With the mildest climate in Canada, gardens bloom year-round in Victoria. The city is tied closely to both land and sea and the rugged natural beauty of the Pacific coast encourages all-season adventures in the great outdoors.
Easily explorable by foot and at your own pace, a visit to Victoria can be as relaxing and rejuvenating as it is educational and exciting. Take advantage of the diverse historical, architectural and multicultural makeup that comes from being the oldest city in the Pacific Northwest.
From Indigenous Peoples history to British colonial and Asian traditions, and the landmarks, culture, cuisine, festivals and vibrant atmosphere that come with them, Victoria, B.C. is one of the world's favourite destinations.
Long before Captain James Cook became the first non-aboriginal person to set foot on Vancouver Island in 1778, Victoria's rugged, pristine wilderness was home to First Nations people.
Many indigenous families lived on Southern Vancouver Island, each with distinct family group names. These peoples could be separated into three groups that spoke different dialects of the North Straits Salish, or Lekwungaynung language, and became known as the Songhees, the Saanich and the Sooke First Nations. Victoria retains deep ties to indigenous culture and is home to several First Nations groups.
In 1858, gold was discovered on the lower Fraser River, resulting in a population explosion in the fledgling settlement of British Columbia. In 1858, the estimated settler population in Victoria was roughly 500, but news of gold spread fast. In just two months, over 30,000 gold miners ventured to the Fraser Valley through Victoria. Before heading to the mainland, miners needed a mining license from Victoria. Many came from the United States, where they had participated in the California gold rush of 1848, while others came from across the continent and Europe.
A GROWING, DIVERSE POPULATION
The allure of gold attracted a diverse migrant population to the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Miners and adventurers alike—from as near as California’s gold fields to as far as Australia—rushed to Victoria, which was the only ocean port and outfitting centre for the gold fields of the Caribou.
The gold rush was also a springboard for the arrival of several thousand Chinese migrant labourers, who continued to arrive throughout the late nineteenth century to work on projects like the Canadian Pacific Railway.
AN ESTABLISHED CAPITAL
On July 21, 1871, British Columbia became the sixth province of the Dominion of Canada and Victoria was proclaimed the Capital City. With Confederation, the continued establishment of the British (later Canadian) naval and military headquarters on the Pacific Coast at Esquimalt, adjoining Victoria, was guaranteed.
A THRIVING, MODERN CITY
In the 20th Century, Victoria evolved as a city of innovation, tourism and education. The city is home to Canada's western naval base and a major fishing fleet. A thriving information technology sector, with annual revenues exceeding four billion dollars, is now one of the area’s largest industries along with marine, forestry and agricultural research.
Victoria is also known for its educational institutions, including the University of Victoria, Camosun College and Royal Roads University.
With a growing regional population, pleasant climate and scenic setting, Victoria has retained a vital but comfortable quality of life inspired by a relaxed island mindset. The Greater Victoria Region is proud of its rich heritage, historic downtown, beautiful natural island environment, and, of course, its Inner Harbour and scenic seascapes.
Indigenous Peoples heritage and legacies live on in Victoria and Vancouver Island through ceremonies, potlatches, dances, art and masks. An Indigenous experience is an enriching and engaging addition to any Victoria visit.
2014 marked the beginning of a new festival in Victoria: the Victoria Indigenous Cultural Festival. Hosted by the Indigenous Tourism Association of BC in partnership with the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, this annual event increases community engagement with the diverse experiences offered by local Indigenous culture. These include dance, storytelling, carving, singing and food. Enjoy three days filled with colour, sound, education and appreciation of the wonders of our local Indigenous culture, held on the Royal BC Museum Mezzanine and along Victoria's Inner Harbour.
All part of the Saanich Nation of Coast Salish Peoples, the Songhees, Esquimalt, Tsartlip, Tseycum, Pauquachin, Scia'new, Tsawout and T'Sou-ke Nations are all important bands that have long called Southeastern Vancouver Island home.
Prior to European arrival in the late 18th Century, a Songees fortified village existed at Finlayson Point in Beacon Hill Park. After the establishment of Fort Victoria in 1854, the village was moved across the harbour into what is now Victoria West. Currently, the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations reserves lie at the Southwestern edge of Victoria, bordering each other and the Town of View Royal. With their traditional lands lying northwest of Victoria, reserves of the T'Souke and Scia'new bands lie along the Sooke Basin while the Tseycum, Tsartlip, Tsawout and Pauquachin bands are located east of Victoria along the Saanich Peninsula.
The Khenipsen Artisan Centre at the Quw'utsun' Cultural and Conference Centre in Duncan is the world's largest carving house. In the Khenipsen Artisan Centre, visitors learn the historic and traditional uses of natural materials found in the local area for transportation, housing, clothing, foods and medicines. Visitors can watch the carving of a totem, mask or war canoe and can carve for themselves on the Visitor's Carving Pole. Today, anyone interested in carving has the opportunity to learn how to carve, its significance and how to preserve the cultural value of carving.
Like totem poles, Indigenous masks depict different symbols used in the stories of a tribe. The masks carved for a tribe are used for ceremonial purposes. The most common symbols on masks and totems are the Thunderbird, killer whale, frog, salmon, beaver, bear, wolf, raven, sun and moon.
The nahnum (fire circle) is a gathering place where stories and teachings are shared. The circular seating and fire are traditions that started in tribes' winter homes, where members of all generations would sit and talk with elders. More formal gatherings are held to discuss business matters. During those meetings, a talking stick is used to indicate which person will speak. Gatherings are still practised today, although they may not be around a fire.
The potlach is a sacred ceremony and the societal underpinning of Indigenous culture. Through this ceremony, Indigenous Peoples unite families in marriage, name children, right wrongs, pass on rights and responsibilities to the next generation and share wealth. From 1884 to 1951, the potlach was outlawed by the Canadian government as part of an attempt to destroy Indigenous culture and force the assimilation of its people. Masks and regalia were confiscated, and priceless historical treasures were destroyed. Only in recent years have the traditions come to life once again, through the memories of elders and the efforts of present-day Indigenous Peoples.
A powwow is a celebration of Indigenous culture that features traditional dance, music, food and regalia. As both ceremonial and social events, powwows hold a spiritual significance and continue customs passed through generations. Today, Powwows are often public gatherings that welcome people from all communities as a way to celebrate and share cultural traditions.
Indigenous culture is based on oral history and elders are responsible for sharing the stories of the ancestors. Elders are the history keepers, an important role for a culture that traditionally had no written history. Indigenous Peoples are keenly aware that, as times change, they could lose stories about their history. Now, with permission, storytelling gatherings are recorded for archival purposes.
A totem is defined as an object, such as an animal or plant that serves as the emblem or symbol of a kinship group or person. Indigenous cultures carve wooden poles to display these totems. Each animal carved represents a creature associated with family history, notable ancestors or events which displayed the ancestors' spiritual powers or magical privileges of the families.
Each different totem belongs to the particular family or person carving it. In other words, the carver cannot use totems belonging to families beyond their own. A collection of totem poles from Indigenous communities throughout British Columbia can be found in Thunderbird Park, at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Beacon Hill Park is home to one of the world's tallest, free-standing totem poles carved from a single log. Alert Bay on Northern Vancouver Island is home to the tallest totem pole in the world, at 53 metres (two parts) and features 22 figures. Binoculars are required to see the top.
ALLEYS & SQUARES
Stroll back through the centuries. Victoria’s rich history is on full display in many downtown alleys, squares and important landmarks. They’re all well preserved and add a unique and distinguished sense of enchantment to Victoria’s modern, vibrant character.
Part of the original Fort Victoria, find some of Victoria’s finest restaurants, pubs and cafés (and some of the sunniest patios) in Bastion Square. The area is also part of a bustling outdoor summer market.
The square sits in the heart of downtown overlooking the Inner Harbour and includes several notable late-19th Century landmarks:
- The Court House (designed by architect H.O. Tiedeman) was the first concrete building in Victoria, built in 1889.
- The Law Chambers, designed by F.M. Rattenbury, was built in the late 1800s.
- Burnes House, originally a hotel in 1882 (then a brothel and later a warehouse) was restored in 1967.
- Strousse Warehouse was built in 1885 as a supply centre for gold miners.
- The Board of Trade building was built in 1892 by A.M. Muir.
Be sure to pass through Helmcken Alley for a more sordid look at the square’s past. Once a jailhouse where executions took place and a graveyard for unclaimed bodies of prisoners, it is said to still be haunted since the prison’s demolition in 1885.
Centennial Square was built in 1962 to mark the 100th anniversary of Victoria’s incorporation. It includes City Hall, the McPherson Playhouse, a senior citizens’ activity centre, Capital Regional District services, a parkade, shops and a giant sequoia tree.
Within Centennial Square is also Spirit Square, a public gathering space surrounded by trees and native flora that was designed to encourage Victoria’s arts and cultural community. The space features a water fountain, two large spirit (totem) poles known as the “two brothers” and five life-size orca models. The square is often host to many music and dance performances, markets and festivals during the summer, and a festive light display with over 75,000 LED lights in the winter.
Formerly part of Olde Towne Victoria, Market Square boasts three levels of independent shops and restaurants. An assortment of eclectic arts and exciting cultural activities take place year-round.
Instead of shops and restaurants, this square next to Christ Church Cathedral is actually a cemetery—Victoria’s second oldest—that was established and used between 1858 and 1873. Many distinguished pioneers are buried here.
FAN TAN ALLEY
Found in one of the oldest surviving Chinatowns on the continent, this alley is also the narrowest commercial street in North America—just 0.9 metres (less than 3ft) wide at its narrowest. Originally a gambling district, you’ll now find a variety of interesting shops, restaurants and galleries.
Just across the street from Fan Tan Alley on Fisgard St. is Dragon Alley. Sharing a similar history and feel to Fan Tan Alley, but with a slightly more modern and Zen atmosphere, the large dragon sign hanging at the entrance is your cue to explore. While walking through the alley, red and yellow lights line the ceiling of the narrow corridor leading you into a wider area with a coffee shop, an emporium, and other unique shops.
Named after Victoria Pioneer Thomas Trounce, Trounce Alley contains authentic gaslights that are over 125 years old. Trounce Alley is also home to one-of-a-kind shops and authentic Spanish style tapa bars.
As the last “wooden street” in Victoria, the origin of this alleyway belongs to Alfred Waddington, a local gold rush entrepreneur and businessman who first built the alley in 1858. While one could at first pass the alley mistaking it only for a shortcut between Yates and Johnson Streets, they would be missing out on one of the closest experiences to reliving the streets of Victoria at the turn of the century. A road paved with creosoted wooden bricks made of old-growth Douglas Fir, a rare metal carriage curb, and century-old heritage buildings including a delicious bakery and candlelit Italian restaurant, are what make this alley worth the stroll.
Glad you asked. Find answers to FAQs on Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia and Canada below.
Q: WHAT’S THE WEATHER LIKE?
Victoria has the mildest climate in Canada. Greater Victoria is one of Canada's driest areas, with an average snowfall of just 25 centimetres (9.75 inches) and an average rainfall of 592 millimetres (23 inches), less than recorded precipitation in Vancouver, B.C. or Seattle, Washington. Summers are pleasantly warm (but not too hot) and the winters are mild.
Q: IS IT EASY TO GET TO VICTORIA?
Yes. Victoria and Vancouver Island are extremely accessible. More than 50 flights from Vancouver and Seattle land daily at Victoria International Airport, in addition to many direct flights from major Canadian and U.S. cities.
It’s now easier to get to Victoria than ever before, with harbour-to-harbour flights from Seattle and Vancouver, by float plane or helicopter, plus there’s an efficient ferry system between Victoria and the mainland. For more information, check out Getting Here.
Q: HOW LONG ARE THE FERRY RIDES?
Ferry departures and travel times are below.
The Lower Mainland (Tsawwassen) to Swartz Bay (30 minutes north of Victoria)
BC Ferries - 1 hour and 35 minutes
Seattle, WA to downtown Victoria, BC
Victoria Clipper Passenger Ferry - 2 hours and 30 minutes
Port Angeles, WA to downtown Victoria, BC
Coho Ferry - 1 hour and 35 minutes
Anacortes, WA to Sidney, BC (30 minutes north of Victoria)
Washington State Ferries - 3 hours
Friday Harbor (San Juan Island), WA to Sidney, BC (30 minutes north of Victoria)
Washington State Ferries - 2 hours and 30 minutes
Q: HOW LARGE IS VICTORIA?
Greater Victoria covers an area of 695.35 square kilometers. The City of Victoria's population is 85,792 (2016). The Capital Region population is 392,000 (2017). The population of Vancouver Island is 799,400 (2016).
Q: WHAT’S VICTORIA’S MAIN INDUSTRY?
Victoria's primary industries are information technology, tourism and government.
Q: HOW MANY PARKS ARE THERE IN AND AROUND VICTORIA?
There are 48 regional, provincial and federal parks in Greater Victoria, totaling more the 7,600 hectares (22,724 acres).
Q: WHEN WAS VICTORIA ESTABLISHED?
Victoria was established as Fort Victoria in 1843 by the Hudson's Bay Fur Trading Company and was incorporated as a city in 1862.
Q: WHAT IS THE CITY OF VICTORIA'S MOTTO?
Semper Liber (Always Free).
Q: WHERE IS VANCOUVER ISLAND AND HOW BIG IS IT?
Vancouver Island is the largest island off the west coast of North America. Tucked against the mainland coast of British Columbia and the north shore of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island occupies an area about the size of Holland.
The island stretches 500 kilometres (320 miles) southeast to northwest with an area of 3,175,000 hectares and 2,150 miles of coastline. It is separated from Vancouver, B.C. by the Strait of Georgia to the east and from Washington State, U.S. by the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south and southeast. Vancouver Island is actually closer to the United States than mainland Canada.
Q: WHAT’S THE GEOGRAPHY LIKE ON VANCOUVER ISLAND?
Vancouver Island terrain is diverse and includes sandy beaches to rugged coastlines, marshy lowlands to rolling farmland, and lush, old-growth rainforests to snow-capped mountains.
Q: WHAT’S THE CAPITAL CITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA?
Q: HOW LARGE IS BRITISH COLUMBIA?
British Columbia (B.C.) is Canada's third-largest province, and occupies about 10% of Canada's land surface. While B.C. is nearly four times larger than Great Britain and 2.5 times bigger than Japan, its population of 4.8 million is 14 times smaller than Britain's and its land mass is a little more than one-third the size of India.
FUN FACTS ABOUT VICTORIA
A FEW FUN FACTS AND FIGURES ABOUT VICTORIA:
- With a perfect growing climate, Victoria is known internationally as the City of Gardens.
- The city has an annual flower count dating back to the 1970s. The total blooms counted in 2018 was over 3.4 billion.
- Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada and Fan Tan Alley is the narrowest street in Canada.
- Friendly is an understatement: Victoria has been named both the Most Romantic City in Canada and one of the top 15 Friendliest Cities in the World.
- Other accolades include: Canada’s Best City to Live in for Women, and both the Seventh Best City and Second Best Small City in the world (by international travel and tourism magazine, Condé Nast).
- Bright lights, beautiful city: As the provincial capital, the Parliament buildings have approximately 3,300 energy efficient lights and roughly 1,600 lampposts across the city hold hanging flower baskets every Summer.
- Victoria is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, with hundreds of kilometres of cycle paths, bike lanes and routes in the city, including the incomparable Galloping Goose Regional Trail.
- Time for tea? Half a million cups are served annually at the Fairmont Empress.
- Strong support for all things local: Vancouver Island has over 2,800 farms, with nearly 1,000 in the Greater Victoria Region and 700 in the Cowichan Valley.
- The world’s tallest free-standing totem pole is in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park.
- National Geographic recognizes Vancouver Island as one of the best cold-water diving destinations on earth and the renowned Jacques Cousteau Society rates the area second only to the Red Sea for diversity of marine life and water clarity.
- Victoria’s waters are home to three resident pods of orca (killer) whales totaling 76 whales.
- The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria has the most comprehensive collection of Asian art in Canada.
- Number of annual visitors to the internationally-renown Butchart Gardens, a National Historic Site of Canada? Over one million.
- The Royal BC Museum, founded in 1886, is one of the foremost cultural institutions in the world