I’ve been joking for a while that I should start a blog called the Extremely-Frugal Traveler. Have you ever noticed that the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler section is something of a contradiction in terms? A column with rather insincere, or maybe just clueless, ideas of frugality?
For example, a recent article on Vancouver featured a three-day AirBnb rental for $370, and a meal for 28 bucks apiece. While I know that that might be cheap by over-privileged Manhattanite standards (especially as the New York Times morphs, increasingly, into a preposterous lifestyle rag), these are prices that I could never imagine spending as a young, often penniless, traveller. Having traversed entire countries on foot or by hitchhiking, having slept in the back of pickup trucks and strangers’ houses on the Bayou, and having regularly dined on less than five dollars a day, I like to think that I have at least some expertise when it comes to travelling with very little money in my pocket. Hell, I once even received a message from a couchsurfer (when I was briefly living in New York) asking where he could park his modern-day gypsy caravan for free in New York City. “I’ve looked through the profiles of many couchsurfers,” he wrote, “but I thought if anyone would know the answer, it would be you.”
Fast forward to the present. I’m back in Vancouver and have been hosting many out-of-town friends recently. Being the obsessive tour guide that I am, the last two weeks have been filled with whirl-wind tours on bike and bus and foot to tourists spots I haven’t visited in ages, as well as small little places of my own. Since most of my friends are not particularly financially endowed, most of these activities have been free, or almost free. And while I wouldn’t deny anyone the opportunity to splurge on something really important or special, I thought it might be useful to create a list for the frugal travelers of the world who come to Vancouver and don’t have a lot of money to spend. So here we go:
1. Visit the Rennie Gallery. Bob Rennie is one of the real estate kings of Vancouver, an agent for much of the bad (soaring prices) and good (densification and urbanism) that have defined the city as of late. Politics aside, he’s also a very educated art collector, owner of one of the largest collections of contemporary art in Canada. A few years ago he opened a gallery in Chinatown in order to exhibit some of this art. You can only visit by booking a tour, which are free, run by Art History students. And the art’s not the only interesting part. The building is the oldest in Chinatown with a unique history of its own (opium alleys being of them), along with one of the best views in the whole city.
2. Bike the seawall. Ok, if you can’t borrow a bike, this activity might cost you a few dollars in rental fees…but it’s an essentially free activity, which gives you one of the best views and perspectives of the city. When I take friends on this bike ride, we always start in Kitsilano, looking at heritage houses, and then head out onto the new divided lane bike path that follows Kits Beach and heads over the Burrard St Bridge downtown. Once downtown, we’ll follow the seawall around Stanley Park (if it’s sunny and there’s lot of energy in the group) or head straight along the Hornby Street bikeway to the Burrard Inlet, through Gastown and past the port into Chinatown. We’ll stop for a BBQ pork bun at the New Town Bakery, and finish the trip at the Jimi Hendrix Shrine on the south edge of Chinatown/Hogan’s Alley, before heading back west along the False Creek portion of the seawall.
3. Visit the Jimi Hendrix Shrine. One little-known pop culture fact is that Jimi Hendrix was half-Canadian. His father grew up in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, the centre of the city’s Black community at the time. In adulthood, Jimi’s father immigrated to the United States, though his grandparents remained behind in Canada, and Jimi spent many of his childhood years living with them in Vancouver. A few years ago, a Vancouver man discovered that his address was the same as Jimi’s, and so he created a shrine to the iconic guitarist in that very spot. It’s very much a DIY affair, so don’t expect anything fancy! Only open in the summer months, you’ll be greeted by artwork, copies of letters and a garden dedicated to Hendrix. Volunteers (often hippies from overseas) take care of the place and keep the incense burning. Even when it’s closed in winter months, I like to take out-of-town visitors to visit the shrine, because there’s just something so sweet and humble about it.
4. Stroll in Sun Yat-Sen Park. Just a few blocks from the Jimi Hendrix Shrine, you can visit a beautiful classical Chinese garden named for the famous revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen. It charges admission, however, though it’s occasionally open by donation on Chinese festival days. If you can’t afford the admission, the good news is that there’s an almost equally beautiful public park right next door, also built in the Chinese style! It’s the perfect place to stroll peacefully, or sit quietly with friends.
5. Hang in the Hang Out Place. Granville Island is Canada’s 2nd most visited tourist spot (Niagara Falls being the first.) And while the whole market and island are free to peruse, there’s one place that’s a bit out of the way where I always take visitors. It’s called the Hang Out Place, and is home to the most comfortable hammocks around. I know hammocks don’t sound that interesting, but you’ve got to take my word for it! They’re amazing, like wonderful, luxurious cocoons. And the workers don’t mind if you stop by for a hang. 99% of their job involves reading books in hammocks, so they’re a pretty chilled out bunch. And if you still have time after your relaxing hammock hang, be sure to check out the Gandharva Loka music store a 2 minute walk away, where you can try out musical instruments from all around the world, best of all being their harp chair! And if you want a snack, the Duck Fat Fries at Edible Canada, across the street, are out of this world!
6. Check out a free festival. Vancouver is a festival city, with festivals going on every week of the year. The best ones are in the summer, with many free outdoor events. The Jazz Festival, in July, has outdoor concerts in park all over town. The Folk Festival charges admission, but you can stand outside the gates and still rock out. The Folk Festival takes place on the beach. On late summer evenings, when the sun sets around 10pm, it’s the perfect place to bring a picnic and listen to music. Other free festival highlights include the Parade of Lost Souls, Greek Day, the Eastside Culture Crawl, the Winter Solstice Lantern festival, neighbourhood Car Free Days, and the Chinese New Year’s Parade. Many festivals, including the Writers Festival, Fringe Festival and multiple film festivals offer free tickets in exchange for volunteering.
7. Descend the stairs to Wreck Beach. There are few places more exemplary of Vancouver than Wreck Beach. Gorgeous year-round, it has equally wonderful faces for every season. In summer it’s a hippie free-for-all, clothing optional, with stalls to buy Indian sarongs and roasted corn (and more). Alcohol is officially prohibited, but gets through nonetheless, some of it smuggled by nude girls selling margaritas and gin and tonics out of their backpacks. In autumn, it’s where university students take rests from their exams and build (illegal) fires at night. In winter, it’s a wild, isolated beach, away from the chaos of the city, for just you and the seals. With views facing the Pacific and Vancouver Island, you would never know you’re within the bounds of a major metropolis. The stairs up and down are a workout…but that’s also part of Wreck beach’s appeal. It’s a bit out of the way, but the people who make the effort to go there tend to be awesome (and it’s harder for the cops to patrol too, which makes certain of its liberal aspects more viable.) And it’s also right next to the Museum of Anthropology, by far the greatest museum/gallery in the city, and an extraordinarily worthwhile place to visit, despite the cost. If you’re strapped for cash, it’s cheap on Tuesday nights. In winter months, the nearby Nitobe Japanese Garden is also free.
8. Eat with the Sikhs. Vancouver has one of the largest Sikh communities in the world. It’s a multicultural city in general, but the Sikhs are one of the biggest ethnic groups, and have been for several generations. Part of the Sikh mandate is providing free meals to the community. Everyone is welcome, including cash-strapped travelers. The most transit accessible Sikh temple is the Akali Singh Sikh Temple, near Rupert Station, in East Vancouver. They serve meals four days a week around 6pm. It also happens to be a beautiful temple, which you can visit after eating. But please be sure to be respectful. Don’t enter with drugs or alcohol. Wash your hands. Cover your head when eating (there are cloths to do so there.) If you want to visit the temple’s sanctuary, you will need to remove your shoes before entering. And while they do not ask for donations, if you want to make one, there’s a donation box near the bathrooms. Several other temples, both Hindu and Sikh provide this wonderful community service.
9. Listen to music in a woodland sanctuary. Vancouver is a pretty atheistic town, and those who practice religion tend to come from non-Christian backgrounds. That being said, Christ Church Cathedral, right in the heart of the city, is a truly beautiful spot. Open to the public, it’s worth taking a wander through the sanctuary. On the south side there’s a stained-glass window dedicated to the son of an early priest who perished in the First World War. In the alcove directly east, there’s a peace chapel where you can look at interesting old regimental flags from past conflicts (pull out the drawers.) The church is especially worth visiting when the organist is practicing, or when they do Gregorian chant on Sunday evenings. The architectural style is very much West Coast Gothic, with dark wooden beams dominating the space. And if churches give you the willies, then Council Trail, in Pacific Spirit Park, is a desirable alternative: a cathedral-like grove of coniferous trees rising into the sky, providing space for solitude and contemplation.
10. Wander the Art Gallery. I have mixed feelings about Vancouver’s main Art Gallery. They charge too much, and their space is too small for their collection….that being said, they’ve been putting on better and better exhibitions as of late, and are on track to build a much bigger purpose-built space in the next few years. And the great news is that on Tuesday evenings the Art Gallery is always by donation.
Are these the only 10 things to do for free in Vancouver? No, of course not! But these are 10 great places to get an idea of the city, and wander from there. Safe travels!