Not everyone realises that Victoria is the capital of Canada’s western-most province – it’s easy to dismiss as a charming harbour town and nothing more. Besides, the Vancouver sightseeing experience is hard to beat, so why bother? I’m here to tell you that if you haven’t been to Victoria, sightseeing or otherwise, you haven’t been to British Columbia. It’s the combination of utterly beautiful scenery as well as that classic colonial harbour town feel that make this a very special place indeed.
The Victoria Parliament – it is like Christmas every night.
For a tiny town, the Victoria sightseeing options are quite extensive – both indoors and outdoors. Despite impressions, Victoria weather isn’t half bad, though it can be rainy give the maritime climate. In any case, here are the experiences that I enjoyed the most.
This totem is at Butchart Gardens but you’ll find them everywhere.
- Butchart Gardens: Butchart is one of the biggest and most well-manicured gardens you’ll ever lay sight on. It’s about half an hour out of town, so if you don’t have a car you can get a bus+ticket combo from Greyline tours that departs right in front of the Empress hotel. People from around the world rave about Butchart Gardens, and for good reason – don’t miss it.
- The View from Dallas Road: If you head out of the city centre, you’ll have short walk to the lovely Beacon Hill Park, which has lots of walking trails and a petting zoo. But the real highlight is the views from Dallas Road, a walk/run trail that runs along the cliffs on the shore. Remember our previous photo essay – benches with a view? Seeing the habour bench view is wonderful, but these benches with a view are just as good, if not better.
- Miniature World: This is fun for adults and children alike, and made our list of the world’s best model railways . I just love their miniature tour of the circus coming to town.
- Royal BC Museum: Probably Canada’s most often-recommended museum, the Royal British Columbia museum is enormous – plan for a couple hours at least to properly see everything – and really brings to life all of the aspects of colonial life in BC, as well as vividly explores the local ecosystem. Oh, and the massive totem poles and other indigenous exhibits: amazing!
- Craigdarroch Castle: Step inside this castle, hidden away in a city neighbourhood, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time and back to Scotland. The castle (or perhaps ’stately home’ is more appropriate) has great views of the city and be sure to ask one of the guides for the background story of the castle: it’s got a good one.
- Galloping Goose Trail: Lots of folk recommend this one, and while I loved it, I’d encourage you if you are going for a bike ride to check out the trails map available from the tourist office, which lays out a number of good options so you can explore several routes and manage to end up back in town before dark.
- Miniature Boat Harbour Tour: Families with small children simply must take this option because your wee ones will love it: these tiny boats hardly look seaworthy, but I am assured they are – and who wouldn’t like put-putting around one of Canada’s most beautiful harbours in one of these? Your views are uninterrupted.
Where To Stay
There’s really only one place in town to stay: The Fairmont Empress Hotel. You’ll notice it all the photos, and even attraction brochures give directions based on the Empress – it’s woven into the heart of the community, so at some point you’ll find yourself here, even if you don’t stay here. That’s because they have such a world-class offering: their food and drink is all but famous, the building itself is iconic, to say the least, and the staff here are probably some of the nicest people you’ll meet on all your travels. The hotel also hosts events throughout the year that are very popular with locals and tourists, so be sure to check out what’s on schedule.
Food and Drink
As with the rest of Canada, you certainly won’t go hungry here. But after any round of Victoria sightseeing, be sure to check out some of these places:
- Habit Cafe: This is the best coffee in Victoria bar none, and it’s a great place to chill out too. The cakes and cookies on offer at the front counter are made locally, and the artwork on the walls is also by locals.
- Spinnakers: If you ask anyone in Vancouver for a restaurant recommendation in Victoria (and this is coming from the people who led me to the best food in Vancouver) and they ALL say go to Spinnakers. It’s a tasty gastropub on the other side of the harbour. Go at sunset and you’ll get that bench view we mentioned earlier in the benches with a view.
- True North Gelato: This is your cheap and cheerful option – it is right on Government Street just a couple blocks from the Empress. Cheap and yummy pizza, beer, and ice cream: what’s not to like? Yes it caters to the tourist crowd, but that doesn’t bother me when the food is good.
- High Tea at the Empress: If you look in any guidebooks, it will say to book ahead for reservations (yes! book ahead!) for high tea at the Empress. If you like tea or want to have high tea anywhere in the world, it would be here. Fairmont has several of their own tea brands, so not only is the tea very good, but the experience is truly one of a kind.
- Curry Buffet at the Empress: I’m not trying to harp on and on about the Empress, but when it is the place to be, why lead you astray? I love curry, and I couldn’t miss the curry buffet in the Bengal Lounge at the hotel. It’s very old world with big leather chairs and sofas – and yes, stuffed tigers everywhere – but it’s surprisingly relaxed and not stuffy. The curries are SO good, from the spicy soup starters to the dessert. Great value for money too. And don’t miss out on one of the signature cocktails to start.
Getting In and Out
While Victoria is the provincial capital, it’s on Vancouver Island, meaning that to get around the area you need to do a little planning.
- Island Sightseeing: There’s lots of other villages and towns to visit on Vancouver Island – the surfing capital of Tolfino, the scenic spot of Telegraph Cove, or the charming Port Renfew. The best way to explore the island is by car; from Victoria there are arranged tours, but options are limited.
- Vancouver: You can travel to Vancouver by ferry or by seaplane. Seaplanes depart from the harbour, whereas the ferry port is about half an hour north of the Victoria. You can catch a bus from the bus station next to the Empress Hotel that will take you on the ferry and then from the ferry port into Vancouver.
- Seattle: The Victoria Clipper provides high speed ferry service from the harbour to/from downtown Seattle. You can also take a seaplane.
For me, one of the highlights of my entire Victoria sightseeing experience was the Kenmore Air seaplane ride from Victoria to Seattle. I was pretty unsettled about being in such a tiny plane, but the reality was it wasn’t any different than being in a normal plane. I recommend this option to you, as it isn’t much more expensive and often the times can be more convenient. BUT: luggage weights are very restricted on the seaplane routes (reasons fairly obvious), so if you’re toting around big suitcases, you must take the ferry.
Photos by author except high tea cup by JMRosenfield
Editorial Disclosure: The author was given a media rate at the hotel and provided a free attractions pass, which did not influence the contents of this article.