Vancouver, B.C. • The best way to see Vancouver is sitting atop two wheels.
It was the end of a bright Monday and the sun was just dipping below a distant blue mountain. The wind was at my back. Above me, perched on a brown cliff, a flight of pines creaked in the breeze. Frothy waves lapped at the bulwark of the city's famed seawall as I glided by on my bike.
Vancouver, Canada's third largest city, is an arrestingly modern metropolis. Downtown in particular is a forest of glassy skyscrapers, more than 150 of which have gone up since 1990. The effect is startling; it looks more like a cleaner, glossier version of, say, SÃ£o Paulo or Curitiba than other brick-and-stone North American cities. The city's transformation into a soaring, world-class destination has also apparently benefited residents; Vancouver routinely lands on lists of the world's most livable cities.
For travelers, Vancouver's pleasures are subtle there are fewer thrills per minute than in Old World tourist meccas but that makes it an ideal destination for anyone looking to relax in a beautiful-but-rugged cosmopolitan setting. In my case, the cool weather, wooded mountains and sandy beaches were the perfect escape from Salt Lake City's basically unbearable, record-breaking summer heat.
I arrived in downtown Vancouver on a Sunday morning after a short train ride from the airport. After a short walk along lively Davie Street home of many good restaurants I headed to the English Bay waterfront.
It was a surprising walk that upended my preconceptions of the Pacific Northwest as a cold, drizzly place. At the Sunset and English Bay beaches, the temperature hovered pleasantly in the upper 70s and the air swirled with the smell of driftwood and barbecue. I regretted not bringing my swim trunks as I gazed at grassy areas bustling with sunbathers, children building sand castles and joggers.
And, of course, cyclists. More than any other North American city I've visited, Vancouver was filled with people young and old cruising around on two wheels. After several hours on foot exploring parks and gardens, I was sure of one thing: The bicyclists were seeing more and having the most fun.
The next day I returned to beaches with a bike of my own and before long was gliding, barely pedaling, around the Seaside Greenway. The greenway forms a large loop around much of downtown Vancouver and Stanley Park, the 1,000-plus-acre forest that from the air looks like a floppy cap at the tip of the city's core. It's a cyclist's and walker's paradise with dedicated lanes for each that is fast becoming a kind of futuristic riff on bike havens like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
Two things make Vancouver an ideal cycling destination for travelers. First, since the late 1990s the city has invested heavily in "active transit," mainly bike and pedestrian paths. The result is not just the scenic Seaside Greenway, but a network of connected bicycle paths that crisscross downtown. If you've never biked in a dense urban setting, Vancouver is the place to try. It's safe, easy and a good way to get to places such as the historic Gastown neighborhood. Even the drivers seemed good-natured and accommodating about sharing the road.
The abundance of bike rental shops is another reason Vancouver is a biking destination. In most of the city I was never far from a rental bike and there were several shops within a two-minute walk of my hotel in the West End. A four-hour bike rental will cost less than $20.
My ride took me in a large loop on the Seaside Greenway. I saw bobbing yachts, rocks impossibly stacked in narrow towers and, according to a plaque on the path, the remains of an ancient indigenous fish trap. The greenway also offers panoramic views of Vancouver's skyline from both sides, along with plenty of benches to rest, take pictures or enjoy a picnic.
The path eventually ended on Hornby Street, in the middle of downtown. I stopped, looked both ways, then pedaled into the heart of the skyscraper forest. As several other cyclists passed me, I quickly realized riding in Vancouver is a breeze.
Vancouver by bike
Where to stay • The Buchan Hotel offers affordable rooms on a quiet, leafy street near restaurants and bike shops.
Where to eat • Vancouver is filled with tasty sushi restaurants, but if you need a break, Nero Belgian Waffle Bar can give Salt Lake City's Bruges a run for its money. Try the savory Parisienne.
What to do • Gastown offers a reprieve from Vancouver's glass tower jungle, with shops and restaurants set in a walkable, historic district. The Capilano Suspension Bridge is interesting but overpriced. Go early to avoid the crowds or don't go at all.
How to get there • Delta offers direct fights to Vancouver's laid-back airport. Most other domestic carriers offer single-layover flights. After arriving, pick up a map at the helpful Tourist Information desk just before the exit, then take the Canada Line train straight into downtown. Get off at the Yaletown station.