Nanaimo, also called “The Harbour City”, is on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, and about 90,000 people live here. It’s the second largest city on the island (after Victoria), and is right next to the Strait of Georgia inside the Salish Sea.
While it’s less popular with tourists than other places on Vancouver Island, you shouldn’t miss Nanaimo, especially because of its stunning areas of unspoiled nature, artistic vibe, and its growing culinary scene!
Things to See and Do
Downtown Nanaimo alone has many cool things to see and do, so I recommend you start your tour here. The attraction that strikes me most is the amazing Urban Art Gallery at the previously decadent A&B Sound Building, where Commercial Street and Terminal Avenue meet. These murals were launched by Humanity in Art, a local artist initiative, and five local artists in 2018. This organization also hosted the Hub City Walls Mural Festival in 2020, when even more local artists could add their artwork around downtown. I love the variety of colours, painting styles, and themes, which I think makes both Nanaimoites and visitors smile, whether it’s a rainy or sunny day. You can also walk on rainbow-coloured crosswalks on Bastion & Commercial Street (painted in 2016 by the LGBTQ2+ community of Nanaimo), which is another bonus!
If you’re on a hunt for hidden gems, Nanaimo’s downtown area has awesome stores to offer. For example, Sound Heritage (33 Victoria Crescent) has Nanaimo’s largest selection of used and new CD’s, vinyl, tapes, video games, electronics (like stereos, speakers, and record players), and more! Another cool store is Literacy Central Vancouver Island (Well Read Books) (19 Commercial St), established in 1990, which is known for selling all kinds of books that were donated by the local community. Unfortunately, there’s no room left in my backpack, but it’s fun to browse around, and listen to the creaky sound the floor makes with every step I take. Flying Fish (180 Commercial St) has many stylish kitchen and cooking accessories, jewelry, body products, furniture, and other home décor. Next, I buy a cute kitty-themed notebook created by UK artist Hannah Dale at Nanaimo Museum’s Gift Shop (100 Museum Way), and they also have books about local history, jewelry, crafts, and First Nations merchandise and art. Downtown Nanaimo has trendy clothing boutiques as well, such as Lucid, Guava Apparel, and Cayo Fashions (all on Commercial St), and although I don’t get anything, I’m impressed by drawings of celebrities (including Kurt Cobain!) next to one of the shop’s windows! You can also find boutiques and specialty shops within the Old City Quarter, which is only a few minutes of a walk from the downtown core.
Sound Heritage store, painting of books on the outside back wall of Literary Central Vancouver Island, Kurt Cobain drawing, kitty notebook from Nanaimo Museum’s Gift Shop, and entrance to the Old City Quarter.
Next, stop at the two cannons outside of Nanaimo’s historic Bastion (98 Front St), a three-floor blockhouse built from 1853 to 1854 by the Hudson Bay Company to defend its coal mining operations, which was the most important part of Nanaimo’s economy until the 1960’s. It’s the city’s oldest building, and normally, visitors can take a tour and listen to the cannon firing at noon during the summer, but unfortunately, both were cancelled this year for COVID-19 reasons.
Historic photo of the Bastion (image courtesy of Nanaimo Museum D1-25) and the two cannons.
Afterwards, go for a stroll on Harbourfront Walkway, a shared and fully accessible 4.5 km (2.7 miles) long path which snakes along downtown waterfront and Newcastle Channel. This is one of the first spots I visit after arriving in Nanaimo, and breathing in the salty ocean air and watching the boats and seaplanes in the harbour marina makes me feel calm and relaxed. One of the best locations to take photos of the Salish Sea, in my opinion, is the Swy-A-Lana Lagoon Walking/Fishing Pier, which is also popular for fishing crabs. I’m relieved though that most of them are put back into the water very quickly! If you keep walking, you’ll get to Maffeo Sutton Park, that overlooks the Nanaimo Harbour, and is a great place for picnics and community events, has a swimming area, playground, walking trails, as well as the Nanaimo city sign! Harbourfront Walkway continues almost all the way to the BC Ferries Departure Bay Terminal, so feel free to keep walking.
Boats in the marina and Salish Sea, swimming area by Maffeo Sutton Park, entrance to Swy-A-Lana Lagoon, small part of Harbourfront Walkway, and more cool street art!
If you want to keep exploring, Bowen Park (500 Bowen Road), one of Nanaimo’s 200+ parks, should be on your list. It’s a 36-hectare natural area, and is only 10 minutes from downtown (if you take the bus). Its many interpretive trails are all close to Millstone River inside the park. It’s quite hot today, so the best thing to do is walk these easy paths, and being surrounded by lots of trees giving you shade! Be sure to check out the scenic waterfall and duck ponds, and just enjoy the earthy scent, and all of these will surely make you forget that you’re in a city! Bowen Park has plenty of amenities as well, such as an outdoor swimming pool, tennis court, disc golf course, picnic shelters, and amphitheatre. So it’s a great spot to spend a few hours (or longer!), the trails are fully accessible, and dogs are welcome, too, but have to be on a leash at all times.
Beautiful waterfall, walking paths, and a map of Bowen Park (photo courtesy of the City of Nanaimo).
Unfortunately, I was in Nanaimo for only two days, so I didn’t get to see everything this cool city has to offer.
So here are a few more things to see and do:
Gabriola Island. This Gulf island inside the Strait of Georgia has a year-round population of 4,200 people, and is only a short ferry ride (about 22 minutes) from the Nanaimo Harbour ferry terminal in downtown, or accessible by float plane from Vancouver International Airport. Gabriola Island is also called “The Isle of the Arts” because many artists live here, and has more than 70 artist studios open to visitors. Moreover, you can take yoga classes, learn how to make cheese, check out a festival, taking it easy at one of the beaches, eat at a restaurant, or participate in a workshop. Gabriola Island is an outdoor person’s paradise, with more than 170 kilometers (105 miles) of hiking trails, kayak and bike rentals, campgrounds, swimming areas, salmon fishing spots, and more!
Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park. Also known as Saysutshun, this island, same as the rest of the Nanaimo region, is traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nations. They lived on Saysutshun throughout the late winter and early spring every year, to catch as many herring as possible. In addition, after someone of the community died, people close to them came here to spiritually cleanse their body and soul from the suffering, and letting go of their tears. Nowadays, attractions include interpretive tours of the island (with a Snuneymuxw guide), visiting Snuneymuxw village sites or sandstone quarries, camping, hiking on trails, having a bite at Q’uluc’tun Bistro, and admiring the view of the Coastal Mountains. Newcastle Island is only accessible by passenger ferry from Maffeo Sutton Park from May to mid-October (about 10 minutes, 7 days a week). Afterwards, the ferry will run on a low season schedule, and you can also get there by private boat, stand-up paddleboard, or kayak.
Whale Watching with Vancouver Island Whale Watch. Nanaimo’s only whale watching company is along the downtown seawall (5-90 Front St), and offers three to four-hour whale watching tours for all ages inside the Salish Sea, either on an open vessel or a semi-covered boat, and private tours. There’s a 90% chance to see wildlife on their tours, like Transient (Bigg’s) orca, humpback whales, sea lions, harbour seals, porpoises, and eagles. Their goal is “to offer BC’s most sustainable whale watching”, as per their website, so their tours don’t focus on the endangered Southern Resident orca whales. I also like that C$ 2.00 from every ticket purchase is donated to whale conservation initiatives in BC, and they work with the Keta Coastal Conservation organization. More info can be found here.
Where to Eat & Drink
Like other bigger cities in Canada, Nanaimo offers a large selection of cuisines from around the world (e.g. Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Canadian, and Greek).
Here are a few restaurants I recommend you check out in Nanaimo:
New York Style Pizza & Pasta (Downtown) (299 Wallace St). It’s one of Nanaimo’s oldest restaurants, and in 2009, their pizza was proclaimed the best in the city! As the name suggests, their menu features many pizza and pasta dishes, but also salads, like their Manhattan Salad. I grab their Mushroom Fettuccine for takeout, and the sauce is super creamy, and the meal size is perfect to keep my belly happy until the next day! They have vegetarian pizza, too, and these can be veganized by ordering dairy-free cheese for a small surcharge. Gluten-free pizza crusts are available as well, and their dining room has tons of room for smaller and larger groups of customers.
If you feel like lunch (or satisfying your sweet tooth), take the bus to Columbia Bakery (2151 Bowen Road), about 25 to 30 minutes from downtown. They are known for their European pastries (e.g. apple strudels and “Bienenstichkuchen” (bee sting cake)), but also savory sandwiches, breads, soups, and pretzels. I’m having their German cheesecake while sitting in the cute café area, and the rich filling is to die for, very similar to my German grandmother’s cheesecake! Moreover, you can find a small selection of imported groceries, like pancake mix, candy, and prepared cooking sauces. It’s also nice chatting with a German staff member, who tells me about the most scenic highway to take after leaving Nanaimo.
Coach & Horses British Pub (321 Selby Street). This is the place to go for comfort food made from scratch and a pint! It’s inside a historic train station building within the Old City Quarter, and the first thing I notice when entering are some of the walls decorated with beer coasters from around the world, what a creative idea! They are proud to use seasonal and local ingredients, and the menu includes burgers, savory pies, wings, fish & chips, and imported (e.g. Guinness, Fullers London Pride, and Paulaner from Germany) and local beers. I’m very impressed by the many vegan options, such as the Beyond Meat Burger, vegan fish & chips, Moroccan pie, and Chick’n Strips. The fries that come with the burger are super crispy, and both are very filling! One thing I don’t like though is the huge amount of mayonnaise on the buns, but maybe that’s just me, lol! Still, that wouldn’t stop me from going back. In addition, this pub often hosts live music, and guests can either sit inside or on their dog-friendly patio, and the beer fun facts on the walls are super entertaining! Children are welcome as well.
The Nanaimo Bar Trail. While visiting Nanaimo, you shouldn’t miss the famous Nanaimo Bar, the city’s major invention! The Visitor Centre staff is happy to give you the Nanaimo Bar Trail Brochure, to learn where you can enjoy this tasty dessert. There are 39 places all over and close to Nanaimo selling the classic Nanaimo Bar and many variations, such as raw, vegan, gluten-free, deep-fried, fudge, ice-cream, and even spring rolls! I’m having my Nanaimo Bar fix at Waffle Magic (101-427 Fitzwilliam St), which has a Nanaimo Bar waffle, and it’s a perfect combination of hot and cold ingredients! They also have many other kinds of sweet and a few savory waffles (e.g. Cinnamon Bun, Strawberry Cheesecake, and Ham & Cheese, salad, and tomatoes), either Brussels (light and crispy) or Liege style (soft and sweet). Brussels style waffles can be made gluten-free for a small surcharge, and hot or cold drinks (coffee, tea, pop, water, milk shakes, and even bubble tea!) are available, too.
German cheesecake, Beyond Meat Burger, cool wall decorations at Coach & Horses British Pub, and the Nanaimo Bar waffle from Waffle Magic.
Where to Stay in Nanaimo
I’m staying at the HI Nanaimo – Painted Turtle Guesthouse, a cozy, clean and affordable hostel in a heritage building in downtown (121 Bastion St), and it’s only a few steps to most attractions mentioned earlier. It’s open year-round and same as in many other hostels, you can store your luggage for a short time. For COVID-19 reasons, I book a private queen bed room this time, which is quite bright and spacious, and although right next to the road, it’s very quiet at night. There are also 4-bed dorms (mixed, male, and female) and family rooms, and shared bathrooms are found on each floor. The hostel has a kitchen, small library, lounge area, laundry facilities, and WI-FI, towels, and linens are included. A meeting room is offered as well. Of course, the friendly staff is also happy to share insider tips on what to see and do in Nanaimo and its surrounding areas. Unfortunately, I don’t socialize with other guests because of the pandemic, but it’s really nice talking to one of the Receptionists about how her work day is going!
If you’re looking for more info about Nanaimo, Tourism Nanaimo is the best place to look. The Visitor Centre is open year-round and is at 2450 Northfield Road (Hwy 19 at Northfield Rd Exit).
How to Get Around
Nanaimo has a good local bus system (BC Transit), and buses go pretty much everywhere. But the city is quite spread-out, so it can take some time until you arrive at your destination. Fares start at C$ 2.50 for a one-way ticket (adults, seniors, and students), and children 12 and under are free of charge!
It’s easy to get to Nanaimo from places in BC and Alberta. Air Canada and WestJet offer daily flights from/to mostly Calgary and Vancouver at the moment, or several seaplane airlines and HeliJet Helicopters fly from Vancouver Harbour and Vancouver International Airport (South Terminal) to Nanaimo and return.
Moreover, Nanaimo has two ferry terminals (Departure Bay and Duke Point), and ferries go to Vancouver (Horseshoe Bay and Tsawwassen) many times a day. Ferry service is provided by BC Ferries. Of course, Nanaimo is easily accessible by (rental) car, too, via Highways 1, 19, and 19A.
Buses go to/from Nanaimo every day, such as the Vancouver Island Connector, Tofino Bus, and IslandLink Bus, from many locations (including Victoria, Tofino, and Campbell River). Ticket prices are reasonable (e.g. C$ 23 one-way from Victoria), and the buses are safe and clean, although some of the buses I took were late (30 to 45 minutes), but that’s quite normal for public transit, lol!
In general, Nanaimo is very walkable, if you have the time! It’s also become one of Vancouver Island’s most popular mountain biking locations, so there are more than 50 km (31 miles) of trails for all skill levels to ride on and enjoy the fall foliage! There are also many bike shops in Nanaimo, in case you need anything.
While visiting Nanaimo is most popular in the summer, its temperate climate also invites travelers to check it out during the rest of the year, when it’s less busy. With all the great things to see and do and delicious restaurants and cafés, I think it never gets boring here, and there’s always something new to see each time.
So hopefully this post will inspire you to visit Nanaimo someday! 😀