Located on the east coast of British Columbia’s picturesque Vancouver Island, Nanaimo is an oceanside gem. The Harbour City has endless hiking, paddling, and diving opportunities, along with a growing offering of places to sip and dine.
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Nanaimo is the hub of Vancouver Island and is a launch point to all the amazing things that the Island has to offer. From hiking to a rainforest waterfall to enjoying a beer at a floating pub, Nanaimo, British Columbia, is home to natural beauty and many unique attractions. Whether it’s a stop on a road trip or a weekend destination, there’s no shortage of fun things to do while visiting Nanaimo.
Here are some of the top things to do in Nanaimo for adventure seekers, coffee aficionados, and everyone in-between.
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Indulge on the Nanaimo Bar Trail
You really can’t visit Nanaimo without having a Nanaimo bar. For namesake alone, one of the best things to do in Nanaimo, BC, is to eat your way around the city on the Nanaimo Bar Trail. With over 40 stops on the route, you’ll find everything from the classics to more adventurous spins like Nanaimo bar gelato and cheesecake. There are even vegan and gluten-free options to indulge in as well. You can find the complete list of locations serving Nanaimo bars here.
Visit Newcastle Island (Saysutshun)
Newcastle Island, or Saysutshun as traditionally known by the Snuneymuxw people, is home to the beautiful Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park. Visiting the island is one of the top Nanaimo attractions for hiking, bird watching, and camping.
Catch the ferry from Maffeo Sutton Park and embark on a peaceful retreat to a place that has been special to the Snuneymuxw people for years. If you’re interested in camping in Nanaimo, the park is the perfect place. There are 18 tent campsites and options for boaters to tie on and enjoy an evening on the Salish Sea.
Visiting the island is a summer activity, with the ferry operating daily from May to September. Campsites are available with a reservation or on a first-come-first-served basis for a small nightly fee of CAD $18 (USD $14).
Hit the Beach at Pipers Lagoon Park
One of the best beaches in Nanaimo is at Pipers Lagoon Park. Located about 12 minutes north of downtown Nanaimo, the waterfront park has many scenic hiking trails and driftwood-laden beaches perfect for a sunset stroll. Plan to visit at low tide and walk over to Shack Island, a small slice of land dotted with rustic fishing cabins.
Pipers Lagoon is great for birdwatching. Seagulls, sandpipers, and great blue herons are just a few species you’ll see here.
Float at the Dinghy Dock Pub
Take a short ferry ride to Protection Island from the Nanaimo Harbour on Front Street to visit Canada’s only floating pub! The Dinghy Dock is one of the most unique places to visit in Nanaimo. Grab some pub grub and enjoy the view of Vancouver Island from the water.
There’s often live music in the evening and stunning wildlife viewing from the patio. If the ferry isn’t your thing, you can even rent a kayak and paddle over from downtown. After your meal, take a stroll around Protection Island. You’ll find plenty of walking trails, a community garden, and rocky west coast beaches to explore.
Discover The Abyss
One of the most interesting things to see in Nanaimo is the 50 cm (20”) crack in the earth, coined “The Abyss.” Although its origins are unclear, the fissure is a natural wonder along the Extension Ridge Trail. The crack looks bottomless and is just big enough to fall into so be extra careful if hiking with a pup.
Extension Ridge Trail is about 8 km (5 miles) out and back, and it’s just 1km to the Abyss. Beyond the Abyss, there is a fairy circle and a lovely labyrinth marks the end of the trail. There are several viewpoints along the way, where you can look down at the city and surrounding landscape. The trailhead is about 10 minutes south of downtown Nanaimo and starts in a gravel parking lot.
Go for a Stroll at Neck Point Park
With its many impressive nature parks, there are lots of free things to do in Nanaimo. Visiting Neck Point is a favourite among tourists and locals alike. Encompassing 36 acres of waterfront setting, the park is a designated natural area that attracts photographers. The park is also home to four Nanaimo beaches – Sunset Beach, Last Beach, Indian Beach, and Finn Beach.
Visitors can hike the winding trails through Garry Oak groves and along the rugged coastline. Lined by rocky bluffs and pebble beaches, the headland area in the north section of the park is known to be frequented by sea lions, orcas, and otters.
Located about 15 minutes north of downtown Nanaimo, Neck Point Park is also a hotspot for scuba diving. Divers tell of a fantastic variety of marine life that live off the rocky headlands and a deep water rock wall face that’s fun to explore. Nanaimo offers world-class diving opportunities, especially in the winter—with a thick wetsuit, of course!
Have a Pint at a Local Brewery
With five local breweries in town, you’ll have no shortage of great places to grab a pint. Stop into White Sails Brewing for a Mount Benson IPA or Longwood Brewery for an Island Time Lager. Plan your trip with the BC Ale Trail in mind to discover some of the best craft beers that Vancouver Island has to offer. Whether you’re craving the full taproom experience or prefer to take a growler to go, Nanaimo breweries have you covered.
Look for Fossils at Ammonite Falls
Venture down the 4.8 km (3 miles) trail to Ammonite Falls, where you’ll be surrounded by lush forests and ocean fossils. The Ammonite Falls Regional Trail is a well-maintained walking path that leads into Benson Creek Falls Regional Park, opening up to a view of the cliffside falls at the end.
If you’re feeling adventurous, climb down the steep rope-lined hill to the foot of the falls for an amazing view. The ropes are especially helpful when the trail gets muddy—which is often—so remember to wear good boots!
The falls are a great place to cool off in the summer that feels like a rainforest oasis. Walk along the riverbed and pay close attention to the rock-studded walls. You might just find an ammonite, which is an ocean fossil of an extinct mollusk.
Take in the Views from Sugarloaf Mountain
Take a short climb up to Sugarloaf Mountain for a panoramic view of Departure Bay and the city of Nanaimo. Don’t be fooled by the unassuming street entrance; the rocky steps will lead you up to a spectacular lookout point. It’s the perfect spot to watch the ferries come in or catch a sunset in the evening.
Another hidden gem is the Beach Estates Park Trail. This 1.7 km (1.1 mile) trail starts at Departure Bay Road and continues to the beach near the ferry terminal. You’ll go along stairs and a path that follows Northfield Creek all the way to the ocean.
Watch the Seals at Dodd Narrows
Check the tide charts and walk through Joan Point Park for a vantage point of Dodd Narrows. At high tide, this passage of narrows between Vancouver Island and Mudge Island puts on quite a show. Watch the rapids hit the coast, and keep an eye out for seals playing in the currents.
To reach Joan Point, walk the Cable Bay Park trail and follow the shoreline south. You’ll come to a waterfront park where you’ll find the perfect vantage point to settle in and watch the water below. The Cable Bay Park trailhead is about a 15-minute drive from downtown Nanaimo.
Have a Coffee at Regard Coffee Roasters
Regard Coffee Roasters is Nanaimo’s only local coffee roaster. If you’re looking for things to do in Nanaimo in winter or want to cozy up with a cup year-round, Regard is your spot. Have a seat in the bright and airy café, or take a bag of freshly roasted beans home with you. If you like what you taste, you can sign up for their coffee subscription service and enjoy a taste of Nanaimo from anywhere in Canada!
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Soak in Canadian History at the Bastion
Deemed one of Nanaimo’s most iconic landmarks, the Bastion was built by Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1850s. Now maintained by the Nanaimo Museum, you can visit for summer tours to learn more about Island coal mining. If you plan your visit at midday, you can even catch a cannon firing!
Admission is free, but check the Nanaimo Museum website for hours of operation, as they do vary by season.
Grab Breakfast at The Vault Café
Brighten up a grey Vancouver Island day at the bright pink Vault Café. Have some of the best breakfast in Nanaimo while being surrounded by greenery and romantic architecture. The café is located in an old bank building where charming character is the backdrop for delicious food and live music.
Watch the Bathtub Race
Without a doubt, the ultimate Nanaimo tourist attraction is the annual Bathtub Race. Annually hosted in July since 1967 (except for 2020, of course), hundreds of “tubbers” race motorized bathtub boats around the coastal islands for a chance at victory. The race originally went across the Strait from Nanaimo to Vancouver but has since been rerouted.
Though things have changed over the years, former mayor Frank Ney is still an icon of the race. He used to dress up as a pirate and promote the race around the Island—what a way to put Nanaimo on the map! The race turns into the month-long Nanaimo Marine Festival, with lots of activities and events across the city. If you’re bored of regular sports, be sure to visit Nanaimo in July and add a bathtub race to your agenda!
Go on a Whale Watching Tour
The west coast of British Columbia is spoiled when it comes to majestic wildlife. Going on a whale watching tour is an awesome way to spend an afternoon and see marine life in action. Orcas, humpback whales, and seals are all residents of the Salish Sea that hugs Nanaimo’s coast.
Going on a tour with Vancouver Island Whale Watch is a great way to explore the ocean sustainably. Tours only follow healthy growing whale populations instead of the endangered orcas commonly seen further south. In fact, Vancouver Island Whale Watch advocated for the moratorium on watching endangered orcas, which has now been written into Canadian law. Fares start at CAD $179 (USD $134) for a 4-hour tour, with a portion of that donated to marine conservation efforts.
Blending the best parts of seaside and city living is what Nanaimo tourism is all about. From quirky sporting events to postcard-worthy views, Nanaimo boasts loads of activities to enjoy year-round. Come feel the salty air for yourself and experience the restaurants, waterfalls, and beaches that make Nanaimo a travel-worthy destination.
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Take the Ferry to Gabriola Island
Get away from the city and visit the arts and culture community on Gabriola Island. Home to a high density of artists, the island has a diverse community and hosts festivals, workshops, and outdoor adventures.
Browse the 70+ artist studios, take a yoga class, or hike the mossy trails of Descanso Bay Regional Park – this is a place to slow down and take everything in. There are also great swimming spots on the island’s coast, with family-friendly sandy beaches in Gabriola Sands Provincial Park, or the stunning Malaspina Galleries with its sandstone cliffs.
Locally sourced food is another important part of the island’s culture. You’ll find Gabriola-grown produce, meat, and eggs at the island’s restaurants, farm stands, and farmers markets. The island is just a 25-minute ferry ride from Nanaimo Harbour, with sailings from early morning to late evening.
Explore Petroglyph Provincial Park
Located on a hill overlooking Nanaimo Harbour, this park is home to a large concentration of prehistoric rock carvings created by First Nations peoples over 1,000 years ago. A short interpretive trail leads from the parking lot to a sandstone gallery, where you’ll see sea creatures, human figures, and symbolic designs etched into the rock surface.
Just a 10-minute drive south from downtown Nanaimo, Petroglyph Provincial Park has no admission fees and is strictly day-use.
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Visit the Vancouver Island Military Museum
See an impressive collection of military memorabilia and artifacts dating all the way back to the War of 1812 at the Vancouver Island Military Museum. You’ll see over 25 exhibits honoring Canada’s military history and Merchant Navy.
Located on Nanaimo’s historic waterfront, the Vancouver Island Military Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10am-3pm, and on Saturday from 11am-3am. Admission is $4 CAD per person.
Watch the Boats from the Harbourfront Walkway
Take a stroll along the downtown harbourfront on this paved trail. The Harbourfront Walkway passes by marinas, parks, and a beach. This is a great spot to watch the sunrise, or just go for a leisurely walk to enjoy the sights and sounds of the harbour.
Play Disc Golf at Bowen Park
Located in the heart of the city, this park is home to a series of interpretive trails, the scenic Bowel Park Waterfall, and a gorgeous rhododendron grove with over 350 different species. There is also an outdoor swimming pool, a lawn bowling green, and the Bowen Park Disc Golf course. Don’t worry if you didn’t bring discs – you can borrow them at the registration counter.
Other things to do in Nanaimo you can try
Visited before? What was your favourite thing to do in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island?
About the Author:
Olivia D’Alessandro is a van dwelling traveler sharing stories and tips for life on the road on Generic Van Life. She is a freelance writer and graphic designer who has spent the last three years exploring North America by road in her vintage camper van, Clementine. She is currently living on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia, Canada. Here, you can find her hiking, chopping wood, and hitting all the dirt roads that Google Maps doesn’t know about.