A Saturday night on Vancouver’s neon-flashing Granville Street resembles virtually any other raucous, booze-fuelled city strip. Over-lubricated drinkers pinball between jam-packed bars, while cheap pizza joints dole out slices to those craving a grease fix before their next round of shots.
But that is not how all Vancouverites roll.
Western Canada’s largest city has developed a thriving alternative nightlife scene in recent years – and it is about far more than simply getting drunk.
On indie-loving Main Street, the Regional Assembly of Text is Vancouver’s coolest stationery store. Filled with handmade pencils cases and art-printed T-shirts, the store is also packed from 7 pm on the first Thursday of every month when the free-entry Letter Writing Club takes over.
Sipping tea and munching on cookies, hip locals hammer away on the store’s clunky antique typewriters, crafting erudite missives to lucky loved ones – all while exchanging tips on such things as how to make corrections without having to start again. Once your correspondence is complete, head to the tiny art space where you can peruse handmade magazines and chapbooks (small inexpensive booklets) from around the world.
When a stronger tipple than tea is required, uncork a different night out at the East Van Wine Academy, an antidote to stuffy tasting events – not least because it is staged in the Waldorf Hotel. Unlike its illustrious New York namesake, the once-crumbling Hastings Street spot has a legendary Tiki-themed bar and is one of the city’s hottest alternative nightlife venues since its extensive 2010 makeover.
Taking a different tippling theme each month – recent topics have included “a best-value bottle battle” and a “make-your-own-blend” night – eight tastings are typically served alongside a chatty, laid-back vibe. And despite the trendy venue, the crowd is a healthy mix of work-escaping professionals, T-shirted skateboarders and their wine-interested mothers.
While Granville Street’s busy bars satisfy mainstream drinkers, several Vancouver watering holes attract a niche crowd, especially on specific nights. On the third Wednesday of each month, head to the back room at Steamworks brewpub in historic Gastown for its ever-popular Green Drinks social. Join an enviro-themed debate or two– ask about bike lanes and transit fares if you are new in town – and indulge in the bar’s own-brewed beers: the oatmeal stout is recommended.
For microbrew fans aiming to dive deeper into British Columbia’s craft beer renaissance, several city bars host regular guest cask events. Check out Mondays at St Augustine’s, Thursdays at Yaletown Brewing Company and Sunday afternoons at The Whip.
And do not miss downtown’s Railway Club, an old-school upstairs pub with a Tuesday cask night and the city’s most eclectic live music roster. Or join the monthly Monday evening sing-a-long, accompanied by the foot-stomping local band the Hard Rock Miners.
If you have left your crooning voice at home, hit the Cascade Room’s Monday evening trivia quiz or “name that tune” night – they alternate each week. The bustling spot with a taste bud-tingling cocktail list is Main Street’s de facto neighbourhood bar, and it is a great place to meet locals.
Of course, before you sign up for any pub trivia, you can brush up on your general knowledge with a cultural night out. The Vancouver Art Gallery stages regular socials (usually the last Friday of the month), where its domed heritage venue is converted into a nightclub with DJs, bars, live performances and quirky gallery tours.
There is a similar approach across town at Science World, where the shiny geodesic landmark – sometimes called the silver golf ball – turns its kid-friendly galleries into adults-only nights of carousing, complete with bars, dancing and eclectic live acts.
Crank up the adult theme at East Vancouver’s Biltmore Cabaret. One of the city’s favourite indie music venues, Sunday’s Kitty Nights combines sleaze-free burlesque and saucy comedy. Attracting plaid-shirted hipsters and their vintage-dressed girlfriends, it is Vancouver’s hottest end-of-weekend release.
In contrast, participants usually remain clothed at two other unusual nightlife alternatives. Reflecting North America’s love affair with a most unlikely musical instrument, the Vancouver Ukulele Circle hosts a strum-tastic monthly jam session – typically at Our Town Cafe – where anyone can bring their ukes, watch expert pluckers and even join in.
You might encounter some of the same regulars at the paint-peeled Anza Club a few blocks away. One of the city’s oldest-established alternative events, it is where the Celluloid Social Club screens locally-made short films and grills their makers with extended Q&A sessions.