Twenty reasons to visit Vancouver

1 Suspension bridges

The Capilano Suspension Bridge, 136 metres long and 70 metres above the Capilano River, is high on many travellers' lists. It was built using hemp rope and cedar planks, but the present incarnation is slightly more secure, if no less harrowing in appearance. Capilano is privately owned, so there's an access charge. It featured once in MacGyver and a new cantilevered Cliffwalk juts out over the granite cliff face. Locals know to visit the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge as an alternative, which is only slightly shorter - and free.capbridge.com, lynncanyon.ca.

2 Stanley Park

The word "park" evokes images of tidy paths and cultivated lawns. While Stanley Park has that, it also has half a million trees, with forested areas so dense that people occasionally get lost while taking a stroll. Even larger than Central Park in New York City at more than four square kilometres, this is the city's lung, where locals go to celebrate by strolling along the long seawall. The 200 kilometres of walking and cycling paths make Stanley one for repeated visits. stanleypark.org.

3 Festival of Lights at VanDusen Botanical Gardens

A white Christmas without lots of festive lighting is cold and miserly. Thankfully, Vancouver has its legendary Festival of Lights, when VanDusen Botanical Gardens becomes a luminous spectacle. Millions of coloured lights wrapped around trees and flowerbeds transform the gardens for much of December. This being an environmentally conscious city, most are energy-saving bulbs, so visitors can walk through Candy Cane Lane without the guilt.

4 Grouse Mountain

What's 2.9 kilometres to the seasoned runner? Well, if you're talking about the Grouse Grind, the 853-metre elevation gain is commonly referred to by Vancouverites as "Mother Nature's Stairmaster". Grouse Mountain looms over the city from the North Shore, offering alpine skiing in winter and hiking opportunities during the warmer months. A wildlife refuge and a glass bubble viewing platform at the top of a wind turbine round out the mountain's attractions. grousemountain.com.

5 The mail run

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The Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and the coast of mainland British Columbia, is stuffed with tiny islands and anchorages. Taking off from the city's Coal Harbour, a seaplane does a mail run daily, taking passengers along for the ride, then skims past Grouse Mountain and the skyline on return. A carbon offset fee is included in the ticket price. harbour-air.com.

6 The Tomahawk Restaurant

North Vancouver's Tomahawk Restaurant masquerades as a diner but is decidedly stranger than your average roadside. Its history stretches to 1926 and the website admits the original owner, Chuck Chamberlain, "really didn't know how to cook in the beginning, but he learnt". During the Great Depression, Chamberlain got in the habit of exchanging Indian curios for food; he even named hamburgers after native leaders. Today, you can chow down on a Chief Dominic Charlie Burger surrounded by vintage artefacts and signed celebrity photographs, including, appropriately enough, the cast of The X-Files. tomahawkrestaurant.com.

7 Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art

Bill Reid looms large in the Canadian art world, a master goldsmith, sculptor, writer and member of the Haida indigenous nation of the Pacific north-west. This gallery pulls together some of his best work: canoe sails painted with the Thunderbird; a dogfish purse; a broach in the form of a beaver. Its goal is even more ambitious, however: to preserve a culture dating to the Ice Age. Stirring exhibitions focus on Haida design and language. "If we lose our voice, what would we call ourselves?" one of the last surviving fluent speakers asks. billreidgallery.ca.

8 Museum of Anthropology

Often overlooked for being slightly out of the way at the University of British Columbia, the Museum of Anthropology is a knockout: anybody wanting to learn more about the First Nation peoples of the Pacific north-west should make the effort. Bill Reid features as well, most notably with his yellow cedar sculpture The Raven and the First Men, which also appears on the Canadian $20 note. moa.ubc.ca.

9 Gastown

If your idea of anthropology tends more towards people-watching, the national historical site of Gastown buzzes with bars, cafes and galleries. Named after "Gassy" Jack Deighton (something of a gasbag), who opened the area's first saloon in 1867, Gastown has become one of Vancouver's most vibrant neighbourhoods. Particular standouts are Pourhouse, where the bartender will make you a custom cocktail based on your mood, and Meat & Bread, which sells exactly what you would expect, plus a maple ice-cream sandwich with bacon. gastown.org.

10 Vancouver Art Gallery

National art galleries attempt to capture the cultural ethos of their country, but Vancouver Art Gallery feels particularly successful. Rotating exhibitions pick up on different aspects of art history across the provinces, spotlighting the rise of abstraction in the 1960s, or leading artists such as Harold Town, "the Picasso of Canada". One recent exhibition, Beat Nation, brilliantly illustrated the ways in which indigenous identity has been juxtaposed with urban youth culture. Nike Air Jordans were transformed into intricate First Nation masks; hip-hop videos were sung in indigenous dialects. vanartgallery.bc.ca.

11 Sustainable food

Unsurprisingly, the home of the 100-Mile Diet - for which only locally sourced food is eaten as a rebellion against unsustainable transport practices - takes ethical eating very seriously. Granville Island is an epicentre for this, but numerous eateries across the city have adopted conscious food principles such as Ocean Wise, a program that grades seafood on sustainability criteria in an effort to discourage overfishing. Look for the fish logo when making restaurant choices. oceanwise.ca.

12 Food carts

The food revolution sweeping North American cities is alive and well in Vancouver: food carts (elsewhere called trucks) are a ubiquitous presence on street corners and footpaths. Offering everything from curries to tacos, the food carts have created such a fanatical following that someone made an iPhone app to track their movements (vancouverstreeteats.ca). Japadog is particularly popular - think hot dogs by way of the orient. A Terimayo comes with seaweed and teriyaki sauce; Meat Lovers is baffling, but delicious anyway. japadog.com.

13 $100 hot dog

If you turn up your nose at the prospect of street fare, an upper-class version is served at DougieDog on Granville Island by a man called Dougie Luv. It contains bratwurst, Kobe beef, truffle oil, Atlantic lobster and a drizzle of 100-year old Louis XIII cognac. "Yummy, yummy, yum," Luv told National Public Radio, claiming his inspiration was the Chinese Year of the Dragon and that the hot dog carries a message of hope. dougiedog.com.

14 Granville Island

Vancouver's legendary Granville Island is everything you've been told, plus 10 types of apple and a theatre company. The public market, a temple to food, swarms with shoppers bowing down before the altars of produce and fresh fish; legs of pork line display cases like tempting false idols. This artificial island was once an industrial hub, and remnants of that life can be glimpsed at the cement company alongside Edible Canada. But even it has its priorities skewed firmly to the culinary end of the spectrum: cement-mixing trucks are painted to resemble strawberries and cobs of corn. granvilleisland.com.

15 The Rennie Collection at Wing Sang

A private museum in the oldest building of Vancouver's Chinatown, most travellers never see more than the giant illuminated words "Everything is going to be alright", a neon sign by Martin Creed that's visible from the Skytrain. That's a shame; the Rennie Collection is a thrilling meditation on works interrogating identity, social injustice and appropriation. Viewing is by appointment only on free guided tours, booked through the website, renniecollection.org.

16 Roedde House Museum

James Cheng's green-glass residential towers loom large in downtown Vancouver (spawning an oft-imitated and controversial style known as Vancouverism), but tucked away in West End is a green building of a different sort. Roedde House, a clapboard Queen Anne Revival-style manor with a tulip garden and gazebo, shows Vancouver in its early days, with a fully restored interior that evokes 1893. Guided tours explain how the rich lived, from kitchen to bathroom, and raise the question: in 100 years, will the same tour exist for those penthouses in the sky? roeddehouse.org.

17 Vancouver Police Museum

Does anybody think of crime when they think of Canada, a country that's notoriously well adjusted? Apparently, there is a gritty past and the Vancouver Police Museum revels in its particulars. In the old Coroner's Court, law-enforcement artefacts sit alongside guns and displays that depict old policing methods, forensic science, famous criminals and confiscated contraband. A Sins of the City walking tour takes the action outside in summer, touching on everything from prohibition to the evolution of the city's sex industry. See Vancouver through a glass darkly. vancouverpolicemuseum.ca.

18 Museum of Vancouver/The Space Centre

More grittiness is on display at the Museum of Vancouver, which features a close examination of the city's racy (read: gorgeous) neon signs from the mid-20th century when such things were considered tawdry. This being a museum about the city, the exhibition content can vary wildly and some items are nearly as odd as the building, which looks like a flying saucer with a giant crab Transformer mounted out the front. An adjacent space centre and maritime museum make Vanier Park a must-see for museum aficionados. museumofvancouver.ca.

19 Whistler

Add "Canada" to "ski resort" and the answer, more often than not, is Whistler. Just 125 kilometres north of Vancouver, this is a legendary destination for all things snow. The 2010 Winter Olympics vouched for the quality of runs, though chances are you know at least one young Australian who's worked a season here. In summer, Whistler-Blackcomb becomes a premier destination for mountain bikers. whistler.com.

20 The Thompson Okanagan region

Sydney has the Hunter, San Francisco has Napa and Vancouver has the Okanagan Valley. Though several hours from the city, this affordable weekend retreat shows the underappreciated Canadian wine industry at its best. The warm climate makes growing conditions ideal for growing ehrenfelser, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, and experts recommend a tour from south to north, where the harvest happens slightly later. okanagan.com.

The writer was a guest of Tourism British Columbia and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

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