Gastown and Chinatown are favorite destinations for visitors and residents alike. Gastown is fast becoming the new Yaletown as überhip stores, ad agencies, and restaurants take over refurbished brick warehouses. Chinatown's array of produce stalls and curious alleyways make it look as if they're resisting gentrification, but inside many of the historic buildings are getting a new lease on life.
Gastown is best known for its cobblestone streets, Victorian era–style streetlamps and an overabundance of souvenir shops from tacky to tasteful. Nicknamed for the garrulous ("Gassy") Jack Deighton who opened his saloon where his statue now stands on Maple Tree Square, this is where Vancouver originated. A fire burned the fledgling community to the ground in 1886, but it was quickly resurrected. By the time the first transcontinental train arrived less than a year later, in May 1887, Vancouver had become an important transfer point for trade with the Far East and a stopping point for those en route to the gold rushes. The waterfront was crowded with hotels, warehouses, brothels, and dozens of saloons—place names such as Gaoler's Mews and Blood Alley can only hint to those early rough-and-tumble days. As commerce shifted toward Hastings Street and the Depression took its toll, though, Gastown fell into general neglect: hotels were converted into low-rent rooming houses and "the Downtown Eastside," which includes Chinatown, gradually earned the reputation as having the poorest demographic in the country.
In 1971, the Gastown area was declared a historic district and it became the focus of a huge revitalization effort. Warehouses that once lined the shorefront were remodeled to house boutiques, cafés, loft apartments, and shops. Gastown became a visitor destination once again and today also attracts hip professional residents, and gentrification is extending into Chinatown.
As for Chinatown, it still has a completely distinct vibe, and although a large percentage of Vancouver's Chinese community has shifted to suburban Richmond, there's still a wonderful buzz of authenticity in the open-front markets, bakeries, and herbalist and import shops. Street signs are in Chinese lettering, streetlights look like lanterns topped with decorative dragons, and much of the architecture is patterned on that of Guangzhou (Canton).