Victoria lies at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, and the scenic trip by ferry or plane is just part of the adventure. Victoria is much smaller and more relaxed than Vancouver, and is a terrific walking city and an even better cycling one, so you don't really need a car unless you want to explore the outlying areas. This day is action-packed and while you can cover all this ground in 1 day, you may want to spread it out over two.
1. Inner Harbour
The city is built around the scenic Inner Harbour, a busy working port where fishing boats, floatplanes, ferries, and whale-watching tours chug all day long. One could easily spend a day watching all the action from the walkway around the inlet, but it’s even better to hop aboard one of the cute little Victoria Harbour Ferries and check out the view from the water. That includes the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel and the magnificent BC Parliament Buildings. The ferries operate tours that travel throughout the harbor and offer a number of stops, including the one at Fisherman’s Wharf.
2. Fisherman’s Wharf
Hop off the ferry here and wander through the gaily painted floating homes, the funky little shops, and the ecotour operators based here. Stop for fish and chips or ice cream, and check out the fresh seafood on display at the fish markets.
3. Steamship Terminal Building
From Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s an easy stroll along the harbor back into the city. Along the way, you will pass a magnificent Beaux Arts building that old-timers will remember as once housing a spectacularly cheesy wax museum. It was originally built in 1924, designed by Victoria’s famous architect, Francis Rattenbury, who also designed the Parliament Buildings across the street, and it was, indeed, the city’s steamship terminal back in the day. Today it is home to a restaurant and the Robert Bateman Centre. Climb up to the second floor to find a gallery of the legendary wildlife painter’s works.
4. Royal BC Museum
Keep walking past the Parliament Buildings and the buskers and souvenir stalls along the water. On your left you will see the Fairmont Hotel Empress ruling from the end of the harbor, and on your right you will see the sprawling Royal BC Museum. Outside it is the retro-looking Carillon Tower, where 62 bells musically announce each hour, and just past the museum, in Thunderbird Park, is the Mungo Martin carving shed where First Nations carvers work on a myriad of projects. Step into the museum, and you will discover an ever-changing array of shows and interactive presentations such as 2014’s much-anticipated Vikings exhibit. The permanent collections, too, are well worth a visit, especially the First Peoples Gallery, an absorbing and thought-provoking showplace of First Nations art and culture. This is truly an impressive museum experience, and it’s quite easy to spend several hours here.
5. Tea at the Empress
Truly, there is no more iconic experience in Victoria than taking tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. This grand old dame of Victorian architecture, with its lovely rose gardens and elegant public rooms, is a must-visit no matter what, but it’s so much better to enjoy it from the plush, rose-and-cream Tea Lobby with a pot of Empress Blend tea and a tiered tray of little sandwiches and teensy baked goods. Be sure to reserve your spot well ahead of time, especially during the busy summer months.
Few experiences are as breathtaking as watching a sleek, black-and-white orca arc out of the waters right beside your boat. And that’s why Victoria’s whale-watching tours are among its most popular activities. They run year-round, and range from short trips in a Zodiac to full-day adventures that cross over to the Mainland. Along the way, you’re sure to see porpoises, seals, eagles, herons and ospreys, whales (including the orca, humpback, and minke), and, of course, the magnificent scenery of the Gulf Islands.
Your whale-watching tour will drop you back in the Inner Harbour, and from there, you can explore the city’s pretty, historic downtown on foot as you meander over to dinner. Start by wandering up Government Street, which is home to the city’s biggest collection of souvenir shops as well as Victoria’s own Roger’s Chocolates, Murchie’s Tea & Coffee, and the legendary Munro’s Books, arguably Canada’s best bookstore, which is housed in a gorgeous neoclassical building that was once a bank. When you reach Johnson Street, turn left into what’s known as LoJo, where you will find a whole collection of funky little boutiques and restaurants clustered around Market Square.
8. Dinner at Spinnaker’s
Cross the Johnson Street Bridge into the community of West Victoria. Take the seaside path that hugs the Inner Harbour, and keep going until you reach what looks like a big, shambling old house but is actually Spinnaker’s Gastro Brewpub. Spinnaker’s is Canada’s oldest brewpub and is renowned not just for craft beers like the Northwest Ale and Hoptoria, but for a menu that celebrates the best of what’s local. The rich, creamy seafood chowder is among the best on the coast.
9. Don’t Forget Your Nightcap!
Still going? Then head back downtown and drink in Victoria’s small but mighty cocktail scene. The best cocktails are being shaken up at Veneto Tapa Lounge, Little Jumbo, and Clive’s Classic Lounge in the Chateau Victoria. You can try a classic cocktail or a modern creation, or let the talented bartenders at any of these establishments create a drink just for you.
If you have another day...
After spending Day 1 exploring the city center, today you're going to venture a bit further afield. It's easy if you have a car, but there are plenty of buses and tours as well. Perhaps the best way to explore the city, though, is on two wheels—Victoria, after all, is known as the cycling capital of Canada. It's mostly flat, with scenic trails, short distances to travel, cautious drivers, and plenty of rental shops and bike tour operators.
1. Butchart Gardens
Next to taking tea at the Empress, exploring this four-season garden—considered one of the gardening wonders of the world—is the most iconic of Victoria’s experiences. More than 100 years ago, Jennie Butchart started planting sweet peas and roses in an old limestone quarry on the Saanich Peninsula. Today the estate boasts 22 hectares (55 acres) of gardens and has been named a National Historic Site of Canada. Nearly a million people visit each year, strolling through the magnificently perfumed rose garden or the serene Japanese garden and searching for the elusive Himalayan blue poppy. The site also includes a restaurant and gift shop, and features fireworks on summer nights and lighted displays on winter ones.
2. Saanich Peninsula
If you are visiting Butchart Gardens by bike or by car, spend a little time exploring the Saanich Peninsula where it is located. You’ll find lots of little farms, wineries, and the town of Sidney-by-the-Sea, famous for its many new and used bookstores as well as the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre.
3. Oak Bay Village
Meander back toward the city, but instead of going directly to the center, turn off toward Oak Bay Village. Spend a little time exploring the high-end shops and boutiques along Oak Bay Road, then venture down to the shore and the Oak Bay Beach Hotel. Grab a table in the cozy Snug Pub, a painstaking reproduction of the original hotel’s pub, for a pint and bite of lunch with a beautiful ocean view.
4. Dallas Road & Beacon Hill Park
From Oak Bay, stay to the seaside route, which is easy to follow by foot, by bike, or by car. It will turn into Dallas Road, every Victorian’s favorite place to take the air, preferably with a dog by their side. You can follow the path all the way around Ogden Point and the cruise ship terminal, but a much prettier option is to turn off at Beacon Hill Park and cut across this 80-hectare (200-acre) green space. It is a beautifully manicured garden filled with trees and flowers, sports pitches, a children’s petting zoo, band shell, horse-drawn carriages, and a 39m (130-ft.) totem pole. Keep an eye out and you may see a roving peacock.
5. On the trail of Emily Carr
As you emerge from Beacon Hill Park, you will have several opportunities to pay homage to one of Canada’s greatest artists, the painter and writer Emily Carr who was born here in 1871. On one side of the park, you can visit her family home, Carr House, and take a tour with one of the passionate caretakers of her remarkable legacy. On the other side of the park, you can find a significant number of her evocative works at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Be sure to stop at the corner of Government and Belleville streets, where you will find a bronze statue of the “little old woman on the edge of nowhere” with her beloved dog Willie and pet monkey, Woo.
6. Dinner at Steamship Grill
Victoria has become a city of foodies as passionate about local ingredients as the great dishes they can make with them. Many of the restaurants are small, chef-owned eateries, and it’s tough to choose just one. But if you’re looking for a fun, not terribly expensive place to dine, with a cheerful and casual vibe as well as an unbeatable setting, then that’s the Steamship Grill in the historic Steamship Terminal Building. You can’t go wrong with a crispy, beer-battered halibut burger and a glass of Vancouver Island Viogner on tap as you watch the sun set on the harbor below.
Victoria For Families: Day 1
Despite its reputation as a big retirement community, Victoria is actually filled with young families, with loads of activities to keep them busy. That’s good news for your family, too. You can easily while away the hours roaming the seaside pathways on a rented bike or picnicking on one of the many beaches. Or you can take the little ones to check out these great attractions, starting right in the city center.
Step through the doors on the north side of the Fairmont Empress Hotel and enter Miniature World, an alternative reality of meticulously produced dioramas representing everything from famous battles to literary scenes to outer space, all in teeny-tiny scale. Don’t miss the world’s largest dollhouse or the miniature train chugging across historic Canada.
Just a block away, you will discover the creepy-crawly critters of the Victoria Bug Zoo, including giant walking sticks, hairy tarantulas, and Canada’s largest ant farm. Expert “bug guides” are on hand and will even let you hold a tickly millipede as long as your arm. (Don’t worry, it’s safe!)
If you prefer critters with four legs rather than hundreds of them, head over to the Beacon Hill Park Children’s Farm just a few minutes away. This petting zoo features goats, ponies, chickens and Osmund the llama. Don’t miss the twice-daily goat stampedes. Note that the farm is only open during the summer, but the nearby playground is open year-round.
It’s time for a break, so why not pop in to the Fairmont Hotel Empress for a spot of tea? The hotel now offers a special “Prince and Princess Tea” in its ornate Tea Lobby, replete with tiny sandwiches, scones, and attentive service for their youngest guests. Be sure to book ahead.
After tea, head across the street to the Royal BC Museum. In addition to a spectacular array of permanent and temporary collections, the museum hosts family-friendly “Wonder Sundays,” sleepovers, camps, and IMAX shows. The totem poles and natural history exhibits will fill your kids with wonder, as will traveling exhibits such as the impressive Vikings collection.
A little further from the city center is Craigdarroch Castle, a 39-room turreted mansion built in the late 1800s by the wealthy coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. It is filled with lavish furnishings and is famous for its ornate stained glass and woodwork. On the way to the castle, stop in at Rogers Chocolates for one of their decadent ice cream bars.
If you wrap things up early enough, you have time to head back to the Inner Harbour for takeout fish and chips at Red Fish Blue Fish. The tacones with tempura cod are especially fun to eat, and even better while watching all the bustle of the harbor around you.
If you have another day...
Today you’ll head out to the Saanich Peninsula, which has plenty of family-friendly attractions. But first stop by one of Victoria’s plethora of breakfast joints, like Willie’s Bakery, to make sure you’re fuelled up for a day of fun.
To make the most of this area, you’ll likely want a car, but if your kids are old enough, you can also rent bikes and cycle out there along the Galloping Goose Trail, which goes all the way out to the ferry terminal in Swartz Bay. The most famous attraction out here is the glorious Butchart Gardens, a year-round spectacle in bloom. However, your kids may prefer the wild adventure of Victoria Butterfly Gardens, just 5 minutes away. It’s an indoor tropical jungle filled with flamingoes, exotic fish, rare flowers, and, of course, butterflies.
In nearby Sidney-by-the-Sea, the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre is an aquarium that offers a unique glimpse of the creatures that live in the Salish Sea. Your kids will especially love tickling the starfish and sea urchins in the touch pools. And if you are here in late May, Saanich is also the site of the Island Children’s Festival, which features star performers like Fred Penner.
If the weather is nice, you can bring a picnic lunch and venture out onto the Sidney Spit, part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. A walk-on ferry service will take you to this sandy beach park during the summer months.
On your way back to town, swing through Oak Bay Village and stop in at Sweet Delights, a candy store simply bursting with old-timey sugary treats from around the world. Or drop in to Hillside Village and the family-owned Bolen Books, with its huge children’s books section.
Dinner should be fun, and what’s more fun than burgers? Victoria has several terrific burger joints, but one of my faves is Bin 4 Burger Lounge, which offers a “small bites” menu for kids 10 and under. The yummy chocolate torte should be an excellent way to end the day.
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.