For many years Victoria was known as the home of the newlywed and the nearly dead; a stuffy relic of its British colonial heritage. But in recent times, thanks to immigration, an influx of high-tech and a newfound appreciation of its Indigenous history, this provincial capital city of around 400,000 has transformed into a vibrant, diverse and inclusive hub of multiculturalism and a paradise for outdoor activities. Local expert Dermott Kelly discloses where it all went right.
After a visitor arrives in my city, I always recommend going straight to the Inner Harbour because that’s the vibrant and picturesque centre of town. At the height of the summer tourist season you will be surrounded by other visitors — but the locals will be out in numbers too, taking in the buzz of cafés, restaurants, street food and performers.
The best time to be here is the summer (but it’s a good destination year-round). That’s when the city comes to life entertaining locals and visitors alike. It’s also the best time of year to get active in a host of activities from kayaking in the waterways to cycling, whale watching, fishing, hiking and just strolling around the town centre and beyond.
I tell first-time travellers to take in the local sights on foot and to venture further afield by bicycle (there are plenty to rent, electric ones too). There is no need for a car if you are based downtown and public transit is cheap and regular at 5$ for an all-day pass. I also tell them to avoid the fast food giants for meals as there is an abundance of fine alternatives. Victoria has the highest ratio of restaurants, cafés, pubs and bars by population than any other city in Canada.
People from here know better than to limit themselves to safe choices to eat. Instead, they would rather partake of the diverse array of cuisine on offer by the many ethnic groups that have settled here and call Victoria home.
The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of this city is the Royal British Columbia Museum, a couple of minutes’ walk from the Inner Harbour, because it provides a fantastic account of British Columbia’s history with particular emphasis on the culture of our Indigenous peoples. The museum itself is located on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen (Songhees and Xwsepsup Nations).
Parents should take their kids pretty well everywhere. Beacon Hill Park is less than ten minutes’ walk from the Inner Harbour and is a great place for a picnic. It has a large playground for youngsters and a cricket ground where you might catch a match in summer. The park is home to what was the world’s tallest free-standing totem/story pole made from a single log when it was erected in 1956. The 39-metre pole was carved by a team led by Mungo Martin, a Kwakiutl tribal chief and renowned artist. Across the road is the Beacon Drive-In for the best soft ice cream in town.
Food from the Heart
Among the food (or dishes) my city is most proud of, the locally caught, sustainable sockeye and coho salmon are not to be missed. I like to go to The Fish Store at Fisherman’s Wharf to really enjoy it at its freshest. Besides being a great spot for fish, fresh clams, oysters and chowder, it’s also North America’s only 100% Ocean Wise seafood restaurant.
When we get together to celebrate local craft beer is what people here usually drink. I like to gather my friends and go to the Garrick’s Head in Bastion Square or Darcy’s (with a couple of locations to choose from — Downtown or Westshore — they also have live music) for a pint or two. But there are many pubs well stocked with craft beers around the city.
When I eat completely local, I will go to 10 Acres Farm and Restaurant. They showcase local ingredients by using seasonal crops from their farm on the Saanich Peninsula and by sourcing from local producers whenever possible. Wind Cries Mary in Bastion Square also uses local suppliers and farmers and does family-style meals.
Other classic restaurants are the Blue Fox Café for great all-day breakfasts, and in Chinatown (the oldest in Canada) Little Yunnan Restaurant and, for Asian fusion, Bao.
The best food market in Victoria is the Public Market at The Hudson for a selection of fresh food and snacks and includes a Jewish family-run bakery called My Way Bikery, open until 2 am for late-night munchies. The only Kosher bakery in Vancouver Island, they specialise in pretzels, bagels, challah and other traditional (and not-so-traditional) treats. Not only is their kitchen 100% electric-powered, but all deliveries are made by bicycle and/or EV car.
I always take visitors to Cowichan Trading to buy authentic handcrafted native Indian sweaters and knits, Indigenous jewellery, masks, carvings and art at this locally owned small business. Other shopping in town includes Ecologyst, SALT, Patagonia and MEC, all shops that keep sustainability in mind or have environmental initiatives. And we know to avoid the standard big-chain department stores in malls.
Getting Deeper Into Victoria
Most people know about the Butchart Gardens, but locals would rather appreciate the native flora with a walk along the Dallas Road waterfront for stunning ocean views across the Salish Sea to the United States — you’ll often see parasailers hanging over the cliffs and gliding over the beach below. Outside the city is a breathtaking view from Holmes Peak in Gowlland Tod Provincial Park on the Saanich Peninsula… but for this trip, you’ll need a car.
My city is a place people are attracted to because of its mild climate and its great hikes, trails and walks available for free all year round. It’s also clean, safe and inclusive for all — and it’s quieter and much more accessible than Vancouver.
To really celebrate my city at its best, come anytime, really. The mild climate allows for outdoor adventures year-round — just be prepared for rain regardless of the season. In the summer we have many patios and happy hours, free outdoor movies at Beacon Hill Park at the annual Free-B Film Festival and farmers markets — Moss Street Market is a favourite.
There are also seasonal happenings like festivals and brewery events from spring to autumn (Phillips, Backyarder and Rifflandia) and Christmas lights tours and outdoor ice rinks in the winter. The Fairmont Empress Hotel does outdoor fire pits to gather round roasting s’mores and sipping mulled wine. Craigdarroch Castle stages plays during the fall/winter. And local cideries have events in the autumn to coincide with the apple harvest.
Most people think of my city as a place to retire, but really this is a destination to get active and explore the outdoors. It’s not uncommon to spot an otter or an orca offshore and spy other wildlife such as hummingbirds, deer, rabbits, eagles and owls in the city or its many parks. Urban deer are also abundant… and can be a hazard on the roads so it’s worth taking care if driving.
This is one of the best places in the world to experience the outdoors, literally at your doorstep, with so many free hikes. Geocaching is a big thing here and there are over 4,000 to be found around Victoria. It is a relatively expensive destination but there are many free outdoor activities — hikes, walks, beaches, lakes and parks with tennis or basketball courts. Locals are proud of that because it gives them a sense of community that money just can’t buy.
Getting Around Victoria
One thing you should know about getting around my city is that you won’t need a car to enjoy your visit.
The best way to travel in Victoria to have as little impact as possible is on foot or by bicycle. Victoria and the entire Capital Regional District have hundreds of kilometres of dedicated bike paths and walkways. There are several bike rental companies in the city centre and scores of different routes to set off on that will take you to Sooke in the western communities or to Sidney and beyond on the Saanich Peninsula.
Luckily this method of transportation also allows me to keep fit as well as experience my surroundings up close, including the best — and least disruptive, for the animals themselves — wildlife spotting opportunities.
Outside The City
To get away and into the outdoors, I’ll cycle to Mount Douglas Park, about 11km from downtown. Dismount at the base and take a series of hiking trails to the summit which affords a vista of southern Vancouver Island. The park, named for the province’s first governor, is under review for a name change to PKOLS, to acknowledge the hill as a traditional meeting place of the SENĆOŦEN and Lekwungen peoples.
For a day trip just beyond my city, I like to visit Salt Spring Island which can be reached from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal just north of Sidney. The route to the terminal from town is bike friendly but you can also get there on public transport. At the Fulford Harbour terminal on Salt Spring, there is a public bus to the lively town of Ganges — or it’s about a 50-minute cycle.
I really enjoy the view of my city from Mount Tolmie Park. You can cycle there or take bus No. 14 and hike up and around the trails to the summit for great views of the city (an all-day bus pass is $5).
Connecting with Locals
When I want to have fun and celebrate being out in my city, I take a brewery tour — Driftwood, Moon Under Water, and Phillips do great events. If I’m feeling more extravagant I meet friends for fancy cocktails at tropical-themed Citrus & Cane or chilled Clarke & Co. (both do great non-alcohol mocktails too). For some intellectual stimulation and a bit of fun, I hit the pub for regular trivia contests and/or music bingo nights. The Mint hosts a comedy show on Wednesdays.
To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, I head for coffee at sustainable stalwart Habit or warm, cosy Union Pacific or have brunch at Jam or Bear & Joey. Dallas Road walks are the go-to. Start in Cook Street Village with a burger or milkshake at Big Wheel Burger — Canada’s first carbon-neutral fast food restaurant. Then wander through Beacon Hill Park, along the waterfront path to the Ogden Point breakwater and into town.
The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town is the Victoria Event Centre, a non-profit multi-purpose venue for community arts. It hosts unusual events such as Art Battle, where artists paint live and the audience votes for a winner. Some artists register in advance but organisers save a couple of spots for audience members to participate the night of — and they serve cheap drinks!
When I want to enjoy my city without spending much (or any) money, I go on a hike/walk — to Mount Tolmie, Mount Doug or Elk/Beaver Lake Park. Or I grab a coffee at The Hidden Gem in Cook Street — they also have vegan ice cream — and take a walk nearby around Fisherman’s Wharf. The Fort Common is a hidden courtyard in the heart of town with lots of tables; a great spot to bring your own lunch and sit outside.
Capital Ballroom is my first choice for music because it attracts some big acts as well as local musicians, and the vibe is always good. And when I feel like dancing, I put on my cowboy boots and Stetson and mosey over to The Duke Saloon for some good ole country music. Family-run Caffe Fantastico is a great venue for local bands and also hosts alternative entertainment offerings like poetry readings, drag shows and DJs.
Finding Solitude in Victoria
When I want to go somewhere to sit and relax in my incredible city, I go to the beach. There is plenty of space at Willows, Gonzales and along Dallas Road. The Government House grounds are great for picnics and relaxing and there are plenty of local parks and green spaces to unwind and just hang out.
The place that makes me proudest of my city is the Inner Harbour with its ever-changing water vistas, striking architectural highlights and great views of the Legislature Buildings and the iconic Fairmont Empress Hotel.
When the Seasons Change, This City Shines
Spring (February to mid-May) is the best time to count the flowers and your blessings. While the rest of Canada is still digging out from the snow, Victorians are smugly tallying the blossoms in the annual Greater Victoria Flower Count — it’s all a bit twee, but good fun. I always recommend visitors come in May for the annual Swiftsure International Yacht Race when over 200 racing boats and 1,400 crew arrive in the Inner Harbour to compete (and to party).
In the summer (mid-May to August) visitors can make the most of the warm-weather buzz of the city; I suggest attending a music festival and a free concert or film in Beacon Hill Park.
The autumn (September to mid-November) is magical here when you can appreciate the changing season yet still enjoy the outdoors in the fine, by Canadian standards, weather.
Winter (Mid-November to February) is a great time to enjoy the great indoors in a cosy pub, after a brisk walk around the waterfront to wave-watch during a winter storm.