If you’re planning a trip to British Columbia, Canada, you’re probably wondering if you should visit Victoria or Vancouver. The two biggest cities in BC are only a few kilometers apart, but they are both very different. I lived in British Columbia for many years and I had the chance to spend a lot of time in both Victoria and Vancouver. In this guide I will talk about what makes each city unique and which one is better for travelers, whether you’re coming just for one day or staying much longer.
Although Victoria and Vancouver are only about 100 kilometers apart, they are separated by the Strait of Georgia, a waterway that is part of the Salish Sea. Thus, traveling between the two Canadian cities will require either a boat or plane trip, meaning you’ll have to plan carefully if you want to visit both Vancouver and Victoria in the same trip.
Victoria vs Vancouver – Essential Information
Before we start comparing Victoria and Vancouver as tourist destinations, I want to give you some background information on each city.
- 📍 Location: Vancouver is located in southwestern British Columbia, Canada. It is located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the Peach Arch border crossing into the USA.
- 📈 Population: There are almost 2.5 million people living in the Metro Vancouver area.
- ✈️ Airport: The Vancouver International Airport is located just south of central Vancouver, and is connected to the city center via the Canada Line light rail system.
- 🚢 USA Ferries – There are no passenger ferries from the USA to Vancouver.
- 🛳️ Cruise Terminal – Vancouver’s cruise ship terminal is right in the city center, at Canada Place. From here, downtown Vancouver is just steps away.
- 🚎 Public Transportation: Vancouver has a reliable network of light rail trains and buses.
- ☀️ Climate – By Canadian standards, Vancouver is warm year-round and sees snow infrequently. Don’t expect a white Christmas, but be prepared for a gray one as Vancouver receives up to 170 days of rain each year!
- 💭 Good to Know: Vancouver is the largest city in BC and the third-largest city in Canada. Vancouver is a very multicultural city and the influence of immigrant cultures is apparent in the city’s arts, cuisine and culture.
- 📍Location: Victoria is located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, which is situated in the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest. It is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) due north of Port Angeles, Washington.
- 📈 Population: There are almost 400,000 people living in Victoria’s Capital Regional District.
- ✈️ Airport: The Victoria International Airport is located north of the city center. To reach the city center, visitors should take a taxi as the public transit system is inconvenient (a minimum of two infrequent buses are required).
- 🚢 USA Ferries – Victoria has passenger and vehicle ferries to the USA. The Victoria Clipper has passenger and vehicle service from downtown Victoria to Seattle’s Pier 69. The Black Ball Ferry has passenger and vehicle service from downtown Victoria to Port Angeles, Washington.
- 🛳️ Cruise Terminal – Victoria’s cruise ship terminal is slightly outside the city center (but only a pretty fifteen-minute walk away). If you do walk into town, make sure to stop at Fisherman’s Wharf to see the colorful floating house boats and the resident seal families!
- 🚎 Public Transportation: Once you reach downtown Victoria, the rest of the city is easily accessible via bus.
- ☀️ Climate – Victoria’s location slightly south of Vancouver has earned it the title of Warmest City in Canada. It sees about 140 days of rain each year, but rarely experiences snow.
- 💭 Good to Know: Victoria is the capital city of the province of British Columbia, and while it is multicultural it has also taken great lengths to preserve its British Colonial heritage.
What is Vancouver Like?
Growing up in British Columbia, Vancouver was always seen as a cosmopolitan big city to rival Toronto or Montreal. As I got older, Vancouver became increasingly multicultural (today it is estimated that almost 30% of Vancouverites speak a language other than English at home) so it also became a place that I could visit to learn more about other cultures, including Chinese, Japanese and Indian.
Vancouver also covers a geographically large area, with Metro Vancouver including nearby cities like Richmond, Burnaby and New Westminster. Many of the popular tourist attractions in Vancouver are within walking distance of the downtown core (and some are dotted between busy office towers) but others require traveling further afield.
What is Victoria Like?
Victoria is a much smaller city than Vancouver (again, it has only one-fifth of the population) and most of its development has occurred outside the downtown core. This means that central Victoria still feels like a charming small town, where heritage buildings carved from stone line the streets and there is nary a skyscraper to be found. Some historic neighborhoods still maintain a distinct identity, like the Old English-esque Oak Bay Village and the hipster Cook Street Village (these aren’t actual villages – just neighborhoods with a strong sense of community!).
As with Vancouver, most of Victoria’s popular tourist attractions are in the city center. However, nature lovers will want to make the trip back towards the airport to visit The Butchart Gardens, a world-class horticultural landmark built into the former quarries of a wealthy local family.
Victoria vs Vancouver for a One-Day Trip
If you only have one day in British Columbia, Canada, I would recommend spending that one day in Victoria, BC. There are a few reasons why Victoria is ideal for a one-day trip:
- Victoria’s charming downtown area is unique to the city and unlike anything you can find in other major cities.
- Most attractions in Victoria are within easy walking distance of the central Inner Harbour area.
- The atmosphere in Victoria is calm and relaxed, unlike the hustle and bustle of downtown Vancouver.
- One day in Victoria is ample time to explore both the urban center and some of the natural coastline.
I recently wrote a guide to spending one day in Victoria BC, which walks you through the best things to see and do in Victoria in a single day.
It starts with a morning walking tour of the downtown core (you’ll see everything from the opulent Empress Hotel to the narrowest commercial street in North America, which is located in Victoria’s Chinatown neighborhood) and then has three options for your afternoon in Victoria: visiting the museum that earned a “royal” designation, heading out on the water for three hours of whale-watching, or strolling through the stunning Butchart Gardens.
Victoria vs Vancouver For a Longer Stay
If you are lucky enough to have more than one day, I recommend splitting your time equally between Victoria and Vancouver. With two days in each city you can have a trip that encompasses the best of small-town charm and big-city excitement.
If you’re spending two nights or less in each city, you’ll definitely want to book a central hotel. The earlier you book, the better your chances of getting a good deal on accommodation. Here are a few hotels that I can recommend, listed in order from most expensive to most affordable:
- Victoria | The Fairmont Empress • Delta Ocean Pointe • Oswego Hotel
- Vancouver | The Fairmont Pacific Rim • Auberge Vancouver • The Blue Horizon
If you have more time in each city (and especially if you have more time and a car) you can consider hotels further outside the center.
With two days each in Vancouver and Victoria, your itinerary could look something like this:
Day One – Vancouver
Explore the attractions in the center, near the waterfront. If you’re wearing comfortable shoes you can walk between all of these attractions (though a quick Uber or bus ride won’t hurt either!).
- Stanley Park
- Vancouver Aquarium
- Canada Place
- Robson Street (and the Vancouver Art Gallery)
- Chinatown’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (shown above)
Day Two – Vancouver
Use your car or public transportation to visit some of the Vancouver attractions that are outside the center. Take your pick from these popular Vancouver sights:
- Granville Island
- The University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology
- Science World
- Commercial Drive
- Capilano Suspension Bridge
Day Three – Vancouver to Victoria
Get an early start on Day 3 because you’ll have to travel across the Strait of Georgia to get to Victoria. Ideally you’ll travel by car to the Tsawwassen Bay Ferry Terminal, and board one of the early morning ferries to Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal in Sidney, BC. From here, it’s about 30 to 40 minutes by car into downtown Victoria.
The ferry ride itself is an experience you won’t forget. I love going out onto the exterior decks to look at the landscapes of the Gulf Islands and watch for pods of resident orcas swimming alongside the boat. Make sure to reserve your ferry tickets in advance, especially in the summer and on long weekends.
You should arrive in Victoria just in time for brunch. Then, starting in the early afternoon, you can follow the morning walking tour route outlined in my Victoria BC Day Trip Guide (there are also brunch recommendations in that guide!).
Day Four – Victoria
With your last full day in Victoria, you can choose two of the activities I recommended for the afternoon in my Victoria BC day trip guide:
- The Royal British Columbia Museum
- The Butchart Gardens
- Whale Watching on a High-Speed Zodiac
Or, you can explore some of the quaint neighborhoods that surround Victoria’s city center:
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Cook Street Village
- Oak Bay Village
Five Days or More in Vancouver and Victoria?
If you have more than five days in the area and are looking for more recommendations, leave a comment below letting me know what kind of things you’re interested in, and I can give you some personalized recommendations!
Final Thoughts on Victoria vs Vancouver
Although both Vancouver and Victoria are worth visiting, my personal opinion will always be that Victoria should be the priority if you have limited time in your Canada itinerary.
Vancouver is similar to many other big cities, although its spectacular waterfront location (with mountains in the background) is certainly noteworthy. There are many fun things to do in Vancouver, though they are not all within easy walking distance of one another.
On the other hand, Victoria is unique in that it has preserved its British heritage and small-town charm while simultaneously serving as home to some of Canada’s most interesting attractions. Victoria’s location on Vancouver Island means the entire city is surrounded by beautiful coastline and natural areas that you’ll remember for years to come.
Have you been to both Victoria and Vancouver? What did you think of these two cities in Western Canada? Let me know in the comments below!
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