City by the Sea | The History, Art, and Aesthetics of Victoria, B.C.
Exploring one of the more unexpected hubs of art and culture in British Columbia
During the summer months, the ocean-side city of Victoria is bustling with tourists who pack the streets, snapping pictures of the city’s endless views while enjoying the plethora of dining options.
But despite its summer-time popularity, Victoria is a place to explore year-round. Victoria is popularly known for its stunning views, temperate climate and somewhat isolated geography. However, it’s also a city rich in history, culture, and art.
From the historic colonial Legislative Assembly to the narrow passageways in Chinatown, to the very grand and impressive Hatley Castle – there is never a shortage of things to see in this quaint coastal city.
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Built-in 1889 and originally known as the Spencer Mansion, the greater Art Gallery of Victoria has been in modern existence since 1951. Today the gallery boasts more than 20,000 works of art – the largest in BC – and is one of the most vibrant art institutions in the province.
Inside the mansion, you’ll find seven galleries, all showcasing a multitude of art exhibitions. One of the permanent displays is of Emily Carr, who is one of BC’s and Canada’s most renowned artists.
The Gallery also has one of the most exquisite Asian art collections that consist of incredible amber and ivory carvings and a grand Chinese Bell that was cast during the Ming dynasty. Outside the Gallery in the Asian Garden, there lies something truly remarkable: the only authentic Japanese Shinto Shrine in North America.
The Legislative Assembly of BC
Situated near the picturesque inner-harbour is one of the most stunning buildings in all of Victoria: The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Also known as The Parliament Buildings, the colonial era buildings - which sit on more than 12-acres of property - were erected in 1864 as the elected assembly for the Colony of Vancouver Island. The buildings were later renamed the Legislative Assembly of B.C. in 1871 when BC became a Canadian province.
Not only do the Parliament Building grounds offer scenic views of Victoria’s inner-harbour, there’s also guided tours available inside the legislature for those interested in learning about BC’s political history.
Because the legislature is situated in such a central location, there is no shortage of restaurants and bars to eat a hearty meal or sip a cold beverage, while ruminating over a history lesson.
Fan Tan Alley
On the edge of Victoria’s Chinatown (the oldest Chinatown in Canada) sits a rather unique place: Fan Tan Alley. Today, it’s a great place to do some shopping, get some homemade treats or even vintage records. However, it’s Fan Tan Alley’s history that it makes it such a remarkable and truly fascinating place.
Allegedly named after the Chinese gambling game “Fan-Tan”, the alley was once home to a thriving gambling district complete with opium dens. Given it’s edgy and lengthy history, rumour has it that the alley is haunted and there is even a local company that will take you on a guided tour – if you’re brave enough.
Hatley Castle has a diverse and unique history. Originally it was commissioned to be built by BC’s Lieutenant Governor James Dunsmuir and his wife in 1906 as a 40+ room mansion. They hired renowned Canadian architect Samuel Maclure to do the job.
Eventually, the site was sold to the government, and during World War Two it was re-named the Royal Naval College of Canada and acted as a training ground for naval cadets.
The site has also been designated as a National Historic Site and today the grounds are home to Royal Roads University.
Located directly in the heart of downtown Victoria is Bastion Square. Visitors are greeted by a large archway as they enter from downtown, and once they cross through they’ll find a multitude of pubs (some with some of the best patio views in all of Victoria), restaurants and shops.
Located at the entrance of the Square is Garrick’s Head Pub which is one of the oldest English pubs in Canada. History has it that during Victoria’s mining boom Judge Matthew Begbie from the neighbouring courthouse used to send condemned prisoners to have their last meal at the Garrick’s Head (called the Garrick’s Head Saloon then).
During the weekend there are often buskers performing through the square, and during the summer months, there is a weekly market that offers a bounty of local goods.