British Columbia’s charismatic capital has shirked its “city of the newlywed and newly dead” nickname and is now choc-full of exciting things to see and do.
Between its double-decker buses, afternoon tea and summer cricket games, it isn’t difficult to see how Victoria was once perceived to be more British than Britain. But while these genteel pursuits might not have disappeared, the city has become popular with younger crowds who hotfoot here for its burgeoning craft beer scene, bountiful bicycle lanes and hipster boutiques too. And, as cities go, it’s an impressive one, home to over 70 urban parks, the second-highest number of restaurants per capita in North America and one of the world’s best cold-water diving experiences. Here are some of the more unique ways to experience Victoria.
Stroll down the narrowest street in Canada
Fan Tan Alley is just 0.9 metres wide (four-foot) at its narrowest point, but they’ve still managed to pack in a whole string of souvenir shops and boutiques on either side of it. Located in Canada’s oldest China Town, the narrow street was once notorious for its opium dens, gambling and less-than-legal bars. It remained an important hub for the Chinese community until the 1920s when its residents began to disperse across the city. Don’t miss the Umbrellatorium, an entire store dedicated to keeping people dry.
Explore the Royal BC Museum
The Royal BC Museum is one of Canada’s most prestigious museums. As well as an impressive permanent collection of more than seven million objects spanning both natural and human history, the museum hosts a revolving lineup of blockbuster exhibitions throughout the year. The building also houses the largest IMAX® screen in British Columbia, so visitors can enjoy the latest films and documentaries with wraparound digital surround sound and crystal clear images in IMAX 4K Laser for an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Eat fresh-off-the-boat fish at Fisherman’s Wharf
A stone’s throw from Victoria’s Inner Harbour, Fisherman’s Wharf is teeming with food kiosks, kooky boutiques and eco-adventure tour operators. It’s flanked by floating homes on the east side and the Erie and St. Lawrence park on the west, which encompasses an innovative rain garden that storms drain waters from James Bay. Originally built in 1948 to accommodate the city’s commercial fishing vessels, working fishing vessels still unload their catch here today, which you can sample at eateries lining the quay like Barb’s Fish and Chips.
Stargazing at Cattle Point
Far from the crowds and light pollution, just outside Victoria in Oak Bay, you can stand in the starlight under the swathe of the Milky Way. Cattle Point is one of the best places to see the stars in the region and one of two RASC Urban Star Parks in the whole of Canada. Set against the wildflower-filled meadow, the 30-hectare site sight offers a SKy-Quality Metre reading of 20 magnitudes per square arcsecond. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada runs dedicated monthly events on Fridays closest to the first quarter of the moon.
Visit the Moss Lady
This serene sculpture was inspired by the Mud Maid in Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. Artist Dale Doebert constructed the 25-foot woman in 2015 from boulders, pipes, cement and wire. He covered her with clay-based acidic soil and cloaked her body in moss. Crocosmia grows from her head to give the effect of a spiky haircut. You can find the sleeping woman in Beacon Park, a sprawling 20-acre green space a short stroll from downtown Victoria.
Explore Emily Carr’s childhood home
B.C’s best-known painter grew up in a gingerbread-style house in the heart of Victoria, which still looks much the same today. The two-storey Italianate-style house and the surrounding Beacon Hill Park played an important role in shaping Emily Carr’s lifelong appreciation for the natural environment. As well as displays of artefacts from her childhood, diaries and artworks, the house hosts temporary collections from contemporary artists. Those visiting in the summertime should time their visit with the new Summer Lecture Series too, inspired by themes of Emily Carr’s life.
Take a tour around Parliament Buildings
Looming over Victoria’s picturesque Inner Harbour, the Parliament Buildings are the official residence for the B.C. Parliament and Legislative Assembly. Construction began in 1893, though the building’s sumptuous interiors weren’t completed until 1915. The ceremonial entrance features a mosaic floor embellished with Italian marble and a dome topped with a gold-covered statue of George Vancouver. Visitors can explore the building on a free 45-minute tour and top it off with lunch at the not-so-secret Legislative Dining Room, open for breakfast and lunch from Monday to Friday.
Get a birdseye view from a Seaplane
Those with a head for heights won’t want to miss this 20-minute adrenalin-filled seaplane tour, a real West Coast tradition. There are a handful of operators to choose from, but Harbour Air offers the best value. Bookable through Get Your Guide, it’s also the largest seaplane operator in North America, so you’re in good hands. The plane sweeps over the sugar-white sand beaches of James and Sydney Islands, Olympic Mountains and out north to the Saanich Peninsula, before circling back over Victoria Harbour. The pilot will point out iconic landmarks, such as the Butchart Gardens, from overhead too.
Check out the Swiftsure Yacht Race
Every May, around 1,500 sailors from across the world descend on Victoria for the Swiftsure International Yacht Race, the largest of its kind on the West Coast of North America. The race begins and ends in Victoria, encompassing nine races over five courses across the notoriously unpredictable winds and currents of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The first race took place in 1930 with six vessels, and today more than 200 boats take part. For the best views, head to Clover Point and Ogden Point.
Take afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress
This grand dame hotel opened its doors in 1908, at the behest of Cornelius Van Horne, the general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Designed by Francis Rattenbury (who also designed the Parliament Buildings) at the height of the Gilded Age, it’s since become the island’s most iconic hotel and particularly popular with superstar celebrities and royalty. You could splurge on a room here, but for a more pocket-friendly experience, try Tea at the Empress. Served daily in the Lobby Lounge, the experience includes flaky scones, fluffy pastries, homely from the hotel’s hives and elegant sandwiches presented on a tiered tea service gifted by her Majesty in 1939.
Pull up a pew at the Bard and Banker
This local drinking den looks a lot older than its years. Opened in 2008, the lively British-inspired pub features authentic Victorian cut-glass lamps, a lengthy granite bar with brass beer tamps and a handful of roaring fires. Its name is a nod to its former livelihood – a bank – and the British-Canadian poet Robert Service. It also serves up one of the best Happy Hours in Victoria, as well as posh nosh, an award-winning wine list and 31 craft and import taps. There’s live music most nights too.
Go full circle on the Pacific Marine Circle Route
If you’re travelling in a car, it’s worth adding a few days to your trip to explore Southern Vancouver Island. This coast-to-coast journey clocks up an impressive 179 miles, so you’ll need to make a few overnight stops along the way. The route offers spectacular views of the Juan de Fuca, Haro and Georgia Straits on a thrilling drive across winding roads and steep hills. Highlights include: Sooke Harbour, “where rainforest meets sea”; charming Port Renfrew, a former logging town; Duncan, famed for its wineries; and Malahat Drive, dubbed “Vancouver Island’s most beautiful shortcut”. If you don’t have time to make the full journey, you can cut it short but making the trip to Sooke (45-minutes) or Port Renfrew (less than 2.5 hours away).
Explore Victoria by Horse and Carriage
This 30-minute Horse and Carriage ride through Get Your Guide offers an excellent opportunity to explore a new neighbourhood without making a dent in your thermometer. Starting on Bellville Street, the vehicle clip-clops along Dallas Road and the waterfront, serving up sweeping views of the Salish Sea and Olympic Mountain Range along the way. From here, the carriage navigates some of the narrower streets in James Bay, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, stopping at sights along the way.
Spot whales on a marine life tour
Humpbacks, grey whales and orcas all patrol this patch of the west coast, which makes it one of the best places in the country for whale-watching. There are dozens of tour operators to choose from, but it’s worth doing your research. Prince of Whales Adventure Tours is one of the best-established operators in the city and offers a wide array of day trips for all tastes and budgets, from half-day semi-covered whale watching to 12-person open-air zodiac-style trips. Tours are led by certified marine biologists and naturalists who provide insights into the families of whales and other marine life that live here too.
Take a stroll in The Butchart Gardens
Even the least green-fingered amongst us will find it hard not to be impressed by the Butchart Gardens. The 55-acre grounds encompass an Italian Garden, Japanese Garden, Rose Garden and Mediterranean Garden, as well as 26 greenhouses, and 900 plant varieties. The brainchild of Jennie Butchart, the gardens are now more than 118 years old. Throughout the summer from Thursday to Sunday evenings, visitors can enjoy a Night Illuminations show too, where more than 3,000 twinkling lights transform the gardens into a magical wonderland. There’s live music on select evenings too.
Explore Victoria Bug Zoo
This two-room minizoo is home to more than 40 species of insects, arachnids and anthropods. It’s currently the largest tropical insect collection in North America and even houses Canada’s largest ant farm. As well as more familiar critters and creepy crawlies, the museum displays an array of many-legged friends most people will never get the chance to see in the wild, including glow-in-the-dark scorpions, walking sticks and tarantulas. The museum aims to combat negative stereotypes about bugs, create a safe space for crowds to foster a lifelong passion for insects and display some of the incredible diversity of invertebrates from around the world.
Raise a pint on a brewery tour
Like most of BC, they’re big on beer in Victoria. The city is home to more than a dozen breweries and cideries, including Canada’s oldest brewpub. While you could arrange a tour of the best establishments yourself, one of the easiest and most affordable ways to sample the best brews is on a dedicated brewery tour, such as this tour through Get Your Guide. This three-hour craft beer tour uses e-bikes too, so you can cover more ground in less time. Led by a local guide, participants can learn all about the history of Victoria’s brewing industry, get tips on where to find the best beers and sample a selection at a variety of different tasting rooms. The price includes a chocolate truffle bee paring too.
Experience the world in miniature
Billed as “The Greatest Little Show in the World”, Miniature World is a staggering collection of 85 miniature displays, depicting everything from Camelot and Olde England to fairylands and space. It’s home to the world’s smallest operational sawmill too, as well as two of the world’s largest doll’s houses too. Each of these skillfully crafted miniature models has a story to tell and is guaranteed to power up your imagination and whisk you away to another world, whether it’s 19th-century circs or a galaxy far, far away.
No need to book a flight to Europe, Victoria is home to its fair share of turrets and towers. Craigdarroch Castle is undeniably its finest; a fairytale mansion complete with a spiralling staircase, stained glass windows and lavish furnishings. Scottish entrepreneur Robert Dunsmuir, who made his fortune in coal mining, commissioned the home in the late 19th century but died before it was complete. He left the sprawling home to his wife and children. The building became a National Historic Site in the 21st century and has been meticulously restored to its former glory.
Fun at Flying Squirrel
Flying Squirrel is Canada’s largest spring-loaded urban playground. Perfect for rainy days or families who’ve had their fill of sightseeing, the centre has trampolines, climbing walls and a cafe. The crown jewel of the attraction is the huge free jump area, connected to trampolines, a foam pit and a slam dunk. There’s also a rope course and low-impact anti-gravity cardio workouts for adults too.