AOL PICK from our Editors
While some of the top things to do in Victoria are related to the city’s history, period architecture and cultural celebrations, many other activities celebrate the natural beauty and wilderness of the surroundings. There’s something for everyone, young or old, families, couples or solitary adventurers. Victoria’s historied urban center itself, lush with gardens and flowers, is surrounded by pristine ocean, majestic forests and mountain-scapes making it easy to combine the city’s historical and cultural intrigue at museums or the Parliament Buildings with outdoor adventures, like scenic biking along Dallas Road or kayaking the Gorge waterway, all in one day. Here are the best Victoria things to do, giving you a broad sense of the variety the city has to offer and a good combination of indoor and outdoor pursuits. Bring your walking shoes and get ready to breathe in the fresh sea air.
What to do if you’re the richest man in BC—well build a castle, of course. That’s what Robert Dunsmuir did, beginning in 1887, announcing his wealth to the world. The BC coal baron built a 39-room, four-story castle and filled it with opulence: stained-glass windows (there are 33 originals), sculptures, Persian carpets and intricate wood paneling adorning its interior. It’s even crowned with soaring stone turrets and chimneys. Dunsmuir died in 1889, barely having had a chance to occupy the celebration of his wealth. The estate was left to his wife, who lived in the castle until her death in 1908. The castle, which sits atop a hill overlooking most of Victoria, has been designated one of Canada’s National Historic Sites. A nonprofit society runs the attraction, and several volunteer docents provide additional information as you wander the castle on a self-tour.
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Whale Watching Tours
The ocean waters around Victoria are full of life, including orca, grey, minke and humpback whales, seals, porpoises and marine birds. It’s no surprise that whale watching is one of the most popular things to do. There are a ton of whale-watching companies, but make sure the one you go with follows responsible whale-watching practices to ensure the whales stick around. The season runs from April to October. Among companies are Orca Spirit Adventures (www.orcaspirit.com) and the Prince of Whales Whale Watching (www.princeofwhales.com).
Walkways meander through the 55 acres of horticultural opulence that make up The Butchart Gardens, which is packed with majestic flowering trees, meticulously maintained shrubs and flower beds bursting with colour. Located 21 km. north of Victoria, the gardens are open year-round: Enjoy snowdrops and crocuses in the winter months of January to March, 100,000 tulips from April to May, a frenzy of colour and scent in the summer from June to Sept. 15, the golden hue of fall from September to November, and the sparkling of Christmas lights from December to January. Also, join the throngs for a fireworks night on Saturdays in July and August. If $30 a head is more than you care to spend, but you would still like a garden experience, some smaller yet still spectacular gardens exist right in town. Check out the free gardens at Government House (1401 Rockland Ave.) or Abkhazi Gardens (1964 Fairfield Road, admission $5-10).
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Be one with nature during an urban exploration around Victoria’s Harbour or up the Gorge waterway right in the heart of the city. Get an entirely new perspective on the city’s skyline as you watch float planes land and take off, then explore protected coves and pocket beaches where you might find seals and seabirds. Kayak rentals are easy and convenient from outfitters along the water. Ocean River Sports offers year-round rentals seven days a week from their store above the Gorge in the Downtown Design District. Leaving from downtown means you can paddle for an hour or more, drop off your boat and walk next door for a cold beer on the Canoe Pub patio. You earned it!
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If you visit Victoria between late October and early December you have the opportunity to view a spectacle of life and death at Goldstream Provincial Park. Thousands of salmon will be running—returning from the ocean to spawn and spending their final days battling currents to get upriver, the males thrashing around, fighting one another for females. Start your visit at the Nature House, and then meander along the river paths through forests of 600-year-old Douglas firs, cedar and hemlock. Near the end of the run in December and January, the park also hosts Eagle Extravaganza. Record numbers of bald eagles (up to 276 in a day) have been coming to the park to gorge on salmon carcasses. Parking can get busy on weekend afternoons; be sure not to leave valuables in your car.
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The Royal BC Museum, a piece of history itself, having been founded in 1886, houses galleries and exhibits of BC’s past, present and future. The current building opened in 1968 and has since attracted some 30 million visitors. Coastal flora, fauna and geography from the Ice Age to present are showcased in the Natural History Gallery. Learn about the recent history of Victoria and Chinatown in the Modern History Gallery. An impressive display of First Nations art and culture is shown off in the First Peoples Gallery. And there’s also an IMAX theatre. Keep an eye out for an antique Spanish dagger that was allegedly used to kill Captain Cook in Hawaii in 1779. You’ll need a couple of hours to check everything out. Save a bit of time by buying tickets online in advance. Parking is limited; it’s best to walk or use public transit.
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If you think you’d enjoy holding a 400-leg millipede the length of your forearm, or if you’d like to sample a crunchy cricket lollipop, plan to visit the Victoria Bug Zoo. And don’t worry if you’re not feeling quite so adventurous—all kinds of creepy, crawly, wriggly insects and spiders are there to check out (from a distance),
including assassin bugs and scorpions. It’s in the heart of downtown so it’s easy to walk to. The Bug Zoo is open Mon-Fri from 11:00 AM to 04:00 PM, Sat 10:00 AM to 05:00 PM and Sun 11:00 AM to 05:00 PM. Adults = $9, Seniors (65+) = $8, Youths (13-18 yrs) = $7, Kids (3-11 yrs) = $6, Kids (2yr and under) = free.
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Built in the late-1890s to defend Victoria and the Esquimalt Naval Base, Fort Rod has majestic views of the Olympic Mountains in Washington state from its hilltop vantage point. Inside the historic coast artillery fort, explore the maze of gun batteries, underground magazines and guardhouses. It’s an easy place to spend half a day. The area is also a great place to have a picnic before wandering out to the point, where you can step inside Canada’s oldest west coast lighthouse. At under $4 for adults and under $2 for kids, it can be an inexpensive way to spend an afternoon.
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Locally referred to as “the Ledge,” the towering stone structures have served as the seat of BC‘s Legislative Assembly since 1898. Designer Francis Rattenbury (who also designed the Empress Hotel) was only 25 when he won the competition to design the buildings. His plans included such intriguing elements as three vaults under the entrance steps for the province’s gold, and tunnels under the front lawn. Inside holds lavish stained glass, historic photos, gilded statues and actors portraying some key historical figures. Open Monday-Friday (Monday-Sunday in the summer) from 8:30AM to 5PM, free guided tours are offered (30-45 minutes) or you can explore the buildings on your own. Tours for groups or in languages other than English can be arranged if you book in advance.
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Go for a Scenic Bike Ride
Touted as the “Cycling Capital of Canada,” Victoria offers lots of opportunities for self-propelled adventures. One of the region’s most-scenic designated cycling routes—the Seaside Touring Route—takes you along coastal Dallas Road, past beaches, up to viewpoints with stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the Olympic Mountains, and through lovely residential neighbourhoods. It’s perfect for the casual biker or family. Rent bikes at Cycle BC Rentals and Tours (www.cyclebc.ca) or Sports Rent (http://sportsrentbc.com for summer rentals). Start your journey at the southwest corner of Beacon Hill Park and travel east along the paved path. Be sure to leave time for stops at the numerous beaches and viewpoints. Check out www.cyclevancouverisland.ca for more details. Another popular route is the Galloping Goose Trail, a 55 km. (34 miles) relatively flat route that runs west from Victoria to the abandoned mining town of Leechton near Sooke.
The big dome building that houses the high-powered Plaskett (1.8 m) telescope sits perched at 223 m (732 feet) atop Observatory Hill in Victoria. The 45-ton telescope is the largest in the world open for public viewing. Its unobstructed view of the nighttime sky takes you deep into the centre of the universe. You can visit during the day or night, but the show definitely occurs at night. Check their website for information about their weekly themed Star Parties where you can wander from telescope to telescope to see some amazing objects in the night sky. Next door at the Centre of the Universe you can also check out the mini-planetarium, the exhibit gallery, presentations in the auditorium, or head out on a nature walk. Just make sure you have a ride, as the closest bus stop is a 2-km trek. Open May until the beginning of Sept to public. Prices for daytime/evening visits respectively: Adult $9/$12, Kids under 12 yrs old $5/$7, Kids 12-18 yrs old and Students $7/$10, Seniors $7/$10. Free parking
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