Skip to Content

COMPLETE Guide to Visiting Nanaimo, BC + 25 Things to do!

COMPLETE Guide to Visiting Nanaimo, BC + 25 Things to do!

This blog may contain affiliate links. Read our disclosure policy for more info.

Nanaimo, BC is a beautiful city on Vancouver Island with a name that might sound familiar if you’ve tried the popular Canadian dessert – a Nanaimo bar! The treat is named after this city after it became really popular here in the late 1940s before spreading across Canada.

But there is so much more to this city than the famous dessert (although you MUST try one while you’re here). Nanaimo is the second largest city on Vancouver Island. This coastal town is an off-the-beaten-path getaway that is among the best places to visit in British Columbia.

What’s great is you don’t have to travel far from Vancouver to find the slow-paced island life. A 2-hour ferry ride will transport you from the bustling city of Vancouver to this charming island town. Nanaimo is often one of the two jumping-off points on Vancouver Island when you travel here by ferry. It’s a popular spot to stop on the trip from Vancouver to Tofino or Victoria to Tofino, but don’t discount it as a place to pass by, it’s a destination all by itself!

Whether you’re looking for great hiking, whale watching, a place to leisurely stroll along the water, or even scuba diving, Nanaimo has some pretty great things to check out. I am still dreaming of waking up in the morning and enjoying my morning coffee with an ocean view!

Whether you are using Nanaimo as a starting point to get to other popular Vancouver Island destinations like Tofino or if this is your main destination, I have lots of recommendations on things to do and see while you’re here.

Read on and start planning your own getaway to Nanaimo, BC!

About Nanaimo, BC

View of Nanaimo Harbor in Nanaimo, BC
Nanaimo is a beautiful coastal city on Vancouver Island!

Nanaimo is home to about 105,000 people. It’s located on the east coast of Vancouver Island and is a 2-hour ferry ride from Vancouver or about a 1.5-hour drive north of the province’s capital city of Victoria. The road trip from Victoria to Nanaimo is a fantastic drive we highly recommend! Nanaimo is also only an hour from beautiful Courtenay, BC.

Vancouver Island itself attracts more than 4 million tourists every year, so you definitely won’t be alone while visiting Nanaimo! There are many different ways to get here including a small airport in the city. There are also ferry terminals connecting the mainland to the island in both Tsawwassen and North Vancouver. Another popular route is taking a seaplane from Vancouver to Nanaimo.

Nanaimo receives very similar weather patterns to Vancouver, British Columbia. You can expect a good amount of rain, about 170 days of rain yearly. Winters rarely dip below freezing with only a few days of snow expected during the winter months (December to February).

Nanaimo is known for attracting a hippie culture and is a great place to sip delicious craft beer and eat fish and chips right on the water. But you can still escape the crowds with some great hiking and chances to get out on the water – whether you’re whale watching or scuba diving.

Plan to spend at least 2 days here to explore Nanaimo fully. Although there’s enough here to stay longer if you can!

Things to do in Nanaimo, BC

1. Go whale watching

An Orca in Howe Sound on a Sea to Sky afternoon cruise
Seeing an Orca has to be on your Canadian bucket list!

While the ocean water off the coast of this Canadian city is certainly cold, it is packed full of amazing marine life. Water temperatures in the area are around 11°C (52°F), so don’t jump in, but definitely get out on the water in a boat.

Going whale watching in this area is one of the top attractions in all of BC! You get to explore the Salish Sea which is home to humpback whales, killer whales (orcas), seals, porpoises, and sea lions. Whale watching on Vancouver Island is such a special experience, and Nanaimo is the perfect place to join a whale watching tour.

One of my favorite memories of Nanaimo was my day spent on the water looking for whales. I went in without many expectations, only to be shocked to see a pod of orcas in the water around me!

The best chance you’ll have of seeing some of these amazing creatures is with an adventure like this open boat whale watching tour. We loved this one! Because it is an open boat, it can get pretty chilly, but then you’ll have nothing blocking your view of the water. The $192 CAD tour includes an anti-exposure suit to keep you warm and dry along with a professional guide and binoculars to share.

If you are looking for a very similar tour but would rather have a boat with a bit more luxury, this whale watching tour in a semi-covered boat is a great option. For $203 CAD, you’ll have a sheltered seat on the boat, but you’ll still have access to an open deck on the back to head to once you spot something!

Both tours have really knowledgeable guides who are marine life experts. You’ll learn a ton, while you scan the horizon for whales. What’s really nice is that both of these tours guarantee that you will see a whale or you can go on another tour for free!

Related Read: One of the best things to do in Ucluelet, BC is also whale watching!

2. Ride in a seaplane

A scenic view out the window of a float plane on Vancouver Island
The views are breathtaking!

See Nanaimo from the sky on a fun seaplane tour of the area. The views around Nanaimo will not disappoint! This area is packed full of natural beauty with mountain and forest views as you glide overtop of the open ocean and the many islands in the area.

This Nanaimo seaplane tour gives you a 40-minute cruise along the ocean leaving from the Nanaimo Harbour. There are about 200 gulf islands off the coast of Vancouver and this seaplane ride will take you past many of them giving you a bird’s eye view of the area.

You’ll also land in Sechelt (the Sunshine Coast) and get a couple of hours to explore there before returning back to Nanaimo. Tickets are $200 CAD per person, which isn’t bad for a scenic flight like this.

We took a Vancouver seaplane flight and it was SO good – easily one of the highlights of our trip. Honestly, I think the view would be as good, if not better, from Nanaimo! We used this same company, Harbour Air, on our tour of the Straight of Georgia leaving from Vancouver, and have no complaints. Cruising at a low altitude allowed us a super unique perspective of the area.

3. Explore the Nanaimo Old City Quarter

The old town in Nanaimo, BC
It’s such a cute place to take a morning walk!

Nanaimo is one of the oldest cities in British Columbia! The downtown core has an area referred to as the Old City Quarter.

This area is home to boutique shops and delicious restaurants, some in buildings dating back to the 1800s. Make sure you walk past the striking Nanaimo Courthouse! Everything has an eclectic one-off feel to it that made the whole area very artsy and interesting to walk around.

Part of the Old City Quarter’s charm is that you never know what you will find around the corner. This historic area is home to a wide variety of small businesses from Italian family restaurants, craft shops, clothing stores, tattoo parlors, bookstores, and more. This is THE place to go in the summer months for patio drinks and happy hour deals.

One of my favorite things to do in Nanaimo’s Old Town was grabbing a sandwich from Real Food (the BLT-C-G sandwich with chipotle guacamole is AMAZING) and sitting on a street bench. The streets are lined with maple trees making this area particularly beautiful in autumn.

4. Visit Dinghy Dock Pub on Protection Island

Beer and wine at the Dinghy Dock Pub on Protection Island in Nanaimo, BC
Drinks with a view? Yes, please!
Food and drinks at Dinghy Dock Pub on Protection Island in Nanaimo, BC
The food was great, too!

Enjoy a patio drink on the floating (yes, I said floating!) Dinghy Dock Pub. Offering a unique perspective of Nanaimo, we had a blast drinking beer and eating delicious fish tacos while enjoying the coastal views.

One of the coolest ways to have dinner in the city, this floating restaurant on Protection Island is only accessible by boat. To get here, you can choose to take the ferry or kayak your way to the restaurant. It is just as fun to get to this pub as it is once you’re there.

This pub is known for having regular live entertainment events – we recommend checking out their Facebook page before you go to see what’s happening. There is a family section with a patio area at the pub if you’re traveling with kids.

The ferries run every hour, 10 minutes past the hour, between 7 am and 10 pm, Monday to Friday and 8 am to 10 pm on weekends. Round trip fare costs $12 CAD for adults 13+ and $6 CAD for kids 6-12. The fare should be paid in cash. You can find out details about the ferry depatures online here.

Due to its location on the water, the Dinghy Dock Pub is closed during the winter months from late December to mid-March.

5. Check out the Nanaimo Museum

Bailey looks at a First Nationas display at the Nanaimo Museum in Nanaimo, BC
The museum is surprisingly big!

If you enjoy a cultural experience, the Nanaimo Museum is conveniently located downtown and is a great quick stop-in while you’re here.

The museum gives a brief overview of Canada’s history, specifically Nanaimo’s fur and gold trade. Prior to being colonized by European settlers in the 16th century, the area had been inhabited by Indigenous populations for thousands of years.

The Nanaimo Museum is a great place to learn about the history of the Snuneymuxw First Nation communities that originated in this area. Entrance is by donation with a suggested amount of $2 CAD per person.

The Nanaimo Museum is open from 10 am to 4 pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays. We recommend sectioning off between 30 minutes to an hour to visit the museum.

6. Head over to Gabriola Island

The beach at Gabriola Sands Provincial Park on Gabriola Island
The beach at Gabriola Sands Provincial Park!

There are around 200 gulf islands located between Vancouver Island and BC’s mainland. While Vancouver Island is the biggest one, there are a lot of other smaller islands to explore. One of the most popular to visit is Gabriola Island.

This small island with a population of only 4,200 people is renowned for its natural beauty and artistic vibes. This island is packed with things to do! From exploring its long coastline, tackling some of the 170 kms (105 miles) of hiking trails or biking, kayaking, fishing, and scuba diving … it’s an outdoor playground!

We loved exploring the provincial parks and there are three on the island all with their own attractions. Our favorite, though was Gabriola Sands Provincial Park. It’s only small but home to two gorgeous beaches!

As Gabriola Island is located about 5 kms (3 miles) east of Nanaimo, the ferry to get here only takes about 20 minutes.

We especially liked walking along the coast as most of the shoreline on this island has public access, meaning you can walk almost all the way around.

7. Visit Petroglyph Provincial Park

A petroglyph at Petroglyph Provincial Park
These are really cool!

Located just south of Nanaimo’s downtown core, you will find Petroglyph Provincial Park. Here you will see impressive rock carvings that date back more than 1,000 years.

This is one of our favorite Nanaimo attractions to dive into some Canadian Indigenous history. The rocks showcase images carved into the stone and there is even a replica area you can put a piece of paper on and make rubbings of the carvings to take home. The info boards around also do a good job of explaining what you are looking at.

This is a great area to come for a quick walk as Petroglyph Park takes about 20 minutes to explore. Plus, it’s completely free!

Related read: If you’re traveling BC on a budget, check out the dozens of free things to do in Vancouver!

8. Wander Maffeo Sutton Park and walk the Harbourfront Walkway

Bailey walks along the Harbor front Walkway in Nanaimo, BC
For a relaxing walk, head to the coast!

If you are looking for the perfect way to start your day in Nanaimo, BC, a walk along the Maffeo Sutton Park is a great plan. This waterfront park has all the amenities you’d expect from a large city park including public washrooms, accessible pathways, and children’s playgrounds.

The boardwalk has lots of benches where you can sit to enjoy the ocean views. There is even a public pier that will get you closer to the water.

Parking is free for the first 3 hours, meaning you have lots of time to explore some great Nanaimo activities in the area.

There are paths throughout the park that will lead you past the Swy-A-Lana Lagoon and totem poles. Totem poles are sacred to the Indigenous peoples in Canada and are a strong part of Canadian history. These are tall pillars made of wood and carved and painted to represent meaningful traditions in Indigenous culture.

If you’re traveling with older kids, a company called WildPlay offers ziplining through the park where you can fly in the air over the lagoon and enjoy the ocean views. If you’re feeling thirsty, White Sails Brewery is right across the street!

9. Take a photo with the Nanaimo sign

Bailey takes a photo with the Nanaimo Sign
The Nanaimo sign!

Call me cheesy, but whenever we are traveling to a new area, I love taking a photo near the city sign. This Nanaimo attraction is all about capturing the great memories you’ve had on the island!

The sign was constructed in 2021 and can be found in front of the Swy-A-Lana Lagoon in Maffeo Sutton Park. A visit to Nanaimo, BC is not complete without a good’ol photo op.

Taking a photo is free and the sign is near the waterfront, meaning it’s a great starting point for your day. Come early to avoid anyone else in your photos and jump inside the colorful “o” in Nanaimo. The colors represent the city’s dedication to diversity and inclusivity.

Related Read: One of my favorite places to visit near Vancouver Island is Salt Spring Island – read all about this paradise!

10. Go nanaimo bar crazy!!!

A Nanaimo bar in Nanaimo, BC
Bailey enjoys a Nanaimo bar in Nanaimo, BC
The best road trip snack!

If you don’t know what a nanaimo bar is, expect to be pleasantly surprised as you bite into this delicious Canadian desert. Nanaimo, BC is the founder of this delicious chocolate classic. So naturally, one of the best things to do in Nanaimo is to eat all the nanaimo bars!

A nanaimo bar has three layers. The base layer is a crumbed base of wafer, coconut and nut mix to give a satisfying crunch. Then there is a thick layer of custard icing sandwiched in the middle with a delicious chocolate ganache finish on top. Ugh, I’m still drooling!

If you’re a foodie, or like me and just love to eat, doing a self-guided nanaimo bar tour of all the best places to get this Canadian classic can be really fun.

I recommend going to a few places like A Wee Cupcakery and Nanaimo Bakery to try a classic nanaimo bar first. Once you’re familiar with the flavor, do yourself a favor and take it up a notch by heading to Hearthstone Artisan Bakery and getting the peanut butter crunch nanaimo bar. Honestly, it is SOOOO good!

You can also find lots of different nanaimo bar-flavored desserts like ice cream, cheesecakes, waffles, and cocktails. If you have dietary restrictions, head to Nanaimo Bakery or BOCCA Cafe to get gluten-free, vegan, and organic nanaimo bars.

Related Read: I love grabbing a nanaimo bar before making the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino. It’s the best road trip snack!

11. Visit Mount Benson

The view from Mount Benson in Nanaimo, BC
What an epic view!

Vancouver Island is a great place if you like hiking and the outdoors. The lush rainforest throughout the entirety of the island even creeps into the cities and towns! We love hiking in this area because it’s so vibrant and green.

Located just a short drive east of Nanaimo is Mount Benson. Climb this 3,345-foot (1,023 m) mountain with this trail that takes around 4 hours to climb. It’s a challenging hike because of the incline, but there are lots of points to take breaks.

At the top, the views of Nanaimo are stunning! Plus, you’ll be greeted by little birds called Whiskey Jacks – they are really friendly and might even land on your hand.

Make sure to check the weather and conditions before you go, as they can be snowy or cloudy, which can make the hike difficult and block your view. The best time to hike here is from April to October.

Related read: One of the most popular hiking spots around Vancouver is the beautiful Lynn Canyon. It has an incredible suspension bridge!

12. Saysutshun Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park

Saysutshun Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park in Nanaimo, BC

The Saysutshun Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park is an island just off the coast of Nanaimo that offers camping, kayaking, and hiking.

You can catch a 40-person ferry (or a 12-person one) from Maffeo Sutton Park to the island. This costs $12 CAD return for adults, while children have a round trip fare of $5 CAD.

But if you’re up for an adventure, skip the ferry and hop aboard a kayak. We love this because you can not only kayak around the island but also to Protection Island to grab a drink at the Dinghy Dock Pub.

You can start paddling at or near the ferry dock. Don’t worry if you don’t have a kayak, you can rent one at Jeff’s Kayak and Bike Rentals which is open throughout the summer months, until September.

There are also tons of hiking trails on the island. We like the Coastal Trail which takes you on an easy hike along the coast of the island. It is a 7.5 km (4.6 mile) loop that takes around 2.5 hours.

If you’re up for spending a night here, there’s an oceanside campground so you can roast marshmallows by the water.

If you want to cover more ground on the island, you can also bring your bike on the ferry ($5 CAD fee), or rent one to pedal around.

13. Play a round of golf

The course at Nanaimo Golf Club
Photo credit: Nanaimo Golf Club

If you’re looking to play a round of golf, you’re in luck because Nanaimo, BC is home to some amazing golf clubs with stunning views.

The Nanaimo Golf Club is a top-rated 18-hole golf course with a driving range. Practice your swing with stunning ocean views and then stop in at their restaurant for some fresh seafood cuisine. If you’re not a member here, public tee times are only offered after 1 pm and must be booked in advance.

If you’re looking for a full 18-hole golf course at an affordable price point, Winchelsea View Golf Course will provide just that with a stunning view to boot. If you’re a casual golfer, book a tee time to play 9 holes for only $27 CAD.

For beginners, Pryde Vista Golf Course is a great option to practice your swing. Their 9-hole course makes this a great place to build confidence in your golf game. Another great option for beginners is Beban Park Golf Course & Driving Range. Here you can choose from their driving range or an 11-hole pitch ‘n putt course where the longest hole measures 90 yards.

14. Check out Ammonite Falls

Ammonite Falls Nanaimo 1
In early summer and spring, it is much more beautiful because more water is flowing!

Looking to splash in some waterfalls? This 5.5 km (3.4-mile) out-and-back hike takes about an hour and a half to do and will take you past the gorgeous Ammonite Falls with a pool you can dip in.

You will begin your hike at the parking lot on Creekside Place which sits about 15 minutes from downtown Nanaimo. This hike will have you weaving through the tree-covered forest, which provides a good amount of shade from the sunshine.

While this hike can be done any time of year, the best time to go is in the spring when the waterfall will have the most water. This is still a stunning walk at other times of the year, but the flow significantly dries out during the summer/fall. As you are on the wet coast (I mean the “wet” coast), I highly advise having good hiking shoes as trails can get really wet and muddy.

Well worth the trek, I’d consider this hike a beginner/intermediate trail that has some challenging sections. The terrain has hills, stairs, roots, rocks, and branches for you to maneuver over. The hike is well-marked throughout and will take you past Ammonite Falls and to a lake viewpoint.

Related read: See some of the top waterfalls in the province at Wells Gray Provincial Park – one of the top things to do in Clearwater, BC!

15. Go to a farmer’s market (or two!)

Vegetables at the Nanaimo Downtown Farmer's Market
The best local produce is found at the Nanaimo Downtown Farmer’s Market

Vancouver Island has some of the best farmer’s markets, and Nanaimo is no exception! There are two main farmer’s markets in Nanaimo, with one being open year-round.

Island Roots has a summer market that is open from April to October and a winter farmers market that runs for the rest of the year. In the summer, they are set up in the north part of Nanaimo in Beban Park on Wednesdays from 2-6 pm. In the winter, they move indoors to the Centennial Building from 3-6 pm on Wednesdays.

The Nanaimo Downtown Farmer’s Market is the oldest farmer’s market in Nanaimo. It’s open from May to September from 10 am – 2 pm. We like the easy to get to location in the Pioneer Waterfront Plaza. It’s a great way to enjoy the downtown!

No matter if we’re just passing through the area or staying for a while, we love walking through local farmer’s markets like these. They feature everything from locally grown fruit and vegetables to hand-crafted products. You can grab a hot chocolate and fresh baked goods and stroll through the vendors, it’s a great way to spend a morning.

16. Pipers Lagoon Park

Bailey sits on a bench at Pipers Lagoon Park lookoing out at the ocean in Nanaimo, BC
Not a bad place to relax!

Nanaimo is located along the coast of Vancouver Island which means it has some really amazing places to visit on the water. Pipers Lagoon Park is one of our favorites along the shore. It has a lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other, so there’s amazing waterfront views wherever you look!

This special area is located in north Nanaimo about a 15-minute drive from the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal.

This lagoon is a great place to have a picnic, bird watch, or go for a swim (if you’re brave). The water temperature in this area ranges from 6°C (42°F) in the winter to its yearly peak of around 196°C (59°F) in the summer months.

The trails near here have some nice lookouts onto the ocean – perfect for enjoying a sunrise or sunset. During low tide, this is also a fun spot for beachcombing and exploring the rocks, kids especially will enjoy this!

17. Play disc golf

Daniel plays disc golf at wen Park disc golf course
Disc golf is quickly becoming a popular sport!

Located near downtown Nanaimo and a short drive from the BC Ferries Departure Bay Terminal is Bowen Park. This area is home to many fun Nanaimo activities including a pool, lawn bowling, curling club, and one of our favorites – the Bowen Park disc golf course.

Disc golfing has boomed in popularity in recent years with courses being installed in public parks all around BC. I was surprised at how much fun this sport is, especially given my lack of hand-eye coordination.

The Bowen Park disc golf course has been around since 1995 and includes a full 18 ‘holes’ and has a Par 54 rating. Plus, you can rent discs for free here from 10 am to 4 pm.

This is a beginner course with a full round taking approximately an hour and fifteen minutes, depending on your speed. The course is completely free to use.

18. Drink local craft beer

White Sails Brewing in Nanaimo, BC
Photo credit: White Sails Brewing

If you know me, you know my love for craft beer! Nanaimo did not disappoint with its selection of local microbreweries. As with any brewery, I highly recommend getting a flight of beer so you can try a bunch of different types.

Going brewery hopping is my new favorite thing to do, so below I’ve listed the best breweries in Nanaimo so you can give it a go!

A bit of a drive south will get you to Wolf Brewing Company. Affectionately referred to as “the wolf den,” this is a great place to come for a lively beer on the patio. Be sure to pop in for some of their frequent live entertainment including comedy nights and music.

White Sails Brewing is my top pick in Nanaimo! It’s open later than any of the other breweries in the area making it a great place to enjoy some Nanaimo nightlife. When we came, we had a flight that included some sour beer which was surprisingly delicious. I had the beef dip melt, which was great, but all the food I saw looked amazing – I don’t think you can go wrong here.

I am still craving the hazy IPA from Cliffside Brewing Company. This brewery is focused on beer and does not have a full kitchen. What they do have is chicken wings – delicious ones! Who doesn’t love beer and wings?

The Longwood Brewery and Longwood Brew Pub are on opposite ends of town and offer up different experiences with the same delicious beer. The brewery only has an outdoor patio section making it a great option for summertime. The Longwood Brew Pub offers delicious craft beer and pub-style eats.

Craft Fare serves up delicious craft beer and food right in downtown Nanaimo. This is a must-visit on your craft brewery tour around town. Serving up quick shareable food and delicious craft beer, we loved our time here. There is a small patio area outside too that was nice and quiet.

Related Read: Drinking craft beer is also one of the best things to do in nearby Parksville, BC!

19. Jack Point and Biggs Park

Bailey at Jack Point and Biggs Park in Nanaimo, BC
Even during low tide it’s beautiful!
The staircase at Jack Point and Biggs Park in Nanaimo, BC
There are tons of walking trails and boardwalks in this park.

If you are sailing between Nanaimo and Tswassen, you will be using the Duke Point ferry terminal. Jack Point and Biggs Park is located at the terminal and is a great place to spend some time while you’re waiting for your ferry.

This park is situated along the protected bay giving uninterrupted views of the ocean and the city. This is a great area to bring your whole family, even your dogs, to go for forest walks and navigate the rocky shoreline.

An area where the rainforest meets coastal beaches, this park has lots of walking trails that will take you along boardwalks, up staircases, and to the beautiful rock-covered coast. This park was an unexpected highlight of our trip to Nanaimo. There were tons of cool rock formations and carved statues around the area.

20. Get a thrill at Wild Play Nanaimo

Wild Play Nanaimo Bungee
Photo credit: Wild Play Nanaimo
Wild Play Nanaimo Elements Park
Photo credit: Wild Play Nanaimo

If you’re looking for a thrill, WildPlay is the place to go. This is one of those Nanaimo activities that is fun, no matter how old you are.

If you like jumping off tall things or swinging through the air on a zipline, you will love Wild Play in Nanaimo. This outdoor adventure park has a lot to offer including an obstacle course, a 150-foot (45m) bungee jump over the Nanaimo river, a 140km/hr (93mph) primal swing, and a zipline tour.

The treetop obstacle course starts with a quick tutorial on the ground before you take to the treetops. Once confident, you will begin your adventure by climbing a ladder to a platform. You will belay from tree to tree climbing on tightropes, cargo nets, wobbly bridges, ziplines, and more. The course takes between an hour and a half to 2 hours to complete and goes through 3 levels of difficulty where the height gradually increases.

There is also an extreme course for those looking to test their skills at an even higher altitude with more challenging obstacles. There is also a kids’ course for children 5-12 who are looking to test their skills.

The park has some admittedly weird hours being open Friday to Monday 10 am to 7 pm (although hours are extended seasonally.) We found booking a combo package to be the best value and a way that you can have an action-packed day, without breaking the bank.

Related read: Adventure-seekers will also love the incredible zipline tours in Whistler!

21. Scuba dive

Underwater diving in British Columbia
Scuba diving is easily one of the best things to do in Nanaimo.

While the water in Nanaimo may be cold, don’t let that stop you from scuba diving in the ocean waters. Vancouver Island is home to some of the best scuba diving in North America!

One of the biggest draws to this area is the friendly marine life you will encounter. While you will miss the colorful coral reefs found in tropical waters, you will get a parade of friendly sea lions looking to say hi.

Check out Nanaimo Dive Outfitters or Sundown Diving, which offer both training courses if you’ve never scuba dived before, as well as guided tours for experienced divers.

Diving in Nanaimo’s cold water will have you going through large underwater forests, coral wall dives, shipwrecks, and seeing a ton of marine life. Eels, octopuses, nudibranchs, sea pens, sea whips, and anemones are plentiful in these waters.

One of the most popular draws to the area is the Nanaimo wreck dives. There are 3 wrecks in Nanaimo you can dive into, the most popular being the HMCS Saskatchewan which was sunk in October 1997.

The water temperature in Nanaimo ranges from 12-18°C (54-64°C) in the summer months and drops down to 6-9°C (42-49°C) in winter months. For this reason, diving in BC requires a dry suit (keeps you even warmer than a wetsuit!) and a specialized dry suit certification that adds to your regular open-water diving certification.

While this may initially deter you from wanting to check it out – it shouldn’t! The water is certainly cold but the dry suit will ensure the water doesn’t touch your body keeping you comfortably warm.

22. Fish from the wharf or go on a fishing charter

Unreal Fishing Charters Nanaimo catch from the day
How’s that catch? Photo credit: Unreal Fishing Charters

One of the best things to do in Nanaimo is to take to the water for a relaxing day of fishing. There are many places you can fish for free including along the water downtown. You’ll have amazing views of the Saysuntshun Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park and Protection Island. Just remember to get a BC fishing license first!

If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can charter a boat and head out on the open water. We like Unreel Fishing Charters because they always make sure they catch something and have a great time doing it.

Their specialty is salmon including Chinook Salmon (also known as Spring, Tyee, and King), Coho Salmon, and Pink Salmon. A half-day charter (4 hours) is $540 CAD and includes fishing licenses. You can have up to 4 people (or pay $50 CAD for every additional person), so bring your friends!

Related Read: If you want to see salmon in the wild, check out the salmon run juts outside of Port Alberni, Vancouver Island.

23. Check out the Abyss/Extinction Crack

Bailey looks into the Abyss or Extinction Crack in Nanaimo, BC
Don’t fall in!

We love when places have hiking with a great payoff like a breathtaking view. If you’re like us, we suggest hiking to The Abyss in Nanaimo.

The trail will gain 754 feet (230 meters) over the course of the hike and leads to something you don’t see every day – a giant crack in the Earth. The Abyss is about 1.5 feet wide and extremely deep. It looks like two tectonic plates are separating – a really neat sight.

To get here, it’s a 2.1 km (1.3-mile), dog-friendly out-and-back trail that takes around 40 minutes. Keep dogs on a leash around The Abyss though!

You’ll walk along a dirt path that leads to The Abyss and great views of Nanaimo. Keep going on the trail for a bit to find some nice lookout points with excellent views over the city and ocean.

Related read: Another neat place to explore in BC is the Othello Tunnels – one of the must-visit places in Hope, BC!

24. Departure Bay Beach

Departure Bay Beach in Nanaimo, BC
This beach is right in town!
A meal from Drip Coffee at Departure Bay Beach
Gran some food from the nearby cafe for a beach picnic.

Grab a coffee from one of the many nearby cafes (Drip Coffee is my favorite) and head to Departure Bay Beach. This long and skinny stretch of beachfront is located about 8 minutes from downtown.

It’s a great place to set up for the day and enjoy the sunshine and a refreshing ocean dip. Sometimes there are food trucks set up here so you can grab a yummy lunch! You’ll also be able to watch the sunrise as this is an east-facing beach.

Departure Bay Beach is a popular launching point for locals with kayaks and paddleboards. Sitting on one of the logs on the beach gives you stunning views of the forest, mountains, and ocean all at once. While dogs are not allowed on the beach between May and September, they are allowed on the walkways.

I also love Drip Coffee | Social, a trendy cafe right on the beach. I usually get a coffee and snack to go and sit right on the beach to enjoy it.

While there is a lot of street parking along Departure Bay road, we recommend coming early because this can fill up quickly in the summer months, especially during July and August.

25. Check out the Bastion

The Bastion in Nanaimo, BC
It’s hard to miss!

If you’re a history buff, the Bastion in Nanaimo has an interesting past that makes it worth visiting. Built in 1853, Nanaimo’s Bastion is the oldest structure in the city.

It’s the last remaining Husdon’s Bay Company Bastion in North America! This 3-story building was used as a sales and trading post in the 1800s. You can find it located along the waterfront.

In the last 170 years, the Nanaimo Bastion has changed ownership, moved locations (twice), and undergone renovations to make it what it is today.

Where to Eat in Nanaimo, BC

vie of Penny's Palapa restaurant in Nanaimp locaked on the dock
This Mexican restaurant is located right on the dock in Nanaimo – and the food is also delicious!

If you’re anything like me, you’ll agree that one of the best things about traveling is all the food you get to try. I’m no foodie, but I sure love to eat and Nanaimo’s restaurants did not disappoint!

Nanaimo is known for 2 things in the culinary world: fresh seafood and delicious nanaimo bars (you CAN NOT visit without trying one of these babies!). But there are some other amazing restaurants in Nanaimo offering everything from burgers to Korean cuisine to pub food.

Here are just a few of the best restaurants in Nanaimo:

  • Top Notch Burgers – If large portions of delicious comfort food is your thing – be sure to stop at Top Notch Burgers. The name says it all, this was the best burger I had in Nanaimo for sure! Don’t wear white here – the burgers are HUGE and you’re guaranteed to get messy. We came during their happy hour (3-5 pm, daily) and in typical Canadian fashion, we made sure to enjoy a $5 CAD Caesar!
  • Drip CoffeeDrip Coffee serves up strong coffee and delicious sandwiches. Located right across from Departure Bay Beach, this coffee shop allows you to get your morning coffee without leaving the ocean view. Whether you’re coming for your first shot of espresso, or just looking for some lunch on your beach day, I highly recommend a stop at this coffee house.
  • Felice Cafe – Another great cafe in the Departure Bay area is Felice Cafe just down the street from Drip Coffee. This Korean restaurant serves up delicious bubble tea, wraps, sandwiches, and bento boxes. I had the chicken box with freshly made French macaroons for dessert and both were delicious.
  • Penny’s Palapa Restaurant – If Nanaimo’s island vibes are making you feel like you’re in Mexico, why not go all the way with this delicious Mexican restaurant? I don’t know if it was the margaritas, the stunning ocean views, or the AMAZING fish tacos but Penny’s Palapa Restaurant was one of my favorites in Nanaimo. If you have a vegan or vegetarian diet, you’ll be happy to hear there are quite a few options for you here.
  • Lighthouse Pub and Bistro – If you’re craving pub-style food with an ocean view, Lighthouse Pub is a great option for you. The atmosphere is idyllic with a stunning patio overlooking the inlet. This is a great stop if you are in downtown Nanaimo or taking the ferry and looking for a quick meal. While the fresh seafood is popular, I had a burger here and absolutely loved it.

Where to Stay in Nanaimo

View from Painted Turtle Guesthouse
View from the hotel. The Painted Turtle Guesthouse is right downtown
Common area at Painted Turtle Guesthouse in Nanaimo, BC
Common area at Painted Turtle Guesthouse in Nanaimo, BC

Now that you know just how much there is to do in Nanaimo, you’re going to want to stay a while! Hotels in Nanaimo are about on par with what you’d expect from the rest of the island. With a range of tourists from backpackers to luxury travelers, there are accommodations to match whatever you’re looking for.

We were really happy with all the places we stayed in Nanaimo, so check out our top picks for a variety of budgets for your own trip here!

$ – Painted Turtle Guesthouse

The Painted Turtle Guesthouse is a great option if you are looking for affordable accommodations in Nanaimo. They do short-term and long-term stays offering a clean and comfortable option for travelers. While this place is affordable, it is important to note the rustic style that skips common bells and whistles like TVs and phones and instead focuses on the necessities like a comfortable bed and pillow. You can check availability and book the Painted Turtle Guesthouse here.

$$ – The Spot

If you’re willing to spend a bit more, The Spot Motel was renovated in 2022 and the results are a beautiful and comfortable affordable hotel in Nanaimo. Rooms are private and spacious and offer all the standard comforts in a hotel room (comfortable bed, wifi, TV, etc) and even have a patio area. You can check availability and book a stay at The Spot here.

$$$ – Coast Bastion Hotel

If you’re looking to travel in luxury, the Coast Bastion Hotel will provide just that in its stunning downtown location. You can choose from rooms with ocean or city views and enjoy the on-site restaurant. It’s located about 3 kms (2 miles) away from the Departure Bay ferry terminal. We stayed here and loved that the rooms had fridges allowing us to keep our drinks and food cold. You can check availability and book a stay at the Coast Bastion Hotel here.

Related Read: If you’re also going to be in Vancouver, check out our guide for where to stay in Vancouver before you go!

Thanks for reading!

Daniel and Bailey take a selfie in Nanaimo, BC
Thanks for reading!

Nanaimo is one of the most visited cities on Vancouver Island and one of my favorites! The small-town living and coastal vibes of this city make it stand out. If slower-paced island life is what you’re looking for, I think you’ll love Nanaimo as much as we did.

If you’re heading to BC, make sure to check out all our Vancouver Island and West Coast blogs. We have spent a TON of time living here, visiting family and friends, and going on adventures. We share all that insider knowledge to help you find hidden gems throughout the province.

Complete Guide to Visiting Duncan, BC

33 FUN Things to do in Whistler in Summer

21 BEST Stops on the Drive from Calgary to Vancouver