Vancouver may be the largest metropolitan area in Western Canada, but what the city is best known for is its incredible natural surroundings. Located in the shadow of the towering mountains of the North Shore with the glittering Pacific Ocean as a backdrop, Vancouver is a city practically made for those who love the outdoor life, and hiking, camping, mountain biking, and skiing are some of the best free things to do in Vancouver.
What it is not is an especially historic city. The city was founded in 1886 and spent its early years as a fairly insignificant frontier town until the arrival of the railway transformed it forever. Therefore, you wouldn't necessarily expect Vancouver to have a lot of museums.
But you'd be wrong. After all, the area Vancouver now occupies was the home of indigenous First Nations for millennia before any Europeans arrived. Plus, while the city isn't a particularly old one by world standards, what history it has is quite fascinating. In little over one hundred years, what was once a ramshackle settlement of a few loggers has become one of the world's most desirable cities to live in, and that in itself is a story worth telling. Besides, this beautiful city isn't exactly a stranger to a rainy day. No matter what time of year you visit Vancouver, it's a good idea to have some options for things to do during wet weather.
Museums and heavy bags don't go together. You'll have a much easier time exploring the history and culture of Vancouver if you're not carrying more than you need to. So drop off your bags at a Bounce luggage storage in Vancouver. You'll be glad you did.
Vancouver Maritime Museum
British Columbia only became British Columbia because of British naval exploration. In many ways, Vancouver owes its existence to its coastal location, and this heritage is celebrated at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.
The museum is home to a fully restored 1928 Schooner used to explore the famed Northwest Passage. You can climb on board the ship and get a real sense of what it was like for the crew who undertook this dangerous voyage, making this a great hands-on activity for kids. There are also exhibits devoted to the role shipping played in opening up the coastal areas of British Columbia and other aspects of maritime history. It's a great place to learn more about this crucial part of the city's history.
Vancouver Art Gallery
Vancouver's top art gallery isn't going to win any awards for having an imaginative name. But Vancouver Art Gallery, or VAG to its friends, is the foremost art gallery in the city and one of Western Canada's most prestigious. The permanent collection contains over 12,000 items, including major works by the famous Canadian painters collective known as the Group of Seven and Vancouver artist Emily Carr. The museum highlights work by British Columbia and Canadian artists and has one of the world's best collections of art of the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast. But it also has work by artists from around the world, and hosts traveling exhibitions to broaden the gallery's range and make it a great place to visit for art lovers in the city.
Vancouver Police Museum
If you like your history a little on the darker side, Vancouver Police Museum is a must-visit while you're in town. Housed in a building that was once the city's morgue, the museum still has the original morgue drawers and autopsy tables, adding to the creepy atmosphere. Run by the Vancouver Police Historical Society, this museum tells the story of crime and punishment in the city from its earliest days as a rowdy frontier town up to the latest technology used in the fight against crime. You'll see confiscated weapons from violent gangs, learn about the development of Vancouver's police force through the years, and hear the chilling stories of the city's serial killers. The Vancouver Police Museum may not be for the faint of heart, but it is a truly fascinating place to visit, and the only museum of its kind in Canada, making it definitely worth exploring if you have an interest in true crime stories.
With so much beautiful wilderness to explore, Vancouver doesn't lack family-friendly activities where the kids burn off some energy. But if you can't face another hiking trail, consider visiting Science World, an interactive science center that is one of the best things to do in Vancouver with kids. Science World is housed in a unique futuristic dome-like building close to Main Street Skytrain station, making it easy to get to from most parts of the city. Inside, you'll find tons of fun things to keep kids occupied. Permanent exhibits include a virtual reality experience where you can fly like a bird, an interactive exploration of the human body, and the Living Lab where you can learn more about the work of scientists in a hands-on way. Science World also hosts a range of traveling exhibits bringing you the best in science from around the world. It is also home to the immersive OMNIMAX movie theater, making this one of the best museums in Vancouver for those traveling with kids.
Burnaby Village Museum
Okay, this museum isn't technically in Vancouver, but in the neighboring city of Burnaby. However, it is easily reached from downtown Vancouver and it offers the chance to step back in time and see how towns in the region got started back in the pioneer days.
Burnaby Village Museum is home to a re-creation of a late 18th and early 19th-century village, including original buildings from the period that were relocated here. The museum uses these houses to tell the story of the growth and development of Burnaby and the immigrants who sought their fortune here. The ice cream parlor is a definite crowd-pleaser, as is the interurban tram shed, and the costumed guides and fully restored houses offer a memorable glimpse into late Victorian family life. The pride of the museum is the vintage carousel that is always a hit with younger kids and provides a nostalgic glimpse into the past.
As a seaside city, Vancouver has an intimate relationship with its coastal environments. The Vancouver Aquarium is the best place in the city to explore beneath the waves and learn more about the ecology of the Pacific Ocean. The aquarium hosts educational programs where you can learn more about animals like sharks, octopuses, dolphins, and whales. Don't miss the adorable sea otters, the playful beluga whales, and the Wet Lab where kids can get a hands-on encounter with ocean creatures. This is the biggest aquarium in Canada, and also hosts a marine mammal rescue center where injured wildlife is nursed back to health to be re-released, so the cost of your admission helps to fund a good cause and preserve the abundant wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.
Museum of Anthropology
Ask any local what the best museums in Vancouver are, and the stunning Museum of Anthropology is likely to rank highly on the list. Located on the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia, this museum occupies an Arthur Erickson-designed modernist building that makes a striking background to the incredible displays here. This is the best place to learn more about the history, culture, and art of Canada's First Nations population. You'll see totem poles, masks, sculptures, cedar canoes, and other artifacts that tell the stories of the indigenous people of British Columbia.
The museum also takes a broader view exploring cultures from around the world, collecting artifacts from South America, Asia, Africa, and just about everywhere else. It's a fascinating place to explore the awe-inspiring variety of human culture, and you're sure to leave with a new appreciation of the artistic skill of different populations around the world.
Beaty Biodiversity Museum
Also located at the University of British Columbia, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum is a great complement to the Museum of Anthropology, exploring as it does the world of animals rather than that of humans. The museum displays the University's natural history collections, and the most impressive exhibit here has to be the intact skeleton of a blue whale - one of only 21 in the entire world. The museum also has exhibits on marine life, terrestrial mammals, and even dinosaurs. You'll learn the fascinating story of how life evolved on our planet and the astonishing variety of forms it takes. Not only a great place to bring kids, but this is also a fascinating museum for adults to learn more about the world they live in.
Vancouver is often known for having some of the most expensive real estate in Canada and in the entire world. That may be bad news if you fall in love with the place and want to buy a home but has its good side, too. The Rennie Museum, housed in Vancouver Chinatown's oldest building, houses the collection of a local real estate tycoon and is one of the best places in the city to admire contemporary art. The galleries host an ever-changing selection of painting, sculpture, photography, and installations by the biggest names in contemporary art, along with up-and-coming artists on their way to being the next big thing. If you want to know what's new and exciting in the art world, this is the place to visit.
BC Sports Hall of Fame
Sports fans should definitely make the time to visit BC Place. Not only is this the home of the Canadian football team the BC Lions and the MLS soccer team the Vancouver Whitecaps, but it's also home to the BC Sports Hall of Fame. This museum is all about interactivity, featuring a climbing wall and virtual soccer among other fun displays. There are also exhibits celebrating the inspiring achievements of athletes like Terry Fox and Rick Hansen, disabled sportsmen whose stories demonstrate the power of sport to inspire and unite people around the world. This is one of the best museums in Vancouver for families to visit. Plus, its location between downtown Vancouver and the vibrant district of Main Street makes it a great place to sample the best street food in Vancouver.
Museum of Vancouver
The Museum of Vancouver tells the story of the city itself, from its earliest days as the ancestral territory of First Nations through its pioneer past right up to the present day. Vancouver's museum tells the story of the city it serves through archaeological artifacts, photos, video, and other media. The permanent displays give visitors an insight into the rapid development of the city, making it one of the top museums in the city both for visitors and for locals who want to get a better understanding of the forces that have shaped British Columbia's biggest city.
What are the best free museums in Vancouver?
Vancouver has so many fascinating museums to explore that all those admission charges can really start to add up. This isn't a cheap city at the best of times, so it's a good idea to save money where you can by taking advantage of some of the city's free museums. The Burnaby Village Museum is completely free to visit, so it's well worth the trip to the suburbs for this step back in time. The Rennie Museum is also free, making it a great place to visit for art lovers on a budget.
Which of the best museums in downtown Vancouver?
Downtown Vancouver is home to some of the city's top museums. You'll find Vancouver Art Gallery on Georgia Street right in the heart of downtown, while Vancouver Aquarium is only a short distance away in the iconic Stanley Park. The BC Sports Hall of Fame is just to the east of downtown and reachable on foot, and Science World is only a quick ride away on the Skytrain Metro system.
Are there any cheap museums in Vancouver?
As well as the city's best free museums, you can save some money by taking advantage of Vancouver museums with more modest admission fees. On Tuesday nights between 5 and 8 PM, admission to Vancouver Art Gallery is by donation, so you can pay whatever you can afford to visit this impressive collection. Also, the Vancouver Police Museum is a relative bargain, with tickets costing a reasonable $12. You can also save some money by buying a joint ticket for the Museum of Anthropology and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum for $25, which isn't a bad price at all considering everything you get to see.