POPULATION: 345,000 (2011- Metro)
MUST DO: Walk the Inner Harbour; Spend an afternoon in Beacon Hill Park; Royal BC Museum
Outside of Great Britain, you don’t get much more British than Victoria, the capital of British Columbia and the largest city on Vancouver Island.
Located on the southern tip of the island, as a city there is none more beautiful. In fact, Victoria is known as the City of Gardens and, in February, (February!) the citizens do their annual flower count.
Founded as a fur-trading post in 1843, Victoria became a route for miners heading to the 1858 gold rush in northern British Columbia. The population grew to over 10,000 and, in 1866, Victoria was named the capital of the province.
A blend of historic buildings and modern architecture against a perfect setting of mountains and ocean, Victoria becomes inundated with tourists from around the world each summer. And for good reason.
The Inner Harbour is always the centre of activity with countless entertaining buskers – pipers, jugglers, artists, singers, magicians – the shows are endless. The harbour stroll is a must for visitors. The best place to start is at the Tourism Info Centre at the intersection of Wharf and Government streets. Head south along the harbour walkway (you can stay above on the sidewalk, or go down the stairs to the lower walkway). The harbour is both a pleasure and working facility with luxurious yachts to admire, the terminal for ferries to Washington State, and numerous other attractions. The Empress Hotel, one of Canada’s most elegant, faces the harbour. Opened in 1908, the Empress’s afternoon tea has become a traditional stop for Victoria visitors.
Lovers of maritime lore will not want to miss the Naval and Military Museum of B.C. and its stories of the merchant and naval shipping history of the province. Kids will love the interactive exhibits. Antique lovers will want to spend an afternoon strolling Antique Row, a three-block section of Fort Street. Much of the items are, of course, of British heritage.
And if you love the sea, you will certainly love whale watching in Victoria. There are many different styles of vesselsa to choose from, all of which have an excellent chance of getting you close to the area’s resident pods of killer (orca) whales.
At the far south end of the Inner Harbour stand the Provincial Legislative Buildings. Celebrating their 100th birthday this year, the buildings, designed by Francis Rattenbury who also designed the Empress and a number of other Victoria landmarks, are open for free tours year-round. The rotunda, with its stained glass, marble and intricate woodwork is astounding.
Just east of the Legislature is the Royal B.C. Museum, considered to be in the top 10 of the world’s museums. Filled with artifacts, dioramas, displays and photographs the museum brings to life the people and the past of British Columbia. One of the must-see exhibits is the First People’s Gallery and its incredible recreation of a Haida village. Next to the museum is Thunderbird Park and its ‘forest’ of totem poles. In the summer you can watch carvers create these masterpieces. Admission is free.
Behind the Empress is the Crystal Garden and its thousands of exotic plants, birds and mammals. If you aren’t into walking, a great way to see the harbour is on one of the many tour boats. Another way to see downtown Victoria is on a double-decker bus or by horse-drawn carriage.
Away from the water, Victoria’s sightseeing possibilities are endless. The top draw is Butchart Gardens, a short drive out the Patricia Bay Highway. This 20-hectare garden – built in an old quarry – sees 750,000 people a year. If you’re in Victoria in July, the Butchart Gardens’ rose garden is a sensory delight. Take a night tour, when thousands of lights transform the gardens.
Castle lovers will want to visit Craigdarroch Castle, a 39-room mansion built more than 100 years ago by B.C. coal baron Robert Dunsmuir.
Back downtown, stroll along Government and Douglas streets where you’ll find delightful shops. Pick up a Cowichan sweater, aromatic cigars, antiques, or anything remotely related to the British influence. Explore the sidestreets, where you’ll find an incredible array of shops.
Market Square is another shopper’s delight, filled with over 40 stores in a square block of restored buildings. And nearby is Chinatown, Canada’s oldest and at one time the biggest north of San Francisco. Enter this historic area through the Gate of Harmonious Interest. Guarded by two stone lions, the massive gate welcomes thousands each year. One part of Chinatown not to be missed is Fan Tan Alley. Canada’s narrowest street, this alley is filled with boutiques, coffee bars and other intriguing shops.
Once you’re done shopping, head to Beacon Hill Park for a little relaxation. Over 75 hectares of gardens, paths, bridges, ponds, playing fields and oceanfront views will keep you occupied for hours.
Government House, the home of the Lieutenant-Governor – the Queen’s representative to the provincial government – is one of Victoria’s greatest treasures. While the house is not open to the public, the grounds – with their beautiful gardens – are.
Other Victoria-area gardens include Royal Roads University, a former military college, and the Horticultural Center of the Pacific, a gardening educational facility.
Outdoor enthusiasts will also find everything they desire in British Columbia’s capital city. Biking, sea kayaking, canoeing, fishing (both saltwater and freshwater), hiking and walking trails are found right in the city or in any of the surrounding communities.
Surrounded is exactly the word to use about Victoria. Nearby communities – all with their own delights for visitors – include: Sidney, Brentwood Bay, Saanich, Oak Bay, Esquimalt (home to a Canadian Naval base), View Royal, Colwood, Langford, Metchosin and Sooke.
IF YOU GO
BY ROAD: From Nanaimo, Victoria is 1 1/2-hour drive south on the Trans Canada Highway.
BY FERRY: BC Ferries sail into Swartz Bay, on the tip of the Saanich Peninsula. Victoria is a 25-minute drive south on the Patricia Bay Highway. From Washington State, the Victoria Clipper have sailings between Seattle and Victoria. Black Ball Ferries has sailings from Port Angeles to Victoria. Washington State Ferries offers service between Anacortes (south of Bellingham) and Sidney.
BY AIR: Scheduled flights are into Victoria International Airport, near Sidney, 26 kilometers north of Victoria. Floatplane service is direct to Victoria Harbour.