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If you haven't experienced Victoria as a tourist in a while, it's time to check out all the history, culture and culinary adventures the City of Gardens has to offer
When’s the last time you visited Victoria? Like, really visited? Lower Mainlanders travel to the Island often enough for work—but if you haven’t experienced Victoria as a tourist in a while, it’s time to check out all the history, culture and culinary adventures the City of Gardens has to offer.
My husband, 10-year-old daughter and I recently crossed the Strait of Georgia for a weekend full of family fun. Here’s what we managed to squeeze in (without feeling rushed or stressed) in about three days in early spring on the Island.
To make sure our travel went smoothly and on schedule, we made reservations for the 11:00 a.m. ferry out of Tswwassen to Swartz Bay. We arrived at our hotel in downtown Victoria at around 1:00 p.m., which gave us the whole afternoon to get into vacation mode. You could also travel via Harbour Air or Helijet if you’re going to stay downtown for the duration of your trip, as we valeted the car on Friday and didn’t pick it up until Sunday.
Our first stop was the Magnolia Hotel & Spa, which was named as a leading hotel in Canada in both the 2022 Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards (No. 4), Conde Nast Traveler 2022 Readers’ Choice Awards (No. 14), as well as the No. 5 Top Hotel in Canada in the 2022 TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards. We were greeted with the warmest hospitality and quickly settled into our cozy room with a view of the inner harbour and Parliament Buildings (spectacular when lit up at night). This charming boutique hotel offers world-class service, a resident restaurant (more on that later) and everything you need for a luxurious stay, including recently renovated marble bathrooms, fully kitted out with Dyson hair dryers, high-end toiletries from L’Occitane and bubble bath from Saltspring Soapworks. Plus, the location can’t be beat. The Magnolia is situated right on the edge of Victoria’s Inner Harbour, and within walking distance of all the city’s main attractions.When you check in, the hotel will arm you with helpful information, including staff recommendations for restaurants in the area (Little Jumbo and Wind Cries Mary topped many lists), as well as a collection of maps to help you plan your days. The maps have been curated into convenient themes (i.e. Magnolia’s Tapa Trail; Beautiful Boutiques Trail; Bikes, Blooms & Brews) complete with distances and either walking or bike riding times. (Note: The hotel provides bikes for you to use during your stay, but does not have children’s bikes, so be sure to pack your kid’s bike if you want to cycle the city as a family.) We used these maps as guides whenever we had some downtime and wanted to explore.
The Parliament Buildings are a must-see on your weekend getaway to Victoria, so you’ll need to prioritize this on Friday, as they’re only open on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. You’re welcome to roam on your own, or book a private or public tour. Since we arrived too late to catch the last public tour of the day, we did a self-guided tour, and there was plenty of signage to help us make the most of the experience. We learned about B.C.’s Coat of Arms and the Talking Stick of the Legislative Assembly (gifted from the late chief Robert Sam of the Songhees Nation in 2010). We poked our heads into the Legislative Chamber with its impressive domed ceiling, browsed the Hall of Honour, and scanned a wall of photos of B.C. premiers throughout the years.And then there’s the structure itself. Built in 1893, the Parliament Buildings were designed by architect Francis M. Rattenbury and have been described as free classical, renaissance and Romanesque. In short, what you’ll see are buildings full of history, with stunning stained glass windows, arches aplenty, intricate ornamentation and detailed millwork. All in all, our visit to the Parliament Buildings was a great way to kick off the trip, and an enriching educational experience for our daughter.
Need a little pick-me-up and fresh air before dinner? Downtown Victoria is packed with pubs and restaurants adorned with flower-filled patios. Pop in for happy hour at one of the many waterfront or downtown eateries while you plan out your shopping stops. Main drag Douglas Street is lined with eclectic stores featuring local arts, crafts and confections to bring home as souvenirs, as well as major retailers like Lush and The Bay. Munro’s Books is a must-visit, with a huge variety of books in a gorgeous landmark building (where I happened to pick up a piece of local culture, Pamela Anderson’s autobiography, Love, Pamela). We ventured farther to Chinatown and wandered through lantern-decorated streets and narrow alleyways to pop into more cute shops and cafés.
Located conveniently within the Magnolia Hotel is The Courtney Room, voted #10 in Air Canada’s Best New Restaurant Awards 2018 and winner of the Best West Coast Contemporary category in the YAM Magazine Best Restaurant Awards 2022. Described as old world meets new, the Courtney Room was redesigned about five years ago and showcases a modern dining space (inspired by the designer’s trip to Paris) where guests can enjoy fabulous service and a menu that honours both land and sea, showcasing Pacific Northwest ingredients with classic cooking techniques.When we arrived for dinner, we were ushered up to the elegant upstairs dining room beside the glass-encased wine room and let the chef decide what to serve. We started with the Working Culture local bread selection (with local honey and butter) and my husband sipped back an ‘Old Growth’ cocktail (house barrel-aged whisky, pinecone syrup, and coniferous smoke) that had our table smelling delightfully of B.C. forest. We were spoiled with an array of appetizers, including buttermilk fried mushrooms and chicken; Italian burrata; duck-fat potato rosti (a must-order); followed by a gorgeous house-aged Yellowtail Kampachi Tartare. For mains, we indulged in steak and lamb, both seasoned and cooked to perfection. Dessert for my daughter was a housemade chocolate ice cream sandwich that was devoured in minutes. The detail and thought put into each ingredient and every dish on this menu was truly special, and we rolled ourselves back up to our room happy and very full.
After a busy Friday, we started Saturday leisurely by taking the elevator back down to The Courtney Room for a late breakfast. On the weekends, the restaurant serves an extensive brunch menu (available Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and the room was filled with hotel guests and locals alike. We ended up liking brunch so much that we returned on Sunday for breakfast and over the two days tried the shakshuka, huevos rancheros, crab and aged cheddar omelette, and waffles. Again, the food was fresh and delicious, and we were fuelled up for the day ahead.
Interested in learning about B.C.’s history? The Royal BC Museum is the place to go. But it’s important to note that the third floor is currently closed due to a years-long effort to start the process of decolonization in these galleries in response to the call to action from Indigenous leaders to increase cultural safety and ensure the museum is a welcome place for everyone.
So is the museum still worth the price of admission in the interim? That’s a resounding yes. We spent the early afternoon exploring hands-on exhibits to learn about British Columbia’s natural history (complete with a life-sized replica of a Woolly Mammoth), as well as about local climate change, then took in the incredible Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibit. The museum also houses the largest IMAX screen in British Columbia, and since we happened to be there during the IMAX Victoria Film Festival, we put on our 3-D glasses to enjoy Oceans: Our Blue Planet. This was a definite highlight.
If you’re looking for an experience that is quite literally (pardon the pun) steeped in tradition, then book a reservation for high tea at The Fairmont Empress hotel. You’ll be seated in the breathtakingly beautiful Lobby Lounge that overlooks the inner harbour, where you’ll get to take part in the ceremony of this historic service. The Empress has been pouring high tea for more than 115 years and your meal (served on a tiered platter) includes scones, quiche, finger sandwiches (cucumber, roast beef, chicken salad, plus more), a variety of desserts, and, of course, a selection of premium loose-leaf teas, all served in and on royal china (the pattern was so pretty, I couldn’t resist buying a tea tidy from the hotel gift shop). For kids 12 and under, the Empress thoughtfully offers children’s Prince or Princess Teas for a lower price, which feature more kid-friendly sandwiches (our 10-year-old said it was the best PB & J she had ever tasted!).
After all the sugary treats of high tea, our daughter had some energy to burn off and wanted to find a playground. We ventured about a 10-minute walk from the hotel to Beacon Hill Park at sunset and were greeted by a family of deer (such an unexpected treat!) and a pond full of ducks. This was the perfect way to end our evening before crawling back into our comfy beds at the Magnolia.
Because our ferry reservation back to the mainland wasn’t until 4:00 p.m., we had some time after Sunday brunch to do some more exploring. Right across the street from the hotel, we stumbled upon Miniature World, and debated whether we should check it out, wondering if it would be just be a tourist trap filled with dollhouses. Described as The Greatest Little Show on Earth! and with more than 85 dioramas and displays, this tourist attraction takes you to the Great Canadian Railway, Fantasy Land, King Arthur & Camelot, and yes, dollhouses, plus much more. But these are not your average dollhouses. With exquisite details and interactive buttons to turn on lights, move vehicles, play movies and more, each display is a wonder and we were surprised by just how much we (adults and kid alike) enjoyed this stop.After Miniature World, we strolled back to Beacon Hill Park to see the gardens in daylight, before reluctantly checking out of the hotel and heading back to the ferry. As we looked out on the views of the southern Gulf Islands on our ride through Active Pass, we reminisced on a weekend well-spent and started planning our next vacation back to Victoria.