A Guide to Victoria

Home to a rich indigenous culture, the city of Victoria is testament to unique facets of history, architecture and a dynamic spirit. Blessed with a pleasant Mediterranean climate, Victoria’s pleasing corners feature the charm of a coastal town and the bustling atmosphere of a modern city. Its stunning architectural sprawl, its assemblage of floral gardens, and the breezy, well-lit nights along its Inner Harbour capture the magical essence of British Columbia’s capital city.

By the numbers

Population: 85,792 (City); 367,770 (Metropolitan)

Elevation: 23 meters / 75 feet

Time Zone: GMT-8 (GMT -7 Daylight Saving Time); Pacific Standard Time (PST)

Weather

Average Annual Precipitation: 60.8 centimetres / 23.9 inches

Average January Temperature: 7°C / 44.6°F

Average July Temperature: 23°C / 73.4°F

Did you know?

When it comes to restaurants per capita in North America, Victoria ranks second on the list, with San Francisco being the first.

The city is christened after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.

Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, Canada, and is located on Vancouver Island’s southern end.

District Guide

While the focal point of the city lies at the rocky edge of Vancouver Island, its surrounding neighbourhoods span varying landscapes that make up the Greater Victoria area. This metropolitan area includes historically significant municipalities such as Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay, besides the cities of Sooke and View Royal. Here’s an in-depth exploration of the distinct neighbourhoods of Victoria that add to its vibrant personality.

Sunset by the park at Victoria British Columbia Canada Innter Harbour

Chinatown
It comes as no surprise that the inclusive city of Victoria is home to this colourful community. This National Historic Site houses numerous Chinese immigrants that called the city home during the Gold Rush, bringing with them a flurry of sub-cultures, businesses and unique architecture. A distinct neighbourhood, Chinatown blends in effortlessly with the cultural landscape of British Columbia. Known for being the second oldest Chinatown in North America, this neighbourhood brims with character and architectural quirks. Stroll along the Fan Tan Alley on Chinatown’s Fisgard Street, where the most narrow walls in Canada feign to close in on you, or marvel at intricate Asian architecture at the historic Chinese Public School.

Rocklands
All paths in the Rocklands neighbourhood lead to stately mansions that are emblematic of elegance and old money, the most famous one being the 19th century Craigdarroch Castle. This affluent neighbourhood is also home to the sprawling estate of the Government House, a modern Tudor style residence with well-manicured gardens that houses British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor. Those with an inclination toward the arts can flock to the Art Gallery of Victoria, where exhibits range from noteworthy works by native Canadian artists, to creations by globally acknowledged artists. Aside from the castle, the streets of Rocklands are speckled with brilliantly designed buildings characteristic of the Arts-and-Crafts architecture style.

Downtown Victoria
The historic center of Victoria comprises of other prominent squares such as Bastion Square and Market Square. Fuelled by the advent of industrial development during the latter years of the 19th-century, Downtown Victoria is where numerous businesses continue to thrive, flanked by major city landmarks. Resting on the regal streets of Centennial Square is the Victoria City Hall, while steps away is the illustrious Empress Hotel (presently the Fairmont Empress Hotel), built in 1908 .Surrounded by View, Government and Douglas Streets is the Bay Centre mall that attracts innumerable shoppers with its global brands and merchandise.

James Bay
Christened so as to honour the city’s founding father, Sir James Douglas, the neighbourhood is easily the oldest residential community in the city. James Bay is a scenic gem located to the southwest of Victoria’s Downtown neighbourhood, and is peppered with just the right balance of history and Victorian charm to allure visitors. Its quiet streets hum with a historic tenor, brought alive by well-preserved landmarks such as the home of celebrated native Canadian artist, Emily Carr, and the Helmcken House, where Victoria’s first surgeon resided. Flanked by the Inner Harbor, the Outer Harbor and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, James Bay allows for soothing views from every corner. Although the bay boasts of a number of exalted buildings, the emerald expanses of Beacon Hill Park form its most winning crest.

Dining and drinking

Victoria’s restaurants have something for every mood and audience, ranging from waterfront fine dining restaurants, to breezy bistros and friendly pubs.

Fish and Chip food truck

For a romantic Italian dinner, head to Il Terrazzo, while the Restaurant Matisse offers refined French dining in its intimate quarters. Then there is the quintessential American diner by the name of Jam Cafe, promising incredible food without the fuss.

With a progressive farm-to-table movement leading the way, most of Victoria’s restaurants make use of fresh local produce available in its naturally endowed geographic region. Besides its native cuisine, Victoria is also blessed with a handful of global-cuisine restaurants.

James Bay
Near Fisherman’s Wharf, you will find the most widespread selection of seafood restaurants to choose from, be it the uber-chic AURA, or the humble yet inspired Barb’s, known for its good old fish and chips. A few minutes away near Irving Park, the Heron Rock Bistro presents a winning daytime menu, ideal for lazy breakfasts and boozy lunches. For a definitive tea experience that only the British seem privy to, head to the James Bay Tea Room and Restaurant. This heritage tea house on Menzies Street serves everything from dainty scones and crumpets, to the famed Welsh Rarebit and kipper. Alongside tea rooms, a flurry of coffee shops thrive in this picturesque neighbourhood, ranging from native chain coffee shops, to independent ones such as the Breakwater Cafe and Bistro.

Downtown
Downtown Victoria has some of the best dining experiences in the city. On the iconic Government Street, the Brasserie L’Ecole serves excellent French dishes alongside fragrant wines, while Zambri’s on nearby Yates Street is known for its honest-to-goodness Italian fare. Joining the European restaurant bandwagon is the Tapa Bar, an informal establishment on Government street serving flavourful small plates and Spanish wines. A little further down the road on Wharf Street is Nautical Nellie’s Steak and Seafood House, for those who love surf ‘n’ turf cuisine.

Oak Bay Village
A visit to the Oak Bay Village will remain incomplete without experiencing the English-inspired aura of the Penny Farthing Neighbourhood Pub, where a bowl of homemade West Coast Clam Chowder will you utterly satisfied. The bay area also celebrates the city’s penchant for exceptional seafood at the waterfront Marina Restaurant, besides offering soaring views of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The cozy Oaks Restaurant on Oak Bay Avenue serves a breakfast for champions, and also upholds the charming tradition of serving afternoon tea. You can also experience the charming tradition of afternoon tea at the White Heather Tea Room.

On the same avenue, the Oak Bay Village that the eponymous Oak Bay Beach Hotel stands tall, inviting peckish visitors for a quick bite at the resident Kate’s Cafe. It also caters to an elite clientele at the sumptuous Dining Room, replete with unparalleled coastal views. At Blighty’s Bistro, a splendid Canadian dining experience awaits.

Chinatown
Victoria’s distinct Chinese district is packed with a range of Asian street food treasures that are not to be missed. Fisgard Street is a merry milieu of Chinese letterings on glass windows, providing convincing descriptions of the delicious Asian fare available inside. More often than not, you will also find rotisserie displays to back up the claims. From BBQ pork and Honey Buns at the modest Wah Lai Yuen, to Don Mee’s eighty-year old dim sum recipes, you’ll find eateries to suit every Cantonese hankering you may have. While you are here, make it a point to stop by some wonderful tea establishments too. As you stroll the Fan Tan Alley, stop by at the eponymous Fan Tan Cafe and have yourself a bubble tea, or waltz into the charming Venus Sophia Tea Room for a cup of afternoon tea and light vegetarian tidbits. Chinatown also sneaks in a bit of the unexpected, with hidden treasures like the Brasserie L’ecole. This intimate French bistro is a charming enclave that serves seasonal French classics alongside wine. OLO, another top-rated gem, pleases with its bright and roomy dining hall, and Pacific Northwest-inspired fare.

Fernwood
From fancy tapas and wine at the award-winning Stage Wine Bar, to exotic Dolmades and Keftedes at the Ithaka Greek Restaurant, Fernwood is a melting pot of culinary cultures. It is located mere minutes away from Downtown, its quaint scenery belying its diverse culinary ambition. Come here for restaurants such as The Fernwood Inn, a family-friendly gastropub, and the Tartan Toque, known for its flavourful wings and burgers. Fernwood is also home to Cold Comfort, an innovative ice-cream parlour that introduces quirky flavours at the turn of every season. Other noteworthy establishments here include Mesa Familiar, Stage Wine Bar, and the Fernwood Pizza Company.

Recommended Tours

While most landmarks and significant monuments in Victoria are minutes away from each other, a few others such as the gardens and sanctuaries are spread across the Greater Victoria area, requiring visitors to stray a little outside city limits.

Parliament building, Victoria, Canada

Parliament Building
Located along the iconic Inner Harbour that is also home to other major city landmarks, the Neo-Baroque facade of the Parliament Building sprawls across a stunning estate. This building was constructed in 1897 by architect Francis Rattenbury, flawlessly combining Romanesque and Baroque architectural styles for a remarkable effect. Take advantage of the free guided tours that the building offers, and take note of the intricate exterior sculptures and the carefully manicured gardens along the way. Stop by for a hearty meal at the Old Spaghetti Factory, and later explore First Nations heritage at the Mungo Martin House in Thunderbird Park. Spend your early evening marvelling the collective artworks of artist Robert Bateman at his namesake center. Cap off your day with an European meal at Jonathan’s, inside the Royal Scot Hotel.

Craigdarroch Castle
Start with a fulfilling breakfast at the Shine Cafe located on Fort Street. Later, plan a visit to the Craigdarroch Castle. A visit to this wonderful beacon of architecture and affluence is certain to overwhelm any visitor. Learn about coal baron Robert Dunsmuir’s legacy, his family, tales about the castle and the historic exhibits that lie within. Further down the road, on Rockland Avenue lies another pivotal political landmark – the Government House. Guided tours of the public rooms at the house are available. A tour of the nearby Art Gallery of Victoria and the Langham Court Theatre add a fine artistic touch to your day. As the day wears on, pop in for a quick visit to the Cary Castle Mews and Tea Room and savor splendid fare furnished by the Executive Chef at Government House. Enjoy a quick tour of the Costume Museum at Carriage House before you bid goodbye to the stately neighbourhood of Rocklands.

Butchart Gardens
Despite being located several kilometres outside city limits, the Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay attract thousands of visitors each week. The fact that these gardens blossomed out of what was a humble sunken garden to begin with, is one of the things that has merited it the National Historic Site label. The captivating gardens take you through beautiful floral displays, each better than the last. Spend time admiring the Japanese Garden, the Ross Fountain, the Star Pond and the Italian Garden at this iconic park. Also marvel at the stunningly carved Coast Salish Totem Poles in the garden, and hear them whisper stories of a bygone time and heritage. Break for a luxurious lunch at the Dining Room, where you can enjoy a beautiful Canadian meal with floral vistas. Next, visit the Victoria Butterfly Gardens, located minutes away on Benvenuto Avenue. These gardens house nearly 75 species of butterflies alone, besides a smattering of birds and reptiles. The scenic backdrop is an added bonus. Refuel at the Church and State Wines vineyard, located a short walk away from the butterfly garden.

The Royal British Columbia Museum
The Royal British Columbia Museum vividly brings alive the humble beginnings of this city, journeying through its dramatic history, indigenous culture and events that helped shape the metropolis it is today. Experience Victoria’s exciting tryst with the Gold Rush era first-hand, replete with untold stories and hushed-up conspiracies. Then, go back to a revered time when the First Nations people set up civilization in present-day Victoria, and learn how their lives unfolded after the European settlement. The interactive IMAX theatre within the museum offers thrilling experiences that stay with you. Afterward, indulge in some food for thought at the museum’s courtyard with its incredible selection of food from various food trucks around the city. Settle for a solemn experience at the Thunderbird Park, steps away from the Royal British Columbia Museum. Scattered across the park are numerous totem poles depicting various indigenous groups that resided in the city, alongside other monuments from the 19th Century, such as St. Anne’s Schoolhouse and the Helmcken House.

Beacon Hill Park
Further south to the Inner Harbour, Beacon Hill Park is where one must go to enjoy sweeping views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains beyond. Walk down to the Mile Zero Monument, the point from where the 8000-kilometres (4970.76-miles) long Trans-Canada Highway begins its winding journey. Hop back into town for an indulgent meal at The Village Taverna and call it a day.

Chinatown
With a largely distinct personality compared to its neighbouring counterparts, Chinatown is a fascinating entity in itself that must be explored. As you enter this historic district, you are greeted by the imposing Gate of Harmonious Interest, a giant red wall guarded by two stone lions that are rumoured to keep evil at bay. Meander through its many lanes and alleys, of which the Fan Tan Alley in particular is famed to be the narrowest alley in the country. In the alley itself, you will encounter a range of diverse shops, cafes and independent Chinese eateries, each sporting a unique Oriental charm. Dine at the eighty-plus year old Don Lee eatery that overlooks Chinatown, and enjoy a plate of steaming hot dim-sums.

Guided Tours

Eagle Wing Tours (+1 250 384 8008 / https://www.eaglewingtours.com/)

Come See Victoria (+1 778 676 0142 / http://www.comeseevictoria.com/)

Bike Tours

Bike Tours Victoria BC (+1 250 891 8545 / http://www.biketoursvictoria.com/)

Food Tours

Off The Eaten Track (+1 778 918 4584 / http://www.offtheeatentracktours.ca/victoria/)

Entertainment

Victoria is a seasoned maven when it comes to the art of entertainment. Its museums tell engaging stories about its local history and culture, and its galleries speak a thousand words through their varied artworks. Come night, the city takes on a pulsating form, with its trendy nightclubs catering to the youthful vibe of university students and nocturnal tourists. Music hums through the city’s veins, with some of the most vibrant music festivals and performances making their presence felt annually.

Senior couple walking in Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, elevated view

If not in the form of festivals, music manifests itself in various jazz rooms across the city, such as at Hermann’s Jazz Club or at events organized by the Victoria Jazz Society. It is also prevalent in short yet inspired live music performances in pubs and local bars. Visit the Copper Owl for a taste of local acoustics, while the Canoe Brewpub marries pop and indie tunes with serene waterfront vistas.

Festivals
Known as the “Garden City” for its abundance of natural parks, Victoria makes full use of these green expanses to host annual festivals during the summer. At the height of summer, the Feast of Fields festival and Victoria’s Festival of Food and Wine opens to food connoisseurs and oenophiles. The dramatic Dragon Boat Festival also begins in full swing during mid-August, where varied communities come together for a heated race along the Inner Harbour. The Inner Harbour also plays host to the Victoria Symphony Splash. Here you can witness first-hand, the marvellous orchestra perform on a floating stage, while fireworks erupt in the evening sky. In June, those with a proclivity for Jazz music are captivated by the TD Victoria International Jazz Fest organized by the Victoria Jazz Society.

Nightlife
Downtown Victoria allows for plenty of opportunities for club-hopping. The Sugar Nightclub and Upstairs Cabaret promise a night full of fun and energetic frolic to nightly DJ grooves, while clubs such as Paparazzi and Lucky are top LGBTQ hangouts. Duke’s Saloon is one of the city’s best live music bars, and hosts an impressive line-up of country music gigs on weekends. Those who like to try their luck may do so at the View Royal Casino, offering nearly 600 slot machines and a sprawling avenue for fun gambling.

Museums
The Royal British Columbia Museum deep-dives into its most enviable archives to tell you about its natural history. Nearby, the Maritime Museum of British Columbia thrills you with its nautical tales. The Craigdarroch Castle’s preserved exhibits bring alive the lives of the affluent Dunsmuir family, while the Emily Carr House and Helmcken House portray the forgotten stories of their noteworthy inhabitants.

Theatre
Housed in a 19th-century building, the hub of all theatrical performances is undoubtedly the Belfry Theatre located in the Fernwood neighbourhood. Contemporary Canadian works take centerstage here, with nearly 10-12 plays featured per season. The neighbouring Rocklands are home to the Langham Court Theatre, that has been producing contemporary shows since 1929.

History

Aboriginal Beginnings

Much before Victoria came to be recognized as the thriving capital it is today, its craggy coastline was inhabited by native aboriginal groups, known collectively as the First Nations people. The city wears this historical fact proudly, and several of its neighbourhoods, crucial landmarks and businesses continue to reflect its humble beginnings even today.

Trading Post Established
Victoria’s inclusive personality and friendly community vibe can be traced back to as early as the 19th Century, when it partnered with European traders to foster economic progress. Initially known as “Camossung”, or “Camosack” by the Songhees, a native group, Victoria was the chosen center for the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company trading post. The year was 1843, and heading this movement was Governor James Douglas, who would later become known as the ‘Father of British Columbia’. Treaties were signed, aboriginal peoples relocated to Esquimalt, and Fort Victoria came into existence.

Gold Rush
A few years into the birth of Victoria, the hullabaloo around gold mining reached its peak, and the chaotic era of Gold Rush commenced. The discovery of gold along the Fraser River in 1858 set the precedent for a major migratory influx, with miners streaming in from Europe, United States and even Australia, increasing the population of Victoria by leaps and bounds. The fact that Victoria was a pivotal outfitting center for the goldfields was an added impetus that attracted prospective miners.

Incoming immigration continued well into the later part of the 19th Century, especially as projects such as the Canadian Pacific Railway arose on the horizon, inviting prospective labourers. Around the same time, British Columbia prepared for a major historic moment in 1871, when it was proclaimed as the sixth province of Canada, with Victoria gaining status as its provincial capital.

Through the years since then, Victoria has stood testimony to the vagaries of time, molding and adjusting its landscape to include additions which would later be deemed landmarks, such as the stunning Butchart Gardens, and the Empress Hotel, to name a few.

Getting there and getting around

Getting There
From the Airport

Taxi:The Yellow Cab of Victoria fleet of taxis are available outside the YYJ terminal.

Rental Cars: YYJ features on-airport car rental counters that are located across from the Information Desk. There are no counters for off-airport rental car companies.

Avis (+1 800 879 2847 / https://www.avis.com)
Budget Rent-a-Car (+1 250 953 5300 / http://budgetvictoria.ca/)
Hertz (+1 800 263 0600 / https://www.hertz.com/rentacar/reservation/)
National Car Rental (+1 250 656 2541 / https://www.nationalcar.com/en_US/car-rental/home.html)

Bus:

BC Transit
+1 250 382 6161
https://bctransit.com

Routes 83, 86 and 88 provide ideal connections to the airport. One-way fare is CAD2.50.

Shuttle: The YYJ Airport Shuttle (+1 855 351 4995 / https://yyjairportshuttle.com/) operates regular trips from Victoria International Airport to Downtown Victoria. The last shuttle leaves from YYJ at 12:30a.

By Ferry
Since Victoria is located on Vancouver Island, one of the best ways to reach the city is by ferry. BC Ferries (+1 888 223 3779 / http://www.bcferries.com/) operate from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, which is a short drive away from Victoria. The rest of the distance can be covered by public transit. Those who wish to bring their car can park their vehicles on the ferry’s car decks, and then drive into the city from the Swartz Bay Terminal.

By Car
Vancouver Island has an extensive network of highways that connect to Victoria. Some of the routes may require you to take the car ferries that depart from Tsawwassen, located south of Vancouver. From Nanaimo, you can reach Victoria if you take the Trans-Canada Highway 1, whereas Sooke and Port Renfrew are connected to Victoria through BC-4.

By Bus
There are several bus services that connect Vancouver to Victoria, with some of them also leaving from Seattle and certain stations on Victoria Island. The Pacific Coach bus service (+1 800 661 1725 / http://www.pacificcoach.com/) operates daily between Vancouver to Victoria. One way ticket costs CAD48. Other bus services like Greyhound (+1 800 661 8747 / https://www.greyhound.ca/) offer rides from Vancouver Island to Victoria, while Tofino Bus (+1 250 725 2871 / http://www.tofinobus.com/) offers express service everyday between Victoria, Port Alberni, Ucluelet and Tofino.

Getting Around

By Air
Victoria International Airport (YYJ)
+1 250 953 7500
http://www.victoriaairport.com/

Car
Although the best way to get around in the main city is by foot or bicycle, cars are the best way to get around far-flung regions that lie outside of Downtown Victoria. However, note that the gas prices in Canada translate into expensive rides by car, compared to other transportation systems.

Bus
The Victoria Regional Transit System service area extends to the Greater Victoria region as well, with connections available up to the Swartz Bay BC Ferry Terminal. Connections to all other ferry terminals, including Sidney, Brentwood Bay and Ogden Point, within the Greater Victoria region are available as well. Day passes can be bought for CAD5, whereas the regular one-way fare is CAD2.50.

Ferry
The Victoria Harbour Ferry operates H20 Water Taxis (+1 250 708 0201 / https://www.victoriaharbourferry.com/tours-services/water-taxi) from March to October, from Ogden Point, through Fisherman’s Wharf and Steamship Terminal, all the way to Selkirk Landing.

Bike
Designated cycling paths and a robust connectivity to crucial points around the city is what makes bike transport around the city such a joyous activity. Known as Canada’s cycling capital, Victoria’s car-free cycling paths not only ensure safety and worry-free rides, but also add a bit of romance to your journey. Nifty bike maps are readily available at the CRD office at 625 Fisgard Street and 490 Atkins Avenue for anyone who wishes to hop on a bicycle and tour the city.

Horse-drawn Carriages
While this is one of the more unusual means of transport and requires prior reservation, the charming and relaxed pace of the city warrants something as Victorian as this. Pick-ups from the hotel or restaurant are available, and you can book your carriage at with Tally Ho Carriage Tours (+1 866 383 5067/http://www.tallyhotours.com/) or Victoria Carriage Tours (+1 250 383 2207 / http://www.victoriacarriage.com/).

On Foot
Victoria is a fine city to explore by foot, its mild Mediterranean climate supporting this pedestrian-friendly philosophy. Car-free pathways in the city also encourage and contribute to ease of walkability. Most landmarks and sightseeing points are located in close proximity to one another as well, ensuring effortless transit on foot.