Savor British high tea alongside craft brews and cheeses in Victoria, B.C., a city busy outgrowing its imperial past.
As its name suggests, Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, is a city that likes its tea and imposing 19th-century architecture. And in keeping with its location in the Pacific Northwest, Victoria also appreciates its local foods, boutiques, and beers. People who love London and people who love Portland will love Victoria. People who love both will probably want to move there.
Roughly equidistant from Vancouver to the east and Seattle to the south, Victoria was founded in 1843 as a British trading post on the Juan de Fuca Strait. The town's three marquee historical attractions—the Fairmont Empress Hotel, the 1897 Parliament Buildings, and the Royal B.C. Museum—cluster around its protected Inner Harbour. The museum offers an excellent introduction to the province's history, both natural and human. A sofa-size taxidermy sea lion and the carapace and legs of a yardwide crab testify to the natural bounty that sustained the Native Salish people for generations. Re-creations of a saloon, a tailor shop, and a parlor furnished with a 178-year-old harp supposedly played for Queen Victoria offer a glimpse of daily life circa 1900.
References to the queen are everywhere in her namesake city, despite the fact that she never set foot here. The jade-and-crimson window commemorating her diamond jubilee is a highlight of a tour of the Parliament Buildings. The care lavished on every detail of this provincial landmark, from the parquet floors of the reception hall to the faces in the plaster molding of the legislative chamber, illustrates the monumental spirit of Britain at its imperial zenith. Ten years after Parliament first convened here, the Empress Hotel across the street welcomed its first guests. A 477-room behemoth with slate roofs, turrets, and rose gardens, the Empress is famous for its afternoon tea, complete with sandwiches and raisin scones, served with tremendous pomp—and a price tag to match—on Royal Doulton china. King George V (grandson of Victoria) gazes placidly down from his portrait, which has hung here since 1908.
A more affordable option: Head to the White Heather Tea Room, where the pinwheel sandwiches and butter squares are first-class, but cost half as much. Moreover, you're just a four-minute drive from Craigdarroch Castle, an essential stop on any visit to Victoria. Scottish immigrant Robert Dunsmuir made a fortune in coal and spent a chunk of it to erect this 20,000-square-foot sandstone palace, completed in 1890. Step into the oak-paneled foyer and you're immersed in a bygone aesthetic. The gabled mansion's four sturdy floors support a treasury of clocks, spinets, velvet-upholstered furniture, and the odd macabre touch, like a mounted owl that glares down from a corner of the library ceiling.
If you'd like to work some of these motifs into your own decor, shops strung along Fort Street in the Harris Green neighborhood are full of suitable treasures. Applewood Antiques carries substantial pieces such as Georgian desks and a Victorian shelf apparently plucked out of Craigdarroch. For smaller purchases, perhaps a hand-tinted engraving or some art deco jewelry, try the Vanity Fair Antique & Collectibles Mall a few doors down.
Or set your sights on something new. Shops featuring local artisans fill Victoria's Old Town.
Farther from the harbor, in the trendy Fernwood district, She Said Gallery handles only local artists, and if you're in the market for a $5 pinkie ring made from a 1950s coat button, this is the place. Back on Fort Street, Leka carries silk dresses from the local Trapper Jane line as well as soft leather purses by Bonspiel, a Victoria designer. Just down the block, Hilary's Cheese sells its acclaimed wares including Sacre Bleu, made from the milk of goats raised in nearby Cowichan Bay. You can buy it by the piece or tucked in a sandwich to go.
Don't despair if you miss it—you'll have other chances for a taste. City restaurateurs love to promote the region's products, so you can sample Hilary's small-batch Yoo Boo Blue in an apple salad at Rebar Modern Food, a cozy basement spot decorated with antique pudding molds. Regional produce also shines at the newly opened Victoria Public Market, home to food vendors, butchers, and bakers. And at Canoe, a brewpub located in a former coal-fired electric power plant that lit streetlights back in 1894, every day brings a new farm-to-plate special, such as fried Rossdown Farms chicken. Or you could skip the menu and order a pint of bitter and the excellent cod and chips. It will feel very British. It will feel very Portland. It'll be very Victoria.
Photography by Robbie McClaran (5); courtesy of Tourism Victoria (tea service, Parliament)
This article was first published in September 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.