Victoria - Best Cities

Victoria

Canada’s best small city is fine with you thinking it’s just for the “newly wed and nearly dead.” Such out-of-date ignorance will keep the hiking trails empty, the traffic jams tolerable and the walk-in clinic wait times minimal. There’s even a nostalgic re-embrace of a cheeky and unofficial local retro slogan: Keep Victoria Boring. Of course, none of these clichés are accurate—at least not any more. And yet they persist. Because Canada’s best small city is, for the most part, a cipher for the rest of the country, with more of us having a better familiarity with Florida than with this provincial capital on the edge of a continent.

But when visitors do come—when anyone comes—they tend to fall hard for Victoria. This city is seemingly engineered for the post-pandemic, seize-the-day, work-from-home lifestyle sought by those privileged enough to appreciate such ease of mobility, while it genuinely pursues equality for its residents and an overdue collaboration with the 10 First Nations who’ve always called this region home.

Yes, Victoria is named after the British monarch and will always put out high tea for paying tourists and nostalgic (or irony-seeking) locals, but Little England has grown up to focus on its more worthwhile attributes.

The city is in the top five in our diverse Place category, including #2 for Parks & Outdoors—ranging from the sublime expanse of Beacon Hill to newly pedestrianized Clover Point, which highlights the city’s mind-blowing, front-row elemental location: the towering, snowcapped Olympic mountain range of Washington State to the south, the Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea to the east and, to the northwest, the Strait of Juan de Fuca that separates Canada and the US.

Even though Victoria ranks #35 in our Weather subcategory (defined by sunny days per year), it possesses a temperate climate often described as “sub-Mediterranean,” with rainy (but not as rainy as Vancouver!) winters that average 9°C and very rarely dip below freezing. Summers—oh, those Victoria summers—hover in the low 20s with little humidity. This is the mildest part of Canada in terms of annual average temperature, a fact that has always attracted the outdoorsy and health-conscious. (And Victoria has the local Olympians to prove it.) The pandemic has only pushed more people to discover a region where you can surf, mountain bike and put in eight hours at the office all in one day. This includes cycling to work, for which Victoria tops the country—the city is criss-crossed by expanding bike infrastructure that complements its crown jewel: the Galloping Goose Trail, a reclaimed former rail line that connects downtown to the booming Westshore region and its fast-growing cities like Langford and Colwood, and further out to the ancient rainforests of Metchosin and Sooke beyond. Oh, yeah: Greater Victoria is a quilt of 13 municipalities, many with their own police and fire departments and local councils. See Saanich at #23 for more on that.

This being the colonial capital tucked amidst a landscape and climate that is often described as Alaska-meets-Hawaii, tourism has driven the economy as much as provincial government jobs have. Pre-pandemic, the tourism industry—funnelled in by BC Ferries, two Washington State boats, an armada of summer cruise ships and the #9-ranked airport among Canadian small cities—contributed annual revenues of around $2 billion to the region. All those global tourists tell Victoria’s story far and wide, which is why the city is second only to Niagara Falls in our important Promotions category, including #2 in both Google Search and TripAdvisor Reviews, as well as #3 for Facebook Check-ins, Instagram Hashtags and Google Trends.

But as the pandemic shuttered tourism, it elevated the city’s stature as a hometown (or second hometown) for Canadians and wannabe Canadians. Snowbirds unable to fly from Toronto or Montreal to Florida or Arizona tried out southern Vancouver Island for some respite from the snow—and they liked what they found. So did entrepreneurs able to work from anywhere, attracted by the thriving tech ecosystem already in place, the second-most educated residents among small cities in the country and the three universities (the ascendant, diverse University of Victoria, Royal Roads University and Camosun College) that stock the local talent pipeline.

In fact, for all the attention that tourism wins for the city and region, Victoria’s leading industry is technology, with annual revenues that should approach $3.5 billion this year. The city is the stealthy home—a reward of sorts—for influential tech leaders who’ve built some of Canada’s most successful companies. Every time they host global colleagues (some with the means to relocate entire offices or teams), Victoria’s legend grows, as was the case with last year’s episode of the popular business podcast My First Million, in which the host, describing a recent visit, declared, “I don’t understand why I don’t live there.”

But the city’s strategic location is also launching up-and-coming industries like aquaculture, with companies like Cascadia Seaweed working with local Indigenous partners to become one of the largest providers of ocean-cultivated seaweed on the planet. The recently formed Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies works with the City of Victoria and other local partners to help the region “realize its potential as a major driver of Canada’s Blue Economy.”

Attracting talent here will be crucial. Victoria has the lowest birth rate of any Canadian city and is at the bottom of our 25 small cities in the Young Adults subcategory. Average house prices of well over a million dollars—combined with skyrocketing rents and resistance to rezoning—are kryptonite to sustainable population and talent growth.

Fortunately, Victoria’s lifestyle cred, if sustained and stewarded, has the potential to keep pulling talent in. The city ranks #1 in Canada in our vibrant Programming category, which includes top spot for Nightlife. This is where craft brewing in Canada was born, after all, with trailblazer Spinnakers still open and
always a must-visit for beer aficionados. The city also has one of the highest number of breweries per capita in the country, with more than a dozen in town. Victoria’s ambitious restaurant scene also tops the country, with the most restaurants per capita in Canada, many relying on the increasingly bounteous local farms that, like new residents, have discovered just how generous southern Vancouver Island can be.