Victoria Gets a Royal Redesign

Classic Canadian charm goes modern in British Columbia’s capital.


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Inner Harbor

Photo by Joris Louwes

Lanterns and strings of lights sway above the bricks and bright doorways of Fan Tan Alley, a slim lane in central Victoria, British Columbia. Here in the heart of Canada’s oldest Chinatown, an early 20th-century gambling district today welcomes shoppers seeking vintage vinyl, vegan chocolates, and locally crafted bath salts.

About two blocks away, stalls at the Victoria Public Market stock home goods and culinary items. Bites and brews come from regional producers such as Victoria Pie Co., Ravenstone Farm Artisan Meats, and Silk Road Tea, a 25-year-old organic mainstay founded down the road in Chinatown. The bustling food hall, open since 2013, is not Victoria’s original public market: Community members established a similar facility showcasing local producers back in 1861.

This interplay of old and new defines downtown Victoria.

British traders named the city for their queen in the late 1800s, and today’s teahouses, formal gardens, and stately structures honor that colonial heritage. These days, however, British Columbia’s capital is stepping out of the shadow of its hip northern neighbor, Vancouver, with a wave of cultural and culinary updates. The creative chefs, artists, and entrepreneurs setting up shop throughout the pedestrian-friendly downtown add a trendy counterpart to Victoria’s traditional favorites. And, with a scenic setting on the Vancouver Island waterfront, plus mild weather and close proximity to both waves and mountains, the crowd-pleasing city is a tourist-friendly gem—without the crowds of more famous destinations.

The latest classic to receive a contemporary refresh is the Fairmont Empress, which wrapped up a two-year, $60-million renovation in June. Pops of gold and purple put a regal stamp on the property’s airy, updated rooms and suites, while public spaces and the Q at the Empress restaurant feature modern artwork alongside restored woodwork, antique light fixtures, stately columns, and other original design elements. Expect lush palms and sweeping harbor views in the revamped Lobby Lounge, where guests can choose between cocktails or the traditional afternoon tea that’s been a staple since the hotel opened in 1908.

Other downtown cocktail dens include The Drake, a craft beer pub known for its Canada-focused draft selection and bar bites, and Little Jumbo, a lounge that also dishes up regional fare. Farm-to-fork food takes center stage at 10 Acres Kitchen, 10 Acres Bistro, and 10 Acres Commons, part of a dining group that builds menus on ingredients from the brand’s own Vancouver Island farm.

Photo By Ian D. Keating

Parliament Building

Cross to the opposite side of Victoria’s Inner Harbor and continue past the ornate British Columbia Parliament Buildings (outlined in more than 3,000 LED lights each evening) to find Nourish Kitchen & Cafe. Set in a rustic 1889 residence, this clean-eating destination spins local elements into salads and seasonal entrees served in cozy, ground-floor dining rooms. For lighter options, fuel up with a mug of steamy stock from the bone-broth bar, or head upstairs to the low-key coffee lounge. The restaurant makes its own kefir and preserves in a second-floor fermentation facility.

Additional architectural gems repurposed for modern appeal include Munro’s Books on Government Street. It’s housed in a 1909 neoclassical bank building with 24-foot ceilings. Over at the Robert Bateman Centre, which occupies the 1920s Steamship Terminal structure, art and nature enthusiasts can explore the work of the veteran Canadian painter honored by the Audubon Society and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Nearby, the Royal BC Museum chronicles British Columbia’s cultural and ecological history.

Like the Fairmont Empress, both museums overlook Victoria’s scenic Inner Harbor. This historical shipbuilding center now buzzes with floatplanes and fishing boats, and it’s a scenic spot to snap photos as the sun sets.

When You Go

Victoria Public Market at the Hudson:

1701 Douglas St., No. 6, 778-433-2787, VictoriaPublicMarket.com.

Fairmont Empress:

721 Government St., 250-384-8111, Fairmont.com/empress-victoria.

The Robert Bateman Centre:

470 Belleville St., 250-940-3630, BatemanCentre.org.

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