Are you looking for the Best Things to Do in Nanaimo? Nanaimo is a beautiful city in British Columbia that boasts picture-perfect oceanfront views, expansive nature trails, and an eclectic downtown area that’s brimming with exciting attractions.
Although you should always start a trip here with a delicious Nanaimo bar, you may be wondering what else this Vancouver Island gem has to offer besides delectable desserts with a melt-in-your-mouth coconut crumb base.
Explore gushing waterfalls that are nestled within sprawling rainforests and relax on the harbourfront with a freshly mixed cocktail or craft brew. Watch in wonder as seaplanes skim the surface of the crystalline waters before you meander through the Old City Quarter to experience the best of Nanaimo’s local boutiques and restaurants.
Effortlessly blending natural beauty with an impressive historical profile, Nanaimo is a wonderful place to visit for adventurous families who are looking to cover every base.
If our favourable description of the area has piqued your interest, let us fill you in on the best things to do in Nanaimo for travellers of all ages. Covering everything from the city’s famous Harbourfront Walkway to lesser-known parks and trails, we’ll help make your Nanaimo adventure one to remember!
The Best Things To Do in Nanaimo
1. Enjoy the Nanaimo Harbourfront Walkway
One of Nanaimo’s finest offerings is the Harbourfront Walkway. Running along the waterfront by Front Street, you’ll find restaurants, small shops, docked seaplanes, relaxing patios, and plenty of boats to marvel at while you’re here. Stretching for 5.6km to Cypress Street, it’s the perfect way to stretch your legs.
If you’re not in a rush, we highly recommend settling in for an hour or so at one of the restaurants along the waterfront. Not only will this put you right into vacation mode, but you’ll be able to watch the seaplanes skimming by.
Just so you know, seaplane tours depart from this central location to surrounding islands and the city of Vancouver, making it one of the most connected parts of the city!
2. Grab great food and souvenirs in downtown Nanaimo
With a population of just 90,000, it’s unsurprising that Nanaimo is regarded for its quaint and neighbourly atmosphere. If you’re a first-timer, we highly recommend allocating plenty of time in your itinerary to the many restaurants, boutiques, and incredible patisseries in the area.
The Nanaimo Bakery and Café on Bowen Road is an excellent pitstop for a morning coffee, while the impressive Red’s Bakery on Commercial Street promises a massive sugar rush. If you’re looking for something savory, you can choose from over 20 restaurants located in this small part of the city.
Pleasantly walkable and easy to navigate, downtown Nanaimo is the place to be for great food and souvenir shopping!
3. Head on a whale watching adventure
Canada is known for its whale-watching opportunities. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Nanaimo is considered one of the best places to visit for Orca and Humpback-spotting!
Not only do you have a decent chance of spotting whales here, but you’ll have gorgeous views of Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s expansive mountains in the distance. What’s more, the Strait of Georgia is calm year-round, making it one of the most pleasant stretches of water for whale-watching enthusiasts. That’s right, no more rocking the boat – literally!
A wide variety of whales travel through this area during the migration season, but you’re most likely to spot black and white Orcas on your adventure. All tours in Nanaimo are run by professional guides, which means you’ll get interesting trivia about the whales as you’re out spotting. Although the tours can’t promise you’ll see whales, very few customers leave disappointed. If you’re one of the few unlucky ones, you’ll still be tick sea lions and harbour seals off your marine life bucket list!
There are a couple of different tours available, but the option run by Vancouver Island Whale Watch and Viator’s Open-Boat experience are both built for adventurers. Luckily, most boats have restrooms on board as you’re typically out on the water for about 4 hours!
Just be aware that boats must always stay within 100 metres of the whales, so don’t expect to reach out and touch anything! Nanaimo is all about whale conservation, so don’t give the guides a hard time. Oh – and if you’re visiting during the peak season, you need to book in advance.
Address: Vancouver Island Whale Watch – 90 Front St #5, Nanaimo, BC V9R 5H7
4. Go on a snorkeling expedition with seals
When you’ve had your fill of whale watching in Nanaimo, why not get up close and personal with the local seals on a snorkeling expedition? Often seen relaxing along the coastline and docks, Nanaimo’s seals are completely adorable. Typically run from Snake Island where seals are in abundance, these tours offer an incredible experience that you won’t soon forget.
The tours run year-round, and you don’t need any experience to dive in. Just be aware that you’ll need to be able to swim and be over 10 years old. If you tick both boxes, get ready to snorkel with Nanaimo’s slipperiest residents!
Address: Various locations throughout Nanaimo.
5. Head on an exciting seaplane tour
Seaplanes are all the rage in Nanaimo, and you’ll be able to head out on a Strait of Georgia Seaplane Tour if you fancy it. From above, you can appreciate the expansive vistas around Newcastle Island as well as Nanaimo’s gorgeous waterfront.
Flights are only 20 minutes long and tend to stop by the nearby town of Sechelt. If you visit during the cooler months, you may even spot snow-capped mountains in the distance. Surprisingly affordable and offering a unique sightseeing experience, this is one of the things to do in Nanaimo that you need to try out.
Address: Harbour Air Seaplanes – 90 Front St Unit 1A, Nanaimo, BC V9R 5H7
6. Discover history at the Nanaimo Museum and the Bastion
Nanaimo is an area that’s best known for its outdoor attractions, but it also boasts an impressive range of historical landmarks that are worth exploring.
The Nanaimo Museum and the Bastion delve deep into the area’s history, discussing everything from the Indigenous Snunéymuxw People to Nanaimo’s Bastion Era of the 19th century. Although the exhibitions are the museum’s main draw, the adjoining café and gift shop are also worth stopping at.
Once you’ve explored the museum, head to the nearby Bastion that stands over the Harbourfront Walkway. Built back in the mid-1800s, visitors can enter this impressive structure free of charge. If you happen to be in the area around noon, be sure to stick around to watch them fire the replica cannon – trust us, you’ll want to capture it on video!
Nanaimo Museum – 100 Museum Way, Nanaimo, BC V9R 5J8
The Bastion – 98 Front St, Nanaimo, BC V9R 5H7
7. Explore Neck Point Park
If you’re a fan of scuba diving, swimming, and hiking, you’ll adore Neck Point Park. Regarded for its gorgeous walking trails and impressive wildlife-spotting opportunities, it’s unsurprising that this area is frequented by nature-loving tourists.
Looking for beaches? Walk slightly along the headlands and you’ll find Sunset Beach, Last Beach, Finn Beach, and Indian Beach waiting for you. From designated lookout points, you may even spot orcas and sea lions!
If you have time to spare, we recommend hitting the trail network to go tree-spotting. It may sound like a strange way to spend an afternoon, but the Douglas Firs and Garry Oaks are just waiting to be uncovered!
Address: 1055 Morningside Dr, Nanaimo, BC V9T 1N5
8. Head on the official Nanaimo Bar Trail
It’s practically blasphemous to visit Nanaimo without exploring its infamous Bar Trail! Named for the city’s signature sweet treat, this trail will take you on a flavourful adventure around the area. Originally created as an energy bar for the city’s avid outdoor enthusiasts, expect this hearty treat to be served at cafes from Lantzville to Gabriola Island.
If you’re not sure where to start, Tourism Nanaimo has created a handy list of Nanaimo eateries that serve this decadent bar. The trail covers classic iterations, specialty bars, and vegan variations. So, there’s bound to be a suitable option on the menu for every visitor!
Address: All over the city!
9. Visit Newcastle Island
Known to the Snunéymux people as Saysutshun, Newcastle Island is a family-friendly park that can be accessed from Nanaimo by ferryboat. Once you’re here, you’ll find an incredible array of history, including Snunéymuxw village sites, trails, sandy beaches, old coal mine sites, and the remains of an old fish saltery.
Although you can cover most of Newcastle Island in an afternoon, we recommend pitching a tent at one of the area’s walk-in sites. Not only will this give you ample time for stargazing, but it gives you the best chance of heading on the morning trails while they’re quiet – score!
10. Watch an event or show at The Port Theatre
If you’re a lover of all things artistic, head to Nanaimo’s very own Port Theatre. Located right on the waterfront, this popular theatre puts on a range of cultural events throughout the year. Hosting everything from musical performances to theatrical extravaganzas, it’s an ideal way to spend an evening with the entire family.
Oh, and if you’re worried about missing out because you’re visiting during the shoulder season – don’t be.
This place is constantly booked up, and there’s always something playing here to sharpen your senses. Whether that’s a concert by the Vancouver Island Symphony or dance performances by a visiting artist, there promises to be something on their extensive annual line-up that appeals to you.
Address:The Port Theatre – 125 Front St, Nanaimo, BC V9R 6Z4
11. Get your blood pumping on a mountain bike
It’s no secret that Nanaimo boasts spectacular hiking trails. However, the area is also known for its radical mountain-biking tours! Perfect for both experts and newbies, the city offers miles of radical trails, boardwalks, and hills to get your adrenaline pumping.
If you’re wondering which trails are worth checking out, we’d say that you should stick to the big three; the Doumont Trails, Westwood Lake, and the Outer Bypass. Although you can try your luck on The Abyss and the Stevie Smith Bike Park, we’d say the former trails offer better sightseeing opportunities and a mix of big-thrill slopes and decent bailouts for when your bike refuses to cooperate.
Just as a heads up – the Westwood Lake Trails are closest to the downtown area and are best enjoyed by casual riders. Offering decent climbs and gorgeous views of the waterfront at certain points along the way, they’re an excellent choice for anyone new to the area.
12. Shop ‘til you drop at the Woodgrove Centre
If the unique boutiques of the Old City Quarter didn’t float your proverbial boat, why not check out the enormous Woodgrove Centre for some retail therapy? Containing over 150 stores and spanning an impressive 724,713 square feet, it’s the biggest shopping mall in the area.
Not only is there a Walmart here for stocking up on necessities, but you’ll find several restaurants, classic chain stores, and pharmacies to cover any amenities that your hotel may have missed.
Although we don’t recommend spending more than an afternoon here (there’s so much to see in Nanaimo, after all!), it’s worth visiting this mall to marvel at the sheer scale of the thing!
Address: Woodgrove Centre – 6631 Island Hwy, Nanaimo, BC V9T 4T7
13. Cover the city’s extensive trail network
There are so many beautiful trails to explore in Nanaimo, and you can spend your entire trip trying to cover them all!
If you’re a fan of challenging hikes, we recommend checking out The Extension Ridge Trail (otherwise known as ‘The Abyss’). Stretching 9km across tricky terrain, it rewards successful trekkers with expansive views over the water. Are you wondering why this area has been nicknamed ‘The Abyss’ by Nanaimo’s locals? Well, it’s because there’s a giant crack down the middle of the trail! Our recommendation? Watch out for your ankles and keep an eye on those kiddos!
For cardio bunnies, we recommend the Mount Benson Loop. Steep, rough, and tricky to conquer, it provides an excellent workout for the heart and lungs! If you’re looking for something slightly longer, we suggest exploring the many trails at Hemer Provincial Park. Spanning 11km and passing through dense forest and marshland, it’s one of the most diverse hikes in Nanaimo!
Whichever trail you choose, don’t forget to pack blister plasters, plenty of water, and a decent pair of walking shoes. It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at just how many tourists try to cover these trails without the right gear!
14. Step back in time at Petroglyph Provincial Park
If the Nanaimo Museum and Bastion didn’t quite satisfy your inner history buff, why not take a deeper dive into Vancouver Island’s indigenous history at Petroglyph Provincial Park? Boasting prehistoric rock carvings that date back over 1000 years, this attraction gives guests a fascinating glimpse into British Columbia’s First Nations.
This area shouldn’t take long to explore, but we recommend going on the interpretative walk while you’re here. You’re allowed to make castings by stretching cloth and paper across the carvings, which is an excellent activity for curious kiddos. For obvious reasons, just keep an eye on them while they do this to avoid any damage to the artifacts!
Address: 990-960, Trans-Canada Hwy, Nanaimo, BC V9R 6K5
15. Feel like a local at Cedar Yellow Point Artisan Trail
If you’re looking to discover the best of Nanaimo’s local artisan boutiques, we highly recommend checking out the Cedar Yellow Point Artisan Trail loop. Packed with gorgeous artisan studios, farmers markets, pubs, and cafes, it’s a wonderful way to support some of Nanaimo’s finest local businesses.
Whether you’ve always wanted to try a jar of delicious unpasteurized honey from Vancouver Island or need to grab a handcrafted wreath for the Christmas season, you’re bound to find some treasures along this incredible trail.
If you’d like to plan your visit and don’t fancy dedicating an entire day to this activity, check out the individual stores along the loop on the trail’s website. Covering all the businesses that will be operating during the season, the online ‘menu’ allows you to create your very own wish list.
Address: 4532 Yellow Point Road, Ladysmith BC V9G 1G5
16. Go for a round of Disc Golf at Bowen Park Disc Golf Course
Are you an avid disc golf fan? If so, you’ll want to showcase your prowess at the Bowen Park Disc Golf Course. Equally fun for adults and kids, this 18-hole course provides a unique way to spend an afternoon as a family in Nanaimo.
The course is relatively flat and short, and it runs past several facilities and gardens that enable you to cover many of the park’s major hotspots as you go. Featuring several technical shots and easy wins, Bowen Park Disc Golf Course is well-suited to all abilities.
Address: 500 Bowen Rd, Nanaimo, BC V9R 1Z7
17. Tickle your tastebuds on the BC Ale Trail
British Columbia is known for its excellent wines and top-tier craft beers. So, if you’re looking to sample some local brews, be sure to check out the famous BC Ale Trail. Just so you know, the Vancouver Island Part I trail covers both the Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo.
As you probably won’t have the chance to cover the entire trail on your Nanaimo vacation, you should focus your attention on the trail’s four Nanaimo-based breweries; The Longwood Brew Pub & Restaurant, the Longwood Brewery, Wolf Brewing, and White Sails Brewing. Serving up delicious craft brews that always taste fresh, you’ll struggle to stop at a single pint!
The Longwood Brew Pub and Restaurant (5775 Turner Rd, Nanaimo, BC) and the Longwood Brewery (2046 Boxwood Road)
Wolf Brewing – 940 Old Victoria Rd, Nanaimo, BC V9R 6Z8
White Sails Brewing – 125 Comox Rd, Nanaimo, BC V9R 3H9
18. Feel like a kid again at Wild Play
If you’ve been looking for ways to let off some steam in BC, we highly recommend checking in with your inner wild child at WildPlay Nanaimo. Essentially a tree canopy obstacle course, this rip-roaring attraction features everything from ziplines to bungee jumps and canyon swings. Although it’s not for the faint of heart, daredevils will feel reborn at this adventure playground!
Those travelling with the whole family will appreciate the fact that all courses vary in difficulty, The Classic Course and the Extreme Course are suitable for ages 5+ and can be customized based on your experience level.
If you don’t trust your tykes to handle the heights of the more advanced courses, there’s also a dedicated Kids Course that only reaches 15 feet high and includes two slightly easier rounds.
Whatever course you choose, you best come prepared for a sky-high adventure!
Address: 35 Nanaimo River Rd, Nanaimo, BC V9X 1S5
19. Explore the rugged coastlines of Gabriola Island
Located a mere 20-minutes from Nanaimo by ferry, Gabriola Island is one of British Columbia’s best-kept secrets. Known for its quiet beaches, lush woodland trails, and distinct sandstone bluffs, this gorgeous spot feels worlds away from Nanaimo’s metropolitan centre.
When you arrive, we recommend renting a kayak and exploring the island’s incredible 98km of coastline. Then, why not try and cover a small section of the 170km of hiking trails? Practically unspoiled and packed with local flora, you’re bound to snap a couple of stunning photos along the way.
If you’re here for some TLC, don’t miss Gabriola Sands Provincial Park or Twin Beaches. Both areas are family-friendly and offer incredible views of British Columbia’s mountains. While you’re here, keep an eye out for local wildlife; it’s not uncommon to spot everything from orcas to rare coastal birds skimming the turquoise waters.
20. Chase waterfalls
There are several memorable waterfalls to explore in Nanaimo, including Little Qualicum Falls, (we loved it so much we wrote a whole story on it!) and the breathtaking Ammonite Falls. Although you can also check out Chase River Falls, Bowen Park Falls, Stocking Creek Falls, and the Beach Estates Park Trail for its small waterfall, we’d recommend sticking to the main two if you’re pressed for time.
The Ammonite Falls Regional Trail is a 4.8km trail that’s usually quite busy. It’s not enormous, but it’s surrounded by gorgeous forestry that makes it a stunning backdrop for a vacation snap.
If you’d prefer to head slightly further afield to Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park, you’ll find a moderately trafficked, 2.9km hike that leads you to the stunning waterfall. Nestled in a beautiful forest setting and surrounded by steep mountain peaks, this may be one of the most memorable sights on Vancouver Island.
Little Qualicum Falls – 4001 Alberni Hwy, Qualicum Beach, BC B9K 1X7
Ammonite Falls – Nanaimo, BC V9T 6H1
21. Enjoy excellent waterfront views at Pipers Lagoon Park
Waterfront views aren’t hard to come by in Nanaimo, but you’ll find the best vantage points at Pipers Lagoon Park. Located right on the oceanfront, this natural area offers impeccable views of the Salish Sea.
Whether you’re looking for a spot to stretch your legs in Nanaimo or want to try your luck at birdwatching (this place is excellent for kingfisher and grebe-spotting!), there’s plenty to love about Pipers Lagoon Park.
Just as a heads up – if you walk along one of the many trails, you’ll find several lookout points that give you slightly different views over the cliffs!
Address: 3600 Place Rd, Nanaimo, BC V9T 5T7
22. Venture underground at the Horne Lake Caves
Although you’ll need to hop in the car for the next activity on our list of things to do in Nanaimo, we’d say that this one was worth the drive! The incredible Horne Lake Caves are located approximately 78km from Nanaimo, and many visitors turn this drive a day trip from the city. Once you arrive, you’ll be allowed to explore the passageways and crystal formations of these ethereal caves.
We don’t recommend this activity for claustrophobic travellers, but we’d say that most people can handle the slightly tight cave area. Depending on your confidence levels, you can either explore the caves privately with a strong headlamp or book a guided tour.
If you’re new to the area, we highly recommend going with a guide. This isn’t necessarily for safety reasons, but you’ll want to learn all about the fascinating formations and history of the area, right?
We thought so.
Address: 3905 Horne Lake Caves Rd, Qualicum Beach, BC V9K 2L7
23. Be a tree hugger at the Heritage Forest
If you’ve ever wanted to see something larger than life, head to the Heritage Forest to gawk at some of the biggest trees in British Columbia. Spanning 50 acres near Qualicum Beach, this forest is home to several ancient trees, including Coastal Douglas Firs, Western Red Cedar, Hemlock, and Grand Fir Trees that simply tower above their surroundings.
The walking trail is an excellent way to reconnect with nature, and you can even hear the local birds chirping if you listen carefully. Boasting both easy and moderate trail runs, this place allows you to burn off some of those Nanaimo Bars we were discussing earlier!
Address: Crescent Rd E, Qualicum Beach, BC V9K 1L5
24. Wander along Qualicum Beach
Located a short drive away in Parksville, Qualicum Beach offers visitors balmy sands, mountain views, and some of the finest sunsets on Vancouver Island.
If you decide to visit this area, we recommend exploring the attractions in central Nanaimo before heading down to the beach with a full-to-bursting picnic basket. You can then have a relaxed lunch while taking in the expansive vistas and catching some rays. When the sun goes down, crack open a bottle of local BC wine and make a toast to your wonderful vacation.
Bottoms up, folks!
25. Uncover Nanaimo’s biodiversity at the Hamilton Marsh
The Hamilton Marsh is known for its incredible biodiversity, and visitors can find several red and blue-listed species at this impressive wetland.
Located between Nanaimo and Port Alberni, you can use your binoculars to spot up to 130 species of birds, an array of adorable tree frogs, and even Coho salmon!
Although this place is best suited to birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts, it’s an excellent place to bring the entire family for an educational afternoon in BC. Just remember – leave no trace and take all trash with you!
Address: Hilliers Rd S, Qualicum Beach, BC V9K 2H9
26. Spot incredible fish at the Big Qualicum Hatchery
If you’re a fishing fanatic, then you’re bound to appreciate a trip to the Big Qualicum Hatchery. Like a couple of other activities on our list, you’ll need to hop in the car for this one – we promise, it’s worth it!
Once you’ve completed the 42-minute drive, you can learn more about breeding salmon, their life cycles, their ideal habitats, and what research the hatchery is doing to boost development.
If you venture inside the interpretative centre, you’ll find a large display room that contains a model of the Big Qualicum Project. You’ll also be able to wander through the hatchery on a self-guided tour. Just make sure you finish up before 3 pm or you’ll be turfed out!
Although this attraction isn’t suitable for everyone, it’s a mecca for anglers.
Address: 215 Fisheries Rd, Qualicum Beach, BC V9K 1Z5
27. Stand to attention at the Vancouver Island Military Museum
Once you’ve learned about Nanaimo’s past at the city’s main museum and the Bastion, we recommend checking out the Vancouver Island Military Museum for a fascinating glimpse into the area’s military background. With admission costing a mere $4CAD for adults and $2CAD for students and seniors, it’s an affordable way to spend an afternoon in the city.
The museum boasts an impressive collection of artifacts from the War of 1812 through to Canada’s more recent military involvement in Afghanistan. Although most of the museum focuses on those that went to war, there’s also an interesting section on the home front that covers the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the Merchant Navy.
If you’re all about girl power, don’t miss the exhibits showcasing Women in the Armed Forces. Covering everything from nursing in the Boer War to current women in the military, it succinctly proves that war isn’t just a man’s game!
Address: 100 Cameron Rd, Nanaimo, BC V9R 0C8
28. Relax and unwind at Colliery Dam Park
When you need a break from the hustle and bustle of Nanaimo, take a breather at Colliery Dam Park. Known for its tranquil atmosphere, wooded trails, and excellent freshwater swimming opportunities, this 28-hectare park offers something for everyone.
Although there are several dog-friendly spots in Nanaimo, Colliery Park is known as one of the top off-leash areas in the city that lets Fido roam free. There are also a few excellent nature trails that allow dogs on a leash if you’re looking for a slightly more challenging walk.
If you’re not in the mood for movement, why not just kick back with a picnic and a good book? With plenty of shaded areas available, you can easily spend an entire afternoon drinking this place in!
Address: 635 Wakesiah Ave, Nanaimo, BC V9R 3L2
29. Train your brain at Breakout Nanaimo
There’s something inherently hilarious about escape rooms. Forcing families to work together to solve challenging puzzles, it’s a bonding experience you never knew you needed!
Breakout Nanaimo has been serving the population of Nanaimo since 2016 with its challenging escape rooms, and it gives you 60 minutes to solve the puzzles and riddles that will get you out.
Whether you come from a family of bona fide geniuses or one that struggles to remember a password without struggling, you’re bound to come out of this unique experience belly laughing and booking in for a second round!
Address: 321 Wallace St, Nanaimo, BC V9R 5B6
30. Wander through the Old City Quarter
One of Nanaimo’s most popular attractions is the Old City Quarter. Known for its incredible shops, cafes, and historic buildings, you can spend an entire day meandering through its quaint streets. Unlike other downtown spots which feature typical chain stores, this area is packed with eclectic businesses and specialty stores.
Once you’ve had your fill of its unique shops, explore the district’s fascinating heritage buildings that are juxtaposed with modern developments. The city encourages you to take this area at a slow pace, so don’t be afraid to take a load off by trying out acupuncture or demystifying the future with a tarot reading.
To recoup after a busy afternoon, stop by one of the excellent restaurants for a craft beer and a hearty meal – perfection!
Address: 418B Fitzwilliam St, Nanaimo, BC V9R 5B3
Conclusion: The Best Things To Do in Namaimo
We hope that this list of the best things to do in Nanaimo has been useful in planning your next BC vacation. As you can see, there’s so much to do in this small city for the entire family.
Whether you’re looking to cover each of the area’s museums or prefer to relax on the beach with a cocktail in hand, there’s plenty on this list that you can use to bulk out your itinerary.
If you have any wonderful spots that you feel are worth visiting in Nanaimo, leave us a comment below.
We just love hearing about your adventures!
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