There are many fun things to do in Nanaimo, the city has a flourishing art scene, nice restaurants, beautiful hiking trails and other outdoor activities, a lovely Old City Quarter with excellent shopping opportunities, and much more.
During our time on Vancouver Island, we spent several days exploring Nanaimo and its surrounding area and had a great time. I hope this Nanaimo travel guide will convince you to include the second-largest city on the island into your Vancouver Island itinerary.
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Things to do in Nanaimo BC
Places to visit in Nanaimo: map
What is the best time to visit Nanaimo BC?
The most popular months to visit Nanaimo (and Vancouver Island in general) are the summer months, June until August. During these months, the days are long and (mostly) sunny, and temperatures are comfortable (12-22°). The summer season is perfect to explore the town and to enjoy the many outdoor activities Nanaimo and the surrounding area have to offer.
We visited Vancouver Island in June and had lovely weather on most days. Sure, there was the occasional shower as well as a day or two when it rained the entire morning or afternoon, but overall, we were very lucky with the weather.
As we love to explore the outdoors, I actually prefer temperatures to be around 20°. It’s much more comfortable hiking in that kind of weather than 30+ degrees!
In any case, Spring (April-May) and Autumn (September-October) are a nice time to visit as well. While the days are shorter and temperatures are lower, there are fewer crowds as well and accommodation is a bit cheaper. On average it does rain more than in summer, so be sure to carry a raincoat.
Winters on Vancouver Island are mild and wet. Generally, this isn’t the best time to visit Nanaimo. While it’s not necessarily very cold, it does rain a lot during the winter months, making many of the Nanaimo attractions and activities a lot less attractive.
How to get to Nanaimo?
Since Nanaimo is located on an island you either have to take a ferry or a flight to get there.
From Vancouver there are two ferry options:
- 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
You can find more information about ferry schedules and prices here. I personally very much enjoyed the ferry ride as it’s a beautiful route and if you’re (very) lucky you may even spot a killer whale along the way.
For those looking to make a spectacular entrance, you can fly to Nanaimo via seaplane as well, it’s only a scenic 20-minute flight from downtown Vancouver.
How to get around Nanaimo?
Nanaimo downtown is very walkable and many sights included in this post can be reached on foot (provided you’re staying somewhere in Nanaimo city center).
However, I highly recommend renting a car so you can enjoy the many outdoor activities in the surrounding area. You can also rent a campervan if you love camping as much as we do. However, please note that most campervans can only be picked up in Vancouver.
In any case, reaching many of the trailheads is impossible without your own wheels and there are several attractions included in the post that are a bit further afield but definitely worth a visit.
If you are planning to stay in Canada for a longer period of time, consider buying a car instead of renting one.
Having your own wheels gives you the freedom to stop wherever you want and explore the best places around Nanaimo!
Where to stay in Nanaimo?
There are plenty of accommodation options in Nanaimo, suitable for any budget. No matter if you’re looking for a lovely campsite, a nice hotel or an apartment, below you can find my recommendations.
Camping in Nanaimo
Hotels in Nanaimo
Apartments in Nanaimo
There is no shortage of lovely apartments in Nanaimo, many have fully equipped kitchens so you can cook your own food (which can save you a lot of money). Check out this apartment with a terrace.
What to do in Nanaimo: 15 fun sights and activities
1. Stroll around Nanaimo Old Town
Nanaimo is the third-oldest city in British Columbia and Nanaimo Old Town features several revitalized heritage buildings dating back from the 1850s. Here you’ll find colorful houses, cute cafes, and beautiful boutique shops. It’s the perfect place to get a souvenir or a gift for someone you love.
You won’t find any chain stores in the Old City Quarter of Nanaimo, instead, there is a diverse collection of independent shops, selling everything from unique local art to pretty dresses and antique furniture.
This part of town is also a good place to get lunch or dinner, I highly recommend the woodfired pizza at La Stella Trattoria (I had the one with prosciutto).
2. Check out The Bastion
The Bastion is one of the premier Nanaimo tourist attractions and a city landmark that can’t miss on your Nanaimo sightseeing itinerary. This three-story wooden construction was built in 1853 by the Hudson’s Bay Company and can be visited during the summer months (mid-May through Labour Day).
Inside of the Bastion, you can find displays of trade goods and other Hudson’s Bay Company artifacts. But even if you don’t go inside (or can’t because the Bastion is closed), be sure to check out this iconic Municipal Heritage Site.
3. Visit the Nanaimo Museum
In this museum you can learn about Nanaimo’s heritage, including the history of the Snuneymuxw First Nation who have lived in the area since time immemorial.
There are several permanent exhibits, a particularly fun one is the exhibit about Nanaimo’s annual World Championship bathtub race, as well as temporary ones that change every couple of months.
With lots of old photos, a walk-through model of an old coal mine, and interesting signposts describing the artifacts on display this is really one of the top things to do in Nanaimo.
While you won’t spend an entire day here, there is enough to see and learn to keep you occupied for an hour or two. Entrance to the museum is only $2, you can find the opening hours here.
4. Sample some Nanaimo bars
You cannot spend time in Nanaimo and not try a Nanaimo bar! These terribly unhealthy but incredibly delicious sugary treats are impossible to resist. A traditional Nanaimo bar consists of three layers:
- Bottom layer: crushed coconut, walnuts, unsweetened cocoa powder, and graham cracker crumbs.
- Middle layer: custard buttercream.
- Top layer: dark chocolate ganache.
You can find these delicacies in many stores and bakeries in Nanaimo. If you can’t get enough of Nanaimo bars, you can even follow the Nanaimo Bar Trail to experience the many delicious and creative interpretations of this famous Nanaimo treat.
5. Enjoy Nanaimo’s Harbourfront and Walkway
One of the places to see in Nanaimo is the harborfront. There is a 3-kilometer Walkway that makes for a lovely stroll (the Walkway is still being developed and extended every year).
Sit down on one of the benches to watch the fishermen prepare their boats and the seaplanes fly in. Enjoy a delicious ice cream cone from Just Desserts, grab a coffee or buy a souvenir at one of the cute shops, and enjoy the beautiful views over Newcastle Island, and Protection Island (read more below).
6. Catch a ferry to Newcastle Island
Newcastle Island, known as Saysutshun by the Snuneymuxw people, is a protected marine park that’s just a 10-minute ferry ride from Nanaimo. Here you can go camping and hiking or take part in one of the First Nations events organized by the Snuneymuxw people who manage the island.
Ferries to Newcastle Island run every 30 minutes in summer, but the exact departure times depend on the season. A return ticket is $7, check out the ferry schedule and more information here.
7. Visit Protection Island and have a drink at The Dinghy Dock Pub
Contrary to Newcastle Island, there are people living on Protection Island (currently around 350 fulltime residents).
On the island, there are several hiking trails and a couple of nice beaches. What’s more, Protection Island is where you’ll find the Dinghy Dock Pub, the only floating pub in Canada. Have lunch or a beer on the patio while enjoying the views over the water and Nanaimo town.
Ferries leave the Nanaimo side 10 minutes past the hour (from 7 am to 10 pm), a return ticket is $10. Check out the ferry schedule and more information here.
8. Hike to the top of Mount Benson
Mount Benson is about 1000 meters high and this 8-kilometer loop includes an elevation gain of 720 meters. make sure you have a proper breakfast or lunch before scaling this mountain, you will need the energy!
I’d say this is a moderately difficult trail, there are some steep sections and it was pretty muddy when we went up so waterproof hiking boots are recommended. The trail is well signposts with yellow and red trail markers. Most people go up via the red trail and down via the yellow route.
The hike took us 3.5 hours (return) and the views from the top are stunning on a clear day. You can see Nanaimo, the Strait of Georgia, and even all the way to the Sunshine Coast on the mainland coast of British Columbia.
9. Go on a whale watching tour
If you are visiting Nanaimo between April and November, be sure to add a (sustainable!) whale watching tour to your Nanaimo itinerary. Orcas, grey whales, and humpback whales can be seen in the area, are as well as several other wonderful marine creatures such as seals, eagles, and sea lions.
Canadian whale watching regulations are very strict and if you go with Vancouver Island Whale Watch you can be sure that you’ll have an amazing experience that isn’t harmful to these magnificent creatures.
Vancouver Island Whale Watch is run by marine scientists who are dedicated to preserving the pristine marine life around Vancouver Island.
10. Relax at Westwood Lake
Westwood Lake is a great place to visit in Nanaimo with kids! There is a lovely 5.5km trail that goes around the lake and makes for a perfect afternoon stroll.
Water activities such as swimming, kayaking, and paddleboarding are also possible. Or you can simply relax at one of the beaches while reading a book or enjoying the view.
When we visited in June the weather couldn’t have been more perfect and the park was filled with Canadian families celebrating summer. We happily joined them and spend a very enjoyable afternoon at Westwood Lake.
11. Hike the Ammonite Falls Trail
The Ammonite Falls track is an easy 5km (roundtrip) hike that took us about an hour (return). This well-signposted trail isn’t hard, however, I do recommend wearing sturdy (hiking) shoes and (as always on Vancouver Island) to bring a raincoat.
The waterfalls are most spectacular in Spring when they are fed by the melting snow. We visited in early June and while the falls weren’t particularly impressive by that time (as you can see in the picture above on the right), the hike is lovely enough by itself and definitely something to add to your list of things to do around Nanaimo.
The trail to the Ammonite Falls starts near the parking lot on Creekside Place, about a 15 minute drive from Nanaimo.
12. Go scuba diving
Nanaimo probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of scuba diving, but is actually rated among the top ten cold water dive destinations in the world!
Three wrecks have been sunk off the shores of Nanaimo and as the years passed by, these ships have transformed into artificial reefs that are now home to a myriad of underwater creatures. Explore the HMCS Saskatchewan, the HMCS Cape Breton, or the RivTow Lion or simply admire the diverse underwater world at this beautiful cold water dive spot.
13. Check out the Abyss
The Abyss is a deep fissure about 50 centimeters wide (so be very careful when visiting with kids!). There is an ongoing debate about how this seemingly bottomless crack in the earth came to be. Was it an earthquake or was it caused by nearby mining activity?
In any case, be sure to check out the Abyss during your Nanaimo trip. The hike to the Abyss is only 1 kilometer, you can find clear directions here.
14. Buy local produce at the Farmers Market
Who doesn’t love strolling around a Farmers Market hunting for beautiful homegrown products and local arts and crafts! There are three Farmers Markets in (and near) Nanaimo:
- Downtown Nanaimo Farmer’s Market: Saturday from 9 am – 2 pm (May – September)
- Island Roots Market Co-op: Wednesdays from 4 pm – 6:30 pm and Saturday from 10 am – 2 pm
- Cedar Farmers Market: Sunday from 10 am to 2 pm (May-October)
If you happen to be in town on one of these days, it’s definitely worth paying them a visit to pick up some delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, or a beautiful souvenir.
15. Visit the Petroglyph Provincial Park
One of the things to do near Nanaimo for history buffs is visiting the Petroglyph Provincial Park. While this park is only small, you can find hundreds of prehistoric stone carvings depicting animals, mythological sea creatures, and human figures.
There is a short trail leading from the parking lot to an interpretive area where you can read more information about the history of the area and the fascinating petroglyphs.
Nanaimo things to do: in conclusion
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to Nanaimo and it will help you plan your trip. I really enjoyed these Nanaimo activities and sights and I’m sure you will too!
Feel free to ask any questions you may have, you can leave a comment below or send me a message.
If you are looking for more Canada travel inspiration, check out my Canada page where you can find all the posts I’ve written about this wonderful country.