British Columbia’s capital is a city where normally disparate features come together in harmony. Here, big city meets quaint small town, British heritage meets Asian immigrant culture, rugged natural sights meet manicured garden-scapes, west coast meets old world. Victoria is a welcoming and distinct city to experience.
Growing up on the west coast, I was always fascinated with the big stately buildings and long-standing cultural traditions of other places that didn’t seem to exist in my corner of the world. Of course, I didn’t know about Victoria, British Columbia—all of its big stately buildings and long-standing cultural traditions located right beside the Pacific Ocean.
The British Columbian capital is often eclipsed by its larger, sleeker neighbor Vancouver, and understandably so, since the city is only accessible via ferry or plane. For my trip to Canada’s westernmost state, I had trouble justifying the cost of ferrying a car across to Victoria, over on Vancouver Island. It’s enough to dispel cheapskates like me, but still I took the plunge. Checking account be damned.
I’m glad I did. The city is a gem—one of those places that immediately has its own distinctly lovable identity.
The Center of It All
The walkable downtown area brims with old-world charm I’ve never found anywhere else on the west coast. The neighborhood is filled with impressive old buildings, none more notable than the ivy-covered Hotel Empress and BC’s capitol building. Colorful flowerpots hung from lampposts, around narrow alleyways of vibrant shops and dining spots.
The narrowest alleyway of them all is Fan Tan Alley, a tiny passageway that connects to the city’s small but historic (second oldest in North America, after San Francisco’s) Chinatown district.
Like much of Canada’s west coast, the sizable population of East Asian immigrants makes for a surplus of delectable authentic eateries, even outside of Chinatown. In fact, maybe my favorite meal here came from a literal hole-in-the-wall Indonesian place called Ayo Eat, just south of Chinatown.
From there, it was only a short walk away to the Johnson Street Bridge, connecting to the shoreline Songhees Walkway. With my belly full of green curry rice and other Indonesian delights, I strolled across the bridge and beside the water, admiring how the mild waves collided with rocky coastlines. I watched the sun set over the bay, before turning to see the legislative building lit up like a beacon in the new darkness.
Holding onto History
Between downtown and Chinatown, there are plenty of plaques scattered about, imparting bite-sized history lessons to curious visitors, but it’s worth knowing a bit more about Victoria’s past before going to visit.
Its human history begins long before British settlement, with the native Salish peoples, whose culture is eclipsed by the British even though the city retains a sizable native presence. More a loose grouping of related but separate cultures, the Coast Salish peoples are believed to have settled in the Victoria area thousands of years before European colonization. They now account for a little more than five percent of Victoria’s population, many of them still making their livings as fishermen like their ancestors.
Fort Victoria, named for Queen Victoria, was erected in 1843 as a secondary post in case Fort Vancouver fell into American hands. The tiny settlement was made the capital of the new colony in 1849.
The population boomed from hundreds to thousands once Victoria became the port and supply base for a gold rush in mainland BC. Victoria’s status as the colony’s commercial center was lost to Vancouver around 1886, when the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed.
The loss of that title served the city well. While Vancouver is a forest of cool steel and blue mirrored glass, Victoria has retained its heritage. It isn’t as though its history is much longer than, say, Seattle or Los Angeles, but thanks to the comparatively contained urban growth that history is evident around every corner, in a way that isn’t usually encountered on the west coast.
Without the bustle of the big city, the city emanates an excessively livable vibe somewhere between urban hub and rugged small town. The city’s cultural identity emphasizes the British in British Columbia. The best way to experience it is with an upscale afternoon tea experience.
The Hotel Empress is the most popular spot, but I saved some money and plenty of hassle by making a reservation at the smaller, arguably more charming spot on the other side of town, at the White Heather Tea Room.
I wished I had the foresight to skip breakfast before ordering the tea for two, which could comfortably feed three or four people. It came with two varieties of their delicious teas, as well as an impressive array of sweet and savory sandwiches and pastries, served on a beautiful three-tiered tray. I couldn’t resist snapping a picture in spite of my haste to dig in. The staff was friendly, and the food and tea were nothing short of perfect.
Two Sides of Natural Wonder
Victoria is known as the garden city for good reason, as the parks like Abkhazi Gardens are overflowing with vibrant natural beauty. No place within the city limits, however, can beat the otherworldly floral wonders at Butchart Gardens, a half-hour’s drive north of the downtown.
I had half-a-day to take in all the beauty these immaculately planned gardens have to offer, and I still felt rushed. As a photographer, I had serious trouble containing my excitement upon seeing so many picturesque scenes, so many brilliant colors crammed into one contained area.
As much as I loved Butchart Gardens, there’s something a little disingenuous about only enjoying planned natural beauties, so I spent the latter half of my final day in Victoria appreciating the unadorned nature surrounding the city with a drive along the coast.
Victoria and the surrounding towns are classified as having a Mediterranean climate—the northernmost Mediterranean climate in the world, in fact. This, essentially, is where the rocky beaches, deep evergreens and mild but gloomy seasons of the Pacific Northwest meet the rolling chaparral and grasslands of California.
Driving along the single lane Dallas Road that encompasses much of the city, I saw the natural and the residential halves of Victoria on either side. Parking areas abound, just begging travelers to stop and make the short trek to the water, where it’s possible to glimpse the islands of Washington State on the horizon on a clear day. The lengthy Breakwater pier reaches further away from land, offering some of the best views of the shimmering water and the hilly islands that lay beyond.
On the ride back to the mainland, I leaned my head against the glass to watch the hilly islands flanking the ferry on either side float by, and wondered again, gratefully, how a city so rare and different as Victoria could reside on the west coast I thought I knew so well.