Recently my mom, Erika, and I made a short visit to Victoria, British Columbia. Since we live in Western Washington, we’d both visited Victoria many times over the years.
The city is named after Queen Victoria – and the British influence is strong here.
We were looking forward to visiting some of our favorite sights – the Empress Hotel, the Inner Harbour, Chinatown, and stunning Butchart Gardens.
Victoria is a user-friendly, walkable city, but this time we decided to broaden our options by renting a car.
Maybe it was good that we only had a cartoon-like tourist map, no in-car navigation system, and no cellphone reception. Because while trying to find things, we sometimes stumbled upon unexpected gems.
So today I’m pairing each of my old favorite sights with a hidden gem.
Old Favorite: Butchart Gardens
The concept of Butchart Gardens began over 100 years ago and it evolved over the course of many years. Today it’s a paradise filled with inspiration for any gardener.
Its Sunken Garden is the site of an old limestone quarry.
There is also a Mediterranean Garden,
a Japanese Garden, and a Rose Garden.
As in many gardens, the best things sometimes happen by accident – like flower petals littering a pond.
The gardens are constantly changing with the seasons, so each visit to Butchart Gardens is unique.
Hidden Gem: Scenic Marine Drive
Butchart Gardens is a bit of a drive from downtown Victoria. Most visitors arrive via tour bus. But since we were driving, we decided to design our own route to the gardens – a bit windy but worth it.
We took Scenic Marine Drive, which starts near downtown Victoria on Dallas Road – a few blocks behind the Parliament Building. From there we drove up the coastline for several gorgeous miles before we headed inland and cut over to Butchart Gardens.
I didn’t get any photos, but we passed beautiful beaches and trails. We also saw some of the nicest homes and neighborhoods in Victoria. Taking this drive will cure anyone of the notion that Victoria is just a British-themed tourist town.
We relied on our tourist cartoon map and everything turned out okay. But for this journey I would advise either having a navigation system or a much better map.
Old Favorite: The Inner Harbour
One of the best places to sightsee and people watch, the Inner Harbour is the heart of downtown Victoria.
Surrounding it is the Empress Hotel
and the Parliament Building.
This is the kind of place where couples hold hands. And they don’t walk – they stroll. Old world charm abounds, and no one wants to miss anything.
Hidden Gem: Fisherman’s Wharf
But a more colorful and quirky marina is found at Fisherman’s Wharf, a short drive (or about a 20-minute walk) from the harbour steps. It’s also reachable by water taxi.
Colorful restaurants serve seafood in a casual al fresco environment. Equally colorful is the eclectic mix of houseboats.
And the locals are friendly (just don’t feed them).
Old Favorite: Craigdarroch Castle
Craigdarroch Castle is a quick uphill drive from downtown Victoria. The castle was built in the 1890s by the prominent and wealthy Dunsmuir Famiy. And what a castle it is.
Touring the castle is a great way to see how the upper class lived in Victorian times in . . . well . . . Victoria.
A large lawn surrounds the castle, but there’s not much of a garden. The neighborhood is beautiful, with so many old craftsman mansions.
So after touring the castle, Mom and I decided to just drive around. And we happened upon a beautiful garden – one that really should be married to the castle.
Hidden Gem: The Government House Gardens
The Government House is the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor. I was jaded after visiting Craigdarroch Castle, so I didn’t find the Government House itself to be a particularly appealing.
But its extensive gardens certainly are.
Much of the garden is nestled into a rocky landscape. But instead of fighting the rocks, the garden blends with them.
There is also a formal rose garden.
And lush plant combinations.
Two More Classics
For a first-time visitor to Victoria, two other downtown stops worth seeing are
It’s small, but it’s the second-oldest Chinatown in North America. It’s noisy and colorful.
You never know what you’ll find in the alleyways.
The Empress Hotel
I think of the Inner Harbour as a crown, and the Empress Hotel as its crown jewel.
The old-world elegance is tangible here, especially in contrast to Chinatown.
The Empress is worth a visit – even if it isn’t as accessible to the public as it used to be.
I remember as a kid sitting in the grand lobby of the Empress and writing post cards – even though we weren’t actually staying there. Back then, anyone could go in and soak up the atmosphere.
The lobby has since been converted to a lovely tea room.
Beyond the tea room is a casually elegant restaurant/lounge where Mom and I enjoyed a nice lunch.
Goodbye For Now, Victoria
Despite visiting many sights during our two days, we never felt rushed.
At the end of our stay, the cartoon map was tattered and torn. And I sadly handed in the keys to our tiny “economy level” Yaris. (The Rollerskate, as we were starting to call it).
Our days of finding hidden gems are over – for now.
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