 food tastings
- 2 alcohol tastings (non-alcoholic options available)
- Professional guide
Vancouver Highlights Bike Tour
Duration: 5 Hours | Cost: $104.95
Discover the beauty and culture of Vancouver while getting a little exercise on the Vancouver Highlights Bike Tour.
This fully guided tour will allow you to cycle to all of the city’s main attractions via the famous Seawall and a variety of dedicated bike-lanes.
After a quick bike and helmet fitting, you’ll begin your tour with a trip through the West End into Stanley Park.
Then you and your new friends will take a quick ride along the Seawall before jumping on an Aquabus to Granville Island to explore the market.
Once you’ve had a nice lunch (not included), it’s back onto the Seawall through Olympic Village towards Chinatown, where you’ll visit the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden.
Afterwards it’s off to historic Gastown, where you’ll pass all it’s main attraction’s before jumping back on the Sea Wall for your journey back to the bike shop.
- Use of a bike, helmet and lock
- Optional E-bike upgrade (+$25)
- Professional guide
- Visit Vancouver and its main attractions (Stanley Park, Granville Island, Chinatown and Gastown Vancouver)
Duration: Up to 48 Hours | Cost: from $59.00
One of the best ways to visit Gastown is using the famous Hop-On/Hop-Off bus, operated by Westcoast Sightseeing.
Customize your own Vancouver itinerary using any of 29 stops strategically located around the city’s main attractions. This includes Stanley Park, Granville Island, Chinatown and of course Gastown!
Choose from three different routes;
- The Park Route-focused on the city’s natural sites, like Vancouver’s top beaches, parks and viewpoints,
- The City Route-focused on urban attractions
- The Dual Pass-includes access to both.
Tour the city on your own customized itinerary in an open-top bus with other like minded travellers. You can get off wherever you like, for as long as you like. It is entirely up to you!
- 48 hour access to the Hop-On/Hop-Off bus and its 29 stops
- Recorded audio commentary in 7 languages
Many of Vancouver’s top restaurants downtown are found here.
Still don’t see anything you like? Get at me in the comments below.
Meat and Bread
This no-nonsense restaurant and small menu staple embraces a simple yet difficult concept: making world class sandwiches quickly.
Everything here is prepared with high quality ingredients, strong culinary skill, and a lot of heart. The slogan “we aren’t sandwich artists, we’re chefs” will hit a little too close to home for Subway lovers – which I will never go to again!
This is how sandwiches should be.
I always go for the porchetta with crackling and salsa verde.
Ask For Luigi
Located on the fringes of Gastown, this casual and intimate restaurant focuses on fresh homemade pasta.
The relaxed atmosphere and family style service is sure to make you feel like you’re at nonna’s. Except this is one of the top rated Italian joints in the country.
The carbonara with poached egg: taste bud boom!
Like many Gastown restaurants this spot takes walk ins only.
This elegant Gastown Vancouver eatery serves classical French cuisine that comes with a healthy dose of Québécois inspiration.
Chef J.C. Poirier offers a rustic yet refined menu that typifies haute country cuisine. The results include St. Lawrence grabbing the prestigious Vancouver Magazine award for best restaurant in 2019.
I’m still dreaming of the beef tartare with potato chips though the salmon and scallop pie is a fantastic local dish dripping in French flare.
For a more detailed look at the purveyors of the area’s culinary delights check out our Gastown Restaurant guide.
Gastown Vancouver Bars
Overlooking Gastown from its 2nd floor perch above Maple Tree Square, The Diamond is a friendly and unpretentious cocktail lounge.
This neighbourhood favourite was ranked at #17 of Canada’s top 50 bars.
The 30+ cocktails are sorted into categories: boozy, refreshing, delicate, and overlooked. If there isn’t something that suits your tastes, I promise I’ll buy the next round!
Factor in a creative Mediterranean-style food menu and you’ll understand why this Gastown gem has become one of the hottest spots in the city.
Just a stone’s throw from Maple Tree Square, the Blarneystone is a downtown Vancouver institution pouring pints of Guinness and shots of Jameson since 1972.
The Blarneystone is Vancouver’s best answer to Temple Bar, offering Irish food and atmosphere in spades at a comparatively good prices.
On weekends the bar turns into a nightclub.
The long running house band Killarney playing Irish toe-tappers like “Danny Boy” and “The Wild Rover” beside top-40 and rock favourites.
Go here to let your hair down!
Guilt and Co.
For those who thought live music was a dying art, we’ve found your foil.
Guilt and Co. offers nightly performances from the regions best and brightest artists. You’ll find an eclectic mix of jazz, swing, soul, reggae and Latin music at their stunning location in Maple Tree Square below the Local pub.
It’s considered one of Vancouver’s premier live music venues.
Guilt and Co. has an extensive list of inventive cocktails, craft beers and local and international wines.
Again, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the Gastown nightlife scene but for more watering holes check our list of Vancouver’s best bars.
Things to Do Near Gastown
Canada’s largest Chinatown is located a 10 minute walk from Gastown.
Here you can wander the historic streets, do a little shopping, or sample the authentic Chinese cuisine.
Be sure to check out the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden, the largest Chinese scholar gardens outside of Asia.
This neighbourhood highlight has been deemed the best urban garden in the world by National Geographic.
Downtown is about a 15-20 minute walk, or one stop on the Canada Line from Waterfront station.
Looking for parties? The Granville Strip has no shortage of activities on offer.
Vancouver’s legendary Stanley Park is a 30 minute walk, or a short bike ride from Waterfront Station, along the world famous Sea Wall.
Get in a little exercise and check out the stunning views of Burrard Inlet, the North Shore Mountains, and downtown Vancouver’s skyline. All while visiting one of the premier urban parks in the world and the home to the Vancouver Aquarium.
Gastown Visitor Tips
1) Visit the Famous Steam Clock
To do the Gastown Steam Clock right we recommend showing up 10 minutes before the top of the hour.
This will allow you to grab what will eventually become a valuable piece of real estate right next to the clock when it blows its top at the top of the hour.
2) Visit as Part of a Tour
There are numerous walking tours available while visiting Vancouver that will provide you with additional insight on Gastown’s unique history.
Whether it is a culinary tour, a historical Gastown tour or the popular Hop-On/Hop-Off Bus, there is bound to be something catering to your interests.
3) Check out the Views at the Vancouver Lookout
Vancouver is universally regarded as one of the most beautiful cities on earth, so why not see all of it in one shot?
That’s 553 feet up at Vancouver Lookout at Harbour Centre.
Likely the most stunning viewpoint in the city, you will receive panoramic 360° views of the Vancouver skyline, the Pacific Ocean and North Shore Mountains.
4) Stay safe
While Gastown is considered a safe area, it is located next to the Downtown Eastside (DTES), which is Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood.
Unfortunately, the DTES has a considerable amount of poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction that occasionally spill over into Gastown.
While we personally don’t find the DTES to be dangerous, visitors without local knowledge are recommended to heed the following instructions;
- Avoid going east of Columbia Street while in Gastown except along Alexander Street
- Avoid Hastings east of Abbott Street
5) Pair Your Visit With a Trip to Chinatown
Since Canada’s largest Chinatown is located a mere 15 minute walk away, many visitors choose to visit the two historic neighbourhoods together.
However, keeping the last point about the DTES in mind, if you intend to walk between Gastown and Chinatown, we recommend using the following route;
- Walk South on Cambie Street (away from the mountains) for two blocks until you reach W.Pender Street.
- You can then follow Pender East for two blocks until you find the Millennium Gate, which signifies your entrance to Chinatown.
- Continue East on Pender Street into the heart of the neighbourhood.
Vancouver’s Gastown History
Located on the South shore of Burrard Inlet, Gastown was the home to the first settlement in what would come to be known as the City of Vancouver.
In its infancy the area housed the Hastings Mill Sawmill and was the Western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The neighbourhood received its name from “Gassy Jack” Deighton, a Yorkshire seaman, miner, and steamboat captain who arrived in 1867 to open the Globe Saloon: the area’s first bar.
Initially christened “Gassy Jack” due to his loquacious nature and penchant for story telling, the name stuck, and the area around the popular saloon was soon dubbed Gastown.
A statue of Gassy Jack stood until recently in Gastown’s Maple Tree Square in his honour. However, controversy surrounding colonialism and the true nature of his so called “loquaciosness” led to its recent removal.
As Vancouver began to grow in the early 20th century, the city’s centre gradually shifted West towards Granville Street, and Gastown began to fall into decline. This was further compounded by the arrival of the Great Recession.
As a result, Gastown became the city’s skid row, housing a variety of cheap beer parlours, brothels, and low end hotels.
The Revitalization of Gastown
In the 1960’s, Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell hatched a plan to develop a major freeway along the city’s waterfront.
Construction of the proposed development would have required the complete demolition of Gastown, Chinatown, and Strathcona.
Enter a grassroots citizen initiative led by business owners, Chinatown residents, and members of the city’s nascent hippy movement.
Only because of this determination do downtown Vancouver’s two most historic neighbourhoods remain intact for visitors like you to enjoy today!
In the aftermath of the proposal’s defeat, the government invested in a revitalization campaign that restored Gastown Vancouver’s historic buildings and attracted a variety of new businesses to the area.
The culmination of this revitalization project was the 1977 installation of the neighbourhood’s most famous landmark: Gastown Steam Clock in 1977
Gastown Vancouver has undergone a dramatic transformation from its rugged beginnings as a pioneer outpost in the late 19th century.
It is now home to trendy cafes, fashionable art galleries and swanky eateries that rank amongst the best in the country. In addition to being one of Vancouver’s busiest nightlife districts, the area has also become the centre of the area’s booming tourist trade.
Gentrification has also led to a demographic shift among the neighbourhood’s residents, with increasing numbers of young urban professionals moving into the areas newly upscale condominiums and apartments.
If Gassy Jack were to take a stroll through Gastown today he’d likely think he’d had one too many whiskies!
Looking for Things to do in Gastown?
I’ve dusted off all there is to do in Gastown Vancouver and maybe you’re an expert now – but maybe I missed something.
If there’s anything else you need to know about Gastown or Vancouver in general don’t be afraid to ask me in the comments below.