First a trading post, and then a gold-rush town, a naval base, and a sleepy provincial capital, Victoria bears architectural witness to all these eras. What Vancouver mostly demolished, Victoria saved, so you really do have a feast of heritage buildings to enjoy. The best of Victoria's buildings date from the pre–World War I years, when gold poured in from the Fraser and Klondike rivers, fueling a building boom responsible for most of downtown.
Perhaps the most intriguing downtown edifice isn't a building but a work of art. The walls of Fort Victoria, which once spanned much of downtown, have been demarcated in the sidewalk with bricks bearing the names of original settlers and traders. Look on the sidewalk on the corner of Government and Fort streets.
Most of the retail establishments in Victoria's Old Town area are housed in 19th-century shipping warehouses that have been carefully restored as part of a heritage-reclamation program. You can take a self-guided tour of the buildings, most of which were erected between the 1870s and 1890s; their history is recounted on easy-to-read outdoor plaques. The majority of the restored buildings are between Douglas and Government streets from Wharf Street to Johnson Street. The most impressive structure once housed a number of shipping offices and warehouses, and is now the home of a 45-shop complex known as Market Square (560 Johnson St./255 Market Sq.; tel. 250/386-2441).
Some of the British immigrants who settled Vancouver Island during the 19th century built magnificent estates and mansions. In addition to architect Francis Rattenbury's crowning turn-of-the-20th-century achievements -- the Provincial Legislature Buildings (501 Belleville St.; completed in 1898), and the opulent Fairmont Empress (721 Government St.; completed in 1908) -- you'll find a number of other magnificent historic architectural sites.
Helmcken House (Royal BC Museum; tel. 250/356-7226) is the oldest house in BC still standing on its original site. Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, a surgeon with the Hudson's Bay Company, set up house here in 1852 when he married the daughter of Governor Sir James Douglas. Originally a three-room log cabin, the house was built by Helmcken and expanded as both the prosperity and size of the family grew. It still contains its original furnishings, imported from England. Helmcken went on to become a statesman and helped negotiate the entry of British Columbia as a province into Canada. Helmcken House is open daily May through September from noon to 4pm. Admission is by donation (C$5 suggested) though it is included in admission to the Royal BC Museum.
On the Lookout: Victoria's Best Views
In town, the best view of the Fairmont Empress and the Legislature comes from walking along the pedestrian path in front of the Delta Ocean Pointe Resort, off the Johnson Street Bridge. In summer, sit and enjoy a coffee or glass of wine with the view from the patio.
When the fishing fleets come in early in the morning, head over to Fisherman's Wharf, at St. Lawrence and Erie streets, to watch as the fishermen unload their catches beside a small community of floating homes. Stroll back to town along the waterfront promenade, stopping by to enjoy a cappuccino or craft beer on another stellar patio at Laurel Point Inn. Later on, you can enjoy the sunset from the wharf along the eastern edge of the Inner Harbour or from the 18th floor of the Vista 18 Restaurant (740 Burdett Ave.; tel. 250/382-9258).
Just south of downtown, you can see across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands to the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula from the Ogden Point breakwater, the top of the hill in Beacon Hill Park, or the walking path above the beach along Dallas Road. Farther afield, Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse offer equally good views of the mountains, as well as a view of the ships in Esquimalt Harbour.
Mount Douglas, a 15-minute drive north of the city on Shelbourne Street, affords a panoramic view of the entire Saanich Peninsula, with a parking lot just a 2-minute walk from the summit. To the east, Mount Work also offers a good view, but the walk up takes about 45 minutes. At the top of Little Saanich Mountain (about 16km/10 miles north of Victoria) stands the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (5071 W. Saanich Rd.; tel. 250/363-8262) and its Centre of the Universe interpretive center, which offers guided tours of the observatory from May to mid-June Monday through Friday from 1 to 4:30pm; cost is C$9 adults, C$8 seniors and students, C$5 children 5 to 12. Mid-June through August, hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 3 to 11pm; prices are C$12 adults, C$10 seniors and students, and C$7 children 5 to 12. The observatory is closed to the public from September to May. There is no public transportation to the observatory, so you'll have to take a cab or drive.
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