With double-decker buses, stately castles, afternoon high tea, and an abundance of authentic English and Irish pubs, Victoria, British Columbia deserves its reputation as “the most British city in North America.” But in a city named for Queen Victoria, there’s much more to do than search out juicy bits of Britishness. The three-day itinerary below celebrates Victoria’s multi-faceted heritage—including the city’s historical and current importance to the indigenous First Nations cultures of Canada.
Situated at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria is a favorite quick getaway destination for the urbanites of Vancouver and Seattle. It’s also surprisingly easy to get to Victoria from a variety of Canadian and American ports. Most visitors arrive via the BC Ferries route connecting Vancouver’s Tsawwassen terminal to Swartz Bay (just north of Victoria), or on one of several ferries from a number of towns in Washington. Sightseeing planes are an exciting option as well, and the new luxury ferry that connects downtown Vancouver with the Victoria waterfront offers a truly high-end alternative.
Downtown Victoria, British Columbia is highly walkable and bikable while also offering good public transportation options. If you’ve taken BC Ferries from Vancouver, opt for the $2 Line 72 bus from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal to downtown Victoria over a $50 cab ride. On the other hand, if you’ve come in via seaplane or by ferry from the U. S., you’re already right in the heart of Victoria. For this itinerary, you’ll need to rent a car for Day 2—but all of the other highlights are easily accessible via a variety of other means.
Day 1: Pubs, Museums, and Parks
After you’ve fixed your post-ferry windblown hair and found your downtown lodging, refresh yourself—perhaps with a bite and a sip on the patio at venerable Bartholomew’s English-Style Pub. Then it’s time to immerse yourself in the Victoria’s rich history and culture. The first stop has to be the Royal BC Museum, whose blend of natural history, indigenous culture, and Canadian exhibits is truly world class. The museum features both an IMAX theater and the requisite gift shop, but you’ll likely be too immersed in the history of British Columbia to bother with either.
After spending two or three hours at the museum, you’ll want to change things up a bit for your next stop. Travelers with kids will want to stop at the nearby Victoria Bug Zoo—I mean, where else can you experience a tarantula walking up your arm? For your final destination of the day, you have a choice: the impressive collection of massive totem poles in Beacon Hill Park, or the soothing outdoor soaking pools at Boathouse Spa & Bath. Truly, there is no bad choice here. Wrap things up with dinner at Red Fish Blue Fish or any of the many choices along scenic Wharf Street.
Day 2: Gardens, Sun-gazing, and Beaches
You’ll need a set of wheels to explore Vancouver Island on Day 2. There’s a surprising number of rental options in walking range from downtown—including Zipcar, which offers convenient hourly rentals you can secure without standing in line. Once you’ve got your ride, head north out of town towards today’s first destination: Butchart Gardens. With more than 900 varieties of bedding plants spread across 55 acres, the Gardens will envelop you in smells of thousands of colorful blooms. Plan on spending several hours strolling the paths and exploring the many greenhouses—with, of course, a break for tea halfway through.
Jump back in your Zipcar and exchange the refined for the rugged at Goldstream Provincial Park, about 30 minutes to the west. The highlight of the park is Goldstream “Niagara” Falls, a 150-plus-foot plunge at the end of a short scramble from the visitor center. A bonus visit to the currently unused Goldstream Trestle is an exhilarating option for those with the legs for a three-mile hike and the stomach for a railroad bridge that stands more than 100 feet above the ground—without handrails. Finally, head for the coast and find a secluded spot to watch the sunset. The West Coast Highway between the towns of Sooke and Port Renfrew boasts any number of spectacular locations to watch the sun go down. Mystic Beach and Sombrio Beach both offer opportunities for beachcombing and solitude. But our favorite sunset spot is Sandcut Beach, where a rare undercut beach waterfall adds to the majesty as the sun sets over the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Peninsula to the southwest.
Day 3: Dining, Castles, and Tea
Day 2 was pretty busy from sunrise to sunset, so start Day 3 with a leisurely meal at one of Victoria’s many desirable breakfast spots. Nourish Kitchen & Café is one of the most popular morning locations, and for good reason—with its focus on fresh and local ingredients, Nourish perfectly encapsulates the vibrancy of Victoria’s locavore food movement. Breakfast conquered, you’re ready for the main attraction: a two-hour bike tour of the downtown area. There are many tour providers to choose from with bicycle and e-bike options to accommodate any fitness level. Our favorite is The Pedaler’s “Castles, ‘Hoods and Legends” tour, which takes participants through Victoria’s bustling Chinatown, into historic Craigdarroch Castle, and much more. It’s the best way to hit all of the must-see locations in a compressed timetable.
Catch your breath and head over to the century-old Fairmont Empress for one of Victoria’s signature traditions. Tea at the Empress features homemade scones, finger goods, and the hotel’s own Empress tea blend, all served with English pomp and circumstance. If time allows, follow up your afternoon tea with a 45-minute walking tour of British Columbia’s opulent parliament buildings before you head back to the terminal for your ferry or plane ride back to the mainland.
Extend your trip
Vancouver Island offers adventure and luxury well beyond Victoria, British Columbia. Consider a trip to the island’s rugged western coast, where the lush rainforests of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the treasured surf of Tofino await.