British Columbia’s Overlooked Capital Is a Laid-Back, Sustainable Urban Destination

Where to eat, stay and play in Victoria

September 25, 2023 6:22 am
Inner Harbour, Victoria
Inner Harbour, Victoria

It’s tempting to plan a British Columbia vacation that focuses solely on the province’s wilderness powerhouses, like Whistler, Squamish and Tofino. But skip capital city Victoria — or spend just a day there, as many cruise itineraries do — and you’re not just shortchanging the destination, you’re also cheating yourself out of a breath-of-fresh-air experience. 

Urban yet relaxed, Victoria is a slow-travel delight packed with cultural, culinary and outdoor attractions. A leader in eco initiatives, it’s the first city in North America to achieve a Climate Positive designation, and it’s on track for a Biosphere certification. You’ll see evidence of these efforts all around, from electric car charging stations to a brand-new pollinator garden at the Victoria Inner Harbour Airport and the nearly 1,000 farms that supply Vancouver Island’s many restaurants and markets. 

Victoria’s 2,150 miles of coastline — surrounded by the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west, the Strait of Georgia to the east, and Esquimalt Harbour to the south — make for a mild climate and a profusion of flowers nearly year-round. You can explore much of the city and surrounding areas on foot or bike, or hop on a number of food and beverage or indigenous-led tours.

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How to get to Victoria

After flying into Vancouver International Airport, you have a couple options. The most economical is the ferry from either Tsawwassen or Horseshoe Bay. Both take about 1.5 hours to reach Victoria, and you’ll need to factor in the extra driving time to get to either terminal.  

The more scenic option is a seaplane ride from Coal Harbour in downtown Vancouver, via Harbour Air. The flight takes 30 minutes, and you’ll get a drone’s-eye view of the tree-covered islands off the Western Canadian coast, before landing right in Victoria’s Inner Harbor, adjacent to the downtown. Harbour Air recently completed its first electric seaplane flight, and plans to convert its entire fleet over the next few years.

Finlayson Point
Finlayson Point

Explore the Outdoors

Start with a walk through Beacon Park, which has several distinct gardens, and a group of free-roaming peacocks. Just before you exit on the Dallas Road side, look up…and up, and up. This is the world’s second-tallest freestanding totem pole, a 127-plus-foot behemoth carved by a team of artists led by the late wood sculptor and Kwakiutl tribal chief Mungo Martin.

Diagonally across the street, Spiral Beach and Finlayson Point offer memorable views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Willows Beach, about three miles northeast, is popular with locals in the summer.

You’ll need to drive or take a shuttle to get there, but the Malahat SkyWalk, 30 minutes north of the city, is well worth the trip. Part 360-degree architectural wonder and part urban adventure, this cone-shaped lookout rises 800 feet above sea level. It was built, using sustainable practices, in partnership with the Malahat Nation. 

Get out on the water with a whale-watching tour. You’re all but guaranteed to see one of four species of whale, plus dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and dozens of seabird species. Look for tours that are led by certified naturalists and travel out to Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, Canada’s first Marine Protected Area. 

Victoria is one of Canada’s most bike-friendly cities
Victoria is one of Canada’s most bike-friendly cities
Magnolia Hotel

Downtown Culinary & Culture

Getting around downtown Victoria, Canada’s most bike-friendly city, is a breeze. Explore on your own, on two wheels or two feet, or follow one of Magnolia Hotel & Spa’s half-dozen curated trails, from tapas to craft breweries and boutiques.

Victoria takes pride in its indigenous and Chinese-Canadian history. Chinatown, the second-oldest in North America, after San Francisco, is beautifully preserved, with an elaborately painted gate at its entrance, colorful lanterns and moody alleyways. 

The most famous of the latter is Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada, once home to gambling and opium dens. Today, you’ll find a variety of shops, plus the new Chinese Canadian Museum, where you can learn about the many contributions of Chinese immigrants to British Columbia. About 1.5 miles away, outside the downtown, visit Canada’s second-largest Asian art collection at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Take part in indigenous experiences at the Explore Songhees and Quw’utsun’ cultural centers. This summer, the Songhee Nation launched canoe and walking tours around the harbor, featuring indigenous guides, artists and storytellers, and traditional snacks. The Royal BC Museum has an Indigenous Collections section, and just opened Sacred Journey, an exhibit that combines art, immersive audio, video and interactive displays.

Wind down with some affable self-care at Ritual Nordic Spa, a brand-new Scandinavian-style “social sauna house” that encourages interaction with other guests.

As daylight fades, take a walk around the downtown and the harbor. The Parliament buildings, recognizable by their blue-green domes, are outlined in thousands of energy-efficient lights at night, giving them a storybook feel. 

Courtney Room
Courtney Room

Where to Eat & Drink in Victoria

Vancouver Island has long been at the forefront of the farm-to-table scene. Among its newest restaurants, Ugly Duckling is an “edible celebration” of Vancouver Island that serves eclectic Pacific Northwest tasting and a la carte menus and killer cocktails. From appetizers to dessert, every dish is a standout at Courtney Room. Menus change frequently, and the staff accommodates dietary restrictions without sacrificing flair.  

For a sampling of what makes Victoria’s Chinatown distinctive, book a food tour with Off the Eaten Track. Be sure the tour includes a stop at Dumpling Drop, where you can get tender, handmade dumplings served alongside spicy sauce. 

The new Sooke Flavour Trail takes you a short distance outside the city and into the “salad bowl” of Vancouver Island’s agricultural production. Top stops include Bilston Creek Farm, whose lavender fields and rustic-chic barn were made for lingering, a new outpost for gin specialist Sheringham Distillery, and Shirley Delicious, an unassuming A-frame café in the middle of the woods that features overstuffed sandwiches and tasty baked goods.

Magnolia Corner Suite
Magnolia Corner Suite
Magnolia Corner Suite

Where to Stay in Victoria

Having emerged from a major renovation, the Fairmont Empress, overlooking the Inner Harbour, is a classic choice. Comfortable and non-fussy, the Oswego Hotel, near the Royal BC Museum, has short-stay suites with soothing bedrooms and full kitchens. For some of the prettiest views of the city, book an upper-floor room at Magnolia Hotel & Spa. Rooms are large and plush, with two-poster beds decked out in luxe linens, sitting and work areas, and newly renovated bathrooms with soaking tubs.


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