Nanaimo, British Columbia, is one of Vancouver Island’s most charming places. The main reasons are its natural beauty and calm seaside atmosphere. This town sits along the east coast of the island, one of Canada’s top destinations. It has one of the country’s longest shorelines and a scenic mountain backdrop, experiencing this scenery is one of the most popular things to do in Nanaimo.
With over 1,400 hectares of protected open areas, Nanaimo is home to a large selection of parks and trails to explore. Strolling its lively waterfront is an authentic experience you don’t want to miss. From local shops to a day out in the water, it is easy to see why Nanaimo has earned the nickname “Harbour City”.
Nanaimo is a popular getaway from busier cities nearby, like Victoria and Vancouver. Other travellers wanting to see more of Vancouver Island, take Nanaimo as their base city since here, you can find a great variety of waterfront vacation rentals.
Only have time for a day trip to Nanaimo? This city is great for those staying in Vancouver or Victoria and looking for a nearby nature escape. High season is during the summer months, but most attractions are open all year round. Wondering about the best things to do in Nanaimo? We’ve got you covered:
Explore the harbour and the sea
The sea and the shore offer some of the best experiences in Nanaimo. Taking a catamaran cruise, for example, is one way to get up close with the local marine beauty. It’s also a great opportunity for families and groups to learn about sailing. And if you are looking to save some bucks, this experience allows you to bring food and drinks on board.
Local tip: ask the captain to pull close to shore so you can check out the small islands that surround the harbour. This is a unique experience you can only get in Nanaimo.
Taking a whale watching tour is another good idea for a family adventure in Nanaimo. Apart from seeing orcas and humpback whales, you stand a good chance of spotting some cormorants, eagles, seals, sea lions and porpoises. And if you don’t get to see any whales during the tour with Vancouver Island Whale Watch, your next trip is free.
Feel like taking in the marine landscape, but not getting on a boat? Stroll along the Harbourfront Walkway. If you have only one day in Nanaimo, it’s a sure way to grasp the local atmosphere. There you can see fishermen casting lines on the piers while you walk. You can also pick up fresh produce from buskers or the local seafood at the pier cafés and restaurants. Be sure to check out Maffeo Sutton Park during your stroll – it’s ideal for a picnic overlooking the harbour.
Speaking of food, the Dinghy Dock Marine Pub & Bistro is another great place to take in the sea. This is Canada’s only floating registered pub. To get there, you’ll need to take a short boat ride to Preservation Island – a fun experience on its own. Enjoying its live music and waterfront views is one of the best things to do in Nanaimo.
Watch the Marine Festival’s bathtub race
Nanaimo is a dream destination for water sports and sea activities. This is why one of its most popular events is the Marine Festival. It has been attracting crowds from all over the world every July since 1967. The festival serves the audience with regattas, parades, concerts, street fairs, and fireworks displays.
The festival’s main attraction is the Great International World Championship Bathtub Race. As you can imagine, these boats are designed around bathtubs or tend to have a similar shape. In this race, dozens of “tubbers” ride a 58-km course. They start off at the harbour and finish at downtown Nanaimo. The best part is that many riders decorate their boats in a hilarious fashion. This makes the race a must for any visitor looking for unique things to do in Nanaimo during the summer.
Experience the outdoors
Vancouver Island is famous for its parks and lush green sceneries. So outdoor enthusiasts have a lot to explore in Nanaimo. You can start off in one of its many hiking trails at your own pace – easy, medium or hard. Gorgeous waterfalls await at the end of some of these journeys, such as Mount Benson, Ammonite Falls, and Englishman River Falls Park.
Local tip: don’t be intimidated by rainy weather. Rainfall is a constant here, so pack some high boots to face the muddier trails. Also, beware of rocky surfaces in the Malaspina Galleries and Pipers Lagoon Park.So you’re not into serious hiking? These swoon- worthy locations are a must if you’re looking for what to see in Nanaimo: Head to Sugarloaf Mountain. It’s too small to qualify as a real mountain, but offers a panoramic view of Nanaimo. Neck Point Park is also great for photographers, as well as for swimmers. Kayaking and paddleboarding aficionados will find it perfect too. Local tip: During the summer, try visiting Neck Point in the early morning, since it can be hard to find parking.
If you and your family seek more action, try WildPlay. Its adventure park includes bungee jumping, giant swings, zipline tours, and jumps. It’s best to book online beforehand, especially if you are coming with a big group. You can also buy a package with all activities included.
Relax at the local beaches
Being on an island, it’s no surprise that Nanaimo offers some great beaches, fitting all tastes. Blueback Beach, for example, is one of Nanaimo’s best hidden gems. This secluded spot at North Nanaimo is accessible by going down a steep set of stairs. When you get to the end of it, take in the amazing views of the coastal mountains. Blueback Beach is great for swimming, wading, and floating, and it’s open all year round. So it is ideal either to cool down in the summer or for a quiet hideaway during winter.
Further north from downtown Nanaimo, Qualicum Beach serves one of the largest beachfronts on Vancouver Island. It is stony, so it attracts smaller crowds and is usually quieter than other local beaches. The northern end of Qualicum beach is the best for swimming. If paddling is what you’re after, you’ll find many facilities to help you practice it all along the beach.
Are you more into a stroll? Departure Bay is your choice. It has a mix of sand and stones, which is good for trailing. If you walk along the sand flats at low tide, you’ll come across a great variety of sea life, like starfishes and crabs. This horseshoe-shaped beach also makes for some truly Insta-worthy sceneries. Need a break from trailing and would like a snack? Don’t worry: Departure Bay has plenty of sightseeing benches, picnic tables and washrooms.
Indulge in the local art at Gabriola Island
As we mentioned, many visitors set their base in Nanaimo and get to know the rest of Vancouver Island on day trips. And one of the things to do around Nanaimo is going to the gulf island of Gabriola. A short ferry ride away from Nanaimo, Gabriola is all about art, community spirit and natural beauty. In short, Gabriola is perfect to disconnect from the hustle-and-bustle of the city.
With a population of 4,200, Gabriola has a high density of artists and over 70 art studios. This is why it’s often referred to as the “Isle of the Arts”. When you go there, expect a full calendar of live performances, art shows, workshops, and events. Whether it’s winter or summer visitors can also take yoga classes, learn cheesemaking, or enjoy pampering massages. No matter when you go, you will leave more relaxed than when you arrived.
For the outdoor lovers, Gabriola has a lot to offer. You can rent a kayak and explore the island’s 98 kilometres of coastline. Another option is to rent a mountain bike or head out on foot to explore over 170 km of hiking trails. Gabriola also has world-famous diving spots and dozens of beaches and parks. And if you visit in the off-season, you will likely have the beaches all to yourself.
Enjoy the winter off-season
There are many fun things to do in Nanaimo in winter, even if it’s not its high season. Although most winters are mild, there can occasionally be some snowfall. And when it does snow, cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling are very popular.Nanaimo also has several ice arenas that host community events and skating lessons during the winter. Check a visitor centre for details about all winter events.
The cooler months are also a good time to enjoy the local food and drink scene in Nanaimo. Sure, you can do it all year round. But you’ll be glad to see smaller crowds and avoid the fuss of reservations. The Nanaimo Brewery Tour, for example, is perfect for beer lovers. It’s a 4-hour tour at some of the best local breweries. In each one of them, you can have samples and buy your bottles to go.
Looking for some fine dining? Try the Firehouse Grill and its sushi, grilled entrées, and tasty desserts. If you’re into Greek food, check out Asteras Greek Taverna. It’s one of the local favourite spots, serving classics like spanakopita. If all you want is to cosy up and have some coffee, go for the cool atmosphere of Regard Coffee Roasters or the beautiful decoration at The Vault.
The Nanaimo Museum is another fun place to take your kids when the weather is cold or rainy , any time of the year. You can learn about local history, such as life in a native person’s longhouse. You can also explore the award-winning Coal Mine exhibit, which gives a taste of what it feels like to be in a real mine. The museum is open all year round, and admission is very cheap – $2 for adults and $0.75 for kids aged 5-12. Children under 5 are admitted for free.
Indulge in the Nanaimo Bar Trail
The Nanaimo bar is a delicious Canadian tradition. This popular no-bake dessert is made out of layered chocolate, coconut and custard cream. In Nanaimo, this recipe is the start for many tasty variations. If this is what your sweet tooth is after, this delicacy’s hometown is the place to be.
The Nanaimo Bar Trail is easily one of the best things to do in Nanaimo. You can visit 40 restaurants, bakeries and bars, each one serving its own take on the famous dessert. All stops on this self-guided tour are open all year round. Options include Nanaimo-bar-inspired cake pops, cocktails, spring rolls, and tea lattes. If you’re health-conscious, gluten-free versions are available in some of these outlets. Finally, if you have some time left, we encourage you to end your tour with an exotic treat: a Nanaimo-bar pedicure! It includes a milk bath, a chocolate sugar scrub, a rich chocolate masque and a vanilla custard massage. We bet you’ll rush to the nearest bakery as soon as the treatment is over!
Nanaimo Airport (YCD) is 18 km south of Nanaimo. It has many options for local and international flights. Taxis, shuttles and rental cars are available to take you to and from the airport. Local tip: the Airporter shuttle service from Nanaimo airport is busy. So be sure to book as soon as you confirm your time of arrival.
If you come by car, you can reach Nanaimo from communities in the south, like Ladysmith and Victoria. If you’re north of Nanaimo, drive from Courtenay or Campbell River.
For those visiting from Vancouver, BC Ferries offers a 2-hour ride to Nanaimo. You can arrive either at Departure Bay or Duke Point in Nanaimo. Local tip: ferries are very busy from spring through fall. So check the schedules and make a reservation to avoid long sailing waits.
Since Nanaimo makes a great day trip for those in Vancouver, booking a condo in the city is a convenient option. But if you’re into a more relaxed stay, closer to nature, why not renting a cabin in Nanaimo? Imagine yourself waking up to a gorgeous view and getting ready for a day of hiking, or boat riding. It can’t get any better!