I was born in Vancouver and have lived here for 20 years after departing for 15 or so years. Vancouver is a very beautiful and young city with one of the most diverse populations on the planet. A great place for detailed tourist information is the city of Vancouver's visitors web site. A more commercial site is Discover Vancouver. A favourite site of mine is the city's the Changing city that shows differences from 1978 to now in a picture morphing view.
Vancouver is located where the Fraser River terminates at roughly the Pacific Ocean. It's actually not quite the ocean because Vancouver Island is to the west, but close enough.. Vancouver area is bounded to the South by the USA (around 1 hr drive), to the West by the straight of Juan de Fuca, to the North and East by Coast mountain range. It's one of the few places where people can ski/snowboard and then ocean windsurf/canoe/kayak/swim the same day. Vancouver itself consists of 3 main areas: Downtown, Vancouver West (to the south of downtown), and Vancouver East (to the umm, east). See also the Yahoo Vancouver Map. The North shore, consisting of West Vancouver and North Vancouver, are across the Burrard inlet via Lion's gate (aka first narrows), Ironworkers (aka second narrows) bridges or the seabus. Richmond, Delta, Tsawassen and White Rock are to the South. Burnaby and New Westminister are to the East, and then across the Fraser River are the Fraser Valley communities of Surrey, Langley, North Delta, Maple Ridge, Coquitlam, Mission, Abbostford, Chilliwack, and more.
Travelling in Vancouver sucks. The city has waged war upon cars, which has caused dreadful traffic jams. There are no highways or freeways in vancouver, excepting a small bit of Highway #1 that has a speed limit of 80 km/h. But it hasn't provided a decent transit system as an alternative. Your best bet is to use taxis if you are aren't venturing to far afield, or rent a car. The city does have 2 rapid transit lines, but in a feat of mind-boggling incompetence they run within 1 mile of each other and are intended for commuters from the fraser valley
Downtown is the north-west peninsula of Vancouver that is roughly a couple square miles in size. It has a grid layout of streets with Burrard Inlet to the North, English Bay to the West, False Creek to the South and the downtown East-side to the east. Starting from the North West, it is:
Stanley Park is the jewel of Vancouver. Comprising 400 hectares, it is one of the largest parks in a metropolitan area. It has a superb 6 mile seawall that is perfect for walking, running, rollerblading, cycling. Rentals are available just outside the gates at Georgia and Denman street. It has an excellent aquarium and many grassy parks to enjoy some frisbee or picnics.
Georgia Street is the main East West street. To the west it mostly residential towers, then it becomes mostly shopping stores or malls.
Coal Harbour is north of Georgia and East of Stanley Park. It has a boardwalk, a few restaurants with great water views (though usually not as good as could be food).
Robson Street is 2 blocks south of Georgia. It is the "hot" area of shopping Vancouver with all the expected outlets and great restaurants. Of note, Thurlow street has 2 starbucks kitty corner that one year where the top 2 profitable starbucks in Canada. Sadly for a local, Robson has completely lost the European/German feel it had a few decades ago when it was RobsonStrasse.
West End is the western part of downtown, running from Stanley Park to the North West, bounded by Georgia St. to the North and roughly Burrard St to the East. It has the wonderful English Bay, a wonderful beach. Denman street runs north south and Davie street runs east-west. These are the heart of the west end and have many great restaurants, shopping places, and is the centre of the thriving gay community.
Granville street is the main bus route, with Thurlow, Bute, Burrard, Hornby and Howe streets to the West (and in West to East order) and Seymour, Richards and Homer streets to the East. The main routes for cars going north are Seymour and Hornby, and going south are Richards and Howe streets. Granville st is the home of the downtown theater area, with movie theatres, the Commodore ballroom, the orpheum and vogue theaters. At Granville and Georgia is Pacific Centre mall, the main shopping mall of downtown.
Yaletown is a super trendy area of refurbished warehouses that is about 4 blocks east of Granville street and just north of False creek. There are many great restaurants, the trendy Opus Hotel, a number of tech companies. Cuban cigars are available. Parking is v. difficult.
False Creek is the body of water that separates downtown from vancouver. It has Science world at the east end, and has a boardwalk that continues from Stanley Park and ends at Kitsilano Pool. On the downtown side, it is the set of new, very new, and still being constructed condos that are part of Vancouvers huge building boom. An easy water taxi can transfer pedestrians to Granville Island and Science World
End of Georgia/Robsonis the much photographed Vancouver Library, GM Place (home of the Vancouver Canucks) and BC Place (home of the CFL BC Lions).
Gastown starts at Richards and Hastings (3 blocks to the north of Georgia) a funky touristy area with restaurants, shops, and the much photographed "steam clock".
Chinatown is east of GM place and Gastown, and has the old school chinese shops. It is sadly part of the downtown east-side, arguably Canada's worst ghetto with one of the highest crime rates in Canada. Vancouver has instituted a 4 pillars harm reduction strategy that will hopefully help reduce the tragedy of the many people in this area.
The west side is bounded by English bay and the solid line of beaches to the north, the straight of Juan de Fuca to the West, and the Fraser river to the south.
Granville Island is a tiny peninsula that has the best produce and meat market in vancouver, many craft shops, the arts club theatre, a few good restaurants, our favourite pub (Bridges as they still serve Russell Cream Ale), an insanely great kids market and play area. It still is a working island as there are boat repair yards and a cement park. Very busy on weekends, with easy access via water taxi.
the Beaches start to the west of Burrard bridge with Kits point and then the very popular Kits Beach. Some rocky areas, then Jericho, Locarno, Spanish Banks are all very nice for walking, swimming, skimboarding. Jericho sailing club rents windsurfers and kayaks, and the view from the Jericho sailing club restaurant is insane.
UBC keeps with the British school system style of putting education institutions on mountains or peninsulas. The view from the Rose garden is inspiring, though why they had to put the Chan centre for the performing arts with NO windows in the best view spot on campus is beyond my ken. The museum of Anthropology is definitely worth a visit for those interested in coast indian history. To the west of UBC is wreck beach, the only nude beach in vancouver. Pacific Spirit park is a forest between UBC and Vancouver that has many walking, biking and horse-riding trails. It's a very enjoyable walk.
Queen Elizabeth Park is the height of Vancouver in an old Quarry that has been redone as an amazing garden. Next to Stanley Park's rose garden, it's a favourite for wedding pictures. The view is very good. Very close by is the van Duesen botanical gardens that makes a nice double garden combo.
Fourth Avenue is the trendiest shopping in area in the west side and is the heart of the Kitsilano neighbourhood.
Bounded by Burnaby to the East and water to the North and South.
Main Street is another trendy area for coffee shops, restaurants, new designer clothing stores, used clothing and furniture shops. Still "in development", the area around 25th Ave (King Edward) is a good spot to start walking south.
Commercial Drive is a wonderful area to walk in. Many restaurants, food shops, music stores, delis, and lots of other interesting places. Well worth a walk between Venables and 4th avenue.
Pacific National Exhibition is the home of a good amusement park with an old school rickety roller coaster and more grease and games than can be consumed by any mortals.
The North shore streches from Howe sound to the west, Burrard inlet to the south, Indian arm to the east and the Coast mountain range to the north. The cities of West Vancouver and North Vancouver combine with the district of North Vancouver for jurisdiction. It has 3 ski-hills, Cypress, Grouse and Seymour mountains. The height gain from Burrard inlet to the top of the mountains is some of the steepest in the world, and makes for majestic views looking at the mountains or from them. The terrain is so difficult north of the mountains that there are Zero (0) people living in the valleys north of the ski hills. The area is very popular with the large mountain biking population, who call the incredibly steep terrain "technical". West Vancouver has very expensive properties, with the "british properties" being the most expensive in Canada. North Vancouver is more blue collar.
Seymour Mountain in West Vancouver has probably the best snow conditions of the 3 local mountains, and also has an excellent set of cross country trails and the wonderful Hollyburn Lodge.
Ambleside beach is a great south facing beach with a nice boardwalk and good restaurants. If you aren't tired of stanley park, english bay, vancouver beaches, this would complete the circuit of Vancouver beaches.
Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver is called the "Peak" of vancouver for good reason. A tram ride up takes people to the best views in the city on a clear day or night. In addition to skiing/snowboarding, there is a skating rink. In the summer, wonderful hikes at the top are available as well as excellent animal shows like the "birds of prey" and the "Grizzley rehab pen". Also has the difficult "Grouse Grind", a 1km vertical hike that is marketed as "nature's stairmaster".
Deep Cove is a well-rained on community at the far eastern edge. It makes for a great kayak starting point to explore up Indian Arm.
Lynn Canyon at the North end of North Vancouver provides amazing walking and rollerblading trails.
Seymour mountain to the east of Lynn Canyon has the best snowshoeing trails of the 3 mountains.
Across the north arm of the Fraser river, and bounded by the south arm, is Richmond. Vancouver's airport is located at the north west tip. Richmond is mostly condominum developments and strip malls. There are some interesting chinese malls like Aberdeen and Yaohan.
Approximately 2 hours north of Vancouver is Whistler, the home of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Once almost bankrupt, Whistler is now a hugely popular and highly regarded winter/summer activity centre. Regular bus services run, but most people rent a car. Whistler is a big part of the 2010 Winter Games. My general advice skiing/riding for all the mountains is to go high up the mountains for better conditions. It is rarely worth staying in the lower or mid-mountain areas. In the summer time, there are great hikes and mountain biking. Discount lift tickets, typically $13 off/ticket, are available at the 7-11 near McDonald's in Squeamish. If there's enough snow in the village, there can be cross country skiing.
Blackcomb is my favourite mountain because of the fairly up and down slopes. Beginning snowboarders should only go here because the catskinner chair has very nice up and down terrain. Whistler's terrain has far too many cat-trails that slope in bizarre ways to be interesting. Intermediate riders/skiiers will appreciate 7th Heaven, Jersey Cream, and Crystal Chair. Advanced can find lots of powder/black diamonds on 7th heaven, Glacier chair and the t-bars.
Whistler is the old girl of Whistler village. I don't like Whistler for beginner or intermediate runs because the terrain is not up and down. The exception being the beginners Emerald chair. The only reason I would go would be for advanced runs. The Peak chair has some fabulous double blacks in Couloir, Cirque, Cockalorum. Also good is Flute Bowl. Many intermediate riders like Harmony bowl and Symphony bowl, but I find there's too little time doing the fun stuff and too much traversing.
Stanley Park, English Bay, Granville Island are all highly recommended.
I've a fairly comprehensive Vancouver Restaurant Review page. Reprising the "best of Vancouver meal section": Choosing a single meal in Vancouver is really difficult. There is no perfect place that has amazing view + awesome food. The "best-of" choices are: Grouse Mountain with the best view but moderate food and a bit of a drive; Raincity Grill with a good view of English Bay and very good food, Bridges with a good view of False Creek and maybe a cool aquabus ride to get to, Feenies for moderate priced trendy good food, Tojo's for best upscale sushi, Vij's for best upscale Indian, Hapa Izakaya for very innovative Japanese and Korean, Lumiere/CinCin/Le Crocodile/Diva at the Met for super gourmet dining, Coast/Blue Water/Glowbal for trendy and good eateries in Yaletown.
Here are a few different itineraries depending upon time and interest:
Visit Stanley Park and see the aquarium
Walk around Stanely Park (2hrs)
Visit English Bay and take short walk along Stanley Park, then visit Granville Island via water taxi
Rent a kayak on Granville island for 2 hours.
Rent a windsurfer or sailboat from Jericho then have dinner/lunch and a pint afterwards.
Walk the Locarno/Jericho/Spanish Banks beaches
Visit Grouse mountain
Any of the Frommers 2-4 hour walks, my favourite is Yaletown/Granville Island/Kits Beach.
#1) Rent a bike and ride around stanley park, lunch on Robson or Denman street, visit Granville Island, Chinatown, dine in Chinatown or downtown.
#2) Take the sea bus to North Vancouver, visit Lonsdale Pier, go to the top of Grouse Mountain.
#3) Rent a kayak for a day and pack a lunch in Deep Cove
#4) Visit Bowen Island via ferry from Horseshoe bay in West Vancouver, and have lunch in the pub.
#1) Drive to Whistler and spend a day skiing/snowboarding/hiking.
Do 3 of the one day itineraries ( :-)