This article is published in partnership with Expedia.ca who asked if we would share our Grownup Guide for things to do in the City of Victoria, following our recent visit.
With what is arguably the best weather in Canada and a picture-perfect location on Vancouver Island, the city of Victoria has often been characterized as a destination for the ‘newly wed or nearly dead’. But the city has much more to offer than a temperate clime for retirees or pretty locations for honeymooners to shoot selfies; Victoria makes for a perfect grownup getaway offering world-class museums, fine dining, historic shopping districts and accommodations to suit every taste from luxury properties to small boutique hotels. Here are 8 ‘grownup’ things to do in Victoria, BC, whether you are a culture vulture or a shopaholic.
1. Start at the Heart: Stroll Victoria’s Inner Harbour
Whether you are visiting Victoria for the first time, love architecture, photography, or just enjoy exploring a city on foot, Victoria’s picturesque setting makes it an ideal city for strolling day or night, and the inner harbour is a great place to start.
Surrounded by historic and cultural landmarks and filled with pretty sailboats and luxurious yachts, Victoria’s inner harbour is equally beautiful day or night, but it is especially magical in the evenings. That is when the lights come on and illuminate the historic British Columbia Parliament Buildings whose 19th century architectural details are traced with thousands of tiny white lights.
Nothing makes a prettier picture, but a close rival might be the nearby Grande Dame of hotels, the Empress, Victoria’s historic luxury waterfront hotel.
TIP: For great water views of the Inner Harbour or to explore Victoria’s other waterfront landings, there is a yellow checkered H2O water taxi service that you can take at a dock right located in front of the Empress.
2. Indulge Like a Royal at the Empress Hotel
One of the city’s architectural gems, Victoria’s elegant and historic Empress Hotel is one of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s original grand luxury hotels, completed in 1908 and known for its signature ‘Chateau’ style that includes copper-covered dormers and steep slate roofs.
For more than a century, the rich and famous have flocked to this landmark hotel, and you should too, after the hotel’s recent $60 million renovation. Signature embellishments like the ‘Twill Flower’, a custom-designed Czech chandelier created with 250,000 crystals, now adorns the modernized lobby, and I think even the stern old Queen herself would approve of the modern ‘royal’ the Empress has become. Whether you choose to stay here, just come for a cocktail, or indulge in the hotel’s famous Afternoon Tea, a visit to the Empress is a Victoria must-do.
3. Explore The Royal British Columbia Museum
If you are a museum lover, Victoria’s inner harbour is also home to the Royal British Columbia Museum, which consistently ranks as one of Canada’s top museums, and for good reason. Its First Peoples Gallery alone is well worth your visit, as it was created with the cooperation of BC’s First Nations, and includes beautifully curated interactive galleries and exhibits.
One of the most spectacular rooms is Totem Hall which includes masks, regalia, a ‘forest’ of monumental carvings and a full-sized ceremonial house that was used for potlatches by Jonathan Hunt, a Kwakwaka’wakw Chief who lived on Vancouver Island. In this gallery you are literally surrounded by stellar examples of the unique visual style that characterizes West Coast Indigenous artistic and cultural expression.
Another section of the museum that I would recommend is the Natural History Gallery. It’s hard not to feel like a kid in these rooms, because I still get excited seeing wildlife (albeit taxidermy) up close, and the photogenic dioramas of West Coast wildlife are realistic enough to fool any Instagram follower!
The Modern History Gallery has its own tromp l’oeil exhibits as well, with 2-story reproductions of Victorian streets and shops inspired by actual west coast landmarks from the late 1800s. This type of gallery is just one example of how the Royal British Columbia Museum is evolving its visitor experience from viewing artefacts in glass cases to a more impactful immersion, a trend that many museums are embracing around the world.
TIP: I would recommend at least 2 hours if you want to hit up several galleries, more if there is a special exhibition that you want to visit as well.
4. Visit the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
If you are a fan of Emily Carr, one of Canada’s most famous female artists and a contemporary of the Group of Seven, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria should be on your list of things to do in Victoria. Carr was born in Victoria and later became known for her Post-Impressionist paintings of the West Coast native peoples and landscapes. Although the AGGV does not have the largest collection of Carr works in the country, the Art Gallery of Victoria usually has an exhibition running that includes Carr’s works.
5. Shop Unique Boutiques and Skinny Streets
Why shop big store chains for the same old merchandise when you can explore unique boutiques and neighbourhoods that offer something a little different? If this is how you prefer to shop, start by visiting Victoria’s lower Johnson Street (‘Lo-Jo’) where colourful Victorian buildings house local retail shops that sell everything from women’s clothing to home decor.
Nearby, Market Square‘s 3-story historic open-air courtyard is surrounded by converted loft apartments above and interesting retail stores and restaurants below. On Sundays there is a flea market here, too with local vendors.
Shop for eclectic gifts while exploring some of Victoria’s quirky downtown alleys like Trounce Alley, a pedestrian pathway running off Government Street that has several one-of-a-kind shops and is lit by 125 year-old authentic gaslights. Or look for local jewellery, vintage vinyl and imported gifts on the ‘narrowest shopping street’ in Canada, Fan Tan Alley, in Victoria’s Chinatown district which at its narrowest is barely 3 feet wide.
6. Do Brunch Like a Local
Victoria is brunch-obsessed, so much so that this breakfast/lunch hybrid meal is not just offered on weekends – or even limited to mornings, for that matter. Which is great news for visitors, because it means whatever day you might be visiting Victoria, you can still do brunch like a local.
Check out John’s Place, a local favourite since 1984, and a popular post-night-out hangover cure. Known for its lengthy Eggs Benedict menu, John’s is the kind of diner-style restaurant that believes more is more when it comes to decor, with walls papered in memorabilia and celebrity portraits. Although some of the signatures on these pieces are a little suspect, the quality of their brunch Bennies is 100% authentic!
For a casual brunch that’s not shy on carbs, head to Pandora Street to Shanzees Biscuit Cafe for any one of their biscuit-and-gravy themed offerings. The atmosphere is hipster-cool with a side of kitsch, the serving ware is thrift store-chic, but the biscuits are every bit as good as all the reviews promise.
Feeling lucky? Why not “Double or Nothing” your diner experience at Floyd’s. This restaurant offers a unique item on their menu: order the breakfast ‘Mahoney’, and the chef will make you whatever he feels like. Then you can either pay the listed price for your meal or flip a coin for double or nothing: if you lose, your meal will cost twice the amount; you win and it’s absolutely free.
Ruby’s has two locations in Victoria, and the one Henk and I tried was on Douglas Street, in the uber-funky Hotel Zed, a renovated retro-cool motor hotel that is as colourful inside as out. All the locals will tell you that Ruby’s is THE place for Southern-inspired brunch specialties like Rotisserie Chicken and Waffles, but this restaurant is worth visiting for any meal, as we had a delicious dinner here, too. Come hungry, because portions are generous.
7. Make the Drive to Butchart Gardens
No visit to Victoria would be complete without a visit to beautiful Butchart Gardens, a former quarry that was transformed by the original owner’s wife into a stunning 55-acre garden more than a century years ago.
A short 25 minute road trip north of Victoria, Butchart Gardens is a relaxing escape that offers more than just seasonal blooms to keep you coming back: their summer program includes concerts and Saturday fireworks displays where you can even order a gourmet picnic basket (compete with wine or beer) to nibble on while waiting for the light show to begin. How grownup is that!
And when it comes to Afternoon Tea, in my mind Butchart is THE place to enjoy this tradition with its charming conservatory setting and seasonal English treats. In fact, Chef Travis Hansen’s kitchen is one of Victoria’s best kept secrets and an excellent choice for a fine dining experience outside of the city.
8. Visit the Oldest Lighthouse on Canada’s West Coast
If you are a photographer or history buff, Fisgard Lighthouse at Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site makes for another great day trip less than 30 minutes from Victoria.
In operation since 1860, Fisgard Lighthouse is Canada’s oldest lighthouse on the West Coast and was built before Vancouver Island was even part of Canada. Situated on a point at the entrance to Esquimalt harbor with the Olympic Mountains in the distance, the Lighthouse is a favourite subject for photographers.
History lovers will enjoy visiting the rest of the Fort Rodd site, where visitors can explore authentic restorations of the 19th century barracks which were home to both soldiers and their families at the turn of the last century. The grounds here are also home to a variety of birds and wildlife as well as BC’s rare Garry Oak trees, whose twisted limbs inspired the spooky forest in the original Snow White animated film.
When it comes to things to do in Victoria, we think that these are some of the must-do experiences that make this city unique. But we are always keen to hear more, so if you have other recommendations to add to this guide, let us know in the comments below!
Special thanks to Tourism Victoria who hosted Henk and I at some of these attractions.