Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, located on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island. From its humble beginnings, Victoria has developed into a royal city that boasts a “conservative and relaxed” way of life duly enjoyed by its residents. This city is charming in many ways, with its 19th century Victorian buildings, old lampposts adorned by flower baskets, and tidy lawns and flower beds. Once a rough-and-tumble gold rush town, Victoria is today a British seaside resort that attracts about 4 million visitors a year
The population of this colonial city is about 350,000, making it the second largest city in British Columbia. Situated by a beautiful natural harbor on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria is only 20 miles or 32 kilometers south of the state of Washington, separated by the Juan de Fuca Strait and shielded by mountains.
Victoria boasts the mildest climate in Canada, receiving lots of sunshine and minimal rainfall (only 27 inches or 68 centimeters a year). While the rest of Canada is covered in snow, Victoria is already counting its spring blooms. The city has a real love affair with flower gardens. But this is not the only “British” attribute Victoria has inherited. The city is considered by many as the “last bastion of the British Empire”, where residents and visitors alike can revel in British culture and traditions that have been fiercely preserved. There are few places left in this world where you can wander the streets and find people playing cricket and croquet in parks, double-decker buses touring around town, whining bagpipes being played near parliamentary buildings, Waterford crystals, tweeds, and Wedgwood china being sold in shops, or high tea being served at hotels, bed and breakfasts, and tea rooms.
This “forever England” image of Victoria is expected. The majority of residents are of British descent. Moreover, the mild climate and minimal rainfall makes Victoria an attractive place for the British to retire. Government and tourism remain the bread and basket of the town’s economy. The latter industry thrives on its careful preservation and marketing of its “Britishness”. Some may consider this rather garish, but it works. Visitors keep coming.
Attractions – Downtown
Downtown Victoria is confined to a compact area, making it easy to explore by foot. Inner Harbour is the hub of the city, where yachts, fishing boats, and ferries constantly dock and set sail. A line of majestic buildings stand in this area, overlooking the little harbor.
The Inner Harbour is dominated by the ivied grandeur of the Empress Hotel. This resplendent building has long been the heart and soul of the city and a favorite attraction among tourists. It retains an old-fashioned English glamour. The Empress was built in 1908 by the Canadian Pacific Railway and designed by Francis Rattenbury. In its early 20th century heyday, the Empress Hotel was the center of Victorian polite society. The prominent socialites of Victoria would gather here to meet and converse over high tea. Today, afternoon tea is enjoyed more by tourists who come to experience Englishness, however contrived. The exercise takes place in the Empress lobby where a noticeable British ambience looms, helped of course by the scenery of silver teapots, cake stands, cucumber sandwiches, and scones served with jam and cream cheese. Afternoon tea at the Empress is extremely popular, so reservations are a must.
The Crystal Garden is located at 731 Douglas Street behind the Empress Hotel. Designed by Rattenbury and built in 1925, this large glass building was once the scene of many social events. However, the elegant ballroom and the large saltwater pool that used to make up the interior was converted in the early 1980s into an exotic conservatory. The conservatory housed monkeys, tropical birds, exotic plants, and the famous “butterfly room” with its 60 varieties of butterflies. The conservatory was closed in 2005 and has been replaced by the “BC Experience. This multimedia attraction provides an interactive and multi-sensory means for visitors to learn about British Columbia’s natural history. The attraction features a high definition theatre, an object theatre, relief maps, and a children’s play area.
Overlooking the harbor, the Parliament Buildings with their extravagant Gothic towers and domes piercing the sky can be seen a mile away by yachts and boats approaching the docks. The view is especially dazzling at night when the thousands of white lights are lit. The buildings, designed by Francis Rattenbury and completed in 1898, are also surrounded by beautifully arranged flower beds and cleanly-trimmed lawns. Several monuments greet visitors and sidewalk strollers, including two Victorian statues on both sides of the arched entrance, a Queen Victoria statue on the front lawn, and a gilt statue of Captain George Vancouver that’s crowned by a copper-covered dome. Free guided tours are provided, allowing visitors to see the inside of the buildings. The public is also permitted to watch Parliament from the benches and balconies when it is in session.
British Columbia Provincial Museum
The British Columbia Provincial Museum stands on the corner between the Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel. The museum is housed in the Heritage Court, a modern complex of buildings fronted by a 62-bell Carillon Tower. The bell tower, incidentally, was a gift to British Columbia from the Dutch community.
Opened daily, the museum is considered one of the best in the country. It incorporates creative displays to showcase the natural and cultural history of the province from prehistoric to modern times. On the second floor, aspects of the region’s natural environment such as the ocean, mountains, rainforest, and seashore are depicted by dioramas. Elsewhere in the museum, sights, smells, and sounds of the province’s past are replicated. For example, an early 20th century street is recreated, featuring a sawmill, a pioneer village, and a cinema showing old movies. There is also a reconstructed section of The Discovery, the ship used by Captain George Vancouver to explore the Pacific Northwest. The Indian history section has realistic displays providing an estimated view of what life was like in a Pacific Coast Indian village. The museum also has an impressive collection of Indian art, artifacts, and totem poles.
Thunderbird Park – Helmcken House
Thunderbird Park is a small forested park behind the British Columbia Provincial Museum where a number of modern totem poles have been carved and erected. All of them feature the image of a legendary thunderbird. The Helmcken House at the southern end of the park is a heritage building constructed in the 1850s to serve as the home of Fort Victoria’s surgeon. Period furnishings decorate the interior. The house also exhibits the medical equipment of the doctor. Admission to the house is free.
The Undersea Gardens is one of the better commercialized attractions in Victoria around the Parliament Buildings. Located at 490 Belleville Street, the gardens can be reached by going down to the base of the harbor. Marline life and frolicking scuba divers can be seen through the glass.
Royal London Wax Museum
The Royal London Wax Museum is located right next to the Undersea Gardens. The building was designed in 1924 by Rattenbury. It was originally used as the terminal for the Canadian Pacific Railway Steamship. The museum has the distinction of being the first Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum in North America, an accomplishment it achieved in 1961 when it opened. Today, it has a collection of 300 wax figures. All of the figures are sculpted in England and represent royal, political, or historic personages, such as Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana, Queen Victoria, Prime Minister Tony Blair, President George W. Bush, Albert Einstein, and William Shakespeare.
The Fisherman’s Wharf can be reached by strolling west along the waterfront street of Belleville. Just follow the coast past the ferry terminals. The wharf is the scene of anchored houseboats and fishing boats docking and departing. There boat trips that let people see the city from the water. They leave from the Inner Harbour near the Empress Hotel.
Old Town of Victoria is north of the Empress Hotel. It can be reached by walking along Wharf Street. Old Town is a network of narrow streets, alleys, squares, cobbles, buildings, and gaslights that date back to the 1860s. The area has been renovated extensively over the years. Many of the old buildings are now used by trendy restaurants, shops, and cafes.
At Centennial Square, you’ll find Victoria’s original City Hall. The square has a modern fountain, a number of benches, some curved steps, and several well-planted trees. Open-air concerts such as the September Open Air Concert Series are performed at the square.
Near Centennial Square in the historic district is Bastion Square. This was the site of the original Fort Victoria, which was founded in 1843. The old criminal courthouse is still there and now houses the Maritime Museum. On display at the museum are model ships, nautical paraphernalia, and an Indian dug-out canoe that was used to sail from Victoria to England in the early 20th century.
Emily Carr Museum
The Emily Carr Museum is located at 1107 Wharf Street. The museum showcases the works of this well-known and beloved B.C. artist of the Post-Impressionist era. Emily Carr studied around the world and is famous for painting natural landscapes, portraying Indian life in her work, and employing Native American influences in her style. The gallery is open everyday, except Monday during the winter. There is no charge for admission.
Chinatown is old and colorful. It is found north of Centennial Square on the corner of Government Street and Fisgard Street. The entrance to Chinatown is marked by a red gateway called the “Gate of Harmonious Interest”. The community began in the 1850s when many Chinese came to Canada to work on the Trans-Canada railway. Chinatown has dwindled in size over the years and now barely covers two blocks. However, it has some nice buildings and still claims the narrowest street in Canada.
Beacon Hill Park
Beacon Hill Park is located behind the B.C. Provincial Museum at the southeastern end of downtown. It is a nice picnicking area and retreat from the city. This hilly park of trees, ponds, and gardens stretches all the way to the Juan de Fuca Strait. Its southwestern corner is the end point of the Trans-Canada Highway.
Attractions – Outside Downtown
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria is located at 1040 Moss Street in the Rockland area, which is about 1.5 kilometers or 1 mile east of downtown. It has a permanent collection of Canadian and international art work totaling more than 17,000. It exhibits art from different countries and different time periods, but particularly impressive is its Asian art holdings, which include a Shinton shrine. The temporary exhibitions showcase a wide range of art, from Chinese archaeological artifacts, to Salish Art.
The gallery is open everyday, except on Mondays during the winter. Admission is by donation on the first Tuesday of every month. The charge is between $2 and $12 every other day, depending on whether the visitor is a child, student, senior, or adult.
Craigdarroch Castle at 1050 Joan Crescent is a baronial-style mansion that is as big as a palace. It is certainly imposing. Robert Dunsmuir, a wealthy Scottish coal tycoon, built in 1890 to persuade her wife to leave Scotland. The interior features richly decorated period furniture, wood paneling, and stained glass. Admission is free and the castle is open everyday.
The Craigflower Manor is located west of downtown at 110 Island Highway. It dates back to 1856, making it one of the city’s earliest buildings. Puget Sound Agricultural Company, a subsidiary of the Hudson’s Bay Company, built the manor on a farm to help grow the settlement that was developing around the trading post. It was later used as a schoolhouse until 1911. Today, this museum is worth a visit. The manor’s interior has original furniture and appliances from the 1800s.
The English Village at 429 Lampson Street is west of Victoria Harbour. It has a series of old, replicated buildings, including the accurately reconstructed cottage of Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare. The interior boasts antiques from the 16th and 17th century. Another notable structure is the Olde English Inn, which is an inn with a restaurant. The village is open everyday.
Marine Drive is a 13-kilometer or 8-mile scenic route along Victoria’s eastern coast. It offers the best way of touring the city’s coastal beauty. Beautiful homes and gardens of Victoria’s suburbs are in full view. The drive begins at Thunderbird Park. You can either go south along Douglas Street or follow the signs on Dallas Road at Beacon Hill Park. The drive has some good views of the coastline and the Olympic Mountains, at least along the Dallas Road section. The road continues on to Gonzales Point which has views of the San Juan Islands and a golf course that overlooks the sea. Dallas Road eventually becomes Marine Drive, which eventually reaches Sealand at 1327 Beach Drive. This is a big tourist attraction and is by the Oak Bay Marina. It is an oceanarium with glass walls of huge tanks. Visitors can see the marine life swimming inside. The outdoor pools have larger mammals such as seals, sea lions, and killer whales. Sealand is open everyday and there are shows every hour in the outdoor pools, starring the killer whales.
After Sealand, the Marine Drive route continues on to Oak Bay past Uplands Park and the wealthy homes there. The Royal Victoria Yacht Club is around Cadboro Bay. Next up is the university campus and further along the coastline are more parks and gardens. When you reach Cordova Bay, Marine Drive becomes Cordova Bay Road. At 5187 Cordova Bay Road is the Fable Cottage Estate, a major tourist draw. This story-book house has a themed floral gardens with mechanical elves, as well as “the World’s Largest Hanging Basket”. The route continues all the way to Highway 17. From there, you can head south and return to downtown or continue north to Keating Cross Road and see the Butchart Gardens.
The Butchart Gardens are must for any first-time traveler to Victoria. These gardens are located at 800 Bennevuto, north of downtown some 20 kilometers or 15 miles. The gardens has a history that resembles an ugly-duckling-to-swan story. The site of the gardens was originally a limestone quarry abandoned by a wealthy cement manufacturer. The manufacturer’s wife, Jenny Butchart, wanted to rid the unsightly hole and beautify their estate. In 1904, she began landscaping the quarry by planting trees, growing flowers, and setting the lawns. She also covered the pit with ivy. The transformation was a success and inspired the Butcharts to expand the gardens to its current 50 acres or 20 hectares.
Highlights of the Butchart Gardens include a magnificent rose garden, a Japanese garden with lacquered bridges, and a formal Italian garden. There are also summer houses, topiary hedges, waterfalls, statuaries, and lily ponds.
The gardens are purely for pleasure. There are no botanical labels classifying the flowers. The Horticultural Centre does answer any questions visitors may have. Even in the winter, the gardens are worth visiting. The greenhouses have flowers that are still in bloom. The Butcharts’ house has been converted into a restaurant that serve lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner.
The gardens can be reached by taking Highway 17 and turning off the Keating Cross Road exit. Then continue west on Keating Cross or take the 17A.
Crockford, Ross. “Are You B.C. Experienced.” < http://unknownvictoria.blogspot.com/2006/05/are-you-bc-experienced.html>
Btwood2. “Victoria Gardens, Parks, and Neighborhoods.” < http://www.igougo.com/journal-j54676-Victoria-Victoria_Gardens_Parks_and_Neighborhoods.html#1221945>
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
“Royal London Wax Museum.” < http://www.waxmuseum.bc.ca/waxexhibits.asp>
“Victoria, British Columbia.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria%2C_British_Columbia>
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