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Exploring the hidden stories of Vancouver

These tours revel in unique experiences.

Forbidden Walking Tours takes tourists and locals for trips  down Vancouver’s colourful past.

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Forbidden Walking Tours takes tourists and locals for trips down Vancouver’s colourful past.

From back-alley glimpses into the historic brothels and opium dens of Chinatown, to an edible tour of historic Japan-town, Vancouver tour companies are getting creative and exploring the hidden side of the city.

Forbidden Walking Tours showcases the mysteries of Vancouver’s darker side, including a Prohibition City tour, and a gothic Lost Souls of Gastown tour featuring stories of the great fire, smallpox outbreaks and various unsolved murders. Even bucolic Stanley Park holds clandestine truths, including secret cemeteries and the fascinating history of Deadman’s Island.

Owner WilI Woods was inspired by walking tours he’d joined in other cities, including the Edinburgh Ghost Tours, “which use actors and gothic dark spaces to create really compelling experiences." He decided Vancouver needed something similar.

Vancouver’s status as a port city means, as mayor L.D. Taylor so aptly put it  in the 1920s,”We ain't no Sunday School town."

“The characters that have made Vancouver home over the years have left so many stories to tell," said Woods.

One of the most popular Forbidden Tours is The Secrets of the Penthouse tour, held at the over 70-year old venue.

The evening includes a guided backstage tour by club owner Danny Filippone (whose father and uncles built the club in the 40s), author Aaron Chapman, and retired VPD copy Grant McDonald.

"The stories they share of the crimes, the mobsters, the scandals associated with the Penthouse have to be heard to be believed, “ said Woods. 

They attract an almost equal number of tourists and locals. Woods explained that, “It opens the whole tour up and gives it a real camaraderie. We even had one couple who met on our tour and then got married.“

At Off the Eaten Path, tours focus on the lesser known culinary gems of the city. Co-founder Bonnie Todd started the company in 2012.

With a background in tourism and a passion for good food, she was also an avid traveller.

“I tend to see more adventurous travellers and a bit younger demographic as our tours focus on non-touristy areas," she said. "We also get a lot of locals, particularly in the winter, that are just looking for something different to do and to maybe get out of their food rut.”

Ranging from butcher shops to tea salons, the tours explore the lesser-known spots.

Focused on unique neighbourhoods like Railtown and Olympic Village, the tours scout out “behind-the-scenes experiences like meeting the chefs and owners, or getting a private tasting. We also tell the history and stories, and give our guests insider tips.”

“When I travelled, I always wanted to know where the locals ate instead of the obvious tourist traps. I want to see the hole-in-the-wall family run businesses that are doing good food,” said Todd

Todd sees a growing demand for her unique tours. Their Ice Cream & Pizza tour always sells out in the summer, and their Eat Like A Canadian tour to celebrate the Canada 150 celebrations was also extremely popular.

Woods noted the appeal of Vancouver’s "explorable" nature.

“So much of the city is walkable. The neighbourhoods are so different, rich in history, but so near to each other. It's really remarkable compared to many North American cities.”

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