Heritage Tourism in Victoria
Southern Vancouver Island is the traditional territory of the Coast Salish people. Europeans began to explore the Island in 1778, and established a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in 1843. It came to be known as Fort Victoria, and the settlement became a city in 1862, five years before Canada became a country.
Today’s Victoria commemorates its colourful narrative in many ways, including historic buildings and First Nations art. The city is home to one of the finest totem collections in the world at Thunderbird Park, part of the Royal British Columbia Museum. The museum, adjacent BC Parliament Buildings and aristocratic ivy-covered Fairmont Empress Hotel, are famous landmarks that celebrate the fascinating human history from their vantage points overlooking the Inner Harbour.
The Empress, designed by renowned architect, Francis Mawson Rattenbury, opened in 1908 as one of the grand and elegant Canadian Pacific Railway hotels. It was March 1892 that Rattenbury, then just 25 years old, was chosen after a year-long competition to design BC’s new Parliament Buildings. Construction began in 1893 using mostly local materials and resources. Granite foundations came from Nelson Island, facades were faced in Haddington Island stone and brick, lime and Douglas fir all came from Vancouver Island. The total cost when the project was completed in 1897 was $923,882 —well above the $600,000 budget.
In 1915, additions were completed to the East and West Annexes, as well as the south wing, housing the magnificent Legislative Library, with its elegant marble-panelled rotunda. These days, free guided tours provide a fascinating look at the craftsmanship and architectural detail inside.
Victoria has a rich history of Chinese immigration, and the city’s Chinatown, established in 1858, is the oldest in Canada. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1995 and is a fabulous place to explore. Discoveries include Fan Tan Alley, a former gambling district that is the narrowest commercial street in North America.
The city’s early neighbourhoods have evolved into vibrant villages and shopping districts and include Cook Street Village, Oak Bay Village, Fernwood, Estevan Village, Chinatown, and Fort Street – a fantastic destination for hunters of antiques and collectibles.
Overlooking the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour, Fort Rodd Hill was built between 1895 and 1900 as part of the coastal defence system. It remained in service for more than 50 years and was decommissioned in 1956. Today the fort is one of the best preserved and most complete of its kind in the world, and all structures are original.
Hatley Park National Historic Site is located on an Edwardian estate with a castle, formal gardens, old-growth forest with walking trails, and seaside lagoon. You may recognize Hatley Castle from the movies; it has been featured in many films, including the X-Men series.
The 1863 James Bay House where Canadian artist and author, Emily Carr, was born in 1871 is a National Historic Site, and a fabulous place to learn about her life and work. The house is a short walk south from the Inner Harbour on Government Street. A statue commemorating Carr was recently installed on the northeast corner of Government and Belleville streets.
Another exceptional survivor of pioneer days is Craigdarroch Castle, a glorious granite mansion built in 1889 by Robert Dunsmuir, British Columbia's first millionaire. Fisgard Lighthouse, the oldest on Canada’s west coast, stands at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour. Built by the British when Vancouver Island was still a Crown colony in 1860, Fisgard Lighthouse has guided mariners for generations. Its beam, which radiates out from the top of the 14.3-metre-high (47 feet) structure, is visible for ten nautical miles.
North of the city at Brentwood Bay, Butchart Gardens is a 22-hectare (55-acre) oasis of spectacular world-famous flowers and plants. The gardens, which began in a limestone quarry in 1904, was recognized as a National Historic Site in 2004, and is visited by nearly one million people each year.