Despite sitting just 75 miles northwest of Seattle, British Columbia's island city feels distinctly foreign. A Canadian capital with European flair, Victoria's signatures include fancy tea, a walkable downtown, horse-drawn carriages—and a giant body of water to cross from the mainland. We broke down the best ways to travel to the quaint Vancouver Island metropolis; don't forget your passport (or other appropriate border-crossing materials).
Three times a day, the MV Coho sets sail from downtown Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula for a 90-minute trip to Victoria Harbour. The Black Ball company traces its roots to the nineteenth century and eventually sold most of its fleet to the state to form the Washington State Ferries. Today this route can carry just over 100 vehicles ($70 plus fees for most cars), making reservations ($11–16) recommended on weekends and hard to nab on holidays.
Reaching the American terminus from Seattle involves either a Washington State Ferries ride (say, Seattle to Bainbridge) or a drive over the Tacoma Narrows bridge. Given the middle-of-town end point in Victoria—the MV Coho docks practically on the front lawn of the famous parliament buildings—tourists can leave cars in Port Angeles and walk on the ferry ($21 plus fees).
British Columbia's busiest port sits south of Vancouver, the name Tsawwassen coming from a First Nation whose traditional territory stretched from the Gulf Islands to the Fraser River. Giant ferries perform the 95-minute crossing across the Salish Sea around a dozen times per day, often departing on the hour, and each boat can take up to 350 cars ($62 CAD plus fees) and near-endless walk-ons ($18 CAD plus fees), though reservations ($17 CAD) can be hard to score at busy times.
Notably, this ferry superhighway doesn't reach all the way to Victoria proper. BC Ferries dock at Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island, about 20 miles north of the city. BC Transit busses run into the heart of the city (and Tsawwassen has several parking lots to leave a car overnight), but this route is less convenient for carless travel. Don't forget to factor in the U.S.-Canadian border crossing time en route to the Tsawwassen terminal.
The fastest water route to Victoria departs from Belltown, at Pier 69. Since the 1980s, the Clipper catamarans have run the trip, a little less than three hours, in comfort that bridges a sightseeing trip with straight-up transportation. The passenger-only Clipper V has two decks, and therefore several class options; the lower deck has airplane-style seating, with the upper deck featuring leather seating, tables, and complimentary snacks. One-way fares start at $99 in winter and go up to $119 in the high summer season, and advance reservations are a must during busy times—but round-trip purchases come with as much as a $39 discount.
Clipper passengers step off the boat onto a Victoria Harbour dock, walking distance to many hotels and a short taxi ride to others. The city's one big out-of-town attraction, Buchart Gardens, sits 13 miles north on Vancouver Island, but both Clipper packages and other operators offer bus rides to the famed flower extravaganza.
Sea travel? In this century? Flights into Victoria shrink travel time significantly, especially given the seaplanes Kenmore Air sends from Lake Union directly to Victoria Harbour. Two or three scheduled flights (starting at $212 one way in summer) take off per day, the ride just 45 minutes and a thrill unto itself. Like the Clipper ferries, the downtown-to-downtown experience makes for an easy, carless vacation; the seaplanes land directly in front of the Fairmont Empress.
Note that while Washington's enhanced driver's license, passport card, or NEXUS card can be good for passage through land and sea borders, a full passport is required for all fliers. Oh, and Alaska Air also flies from Sea-Tac to Victoria's land airport near the Swartz Bay ferry terminal in normal, wheeled planes—but where's the fun in that?
Finally, one last way to Vancouver Island—the Washington State Ferries system, with its once rare stop in Sidney, BC. The Anacortes-San Juans ferry route used to include a seasonal side detour to this port near Swartz Bay, but service halted due to the pandemic and now will not resume until summer 2023 at the earliest due to staff and boat shortages.