22 Delightful Things To Do In Vancouver In Winter

Winter is not the typical time to visit Vancouver. (Or British Columbia. Or Canada.) We can see why, but living in Vancouver, we have to confess we’re quite fond of winter here. It’s not a season to survive but one to cherish, with so many delightful things to do (no, not only skiing!). Even more, a surprising number of them are free (definitely not skiing though). So yes, visiting Vancouver in winter can be a great experience, and we help you make it one!

This guide is about all the things to do in Vancouver in the winter, both in Vancouver Downtown and in the Greater Vancouver area, in the local mountains and even a bit further. Where to go for holiday lights, snowy hikes or frozen waterfalls. We focus on Christmas and winter activities in the first place, so it’s not a general sightseeing itinerary.

How is winter weather in Vancouver?

Sasamat Lake, British Columbia, Canada

Mild and wet. It’s not the typical Canadian winter with extreme cold temperatures and deep snow. Vancouver’s winter temperature is around 4-5°C (38-41°F), but there’s an average of 20 rainy days in a month between November and February.

The past winters have been unusually cold though. Vancouver actually got snow and had freezing temperatures for weeks – not just at higher elevations in the nearby mountains, but in the city, too. It means that all the rain turned into snow, creating a fabulous winter wonderland! Those days were our favorites. But snow is never far here, so fear not if you get milder winter days.

Pump peak, Mount Seymour, BC, Canada

Essential things to pack for your Vancouver winter trip

Prepare for chilly weather, but even more for wind and rain. Mild winter doesn’t mean you don’t need warm clothes. Winter temperatures around 5°C are not what you’d call warm, especially if it’s windy, as well. And if you go up to the mountains, you need to be prepared for temperatures below freezing.

First of all, the most important item is the one that keeps your feet cosy and dry: a pair of warm, waterproof boots. What kind of boots would be best for you depends on the activities you plan. We’d stick to one pair though, and we’d wear them on our flight to save space in the luggage. If you’ll do lots of hiking, pack a pair of winter hiking boots (great budget-friendly options are the Kamik Women’s Momentum 3 and the Kamik Men’s Nationplus), they’ll be fine on city walks, too. If you mostly plan city walks or easy nature trails, pick warm walking boots that are suitable for a few easy hikes, too, but make sure they’re actually waterproof (like this Sorel Women’s Caribou or the Timberland Men’s Premium Fashion Boots). Forget those fancy winter shoes that can’t stand wet (rain or snow), because you’ll need to deal with wet conditions a lot here!

So in addition to your proper boots, here’s the basic wardrobe we recommend (it’s for one week, but it’s exactly what we’d pack for a longer trip, too, we’d just add a few laundries):

Other useful things to have:

  • insulated bottle to carry hot drinks on your winter walks
  • moisturizer and chapstick, because wind is tough on your skin
  • polarized sunglasses, especially if you plan to go up in the mountains (snow can be blinding on the rare sunny days)
  • hand and toe warmers if you plan to spend a lot of time outside (day hikes, skiing or snowshoeing days)
  • insulated snow pants if you plan skiing or snowboarding (Columbia Bugaboo IV Pants snow pants for both women and men are quite warm and affordable)
  • leave your umbrella at home, because they’re not that practical in strong wind, and the coast is often windy

And now let’s see all the fun things to do, snowy or not:

Downtown Vancouver winter activities

Go ice-skating on Robson Square. Robson Square is in the heart of the downtown, buzzing with life in any season, and it has a free outdoor skating rink that’s set up from December to February. You can also rent skates there for a small fee.

Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Enjoy a beach sunset. Winter days might be short, but the beams of the sinking sun illuminate everything in golden. (Khm… make sure to pick a sunny day.) Our favorite sunset beaches in Downtown Vancouver are English Bay Beach, and Stanley Park’s Second Beach and Third Beach.

Marvel at the downtown skyline at night. Another perk of short days is that you can enjoy the night skyline views for long. Get the best views from Charleson and Vanier Parks right across the downtown business district, or find a cosy restaurant along False Creek to enjoy those views from indoors. If you’d like to get fancy, take a sunset dinner cruise on False Creek.

Vancouver, BC, Canada

Ride the Stanley Park Christmas train. Stanley Park is one of the coolest urban parks in the world, a real wilderness in the heart of a vibrant city, hugged around by the ocean. We like the skyline views from its Seawall, or spotting seals near Lions Gate Bridge. It is nice in winter, too, and it also offers some Christmas specialties. The Bright Nights Train runs between late November and early January, and takes you on a scenic tour through festive lights in the park.

Experience the Vancouver Aquarium Holiday Splash. Vancouver Aquarium is also located in Stanley Park, and it’s great for any cold or rainy day that you wish to spend indoors (well, mostly, because it has a roofed outdoors area, too). They have special decorations and attractions for Christmas, like a diving Santa Claus or a short 4D movie.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

Join the Polar Bear Swim. Or just watch it. This is a traditional event for New Year’s Day every year when a bunch of brave people go for a swim at English Bay Beach. (Sadly, it was only a virtual event during the pandemic, but let’s hope we’ll get our real life back.) Not that it’s that unusual to see locals swimming in the ocean even in winter. (Granted, the ocean is warmer than the air. So… will you pack swimsuits?)

Stroll the Vancouver Christmas market. Okay, we can’t miss this imitation of a European Christmas market in Jack Poole Plaza from the list, because it’s worth checking out if you visit the city around Christmas time. But if you come from Europe (like us), you probably won’t be very much impressed.

Vancouver Convention Centre, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Fly over Canada in the Vancouver Convention Centre. It’s located next to Jack Poole Plaza, and the building itself is interesting enough. But it also offers nice views and many events throughout the year. A popular one is FlyOver Canada, a multimedia experience introducing Canada’s beauties to visitors – and surprise, they have a Christmas themed show.

Visit the Festival of Lights in VanDusen Botanical Garden. This is another event for Christmas time, usually from late November until the end of December. While a botanical garden is not the typical choice for a winter visit, this one has Christmas themed decoration, music and some tasty treats (if you arrive before Christmas, that is).

Lynn Canyon Park, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Enjoy the rare snowy days sledding in one of the many parks. Like David Lam Park, George Wainborn Park, Charleson Park, or Queen Elizabeth Park, a bit further from the downtown. Kids will surely enjoy it, but adults can also have fun as these parks offer nice scenic views of Vancouver.

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Well, and do all the things you’d do any time of the year. Stroll or bike the Seaside Greenway. Walk in Gastown and Granville Island. Take a historic Gastown food tour. Walk up to Vancouver Lookout. Visit the Vancouver Art Gallery that offers both permanent and temporary exhibits. Don’t miss the Science World if you have kids, or sign up for one of their special late night events for adults. Don’t go whale-watching though, winter is not the season to see whales. What we highlighted in this section is the downtown winter fun, but, of course, visiting great museums and enjoying city views are year-round experiences.

Greater Vancouver winter activities

It probably counts as Vancouver in your eyes, because it’s connected. It’s the Vancouver metropolitan area though: North and West Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, Langley, Coquitlam, Port Moody and many more. We separated these activities, because while you definitely won’t need a car to visit places in the downtown, you’ll be much more comfortable if you rent a car to explore Greater Vancouver.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

Experience Christmas magic in Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in North Vancouver. With the astonishing treetop walks and suspension bridges, this park is a popular attraction year-round. From late November until late January, it all gets wrapped in Christmas lights. If there was anything that compensated us for not having proper Christmas markets here, it was the Canyon Lights Winter Festival in this park. The tickets are expensive, true, and there are many breathtaking natural attractions near Vancouver that are completely free to visit, also true. However, the treetop walks and the giant suspension bridge of Capilano are one of a kind, and the Christmas vibes are truly magical. (Snow is not guaranteed, but we were lucky to experience it in fresh snow in January.)

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

And how to get there? Either by car, or by their free shuttle. You don’t need to book a guided bus tour in order to easily reach Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.

Have real winter in the local North Shore mountains. Cypress Mountain, Mount Seymour and Grouse Mountain are all within 30 minutes drive from Downtown Vancouver, and they’re everyone’s favorite snowy getaways. You choose: downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowtubing, tobogganing or a simple walk in a fabulous winter fairy tale. It snows a lot in these mountains during winter! While Vancouver gets rain, it’s mostly snow at these higher elevations.

Pump peak, Mount Seymour, BC, Canada

Go for a snowy hike. There are some well-worn trails in the North Shore mountains that you can do in the snow, too, without any special equipment. Like Bowen Lookout, Eagle Bluffs or Hollyburn Peak on Cypress Mountain, Dog Mountain or Pump Peak on Mount Seymour. They’re easy, beautiful trails that made us fall in love with winter hiking! (Microspikes can come handy, but they are not an absolute necessity on these trails. Snowshoes are not necessary either, because so many people hike there that the snow never gets too deep.)

Lynn Canyon Park, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

Go skiing with Vancouver views. Grouse Mountain offers 33 ski runs, Seymour Mountain offers 41, and Cypress Mountain has 53. Whichever you choose, expect them to be busy. They’re quickly reachable from Vancouver, and locals like spending their weekends skiing there. Check their websites for trail maps, operating hours and current price.

Meet Santa and his reindeers on Grouse Mountain. Special Christmas events are organized in Grouse Mountain from late November until early January. Like having breakfast with Santa or the Light Walk. Book tickets in advance.

Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

Enjoy evergreen rainforest walks with amazing waterfalls. Like the hike to Twin Falls and Thirty Foot Pool in Lynn Canyon Park or the paths in Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve in North Vancouver, or the trail to Upper and Lower Cypress Falls in West Vancouver. They don’t only have lovely creeks, bridges and waterfalls, but they’re also among the most picturesque rainforest walks. Though they’re usually snow-free all year, you might be lucky to see them during those few weeks when it snows. (They’re very pretty with and without snow and ice, we can tell that from experience!) Also, they’re among the most enjoyable trails on a rainy day – with lovely sights and dense forest that gives some protection from the rain.

Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

Visit the Heritage Christmas in Burnaby Village Museum. Travel back to the 20s in this free, open air museum where period-clothed volunteers tell you about how local life was during those days. Christmas lights make the place even more special in November and December.

Burnaby Village Museum, BC, Canada

Walk the Lights at Lafarge loop in Coquitlam. Festive lights make this loop walk around Lafarge Lake especially captivating at Christmas time (from early December until the end of January). It’s a free event.

Visit the Glow Gardens in Langley. Another place to lift your holiday spirits is the Glow Gardens, though you need to pay an entrance fee to visit this one. Also, they made it a drive instead of a walk during the pandemic, so a car is necessary to enter.

Green Lake, Whistler, BC, Canada

Take a day trip to Whistler. It takes another long article to list all the activities you can do at Whistler in winter (stay tuned, we’ll write that article, too!) It has a giant ski resort, many snowshoeing trails and countless easy hikes, like the one to Brandywine Falls. The drive there from Vancouver on the Sea-to-Sky Highway is an attraction on its own, with views of Howe Sound and the surrounding snowy mountains.

Cypress Falls & Shannon Falls, British Columbia, Canada

Hunt for frozen waterfalls. They’re not guaranteed to be frozen, but at least part of them will be, if you’re lucky. Your best bets are Brandywine Falls and Alexander Falls near Whistler, Shannon Falls near Squamish or Gold Creek Falls in the Golden Ears Provincial Park. North Vancouver’s Twin Falls and Norvan Falls or West Vancouver’s Cypress Falls are less likely to freeze, but take your chance, they’re pretty, anyway.

5 things you wish someone would have told you…

Buntzen Lake, BC, Canada

Wait, we are here to tell you! So here are a few things to pay attention to in order to make your winter trip smoother:

Winter tires. While winter tires are not required in Vancouver (and in most of the Lower Mainland), you need them to drive up to the North Shore Mountains or to Whistler. You know your tires are acceptable winter tires if they have the letters “M” and “S” (mud and snow) and the three-peaked mountain with a snowflake symbol on them. Summer tires with snow chains are not acceptable. If you rent a car, make sure your car is properly equipped for winter conditions.

Park opening hours. Most parks (mainly provincial and regional parks) close quite early, because sunset is early, too. Check the opening hours and leave the park in time as they close the gate of the parking lot for the evening.

Mount Seymour, BC, Canada

Day hiking permits. If you plan to visit some of the most popular parks, you might be required to get a free day hiking permit in advance to enter. Several parks have this requirement in summer, but it applies only to Mount Seymour Provincial Park in winter. You can check current requirements here.

Get a Compass Card for public transport. It’s a reloadable fare card used everywhere on public transit in Greater Vancouver. If you don’t have it, you need to buy single tickets each time, or you need to pay with the exact amount of cash on buses (that’s a pain you want to avoid). A Compass Card just makes your life easier, and you can buy it at any SkyTrain station. You can then refill it with money online or at any booths that sell Compass Cards.

Vancouver, BC, Canada

Get to know the Real Canadian Superstore. That’s the name, yes, and if you’re looking for a large supermarket where you can buy all the food, clothes and small accessories you need (or forgot to pack), go to a Real Canadian Superstore. We are not their affiliates or anything, but we think it’s the best place for general shopping (other than Costco which requires a membership card). We haven’t heard about it before we moved here, and if you’re looking for a “Canadian Tesco”, this is what you’re looking for. 🙂

Where to stay in Vancouver

Budget-friendly, centrally located accommodation: hostels

If you’re looking for an affordable place to stay while located close to downtown, hostels might be your best choice. Vancouver has many well-rated hostels with free breakfast and free wifi. And no, don’t think of a rickety dorm room. You can certainly choose a dorm bed, but many hostels offer private rooms for couples and families.

We liked booking those private rooms as a couple whenever we stayed in large cities. They have the advantages of a hostel (free breakfast, good price, good location, and usually free luggage storage on the days of check-in and check-out), but they offer more privacy than a usual dorm room. But which are the best hostels in Vancouver?

Burnaby Village Museum, BC, Canada

HI Vancouver Downtown

HI Vancouver Downtown offers one of the best locations, right in the heart of Vancouver, walking distance from Granville Island, Stanley Park or Gastown. Wifi is not what you’d call stable in the rooms, and some facilities are a bit old, but they’re maintained. The staff is helpful and friendly. The hostel organizes sightseeing activities, too, but it’s one of the quieter hostels, not for those looking forward to parties and lots of socializing.

HI Vancouver Central

The location of HI Vancouver Central is just as great as the HI Vancouver Downtown, walking distance from everything in Downtown Vancouver. With its large private rooms and private bathrooms it’s a great choice even for families. Social life is more active here than at the other location, and they organize different daily activities, but it’s not a noisy party hostel. Don’t expect anything fancy, but you get what you pay for: safe and central location, clean rooms, helpful staff.

Vancouver Backpacker House

A very basic, but also very affordable option is Vancouver Backpacker House. It’s actually located in Burnaby, a 15 minutes SkyTrain ride from Downtown Vancouver. Many people find their check-in and payment processes a bit strange and not that smooth, and there are some strange rules about hours for usage of different areas in the hostel. Overall, the price is very budget-friendly, and you get a simple, clean place to stay.

COVID side note for hostels in general: breakfast services are often cancelled due to the pandemic, so check the current rules before you book.

Apartments and B&Bs in downtown

Vancouver, BC, Canada

If you’d like to stay downtown in a nice apartment or hotel, you have to pay the price, but you can’t complain about the lack of options. The well-equipped, spacious suites of Rosellen Suites are only a few minutes walk from Stanley Park. The apartments of Lord Stanley Suites are close to both Stanley Park and Coal Harbour, and they come with a private balcony (and you have fabulous views in every direction at that location!).

O Canada House is a stylish bed and breakfast with Victorian décor in the heart of the downtown. Guests are really satisfied with the delicious breakfast and home-baked snacks. The West End Guest House is a historic bed and breakfast at a great location – central, but quiet. It’s nicely furnished, guests love the food, and it has another specialty: free parking!

The loveliest cottages in Vancouver

Buntzen Lake, BC, Canada

What?! A cottage in Vancouver? Not your first thought, right? But there are neighbourhoods that typically consist of the loveliest cottages you could imagine, and some are for short-term rent. They’re usually not walking distance from downtown, but you often get free parking and a quieter atmosphere in exchange. Here, this is a charming, modern garden suite in funky Kitsilano, or another bright garden suite in Dunbar.

This spacious, 3 bedroom suite near beautiful Queen Elizabeth Park is great for families.

Unique places to stay

Lynn Canyon Park, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

If you’d pay a bit more for something special, consider a studio in the heart of the downtown with a stunning view or a (winterized) houseboat on False Creek that has amazing skyline views.

Or consider North Vancouver to be close to both the lush green rainforests and the snowy mountains. This basement suite is located in Lynn Canyon, walking distance to its stunning suspension bridge and Twin Falls. You can venture out on several rainforest trails from there. This modern bed and breakfast is at an idyllic riverside location, also with forest walks nearby.

Lynn Canyon Park, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

This beautiful floating home on Mosquito Creek is great for anyone who’s obsessed with nature, water, beaches and a peaceful atmosphere. And you can actually reach Downtown Vancouver by sea bus from here.

Any more questions? Spill!

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By Beata Urmos

Bea is the co-founder of Our Wanders. She’s the writer and the trip organizer, and she’d love to help you plan your own amazing trips! She likes hiking, good novels and chocolate, as well. Her motto is: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” (John A. Shedd)

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