Whether you’re a local or a visitor, exploring Stanley Park is one of the top things to do in Vancouver. The Stanley Park Totem Poles are one of the most popular touristic sights in all of BC but these First Nations works of art are just one of many things to see in the park.
The beautiful urban oasis is 1,001 acres of parkland sitting on the edge of downtown Vancouver, surrounded almost entirely by water. For thousands of years the land was used by the Indigenous peoples, then early settlers, before being turned into Vancouver’s first park in 1886.
Today, visitors of all ages spend hours walking or cycling the trails and seawall, relaxing on the beaches and green fields and experiencing the many activities and attractions throughout the park.
How to Get to Stanley Park
Map of Things to do in Stanley Park
Stanley Park’s location right downtown makes it an easy destination to get to. You can drive, cycle, walk, take public transit or go on a tour.
If you drive, keep in mind that all the parking in the park is paid and on nice summer days it can get pretty full. If you plan to explore the park by car it’s a good idea to purchase a daily parking pass which allows you to move around with the same ticket.
Taking transit is a less expensive and often easier option if you’re mobile enough to explore the park without a vehicle as there’s no public transit within the park itself. TransLink‘s #19 bus will get you to the park stopping at Stanley Park Drive near Lost Lagoon and Stanley Park Loop near the Miniature Train.
If you’re staying within the downtown Vancouver core you can easily bike or even walk to Stanley Park. Remember if you walk though, that you’ll also be walking a lot through the park itself so don’t tire yourself out before you even get there.
Getting Around Stanley Park
Once you’re in the park there are several ways you can explore. If you have a car you can purchase a daily parking pass, as noted above, and drive through the whole park stopping at points along the way for photos or a walk.
If you take the bus to Stanley Park your options for getting around are to walk the seawall and trails or take the horse-drawn carriage ride which we’ll discuss below.
Our personal favorite way to get around Stanley Park is by bike. There are dozens of bike rentals outside the park with easy bike-lane access to the entrances. We’ll talk more about cycling the park later.
Note: The seawall that runs all the way around the park is about 9 km long so if you’re walking or cycling you’ll want to allow a couple of hours at the very minimum.
If mobility is an issue or if you’d prefer to be chauffeured around the park then taking a tour might be for you. Westcoast Sightseeing offers hop-on/hop-off trolley and bus tours of Vancouver with six stops in Stanley Park.
Things to See in Stanley Park
Stanely Park Totem Poles
The Totem Poles in Stanley Park are located at Brockton Point and they’re a must-see in Vancouver. These elaborate and colorful carvings are an example of the artwork created by the First Nations of BC.
The original poles date back to the 1880s and were brought to the park from Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. They were later moved to museums and replaced with nine authentic replicas carved by various artists in the 1980s and 1990s. These beautiful carvings of animals and mythical creatures tell of stories and legends from the history of the First Nations people.
Note: The term “First Nations” is used to refer to the native peoples of Canada. The Pacific Northwest tribes include the Haida, Nuxalt, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingit, Tsimshian and the Coast Salish people. To find out more about totem poles and the history of BC First Nations visit the UBC Museum of Anthropology.
If you’ve ever seen photos of Stanley Park you’ve almost certainly seen the iconic Siwash Rock. This sea stack is said to be 32 million years old and has some photogenic trees growing at the top of the 50 ft tall outcropping. You will see it just a few feet off the seawall in between Third Beach and Lions Gate Bridge.
The Squamish First Nations call the rock “Skalsh” after a young chief. The legend says that Skalsh was transformed into the rock as a tribute to “clean fatherhood” after swimming in the waters to cleanse himself for his new wife and child.
Lost Lagoon is a man-made lake at the main entrance to Stanley Park. It’s marked by the Jubilee Fountain in the center which often provides light shows. The lagoon is a sanctuary for birds and home to lovely rushes and grasses and the banks make a perfect spot to sit and commune with nature or have a picnic.
If you have time pay a visit to the Lost Lagoon Nature House which displays information on the park’s history, plants, and trees and then walk the trail around the lake to view the nature you’ve just learned about.
If you’re in Vancouver in the summer and you like roses you’ll love the Stanley Park Rose Garden. Started in 1920 by the Kiwanis Club the garden now has almost 4,000 rose bushes which are in bloom from June to August.
If you miss the rose blooming window it’s still worth a walk through in spring or summer for the other colorful flowers that pop up. Even in winter, it’s a pretty spot although it will be just greenery on display.
As you may have guessed by the name, the main attraction of Prospect Point is the stunning view. From here you have a clear view of the Burrard Inlet, the Northshore Mountains, and the iconic Lions Gate Bridge.
If you’re looking for a scenic spot to eat lunch there’s the Prospect Point Bar & Grill with both indoor and outdoor seating and West Coast-inspired decor and menu.
Brockton Point Lighthouse
The Brockton Point Lighthouse is on the seawall close to Lions Gate Bridge. There’s been a light and fog bell at this spot since 1888 when the historic steamship SS Beaver smashed into the point. The Keeper was a man named John Grove and he served there for 38 years. However, it wasn’t enough to prevent many more groundings over the years.
In 1926 the lighthouse was electrified putting John Grove out of a job although he continued to live on site. The red and white Brockton Point Lighthouse you see today was established in 1948.
Girl in a Wetsuit
If you think the Girl in a Wetsuit sculpture in Stanley Park bears a striking resemblance to Denmark’s Little Mermaid you wouldn’t be the only one. There’s some controversy about where the inspiration for the Vancouver statue came from. Some say it was the artists’ way of getting around the copyright of the Little Mermaid statue but according to the late artist, Elek Imready, the statue represents Vancouver’s relationship with the sea.
Either way, the Girl in a Wetsuit sitting on a rock with a view of the Northshore in the background makes a great photo!
SS Empress of Japan figurehead
The colorful figurehead of the SS Empress of Japan stands as a reminder of the long-time connection between Vancouver and Asia. The Empress of Japan was one of the first great “White Empress” ships commissioned by Canada Pacific Railway to run the trans-Pacific route between the west coast of Canada and the Far East.
This opulent ocean liner was built in England and arrived in Vancouver in 1891. Between then and 1922 she traversed the Pacific 315 times. After sitting in harbour for four years she was bought for scrap. The figurehead was unceremoniously dumped but the publisher of the Province newspaper saved the piece and had it installed in Stanley Park.
Due to neglect the figurehead was falling apart by 1960 and was replaced with a fiberglass copy. The original was taken to the Maritime Museum but it wasn’t restored until 1974. So today you can see the copy in Stanley Park and the original at the Maritime Museum.
I emigrated from England to Vancouver as a little girl and one of the first memories I have in my new home was of standing in the Hollow Tree at Stanley Park. I was by far the first or the last. This 700-800-year-old Western Red Cedar stump has been well photographed over the years. A look through the archives shows black and whites of people, cars and even an elephant standing in the hollowed-out tree.
A violent wind storm in 2006 threatened the safety of the iconic piece of nature but in 2009 the Stanley Park Hollow Tree Conservation Society was formed to stabilize and restore the tree allowing it to remain on site.
Stanley Park Activities
Cycling the seawall
Biking the Stanley Park Seawall is our absolute favorite way to explore the park. The seawall within the park is about 9 km long and will take 1-2 hours to complete. Even without making stops to venture off the path you will see plenty. You’ll enjoy great views of the city and Northshore and will ride past many sights like the Totem Poles, Brockton Point Lighthouse, Girl in a Wetsuit, Lions Gate Bridge, Siwash Rock, and Lost Lagoon.
If you have the time you can also add in a detour to Prospect Point or ride some of the nature trails throughout the park. Of course, there’s also plenty of opportunities to stop for photos, food or a break on the beach.
There are plenty of bike rentals near Stanley Park where you can rent by the hour, half-day or full-day and they will come with helmets and a map of the park seawall. The last time we went cycling in Stanley Park we rented from Cycle City Tours and Rentals. They have two locations, both with easy access to the park.
A little peek at cycling the seawall:
Walk the nature trails
The seawall can get pretty busy during the summer but if you want to escape the crowds and explore quieter paths that’s also an option. There is more than 27 km of trails meandering through Stanley Park’s forest providing walkers, joggers, and cyclists a peaceful, pine-scented retreat.
Some favorites are Cathedral Trail with its elevated boardwalk, Beaver Lake Trail with wetlands and variety of birds, the uphill Avison Trail which leads to Prospect Point and Rawlings Trail which is the longest trail in Stanley Park.
Take a horse-drawn carriage ride
The most unique way to tour is with Stanley Park Horse-drawn Carriage. You will be taken on a leisurely one-hour guided tour where you’ll ride past sights like Deadman’s Island, Lions Gate Bridge, and the Vancouver Harbour. The tour will also make stops at the totem poles, Girl in a Wetsuit and the Rose Garden.
Tours depart about every 30 minutes between March 1st and November 11th and run for one hour. Catch the 26 person carriage from the kiosk at the Coal Harbour parking lot.
Note: For animal lovers, like us, it was good to see these horses are very well cared for and not overworked.
Ride the Stanley Park Miniature Train
Riding the Stanely Park miniature train is a favorite activity for kids. It’s actually a mini replica of the first transcontinental passenger train that pulled into Vancouver in 1886 named Locomotive Engine #374.
Fifteen-minute train rides through the trees are offered daily and there are also special events like the Ghost Train in October and the Bright Nights Train over the Christmas season.
Did you know there’s a public swimming pool in Stanley Park? Second Beach Pool is open from mid-May to early September and offers a warmer swim than Vancouver’s generally chilly ocean water. The pool has heated, freshwater and is 50 meters long with a couple of swimming lanes. It also may be one of the most scenic public pools you’ll ever come across.
The pool is very family-friendly which means it gets pretty packed with kids on the weekends and during summer school holidays so you’ll want to show up early if you plan to secure a good spot for the day. There’s car parking nearby but it’s often full so arrival by bike or on foot is usually a better option.
Play or relax on the beach
The seawall passes a string of beaches but the two main beaches in Stanley Park are the smaller Second Beach and large, busy Third Beach. Both have nice of sand, resting logs, calm waters, concessions, and beautiful views. There are often volleyball nets set up at Third Beach if you want to play or watch a game.
Although not technically in the park, English Bay (aka First Beach) sits right at the entrance and makes a great stopping point when entering or exiting the park.
Play a game of Pitch & Putt
Stanley Park Pitch & Putt has a picturesque, 18 hole, par 54 golf course as well as a putting green. The course is open daily from early spring until late fall, fees are about $14 CAD for adults and you can also rent clubs at the entrance to the course.
The course is well-maintained, hazard free and the holes range from 40 to 100 yards making it a great, fun activity for all ages.
Catch a show
During the summer months, you’ll find plenty of entertainment in Stanley Park. Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) performs two well-known shows every year through July and August. The Malkin Bowl hosts regular concerts and live performances and there are free outdoor movies every Tuesday evening on the lawn near Second Beach.
The fun doesn’t stop when summer ends. Catch annual events at Easter, Halloween, and Christmas as well as the famous Polar Bear Swim on New Years Day. Plus there are festivals, runs, triathlons, workshops and tours years round.
Learn at the Vancouver Aquarium
Stanley Park is home to the first and largest aquarium in Canada and it’s definitely one of the most popular things to see in the park. The aquarium is a beautiful facility that focuses on educational programs and research with more than 70,000 marine and land creatures on site.
The Vancouver Aquarium has been entertaining and educating kids and adults with daily shows, events, and exhibits since 1956 and continues to grow and improve with the city of Vancouver. The aquarium is open 365 days a year.
Note: On a personal, ethical level we are always hesitant to promote animal tourism and entertainment. However, we also feel it’s our job to provide information and ultimately let our readers determine for themselves if it’s something they feel good doing. We do research as much as we can and there are many times when we have decided we just can’t contribute to something due to unethical conditions. In the case of the Vancouver Aquarium, there are two distinct sides both with strong arguments. Ultimately, we decided to include the aquarium in this post when they recently agreed to a cetacean (dolphins, whales etc) ban after listening to the outcries of the public.
It wouldn’t be a Discover the Pacific Northwest post without a mention of refreshments. There’s a new addition to Vancouver’s favorite park and its name is Stanley Park Brewing! This new Restaurant and Brewpub is at the Beach Avenue entrance to the park in a restored heritage building. You can enjoy a west-coast inspired menu along with some fabulous craft brews on one of two patios or in the cozy dining rooms. Sadly, we haven’t had the chance to try this new brewpub but as soon as we do we’ll be following up with our own suggestions for food and drink.
We hope we’ve piqued your interest and excitement about visiting Stanley Park. It really is a shining star in Vancouver’s offerings and as you can see there’s so much to do that you’ll need to return again and again. From the Stanley Park Totem Poles to the nature trails, beaches, and historic landmarks there’s so much more to Stanley Park than grass and trees…although both are also in abundance.
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