The best things to do in Nanaimo

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by Hertz - 26 February 2019

Breathe in the fresh ocean air when you arrive at the picturesque harbour city of Nanaimo, situated on the east coast of Vancouver Island – and a serene oasis in British Columbia.

While neighbouring Victoria lays claim to the crown for most famous city on this beautiful isle, Nanaimo’s sparkling coastal community is arguably an even greater gem – combining fascinating wildlife and mountainous landscapes with a creative, vibrant centre to form a quietly astonishing location.

Whether you’re visiting for the wonders of the natural landscape, to soak up the local culture or for somewhere quieter to reside when heading to the nearby Vancouver via ferry, there’s no shortage of attractions to experience during your stay. We’ve compiled the best things to do in Nanaimo in our city guide.

Explore the Old City Quarter

It’s a credit to the people of Nanaimo that the historical centre of the city has been so beautifully preserved. The Old City Quarter feels fantastically quaint and welcoming, with bunting-clad streets lined with historical buildings in every colour of the rainbow, from buttercup yellow to pastel pink.

Peruse the homeware boutiques, browse the tempting confectionary counters and cheese shops, and then take a seat at one of the relaxing cafés, where you can unwind in the shade of the striped awnings. Be sure to visit the Coach & Horses for a classic pub-style restaurant experience. Housed in the town’s old train station, this cozy environment encapsulates the city’s age-old charm.


Visit the Bastion

For an authentic piece of British Columbian history, look no further than the rustic, white timber panels of The Bastion. This iconic wooden structure has become an emblem of Nanaimo since its construction in 1854. It’s a former defensive bolthole that has been relocated, renovated and restored over the course of its almost 200-year existence. Today it’s honoured as a local landmark, and is officially the oldest building in Nanaimo.

Curious visitors are invited to step inside the Bastion during the summer months, usually between May and September. Head down to the park surrounding the nautical-style tower at noon to watch the traditional cannon firing ceremony. Afterwards, you can enjoy a scenic stroll along the Harbourfront Walkway, stopping in the numerous cafés and stores you’ll discover along the way.


Eat a Nanaimo Bar

When you’re looking for the perfect accompaniment to your afternoon coffee after a busy morning exploring the city, chow down on the locals’ most iconic culinary creation: the Nanaimo Bar. This sumptuous three-layered cake boasts a crunchy wafer base, creamy custard-flavoured butter icing, and an indulgent chocolate ganache on top. And that’s just the start of the feast.

From spring rolls to ice cream and coffees, you can enjoy a Nanaimo bar in almost every form in this proud city. Follow the official Nanaimo Bar Trail to tick off all the sweetest spots in the tasty treat’s hometown.

Find the Abyss

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously warned against staring into the abyss, but in Nanaimo, this is less philosophical and more literal. Around 35 minutes’ drive from central Nanaimo, at Extension Ridge, there’s an unhealed earthquake fissure in the ground, dubbed ‘The Abyss’ by locals.

The crevice itself is about 16 inches wide, but the real allure of this attraction is the mystery surrounding its appearance – as no one is certain how deep it is, or when it was formed. There’s something entrancing about it, like coming face to face with the power of the Earth. Just be sure to keep a safe distance at all times.  


Start an adventure in the parks

Some of Nanaimo’s most splendid activities can be found in its sprawling parks, which flourish in and around the city. Hit the trails, head into the woodland and fill your lungs with the fresh British Columbian air.

For far-reaching harbour views, head to Pipers Lagoon Park, which sweeps along the coast. There are seaside viewpoints in abundance, pebbled beaches and oceans of wildlife – and at low tide, you can venture onto Shack Island, with its rustic and eccentric cabins.

In the heart of the city, Buttertubs Marsh Parks offers up family-friendly gardens and a bird sanctuary, where feathered friends swoop through the branches as you stroll along the gentle 2km loop trail. Usually, you can expect to see swallows and geese – and plenty more wildlife besides.

Finally, Englishman River Falls Provincial Park is an enchanting setting that features tumbling white waterfalls and steep-sided gorges – covered in lush greenery. Follow the BC-19 northbound from central Nanaimo to reach this parkland in around 45 minutes.

Hike to Ammonite Falls

Tucked away in the dense woodland of Benson Creek Falls Regional Park is Ammonite Falls. To reach this natural oasis, make your way through the ethereal setting of the national park, climbing over mossy logs and spotting delicate flowers peeping through the undergrowth.

Soon you’ll come to a clearing in the trees, where the water cascades over the rock edge and plunges into the pool below. It’s a magical setting which feels totally disconnected from the world – a truly beautiful pocket of Canadian wilderness.


Go island hopping

For day trips with a difference, hop on a ferry and explore the Gulf Islands. Scattered in the nearby waters of the Georgia Strait, Nanaimo is the perfect base to begin your expedition. Sail to Snake Islandto see the local seals. Playful and curious, these endearing creatures are a symbol of the fun-filled afternoons you can enjoy while exploring the harbour.

Newcastle Island is just minutes away by boat, offering an action-packed day for all the family. Walk the leafy trails which weave through the forest, kayak around the island and even spend an unforgettable night camping under the stars.

Tranquil woodland and relaxing beach spots can also be found onProtection Island– though it’s a floating restaurant – The Dinghy Dock Pub – that really sets it apart from the rest. Dance the night away to live music performances and enjoy an evening meal while the moonlight glints on the rippling water.

Gabriola Island has many of its own delights to share. It’s slightly further from the coast of Nanaimo, reached by ferry in around 35 minutes. Rest assured though, it’s worth the effort, as on the northern tip of the island you’ll find the Malaspina Galleries. These naturally formed rock formations curl over the water’s edge like a breaking sandstone wave, seemingly frozen in time.

Go whale watching

Vancouver Island is a prime location for whale watching, and there’s a range of ethical companies to sail out with. Gaze in awe as orcas, minkes and humpbacks surge out of the water, before disappearing back into the deep blue sea. Porpoises and sea lions often join the party, while bald eagles swoop through the skies above.

Organise car rental in Nanaimo and discover the awe-inspiring sights and attractions of this leafy, coastal region to the full. From sandstone waves to cracks in the Earth, there are once-in-a-lifetime things to see – and a whole lot more besides – in this gorgeous spot on Vancouver Island. Book your trip, and soon you can be enjoying all the best things to do in Nanaimo.