AOL PICK from our Editors
Although many areas for the best shopping in Victoria are within walking distance of the Inner Harbour, you’ll have to make your way into downtown and away from all of the T-shirts, kitsch and Canadiana littering the waterfront and part of Government Street to find them. As you leave the Inner Harbour walking north, you’ll find great shopping opportunities one after another: the artist market in Bastion Square, funky boutiques on LoJo, the exotic feel of Chinatown, the interior décor in the Design District and authentic surf and outdoor stores, all within a short walk. Branch out just a little farther and you’ll discover a street packed with antiques shops, or experience the decidedly west coast feel of one of Victoria’ farmer’s markets, or wander into a bookshop like none you have seen before.
LoJo, the section of Johnson Street between Wharf and Government streets, is where you’ll find an array of funky clothing and fashion boutiques, body care shops and a few restaurants. Venture down the Paper Box Arcade off the south side of the street and you’ll find Baggins Shoes, home to a gigantic selection of Converse and Vans shoes. The street is lined with colourful Victorian buildings housing clothing boutiques like Still Life (www.stilllifeboutique.com) for edgy brand-name fashion or Victoria’s smallest boutique, Smoking Lily (www.smokinglily.com), for locally designed and silk-screened clothing. If you still have energy for more once you’ve explored Johnson, the gates into Market Square are just off the north side of LoJo.
Located at the corner of Government and Fort streets, the Bay Center is Victoria’s largest downtown department store and mall. As you might guess, it is home to the iconic Hudson’s Bay Company, as well as 100 or so other stores. If you’ve been shopping downtown and need a pit stop, easily accessible public washrooms can be found on the lower level by the north entrance. Upstairs there’s a food court with a typical assortment of fast-food chains and more restrooms.
Market Square is a historic pedestrian shopping district positioned between the Lower Johnson Street shopping district and Chinatown. The mid-1800s were gold rush years in British Columbia and Victoria saw a huge influx of sailors and fortune seekers bound for the mainland. The hotels, shops and bars of Market Square were built around a central courtyard to service and supply the transient hordes. Today, the historic shopping hub, characterized by brick buildings and timber beams, has been revitalized and is now home to independent shops, restaurants, cafes and a nightclub. In summer, the three-level open-air courtyard, replete with hanging flowers, makes a pleasant environment to browse the shops or sit down to enjoy some food.
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As you stroll along Fort Street away from downtown you will begin to notice shop windows displaying antiques of all sorts. By the time you reach Blanchard Street and continue up the hill just past Cook Street, you’ll find the street has more antiques shops than anything else, many with their merchandise spilling onto the broad sidewalk. This is the area called Antiques Row: antiques shops specializing in various merchandise from furniture to jewelry, fine china, art, silverware, ceramics and curios. True to Victoria’s heritage, there tends to be a lot of British antiques. A number of retail art galleries and auction houses also specialize in antiques, artwork and collectables largely assembled from estate sales.
Chinatown, Fan Tan Alley and Street Market
Although Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada, it remains quite small, lacking the extensive street-front markets with the exotic sights, smells and sounds found in larger Chinatowns in Vancouver or San Francisco. That being said, there are some shopping opportunities that make it worthwhile venturing into the area. Fan Tan Alley is a narrow little alley that has a long history in the story of Victoria, at one time housing opium dens and brothels. Now there are funky clothing and shoe shops to explore. Also, every Sunday in the summer (from April to October), there’s a big street market on Government Street (starting around Fisgard Street-Chinatown) from 11AM to 5PM that has everything from farm-fresh produce, to jams and jellies, arts and crafts, and lots of entertainment.
Victoria is one of the few metropolitan centers in Canada from which you can drive to the surf and be home for dinner (or lunch). This means that Victoria is home to a healthy population of dedicated surfers and a growing surf culture to support it. A few surf shops form the core of this culture. Coastline Surf (http://coastlinesurf.com) has been around the longest, is the biggest and has the widest selection of brands. H2O, across the street (http://hto.ca/) is a smaller boutique with some more fashion forward brands. Sitka has their flagship store in Victoria, where they sell their own line of clothing and surfboards and some other select surf brands.
Perched just above Wharf Street, this historic square takes on a carnival-type atmosphere throughout the summer months as the square fills up with market stalls, buskers and musicians. Originally the site of Fort Victoria, it held the police barracks and jail during the turbulent gold rush. By the 1880s, the construction of the courthouse, the law chambers and other professional buildings began to transform Bastion Square into the way it is now. Today the Maritime Museum occupies the old courthouse, and the square is adorned with public art. Starting in May and running until mid-October, local artists and craftspeople set up in the square to sell an assortment of jewelry, paintings, glasswork, woodwork and much more. Have your fortune read, get a henna tattoo or enjoy the view from a patio at a café, pub or restaurant.
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For some great local organic produce, baking or other foods, interesting south island artisan creations, or to soak up the mellow island vibe, drop by one of Victoria’s Farmers Markets. The James Bay Market, (www.jamesbaymarket.com, Menzies and Superior streets) is open from 9AM to 3PM Saturdays from May until October. The Moss Street Community Market (www.mossstreetmarket.com, Fairfield Road and Moss Street, 250-361-1747) operates Saturdays, 10AM-2PM, starting in May through October. And the Government Street Market runs every Sunday from 11AM to 5PM from April to October. The street is closed off to traffic. Take some cash, as some of the vendors are not set up for anything but.
If it’s not already, Victoria could be a destination-shopping locale for bookworms. It is home to a veritable bonanza of independent, new and used bookstores, some with collections that will excite even the most well-read shoppers. It is easy to whittle away many hours perusing the 500,000+ titles that cram the aisles of Russell Books (www.russellbooks.com). Specializing in rare, used and out-of-print books, this family-run business receives up to 1,000 books every day, with a grand total of over one million books catalogued and stored. If you are after newer titles, particularly if they hail from Canada, the U.S. or Britain, Munro’s books (http://munrobooks.com), on Government Street in a grandiose piece of architecture formerly the RBC bank building, is worth a look.
A Canadian institution for outdoor enthusiasts, MEC is a member-owned cooperative that sells gear for many outdoor pursuits, ranging from kayaks to sleeping bags to thermal underwear and everything in between. The Co-Op started in Vancouver and has since opened retail locations across Canada. To purchase anything in the store you’ll have to buy a $5 (CDN) lifetime membership, which may seem like a hassle, but there are some good deals and you may cover the cost with your first purchase.
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