British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria, sits on the southern coast of Vancouver Island. Although Victoria feels quaint, it is the 7th most densely populated city in Canada. Victoria is part of the Pacific Northwest and just off the coast of the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland corridor. With similar weather and landscape, Victoria is like Seattle’s classy British cousin.
Victoria, BC rakes in travel awards every year. CNN Travel calls it one of the best places to visit in 2020, Travel + Leisure has named it one of the the top 5 cities in Canada and Conde Nast readers rank it in the top 10 friendliest cities in the world and it routinely ranks in their top 25 cities in the world.
It is only a 3 hour ferry ride from Seattle and 90 minutes from Vancouver. You can also take sea planes from both cities. Victoria is easy to get to for a vacation that is hard to forget. At 290 miles long and 62 miles wide, Vancouver Island is the largest island on the West Coast of the Americas. Vancouver Island is situated off the west coast, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Straight of Georgia on the other. Victoria sits on the southern tip of the island. Most of the population and noteworthy vacation destinations are on the middle to lower half of the island.
While the city of Victoria was originally named after Queen Victoria, it is also nicknamed Garden City because of English-style gardens, the lush green space infused into this urban area and the nearby Butchart Gardens, an oversized botanical garden.
Victoria is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest. It was officially settled by the British in 1843, and European explorers had been coming here since the late 1700’s. But they weren’t the first to discover it, it was already inhabited by the Songhees First Nation.
THINGS TO DO
Water Taxi – If you have a chance, grab a ride in one of the adorable little water taxis that cruise back and forth on the harbor.
Craigdarroh Castle – For Castle connoisseurs, Victoria offers the Craigdarroch Castle. If you want to get a taste of 1890’s Victoria high society to see what the finest the Industrial Age could buy, this is the place to go. Tourist note: This is basically Canada’s version of Hearst Castle on a much smaller, manageable scale.
Nearby to Craigdarroh Castle you can find the Rotary International Garden of Friendship, Victorian Rose Garden and English Country Garden and Rhododendron Garden. This interactive map gives you a helpful lay of the land. If and if you want to go local, check out the Moss Street Market on Saturdays (10 am to 2 pm) from May to October. Or if you want to stay indoors, check out the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Parliament Buildings – For more Canadian culture and history, you can tour the BC Parliament. The best thing about touring the parliament is that it is short (less than 45 minutes), free and available year-round.
Royal BC Museum – This museum has a collection of more than 7,000,000 artifacts from all across British Columbia and it is considered one of Canada’s leading museums and research centers. And if you want to feel younger, go explore 550 million years of natural history and 9,000 years of human history in British Columbia. And if you want a more modern experience, like something from this century, check out their IMAX.
Whale Watching – If you’d rather see the sea than a sea of people, a whale watching tour is a great option. It’s possible to see whales off the coast of Victoria year-round, however peak season is May to October.
Beacon Hill Park – Definitely stop by here in the summer for peacocks, bike tours, bike rides and the world’s largest free standing totem pole.
Carriage Tour – There are several carriage tour operators and you can find them downtown near the Parliament building.
Miniature World only took a tiny bit of time out of our day. You could say it only takes a minuscule amount of time to tour this. I thought it was a teeny bit odd, but my children enjoyed it. (If you don’t have children, you probably want to skip this tiny stop.)
Victoria Bug Zoo – We didn’t get a chance to check this place out, but it is near Miniature world and gets good reviews on TripAdvisor.
Gonzales Hill Regional Park has some nice views of the city of Victoria, ocean (Juan de Fuca Strait), the Olympic mountains and the Sooke Hills. The park also houses the Gonzales Observatory.
Gonzales observatory in Gonzales Hill Regional Park was a weather station for 75 years, but now is a heritage building and a viewpoint with panoramic ocean views, and an observatory.
Chinatown – Canada’s oldest Chinatown would also be the oldest in North America if it weren’t for San Francisco. As the western most Chinatown in Canada, Chinese began to immigrate to this area after gold was discovered in British Columbia in 1858. Victoria’s Chinatown is now a vibrant area for tourists and artists. If you’re looking for things to do this Chinese New Year in Victoria to celebrate the Year of the Rat, check out this local Victoria travel blog.
Fan Tan Alley – This narrow alley is between Fisgard & Johnson streets. Dubbed the narrowest street in North America, at it’s narrowest point it is only 1.2 meters, or less than 4 ft wide. The alley is named after Fan Tan (a Chinese gambling game similar to roulette), because of the gambling dens and opium dens that once lined this alley. No worries now as opium was banned over 100 years ago and the biggest danger here is someone spilling their lavender latte on you as they rush to a yoga class.
Abkhazi Garden – This is a heritage home set on 1 acre with a garden that was a labor of love started in 1946 by Prince and Princess Abkhazi of Georgia. (The country, not the US state.)
Victoria is extremely bike friendly and I highly recommend biking here. Whether you are biking, walking or driving, these are some good parks or areas to meander around. Actually you can bike them in this order and go along the water so you don’t get caught in too much city traffic/main roads:
Fisherman’s Wharf Park
Holland Point Park
Mile Zero Monument
Finlayson Point – Beacon Hill Park
Clover Point Park
Willows Beach in Willows Park
*Note, watch the painted signs on the bike bath as part of this trail turns into pedestrian only, at which point pedestrians will politely yell at you, “Sorry, no bikes allowed, sorry!”
Fernwood Neighborhood is another good area to explore.
Rainforests – Not only does British Columbia have temperate rainforests, it has 25% of the world’s temperate rainforests. Much of Vancouver Island is rainforest. But before you head out to catch the Botanical Beach Loop Trail, you should know that Botanical Beach is over an hour past Sooke, BC and approximately 2 hours from Victoria. Avatar Grove is another 25 minutes past Botanical Beach. There are tour outfits that do day trips here. Sierra Club dubbed Vancouver Island as “Rainforest Island” as it originally was almost all rainforests. Now most of the island is covered Secondary Forests or Young Growth forests.
Butchart Gardens – I saved the most famous stop in Victoria for last. I have to admit that when I suggested a botanical garden, I got a symphony of groans from my family. Shockingly, everyone loved it and we spent hours more there than we were planning to spend. If you go, plan to spend a whole day here. It looks like something out of a fantasy movie. And my children really enjoyed the carousel and the ice cream at the end. (Note: This is not in the city of Victoria, but 30 minutes from downtown on your way towards the Schwartz Bay ferry terminal and the Victoria International Airport.)
WHERE TO STAY
Fairmont Empress Hotel – This giant iconic hotel sits right in the middle of Victoria. With the harbour right in front and the Royal BC Museum and legislative assembly building to the left, it’s almost as if all of Victoria was built around this hotel. Since the hotel was built in 1908, actually a lot of the city was built after this hotel. Known for it’s tea time, spa and perfect location, it has racked up loads of awards from Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast and National Geographic Traveler.
Hotel Zed – This super funky little colorful retro hotel is bursting with personality. Large water slide. Bike rentals, no two bikes are alike. You can even stay in an Airstream here, which I highly recommend. Insanely kid-friendly… in fact, you probably don’t want to stay here unless you have children with you. Although not in downtown, there is a nearby bike trail that you can take it get to downtown, you bike across the water, pass Fol Epi bakery, or stop for coffee and pastries, then across a small bridge to get downtown.
Inn at Laurel Point – Water views from the front of the hotel and a Japanese garden in the back. The location is great, as it is walking or biking distance to everything downtown. Very kid-friendly and even pet-friendly. They have a little scavenger hunt for kids and the kids get a prize at the end.
The Westin Bear Mountain Golf Resort and Spa – About 30 minutes outside of Victoria, this hotel is in a beautiful location with amazing mountain views, large rooms and good food.
WHERE TO EAT
Be Love – Great for healthy/hearty meals.
Red Fish Blue Fish – Food shed on the water in front of the Fairmont Hotel.
Finn’s Seafood Chops Cocktail – Finn’s Victoria is right on the water, down from Red Fish Blue Fish.
Fol Epi Bakery – Great bakery to grab a coffee and a pastry.
La Roux Patissierie – Beautiful French pastries made from locally sourced ingredients.
Part and Parcel – This cleverly named place is a counter service restaurant that is a great pick for a fresh seasonal lunch.
Venus Sophia Tearoom – This modern tea room offers the high tea experience without being stuffy. Reservations recommended.
The Drake Eatery – This is a casual craft beer and tapas kind of place.
OLO – This farms-to-tables restaurant in Chinatown uses fresh produce from all over BC.
Hanks *A Restaurant – This tiny restaurant has a continuously changing menu.
Cold Comfort – Ice cream and gelato with innovative flavors like Earl Grey and Blueberry.
Tacofino – Started as a food truck in Tofino, now also a restaurant in Victoria serving their legendary tacos.
The Keg – The Keg is located on Wharf Street downtown. Although I try to steer clear of chain restaurants when traveling, this Canadian chain restaurant always delivers consistently good dishes.
Earl’s – Another reliable Canadian chain that is known for it’s cocktails and sophisticated vibe but is also kid-friendly.
Cactus Club – I know, I know, the Canadian Chain restaurants, it’s out of control. But this one is noteworthy because it is very kid-friendly and has amazing and delicious menu items for children and adults. (My son is a pick eater and he fell in love with Catus Club and I think we ate at every Cactus Club in Canada because they seem to have something for everyone.)
If you have the time while on Vancouver Island, check out Tofino. It is an amazing surf town in an old growth forest. Other good travel destinations in this corner of Canada are Vancouver, Whistler and the Sunshine Coast.
*As always at Finding Pura Vida, no affiliate links, opinions are my own.
If you feel like there’s something amazing in Victoria that travelers need to know about that was missed, please add it the comments below and I will check it out next time I am on Vancouver Island. Thanks for reading!