Image: Amanda Laliberte Photography
As a long-time (and obsessive) reader of DesignSponge I am thrilled to have my Victoria City Guide article published on the popular Brooklyn-based design/lifestyle blog.
They made a minor error in the intro paragraph: I was not exactly inspired by the beautiful surroundings of Victoria to open Gild & Co. in Vancouver. I enjoy the beautiful surroundings of Victoria, but I grew up here so I definitely can be guilty of taking it for granted. I was inspired to start Gild & Co. by the store Surroundings in Victoria and my love for Victoria stemmed from living there and trips to the city with my mom when I was a kid. But what I can you do? These are the big cahoonas in the blogisphere!
All told, I am pleased with the round up of my favourite places to dine, shop and play in the lovely city by the sea – Victoria, British Columbia. Read the comments too, as there are a few gems that I missed (namely Red Fish Blue Fish!) and apparently Google lied to me and Margaret Atwood is not from Victoria.
All photos in the post are by my good friend and talented Amanda Laliberte Photography. Thanks Amanda!
Victoria, BC, Canada is stereotyped as a city of newlyweds and nearly deads. While this stereotype holds some truth, it’s the other unique characteristics of Victoria that give it its appeal and have made it a fertile ground for interesting cafes, arts and culture.
Often overshadowed by its flashy younger sister, Vancouver, Victoria has a strong British background, is the provincial capital and houses a large university. These are the characteristics that give it fuel for the cool; the unique; the creative. Being the capital of British Columbia, many of its residents are government employees with a (relatively) stable source of middle to upper class income. The University of Victoria is known for it’s liberal views and thriving student body, which provides the city with a strong supply of youth and ingenuity. The city’s dominant British background has left many beautiful historic and building and architecture, perfect for charming cafes, shops and unique hideaways.
This little city located on Vancouver Island is filled with unexpected culinary delights: like small organic bakery Wildfire, and lunch deli turned dinner-to-die-for spot Devour. The mix of students, hippy Island culture and old-money England has created a unique balance of money and creativity that fertilizes and sustains such commerce.
For furniture and home decor, Surroundings is a true gem in the city. This boutique furniture store, located in charming Cook Street Village for 20 years, offers an unbeatable selection of contemporary antiques, unique industrial pieces and modern classics. Owner, Kristiane Bakersville, has a cutting edge eye for spotting treasures in dusty old relics and refinishing them into stunning pieces for the home.
Getting around this LGBT-friendly city is a breeze. With few exceptions (as noted) all places listed below are walkin distance within the downtown core.
Be sure to check out this Google Map with all of the below listings!
Home, Decor and Kitchen:
Silk Road – this teahouse plus spa carries an assortment of pretty tea cups, teapots, and Asian-inspired dishes and giftware
Paboom – kitchen gadget heaven and a source for trendy and well-priced home accessories
Fan Tan Gallery – located at 541 Fisgard Street in Chinatown, this little shop offers a unique and charming selection of home decor and accessories (mentioned here as a top decor boutique in Canada)
Victoria Trading Post – located approximately 1/2 hour outside the city, this shop offers 10,000 square feet of antiques, rare finds and architectural salvage
Surroundings – (as mentioned above) ever changing inventory from Barcelona chairs to French bergeres, Danish modern to antiques
Antique row on Fort Street, between Blanshard and Cook Streets, for more traditional antique stores
Contemporary Vintage and Mid-century Modern:
The Fabulous Find – specializes in mid-century modern furniture and accessories
Easy Livin’ – step back into the 50s and 60s at this funky modern furniture outlet
Bespoke – top interior design boutique offering of tailor-made furniture and fine home decor
Chintz – the original Chintz & Co. location with 20,000 square feet of beautiful and unique furniture, fabrics, florals, homeware and gifts
Sagers – Victoria’s go-to place for top quality furniture
Inside Out – beach inspired furniture and home decor
For the Foodie
There are many amazing restaurants, cafes, bakeries, coffee shops, brewpubs, etc. It would be difficult to try even a select few on a weekend stay in the city, but one can try! ArguablyVictoria has the second most restaurants per capita than any city in North America. Here are just a few of my favourites.
Il Terrazzo – Situated in a beautiful courtyard surrounded by wood-burning fireplaces and vine-covered brick walls, this place is much about the atmosphere as it is the delicious Italian food, even a trip down the narrow dungeon-like stairwell to the restrooms adds to the rustic old-world charm of this restaurant
Brasserie L’école – self-described as unpretentious, this cozy evenings-only restaurant offers some of the best casual French food in town, in a building that was once a Chinese school house
Stage – located in the eclectic inner-city neighbourhood of Fernwood. This locals’ small plate wine bar is across the street from the Belfry Theatre and the historic Victoria High School (which has been used to film several horror films)
The Mint – contemporary West Coast / South Asian cuisine, funky atmosphere and live entertainment
Ferris‘ – established casual oyster bar and grill. Very busy on weekend evenings. Known for oysters, of course, and fresh cut fries with assortment of may0 dipping sauces (my favourite dish is the Chicken Penne Soup)
Brunch or lunch:
Shine Cafe – with over 11 varieties of Eggs Benedict to choose from, there is an option for everyone’s tastes. My favourite is the Beckett’s with chicken, cheese, avocado and chipotle hollandaise. Usually a long line on weekend mornings, but you can wait in the sunny courtyard with a cuppa joe
Rebar – well-known vegetarian restaurant. This place has a cult-like following. Great for lunch or brunch. My first experience at Rebar was near orgasmic; I’d never had such fresh, creative, delicious vegetarian food in my life! If you love their food, the cookbook is even better (yes, really). My favourites menu items are the veggie burgers, soups and the daily specials are generally pretty rocking
Jam – I haven’t been but my Victoria friends in-the-know are raving about this new eatery
Mo:Le – serves brunch and lunch all day. This place is a MUST. I love the Chinatown Ciabatta with Chinese sausage, onions, avocado, spicy chili bean sauce and cream cheese scrambled eggs and house made aioli, served with pesto hash browns. Need I say more?
BBQ and beer:
Pig BBQ Joint – went from a hole-in-the-wall lunch stand with only a few bar stools to a larger and second location to fill Victorians full of pulled pork sandwiches and other hearty fare
Smoken Bones – this cookshack is the premiere destination for barbeque in the city
Wildfire – small funky organic wood-fire bakery. They use lots of alternative grains, like spelt and kamut
Bubby Rose’s – Victoria mainstay since 2002 this bakery is known for a cozy, comfortable atmosphere and amazing sticky cinnamon buns
Cascadia Bakery – partners with Rebar, they offer all around awesome breads, squares and pies
Fry’s Bakery – this micro-bakery handcrafts breads and other baked goods using organic stone-ground grains, natural leavens in wood-fired ovens (hello!). Closed Sundays and Mondays
Students and government workers need places to have coffee, and dare I say that Victoria’s coffee culture supersedes Vancouver? Yes, I do dare say with examples like these.
Union Pacific Coffee – situated in a brick and beam constructed building off of the revitalized Dragon Alley, great coffee and a lively atmosphere are abound
Caffe Fantastico – with four locations, this self-roasting company has been locally owned and operated since the early 90s
Bean (Around the World) Victoria – tucked away in an enchanting brick building in the heart of Chinatown, great spot to hide away with a muffin and cup of coffee
Habit – these guys do not take coffee lightly and ensure us that it’s not just about getting a buzz or enjoying a flavour (luckily they are darn good at this too). It’s about a culture of optimism, exploration and communication (wow, that’s intense coffee)
For the Fashionista
Skip the malls and go downtown. “LowJo”, short for Lower Johnson Street, between Wharf and Douglas, includes Victoria’s best collection of unique fashion shops, ranging from hipster vintage to designer fashion labels. Outside of the LowJo, noteworthy others include:
Violette Boutique – one-of-a-kind contemporary jewelry from local and international designers, located on Government Street on the cusp of the main tourist district
Not Just Pretty Modern Clothing -inspired eco-fashion from over 50 fashion-aware independent designers
Paradise Boutique – family-run, designed-in-house retro swimwear and unique fashion and accessories. This little treasure has been offering the maillot swimsuit before it’s mainstream comeback a few years ago
WIN – non-profit cooperative that helps Women In Need (WIN) by providing services and programs for women and their families who are often escaping violence or living in poverty. WIN also has three secondhand clothing and home stores. My thrift-shop-loving friends routinely stop in to scour for great finds (and they find them!)
Where to Stay
Being a popular tourist destination, Victoria has many hotels, bed and breakfasts, and motels. Here are a few of the lesser-known boutique accommodation offerings.
Oswego Hotel – situated in the charming and historic neighbourhood of James Bay, the Oswego Hotel is in a great location for exploring the bests of Victoria
Hotel Rialto – recently converted historic building into a boutique hotel, central city location outside of the main tourist area
The newlyweds and nearly deads of Victoria do go out. Check the Victoria tourism website for festivals and events, such as the Fringe Festival and Luminara held at Beacon Hill Park. Ongoing entertainment in the city includes:
Lucky Bar – best bar for live entertainment from rock to hip-hop to punk
Big Bad Johns – at the Strathcona Hotel; it may be manufactured to look like an Australian outback bar with peanut shells littering the floors and women’s underwear dangling from every angle of the ceiling, but it is a hoot! You can pop back and forth from dancing at the Strathcona Hotel and stepping into another world at Big Bad Johns
Belfry Theatre – produces contemporary adult plays since 1976 in a former Baptist Church
Alix Goolden Performance Hall – elegant old theatre that houses the Victoria Conservatory of Music as well as other performances
Royal Theatre – opened in 1913 this theatre has housed many great performers in its 100 year history
Go Play Outside
This would not be an article about a BC city without mention to the outdoors. While further up Vancouver Island (like the Comox Valley), Vancouver and the rest of British Columbia has what feels like endless outdoor activities to offer, Victoria is not without. Here were some of my favourites when I lived there.
Hike Mount Finlayson – about a forty-five minute drive outside the city, this hike takes about one hour up and 30 minutes down and offers stunning views on Victoria and surrounding areas
Beacon Hill Park – this one is in all the tourist guides, but locals enjoy alike, as it is as fabulous as any city park
Walk along Ogden Point and Dallas road – windy on non-windy days this area offers views of the Olympic Mountain range in Washington state to the south, but with the wind, brings sunshine. When I lived in Victoria, I’d pack up the dogs and go here to get some much-needed vitamin D in the heart of grey BC winters
Willows Park – located in the municipality of Oak Bay, Willows Park, about a 10 minute drive from downtown Victoria, has a family-friendly feel and a beautiful sandy beach. Best in the summer months. If you go, be sure to wander the shops along Estavan Road for quaint shops and restaurants
Notable locals from Victoria include…
Basketball great Steve Nash
Songstress Nelly Fertado
Historical artist/writer Emily Carr
While I feel like this article just cracks the tip of things to see and do in Victoria, the main tourism websites will fill you in on the rest (like Craigdaroch Castle, The Royal BC Museum, and Tourism Victoria). The places I mention above are the lesser-known gems of this garden city. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did when I lived there and do when I return for visits.