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Are you looking for tips on what to do in Victoria, BC, Canada?As part of our city guides series, we interviewed Gillian who lived in Victoria, BC for 15 years. Gillian shares with us her insider travel tips and knowledge on what to do in Victoria for those looking for the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore.
Why visit Victoria BC?
‘A Little Piece of England’? For the newly-wed and nearly-dead? No! I hate those monikers.
Victoria is a city with lots of nooks and crannies to explore beyond the obvious tourist traps. It’s a great little piece of the ‘Pacific Northwest’; more laid back than Vancouver and Seattle (I know, its that possible?!) but with less rain.
Big enough to have some great pubs and restaurants and yet small enough to easily walk around the downtown core. It is truly beautiful and, surrounded by water on three sides, is the perfect place to dip your toe into the Pacific Ocean.
What to do in Victoria
Take a Pub Tour
Start with lunch at Spinnakers. As Canada’s oldest brewpub, it deserves the pole position.
A wide selection of great, house-made beer and great food coupled with one of the best views in the city seals the deal. (Insider Tip: take the passenger harbour ferry from the main dock in the harbour; a fun little ride on boats often captained by ex-Marine officers. Buy a return ticket…you’ll be coming back.)
Take the ferry back and make your way to Darcy’s at the foot of Bastion Square. A pretty nondescript Irish pub, it’s the patio that you’re here for.
Sit back and tipple a pint while watching the seaplanes land in the harbour. Best done on a windy day as they appear out of nowhere over the rooftops to drop into the water at your feet.
A quick jaunt up Bastion Square lands you at the Irish Times, a favorite hang out of tourists and locals alike. Pull up a stool at the bar (my favorite place) and strike up a conversation with those around you; they may be from near or far but it’s always a great time.
Make your way back down to the water and follow Wharf Street along to the bottom of Pandora Street; here you’ll find Swan’s BrewPub.
Housed in an old warehouse and home to one of the best art collections in Victoria, it’s worth a visit for one of their hand drawn pints; I like the Buckerfield’s Bitter. One’s enough though…let’s keep going.
Take a right out of Swan’s and head down Store street and take a left down Swift Street. Yes, I know it gets a little seedy in there but it’s safe I promise and really worth it.
Tucked at the bottom of Swift Street, in a 100 year old electric power plant is Canoe; my favorite watering hole in the whole city. If it’s warm enough there is plenty of patio; I prefer the smaller, more intimate, close patio to the larger one down below. Settle in here for the rest of the night enjoying their house made beer, lively atmosphere, and great food.
Don’t worry, they’ll call you a cab at the end of the night to get you safely back to your hotel.
The waterfront drive in Victoria is stunning and the best way to do it is on a scooter.
You can rent one down in the Inner Harbour and then scoot, scoot, scoot your way along the waterfront. Simply keep the water on your right and it’s pretty hard to get lost. You’ll meander through a number of neighbourhoods; stop whenever you feel like it.
A few favorites:
- take a stroll along the Ogden Point Breakwater
- admire the gardens (and views) from Beacon Hill Park
- wander among the history in Ross Bay Cemetery
- watch for ghosts through the Royal Victoria Golf Course
- stop for coffee/lunch at Olive Olio’s in Cadboro Bay
Turn around here and make your way back along Cadboro Bay Rd and Fort Street. Just try and wipe the smile off your face.
[ybox] For an in-depth guide to Victoria, Canada, packed with directions, recommendations, and tidbits of history on things that aren’t just touristy, get the guide, Victoria: The Unknown City. [/ybox]
Ginnery/Cider House/Winery Tour
You’ll need a car (and a designated driver) for this one. We did this tour a couple of years ago and it remains as one of my favorite days ever.
Victoria Spirits is housed in an old farm house on Old West Saanich Road. I call it a ‘ginnery‘ because that’s what they make; flavourful, herb infused gin (and because I don’t know what the real name for a ginnery is).
They offer tastings of all their products upstairs but it’s downstairs where the magic happens.
Ask if you can have a tour of the still down below – they are proud of their work and are more than happy to show off the German constructed beauty that produces the magic elixer.
My favorite (and easily packable) takeaway is the Twisted & Bitter aromatic bitters; lovely in a gin and tonic.
Also housed in an old farmhouse with fabulous views over farmland and sea, the Sea Cider Farm and Cider House is an idyllic location for an afternoon stop.
Their ciders are made from apples all pressed and fermented on site from various types of apples. In fact, it’s impossible to choose from among the many options; I suggest a tasting flight to sample them all!
Last stop is Church and State Winery.
A beautiful location in Brentwood Bay and a great place to end the afternoon. Sample a few of their in-house wines, take some pictures and then head back into town for dinner.
A Few More Favorites fr Victoria, BC
- See the salmon spawning. Salmon return to their home rivers in the fall in order to spawn the next generation. One of the best places to see this is in Goldstream Park just north of town. There are nature trails and an interpretive center here too. Head to the estuary to see the Bald Eagles feeding too.
- Hike Mount Finlayson. Accessed through Goldstream Park, this hike takes you up through the forest and onto rocky outcroppings where you’ll scramble to the top for some of the best views in the area. Although not terribly difficult, it’s not for the faint of heart of those with a fear of heights. You should be able to do the whole hike in two hours – remember to take water with you and maybe a snack for the top.
- Visit Thetis Lake. A local swimming hole, Thetis Lake offers a small sandy beach and plenty of other hidden spots further around the lake. The trail around the lake is great for a good, quick run (about 4 km) or a brisk walk. There are a few hills but nothing too strenuous.
- Surf at Jordan River. Head west out through Sooke and you’ll hit the true Pacific Ocean where the water reaches out toward Japan. The surf here is some of the best there is and local surfers congregate at any hint of an off shore storm. There are burger shacks and coffee houses to warm up in as you watch the talent out on the waves.
Best Neighbourhoods to Explore
I love the look and feel of Fairfield (although I could be partial because I lived there for 15 years!). It’s one of the older parts of town but has plenty of redevelopment and character.
Cook Street Village is a favorite hangout with a couple of coffee shops, a bakery, pizza place and local pub.
Ross Bay Cemetery houses some of Victorias historical figures; the moss covered gravestones and often foggy weather make it a photographers dream.
The Moss Street Market happens every Saturday on the corner of Moss and Fairfield streets; great organic food, crafts, knick-knacks, music and a hippie vibe predominates.
Where to Eat in Victoria, BC
Some of my favourite places to eat in Victoria are budget friendly…
Pig BBQ Joint started as a little hole in the wall but now calls one of the newest buildings in Victoria home. It still serves up the best pulled pork sandwich around and you can get a local Phillips beer on tap too. Perfection.
Red Fish Blue Fish is, hands down, my absolute favorite budget eatery in Victoria. Housed in old cargo container right on the wharf in the Inner Harbour, it is the epitome of fresh, sustainable, seafood. There is often a line up but get-in-line-already it’s worth the wait! The funky, hipster staff will help you choose but, for me, there is no choice; it is the tuna tacones every-single-time.
Hernandez Cocina is probably the best kept secret in Victoria. Housed in the walkway of a downtown office building it is more than worth seeking out (their website gives directions – it’s easier than me trying to describe it to you).
This traditional Mexican cocina offers up quick, cheap food of a quality that is outstanding. Handmade corn tortillas are used in their tacos (5 for $5!!) and the burritos are huge. Get here early as the office workers in the area are in on the secret.
Prima Strada Pizzeria is another mid priced favorite. This small, local eatery has a wood fired oven that produces a chewy, thin crust pizza that needs minimal toppings to finish it off. The staff are friendly, the wine is cheap and we always leave full and happy.
(Insider Tip: if the line up is too long just leave your name and tell the wait staff you’re just heading across the street for a pint at The Beagle Pub. Your table will be ready when you get back.)
For something more upscale I offer up two of my favorites…
Ferris’ Upstairs is a great, intimate spot for cocktails, small plates and sharing.
Brasserie L’Ecole is one of the best date spots in the city. Cozy and warm it hints of it’s French bistro brethren both in food and wine, offering up the best steak and frites around accompanied by fabulous French wines.
Where to Stay in Victoria, BC
- Turtle Hostel is a small hostel housed in a Victorian house on the edge of downtown. This makes it convenient to everything and the prices can’t be beat! As low as $50/night for two people in a small private room in summer. That’s about as good as it gets around here as I wouldn’t recommend sleeping on the beach (it’s too cold and rocky, believe me).
- Ocean Island Inn is a funky hostel just off downtown. An old apartment building; it has many amenities and features not usually seen. It’s one of my favorite buildings downtown and knowing it houses travellers makes me smile. It has a lounge/cafe and is nicely decorated. This would be my pick if I didn’t live here.
- HI-Victoria’s location can’t be beat; right in the middle of the city, everything is happening right on the doorstep. And as part of the Hosteling International group you know that it has to meet certain standards.
- Swan’s and Spinnakers (see the Pub Crawl above) are both also guesthouses which would negate the need for a taxi at the end of an evening…just crawl upstairs to bed. Both are rather up-scale rather than budget though, but if you have the dough I would recommend it as they are both very nice places.
Markets and Shopping
Lower Johnston street, or LoJo as they’ve rebranded themselves, has become quite the shopping mecca for fashionistas and those looking for something a little bit different. Lined with independent shops (with a few larger names) it’s a great place to window shop or find a little something for yourself.
The Downtown Market is held on Government street (between Pandora and Fisgard) every Sunday from 11-5. It’s a funky, hippy-ish market with stalls filled with crafts, psychics, clothing, food carts and music. A little something for everyone; it’s a fun stroll and a great way to spend an afternoon.
The Moss Street Market is held every Saturday on the corner of Moss and Fairfield streets. It is primarily an organic food market but there are also some crafts, home-made jams, clothing, food carts and music. It’s a lovely walk from downtown to here.
Insider Tip: Stay away from lower Government Street; it truly is a tourist trap down there, the closer to the harbour the worse. By all means take a stroll but don’t do any shopping here.
Events and Festivals
The Moss Street Paint In is one of my favorite events in the city.
The street is closed from the top of the hill down to the ocean and is lined with artists creating their masterpieces and selling their wares along the way.
You can spend hours perusing all the art, chatting with the artists and enjoying the great weather.
(Insider Tip: Go later in the afternoon and stop at the Art Gallery at the top of the hill for a hot dog and beer at the Beer Garden. There is a band after dark and it’s always a good time.)
Symphony Splash is held on the first weekend of August in the Inner Harbour. A barge is floated in, the crowds gather all around on shore, and the Victoria Symphony puts on a show to remember.
Swiftsure is the premier yacht race in the Pacific Northwest and attracts sailors from around the entire region. It’s worth being down near Clover Point on Dallas Rd on the morning of the start; it’s something else to see hundreds of boats in full sail as they jostle for position at the starting line.
More than just for sailors though…there is always a major party at Ships Point in the harbour. Aye Matey!
The best way to get around is on foot. The downtown area of Victoria is quite small and even the nearby neighbourhoods are a nice walk away.
The bus system is pretty good though; you can call the Transit Info line and a real person will help you get from Point A to Point B.
Best time to visit Victoria BC
Spring and Fall are out of the height of tourist season but Summer offers the best weather. Winter can be dreary and wet.
Getting There & Away
There is an international airport serviced primarily by Air Canada and Westjet.
Victoria is on an island so, if you don’t fly, you have to take a ferry. BC Ferries operates from Tsawwassen just outside of Vancouver. It’s a little pricey but the scenery is absolutely stunning as it makes its way through the Gulf Islands.
The Coho Ferry runs between Port Angeles in the USA to the harbour right downtown in Victoria.
Best insiders tip
Try the local beer; stay away from the big brands. One of the best things about Victoria is the great beer revolution it’s been part of.
Ask what’s local and try a sampler tray. Phillips. Driftwood. Vancouver Island Brewery. Lighthouse. Work your way through them and you won’t be disappointed.
Plan Your Trip to Victoria
Gillian writes the blog One-Giant-Step.com. She is a wanna-be expat and a giant-stepper. Having completed a year long RTW, she and her partner, Jason, are now determined to live an unconventional life. They are currently looking for a place to hang their hats away from their ‘home and native land’. Stop by their OneGiantStep Facebook page or say hello on Twitter (@OneGiantStep).
Do you have tips on what to do in Victoria?
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