Reflected in the unique heritage buildings that line downtown, the City of Victoria contains a unique history that adds character and intrigue to this beautiful, coastal capital.
Both the Spanish and British claim the first explorations of the Northwest Coast, with Juan Perez and James Cook as excursion leaders in the year 1774. However, the Coast Salish First Nations peoples had established communities here in the 1700s if not earlier and are the true, original inhabitants of this now bustling coastal region. The area that would later be established as Victoria along the Juan de Fuca Strait wouldn’t be explored for another 16 years after the initial 1774 explorations.
In the year 1841 James Douglas was commissioned to find an area in which a fur trading post could be constructed to coincide with the signing of the 1846 Oregon Treaty. He managed to do so in 1843 and Hudson’s Bay Company’s official trading post was born in an area originally known as Camosun – a Lekwungen alternative word for Camossung, the name of a young girl turned to stone in a Songhees legend. Camosun would later be renamed as Fort Victoria in the year 1846, in order to pay homage to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and quickly established itself in trading furs collected in what was known as New Caledonia. Fast-forward another 9 years, the profitable fur trade on the coast led to the official establishment of a British crown colony, of which Victoria was the capital. HBC is still a well-known and established company, although its current products are a far cry from the original otter skins and goods it provided back in the day. Bastion Square, the original site of the trading post, is now a popular spot due to its harbor views, restaurant patios and unique features that are perfect photo opportunities.
Hit by the discovery of gold along the coast in 1858 and acting as port, supply base and outfitting center for the miners headed to Fraser Canyon, Victoria boomed from 300 to 5,000 people in just a matter of days. Although the area experienced a bit of difficulty while trying to adjust to such a drastic increase in numbers, the influx of capital accommodated the addition of new buildings and business that helped maintain its upswing. In 1860 Victoria was declared a free port and the success of its established free trade was reflected in the commercial district of Wharf St. By 1862 Victoria was established as a city, making it one of the oldest in the Pacific Northwest, and three years later Esquimalt would become, and has remained, the west coast home of the Royal Navy.
Although Victoria became the provincial capital when British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871, it lost its commercial center title to Vancouver in 1886 with the construction of the transcontinental railway. So began the cultivation of Victoria into the city as we know it today! The establishment of the legislative buildings in 1897, the Butchart Gardens in 1904 (link), the Empress Hotel in 1908 (link) and many other prominent city features such as the Craigdarroch Castle and Hatley Park are just some of the unique touches of character that remain from those times and that can be seen today.
Now, Victoria possesses one of the oldest China Towns in North America, second only to the one in San Francisco. It also boasts the title of the 15th most populous Canadian urban region, with the entire Greater Victoria Area being called home by 344,615 people. Numbeo has dubbed Victoria one of top 20 cities for quality of life, and TripAdvisor named the city Canada’s Top Destination in 2010.
Many of the historical buildings that line the downtown core of Victoria still resound with the rich history of the time of their construction.
One of the most prominent features of Victoria’s harbor-front walkway, the Victoria Parliament Buildings have been around since 1890 when they replaced the original government buildings, the “Birdcages,” established in 1859. Construction of the buildings was lead by a young Francis Rattenbury, who would also go on to construct the infamous Empress Hotel, another landmark on the waterfront. The new buildings celebrated their formal opening on February 10th, 1898 in a ceremony where Lieutenant Governor R.R. MacInnes arrived via horse-drawn carriage to commence the first session of Provincial Legislature held in the new buildings. The final additions, however, continued on for another 25 years. Their stunning architecture and luminescent façade, which is lit up at night, make these buildings easily establish a place on most Top 10 Things To Do in Victoria lists – visit ours to learn more about the materials and construction of the buildings as well as what to expect from tours.
An established symbol of Victoria, the Empress Hotel was originally built for the Canadian Pacific Railway and is now one of the most exemplary landmarks of the Edwardian Era. The Hotel had its grand opening in 1908 and since then Kings and Queens have waltzed across the ballrooms and lounged within its elegant comfort, Hollywood stars have come to enjoy the stunning harbor view and many other prominent, worldwide figures have enjoyed their outstanding hospitality. Designed by the same architect who created the hotel’s neighbor, the British Columbia Parliament Buildings, Francis Rattenbury the chateau-style hotel now possesses 4 restaurants (rumor has it the Bengal Lounge, themed to reflect Queen Victoria’s trip to India, was influenced by Rudyard Kipling, a frequent guest), a spa, the crystal ballroom and many other feature rooms typical to that style of building. A lounge known as the Tea Lobby serves Afternoon Tea to more than 800 guests a day since its commencement with the opening of the hotel, January 20, 1908. After millions of dollars in renovations and updates in order to keep the hotel alive and thriving, the Empress Hotel is a key aspect of both Victoria’s rich past and positive future.
This legendary castle is one of the older historic sites in Victoria with its construction beginning in the 1800’s. Robert Dunsmuir, an affluent coal baron, was in charge of the castle being built, and had plans to live in the elegant building with his wife, 2 sons and 8 daughters upon its completion. Unfortunately, Dunsmuir never attained that dream as he tragically passed away just 17 months before construction had finished. Now, the 39 rooms that make up the 25,000sqft castle are part of a museum and are frequented by many of Victoria’s visitors each year. Boasting what is known as a Richardsonian Romanesque style this bonanza castle, a type of housing built by entrepreneurs for bragging rights, features magnificent stained glass, delicate woodwork and extravagant Victoria-era furnishings. By wandering both the mansion and grounds, tourists gain a first-hand look at what it would have been like to be a privileged family in the 1890s. Climbing the magnificent staircase, visitors also experience sweeping views of Victoria from the Castle’s turret and hilltop location.
Extravagant taste ran in the Dunsmuir family, as the Hatley Castle was built on behalf of James Dunsmuir, the son of the baron who built the also famous Cragdarroch Castle above. One of the last-standing Edwardian Estates in B.C. the 200ft building is now part of Royal Roads University but spent many years hosting a Military College after the deaths of the its residents, James, his wife Laura and their daughter Eleanor. The building itself is 200ft long, 86ft wide and possesses an 82ft high turret. When the Dunsmuir family was still alive, the Conservatory held imported white orchids from India, a banana tree and year-round the rooms were decorated with flowers grown in the building. Now, visiting the castle and its expansive surrounding estate, which contains a bird sanctuary, Japanese and Italian Gardens as well as a salt marsh estuary, is a fantastic way to be immersed in both Victoria’s history and incredible nature.
With the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the booming Gold Rush, Victoria witnessed a huge influx of Chinese immigrants, who established themselves into what became the largest Chinese community in Canada during the 1800s. It is now the oldest Chinatown in Canada and second oldest in all of North America with the Chinatown in San Francisco taking first place. Visitors enter the area through the 11.5m Gate of Harmonious Interest, guarded by two hand-carved lions that made their journey from Suzhou, China. The gate was built in 1981 and pays homage to the contribution of the Chinese people and their heritage in establishing Victoria.
Tucked away inside the shop-lined streets is one of Victoria’s highlights, Fan Tan Alley, which also claims the title of being Canada’s narrowest street. The shops located here are quite tame compared to the opium dens and gamblers who used to fill the alley enjoying games of fan-tan or dominoes.
Due to its rich history, it comes as no surprise that Victoria also possesses its fair share of ghost stories and allegedly haunted sites. Some of the city’s most famous buildings are also the most haunted and many prominent historical figures are still said seen wandering their homes and favourite city hangouts. Below are just two of hundreds of haunted sites, many of which are featured on walking Ghost Tours, to be found in Victoria:
Nicknamed the “hanging judge,” Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie sat on the Supreme Court of Canada as the first chief Justice of British Columbia. The old Supreme Court building was built upon the city’s jail and first gallows where many of the men who were hung there (27 of them sentenced by Begbie himself) still remain buried below. Because of this, the popular daytime square is said to also play host to many nighttime guests, including Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie himself, who wanders his old office and the Maritime Museum.
The architect of two of Victoria’s most famous buildings, the Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel, was discovered murdered in his home in Bournemouth, England in 1935, with his skull still bearing the blows it received from a carpenter’s mallet. Francis’ personal history is riddled with scandal and an indiscrete affair and it is thought that his murder, although blamed on George Stoner – his 2nd wife’s secret lover, was actually the work of the wife herself after they’d fled Victoria for England. Destined to pay for her actions, Ms. Rattenbury stabbed herself six times upon hearing her lover’s sentence, dying before his sentence had been revised. Perhaps seeking further justice for his murder or recognition for his famous works, Francis’ ghost is said be seen wandering both the Parliament Buildings and Empress Hotel afterhours.