Walking Tour 2: The Old Town & Chinatown
Start & Finish: The Fairmont Empress, 721 Government St.
Time: 2 hours, not including shopping, sightseeing, and eating stops.
Best Time: Any day before 6pm.
Worst Time: Any day after 6pm, when the shops close.
1. The Fairmont Empress
At 721 Government St., this architectural delight was designed by Francis Rattenbury.
Walking north up Government St., you'll find a number of historic buildings. British Columbia's oldest brick structure, at 901 Government St., is the:
2. Windsor Hotel building
Built in 1858 as the Victoria Hotel, the building's actually a perfect metaphor for the city. The original structure was a robust yet stylish piece of frontier architecture, with heavy red bricks formed into graceful Romanesque arches. Then, in the 1930s, when the city began pushing the "little bit of England" shtick, the original brick was covered with stucco and fake Tudor half-timbering. Somewhere under the phony gentility, however, the robust frontier structure survives. (It's been through worse: In 1876, the hotel underwent major unexpected remodeling after the owner searched for a gas leak with a lit candle.)
On the next block, you'll find a brass sidewalk plaque at 1022 Government St., indicating the former site of:
3. Fort Victoria
The fort was constructed in 1843 by the Hudson's Bay Company as the western headquarters of its fur-trading empire. Bound by Broughton and View streets, between Government and Wharf streets, the fort had two octagonal bastions on either side of its tall cedar picket walls. It was torn down during the 1860s gold boom to make room for more businesses. You can get an idea of its size and shape from the line of light-colored bricks -- inscribed with the names of early settlers -- in the sidewalk that delineates the boundaries of the original walls. The first school in British Columbia was built on this site in 1849.
Continue north 2 more blocks, just past View St., where a little byway cuts off on the right, running 1 block to Broad St. It's known as:
4. Trounce Alley
This is where miners and mariners spent their extra cash on the ladies. The alley is still lit by gas lamps, hung with heraldic crests, and ablaze with flower baskets and potted shrubs. You can stroll through shops selling jewelry, fashions, and crafts, or stop for a bite to eat. Trounce Alley ends abruptly at Broad Street.
Turn left on Broad St., walk north 1 block, turn left on Yates St. and walk west 1 block until you come to the:
5. Legacy Art Gallery and Cafe
At 630 Yates St., this ex-bank building is one of the city's finest examples of the Moderne style, but what makes it worth a visit is the gallery inside, which was recently renovated (tel. 250/381-7670; www.legacygallery.ca). When Victoria art collector and architectural preservationist Michael Williams died in 2000, he willed his collection of contemporary Canadian art to the University of Victoria, which shows it here, along with changing exhibitions. Williams was one of the leading figures in the fight to save Victoria's Old Town. There's a gallery shop and a deli-style cafe, as well. The gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm.
From here, go 1 more block west on Yates St. Between Government and Store sts., on the north side of the block, is a collection of mid-19th-century brick storefronts, including the former Majestic Theatre, at 564 Yates St., dating from 1860. From Yates St., turn left on Langley St. and go 1 block south. Turn right on View St. and you're in:
6. Bastion Square
This square was a bustling area with waterfront hotels, saloons, and warehouses during the late 19th century. Earlier, it had been the site of one of Fort Victoria's octagonal gun bastions. In 1963, the area was restored as a heritage square. This is a good place to take a break:
If you're in the mood for a big, healthy glass of organic juice or some delicious vegetarian grub, stop in at rebar, downtown Victoria's best and funkiest spot for wholesome food and drinks. 50 Bastion Sq. tel. 250/361-9223.
The provincial courthouse and hangman's square were once located on Bastion Square, but now you'll find the:
8. Maritime Museum
At 28 Bastion Sq., you can get a glimpse into Victoria's naval and shipping history. The museum is housed in Victoria's original courthouse and jail, which opened in 1889.
Turn north up Commercial Alley. Cross Yates St. and a few steps farther west, turn north again up Waddington Alley. On the other side of Johnson St. is:
9 Market Square
This restored historic site was once a two-story complex of shipping offices and supply stores. It now contains more than 40 shops that sell everything from sports equipment and crafts to books and toys. In the summer, musicians often perform and restaurants set up outdoor seating in the large open-air court. More than a century ago, Victoria's business was transacted in this area of winding alleys and walkways. Warehouses, mariner's hotels, and shipping offices have been carefully restored into shops, restaurants, and galleries. You'll occasionally find historic plaques explaining the function of a building before it was renovated.
Go north 1 block on Store St. and turn right (away from the harbor) onto Fisgard St. You're now in North America's oldest:
Established in 1858, when the first Chinese arrived as gold seekers and railroad workers, this 6-block district (roughly btw. Store and Blanshard sts., and Herald St. and Pandora Ave.) fell into decline after World War I (as did many west coast Asian communities when the U.S. and Canadian governments restricted Asian immigration). What remains is a fascinating peek into a well-hidden and exotic heritage.
On your right, halfway up the block, you'll find:
11. Fan Tan Alley
The world's narrowest street, it's no more than 1.2m (4 ft.) wide at either end, and expands to a little more than 1.8m (6 ft.) in the center. Through the maze of doorways (which still have their old Chinese signage) are entries to small courtyards leading to even more doorways. During the late 1800s, this was the main entrance to "Little Canton," where the scent of legally manufactured opium wafted from the courtyards. Opium dens, gambling parlors, and brothels sprang up between the factories and bachelor rooms where male immigrants shared cramped quarters to save money.
Today, you won't find any sin for sale here -- just a few little shops dealing in crafts and souvenirs. You can enter the Chinatown Trading Company (551 Fisgard St.) from Fisgard Street or via a back door facing Fan Tan Alley. Hidden in its back room are a couple of mini-museums cleverly displaying artifacts from old Chinatown, including the original equipment from a 19th-century Chinese gambling house.
When you're finished exploring the alley, return to Fisgard St. and continue heading east. At the corner of Government and Fisgard sts. is the:
12. Gate of Harmonious Interest
This lavishly detailed, dragon-headed red-and-gold archway was built in 1981 to commemorate the completion -- after years of deterioration -- of Chinatown's revitalization by the city and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. The gate is guarded by a pair of hand-carved stone lions imported from Suzhou, China.
A half-block down, at 1624 Government St., is:
13. Silk Road Tea
A modern twist on an ancient art, this tea emporium sells more than 300 blends of exotic teas and all manner of tea paraphernalia. Enjoy a flight of teas at the tasting bar and pick up some tea spa products to use later in a relaxing bath or re-energizing foot massage.
Head back up one block to 1715 Government St., the former location of the:
14. Chinese Settlement House
Newly arrived Chinese families once lived upstairs in this balconied building and made use of social services here until they were able to secure work and living quarters. The original Chinese Buddhist temple has been moved from the storefront to the second floor, but it's still open to visitors. Although admission is free, hours vary. You will have to check with temple staff to see if you may enter.
A half-block up from the Gate of Harmonious Interest, at 36 Fisgard St., is the:
15. Chinese Imperial School (Zhongua Xuetang)
This red-and-gold, pagoda-style building with a baked-tile roof and recessed balconies was built by the Chinese Benevolent Society. In 1907, the Victoria School Board banned non-Canadian Chinese children from attending public school, and in response, the society started its own community elementary school the following year. The school is open to the public during the week, and it still provides children and adults with instruction in Chinese reading and writing on weekends.
Just east of the school, at 3 Centennial Sq., is the:
16. McPherson Playhouse
Formerly a vaudeville theater, this was the first of the vast Pantages Theatres chain (Alex Pantages went into showbiz after striking it rich in the Klondike gold fields). The building was restored in the 1960s and is now Victoria's main performing arts center (tel. 250/386-6121). The center is usually open during the day, although no formal tours are given; if you ask nicely, you may be allowed to take a peek inside at the ornate interior. You could also try to get tickets to a show there. City Hall and the police department are located in the office plaza surrounding the playhouse.
When you get to the southeast corner of Centennial Square, walk east 1 more block on Pandora Ave. to Blanshard St. At 1461 Blanshard St. (at Pandora Ave.), you'll find:
17. Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue
This is the oldest surviving Jewish temple on North America's west coast. Built in 1863, it has been proclaimed a national heritage site. The temple (which is not particularly impressive on the outside) is not open to the public.
Turn south on Blanshard St. and walk 3 blocks, noting Victoria's newest landmark high-rise, the glass-spangled Atrium en route, to 740 View St., where you'll see the impressive:
18. St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Cathedral
Built during the 1890s, this is Victorian High Gothic at its best. The facade is 23m (76 ft.) across, the spire 53m (174 ft.) tall, and no frill, flounce, or architectural embellishment was left out of the design. Renovations in the 1980s incorporated the works of First Nations artists into the interior. Go inside and see the altar by Coast Salish carver Charles Elliot.
1 block south at Fort St. is the beginning of Antique Row, which stretches 3 blocks east to Cook St. Ignore that for the moment (or go explore and then come back) and continue 1 more block south on Blanshard St. Walk across the plaza to 735 Broughton St., where you'll find the:
19. Greater Victoria Public Library
The attraction here is the huge sky-lit atrium, complete with George Norris's massive hanging artwork, Dynamic Mobile Steel Sculpture. Built in 1979, the library complex takes up most of the block. The library is open year-round Monday, Friday, and Saturday from 9am to 6pm; Tuesday to Thursday 9am to 9pm; October through April Sunday 1 to 5pm.
Duck out through the portal on Broughton St. and walk west to Douglas St.; turn left and walk 1 1/2 blocks south on Douglas St. until you see the entrance to the Victoria Convention Centre. Walk in and admire the indoor fountain and aviary. The Centre connects to the Fairmont Empress, which was our starting place.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.