Aside from biting into a mouth-watering Nanaimo bar, there are many things to do in Nanaimo, one of the biggest cities on Vancouver Island.
Centrally located on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Nanaimo is a beautiful city next to the Salish Sea and facing the Coastal Mountains of mainland British Columbia. Anchored by the lovely harbour, which is home to seaplanes, boat tours, walking trails, and more, this seaside city is a great place to experience the charm of Vancouver Island.
However, despite being one of the biggest cities on the island, it’s still quite small. Instead of skyscrapers, you’ll find many little shops, restaurants, and museums, as well as lots of nature, including parks, nearby provincial parks, and more.
In this Nanaimo travel guide, we’ll fill you in on the top 31 things to do in Nanaimo and the surrounding area, as well as where to stay, and more!
Table of Contents
- What to Do in Nanaimo and Area
- Walk the Harbourfront Walkway
- Explore Downtown Nanaimo
- Go Whale Watching
- Snorkel with Seals
- Go Scuba Diving
- Take a Sightseeing Flight along the Sunshine Coast
- Go Bungy Jumping and More at Wildplay
- Learn the History at Nanaimo Museum and the Bastion
- Visit Neck Point Park
- Eat a Nanaimo Bar
- Take the Ferry to Newcastle Island
- Go Kayaking or Paddling
- Enjoy Nature at Pipers Lagoon Park
- See the Vancouver Island Military Museum
- Visit a memorable waterfall at Ammonite Falls
- Visit the Waterfalls at Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park
- Spot Some Fish at the Big Qualicum Hatchery
- Enjoy a bike ride at Westwood Lake Park
- Hike to The Extension Ridge Trail
- Play Disc Golf at Bowen Park Disc Golf Course
- Explore Beban Park
- Get a Great View from Mount Benson Regional Park
- Explore Hemer Provincal Park
- Marvel at the underground at Horne Lake Caves
- Hug Some Historic Trees at Heritage Forest
- Paddle Spider Lake Provincial Park
- Relax at Qualicum Beach
- Go Deep into History at Petroglyph Provincial Park
- Explore Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park
- Explore Rosewell Creek Provincal Park
- Enjoy the Hamilton Wetlands
- How to Get to Nanaimo, BC
- Where to Stay in Nanaimo
What to Do in Nanaimo and Area
Whether you’re visiting Nanaimo for the first time or just moved to the area, below are some of the best things to do in Nanaimo, including adventures like whale watching and scuba diving, as well as leisurely activities like visiting parks and enjoying a picnic.
Walk the Harbourfront Walkway
As a seaside city, it makes sense to explore the beautiful Harbourfront Walkway, which runs along the waterfront below Front Street. The walkway features lovely views as well as many restaurants, shops, docks, tours, and seaplanes that can bring you on scenic tours. This is also where many whale watching tours start as well as scuba diving tours, which we’ll talk about below.
Explore Downtown Nanaimo
With just 90,000 people, Nanaimo has a charming little downtown with lots of boutiques and retail stores, as well as restaurants, museums, and pastry shops. Popular streets include Church Street and Commercial Street, but really, the entire area is walkable and you won’t get lost. It’s also close to the Harbourfront Walkway, so it makes sense to do both and really get a feel of Nanaimo.
Go Whale Watching
Canada is a great place for whale watching and Vancouver Island is one of the best places in the country to do one. Home to Orcas, Humpbacks, and Seals, as well as incredible mountain scenery, Vancouver Island is such a great place to do a whale-watching tour. However, another benefit to doing a whale watching tour from Nanaimo is that the Straight of Georgia, a 60-kilometre-stretch of sea between Vancouver and Nanaimo, is quite calm most of the time.
As mentioned, there are a variety of whales that travel through this area but the focus is often on the beautiful black and white Orcas, which are famous on the coast of British Columbia. Sightings are very frequent, and the tour operators often guarantee a sighting, or you can go on another tour with no expiration date. They’re also great because they include a professional guide who has been schooled in marine biology, making it an educational trip no matter what luck you have with sightings.
There are usually two types of boats for whale watching tours, so you have the option of choosing a semi-covered 23-passenger boat or an adventurous 12-person fully-open zodiac boat. Most boats have a washroom as well, which truly comes in handy when you’re out for 3-4 hours or more. The benefit of the Zodiac boats is that they can usually get a little closer to the whales with the trade-off being more exposed to the elements. However, guests are given suits to wear, which serve as both insulation and flotation.
We’ve had some excellent whale watching trips in British Columbia, so it’s something we highly recommend. If you’re visiting during the high season, you’ll want to reserve your tickets in advance as it’s quite a popular attraction.
Snorkel with Seals
While whales are quite common to spot, it’s much more common to see seals. Harbour Seals can be seen all over the place, including on the docks and relaxing on the rocks that line the coastline. They’re super cute to watch and if you want a truly up close and personal encounter, you can sign up for a tour and go snorkelling with them. We did this in conjunction with a scuba diving tour and really had a blast with these dogs of the sea. Basically, you’ll get on a boat and travel out towards a place where the colony hangs out. You’ll then get set up with your gear and life jackets and then jump into the water to swim over towards them. As long as you’re at least 10 years old and know how to swim, this is a great activity, although it does depend on the weather.
Go Scuba Diving
For those into scuba diving, Nanaimo is a great place to get into the depths. While beautiful and known as one of the best places for scuba diving in Canada, the waters are cold. For those who have only dived in tropical climates, a dry suit is often required in these parts, which also requires a special course. However, we actually went diving with thick wetsuits and it was okay. We lasted about 30 minutes before our bodies started shivering, but since it was our only dive of the day, it worked out. We saw a variety of fish, eels, and even a swimming scallop, which was really unique. However, you may also see octopuses, dolphins, or whales.
Take a Sightseeing Flight along the Sunshine Coast
If you end up going for a walk down by the Harbourfront Walkway, you’ll notice a lot of seaplanes. Most of these planes actually offer scenic flightseeing tours that offer fabulous views of the Sunshine Coast, the Straight of Georgia, and the snow-covered mountains. Some people even take these planes all the way to Vancouver! Beats driving.
The tours often last 40-minutes and are just a great way to get a birds-eye view of the natural beauty of Vancouver Island and the coast of British Columbia. These tours take part on the regularly scheduled 20-minute flights to the small town of Sechelt, so you’ll actually get to land somewhere new and then fly back. From what we’ve heard, you’ll also get an hour or two to explore the town, which is pretty cool for a flightseeing tour.
Go Bungy Jumping and More at Wildplay
One of the craziest things we did during our visit to Nanaimo was strapped a bunch of elastic bands around our ankles and jump off a bridge. That’s right! Nanaimo is home to WildPlay, an attraction that offers bungy-jumping, an obstacle course in the trees, a zip-line, and more! If you’re looking to get your adrenaline pumping, this is the place for you.
Learn the History at Nanaimo Museum and the Bastion
While Nanaimo and the area are most famous for their outdoor natural attractions, there are also some great indoor attractions as well, such as the Nanaimo Museum. This is a great place to learn about the history of the area, including the Indigenous Snunéymuxw People, the Bastion Era, the coal mining history, and more. You’ll also find feature exhibits from museums across the country, a gift shop, and a popular coffee shop.
Created during Canada’s centennial year in 1967, the museum is located in the Vancouver Island Conference Center in downtown Nanaimo. In addition to the museum itself, they also run the Bastion, the wooden white tower standing above Harbourfront Walkway. This structure, which was built in the mid-1800s by the Hudson’s Bay Company, is a three-story fort that was once used for trade, defence, and storage. It’s free to enter and a replica cannon is fired each day at noon.
Visit Neck Point Park
When it comes to walking, swimming, having a picnic, or jumping in the water for some scuba diving, Neck Point Park is the place to go. Not only do you have the chance to see orcas and sea lions from the various lookout points, but it’s also just a beautiful park to enjoy nature.
The park has a series of trails that introduce you to a variety of trees such as Douglas Fir and Garry Oaks, as well some beautiful beaches such as Last Beach, Indian Beach, Sunset Beach, and Finn Beach, which provide excellent opportunities to go for a swim.
As mentioned, if you’re a scuba diver, one of the most popular dives can be found from the small rock island that’s connected by a gravel sandbar during low tide. Divers can walk right in! How cool is that?
Eat a Nanaimo Bar
While it might seem weird to list eating a sweet as one of the top things to do in Nanaimo, you have to remember that this sweet is named after the town! It was invented here and is popular throughout the country. Their signature, sweet, Nanaimo bar, is delicious and consists of a thick layer of custard-flavoured icing sugar topped with a thin layer of chocolate, placed on a coconut and crumb wafer.
From what we’ve heard, the bar was originally invented as a sort of “energy bar” for people going on hikes or outdoor adventures. However, its deliciousness spread far and wide and it can now be found in many coffee and pastry shops in Nanaimo and across Canada. There’s even a trail named after the dessert – the Nanaimo Bar Trail.
Take the Ferry to Newcastle Island
There’s something quite cool and special about jumping on a ferry to explore a new place and the ferry to Newcastle Island is a great way to do that! Just across the Nanaimo Harbour, you’ll see Newcastle Island. To visit, you just have to jump on the small ferry that transports walk-on passengers to the nearby island, which is officially called Saysutshun, the Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park.
Once there, you’ll find loads of nature and history, including Snunéymuxw village sites, nature trails, beaches, old sandstone quarries, the remains of a fish saltery, and coal mine sites. This is also a great place for camping, with walk-in sites that are popular with families looking for easy access to nature.
Go Kayaking or Paddling
With so many lakes as well as the sea, Nanaimo is a great place to do some paddling. Whether you like kayaking, canoeing, or paddleboarding, there are a variety of places to rent gear or take a tour. This is such a great way to get some exercise and see the beautiful natural areas surrounding the city. We recommend checking the Nanaimo Tourism site to see all your options.
Enjoy Nature at Pipers Lagoon Park
Yes, more nature! Not far from downtown Nanaimo is Pipers Lagoon Park, which beautifully juts out into the ocean, offering stunning views of the Salish Sea. You’ll find walking trails that take you around the little peninsula with a variety of lookout points. This park is popular with locals and is a great place to just get away from the city and be near the ocean. It’s also a great spot for sunrises and sunsets and is popular with birdwatchers who try to spot horned grebes, kingfishers, and more.
See the Vancouver Island Military Museum
If you’re looking for more museums, the Vancouver Island Military Museum is an interesting one to check out. Located high above downtown Nanaimo, this octagon-shaped museum educated on Canada’s navy, army, and armed forces, all the while offering views of the city, ocean, and mountains. Visitors will find things like uniforms, weapons, models, and a variety of memorabilia.
Visit a memorable waterfall at Ammonite Falls
Everyone loves to chase waterfalls and one beautiful waterfall that is quite close to Nanaimo is Ammonite Falls. It’s not a huge waterfall but it is quite nice and requires a 4.5-kilometre hike, which adds to the allure. It’s not difficult but it’s certainly nice to be surrounded by a dense forest.
Visit the Waterfalls at Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park
If you’re into waterfalls, another one not to miss is Little Qualicum Falls, which is just over 50 kilometres from town. Known by some as one of the most beautiful parks in central Vancouver Island, this park is great for getting out into nature as it features a waterfall, suspension bridges, and forest. You can even jump in Cameron Lake for a swim if you’re up to it!
Spot Some Fish at the Big Qualicum Hatchery
Not far from Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park is the Big Qualicum Hatchery, a local hatchery that not helps to breed salmon but also teaches you about salmon behaviour, life cycle, and their habitat requirements, thanks to lots of research, projects, and developments. You could also have a picnic here if you like.
Enjoy a bike ride at Westwood Lake Park
Small lakes are always such a treasure to find and Westwood Lake Park is one of the most popular ones in the area, especially for people into biking. There is a beautiful 5.5 km trail around the lake as well as picnic tables. However, you’ll need to bring your own bike.
Hike to The Extension Ridge Trail
Canada’s Great Trail is a hiking trail that literally goes from coast to coast to coast. It would take years to complete but you can do a small slice of it on the 9-kilometre round-trip of Extension Ridge Trail. It’s moderately challenging but offers beautiful views. Some locals call it “The Abyss” because of a large crack running down through the Earth that measures approximately 50 cm wide. Don’t drop your phone!
Play Disc Golf at Bowen Park Disc Golf Course
If you’re looking to try something new, consider gathering some friends and playing disc golf at Bower Park. Just like golf, it offers 18 holes and is both challenging and fun.
Explore Beban Park
With more than 160 acres to explore, Beban Park is a great place to visit for those wanting more of the great outdoors. It’s used quite often for sports such as soccer, basketball, and pickleball, but it’s also just a great place to go for a stroll.
Get a Great View from Mount Benson Regional Park
If you’re looking for beautiful views, hike the 8-km loop trail to Mount Benson, which not only offers wonderful views of the Gulf Islands but also provides a great workout.
Explore Hemer Provincal Park
Those who love to be surrounded by trees will love the 11 kilometres of walking trails that Hemer Provincial Park provides. Home to Douglas Firs, Maples, and Red Alders, as well as a lovely lake and marshland, this is a lovely small park for getting out into nature without going too far from the city. The park is quite popular for people who enjoy canoeing, fishing, and horseback riding.
Marvel at the underground at Horne Lake Caves
If you’re like us, you probably love caves. Well, you can explore some not far from Nanaimo. Horne Lake Caves has some pretty cool underground passageways, chambers, and crystal formations that you can explore. You can actually visit this place privately but if you’d rather learn about it while staying safe, you can join a tour as well.
Hug Some Historic Trees at Heritage Forest
Vancouver Island has some pretty impressive trees and that’s no different in Heritage Forest, a 50-acre ecological reserve that features Coastal Douglas Fir, Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, Grand Fir, and more.
Paddle Spider Lake Provincial Park
Don’t let the name spook you. Spider Lake is a popular place to visit, thanks in part to its motorboat prohibition. Thanks to this rule, the lake provides a peaceful atmosphere kayak, canoe, or paddleboard. There’s also a nice beach and a good swimming area.
Relax at Qualicum Beach
Right in town is popular Qualicum Beach, which offers roughly 4 kilometres of sandy beach with beautiful mountain peaks right in view. It’s a great place to watch the sunset, go for a swim, enjoy a picnic, or just relax and go for a walk.
Go Deep into History at Petroglyph Provincial Park
Canada as a country might be young but the Indigenous Peoples were here for thousands of years. One wonderful place to see this for yourself is Petroglyph Provincial Park, which is home to a short interpretive walk that leads you to some petroglyphs that were created more than 1000 years ago.
Explore Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park
Wait, another park? Yes, Nanaimo is surrounded by nature so it’s the perfect place for those who love the outdoors. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park is a wonderful place to go camping, swimming, and hiking, as it’s home to 347 acres of wilderness as well as some nice sandy beaches.
Explore Rosewell Creek Provincal Park
If you still haven’t had enough parks, Rosewell Creek Provincial Park is another good one, especially if you’re looking for a park that has fewer people.
Enjoy the Hamilton Wetlands
Wetlands are always such a great place to see wildlife and birds and the Hamilton Wetlands is no different. As the largest wetland between Nanaimo, Cumberland, and Port Alberni, it’s home to more than 130 species of birds, as well as cutthroat and Coho salmon. Plus, there’s an array of Amphibians including Red-legged Frogs, Tree Frogs, and many types of Salamanders. It’s a great place for families, couples, and birdwatchers, providing a peaceful way to see wildlife and plants in a beautiful atmosphere.
How to Get to Nanaimo, BC
As you know, Nanaimo is located on Vancouver Island, and therefore, there are two ways to get there – Plane or Ferry.
Getting to Nanaimo by Car and Ferry
Departing from Vancouver, BC, there are two ways to get to Nanaimo by ferry, including:
- Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay (4 km north of Nanaimo): 1 hour 40 minutes
- Tsawwassen to Duke Point (12 km south of Nanaimo): 2 hours
Both ferry rides are beautiful and it really just depends on timing or where you’re heading in particular. For optimal planning, visit the ferry website for schedules and prices.
In addition to the Vancouver ferries, there are ferries that come from the USA as well.
Getting to Nanaimo by Plane
Although you won’t find an international airport in Nanaimo, there is a local airport with direct flights to and from Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto. The airport is only 10 minutes from downtown Nanaimo, so it’s quite convenient. From the airport, you can easily rent a car, take a taxi, or take a bus into the city.
In addition to the typical commercial planes, there’s also the option of flying into Nanaimo on a seaplane from Vancouver. This 20-minute flight is very scenic and would couple as both your transportation and a sightseeing experience.
Getting around Nanaimo
While downtown Nanaimo is very walkable, Vancouver Island is easier explored if you have a car. You can easily rent them online, which will give you the best opportunity of visiting all the different sights as well as travel to other popular destinations like Victoria or Tofino. If you only plan on staying within the city or taking tours, then perhaps you can get by without a car. However, Canada is the perfect place for a road trip.
Where to Stay in Nanaimo
If you’re visiting Nanaimo, you’ll likely need a place to stay. Although the small city is quite spread out, the actual downtown area is compact and easily explored. For most people, staying around the Harbourfront is the best option as it puts you within walking distance to many attractions as well as beautiful walking paths.
Coast Bastion Hotel (Luxury): With incredible views of the harbour and the Coast Mountains, the Coast Bastion Hotel is one of the most popular high-end hotels in the area. The rooms are nice and spacious and include Juliette balconies with sliding glass doors to enjoy the fresh ocean air. They also have a popular restaurant and other amenities such as a fitness center.
Best Western Dorchester Hotel (Mid-Range): There are actually two Best Westerns that make a great option for accommodation in Nanaimo but this one is much more centrally located. It features modernized rooms, great views, a rooftop terrace, a restaurant and bar, and so much more.
The Ramada by Wyndham Nanaimo (Mid-Range): Not far from the waterfront, this popular hotel offers large and bright rooms with breakfast is included.
Quality Inn (Mid-Range): Located right downtown, this modern-looking Quality Inn boasts lots of positive reviews. It has nice rooms, a restaurant, a fitness center, and offers great value.
The Buccaneer Inn (Mid-Range): With some of the highest reviews in the city, the Buccaneer Inn is a great option for those wanting something close to the Departure Bay ferry terminal. This family-owned hotel offers great views with a maritime theme.
Travelodge Nanaimo (Budget): As a trusted name in budget travel, This Travelodge hotel offers great value, pet-friendly rooms, breakfast, and is close to the Departure Bay ferry terminal.
Harbour Light Motel (Budget): Another popular budget hotel in Nanaimo is the Harbour Light Motel, which offers clean and comfortable rooms and a “next-door” restaurant that provides discounts for guests.
The Port-O-Call Motel (Budget): Last but not least is the Port-O-Call Motel, a newly renovated motel with great reviews. It offers great value and is conveniently located close to downtown Nanaimo.
Continue Exploring Vancouver Island and Beyond
We doubt Nanaimo is the end of the road for you. Continue exploring BC and Canada with these guides below: