Unforgiving Canadian winters are the stuff of legend, and yet if you look at any list of the best things to do in Vancouver in winter you’ll see that it’s not all gloves and toques – though you’ll need those too.
In fact, depending on who you ask winter just might be the best time to visit. The city’s natural beauty sparkles, there’s a lot more space to move around, and we’re not sheeted in ice like Calgary or Montreal.
Let’s heat things up a bit with some top Vancouver winter activities.
Vancouver Winter Activities and Top Things to Do
Ski and Snowboard the Local Mountains
This is no word of a lie – in fact, there’s three local ski mountains to do it.
Yes, just above North Vancouver on the North Shore Mountains are the following:
- Grouse Mountain (33 runs and 5 terrain parks, most accessible and best for snowboarders)
- Seymour Mountain (40 runs, best for beginners and cross country skiing)
- Cypress Mountain (53 runs, largest total terrain and best for experienced skiers)
Walk the Stanley Park Seawall
The city never sparkles like it does on a crisp, clear winter day – the way the snow reflects the sun off the mountains, with the ocean blues and forest greens popping wears out camera batteries like nothing else.
Walking the Vancouver Seawall is the best way to see it all.
This pedestrian road looping around North America’s highest rated urban park is filled with interesting stops. The famous totem poles might be the city’s top photo spot, Siwash Rock is one of the city’s most unique natural wonders, and the view of Lions Gate bridge is legendary.
You can also stop in to see the Vancouver Aquarium.
Eat and Drink on a Winter Patio
The great thing about Vancouver in winter is that it’s rarely cold enough to truly fear the outdoors – so enjoying some of Vancouver’s best restaurants on their patios is a must to soak up the scenery.
Cardero’s marina-side patio in Coal Harbour gives epic views of Stanley Park and North Vancouver and its mountains. Cozying up under their heaters with a blanket and West Coast comfort food is a must.
Canyon Lights at Capilano Suspension Bridge
If you’re visiting Vancouver in winter though it becomes even more of a must see, in the form of an end-to-end-lit, multi coloured changing display that illuminates the bridge and the canyon below.
Other park activities like their Treetops Adventure and Cliffwalk also get a colourful makeover. Add some festive live music, the mesmerizing Arc de Lumina, and the eighth tallest Christmas tree in the world and we’re in must-book territory.
Catch a Canucks Game
The great thing about visiting Vancouver in winter is that you can see the world’s best ice hockey league as spectator – and not have to care about the damn team.
The citizens of British Columbia have long suffered as fans of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, not having won a championship since… well, ever. But die hard supporters still fill Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver hoping that one day it changes.
Experiencing a game here is a great way to live one of our city’s great passions, and for sports lovers it’s a can’t miss on any Vancouver itinerary.
Ride the Stanley Park Train
This model replica ride of the Canadian Pacific Railroad #374, the one that pulled into Vancouver in the late 1880’s after having completed the first Canadian transcontinental trip, typically runs from late November until early January.
With Stanley Park Bright Nights you’ll chug along through Stanley Park and see it the way you’ve never seen before – lit up and sparkling for the holidays with pretty, playful displays along the way.
The Christmas music and carol singing really brings the holiday season alive, and this is one of the best things to do when visiting Vancouver with kids.
The Sea to Sky Gondola
Endless winter activities abound at the nearby Sea to Sky Gondola complex, less than an hour from Vancouver near the town of Squamish.
You’ll ride 2905 feet up the mountain in a Swiss-style ski gondola with some amazing views of the Coast Mountains and Howe Sound below.
Up top there’s a 9000 sq. foot lodge with world class dining and the views to match. Things to do in winter include winter hikes, guided climbing tours, snowshoeing, and even back country skiing.
The icing on the cake? The 100 m Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge and its 360° panoramic view.
Go Tubing at Cypress
If you’re winter sports curious but not willing to go the whole way skiing then this is the next best bet. Not only will you find the drive up to Cypress Mountain to give you priceless views of the city, but the activity up top is our favourite spot for a little childish fun.
Of course, the 6 chutes (up to 100 m long) at Gnarly’s Tube Park cater to all sorts. There are steeper runs for adults as well as a sliding centre for children under 6.
Mandatory bookings include your own tube and unlimited access to the tow rope – all you’re asked to do is bomb down through the snow screaming bloody murder.
Visit the Museum of Anthropology
The world’s premier collection of Northwest Coast Indigenous antiquities is the perfect place to learn about the region’s first inhabitants, and the ultimate escape from Vancouver winter rains.
There are hundreds of thousands of artifacts here spanning British Columbia’s various Indigenous tribes, though what stands out is the main hall and Bill Reid’s Raven and First Men.
The Multiversity Galleries also cover cultures from all around the world, with tribal masks from South America and Korean ceramics being highlights.
Make sure you head out back to see a full size replica Haida longhouse and totem poles.
Looking for an alternative? We’ve got plenty in our list of best museums in Vancouver.
Warm Up with Local Coffee Masters
Coffee culture reigns so supreme here that Vancouver was voted the #3 coffee city in the entire world by the Matador Travel Network.
In a caffeine crunch? Local chains Prado, Caffe Artigiano, and JJ Bean can save you whatever Vancouver neighbourhood you’re in.
For my money though I’m recommending Prototype – where else can your beans get roasted while you wait with their bullet roaster? Their cold brew flights and waffle iron donuts are also top notch.
I was also blown away by Harken Coffee for the sheer style of the place, and their winter blend really hits the spot when the temperature drops. They also make homemade Lucky Charms cereal.
Explore Historic Gastown
Of all the places to visit in Vancouver in winter we wouldn’t dream of omitting the city’s coolest, most historic district called Gastown.
First of all, the way the Gastown Steamclock (our city’s most photographed object) pumps its steam to the tune of the Westminster Quarters just hits different in winter – it’s an even more steamy affair and the lights really bring it to life.
Second of all, there’s no way you can visit Vancouver without having dinner at one of Gastown’s best restaurants. This is where comfort food gets modern spins and local ingredients go to thrive.
You also can’t go wrong here for all the indigenous galleries like the Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery.
Related: The Best Food Tours in Vancouver
Go Snowshoeing at Seymour
It doesn’t get anymore Canadian than strapping on a pair of snowshoes, frolicking through old growth forests and scenic lakes, and following undulating paths towards solitude.
Why Seymour Mountain though? First of all, it was named #1 Snowshoeing Resort in North America by Snowshoe Magazine. Second of all, many of their gentle, well marked trails are perfect for beginners or hikers looking for a low intensity snow stroll.
Snowshoeing experiences start with simple rentals with paper maps and go all way up to fully-guided Chocolate Fondue Tours.
Go to Whistler
If you’re renting a car, it’s really a crime to skip over one of the world’s most beautiful drives and forgo visiting one of Canada’s great resort towns.
Co-host of the 2010 Olympic Games, 5 star ski resort, home to an amazing array of gourmet restaurants and spa experiences (like Scandinave), Whistler is at the top of every list of day trips from Vancouver.
Book a Whistler hotel and make a couple days out of it, you won’t be disappointed.
The Robson Square Ice Rink
Speaking of traditional Vancouver winter activities, from early December until late February the city’s cultural heart transforms into an urban ice skating paradise.
Just below the Vancouver Art Gallery at Robson Square Ice Rink you’ll find this outdoor winter wonderland. I love it because it’s one of the cheapest things to do in Vancouver in winter – it’s free if you’ve got your own skates, otherwise it’s just $5.00 for a skate rental.
Over the Christmas holidays you’ll also find their 12 Days of Christmas live music programme, and more recently their brand new cafe with outdoor heaters, skate driers, and a mean hot chocolate makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
Riley Park Winter Farmers Market
You’ll find Vancouver’s largest selection of fresh foods over the winter season here, every Saturday between 10:00 am to 2:00 pm (November 6th to April 16th 2021).
This isn’t any old boring market though. It’s at the parking lot of Nat Bailey Stadium, so there’s plenty of room to set up live music stages, fence off an area for kids activities, and just let visitors enjoy the farm fresh produce, food trucks, and artisan coffee spots out in the crisp open air.
In winter they really up their game by adding artisans and crafters, jewellery makers, and stalls that specialize in preserves and all types of cider, liquor, and craft beer.
Not in town on a Saturday? Granville Island is the city’s best full time food market.
Chinatown and the Chinese New Year Parade
The Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver has put on a Chinese New Year parade every year since 1977. The 1.3 km long route along Keefer Street in Chinatown typically has up to 3000 performers, including one of the largest lion dance teams outside of China.
There’s over 100,000 spectators expected every year, so make sure you get there early.
While the parade does typically go in late January or early February, if your Vancouver winter visit is outside this time you should still check out North America’s 2nd largest Chinatown – the restaurants themselves are worth the trip.
What to Do in Vancouver Winter FAQ
What is there to do in Vancouver in winter?
There are tons of activities to do in winter in Vancouver, predominantly outdoor activities like skiing, snowshoeing, tubing, walking the Stanley Park Seawall, or visiting the Capilano Suspension Bridge.
Beyond this there are winter cultural activities like the Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown, indoor museums like the Museum of Anthropology, contemporary exhibitions like the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Riley Park Winter Farmer’s Market.
Is Vancouver worth visiting in winter?
Yes, given Vancouver’s mild climate there are plenty of great outdoor activities on offer. The mountains offer tons of winter activities from skiing to snowshoeing.
It’s hockey season so the Vancouver Canucks NHL team is in full flight, there are great coffee shops and restaurant neighbourhoods like Yaletown and Gastown serving amazing seasonal food, and many of the city’s top attractions like Capilano Suspension Bridge and Vandusen Botanical Garden offers seasonal light shows.
What is Vancouver like in the winter?
Locals will tell you that it can get pretty grey, and indeed there is a lot of rain and cloud to contend with. For this reason Vancouverites typically flock indoors to coffee shops, sushi restaurants, and whatever cultural offerings are on the menu.
The city is generally less crowded, so it may be a great time to visit depending on your tolerance for winter outdoor activities. Places like the Sea to Sky Gondola or Grouse Mountain are perfect places to enjoy the winter.
How bad is winter in Vancouver?
Vancouver winter weather can be comparable with European cities like London or Amsterdam or American cities like Seattle. That’s to say, it gets cold and dreary but by no means is it a typical Canadian winter full of snow and ice.
Does it snow in Vancouver in winter?
Some snowfall arrives in December and continues on and off in winter months until about late February/early March.
In total the city receives about 3 inches of snow a year, with an average of 10 days with some quantity of snow. Compared this to Toronto who has 65 days of snow, and this is very mild in comparison.
Only every few years is there a huge dump of snow that brings the city to a halt.
How cold does it get in Vancouver?
It gets quite cold in Vancouver, so expect average high temperatures in winter to be between 6°C and 8°C (43°F and 46°F).
Is winter a good time to visit Vancouver?
If you’re a fan of the winter outdoors, specifically mountain activities then Vancouver is the perfect winter vacation spot. Beyond this, if you like cafe culture, visiting unique neighbourhoods, and the idea of a winter escape to Canada without worrying about harsh weather Vancouver could be your next stop.
Looking For Things to Do in Vancouver Winter?
Please drop me a line in the comments below with any questions.
Our goal here at Vancouver Planner is to have a dialogue with visitors, and give them custom Vancouver holiday advice from the mouths of locals.
Also, don’t forget to follow us on our Facebook page for up to date travel information.