Famous for its varied landscapes and more than two dozen parks, the city of Nanaimo boasts one of the prettiest waterfronts in Canada, conveniently located to serve as a home base for exploring Vancouver Island.
Nanaimo is the only all-purpose port city on Vancouver Island, with every facility required to serve both the commercial and recreational needs of business and tourism.
Once the location of five separate native villages, its name derives from a Coast Salish word, Snuneymuxw, “a great and mighty people” – a perfect description of the rapidly-growing harbour community at the centre of Vancouver Island’s highway and ferry system. A playground of land and sea activities, Nanaimo is a perfect place for a family vacation, a year-round golf getaway, or a romantic weekend.
Incorporated in 1874, Nanaimo is the third oldest city in British Columbia and the second largest on Vancouver Island, located on the east coast of southern Vancouver Island, 70 miles (112 km) north of Victoria. A former coal-mining town, Nanaimo has evolved into something very different, with a clean, accessible waterfront, cultural festivals in the summer, a university campus with a marvellous view, and superb dining.
The bustling harbour is the central focus for visitors to Nanaimo, with freighters, fishing boats, tugboats and barges, sail boats and float planes all coming and going in a hive of activity in the harbour. Choose from wildlife cruises, kayaking trips, or fishing charters.
No matter what your business, Nanaimo offers the perfect mix of work and play. With its pristine beauty, the incredible array of adventures and activities available, the city is the ideal destination for conventions and meetings. Whether your meeting or convention hosts 50 or 580 people, Nanaimo fits your every need with its wide range of facilities, including the 800-seat Port Theatre. There are over 1,000 rooms available in the city, with several major hotel and motel chains.
Location: Centrally located on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Nanaimo is 111 km north of Victoria. Nanaimo serves as a major ferry terminal linking Vancouver Island with the British Columbia mainland. BC Ferries operates three scheduled ferry services out of Nanaimo:
- BC Ferries: Departure Bay, Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver
- BC Ferries: Duke Point, Nanaimo to Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, south of Vancouver
- BC Ferries: Downtown Nanaimo to Gabriola Island
There is also a regular ferry service from Maffeo Sutton Park in downtown Nanaimo to Newcastle Island in Nanaimo Harbour.
Nanaimo Airport is located just 15 minutes south of downtown with several direct flights daily between Nanaimo and Vancouver, Abbotsford and Langley. An airport shuttle service, taxis, and car rentals are available at the airport. You can also opt to fly into Nanaimo harbour’s seaplane terminal in the heart of downtown. Service is frequent and offers spectacular scenery en route. Kenmore Air seaplanes fly (summer only) from various Seattle locations to downtown Nanaimo.
View maps of the area
- Map of Nanaimo
- Map of Central Vancouver Island
- Map of South Vancouver Island
During the summer, see the artifacts and exhibits at the Bastion, a fortified tower erected on the waterfront in 1853. The Bastion is the oldest remaining structure of its type in North America, and is one of the few Hudson’s Bay Company bastions still standing. You can watch the cannon-firing ceremony every day at noon in summer, complete with Scottish bagpipes and Highland dancing.
Heritage Buildings: Nanaimo treasures a number of Historic Buildings, including The Miner’s Cottage (1897) in Piper’s Park adjacent to the Nanaimo District Museum, the Nanaimo Courthouse (1896), the brick-faced Earl Block (1888-1890), and the Palace Hotel (1889).
Fossil: A 72-million-year-old palm tree fossil – the biggest fossil leaf ever found in Canada – was discovered in Nanaimo in August 1996. Salvage palaeontology of the site revealed exquisitely preserved specimens of the Upper Cretaceous Period, including dawn redwood, several fern species and many angiosperms. Unfortunately, most of the remaining fossil-containing rock has been excavated, crushed, and used as road fill for the Duke Point Road extension to the Duke Point Ferry Terminal.
The Nanaimo District Museum displays interesting exhibits covering the history of the region. The lower gallery features the Snuneymuxw First Nation and Nanaimo’s coal-mining history, while the upper gallery features a social and economic timeline of Nanaimo’s history including the history of Chinatown, our harbourfront, industry, retail, sports and education. Outside is an authentic miner’s cottage and railway engine.
The Nanaimo Art Gallery at the Malaspina University-College provides a wonderful panorama of the city. The gallery enlivens and enriches the Nanaimo and central Vancouver Island region with exhibitions and educational programming that encourage active public involvement with the visual arts. The Gallery also maintains Nanaimo’s Permanent Collection of ninety-four works by local and international artists. Each spring the Festival of Banners has area artists creating a gallery of original street banners that are displayed on lamp standards throughout Nanaimo.
Bring the family to the fun-filled Bowen Park recreation park, which features a scenic waterfall, a nature centre, a children’s barnyard, duck pond, swimming and wading pools, hiking trails and more.
Beban Park, Nanaimo’s premier recreation centre offers activities for everyone including swimming, skating, tennis, playgrounds, basketball, golf, lawn bowling, multi-use trails, and playing fields. In late summer, Nanaimo hosts the Vancouver Island Exhibition (VIEX) on the fair grounds at Beban Park. The VIEX promises a delightful country fair weekend, with agriculture and horticultural displays, livestock competitions, a petting zoo, and live performances from some of Canada’s biggest names in Country music.
Nanaimo Bar: No picnic or visit to the Nanaimo Waterfront would be complete without the Nanaimo Bar, a regional specialty that is actually a form of chocolate fridgecake. Try the variations of this popular Nanaimo tradition in many of the restaurants and bakeries.
Head up the hill to Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter, off Bastion Street, to sample coffee bars, restaurants, several specialty boutiques, a delightful outdoor art gallery, an international specialty food store and home-decorating emporia. Browse through the antique stores and tour the historic railway station. The Quarter is a charming blend of heritage and new architecture designed to fit seamlessly into the historical ambiance of the area.
Arts: The flagship of Nanaimo’s burgeoning arts and culture scene is undoubtedly the Port Theatre located in the heart of downtown. The Port Theatre, an 804-seat state of the art performing arts theatre opened in 1998, is host to international, national and local talent. An arts tour in Nanaimo might include First Nation’s galleries, the contemporary art gallery at Malaspina University College, Art 10, the Arts Council gallery and private galleries scattered throughout the surrounding area. Nanaimo is home to potters, weavers and doll makers and to one of only three Tozan wood-fired kilns in the world.
For a small fee you can ferry over to the Dinghy Dock Pub, a very nautical floating bar off Protection Island.
The four-kilometer Harbourfront Walkway extends from the downtown harbour, past the modern seaplane terminal, through Swy-A-Lana Lagoon Park (Canada’s only man-made tidal lagoon), over the pedestrian bridge, by the Nanaimo Yacht Club, and as far as the BC Ferries Terminal. The promenade is dotted with vibrant art galleries featuring First Nations and Canadian crafts and great restaurants.
Sailing Race: Nanaimo hosts the Van Isle 360 International Yacht Race, held in June every other year on the odd year. This two-week, 580 nautical mile point-to-point race circumnavigates Vancouver Island, beginning and ending in Nanaimo. Sailed in ten legs, the counter-clockwise course provides inshore, offshore and overnight legs through some of the world’s most challenging and beautiful waters.
Bathtub Race: Visitors won’t want to miss the world-famous Bathtub Race between Nanaimo and Kitsilano Beach, held during the Nanaimo Marine Festival each July!
Beaches: Departure Bay offers great lengths of public beach on the town shoreline. Pick a location that appeals to you, park in one of the many access points, and stroll out onto the hard-packed sand. Also on the Nanaimo waterfront are Maffeo Sutton Park and Swy-A-Lana Lagoon Park. Although these two aren’t in the same league as some of the larger stretches of waterfront farther north, they do provide convenient beach and picnicking locations on Nanaimo’s sheltered inner harbour, and are beside a seawall walking, cycling and in-line skating route.
Boating: Nanaimo is an ideal base for boaters wishing to explore the scenic Southern Gulf Islands and surrounding areas. Charter and bare-boat rentals and guided tours are available.
The Trans Canada Highway 1 leaves Vancouver Island at the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal, commencing its journey across Canada from the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal north of Vancouver. The 4,849-mile (7,821-km) Trans-Canada is Canada’s mythic highway, starting (technically) at Mile 0 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and ending in Victoria, British Columbia (also Mile 0).
Golf: Nanaimo and the areas to the north have seen the proliferation of golf courses with a view. Tee off on any of 20 golf courses within an hour’s drive of Nanaimo. Courses range from family mini-golf and pitch ‘n putt to demanding 18-hole courses with beautiful views. Located 3 miles (5 km) north of Nanaimo is the Nanaimo Golf Club, a demanding 18-hole course with beautiful views of the water, and two 9-hole courses; Pryde Vista Golf Club and the Eaglequest Golf Centre. Vancouver Island Golf Vacations.
Freshwater Fishing: Quennell Lake near South Wellington in Nanaimo is known for its good smallmouth bass and trout fishing, as is Holden Lake near Yellow Point. Long Lake and Brannen Lake are situated 3 miles (5 km) north of the Nanaimo city centre. They’re both easy to locate on opposite sides of Hwy 14. Follow Norwell Drive east of the highway to Louden Park on Long Lake, or Dunster Road west of the Nanaimo Parkway to Brannen Lake. There are trout and smallmouth bass at Long Lake, and cutthroat and rainbow trout at Brannen Lake.
Saltwater Fishing: For saltwater sportfishing information on licences, limits, and closures, contact the Fisheries and Oceans field offices in Nanaimo.
Windsurfing: A good Windsurfing locale is Pipers Lagoon Regional Park, where you’ll often find a stiff a breeze offshore.
Diving: Nanaimo and the Northern Gulf Islands are prime destinations for discerning scuba divers. Explore Nanaimo’s first artificial reef, created by the sinking of the HMCS Saskatchewan, a retired Navy destroyer sunk off Snake Island in June 1997. The HMCS Cape Breton and Rivtow Lion are the largest artificial upright reefs in the world. Notable coastal dive spots include Dodd Narrows, the Gabriola Passage, Four Fathom Reef, Carlos Island, Porlier Pass, Clarke Rock and the popular night diving location, Jesse Island, which boasts at least three separate and distinct dive sites in very sheltered conditions.
Bungy Jumping: For those who prefer falling over walking, Nanaimo claims to be the home of North America’s first and only bridge built specifically for bungee jumpers. Thrill seekers can experience the ultimate high at the Wild Play Element Park. You can watch or jump from this 140-foot (42-m) bridge above the Nanaimo River, located south of Nanaimo and signposted along the highway.
Bungy Jumping in Nanaimo.
Hiking: Visitors looking for outdoor walks and hikes don’t have to go far. The city and surrounding area offers an amazing range, quality and quantity of trails. Many are wheelchair accessible, while some challenge experienced members of the Sierra Club. The trail around Westwood Lake is the jumping off point for a myriad of trails that wind over the rugged Westwood Ridges and climb to the 3000-foot summit of towering Mount Benson. The trails are a favourite with local mountain bikers and various hiking clubs. Nanaimo boasts 23 mulched trails making up over 58 kilometres of paths. Seven locations of paved trails make up another 28 kilometres. The 19-kilometre Parkway Trailway winds alongside the Nanaimo Parkway, one of the most used trails in the city. The wild and natural trails at Cable Bay and Dodd’s Narrows are popular, or you can spend the day hiking the 18 kilometres of designated trails on Newcastle Island.
Mountain Biking: Mountain bike enthusiasts accept the challenge of the Ultimate Abyss, perhaps the best-known trail on Vancouver Island because of its notorious technical challenge. The semi-loop trail begins next to the SPCA shelter on Harewood Mines Road. At the outset, the trail follows a string of power lines. The entrance to the trail begins beside power tower #24-2. Stay on the main trail and ignore all diversions. Much easier riding is found nearby in the Westwood Lake area, reached by following Jinglepot Road and then Westwood Road west of the city centre. More demanding trails lead off from the north end of the lake along Westwood Ridge.
Canoeing & Kayaking: Nanaimo’s scenic harbour and the outer Gulf Islands are fabulous waters to explore by kayak. As much as the ocean dominates the landscape near Nanaimo, there are several freshwater lakes where paddlers will find serenity in a rural setting. You can put in at Hemer Provincial Park on Holden Lake or at nearby Quennell Lake. Holden’s shape is rather straightforward, with only one major bay. In comparison, Quennell Lake is nothing but bays. The action at both is a good excuse for some paddling and perhaps cutthroat trout fishing. A short network of forested trails leads through the woods from the parking lot at Hemer Provincial Park to the west side of Holden Lake. Follow the signs a short distance east from Hwy 1 to reach Hemer Park. A backroad leads south of Holden Lake to Quennell Lake near Yellow Point.
Westwood Lake: A popular recreation and picnic spot in Nanaimo is Westwood Lake, located 5 km west of Nanaimo city centre, accessed via Westwood Road off either East Wellington or Jingle Pot Roads. The lake has a boat launch and is stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout, with best fishing from April to June and September to October. Great hiking around Westwood Lake and up to Mount Benson.
Petroglyph Provincial Park, at the south end of Nanaimo, where the Nanaimo River empties into Northumberland Channel, presents a look back in time to a prehistoric period perhaps a millennium ago. Mythological creatures – sea wolves in particular – and symbolic designs have skillfully been outlined in the sandstone surface of the rock. Examples of this art form exist elsewhere in British Columbia, but rarely in such concentration as here. A short, wheelchair-accessible walkway leads from the parking lot on the east side of Hwy 1 to an interpretive display of concrete moulds taken from the nearby petroglyphs. Visitors who would like to take away an example of this artwork can make rubbings on paper of the coffee-table-size moulds. The originals are just a short distance farther along the walkway on a hill that overlooks the Nanaimo harbour.
Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park lies just a few hundred metres off Nanaimo Harbour, beckoning to visitors to pop over and explore. The 336-hectare park offers an island shoreline dominated by steep sandstone cliffs and ledges, punctuated by beaches. Caves and caverns exist along the shoreline and provide a marked contrast to the interior of the island, studded with Douglas fir, arbutus, Garry oak and dogwood trees. Visitors can spend the day walking, hiking or cycling along an extensive trail system (18 kilometres of designated trails), or take 2-1/2 hours to walk around the island (8 km). Every inch of the island has a story to tell. Along the hiking trails, interpretive signs and actual remnants of the past will give you a glimpse into the daily lives of Newcastle’s early residents. A passenger ferry leaves from Maffeo Sutton Park every 20 minutes and runs May through Thanksgiving weekend (October).
Pipers Lagoon Regional Park in Nanaimo has both a sheltered and an exposed side – take your pick of beaches on either one. The lagoon drains so dry that at low tide you can wander out to nearby Shack Island. The eastern shore of the park faces the Strait of Georgia, where a stiff wind is often blowing. A forest of Garry oak predominate on the narrow headland that shelters the lagoon. Wildflowers are profuse here in springtime and attract Columbia black-tailed deer out onto the beach. There’s a public boat ramp at Pipers Lagoon Park, which lies nestled at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain, 3 miles (5 km) north of the BC Ferries Departure Bay terminal.
It’s one thing to putt-putt around the sheltered lagoon, but quite another to brave the open water of Horswell Channel on the east side of the narrow headland that shelters the lagoon. Hunker down and watch the heroics as small boats battle their way towards the mouth of Departure Bay. BC Ferries vessels entering and leaving the harbour normally don’t feel the wind’s sting, but even they can get slapped around during the worst winter blows. That’s when the action at Pipers Lagoon is often the most dramatic. If you like storm watching, this is a great vantage point. To reach the park, from Hwy 19 take Departure Bay Road, which follows the natural arch of the coastline around the north arm of Departure Bay. Turn east onto Hammond Bay Road and watch for signs to the park. The boat launch is at the end of Charlaine Road, one of two well-marked entrances to the park.
Roberts Memorial Provincial Parkis a 14-hectare park 17 km southeast of Nanaimo near the coastal hamlet of Yellow Point. An atmosphere of transcendent serenity permeates the park. This peace is broken only by the barking of sea lions offshore and the mewling of sea gulls, great blue heron, and the occasional Pacific Loon. A peaceful walk through second-growth forest leads to a sandstone beach, a reward in itself. Picnicking, swimming and fishing are pastimes enjoyed in this serene little haven.
Wildlife: Spring and fall present remarkable opportunities to view birds as they travel along the Pacific Flyway. Some of the protected birdwatching havens where they pause and refresh themselves include Buttertubs Marsh, Morell Wildlife Sanctuary and Piper’s Lagoon Park. BC Wildlife Watch has a viewing station at the Morrell Wildlife Sanctuary in Nanaimo. The sanctuary is located northwest of the Nanaimo Parkway’s intersection with Nanaimo Lakes Road.
Camping: If camping is your thing, pitch your tent or park your RV in one of Nanaimo’s remarkable campgrounds and RV parks.
Gabriola Island, known as Petroglyph Island because of its wealth of ancient stone carvings, lies 5km east of Nanaimo, reached by a 20-minute ferry ride from downtown Nanaimo to the BC Ferries terminal at Descanso Bay. In a pleasant rural setting of forested parks and quiet beaches, picturesque roads lead to sensational ocean views, and the sandstone shoreline can be walked almost indefinitely. The Isle Of The Arts boasts many artist’s studios, galleries and delightful shops.
To the north of Nanaimo is the seaside community of Lantzville, once a small coal mining town. When the mines closed, the waterfront miners’ shacks were rented out to city residents in search of a quiet cabin on the beach. Modern day holidaymakers enjoy the mild climate, gentle shores and fine beaches.
South of Nanaimo on the Island Highway is the spirited, picturesque community of Ladysmith, with streets lined with charming and restored heritage buildings. Further south, explore the mural-filled town of Chemainus, with its charming stores and restaurants and live performances at its popular theatre building. A 90-minte drive south of Nanaimo is the province’s capital city, Victoria, a visitor’s mecca. British tradition abounds – take a ride on a double decker bus or horse driven carriage and enjoy high tea at the Empress Hotel.
Circle Tours: See the best of BC when you embark upon one of the many circle tours that take in Vancouver Island, the Discovery Coast, and the Sunshine Coast. The coastal tours involve exciting road and ferry trips on BC Ferries, and scenic highways flank the coast, taking you through charming beachside communities, rolling farmlands and majestic mountain ranges. Check out the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island Circle Tour, and other Circle Tours in British Columbia.
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