What do Victorians do when endless blue sky and sunshine beckon, temperatures rise and brains get too mushy to work?
We’re surrounded by water, so the answer is – hit the beach!
Since moving to Victoria on Vancouver Island (Canada), we’ve dipped our toes and dunked our bodies in the water of many swimming holes, sussing out 7 of the best beaches in Victoria, BC.
Now, we have to be honest.
None of the ocean beaches around Victoria are warm like, say, the Los Cabos beaches in Mexico we’ve swum in. In fact, they’re kinda frigid! But they’re awesome for stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), kayaking, picnicking, reading a book, catching some sun and snoozing.
Swimming? Well, if you want to actually swim and spend time in the water, the lakes in Victoria, BC, are better because the water is warmer.
The 7 best beaches in Victoria, BC, for cooling off in summer
Of course, you can’t miss certain iconic Victoria activities when away for a week or weekend in Victoria. (Afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress, anyone?) But when it’s hot outside, an outing to a freshwater lake or beach is one of the best things to do in Victoria in summer.
Here’s our beach chair report on the 7 best Victoria, BC, beaches for swimming…
1) West Shawnigan Lake Park
Encircled by holiday cabins and fancy homes, Shawnigan Lake is a pretty summer vacation spot about a 45-minute drive from Victoria. (It’s also the site for the lakefront Shawnigan Lake School, one of Canada’s best boarding schools.)
There are three lakeside parks with beaches. Two – Masons Beach Park and Old Mill Park – are popular with families with young children, as the beaches are shallow and slope gently. Located on the east side of the lake, they’re also the best for catching the most rays in the late afternoon (if you can find a spot to spread out your towel).
The third lakeside park – West Shawnigan Lake Park – is the real gem, in our view.
Formerly a provincial park, it’s larger and far less busy than the other two. Except for occasional powerboats and waterskiiers whooshing by in the distance, you’ll almost have the forest park to yourself.
There’s no real “beach” as the huge expanse of lawn, with some trees for shade, slopes down almost to the lake edge. Because it’s on the west side of the lake, it loses the sun in the afternoon – which makes it pleasantly cool on a hot day (so if you want the afternoon sun, you might prefer Old Mill Park then).
West Shawnigan Lake Park map:
2) Gonzales Beach
We feel very lucky that one of the two nicest sandy beaches in Victoria is less than a 5-minute drive from our home.
Gonzales Beach hugs the shore of a smaller bay in a residential neighborhood and has lovely south-facing views of the Olympic Mountains across the Juan de Fuca Strait.
Houses line the edge of the bay and much of the log-strewn beach – the logs make great backrests! – but there’s also an itty-bitty, terraced grassy area at one end, with some picnic tables. The water is typically glassy calm, and it’s shallow for a long way out.
The beach is long enough to accommodate a mixed crowd. Families congregate on one half of the beach – wee ones love making sand castles and moats in the sand. Teens who listen to music and party-goers tend to hang out at the other end of the beach.
Occasional stand-up paddleboarders and kayakers dot the bay. One kayaker (who paddles out four times a week) told us Gonzales Bay and the adjacent scalloped coastline has everything you’d want to see when paddling – sea otters, seals, giant jellyfish in the water, jumping fish, seabirds overhead, starfish on the coastal rocks and more.
We can’t wait to SUP Gonzales Beach ourselves!
Gonzales Beach map:
3) Sooke Potholes Provincial Park
The Sooke Potholes (about an hour’s drive from Victoria) are a unique series of deep pools of fresh water created by water falling over enormous polished boulders in the Sooke River. Reminding us a little of Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park, they’re a favorite swimming spot for Sooke locals and Victorians alike seeking relief from the heat on hot summer days.
Several small parking lots are strung along the Sooke River, so you can access the potholes at different points.
We like to hike along the accessible 2-mile stretch of river trail – making detours from the forest trail to the riverbank for different views.
In some places, the riverbank is low, and you can relax on little pebble beaches by pools of water. In other parts, the river looks more like a steep gorge.
Keep an eye out for the thrill-seekers that climb up the rocky cliff walls and jump from the top into the water!
A day spent here is a Victoria summer day at its best. Do a little easy hiking in the great outdoors, then cool off with a dip in natural, freshwater pools.
Sooke Potholes map:
4) Thetis Lake
Canada’s first nature sanctuary (established in 1958), Thetis Lake Park (1,570 acres in size) has two lakes – Upper Thetis and Lower Thetis – both featuring clear freshwater. Scenic walking/hiking trails weave through the forest around the lakes, and there are also picnic areas.
As it’s just on the edge of the city, Thetis Lake Park is hugely popular for swimming in summer, especially with young people. There are little islands which you can swim to. People also love to kayak here.
The main beach can be a bit crowded for our taste. But there are great spots further away which are quieter.
Thetis Lake directions:
5) Cordova Bay Beach
Picture-perfect is the word – it really doesn’t get any prettier than Cordova Bay Beach.
Cordova Bay is a small community just north of Victoria (about a 15-minute drive from downtown Victoria) with a long, expansive sand-and-pebble beach. Million-dollar homes line much of the beach – but as all beaches are public, you can enjoy the whole length of the beach.
The stretch in front of the Beach House Restaurant makes us sigh with delight (public stairs lead down to the beach). It makes others sigh too – many weddings are held on the sand here, with receptions afterward on the oceanfront deck of the Beach House.
This is our go-to place for combining a late afternoon beach read and toe-dip in the sea with sunset cocktails and appies or dinner at the Beach House afterwards (brollie and/or sunhats needed on the beach for shade).
A full moon rose in the sky, huge and pink, one time we ate at the Beach House, and despite the evening chill, we couldn’t bear to leave the deck for inside – the moonlight was magical on the water.
A paddleboarder also intrigued us as he paddled out into the early moonlight – turned out he was paddling to a crab trap to retrieve his catch. (He also intrigued a new bride, who padded barefoot on the sand, trailing her long white wedding dress, to have a peek at the huge crab he’d caught.)
6) Willows Beach
Along with Gonzales Beach, Willows Beach gets our vote as one of Victoria’s top beaches to splash in during summer – it’s probably the beach to chill on if you only have time for one.
Larger than Gonzales Beach, it has a huge grass area with plenty of trees for shade (ideal for picnics) along with a tiny, plain-but-charming tea room run by the Kiwanis (a volunteer-led organization). Below the lawn lies a long stretch of sandy beach lined by logs. An esplanade and walkway runs alongside the beach, popular for strolling along.
Willows Beach is also ideal if you want to SUP in Victoria. Brian at South Island SUP operates a mobile SUP rental service, delivering SUP boards to you on the beach, and he’s often seen at Willows Beach. (We rented boards from him several times before buying our own.)
If you want to go exploring a bit, wander through the leafy, Oak Bay residential area above the beach and enjoy the attractive heritage homes.
7) Gyro Beach at Cadboro Bay
Gyro Beach near Cadboro Bay Village is a great family-friendly beach in Victoria. This is the beach that little Prince George and Princess Charlotte played at when their parents, William and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge), came to Victoria on a royal visit in 2016. They had fun on the the slides, swings and giant red octopus in the children’s playground.
Along with the playground, the sheltered bay with gently-sloping beach and large lawn areas make Cadboro-Gyro Park especially appealing for families with smaller children.
Gyro Beach is also one of the best places to SUP in Victoria. You can drive your car close to the beach to drop off your board, and the beach is easy to launch from.
If you’d like to rent a board, Gyro Beach Board Shop is about a block away in Cadboro Bay Village; your board rental comes with “wheelez” transport so you can pull your board on wheels to and from the beach.
Other summer things to do in Victoria, BC
The beach may be tops on our list of summery Victoria things to do. But we also have beautiful gardens here (you’ve heard of Buchart Gardens?). And there are great restaurants in Victoria, many with outdoor patios. So check out these posts of ours too:
We’ve stayed at several Airbnb’s in Victoria…
More beach porn!
Yes, we go to the beach in Victoria, BC, as often as we can when we’re here… But the world is a big place, and there are so many other fabulous beaches!
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Updated June 7, 2018: This post was originally published a couple of years ago when we moved to Victoria – and it was a steamy summer! We’ve since checked out additional beaches, which we’ve added to this list, and included additional helpful information (like maps).
Do you have a favorite swimming hole where you live?
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.