Indie theatre, farmers' markets, eclectic shops and more in Vancouver's up-and-coming Commercial Drive 'hood (photos: Nelson Mouellic/Tourism Vancouver)

What to Do in Vancouver’s Commercial Drive Neighbourhood

By Kirsten Rodenhizer

Commercial Drive is the perfect antidote to the sheen and bustle of downtown Vancouver. You won’t find many franchises nor all too many tourists along this east-side strip and its offshoot streets, and there’s nary a glass tower nor souped-up Lamborghini in sight. Instead, there are humble street-level boutiques, lively cafés, patios and pubs, and a pervasive artsy, counter-cultural vibe. Add to the mix some fantastic Italian restaurants, delis and gelato shops (the neighbourhood is also known as Vancouver’s Little Italy)—along with every other type of world cuisine imaginable—and you have a recipe for a mellow day of strolling, shopping, sipping and savouring in one of the city’s unique, up-and-coming neighbourhoods.

WHAT TO DO
Ride the SkyTrain a few minutes east from downtown to the Commercial-Broadway transit hub. From there, walk north, pausing to pick up a latte in light-flooded Prado Café at 4th Avenue, and drink it down al fresco in the adjacent city-maintained “parklet.”

If the sun is out, a jaunt south to 27-hectare John Hendry Park may be in order, to sit alongside green-swathed Trout Lake or shop for heirloom tomatoes at the Trout Lake Farmer’s Market (Saturdays in summer and fall). If the clouds roll in, head to one of the Drive’s arts-and-culture spaces. The retro Rio Theatre on Broadway shows mainstream and art-house films, and hosts occasional improv, live music and burlesque performances. Similarly, The Cultch offers indie drama, dance and more at two local venues: A former church turned intimate theatre on Venables Street (which also boasts an on-site community art gallery) and the recently restored York Theatre on Commercial Drive itself.

Commercial Drive Vancouver Jamjar Lebanese Breakfast
Mouthwatering Lebanese fare at Jamjar (photo: courtesy of Jamjar)

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
There are more than 100 restaurants and cafés clustered on and around Commercial Drive. If you don’t immediately see something sets you salivating, just walk a few more metres. For incredible “folk Lebanese” fare—think mezzes (small bites) like lamb sausage in red wine and deep-fried cauliflower with pomegranate molasses—there’s Jamjar at 7th Avenue. Punk-themed Cannibal Café between 2nd and 3rd is the place to go for overstuffed burgers and fry plates, plus rotating craft-beer taps. La Mezcaleria, near 1st, is arguably Vancouver’s best spot for modern Mexican eats, like scrumptious ceviche and roast chicken in mole sauce, along with more than 30 varieties of mezcal—and fragrant cocktails made the agave-based spirit, too.

Just looking for an easy-going lunch? Try one of the legendary, loaded-up deli sandwiches from La Grotta Del Formaggio, a Commercial Drive institution for more than two decades. Lombardo’s Pizzeria and Ristorante is another Italian favourite for its classic wood oven-baked pies plus pastas made fresh in-house. But beware of spoiling your supper at Pizza Garden, a hole-in-the-wall Neapolitan joint at Napier Street. The tempting aroma of thin-crust baking wafts down the street; it’s definitely a challenge not to overindulge.

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Commercial Drive is also home to several craft beer operations (and many others lie a hop-skip away in the Railtown district). Strange Fellows Brewing, on Clark Drive, is a jewel among them. The Tasting Room pours Old World-inspired suds, such as its Czarcasm Russian imperial India session ale, to be enjoyed with locally sourced bites. Storm Brewing is one of Vancouver’s quirkiest beer makers—not to mention the city’s oldest. Brewmaster James Walton is known for his “brainstorm” brews; unusual flavour combos like blueberry pie ale and cream soda pilsner are crafted in a distinctively graffitied former garage. There’s no taproom, but the brewers are happy to offer a sample or two amidst the casks and kettles.

WHERE TO SHOP
Speaking of local icons, Mintage has been one of Vancouver’s most popular vintage shops for more than a decade. Its 3,000-plus square feet are stuffed with an ever-changing mix of unique men’s and women’s duds—from 1920s linen tunics to ‘50s-era cheerleader jackets, and even some bridal gowns. It’s also exemplary of Commercial Drive’s collection of vintage-loving boutiques.

Precious and Few also goes the girlie route, selling a fab-frilly mélange of new and rehabilitated clothing, shoes and jewellery, while Attic Treasures offers one-of-a-kind finds for the home, including lovingly preserved teak furniture and midcentury housewares.

There’s also Audiopile for time-tested tunes on vinyl and CD, and one of Pulpfiction Books’ three locations, where you can pick up a vacay read or two from the sizeable, curated selection of new, used and out-of-print tomes. 

Burrard-Vancouver-Courtyard-Martin-Tessler
The Burrard’s cool courtyard (photo: Martin Tessler/Tourism Vancouver)

WHERE TO STAY
Accommodations in Vancouver are predominantly clustered in the downtown core, but the city’s efficient public transit system ensures that neighbourhoods like Commercial Drive are just a quick train ride away.

For a unique stay at a modish 1950s-style boutique hotel, check into The Burrard. It was fully overhauled a few years ago, but retains the charm of a bygone era—with its big neon sign, wood-paneled cocktail bar and an Eames chair in every room. The lush courtyard is reminiscent of mid-century Miami.

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Prefer an even more deluxe experience? The Fairmont Waterfront, overlooking the Vancouver Harbour, aims to give guests everything they could want, including an acclaimed restaurant, state-of-the-art health club and experienced concierges to help you discover even more of the city.

Or find affordable comfort at the Best Western Plus Chateau Granville, which offers all the expected amenities and is pet friendly to boot. AMA members save 10% or more at Best Western hotels, and CAA Preferred Best Western Rewards members who stay at a Best Western–branded property between May 22 and September 4, 2017 get a $20 USD Best Western gift card for every night of an eligible stay.

HOW TO SAVE
Daily flights from Calgary and Edmonton mean fast and easy access to Vancouver. AMA Travel can arrange your airfare, find great accommodations at guaranteed best prices, help you rent a car and much more.

WE’VE GOT YOU COVERED
Protect yourself with travel medical insurance anytime you venture outside Alberta. (Yes, even if you’re just going one province over.) AMA members save up to 10% on already affordable protection with 24/7 support—in case of a medical emergency that’s not covered by your Alberta Health Care plan.