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Hidden Victoria: Inside Canada’s Most British City

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A large number of people who visit Victoria, British Columbia for the first time, arrive on one of the many cruise ships that dock in the harbor almost every day in the spring and summer. But if you truly want to experience this Canadian city, you’ll need to give yourself more than a day. Contributing writer Lilit Marcus explores can’t-miss destinations in Victoria. 

One of the more convenient ways is to head north from Seattle on the Victoria Clipper ferry or via Vancouver on the BC Ferry (which also lets you bring your car). Victoria has a long-standing reputation for being the most English city in Canada. But if you walk just a few blocks past the overpriced British candy and tea stores meant for tourists, you will get a much better, more genuine sense of the real, multicultural, authentic Victoria that the locals get to experience. Read on to find out where you should eat, visit, shop, and sleep to go beyond the brochures.

munro's booksMunro’s Books

Owned by the former husband of Canadian author and recent Nobel Prize for Literature winner Alice Munro, this Government Street store is where Victorians pick up everything from international design magazines to the latest bestsellers. You can’t beat the crowd-watching, and you’ll also feel good for supporting a local bookstore. The sale section often has unexpected treasures, so be on the lookout.

Oh Sugar

If you want to indulge your sweet tooth like a Victorian, head to Oh Sugar, a candy shop on the uber-trendy Johnson Street. You will definitely find British sweets like Cadbury and Aero bars, but you’ll also see treats from Poland, Mexico, Australia, Japan, and other countries, which hint to  Victoria’s large expat population.

Venus Sophia

Victoria is legendary for its afternoon teas, particularly the one at the Empress Hotel downtown. It’s okay to walk into the hotel lobby, but why pay more than $60 and wait in line for an hour? The locals know they can get quality afternoon teas for less money and hassle. Head to Venus Sophia, a gorgeous tea room just across the street from the famous Fan Tan Alley. The place has cozy, white chairs and comfortable cushions. They also offer an assortment of vegetarian tea sandwiches and can provide gluten-free desserts for visitors with dietary restrictions. At $30 with tip, it’s a much more authentically local experience, and there’s rarely a wait to get in.

abkhaziAbkhazi Garden

Most visitors to Victoria stop by the Butchart Gardens, a national historic site in Canada. But while these gardens are certainly beautiful, they’re also usually jammed with tourists who bought package deals on the ferry over from Seattle or their hotel. If you want to see gardens without having to spend a whole day getting there and back or paying $200 for the privilege, stay in Victoria and visit the Abkhazi Garden in the residential Gonzales neighborhood instead. Abkhazi was the life project of a Georgian prince and his wife, who traveled the world before settling in Victoria. The gardens are free, although donations go toward upkeep. You have a pretty high chance of being one of the only people in the garden, giving you the relaxation and contemplation that define an authentic garden experience. Also (surprise!) there’s an afternoon tea here, but unlike Butchart you do not need to make reservations in advance. The garden is also a short walk from the Ross Bay Cemetery, which is rich in local history and has picturesque views of the ocean.

Silk Road Tea

If afternoon tea is not quite your thing or you’d prefer to get some teabags to go, Chinatown’s Silk Road Tea has everything a drinker could want, including custom blends, iced and hot beverages, and recommendations on the best ways to prepare your teas at home, complete with handwritten notes. Silk Road also made a custom black-tea blend exclusively for the Royal British Columbia Museum downtown, so you can get your history, culture, and caffeine fixes all at once…and did we mention the tea spa treatments?

zedHotel Zed

  • For an experience you can’t easily duplicate in Victoria or anywhere else, book a room at the newly-opened Hotel Zed, just outside of central Victoria in a onetime fleabag motel that has been spruced up with kicky colors and a cool vintage theme. The rooms are cute but still functional and contain retro touches like rotary phones and complimentary comic books. The hotel’s outside of the main tourist area, which means you’ll get a better sense of how the locals live, but you can borrow bikes or catch a ride on the hotel’s free shuttle bus—a restored ‘60s VW van—if you need to get around.

For more travel insight from Lilit Marcus, check out:

By Lilit Marcus for Peter Greenberg.com. Marcus is a New York City-based travel writer and tea addict. Her first book, Save the Assistants, was published by Hyperion. You can also look for her work in the Wall Street JournalTeen Vogue, and The Forward. You can find her on Twitter @lilitmarcus.

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