Cherry blossoms, rugged wilderness, heritage buildings and more restaurants than almost any other city in Canada – Victoria might be known as a place for newlyweds and nearly-deads, but the coastal city’s standout culinary scene and endless roster of natural gems is making a mockery of this outdated reputation. Here's our handy city guide to help you track down the best restaurants, the coolest hotels and just about any other essential activities to experience Victoria at its finest.
Blessed with one of the best climates in Canada, Victoria is a fantastic option for year-round travel. Soak up all that mild Pacific weather with a stroll around the picturesque Inner Harbour with its Parliament buildings and the Fairmont Empress Hotel, recognizable from every Victoria postcard. Craigdarroch Castle, with its turrets, is another historic site worth a visit – or if you have time, gear up with the season's best hiking equipment and scale the Juan de Fuca Strait and glimpse the peaks of the Olympic Peninsula at Beacon Hill Park.
Victoria’s proximity to water means that your odds of spotting humpback whales, orcas and seals are decent – and vastly improved if you’re a scuba diver or keen to take a trip with a wildlife tour operator. Its perch on the edge of Vancouver Island also provides plenty of sea-to-table options and menus full of local produce and foraged ingredients.
Steeped in tea tradition, from medicinal teas used by Indigenous people to Canada’s oldest Chinatown, it’s no wonder that Victoria is the country’s unofficial cuppa capital. And that’s not all the Garden City is brewing up – Victoria’s craft beer scene is hopping with West Coast creativity. From Canada’s oldest gastropub, Spinnakers, to the resplendent Bard and Banker, there’s a sour beer or Belgian-style wild ale with your name on it. From shopping to scoffing – no matter what you’re after, Victoria has plenty of ways to fill up your cup this fall.
If you’re adding a leg to Vancouver, Harbour Air offer special fares for under $100 one way on their seaplanes – and we promise the views are worth it.
Victoria BC: The best restaurants and bars
The restaurant inside the Magnolia Hotel & Spa has received countless accolades since opening in 2018, but we’d be willing to bet that their potatoes Courtney – a tater tot cooked in duck-fat with a pickled shallot-ranch dipping sauce – was the common denominator. Mouthwatering carbs aside, the Courtney Room offers Vancouver Island ingredients like oysters shucked bar-side, meat and seasonal veggies from local producers in a brasserie atmosphere. The restaurant reps hard for local wine with a mostly British Columbian list, but don’t skip the cocktails, made using gin and tea from producers just down the street.
A Taste of Victoria Tours
Take a two-hour food tour starting at the Victoria Public Food Market with knowledgeable guide and founder, Andy. In addition to trying out pierogies, Queen Elizabeth-approved chocolates and porchetta-topped meatballs, you’ll also hit Fan Tan Alley – the narrowest street in Canada, lined with boutique cafés and stores – and dip a toe into the craft beer scene at the city’s breweries. The tour covers about 2.5 km including Chinatown, Old Town and the Inner Harbour, so both comfy shoes and stretchy pants are recommended.
There are plenty of places to raise a pint in Victoria, but Phillips Brewing – which started making beer in 2001 – is the perfect way to wet your whistle. Credit card debt and a solo venture, involving brewing beer by day and sleeping on the same floor at night, couldn’t stop Matt Phillips from realizing his dreams. From raspberry wheat ales and chocolate porters, to a coastal forest gin made using foraged botanicals grown in British Columbia, the Government Street brewery is every bit as innovative today as it was in its original windowless basement location. Soak up the artwork while you’re sipping – graphic designers on site are responsible for all of the stunning signs and labels.
Stage Wine Bar
If you adore French cooking, but turn your nose up at frou-frou plating and petite garnishes that have you wondering if you need new specs, Stage Wine Bar is your destination du jour. This neighbourhood restaurant does away with the muss, but keeps all of the fuss with hearty pre-Nouvelle French sharing plates just like grandmère used to make. Beef bourguignon and duck terrine are just begging to be paired with long-forgotten aperitifs and digestifs – or order a bottle from their impressive list of European and local small-scale wine producers, whose low-intervention methods of production are traditional, not trendy.
With strong British roots (it was named after Queen Victoria), it makes sense that there’s a tea scene brewing in Vancouver Island’s southernmost city. Though the formerly ivy-covered Fairmont Empress hotel is the city’s most iconic tea spot, try organic blends at Silk Road Tea or sip on matcha green tea lattes at JagaSilk. Those looking for afternoon tea followed by a Jane Austen-esque stroll through manicured lawns will find plenty to amuse at Teahouse at Abkhazi Garden or Butchart Gardens, while lovers of miniature finger foods can extend their pinky fingers at the charming White Heather Tea Room.
Bring your appetite to this petite spot in Chinatown, which translates to ‘hungry’ in Chinook Jargon. Due to an ever-changing seasonal menu, it’s impossible to say what chef Brad Holmes will be cooking up, but you’ll certainly know where it comes from. The sustainable restaurant organically grows 90 per cent of its produce on Ragley Farm and works closely with local farmers and producers – which makes their chanterelle mushrooms and Haida Gwaii halibut taste even more delicious.
‘Farm-to-table’ might not have the same meaning everywhere, but at 10 Acres, knowing what you’re getting and where your food comes from is the foundation it was built on. Located 25 km outside of downtown Victoria, the farm provides a twice-weekly harvest which dictates what goes on the menu at its restaurants across Greater Victoria. Whether you’re eating buttermilk pancakes at 10 Acres Bistro or tucking into pork ragu and summer squash over gnocchi, you know you’re getting the best seasonal, ethically raised ingredients. What they can’t source from the farm on Vancouver Island arrives on your plate courtesy of like-minded suppliers.
If your spirits need lifting, you’ve come to the right place. You’re probably familiar with Empress Gin 1908 by now – a purple blend of local botanicals and tea from the eponymous hotel and the Victoria Distillers – but that’s the tip of the ice cube. From single malt scotch at Macaloney’s Caledonian Distillery to small-batch gems at Merridale Cidery & Distillery, the proof of Victoria’s booze boom is in the tasting rooms springing up across the city.
Victoria, BC: The coolest things to do
Ideally located downtown, this picturesque waterfront is jam-packed with some of Victoria’s best-loved attractions – it’s just not even fair to the other harbours, is it? Idle away the afternoon, strolling along the water’s edge and imagine you own one of the yachts that fills the busy seaport. Better still, book a trip on a vessel and take in the panoramic views of the iconic Empress Hotel and the B.C. Parliament Buildings from your seafaring viewpoint. That being said, the Royal British Columbia Museum, a national treasure filled with collections and artefacts that explore Canada’s history and beyond, is one landmark worth being on land for. One of the highlights in among its cornucopia of treasures is John Lennon’s Rolls Royce – complete with psychedelic paint job.
Lower Johnson Street
Celebrate some of the mildest temperatures in Canada by getting your pins out and dressing them in some new attire. The fashion-forward should make a beeline for Lower Johnson Street – charmingly nicknamed ‘LoJo’ – lined as it is with some of the city’s best independent boutiques stores. Even if you don’t pick up a gem at one of the quirky retailers, a stroll along the charming row of colourful Victorian buildings should more than make up for things. Caffeinate at Hey Happy Coffee, then head to Market Square for more great stores plus refuelling options. Belgian waffles from Wannawafel or authentic Indonesian sustenance like nasi goreng and beef rendang from Ayo Eat promises to power up even the most sluggish of shoppers.
The Butchart Gardens
You don’t need a green thumb to appreciate the Butchart Gardens, one of Victoria’s most popular tourist attractions. The public gardens might look as fresh as a daisy, but they’ve been blooming for more than 100 years. Enter the Japanese Gardens under the Torii gate and walk below Himalayan blue poppies in spring or breathe in fragrant blooms underneath the arches in the Rose Garden during summer. Autumn visitors can expect to see red, russet and golden maples in full bloom, but thanks to Victoria’s moderate climate, there’s something to see all year round – like the wintery snowdrops and abundant hellebores observed from January to March.
Victoria, BC: The best hotels
Magnolia Hotel & Spa
You’ll want to stay in the centre of town and the Magnolia Hotel & Spa is perfectly positioned. Boutique hotels might bring to mind pokier-than-average rooms and a faceless concierge – but the Magnolia Hotel & Spa manages to balance the classic hotel experience with a tailored stay.
The rooms are, well, roomy, the beds are plush and our suite boasted 10-foot ceilings and a cozy fireplace – so we had even more reason to hang around in our robes. There’s plenty to explore, but cozy fireplaces in the rooms and seven treatment rooms at the spa make a compelling case for keeping your slippers on.
For a surcharge, breakfast is available at the hotel’s award-winning ground-floor restaurant the Courtney Room, but if time only permits for one meal, dinner is the reservation to make. Freshly shucked oysters, steak, local wines and other bounty from the West Coast earned this bistro its spot on the list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants in 2018.
Rooms from $223, magnoliahotel.com
The Fairmont Empress
With unobstructed views of the Inner Harbour, the Fairmont Empress takes the prize for the best-situated hotel in all of Victoria. Look inward, though, and you’ll find plenty of reasons to never leave this majestic château-esque building. The railway hotel, which was designed by Francis Rattenbury and first opened in 1908, is renowned for its afternoon tea service, held in the Empress’ Lobby Lounge. Amidst the white pillars and mauve accent cushions sits a stunning signature bar designed with tea, not cocktails, in mind. Continue the theme of luxurious living and don a robe and venture to the Willow Stream Spa for a Salish Sea scrub using the waters from Vancouver Island. Or sample some of the award-winning wine lists and locally- sourced fare at Q at the Empress.
Rooms from $186, fairmont.com/empress-victoria
For lodging that’s as beautiful on the outside as it is indoors, pack your bags and head to Abigail’s boutique bed and breakfast on McClure Street. Before you step over the threshold, the 1930s heritage Tudor mansion and manicured driveway will woo you – but save some of your squeals for the roaring fireplace, antique furniture and attentive service, too. The adult-only accommodation is ideal for unencumbered young folk (or parents desperate to hit the COVID reset button), while everyone will appreciate the updated COVID measures (hello, breakfast in bed). From the elegant Sapphire Room, with its four-poster king-sized bed and original architectural features to the more humble Amethyst Room, you’re pretty much guaranteed an utterly charming stay at Abigail’s Hotel.
Rooms from $186, abigailshotel.com