Your guide to transportation, activities, adventures and dining in Canada’s island town of Victoria, British Columbia.
It’s not like we meant to cause a scene at the fanciest hotel on the island. We started out the day, just like all others, enjoying the harbor view, strolling through high-end (and highly manicured) gardens, and planning our family lunch.
At some point between rose smelling and menu browsing, my brother made a jab at me about God knows what, knowing I’d get riled up. It worked. I turned and fought back (like a boss). He retaliated. I re-retaliated. Then for some unknown reason, he caused a scene saying he “forgot something” in the hotel room, and took off running through the pristine lawn in a beat up pair of Nikes.
We chased after, catching him in the elevator only to learn that in his furious flurry, he’d dropped our room key … past the marble floor … and down the elevator chute, never to be seen or heard from again. We may have been pre-teens, but in my parents’ eyes, we were rabid animals.
Needless to say, we didn’t show our faces in the Empress Hotel – or, heck, the city of Victoria, BC – for quite some time after that debacle … until we did.
VICTORIA, BC – 20 YEARS LATER
Thankfully, we mustered the courage to show our faces on the island and – gasp! even the Empress Hotel – this July. The city was always in my mom’s top five travel spots, and it’s actually relatively easy to get to once you’re in Seattle.
On our Victoria, BC, nostalgia trip this summer, we had no outbursts, no dropped keys, and thankfully, no embarrassments. Instead, the weekend consisted of relaxation, nature and (drama-free) family time. (That’s what happens when you grow up I guess?)
If you’re looking to replicate our second Victoria experience, here’s a quick and easy guide to spending 48 hours in the gorgeous coastal Canadian city. (If you’re looking to replicate our first Victoria experience … God help you.)
The easiest way to get to Victoria is to arrive via ferry. The Victoria Clipper takes off from Seattle’s waterfront, and takes you on a scenic (sometimes choppy) three-hour boat ride to Victoria’s harbor. Roundtrip tickets to and from Victoria are about $150 per person (you save $20 if tickets are purchased in advance). There are typically two boats per day – morning and evening – so pick whichever fits your schedule!
(Tip: Don’t forget your passport! You’ll need it since you’re crossing borders.)
WHERE TO STAY
Well, obviously the Empress Hotel so you can relive the beautiful havoc we started there. The Empress Hotel is by far the nicest hotel in Victoria; it overlooks the harbor and looks just like a castle. That being said, you do pay for the feeling of royalty, so if you’re looking for a cheaper option, Airbnb is a great choice or you can try less costly (but cool) places like the Swans Brewery, Pub & Hotel which is – you guessed it – a brewery, a pub and a hotel. We tried and loved their brewery, so I’d assume the $116/ night for hotel is a great deal!
WHAT TO DO
For a seven-square-mile city, Victoria really packs a big punch. Here are a handful of my favorite things we did during our quick weekend trip.
If you don’t know by now, I love, love, LOVE animals. And I do anything I can to find excursions that (safely and responsibly) get me closer to them. Enter whale watching. We went whale watching on a zodiac boat in Victoria during our first trip here (I didn’t push my brother in the water, I swear). The zodiac experience was exhilarating and experiential; you felt every bump along the way.
This time around, we opted for a milder experience due to some back issues. Now, when I say milder, I don’t mean larger. If my family’s learned one thing over our time exploring the world together, it’s that mega group tours are not really our style. So, I found an alternative – BC Whale Watching Tours – which offers a zodiac-type experience for people who want more than just a raft. The boat’s a little bigger than your typical zodiac, but the number of passengers – eight to 10 – is spot on.
On our three-hour trip, we took the BC Luna (described as a “floating limousine”; $130/person); we saw whales about every half hour – some up close, some at a distance. For whale lovers and ocean enthusiasts, this morning trip is definitely worth the spend!
Spanning nearly 55 acres, Butchart Gardens is one of the most exquisite floral displays in the world (IMHO). Its nearly 1 million annual guests enjoy extensive rose gardens, giant fountains, sculptures and seasonal entertainment (the summer fire show is dynamite! – ha. ha. But seriously). Admission price here is $27/ adult.
Quick tip on getting there: The tourism office will recommend you hire a cab or take a 45-minute tour bus out there from downtown Victoria, but trust me – that’s a waste. Despite warning that the public bus would take far longer, we opted to give it a try – saving $30 or $40 (while actually getting there in under 45 minutes, despite what Google Maps says). Here are some Google directions for using the bus system, and if you’re having any trouble the tourism office has some helpful public transit maps!
Royal British Columbia Museum
Containing BC’s natural and human history artifacts, the Royal British Columbia Museum is a must-see during your quick trip to Victoria. We did the full experience when I was younger, but I remember particularly loving the fossil exhibitions while my parents loved the native plant garden.
This time around, we did visit the museum – but for different reason. We took in a “pre-dinner show” in the form of an awesome IMAX video about dinosaurs! If you have kids – or are a nature-loving kid at heart – the IMAX is conveniently located right within the museum, and is walking distance to downtown Victoria’s restaurant scene.
Galloping Goose Trail
After a long night IMAX-ing, spend the morning stretching your legs on one of Victoria’s most popular walking and biking paths, the Galloping Goose Trail. The trail itself extends over 30 miles, starting in Victoria and extending way out northwest.
While this is far from the hiking you’ll get in other parts of British Columbia (lookin’ at you, Squamish), it’s a nice leisurely stroll and a different way to take in this pretty little city and its surrounds.
Speaking of pretty little cities, another favorite activity in Victoria is hailing a teeny-tiny water taxi. These miniature boats will catch your eye the second you land in Victoria harbor, and I was bound and determined to board one before our trip’s end.
We cut it close, but we *did* finally venture out on a harbor taxi on our last morning – and it was magical. We caught one slightly away from the city (you have to call the taxi if you’re away from the main harbor; we used a restaurant’s phone). The friendly driver and his curmudgeonly-yet-cute old friend took us back to the main docks for about $20. It’s a quick, scenic little ride that you can squeeze into a spare half hour. (For a full fare chart, see here.)
WHERE TO EAT
While I loved whale watching and couldn’t get enough of Butchart Gardens, I think my honest-to-God favorite part of our trip to Victoria was the dining scene. Yummmm, I’m salivating just thinking about the dining (and beer) scene.
Government Street was our go-to for restaurants, but we did venture beyond to find a couple new favorites. If you have limited meals in Victoria, here are a handful to try.
Bard & Banker: We visited this quaint little pub right after arriving on the island, and its tasty pub fare and local beers made for an absolutely perfect meal. I think I ate every last bite of my veggie burger and fries. (OK, OK – I know I did. And then some…)
Yates Street Taphouse: This place is much more about the vibe than the food; we visited on Canada Day and got to experience the revelry with chanting, singing and lots and lots of drinking. It was an incredible time, and (most importantly) they had a good tap selection.
The Churchill: Yet again, another awesome taphouse. The Churchill by far beats Yates in terms of beer selection (they have an entire wall filled with options!). There’s local, national and international, so drink to your heart’s content! Food here is also tasty, so I’d recommend you stop here for a late lunch or dinner visit.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit Victoria is May through October; since it’s right on the water (and way up north) things get pretty quiet and cold come winter. We visited on Fourth of July weekend which got crowded, but I imagine May or early June would be the best time with flowers in bloom and crowds slightly less intense.
And… sigh. That’s a lot of Victoria for one full blog post! Did I miss any of your favorites? Leave a note with your tips in the comments below!