Victoria British Columbia is one of the best cities in Canada. I am slightly biased having lived there on and off for 6 years and having obtained two degrees from two universities there. But I am also correct. Thousands of tourists from around the globe visit Victoria on a yearly basis, either off a cruise ship, as a part of a Vancouver Island exploration, or as a day trip from Vancouver. So no wonder there are some fantastic things to see in Victoria with wonderful experiences in store!
Reasons to Love Victoria BC
I love Victoria for all the reasons that pull tourists to town: the warm weather, the charming downtown streets, the fun times attractions, the wicked dining, and well, not least of all, the spectacular scenery. You want the ocean? It’s on THREE sides of Victoria. You want West Coast forest? Easy, you have Thetis Lake nearby or Mount Douglas is right in town.
Furthermore, it’s not just all the ways Victoria can be photographed that makes it great, it’s the feeling and the vibe of the city. People drive slow (which can be either super annoying if you’re in a rush, or adorably quaint if you’re feeling whimsy) and folks are nice and friendly (even the homeless kids are a hoot). There is a sense of civic pride that throws Victoria into a class above. Everyone knows Victoria is awesome, and they’re pretty thrilled to be there.
I was lucky to live in Victoria all through my bachelors degree and I have visited the city many times since graduation. I have lovely friends in town (some of whom let me stay at their houses) so I have every excuse to come to Victoria.
But never before had I really been a tourist in Victoria. Lets face it, when you’re a starving student, your extra time and money is spent binge watching CSI or drinking boxes of wine with your girlfriends.
I may have been the only Victoria-ite to have never been whale watching. I know right? What kind of BC gal am I?
But that all has changed! Last week I spent 5 days in British Columbia’s capital city and thanks to Tourism Victoria and BC Ferries, I really did Victoria! So now I’m a Victoria pseudo-local AND a tourist. Two’fer!
Getting to Victoria on Vancouver Island
Most people will arrive in Victoria via some form of boat. It is located on Vancouver Island after all. For those coming from around Vancouver, the BC Ferries are probably in the cards. BC Ferries take passengers all over the British Columbia coastline, between Vancouver, different parts of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and even the Northern and Central coasts.
To get to Victoria from Vancouver most people will leave from Tsawwassen and take the hour and 40 minute ferry over the Strait of Georgia, through Active Pass and the Southern Gulf Islands, and into Swartz Bay ferry terminal. Again with my bias, but the ferry ride through this area is amazing.
On a nice day, the views of the islands, Mount Baker, and the other boats are spectacular. Lucky travellers have seen whales from the ferry. I never have. Literally hundreds of ferry crossings, and not one sighting. Classic!
You may also fly to Victoria into the international airport about 35 minutes out of town, or come up from the United States with passenger vessel the Victoria Clipper ferry (from downtown Seattle) or the car ferry the Coho (from Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula). Float planes also arrive straight into the Inner Harbour if you have no time and lots of money.
Getting to Vancouver Island gives most visitors their first taste of the gorgeous place they are approaching, and for me, getting off the ferry is always a source of sheer excitement.
Visiting the City of Victoria
Victoria is a very tourist friendly city, with great transit, an easily walked core, and maps strategically placed around town. There are a ton of places to stay in Victoria, and attractions that will appeal to everyone. Seriously, if you don’t like Victoria, there is something wrong with you.
Victoria’s downtown is both cutesy and boutique, with certain streets serving designer shopping while others give a certain flair of history. Market Square and Bastion Square are both hubs for shopping and gatherings, while Chinatown (the oldest Chinatown in Canada!) has excellent cafes, quirky shops, and the curiosity factor.
The Inner Harbour is the true hub for tourism. Flanked on three sides by the art deco clock tower of the Visitor’s Centre, the stately and ever impressive Empress Hotel, and the grandiose Provincial Legislature building, the Inner Harbour is where it is all happening.
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Best Things to Do in Victoria British Columbia
As with every tourist city there are your stand-by classics: museums, city tours, and awesome restaurants. But being right on the water, you will definitely want to get out onto the sea. Or at least be near it! I love the ocean, and boats. So the ocean is always high on my tourist bucket list.
I had looked at the beautiful Tall Ship Thane for most of my university career, longing to go for a cruise. But as I said, money was not of the essence, and if it was around I was more likely to spend it on bungee jumping or Jager bombs.
But I finally got to go sailing! And after the appropriate Gilligan’s Island jokes were made, my best friend Lindsay, her 7-month-old Felix, and I stepped aboard. We were met by Thane’s owner, resident, and captain, Captain Rob, an excellent host with all kinds of nautical stories.
There wasn’t too much wind that day, but volunteers still helped out in raising the 4 sails and the boat made way for Clover Point, east of downtown. A beautiful day that was perfect for being on the water, the lack of wind meant warm ocean-scented breezes to bask in the sunshine while watching the sea slowly drift by.
While Felix napped in his carrier, Lindsay and I spotted various landmarks that we were now seeing from an ocean side perspective. We loved our time on the 3-Hour Sail, it was the perfect way to spend a spring afternoon catching up. Of course, if we had have had our acts together we would have brought snacks and wine, but that didn’t happen. Other folks had their acts together, just not us!
A Taste of Victoria Food Tour
Many of you may know, I’m not a huge fan of tours. They are restricting, and I hate being told what to do, and I get bored. Basically, I become a big baby after 55 minutes. That is why if I’m doing a tour in Victoria, I’m doing an alternative tour. And if it is a tour during which I can stuff my face with delicious food, all the better!
A Taste of Victoria Food tour is run by a history/foodie buff named Andy who started this niche tour company in 2016. Weaving Victoria’s food, culture, and history together, Andy takes the gluttonous travelers from the Victoria Public Market to Chinatown, and through old town out to the Inner Harbour. Every tour will be different, as he works with over 10 different vendors. On the day my friend Aubrey and I went, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, plus had no need for lunch afterwards!
Eating and Dining in the Victoria Public Market!
Our Taste of Victoria Food started at the French Oven Bakery in the public market, with tastings of freshly baked breads as well as two specialty croissants, a chocolate and a bacon and cheese. Bread, chocolate, bacon and cheese are my 4 food groups, so this place was a huge hit.
Second up was roast, a meat and sandwich shop where we all sampled one of the most heavenly meatballs you could try to find. Served up with a pork rind, I was tempted just to call the tour quits and stay right there!
Still in the market, was The Very Good Butchers, a vegan butcher shop. I know, nothing says Victoria or Vancouver Island more than a vegan butcher shop. Van Isle is the most hippie part of Canada, and when you combine hipsters with hippie, you get vegans. For me personally, well, you can see how I felt about the meatballs, so I was skeptical. Our tastings at the Very Good Butcher included handcrafted plant based meats, two sausages and one pulled pork substitution. The ‘pulled pork’ was actually made of jackfruit, which I will admit, was pretty impressive. This is definitely a must visit for any vegetarian travel to Victoria.
We then left the public market and headed towards Chinatown, where we passed through the red Welcome gate. Our first stop in Chinatown was ironically a French café, La Roux, where we feasted on delectable macarons. Mmmmmm, I will return…
Into Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada, we went to find the organic Kid Sister Ice Cream shop, a creamery where all treats are made by hand from natural organic ingredients. Samples of chocolate cherry ripple, lemon meringue and rhubarb ginger left me buzzing!
As we wove across Pandora Street and through Market Square to Johnson Street, we heard about the rather sordid history of the area. Fun fact: the Johnson Street buildings are allowed to be painted so brightly to pay homage to the many bars and brothels that used to call the street home.
Downtown Victoria Eateries!
Onwards to Yates Street, where we found Sult, a pierogie bar. Again, this is why I love Victoria. An entire restaurant of pierogies, bring it on! We sampled two classics, and Aubrey, who makes her own pierogies every now and again, definitely approved. The Americans in the bunch had no idea what a pierogie was. What?!?!
Our very last stop on the tour was the famous Rogers Chocolates shop on Government Street. A beautiful store with chocolates in old jewelry display cases, this is a historical gem of Victoria. Though, I have to say, the sample we received was super chincey, get it together Rogers. A quarter of a peanut butter cup, I don’t care how gourmet, is not cool. This woman needs more.
Despite Rogers frugality, this tour was awesome. I didn’t get bored, I learned interesting things, and I ate delicious food. All wins!
No trip to Victoria is complete without a cruise through Miniature World. An absolute institution touting itself as “The Greatest Little Show on Earth”, Miniature World is literally like no other. Miniature dioramas depict everything from historical battle scenes to storybook fantasies to major circus events, everything is absolute in detail and artistry. Several of the dollhouses are as big as cars, while one is taller than I am. The Canadian Pacific Railway model follows the chugging train all the way from Vancouver to Halifax, through every one of Canada’s provinces and landscapes.
I went to Miniature World for the first time as a small child and was mesmerized, and while some may find this lame, give it a chance. Over 20 years later, I was still pretty amazed. So was Aubrey, for the record. See Below…
Wildplay Monkido Adventure Course
Taking a break from town, Aubrey and I decided to have some thrills and we made way for Langford, about 20 minutes west of downtown Victoria. The Wildplay park in Langford is home to an exhilarating ropes and zip line course that takes folks up to 14 meters off the ground, through the lush, and strong, trees of the Pacific Northwest.
We got strapped into our always-flattering safety harnesses and were briefed on the proper usage of the zip line gadget and safety clips. You are never unhooked when up in the trees. NEVER. So what’s the worst that can happen?
Well, my friend Aubrey is a very wonderful person, but her one fault is that she never uses profanity. She doesn’t seem to mind when I do, but she does not. Monkido made Aubrey swear. A lot.
I thought it was hilarious. Again, nothing bad could happen as we made our way through the ‘games’ (Wildplay’s terminology, not ours), but there is something about being high up in the trees standing on dangling logs or swinging on Tarzan ropes to make a grown woman shake.
Personally I love that kind of challenge, though I did notice the ‘games’ have gotten more difficult since I did it 5 years ago. Clarification: The course has not changed; I have just gotten older and fatter. I still loved it!
*** I recently saw a similar Adventure ropes course on the Amazing Race Canada, which was awesome. But there are tons of different types of adventure ropes courses for all ages around North America if you’re interested in checking more out!
Another Victoria institution is Craigdarroch Castle, the 19th century home of the coal baron John Dunsmuir. Completed in 1890, Craigdarroch is a legit castle with a Downton Abbey feel. The tower, intricate woodwork, beautiful stained glass, and over the top furnishings serve the nomer aptly.
Going through several iterations since Dunsmuir’s wife Joan passed in 1908, the castle has been a military hospital, a Victoria College campus, offices for the School Board, and the Conservatory of Music. The Castle now pays homage to the time and the Dunsmuir family as a designated National Historic Site. Four floors with 29 rooms to visit (some which have been restored, some which haven’t) serve as a peek back in time to what Victoria was in the era for which it is named. For the super rich anyways!
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Full disclosure: I had never been to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Shake my head and call me uncivilized! But I finally went, and a trip for the art lover is definitely worth it.
Anyone who knows anything about Canadian art knows about Emily Carr, probably the most celebrated and famous Canadian artist ever, with the clear exception of Donald Sutherland. Emily Carr was born and raised, and then lived and died in Victoria and all of her art takes inspiration from British Columbia’s coastal culture and scenery. Her depictions of Indigenous villages are iconic, as are her later works of forests and BC’s wild environment.
The AGGV always has Emily paintings on exhibit in some way or another. So if you are after Emilys, this gallery is the most guaranteed place to see them.
Victoria Ghostly Walks Tour
I know, another tour? But again, this is not your classic city tour. The Ghostly Walks started about 10 years ago, but I had never been. So with my friend Meaghan (fellow UVic alum!), we met our tour guide and group in the Inner Harbour and started on our way through Victoria’s undead past. Vic is known as the most haunted city in the Pacific Northwest, boo!
The stories we heard about on the evening walking tour were mainly of people who either died of tragic accidents or through natural causes, both historical and modern day uneasily dead.
Ghost Stories in Victoria
There was the chambermaid named Lizzie who tragically stepped out a 6th story fire escape of the Empress Hotel, only to meet her end when that fire escape platform had been removed by repairmen that day. Lizzie haunts the ground level courtyard where her body was found, as well as her bedroom and sometimes the halls of the hotel dressed as chambermaid from the 19th century.
We heard about James Douglas, the Father of Victoria, wandering his orchard, now the garden area behind the Royal BC Museum. People report the scent of a burning pipe or seeing him lurking around his favorite cherry tree.
The creepiest was the story about a couple who came from Vancouver to live in Victoria in the 1970’s. The story goes that the woman became possessed and over the months became sicker and sicker. Finally, the Wiccan priest and priestess of Victoria were called to cleanse the house. In fact, they ended up performing an 8 hour-long exorcism on the woman. Renters now live in that house, so we quietly heard that story around the block.
The final stop on the walk was at the Bent Mast Pub in James Bay, known as the most haunted pub on Vancouver Island. The pub proudly shares its history with visitors, with most of the frequenting locals corroborating the tales.
I truly enjoyed the Ghostly Walk. I think it is a fantastic way to see a different side of Victoria’s history in a totally creepy but thoroughly entertaining way. There are two Ghostly Walks every night, and each night of the week the tours are different, so there are many ghost stories to go around!
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Best Western Plus Inner Harbour, Victoria
Fisherman’s Wharf Bed & Breakfast, Victoria
The Gatsby Mansion Inn
3-star hotel with 24-hour fitness, near British Columbia Parliament Building
3 Stars, Bayfront B&B with 4 restaurants, near British Columbia Parliament Building
Whale Watching with Eagle Wing Tours
As I said at the beginning, I had never been whale watching. Crazy, I know! But with this trip I finally had the opportunity and I took it. Unfortunately I booked the trip for the last morning of my stay in Victoria, and the only day that turned out to be rainy. Oh well, clothes can dry and so can I!
With family friend John along for the ride, we arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf and checked in at Eagle Wing Whale and Wildlife Watching Tours. A bit later we were told that due to high winds there was a possibility we would not go out. Too bad if not, but I also don’t want to end up my very own ghost story you know?
When Captain Casey arrived and checked the weather, a route formed. Warnings were that the ride would be rough and we would get wet. All passengers were given the option to refund and go a different day. John and I hopped aboard.
Wildlife Viewing at Race Rocks
After a short haul in the fully open scarab boat (like the ones drug runners in Florida use!), we arrived at Race Rocks, a scenic outpost south of Victoria home to exactly one lighthouse and a multitude of wildlife. Bald eagles, seals, sea lions and a sea otter all came out to say Hi. They didn’t seem to mind that it was raining!
We kept charging southwest of Victoria, past Sooke and all the way to Jordan River, always on the prowl for whales. The hot tip is to watch the horizon for the sprays or dorsal fins. Your eye will naturally see any movement between you and that spot you are watching. So, the entire sea within sight!
Unfortunately, we went 76km west and we had yet to see whales. So with a quick pit stop, Captain Casey turned on the sonar radio and we tried to hear them. I took the opportunity to use the marine loo without the motion of the ocean interfering.
A Whale of a Time!
Still, no luck. So Captain Casey turned the boat around and headed back towards town but further away from the shoreline.
Still, no luck. Things were getting grim for a whale sighting, especially when as we approached town, the water became rougher. Captain Casey was really able to show us her skills and talents at the steering wheel of a boat. Impressive!
So, we did not see whales. Well, it happens! Wildlife tourism is never really guaranteed, it’s not like the whales are either obedient or tethered. And it was too bad it rained, but those waves put the adventure into adventure tourism! And as always, I was glad I do not get sea sick. Plus, I always love a good boat ride, and sea otters are bonkers cute!
Captain Casey and her first mate Pete were awesome, and despite the rain and the lack of Free Willy wonders, I actually enjoyed my time. In the attempt to keep people entertained, Pete bestowed all kinds of sea life knowledge and wisdom. Did you know that sea otters keep rocks tucked away in pouches in their armpits to crack open sea urchins with? Genius! Did you know that mating male sea lions will always try to get to the highest point of land? That they will fight to take that point? Terrifying. Word of wisdom, forgo the high ground if in a battle with sea lion, you will lose.
Because we did not see whales, I did receive the Whale Guarantee, which means I get to go back and go for free hoping to see whales again. And later on this summer, I think I will do just that, hopefully in the sun!
5 Days Visiting Victoria BC
Of course, there are so many things to do and places to see in Victoria! No way anyone could accomplish it all in just a few days. But you can try! Depending on the season, there are more indoors things to do like the Royal BC Museum, afternoon tea at any number of quaint teahouses, the Robert Bateman Centre, and the Victoria Bug Zoo. Buchart Gardens is also a classic standby, though you know how I feel about gardens.
And get out of Victoria! The parks and seaside around Victoria was brilliant, as is a trip up island to Nanaimo or across the water to the Gulf Islands, namely my favorite, Galiano Island.
And I will definitely be returning to Victoria again this summer, I have to spot me some whales!
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