Victoria is one of those cities where life is lived a little slower. Oh, sure there's all the amenities of a busy city and definitely all the restaurants. But, coffeeshops close early and many businesses are closed on Sunday. The secret, I think, is an appreciation for nature, the outdoors, and history. Located on the southern end of Vancouver Island, this capital city of British Columbia, Canada, is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on three sides and scenic West Coast forests on the other. The city is teeming with abundant parklands and waterways to explore. Victoria's history begins in the 1900's when it was the busiest seaport north of San Francisco. The past is prevalent here. From downtown architecture, lavish manicured gardens, and plentiful tea rooms, to the stately horse-drawn carriages its hard to forget the city's British colonial history. The current Parliament buildings, built between 1893 and 1897, and the Fairmont Empress Hotel built in 1908 still stand in the same place greeting visitors in all their British flair. Ferrying into Victoria with these majestic buildings overlooking the Inner Harbor creates a sense of floating back in time.
Victoria has old world charm and new world experiences. It's a place where people say 'cheers' and smile all the time. It's one of those places where you can't be a bitch even if you wanted to. Even though, you probably wouldn't want to at any point in Victoria. Pack your walking shoes and layers. Victoria is a walking city. You'll find everything you need and more within a few miles. As is typical of many West Coast cities, rainy chilly weather happens often. Packing a light all-weather jacket is a must. Just 2 hours from Seattle, WA makes Victoria quite a tourist destination. Sidewalks are often crowded and slow moving. Yet, with so many options, there's rarely an unbearable wait anywhere. Keeping our guide as sustainable as possible, we'll take you on a few eco-friendly adventures and introduce you to Victoria's little known vegan side.
Downtown Victoria is rich in history and quite the tourist destination. That can add up to higher priced accommodations and activities. When you throw in eco-friendly stipulations your options increase in price. Luckily, there are lots of Airbnb listings in the heart of downtown Victoria. For a one bedroom, one bathroom, with kitchen, wireless internet, and washer/ dryer combo we paid $92 per night. A five minute stroll from the ferry dock at Victoria's Inner Harbor took us right to our Airbnb. Walking begins early on in this trip. If you choose to fly in, the airport is a 30 minute drive from downtown. Our high rise apartment had keyless entry, garage parking, and was literally right next to the Marriott Inner Harbor and a Doubletree to put things in perspective. The small balcony with two chairs and a grill offered views of the city for morning tea or an evening BBQ.
Day One: Friday
9 A.m. Waterfront Walking
If you're staying downtown then walking outside is practically a waterfront walk. Several marinas line downtown with walking paths and benches guiding your way. You'll have the water on one side and rows of shops and cafes to wander on your other side. Wear walking shoes and take a reusable shopping bag. There will be lots to entice you as you explore Victoria. It's a bustling area so don't expect serenity but the water views and architecture do not disappoint either. You'll notice a few other things on your first gander through the streets. Sidewalks are astonishingly clean. Everyone seems happy to see you and they make really good eye contact. Also, there's an appreciation of First Nation history that's more evident here than other places. Popular sights along the water are the majestic Fairmont Empress Hotel, colonial British Columbia Legislature, and the old Victoria Customs House. As you meander around cobblestoned corners, make your way to Murchie's for breakfast.
10 a.m. Murchie's for Munchies
This Canadian owned company has been serving tea time since 1894. Murchie's blends began as favorites of Queen Victoria when he lived in Scotland. You can still buy two of his original blends or try one of the 128 others. Murchie's was one of the first places in the Pacific Northwest to import 100% Arabica coffee beans. Today, they sell 25 custom blends roasted in house. Walking into Murchie's downtown seems almost necessary as the city remains so true to its British heritage. You can either enter into the cafe or through their attached market where canisters of coffee, drawers of fragrant tea, and tables stacked with every type of tea set you can imagine live. It's a tea lovers dream house. Breakfast blend? Please! Try Sugar Maple or Paris Afternoon loose leaf blends. In the cafe they specialize in tea lattes. Similar to traditional London Fog's yet creative. Try the Victoria Fog which adds lavender and vanilla. Or, get fancy with a Strawberry Princess Tea Latte where strawberry tea gets steamed with white chocolate. The pastry cases are filled with classics like blueberry scones and lemon tarts. You'll even find marzipan slices and creme brûlée. It's like walking into a European bakery complete with sugar dusting, pretty pearls, and fresh fruit added as decoration on almost everything.
11 a.m. Must Visit Markets
Right outside Murchie's, there's Bay Centre, a 5-floor shopping mall with staples like Hudson Bay department store, Aldo, Aveda salon, and multiple international brands. It's always interesting walking into what looks like any other shopping mall I've been to yet not seeing as many familiar stores. Don't linger too long. We're headed to a few more markets where local boutiques offer one of a kind pieces. Just two blocks north of Bay Centre along Wharf Street is Market Square, a local hub for community events and handmade gifts in a heritage brick building with open air courtyard. At the main gate stands a black and gold water fountain that was erected at the turn of the 19th century. The three level fountain provided water for parched travelers, their thirsty horses, and other small animals like dogs and pigs on their way to market. You'll find the hippest baby store, Tarot card readers, an artisan shaving supplies store, and even a vegan/ vegetarian buffet at Green Cuisine! From there you can go north one block to Canada's oldest Chinatown and another block east to the Victoria Public Market. Our vote is a stroll through Chinatown posing for touristy-lion-gate photos on your way to the public market. You're about to enter into a foodie haven where you'll have free reign to farm fresh produce, fresh baked breads, artisan oils and vinegars, and handmade pies. There's even a vegan butcher shop! Yes, you heard right. It's the perfect place for a grazing lunch. Just make sure you stop at The Very Good Butcher for their vegan Mac n cheez or maple sage bangers in a blanket. You'll pass several independent shops selling Aboriginal artwork or First Nation souvenirs. We loved Northwest Origins for their personality. The people working there are friendly and knowledgeable, easily sharing information on the native artists they purchase from and the meaning of various native symbols. Make sure you ask for this information before purchasing. A few of the stores sell replica pieces at the same price as authentic pieces. Don't forget to grab a few snacks along the way for a few adventures later in the trip.
2 P.M. Explore BC's History
The Royal British Columbia Museum houses British Columbia's natural and human history museum. You'll easily get lost in here. Truly, I'm living proof (haha). There are typically 6 or more exhibitions on display, an IMAX theatre, several souvenir shops, a coffee shop, and a year long food truck festival in the courtyard. The natural history gallery immerses you in various landscapes home to British Colombia like coastal forests, seashore, and river deltas. In this domed gallery you'll be surrounded by life-like animals, Spruce and Alder trees, you hear and feel the very same things you would in nature. Test your knowledge in Ocean Station, a living lab where you get up close and personal with creatures under the sea. The Royal BC Museum is home to over 10,000 indigenous peoples artifacts. Their First Nation's Gallery is an in-depth look at the diversity and ingenuity of Canada's first people. From totem poles to weaponry, jewelry to cloth making, this exhibit pays homage and repatriation to a complex culture. Make your way from the First Nations Gallery to the Living Languages Gallery, and I dare you not to get goosebumps. This groundbreaking, interactive exhibition celebrates the resilience and diversity of First Nations languages in BC in the face of change. Walk through the “language forest” and hear a greeting in one or all 34 First Nations languages represented. Duck into a calming little cocoon, woven like a cradle, and listen to stories and lullabies spoken in native languages. The museum also houses the largest IMAX theatre in British Colombia. Take a break between exhibits and enjoy an educational film. For just $31.95 you get access to the museum and IMAX.
8 P.M. Rebar, Bard & Banker
Head over to Rebar, in popular Bastion Square downtown, for modern food that is sourced sustainably and prepared responsibly. This vegetarian eatery is known for fresh dishes made with exotic ingredients from local gardens and makers. The idea for Rebar came from a Portland, OR native who moved to Victoria taking with her the avant garde culinary scene of the Pacific West Coast. Juice bars and progressive seed to table restaurants from Seattle and Portland inspired the Rebars menu and vibe. Partnering with local chefs and pioneers in Victoria, Rebar was born to offer authentic, nourishing food. The house miso soup and vegan poutine with miso gravy are a must! Monks curry and their vegan salmon burger were delicious and just enough to not be stuffed. Opt for one of their delicious tonics with dinner featuring apples, ginger, lemon, echinacea, beets, and a list of other fresh ingredients. Save the alcoholic drinks for Bard & Banker, a local restaurant with nightly musical performances and an elegant bar scene. Non-whiskey drinkers and whiskey lovers alike won't want to miss their Maple Whiskey. For a classic digestif after that delicious meal from Rebar, try their Monte Cristo or Spanish Coffee. If you're gearing up for a longer night, try the Friday Rum Punch with two types of rum, lemon and orange juice, and splash of orgeat. An hour or two of libations and live music may work up an appetite. The Curried Hummus Jar or Truffle Oil Fries are a perfect bar snack to enjoy while dancing.
DAY TWO: SATURDAY
9:30 A.M. Morning Walk In The Park
Beacon Hill Park is a short walk from downtown Victoria. This 200 acre park is covered in lush flora. The park is beautifully manicured with bridges and small ponds where Great Blue Herons nest high above and geese lounge on the banks. Keep an eye out for flashes of color; peacocks roam freely in the park. There's a farm on site where children can visit the petting zoo. For runners, paved paths are perfect for a morning jog. Otherwise, bring along a cup of tea or coffee and enjoy strolling in Canada's cool morning air. You might even find yourself meditating beneath cedars, Douglas firs, and maples to start the day. You do have quite an adventurous one ahead!
11:00 a.m. Be-Loved Brunch!
Be Love specializes in farm-to-table vegan dishes and superfood cocktails. The atmosphere is upscale, modern country house with sleek wooden accents and tall fine art paintings decorating the walls. The feeling is laid-back and inviting. The hosts will more than likely be your server and casually shares information about the menu, the city, and vegan lifestyles in general. Their seasonal menu uses sustainably sourced ingredients and operates on the belief that food is nourishment. Their Spring menu featured Wild Nettle Ravioli in a white wine coconut Alfredo sauce with greens and walnut parmesan. The Island Pizza was a surprisingly delicious mix of flavors. Pineapples, cashew mozzarella, kalamata olives, and red onions packed a flavorful punch. The creamy hemp dressing on their Spring Ceasar was addicting. They make vegan cheese and kombucha in house! You'll see large bottles of it brewing above the bar, adding to the rustic feel. You'll be pretty active for the rest of the day. Order one of their elixirs or smoothies to hydrate your body. With names like The Rejuvenator or Beautiful and ingredients like matcha, ginger, turmeric, and coconut oil you'll be ready for an active day. They offer reusable mason jars for to-go cups and biodegradable containers so you won't have to feel guilty about ordering too much! Leftovers are always needed at some point on vacation.
12:30 p.m. Get the adrenaline pumping with adrena-line
You're going zip lining with AdrenaLine Tours! Located forty minutes from downtown Victoria in a town named Sooke, you'll climb into the canopy of Canada's coastal rainforest for an adrenaline rush through the trees. If you're driving, give yourself an hour or so before the tour to explore this area of British Colombia. There will be scenic look out points along the way and a few parks to stop at depending on the time you allowed. If you're not driving, AdrenaLine does offer shuttle service from downtown Victoria. You'll begin your spline tour with a safety briefing at their headquarters. Soon after, trained tour guides take you on a ten minute unimog ride up to the first zipline platform. Within minutes you'll be immersed in lush landscapes with birds soaring above. Guides are knowledgeable about the scenery, often sharing facts about trees and Canada's history. They also ensure guests have a good time with jokes, relatable stories, watchful eyes for safety precautions, and have tons of fun themselves. Before each zip line, one of the guides will go first reiterating safety tips and often displaying a fancy pose or move for you to try. Then, it's your turn! You'll have eight turns to be exact up 150 feet high and up to 1000ft long. Don't worry, you'll be moving so fast you'll wish they were longer! The two hour tour will fly by just as quickly. Keep an eye out for SookeSquatch while "getting zipped"; their Sasquatch-like mascot is always up for fun! Don't forget to check out your zip line photo once back at headquarters to see if you nailed one of the poses. Upside down maybe?
8:00 p.m. tapa bar to dive bar
It's been an adventure packed day. Take it easy for dinner with tapas, food for sharing, at Tapa Bar in historic Trounce Alley. Spanish inspired tapas with local ingredients can be ordered as appetizers or brought together as a meal. These small, flavorful dishes make for continuous conversation because they're meant to be enjoyed as the evening goes. Tapa Bar offers a vegan and gluten-free menu making them all the more shareable with a group of friends. With an extensive cocktail menu, you'll need the tapas to keep coming. Give the cold marinated artichokes with lemon, garlic, and cumin a try. It’s simple yet somehow meaty with hearty artichokes. The grilled kale with coconut milk, lemon, and cayenne is bound to make a kale lover out of you. For more substantial tapas, the cubanette sandwich with potabello mushrooms, avocado, beans, and salsa fresca easily makes a meal with a few other shared tapas. Their pasta de la casa can be served without cheese for a satisfying vegan meal. Once you’ve had your fill, dive into more fun at one of the cities local dive bars. A five minute walk takes you to Strathcona Hotel where there’s entertainment for everyone. Big Bad John's is the epitome of dive bar with peanut shells scattered on the floor and currency from around the world posted everywhere. In the mood for dancing? The Distrikt is their downstairs nightclub and The Clubhouse is their upstairs bar which also features a DJ but in a more laid back setting. Not interested in a DJ scene at all? Connected to The Clubhouse is The Games Room where you'll find big screen TV's, pool tables, darts, chess, and even backgammon.
day three: Sunday
10:30 a.m. Blissful Sunday Morning
After all the fun last night, you deserve a blissful Sunday morning. From the same owners as Be Love, Cafe Bliss has a more relaxed atmosphere with a focus on raw food and fresh pressed juices. They're 100% organic and plant based. It's the perfect breakfast after an indulgent evening. You'll need to rebalance your body for a day on the water! If you're leaning toward a breakfast palette, try their beautiful Mango Lassi Bowl. It's colorful and delicious to brighten you from the inside out. There's too many ingredients to mention but mango puree, coconut milk, dates, hemp hearts, and strawberries will give you a taste of what's inside. Want something more savory? The Masala or Buddha Bowl is what you want to power up for the day. Steamed rice is topped with greens, and delicious housemate sauces, chutneys, nuts, fruits, and other vegetables. Ever had mango or tamarind chutney? This is a great place to try them! You'll find some of the same juices and tonics here that you did at Be Love with a few new options. Try something new today like the Longevity Latte made of matcha, ginseng, ginkgo, maple syrup, and almond milk. You'll need longevity today for the three and a half hour (or longer) whale watching day tour this afternoon!
11:30 a.m. Fisherman's Wharf Awaits
Walk on down to Fisherman's Wharf along Victoria's Inner Harbour. Wander the wharf before checking in at Eagle Wing Tours. Fisherman's Wharf is a working marina that has been a part of Victoria's history for over 70 years. The various docks are home to brightly colored and eclectically decorated floating houses. There's an annual houseboat open house but other than those specific dates you must remember and respect them as private property not your playground to hop aboard whenever. Feel free to admire and take pictures from the dock. Resident harbour seals, river otters, and other marine life make appearances darting under docks and peeking above the water at onlookers. Beware not to feed them no matter how cute they look, and they're pretty darn cute! For years officials turned a blind eye but research from Canada's department of fisheries warns that it disrupts the marine animals ability to survive in natural environments. It's unsustainable and poses a safety risk especially to children who often sit on dock edges. Bald eagles perch atop dock pillars. Blue herons and pelicans feed in shallow water and various other seabirds lounge lazily nearby. You'll have more than enough opportunities to observe wildlife in an eco-friendly way. Food kiosks, unique gift shops, and several other eco-tours line the docks as well. As you explore, keep in mind that check in for your whale watching tour is 30 minutes before the departure time!
1:30 p.m. Eagle Wings & Whale Watching
Eagle Wing Tours is rated number one on TripAdvisor for adventure tourism but thats not why we love them. They offer a whale sighting guarantee. If you don't see whales on your scheduled tour they reserve you a seat on another day but that's also not why we love them. The company and crew are so clearly passionate about wildlife and conservation efforts that it just seems to spill out with every sentence they say. That's why we love them! They're 100% carbon neutral from the office to the ocean. You can even peruse their sustainability reports on their website! They were the first whale watching tour company in the area to commit 1% of their profits to the planet. You can find a list of the environmental organizations they support on their website. Marine education is a pivotal practice. They donate tours to Victoria schools to inspire the next generation of sea life ambassadors and organize World Ocean's Day events around the city enhance awareness of marine conservation. From the captain to the onboard photographers, everyone willingly shared interesting and eye opening facts from the declining salmon population to the feeding habits of otters. The highlight, of course, is finally catching a glimpse of an orca or humpback whale on the horizon. Then, slowly coursing towards the spout of water or flash of fin to see these marvelous creatures up close. It's a real life game of hide and seek that builds anticipation. By the time you see these majestic marine wonders just feet away from the boat you feel connected to them. The crew has taught you that male killer whales never leave their mothers. You'll learn that there are three distinct types of orcas in the Pacific Northwest. Transients feed on marine mammals. Whereas Resident and Offshore orcas feed only on fish. The types have not interbred for over 10,000 years. You'll learn that they are more than skilled killers. They have complex social structures similar to that of humans, higher primates, and elephants. You'll learn that salmon overfishing in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest has left Resident orcas on the endangered species list. As of December 2016 there were only 68 recorded Resident orcas in the Salish Sea. By the time the crew guides you near a pod you may be near tears.
6:00 p.m. Fushi - Fish Free Sushi Time!
Even if you took the snacks you bought on Friday with you on the tour or bought the onboard snacks, you're guaranteed to have worked up an appetite by now. How could you even think about eating fish after all you've learned today? That's why there's fish free sushi. Futaba Japanese Restaurant has quite the vegan menu including sushi, appetizers, and main dishes. They offer traditional vegetable dishes but here's our favorite innovative options from Futaba. For appetizers, try the Yam Tempura, Potato & Pumpkin Balls, or the Suimono Soup which has a clear vegetable broth with konbu (seaweed). For fushi we love the Futomaki with spinach, kampyo, and shiitake mushrooms or the Ume Maki with Japanese pickled plums. Dinner plates are just as creative. You'll love the Goma Tofu where pan-fried tofu and vegetables are topped with a sesame sauce. Or, the Yaki Ramen that's stir-fried with onion, bean sprouts and cabbage, topped with nori, katuobshi, and your choice of meat a.k.a tofu. Sit at the bar for an intimate sushi making show or enjoy your meal with a more cushy experience. Dining chairs and booths are adorned with fluffy, pattered back cushions. Perfect after exploring all day!
7:30 p.m. Sunset Reflections
Sunset is the perfect time to reflect on what you've learnt or accomplished during the day. And, with so many scenic views surrounding you it's hard not to take advantage of it. If you rented a car for the weekend your nearby options include Mount Douglas Park, Thetis Lake Regional Park, and Goldstream Provincial Park. All within a 35 minute drive. Mount Douglas Park offers stunning sunsets over the ocean with mountains standing guard in the distance. Overlooks and varying levels of hiking paths make this park a local favorite. You can climb the mountain, head straight for the beach, or drive to the top of the mountain for spanning views. For an easier more leveled hike that's family friendly, try Thetis Lake Regional Park. The full hike around the lake takes about 35-45 minutes depending on how drool worthy the sunset is that day. We recommend Goldstream Provincial Park if you want more of an immersive hike. You'll stumble upon waterfalls, an old gold mine shaft, and several bridges throughout the hike. In the summer when sunset isn't until 9 p.m. you'll truly enjoy slowly strolling this evening hike beneath old growth trees. If you did not rent a car for the weekend you'll still enjoy catching sunset right on the Inner Harbour. Wide sidewalks and benches line the water along Government and Wharf Street. Stopping to gawk as the sun sinks behind a myriad of sailboats in the marina or just as a seaplane lands is pretty much expected.
Day four: Monday
9:00 a.m. Wild coffee after a wild weekend
It's been quite an adventurous weekend but it's not quite over. Stop in at Wild Coffee & Bistro for a quick pick me up. They have vegan and vegetarian options for coffee, pastries, and a few other light eats like vegan chili or soup. The Wild Coffee Blend is roasted in house, try it with almond milk for a silky smooth cup. Pastries are baked right in the kitchen behind the ordering station adding a warm, inviting aroma. We loved their West Coast cabin interior design theme. You'll forget you're in the middle of the city as you sit in hand-crafted driftwood chairs and admire large pieces of driftwood spelling 'wild'.
10:00 a.m. Victoria's Victorian history
Just minutes from downtown sits an ornate Victorian castle built between 1887 and 1890. The Craigdorrach Castle, known affectionately as "Canada's castle" has a rich history. After the passing of it's original owners, the castle was commissioned as a military hospital, reinstated as a college, and served as a music conservatory. Nowadays, tourists, architecture lovers, and historian buffs can tour the turreted four-story home turned museum. It's Romanesque facade and stained glass widow detailing make this castle quite a sight to see in modern times. Thirty two of the original forty seven stained glass windows are still in tact. With thirty nine rooms and 20,000 square feet to explore, you won't want to miss this walk back in time. Whether driving yourself or with a tour company, you'll enjoy a pleasurable trip through the scenic countryside of the Saanich Peninsula with its many fruit and vegetable farms and back roads to get to Butchart Gardens. Just 35 minutes north of downtown, this 55 acre garden began over a century ago as a limestone quarry pit. The Sunken Garden where the pit once was still exists. There's also a Japanese Garden, Italian Garden, and Rose Garden to get lost in for a few hours. While there, we recommend enjoying afternoon tea and lunch in the dining room of the Butchart's former residence. Afternoon tea is an English tradition still widely revered in Victoria. With views overlooking the gardens you won't likely find a more beautiful location to partake in this ritual.
Public transportation variety and accessibility.
Walking and biking friendly.
Organic/ vegetarian/ vegan restaurant options on every street.
Shop small, shop local businesses on every street.
Farmers markets and stands found easily and daily.
Environmental conservation evident on tours and activities.
Nature related activities are easy to find.
Help protect Vancouver Island old growth forests by signing the Ancient Forest Alliance petition or donating on their website. Currently, only old growth forests in protected parks or areas are safe from logging throughout Canada. Old growth forests store two to three times more atmospheric carbon than second growth forests. Logging these ancient giants releases that carbon into the atmosphere and destroys habitats.