One of Vancouver's greatest assets is its public beaches. At one moment you can be in the heart of the hustle and bustle and only minutes later transport yourself to where mountains and saltwater meet, where ocean kayakers are paddling, harbour seals are swimming, and blue herons are nesting in trees.
So close and yet worlds apart.
In 2006 I attended a UBC Geography alumni event where the guest lecturer was urban commentator Lance Berelowitz. Berelowitz had just released his book titled Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination, and shared with us his thoughts on his adopted city. He remarked quite matter-of-factly that Vancouver doesn't have any real public gathering places in the urban core. Those that were designed as one are hardly ever used as such. Unlike other cities where public gatherings occur in the middle of the city - in city squares, city parks, and busy plazas - Vancouver's public gathering spaces are peripheral. The largest public collective experience (the HSBC Celebration of Light) exists for 4 days in the summer at the edge of the city along its waterfront, when over 100,000 come together and gaze outwards with their backs to Vancouver. That is the collective Vancouver experience, and really explains so much. His interpretation was rather enlightening and it really explained what made Vancouver feel different - something I could never put my finger on.
With that in mind, it becomes apparent that to really understand Vancouver - what makes it this liveable, enjoyable place (or so the polls apparently say) - you really have to experience Vancouver from its shore. Sure, Vancouver's beaches don't complete with those of Mexico, Hawaii, Brazil, or Australia, but nobody should come here seeking tropical water and powdery sand. Heck, the majority of these beaches have the sand trucked in! Vancouver's beaches (as rocky, dusty, or barnacle-infested as they are) are more about the scenery and recreation - they're spaces where one can venture alone or with others and feel connected with the spirit of the west coast. If anything, they'll give you a taste of what it means to live here and a chance to test out the local lifestyle.
My overviews of Vancouver's beaches are incomplete - basic at best - but should hopefully help give a sense of the differences between the popular beaches in and around Vancouver should you want to visit one... and you should!
English Bay Beach (map)
English Bay (rarely but sometimes known as First Beach) is the most popular downtown beach and one of Vancouver's oldest recreational sites. It's located at the focal point of the West End where Davie, Denman, and Beach intersect. The sand is a little on the dusty side, but you don't go there for the sand, you go for the view and the people watching.
In the summer months there's a kayak rental shop and floating waterslide for those brave enough to swim. On the last Wed/Sat of July and the first Wed/Sat of August, English Bay becomes packed with tens of thousands of people to watch the annual Celebration of Light fireworks competition - the best viewing location is here.
English Bay especially comes alive when it's sunny - especially moreso on warm, sunny evenings - the sunsets here are spectacular. English Bay tends to be a bit of an after-dinner stroll destination with all the little restaurants, coffee shops, and dessert places across the street on Denman. If you only have one evening in Vancouver and want to know where to end up at the end of your day, this is where I'd go.
Official website: http://vancouver.ca/parks/rec/beaches/english.htm
Sunset Beach (map)
Official website: http://vancouver.ca/parks/rec/beaches/sunset.htm
Lost Lagoon (a major bird/raccoon habitat) is located behind the beach so you'll often get Canada geese feeding in the nearby fields. In the evening watch out for the resident skunk snooping around the garbage cans. And if you look up in sky at dusk, you'll spot bats flying around feeding on insects. In the summer months, there can often be spontaneously drum circles nearby.
Official website: http://vancouver.ca/parks/rec/beaches/second.htm
Third Beach (map)
Third Beach is my favourite beach in Stanley Park. While it's a relatively small beach, it has some of the cleanest, softest sand in town, and a very peaceful, relaxing atmosphere.
Third Beach is located on the opposite side of Stanley Park's entrance, so I think that half the attraction of the beach for me is that it requires a tad bit more effort to get to, which is why it's never as crowded as English Bay or as busy as Second Beach. It just feels like you're more secluded... like you're on vacation on some island, miles away from the city.
There are logs placed in rows along the beach, which offers a bit of privacy. There are designated swimming areas, and life guards on duty during the summer. As well, there is a concession stand up the stairs from Third Beach which is open when the weather's nice, selling hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, and other fun snack food.
Oh, and the sunsets? They're absolutely spectacular from here!
Official website: http://vancouver.ca/PARKS/rec/beaches/3rd_beach.htm
Kitsilano Beach (map)
Vanier Park dog beach (map)
Technically called Hadden Park, it's not really a beach you'll want to lounge around and sunbathe on unless you're seeking the company of playful off-leash dogs! This tiny sandy beach at the base of the cliffs on the west side of Vanier Park is a designated dog beach where it's legal to keep your dogs off leash. I've honestly seen 30+ dogs on this tiny beach at one time. It's amusing nonetheless.
Official website: http://vancouver.ca/parkfinder_wa/index.cfm?fuseaction=FAC.ParkDetails&park_id=110
Jericho Beach (map)
Jericho Beach is located in front of Jericho Park in Kitsilano by Alma and 4th Ave along the southern shore of English Bay. Jericho forms the eastern segment of the vast Vancouver beach that stretches from the northern foot of Alma Street at the way west to the cliffs at UBC. Famous for being a large mellow beach with plenty of green space - a popular place for large group gatherings, picnics, beach volleyball. Sailing club nearby means lots of boating activity, including a rather large windsurfing community. This beach is also ground zero for the Vancouver Folk Festival in July - an incredible must-do-at-least-once Vancouver experience, just for the ambiance of it all.
Official website: http://vancouver.ca/parks/rec/beaches/jericho.htm
Locarno Beach (map)
Just west of Jericho, Locarno is the next beach over and one of my favourite evening picnic sites. You can drive right up and presto - instant beautiful scenery, gorgeous evening light, kayakers, harbour seals, blue herons, people playing volleyball, people having large family picnics. There are numerous picnic tables located in a variety of locations - in cedar groves, in grassy fields, or right at the sand's edge. The beach is pretty spacious, all things considered. In the day it can be quite busy with recreation but by evening it's this absolutely spectacular.
Official website: http://vancouver.ca/parks/rec/beaches/locarno.htm
Spanish Banks (map)
West of Locarno and Jericho - and to be honest, it's just a continuation of them both. Spanish Banks is at the base of Pacific Spirit Regional Park closest to UBC - lots of green spaces and wide stretches of sandy beach make this a popular "let's get out of the city" beach despite the fact that you're on the fringe's of Vancouver's most expensive residential neighbourhood, West Point Grey. The massive green spaces and endless parking makes this a popular picnic and group gathering site. Named after the Spanish explorers of the 1770's - the first Europeans to scout these shores - the beach's official name is "Spanish Bank", but almost everyone makes the name plural. I'm not sure why.
Official website: http://vancouver.ca/parks/rec/beaches/spanishbank.htm#speast
Wreck Beach (map)
The famous "clothing optional" beach and one of the last remaining beaches in Vancouver where the hippy legacy continues. Drum circles, naked people, bonfires, skimboarders, university students - those looking to chill. For the longest time it used to be known as the only beach where there was no view of civilization from the shore, up until a few years ago when UBC developed condos nearby - a cause of greatly heated debate. Despite the occasional RCMP patrol, the area is known for its cheerful black market where vendors (nude or otherwise) go around selling alcohol, recreational drugs, food and trinkets. Some call Wreck Beach a nude beach, but it's a bit of a misnomer as every time I've been here (summer or otherwise) the majority of people were clothed. As long as you're respectful, all are welcome. Located at the base of steep rainforest-covered cliffs behind the Museum of Anthropology out at UBC, it's only accessible by a staircase carved into the cliffs. Be prepared for a strenuous climb up afterward.
Official website: http://www.wreckbeach.org/
Tower Beach (map)
Around the corner from Wreck Beach is Tower Beach, named after the long abandoned WWII pillboxes installed to warn of Japanese attacks that never came. Like Wreck, you can't get to Tower Beach without descending stairs down a cliff, although one set of stairs follows down a ravine. As far as beaches go, it's mostly cobble and eroding cliffs - a beach best used as a field trip destination where local physical geography professors drag their students to ponder the Vashon till and rates of erosion. (Don't ask how I know). It's not known as a clothing optional beach, although you will find the occasional lost nudist wandering over while confused university students stand around pretending not to notice. When I studied at UBC I sometimes used Tower Beach as a quiet place to stroll around to waste time between classes. And on dreamy June nights, a week before summer soltice, spontanious parties happen where admidst the poi dancing, drummers, and DJ's, hundreds of locals unite to embrace the morning sun.