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9 BEST Stops Between Victoria and Nanaimo

9 BEST Stops Between Victoria and Nanaimo

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Lucky you planning a road trip from Victoria to Nanaimo! I grew up in Edmonton and lived in BC for a number of years, so I spent a chunk of my summer vacations on Vancouver Island.

This drive from Victoria to Nanaimo, although short at 1.5 hours long, is one of my Vancouver Island highlights. Even with its short distance, you could easily spend two full days exploring along this route. Now, I won’t spoil the itinerary but I will say that this road trip includes a lush provincial park boasting a waterfall with a very recognizable name and the wow-worthy Malahat Skywalk!

I’ve started this road trip in BC’s bustling capital city, Victoria, so let’s get into it!

About the Drive from Victoria to Nanaimo

Road with pine trees on the side on Vancouver Island, Canada
The drive from Victoria to Nanaimo is short but beautiful!

The drive from Victoria to Nanaimo is one of Vancouver Island’s most popular road trips because it connects two major tourist destinations and is breathtakingly beautiful. Although short, at 112 km (70 mi), it truly highlights the best of this wild, rugged island.

I advise allowing at least two full days to complete this road trip. To ensure you make it to as many of the stops I’ve listed below as possible, we recommend spending the night in Duncan. The itinerary below is spaced out so that you’re stopping about every 30 minutes, but you can cut that down to just a few select stops if you want to make it to Nanaimo faster.

Prepare for extra traffic if you’re making this road trip in the summer. Also, parking can sometimes be a problem at popular attractions like Goldstream Provincial Park and the Malahat Skywalk during this busy summer season. So, at this time of year, we recommend grabbing a cup of coffee and hitting the road early to avoid the crowds.

Getting to Victoria from Vancouver

Bailey enjoys a coffee on the outside deck of a BC Ferry to Vancouver Island
The ferry ride from Vancouver to Victoria is like a scenic cruise!

Before you start the drive from Victoria to Nanaimo, you’ll first need to make your way to BC’s capital city from the mainland. There are a couple of different options when it comes to getting from Vancouver to Victoria, but the cheapest and most popular way to get there is by ferry! This 1.5-hour cruise across the water is really scenic and a great way to start your Vancouver Island trip. Be sure to keep an eye out for whales!  

There are a few different ways you can board the ferry: with your own car, a rental car, or no vehicle at all if you plan to rent a car in Victoria once you arrive (that’s a good option to save some money!).

Renting a car

For this road trip on Vancouver Island, unless you’re a local like us, you’ll need to rent a car. We recommend Discover Cars for car rentals as the price points are fair, and they have tons of options. If you rent a car in Vancouver, it’s easy to drive right onto the ferry. This allows you to immediately start the drive from Victoria to Nanaimo once you arrive.

If you don’t need a car while you’re in Vancouver and you’re looking to save a bit of money, it might be more cost-effective to rent a car when you arrive in Victoria. The cost to bring a car onto the ferry is around $68.50 CAD not including the cost of each person’s ticket (around $19 CAD), so the savings might be worth the small hassle of a cab ride to the rental car company!

Taking the ferry

All the ferry schedules can be found on the BC Ferry website so you can easily figure out which one you want to catch. The direct ferry to get from Vancouver to Victoria leaves from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal in Vancouver and arrives at the Swartz Bay ferry terminal in Victoria.

We recommend booking your ferry ride in advance to ensure that you don’t have to wait at the terminal for multiple sailings if the ferries are fully booked. The fares will run from around $19.10 CAD for a person traveling with no vehicle to $100-$150 CAD for a vehicle and two passengers, depending on what type of vehicle you’re bringing – a small car is cheaper than an SUV pulling a trailer, for example.

If you are traveling on your own without a vehicle, make sure you arrive at least 30-60 minutes before the ferry leaves to check in and get a boarding pass. You do pay a little bit extra to reserve in advance, but it is worth it if you don’t want to risk missing your chosen sailing time.

BEST Stops When Driving from Victoria to Nanaimo

1. Victoria

Stairs leading up to a viewpoint at The Butchart Gardens in Victoria BC
Honestly, Butchart Gardens is mesmerizing!
Bailey walks down Fantan Alley in China Town in Victoria BC
Exploring Fantan Alley in our free time!

Most likely, you’ve arrived in Victoria via ferry from Vancouver. Before hitting the road, we advise spending at least a full day exploring the capital city of BC. There’s so much to see and do in Victoria, but a few of our highlights include wandering through the colorful Butchart Gardens or heading out on a whale-watching cruise to see the “giants of the sea” up close! 

We loved taking a stroll down Fan Tan Alley, which will give you major Harry Potter vibes. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of the movies, I loved wandering through this cute and quirky narrow street! It’s actually the narrowest street in the country, at just 1.8 m (6 ft) wide. There are loads of cool shops including Just Matcha Tea Shop.

Bailey walks in front of the Legislative Building in Victoria BC
The architecture is so beautiful in Victoria!

Considering Victoria is the home of the BC Government, plan a stop at the Legislative Building. It was constructed in the 1890s and is a beautiful example of Neo-Baroque architecture. Free guided tours are available year-round, with each tour lasting around 45 minutes (you can find the schedule on their website here).

We believe no visit to Victoria is complete without spending a few hours walking around the spectacular Butchart Gardens. As a matter of fact, it’s one of my favorite things to do in all of BC! Your eyes will be treated to thousands of colorful flowers and plants, and if you have time, you can enjoy afternoon tea. The Rose Carousel is a local favorite and a good idea on a nice day is to grab a gelato, take a seat, and admire the scenery. We spent about 3-4 hours exploring here and felt that was the perfect amount of time. Free parking is available and it’s only about a 30 minute drive from downtown Victoria.

Of course, for wildlife lovers, a whale-watching tour is a must! This half-day whale-watching tour takes you looking for orcas and humpback whales and includes complimentary photos and a whale sighting guarantee. I stand by this tour company because it’s one of the most trusted tour operators on Vancouver Island and advertises an over 95% whale sighting success rate. They even have a policy that if you don’t see whales, you can keep booking tours until you do. We saw a pod of orcas on our tour! Tickets cost $199 CAD.

Where to Stay in Victoria

Before you depart on your road trip to Nanaimo you should consider spending a night or two in Victoria. You can check out our blog on the best hotels in Victoria or stay at one of our top picks below.

The Fairmont Empress Hotel is definitely a luxury option, but it is the most iconic Victoria hotel. The Empress is a beautiful chateau-style hotel that you see front and center whenever you see a photo of Victoria’s downtown inner harbor skyline. The rooms are stunning, and they even have high tea in the tearoom. Rooms start at around $315-$400 CAD per night and can be booked online here.

The budget-friendly Helm’s Inn is a great option in Victoria. All of the rooms are suites equipped with kitchenettes if you’re looking to save a bit of money and cook a few meals yourself. The location is fantastic as well, right across from Beacon Hill Park and within walking distance of downtown. Rooms here start around $150 CAD, but we recommend booking ahead online to get the best deal!

2. Goldstream Provincial Park

Goldstream Falls in Goldstream Provincial Park
Goldstream Falls within the park!
Bailey walks down some steps in Goldstream Provincial Park, Vancouver Island
The boardwalk here is so scenic!

Goldstream Provincial Park is only 16 km (10 miles) from Victoria, but I think it feels like a whole different world – one filled with old-growth forests, waterfalls, and wildlife.

Chum salmon gather here between October and December as they return to the Goldstream River to spawn. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles during the winter, too – there’s a good chance you’ll see one or two swooping down to catch the salmon. We were lucky enough to witness this when we last visited!

If you visit during the summer, we recommend bringing your swimwear and swimming in the Goldstream Falls. These gorgeous waterfalls are the perfect spot to cool down on a hot day and soak in the area’s natural beauty.

There are several other waterfalls in the park – in fact, there’s even one named Niagara Falls! But don’t get confused – this waterfall is only a fraction of the size of the real Niagara Falls. However, it’s still worth seeing if you’ve got the time.

Goldstream Provincial Park also has many hiking trails to explore. You’ll pass by 600-year-old Douglas fir trees venturing through forests on a series of paths. What’s great is that there are accessible pathways for strollers or wheelchairs, as well as more challenging hikes where you’ll pass by abandoned gold-digging sites from the Gold Rush. We are avid hikers and we were blown away by the beautiful Pacific Northwest landscape!

If you’re a camping enthusiast, you can stay overnight in the park’s campground. Reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis, so it’s best to get here during the week, especially if you’re visiting during peak season (between May and September).

3. Malahat Skywalk

The spirral slide at the Malahat Skywalk in Malahat, British Columbia
The slide is huge!
Daniel looks over the edge at the Malahat Skywalk in Malahat, British Columbia Adventure Walk
It’s so high up!

The next stop on the drive from Victoria to Nanaimo is brand-new (having only opened in 2021), and it offers some of the best views on Vancouver Island! Yep, the Malahat Skywalk is one of the must-visit stops on this drive – and we had so much fun when we visited and got some great photos!

The Skywalk is located within the beautiful Cowichan Valley, a 40-minute drive from Victoria. If you love nature and don’t mind heights, I highly suggest visiting!

Would you believe it cost a massive $17 million CAD to build? It took two years to construct and is made from steel and Douglas fir timber. The Malahat Skywalk is actually part of the traditional territory of the Malahat Nation, and developers partnered with the Malahat people to operate the skywalk.

We purchased our admission tickets ahead of time for $38.80 CAD (including all taxes and fees) which let us jump straight into the fun.

My favorite part of the Malahat Skywalk was the gentle spiral walkway to the viewing platform, which boasts breathtaking 360-degree views. After all, the viewpoint is 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level, so you’ll be above the HUGE trees below!

There is also a net at the top with a large drop below it, showing you just how high you are from the ground. I admit it’s pretty scary to walk on, but it’s completely safe. Once you’ve finished taking in the glorious views, it’s time for the best part – the huge slide! Yep, you can slide down the 20-meter (65-foot) slide. Reaching the bottom takes just 8 seconds, and it’s so much fun! 

The Malahat Skywalk is wheelchair and stroller-friendly, so everyone can experience the wow-worthy views! It’s open from 9 am – 3 pm in winter, 9 am – 6 pm in spring and fall, and 9 am – 8 pm in summer.

4. Mill Bay

Bailey sits at a table at BruGos coffee with coffees and snacks
BruGos is the perfect road trip stop if you’re hungry!

The little village of Mill Bay is a nice place to stop and grab a coffee or something to eat. If you need a caffeine kick, we love BruGos Coffee. They make great hot drinks, and the baked goods are super tasty!  

By now you might be super hungry and a pastry won’t cut it, so we recommend checking out Bridgemans Bistro. They have a bunch of burger or sandwich options, and great pizzas, too!

If taking a stroll on a beautiful orchard sounds up your alley, stop in at Merridale Cidery & Distillery. The farm here is stunning, and the cider is even more delicious! Orchard tours are offered on Saturdays or you can also do a self-guided tour. They sometimes host events like picnics and live music, so check their website to see if anything is happening on the day of your road trip.

5. Duncan

Worlds thickest totem pole in Duncan, BC
The world’s thickest totem here in Duncan!
A bird with a trainer at the Pacific Northwest Raptors in Duncan, BC
The Pacific Northwest Raptors is a must-visit spot for wildlife lovers!

There’s more to Duncan than meets the eye! Sure, when you’re driving up to it on the highway, it looks little more than a couple of box stores on both sides of the road, but don’t let first impressions throw you off. The actual town of Duncan is full of amazing activities and sights.

Its nickname is the “City of Totems” because it’s home to over 40 carefully crafted totem poles, each with its own unique story. From raven to bear to eagle, each totem features animals strongly symbolic in Indigenous culture. These totems are intricate and eye-catching – I love admiring the details whenever I’m visiting Duncan. 

To see all 40 of the totems, you can do the Totem Tour Walk, which starts just outside the Cowichan Valley Museum. Simply follow the little yellow footprints painted on the sidewalk, which will lead you past all 40 unique totems. 

Next, grab a coffee and a croissant at Duncan Garage Cafe & Bakery and make your way over to Alvin’s Alley, a Duncan hidden gem. It reminded us of old-school alleyways in Europe, with some awesome murals done by local artists for everyone to enjoy. While you’re strolling down this alley, check out some of Duncan’s colorful thrift shops – we both loved Eclectic Avenue Vintage Boutique, which sells beautiful clothing and jewelry for a great price.

Another memorable thing to do in Duncan is pay a visit to the Pacific Northwest Raptors. This sanctuary is dedicated to conservation and teaching visitors about beautiful birds of prey, like falcons, eagles, and owls. Entry starts at $22 CAD, which includes all-day admission and access to the flying demonstration. The birds swoop so low you feel like their wingtips might graze you! Opening hours and the flying demos change depending on the season, so check their website in advance.

Where to Stay in Duncan

There are lots of great places that fit a variety of budgets in Duncan including cute B&Bs that fill up fast. These are our top picks!

Right off the highway, the Best Western Cowichan Valley Inn is an easy stop on your road trip. The rooms are a good size, and you’ll get the quality and convenience you’d expect from a hotel chain. There’s an outdoor pool and a restaurant on-site with rooms starting around $184 CAD. Book online here.

Treat yourself to a luxurious stay at the Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay. It’s an all-suite hotel overlooking the water, so you’ll have plenty of space and a view! You can even hear the relaxing sound of the water from your room. Rooms here are more like tiny apartments ranging from $250-$350 CAD and can be booked here.

Related Read: Duncan is also one of the best stops on the drive between Victoria and Tofino – which happens to be one of our favorite road trips in Canada!

6. BC Forest Discovery Centre

The train at the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan, BC
The train at the BC Forest Discovery Center!

Next up, on your trip from Victoria to Nanaimo, you’ll have the opportunity to trade in your wheels to travel by train for a bit! The BC Forest Discovery Centre is an open-air museum, and while you can learn all about the history of logging and forestry, the coolest way to get around is by train.

It’s not just any train either, they have vintage gas and steam locomotives you can ride over the Somenos Lake Trestle and around the property. We opted for the best of both worlds and took the train to the halfway point, then continued to walk around and explore.

The museum is open (and the train is running!) from April to September, from Thursdays to Mondays. Ticket prices range from $16-$18 CAD for adults and $14-$16 CAD for kids – check the schedule and prices here before you go.

7. Chemainus

Chemainus Public Market
Photo credit: Chemainus Public Market

The tiny artisan village of Chemainus makes for an ideal quick pitstop on your drive from Victoria to Nanaimo. Filled with small art galleries and local stores, you’ll find it easy to kill an hour or two here. 

The best thing to do in Chemainus is to hit up the popular Public Market, which houses several artisan and food vendors. Even if you’re not hungry, be sure to pick up a (strong) coffee from Coffee Row to keep your energy levels topped up for the drive ahead. 

This small town boasts a sand and gravel beach in the downtown area – Kinsmen Beach Park. Here you’ll find lovely views across to some of the Gulf Islands. If you’re doing this road trip with kids, it’s a great spot to spend an hour or so, as there’s a playground, a picnic area, and public and accessible washrooms. On summer days, the water is usually warm enough to swim in!

There’s also a dock that features a slide into the water – again, a lot of fun for older kids. Or if you’re keen on a game of volleyball to get your muscles moving, you’ll find volleyball courts here too. 

8. Ladysmith

Coastal views in Ladysmith, BC
Ladysmith is stunning!

Ladysmith is a small town of about 9,000 people. Many people drive right through without stopping to see how cute this town is, and we think they are missing out! This town is built on a hillside overlooking the water. Yes, it’s as dreamy as it sounds!  

We always stop at the Old Town Bakery because they are famous for their cinnamon buns, voted Vancouver Island’s best cinnamon bun! While we haven’t tried every cinnamon bun on the island, we would be willing to wager that this is correct. They have a ton of other baked goods and pastries as well. Their bread looked amazing, so it could be fun to get a loaf, grab some meats and cheeses from the grocery store, and head down to the waterfront for a picnic!  

Another fun thing to do is to head down to the Ladysmith Marina and have a bite to eat at the Oyster Bay Cafe (note that they are only open seasonally). There is also a little maritime museum at the harbor which is cool to check out!

Fun Fact: Pamela Anderson was born and raised in Ladysmith, BC, and has recently moved back!

9. Nanaimo

Yay! You’ve reached your final destination and luckily for you – there are heaps of things to do in Nanaimo, so ensure you spend at least a night here!

When visiting Nanaimo, the first thing you should do is wander the historic Old City Quarter, which is full of beautiful and quirky old buildings (some are 250 years old). These ancient buildings are home to specialty boutiques and some of Nanaimo’s best restaurants and cafes. We highly recommend La Isla Cafe for its strong coffee, baked goods, and Nanaimo bars.

To put it simply – you MUST try a Nanaimo bar while in Nanaimo. This classic chocolatey dessert was supposedly created here (hence the name) and has three layers: crumbled wafer, nuts, and coconut for the base, then custard icing, and a chocolate ganache on top. We LOVED the peanut butter crunch Nanaimo bar at Hearthstone Artisan Bakery

After getting your caffeine and sweet tooth fix, make a beeline for one of the most iconic buildings in the city – the Nanaimo Courthouse. It’s hard to miss with its distinct Richardsonian Romanesque style. 

A Nanaimo bar in Nanaimo, BC
A Nanaimo bar! Yum!
Food and drinks at Dinghy Dock Pub on Protection Island in Nanaimo, BC
Dinghy Dock Pub on Protection Island!

A great lunch or dinner spot in Nanaimo in the summertime is the unique Dinghy Dock Pub. It’s a floating restaurant that’s located on Protection Island. At this casual eatery, you’ll be treated to yummy food (seafood is their specialty, of course) and incredible views of Nanaimo. To reach Protection Island, you can either take the ferry or rent a kayak. However, keep in mind that it closes for the winter.

If you have a bit more time, one of my favorite memories of Nanaimo is 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 to see whales is on an adventure like this open boat whale watching tour. You’ll have nothing blocking your view of the water, and the professional guides are so nice. It costs $227 CAD and is 4 hours long. It’s one of the top-rated whale-watching tours on Vancouver Island with tons of 5-star reviews you can read here!

One of the top things to do in Nanaimo is actually located a little outside town. Petroglyph Park is home to prehistoric rock carvings that are said to have been created by the Indigenous people who lived here over 1,000 years ago. A short trail leads to information boards that will help you decipher the petroglyphs, and just a few minutes walk from these will have you at a sandstone gallery of petroglyphs, which overlooks Nanaimo harbor. 

Related Read: Fancy going on another road trip? We HIGHLY recommend the scenic drive from Nanaimo to Tofino!

Where to Stay in Nanaimo

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

Now that you’ve arrived 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’ve been really happy with all the places we’ve stayed in Nanaimo, so check out our top picks!

Coast Bastion Hotel – $$$

For a luxury end to this road trip, the Coast Bastion Hotel delivers 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 km (2 miles) away from the Departure Bay ferry terminal. We stayed here and loved the big bay windows with amazing views. Rooms typically range from $200- $300 CAD and can be booked online here.

The Spot – $$

Topping our mid-range options, The Spot Motel was renovated in 2022 and the result is a beautiful, comfy, and affordable hotel in Nanaimo. Rooms are private and spacious and offer all the standard comforts in a hotel room and even have a patio area. Expect to pay somewhere in the $125-$175 CAD range depending on time of year. Check availability and book a stay at The Spot 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. Dorm beds are around $56 CAD with private rooms around $110 CAD and there’s free cancellation available when you book online with Hostelworld.

Renting a Car in British Columbia

A rural road with Mt Currie in the background
Road trips are the best way to explore Canada!

If you’re arriving in British Columbia via plane, then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. British Columbia is a large province, and traveling between the best places to visit in BC requires transport. Although you can use public transport on some occasions, this means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.

Car rental in Canada isn’t relatively cheap, but it’s not that expensive either, especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with a pick-up and drop-off in different locations is around $100 CAD per day. The price does vary though, depending on the time of year. For car rentals, I use the website Discover Cars. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used Discover Cars all over the world, including in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.

Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic, you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada, and using crown land and campsites, you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!

Thanks for reading!

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

Now you’re ready for the drive from Victoria to Nanaimo! There’s so much beauty on this scenic route from the Malahat Skywalk to the “city of totems” aka Duncan and so, so much more. While it’s a short drive, I hope I’ve convinced you to take your time!

Whether you need more road trip guides or are looking for new and fun activites in BC, we’ve got you covered. Check out all our blogs on Vancouver Island here or take a look at a few helpful ones below:

10-Day Vancouver Island Itinerary That Hits All the Highlights!

The 5 BEST Butchart Garden Tours from Victoria

13 Things to KNOW Before Visiting Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island