Victoria has the misfortune of living in Vancouver’s far-reaching shadow. While it’s true that Vancouver is a cosmopolitan city that I believe everyone should visit at least once (though I doubt you’ll ever want to leave once you’re there!) it’s time British Columbia’s breathtakingly beautiful capital city got the attention it deserves.
True to its name, walking the streets of Victoria will transport you back to 19th-century England. Lavish castles, lush green lawns, and horse-drawn carriages by the harbour create an ambience of romance and tradition within a modern city aiming to put itself on the map as a tech hub. Before you go scouting the best locations for afternoon tea, though, it’s worthwhile to take a few hours out of your morning to visit the greater Victoria area: Sidney and the Butchart Gardens.
If you arrive on Vancouver Island by plane, Sidney is a stone’s throw away and it’s a short distance from the ferry terminal, too. Drive or take a bus from either location and spend some time breathing in the salty air on the boardwalk. Grab a coffee from a local shop and enjoy the public art displays scattered throughout the town. Above all, give in to the calming power of the sea urging you to turn off your phone, relax, and reflect.
From Sidney, there’s a bus that will take you directly to the Butchart Gardens, about 15 km away. You’ll undoubtedly spot a number of beautiful gardens in and around Victoria, but the Butchart Gardens are the most expansive. A National Historic Site of Canada, the Gardens are located at the former home of Robert Pim Butchart, an entrepreneur, and his wife, Jennie. Jennie Butchart decided to beautify the quarry left by her husband’s cement business by planting flowers. And so, the Sunken Garden (below) began to blossom into the magnificent, Monet-like landscape that it is today.
Along with the Sunken Garden, the attraction hosts a Japanese, Mediterranean, Italian and Rose Garden, as well as the Concert Lawn Walk where you’ll have to crane your neck to really get a good look at the massive totem poles, a common Indigenous art form found in Western Canada. The gardens will likely be swarming with tourists, making capturing the perfect photo a challenge, but stray from the path a bit and you just might find a gorgeous spot no one else has noticed yet. My other piece of advice is just to wait your turn; eventually everyone will move on and you’ll have a chance to get that Instagram-worthy shot under an arch of roses. A little patience goes a long way!
There are several places to grab lunch or ice cream throughout the gardens. If you’re in the mood for a truly Victorian experience, consider stopping for Afternoon Tea served in the Butcharts’ former residence with lovely views of the gardens.
Visiting the Butchart Gardens will set you back up to $32 (adult) depending on the season. Expect to spend about 1.5 hours there.
From the Butchart Gardens, hop on the #75 bus to go directly downtown. After checking into your hotel, see if you can make it to the Craigdarroch Castle before it closes. Craigdarroch Castle was built for Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish entrepreneur, to demonstrate his wealth and importance in Western Canada. I only arrived about 15 minutes before closing so it didn’t make sense to go inside, but it does look quite luxurious. If you don’t make it, don’t worry. The outside of the castle is worth visiting just for the photo op!
While I don’t generally do a ton of research before I travel, one thing I actually enjoy researching is vegetarian/vegan restaurants at my destination. As a vegetarian transitioning to a vegan diet, I’m always curious to see what kind of food is available to me. I expected I’d have no trouble in British Columbia and I was right. Out of a handful of options downtown, I chose Green Cuisine simply because it was the closest one to my hostel. It ended up being one of the best vegan places I have ever dined at! The restaurant is nestled in the lower level of Market Square on Johnson Street. It’s all buffet-style, so you pay by weight. The selection is enormous, with various types of salads, legumes, grains, and desserts. It can actually be kind of stressful trying to fit everything on your plate because it all looks so good!! One full plate cost me about $15 and kept me energized for the rest of the evening. I cannot recommend Green Cuisine enough for a healthy, affordable meal.
Work off your awesome dinner by heading down to the harbour for an evening walk. Be prepared to stare awestruck at the sight of the British Columbia Legislature Building lighting up the night. Also on the Legislature grounds are totem poles, monuments, and the horse-drawn carriages I mentioned earlier. While it must be nice to ride around town feeling like Queen Victoria, the carriage tours will cost you a pretty penny, starting at $100 per carriage for a 30 minute ride. Opt to explore downtown on your own, taking a stroll along the harbour. There might even be an event going on like a party featuring live music, so inquire with your hotel or visit the city’s official tourism website to find out.
End the night with a trip to bank-turned-Scottish bar Bard & Banker. Two blocks off the harbour, this towering Victorian-style building occupies an entire corner in the heart of downtown, making it impossible to miss. Pop inside and let a man in a kilt serve you an ice cold pint of your favourite draught beer, or pick from their eclectic whisky list. Bard & Banker is one of the only locations in Victoria to offer live music 7 days a week. Most artists are local and there’s never a cover charge! It’s the perfect place to sit, sip, and socialize. Invite a couple of people from your hostel to join you!
Whether you’re leaving Victoria by ferry or plane, plan to have breakfast downtown. Jam Cafe is a popular choice, with seven (!) varieties of eggs Benedict and an array of other breakfast offerings from oatmeal to French toast. They also serve lunch all day if you need something heartier to hold you over during a day of travel.
If you have a choice to take a ferry boat to your next destination, I would absolutely recommend it. The picturesque views are an incredibly accurate representation of the natural beauty to be found in Canada’s westernmost province.
One full day may not be quite enough to see everything Victoria has to offer, but it’s sure to give you a taste of the laid-back lifestyle on the Island which differs immensely from that of Vancouver. If you have the time, put both Victoria and Vancouver on your list. If you don’t have the time… make it, or come back.