After our recent stay in the picturesque seaside village of Tofino, we continued on the next leg of our family vacation travelling southeast to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. Nestled on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and about a 90-minute ferry ride from the mainland, the City of Victoria, sometimes called The Garden City, is known for its family-friendly tourist appeal, warm and welcoming residents, stately Victorian architecture, Inner Harbour, and of course, its gardens. Victoria was recently voted the #2 best small city in the world in Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards, and it’s not hard to see why.
Where to Stay
It can be hard to know where to start when choosing accommodations in Victoria. Like any city, Victoria has a downtown core, city area, and suburbs, all with dozens and dozens of hotels, motels, Airbnbs, rentals, and bed and breakfasts to choose from. As a family doing the tourist thing, we wanted to stay as close as possible to the action so we chose a hotel in downtown Victoria. Driving around with cranky kids in the backseat looking for parking is nobody’s idea of a good time. Trust me, choosing a hotel in the area where you can leave your car in the parking lot and walk is a much smarter idea.
We stayed at the Hotel Grand Pacific in downtown Victoria located across the street from the Inner Harbour and central to everything we wanted to see and do. They even gave us a little “Welcome to Victoria” puzzle for each of the girls at our quick and efficient check-in.
Once you arrive, you can either have the friendly valet park your car or park it yourself in the underground parking lot. As I mentioned, the hotel is located right downtown, so we were able to leave our car and walk almost everywhere. If you’re looking for recommendations or help making arrangements for your time in Victoria, visit the concierge desk in the lobby by the Pacific Restaurant and Terrace. Staff were available to answer questions, advise, and lend young children umbrellas on rainy days.
We stayed in a Signature Harbour View Room with two comfortable queen beds and a small balcony overlooking the Inner Harbour and the historic Canadian Pacific Railway Steamship Terminal housing the Robert Bateman Gallery, Steamship Terminal Bar & Grill, and luxury ferry service to downtown Vancouver. If you were considering a visit from the US, this is also where the Black Ball Ferries come in from Port Angeles, Washington.
Be sure to bring swimming suits for everyone. The Victoria Athletic Club is housed downstairs on the parking level with complimentary gym and pool access for all hotel guests. There’s a separate two-foot deep kiddie pool perfect for the youngest family members, and the large pool’s shallow end starts at three and a half feet, shallow enough for my smaller than average 7-year-old to stand and splash around in.
Clean, comfortable, reasonably priced, and centrally located to almost everything on our list of things to do, the Grand Pacific had everything we needed for our visit and served as an ideal home base for our adventures.
Where to Eat
When you’re a tourist in Victoria, splurging on afternoon tea is a must.
The Grand Pacific offers a daily West Coast Afternoon Tea using local, sustainable ingredients, and they’re the only place that also offers a special kids afternoon tea. If you provide the restaurant with 24 hours notice, the chef can prepare gluten-free or allergy-friendly options for either tea. The West Coast Kids Afternoon Tea has kid-friendly beverage and treat options that will appeal to kids like mini grilled cheese sandwiches, Rice Krispie squares, cookies, berry and yogurt parfaits, and fruit salad. Both girls were thrilled to be kicking off our Victoria trip with a fancy tea party!
Everyone should splurge on a fancy, pinky in the air afternoon tea at least once, so definitely take the opportunity while you’re in Victoria. If you’re anything like us though, the rest of the time you’re on the lookout for affordable meal options, especially with multiple kids in tow. Frankie’s Modern Diner was just a couple of blocks from our hotel and offered an affordable kids menu for both breakfast and dinner with all kids’ items $5.00 and $7.00 respectively. John’s Place was another affordable option within walking distance. The portions were huge, and one dessert fed the entire family.
If you visit nearby Fisherman’s Wharf for some whale watching, kayaking, or a fishing trip, it’s worth a stop at Barb’s Fish & Chips (open March to October). Both the wharf and Barb’s get busy on sunny days, so be prepared to wait a bit. Or if you’re en route to or from the ferry terminal in Swartz Bay, Sassy’s Family Restaurant in Brentwood Bay is a great place to stop for eats along the way. It’s located right across the street from the Victoria Butterfly Gardens, and kids eat free Monday and Tuesday evenings (kids under two always eat free).
What to Do
We spent four days in Victoria, but there was so much to do we had a hard time fitting them all in. April to September tends to be pretty dry, and we were lucky to have beautiful weather for most of our time here. During the summer, the Inner Harbour is a popular destination for people watching, buskers, performance artists, and artisan stands. If you need your name formed from wire or painted on rice, this is where to go. We saw fire jugglers, a bagpiper in full Scottish regalia, and a statue that comes to life when you drop a loonie in his can.
From the Inner Harbour, it’s a quick hop on a Victoria Harbour Ferry (open February to October) to visit Fisherman’s Wharf for a whale watching tour, kayaking, or to take a fishing trip. While you’re there, check out the float home village and water taxis, grab some fish and chips, and enjoy some people watching.
We spent an afternoon on the water with Eagle Wing Whale Watching Tours. Hubby did a whale watching tour many years ago as a teenager, but this was the first time for me and the kids, and I’d been looking forward to it for months. Luckily for seasick-prone me, we had a gorgeous, calm day for our tour. Tours are about 3.5 hours long with lots of downtime between the excitement of whale spottings, so bring snacks for the kids. My 5-year-old complained of being bored at parts, but a granola bar helped.
We saw several pods of transient Orcas as well as some resident whales on our sail. These two female Orcas below spent quite a bit of time hanging around our boat (you can tell they’re female by their smaller dorsal fins) before continuing on their way.
We also swung by the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve and watched a group of Steller (Northern) and California sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks.
The next day we stayed a little closer to home with some tourist attractions downtown. The kids were a bit nervous about visiting the Victoria Bug Zoo, but I made them go anyway, and they loved it. The “zoo” is a large divided room filled with lots of plexiglass tanks and a giant ant farm along the walls. Knowledgeable and friendly staff run tours all day introducing visitors to the bugs with lots of fascinating information (did you know bug poop is called frass?) and no pressure opportunities to get up close and even hold some of their residents. I was so proud that the girls both held some of the bugs, and I’m really proud of myself for agreeing to hold a tarantula. I don’t think I can explain just how much I’m afraid of spiders, so this was a BIG DEAL.
After the Bug Zoo, we walked around the corner to Miniature World housing over 85 miniature displays and dioramas. Each room has a theme: outer space (with glowing blacklight displays), Fairytale Land, frontier Canadian history, World War II, and more. Some of the displays are showing their age, but the newest section is a beautiful Camelot-themed hallway with knights, the round table, a close up of King Arthur’s last moment, and an impressive recreation of the castle at Camelot. Most of the displays throughout Miniature World have a button that triggers an interactive elements like turning on the lights, or starting the train, or turning the carousel. Unfortunately, several of the buttons were out of order when we were there.
Since Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, we made sure to visit the Parliament Buildings on the Inner Harbour. The neo-baroque buildings have housed the Legislative Assembly of BC since 1898 and they’re open every weekday for guided and self-guided tours. Come in the morning or just after lunch to observe the Speaker’s Procession led by the Sergeant-at-Arms entering the Chamber at the start of each sitting. We even got to sit with the girls in the Public Gallery above the Chamber to watch our government in action.
The Royal BC Museum is located just down the street from Parliament. Up on the third floor, the Modern History Gallery chronicles the early days of this province and boasts a full scale replica of Captain George Vancouver’s ship the H.M.S. Discovery. Here’s where you’ll also find the First Peoples Gallery exhibiting traditional and post-contact cultural artifacts and works of art created by the local coastal First Peoples. Be sure to save enough time to tour Totem Hall displaying carved crest poles and house posts from Kwakwaka’wakw, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Gitxsan, Haida, and Nuu-chah-nulth communities.
Kids will be especially amazed by the Natural History Gallery where they can discover lifelike recreations of coastal forest and Pacific shorelines, explore BC’s coastal waters in a Victorian-era submarine, come face to face with a life-size woolly mammoth, and learn what BC looked like 80 million years ago.
Beacon Hill Park is about a 20 minute walk from the Inner Harbour, but your mileage may vary with the age and number of kids you bring along. The park is home to lots of walking trails, two playgrounds, a waterpark, ponds, landscaped gardens, and the world’s fourth-tallest totem pole, carved by Kwakwaka’wakw craftsman Mungo Martin and standing an impressive 127 feet tall. The park also houses the Children’s Farm and petting zoo (open March to October; admission by donation). Kids can visit the farm animals and pet the rabbits, guinea pigs, along with goat, goats, and more goats. The farm even adopts out baby goats, but I wouldn’t let the kids know if I were you.
A few blocks from the Inner Harbour, you can find the narrowest street in Canada, Fan Tan Alley, winding through the heart of Chinatown. Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada and second only to San Francisco in North America, so there’s a tremendous amount of history in the old brick walls. Fan Tan Alley takes its name from the gambling game Fan Tan Guan popular in the gambling dens and opium factories that used to operate here. It’s mostly trendy shopping now, but the kids got a kick out of walking through the narrow alley (“It’s just like Diagon Alley,” says my 7-year-old Harry Potter fan), as well as stopping for ice cream.
Just outside of the city are a couple more must-see attractions for families. We hit these on our last day on the way to catch our ferry home. The Victoria Butterfly Gardens house a miniature heated tropical rain forest with butterflies (of course), along with flamingos, parrots, tortoises, koi fish, and tropical plants. At the entrance is an Insectorium with several display cases, but it pales in comparison to the Bug Zoo.
Butchart Gardens are one of the top Victoria tourist attractions, open year-round and just a few minutes away from the Butterfly Gardens. Families can walk through the meticulously manicured gardens, ride the Rose Carousel (with two chariots able to accommodate people with physical disabilities), and stay for the fireworks on Saturdays throughout the summer.
An unexpected highlight of our trip was the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea in Sidney. Guests enter through a mock submarine portal in the gift shop and experience a virtual dive underwater. The doors open to a submarine-themed aquarium exploring the wonders of the local Salish Sea and full of hands on exhibits for kids of all ages. They can examine microscopic sea creatures under the microscope, visit the multimedia colouring station, and peer through portholes into display tanks. It’s little details that make a difference, like plenty of step stools available so kids of all heights can see into the tanks. The Shaw Centre was larger than we expected and ended with a large sculpted touch tank and a learning area where kids can touch whale bones, view 3D displays, and learn about whales and other local sea life.
As we were exiting the Shaw Centre, we spotted a fun little shop, Mineral World and Scratch Patch, just across the street. Two thirds of this place is a pretty standard crystal and stone shop, but in the back is a junior geologist’s dream full of polished rocks to pick through and play with. There are two large tables full of rocks and artificial caves on the back wall that kids can walk into and discover more polished stones in little pockets in the cave wall. We let the kids choose a handful of stones and fill up a velvet bag as a souvenir of their trip before reluctantly heading home.
Victoria is an outstanding family destination easily accessible by ferry, seaplane, or helicopter from the mainland. Boasting lush springtimes, warm summers, balmy autumns, and temperate winters, the city blends the best of the coastal beauty of Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea with the amenities of a major tourist destination and an abundance of kid-friendly cultural, natural history, educational, and just for fun attractions. Victoria is definitely worth the journey.
Disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary stay at the Hotel Grand Pacific and admission to Victoria-area attractions in partnership with Tourism Victoria to facilitate this post. Nevertheless, all opinions expressed are completely honest and my own, based on my personal experience. Your experience may differ.