British Columbia's island capital city offers European charm and a thoroughly local mindset.
Victoria, British Columbia, looks like a satellite of Norway, feels like a more laidback yet just as hip version of Vancouver, and prides itself on showing off all the things that make it distinctly Canadian, from its history to its local food, beer, and spirits. British Columbia’s cheerful, welcoming capital city on Vancouver Island is 72 miles southwest of Vancouver, but there’s easy access from Seattle. Flights are under an hour, and the fast-speed ferry takes about two hours and 45 minutes. The Capital City Region District, which includes Victoria and its surrounding townships, has a population of about 350,000 people, and there are strong creative and entrepreneurial contingents among them, as evident from the food, drink, stores, galleries, and general vibe of the downtown area. But even a city as small as this offers plenty to do, and that’s to say nothing of a surrounding natural landscape that beckons hikers and outdoorsy types. We rounded up a few things to do when you plan your northern island getaway.
1. The Royal Treatment: Empress Hotel
(Courtesy Empress Hotel)
The Empress Hotel (fairmont.com/empress-victoria) is probably the city’s glitziest attraction. The majestic hotel, a National Historic Site of Canada, was built between 1904 and 1908 and underwent a $60 million renovation in 2017. You do not, however, need to be staying in one of their luxe accommodations to enjoy its glamour. In fact, the hotel is probably better known for its High Tea, an enduring tribute to the city’s British namesake, than its accommodations. Stop by for the stately afternoon ceremony and indulge in elegant finger food and tea. Night owls, there’s something for you, too. Q Bar, the hotel’s stylish restaurant, a sweeping old-world space adorned with punk-tinged portraits of the queen, is known for its locally minded breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus as well as its terrific cocktail list. For a true local—and somewhat surreal—experience, ask for the 1908 cocktail. It’s made with 1908 gin, a spirit made about 30 miles away at Victoria Distillers (victoriadistillers.com), a sleek waterfront distillery with a tasting room so elaborate, they call it a lounge. The gin is unique for its inclusion of butterfly pea blossom in its botanical mix, which changes color from royal blue to rose pink when it mixes with citrus or anything else acidic. It’s as beautiful to look at as it is to taste.
2. Shop Around: Victoria Public Market
Live music and cooking demos are just a few of the added enticements at Victoria Public Market (victoriapublicmarket.com), which opened in the fall of 2013 in a 102-year-old building. On the 290-by-50-mile Victoria Island, where the Capital Region District covers about 7 percent of the land, you can imagine how much room there is for farms, dairies, wineries, and the sorts of spaces where local makers can create. Their wares and items from around the world are on display at this lively year-round emporium, which doubles as a food court and includes outdoor vendors in the warmer months. Check out the Victorian Pie Company for sweet and savory options, the French Oven, which specializes in baguettes, croissants, and other Gallic treats, and Very Good Butchers, which has a cult following for tasty plant-based meat alternatives that even a carnivore can love. The Market is also where you’ll find Silk Road, a tea purveyor and local staple since it started in Victoria’s large Chinatown in 1992, and the engaging Olive the Senses, which offers over a dozen flavors of olive oil, more than a dozen vinegars (rose balsamic white, anyone, or dark cherry balsamic?), and a staff that can educate you on all of them.
3. Beer Here
There are more than 150 craft brewers in British Columbia. But in 1984, before craft beer became mainstream, curious local imbibers could be found at Spinnaker’s (spinnakers.com), which dubs itself a “gastro brewpub” and is recognized as Canada’s first brewpub. Decades later, as breweries continue to open and grow, Spinnaker’s popularity hasn’t flagged. You could chalk that up to the laser focus on farm-to-table dishes and commitment to working with local farmers, you could chalk it up to the creative brews they continue to come up with, or you could say that it’s the intrigue factor of pairing the beer with the food. Either way, it’s hard to resist trying something like a sour beer aged in a tequila barrel, is just one recent examples of their imaginative creations. Beer isn’t the only fermented liquid they specialize in. A bottle from their diverse selection of housemade malt vinegars makes for an excellent souvenir, while the handmade truffles they sell—lavender and peppercorn, chipotle and bacon—will likely get gobbled up before you get home. But back to beer. The city is small, but the presence of local beer isn’t. Swans Brewpub, another early downtown arrival (1989) is an airy lodge-like space in an old warehouse that now anchors a charming hotel. Phillips Brewing, just a short walk from the center of downtown, offers tours and samples in their tasting room, and Riot Brewing, which has a tasting room and kid-friendly patio, is worth the hour’s drive north up the scenic coast.
4. Miniature World: Little Wonders
The only thing big about Miniature World ($15 for adults, $11 for seniors, $10 for youths, and $8 for kids) is the impression it’ll make on you. Founded in 1971 and housed in the Empress, though only accessible from an entrance around the back of the building, the museum is a wonderland of vast dioramas filled with itty-bitty figurines, trains, boats, animals, furniture, food, castles, architectural marvels, and natural wonders. The 85 scenes are inspired by everything from fairy tales to literature to war battles. There are too many highlights to point out, but don’t miss the operational sawmill, the planet’s largest dollhouse, the carnival with working Ferris wheel, and the tremendous model train.
5. Whisky Galore
Canadian whisky is having a moment. Big time. More and more craft distilleries are opening from coast to coast—including several on the island—and mass-produced whiskies that had fallen into the shadows of bourbon and single malt Scotch are getting their mojo back. When it comes to native hooch, bars throughout the city are not holding back, and you can visit any number of them to sample a selection and learn what the big deal is. At Clarke & Co. (clarke-co.ca), a lively cocktail den with a vintage wood bar and casual small plates, the emphasis is on the regional whisky and imaginative cocktails. Little Jumbo (littlejumbo.ca) hews to the modern-day speakeasy-style joint, with only a subtle pink elephant sign above the entrance, which leads to a long hall with a down-the-rabbit-hole feel. The bar is a dimly lit throwback to the jazz age, with forward-thinking cocktails made with fresh ingredients and house bitters. Reservations are recommended. For a sampling of Canadian hooch in a decidedly Canadian setting, hit Argyle Attic (argyleattic.com), where the whisky menu features clever tasting notes that will guide any novice and impress a seasoned tippler. With a taxidermied moose on the wall, vintage photographs posted throughout, and poutine on the menu, it’s a fine backdrop for a flight or one of the excellent cocktails.
6. Fan Tan Alley: On the Straight and Narrow
You might not notice Fan Tan Alley if you pass it at night, what with it being the most narrow street in Canada and all, but in the daytime, this passage, bordered by brick buildings with vast storefront windows, is quite the draw. First things first: The discovery of gold in British Columbia in 1858 led to the influx of Chinese immigrants, largely from California, and today Victoria lays claim to the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the second oldest in North America, after San Francisco. The alley—just 35 inches at its most narrow point—was once a gambling district packed with opium dens and stores. In 2001, the local government designated it a heritage property. Today, it’s a shopping strip with a miscellany of stores, like Whirled Arts, which specializes in jewelry and women’s clothing, Heart’s Content (heartscontentvictoriaca.com), a haven for punk rock fans, and perhaps the most destination-worthy of all, the Umbrellatorium and Canery (umbrellatorium.com), a cheery Victorian-accented shop with more styles of umbrellas and walking sticks than you ever thought existed.