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's not how all Vancouverites roll.
Western Canada’s largest city has developed a thriving alternative nightlife scene in recent years – and it's 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 pencil 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.
If you’re looking for a different type of wrist action, downtown dive bar Pub 340 is the place to go. While its cheap beer specials and gritty live bands hook some regulars, this is also the home of one of Vancouver’s largest pinball rooms. Grab a beer and test your flipping fingers on the dozen or so tables – plus a bonus console of 1980s video games.
While Granville Street’s busy bars satisfy mainstream drinkers, several Vancouver watering holes attract niche crowds, especially on specific nights.
On the third Wednesday of every month, head to the back room at Steamworks brewpub in historic Gastown for the ever-popular Green Drinks social (greendrinks.org). Join an enviro-themed debate or two – ask about bike lanes and transit fares if you're new in town – and indulge in the bar’s own-brewed beers: the oatmeal stout is recommended.
For microbrew fans hoping to dive deeper into British Columbia’s craft beer renaissance, several city bars also host regular guest cask events, where a cask-conditioned ale is tapped. Check out Mondays at St Augustine’s, Sunday afternoons at The Whip, or just head straight to the source at some top-rated local microbreweries: Brassneck Brewery (http://brassneck.ca), 33 Acres Brewing Company and Powell Street Craft Brewery.
And don’t miss downtown’s near-legendary Railway Club, an old-school upstairs pub with a Tuesday cask night and the city’s most eclectic live roster: from indie bands to folk and comedy nights to poetry readings, there’s something for everyone here. Need more? Commercial Drive’s bohemian Cafe Deux Soleils is also worth checking out – especially for its regular poetry slams.
You can also aim for something different at Fox Cabaret (foxcabaret.com). This former porn movie theatre has been revitalized as a cool Main Street club and live venue – its Sunday Service comedy night is always popular.
For a slightly different Sunday evening, head to the Biltmore Cabaret. One of Vancouver’s favourite indie venues, its weekly Kitty Nights combine sleaze-free burlesque and saucy comedy. Attracting plaid-shirted hipsters and their vintage-dressed girlfriends, it’s Vancouver’s hottest end-of-weekend release. For a slightly more innocent night out, try the Biltmore’s monthly Ice Cream Socials, complete with 50s and 60s music and period-dressed locals.
If your idea of a night out is a little more highbrow, hit the city’s art spaces instead. The Vancouver Art Gallery stages regular evening socials (on select Fridays), where its domed heritage venue is converted into a nightclub with DJs, bars, live performances and quirky gallery tours.
Alternatively, head to one of the city’s most eclectic independent galleries. Hot Art Wet City stages exhibition openings every few weeks – recent shows have included bike saddle art and embarrassing teenager paintings. They also run an inviting roster of special evening events, from drawing workshops to comedy shows.
And while family-friendly attraction Science World is routinely jam-packed with kids during the day, it also stages quarterly, adult-focused party nights when the exhibitions, Omnimax movie shows and hands-on puzzle tables are complemented by bar drinks and a clubby atmosphere.
Reflecting North America’s love affair with a most unlikely musical instrument, the Vancouver Ukulele Circle (vcn.bc.ca/vanukes) hosts a strum-tastic monthly jam session – typically at St. James Hall in Kitsilano – where anyone can bring their ukes, watch expert pluckers and even join in.
If that’s a little too upbeat, how about heading to a morgue? Housed in a former coroner’s building, the Vancouver Police Museum is one the city’s best small attractions. And once a month (excluding the summer peak), they screen movies in their atmospheric – not to say ghoulish – old morgue room. Watch out for additional evening lectures on topics like fingerprinting and ballistics.
Warmer bodies are on display at the city’s Penthouse nightclub (http://forbiddenvancouver.ca/home), home of arguably the city’s most unusual evening tour. One of Vancouver’s few remaining strip bars, the Penthouse was once a popular hangout for Hollywood glitterati including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior. Launched in recent years, the club’s behind-the-scenes, historian-led tour illuminates an eye-poppingly colourful past and ends with a burlesque-style cabaret show. Book ahead – it’s a hot ticket.