Like many cities, Vancouver seems to have an overabundance of chain stores & restaurants. If you'd like to see something a lot more unique then head over to Commercial Drive.
This area was originally Vancouver's Little Italy. While it still holds this moniker, there are now restaurants of most every other ethnic persuasion there too. Combine this with fascinating little art, clothing, coffee, and gelato shops and you have a most interesting (and different!) part of Vancouver to explore.
I guess most tourists don't necessarily make it to Commercial Drive but since my friend Catherine lives just off The Drive, I got to spend a fair bit of time in that area. Commercial Drive stands out thanks to its diversity (it used to be known as Little Italy, but I guess it's more like a Latin Quarter now, with many Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French-speaking residents), funky shops and restaurants. It is one of the oldest residential "surburbs" in Vancouver, and the streets bordering Commercial Drive are full of centennial houses which have now been taken over by young families. The Drive itself is not the prettiest street in Vancouver, but if you take the time to shop around between Broadway and Venables St., you'll discover cool used bookstores, unique clothing stores, and plenty of cafes and restaurants with sidewalk terraces. There is a strong sense of community in this area, and many events are organized by residents throughout the year - feel free to join them! I guess you could compare The Drive to Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal? It's got a great atmosphere all day long, but it might be best to avoid the area surrounding the Broadway/Commercial Dr skytrain station at night - not that it is particularly unsafe, but junkies tend to gather around there at night.
My friend Ed (Kaspian) suggested that I should visit Commercial Drive on my visit to Vancouver and I'm glad we did stop because it was one of my favorite places in Vancouver, I could have spent my entire trip eating my way up and down this street! You'll find nice Italian restaurants next to the kebab shop next to the organic grocery store, ironically it's one of the least commercial streets in Vancouver, I don't remember seeing even one Starbucks the whole way up and down! Ed insists there is one, do Canadians have a special Starbucks radar? Or do they just give you a map so you'll never go without coffee for more than 15 minutes? ;-)
You may hear Commercial Drive referred to as simply "The Drive", they even had this carved into the sidewalk as you can see in the attached photo. It's roughly 12 blocks from Venables Street to East 6th Avenue.
Commercial Drive ("the Drive") used to be Vancouver's Little Italy, however, in the past few decades its identity has evolved to become Vancouver's bohemian culture pot. Think of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury or Melbourne's Brunswick Street. Commercial Drive is Vancouver's home to a community of artists, hippies, musicians, lesbians, activists, vegans, punks and immigrants. It's eclectic and eccentric, fun, laid back, and even a slightly bit gritty.
Commercial Drive is possibly the most community-oriented neighbourhood in the city, and being one of the first residential neighbourhoods in Vancouver, it has had the time to evolve and mature. I love spending an hour or two on the Drive, especially when it's sunny. The atmosphere's alive like a summer street in Montréal with busy patios, socializing locals, and buskers on street corners. There can be a certain vibrancy to the Drive and yet, it's a very chilled out kind of place.
If you're into organic food, unique boutiques, Italian espresso shops, fresh gelato, old school European delis, poetry, cafe culture, political and environmental activism, alternative lifestyles and a place where you can get a feel for what it might be like to actually live in Vancouver, this is the place.
If you're lucky enough to visit around Halloween, the Drive hosts the "Night of Lost Souls" - a parade and community festival celebrating the spirit of Halloween. Lanterns, stilt-walkers, fire-breathers, and many mystical costumes are a part of this parade.
Though Commercial Drive does have its cons, it offers a unique window into Vancouver society. It's also off the tourist radar and caters primarily to the locals. As a result, there are more service oriented businesses and casual restaurants than boutique shops, although the shops that exist tend to have a lot of personality. And the hidden secret, in my opinion, are the side streets where you'll find mature trees lining the streets, beautiful gardens, and colourful heritage homes.
Commercial Drive is a very good place to find out how Vancouver was built. In that, I mean, you will find shops, restaurants, etc. serving cuisines from all over the world, which shows just how multicultural Vancouver is. The eclectic vibe this street evokes creates a perfect venue for a tastebud playground. Some of Vancouver's best restaurants are on this street, and just walking down the street is an experience in itself.
Generally, the best thing to do is to go there for dinner (one of the many great restaurants) and then walk up and down for a while in the evening. See some of my other tips for restaurants hidden on The Drive.
Please excuse the title of this tip, but I don't get all the fuss about Commercial Drive! If I was hungry it would be one of the first places I went in Vancouver (there are tons of adorable, local eateries along the street) but in terms of boutique shopping it's a wasteland. I saw one or two clothing stores that were decent at best, and a handful (at best) of decent houseware shops. The Commercial Drive website really hypes something that isn't there, and it seems like tourism bodies in Vancouver have bought into the hype.
Also, note that to reach Commercial Drive from downtown by city bus you will have to take the bus through an extremely dirty, very dangerous area.
Commercial Drive is worth checking out. I love going there on a Saturday afternoon for a great Italian cappucino and pastry. Then walk around and check out all the interesting shops/bakeries/cafes/etc. This street is laidback and very interesting.
Alternative businesses and a diverse and funky street scene. COOLEST STREET SCENE IN VANCOUVER. Lots of artists, activists and other alternative types hang out there. Great RESTAURANTS and CAFES. The perfect place to go for lunch/coffee/beer and spend an afternoon window shopping and PEOPLE WATCHING.
This is my neighbourhood, so I have to say it's good. This is the old Italian neighbourhood of Vancouver and has some excellent Italian cafes, restaurants and delis. There is little to no nightlife here, in fact the city prohibits it, but it only takes 15 mins to get downtown by public transportation. On the weekends it is hopping with trendy coffee drinkers and stoned hippies. It also has a few good Ethiopian restaurants and some good, cheap Jamaican and Mexican food.
Commercial Drive is a great place to spend an afternoon, perusing the shops and sampling the many kinds of cuisine. From every hemp product imagineable, to hiking gear, it is all here for the avid shopper. It has a really laid back feel to it, so much as I was approached on the street and offered to purchase a famous green natural resource.
Multiethnic and funky, one of the most youthful neighbourhoods of Vancouver.
Go for unusual shopping - you might just find that little Buddha statue you have been looking for
Go for the strongest coffee in town made by Italian hands
For ethnic cuisine and fresh ice-cream
and read the neighbourhood's newspaper for alternative views on many topics