When I'm not updating my blog (which sadly, isn't as frequent as I should be), you can almost always find me contributing to random Vancouver-related posts on the TripAdvisor Canada forum.
Recently a poster thanked me saying they were using my "2 day Vancouver itinerary" that I wrote back in July of 2007. So a quick search through the forums and I discovered what I had writen.
The original poster initially asked if a side trip to Victoria was worth it. They were coming to Vancouver from England and only had 2 and a half days to see the city. Did they have time to see Victoria in addition to Vancouver in those 2 and a half days?
Here's what I wrote:
With your limited time, I'd just stick to Vancouver, especially knowing that you're coming all the way from the UK.
You need at least 2-3 days to give Vancouver justice. Victoria is much smaller than Vancouver, so while you could do a day trip there, it would make for a very long day, as it takes at least 3-4 hours of travelling in one direction to get between the two cities. So that eats up 6-8 hours of the one day. You'd want to leave very early and come back very late. Or you'd want an overnight there as to not feel rushed.
It's not that I don't recommend a visit to Victoria, because it offers a very different atmosphere than Vancouver, but a big draw for tourists is that Victoria's very reminiscent of England, with English style gardens, horse drawn carriage rides, Union jack flags, and afternoon tea, etc. Victoria is scenic, but more in a gentle, manicured, "quaint" kind of way... not unlike the UK.
With 2 and a half days in Vancouver, you could see quite a lot at either a busy or a leisurely pace. And there will be dramatic scenery everywhere.
On one day you could spend the morning exploring Stanley Park (1000 acres of gardens and temperate rainforest surrounded by beaches and water), then walk along the seawall along English Bay and take the water taxi to Granville Island (big public market, art studios, one of a kind boutiques, restaurants, street musicians). Take the water taxi back to Yaletown for boutique shopping and a dinner (lots of excellent restaurants). Walk to Robson Street (kind of like London's Oxford Street) and window shop, and then walk down Denman Street (lots of small ethnic restaurnants, cafes, and boutiques) to English Bay beach watching the sunset go down over the distant islands.
On the second day you could take the seabus across Burrard Inlet north from downtown to North Vancouver and hop on the bus up to Grouse Mountain. Take the skyride (a 200 passenger gondola) up to the top of the mountain and enjoy the view/scenery (assuming this is a clear day). They also have a grizzly bear sanctuary up there, and a hokey lumberjack show - all included in the price. In the afternoon you can either go to Capilano Suspension Bridge (located a few minutes down the road from Grouse), but since Capilano is really touristy and expensive, you can opt for the nearby Lynn Canyon Park (located east of Grouse) which has a *free* suspension bridge, in addition to many easy hiking trails through the temperate rainforest. I personally think Lynn Canyon is more scenic due to the trails taking you down to the river bed and up along the canyon walls by a series of staircases.
If you don't feel like doing outdoor activities, you may want to check out the latest exhibits at the Vancouver Art Gallery, or take the 30 minute bus ride out to the University of British Columbia to the excellent Museum of Anthropology (possibly the best museum experience in the city). If you're out at UBC, you may as well also see the Nitobe Japanese Gardens.
If you really like gardens, I highly recommend Van Dusen Botanical Garden (55 acres) and the nearby Queen Elizabeth Park (130 acres). Queen Elizabeth Park has a beautiful sunken garden in a former rock quarry.
Another idea for your second day is to take a water taxi to Kitsilano, a local neighbourhood across False Creek from downtown situated on a very scenic, popular beach. Lots of neat shops and restaurants in that area. Some day it's nice just to relax, have a picnic, and soak up the sun. Kits is a good place as any (or Third Beach in Stanley Park is better if you're wanting something downtown).
Gastown I don't really recommend as a destination but more as a "If you're in the area, you may as well visit" - but only visit in the morning or afternoon - it is not an evening destination. Mostly touristy souvenir shops located in 1890-1900-era brick buildings. Put this lower down on your list of priorities in Vancouver, and if you miss it entirely, it's no big deal.
Chinatown is not a dining destination in Vancouver, but a traditional Chinese market located in some of the oldest and most interesting buildings in the city. Again, only come in the morning or afternoon. The Dr Sun Yat Sen gardens, though very, very tiny, are beautiful.
Both Chinatown and Gastown border on a very unpleasant part of Vancouver, so while not dangerous, the side streets and alleys are dirty/smelly, and there are more mentally ill, drug addicted, homeless people in the vicinity than anywhere else.
So as you can see - more than enough to do in Vancouver for 2 and a half days.
Finally, one thing you can do is to wait until you get to Vancouver and see how you're feeling. You could always wait until the end of the first day to see if you feel like visiting Victoria or staying in Vancouver. If you feel like visiting Victoria, I can recommend taking a tour via Gray Line, or Landsea Tours, or West Coast Sightseeing. The price is about $130 per person and they take you on the ferry, to Butchart Gardens, and give you about 3-4 hours of free time in downtown Victoria. Downtown Victoria is very small, and the main attractions are all located in a 5 block radius from one another. Those day trip tours are 12 hours in length.