Victoria's beautiful inner harbour (photo: Reuben Krabbe/Destination BC)

The Weekender: Victoria, B.C.

By Janet Gyenes

Some might say that Victoria has a bit of an identity crisis. After all, it boasts the world’s tallest First Nations totem pole, narrow Chinese alleyways, Union Jack-emblazoned double-decker buses, plus a pair of castles. But mash-ups of culture, history and architecture are what give British Columbia’s capital city its idiosyncratic appeal. Known as the City of Gardens, Victoria sits on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, its compact downtown core curving around a picturesque Inner Harbour.

Get oriented to the city on two wheels by saddling up with The Pedaler: Refuel and whet your whistle on an Eat, Drink, Pedal guided bike ride, where you’ll also whiz past Victoria’s architectural gems, stop at offbeat enclaves—including Canada’s oldest Chinatown—and cycle stretches of the 60-kilometre-long Galloping Goose Trail.

Visitors can stay car-free and explore the Inner Harbour’s many treasures such as the Royal BC Museum. Founded in 1886, this veritable cabinet of curiosities showcases thousands botanical, reptile and mammal specimens, including the elusive white Kermode bear. Nearby, under the patinated copper domes of the B.C. Parliament Buildings, the public can witness the inner workings of the provincial government as elected representatives debate laws when the Legislative Assembly is in session.

More time to fill? Meet some of Victoria’s water-based locals: 80 resident orcas. The naturalists at Eagle Wing Tours can identify specific whales, like Oreo (a.k.a. J-22) from J Pod, that make their home in the Salish Sea.

Sustainable seafood and farm-to-table fare are the stars of Victoria’s superb restaurants, such as Chinatown’s OLO, which proudly offers a vegan-friendly tasting menu. Amid Fort Street’s antique shops is Fish Hook, a casual eatery helmed by chef Kunal Ghose of Top Chef Canada fame. Menu mainstays include open-faced French tartines made with local ingredients like smoked salmon-belly “bacon.”

Despite such modern culinary strides, Victoria still stands proud of its regal roots. Afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel is a century-old institution, complete with scones and clotted cream. Such upper-crust offerings are ideal for Will and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, if you’re being proper) who are scheduled to visit Victoria in fall. But it’s not only tea that’s being brewed and sipped in this city. Canada’s first gastro brewpub, Spinnakers, has been making craft beer here since 1984, with other breweries such as Canoe, Phillips Brewing & Malting and Driftwood Brewery forging a path on Victoria’s unofficial ale trail. The latter two can even be visited as part of a guided, multi-stop craft brewery bus tour.

Boutiques, public markets and shops are scattered about downtown, but to find authentic wool Cowichan sweaters, go to Cowichan Trading on Government Street. In Chinatown, Silk Road is a temple to organic tea—with a tea-tasting bar as well as a spa featuring its own tea-based skincare products. Good old-fashioned artisanal products, many made locally, fill the shelves of The Local General Store, which sells handmade soaps, jewellery, pottery and other goods selected for their environmental sustainability.

The grand dame of Government Street since 1908, the Fairmont Empress Hotel, is getting much more than a nip and tuck with its $40 million renovation and restoration well underway. Guests are already relaxing in luxuriously updated Fairmont Gold rooms and slipping into the sleek new Q Bar (yes, Q stands for Queen) for a tipple or two. The rest of the hotel’s rooms, plus spas and public areas, will be completed during the second renovation phase, which starts in October and runs to May 2017.

The Best Western Plus Carlton Plaza offers another centrally located (and budget-friendly) option for accommodations, and makes a great staging ground for downtown Victoria exploration.

WestJet and Air Canada offer flights to Victoria from both Calgary and Edmonton—which can be booked easily through If you’re more ambitious, the B.C. capital is a 13-hour drive from Calgary—though you may want to plan for a longer journey, since you’ll be travelling through the Rockies. Consider upgrading to a Plus or higher membership, which allows for extended towing distances, free passport photos, free fuel and delivery, and enhanced trip collision reimbursement.

With so much to do in Victoria, it can be helpful to do a bit of advance planning. Secure your spot in value-priced tours of Chinatown, the beautiful Butchart Gardens, Beacon Hill Park and more with AMA Travel.