What if you have just 48 hours to spend on Vancouver Island? Well, there’s so much to do that we’ve focused on just the southern part of the island here.
Getting to any island you really have just a few options but if possible, in terms of time, try and come by ferry. Sailing from Tsawwassen on Canada’s mainland to Vancouver Island will take about an hour and 35 minutes. More importantly, the route takes you across the Strait of Georgia and between the smaller Galiano and Salt Spring islands along the coast, and it’s just beautiful.
The ferry crosses regularly and you can arrive as early as 8.30 am. Arriving at Swartz Bay, it’s half an hour drive to the island’s main city
In and around Victoria
As with any city, there’s so much to do and to see, you could easily spend the entire two days here. But, that in truth would be a shame, the island and its nature have too much to offer.
So, instead, why don’t you walk the downtown core? Strolling along, stopping here and there to take a picture or have coffee, lunch and so on, this will take up half of your day.
Downtown Victoria Walking Route
Start from Victoria City Hall located at Centennial Square. This is the northern part of downtown Victoria, and conveniently close to the first part of this walk which is short and could be done within half an hour. But you won’t, trust me.
Though the area itself is tiny – it really is just both sides of a block’s length of Fisgard Street – but it’s Canada’s oldest Chinatown.
Browse the shops here for (matcha) teas and other Asian ingredients, as well as jewelry or the delicate umbrellas. Then make your way through the narrowest alley ‘Fan Tan Alley’ out towards the Canadian side of the downtown core onto Pandora Avenue.
2. Market Square
Though you may not realize it from how it looks, the shops and buildings facing you on the right are part of another old part of Victoria, Market Square.
To get there, you cross the street and turn to the block on your right (walk towards Johnson Street and the bridge). Now either cut through the Beadworld shop or walk around the block to the arched entrance at 560 Johnson Street.
Cowboys and gold
If you’ve ever watched any cowboy movies, being at the center of this open-air square you feel like you could have landed on the set of one of them. Better still, since it’s a genuine historic square, you can simply picture yourself here during the gold rush.
Where Victoria was once just a tiny settlement of about 500 souls, with the mines and plots depleted in the States, golddiggers or prospectors, made it up to Vancouver Island in droves in the mid-nineteenth century. Within a month, the town grew to over 30,000 inhabitants.
It may seem strange that they’d travel over the island to make it up to the Fraser River but this was the only place in Canada where mining licenses could be bought. Furthermore, here too was the last town they could get outfitted for the area. As such, this market square once was the home to saloons, bars, hotels, and brothels.
You can almost hear the honky-tonk piano music emanating from the square buildings with balconies upheld by the tall beams surrounding the square. The hustle and bustle of horses, metal clanking of gold pans, footfalls on the wooden stairs leading to the second floor and chatter from all types of business getting done.
Gold panning now
There was gold to be found on Vancouver Island too but that was little in comparison. Should you have a little more time, and feel so inclined, there are a few places still where you can pan for gold.
3. Bastion Square Public Market
After you’ve browsed the shops and businesses that now rent space in the Market Square, walk back out and down another block (through Waddington Alley and Commercial Alley). On Thursdays through to Sundays, stroll, browse and enjoy the outdoor vendors of all sorts of woodwork, hot glass ornaments, massage therapists and more.
Make your way through to Wharf Street and follow the slew of floatplanes and helicopters landing in and taking off from Victoria Inner Harbour. This harbor is both a seaport and an airport and so cruise ships, ferries and air transport all board here.
Should you have more time on your hands, consider booking a flight along the western Salish coast towards Tofino or just view Victoria and its surroundings from the air.
Another option from here is to book a whale watching tour. These tours start from CA$119 per person for a 3-hour tour. If you decided to depart the island through a ferry ride through the Inside Passage, realize that you might not need to book an extra tour.
5. Tea at the castle
Simply walking along the quay and watching the busy coming and goings truthfully is just as nice. From the quay, you also have a perfect view of the Empress Hotel. The big castle-like building with the gables, turrets and pitched roofs was built over a century ago and expanded twice.
The hotel was to serve passengers and business people arriving by boat in Victoria, rather than it being built for passengers arriving by train. Want to take a peek inside? Book a high tea in the Lobby or head for the sauna in the hotel’s spa.
Highlights in downtown Victoria
around the Empress hotel for a range of other Victoria Highlights.
Pass the hotel on the right at Belleville Street and you can opt to
- visit the Royal BC Museum,
- see and hear the Netherlands Centennial Carillon
- or walk around Thunderbird Park and its totem poles.
Take the left side of the hotel through Humboldt Street for a chance to:
- visit Miniature World or
- The Maritime Museum of British Columbia right across from it.
Now turn north again on Government Street, it’s a pleasant walk with well-maintained sidewalks and great shops. Well, you do have to visit Rogers Chocolate here and try one of their Victoria Creams. These gorgeous, yummy, exquisitely tasting treats are to die for. The rich dark chocolate with a lovely creamy centre that is gooey yet not runny but not too solid either.
Yes, they’re rather big and yes, you’ll think you might not be able to finish an entire cream by yourself but sink your teeth into one of them and then see if you still want to stop and/or share.
To finalize the route, keep walking until Centennial square and you’ll have walked just shy of 3 km. Whether you’ll actually do it in the 30 mins is, of course, entirely up to you (hopefully not though!).
Sleeping in higher spheres
Of course, you can’t pass up the chance to see Vancouver Island’s natural beauty. So, even though there are more trails on the island than you’ll have time to go see, there is one you have to see.
Should you have spent, just half a day in Victoria and not have indulged in whale tours, museum visits or shopping sprees, then make it up the coast on Highway 19 to Courtenay (216 km / 135 mi). Besides the fact you’ll be closer to the trail mentioned, here you have a unique option to stay in higher spheres.
Sleep in a sphere-shaped treehouse secured between three trees. The spheres have diameters between 2.8 and 3.2m and can be reached by spiral staircases. The company building and running this accommodation type are heavily invested in combining any and all influences that can make this ecologically safe and tangible. They incorporate design, materials, and technologies from woodworking to sailboat constructions while providing a fun and comfortable stay.
As there are currently 3 spheres to choose from, do make sure to book early enough to experience this type of accommodation. Note, this is for the adventurers out there.
Imagine living to be 100 years old. Such a long way to go still, eh? How about 200 or 300 years? Ridiculous! How the world will have changed, generations will have gone by, countries and borders shifted in any way, climates even.
Our bodies may not be there (yet) but some living creatures do and have lived that long. Trees for example. And on Vancouver Island, there are forests with trees that are over 800 and one even over 2000 years old.
Near Port Alberni in MacMillan Park, go and visit Cathedral Grove. It got its name due to the resemblance to the high beams and naves of cathedrals like those in Chartres, France. Rows of Douglas firs as high as 75 meters, majestically rise straight up, their canopies catching sun, wind and each other.
Since trees grow wider every year, adding another layer, another year ring, the really ancient trees here have circumferences up to 9 meters. Seeing them standing tall it’s quite hard to really grasp how wide that is, but with a few of the trees having fallen over or being removed, that scale suddenly becomes a lot clearer.
Coombs – Old Country Market
After this impressive forest, head for Coombs and the Old Country Market alongside the road. Coffee, lunch and/or (massive!) ice creams with a view of the goats that walk and graze on the sod roof of the grocery store.
There are three restaurants here, the market sells fresh produce and fun, original gifts can be found here too. For those with an interest in metal toy cars, trains and other transport modes, check out the shop on the terrain. If you’ve ever wanted to find a particular collector’s item, this might just be the place to find it, or the right connection to buy it.
The market is open from March to December and can get very busy. There is no dedicated parking space which adds to its charm but also makes it rather chaotic. A quaint and fun short stop along the East-West connection.
If, you find yourself with time on your hands still, visit Nanaimo and go see seals, make it across to Gabriola Island or try one of their themed city walks. Whether you take a guided or make it a self-guided tour, there’s a restaurant tour, a beverage trail (beer and coffee) or go for the local claim-to-fame walk: the Nanaimo bar tour with 39(!) stops.
Out of time but still interested in that delicious layered no-bake chocolate covered treat? Cheat and try this recipe at home. By the way, did you know the recipe was first published in a hospital cookbook? Surely, that’s proof that chocolate is good for you, right?
Too short for so much beauty
There you have it, 48 hours on Vancouver Island. And on an island this beautiful, you can easily spend two weeks and still not be bored. If you’ve been here, what would you recommend? Surfing at Tofino? Island hopping in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve?