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.
Special to The Globe and Mail