white and blue boat on dock near green and white concrete building during daytime

First Time Visiting Vancouver Island: The Perfect 3-Day Itinerary

Located off the west coast of British Columbia, Vancouver Island is one of the most beautiful places in Canada. The island is home to some of the world’s most pristine forests, rugged coastlines, and fascinating wildlife. As such, it’s a paradise for nature enthusiasts, wildlife spotting, and outdoor recreational activities.

And, on top of the island’s stunning natural beauty, it also has historic cities, beautiful architecture, interesting culture, and some of BC’s best wine regions! Therefore, there truly is something for every type of traveler. But, with so much to see and do, if you’re visiting the island for just a few days, you might wonder how you can fit it all in.

Luckily, many of Vancouver Island’s best attractions can be easily accessed from BC’s capital city, Victoria. Basing yourself here, you will be able to experience as much of the island as possible in a short space of time. So, here is the ideal 3-day Vancouver Island itinerary from Victoria, to make sure you get the most out of your trip.

Day 1: Explore Victoria

Travel to Victoria

Vancouver Island Ferry passage
Photo Credit: Chanelle Rosenbaum

You can get to Vancouver Island either by ferry or by flying. The easiest and most popular option is to take the ferry to Victoria or Nanaimo from Vancouver. But flying into Victoria International Airport (YYJ) will be your best option if you’re traveling internationally.

The advantage of traveling by ferry from mainland BC is that you can bring your car with you, which makes exploring the island much easier. But, if you don’t have a car, don’t worry, as you can rent a car on the island, and there are also public transport options in the city, as well as tours you can book which include transportation.

If you’re able to get the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria, this is a wonderful way to start your Vancouver Island adventure. The ferry ride itself is very enjoyable as there are plenty of beautiful views to take in during the sailing, in particular the section through Active Pass.

Butchart Gardens

Once you arrive in Victoria, drop your bags off at your hotel and then make your way to the world-famous Butchart Gardens. The gardens span 55 acres of an old quarry site in nearby Brentwood Bay, displaying millions of colorful plants, with over 900 varieties. It has even been designated as a National Historic Site of Canada!

This is a beautiful place to explore for a couple of hours, and there are several onsite eateries where you can grab a coffee or a bite to eat, including the Dining Room Restaurant inside the original Butchart family residence.

If you have a car, it will probably be between a 20–30-minute drive to the gardens, depending on where your hotel is. Or you can book a tour that includes round-trip transportation from downtown Victoria, with multiple departures throughout the morning.

Explore the City

Parliament Building Victoria
Photo Credit: Chanelle Rosenbaum

Once you get back from the gardens, spend the afternoon exploring the city center. Victoria is an extremely pedestrian-friendly city, with various car-free zones, and all the main attractions are within walking distance of each other. So, it’s easy to navigate on foot.

With a strong British influence, the city is full of historic landmarks, stately hotels, waterfront parks and boardwalks, excellent shopping districts, and fascinating museums and galleries. Some of the key sites you should aim to visit are the historic Inner Harbor, the British Columbia Parliament Building (where you can take a free guided tour), and Cook Street Village for eclectic stores, quaint coffee shops, and British-style pubs.

Tea House Victoria
Photo Credit: Chanelle Rosenbaum

For a quintessential Victoria experience, stop at one of the city’s many tea houses for high tea in the early afternoon. This traditional English afternoon tea typically comprises a selection of teas and freshly baked scones, finger sandwiches, pastries, and other desserts, served in an elegant dining room. The city’s most iconic location to enjoy this tradition is the Fairmont Empress, which has been serving high tea for 110 years!

And, time permitting, consider visiting the Royal BC Museum to see its huge collection of natural and human history artifacts and First Nations art, as well as to learn more about British Columbia’s unique history.

Brewery Bay

Victoria is the birthplace of British Columbian beer, with brewing in the city dating back to 1858. Plus, the city is home to Canada’s first brewpub, Spinnakers, which opened in 1984. There are now over a dozen brewpubs which operate in the Greater Victoria area and, along with several other tap houses, liquor stores, and restaurants, they form part of the self-guided BC Ale Trail.

To experience some of the Ale Trail’s best beer and food, spend the evening in Brewery Bay – a walkable ring of brewpubs and breweries surrounding downtown Victoria’s Upper Harbor. Here, you will be able to sample the best local craft beers and refuel from your big day of exploring with some fantastic pub fare and comfort food.

Day 2: Outdoor Adventures

Coastal Hike

Pacific Rim National Park
Photo Credit: Chanelle Rosenbaum

The second day of your Vancouver Island itinerary is all about experiencing the island’s stunning nature. If the island is known for one thing, it’s for its unique hiking trails through some of Canada’s most pristine and rugged landscapes, like the iconic West Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park.

Although venturing out this far will be a little too ambitious for a 3-day itinerary, there are still some beautiful hiking opportunities within easy reach of Victoria.

In particular, pack some water and snacks and head out to East Sooke Regional Park for the morning. Depending on traffic, the park is within a 35-to-45-minute drive of downtown and has 50 kilometres of coastal trails through varied terrain including rocky coastline, lush rainforest, and sheltered coves. Plus, from certain points, you will get beautiful views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

To make sure you have enough time in the park, you should aim to start your hike early in the morning. Aiming to get there by 8 am will ensure you can comfortably spend 2 to 3 hours exploring some of the shorter trails, before making your way back downtown for your afternoon adventure.

King George Terrace Lookout Victoria
Photo Credit: Chanelle Rosenbaum

Or, for some hiking spots even closer to the city, check out Goldstream Provincial Park, Thetis Lake Regional Park, Jocelyn Hill, Mount Finlayson, or Matheson Lake Regional Park.

Whale Watching

For a true Vancouver Island experience, the next activity for the day is to go whale watching.

Vancouver Island is one of the best places in the world for whale watching, and sightings on many tours are even guaranteed! You’re likely to see humpback whales, Pacific grey whales, and killer whales (also known as Orcas) traveling through the island’s waters from April to October each year.

But whales can be spotted off the island year-round, as there is some crossover between the last departing and earliest returning whales each year. Plus, around 500 resident whales are living off the island’s coast.

Multiple tour companies operate daily whale-watching tours from downtown Victoria. Most are half-day tours that depart in the early afternoon and are fully guided.

A whale-watching tour on Vancouver Island will not only allow you to see these gentle giants in the wild, but it will also give you the chance to spot other marine and wildlife along the way. Some of the other animals you could expect to see are sea lions, porpoises, bald eagles, and sea birds.

Some of the tour boats offer hot beverages on board, but snacks are not usually provided. Therefore, it’s a good idea to pick up some lunch from one of the food vendors along the harbor before starting the tour, to see you through the afternoon.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Vancouver Island Fisherman Wharf
Photo Credit: Chanelle Rosenbaum

After a big day of adventure, you’ve probably worked up a healthy appetite. And there’s no better way to relax after a big day of activities on the coast than with a hearty plate of fresh fish and chips!

In the evening head down to Victoria’s vibrant Fisherman’s Wharf to see colorful float homes and working fishing vessels and explore a range of unique shops and local food vendors. In particular, the wharf is famous for its casual seafood restaurants, and there’s no better place to indulge in the day’s freshest catch than at Barb’s Fish & Chips.

This iconic eatery serves some of Victoria’s best fish, seafood chowder, Fanny Bay oysters, Salt Spring mussels, and clams, as well as delicious house-made burgers for those who aren’t seafood fans. You can either enjoy the atmosphere by dining at one of the wharf’s open-air picnic tables or take your food to go and eat in one of the nearby parks.

And, for dessert, grab an ice cream from Victoria’s famous floating ice cream shop, Jackson’s Ice Cream.

Day 3: Wine Region

Cowichan Valley

One of the best day trips you can do from Victoria is to the Cowichan Valley. This charming region has an abundance of quaint villages, farms, artisanal food producers, and, most famously, some of Canada’s best wineries, craft breweries, and distilleries.

As one of British Columbia’s largest wine-producing and farming regions, this is a fantastic place to learn about the winemaking and farming processes, sample local wines, and experience the best of Vancouver Island’s gastronomy.

You can drive to the Cowichan Valley to explore the area on your own. Many of the vineyards can accommodate last-minute guests. However, if you want to enjoy a wine tasting it’s best to book in advance, as some are by appointment only.

Alternatively, various companies operate day tours to the Cowichan Valley from Victoria and include stops at several of the valley’s most prominent wineries. This is a great way to experience the best of the valley hassle-free and taste some delicious local wines and produce. Most tours depart at 10 am and return to Victoria around 3 pm.

Relax at the Beach

Once you return to Victoria, if you have some time to spare before departing the island, end your trip by heading to one of the city’s beautiful beaches.

Clever Point Park, Willows Beach, Cadboro Bay, Gordon Head Beach Park, and Telegraph Cove are some of Victoria’s best beaches and are all within easy reach of downtown.

Additional Days on Vancouver Island

If you prefer to experience Vancouver Island at a more leisurely pace and have a couple more days to spare, you could easily spread this 3-day itinerary out over 4 to 5 days. This will also enable you to take some extra time to explore more of the city of Victoria.

In the city, there are more fantastic museums and galleries, some of Canada’s best SUP and sea kayaking opportunities, various guided tours, excellent shopping areas, restaurants and bars, and quaint nearby towns worth visiting like Sidney by the Sea.

Or, if you have a week or two to explore Vancouver Island, some of the best places to visit include the surf town of Tofino; Pacific Rim National Park – for epic hiking trails and beautiful old-growth forests; the Comox Valley, which is the region’s adventure sports hub; and northern Vancouver Island for the island’s most rugged coastlines and wild untamed beaches.

Vancouver Island FAQs

When is the best time of year to visit Vancouver Island?

The best time to visit Vancouver Island is from late spring to early fall, from May to September. During these months you will experience mild temperatures and can enjoy most of the island’s outdoor activities, like hiking and kayaking. This is also the prime time for animal spotting and whale watching!

Is there a ferry from Seattle to Vancouver Island?

Yes, the FRS Clipper ferry operates between Seattle and Victoria on Vancouver Island. There are sailings most days, and double sailings during the high season. However, the FRS Clipper is a passenger-only ferry, so you cannot bring your car on board.

Does it get cold on Vancouver Island?

Vancouver Island has a temperate climate, so it doesn’t get extremely cold like most of Canada. Winters are relatively mild, with temperatures rarely dropping below freezing and snowfall usually only in the mountainous areas. But it’s still recommended to bring layers and prepare for the cold, as wind and rain can often make it feel colder than it is.

How long does it take to drive around Vancouver Island?

Vancouver Island is 455 kilometers long and 100 kilometers wide. You can’t drive around the island’s perimeter, but driving the length of the island would take around 7 to 8 hours non-stop. So, it’s worth taking several days at a minimum, or even a couple of weeks, if you want to explore more of the island along the way.

Can you visit Vancouver Island for a day trip?

Vancouver Island is best explored over a few days, or longer! Although, if you only have one day to spare, you can still visit for the day, but you will ideally want to stick to just Victoria or Nanaimo in the time you have, rather than venturing out of the city.

Final Thoughts on Visiting Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island is one of the most beautiful parts of Canada and is truly diverse in its offerings. Whether you’re looking for untamed wilderness and outdoor activities, fascinating history, and culture, or to enjoy some fantastic food and wine, Vancouver Island truly has something for everyone.

Hopefully, this itinerary has helped you to start planning your Vancouver Island adventure!

This article originally appeared on The World Overload. Featured Photo Credit: Unsplash

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