Vancouver, Washington

Vancouver’s New Columbia River Waterfront Centers the City

Standing on a restaurant deck overlooking the Columbia River from the waterfront redevelopment project in Vancouver, Washington, I marvel at the activity around me. A stately paddle wheeler cruises by as airplanes on their way into Portland fly overhead. The Interstate 5 bridge to the left and a train bridge to the right frame the view. Below, the visual centerpiece of the project, a V-shaped, cable-stay pier, juts out into the water like the bow of a ship with a high mast.

Just a short walk from downtown’s Esther Short Park, this campus of offices, restaurants, homes and public green spaces is on 32 acres that Esther, one of the area’s early settlers, deeded to the city in the mid-19th century. The years-long project is restoring public access to riverfront property and bringing modern touches to an area steeped in natural and historic charms.

Vancouver is a great starting point for a Columbia River Gorge road trip or a stop on the way to Oregon’s Tillamook Coast. (Please take recommended safety precautions when considering any travel, and call or check online before you go to confirm the availability of specific amenities and seasonal events and gatherings.)

The Vancouver Land Bridge (photo courtesy of the City of Vancouver)

Strolling and Sightseeing

Strolling Vancouver’s extensive, paved urban trail system can’t be beat for soaking in the sights downtown and on the waterfront. The Discovery Historic Loop Trail links downtown to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site to the east via the Vancouver Land Bridge, a curvy, earth-covered path designed by site architect Johnpaul Jones in collaboration with nationally renowned artist Maya Lin as part of the Confluence project.

Old Apple Tree Park just west of the bridge was home to the state’s oldest apple tree, which was planted in 1826 and died in 2020. A giveaway of cuttings from the famously gnarled tree was a tradition at the annual Old Apple Tree Festival, celebrated with food, music and cider on the first Saturday of October (this event was canceled in 2020; check back in 2021).

From the park, you can continue along the 5-mile Waterfront Renaissance Trail, which extends to a park in the new waterfront project. In the center of downtown, Esther Short Park is a great place to watch the comings and goings of locals and visitors. On Saturdays and Sundays from May through October, the Vancouver Farmers Market is one of the largest in the state; the Saturday fall farmers market runs Nov. 7 through Dec. 19.

Fort Vancouver (photo by Stephen Greenwood)

Exploring Fort Vancouver

You could easily spend several hours exploring living history and period buildings inside Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, but check online before you go as the attractions reopen in phases for COVID-19 safety.

The grounds include Fort Vancouver, established in 1825 as the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Co.’s interior fur trade (destroyed by fire in 1866, its reconstruction began in the 1960s); Vancouver Barracks, the first U.S. Army post in the Pacific Northwest, dating back to 1849; and Pearson Air Museum.

Tacos and rice at Little Conejo (photo courtesy of Little Conejo)

Delicious Restaurants

The city is also home to an eclectic dining scene. Little Conejo entices with mouthwatering lamb barbacoa tacos served on freshly made tortillas. Nom Nom Restaurant and Grill specializes in modern Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. Crowd-pleasers include its huge portions of Nem Kao, lettuce wraps with minced chicken, crispy rice and fresh herbs. Nearby, The Smokin’ Oak brings Texas-style barbecue to town. At Elements, chef/owner Miguel Sosa offers modern cuisine with global influences, such as a vanilla-brined pork chop bathed in handcrafted mole. WildFin American Grill, a growing family of upscale seafood spots, was among the first restaurants to open on the waterfront.

This Vancouver mural was painted by Guy D. Drennan on the office building of the city’s newspaper, The Columbian, at Grant and West Eighth streets. (Photo courtesy of Guy D. Drennan)

A Lively Arts Scene

Citywide, murals and outdoor sculptures reflect the lively arts scene Vancouver shares with neighboring Portland, Oregon.

Downtown Vancouver’s Art at the Cave showcases local artists. The Downtown First Friday Art Walk is a great way to immerse yourself in the scene, as shops and restaurants join galleries in creating a festive setting for perusing locally created works.

–Written by Jennifer Burns Bright; Rendering of the Vancouver waterfront at top courtesy of Gramor Development.

This story was published in September 2018 and updated in October 2020.

Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.

  • From Seattle: About 165 miles
  • From Spokane​: About 355 miles
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