Victoria is the beautiful capital city of British Columbia, Canada. Located on Vancouver Island, Victoria is just 90 minutes (by ferry boat) away from Vancouver—making it one of the best "side trips" for travelers to Vancouver and one of the best day trips/getaways from the city.
Victoria is a very popular destination for trips from both Vancouver in Canada and from Seattle in the United States. It's famous for its beauty, charm, history, shopping (especially antiquing), dining, and attractions, including the world-renowned Butchart Gardens.
Why Should You Visit?
Victoria is a unique combination of old-world charm, modern luxuries, and outdoor adventure. It really is one of those "something for everyone" destinations.
There are historic attractions, including the Royal BC Museum, the Butchart Gardens, and the Inner Harbour/Parliament Buildings. There's shopping, dining, and the oldest Chinatown in Canada.
There's plenty of outdoor adventure, too: kayaking, whale watching, zip lining, hiking, biking, and fishing.
Arguably the most famous attraction in Victoria, the Butchart Gardens cover 55 acres and include a Sunken Garden, Rose Garden, Japanese Garden, and an Italian Garden.
Once a limestone quarry mined by Robert Butchart, the site was turned into a garden by Jennie Butchart (Butchart's wife) in the early 1900s, after the limestone deposits were exhausted. (A similar history applies to Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Park Quarry Gardens, which were created on the site of a former basalt rock quarry.) In 2004, the Gardens became a National Historic Site of Canada.
Inner Harbour and Parliament Buildings
The Inner Harbour is, symbolically at least, the center of sight-seeing in Victoria. (If you arrive via the Victoria Clipper, you arrive in the Inner Harbour.) It's home to the harbor itself, the Empress Hotel Victoria (famous for its English-style afternoon tea), and overlooks the BC's parliament buildings.
Go during the day, and you can tour the Parliament Buildings for free. Go at night to see all of the Inner Harbour lit up, including the parliament buildings and the Empress Hotel.
Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown
Located "just around the corner" from the Inner Harbour, Fisherman's Wharf is an adorable, picturesque wharf with lots of all-ages activities, including eco-tours, food kiosks, and fresh-off-the-boat seafood at The Fish Store. Kayak and whale-watching tours leave from Fisherman's Wharf, too.
While Victoria's Chinatown isn't as large as Vancouver's (Vancouver's Chinatown is the third largest in North America), it is the oldest Chinatown in Canada. Rich with culture and bustling with activity, you can explore on your own or take a Chinatown walking tour.
Royal BC Museum
Like UBC's Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver, the Royal BC Museum has a large collection of BC First Nations art and artifacts (including totem poles), which are a must-see for visitors from other parts of the world.
Unlike MOA, the BC Royal Museum is also a natural history museum, housing large collections of fossils and artifacts related to animals, fish, insects, and plants.
Built between 1887 and 1890 by wealthy coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, the Craigdarroch Castle is another National Historic Site of Canada and an impressive example of late Victorian architecture. Situated on a hill overlooking the city of Victoria, this stately home includes stained-glass windows, intricate woodwork, and period Victorian furnishings.
Vancouver Island is one of the top spots for whale watching in all of North America: the waters around the island are primarily home to orcas (killer whales), but gray, humpback, and minke whales are sometimes seen as well. Plus there are sea lions, seals, and porpoises.
Whale-watching season runs from May through November. There are whale-watching tours year-round, but May through November is considered high season because salmon migration attracts the orcas.
In Victoria, whale-watching tours run about three hours; operators include Eagle Wing Whale & Wildlife Tours (which leaves from Fisherman's Wharf) and Prince of Whales.
Victoria—like Vancouver—has a lot of options for outdoor adventure, including hiking, biking, and kayaking.
Tourism Victoria is a great resource for outdoor recreation. It has lists of hikes, bike rentals, and kayak rentals (lists include businesses that are members of Tourism Victoria).
Victoria is three hours from Mount Washington (the biggest snow sport/ski resort on Vancouver Island), so it's not ideal for alpine sports. It's great for fishing, though.
Fort Street Shopping
Fort Street is Victoria's most famous shopping destination, similar in reputation to Vancouver's own Robson Street. While Fort Street may be best known as "Antique Row"—it really is packed with antique shops, which run the gamut from small trinkets to high-end furnishings. It has fashion, gift shops, and lots of dining, too.
Victoria is rapidly becoming more and more of a foodie destination. Generally, the city is dedicated to both the farm-to-table ethos and sustainable seafood.
There are a lot of truly outstanding restaurants in Victoria; these are just a few recommendations:
- Grab a meal or a pint at Darcy's Pub in the Inner Harbour. It's usually packed, but the views are worth it.
- Have cocktails and dinner at the trendy, high-end Little Jumbo Restaurant and Bar, which is one of the best restaurants in the city.
- Head to Fort Street for Cantonese and Sichuan cuisine at J&J Wonton Noodle House. It's delicious and inexpensive.
- Locals love Tacofino (also on Fort Street). It's inexpensive and serves food-truck-style tacos and burritos.
Where to Stay
- For high-end luxury, you can't beat the Empress Hotel Victoria, which is a Fairmont hotel that overlooks the Inner Harbour.
- If you're looking for gay-friendly places to stay, try the stylish Sidney Pier Hotel & Spa, the luxury Inn at Laurel Point, and the historic Dashwood Manor Seaside Bed & Breakfast Inn.
- There is also an array of budget Victoria hotels available.
Getting There by Ferry Boat
- Vancouver to Victoria via BC Ferry: If you're leaving from Vancouver, the least expensive option is to take a BC Ferry from Vancouver (Tsawwassen) to Victoria (Swartz Bay). This ferry does carry cars, so you can take your car with you. If you don't have a car, you will need to check bus schedules to get to and from the ferry terminals.
- Seattle to Victoria via Victoria Clipper Ferry Boat: From Seattle, you can take the famed Victoria Clipper, which is a three-hour, scenic ferry boat that's passenger-only (no cars). The Victoria Clipper arrives at the Inner Harbour, so you can just step off and enjoy the sights.
- Washington State to Victoria via Coho Ferry: If you want to take a car to/from Washington to Victoria, you can take the Coho ferry from Port Angeles. You can bring your car. Port Angeles is 2.5 hours by car from Seattle, or you can take a Washington State Ferry from Seattle to Port Angeles.
Whatever option you choose, make sure you have the correct travel documents if you are traveling from the United States.
You should also consider renting a car on the island. Go car-less for faster travel and use a rental car in Victoria on Vancouver Island. Many rental car agencies will send someone to pick you up at the ferry terminal and take you to your rental car. Make sure you ask for or arrange this service in advance.
Air Travel and Float Planes
The biggest airport on Vancouver Island is the Victoria International Airport in Victoria, which is located about a 30-minute drive from downtown Victoria.
If you want to travel like James Bond, you can take a float plane from Vancouver to Victoria on Harbour Air Seaplanes. It's only 20 minutes and the views are spectacular. On the U.S. side, you can take Kenmore Air from Seattle to Victoria, which offers equally impressive views.
Plan for at Least Two Days (Minimum One Overnight)
A lot of travel guides claim you can do Victoria from Vancouver as a day trip. You can get up at the crack of dawn to be on the 7 a.m. ferry leaving Vancouver (Tsawwassen), spend the day exploring the city in a frenzy, then get on the last boat back (9 p.m. or 10 p.m., depending on the season).
But it's not ideal. The shortest side trip to Victoria should be at least two days with one overnight stay. This allows time for wait times at the ferry (if you are bringing a car), more leisurely sight-seeing, and less pressure to cram it all in in a short period of time.
From Seattle, be aware that the Victoria Clipper takes three hours, so plan accordingly.