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Things to Do in Victoria

Perched on the southeastern shores of Vancouver Island, Victoria—the capital of the Canadian province of British Columbia—has a rich colonial history dating back to the 19th century. Bus and walking tours take Garden City visitors to top attractions such as Antique Row, Beacon Hill Park, Craigdarroch Castle (a National Historic Site of Canada), Oak Bay Marina, and Mount Tolmie, while the famous Butchart Gardens delight travelers from across the world with their enchanting floral displays. Food tours showcase the region’s diverse cheeses, fine chocolates, craft beer, and divine seafood; while overhead, sightseeing seaplane flights offer bird’s-eye views over the coastal scenery. For many visitors to Victoria, though, one activity stands out among all the others: whale watching. Cruises depart from Victoria and head into the deep waters of the Salish Sea, where gray, humpback, killer, and minke whales can be seen breaching and crashing through the waves. Travelers also regularly spot other native wildlife such as marine birds, otters, porpoises, sea lions, and seals. For visitors with a little more time on their hands, three- to eight-day tours hit farther-flung destinations such as Barkley Sound; Strathcona-Westmin Provincial Park; and the snowy peaks—or summery hiking and mountain biking trails—of Whistler, where travelers can experience the best of the Canadian wilderness.
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Butchart Gardens
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Butchart Gardens, established in 1904, treat visitors to an enchanting floral show that changes with the seasons. Covering 55 acres (22 hectares) on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, the botanical space is intricately laid out into separate themed gardens with landscaping that impresses and inspires gardeners and nature lovers alike.

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Beacon Hill Park
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Sheer natural beauty is just the start of the appeal of of Beacon Hill Park, which sprawls across the southern edge of Victoria, British Columbia. It’s a popular spot for locals and visitors alike, with a petting zoo, splash parks, playgrounds, sports fields, seemingly endless footpaths, and one of the tallest totem poles in the world.

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Victoria Inner Harbour
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A trim wedge of water rimmed with top landmarks, Victoria’s Inner Harbour is the city’s bustling port. Whether you’re hopping a whale-watching cruise or enjoying a sea breeze, the Inner Harbour is an essential stop when exploring Victoria. Among its highlights are the elegant Fairmont Empress hotel and the narrow streets beyond.

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Craigdarroch Castle
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In 1890 Scottish coal baron Robert Dunsmuir built Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, British Columbia, to showcase his inordinate wealth. This 39-room hilltop mansion is rich with opulent details, including multiple turrets and chimneys, a red slate roof, stained-glass windows, wood carvings, antique furnishings, and gold-framed paintings.

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Victoria Chinatown
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First established in the mid-19th century, Victoria Chinatown is among North America’s oldest. Now a National Historic Site, Victoria’s Chinatown is home to cafes, studios, herbalists, tea rooms, and shops, as well as the narrow Fan Tan Alley, which measures 35 inches (88.9 centimeters) wide at its narrowest point.

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Government Street
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Running through the heart of Downtown Victoria, Government Street is home to plenty of shopping and local history. Along the Victoria Harbour front, the British Columbia Legislature Buildings and the Fairmont Empress are important historical landmarks, both designed by the untrained British architect Francis Rattenbury. His design for the BC Legislature Buildings, which uses white marble, a massive central dome, and lengthy façade to create an architecturally impressive home for the provincial government, was his first project. This early success led him to be awarded the contract to design the Empress Hotel, which is now one of the oldest hotels in Victoria. Between these two buildings lies the Royal British Columbia Museum, which houses a natural and human history museum and the British Columbia provincial archives.

Heading north from the Empress Hotel, Government Street soon becomes an iconic shopping street. Native artwork, high fashion, and a variety of specialty stores holding everything from handcrafted jewelry to handmade chocolate take up the storefronts. More shopping is found just off Government Street, too, including Trounce Alley, known for its European fashion stores; Bastion Square, where local artisans sell handmade arts and crafts; and Johnson Street, which is a local’s favorite for exclusive design boutiques.

The corner of Government Street and Fisgard runs beneath the Gate of Harmonious Interest and the entrance to Victoria’s Chinatown. Founded in 1858, it’s the oldest Chinatown in Canada and second only to San Francisco in North America.

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British Columbia Parliament Buildings
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Built overlooking Victoria’s Inner Harbor, the British Columbia Parliament Buildings form an impressive architectural and historical landmark within a few steps of downtown.

When the provincial legislature outgrew its former home, the provincial government hosted an architectural competition to build the new legislative buildings. Francis Rattenbury, a then 25-year-old recent arrival from England, won with his three-building neo-baroque style plans, but construction didn’t go without its woes; the project soared beyond its original budget, but the new British Columbia Parliament Buildings did open their doors in 1898.

The white marble, massive central dome, and lengthy façade combined to make an innovative and impressive monument for what, at the time, was a relatively young Canadian province. The building remains equally impressive, today, and a few new landmarks exist on its property. A statue of Queen Victoria stands on the front yard, while a figure of George Vancouver sits atop the central dome. There is also a statue of a soldier to commemorate the province’s fallen heroes from WWI, WWII, and the Korean War.

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Fairmont Empress Hotel
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The grand style of the Fairmont Empress hotel sets the tone for Victoria’s Inner Harbour, where boats tie up just steps from the city’s most historic landmarks. Visiting the Fairmont Empress is not just for overnight guests; afternoon tea here has been a Victoria tradition for more than a century.

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Gulf Islands
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Dotted around the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland, are the laid-back Gulf Islands. Come to browse farmers markets, visit artist studios, and experience nature—from woodland trails to pebbled beaches—all of which draw Vancouverites fleeing the city.

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Fisherman's Wharf
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Fisherman’s Wharf is an eclectic combination of tourist shops and residential float homes. Although the fishing heyday has passed, at which time when a fishing vessel was tied to every slip at the Fisherman’s Wharf except the two “live aboard” docks, the atmosphere hasn’t changed much. Colorful characters still roam the docks, but now often rub shoulders with passing tourists rather than sea-hardened fishermen.

The live aboard homes have been transformed into beautiful float houses, each as eclectic as the last and proudly carrying its own décor and charm.

Seals are a near constant at the dock and they receive more than their share of bait from the local fish stores that aim to keep tourists happy and registers ringing. The small collection of shops includes an ice cream shop, BBQ grill, fish and chips stand, and a coffee house, alongside an excellent Fish Market and Crab Sales. There’s also some outgoing tourism, as whale watching and sea kayaking tours kick off from Fisherman’s Wharf and head out to sea through the harbor.

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More Things to Do in Victoria

Mt. Tolmie Park

Mt. Tolmie Park

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A popular destination for residents and tourists alike, Mt. Tolmie Park is widely recognized as the best place for panoramic views of the city of Victoria. Viewpoints from the summit (approximately 120 meters above sea level) offer 360-degree vistas of the Gulf Islands, Saanich, and the city of Victoria across to the Olympic mountain range and even Mount Baker in the distance on a clear day. Mt. Tolmie is located near the University of Victoria, making it an often-visited stop along the Beach Drive coastal route.

Located about a 15-minute drive from downtown Victoria, the park features numerous trails for visitors to walk on. Alternatively, travelers can drive up the windy road to the summit for a fast track to the views. Plenty of picnic tables and places for drivers to pull over offer different viewing areas, and about a mile’s worth (more than 1,500 meters) of trails within the park lead hikers through meadows and up rocky slopes, with many of them going directly to the summit. The adventurous traveler can follow the trails to numerous secluded natural areas and various bird-watching outlooks.

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Old Town Victoria

Old Town Victoria

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With heritage architecture and cobbled streets, Old Town Victoria exudes historic character. The area sprang to life in the 19th-century gold rushes, and today it encompasses the city’s commercial core, Canada’s oldest Chinatown, and the waterfront. Visit to see its brightly painted Victorian buildings, which house shops and restaurants.

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Church & State Wines

Church & State Wines

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To its owners, the name Church and State Wines represents a balance between the varied elements required to produce the highest quality wines. The name suggests a balance between change – each year’s distinct vintage – and tradition – aging wines in French oak barrels.

Church and State Wines puts plenty of focus on its grapes. Its owner’s belief is the best grapes are only produced on the best land, but also requires unwavering attention to detail throughout the planting, growing, and harvesting processes. The best land is also subject to the right grape varietal, so Church and State Wines has two British Columbia locations: Oliver-Osoyoos and Victoria. The former includes 70 acres of Vineyards BC’s dominant wine region, while the latter houses 11 acres of vineyards on the Saanich Peninsula, just minutes from downtown Victoria.

Their mindfulness is paying dividends, too, as they’ve now been awarded Canada’s best red wine on three occasions.

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Fort Street

Fort Street

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From historic architecture to contemporary museums, Victoria if filled with plenty for travelers to do, see and experience. But for visitors looking to comb through halls of rare antiques, explore finds at tiny auction houses and finger through Canadian oddities, there’s no place better than the famous Fort Street.

This picturesque street is lined with quiet cafes, Asian restaurants, used bookstores and a well-known chocolate shop. A colorful mural of Emily Carr, located on the side of Island Blue Print and Art Supplies pays homage to the city’s most famous female. And Craigdarroch Castle and the Greater Victoria Art Gallery are both within walking distance from Fort Street.

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Royal British Columbia Museum

Royal British Columbia Museum

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From totem poles to ancient fossils, British Columbia’s history is on display at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Explore vast collections covering the natural world and human heritage, with dioramas that place historic artifacts in context. A soaring IMAX screen and special exhibitions add to the museum experience.

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Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature

Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature

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Devoted to the life and works of its namesake, Victoria’s Robert Bateman Centre is home to the largest collection of Bateman paintings in the world. The gallery invites visitors to discover the natural world through the eyes of the legendary Canadian painter and naturalist.

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Pacific Marine Circle Route

Pacific Marine Circle Route

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The Pacific Marine Circle Route connects some of Vancouver Island’s best coastal scenery with some often overlooked inland natural wonders within a day’s drive of Victoria, British Columbia.

Beginning along the north shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, this coastal route soon starts revealing glimpses of rugged coastlines and occasional beaches. The Juan de Fuca Marine trail runs parallel to the highway; however, it’s mostly hidden from view by thick forest. These beaches are common surf breaks, too, but the waves are best in winter and the water is cold no matter the season. Once the route turns inland, it passes two iconic trees. Short hikes lead to both the San Juan Spruce and Red Creek Fur.

Finally, the last major landmarks before rejoining the TransCanada highway are Cowichan Lake and River. Both are popular swimming locations in the summer, but the river is definitely busier because locals use its current to drift downriver in inner tubes.

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Emily Carr House

Emily Carr House

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The Emily Carr House was the childhood home of Canadian painter and author Emily Carr and had a long-lasting impression on much of her work. Today, it is an Interpretive Centre for Carr’s artwork, writing, and life.

Emily Carr’s work reads like an adventure. It carried her from remote native settlements throughout British Columbia to major cities like San Francisco, London, and Paris. But her childhood home continually appeared throughout all of her work, especially her writing.

The house itself was built in 1863 and Carr called it home from her birth, in 1871, until she left to pursue artist training overseas. Her father’s death triggered ownership changes and, after years of passing through the Carr Family, the house was sold off. Although it was once scheduled for demolition, the house made its way back to the Emily Carr Foundation before being purchased by the provincial government and restored. It is now considered a prime heritage example of Italianate villa style popular in that era. It’s also the second National Historic Site of Canada designed by the local architects Wright and Saunders, who also built the Fisgard Lighthouse.

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Strait of Juan de Fuca

Strait of Juan de Fuca

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The stunning, 95-mile long Strait of Juan de Fuca is divided distinctly in half; the international border between Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada, and the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, USA, is drawn down its center.

In 2008, Chemainus First Nation in Canada proposed the name be changed to Salish Sea. Initially met with a positive public response, the request went through a lengthy bureaucratic process that involved different government departments in both the USA and Canada. Eventually, it was decided the Strait of Juan de Fuca would keep its name; however, the Salish Sea would be used to describe the entire area, which stretches from Desolation Sound south through the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound to Hammersley Inlet.

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Victoria Bug Zoo

Victoria Bug Zoo

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The Victoria Bug Zoo is mini-zoo in the city of Victoria in British Columbia. The two rooms, despite its small size, is the largest tropical insect collection in North America; it houses 40 species of arachnids, insects, and arthropods, as well as Canada’s largest ant colony. Popular species include millipedes, glow-in-the-dark scorpions, cockroaches, praying mantis, and hairy tarantulas. The museum’s goal is to showcase the variety of invertebrates around the world, encourage visitors to disregard the icky reputation of bugs and even to overcome phobias, and to promote the conservation of living organisms. This is an interactive and hands-on museum. Visitors are encouraged to hold and handle the many-legged creatures with the help of a tour guide.

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Gulf Islands National Park Reserve

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve

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Encompassing 15 islands, scattered around the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands National Park is one of Canada’s most recently established National Parks and among the top attractions of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands.

Reachable only by boat, the larger islands of Mayne, Saturna and Pender serve as the main basecamps for holidaymakers, but it’s easy to hop between the islands by boat or kayak, and there are ample opportunities for hiking and cycling. Highlights include the sandy beaches of Sidney Island, the historic Mahoi House on Russel Island and the abundance of Orca whales, sea lions and waterfowl that can be spotted around the coast, while adventurous types can enjoy climbing the summit of Mount Norman on Pender Island or exploring the hidden coves of Portland Island.

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Victoria Butterfly Gardens

Victoria Butterfly Gardens

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There’s a rainbow of fluttering wings at the Victoria Butterfly Gardens. The destination is also home to carnivorous plants, pink flamingos, insects, and poison frogs. The gardens are entirely indoors, too, making this a great activity on rainy days.

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Abkhazi Garden

Abkhazi Garden

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Colorful rhododendrons spill over rocky slopes in Abkhazi Garden, a trove of plants and trees hidden behind a hedge in a quiet Victoria neighborhood. From springtime blooms to fall foliage, Abkhazi Garden puts on a show throughout the year; an on-site teahouse invites lingering over lavish spreads of scones, tea sandwiches, and sweets.

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Miniature World

Miniature World

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Miniature World contains more than 85 dioramas that depict historical, factual, and fantasy scenes in miniature scale. Watch tiny trains chugging along tracks; see a small working sawmill in action; observe a scaled-down circus in full swing; and inspect Lilliputian versions of Camelot and Dickensian London.

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