It’s hard to believe. But it’s been three years since we moved from Vancouver to Victoria.
And now that we’re settled in our not-so-new-anymore home, we’ve discovered so many fun things to do in Victoria, BC!
We lived almost half our lives in Vancouver and raised our son there.
And with its forested mountains and ocean; cycling and hiking trails; beaches; public markets; green parks that make your spirits soar (like Stanley Park, the mother of all downtown parks); and, of course, our friends – well, we thought Vancouver was the best city to live in (and for visitors, the best city to visit in Canada).
Now we think Victoria rivals Vancouver. We absolutely love Victoria – and you will too!
Best city to visit in Canada
We’re going to tell you in detail all about what to do in Victoria, BC, in a minute.
But before we do, indulge us just for a minute as we briefly wax poetic (or not so poetic) about why Victoria is such a great city for you to visit.
For one, with all its gardens, Victoria is bloomin’ pretty. And the walks along its miles of oceanfront are lovely .
The weather is kind to humans. Victoria boasts the best weather in Canada. True, there are lots of fun things to do in Canada in winter. (Hello snowshoeing!)
But to be honest, we could personally do without cold weather.
In Victoria, it’s mild in winter and it rarely snows (though we do get some miserable rainy and windy days). Summers are sunny, not-too-hot and dry (unlike, say, Toronto, which melts in the humidity).
It’s interesting too that even though Victoria is just under a two-hour ferry hop away from Vancouver, its weather is distinctly different from Vancouver’s – Victoria gets far less rain.
The restaurant and theater scene is great here too.
For such a smallish city (population 400,000), Victoria punches high above its weight here.
And it’s so easy to get around the city – you’re usually only a 10- to 15-minute drive away from anywhere. Traffic jams? Not like you’re used to in big cities.
Indeed, once known as a city for the “newly wed or nearly dead,” Victoria is going through a modern-day Renaissance.
Vogue magazine says that Victoria has been overlooked as a hipster-haven cousin to Seattle and Portland. (See its feature on “Why Victoria, British Columbia, should be your next weekend getaway.”)
Kinda fun to think we’re living in a newly “hip” city!
Things to do in Victoria, BC
Okay, let’s skip now to some of the best things to do in Victoria, Canada.
1) Smell the roses at Butchart Gardens
For most travelers, visiting Butchart Gardens is #1 on the list of top things to do in Victoria, BC.
Over 100 years old, these world-famous gardens are home to spectacular flowering bushes and plantings, including a sunken garden, Japanese gardens and the prize-winning rose gardens.
2) Take a ride in a pickle boat
Victoria has a collection of pickle-shaped boats (carrying a maximum of 12 passengers) that traverse the inner waterways. Dubbed “happy boats,” they’re run by Victoria Harbor Ferry.
Hop on one for a mini sightseeing cruise.
When we have out-of-town visitors, we like to take them on the one-hour narrated tour of the historic four-mile Gorge Waterway. As you pass historic homes, working shipyards and kayakers on the water, your “captain” explains the history of the area.
The first time we did this tour, our cheerful silver-haired captain entertained us with tales of diving from the bridges into the Gorge as a child and hitching rides on log booms to get home.
You can also go on a pub crawl pickle boat tour and get pickled :-).
3) Visit the Royal BC Museum
Step back in time as you walk through reconstructions of a turn-of-the-century town, with a sawmill, mine and fish-packing plant.
Board a replica of the stern of Captain Vancouver’s ship HMS Discovery, built in 1789, upon which Captain Vancouver first arrived in British Columbia.
See extensive displays of First Nations artifacts, a traditional “big house” and ancient totems. And watch a film in the giant IMAX Victoria theater.
These are just some of the exhibits and activities you can enjoy at the Royal British Columbia Museum. Established in 1886, the museum – which showcases BC’s 9,000 years of human history – has some 7 million objects in its collection.
4) Eat your way through Victoria
There’s an urban myth still floating around that Victoria has the second highest number of restaurants per capita in North America. Probably not true.
But we can tell you that there are many great Victoria, BC, restaurants.
If you’re a foodie, you’ll definitely enjoy Victoria’s sophisticated restaurant scene.
You can find more great Victoria restaurants here.
5) Walk the Victoria Inner Harbor
One of the best free things to do in Victoria, BC, is to walk the Victoria Inner Harbour (spelled the Canadian way) – one of the prettiest harbors in the world.
Take a look at the map above to get your bearings.
Perhaps start your walk at the iconic Fairmont Empress hotel, which overlooks the middle of the harbor.
Turn left as you’re facing the water, and you’ll pass the Royal BC Museum and BC’s provincial Parliament building.
Continue winding your way along the waterfront until you come to Fisherman’s Wharf. Check out the colorful houseboats floating in the water; perhaps buy fresh fish-and-chips to eat outside in the sun.
At this point, you may want to turn around and retrace your steps, continuing beyond the Fairmont Empress along Wharf Street until you reach the Johnson Street Bridge.
Or you could take one of the Victoria Harbor Ferries mentioned (in #2 above) over to West Bay.
Then you’d walk the flat, paved Songhees Westsong Walkway that winds along the Esquimalt/Vic West waterfront. Fantastic!
See details of this walk on Frommer’s.
6) Hike up Mount Douglas
Missing the gym? Want some “forest bathing”?
Then get yourself to Mount Douglas Park. On the outskirts of the city, perhaps a 20-minute drive from downtown Victoria, this lush forested park offers 13 miles of trails winding through towering Douglas Fir and cedar trees.
Many of the trails are named after early settlers and farms in the area, and they’re rated (color-coded) according to difficulty – Green (easy), Blue (moderate) and Black (difficult).
The key attraction is the spectacular 360 degree view of Victoria and the water that you get from the top of Mount Doug.
You can actually reach the top of the 738-foot-high mountain (hill?) by car on Churchill Road. But it’s closed to car traffic every day until 12 noon to encourage people to hike up the paved road.
The more scenic way to hike up is one of the forested trails, like the Irvine Trail. Some fresh air, some exercise, and a great reward at the top!
7) Attend a festival
Into art, sailing, music? We have several events and festivals in Victoria, BC, that are worth catching.
Fun events in Victoria, BC
We particularly love these Victoria, BC, events:
Held on the first weekend of August, Victoria Symphony Splash is Victoria’s marquee summer event. The Victoria Symphony puts on a free evening classical concert from a barge in the Inner Harbor. Crowds gather all around onshore. Fireworks finish off the spectacle.
Moss Street Paint In:
One day a year in summer, Moss Street is closed to traffic, and over 100 artists set up shop to paint and sell their work. There’s also plenty of food, drink and music at the Moss Street Paint In. If it’s sunny, expect more than 30,000 art lovers to be out and about!
Music on the Lawn:
A free series of evening rock n’ roll and blues concerts is held on the lawn at the BC Government House in summer. Bring a blanket or your own chair.
Head down to Clover Point on Dallas Road on the morning the Swiftsure International Yacht Race starts. You’ll see hundreds of yachts stream by, their billowing sails catching the wind.
Boaters come from as far away as Hawaii and New Zealand to participate in this premier sailing race event in the Pacific Northwest.
8) Chill on a beach
When it’s hot outside, you may want to cool off at one of Victoria’s beaches.
Willows Beach is the most well-known, with half a mile of sandy beach and logs to rest against. There’s a tea room too, run by the Kiwanis Club, which is open in spring and summer. But the water is cold (like frigid!) so you won’t be doing too much swimming.
If you want to actually swim (in water that’s not freezing), check out Thetis Lake.
9) Tour Craigdarroch Castle
Tour this famous sandstone castle, now a National Historic Site, built between 1887 and 1890 for BC coal baron Robert Dunsmuir.
He unfortunately didn’t get to spend much time in his “castle” as he died in 1889, leaving his whole estate to his wife Joan. (They had ten children.)
Inside, you can gawk at 39 lavishly furnished rooms (over 20,000 square feet), with beautiful stained-glass windows, tile floors, ornately carved woodwork and pink granite columns.
It’s also fun to learn about the juicy family drama after Robert’s death – including a lawsuit by Joan against one of her sons, James, who was the premier of BC at the time.
10) Enjoy afternoon tea at the Empress
You might have guessed by now that Victoria, named after Queen Victoria, has retained a “little bit of old England.” Lonely Planet says it’s North America’s “most English city.”
One of those lovely British traditions still going strong after more than a century is the Empress Hotel high tea.
Afternoon tea in the lobby lounge of the Fairmont Empress Hotel is an elegant affair. We remember when ladies would wear hats and flowery dresses to tea at the Empress. Since the Empress underwent a $60 million restoration, the lounge is more smart-modern, but still sophisticated in royal purple colors.
You can choose from 21 international loose-leaf teas. The menu features delicious treats made fresh daily from locally-sourced ingredients, including smoked salmon on blinis, chevre tartlets and blackberry-and-hazelnut macarons.
And, yes, you get warm scones with clotted cream and strawberry lavender preserve.
While you sip and nibble, live classical music is played on a baby grand piano. Pinkies up!
11) Spy whales!
Yes, Victoria has whales, and you can go whale watching in Victoria, BC, on a boat tour.
The types of whales found in the waters surrounding Victoria include orcas (killer whales), humpbacks, gray whales and minke whales. If you’re lucky, you may see a whale breach (jump out of the water) right up close. Then again, you may just see a whale tail in the distance.
You’re also likely to get close-up views of seals, porpoises, eagles, sea lions and other local marine life on your Victoria whale watching tour.
Tours leave from the Inner Harbor. You can choose from different types of vessels, such as high speed Zodiac-style inflatables or comfortable boats.
Many tours are staffed by a marine biologist.
Some tours – like this tour – combine whale watching with Butchart Gardens, so you can experience two of the best Victoria, BC, attractions in one day.
12) Shop Lower Johnson Street
You could shop on Government Street. There are great shops there. But get off the tourist trail slightly and wander along lower Johnson Street (nicknamed “LoJo”), between Government Street and Store Streets.
Here, you find colorful, early 19th-century buildings from the gold-rush era lining both sides of LoJo. They house a variety of eclectic shops and boutiques selling everything from locally designed fashions to jewelry to home décor.
John Fluevog Shoes is the place to go for unique artistic shoes and boots (outrageously high platforms with thick heels are a signature design).
Pop into Lululemon for stylish, yoga-inspired athletic wear; you may know the popular chain was founded in BC (in Vancouver).
And for a pretty little succulent, bouquet of flowers or pot plant to give as a hostess gift (or to keep for yourself), browse Rook & Rose.
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Photos © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except where noted)