Surrounded by the ocean, Victoria (known as the city of gardens) is blessed with unparalleled natural beauty. Fairmont Empress has held court over the Inner Harbour since 1908, and the property has been a key figure in the city’s fabric and history. Spend a couple of days in British Columbia’s capital, and you’re sure to leave wanting more.
For a whirlwind tour of the city, you’ll need to get the right start. Think of Victoria and you might think about tea, but coffee drinkers also have their pick of hip cafes. Discovery Coffee roasts its beans in-house and pairs carefully crafted brews with home-baked, decadent and sugary Yonni’s Doughnuts. The coffee shop’s original location and roastery are on Discovery Street, but for sunshine and people-watching, pull up a chair on the terrace of its sister cafe on Blanshard. Alternatively, get your java fix at Habit (branches in Chinatown and in the ultra-modern Atrium building), which sources its beans from local specialist Bows & Arrows Coffee Roasters. Or pop into chic Hey Happy on Johnson Street for nitro iced coffees and double-shot lattes with wildflower honey.
One of the best ways to get your bearings is a 20-minute seaplane tour with Harbour Air, departing a short walk from the hotel. Flights soar above Victoria and its coastline, giving you a bird’s-eye view of colorful 19th-century buildings, elegant homes overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait, and the towering Olympic Mountains to the south. A 35-minute extended tour whisks you to the northern tip of the Saanich Peninsula, with sweeping views of nearby islands and an aerial vista of the century-old Butchart Gardens.
Grab lunch at 10 Acres Bistro, a restaurant passionate about its farm-to-table ethos. A large portion of the bistro’s produce comes from its namesake farm in North Saanich, 25 km away. The seasonal menu makes use of organic veggies grown from heirloom seeds, grass-fed meat and a home-produced range of fruit jams and chutneys. Locally sourced seafood and ingredients from nearby honey and cheese farms round out the menu. You might find yourself digging into duck confit with roasted beets, arugula, walnut dukkha and smoked yogurt.
The BC Ale Trail
Victoria has a flourishing craft beer scene, with more than a dozen breweries producing an ever-increasing range of inventive brews. Beer has been brewed here since 1858, and the city is home to BC’s original brewpub, Spinnakers. Stroll “Brewery Bay,” a walkable ring of downtown brewpubs and breweries, or hop aboard the Victoria Harbour Ferry’s Pickle Pub Crawl. The Pedaler’s Hoppy Hour guided bike tour includes three tasting sessions, while the BC Ale Trail features self-guided itineraries.
Cocktails and Share Plates
Begin your evening at Q Bar, the stately yet modern bar at Fairmont Empress, where sleek contemporary furnishings provide a smart contrast to the venue’s distinctive cherrywood ceiling. You can order a mountainous seafood platter to share or sample plates of oysters and artisanal local cheese. Be sure to try an Empress 1908 G&T. The hotel’s eponymous gin is produced by Victoria Distillers and counts grapefruit peel and the Fairmont Empress tea blend among its botanical flavorings. Butterfly pea blossom lends it an indigo hue, but adding tonic transforms the gin’s color into a vibrant purple. Other stylish spots within walking distance include Little Jumbo on Fort Street and Wind Cries Mary in Bastion Square, both known for their focus on local, sustainable food and creative craft cocktails.
Fuel up with a breakfast of Belgian waffles or classic eggs Benedict at the hotel, then begin your second day by exploring the city from the water. You can rent stand-up paddleboards and kayaks by the hour or day from Ocean River Sports, either from its downtown location on Swift Street or, in summer, from its shack in Oak Bay Marina. If you prefer to venture out with an experienced paddler, join one of the store’s guided tours. On a half-day Victoria Harbour Kayak Tour, you’ll weave among seaplanes, mini ferries and yachts as you gaze at the Rattenbury-designed Parliament Buildings and brightly painted float homes. Keep your eyes peeled for seals and bald eagles.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the cluster of food trucks tucked into the courtyard behind the Royal BC Museum. Here, you can chomp into pierogies and burrito bowls or chow down on chicken skewers and burgers topped with pickled beets. For indoor options, head to Fort and Blanshard, a growing foodie hub of small restaurants dishing up everything from Spanish tapas to Middle Eastern snacks.
To remember your visit, hunt for cool indie finds by making your way to Lower Johnson Street, aka LoJo, where heritage buildings house an eclectic selection of independent boutiques. Baggins Shoes stocks an enormous range of Converse and Vans shoes, while Still Life’s separate stores for men and women specialize in small international fashion labels. The Regional Assembly of Text is a paper addict’s dream, crammed with offbeat greeting cards, delightful notebooks and typing stations.
Afternoon Tea at the Empress
After you’ve found all your treasures, it’s time for what many consider Victoria’s most quintessential experience, Tea at the Empress. This century-old tradition takes place in the hotel’s sophisticated Lobby Lounge, where you can nibble on house-baked, flaky scones and a mouthwatering array of pastries and sandwiches. There’s a choice of 21 loose-leaf teas, including the hotel’s signature Empress blend.
An Artful Evening
Cap your visit with an evening enjoying the lively arts. Victoria’s vibrant cultural scene encompasses a clutch of intimate theaters within easy reach of downtown. In the artsy Fernwood area, the Belfry Theatre stages contemporary Canadian drama in a former church. Non-profit Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre performs an innovative line-up of both classic theater and musicals at the Roxy Theatre in up-and-coming Quadra Village. For high-quality amateur productions, check the schedule of the Langham Court Theatre, a 177-seat venue in Rockland, a leafy neighborhood known for its Arts and Crafts mansions. When you’re ready to plan your 48 hours in Victoria, reach out to the concierge staff at Fairmont Empress for a memorable visit to British Columbia.