It has been more than a decade since I lived off bulk rice and ketchup as a thrifty University of Victoria student. But whenever I visit the pretty, harbour-hugging British Columbia capital today, I instantly fall into cheap-as-chips budget mode. On a recent citywide wander, I stuffed $30 into my pocket and searched out a full menu of dining and attractions plus an evening of beer and entertainment. Prices quoted here include tips and taxes - including the new HST.
Stop 1: Legislative Dining Room, Parliament Buildings
Checking my ID and picking up a security swipe card just inside the Parliament Buildings' main entrance, I weaved along marble corridors, descended some stairs and entered an old-fashioned, white-linen restaurant. Victoria's best-kept dining secret, the subsidized eatery where B.C. MLAs fuel up is also open to the public. Full breakfasts average $7, but I opted for a $3.50 toasted fried-egg sandwich - including fruit - plus a $2.10 coffee served by a waistcoated staffer.
Stop 2: Legislative Tour, Parliament Buildings
Returning upstairs, I joined a 30-minute guided stroll of the Inner Harbour's grand, multi-turreted 1898 Parliament Buildings, designed by the young architect Francis Rattenbury. The tour offers plenty of historic colour and points out heritage stained glass windows and intriguing colonial-era architectural flourishes, especially under the central dome. We peeked into the empty red-carpeted chamber, where visitors can also watch debates from the public gallery.
Stop 3: Thunderbird Park
Corner of Douglas and Belleville Streets
Admission is $16 for the excellent Royal BC Museum across the street, but I kept my wallet closed with a sunny wander around its Thunderbird Park area instead. Arguably Victoria's best photo opportunity, it's a mini-forest of towering totems joined by a colonial school building and Helmcken House, a doctor's residence that has stood on this spot since 1852. I also puttered around the large sunken garden near the museum's entrance where more than 400 native West Coast plants grow.
Stop 4: Empress Hotel Archives
721 Government St.
Crossing Belleville Street, I rolled into Rattenbury's other iconic landmark. It's up to $55 for afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel, but that's out of my budget so I ducked down the staircase adjoining the chatty Tea Lobby. Following the signs, I strolled a corridor of monochrome yesteryear photos and - potted palms were apparently the height of colonial decadence - then found the little museum room, the Empress Hotel Archives. Silverware, rate sheets and sumptuous menus from decades past line the cabinets here, and I learned that 1923's afternoon tea cost just $1.
Stop 5: St. Ann's Academy
835 Humboldt St.
A five-minute walk away is Victoria's most recently designated National Historic Site. Originating in 1858, this imposing, handsomely gabled former convent school - home of the city's first Catholic cathedral - was renovated and opened to the public in 1996. Its highlight is a large 1920s-era chapel with gilded detailing, marble statuary and a working pipe organ. Consider dropping some coins in the donation box and save time to stroll the manicured walled garden. See www.stannsacademy.com for hours.
Stop 6: Dutch Bakery
718 Fort St.
With lunch overdue, I headed to a diner-style Victoria legend that has been fuelling the locals for 55 years. Possibly the city's best-value eatery, I perched on a revolving stool at the counter for a bargain light meal of veal croquette, potato salad and buttered toast. I almost squandered my budget on the creamy, fresh-made dollar roll winking at me from the counter cabinet, but it was even harder resisting the sprinkle-topped chocolate coins at the front-of-house candy and bakery shop.
Stop 7: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
1040 Moss St.
Sauntering east between Fort Street's antique shops, it took me about 15 minutes to arrive at the city's main gallery. Usually $13 for admission, entry on the first Tuesday of every month is by donation, so I sheepishly dropped a toonie into the box and it was bustling during my visit. The gallery is divided between a heritage mansion with traditional portraits and antique furnishings, and a modern wing with swirling Emily Carr's and a rich array of Asian exhibits. My timing was off, but there was also a free donation-day gallery tour at 2 p.m.
Stop 8: Legacy Art Gallery
630 Yates St.
Weaving back downtown, I detoured into Broughton Street's main public library where visitors can check their e-mail for free, then zigzagged around the shops before entering one of the city's newest independent galleries. Run by the University of Victoria, this is a large, free-entry space with provocative art and a tempting on-site café.
Stop 9: Pig BBQ Joint
749 View St.
Clearly time to eat, I walked back toward the library area for a late-afternoon pig-out. This friendly, southern-style hole in the wall has a simple menu of satisfying pulled pork, beef brisket and smoked chicken sandwiches stuffed with velvet-soft meat. The bulging, carnivorous treats put far pricier eateries to shame, and everything here is house-cured.
Stop 10: Swans Brewpub
506 Pandora Ave.
A few coins still jangling in my pocket, my day out rolled to a languid close over at Swans, a brewpub. The drinks special included $4.33 pints, so I perched at the bar with a dark, toasted-tasting Coconut Porter. Slowing my sipping to a snail's pace, I perused the native artworks and waited for the blue-grass band to hit the stage at 9 p.m. There's cover-free live music here every night, and I had just enough for one more beer…
John Lee's new guidebook, British Columbia and the Yukon, will be published by Lonely Planet on Nov. 1.
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