In the shadow of Vancouver’s glittering high rises is Granville Island, an eclectic collection of culinary delights, artistry, entertainment and crafts crammed together under the steel frame of the namesake street running high above. It’s also one of my favourite places in the city.
First, a bit of background, and despite its name, Granville Island is not an actual island anymore, but a reclaimed sandbar that became one and was slowly infilled back to the south shore of False Creek. Beginning in 1917, many factories, foundries and manufacturing plants had their home here, but as the city around it evolved and grew, most of the companies either shuttered or moved out. By 1979, now a peninsula, Granville Island entered a new era with a transformation with abandoned structures repurposed and updated to make room for new retailers, business and entertainment venues. Despite all this, Ocean Cement remains on the island, still churning out materials for construction at its facility on the north side with an endless parade of their blue and white trucks rattling over the brick streets. Remnants of the area’s gritty past are embedded everywhere, from rails in the roadways, to winches, cranes, cabooses, and other mechanical bits and pieces.
Straddling the island and False Creek is the massive steel truss eight-lane Granville Street Bridge; the third of three overpasses that all shared the same name. The first bridge went up in 1889, a second replaced it in 1909 to the east (now Old Bridge Steet), and the current in 1954 following the same alignment as the first structure.
The Public Market is quite possibly the star attraction of the island. Housed inside the old BC Equipment Ltd. factory, the Public Market is packed with bakeries, coffee roasters, butchers, delis, candy shops, quick-serve restaurants, grocers, fishmongers and more. Noticeably absent are international chains, so don’t expect a Starbucks here, it’s all local owned businesses. There’s always line ups at many of these shops and for good reason. Oyama Sausage Co. offers the best cured meats and hams, Armando’s Finest Quality Meats has choice cuts of beef, pork, chicken and more (ask for their turkey dinner sausage), Zara’s Deli serves up fresh Italian pastas and sauces (try their sun-dried tomato pesto), and Bon Macaron Patisserie has delicate French treats available. If you’re craving a cup of pineapple Dole Whip (just like what’s served at Disneyland and Walt Disney World), stop by the Milkman. How about a honey dipped donut? Lee’s Donut’s has you covered. There’s just so much at the market that’s worth tasting and taking home for dinner.
Granville Island is a family-friendly affair. At the entrance is the large Kids Market, a converted yellow-painted warehouse with a rainbow sign atop announcing these shops are oriented for the young ones. Retailers of toys and books and other fun items pack in this two-storey structure. There’s even an indoor play area to keep the children occupied for hours on end. I have lots of memories in here, staring at toys I wanted or even playing in the second floor arcade back in the day. An ex-Canadian Pacific Railway caboose is parked out front and is now home to a pet food store. Just another piece of history kept alive on Granville Island.
Adults looking for a tall cold one can pop into the Granville Island Brewing Company. The beer company is across the street from Kids Market and when things were better, patrons could sit indoors and sample the various craft brews paired with small offerings from a menu, or take a tour of its operations. There’s even an on-site store selling the brewery’s top picks as well as seasonal batches in bottles or cans. It gets busy on nice days or weekends, so keep that in mind.
The Netloft is a collection of merchants selling handicrafts from kitchenware, paper goods, home decor, jewellery, accessories, artwork and more. Circle Craft may sound familiar for many locals as they also put on Vancouver’s annual Circle Craft Christmas Market. Looking for unique stationery, check out Paper-Ya. Need a new hat? Stop by the Granville Island Hat Shop.
Many more businesses dot the island, from restaurants, to wholesale retailers, and everything in between. Railspur Alley is home to many of these including a distillery, design studios, galleries, coffee roasters, broom makers, jewellers, leather workers, and more. If you like drawing, painting or anything of the sort, pop into Opus Framing and Art Supplies. Wall to wall materials for any artist including pens, pencils, brushes, markers, paper, clay, frames, canvas, paints, ink, a never ending list and perfect for the hobbyist or professional. For a more nautical feel, check out the Maritime Market on the west side of the island. Gaze into the giant tanks brimming with local lobster at the Lobster Man, purchase some wet-weather gear or even sign up for a tour of the waters around Vancouver.
Getting to Granville Island before COVID-19 was a challenge, especially on nice days, weekends and holidays. Traffic would come to a halt at the entrance and slowly advance as visitors looked for a coveted parking spot, resulting in hours long jams. For now, parking is free, but once the pandemic ends, expect to pay for a stall again. Walking to the island’s markets or taking transit (TransLink’s 50 bus has stops right at the entrance) are safer bets; two options I take advantage of on nice days. For a memorable experience, hop aboard the small ferries operated by False Creek Ferries or Aquabus from one of the many docks around False Creek for a water-side view of Vancouver.
If after enjoying a little too much of the culinary delights that Granville Island offers, the best thing to do is walk around it. Connected to the famed sea wall that wraps around False Creek and out to Stanley Park and Canada Place, a view of the water is never far. With wooden boardwalks, alleys lined with charming boutiques and even a small hill in Ron Basford Park capped with our national flag, there’s plenty of space to stretch your legs, or bring your treats for an impromptu picnic.
Live entertainment is never far; buskers perform in the open squares and theatres provide a wide selection of options from comedy to musicals. The Arts Club Theatre is well known for their work and their stage is just east of the Public Market. But there’s smaller venues, too like the Waterfront Theatre, Revue Stage, The Nest and the Vancouver TheatreSports League.
Granville Island is one of Vancouver’s most photogenic spots, from the vibrant colours of the Public Market’s wares, to the towering artwork by twin Brazilian brothers OSGEMEOS on Ocean Cement’s silos, to the view of the Burrard Street Bridge with a setting sun behind it, even the mechanical remnants provide a unique opportunity for juxtaposition to make that snapshot extraordinary.
I’ve seen Granville Island change over the years as the city around it evolves, so do the occupants of this former industrial zone. One thing that doesn’t change, is that feeling you get when walking or driving under that giant neon sign at the entrance, welcoming you to part of Vancouver that makes you smile and feel good about helping out local merchants. Granville Island is something you have to experience.
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