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Enjoy Canadian 'island life' with a British twist in beautiful Victoria, BC.

Build around a lovely harbor, with a mix of interesting architecture, and with plenty to see and do, there's lots to appeal to all visitors in Victoria.

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All About Visiting Victoria, BC

The stately but fun capital of British Columbia

click image for a larger map

Victoria, on the southern tip of large Vancouver Island, is easily reached by ferry or plane, and from both the US and Canada.

Whether you're staying for a day or a week, you're sure to enjoy your time in this beautiful city and environs.

Part One of a three part series on Victoria, BC; part two suggests where to stay and eat, and part three offers suggestions on what to see and do.

Close to Vancouver and Seattle, but very different to either, Victoria is an interesting place to visit with lots to enjoy.

Located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, getting to Victoria can be as much fun as the time you spend there.

Why Visit Victoria

Sadly, few people choose to make a special visit from thousands of miles away to spend time in Victoria.  Instead, most people will visit either from relatively close by, or else will include time in Victoria as part of a general itinerary to the Pacific Northwest.

Perhaps add time in Victoria before or after a cruise to Alaska (most of these cruises leave from and/or return to either Seattle or Vancouver, and some include a brief stop in Victoria already), or include some time in Victoria when visiting Portland, Seattle, or Vancouver.

You'll find Victoria to be an interesting blend of Canadian and British cultures (both English and Scottish).  It is situated around a beautiful harbor, has an interesting downtown, and lots to enjoy, see, and do.

And for those of us who travel on our stomachs, the eating and drinking choices are wide ranging and excellent.  And if shopping is your preferred past-time, there are lots of good shops too, which would probably be of greater interest to Americans than other Canadians, due to stocking items that, while uncommon in the US, may be reasonably common in other parts of Canada.

A mild winter (rarely snow, coldest month is January with an average daily maximum of 44F/6.5C) and warm summer (warmest months are the four months June through September) make Victoria a great place to visit, any time of year.

A Quick Overview of Vancouver Island and Victoria

Victoria was founded in 1843 by Canada's omnipresent Hudson Bay Company, a branch of which can still be seen in its present incarnation as 'The Bay' department store in the downtown Bay Center shopping mall.

Originally named Fort Camosun, the settlement renamed itself Fort Victoria, taking its name from the British queen.  When Vancouver Island and the mainland adjacent territory united into one region in 1866, Victoria became the regional capital, a position it holds to this day.

In 1866 Victoria was the major center in the region, but when the trans-Canadian railway came to Vancouver 20 years later, this caused Vancouver to steadily grow in importance, eclipsing Victoria in terms of population and economy.

Today some 335,000 people live in the Greater Victoria region, just over half of the 640,000 on Vancouver island in total, and compared to 2.2 million in the Greater Vancouver region (making Vancouver now the third largest metropolitan center in Canada).  There are four million people in total in BC (and 30 million in Canada as a whole).

Vancouver Island is the third largest island in Canada, with an area of 31,285 sq km (12,220 sq miles).  The largest is Baffin Island and the second is Newfoundland Island.  It has the second largest population, with a very small island having a population of 1.9 million - Montreal Island.

Getting to and from Victoria

Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, can be reached by car, sea or air.

If driving by car

If you are driving by car, you have a choice of four main car ferry services.  These are :

Blackball Ferries' ship, the mv Coho, which operates between Port Angeles on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula and Victoria's Inner Harbor, making a 90 minute crossing across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

This vessel holds 110 cars and 1000 passengers.  It makes 0, 1, 2 or 3 return trips a day, depending on the time of year, and reservations (if you're taking a car) are strongly recommended.

BC Ferries operate two main routes between Vancouver Island and mainland BC.  One runs between Nanaimo and West Vancouver, and the other runs between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen (there are other routes too, but they have little relevance for visitors to Victoria).

The Nanaimo crossing departs from close in to Vancouver city, but gets you quite a long distance away from Victoria.  If you're starting your journey in Vancouver, you're perhaps better advised to drive down to Tsawwassen and then take the ferry much closer to Victoria, Swartz Bay.  Nanaimo is 70 miles from Victoria, Swartz Bay is 20 miles from Victoria.

Both crossings take 95 minutes, and operate once every two hours or more frequently (particularly on Fridays and Sundays).  It is possible to reserve space for your car, and this can be a good idea if you're planning on traveling at a peak time (eg Friday afternoon or Sunday).

Washington State Ferries offer a seasonal service between Sidney and Anacortes, sometimes with stops at one or more of the San Juan Islands in one direction and/or the other direction.  Details of when this service operates and what intermediary stops it may make seem to change from season to season (last season it was not stopping in the San Juans at all, but now it is again), so be sure to check on their website for current schedules.

Reservations are possible and recommended for this ferry service.

Which is the best car ferry to take?

The Washington State Ferry route is probably the prettiest, going through the lovely San Juan Islands, closely followed by the BC Ferry service between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay.

The Coho route is the most exposed because it crosses the open water of the Strait of Juan de Fuca; and while I've never had a truly rough crossing, it is more likely to happen on this route than on the other three vehicle ferry routes.

The most convenient ferry depends on where your journey is starting and ending.  If you are in Vancouver, then the two BC Ferry routes are clearly the best for you, and perhaps you could add some interest by traveling on one ferry route in one direction and the other route on your return.

If you are in the Seattle area, all routes except the Nanaimo route are fairly similar in terms of total travel time.  I usually travel over to Victoria on the BC Ferry route, and return back on either the Coho or Washington State Ferry - the ferry departure times seem to fit best this way.  (Note that if you're traveling between Seattle and Port Angeles, you have the option of a second ferry ride as part of the route, between Edmonds and Kingston, instead of making a lengthy loop down around the bottom of Puget Sound and back up the other side.)

If not taking a car with you

If you are not taking a car with you, there are a number of additional ferry services you can consider.

The best known of these is the Victoria Clipper, which operates high speed ferries between downtown Seattle and Victoria's Inner Harbor.

The journey usually takes 2 3/4 hours, and they operate one, two or three roundtrips a day depending on the season.  On a nice day, this can be a lovely experience, but the ferries do spend part of their journey in moderately open unsheltered waters as they travel across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and can sometimes experience a fair amount of weather as a result, especially in the winter months.

There are other passenger only ferries that operate, seasonally, from places such as Port Angeles and Bellingham in WA, and Vancouver in BC.  These sometimes combine whale watching experiences en route, giving you an added dimension to your travels.

Flying to Victoria's Airport

Victoria has a small but international airport about 12 miles from downtown.  It is international in the limited sense that it has flights to/from the US as well as Canada.

The airport's city code is YYJ, and it has scheduled service with airlines such as Air Canada, West Jet, Horizon Air, and other smaller airlines, flying to other cities in western Canada and the northwest of the US, and via connections, to anywhere else.

Flying to Victoria by Floatplane

An alternate way to get to Victoria is by floatplane.  Floatplanes land and take off in Victoria's lovely harbor, getting you right into the very heart of the downtown area.  Kenmore Air offers service from the Seattle area (a 45 minute flight), and Harbour Air - which claims to be the world's largest seaplane airline - offers service between Victoria and mainland BC.

Traveling around Victoria and Vancouver Island

One of the things we like most about Victoria is that the city is compact, and you can easily walk from anywhere downtown to anywhere else downtown.  The town is mainly flat with only some slight gentle rises and falls in road level, traffic is generally polite, and it is easy to find your way around.

You don't need a car while you are staying in Victoria, and typically we will park our car upon arrival and not return to it until the day we leave.

If you do drive around the city, traffic is usually light to moderate, and parking is relatively easy to find - either on street metered parking or in parking buildings.

If you want to travel a bit further afield, there is public bus service to Butchart Gardens, but for further exploring to other places, you'll either need to join a day tour or else either rent or bring a car with you.

As a different way to travel around the city, you could rent a bicycle, or go for a ride in a horse drawn carriage.

A note for Americans visiting Canada

We suggest you take your passport with you to make crossing the border simple and uncomplicated.  This is already mandatory for flying in/out of Canada, and soon will be mandatory for driving too.

If you want some Canadian cash, it is best to withdraw cash from an ATM.  There are lots of ATMs in Victoria.

Beware of paying for Canadian goods with US currency.  Although Victoria is generally reasonably fair with the exchange rates its retailers offer, check before traveling, and wherever possible pay for things either by credit card or with Canadian cash rather than US cash.

Lastly, your cell phone will almost certainly internationally roam and work just fine in Canada.  But - be careful.  You might find yourself paying as much as $1/minute for all the calls you place and receive, because you're now in a different country and most US cell phone plans don't offer free roaming in Canada.

How Long to Stay in Victoria

Most people who live nearby - for example in western BC or Washington, will typically visit for somewhere between a single day and a long weekend.

That's not to say you can't readily spend more time in Victoria, but people who live nearby usually visit Victoria on a regular basis, and so don't feel the need to see and do everything in a single visit, and when they do visit, they are repeat visitors who have already seen much of what Victoria has to offer before.

How long should you stay in Victoria?  If time and budget allow, we recommend you to spend at least two nights in this charming city - this would give you one full day, plus time on the day you arrive and the day you depart.  A three night stay would give you two full days, so you could perhaps spend one day walking around the city and another day visiting some places out of Victoria itself.

It is uncommon to find people staying four or more nights, but if you have plenty of time and don't expect to be back in the foreseeable future, why not stay an extra night so you can truly relax and soak up the city's ambience.

Read more in Parts 2 and 3

Be sure to read the information about where to stay and where to eat and drink in Victoria as part two of this series.  Part three offers suggestions about what to see and do in Victoria.

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Originally published 6 Apr 2007, last update 30 May 2021

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