7 Best Things to Do in Nanaimo: Water Sports, History, Natural Parks, and More
Nanaimo is a hidden paradise for nature lovers and history buffs. This is a small, lovely town east of Vancouver Island, connected to downtown Vancouver by the Strait of Georgia via the Horseshoe Bay BC Ferries.
The medium size of this waterfront city is large enough to keep you occupied for a long weekend. You can spend days pedaling down the forested trails, disappearing into the base of a hidden waterfall, snorkeling under the rock formations, or devouring some really good Nanaimo bars.
But that’s not all!
Wondering if Nanaimo is worth visiting and what you can do to explore Nanaimo to the fullest? Get up close and personal with the seven best things to do in Nanaimo now!
1. Take on the Harbourfront Walkway or Launch a Kayak from Nanaimo Harbor
Walking the Harbourfront Walkway is the easiest way to keep up with the main happenings in Nanaimo. It is a multi-use trail along the Newcastle Channel. Start on Front Street and whizz your way down this 6-kilometer boardwalk before ending up at Cypress Street.
Feel the ocean breeze and soak up the industrial vibe it has to offer. The walkway takes you to the port where all the fishing boats, seaplanes, hovercrafts, and catamarans are docking. Stroll along the boardwalk towards the piers and you’ll see all the coffee shops and ice cream parlors to accompany your leisure outing day with a yummy bite.
If you’re looking for a better way to explore the marina rather than just eating and chilling, nothing sounds more exciting than launching a kayak right at where you’re standing – the Nanaimo Harbor Marina. There are plenty of kayaking centers offering rentals and tours from downtown Nanaimo to the many rocky bluffs, deep coves, and seaweed beds around the island. Newcastle Island, Protection Island, and Hudson Rocks are a few to be named.
2. Take a Ferry to Newcastle Island (Saysutshun)
The only way to get to Newcastle Island is by a 10-minute short ferry or boat. Located adjacent to the bustling Nanaimo Harbor, Newcastle Island is a truly breathtaking place.
Despite its tranquility, Newcastle Island is home to a heap of outdoor possibilities. History buffs will fall in love with the history and Coast Salish culture. Beach lovers will have a great time chilling out by the graveled beaches and gazing at the sea. Somewhere in the woods, passionate hikers are being captivated by the scents and sounds of the forested trails. This is your favourite weekend getaway to reconnect with nature and simply be lazy in a meaningful way.
3. Learn about Nanaimo History by Checking out Nanaimo Museum and The Bastion
Nanaimo is a quaint little coastal town steep in nature and history. While the whole shebang of all the beaches, waterfalls and natural parks can keep you occupied for days, no visit to Nanaimo can go without the history lessons.
Start with The Bastion, an iconic octagonal building just a stone’s throw away from the marina. Built in 1853, the bastion is the city’s oldest building, attesting to Nanaimo’s early economic development and history.
Serving as a structure to defend coal mining operations in Nanaimo, the bastion comes out in a humble appearance. You can walk into the building, explore three of its floors to learn about the artifacts, defensive structure, as well as sales and trade operations back in the 19th century.
The Bastion’s Address: 98 Front St, Nanaimo, BC V9R 5H7.
Admission Rate: by donation. Opening hours: 10:00am – 4:00pm.
Leave the bastion behind and walk southeast to Museum Way, Nanaimo Museum is another historic spot that will have you in awe with an extensive collection about the local industries. Take time to discover all the quirky, unique items and traditions you never knew existed. The bathtub racing, mining exhibit, traditional longhouse, and a replicated mid-1920s schoolroom are some of the most outstanding exhibits.
Nanaimo Museum’s Address: 100 Museum Way, Nanaimo, BC V9R 5J8.
10:00am – 4:00pm (Tuesday – Saturday).
Closed Sunday/Mondays and Holidays (specified on Nanaimo Museum Website).
Note: Hours are occasionally subject to change on short notice – please check hours on top right of the homepage for the most current information.
4. Conquer the Nanaimo Bar Trail and Cap Off with the Best Craft Beer
Give your taste buds an adventure with a day dedicated to the Nanaimo Bar Trail. This best-kept secret is awaiting those hungry souls and ready to delight your sweet tooth.
But what is a Nanaimo bar, anyway? Well, Nanaimo bar is a local dessert famous for a crunchy crust of chocolate and cookie crumbs. Sandwiched in the middle is a lap of vanilla buttercream blended with chocolate glaze.
If a small bite is not enough to make your day, we don’t know what is. Take on this highly-complimented Nanaimo Bar Trail and experience the many deliciously creative interpretations of the city’s famous treat. The trail starts from Lantzville in the north to Cedar in the south with a layover at Gabriola Island.
But if you think all Nanaimo bars taste the same, you’re wrong!
Out of nearly 40 locations across the trail, each place dishes up a different version, from fine classic bars, spring rolls, cocktails to organic, vegan, and gluten-free – you name it!
Wondering how to start? Stop by the Visitor Centers to pick up a Nanaimo Bar Trail Brochure and carry on!
Aside from the drool-worthy chocolate bars, the craft beer scene in Vancouver Island is also emerging, with Nanaimo being a pioneer of this change. For now, the port city plays host to five proudest breweries. Heavyweights like Longwood, Wolf Brewing, White Sails, Cliffside are waiting for you with a series of unique brews on tap.
At the end of the day, nothing sounds more promising than a locally inspired, thirst-quenching brew to feel alive again.
On any given summer day, you’ll see families and kids spilling towards the crescent-shaped beach right behind Pipers Lagoon Park to watch the perfect sunrise and sunset.
Pipers Lagoon Park is also a top call to wait for sandpipers, horned grebes, and kingfishers. Connected with the driftwood-laden beaches at the park is an extensive network of walking trails with stunning views of the surrounding ocean, lagoon area, and the historical Shack Island.
Address: 3600 Place Rd, Nanaimo, BC V9T 5T7.
Colliery Dam Park
Blanketed by a thick forest, a rip-roaring stream, a hidden waterfall, and a zig-zag network of hiking trails, Colliery Dam Park is enormous with lots of forest bathing ideas for a getaway. You will find a fresh-water swimming spot hidden amongst the trees, swathed by an off-leash trail taking you to the upper dam.
When autumn comes, Colliery Dam Park becomes even more stunning, especially with its soaring waterfall nestled behind the tunnel.
Address: 635 Wakesiah Ave, Nanaimo, BC V9R 3L2.
Neck Point Park
Neck Point Park is an environmentally sensitive area, rich in historical and natural values with an awe-inspiring ocean view facing the rugged rock cliffs. The rocky shoreline at Neck Point is one of the biggest hooks with pebble bay beaches and wooded trails through Garry Oak groves.
The best way to explore Neck Point Park and soak in its typical West Coast spirit is by taking on a hike. The graveled hiking trail is well-marked and easy to navigate. There are also scuba diving spots to enjoy a classic summer day.
Address: 1055 Morningside Dr, Nanaimo, BC V9T 1N5.
Bowen Park is another family-friendly neighbourhood park. There are playgrounds and cycling trails where kids learn how to bike, while the rest of the area completely belongs to nature and remains undeveloped.
That’s where the beauty of Nanaimo comes into play. You can walk on its many trails along the Millstone River. Keep walking and you’ll find a wide soaring waterfall with a fish ladder nearby. There are so many flowers in Bowen Park, and the most outstanding flora display is the rhododendron grove with over 350 different species.
Address: 500 Bowen Rd, Nanaimo, BC V9R 1Z7.
Petroglyph Provincial Park
Petroglyph is south of Nanaimo, packed with rock carvings that open a gateway to the prehistoric age a millennium ago. Digging into all those mysterious carvings to identify different mythological sea creatures, wolves, and human figures promises a new kind of fun for a meaningful weekend. All the carvings lie along a wide graveled trail that takes only ten minutes to complete.
Address: 990-960, Trans-Canada Hwy, Nanaimo, BC.
6. Plan a Getaway to Protection Island
If you have another day to spare, why not take a ferry to Protection Island and enjoy a hearty lunch at a famous local pub? Protection is a small island northeast of Nanaimo and accessible by ferry.
Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Protection Island had an active operation of coal mining. Today, it is known as home to Dinghy Dock Pub, the only registered floating pub in Canada. Get a seat at Dinghy and marvel at its sweeping ocean vista and the herons flying by from the quirky cabin-themed setting.
Ironically, Dinghy Dock Pub is also a family-friendly stop. Come in and get a refreshing beer while watching your kid fishing through a hole in the deck.
7. Go Snorkeling
Snorkeling is a great way to get under the water and admire the beauty of Nanaimo from a totally new angle.
You don’t have to travel further afield to find a great snorkeling spot. Let’s take Neck Point for example! Combine a walk in the park with a snorkeling trip next to the kelp forest under the neat rock formations. Pipers Lagoon is another impressive gem to try cold water diving. Head down to the Nanaimo River and you can see plenty of promising spots like a dam with some fish and crawfish to snorkel through. And finally, Newcastle Island and Gabriola Island guarantee a joyful day of snorkeling too.
Now you’ve got everything you need to know before planning an epic getaway to Nanaimo. Let’s find more vacation ideas to fill up your upcoming calendar!