The Top Things to Do and See in Victoria, Vancouver Island

The grand British Columbia Parliament Buildings are among the top sites to see in Victoria
The grand British Columbia Parliament Buildings are among the top sites to see in Victoria | © peace portal photo / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Harriet Myers
10 September 2020

Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia, sits on the southern end of Vancouver Island and is known as one of the most picturesque cities in Canada and North America. From historic castles to gardens to museums, we uncover the top 12 things you should add to your Vancouver Island itinerary.

Royal BC Museum

Museum
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For a thorough grounding in BC’s prehistoric past, the Royal BC Museum is a great place to start. This world-class museum of natural and human history takes visitors on a journey from the province’s beginnings as a First Nation through to the present day, with permanent galleries housing authentic artifacts and various temporary exhibitions. The displays are extremely well presented and feature everything from a 19th-century town in BC, complete with an old movie theatre, livery, pharmacy and train station, to a full-scale woolly mammoth.

Victoria Inner Harbour

Natural Feature
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The inner harbour harbor Victoria boats boat capital of British Columbia BC Vancouver Island Canada North America
© John Keates / Alamy Stock Photo
One of the most scenic areas of Victoria’s downtown is its spectacular Inner Harbour. Bustling with interest during the summer months, this is the home of most of the city’s waterfront activity, including the annual classic boat festival held annually during September’s Labor Day weekend. If you’re looking for a great photography opportunity, be sure to visit during evening hours when the sparkling lights are incredibly beautiful. Whale watching tours, floatplanes and an international ferry service with connections to Port Angeles, Bellingham and Seattle also conveniently depart from the harbour.

Beacon Hill Park

Park
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Fountain and flower bed, Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
© Michael Wheatley / Alamy Stock Photo
Named after the two beacons on New York State’s Mount Beacon, Beacon Hill Park was established in 1862. Today, this 200-acre (80ha) plot of land has become one of Victoria’s most popular outdoor spaces with diverse areas of woodland, as well as gardens and recreational playing fields. As a marker of the land’s significance in Indigenous cultures, the park is also home to the world’s fourth-tallest totem pole. Beacon Hill Park is located a short walk from some of downtown Victoria’s main attractions, including the Inner Harbour and the Royal BC Museum.

Goldstream Provincial Park

Park
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Located approximately 17km (10mi) from downtown Victoria, Goldstream Provincial Park is a great example of Vancouver Island’s spectacular natural ecosystems. Alongside the towering Douglas firs, the park features the evergreen arbutus tree, found exclusively on Vancouver Island, and protects endangered species of flora and fauna. One of the park’s main attractions is its world-class salmon-spawning stream, where you can witness thousands of salmon return between October and December every year. Goldstream also has one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in Canada, with most sightings between December and February.

British Columbia Parliament Buildings

Building
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Home to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, the British Columbia Parliament Buildings are a dominant – and architecturally stunning – Victoria landmark. Built in 1897 in an imposing neo-baroque style, the buildings are full of interesting architectural features. To learn more about their history, as well as that of the province and its parliamentary process, you can take a free guided tour. Outdoor tours run between Monday and Friday and last for approximately 45 minutes. Tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, with a maximum of 10 people per tour.

Victoria Bug Zoo

Zoo
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Step inside the “amazing world of insects and spiders” at the Victoria Bug Zoo – one of the city’s best family-friendly attractions. Despite being a compact ‘mini-zoo’ with just two rooms, it’s home to over 50 different species of tropical bugs, from alien-eyed praying mantis to glow-in-the-dark scorpions. You’ll also find Canada’s largest ant colony here. Interactive tours, which are geared mainly towards kids, are run by the zoo’s knowledgeable guides, who tell you more about the species housed here and provide a safe animal handling experience.

Craigdarroch Castle

Architectural Landmark
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Craigdarroch Castle, a historic, Victorian-era Scottish Baronial mansion in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada,
© Felix Choo / Alamy Stock Photo
A vast Scottish baronial-style mansion, Craigdarroch Castle dates back to the Victorian era, when it was constructed as the family home of coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. Now open as a public museum, the house, which is also a National Historic Site, provides visitors with an insight into the lavish lifestyle of one of Canada’s industrial founders in the 1890s. Many of the family’s original artifacts and antique belongings have remained on-site, including photographs and paintings displayed in the castle’s 39 rooms. Guided and self-guided tours are available.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Natural Feature, Park
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One of the most visited areas of Victoria’s waterfront is Fisherman’s Wharf. Full of small food kiosks and interesting shops, it’s a great place to spend an afternoon enjoying lunch while watching boats enter and depart the harbour. Buy seafood fresh off the boat and watch as the wharf’s resident seals appear from beneath the dock. If you want to feed them, food can be bought from a small fish store located nearby. Eco-tour adventures with the likes of Eagle Wing Whale Watching and Kelp Reef Kayaking are also offered here.

Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature

Art Gallery
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Specializing in wildlife paintings, the Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature is a nature-focused art gallery near Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Robert Bateman himself, one of Canada’s most revered artistic talents, displays the main bulk of his collection here, ranging from paintings and drawings to sculpture and etchings. As well as its permanent exhibits, the gallery also has a commendable education outreach program, which is responsible for delivering literary, fine arts and environmental learning opportunities to the wider community. Tours are offered on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 2pm, and on Thursdays during the summer.

Butchart Gardens

Botanical Garden, Park
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One of the most visited tourist sites in Victoria, Butchart Gardens are located close to the city in Brentwood Bay. For almost 100 years, the gardens have focused on landscaped floral displays, although recent years have seen their expansion to include several other features including a Pavilion and Ross Fountain. Interestingly, they remain owned by the same family that was responsible for their original opening, meaning that their unique charm and character have been successfully preserved for the enjoyment of multiple generations. The gardens receive over a million visitors each year and have been designated a National Historic Site.

Carr House

Historical Landmark, Architectural Landmark
Map View
A view of Emily Carr House, the childhood home of Canadian artist and painter Emily Carr. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.. Image shot 07/2014. Exact date unknown.
© Felix Choo / Alamy Stock Photo

Located steps from Victoria’s Inner Harbour is the childhood home of Canadian artist Emily Carr, who, among many things, was known for her eccentricities, including her pet monkey that she dressed up and took for walks. One of Canada’s National Historic Sites, the house, built in 1864, is now a museum dedicated to her life and works, which were largely inspired by the Indigenous people and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Inside, the rooms of the house have been restored, where you’ll find many of Emily’s possessions, including pottery and sculpture.

Fairmont Empress

Spa Hotel
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Recognized as one of the world’s most iconic hotels, Victoria’s Fairmont Empress first opened its doors in January 1908 and overlooks the city’s scenic Inner Harbour. Book a stay, or enjoy its many facilities, including the Willow Stream Spa, home to a Finnish-style sauna, steam inhalation room and mineral pool, and Q at the Empress Restaurant for the best in Pacific Northwest cuisine. Tea at the Empress is probably the hotel’s most popular experience. Freshly prepared scones and pastries are served to more than 80,000 guests annually alongside teas ethically sourced from the world’s best producers.

Everything you need to know

Additional reporting by Emma Gibbins

These recommendations were updated on September 10, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.