“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 about Stanley Park, in the same way you know Albert Einstein was a good scientist and Mark Messier is an overrated captain. That Stanley Park is amazing is 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, Vancouverites take it for granted given how central it is, how often people go there for any number of things, and how much Stanley Park’s values permeate Vancouver’s design aesthetic as a whole.
Let’s quickly go through the main parts of the park — not that it needs it, and keeping in mind there are dozens of guides about the park you could individually read. Because while some people might do a guided tour or spend their entire time in Stanley randomly ambling around, there are seven specific aspects of the park that people visit in isolation, and they are each worth a short description.
Lagoon Lake/Southern Area: The area of Stanley Park 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, the 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 Park, 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 pavilion is, where the sports fields are, and where tourists flock to the totem poles. It’s probably the purest expression of the city’s very British, very aspirational middle-class ethos in 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 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 basic playground and covered seating.
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.
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 a pretty good park.
You can do pretty much any sport in Stanley except perhaps ball hockey, there are any number of ways to get around the park, and you could fill up a book writing about all its history and buildings and monuments.
It did get *just* 39 out of 40 points on our score, and the one place where people gave less than perfect scores was typically for its design: some believe Stanley is just a little too car-centred, or a little too difficult to get around if you get a bit lost. 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 in 2021, as people angrily debated the merits of temporary internal routing of roads in Stanley Park during a pandemic.
From the outside, in a time 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.
Stanley Park is a park; but it’s also a representation of the city that it’s in: from its beauty, to its focus on greens and blues and trees and oceans, to all the debates, big and small, over its future and what those decisions say about us.
It’s what makes the park iconic. And it’s what makes the park Vancouver.