Let’s face it, the “B.C.” for British Columbia might as well stand for “Bring Cash.” It’s no secret that affordability is a huge issue around these parts, and that’s particularly the case in Vancouver largely due to our high housing costs which leaves little for other things like fun activities. However, you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy this beautiful and vibrant city; take a look at Vancity Buzz’s comprehensive list of Metro Vancouver’s FREE city tours, activities and attractions.
These guided tours, activities and attractions are perfect for date nights, visitors on a tight budget, families looking for activities to do with their kids, or even those looking for opportunities to re-explore their own city! You will be surprised, there are free gems hidden everywhere.
Free Guided Tours & Activities
Vancouver Convention Centre
You don’t typically hear about folks touring a convention facility, but this one is different. The 2009-built West Building of the Vancouver Convention Centre is among one of the most spectacular and greenest convention and exhibition buildings in the world. Please note that this is no exaggeration.
It’s one of the Vancouver’s most prominent and photographed landmarks, and boasts one of the city’s largest and most architecturally stunning designs.
The 1.1-million sq. foot building is usually closed to the general public due to the private events that take place inside. However, the convention centre’s incredible staff are nice enough to schedule regular free guided public tours. Learn more about the rooftop bee hives, the art exhibits inside, the wood used to build the interior, the massive green roof (wild grassland), other green building features and more.
Tour Duration: 1 hour
Hours: The Vancouver Convention Centre is pleased to offer public tours of the West Building on select days, subject to availability and building closures. Tours will not be conducted during busy convention periods, when events have specific security requirements or during essential building maintenance. Click here to book a free public tour.
The bee hives on the wild grassland green roof of the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Image: Vancouver Convention Centre
Vancouver-based Tour Guys have won awards for being Canada’s best walking tour company. Their young guides are extremely nice, experienced and knowledgeable; altogether, the Tour Guys of Vancouver promise a unique walking tour experience that will give you an incredibly in-depth background to the history of the city and the neighbourhoods, buildings and sites you visit.
Really, I’m not kidding, they’re amazing – it’s highly recommended as an activity for both visitors and even locals. They have even earned a complete 5/5 star rating on Trip Advisor (based on their 222 reviews to date), making them Trip Advisor’s #1 rated Vancouver activity!
Their weekly public tours are free, although tipping is recommended. There are different itineraries and routes for the free public walking tours they provide: (1) Downtown & Waterfront, (2) Granville Street & Gastown, (3) Chinatown, (4) Granville Island, (5) Olympic Village & False Creek, and (6) West End & English Bay.
Admission: FREE! (although, tipping your awesome guide is highly recommended)
Tour Duration: 90 minutes
Hours: Tour Guys offers 6 unique free public walking tours to different areas of the city. See their website for schedules and to book; click here to book your free tour.
Address: Walking Tour
Image: Tour Guys
Sunday Afternoon Salsa at Robson Square
Do you want to meet new people? Learn something new? Get more exercise? Have more fun? Well then, how about learning how to dance? It’s also a great activity to do with your special someone! And yes, it’s completely free.
Sunday Afternoon Salsa is a highly popular annual summer activity at Robson Square, and it’s returning again this year beginning on the Canada Day long weekend! The event happens every Sunday afternoon and starts with a free 30-minute beginner salsa dance lesson at 3 p.m. taught by some of Vancouver’s best dancing instructors. Social dancing starts immediately after the lesson and at 5 p.m. there’s a dance show by various local dancers and dance companies.
It’s a casual social event; friendly, non-intimidating and dancers of all ages and abilities are welcome.
Hours & Duration: 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. (free lesson from 3 p.m. to 3:30 pm; dance show at 5 p.m.) on the following Sundays – June 30, July 7, 14, 21 & 28; August 4, 11, 18 & 25.
Vancouver Art Gallery (on Tuesday Nights)
The Vancouver Art Gallery is Western Canada’s largest art museum and one of the city’s premier cultural institutions. Located at Robson Square, the VAG is located inside the beautiful 1905-built Rattenbury building which once housed the city’s courthouse. It features some of Canada’s finest work, including those of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, within 41,400 square feet of exhibition space over four floors.
It’s not something that’s too well known, but the Vancouver Art Gallery does offer a weekly admission by donation period every Tuesday evening from 5 pm to 9 pm. In other words, it’s free but by donation – whatever you can spare, which could be zero. Keep in mind that normal admission prices for adults is $20 and $15 for seniors and students; any support the VAG can get would be helpful towards its operations, which are highly beneficial to the arts community.
Admission: FREE by optional donation on Tuesdays after 5 p.m.
Hours: Every Tuesday, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The Rennie Collection at Wing Sang
You know him best for being the Vancouver region’s mogul in real estate pre-sale marketing, but did you know that Bob Rennie is also one of the city’s biggest art collectors? Moreover, he houses his art collections inside a large private museum at Chinatown’s oldest building – the beautifully restored 1889-built Wing Sang.
The Rennie Collection at Wing Sang is a private museum with 20,000 square feet of exhibitions – a treasure trove of 1,000 works by 170 artists inside a jaw-dropping beautiful space that very few eyes have seen. More than 30 years ago, Rennie began to acquire early 20th century Canadian and American art but his focus since the 1990s has been on international contemporary art that addresses issues of identity and social injustice.
The collection can be viewed by the general public by way of booking FREE public guided tours. It includes a tour of the historic Wing Sang building’s old schoolroom for the segregated Chinese, Market Alley, and the rooftop where stunning views and sculptures are both aplenty.
Tour Duration: 60 to 90 minutes
Hours: The next exhibition is from July 13, 2013 to October 5, 2013. Booking of free public guided tours will begin soon; space is limited. For more information on booking free tours, click here.
Image: The Rennie Collection
Burnaby Village Museum & Carousel
Want to see what small towns in British Columbia were like during the early-20th century? Burnaby Village Museum recreates that experience in an outdoor museum of 1920s-style buildings centred around a village street. It includes a historical blacksmith shop, ice cream parlour, general store and a Chinese shop from that era. And it’s all authentic to that era too, including the items inside these shops and the costume-wearing workers who run the museum. The attraction also features a restored Vancouver Interurban streetcar that was used from 1913 to 1958 and, as its flagship historical artefact, a restored and working 1912 fairground carousel.
It’s a great fun activity for a family with young kids! Gate admission into the museum is free.
11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. – Tuesday to Sunday including statutory holidays from May 4 to September 2.
12 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. – Daily from November 23 to December 13.
12 p.m. to 9 p.m. – Daily from December 14 to January 3, 2014 (closed on December 24 & 25).
Image: Craig Elliott
Gordon MacMillan Southam Observatory
Be Elijah Wood in Deep Impact; nerd it up and become an astronomer for a evening. Did you know that there’s an observatory right next to downtown Vancouver? Located at Vanier Park in Kitsilano right next to the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, the computer-controlled Cassegrain telescope inside the observatory dome lets you take a glimpse at outer space.
Admission: FREE by optional donation.
Hours: Saturdays at 8 p.m. To confirm observatory openings, call (604) 778-2855 or guest services at (604) 738-7827 ext 240 after 8 p.m.
Image: Jeff Hitchcock
Engine 374 Pavilion
Young children will likely greatly appreciate this quick choo-choo train stop. CPR Engine 374 has a very significant place in not just Vancouver’s history, but for British Columbia too. On May 23, 1887, it was the first train to pull into Vancouver upon the completion of the transcontinental railway into the newly minted westernmost Canadian province.
After more than 125 years since it made Canadian history and marked the milestone that would pave the way for British Columbia’s development, it has been restored and is now housed at the Engine 374 Pavilion at the Roundhouse Community Centre in downtown Vancouver. The Roundhouse Community Centre holds a major historical significance as well, it was originally built in 1911 as a maintenance facility for locomotives.
Hours: Open year-round during Roundhouse Community Centre’s daily hours.
Image: James Cridland
Throughout this summer, there are four amazing night markets open in the region. Three of these markets (two in Richmond, one at Vancouver’s Chinatown) will give you a taste of the vibrant environments and exotic foods of the street markets in Hong Kong and Taipei. The fourth market, located next to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver, is a smaller night market that features Canadian made products, food, and entertainment.
Vancouver Chinatown Night Market
Dates: Every weekend (Fri, Sat, Sun) from May 17 to September 8
Hours: 6 to 11 p.m.
Type: Hong Kong-style night market
Location: Keefer Street (Between Main & Columbia), Vancouver
Richmond Night Market
Dates: Every weekend (Fri, Sat, Sun) from May 17 to October 14
Hours: Fridays and Saturday (7 p.m. to midnight); Sundays (6 p.m. to 11 p.m.)
Admission: A nominal gate admission fee of $2.
Type: Hong Kong-style night market
Location: 8351 River Road, Richmond
Richmond Summer Night Market
Dates: Every weekend (Fri, Sat, Sun) from May 10 to September 8
Hours: Friday and Saturday (7 p.m. to midnight); Sundays and holidays (7 p.m. to 11 p.m.)
Type: Hong Kong-style night market
Location: 12631 Vulcan Way, Richmond (behind the Home Depot store)
North Vancouver Night Market
Dates: Every Thursday and Friday from May 10 to October 10
Hours: Thursday and Friday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Type: Local community theme
Location: Shipyards Plaza – 138 Victory Ship Way, North Vancouver
Image: Rick Chung
Free Outdoor Movies
Chevron Summer Cinema Series at Stanley Park
As an Official Media Partner of this year’s Chevron Summer Cinema Series, Vancity Buzz is proud to be part of an highly popular annual summer tradition of free summer movie screenings at Stanley Park. We even chose to show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the first screening on July 2, presented by Vancity Buzz and benefiting the Vancouver Firefighters Charitable Society!
Every Tuesday “after dark” during July and August, Ceperley Meadows near Second Beach at Stanley Park will be transformed into an outdoor movie theatre with a four-storey tall inflatable movie screen. As a general reminder, please bring your own blankets and/or lawn chairs. They’ll also be accepting optional donations for their benefiting charities.
More information: click here for the full weekly Chevron Summer Cinema Series summer schedule. For a listing of other free outdoor movies elsewhere in the region, click here.
Image: Venture Vancouver
Free Natural and Outdoor Attractions
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park in Chinatown
Many are aware of the famous and critically acclaimed Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in downtown Vancouver’s Chinatown and that entry requires an admission fee, but does everyone know that right next door to this $14 pay-to-enter garden is a FREE public park? Entry into Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park next door is FREE as it is operated as a City of Vancouver public park.
The park is a part of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden: it even shares the same pond full of colourful fish, but the free public park is separated by a wall. Like the pay-to-enter Garden, the free Park also features traditional Chinese architecture, bridges, pavilions including a pagoda, lush plants and water lilies. It is a heavily maintained and detailed Chinese-style garden park based on the theme of tranquility and the harmony of the four elements: architecture, plants, rocks, and water.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., daily.
Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge and Park
Complementing the nearby Capilano Suspension Bridge, the FREE Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge and Park provides a different organically natural and intimate experience and is a friendly option for those who are budget conscious. Located at Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver, the 617 acre park was founded in 1912 and is best known for its shaky (but safe) 40-metre long suspension bridge that hovers 50-metres over rapids. In addition to the suspension bridge, there are many kilometres of leisurely walking and hiking trails, wood bridges over rivers, twin waterfalls, and a 30-foot swimming hole during the summer months.
“Should I go to Capilano or Lynn Canyon?” Keep in mind that aside from pricing differences, Capilano Suspension Bridge does offer a much more dramatic experience with its longer bridge and much deeper (much higher) canyon, in addition to all the tourist-centric programming and “man-made nature” adventure attractions like the Tree Top Adventures and Cliffwalk. Nevertheless, Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge and Park holds up on its own as a highly unique natural and peaceful experience.
While nature hasn’t been nearly as tamed here as at Capilano, you’re not completely absent from civilization if you’re looking for a washroom or a bite – the Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre (gift shop, children’s puppet shows in the theatre) and Lynn Canyon Cafe are right next to the entrance parking lot.
Hours: Open daily year-round: Spring (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.); Summer (7 a.m. to 9 p.m.); Fall (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.); Winter (7 a.m. to dusk). Use extreme caution and allow plenty of time to return to the park entrance before dark, especially during the winter months.
Image: Thom Watson
Capilano Salmon Hatchery
The Capilano Salmon Hatchery, located along the Capilano River just below Cleveland Dam and the Capilano Suspension Bridge, is a fantastic place to see salmon return home to their native streams to spawn. It’s a stunning sight as more than two million salmon are produced at the hatchery every year, and during peak times the ladders are full of fish returning home to complete the cycle. It’s a popular attraction with over 400,000 people visiting the hatchery each year!
This free attraction includes outdoor educational displays, including glass-sided fishways that enable visitors to watch adult salmon jump up fish ladders close-up. In addition, newborn salmon swim and grow up in the hatchery’s pools before making their way down river into the ocean. In addition to salmon watching, there are also highly informative and interactive interpretive displays.
Best times to view adults migrating: Steelhead (March to April); Coho (June to November; popular season); Chinook (October to November; very popular season)
Hours: April (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.); May (8 a.m. to 7 p.m.); June to August (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.); September (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.); October (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.); November to March (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Image: Abhinaba Basu
Just a few hundred metres away from both the Capilano Suspension Bridge and the Capilano Salmon Hatchery is Cleveland Dam, one of the main drinking water supplies for the Lower Mainland. Built in 1954, the impressive 300-foot tall dam spreads out 640-feet across a canyon to hold back a 670-acre reservoir – Capilano Lake. Visitors are permitted to walk across the dam there are great trails in addition to stunning picturesque views of the canyon, lake, and the mountains including the famed twin-peaked Lions. The area is highly publicly accessible with a large parking lot and bus route nearby. It’s a great location for a picnic too!
Hours: During daylight.
Address: Capilano Road and Prospect Avenue, North Vancouver
Image: Devlon Duthie
Vancouver Inspiration Pass
Do you have a Vancouver Public Library borrowing card? The City of Vancouver has recently launched the Vancouver Inspiration Pass (VIP) program which allows library cardholders FREE general admission into numerous cultural and recreational attractions and activities in the city. With your library card, you can place a request for the VIP.
The VIP is valid for a two week period and permits free entry to an attraction for either a family (two adults, up to four children) or a group of youth (six young people from the ages of 14 to 18). The passes are non-transferable and can be used for free admission at the following locations:
- UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum
- Bloedel Conservatory
- Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens
- H.R. Macmillan Space Centre
- Maplewood Farm
- Museum of Vancouver
- UBC Nitobe Memorial Garden
- Roedde House Museum
- Science World
- UBC Botanical Garden
- UBC Museum of Anthropology
- Vancouver Aquarium
- Vancouver Art Gallery
- Vancouver Bach Choir
- Vancouver Maritime Museum
- Vancouver Opera
- Vancouver Park Board operated fitness centres, ice rinks, pitch and putt, and swimming pools
- Vancouver Police Museum
- Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
- Vancouver Welsh Men’s Choir
- VanDusen Botanical Gardens
As amazing as this list sounds and its affiliation with the word “FREE” for a whole family or a large group of youth, there’s one big catch. The Vancouver Public Library has just 120 passes available for loan every two weeks: the wait-list is in the many thousands, meaning you likely won’t receive your pass for well over a year.
So, without any further delay, you better start waiting in line now! Click here to learn more about the Vancouver Inspiration Pass.
Image: Daddy Blogger
Written and researched by Kenneth Chan, Deputy Editor at Vancity Buzz. Follow Kenneth on Twitter at @kjmagine.