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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
offers service from the Seattle area (a 45 minute flight), and
- 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
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
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
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6 Apr 2007, last update
28 Nov 2012