This is the second in an occasional series, Day Trippers, focusing on accessible, low-cost out-and-back trips throughout the region.

If you think Vancouver is an I-5 traffic snarl en route to Portland, think again. While you might not spend a whole weekend here (there’s no Powell’s), it’s got the makings of a fantastic day trip, especially if you have a hankering for a well-made latte, choriqueso tacos, or a flight of local beers. Add in small-town charm and a local literary pilgrimage site, and Vancouver skeptics will be changing their tune by the time the train pulls into the station. Here’s where to go to make it happen.

Morning coffee with a (train) view

First things first: Leave the car at home. The train is the most picturesque way to points south, and two Amtrak lines serve Vancouver: the Los Angeles-bound Coast Starlight and the Pacific Northwest-focused, commuter-friendly Cascades. Skip the Coast Starlight’s less reliable Wi-fi and byzantine dining-car reservation system (both utterly useless to day-trippers) and catch the 7:25 a.m. Cascades departure out of Seattle’s King Street Station (303 S. Jackson St., Seattle). Grab provisions from the bistro car (I recommend the Snoqualmie Lodge oatmeal, $4, and a cup of Caffe Appassionato coffee, $2.25), and let the coffee wake you up as you cruise past picturesque views of Puget Sound and highlights like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. That seafoam-green skeleton jutting up from bright-blue waves is one of my favorite clear-day views anywhere, and it’s best enjoyed when you’re not stuck behind the wheel.

Brautigan Library: Vancouver is home to what might be the world's only library of unpublished manuscripts

The Cascades car for Vancouver-bound passengers also tends to be less full than the one for the Portland-bound, so stretch out, drink up, and arrive in Vancouver ready for the day. When you do, you can either walk into downtown Vancouver or grab a rideshare (my Lyft from the train station to the front steps of the Clark County Historical Museum cost $9.30 with tip and took all of five minutes).

Get your bearings, some literary history and more coffee

Downtown Vancouver reminds me a bit of small-town New England — there’s not exactly a village green with a gazebo on it (although Esther Short Park, at 610 Esther St., comes close), but there is a former public library, all sweeping front steps and charming red brick. Originally a Carnegie library, it has that signature neoclassical look, and now houses the Clark County Historical Museum (1511 Main St., Vancouver, cchmuseum.org), home to exhibits on the culture and history of the region. Five dollars gets you in ($3 for kids).

In the basement, you’ll find another piece of local history: the tiny Brautigan Library, a collection of 300-plus unpublished manuscripts that was moved to Vancouver in 2010. Named for Washington-born author Richard Brautigan, the library is modeled on a conceit from one of his novels, “The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966,” whose protagonist maintains a collection of unpublished manuscripts in a Carnegie library in San Francisco. For space reasons, the library is closed to printed submissions, but still welcomes any digital manuscripts in search of a home.

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Walk south from the museum down Main Street and you’ll pass Kiggins Theatre (1011 Main St., Vancouver) with its old-timey red-and-yellow facade (across the street, check out a sculpture that looks like an anthropomorphized video camera with film canisters for hands), plus inviting breweries and coffee shops.

Head into Compass Coffee for strong espresso in a spotless shop with plenty of room at a big communal table. Unlike in Seattle, there’s no jockeying for  seats! (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)
Head into Compass Coffee for strong espresso in a spotless shop with plenty of room at a big communal table. Unlike in Seattle, there’s no jockeying for seats! (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)

Need a pick-me-up? Hang a right onto Washington Street, and head into Compass Coffee (817 Washington St., Vancouver) for strong espresso in a spotless shop with a big communal table (no jockeying for a seat!) peopled by cool-looking youths working on laptops.

Fill up on tacos, then DIY a brewery tour

When you think of Vancouver, you probably don’t think of excellent tacos. But that’s about to change now that Little Conejo (114 W. Sixth St., Vancouver, littleconejo.com) is here, thanks to Mark Wooten and Mychal Dynes, previously of Portland’s Noble Rot (fancy-pants wine flights, local eats) and Nodoguro (high-end sushi), respectively.

The brick-and-mortar iteration of a Portland taco truck, Little Conejo serves fresh, handmade tortillas and taco fixings sourced from partner farm Phantom Rabbit in an inviting, pastel-trimmed space. The choriqueso (chorizo and cheese) tacos ($3.75) are especially good, with just the right balance between the creamy cheese and spicy sausage. The gringas ($5-$6) are also delicious, as was the fresh juice I tried ($4). Little Conejo also stocks 80 different kinds of mezcal if you’re in the mood for something stronger.

Speaking of which: One of the real arguments for visiting Vancouver is its assortment of breweries. String them together for the itinerary of your beer-snob dreams. Begin at Loowit Brewing Company (507 Columbia St., Vancouver, loowitbrewing.com), which boasts the most aggressively-Pacific Northwest promotional copy I’ve ever read: “Our roots in the Pacific Northwest are as deep as the roots of the volcano our brewery is named for.”

One of the real arguments for visiting Vancouver is its assortment of breweries, like Loowit Brewing Company. (Loowit Brewing)
One of the real arguments for visiting Vancouver is its assortment of breweries, like Loowit Brewing Company. (Loowit Brewing)

They’re also not wrong: With arcade games including Star Trek pinball, bathroom walls covered in comic-book pages and fully geeky beer names like Aeroplane Over the C and Go Flying Nimbus (both IPAs), they clearly know their audience. Want something lighter? Try the Loowit lager.

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Next up: While it doesn’t quite have the nerdy charm of Loowit, Heathen Brewing’s Feral Public House (1109 Washington St., Vancouver, heathenbrewing.com/feral-public-house/) has friendly staff and a massive selection of beer, wine and cider. Order in tiny portions if you’d like to try more than one. I liked the crispy, light Promiscuous Blonde, and pleasingly lime-inflected kolsch, About Damn Lime. If you’re feeling peckish, the pretzel bites are appropriately chewy and come with a tasty Vantucky pale ale mustard sauce for dipping.

(It bears mentioning that these two are just the tip of Vancouver’s brew-y iceberg, but they were more than enough for the low tolerance and sensitive stomach on this reporter.)

Return trip wine down

Once you’ve come to embrace Vancouver as the cultural and culinary destination it is, it’s time to go home. Walk or rideshare back to the Amtrak station and grab the 7:38 p.m. Cascades departure.

If you’re still hungry, hit up the bistro car, which has a rotating menu of freshly prepared options (an $8 spinach salad on my last trip down) alongside more typical “I’m in transit, time for junk food!” selections, like mini cheese pizzas ($6) and macaroni and cheese ($7.50, I like it drowned in hot sauce and salt ‘n’ pepper packets; I am a woman of simple needs).

If for some reason you want a night cap after your booze cruise through Vancouver, here’s one of the weird secrets about Amtrak Cascades trains: They have kind of a sleeper-hit drink menu, with wine that comes in weirdly generous 375ml bottles ($15.50), and hard cider and local beers like Ninkasi Brewing’s Total Domination ($7.50).

A cup of tea or hot chocolate ($2.25) can also be a nice accompaniment to chill return-trip reading — or resting. Besides, there’s nothing quite like the reassuring motion of a train car and a window-seat sunset to lull a traveler to sleep. And after a day spent challenging your assumptions about Vancouver, you’ve earned it. 

This post has been updated to include information about Esther Short Park.

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If you go

There are four daily Amtrak Cascades departures from Seattle to Vancouver, Washington. Check schedules at amtrak.com.

The Clark County Historical Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.