On this 11-day itinerary, you'll explore the alpine lakes and dramatic peaks of the Coastal Range, the old-growth rainforests of Vancouver Island, and the rough-and-tumble shoreline of the Pacific Rim. Start with two nights in Vancouver before dedicating a week to the outdoors on Vancouver Island where you can go whale watching, stroll driftwood-strewn beaches, and take in the Victorian-era architecture of the province's capital.

Highlights

  • Catch the sunset over the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver Lookout
  • Follow the Stawamus Chief Trail to peer off the “Chief,” a sheer granite rockface
  • Get outfitted with a wetsuit and a surfboard and take a surf lesson in Tofino
  • Roam the blooming grounds of renowned Butchart Gardens
  • Seek out resident and transient whales off the coast of Victoria

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Welcome to Vancouver! Vancouver
Day 2 Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology, Kits Beach, & Stanley Park Vancouver
Day 3 Sea-to-Sky Highway to Whistler Whistler
Day 4 Drive & Ferry from Whistler to Parksville on Vancouver Island Parksville
Day 5 Across Vancouver Island from Parksville to Tofino Tofino
Day 6 Explore Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve Tofino
Day 7 Outdoor Adventures in Pacific Rim National Park Tofino
Day 8 Tofino to Victoria, the Capital of British Columbia Victoria
Day 9 Butchart Gardens & Downtown Victoria Victoria
Day 10 Catch the Ferry from Victoria to Vancouver Vancouver
Day 11 Depart Vancouver  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Welcome to Vancouver!

Stanley Park, Deadman's Island, and downtown Vancouver
Stanley Park, Deadman's Island, and downtown Vancouver

Fringed by the Pacific Ocean and backed by the stunning Coastal Range, Vancouver is one of the world's most livable cities with some of North America's best cuisine, rich indigenous heritage, and outdoor venues that beckon the active traveler.

It only takes around 30 minutes to get from the airport to downtown via taxi or Skytrain ride. The city center and surrounding neighborhoods are easily walkable, and all the main attractions are a short distance away. To get your bearings, start with a stroll along the seawall from English Bay to False Creek before wandering the historical, cobbled streets of Gastown and Chinatown

With over 60 different cultures, there is a slew of international restaurants serving anything from Asian cuisine to seasonal farm-to-table dishes. For dinner, choose from a selection of top-notch eateries—from downtown and the West End to the North Shore and Kitsilano vicinity. Bear in mind, Vancouverites love eating out any day of the week so be sure to make a reservation if it's a popular restaurant. 

Recommended activities:

  • Vancouver Art Gallery. See historical and contemporary exhibits by regional, national, and international artists.
  • Chinatown. Snap pics of the towering Millennium Gate and mosey through the tranquil Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.
  • Sam Kee Building. At just 6 feet (1.8 m) wide, marvel at the world's narrowest office building.
  • Vancouver Lookout. Ride the high-speed elevator up 40-stories for 360-degree views. Keep the receipt and come back later to watch the sun setting over the Strait of Georgia.

Day 2: Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology, Kits Beach, & Stanley Park

A driftwood-strewn beach of Point Grey
A driftwood-strewn beach of Point Grey

In the morning, head southwest of downtown to the University of British Columbia's ("UBC") campus to dedicate a couple of hours to explore the Museum of Anthropology, a great introduction to the history of the Pacific Northwest. Showcasing spectacular First Nations totem poles and impressive carvings, join a free daily tour to get a better understanding of British Columbia's rich indigenous history.

After that, make your way along the coast to Vancouver's trendy beachside suburb of Kitsilano (locally referred to as "Kits") for an afternoon of picnicking on the beach and swimming in the ocean or the outdoor saltwater pool. From Kits' shoreline, you have some of the best views in the city of Vancouver's skyline and nearby Coastal Range. 

Walking distance from Kitsilano, head over to Granville Island, checking out the restaurants, gift shops, fresh food markets, and local boutique shops that reflect the island's maritime heritage. For a deep-dive of the island's culinary offerings, join a walking food tour that takes you through the bustling Granville Island Public Market.

Just before sunset, work up an appetite by walking (two hours) or biking (one hour) around Stanley Park's Seawall, a 6-mile (10-km) loop around a 400-hectare natural West Coast rainforest with views over the city. Time your walk to hit the midpoint at Siwash Rock and Third Beach for the best spot to watch the sun dip below the horizon.

Recommended activities:

  • Bard on the Beach. Catch a Shakespeare play in beautiful Vanier Park overlooking the city.
  • Science World. Witness the wonderful world of science with hands-on displays in a 17-story geodesic-shaped dome (great for kids).
  • Vancouver Aquarium. Learn about Pacific Canada's sea life at Canada's largest aquarium in Stanley Park.
  • VanDusen Botanical Garden. Get lost in an Elizabethan hedge maze in this popular botanical garden.

Day 3: Sea-to-Sky Highway to Whistler

Morning light over Squamish, one of British Columbia's most popular rock climbing destinations
Morning light over Squamish, one of British Columbia's most popular rock climbing destinations

Collect your rental car (keeping in mind Vancouver's rush hour is from 8-9 am) and begin your road trip north to Whistler along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, one of British Columbia's most iconic drives. A scenic route between the ocean and mountains, there are several great places to stop to break up the short drive.

Halfway to Whistler—and where the ocean, river, and alpine forest meet—there's Squamish, an access point for outdoor activities and adventure. Just before reaching Squamish, you can see the area's most famous peak from the highway, the Chief, a sheer granite rockface popular with skilled climbers. Pick up the Stawamus Chief Trail for a hike up the back to reach the summit (divided into three peaks and graded as an intermediate hike, it takes the average person 3-4 hours to reach the first—and most visited—summit). Or, take the Sea-to-Sky Gondola up the mountain for excellent views of Howe Sound from Summit Lodge at the top where you can also grab lunch.

You'll reach Whistler, an upscale, chalet-style pedestrian village (and venue for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics) in the early to mid-afternoon. Whistler is North America's largest winter sports resort worth a visit at any time of year. The village is built around Whistler-Blackcomb, twin peaks accessed by an ultramodern lift system that provides opportunities to hike, bike, canoe, kayak, rock climb, or zip-line in warmer months and ski or snowboard in the winter.

From Whistler Village, take the Peak 2 Peak Gondola up the mountain for an afternoon adventure. You can hike through the high alpine to Harmony Lake (1.6 miles / 2.5 km from the top of the gondola) or touch the toe of a small glacier on a similarly lengthed trek. For something unique, rent a pair of snowshoes to explore areas covered in year-round snow. Alternatively, there are hiking trails you can take from the village itself. Follow the Valley Trail to Lost Lake, where you can take a dip or enjoy a picnic in the summer months or cross-country ski along its shoreline in the winter. 

If you're looking for something more relaxing, spend the afternoon exploring the village: people-watching from an outdoor café, hitting one of the great spas, such as Scandinave, visiting the Whistler Museum, or doing a little shopping. And if you arrive before 4 pm, head over to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Center to sample First Nations cuisine and visit one of Whistler's best gift shops.

Recommended stops and activities:

  • Shannon Falls. Stroll the short trail to British Columbia's third-highest waterfall at 1,099 feet (335 m)
  • Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park. Home to one of North America's largest eagle populations
  • Brandywine Falls Provincial Park. Stand atop a 230-foot (70-m) waterfall and hike a 4-mile (7-km) circuit through dense forest and ancient lava beds to Cal-Cheak Suspension Bridge.

Driving time (Vancouver to Whistler): 2 hours (75 miles /120 km)

Day 4: Drive & Ferry from Whistler to Parksville on Vancouver Island

Ferries pass Horseshoe Bay's Whytecliff Park en route to Nanaimo
Ferries pass Horseshoe Bay's Whytecliff Park en route to Nanaimo

Get an early start to the day as you make your way back toward Vancouver along the Sea-to-Sky Highway to Horseshoe Bay, where you'll catch the car ferry across the Strait of Georgia to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. (Remember to reserve your spot on the ferry the day before as there can be long wait times in the summer.)

From Nanaimo, it's just over a thirty-minute drive to Parksville, a popular spot to overnight before exploring more of the island. En route, stop at the Old Country Market in Coombs to stock up on picnic supplies, from baked goods and sizeable pizzas to fresh produce and deli fixings, noting the diverting rooftop goats. Once in Parksville, spend the afternoon at one of the local beaches.

Driving time (Whistler to Horseshoe Bay): 1.5 hours (63 miles / 102 km)
Ferry time (Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay): 1 hour, 45 minutes
Driving time (Nanaimo to Parksville): 45 minutes (23 miles / 36.4 km)

Day 5: Across Vancouver Island from Parksville to Tofino

Trail through the old-growth forest of Cathedral Grove
A trail through the old-growth forest of Cathedral Grove

Enjoy a leisurely morning before heading west across the island to Tofino. On the way, stop at Cathedral Grove to walk through some of British Columbia's oldest forest, including centuries-old Douglas Firs. In Port Alberni, check out the First Nations displays at the Alberni Valley Museum or ride the Alberni Pacific Railway steam train to the historic site of McLean Mill.

Eventually, you'll wind through mountain roads as you work your way to the wild coastline of the Pacific Rim National Park. Another worthwhile stop is the Kwisitis Visitor Center, overlooking Wickaninnish Beach, for an introduction to the area's natural history and First Nations heritage. If there's time, walk along the sandy shore of Long Beach, a 7-mile (11-km) narrow expanse of beach that dominates the landscape before continuing up to Tofino.

A haven for surf fans, families, and city-escaping Vancouverites, Tofino sits at the end of the long and narrow Esowista Peninsula on sheltered Clayoquot Sound and offers a wide range of food options and outdoor excursions. Catch a wave on a surfboard or spot whales, bears, and sea lions on a boat tour (to avoid disappointment, book tours well in advance).

In the afternoon, visit the Eagle Aerie Gallery for artworks from the highly respected Tsimshian artist, Roy Henry Vickers, and discover the local flora at the Tofino Botanical Garden.

Driving time (Parkville to Tofino): 2 hours, 45 minutes (107 miles / 172 km)

Day 6: Explore Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve

Lone kayaker paddles off Vancouver Island's western shore
Lone kayaker paddles off Vancouver Island's western shore

The day is yours to get out and explore the great outdoors of the Pacific Rim: a wilderness of forests, trails, beaches, and islands where Clayoquot Sound provides access to what is quintessentially western British Columbia. Devote the morning to a sea kayaking tour and explore the regional waters around Tofino. You can stick close to the coast with an easy two and a half-hour paddle, or, for something more extreme, set out into Clayoquot Sound for Vargas Island on a six-hour ocean paddle adventure. 

There are also a number of day trips from Tofino by hired zodiac or seaplane (tours depart at around 10 am) to places such as Maquinna Marine Provincial Park. Keep an eye out for gray whales that feed here through the summer months as well as other sea creatures that frequent the area. From the boat landing in Maquinna Park, just over a mile (2 km) of boardwalks lead to the natural hot springs of Hot Spring Cove where you'll have about three hours ashoreenough time to soak in a few of the mini baths!

Recommended activities:

  • Whale Watching. Spot gray whales breach, spout, spy hop, dive, and lobtail on a two- to three-hour tour where you might also see puffins, sea lions, dolphins, transient killer whales, harbor seals, and swooping bald eagles.
  • Fishing Charter. Fish offshore, targeting Pacific salmon, lingcod, rockfish, and big game halibut.
  • Clayoquot Sound. Cruise through calm waters to glimpse just-out-of-hibernation black bears foraging for seafood at low tide.
  • Meares Island. Walk the Big Tree Trail through old-growth forest and hug a 1,500-year-old red cedar.
  • T'ashii Paddle School. Canoe with a First Nations guide and explore the local coves and coastline off Tofino.
  • Flores Island. Follow in the footsteps of the Ahousaht First Nations and trek the moderately difficult Wild Side Heritage Trail (13.7 miles / 22 km).

Day 7: Outdoor Adventures in Pacific Rim National Park

Close up of one of the 100 Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound
Close up of one of the 100 Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound

Pack your hiking boots (and beach gear) for a full-day experience of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Drive south on Highway 4 to Ucluelet, a small town on the northern edge of Barkley Sound that offers all of the same pursuits as in Tofino, but on a quieter scale. Rent a kayak and paddle the distance to a few of the wave-whipped islands (there are a hundred) of the Broken Island Group, where you can come ashore and hike the rugged terrain. Best to book a tour if you're not an experienced kayaker.

Landlubbers can choose from a variety of trails found all along the Long Beach Unit of the park. Opt first for the 1.6-mile (2.6-km) Lighthouse Loop that starts from He-tin-kis Park south of Ucluelet. Traveling back up the coast toward Tofino, try a couple of other routes: the 3-mile (5 km) Nuu-chah-nulth Trail, a historical loop that opens up to the beach; one of the two half-mile (1 km) Rainforest trails that offer views of towering western red cedar and hemlock, birds, streams, and massive ferns; or the Combers Trail, where a short walk leads to a shell- and driftwood-strewn expanse of beach—great to do at low tide.

Recommended stops and activities:

  • Live to Surf. Get outfitted with a wetsuit and a surfboard and head into the local breakers for an hour of thrilling fun.
  • Barkley Sound. Spot whales, porpoises, and birdlife from your kayak as you paddle the Broken Group Islands.
  • Tidal Pools. Explore rocky tidal zones to find anemones, shellfish, and orange and purple starfish.
  • Grice Bay. Watch thousands of birds—Canada geese, mallards, black brants, and pintails—gather on the tidal mudflats. 
  • Cox Bay. Admire the ocean's fury between November and March and slip into a Tofino tuxedo (waterproof gear) to watch crashing winter waves.
  • Frank Island. Walk from Chesterman Beach at low tide and comb the surf-pounded beach for washed-up treasures.
  • Tacofino. Lunch on a feast of fish tacos from the highly popular food truck at Outside Break.

Day 8: Tofino to Victoria, the Capital of British Columbia

Native leaders, elders, and totems highlight this Chemainus mural
Native leaders, elders, and totems highlight this Chemainus mural

Following Highway 4 (the same road you took into Tofino), you'll head back east to pick up the Trans Canada Highway south to Victoria. Stop for lunch in the Old City Quarter of Nanaimo, a heritage neighborhood with local eateries. (For dessert? Get your hands on a sweet Nanaimo bar—thought to originate here.) Farther south, there's Cowichan Bay, a popular stop featuring a colorful string of wooden buildings that overlook a mountain-framed ocean inlet.

The elegant provincial capital of Victoria rests at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. A small city of 380,000, Victoria has retained elements of its British heritage, from double-decker buses and high tea to formal gardens (its top attraction is the world-renowned Butchart Gardens). Find your way on foot to the Inner Harbor, a busy waterway surrounded by the city's top sights and best restaurants, and the perfect spot to begin exploring the city. Be sure to visit the harbor at night when the Empress Hotel and the parliament buildings are lit up by thousands of lights.

Recommended stops and activities:

  • Crow & Gate Pub. Dine on homemade (savory) pies, Scotch eggs, and bangers and mash at the best Brit-style pub in British Columbia, complete with a grassy beer garden. 
  • Chemainus. Over 45 murals cover this former logging town founded in 1858.
  • Meridale Cidery and Distillery. A patio bistro that produces several great ciders.
  • Goldstream Provincial Park. Network of hiking trails where you can see spawning salmon (late fall) or bald eagles (December).

Driving time (Tofino to Victoria): 4 hours, 45 minutes (196 miles / 316 km)

Day 9: Butchart Gardens & Downtown Victoria

Sunken Garden at colorful Butchart Gardens
Sunken Garden at colorful Butchart Gardens

Early morning is the best time to visit Butchart Gardens—Victoria's most visited attraction—before the crowds arrive. Pick up a flower guide and follow the suggested route throughout the gardens where there's always something in bloom. Highlights include the Sunken Garden, the formal Rose Garden, and the Japanese Garden. (You can also save Butchart Gardens for your last morning in Victoria en route to catch the ferry in Swartz Bay.)

Later on, head to Market Square and wander the surrounding streets. Inside The Empress Hotel, you can soak in the opulent old-world charm over lunch or traditional afternoon tea. Next door, don't miss the Royal British Columbia Museum (highlights include an Ice Age woolly mammoth and IMAX theatre) and Thunderbird Park where you can see totem poles and other First Nations monuments. 

For the afternoon, consider outdoor activities like whale watching or sea kayaking along the city's rocky coastline. For whale watching, there are regular zodiac boat tours lasting two to three-hours that depart from the Inner Harbor to seek out resident and transient whales during prime whale-watching season (mid-April to October). As a bonus, you'll likely also get to see porpoises, including orcas (killer whales), and sea lions.

Recommended activities:

  • Fisherman's Wharf. Local food stalls and activity providers along the docks next to the Inner Harbour; a great place for a seafood lunch.
  • Decorative Architecture. Discover buildings from the late 1800s in Old Town's Bastion Square, Centennial Square (see the 1878 City Hall), and Chinatown, Canada's oldest Chinese enclave.
  • Juan de Fuca Strait. Charter a boat and head to Race Rocks to get in some scuba diving.
  • Craigdarroch Castle. Take in the panoramic city view over Victoria from a top window in the 1890 mansion, furnished with ornate Victorian-era trappings.
  • Oak Bay. Drive, walk or pedal the scenic waterfront between the Inner Harbor and Oak Bay. 
  • Emily Carr House. Visit the bright yellow gingerbread-style house of British Columbia's best-known painter.
  • Breakwater Lighthouse. Beautiful short walk to a large lighthouse that was built in 1916 just outside of downtown Victoria.

Day 10: Catch the Ferry from Victoria to Vancouver

Rising sun lights the southern Saanich peninsula on Vancouver Island
The rising sun lights the southern Saanich peninsula on Vancouver Island

Leaving Victoria behind, head north to the Saanich Peninsula to Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal for the 90-minute ferry back to the mainland. En route to the ferry terminal, you can make an early morning stop at the famous Butchart Gardens (if you haven't visited them already) to beat the bus-tour crowds. Directly across the peninsula from Butchart Gardens lies Island View Beach Regional Park, where you can go for a quick dip in the ocean before catching the ferry. 

As the ferry departs Swartz Bay, grab a coffee from the onboard cafeteria and head to the top outside deck for great views of the Gulf Islands and coastline en route back to the mainland. Arriving at Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, you'll have a short drive to your accommodation in Vancouver.

Driving time (Victoria to Swartz Bay): 45 minutes (20 miles / 32 km)
Ferry time (Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen): 1 hour, 45 minutes
Driving time (Tsawwassen to Vancouver): 45 minutes (23 miles / 37 km)

Day 11: Depart Vancouver

False Creek in Downtown Vancouver
False Creek in Downtown Vancouver

Head to The Naam (open 24/7) for an early morning breakfast before making your way to the airport. If you're feeling indulgent, splurge on a seaplane harbor tour to take in the magnificent scenery of the mountain-and-sea-dominated city from a new perspective. Alternatively, enjoy some more time at Stanley Park, paying a visit to Klahowya Village via the Spirit Catcher miniature train to watch cultural performances. Here you can also purchase souvenirs and gifts of traditional First Nations arts and crafts from the Artisan Marketplace and Métis Trading Post.

It usually takes 30 minutes to travel from downtown Vancouver to Vancouver International Airport but allow extra time in case of traffic. Best to arrive at least two hours prior to your international departure while allowing extra time to drop off your rental car.