A historic seaside community, Victoria is rapidly transforming into a charming, cosmopolitan city brimming with world-class gardens, phenomenal farm-to-table cuisine and bucket-list-worthy museums.

A scenic jaunt across the Salish Sea aboard the Victoria Clipper ferry, traveling to Victoria requires little more than a current passport and weekend bag. To make the trip even sweeter, an excellent rate makes it hard to say no to a guilt-free weekend of shopping and exploring.

However, if you’re on a budget, there are plenty of ways to get to a feel of the city without breaking the bank. From scenic gardens and interesting public art to popular attractions loved by locals to hidden insider spots, here are 15 free things to do in Victoria that won’t cost you a single loonie.

1. Tour the Renowned Parliament Buildings

If anything epitomizes Victoria, it’s the iconic blue-green domed Parliament Buildings. Hop on one of the free, guided tours and the expert staff will fill you in on everything you want to know about this centuries-old building, from the stunningly-painted Memorial Rotunda to the ornate stained glass windows.

Look closely to catch sight of the many sculptures adorning the Parliament Buildings. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria
Look closely to catch sight of the many sculptures adorning the Parliament Buildings. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria

Time your visit to catch one of the debates from the Public Galleries when the Legislative Assembly is sitting. Or spend some time exploring the exterior of the building to uncover details you may have missed from the street. Discover the back fountain ringed with bronze animals or wander through the Premier’s Rose Garden. The scent alone is heavenly!

2. Experience the Return of the Queen at the Fairmont Empress

A renowned international landmark, it’s hard to find a locale that’s more quintessentially Victoria than the Fairmont Empress. A fixture in BC’s capital since it opened in 1908, the iconic hotel stands out as the crown jewel of Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Pop inside to check out the historic building, which seamlessly marries Old-World glamour and new World whimsy.

Visitors are immediately greeted with glamour in The Empress’ revamped reception lobby. Credit: The Fairmont Empress
Visitors are immediately greeted with glamour in The Empress’ revamped reception lobby. Credit: The Fairmont Empress

One step inside and the massive, cloud-like chandelier (crafted out of 250,000 hand-cut crystals) floating above the Empress lobby is sure to catch your eye. And that’s just the beginning. Make your way to Palm Court to see the Empress’ other lofty showstopper – the kaleidoscopic stained-glass dome. The hues of the glass shift with the weather, so every season you’re treated with a new look. Return visits are an absolute must!

The reconstructed dome high above the hotel’s Palm Court. Credit: Annarae
The reconstructed dome high above the hotel’s Palm Court. Credit: Annarae

3. Stroll through Victoria’s Vibrant Chinatown

A piece of advice: when you have the opportunity to experience North America’s second-oldest Chinatown district, be sure to explore every inch. Chock-full of everything from hidden courtyards and alleys to one-of-a-kind restaurants and a treasure trove of shops, we suggest exploring this colorful neighborhood on foot.

With its whimsical silhouette and bold color scheme, the Chinese Public School is perhaps Chinatown’s most distinctive heritage building. Photo: Charlie Chan
With its whimsical silhouette and bold color scheme, the Chinese Public School is perhaps Chinatown’s most distinctive heritage building. Photo: Charlie Chan

Walk underneath the immense Gate of Harmonious Interest, stroll down Fan Tan Alley, visit the vibrant Chinese Public School or the peaceful Tam Kung Temple tucked inside the Yen Wo Society Building.

4. Explore the Historic James Bay Neighborhood

Surrounded by water on three sides and with walkable pathways, if there’s one historic neighborhood that practically begs to be explored, it’s the bedroom community of James Bay. Get a feel for what life was like for Victoria’s earliest settlers and meander down Kingston and St. Lawrence Streets, where more than a half dozen heritage homes line the road.

Colorful heritage homes in Edwardian styles fill James Bay. Credit: Herb Neufeld
Colorful heritage homes in Edwardian styles fill James Bay. Credit: Herb Neufeld

Keep an eye out for Hollybank, Hatherleigh and Spring Cottage, all of which have serious curb appeal. Designed with storybook-like details, such as turrets, double chimneys, wraparound porches and spires, the homes are anything but understated.

5. Be One with Nature at Beacon Hill Park

A lush retreat in the middle of the city, Beacon Hill Park is a must-visit if you want to immerse yourself in nature for an hour or two. Brimming with an array of unique and colorful plants and flowers, the 75-hectare nature reserve is also home to forest, open fields and no shortage of beach access.

Vibrant plants and flowers fill Beacon Hill Park year-round. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria
Vibrant plants and flowers fill Beacon Hill Park year-round. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria

Combined with free-roaming peacocks as well as a full-on petting zoo filled with pigs, donkeys, rabbits, chickens and more, the park is animal-loving kid’s paradise. Catch the farm’s popular “Running of the Goats” at 10:10 a.m. and 5:10 p.m. daily and witness a furry, bleating stampede underfoot!

6. Spook Yourself on a Self-Guided Ghost Tour

Fan of a good ghost story? Known as the most haunted city in BC, Victoria offers no shortage of spooky places to visit. Swing by the Victoria Visitor Centre and pick up a ghost hunting guide and start tracking down the city’s notorious spooks. Pay a visit to Bastion Square, formerly a courthouse ruled by “the hanging judge,” Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, which is one of Victoria’s most haunted spots.

Many famous Canadians and Americans, including Sir James Douglas, Robert Dunsmuir and Emily Carr, are buried in this captivating cemetery. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria
Many famous Canadians and Americans, including Sir James Douglas, Robert Dunsmuir and Emily Carr, are buried in this captivating cemetery. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria

Explore the favorite haunts of some of Victoria’s oldest citizens. Or check out the hauntingly beautiful Ross Bay Cemetery, which is home to the last few historical burial plots in the city. You may even come back with a spooky story or two!

7. People Watch on the Causeway

To truly get a feel for Victoria’s downtown core, meander along the granite causeway circling the Inner Harbour. Soak in views of the Parliament Buildings and the Fairmont Empress on the outer perimeter and watch boats, both big and small, gliding in and out of the marina.

Drink in the picturesque views of the Parliament Buildings towering above Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria
Drink in the picturesque views of the Parliament Buildings towering above Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria

A go-to spot for people watching, there is no better place to stop and grab a drink at a café and watch the world go by as the sun sets on the water.

8. Check out the Brightly Colored Houseboats at Fisherman’s Wharf

Want more seaside goodness? Around the corner of Victoria’s Inner Harbour is Fisherman’s Wharf, a kid-friendly, floating hidden gem. Wander the docks and admire the dozens of multi-hued houseboats as they creak and bob with the tide.

Wander through a colorful collection of floating houseboats along Fisherman’s Wharf. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria
Wander through a colorful collection of floating houseboats along Fisherman’s Wharf. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria

Treat yourself to a scoop of gelato (or two!) at Victoria’s only floating ice cream store – Jackson’s Ice Cream. Serving up 16 flavors, they are hands-down one of the best spots in the city for frozen treats. Don’t forget to say “hi” to the playful harbor seals swimming along the docks. A kid favorite and a source of great entertainment, they’ll put on quite a show for you!

9. Snap a Totem Pole Selfie at Thunderbird Park

Wander through the vibrant, towering totem poles as well as a unique collection of First Nation monuments in Thunderbird Park. A hidden gem of a park, tucked into a quiet, tree-lined corner of town, the green space provides an excellent place to relax and soak in the remarkable art and native history.

Check out all the stunning totems in the peaceful Thunderbird Park: Credit: Destination Greater Victoria
Check out all the stunning totems in the peaceful Thunderbird Park: Credit: Destination Greater Victoria

Perhaps the most distinctive structure in the park is the colorful Wawadit’la. A wooden building with a gigantic painted grin spanning its face, it is also known as the Mungo Martin House, named after a famous local carver.

(Inside tip: With the exception of the heraldic pole, all the poles that you will see in the park are replicas carved by Mungo Martin and others. Visit the First Peoples Gallery inside the Royal BC Museum to see the original totem poles!)

10. Get Lost in the Finnerty Gardens

A secluded sanctuary on the edge of the University of Victoria campus, the Finnerty Gardens boast an extensive collection of spectacular plants and flowers. Pick up a map and find botanical bliss as you stroll past more trees and shrubs than you can count (there are more than 4,000 in case you are curious) and 35 flowerbeds bursting with a jaw-dropping display of perennials.

Brilliant blooms fill a massive rhododendron bush. Credit: Scott McDonald
Brilliant blooms fill a massive rhododendron bush. Credit: Scott McDonald

Don’t miss the garden’s massive assortment of 200 species of rhododendrons in a kaleidoscope of colors. One of the largest selections in the Pacific Northwest, this IS rhody heaven!

11. Discover the Rich History of Victoria at Government House

A stately, historic 1860 property with immaculate grounds, Government House is worth a visit any time of year. Hop on the one-hour guided tour to get a peek at the posh interior and pick up a little history along the way. Swing by the Cary Castle Mews & Costume Museum on the southeast side of the grounds to catch sight of colorful heraldic shields as well as former Lieutenant Governor’s uniforms and dresses worn by the lady of the house.

The spectacular Government Hosue is the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria
The spectacular Government Hosue is the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria

And let’s not forget about the stunning gardens. Visit-worthy enough on their own, the 36 acres of outdoor space is more than enough to keep you occupied. Wander to the front of the property to do a bit of bird watching at the Duck Pond. Or make your way toward the back of the lot for an unobstructed view of the 8.5-acre lands from the Woodlands Viewpoint.

Created in a traditional English style, the Government Houses gardens offer a splendid show of flowers in the spring and summer months. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria
Created in a traditional English style, the Government Houses gardens offer a splendid show of flowers in the spring and summer months. Credit: Destination Greater Victoria

12. Follow the Signs of Lekwungen

Want to learn more about the First Nations people who have resided in the Victoria area for hundreds of years? Follow the Signs of the Lekwungen, an interpretive walkway that wraps around the waterfront and surrounding areas.

Track down all seven of the unique, spindle whorl-shaped site markers carved by renowned Coast Salish artist Butch Dick. Each is placed in a culturally-significant spot, allowing you to discover more about the land, original inhabitants and the spirit of its people.

13. Bike the Galloping Goose

Lucky enough to stay at one of the many hotels in Victoria’s downtown core that offers up free bike usage? Pick up some wheels, saddle up and peddle along the charming 37-mile-long Galloping Goose Trail that stretches from Victoria to Sooke. Follow the road southwest across the picturesque Selkirk trestle under dense canopies of leaves, along rolling country farmland into the pristine wilderness of the Sooke Hills.

The Galloping Goose crosses the Selkirk Trestle, connecting Victoria West to the neighborhood of Burnside. Credit: Pedaler Cycling Tours
The Galloping Goose crosses the Selkirk Trestle, connecting Victoria West to the neighborhood of Burnside. Credit: Pedaler Cycling Tours

Or wind your way north through Saanich toward Sidney for excellent farm and beachfront views. There is no better way to get a complete picture of the region. For a seaside route, hop on the Lochside Regional Trail for 18 miles of beach-hugging road terminating near Sidney at the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal.

14. Appreciate BC’s Talented Artists at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Need an art fix? Head east of Victoria to the intimate Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to explore the museum’s seven modern galleries containing a thoughtfully curated collection of nearly 20,000 objects d’art from around the globe. The best part? Admission is pay-what-you-can the first Tuesday of each month, making it an affordable way to experience incredible works of art.

The cozy, historic Art Gallery of Greater Victoria feels like stepping into a friend's home. Credit: Blake Handley
The cozy, historic Art Gallery of Greater Victoria feels like stepping into a friend’s home. Credit: Blake Handley

Check out gorgeous carvings in the world-class Asian art collection as well as the best assortment of works by the famous local artist, Emily Carr, who perfectly captured the region’s landscape and First Nations peoples. Before you leave, duck outside into the Gallery’s tranquil Asian Garden.

Tucked among the bamboo and Japanese maples you’ll find the only authentic Japanese Shinto Shrine in North America. Styled after the architecture of the Meiji period Shinto Shrines, it is absolutely stunning.

15. See the City from Mt. Tolmie

If its big views, you’re after, make the easy two-kilometer trek to the top of Mount Tolmie. Affectionately known by locals as one of the “best places to view the city,” the summit serves up panoramic views of greater Victoria, Mount Douglas, Race Rocks, San Juan Islands, Mount Baker as well as sweeping ocean vistas. Watch for birds in the park’s sheltered natural areas or bring a blanket along for a picnic and quiet reflection.

Standing tall across the water, the snow-capped Mt. Baker will take your breath away. Credit: Mick Hall
Standing tall across the water, the snow-capped Mt. Baker will take your breath away. Credit: Mick Hall

Both quaint and hip, vibrant and cozy, you don’t need to empty your wallet to have a good time with your friends or family. Whether you spend the day exploring a historic “hood” or relaxing in a secret garden, Victoria holds an array of free things to do the next time you’re anxious for adventure.

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Feature Photo: Erik Lawrenz