I lived in Victoria for seven years while I attended the University of Victoria and in the early part of my career. I also have family there that I see a few times a year. There’s a lot on the island to see and do but here are the highlights for maximizing your weekend in Victoria. It’s known as the Garden City for a reason and is surrounded by nature and beauty year round.
Where is Victoria
Victoria is on Vancouver Island, not to be confused with Vancouver city. The city and the island are named after the same guy.
Victoria gets less rain than Vancouver due to the rain shadow effect of Washington State’s Olympic Mountains. You can learn more here. For that reason, Victoria has a slightly longer tourist season. Plan on heading to Victoria May through September for the best experience. Avoid any of the USA or Canadian holidays to avoid long waits at the border and ferry.
Make sure you review Canada’s travel guidelines before coming (you can find them here). You’ll need to bring your passport with you, and leave any weapons at home.
Getting to Victoria
BC ferry by car from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay then drive to Victoria using Highway 17, also called Pat Bay Highway. Make sure you use kilometers instead of miles!
Victoria Clipper from pier 69 in Seattle. They have an extended schedule starting in May. The Clipper takes you to downtown Victoria and the summer schedule might just give you enough time to explore the downtown area by foot. Alternatively, you can hop on a city tour bus. You can check their schedule here.
Making reservations for the ferry or Clipper is a good idea.
Another option is the Anacortes ferry. You’ll get to take a lovely trip through the San Juan Islands. They have a once-a-day schedule in spring, but sometimes offer twice-a-day rides in the summer.
At the time of writing, Google shows a currency exchange of $1 USD to $1.33 CDN so your money goes further in general, although some items are more expensive in Canada. Check the Google currency converter. We recently had lunch for $54 CDN so that works out to about $40 USD for a nice lunch of 9 items that fed 4 people.
This is what Canadian currency looks like
The Amazon Prime visa card does not have any international transaction fees so it’s a good payment choice.
Treats you might only find in Canada
Poutine(fries, cheese curd & gravy) – A&W or Costco is a good place to try this. I never heard about it until a few years ago. It’s not very healthy but an interesting experience to try at least once. <link to photo>
Nanaimo bars – invented in Nanaimo, a small town close to Victoria. Costco sells these or look for them in a cafe. <link to photo>
Coffee crisp chocolate bars – these are not sold in the USA and are yummy.
Caesar drinks (alcoholic) are a Canadian drink you can’t get in the states.
Scott’s Scenic Drive Around Victoria
Driving this scenic route is the best way to maximize a few hours while in Victoria. If you don’t have a vehicle then rent one, otherwise you can do a partial route on a rented bike. Make sure to stop at these spots along the way:
- Parliament Buildings
- Fisherman’s wharf – you can purchase sardines for $5 and feed the seals. There’s 2-3 that hang around the docks year round because all the tourists feed them. They’ll eat sardines right out of your hand. Look for the 1-eyed seal.
- Ogden Point Break Water – watch the waves crashing on the shore and walk along the big cement walkway (<I can’t remember what they call it>)
- Beacon Hill Park
- Dallas Road
- Clover Point – stop to watch the kite fliers and I’ve seen para-gliders there.
- Multi-million dollar homes
- Cadboro Bay beach (Gyro park)
- University of Victoria
- Stop for lunch at Maude Hunters pub on Shelbourne street – they serve alcohol so children are not allowed.
- Optional – visit Mt. Douglas after lunch for a great view of the city and the Juan de Fuca Strait
- Re-trace the route in the opposite direction so you see everything from a different perspective.
This is the most popular tourist destination in Victoria. Get there early to get better parking and beat the crowds. It can be difficult getting some panoramic photos at the Sunken Garden without people in the background so get there early and go to the Sunken Garden before the crowds pick up. The rest of the Butchart Gardens can be photographed without too much concern for crowds photobombing you. Admission rates vary by season. You can also get a bus to Butchart Gardens.
If you’re looking for a cheaper option, check out Beacon Hill park along my favorite scenic route.
You can get up close to Orca whales near the San Juan Islands in the summer. Different tour companies offer a comfortable covered boat and other companies do the zodiacs which are a bit more agile so can follow the whales a bit better.
Regulations require boats to stay 100 meters away, but no one told the whales, so they sometimes venture closer.
Walking around and checking out the Empress Hotel and the area is fantastic. The Parliament Buildings light up in the evening and the BC Museum is amazing.
My friends Sandi and Dave are ferry captains. Sandi does the harbour tours, Dave does the water taxis. You can take the water taxi between various stops – e.g Inner harbour across from the Empress to Fisherman’s wharf or to the Songhees Walkway – near Spinnakers. Check it out here.
Only a few minutes from downtown. This is a great English-style mansion worth checking out. You can plan your visit at this website.
Chemainus – Mural city
If you have a vehicle and a few extra hours, drive to Chemainus. It’s a beautiful small town full of murals and tourist shops and the ride along Highway 1 is very scenic. There’s a stretch of the highway that’s twisty and only one lane in sections with no turn around point for ten minutes and traffic is horrible if driving that route M-F during morning or evening rush hour. Gold stream park is along the way where you can see salmon spawning – usually July is a good time. Parking can be tricky if you don’t get there early.
You can find more info here.
Places to eat
I tend to eat at home with family when I visit but here are a few favorites especially if you have a vehicle and can get out of the downtown core.
- The White Heather on Oak Bay Ave is great for afternoon tea. Many locals go here instead of the more expensive Empress Hotel for the tea experience.
- Spinnakers Pub – a short walk along the waterfront. From downtown, cross the “Johnston Street Bridge- aka the Blue Bridge for now” and follow the Songhees walkway to Spinnakers. You can walk off your lunch with a further walk along the water to the Westbay marina. Bring your camera – you’ll have lovely views and often will see the heron fishing, especially when the tide’s out.
- Golden City for dim sum or most of the Chinese restaurants in China town are quite good.
Victoria is quite safe but car break-ins do happen especially if you own a Honda. Put valuables inside the trunk and do that at Point A rather than Point B so people don’t see you putting your valuables inside your trunk as you park & walk away.
Places to Stay
You can find some nice places downtown but expect them to be more expensive. If you have a car then the Best Westerns just outside of downtown on Douglas street are a good value if you don’t mind a vanilla flavored hotel experience.
Two Best Western hotels are in the Inner Harbour and on Johnson. There’s a reasonable Comfort Inn and Accent Inn up Blanshard nearer to Mayfair. The Rialto Hotel on Pandora is very nice and has the Veneto Tapa Lounge/Restaurant.
If you’re taking the Clipper for a weekend stay, staying downtown will save on transportation costs as you can walk nearly everywhere.
These are the 2-3 day weekend highlights. If you plan to stay longer and would like further details, ping me on social media. If you have plans to visit Vancouver, BC or Seattle, WA, let me know if you’d like some information.