I’d heard of Victoria’s reputation as the most British of Canadian cities; a garden city with turn of the century architecture, horse-and-carriage rides and English afternoon tea. But in British Columbia’s capital I discovered a youthful spirit, with trendy bars and cafés, a world class food scene, a lively harbour where something was always on the move and plenty of adventure and wildlife experiences on the doorstep. If seems that Victoria has something to interest every type of traveller, so if you are spending a few days in Victoria, here’s my guide on what to see and do for your perfect weekend in the city.
Friday – check out the whale watching in Victoria
Whale-watching is one of the most popular things to do in Victoria, through the months of April to October and it’s an all-round nature experience. On your boat trip you’ll see the marine wildlife of the area; seals, bald eagles and sea lions as well as hopefully spotting some Humpback whales and Orcas. It’s a good idea to check the weather on arrival in Victoria and book onto a whale watching trip as early as possible during the weekend, just in case the weather changes and trips get cancelled. My trip was with Orca Spirit who run trips in covered boats daily at 10am and 2pm from the marina close to Laurel Point.
I went out on one of the Orca Spirit covered boats, which had an observation deck, inside cabin with WC, free hot drinks and snacks on sale. The alternative option is to take one of the zodiacs which are open to the elements and can be more bumpy but have the benefit of being able to get closer to the whales. I was pleased to be in the covered boat as there were times during the 3 hour trip when I needed to get out of the cold, while being able to move back on deck as soon as any wildlife was sighted.
As we moved out of Victoria’s inner harbour, Jaqueline and Courtney the marine naturalists on board pointed out the Trial Islands, where seals love to bask on the rocks and swim in the rich underwater forest of kelp, feeding on sea urchins, sea cucumbers and small fish. We also spotted a pair of bald eagles resting on a rock, before our boat moved out into the Juan de Fuca strait, which forms a highway for whales coming back to these shores to breed throughout the summer months. We joined a group of other boats close to where a grey humpback whale had been spotted. With a blow of water the whale surfaced a couple of times before flicking up its tail and diving down to seek for shoals of krill. Just a few bubbles on the surface marked where the whale had been and we waited another 10 minutes before it surfaced in another spot, the lull known as the “Whale Wait”.
It’s never guaranteed that you will see a whale, but you’ll always get a fascinating insight about the marine wildlife of the area from the naturalists on board, who were so knowledgeable and enthusiastic it was difficult not get excited too. If you don’t see a whale during the summer months, Orca Spirit will offer you another trip, which is why it’s good to do this trip at the beginning of your stay.
Tip: If you have a telephoto lens for your camera, this is the time to bring it, so that you can get the best close up photos of these magnificent creatures. You may also want to take a sea-sickness tablet or buy some ginger flavoured sweets if you suffer from motion sickness.
If you go: My whale watching tour was with OrcaSpirit.com who offer tours in both covered boats and open zodiacs from two different locations in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Check out their website for more information on times and cost – Adults $115 per person + conservation fee & local tax.
Read More: A Quick Guide to Victoria
Saturday morning – Explore Victoria’s vibrant food scene
Saturday morning is always Brunch Time for me, and a great time to explore Victoria’s lively food scene. In the older downtown neighbourhoods around Fisgard Street, Pandora Avenue and Lower Johnson Street (known as LoJo) you’ll find plenty of independent cafes and eateries with a multicultural flavour, serving everything from great coffee and artizan chocolate to Korean buns and an Indian inspired street-food. A good place to start is the bustling Victoria public market, where I met our knowledgeable guide Mary Jo from Off The Eaten Track for a food tour of the historic Downtown area. I love food tours when I visit a new city, as it’s a great way to quickly get to get to grips with the local food culture as well as filling a notebook full of recommendations of places to return for lunch or dinner.
After meeting over coffee at 2% Jazz (1701 Douglas Street) for one of their famous $2 single origin Americanos, Mary Jo led us into the Victoria central market for a spinach, feta and tomato pie with deliciously crumbly pastry from the Victoria Pie Co and some Indian street food from Sutra, owned by well known local chef VJ. We tried the crispy cassava with paneer and butter chicken sauce, an inventive take on the Canadian favourite of Poutine. Also look out for the Chocolate Project stall selling artisan chcolates from all over the world, a connoisseur’s library of chocolate bars where the expert owner David can tell you the story behind each single origin chocolate.
Our tour continued through the Chinatown neighbourhood with stops for spicy pork bao buns at Bao (626 Fisgard Street) pretty pastel Macarons at La Roux Patisserie (519 Fisgard Street) and craft beers at Hawk and Hen (531 Yates Street). Although these places can be visited on your own, Mary Jo’s stories about the food and historic neighbourhoods as well as the convivial atmosphere with a group of fellow food lovers made this a most enjoyable Saturday morning.
Read More: Where and what to eat in Victoria BC
If you go: Off the Eaten Track offer several food tours in Victoria including the Historic Downtown Food Tour which I tried. This 2 hour tour costs $69.99 per person and runs every Saturday through the winter and Tuesday-Saturday through the summer starting at 10.30am. The other tours available are Knife and Fort tour around Fort Street and Craft Beer and Culinary tour.
A walk around China Town in Victoria
Our food tour had taken us through many of Victoria’s oldest neighbourhoods, full of quirky independent shops, hidden alleyways and intriguing courtyards. On Fisgard Street there’s an impressive Chinese gateway flanked by stone lions which will welcome you to the oldest Chinatown in Canada, with the old Chinese school nearby. From here you can walk through Fan Tan Alley, known in the past as the home of gambling houses and opium dens, where it was said that the narrow entrances could easily be shut off if the police came calling.
Now the alley is full of small shops and leads through to Pandora Avenue where you can cross over to Market Square, another area that was full of working class tenements but has now been rehabilitated into a pleasant open square surrounded by shops and cafes where the locals come for lunch. Continuing in the same direction, walk through along Waddington Alley where you can see the original wooden cobbles and metal kerbs outside the Il Terrazzo restaurant, the alley named after a 19th century property owner who owned the adjoining buildings.
Read More: A weekender’s guide to British Columbia
Saturday afternoon – visit the Royal British Columbia Museum
For a dip into the history and culture of British Columbia, visit the Royal BC Museum close to the floating harbour on Belleville Street, which is open weekdays and on Saturday afternoons. I loved the Totem Hall with the dimmed lights to preserve the colours of the wooden carved totem poles and objects from daily life created by the First Nation peoples of British Columbia.
Current exhibitions explore Family bonds and belongings (until 31 October 17), the melting pot of cultures that is Canada today and the traditions that are passed down through families. I also enjoyed the exhibition celebrating the life of Terry Fox, Running to the heart of Canada (until 1 Oct 2017) – an extraordinary young man who fought and ultimitely lost his battle against cancer, but set off to ran across Canada in a “Marathon of Hope” to raise money for Cancer Research.
If you go: Royal BC Museum website. The Museum is open Mon-Fri 10am – 8pm and Saturday 1pm – 5pm, closed on Sundays. Adult 1 day ticket $22
Take a ferry tour around the inner harbour
If the weather is fine, the late afternoon is a great time to take a ferry tour around the inner harbour on one of the cute and colourful ferries that skim along on the surface of the water like waterflies. The ferries run regularly from March to October, so just wander down to the information point on the harbour front, to find out when the next one is going.
The yellow water taxis will set off as soon as they have some passengers on board and then make a stop when anyone is waiting. You can also take one of the regular harbour tours which make a 45 minute round of the inner harbour with commentary about the history of the area and wildlife – you may see a float plane coming into land or a seal basking on the rocks.
I found it very relaxing on the water during my harbour tour which headed out to Esquimalt where there are lots of stylish houseboats in the marina. From here you could choose to walk back on the Songhees walkway that winds along the harbourside, stopping on the way at waterside bars and pubs, or calling into Point Ellice House, a time capsule of Victoriana where you can have a picnic tea at weekends.
Read More: Enjoy a great day in Victoria, BC
If you go: Victoria Harbour Ferry Website. Water taxis cost from $6 one way, the 45 minute harbour tour costs $26. Tickets available from the stand next to each stop or on board. Point Ellice House open Thurs-Sun 11am-4pm Adults $10 + tax.
Colourful Fisherman’s Wharf
Another must-see around the harbour is the Fisherman’s Wharf, a marina and collection of houseboats that are painted in colourful rainbow shades. I think it might be a bit like being in a goldfish bowl to actually live here, but I suspect that Fisherman’s Wharf attracts the more creative and eccentric residents of Victoria, who enjoy tending their brightly blooming windowboxes and making the whole place an artistic experience. A number of the houseboats are gift shops or cafes and there’s even a guest house if you’d like to stay the night – you can also take a kayak tour or go whale watching from here.
The seals play around the marina although you’re encouraged not to feed the wildlife and you might at times see otters, eagles and other sea birds. The fishing boats still unload their catch here and you can have fresh crab at the Fish Store or fish and chips at Barb’s Place. If you don’t want to do the whole harbour tour, you could catch the water taxi to Fisherman’s Wharf for a look around and a bite to eat, then walk back on the David Foster Way that winds around Laurel Point and on past the BC Parliament building.
If you go: Fisherman’s Wharf Website
Phew! that was a fun packed day and if you haven’t already eaten at Fisherman’s Wharf it’s time to head downtown to try some of Victoria’s many fine pubs and restaurants for dinner, so let me give you a few recommendations.
Where to eat in Victoria
Here are a few of the places I enjoyed while in Victoria – it’s by no means an exhaustive list but I can recommend these from personal experience.
Aura at the Inn at Laurel Point: The lunch I ate on the patio of Aura was sensational as well as in a lovely setting overlooking the inner harbour. The restaurant is within the Inn at Laurel Point where I stayed and Executive Chef Takashi Ito manages to marry local flavours with an oriental twist in perfect harmony. The dishes are most beautifully presented, with delicate combinations of flavours and everything made in house. I ate watermelon and sprout salad $10, Aura cheese plate of 3 local cheeses with tomato fennel jam, lavender honey and seasonal fruit $23 and Seacuterie plate, a selection of salmon pâté, spot prawns, octopus and other seafood delicacies $18
10 Acre Bistro: The Farm to Table concept is thriving on Vancouver Island, blessed as it is with easy access to the freshest of produce, local wineries and craft breweries. At 10 Acre Bistro the food you eat is grown on their organic farm just north of the city or sourced from other nearby farms and local fishermen. There are 3 different locations of the restaurant and we ate at the Bistro (611 Courtney Street) with warm orange walls and a slightly vintage decor, perfect for a relaxed night out with friends. I ordered Fisherman’s Cioppino $25 with mussels, salmon, fennel and potatoes in a thick tomato broth.
Steamship Grill & Bar: Undoubtedly one of the best harbourside locations in Victoria, so if the weather is fine be sure to book a waterfront table on their heated patio. The restaurant is set in the historic Steamship terminal building that was built in 1924 to welcome passangers arriving in Victoria from all over the world. The menu is mainly seafood with oysters, sharing plates, salads and some classic steaks and burgers too. I ordered Seafood chopped salad $22.95 washed down with a local Phillips craft beer.
Nourish Kitchen and Cafe: Set in a turn of the century house in James Bay, this informal cafe and dining room must be one of the prettiest and most instagrammable in Victoria. As the name suggests this is the place to feed body and soul, with veggie, vegan and gluten free options, steaming mugs of broth and everything free range and wholesome. Perfect for a post yoga treat or date night outing. I ordered Tomato broth $7 Island Organic Greens $9 Smashed nugget potatoes $8
Sunday – time for an outdoor adventure around Victoria
Sunday is a great chance to explore some of the beautiful countryside that’s within easy reach of Victoria – the great outdoors is on your doorstep in British Columbia. Here are a few suggestions for getting active around Victoria – I’d suggest that you choose just one of these options per day, so that you’re not too rushed. Of course if you have more time you can try them all over a few days.
Cycling to the vineyards of the Saanich Peninsula
With many cycling trails leading out of the city, Victoria is known as the Cycling capital of Canada and it’s easy to hire a bike and explore the Saanich Peninsula north of the city, with quiet country roads, farmland and vineyards. I joined a group tour at the Seawall Adventure Centre in the inner harbour, where they rent bikes for you to explore at your own pace, as well as organising tours such as the all day Saanich Peninsula wine tour. After navigating Victoria’s downtown area, we quickly joined the Lochside trail along the route of an old railway line, past areas of protected wetland and shady woodland paths, every so often joining the road before reached the trail again. By lunchtime, we had reached the first of the three wineries that we were to visit for a well-earned refreshment stop.
The ride to the De Vine winery gave us wonderful views aross the south-facing vineyards and we were soon tasting our way through some of the organic wines that are produced by the family run winery. Not much further was the Church and State winery, a larger winery which also has vineyards in the Okanagan Valley, and had a large restaurant and events space. We sat in the bar area, tasting our way through the Lost Inhibitions range, with tongue in cheek labels like “I love it when you shut up” and “Too glam to give a damn” together with a lunch of gourmet pizza from the wood fired pizza oven.
The final stop was Sea Cider, with a beautiful cafe area where we sat at wooden tables overlooking the apple orchards, munching on a platter of local cheeses and tasting the different cider styles, from the fruity “Pippins” to the refined and delicate “Kings and Spies“. If you don’t want to cycle, you could easily visit all these places with a hire car and combine this with a visit to the beautiful Butchart Gardens, which are located nearby (make sure there’s a designated driver).
For the pleasantly active feeling that you get from a day’s cycling I highly recommend Seawall Adventure Centre who arrange self guided day tours which include a drop-off service in their mini-van to take you out of town to the start of the trails, as well as their guided tours of Victoria city and the Seaside Route. You can also just rent the bikes from them and explore Victoria and the surrounding areas at your leisure.
If you go: Seawall Adventure Centre hire bikes from $40 for Adult bike for a full day. Their full day Saanich Peninsula Wine Tour is $139 including wine tastings and lunch. We visited De Vine Vineyards open daily 11am – 6pm for tastings, Church and State Winery open 11am – 6pm for tastings and bistro open Weds-Sun 11am-3pm, Sea Cider open daily for tours and tastings 11am-4pm.
Hiking in the Gowlland Tod Provincial Park
Just half and hour’s drive from downtown Victoria and you are a world away in the Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, where you can hike the trail with views over the Finlayson Arm Fjord and forest covered slopes. My guide for the hike was Mark Vukobrat of Hike Victoria, who picked us up in the city and drove us to the convenient start point for the trail, which was well marked with regular information points. Mark provided a wonderful commentary, pointing out the different flora and fauna and telling us stories about how they were used; the lichen that glows lime green after rain, the moss hanging from branches that can be used to light fires and the bulbs and berries used by the First Nation peoples as a source of food. With the smell of pine needles underfoot, the peace of the woodland trail and the glorious views over the fjord, we felt a world away from the bustling city of Victoria.
Mark is also a talented photographer and a unique point of his tours is that he takes plenty of photographs of his guests – he’ll send you your favourite as part of the tour and others can be purchased afterwards. Mark’s guests have included couples celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and a marriage proposal, which he was able to capture to give them a lasting memory of the day. He led us to a location overlooking the fjord where we were able to jump into the air, but the angle of the photo made it look as if we were about to leap off the cliff! A very cool photo effect although I’m not quite as agile as some of Mark’s guests and couldn’t manage to leap high enough to get the full effect – still you can get the idea below.
Read More: Vancouver Island: a nature lover’s paradise
If you go: More information on the Hike Victoria Website where you can check times and availability for Mark’s Gowlland Tod tour, there is normally one at 9am and another at 3pm. Adults $78 + tax per person. Packages of photos taken on the hike are also available. If you want to hike the trail self guided you can find more information on the Gowland Tod Provincial Park website.
Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site
My final suggestion for a Sunday jaunt is the Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse, which is just a 20 minute drive from Victoria’s downtown area. This historic site was an artillary fort that protected the Canadian Navy’s base in Esquimalt Harbour in case of attack and was in service from 1895 until the 1950s. You can visit the underground bunkers and artillery gun placements that overlook the sea, but my favourite part of the visit was the beautifully photogenic Fisgard Lighthouse which is reached across a short causeway.
The lighthouse was built by the British in 1860 to provide a beacon at the entrance of Esquimalt Harbour. The light was automated in 1929, but you can look inside the lighthouse keeper’s cottage to find out what life would have been like for those who kept the lights burning. Try steering the old ship’s wheel or open the old trunks to find a game of checkers, which the lighthouse keepers would have used to while away the long hours. There’s a small beach under the lighthouse where children can paddle and the rocks around the lighthouse are a great place to bring your picnic to relax in the sun, with beautiful views of the bay.
If you go: Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse website Free admission in 2017 as all Canada National Parks are free as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations. Open daily 10am-5.30pm through the summer, weekends only in the winter. The site is an easy 20 minute drive on Highway 1 and 1A from Victoria. Free parking at the site.
Monday – Visiting the BC Parliament Building
If Monday is your last day in Victoria, you may want to use the time to see any of the things already mentioned that you missed, but another place you shouldn’t leave Victoria without seeing is the imposing British Columbia Parliament Building. The Parliament Building occupies a prime position overlooking Victoria’s inner harbour and seems at once to command admiration and affection with tourists and locals alike. The impressive “Knowledge Totem Pole” on the lawn was erected in 1990 to welcome visitors to the Commonwealth games planned for 1994 in Victoria and includes figures such as a fisherman and bone player that are part of the First Nation traditions of the North West Coast.
You have the choice of doing a self guided tour with a free booklet or taking one of the free public tours of the Parliament building. I decided to arrive as the buildings opened at 8.30am to do the self-guided tour and found my early start gave me the place practically to myself. You will need to pass through a security check and have your bags scanned, but after that you are free to visit the public areas. As the legislature was not in session, I was able to look into the chamber and admire the coloured marble columns and decorative plaster ceiling as well as the desks where elected members of the legislature sit. The central dome is also beautifully decorated with gilded plasterwork and murals around the dome that represent the major industries of British Columbia; farming, fishing, mining and forestry.
If you go: Check the Legislative Assembly of BC website for more information on opening times. On most days the Parliament building is open 9am-5pm (opens 8.30am in summer) and you have the choice of a self guided tour with free information booklet or you can join one of the free public tours.
Where to stay in Victoria, Canada
The Inn at Laurel Point in Victoria
For most of my visit to Victoria, I stayed at The Inn at Laurel Point, which is beautifully located overlooking the harbour at Laurel Point, a short walk from all the main sights of the inner harbour and downtown area. From my balcony I was able to look across the landscaped gardens, to watch the float planes coming into land and the ferries crossing the harbour. The privately owned hotel maintains the community spirit and artistic interests of Paul and Artie Arsens, the couple who built up the hotel in the 1970s and whose portrait you’ll see hanging in the reception area. The hotel was BC’s first carbon neutral hotel and offers guests the “Key to the City” where your hotel keycard can be used to obtain discounts from some favourite local attractions and businesses. You may also see some of the artwork hanging around the hotel from one of the “artists in residence” who change each month or even see them at work in the lobby area.
My room was in the Erickson wing, which was built in the 1980s, designed by well known Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, where all the rooms overlook the gardens and harbour. My large bedroom and extremely spacious bathroom were elegantly modern in coffee shades, with a touch of Asian inspiration in the decor and artwork. My room was so spacious that I assumed I had been upgraded to one of the larger rooms, but later learned that all the rooms in this wing are this size, so I would certainly recommend that you try to book a room in the Erickson wing, as other rooms in the Laurel wing of the hotel are more traditional in style. As is typical with Canadian and US hotels, breakfast is not included in your room rate, but you can order breakfast separately in the Aura restaurant where I had a delicious lunch, or take a short walk to one of the numerous downtown eateries.
More information and book here: Inn at Laurel Point Website | 680 Montreal Street
Victoria, BC, V8V 1Z8. There is free parking in the hotel’s underground car park.
Magnolia Hotel in Victoria
For my final night in Victoria, after I returned from exploring Vancouver Island I stayed at the lovely Magnolia Hotel, close to the Inner Harbour. This luxurious boutique hotel made a delightful end to my stay in Victoria and I felt very pampered in my bedroom with silky fabrics, neutral tones of cream and pearl and elegant dark wood furniture. The hotel is just a few minutes walk to the Inner Harbour and from my corner room I could watch the 3000 bulbs of the BC Parliament Building light up as dusk fell, creating a magical spectacle. My room included many luxurious touches; a marble bathroom, comfortable sofa with plenty of magazines to leaf through and a delicious treat of fruit and chocolates.
As someone who loves to get out and explore the city, I especially appreciated the information cards in my room, with maps and suggestions for curated trails around the city, covering everything from the best boutiques and craft breweries, to tea rooms and tapas stops. The Magnolia has bikes for guests to get around the city and experience some of the lesser known neighbourhoods and viewpoints. There’s also a spa and adjoining Catalano restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine and Cicchetti, the Venetian version of small plates or tapas. If you have a hire car, as I did, there is a valet parking service, or you can ask the helpful staff to advise you on nearby car parks or on street parking.
More information and book here: Magnolia Hotel and Spa website| 625 Courtney Street, Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 1V8
Visitor Information for Victoria, Canada
Heather flew from London Gatwick to Vancouver with Air Transat and onwards to Victoria. Air Transat flies daily from Gatwick to Vancouver from £407 return.
If you’re flying on Air Transat Economy Class, look out for the Option Plus Service which gives you additional benefits such as seat selection, priority check-in, a dedicated check-in counter, extra baggage allowance, priority boarding and a comfort kit for optimal comfort on board.
If you want an extra treat on board, you can order one of the special meals created in partnership with Quebec chef Daniel Vézina which are served free in Club Class and may be purchased in Economy for a supplement of £15 / €20, for one of the six special dishes plus a cheese plate, dessert and glass of wine.
If you’re considering a holiday that combines the cities of Vancouver and Victoria, check out the 7 night/8 day Vancouver and Victoria hopper package offered by Canadian Affair that includes 4 nights in Vancouver and 3 nights in Victoria with hotels, flights and transfers.
Remember that in addition to a valid passport, UK Citizens need to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) in advance. This can be obtained online for $7 CAD here but ensure that you do not leave it to the last moment in case of any problems.
From Vancouver there are several connecting flights each day to Victoria with West Jet.
On arrival at Victoria Airport, look out for the YYJ Airport Shuttle which runs a regular bus transfer to downtown Victoria, dropping off at your hotel or other convenient points in town. There is a check-in desk for the YYJ shuttle in the arrival hall of Victoria Airport and the service costs $25 per person one way. The transfer time takes around 30 minutes.
If you need to rent a car in the downtown area of Victoria, there is a convenient rental location with Avis at 1001 Douglas Street and also a desk at Victoria Airport. You won’t need a car to explore the downtown area of Victoria, as most of the sights are easy to reach on foot, although it’s useful to have a car for exploring attractions outside the city and around Vancouver Island.
I was hosted on this trip to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary by Destination Canada and Canadian Affair.