Gastown is a fascinating neighborhood. The cobblestone streets and the heritage buildings, although filled with so much life, seem to be resting on a bedrock of stories about Vancouver buried deep below.
Thankfully, we’ve got the Forbidden Downtown and Gastown Walking Tour, our secret passage to these often-untold tales about the city.
Just like the tour, we’re diving into the many attractions scattered around Gastown. And then, we’ll be your guides through Forbidden Vancouver’s much-loved offering providing you with a fresh perspective on Gastown for your next visit!
What is so special about Gastown?
Gastown is special primarily because it’s the first neighborhood in Vancouver, it sports a timeless aesthetic, and the recent toppling of its founder’s statue is a historic step for both Vancouver and Canada.
Modern-day Vancouver can trace its roots to Gastown when the neighborhood was formed in 1867. For this reason, Gastown is now recognized as a national historic site.
The neighborhood’s importance in the city’s story is reflected in its charming aesthetic. With cobblestone streets, heritage buildings, and vintage gaslights, the feel brings us back to the Victorian era.
This classic look harmoniously blends with modern urban elements, including colorful murals, stylish boutiques, and welcoming restaurants, making Gastown one of the most Instagrammable spots (Vancouver Instagram spots) in Vancouver.
Beyond its aesthetic appeal, Gastown proves it’s not stuck in time. In 2022, the statue of John ‘Gassy Jack’ Deighton was covered in red and toppled amidst discussions about his impact on Indigenous women and girls.
This symbolic act places Gastown at the center of ongoing dialogues about Canadian history and the broader narrative of colonialism.
Can I walk around Gastown?
Gastown is highly walkable. Every landmark in the neighborhood is easily accessible on foot.
Take, for instance, GPSmyCity’s self-guided walking tour, which takes you around Gastown in about an hour. On this tour, you get to see eight attractions including the Vancouver Lookout, Steam Clock, Gaoler’s Mews, and the Flat Iron Building.
Vancouver is also a major player in North America’s film production scene. The Holywood North Experience Tour by Vancouver Film & TV Tours thoughtfully includes Gastown in its itinerary, showcasing filming locations for popular movies like Twilight.
Gastown has something for food enthusiasts too. You can join walking food tours and sample dishes and craft beer from seven restaurants in the neighborhood.
What are the must-see attractions in Gastown?
The iconic Steam Clock is more than just a timekeeper. This charming landmark whistles and steams its way every 15 minutes.
While technically a modern creation, its vintage aesthetic seamlessly blends with the historic vibe of the neighborhood.
It’s an attraction that many tourists stop by to check. But for the best experience, visit the steam clock at 12 PM.
Quiet and hidden away, Gaoler’s Mews invites you to stroll down cobblestone paths lined with charming boutiques and eateries.
This quaint corner used to be the city’s first jail, which has seen the Great Fire in 1886 and public executions by hanging.
So while this historic architecture exudes old-world charm, it’s more popular for the haunting ghost stories in this building.
Maple Tree Square
At the heart of Gastown, Maple Tree Square stands as a historical focal point. Surrounded by red-brick buildings and many must-visit restaurants, the square is a vibrant hub of activity.
It used to be the spot where the Gassy Jack statue taken down once stood.
Its open space hosts events, live performances, and serves as the perfect starting point for exploring the neighborhood’s rich history and contemporary charm.
Flat Iron Building
A distinctive wedge-shaped building, the Flat Iron Building is a Gastown landmark that captures attention with its architectural uniqueness.
Dating back to 1908, it adds a touch of historical grandeur to the neighborhood.
Its ornate facade and triangular footprint make it a favorite among architecture enthusiasts and a picturesque backdrop for capturing the essence of Gastown.
If you want a feel of the rich architectural tapestry of Gastown, stroll past the Byrnes Block.
This historic building, adorned with distinctive red brickwork and ornate detailing, stands as a testament to the neighborhood’s Victorian roots.
Snap a photo, soak in the atmosphere, and appreciate the Byrnes Block as a tangible link to Gastown’s storied past.
Vancouver Police Museum
For those intrigued by the law and order of yesteryears, the Vancouver Police Museum is a captivating stop.
Housed in a former coroner’s court, the museum showcases a fascinating collection of crime-solving artifacts and historical exhibits.
From vintage police uniforms to gripping crime stories, it provides a unique perspective on Vancouver’s law enforcement history.
Gazing up at the skyline, the Dominion Building stands as a testament to Vancouver’s architectural heritage.
Completed in 1910, it was once the tallest building in the British Empire. Its Beaux-Arts style and iconic dome make it a standout structure in the city.
While its interior may not be accessible to the public, the exterior alone is worth a visit for history and architecture enthusiasts alike.
Standing at 168 metres, this iconic observation deck provides a breathtaking, 360° perspective of the city skyline, Noth Shore mountains, and waterfront.
Whether you’re a local seeking a fresh view or a tourist capturing the perfect snapshot, the Vancouver Lookout is a must-visit. If you want to avoid the long lines, choose a day from October to May.
Steeped in history, Waterfront Station is more than just a transportation hub – it’s a living heritage site.
This architectural gem, dating back to the early 20th century, welcomes visitors with its timeless charm. In front of it, Coeur de Lion MacCarthy’s sculpture called Angel of Victory stands, with its bronze angel wings a tribute to the neighborhood’s resilience.
Explore the intricate details of the station, discover its role in Vancouver’s past, and marvel at the blend of historic and modern elements that make it a central landmark in Gastown.
What is the Forbidden Downtown and Gastown Walking Tour?
The Forbidden Downtown and Gastown Walking Tour offers a uniquely themed exploration of Vancouver’s history, focused on the events often omitted from the conventional narrative.
As it provides a glimpse into the past and challenges the historical mainstream, it’s a must-experience for those seeking a richer understanding of Vancouver’s captivating story.
Most of the tour zeroes in on the neighborhood of Gastown, which used to represent the city’s underbelly during Prohibition in the 1920s.
Guides – great storytellers with a knack for history and keeping participants engaged – lead their groups through Gastown’s alleyways and back streets.
There the participants can explore illicit speakeasies, Prohibition-era saloons, and other scandalous sites that contributed to Gastown’s infamous reputation.
In these sites, participants learn about the tales about crime kingpins such as Shui Moy, known as the “king of gamblers,” Joe Celona, arguably the most notorious figure during that era, and L.D. Taylor, then mayor of Vancouver.
The tour stands out as Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours’ longest-running offering. Over the years, it has received multiple recognition including the City of Vancouver Heritage Award Medal of Honour.
It’s a definite must-do in the city – 3,500 reviewers gave it 5 stars on Trip Advisor!
Things to Know about Forbidden Downtown and Gastown Walking Tour
Tour Times: The tour for 1.5 to 2 hours. However, it’s paused at the moment and won’t be available until April 2024.
Start and End Points: Participants meet beside Monaco Cafe at the corner of Water and Cordova Streets. The tour wraps up at Maple Tree Square.
Tour Options: Usually, individuals only select public tour groups and enjoy the walking tour with strangers. However, if you’re coming to Vancouver with at least eight friends, you may want to consider booking a private tour.
Private tours are available year-round. You only need to coordinate them with Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours.
Ticket Prices: The fee for individual participation is CAD 32. Seniors, participants under 18 years old, and full-time students can get it at a discounted rate of CAD 29.
If you decide to participate in the tour, you’ll be contributing to a noble cause as well. Two percent of the ticket cost goes to supporting the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.
Parking: There’s a parking lot at 450 W Cordova at Harbour Centre. That’s the closest to the meeting place, but you can find other parking lots such as the one near Pourhouse at Water Street.
Accessibility: Most of the walking will be done on flat terrain, so those in wheelchairs are definitely welcome. Just note that Gastown has cobblestoned streets.
Age Restrictions: Because of the tour’s dark and potentially sensitive themes, children under the age of 12 are not advised to participate.
Best Time to Take the Forbidden Downtown and Gastown Walking Tour
The Forbidden Downtown and Gastown Walking Tour typically runs from April to October.
During the first two months, the tour is available on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. As summer kicks in from June onwards, they expand the schedule to include Mondays and Wednesdays.
Note that Vancouver’s rainfall can be unpredictable and frequent, even during the comfortable months chosen for the walking tour.
If you prefer a more intimate experience and want to avoid crowds, opting for the off-holiday seasons or weekdays might be ideal. But keep in mind that this popular tour often sells out, so booking ahead is essential to secure your preferred time slot.
For those who want a livelier atmosphere during the tour, check if any special events or festivals are happening in the area during your visit. It could add an extra layer of excitement to the experience.
How to Reserve for the Forbidden Downtown and Gastown Walking Tour
To book a slot in the Forbidden Downtown and Gastown Walking Tour, head over to their homepage, click on “Book Your Tour” and select your preferred date.
You also need to provide other details such as name, email address, and phone number.
Where to Eat after the Forbidden Downtown and Gastown Walking Tour
Address: 213 Carral Street Vancouver, British Columbia V6B 2J2
Phone: +1 (604) 568 0749
Swing by Twisted Fork if you’re in the mood for some family-style goodness. It’s one of the best brunch spots in the city, where you can get banana stuffed brioche French toast, to go with a cup of French press.
Just a heads up – seating is a bit limited, so plan ahead. Make that decision before your tour kicks off and make a reservation to secure a table.
Nuba in Gastown
Address: 207 West Hastings St., Vancouver, BC V6B 1H7
Phone: +1 (604) 688-1655
Many of Nuba’s patrons must’ve had some difficulty looking for it below street level. But you’ll have the advantage because the Dominion Building will be a highlight during the tour, and that’s where you’ll find Nuba – right there in the basement.
Once you’ve made your way downstairs, you can treat yourself to chicken shish tawook, crispy garden falafel, among other Lebanese food. The atmosphere in this restaurant is amazing – if you want to hang out with friends, this place provides the ideal setting.
Address: 157 Alexander Street Vancouver, BC V6A 1B8
Phone: +1 (604) 623 3383
Open from 4:30 to 11 PM most days (or until midnight on Thursdays to Saturdays), the Alibi Room eagerly awaits you as your tour winds down.
They have a great selection of beer and tasty snacks, and it’s the perfect spot for a laid-back evening. Whether you’re looking to unwind with a drink after the tour or savor some late-night bites, the Alibi Room sets the scene for a delightful night out.
Address: 375 Water St, Vancouver, BC V6B 1B8, Canada
Phone: +1 (604) 689 2739
Steamworks Brewpub is a familiar hangout place for friends craving a taste of local craft beer. It’s one of the unmissable spots in the neighborhood, situated right within The Landing.
Their hazy pale ale and double hazy IPA are excellent. Then, pair these brews with their delectable fish chowder, brisket tacos, and loaded nachos.
But their menu is extensive, so whether you’re into classic pub fare or looking to try something new, you can find the perfect complement for your craft beer experience.
Other Walking Tours across Downtown Vancouver
The Dark Secrets of Stanley Park
Stanley Park, now Vancouver’s second-largest urban park, offers some of the city’s best views, century-old trees perfect for forest bathing, and ample opportunities to stay active amidst the great outdoors. No wonder it’s a must-visit for tourists and locals alike.
Now, this tour exposes the complete story of how this park came to be…
Originally slated for a Canadian Pacific Railway railway line, the massive space underwent a significant transformation.
When the railway plan fell through, the government made the strategic decision to convert the area into a park, meeting a request from CPR to thwart potential competition.
The untold story is, that space earmarked for the park was once the village of X̱wáýx̱way, where Salish people lived. Regrettably, they were left out of the picture during the negotiations and their story is the subject of the walking tour.
The 1.5 to 2-hour tour is currently paused and will come back in May 2024.
The Lost Souls of Gastown Tour
The Lost Souls of Gastown, another tour currently on pause, stands out as Forbidden Vancouver’s most popular offering.
From the name itself, you might think it’s a ghost-hunting expedition. You may want to recalibrate your expectations, as what awaits you is a journey through the city’s most gothic history, presented through a captivating live performance.
That’s most likely why it’s their most popular offer. The guides are professional actors, their costumes and lamplight raised up in the middle of the night are enough to immerse you into the story.
So, if it’s not about ghosts, what’s the scoop?
This tour takes you back to pivotal moments in Vancouver’s past—the Great Fire, smallpox outbreaks, and the Gold Rush.
It’s a front-row seat to historical events, including the mysterious death of gold prospector John Bray, who met his demise by roaming the neighborhood after being shot in the head.
Again with the shady details…
The Really Gay History Tour
This tour, which returns in March 2024, speaks to the LGBTQ2+ community and allies who want to deep dive into the long story behind Vancouver’s inclusivity.
Participants will delve into the struggles faced by the gay community within the United Church, the significance of the first lesbian-owned and run bar, Quadra on Homer Street, and the groundbreaking first Pride parade at Nelson Park.
They’ll also discover the fate suffered by progressive establishments like Women’s Bookstore and Centre on Richards Street and Garden Baths on Hornby Street as they formed alliances with the gay and lesbian communities.
The final segment of the tour focuses on Davie Street, home to some of North America’s most vibrant gay villages. And, naturally, it’s the perfect setting for post-tour celebrations.
Guiding this historical journey is Glenn Tkach, Forbidden Vancouver’s dedicated storyteller for this tour. To us, that says something about his knowledge and genuine passion for preserving the city’s queer history.
Holiday History & Hot Chocolate Tour
Just when you thought the scandalous stories were over, think again.
As the name suggests, this tour is more focused on the holiday season. But instead of the usual yuletide cheer and carols, you’ll get juicy stories involving crimes of passion, corruption, and other scandals tucked away in the folds of time.
Forbidden Vancouver’s guides will unearth these tales as they walk you through the most beautiful heritage buildings in the city.
As you delve into these scandalous narratives, you’ll also have the chance to enjoy the festive displays of these establishments, all while escaping the winter chill at each stop.
And to ensure you keep yourself warm? You get an inclusive cup of hot chocolate from Mink!
That’s the main difference between this tour and The Monumental Scandals Tour, a pared down version that’s worth CAD 32 compared to the holiday ticket’s CAD 45.
But sipping hot chocolate indoors, surrounded by holiday displays, all while being captivated by engaging and scandalous stories. That’s our idea of the holidays!