Vancouver Neighbourhoods: Gastown

Gastown sparkles after dark (Tourism Vancouver/Hubert Kang).

Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood blossomed from a single tavern founded by John “Gassy Jack” Deighton in 1867. Today, the district retains its historic charm with cobblestoned roads, Victorian architecture and vintage lampposts – but don’t let the quaint surroundings fool you. Gastown is also home to a thriving independent fashion scene, impeccably curated décor shops, galleries filled with exquisite First Nations art, and some of the city’s buzziest restaurants and cocktail bars.

History

Gastown’s history is intrinsically tied to Gassy Jack Deighton, a Yorkshire steamboat captain and barkeep who opened the area’s first saloon. The town flourished around Gassy’s bar, quickly becoming a hub of trade and commerce.

In 1886, the Canadian Pacific Railway’s terminus was established parallel to Water Street, leading to a fresh crop of warehouses. That same year, the City of Vancouver was officially incorporated. A few short months thereafter, the city was ravaged by the Great Fire, which destroyed all but two buildings.

Resiliency overcame devastation, and Vancouver once again built itself into a commercial centre with stores like Hudson’s Bay Company, Woodward’s and Army and Navy setting up roots. Gastown remained the centre of the city, particularly for imbibers who could choose from 300 licensed establishments located within a 12-block area.

Throughout and after the Great Depression, Gastown once again declined, this time falling prey to a flux of beer parlours, cheap rooming houses and loggers’ hiring halls. A few decades later, the neighbourhood began to see a shift as citizens called for preservation of its historic architecture. Eventually, government agreed, and Gastown was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009.

 Dining and Nightlife

Dining possibilities are endless in Gastown (Tourism Vancouver/Hubert Kang).

Gastown’s dining scene represents some of the most creative culinary acumen in the city. Whether European fare infused with farm-to-table flair, Asian-inspired molecular gastronomy or five-star classic French, food fans will fall in lust with the district’s eclectic array of eateries. The best way to dine in Gastown is progressive eating: start with appetizers and cocktails at the saloon-like Pourhouse; then move on to locally sourced cheese and charcuterie at Salt Tasting Room, situated in the atmospherically named Blood Alley. Afterward, settle in for a decadent meal at L’Abattoir, whose French-influenced West Coast fare is served in an intimate brick-and-beams setting. If you prefer guided tasting excursions, Vancouver Foodie Tours and Vancouver Food Tour lead neighbourhood-based jaunts that treat you to samples from multiple restaurants. There are also plenty of pubs streaming must-see sports matches (try The Charles Bar and The Lamplighter for rowdy crowds and lively atmospheres), and nightclubs like The Bourbon and Revel Room where you can dance the night away!

Shopping

Gastown shopping runs the gamut from souvenir shops to chic menswear (Tourism Vancouver/Pfuoco).

Gastown’s shops cater to all styles and preferences. Traditional souvenir stores line Water Street, beckoning visitors with patriotic treats like maple fudge, moose pajamas and salmon candy. Art hounds can browse galleries carrying authentic First Nations jewellery, carvings and paintings. There are also independent boutiques selling locally made clothing and accessories (try The Latest Scoop and One of a Few for stylish women’s fashions; and Indochino and FortKnight Boutique for GQ-worthy menswear). For a fun diversion, dare to have your fortune foretold at The Good Spirit, an enchanting spiritual shop that offers tarot readings and beautifully packaged merchandise.

Things to See and Do

As you enter Gastown along Water Street, you’ll find a picture-perfect collection of heritage buildings leading to the city’s most-photographed attraction: the Steam Clock, which whistles the Westminster Quarters every 15 minutes and puffs steam at the top of the hour. Further down, you’ll emerge into bustling Maple Tree Square, presided over by a statue of Gassy Jack himself.

For a bird’s-eye view, head over to the Vancouver Lookout; ascend 167 metres above sea level and you’ll emerge onto a light-filled platform showcasing 360˚ panoramas of the city skyline, North Shore Mountains and Pacific Ocean. Alternatively, you can delve into Vancouver’s murky past at the Vancouver Police Museum, which houses more than 20,000 artifacts, documents and photographs chronicling the history of law enforcement in Vancouver (for more on the city’s legacy of brothels, bootleggers and opium dens, sign up for Forbidden Vancouver’s “Lost Souls of Gastown” tour).

Gastown is also the perfect spot to follow in the footsteps of celebrities. The cobbled streets will give you a sense of déjà vu as you’re reminded of key scenes from notable productions like Fifty Shades of Grey, The Mountain Between Us, Once Upon a Time and Twilight – you might even wander into the neighbourhood on the same day as a visiting film crew!

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