by Aaron Feigenbaum.
Located on scenic Vancouver Island, Victoria is the capital of the Canadian province of British Columbia, located just north of Washington State. While it lacks the big-city thrills of its big brother, Vancouver City which is located about 60 miles away on the mainland, you’ll find that Victoria’s historical charm, tranquil atmosphere, and natural beauty set it apart as one of Canada’s most unique and underrated cities. It also holds the prize as the world’s northernmost Mediterranean climate so you’re sure to find the weather pleasant and comfortable no matter when you visit.
Once you’re done exploring the city’s old-world European architecture and world-class gardens, Victoria is also the perfect departure point for an adventure into the pristine beaches and forests of the Gulf Islands, as well as into the majestic backcountry of Vancouver Island.
The area now known as Victoria is western Canada’s oldest city and has been home to a number of communities of Coast Salish aboriginal peoples prior to the arrival of British explorer Captain James Cook in 1778. In 1843, British colonial governor James Douglas chose the site of Victoria, then known as Camosack, as a trading post for the Hudson Bay Company (North America’s oldest corporation). Camosack was later renamed Fort Victoria after Queen Victoria of the U.K. The Fraser Valley gold rush of the 1850‘s caused the burgeoning town’s population to swell as Fort Victoria, renamed again as Victoria in 1852, became a supply base for miners. Victoria was officially incorporated as a city in 1862 and became the capital of the newly formed province of British Columbia in 1866. Two decades later, Victoria lost its position as the preeminent commercial center of B.C. to the city of Vancouver with the completion of the western end of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Vancouver’s port. However, Victoria can still boast that it’s B.C.’s political heart. And in addition to its architectural and natural wonders, the city serves as home to a naval fleet, significant fishing activity, and renowned educational institutions.
Things to See and Do:
B.C. Parliament House: Designed in the neo-Baroque style, the stunning buildings that make up British Columbia’s parliament are one of Victoria’s prime attractions. Tour the outside and see a statue of Queen Victoria, a beautiful fountain, and a rose garden. Step inside and see the magnificently painted rotunda followed by the legislative hall, modeled on its British counterpart. Come at night to see the buildings lighted up. Free guided tours are offered year round.
The Fairmont Empress Hotel: Located just across the street from Parliament, The Empress is perhaps Victoria’s most recognizable landmark. Luxurious and elegant, this grandiose building looks more like a castle than a hotel. But don’t let the exterior fool you. The Empress has lodged countless notables including Hollywood celebrities and members of the British royal family such as Queen Elizabeth II. If you wish to stay overnight, the hotel is a bit pricy, but the amenities and ambience are unparalleled in quality. A kosher menu is available.
Royal B.C. Museum: Also located in the immediate vicinity of the Parliament buildings is this fascinating museum, one of Canada’s most prestigious. You’ll get an in-depth education about British Columbia’s history and cultural heritage, from prehistoric fossils to the First Peoples to the modern age of exploration and industry. The museum’s collection is immense, encompassing over 7 million items. The fossil collection alone includes 55,000 specimens. While the museum’s collections mainly pertain to B.C.’s rich history, the institution has hosted some “big-ticket” exhibits in the past including Titanic artifacts and ancient Egyptian mummies. Expect a full exploration of the museum to take at least half a day. Regular 1-day admission is $23.95 CAD.
Butchart Gardens: The heart of Victoria’s natural world, Butchart Gardens represent one of the best gardens not only in Canada, but arguably, in the entire world. The deep, vibrant colors of the intricate floral displays, as well as the serene fountains, rustic water wheel, and adjoining Japanese garden, will leave you feeling as if you’ve stepped into another world carved out of a fairy-tale book. Not surprisingly, the Gardens are listed as a National Historic Site of Canada and have been rated highly by travel reporters at CNN, U.S. News and others as one of the best gardens in North America. Seeing the garden lit up at night gives a new perspective to this enchanting mini-world. Prices are a bit steep at $30 CAD for adult admission, but the unforgettable beauty of this lush oasis is well worth the hit to your wallet.
Victoria Butterfly Gardens: Not to be out-done by Butchart, the Butterfly Gardens presents a diverse sampling of fauna, in addition to the gorgeous flora. The Gardens hold over 4,000 butterflies and moths representing about 75 different species. In this tropical environment, you can also see a wide array of fish and birds such as flamingos and parrots. At $16 CAD standard fare, the Butterfly Gardens offer natural beauty like Butchart but at significantly less cost.
Fisherman’s Wharf: For unique shopping experiences and beautiful views, Victoria’s Fisherman’s Wharf is a great choice. Take in the view of the harbor, admire the quaint, colorful floating homes, and watch boats passing by.
Craigdarroch Castle: Another fine example of Victoria’s proud architectural tradition, Craigdarroch is a Victorian-era castle built in 1890 for the Scottish coal magnate Robert Dunsmuir, who owned a quarter of Vancouver Island at the time. The rather imposing building is reputed to be haunted. This Castle is an amazing example of Victorian architecture and you can also learn about the Dunsmuir family’s history and their impact on Victoria. Add to that the sweeping views of the city, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and of the Olympic Mountains and you know you’ve made a worthwhile excursion. Admission is $13.95 CAD for adults.
Colwood: If you venture out into the suburb of Colwood just to the southwest of Victoria, you’ll find two great historic attractions. One is Hatley Castle and Park. Built by Robert Dunsmuir’s son and one-time Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, James Dunsmuir, this formidable Edwardian style castle now serves as part of Royal Roads University. Its impressive architecture, rich interior, and exquisite gardens make it quite picturesque. Admission to the castle is $18 CAD per adult while the gardens can be viewed for $9.50 CAD per adult.
Colwood’s other claim to fame is the scenic Fisgard Lighthouse overlooking Esquimalt Harbor on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Although you can’t enter the lighthouse itself, you can explore the underground tunnels and gun batteries of next-door Fort Rodd Hill.
Explore the Great Outdoors: As mentioned before, Victoria is the gateway to countless exciting eco-adventures. Several companies offer great whale-watching or even grizzly bear-watching opportunities. You can go kayaking, sailing, fishing, biking, zip-lining, camping on the Gulf Islands and more. If you’re in the mood to ski, check out Mount Washington Alpine Resort. For a wacky way to explore the city and its natural surroundings, Victoria Hippo Tours lets you travel through the Pacific Ocean and Victoria Harbor on a semi-submersible bus. Lastly, there’s no shortage of gorgeous hiking trails, many of which cut through ancient forests and offer spectacular ocean views.
Where to Daven and Eat:
There is a Chabad in Victoria located at 1095 McKenzie Ave. They can be contacted at 250-744-2770.
There’s also Congregation Aish HaTorah at 299 St. Charles St (250-884-4915).
Victoria does not have any kosher restaurants. A wide selection of kosher foods can be found at Aubergine Specialty Foods at 1308 Gladstone Ave (250-590-1031). Otherwise, many supermarkets and local grocery stores carry a limited selection.
The most popular way to get to Victoria is by taking a scenic ferry ride from Vancouver. Many of the ferry boats can accommodate vehicles. Otherwise, you can fly into Victoria’s airport (YYJ) located 14 miles to the northwest of Victoria in North Saanich. If you really want to appreciate the scenery, you can charter a plane or helicopter to transport you from the mainland to Vancouver Island.
Note: Whether traveling by sea, air, or land, you will need to present your passport to a Canadian customs official in order to enter Canada. Also, note that most places in Victoria do not accept
U.S. currency so you will likely have to exchange your U.S. dollars to Canadian dollars.
(Sources: Wikitravel, Tourism Victoria)