The epicenter of downtown Victoria is the foreshore of the Inner Harbour, which is flanked by the parliament buildings, the city’s main museum, and the landmark Fairmont Empress Hotel.
Initially, the harbor extended farther inland; before the construction of the massive stone causeway that now forms the marina, the area on which the impressive Empress now stands was a deep, oozing mudflat. Walk along the lower level and then up the steps in the middle to come face-to-face with an unamused Captain James Cook; the bronze statue commemorates the first recorded British landing in 1778 on the territory that would later become British Columbia. Above the northeast corner of the harbor is the Victoria Visitor Centre (812 Wharf St., 250/953-2033), the perfect place to start your city exploration. Be sure to return to the Inner Harbour after dark, when the parliament buildings are outlined in lights and the Empress Hotel is floodlit.
Overlooking the Inner Harbour, the pompous, ivy-covered 1908 Fairmont Empress (721 Government St., 250/384-8111 or 800/257-7544) is Victoria’s most recognizable landmark. Its architect was the well-known Francis Rattenbury, who also designed the parliament buildings, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) steamship terminal (now housing the wax museum), and Crystal Garden. It’s worthwhile walking through the hotel lobby to gaze—head back, mouth agape—at the interior razzle-dazzle, and to watch people partake in traditional afternoon tea. Browse through the conservatory and gift shops, drool over the menus of the various restaurants, see what tours are available, and exchange currency if you’re desperate (banks give a better exchange rate). Get a feeling for the hotel’s history by joining a tour.
One of the architectural highlights of Victoria is Crystal Garden, located on the corner of Douglas and Belleville Streets, directly behind the Fairmont Empress. Inspired by London’s famed Crystal Palace, Francis Rattenbury designed the glass and red brick building to be the social epicenter of the city. When it opened in 1925, it boasted an Olympic-length swimming pool, Turkish baths, a ballroom, an arboretum, and a tea room. Crystal Garden was operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway until 1965 and was closed in 1971. In 1980 it reopened for tourists as a conservatory filled with tropical plants. After closing again in 2004, the historical building underwent extensive restoration and now operates as the Victoria Convention Centre. Its former grandeur is visible from the outside, but you can also wander through the lobby, a bright, beautiful space filled with totem poles.
Royal BC Museum
Canada’s most-visited museum and easily one of North America’s best, the Royal British Columbia Museum (675 Belleville St., 250/356-7226, 10am-5pm daily, adult $22, senior and youth $16) is a must-see attraction for even the most jaded museum-goer. Its fine Natural History galleries are extraordinarily true to life, complete with appropriate sounds and smells. Come face-to-face with an Ice Age woolly mammoth, stroll through a coastal forest full of deer and tweeting birds, meander along a seashore or tidal marsh, and then descend into the Open Ocean exhibit via submarine—a very real trip that’s not recommended for claustrophobics.
The First Peoples galleries hold a fine collection of artifacts from the island’s first human inhabitants, the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka). Many of the pieces were collected by Charles Newcombe, who paid the Nuu-chah-nulth for them on collection sorties in the early 1900s. More modern human history is also explored here in creative ways. Take a tour through time via the time capsules; walk along an early-1900s street; and experience hands-on exhibits on industrialization, the gold rush, and the exploration of British Columbia by land and sea in the Modern History and 20th Century galleries.
The Royal Museum Shop stocks an excellent collection of books on Canadiana, wildlife, history, and First Nations art and culture, along with postcards and tourist paraphernalia. The museum’s theater (9am-8pm daily, additional charge) shows nature-oriented IMAX films.
Surrounding the Museum
In front of the museum, the 27-meter (89-foot) Netherlands Centennial Carillon was a gift to the city from British Columbia’s Dutch community. The tower’s 62 bells range in weight from 8 to 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) and toll at 15-minute intervals 7am-10pm daily.
On the museum’s eastern corner, at Belleville and Douglas Streets, lies Thunderbird Park, a small green spot chockablock with authentic totem poles intricately carved by northwest coast First Nations people. Best of all, it’s absolutely free.
Beside Thunderbird Park is Helmcken House (10 Elliot St., 250/361-0021, noon-4pm daily in summer, donation), the oldest house in the province still standing on its original site. It was built by Dr. J. S. Helmcken, pioneer surgeon and legislator, who arrived in Victoria in 1850 and aided in negotiating the union of British Columbia with Canada in 1870. Inside this 1852 residence you’ll find restored rooms decorated with Victorian period furniture, as well as a collection of the good doctor’s gruesome surgical equipment (which will help you appreciate modern medical technology).
Satisfy your lust for governmental, historical, and architectural knowledge all in one by taking a free tour of the harborside Provincial Legislative Buildings, a.k.a. the parliament buildings. These prominent buildings were designed by Francis Rattenbury and completed in 1897. The exterior is British Columbia Haddington Island stone, and if you walk around the buildings you’ll no doubt spot many a stern or gruesome face staring down from the stonework.
On either side of the main entrance stand statues of Sir James Douglas, who chose the location of Victoria, and Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, who was in charge of law and order during the gold rush period. Atop the copper-covered dome stands a gilded statue of Captain George Vancouver, the first mariner to circumnavigate Vancouver Island. Walk through the main entrance and into the memorial rotunda, look skyward for a dramatic view of the central dome, and then continue upstairs to peer into the legislative chamber, the home of the democratic government of British Columbia. Free guided tours are offered every 20 minutes, 9am-noon and 1pm-5pm daily in summer, less frequently (Mon.-Fri. only) in winter. Tour times differ according to the goings-on inside; for current times, call the tour office at 250/387-3046.
Robert Bateman Centre
Along the waterfront on Belleville Street, across the road from the parliament buildings, is the grandly ornate former Canadian Pacific Railway steamship terminal, now the Robert Bateman Centre (470 Belleville St., 250/940- 3630, 10am-6pm Sun.-Wed. and 10am-9pm Thurs.-Fri. in summer, 10am-5pm Tues.-Sun. the rest of the year, adult $12.50, senior and student $8.50). Bateman resides on nearby Salt Spring Island and is renowned as one of the world’s greatest wildlife artists. Each themed gallery is dedicated to a different subject—British Columbia and Africa are the highlights. Another gallery is dedicated to children and includes a hand-on nature learning area.
Pacific Undersea Gardens
On the water beside the wax museum, Pacific Undersea Gardens (490 Belleville St., 250/382-5717, 9am-7pm daily in summer, 10am-5pm daily the rest of the year, adult $12, senior $10.50, child $6) is of dubious value. Local species on display include tasty snapper, enormous sturgeon, schools of salmon, and scary wolf eels. Scuba divers miced for sound make regular appearances at the far end.
For an enjoyable short walk from downtown, continue along Belleville Street from the parliament buildings, passing a conglomeration of modern hotels, ferry terminals, and some intriguing architecture dating back to the late 19th century. A path leads down through a shady park to Laurel Point, hugging the waterfront and providing good views of the Inner Harbour en route. If you’re feeling really energetic, continue to Fisherman’s Wharf, where an eclectic array of floating homes are tied up to floating wharves.