As we wing our way over the Strait of Juan de Fuca in a jaunty de Havilland seaplane, the city of Victoria glitters in the sunshine below us like a gilded jewellery box.
Situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, this is the regal capital of British Columbia — Canada’s fifth largest province. While it was named after a diminutive queen, Victoria is seriously big on hospitality and trademark Canadian charm. It has a wealth of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, a vibrant cultural scene, a diverse culinary landscape, and a laidback waterfront lifestyle that will appeal to just about everyone.
This Victoria BC city guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
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Top cultural activities in Victoria BC
If you’re transiting through Vancouver en route to Victoria, a seaplane transfer will deliver you right into the capital’s inner harbour.
Harbour Air Seaplanes offers several flights a day and it’s a fabulous way to begin your visit. As you disembark at Empress Dock, the first thing you’ll notice is the kaleidoscope of colour emanating from the city’s streets. It’s thanks to sixteen hundred hanging flower baskets packed with petunias, geraniums, marigolds, and more. The baskets are hung every year from June to September.
Immediately in front of you stands the fabulously grand Fairmont Empress hotel, which has presided over Victoria’s waterfront since 1908. A recent multi-million-dollar refurbishment saw the controversial removal of the ivy which covered much of the building’s exterior. It’s revealed more of the century-old brick and stone work, topped by the hotel’s fairytale turrets and soaring roofline.
To your left are the imposing British Columbia Parliament Buildings — home to British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly. Built in the Romanesque Revival style, the complex dates back to the late 1800s. It’s open to the public and free 45-minute tours are offered throughout the day. Check the website for details.
To your right is Victoria’s Downtown — a neat grid of largely one-way streets. Downtown is home to cafes, restaurants, bars, theatres and designer boutiques, and incorporates the original Old Town and Chinatown precincts.
For cultural must-sees and dos during your visit, start with the Royal British Columbia Museum — a mind-blowing cache of cultural treasures that document British Columbia’s natural and human history, with a significant emphasis on First Nations history. There’s a lot to see, so allocate plenty of time for your visit.
Art lovers, head for the wonderful Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. It’s located about ten minutes’ drive from Downtown and offers access to one of the most significant collections of Asian art in Canada. There’s also a gallery devoted to the work of trailblazing turn-of-the-20th-century Victorian artist Emily Carr.
Victoria hosts a diverse calendar of cultural events and festivals throughout the year. The Victoria Fringe, which takes place in late August/early September, offers plenty of theatrical high jinx and adds to the city’s amazing summer vibe. Tourism Victoria produces a handy calendar of events.
Victoria BC for history lovers
While the tech sector is seen as Victoria’s future, it’s not hard to catch a glimpse of the past.
The city was founded in 1843 as a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post. The Gold Rush of 1858 to 1863 saw the settlement boom and Victoria became the capital of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia in 1866.
The Chinatown precinct — which came into being during the Gold Rush — is an important part of the city’s historical make-up. It’s the second oldest Chinatown in North America (behind San Francisco); get the full backstory on a guided walking tour. One of the highlights is atmospheric Fan Tan Alley, which is less than a metre wide at its narrowest point. Once home to illicit gambling and opium dens, it’s now filled with quirky boutiques and camera-clicking tourists.
Work your way from there back across Downtown towards the Empress, exploring the heritage surroundings of Market Square — home to an eclectic range of shops and boutiques (and an open-air market on Sundays). Bastion Square houses cafés, pubs and trendy eateries, while a stroll through nearby Waddington Alley reveals the city’s last remaining (and recently restored) city street paved with wooden blocks. Look for the original metal carriage wheel guards along the gutter.
They say a man’s home is his castle, and that’s literally the case at Craigdarroch Castle — another enduring link with Victoria’s past. Located east of the city centre, this National Historic Site was built by Scottish immigrant and coal baron Robert Dunsmuir to house his family of twelve. Craigdarroch has been fully restored and is open to the public for tours from Wednesday through to Sunday (at the time of writing).
Great places to eat in Victoria BC
With fabulous fresh produce and seafood, there’s no shortage of options for top nosh in Victoria.
For a taste of, well, just about everything, Off the Eaten Track offers five guided food tours that will give you a broad introduction to the city’s culinary landscape — along with plenty of recommendations for eateries to return to during your stay. The Chinatown Food and City Tour starts at the old Hudson Bay Building — now the Victoria Public Market, and continues through Chinatown and the Old Town. Stops include the tasty Victoria Pie Company, Sutra for an interesting take on poutine (tapioca fries, butter chicken sauce and Indian-style cheese) by celebrity Canadian chef Vikram Vij, and Bao in Chinatown for sensational Korean-style steamed buns.
In the mood for coffee or brunch? Cool cafes abound across Downtown. Top choices include Two Percent Jazz Coffee at the Victoria Public Market, and hip and very happening Fol Epi with its seriously awesome organic pastries. Renowned family run roaster Caffe Fantastico has three bustling locations around the city: Tre Fantastico at the Parkside Hotel, Dockside Green, and their roastery hub at Quadra Village.
If the sea air has you craving fresh fish and chips, grab one of the cute yellow water taxis bobbing up and down at the Empress Dock and head around to Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s home to Barb’s Fish and Chips (seasonal), which has been serving up great fried fare for 30+ years. While you’re in this watery neck of the woods, take a stroll among the permanently moored and beautifully maintained houseboats.
An upscale take on another genre of casual dining is on offer at Agrius Restaurant (sister establishment to Fol Epi). It services organic pizzas and charcuterie, with all ingredients sourced locally.
And finally, eat well and feel good about it at Ten Acres Bistro. The name of the game here is sustainable paddock-to-plate cuisine, and much of what’s on the menu comes from the restaurant’s own plot on the Saanich Peninsula. All waste is composted back to the farm.
Where to shop in Victoria BC
While big name brands are on hand if you want them, the best thing about shopping in Victoria is seeking out quirky boutiques and independent retailers.
As you’re sidling down Fan Tan Alley, pop into the Umbrellatorium and Canery, which conjures up visions of a Victorian yesteryear with its range of brollies and canes.
Over on Government Street, Munro’s Books is well worth a visit to purchase a holiday read and admire the heritage setting and stunning artwork that adorns the walls. Check the website for literary events happening during your stay.
With its past firmly rooted in British tradition, it’s no surprise that ‘taking tea’ is a popular pursuit in Victoria. If you are in the market for taking tea home with you, head to Murchie’s Tea and Coffee (right next door to Munro’s Books). They’ve been purveying fine tea leaves for more than a century.
Sweet tooths, cross Government Street and pay a visit to the heritage store of Rogers’ Chocolates. Rogers also started more than a century ago and the Victoria Cream was Charles Rogers’ original creation. It remains popular to this very day.
Ways to relax in Victoria BC
Victoria is an inherently relaxing destination.
Just wandering along the waterfront in the warm sunshine is a great way to unwind, as your cares drift away on an accommodating sea breeze.
Beacon Hill Park is within easy reach of the city centre, and comes complete with play areas, fountains, walking trails and an English cricket pitch. One of the world’s tallest First Nations story (totem) poles can be found on the southern edge of the park.
From there, head west along Dallas Road (with the water on your left) to Ogden Point. A stroll on the breakwater out to the lighthouse and back is popular with locals, and you can watch Victoria’s busy harbour in action.
If you are visiting Victoria between April and October, a fair number of passing water craft are likely to be whale watching boats. Heading out to spot the giants of the deep that migrate to the region annually is hugely popular. Prince of Whales offers a number of options, including open-air zodiac-style cruises. It’s possible to spot several species of whale, including humpbacks, greys and Orcas.
Combine your whale watching cruise with a visit to the fabulous Butchart Gardens at Brentwood (you’ll be dropped at the garden’s pier in Tod Inlet). Mrs Jennie Butchart’s early 20th century efforts to transform a disused quarry into the ultimate Victorian pleasure garden now draws visitors from across the globe. This labour of horticultural love has passed through the Butchart generations and today it reigns as possibly Victoria’s most popular attraction.
If all that activity has left you ready for a relaxing cuppa, it’s time for tea at the Empress. Tea at the Empress has been a much-loved ritual for more than a century. Settle into the sumptuous surroundings of the Lobby Lounge from mid-morning to late afternoon for the famous tea service, which includes a choice of 21 specialty teas, along with three tiers of devilishly delicious sandwiches and pastries.
Alternatively, you may like to retire to the Q Bar under the watchful gaze of a portrait of the hotel’s imperious namesake (looking less than amused) for a G&T made with the Empress’ signature 1908 Gin. Crafted by Victoria Distillers and infused with butterfly pea blossom, the gin’s indigo hue magically turns a soft pink when you add the tonic. Perhaps even Queen Victoria herself would have found this a delightful party trick.
Where to stay in Victoria BC
For more than a century the Empress Hotel has set the standard for luxury accommodation in Victoria. Built in the tradition of Canada’s great railway hotels, and located right in the heart of the city, many of the 464 guest rooms and suites offer stunning views across the working inner harbour.
The hotel has recently completed a $60 million-dollar upgrade, which has ushered in a new era of luxury for guests. The rooms and suites offer exactly the right balance of period heritage touches and sophisticated modern conveniences. The sweeping porte-cochere and spectacular new lobby set the scene for what is guaranteed to be a stunning stay.
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About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours and Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.