#10: Sunset Beach
“Beaches in Vancouver aren’t eye-pleasant, this one is no exception.” (Note: we’re using one-star reviews on Google for all of the top 10 parks in this section)
#2 in West End
1204 Beach Avenue
This Website: Let’s talk about the particular ways Sunset Beach is better than English Bay Beach.
Ultimately, they’re both on the same stretch of waterfront, with tourists, West End residents and nearby Vancouverites all competing for the same real estate. There’s beach volleyball courts at both, washrooms at both, people everywhere at both.
But Sunset is better because while they both have comparable sand and views, Sunset provides more things to more people than English.
A big reason is all the grassy areas between Beach Avenue and the sand — it means it’s a park for more than just beach bums, and is a big reason why the beach has become home to events like the end of the Pride March and the 4/20 Rally.
English Bay Beach has little parking; Sunset has quite a bit. In English Bay, the bike path is back on the street, far from the ocean; in Sunset it integrates into the park (or did in pre-pandemic times), getting close to the water and adding to the liveliness. Sunset has a small off-leash dog area; English Bay does not. English Bay has geese; Sunset Beach has a ball hockey court. Sunset Beach has the giant engagement ring sculpture and the giant steel arc, English Bay has a Cactus Club.
We’re being uncharitable for effect; English Bay ultimately is a darn fine park, has accessible Mobi-Mats, and that fun slide into the water. Ultimately neither park has much for kids if you don’t enjoy the beach.
But Sunset Beach feels like a community asset, one fully formed, the fact it’s a downtown beach with amazing views is part of its selling point, not the whole thing.
It doesn’t have the tourist attention of English, the summer crowds of Kits, the pure beach vibes of Spanish Banks.
It doesn’t matter — Sunset is great.
#9: Spanish Banks
“Had a few qualms with this beach. All the signs were in English, met no Spanish people, no tapas or time for a siesta.”
#2 in West Point Grey
4801 NW Marine Drive
You can have Science World, Stanley Park, or the Seawall all you want — there may not be a more enticing view in Vancouver than Spanish Banks at low tide.
It goes on for hundreds and hundreds of metres, extending what is already a massively long beach into a massively wide one, with nothing but encumbered ocean to the west, mountains to the north, and the Vancouver skyline to the east.
For pure simplicity, it’s perfect. You won’t find more unencumbered sand in Vancouver than Spanish Banks, you won’t find better quality sand in Vancouver other than maybe Third Beach, and outside Stanley Park, you won’t have a better sense of being surrounded by nature while being less than a hour from a metropolis.
Leased to the park board since 1929, Spanish Banks is the best beach in the city. But it’s not the best park — and only the sixth best park in the city with a beach — because there’s little else to it.
(Yes, 7 of the top 10 parks in Vancouver have beaches. If you disagree with this assessment, you’re more than free to do your own 49,000 word counterargument)
Other beach parks usually have some grassy areas or playgrounds, providing some alternatives if some members of your party are less inclined to romp through the sand. Spanish Banks really has neither — the only additional amenities are an off-leash dog area, volleyball, courts picnic tables, a concession stand and washrooms.
Which is all good, but limits its potential for some folks. In a group with five beach bums with a desire for some volleyball and a BBQ? Spanish Banks is amazing. Have a family where some kids want a playground and others prefer soccer? It’s magic is wasted.
But there is still plenty of magic, plenty of kiteboarders, plenty of people out on high tide, plenty of people enjoying all Spanish Banks has to offer. And it’s worth noting that the expanse of flat nothingness was fought for tooth and nail — a few proposals for airports in the area were rejected after community outcry, as was a planetarium and tower.
So many of Vancouver’s fights are about whether to build or preserve, whether the benefits of the fancy world-class proposal outweigh the simpler pleasures already in place, the balance shifting slightly with every decade and every proposal.
It’s fair to say that on Spanish Banks, they got it right.
#8: Memorial South Park
“I had so much anxiety walking around this park because there were duck and geese excrements all over the place. All I could think of was how I had to walk into my apartment with my shoes later on and I just felt so uneasy the entire time.”
#1 in Sunset
5955 Ross Street
It’s the best park in southeast Vancouver, probably the best sports-focused park in the city, and certainly the stoutest of Vancouver’s Big Stout Sports Fields.
Let’s add up what Memorial Park has to offer: a bunch of soccer fields and baseball diamonds, some of which are lit up, including one large dedicated diamond that’s one of the best in the city, tennis courts and a ball hockey court, a field hockey pitch and a cricket pitch, a playground and a wading pool, washrooms and a field house, a little forest and a little marshy pond area, and some fitness equipment.
And that’s not including the most dominant feature of the park, a big running track, one of the best in the city, anchoring it all.
That’s a lot of stuff! More than any other park in the city except Stanley! One way of demonstrating this is by saying Memorial Park South is the only park in the city with washrooms, a cricket pitch and a field hockey pitch. It’s also the only park in the city with baseball fields, a ball hockey court and a running track. Or the only one with lighted fields, picnic sites with a BBQ, and a place for lacrosse.
If all Memorial South had was endless variety, it would be good enough. But that space means it’s a gathering ground for a large number of events from Vancouver’s diverse eastside communities, and the pond and forest area provide some quiet reprise. The road bisecting half the park leads to the cenotaph remembering those who served in the war, and provides symmetry to the space, not to mention more parking. It’s well laid out, lacking in pretty much nothing (except and basketball court), and is frequented by people of all ages.
There is room to quibble: the playground appears to be a remnant from a time in the 1980s where the city put up a single wooden structure with some slides on top of some gravelly sand and called it a day; the southeast corner of basic grass on the other side of the forest seems weirdly forgotten.
Overall though, Memorial Park South shows that a sports-focused park can be more than a few fields and a washroom. Sometimes much more.
#7: Pandora Park
“Too many people-watchers. Looks at yourself- in the mirror.”
#1 in Grandview-Woodland
2325 Franklin Park
The reason you might not know Pandora Park is great is because for most of its history, it wasn’t.
Pandora was built in 1914, early in the city’s history, and for most of it was the sort of non-descript park every neighbourhood has: a tennis court, an average playground, lots of all-purpose grass. Hoo-ray.
But in 2006 the park board decided that Pandora was going to become A Good Park, and set about accomplishing that in a series of stages — a new playground, picnic area and plans in 2006, a community garden a few years after that, then a spay park in 2016, then an off-leash dog area and basketball court in 2018 and 2019.
In other words, the park board listened to people, removed underused and inefficient green space, and added simple attractions people seem to use the most.
Well guess what? It works. The park is now packed. And Pandora is now the model of what an inland community park should be.
Nothing about the park is absolutely amazing or over the top — there are spray parks where the water goes higher and more elaborate gardens and off-leash places for pupperinos. But it’s all done with care, from the tables and chairs dotting each area, to the slopes and trees separating each part, to the paths everywhere. Even something as simple as putting the basketball court next to the tennis area on an angle, making the centre of the park a little blocky, helps.
On a clear day there’s a view of downtown, and there’s enough room between Nanaimo Street and the main attractions in the park that noise isn’t a particular problem.
It’s not a destination park, but doesn’t try to be. Pandora is an example of what a great neighbourhood park in 2020 can look like, and we look forward to more renovations like it in the future.
#6: Hastings Park
“I didn’t use the park. Will update review when I do. I walked around it.”
#1 in Hastings-Sunrise
2901 East Hastings Street
Hastings Park is Vancouver in a time capsule.
Both it and Stanley Park were created in 1888 — but while Stanley became a mostly naturalistic and centrally planned jewel, Hastings became a constantly changing space reflecting the city’s changing desires. It’s where the Beatles sang, the Canucks played, and the PNE became the province’s cultural monolith of the 20th century.
It’s also a place that was originally intended to be wilderness under the original terms of the land transfer. More intense battles over control and purpose of Hastings have raged since the 1990s, with control of the PNE transferred to the city in 2003. The exact evolution and breakdown of land overseen by the city, park board, or separate PNE board is too complex for a short review, but suffice to say it contributes to the scattershot nature of things.
For our purposes though, the main free “park” areas in operation year round are three separate areas: the Italian Gardens, Sanctuary, and the Empire Fields/Slidey Slide Park region. Let us go through each quickly.
Italian Gardens: a mid-sized concrete area both intricately designed and completely random. There are modern play structures and also a weird giant 1970s castle. A statue of a young waifish Christopher Columbus, caricatures of famous Europeans carved into rocks, and also a giant cow, with a plaque that only says “cow”. There are detailed waterfalls and a long stone table beautiful for large picnics, and right next door there’s an excellent basketball court and skate bowl. It’s so unlike any park area in the city, and a complete delight.
Sanctuary: A large pond/small lake in the southwest corner, built at the end of the 20th century. It’s sufficiently removed from the rest of the park, with wooded trails surrounding it that two decades in don’t feel too manufactured (even though, you know, the entire area is). There are docks that let you get closer to the water, a number of smartly designed sitting areas, and even some fish available for catching. It’s not essential, and a little too removed from the rest of the park, but certainly nice for locals to have.
Empire Fields: The big sports and playground area. One part has lighted turf fields, a bike park, and the Landy and Bannister statue commemorating the Miracle Mile at 1954 British Empire games (which you’re just going to have to accept was a big deal for Vancouver’s sense of ego at the time). The other part Slidey Slides Park (yes, it’s real name) with tall steep slides and ample climbing equipment for older kids, including one horizontal climbing bridge that leads directly to a big climbing triangle. Both the sports fields and playground are arguably top 10 facilities of their type in the city — but being so close to Highway 1 and Hastings Street means there’s a constant din of noise, and there’s not exactly a lot to do in the immediate area unless you have extra money for Playland.
Each of these areas is lovely, and if we were scoring Vancouver’s parks without the design metric, Hastings would rank 2nd. But design matters, and combined they don’t link up at all unless you’re making a concerted effort to see all parts of the park.
And why would you? The rides in Playland, slides in Slidey Slide Park, slot machines at the race track and fish in the Sanctuary have no real theme.
Except for the fact that they’re all part of the evolution of Hastings — and in their own way, part of the evolution of Vancouver.
#5: Kits Beach
“It is not the type of beach that I expected.”
#1 in Kitsilano
1499 Arbutus Street
In 2014, the late lamented local satire website Syrup Trap wrote an article called “Vancouver ranked the most city in the world”, teasing the symbiotic relationship between the media’s enthusiasm for clickbait lists and this city’s desire to be a little bit extra about everything, particularly when it comes to global validation.
Anyways, if Vancouver is the most city, Kits is the most beach.
It’s beautiful and where the beautiful people go, the place see the views and see the people, and easily the most packed on a warm summer day.
It’s somewhat due to its relatively central location (less of a slog than Spanish Banks or Jericho, not requiring downtown travel like Sunset or English Bay), and somewhat due to the feedback loop for fit 20 and 30somethings, who flock to Kits Beach as much for cultural affirmation as for the sand.
People go through that phase where Kits is the place to be, and then you have kids, or don’t want to pay $2200 a month in a poorly ventilated 50-year-old apartment, and those memories recede.
Even when you’re no longer its target demographic, Kits is still great. The famed saltwater pool is one of those things every Vancouerite should do at least once, the accessible playground built for the Olympics has a steep curvy tunnel slide, the grass surrounding the beach is large enough to satisfy people who want to keep their toes dry. The tennis and basketball courts are kept in good condition, and there’s quieter (if rockier) parts of the beach to the north and west of the more packed section.
Oh yeah, there’s *that* view, the towers of downtown closer than any of the other west side beaches, the curved nature of the park providing interesting looks to the west, north and east.
It’s all immensely appealing, though the feeling can sour if you start to think about how the land became a beach in the first place, and the paradox between how it came to be and who it is named for. And if you’re someone who prefers a more natural, quieter feel, Kits is pretty much the exact opposite.
There’s so much to do and so much to like about Kits though, which is why it’s here.
Have a tolerance for crowds, and a proper perspective over the point of preening, and enjoy the most beach in the most city.
#4: Fraser River Park
“Went last weekend because of the 5 stars and good recommendation it has, not my cup of tea. Big park but kind of dry, no many picnic tables or shaded places. Reviews say you can swimming here but I personally won’t do it. River/ ocean water was brown, maybe the time of the year? It had many dogs in the park and in the water.”
#1 in Kerrisdale
8705 Angus Drive
Vancouver has plenty of waterfront parks, it has plenty of beaches, it has plenty of off-leash dog areas, it has plenty of quieter nature parks, and it has plenty of places where it pays tribute to its past.
Nowhere do all those elements come together like Fraser River Park.
The design seems pretty simple: a giant field at the entrance, with a boardwalk along the river extending out for a few hundred metres.
That field is massive though, and has a slight crest to it, with a curved grouping of trees providing definition to the space. And it — along with the entire park — is an off-leash dog area, providing one of the largest areas in the city where they can roam freely, a serious boon.
And that boardwalk isn’t the type where you walk from Point A to Point B, say “well, that was certainly the ocean!” and then go on your way. It moves in and out of marshy areas into more beachy areas, gives multiple pathways for discovering the area, and has a few places where people can stop and sit.
Did we mention that beachy area? It’s a way to enjoy some sand without being crowded, in a place where stunning sunsets and all manner of boats are both common sights.
Plus, there’s plenty of educational display boards and equipment throughout the park (including a giant old-timey anchor), giving a sense of the industrial history in the area. And it’s one of the few places in the city where you can reserve picnic tables.
When it opened in 1988, The Province journalist Tony Eberts wrote that “Fraser River Park seems likely to become one of the city’s favourite outdoor destinations.”
That didn’t really happen — in a city with dozens of waterfront areas open to the public, Fraser River Park is ultimately a little too removed from the rest of the city, tucked as it is in the far southwest, and a little bit too difficult to get to if you don’t have a car.
Which means if you do visit, you’ll get that distinct sense of discovering a hidden treasure, the type you’ll come back to anytime you want a peaceful retreat from the city within its own borders.
#3: Jericho Beach
“Too crowded, too many seagulls, and my bike got stolen. Worst beach in the world, hands down.”
#1 in West Point Grey
3941 Point Grey Road
Spoiler: after months of “research” there was no real debate over what the best park in Vancouver is. And there was no serious debate over what the second best park was, though we’ll get to that next.
But what won the bronze medal was the matter of some debate, because ultimately it’s a question of what matters most for a great park — is it iconic views? Activities for people to do? A sense of place and history?
We chose Jericho, because it has all of that.
The beach is the thing that attracts the most people, of course — a nice smooth arc of sand that looks towards Stanley Park and the north shore, bordered by a private yacht club on one side and a public sailing club on the other, a nice dichotomy of the city if there ever was one.
It’s a good beach, but if we were going just by sand quality or quantity, Jericho would be behind Spanish Banks and arguably Kits as well.
It’s all the other things around it though. Tennis courts and a rugby field, but also a good turf soccer field, a dense collection of larger athletic facilities you won’t find at other beaches.
And then there’s the more informal grassy spaces behind the beach. The long, sprawling field is the home of the Folk Festival every summer, and is a solid hangout spot for frisbee or tanning the other 51 weekends of the year.
But there’s also the pond and marshy area further south, the heavily treed area with all the trails, the concessions at one end of the park and the pier that extends decently far into the ocean at the other.
The history is also full of little local signifiers as well: its name a likely butchering of “Jerry’s Cove”, named for a logging manager in the area, its docks once home to the Royal Canadian Air Force and a United Nations conference on urbanism in the 1970s, a long debate after Vancouver purchased most of the land in 1969 on whether it would be parkland or housing.
All very Vancouver in ways loud and quiet. All in a convenient location to get to. All in all, a great park.
#2: Trout Lake
“Not a good park in any way at all.”
#1 in Kensington-Cedar Cottage
3300 Victoria Drive
Stick a lake in the middle of the city. Surround it with multiple playgrounds, multiple fields, some sand and some walking paths. Add a community centre and a famer’s market.
That’s really all you need to be Vancouver’s second best park.
Trout Lake actually isn’t its name — that would actually be John Hendry Park, named for the co-founder of Hastings Mill, Vancouver’s first major company, and the father of the donor who gave much of the land for the park in the 1920s.
But nobody calls it that, because Trout Lake is a fun name to say, and it’s the darn lake that makes the park so special.
Of course, if you took the lake away, the park would still be plenty sturdy: it’s the only one in Vancouver with soccer and baseball fields, basketball and tennis courts, and lighted fields, to use one metric.
There’s also multiple washrooms and multiple playgrounds (the newer one is excellent, with a large climbing dome, disc swing, and covered wooden playhouses among the attractions). Not to mention large covered areas, a ball hockey court, and a community centre.
It’s the lake that holds it all together though. Aside from giving the park a clear focal point and Instagram setpiece, and a special something no other inland park in the city has, it provides a physical anchor to the design — all other aspects can flow naturally around the water, giving an internal route to Trout Lake that makes it a wonderful place to visit even if you aren’t particularly doing anything.
Then there’s the little extra touches that make it truly magical: the farmers market in the summer (probably the best in the city), the off-leash dog beach on the north side, the periodic bands playing the winter wonderland on the rare occasion the lake can be skated on.
It’s a park for the east side that is also a tourist destination; a sports park that is also a beach park; a place for large activities and small hangouts.
One could be a buzzkill and point out that due to high E. coli levels the lake is fairly dodgy to swim in during the summer, and has been closed for significant periods each of the last three years.
One might also say: who cares? Swimming in Trout Lake is a nice bonus. Its mere existence is plenty to be grateful for.
Everyone knew what the top park was going into this exercise. We thought the debate over the second best one would be a contentious affair, different people arguing for different values, but in the end it was pretty unanimous.
There are 10 or 15 places in Vancouver where you can look at the mountains and the oceans and the towers in one fell swoop and be reminded why you fell in love with this ridiculous city in the first place.
There’s only one Trout Lake.
#1: Stanley Park
“I really don’t see anything special about this park.”
#1 in West End
2000 West Georgia Street
Like it could be anything else.
In the heart of Vancouver’s downtown, Stanley Park is 400 hectares of unmatched beauty, one of the best urban parks in the world, period, full of everything you could want in a park, and filled with some of the prettiest views you could imagine.
Live anywhere in Vancouver (or arguably southwest B.C.) and you sort of innately know that, in the same way you know Albert Einstein was a good scientist and Mark Messier is an overrated captain — an article of faith implicitly understood, not in need of debate.
But when you choose to rank every park in Vancouver, when you choose to go to 241 separate public green spaces over five months, when you think constantly about what makes a park work, the appreciation for Stanley grows greater.
It’s why we deliberately travelled around Vancouver neighbourhood by neighbourhood in a path that would make Stanley the last place we visited, just to make sure our preconceived notions were fair.
Yes, it’s the best park in the city. No, nothing comes close. If anything, we take it for granted, given how central it is, how often people go there for any number of things, and how central Stanley Park’s values permeate Vancouver’s design aesthetic as a whole.
Not that it needs it, and keeping in mind there are dozens of guides about the park you could individually read, let’s quickly go through the main parts of the park. Because while some people might do a guided tour or spend their entire randomly ambling around, there are seven specific aspects of Stanley Park, areas people visit in isolation, and they are each worth a short description.
Lagoon Lake/Southern Area: The area south of Lagoon Drive and west of the highway is really the neighbourhood park for the West End, with tennis courts, a pitch and putt golf course, Rhododendron Garden, lawn bowling area and brewery all jammed together. Beside it is the beautiful Lagoon Lake, and a languid path circling it.
This part is like 10% of all of Stanley and probably the most rudimentary. By itself, this could be a top 50 park in the city, full of things to do and interesting wildlife.
Lumberman’s Arch/Centre Area: The area between the trails and Brockton Point is arguably the most touristy and commercial area of the park: it’s where the miniature train and horses take off from, where the multiple rose gardens are situated, and where the plaque of Lord Stanley stands.
But it’s also a great community park in its own right, with multiple playgrounds (including a truly inspired wooden castle structure near Lumberman’s Arch), a fantastic water park right on the seawall, and a number of options for walks that pass by several memorials.
Again, take this part of Stanley and put it anywhere in the city, and it’s a huge attraction unto itself, and probably makes Queen Elizabeth Park seem incredibly marginal.
This is another 10% of Stanley.
Brockton Point: This is where the rugby pavillon is, where the sports fields are, and where tourists flock to the totem bowls. It’s probably the purest expression of the city’s very British, very aspirational middle-class ethos for much of its early history, and while the totem poles are still huge tourist magnets, they’re a little jarring in the context of a park that is figuring out how to actively reconcile its reality as one of Vancouver’s most prominent examples of Indigenous displacement without compensation.
This part of the park is *almost* a bit generic, until you remember that it’s right on the eastern edge of the Seawall, and with it some of the most iconic views and pieces of art in Vancouver.
Prospect Point: Probably the only place in Stanley Park you could actively label a tourist trap, Prospect is a car-centred area just west of Lions Gate Bridge, at a high point, with a restaurant and a lookout point. It’s extremely nice, with a view of West Vancouver and English Bay that is fairly unique, but that’s about all the area has to offer. Across the street, there’s a field with a playground and covered seating, and it’s nice enough.
Third Beach: It seems unfair to have the beach with possibly the best sand in the city as sort of a throwaway area on the far west side of Stanley, but there is Third Beach, with ample parking, a restaurant and concession stand, and a wonderfully secluded feel, the cliffs of the park rising on both sides.
Second Beach: But we haven’t even gotten to the best “zone” of Stanley, which is the area in and around Second Beach, which by itself could have a claim as the best park in the city. There’s two more playgrounds (including one with a vintage firetruck), a basketball court, large field where movies play during the summer, and a huge outdoor pool that’s perfect for kids. On top of the hill, there’s a big covered patio, and a memorial to the Air India bombing. Below is the beach — there’s pretty good sand, enough area that it’s not too busy, and views of False Creek looking south and Kitsilano that are relatively rare.
Trails/Seawall: Of course, surrounding and connecting all this is a series of trails and the seawall, providing areas for people to walk, jog and cycle in unmatched beauty, either amongst old-growth trees or between the water and cliffs. Beaver Lake and the Siwash Rock are landmarks well worth checking out, but there’s enough variety in the paths that you could explore every day for a week and still find new routes and points of interest.
So it’s pretty good. You can do pretty much anything in the park except perhaps ball hockey, there are any number of ways to get around it, and you could spend a book writing about all its history and buildings and monuments with ease.
It did get *just* 39 out of 40 points — though the gap between Stanley and Trout Lake was a big between #2 Trout Lake and the 27th best park — and the one place where people gave less than perfect scores was typically for its design: some believed it was just a little too car-centred, others believed it was just a little too difficult to get around. With a part so vast and with relatively few roads, transportation in the park will always be a source of debate.
And it was a huge battle in 2020, one that made headlines for months, as people angrily debated the merits of temporary internal routing of roads in Stanley Park during a pandemic.
From the outside, in a year of so much suffering, it probably looked a tad hyperbolic.
But Stanley Park means so much to Vancouverites, and is so ingrained in people’s identity with this city, that it’s often the centre of huge cultural flashpoints. It happened with the former zoo and present aquarium over animal rights, it happened with the infamous and fatal attack on Aaron Webster on hate crimes to the LGBTQ+ community, and it will happen anytime people push for massive change in the future.
Stanley Park is a park; but it’s also a representation of Vancouver, in all its beauty, in all its focus on greens and blues and trees and oceans, in all its community spirit and all its messy debates, whether they be about reconciliation or bike lanes.
It’s what makes the park great. And it’s what makes the park us.