We’re true Victorians now.
After living here for four years now – and since first writing this post – we’ve discovered so many more fun things to do in Victoria, BC.
We absolutely love Victoria – and you will too when you visit!
23 Awesome things to do in Victoria, BC
Best city to visit in Canada
We’re going to share 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 to visit when you travel to British Columbia (or, indeed, travel to Canada).
For one, with all its gardens, Victoria is bloomin’ pretty. And the walks along its miles of oceanfront are lovely .
The weather is also 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!) And there are some cool places to visit in Ottawa in winter (oh, bad pun).
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 thoroughly 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 ride on the ferry 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!
What to do in Victoria, BC
Okay, let’s jump now to some of those 23 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.
It’s blooming in Victoria! Check out these 5 Victoria gardens (including Butchart Gardens)
2) Go SUP
Make like a local! Paddle boarding is one of those super fun, non-touristy things to do in Victoria, BC.
Brian, the owner of South Island SUP, will deliver paddle boards to you at the beach from his mobile SUP shop (i.e., his van). Just call him to book a day and time. He can give you a lesson too, and go out with you if you’d like.
Good places for SUP in Victoria, BC, are Willows Beach, Thetis Lake and Gonzales Bay.
3) 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 :-).
Explore the Gorge: Go on a fun pickle boat ride with Victoria Harbour Ferry
4) Kayak Tod Inlet
Rent a kayak (or SUP board) at Brentwood Bay and go for a calm safe paddle to Tod Inlet.
As you paddle out from Brentwood Bay, you’ll pass Butchart Gardens on your left (#1 above). Along the shoreline, orange and purple sea stars (starfish) cling to the rocks underwater, and blue herons are a common sight. Depending on the time of the year, you also often see lots of jelly fish in the water in Tod Inlet too.
And who knows, a seal may decide to hitch a ride on your kayak!
5) 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.
6) Gawk at the BC Parliament Buildings
Overlooking Victoria’s picture-perfect Inner Harbor, the Parliament Buildings are quite magnificent, to say the least.
Designed by architect Francis Rattenbury, the exterior combines a Baroque façade with a mix of Romanesque details. A statue of Queen Victoria stands on the sprawling front lawn. Crowning the central dome is a gold-covered statue of Captain George Vancouver.
7) Bicycle the Galloping Goose Trail
Once a railway line, the Galloping Goose Trail is now a fabulous 35-mile (55-km) trail for hikers, bicyclists (and horses on one section), stretching from Victoria to Sooke.
There are parking lots and washrooms at different points along the way, so you can put your bicycle on your car and start at a particular point.
The trail is flat most of the way, with the occasional short uphill.
Our favorite section is the 11-mile (18-km stretch) between Matheson Lake and the Todd Trestle Bridge at Sooke Potholes Provincial Park.
Park at the Rocky Point Road parking lot (the 30 Km marker) to offload your bikes. You’ll pedal along an easy, wide, well-maintained trail through forest, getting glimpses of Matheson Lake.
Coming to Roche Cove, the trail winds along seaside coves and headlands – drink in the spectacular ocean views.
Then cross Sooke Road and ride first to Charters Trestle, then Todd Trestle – two towering iron-and-wooden trestle bridges crossing the rushing Sooke River waaaay down below.
To get back to your car, turn around at the 48 Km marker and retrace your ride. (You’ll be surprised at how the scenery looks different on the return.)
8) 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.
Take out and delivery? See these best Victoria, BC, restaurants for Indian food, Italian and Thai take-out
9) Spot deer in the city
We have deer in the city. Lots of deer.
They really shouldn’t be living in the city, but they do. They love our back yard, and pretty well every day we see at least one (often a mom with her fawns) nibbling the bushes or resting on the lawn.
When driving in the city, you’ll often see signs to slow down for the deer. A good place to spot them is at the Ross Bay Cemetery (#12 below).
10) 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 below to get your bearings.
Central Inner Harbour:
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 stylish new Johnson Street Bridge.
Or you could take one of the Victoria Harbor Ferries mentioned (in #3 above) over to West Bay.
Then you’d walk the flat, paved Songhees Westsong Walkway that winds along the Esquimalt/Vic West waterfront.
The Songhees walk is one of our favorite easy scenic walks in Victoria.
11) Hike up Mount Douglas
Want to delight in a little “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 (20 km) 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-ft (224-m) mountain (er, hill?) by car on Churchill Road. But – how cool is this? – it’s closed to car traffic every day until 12 noon to encourage people to hike up the paved road.
Even more scenic is to hike up one of the forested trails, like the Irvine Trail. Some fresh air, some exercise, and a great reward at the top!
12) Reflect at Ross Bay Cemetery
Ross Bay Cemetery is beautiful for a quiet stroll along its tree-lined paths. With angel statues and grand tombstones, it almost feels like a walk through a sculpture garden.
Famous Canadians and Americans buried here include Sir James Douglas (BC’s first governor), world-renowned artist Emily Carr and Nellie Cashman (a nurse and gold prospector who saved 77 trapped gold miners and was later featured on a U.S. postage stamp).
13) 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.
Recommended reading: Discover the best swimming holes and beaches in Victoria!
14) 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 (almost 1,900 square meters) – 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.
15) Duck into a café
Victoria is catnip for coffee lovers.
The coffee scene here rivals that in Vancouver and Seattle. Of course, you can find some great Starbucks cafés. But we also have many independent home-grown coffee shops, with baristas who are masters of latte art.
16) Check out the “wee” libraries
One of the cutest things to see in Victoria, BC are the little free libraries. You find these wee home-made book exchanges containing from 5 to 20 books in front of various homes and businesses. People craft their own tiny library boxes, so each is different – and they’re always fun to look at and browse.
17) 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 – one of the most luxurious hotels in Victoria – 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 now, 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!
18) 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), gray whales, humpbacks 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.
19) 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.
20) Visit the Victoria Art Gallery
Nestled in the historic Rockland neighborhood, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria houses some 20,000 works of art – the largest public collection in British Columbia.
The gallery consists of an 1889 mansion connected to a low-rise concrete building, housing seven state-of-the-art galleries.
Be sure to see the permanent display of works by BC’s beloved artist Emily Carr, who painted BC landscapes and scenes of the lives of First Nations people.
The Asian collection – including a grand Chinese bell from the Ming Dynasty along with exquisite amber and ivory carvings – is sure to catch your eye too. In the Asian garden, you can see the only authentic Japanese Shinto shrine in North America.
21) Bicycle the Lochside Trail
The Lochside Trail is a lovely wide 18-mile (29-km) trail running between Victoria and Sidney.
The trail meanders through idyllic scenery – past the Gorge Waterway, country lanes, green suburban backyards, rural farms and bird sanctuaries. It’s used mostly by bicyclists (though it’s open to walkers and joggers too). Like the Galloping Goose Trail (#7), it’s pretty well flat all the way.
22) Stroll through Chinatown
Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in Canada – and the second oldest in North America after San Francisco.
See the ornate Gate of Harmonious Interest, flanked by two huge stone lion sculptures. Check out the Chinese restaurants. And duck into Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in the country. It’s lined with more than a dozen cute shops selling matcha teas, locally made jewelry and home-made icecream.
23) 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 of the annual 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.
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Photo credits: 5, 6, 15, 17, 23 to 25, 32 to 34, 36, 39, 40, 42, 44, 53, 54 and 56 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase