Although Victoria is in British Columbia, it feels more like England than Canada. The city was founded in the 1800s as a Hudson Bay Co. trading post and outpost of the British Empire, populated by settlers attracted to its mild climate. Historic Victoria boasts several grand buildings, lots of shops, and aesthetic touches reflecting its English heritage. Today, part of the city's charm comes from old-world traditions juxtaposed with new-world experiences.
Victoria is also a modern, prosperous provincial capital with a diversified economy. The education, tourism and technology sectors are strong, and specialty farming has burgeoned in the nearby Saanich Peninsula and up-island Cowichan Valley. The result is a city with an international reputation for good restaurants and a penchant for outdoor activities such as whale-watching, sea kayaking, sailing and cycling. For a city of its size and scale, Victoria has an energetic, eclectic buzz. And it's only a short ferry ride or flight away from Vancouver.
Victoria radiates out from its Inner Harbour, where most of the historic buildings, sites and attractions are located. The city's layout is compact, with two main streets, Government and Douglas, running parallel to the harborfront. East-west cross streets, many of them one-way, are generally on an orderly grid system, with few digressions from that pattern.
Heading northbound along Government Street, you'll intersect with Old Town, Bastion Square and Chinatown. Douglas Street begins at Mile Zero, a landmark that indicates the beginning of the Trans-Canada Highway and overlooks the Pacific Ocean and precipitous Olympic Peninsula. Venture north, and Douglas Street flanks Beacon Hill Park and the Royal British Columbia Museum, then defines the eastern edge of downtown. To the east are the picturesque neighborhoods of Rockland, Fairfield and Oak Bay, as well as Craigdarroch Castle and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Though Spain first claimed what is now Victoria, the English established the first European settlement in 1843, when James Douglas of the Hudson's Bay Company set up a trading post there. Victoria's protected harbor on the southern coast of Vancouver Island offered a safe refuge for clipper ships, and Douglas' good relations with the native population helped the settlement grow quickly.
In an era known for its formality and elegance, early Victoria must have seemed like the wild frontier to the first British settlers, particularly in 1858, when more than 25,000 miners passed through on their way to the Cariboo Gold Rush. But the new Victorians were intent on civilizing the wilderness, taking with them their fine English china, their architectural ideas, their gardens and their tradition of tea (still staunchly upheld by visitors). They set about creating a society based on a half-remembered, half-imagined England.
The capital of British Columbia, Victoria is filled with heritage buildings and reminders of those early days. The city has a long-standing reputation for being sedate, but it is quickly outgrowing the label. Besides being the province's government hub, Victoria is home to several colleges and universities, and the city has attracted many global technology firms, bringing more young people to the city. The influx has sparked a revitalization in the central area, with old-world-style buildings being converted into restaurants, lounges and hip cafes on every downtown block.
Victoria's most noted landmarks are the more than 100-year-old, green-domed Parliament Buildings on the south side of the Inner Harbour. At night, the buildings, which were designed by one of British Columbia's most renowned architects, Francis Rattenbury, are outlined by thousands of tiny lights. During the day, you can take a free tour of their interiors. Be sure to stroll through the beautifully kept gardens at the residence of the lieutenant governor of British Columbia (the British Crown's representative to the province) on Rockland Avenue.
Besides the Parliament Buildings, the city's most impressive structure is the grand, ivy-covered Fairmont Empress Hotel, which was also designed by Rattenbury. Built in 1908, the hotel dominates the waterfront and attracts many tourists.
The city also has a wealth of museums—some of which are also historic homes. Don't miss the kid-friendly Royal British Columbia Museum. Next door to the museum is the Helmcken House, once the home of a pioneer doctor and legislator. Craigdarroch Castle is a lavishly decorated mansion that has a stunning view of the city. North of downtown, overlooking the scenic Gorge Waterway, is Point Ellice House. This Victorian manor serves tea amid its luxuriant gardens and lawns.
The area's best-known floral displays can be found at The Butchart Gardens, in nearby Brentwood Bay. (You won't believe the area was once a barren stone quarry.)
Pubs are a big part of Victoria's nightlife, so they're good places to start your night. Most bars and clubs close at 2 am, but you may find a few that are open till dawn.
Although Victoria's culinary scene was once confined to an indulgent afternoon tea, conventional dinner and a few English pubs, the city and wider region have blossomed into a distinguished dining destination. According to local hearsay, Victoria now boasts the second-highest number of restaurants per capita in North America, after San Francisco. Eateries range from those specializing in local fare, fresh from the nearby Cowichan Valley and mainland British Columbia, to those serving gourmand European cuisine and a wide range of Asian offerings. There are excellent breakfast eateries and takeaways in the downtown area.
Because of the stiff competition, creativity is paramount. Fish-and-chips, a local specialty, is served in a variety of styles, from traditional to fusion, all within a few blocks. Most restaurants are located in the inner city and along the coast.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Can$15; $$ = Can$15-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$40; $$$$ = more than Can$40.
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