The best of Vancouver for free

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A 2012 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit recently named Vancouver, British Columbia North America’s most expensive city for residents. But for budget-conscious travellers – and belt-tightening locals – there are plenty of ways to save a buck and still have a good time in western Canada’s largest metropolis.

Freebie nature

No cash is needed to appreciate the totem poles and vista-hugging seawall trail in Vancouver’s giant Stanley Park. But a visit to its admission-free Lost Lagoon Nature House is also recommended if you want the lowdown on the region’s multitudinous flora and fauna. Aside from wildlife exhibitions and chatty staff, there are regular bird watching walks through the park for a suggested five Canadian dollar donation. In many of Vancouver’s free-entry, volunteer-run attractions, donations are usually gratefully accepted.

Nature-lovers should also check out Chinatown. The neighbourhood’s Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden charges admission, but right next door is free-entry park, Dr Sun Yat-Sen Park, that echoes the same horticultural principles. While the paid attraction is more ornate and has guided tours, its freebie sibling includes a turtle-rippled lily pond, neon-bright koi carp and terracotta-topped buildings framing its verdant foliage.

After a bit of nature gazing, marvel at the universe with a by-donation Saturday evening viewing at the Gordon MacMillan Southam Observatory in the Kitsilano neighbourhood, where guides point out night-sky highlights through a half-metre telescope. Back on terra firma, North Vancouver’s free Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre immerses visitors in the regional rainforest, while the surrounding park’s woodland trails lead to a suspension bridge that sways over the canyon.

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Complimentary history

If the past is your bag, Yaletown’s Roundhouse Community Centre is home to the Engine 374 Pavilion, which sounds fairly nondescript until you realise the hulking steam locomotive on display pulled the first transcontinental passenger train into Vancouver in 1887. Peruse the old photos on the walls and quiz the enthusiastic volunteers on its fascinating story.

Even more geriatric than the train is the wood-framed building that houses the Hastings Mill Store Museum, located across the city in the neighbourhood of Point Grey. Built in the 1860s and now Vancouver’s oldest surviving structure, it was barged over from Gastown in the 1930s to become a museum. Today, it displays eclectic curios including Vancouver’s first city council table, artefacts salvaged from the Victorian-era steamship SS Beaver, and relics such as heat-twisted knives and forks from the 1886 Great Fire that destroyed most of the fledgling city.

Alternatively, crick your neck at the elaborate hammerbeam ceiling in downtown’s 19th-century Christ Church Cathedral. Then peruse its gorgeous stained glass windows – including one by London’s celebrated Morris & Company in the downstairs vestibule. Founded by arts and crafts pioneer William Morris in 1875, the company was at the forefront of Victorian stained glass window design.  

History of a different vintage is celebrated at the quirky Jimi Hendrix Shrine on Chinatown’s southern edge. Reputedly occupying the homestyle eatery called Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, where Hendrix’s grandmother cooked and the then-unknown guitarist often strummed, the red-painted shack is lined with old photos, album covers and eye-popping artwork.

If you have kids in tow, head to Vancouver’s excellent free-access water parks instead. The Variety Kids Waterpark by Lumberman’s Arch in Stanley Park has smashing waterfront vistas, but the larger layout at the Granville Island Water Park – with pipes, slides and sprinklers – is even more popular. You will only save money if you can keep your sprogs away from the nearby daily Kids Market, though.

Gratis activities

Anyone can shimmy along for free during summer’s Sunday afternoon salsa lessons at downtown’s Robson Square. And if you still have energy – rather than money – to burn afterwards, tackle North Vancouver’s ultra-steep, calf-busting Grouse Grind hiking trail, a 2.9km route that starts near the main parking lot at the entrance to Grouse Mountain, one of the region’s most popular attractions.

Taking the well-marked trail to the mountain summit saves on the cost of the Skyride gondola, and once you are up top, you can freely enjoy attractions including lumberjack shows, wildlife enclosures and bird of prey demonstrations. The downside? The trail is one-way only, which means you will need to pay 10 Canadian dollars to take the gondola back down.

For a less sweaty endeavour, consider one of the free – tips encouraged – city walking tours with Vancouver’s Tour Guys. Or relive your student days with a gratis, summer-only guided amble around the waterfront University of British Columbia campus.

If you really want to get off the beaten path, book ahead for a free guided bus and walking tour of the area’s forest-encircled reservoirs, run by the Metro Vancouver regional authority.

Admission-free art

Vancouver is studded with eye-popping outdoor public art – the gaggle of giant laughing figures near the shoreline of English Bay is arguably the most popular -- but there are also many free-entry galleries for those ever-regular rainy days. Rub your chin in contemplation at the changing exhibitions inside the Charles H. Scott Gallery at Granville Island’s Emily Carr University, including frequent shows by graduating students. Or check out the often-challenging contemporary works in the Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia.

Downtown’s popular Vancouver Art Gallery also curates a free outdoor art installation called Offsite near the Shangri-La Hotel. Changing twice-yearly, past exhibitions included giant photographs and scale models of old-time cabins. And if you want to save on entry to the gallery itself – where blockbuster visiting shows combine with a strong focus on photography by Vancouver artists – drop by between 5pm and 9pm on Tuesdays when entry is by donation (five Canadian dollars is typical).

There is also a freebie gem nearby that even some locals do not know about. Nip into the Royal Bank of Canada at the corner of West Georgia Street and Burrard Street, and take the escalator up one floor. In front of you will be the giant ‘Ksan Mural, a nine-panel, 36.5m-long First Nations carving that is one the largest aboriginal artworks in Canada. And although it is in a bank, you do not have to pay a cent to see it.