Vancouver Day Trips to Victoria, BC

The Nixons honeymooned here. “Who’s Who” listed the Empress Hotel as New York tycoon Pierpont Morgan’s summer family residence. Beautiful Victoria has half the rain and twice the history of Vancouver with a wonderfully walkable waterfront and few high-rises. It’s only a day trip from Vancouver thanks in part to super ferries that run between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay.

In a day, you can easily walk the downtown core where the very English Government Street gleams with mahogany and stained glass heritage buildings. Stop by tobacconist E.A. Morris or Munro’s (the “best bookstore in Canada” according to “Maclean’s” columnist Allan Fotheringham) or Roger’s (which will ship hockey puck-sized chocolates to Buckingham Palace or your house). The Empress Hotel still pours 1.6 million cups of afternoon tea a year in its splendid lobby, but curry “tiffin” is equally divine in the Bengal Lounge. Less well known: summer tea on the heavenly gardens of Point Ellice House (take the mini Victoria Harbour Ferry). The flip side of Victoria includes the arboreal charms of Ross Bay Cemetery, second hand stores on Johnson, hip Hoi Polloi’s mix of quirky Mexican and Canadian art, breakfast at the Re-bar Modern Foods and a walk on Songhees Westsong Way.

Getting To Victoria, from Vancouver

Tourists visiting the area for the first time often find the names a little confusing at first. The first thing to remember is, the city of Vancouver and Vancouver Island are two separate places.

Victoria is a city located on Vancouver Island, about 107 km (76 miles) southwest of Vancouver across the ocean waters of the Straight of Georgia. There are no bridges between the two. Hence, you’ll need to either sail or fly to cross the waters between the City of Vancouver and Vancouver island. Hence, traveling to Victoria from Vancouver’s lower mainland can involve road transportation, air transportation and / or sailing on a ferry. You may want to consider all three, especially of you are going for a day trip. Confused yet? Here is a suggested itinerary for those making their own way by car (not on an organized tour bus) that may help. Your day trip could look something like this:

  • Taking a day trip from Vancouver to Victoria

    • Leave your downtown hotel early in the morning (try to catch the first ferry of the day)
    • Arrive in Victoria’s Inner Harbour by around noon
    • Walk to check out the attractions and sights of Downtown Victoria
    • Catch one of the last Harbour Air flights to Vancouver around 5 or 6 pm, or make your way back to the ferry terminal to return by ferry. Last ferries during summer months depart at around 7pm and 9pm. Allow one to two hours to get to the terminal and board depending on traffic.

The trip, by car or bus and ferry, takes approximately 4 hours each way. About 1.5 hours of the trip is actually under sail. The rest is driving, boarding and waiting time.

Since the ferry lands in Swartz Bay, about a half hour drive up island, north of Victoria’s Inner Harbour, where the action and most tourism highlights are centered, returning by air can cut a few hours off of your journey and add an exciting dimension to your journey. Harbour Air flies a fleet of float planes directly from downtown Vancouver to Downtown Victoria.

If you are planning to take the ferry between Vancouver and Victoria (or vice versa) as a walk on, especially if it’s your first time on a BC Ferry, we strongly recommend scheduling a seat on a coach line or a bus tour. Most buses leave from downtown and make scheduled and reserved stops along the way to pick up passengers at hotels and landmarks on their way to the ferry terminal. The buses load onto the ferry. Once on the ferry passengers may leave their bus to explore the ferry, visit one of the ferry’s restaurants, or get a Starbucks coffee and take in the spectacular ocean and island views during the sailing. Keep and ear open for the announcement, about 15 minutes before docking, advising you to return to your bus. After docking, the bus will make the trip in to Victoria Harbour (downtown) in about 30-40 minutes (or into Downtown Vancouver in about 1 hour).

Taking the Ferry to Victoria

Ferries leave approximately every 2 hours and passengers should be at the terminal at least 30 minutes prior to departure. In the summer, ferries leave every hour but there is more car traffic so you should be there at least 45 minutes prior to departure. You can make a reservation but it will cost extra (604.444.2890 or 1.888.724.5223). For schedules and fares contact BC Ferries at 1.888.223.3779 or 250.386.3431. For BC Ferry Reservations call 1.888.724.5223 within BC, or 604.444.2890 outside of BC.

If you are driving, you will have two options:

  1. Paid Parking – Leave your car at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal parking lot. Follow the signs as you drive into the ferry area. You can pay by credit card in advance and record your parking stall number and the toll free number in case you want to dial in to add more time in the event of a return sailing delay, or of you simply decide to stay longer than expected. Several ferry routes operate from both the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal to the south of Vancouver and the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal to the North of Vancouver (which does not sail to Victoria). Watch for the colored line on the terminal floors to guide you to your ferry’s waiting area.
  2. Drive on to the Ferry – In this case, listen carefully to the attendant when you stop before entering the waiting area. The attendant will assign you a lane number. Drive into the assigned lane, stop and shut off your car if you need to wait. If you have time, you can do some souvenir shopping or buy food in the ferry lineup area. Vehicle boarding is very organized and efficient. Simply follow the car in front of yours, in the same lane. once on board you can leave your car to explore the ship. Keep an ear open for the announcement to return to your car before arriving to your destination and make your way back to your vehicle at that time. When leaving the ferry, you will continue to drive forward and exit through the opposite end of the ferry. Pricing for regular sized vehicle is based on a rate for one vehicle and one drive, plus the walk-on passenger rate for each additional passenger you bring in your vehicle.

Also be aware that all vehicles are boarded on a first-come first-served basis. At peak sailing times, it is not uncommon for the ferry to fill up. If so, you could have a one or even a two sailing wait before you drive your vehicle onboard. Once you have purchased your ticket, you will know if you are able to board or need to wait for the next ferry.

Either way, you should arrive at the terminal at least 30 minutes in advance. As a foot passenger, there is a lengthy walk, about five minutes, between the ticket gate and the boarding area. When we have taken the ferry, the ticket windows have closed 10 minutes before scheduled sailing times, no exceptions. We have found BC Ferry staff to be very pleasant and accommodating.

Bus Tours from Vancouver to Victoria

(12-13 hour tours with complimentary pick-up and drop off at your downtown hotel.) A number of Vancouver companies offer escorted day trips to Victoria. Itineraries vary, but most include sightseeing in Victoria, and some tours include a visit to the world famous Butchart Gardens or a whale-watching trip.

Flying from Downtown Vancouver to or returning from Downtown Victoria

Although major airlines do fly from Vancouver to Victoria airports, if you are starting your trip from the downtown of either city, we suggest flying Harbour Air. During the summer flights depart between approximately 7 am and 6 pm according to a quick check of the Harbour Air schedule at time of writing for flights between May 2, 2016 – September 18, 2016. With a quick check on the Harbour Air website we found regular prices of $205.37 for July flights a few weeks in advance and up to $234.56 for flights one week out.

A quick check in, June 2016, of major airline flights from Vancouver, YVR, International Airport to the Victoria, YYJ, Airport showed most price between $150 and $250. This included flights with Air Canada and Westjet.

Flight time is about 35 minutes with Harbour Air and slightly less for the major airlines if flying direct.

Key considerations in your decision to take a float plane or with fly with one of the major airlines are:

  • Transportation time and expense to get to and from the Victoria and Vancouver International Airports
  • Your comfort level with either types of airplanes and carriers
  • Weather; since the float planes are smaller and do have to take off and land on water, they can sometimes be cancelled in the event of windy weather or excessively choppy waters. Typically, the summer months along BC’s south coast (Vancouver and Victoria) are very calm.

Getting To Victoria from Washington State

Ferries routes operating between Washington State and Vancouver Island include:

  • The Victoria Clipper – a walk on passenger only ferry which sails between Downtown Seattle and Downtown Victoria’s Inner Harbour (sailing time from 1.45 hours to 3 hours)
  • Black Ball Transport, M.V. Coho – a walk on / drive on ferry sailing between Port Angeles, WA and Victoria, BC (approximately 1.5 hours sailing time)
  • Washington State Ferries – a walk on / drive on ferry sailing between Anacortes, WA and Sidney, BC (approximately 3 hours sailing time)