Which is the most beautifully situated city in the world? Not necessarily the most beautiful city itself, but the one most beautifully placed in terms of the geography of its location. I have always remembered a magazine article from my youth that named seven such cities; among them was Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada in the province of British Columbia.  

Recently my wife and I finally got to Vancouver, as well as its neighbor Victoria, British Columbia’s provincial capital city. Having previously visited San Francisco, Sydney (Australia), and Naples (Italy), the Canadian city put me more than half-way on my goal of visiting all seven. It may be hard to believe for those familiar with San Francisco, but Vancouver is certainly the most beautifully situated city in North America, and, with apologies to the others, easily tops the list of those cities I have visited to date. Additionally, it is an exceptionally wonderful city irrespective of its siting.

Vancouver occupies a peninsula of low, rolling terrain on the Canadian mainland, bounded on the north by the Burrard Inlet, which is an appendage of the large Strait of Georgia that lies to its west. The Strait in turn separates the mainland from the vastness of Vancouver Island. As one flies into Vancouver’s main airport, the approach will more than likely take you out over the Strait, and bring you in from the west. Make sure you have window seat.

Across the Burrard Inlet from downtown are Vancouver’s northern suburbs, anchored by the aptly named North Vancouver. Immediately behind these the Coast Belt mountain ranges collide with the Inlet, forming a dramatic snow-capped backdrop (even in August!) to this region of two-and-a-half million people. The waterfront of downtown Vancouver is spectacular, stretching from Stanley Park, which protrudes into the sea on the western side, all the way to the east along the moorings and seaplanes at Coal Harbour, then progressing past the modern convention facilities at Canada Place and historic Gastown, to points beyond. Gently rising up to the south behind the water’s edge is the central business district.

Downtown Vancouver provided some surprises. For one, it covers a much larger area than might be expected for a city of this size, perhaps attributable to the mixed land uses present. The urban core of a metro area of comparable size in the U.S. is likely to have a more specialized set of uses; our city centers are usually dedicated to commercial purposes only. In the western Canada metropolis, residential and commercial uses are considerably intermingled, oftentimes within the same high-rise building. As a result, street life in Vancouver is more like that of our largest cities (e.g., New York or Chicago) than our newer, growing cities in the south and west.

Another surprise: despite the car traffic typical of a major city, Vancouver is a pedestrian-friendly place. Most important in this respect is the obedience of Canadian drivers to traffic laws that force them to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks - contrast this with New York! Another contributing factor is the dearth of one-way streets; it seems that two-way traffic everywhere dampens the overall pace of vehicular frenzy. Last, major freeways have made little penetration into the downtown area, making it free of the multi-lane barriers we see frequently in our own cities (the downside: traffic snarls).

From an aesthetic standpoint, the most noticeable aspect of Vancouver is its whiteness, giving the impression at first glance of a Latin American city. Our neighbors to the south build out of concrete, with overhanging projections that shield the sun. This emphasizes the whiteness of the concrete material set against the shaded sections of building facades. In southwestern Canada, we see a city also composed of shades of white. However, it is mostly the bright aluminum building panels set against large expanses of glass that creates this impression. In Vancouver, the sun is welcomed inside during its infrequent visits in the colder months. Windows are large and glass is clear or lightly tinted, allowing visual space to penetrate past the bright, projecting building facades—creating a graphical effect similar to the aforementioned look in Latin cities. On sunny summer days in Vancouver, the luster of the physical city reinforces the brightness and cheerfulness of the sun.  

From the perspective of a Houston commercial architect, contrast this with our Texas cities, where sizable buildings are largely faced with reflective glass and stone or masonry panels. The surfaces of our structures in the southwestern U.S. act as barriers to the sun, and to light and vision. This creates an overall effect with more color and darker hues, an untidy collage more than the lightly dappled glow one sees in Vancouver.

While visiting this part of Canada, one should not miss the opportunity to take a ferry or seaplane over for a visit to Victoria. This charming city is perched at the southern end of Vancouver Island, looking across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the state of Washington and the gleaming mountains on the Olympic Peninsula. Nine years ago, from Hurricane Ridge up in Olympic National Park, my family and I looked down in the opposite direction and could see the city of Victoria. Even from such a distance one could sense that it too was a wonderful place.

Topography and water--mountains and the sea—are key ingredients for a beautifully sited city. Although the seven cities of which I read decades ago are all large, I can also think of some smaller towns that could make such a list. Large or small, make your own list and get started on visiting them!