City of Lights: Illuminating Vancouver’s Neon Past

By: Amy Watkins

September 10, 2013

The distinctive buzz and shimmer of neon lights conjures up images of illicit boulevards and seedy 50s street corners – a direct contrast to the squeaky clean, eco-friendly image of present day Vancouver and its notorious neon graveyard. Historic Vancouver was the neon capital of North America, after Las Vegas, with 19,000 neon signs lighting up the city’s cafes, bars and businesses.

Today Vancouver has only a fraction of its neon signs remaining after public outcry in the 60s and 70s encouraged the city leaders to remove many of these “˜eyesores’, and by 1974 bylaws placed restrictions on the use of neon. There’s still a place to get your neon fix though: the Museum of Vancouver’s permanent Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver exhibition features 22 vintage signs selling everything from (legal) drugs to car parts. Photographs document the struggle to save the signs from junkyards and the public resistance to the original neon signs.

Save on Meats | Neon Vancouver

Save on Meats’ original 50s neon sign finally glows again © Save on Meats

After dark in Vancouver there still remains the distant buzz of a bygone era, most notably around Hastings, the old city centre, and Granville Street; echoing the city’s history, which has seen the downtown core move from the eastside to its current location. Since the 1920s, Granville Street has been the entertainment hotspot with film theatres springing up as vaudeville became less popular – the neon Orpheum and Vogue Theatre signs still light up Granville alongside the not-quite-neon ambient lighting of The Great White Way, which stretches 10 blocks through downtown.

Neon Vancouver

Neon graces the walls of Museum of Vancouver’s Ugly Vancouver exhibit © MoV

By the 1940s Granville had taken over from Hastings as the hub of downtown but a neon footprint still remained in the Chinatown area. Slowly, many of the neon signs fell into disrepair – charting the area’s decline from bustling city centre to virtual no-man’s land. Today, as the neighbourhood undergoes its transformation to hip hangout, neon is also making a comeback. The bright pink neon pig that happily rotates above Save on Meats on Hastings is the original sign from the 1957 butcher shop that was restored using colour matches. Mark Brand’s retro diner and butcher shop sits underneath the famous landmark, serving up cheap burgers and milkshakes to the masses.

Hastings | Neon Vancouver

Hastings was the first downtown hub of the city to feature distinctive neon © MoV

Elsewhere in Hastings-Chinatown the City of Vancouver has been actively encouraging a return to neon with trendy restaurants and cocktail bars such as Bao Bei and The Diamond bringing back the illuminations,  and hotels in heritage buildings like the Balmoral, Pennsylvania and Astoria using neon to improve their image.

Smiling Buddha | Neon Vancouver

The Museum of Vancouver salvaged the Smilin’ Buddha sign from a rock band who had taken it on tour © MoV

If you’d like to see the light in Vancouver visit the Museum of Vancouver’s Neon Vancouver Ugly Vancouver exhibition, or download their free app for a self-guided tour of the most quintessential city signs and the history of the businesses and stories behind them. From Jack Chow Insurance’s sign in the world’s narrowest building to the historic W atop the Woodward’s Building in Gastown, Vancouver’s nightlife is definitely buzzing.

Header photo: Visitors to the Museum of Vancouver view the famous Drake Hotel sign © MoV 

Written by Amy Watkins

Virgin Atlantic operates a seasonal, direct service to Vancouver from London Heathrow. Book your flight today – the last flight for this year departs 12 October 2013.

Have you visited Vancouver? Did you catch a glimpse of any vintage Vancouver neon during your stay? If you have a favourite spot, share it with us below. 


Amy Watkins

Amy Watkins ( is an award-winning British travel journalist who has lived in Vancouver since May 2012. Whilst on assignment for UK newspapers and magazines she has eaten thousand-year-old eggs in Hong Kong, swam with crocodiles in Australia and braved a week in the Caribbean with a celebrity chef.

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