Victoria has the warmest, mildest climate in Canada: snow is rare and flowers bloom in February. Summers are mild, too, rarely topping 75°F. If you're here for dining, shopping, and museums, winter is a perfectly nice time for a visit: it's gray and wet, and some minor attractions are closed, but hotel deals abound. If your focus is the outdoors—biking, hiking, gardens, and whale-watching—you need to come with everyone else, between May and October. That's when the streets come to life with crafts stalls, street entertainers, blooming gardens, and the inevitable tour buses. It's fun and busy but Victoria never gets unbearably crowded.
You can see most of the sights in Downtown Victoria's compact core in a day, although there's enough to see at the main museums to easily fill two days. Many key sights, including the Royal BC Museum and the Parliament Buildings, are open on some summer evenings as well. You can save time by prebooking tea at the Empress Hotel and buying tickets online for the Royal British Columbia Museum.
You should also save at least half a day or a full evening to visit Butchart Gardens. The least busy times are first thing in the morning, or on weekdays in the late afternoon and early evening; the busiest but most entertaining time is during the Saturday-evening fireworks shows. If you have a car, you can make a day of it visiting the nearby town of Sidney and some of the Saanich Peninsula wineries.
An extra day allows for some time on the water, either on a whale-watching trip—it's fairly easy to spot orca in the area during summer—or on a Harbour Ferries tour, with stops for tea at Point Ellice House, a microbrew at Spinnakers' Brewpub, or fish-and-chips at Fisherman's Wharf. You can also explore the shoreline on foot, following all, or part, of the 7-mile waterfront walkway.
With more time, you can explore some of the outlying neighborhoods; visit the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Craigdarroch Castle, or the delightful Abkhazi Gardens in the Oak Bay and Rockland areas; or head east to see Hatley Park and Fort Rodd Hill.
It rains often in Victoria, so if you get a fine day, set it aside for garden touring, whale-watching, kayaking, or cycling. Car-free bike paths run north to Sidney and east to Sooke.
If you're here for a while and have a car (or really enjoy cycling), the wineries of the Cowichan Valley and the beaches past Sooke warrant a full day each—although it is possible to see both the Southwest Coast and the Cowichan Valley in a one-day circle tour from Victoria. Salt Spring Island can be done as a day trip (market Saturdays are a highlight), though ferry schedules mean that the other islands usually require an overnight. Be warned, though: many people have planned day trips to the islands and ended up staying for years.
Victoria's top festivals take place in summer, when you're apt to encounter the best weather. For 10 nights in late June, international musicians perform during JazzFest International. July brings the week-long International Buskers Festival, and in early August, during Symphony Splash, the Victoria Symphony plays a free outdoor concert from a barge moored in the middle of Victoria's Inner Harbour. August and September is the time for the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival, when you can feast from a vast menu of offbeat, original, and intriguing performances around town.
Galiano Island Travel InfoCentre (250/539–2233. www.galianoisland.com.)
Salt Spring Island Visitor Information Centre (250/537–5252 or 866/216–2936. www.saltspringtourism.com.)
Sooke Region Museum and Visitor Centre (250/642–6351 or 866/888–4748. www.sookeregionmuseum.com.)
Tourism British Columbia (800/435–5622. www.hellobc.com.)
Tourism Cowichan (800/665–3955. www.cvrd.bc.ca.)
Tourism Vancouver Island (250/754–3500 or 888/655–3483. www.vancouverisland.travel.)
Tourism Victoria Visitor Centre (812 Wharf St., Victoria, BC, V8W 1T3. 250/953–2033 or 800/663–3883. www.tourismvictoria.com.)