One of the reasons Nanaimo attracts boaters is for the easy access to fresh and saltwater experiences that are only minutes away, no matter where you are. Whether you prefer to be in the water, on the water, near the water, or tasting delights from the water, there’s plenty to do in Nanaimo.
Beaches, boating and nautical good times
A nautical adventure in Nanaimo has to start with a seafood theme, and the Left Coaster at the farm-to-fork favourite Gabriel’s Cafe on Commercial Street perfectly sets the vibe for today. Think healthy start: wild smoked salmon and scrambled eggs in a tortilla with cream cheese, green onion, lettuce and tomato and served with pan fries. Taste for yourself why locals voted this place the ‘best breakfast’ in the 2022 Best of the City awards.
Once you’ve finished your breakfast, it’s time to go cold-water snorkelling, and there are three fantastic diving outfits to choose from: Sundown Diving, Sink or Swim Scuba, and Nanaimo Dive Outfitters. Slip into a wetsuit, booties, gloves and mask, and follow your experienced guide into waters Jacques Cousteau once raved about. Check out the brightly coloured starfish, anemones and nudibranchs, and spot the harbour seals in these local waters.
Once you’ve dried off, it’s time to warm up with a hot soup from McLean’s Specialty Foods, a wee deli in the Old City Quarter, serving on-site baked goods and fresh soups, as well as truffles, pate and other tasty treats.
This afternoon, go for a walk along the winding trails and seaside lookouts of Pipers Lagoon and Neck Point Park, watching the bald eagles and great herons, doing some quality beachcombing, or appreciating views of the ocean. Or, if you prefer a more immersive experience, book a kayaking tour with Island Römer Adventures to paddle the sculpted other-worldly shoreline of Saysutshun and learn about the island’s fascinating Indigenous history.
Next, navigate your way to the Dinghy Dock Pub, the only registered floating pub in Canada! Set sail on the Protection Connection ferry, which brings you from the downtown Nanaimo wharf right to the restaurant and pub. Start with a seafood poutine or a creamy chowder then anchor yourself with a hearty plate of fish ’n chips – halibut, salmon or cod.
After supper, catch the ferry back to Nanaimo and walk across the road to the Coast Bastion Hotel or the new Courtyard Marriott Nanaimo Downtown. From your room, you’ll be able to look out over the waterways you spent most of the day in.
Exploring the city’s art, history and culture
Wake up and enjoy a cup of coffee in your room, watching all the activity in the Nanaimo Harbour. Then head to breakfast at the Coast Bastion’s Minnoz Restaurant and Lounge. The weekend brunch menu is delicious, and the smoked salmon Charlotte Benny (on the menu anytime) is hard to resist.
Set aside this morning to explore Nanaimo’s harbourside by foot. A five-minute walk from Minnoz brings you to the Vancouver Island Military Museum, where you can learn about Canada’s contribution to peacekeeping efforts around the world, from the War of 1812 to more recently in Afghanistan. Or explore the nearby Nanaimo Museum and walk through a replica coal mine or see what daily life was like in a traditional Indigenous longhouse. Art lovers can get lost in one of Nanaimo’s many art galleries. Head to Commercial Street for the Nanaimo Art Gallery and Artzi Stuff.
After exploring the exhibits and displays, go for a stroll along the Harbourfront Walkway, admiring the boats in the marina, watching the seaplanes come and go, and simply appreciating the slower pace of island life.
Pop into Javawocky for an essential coffee and classic Nanaimo Bar, then sip and savour as you explore Maffeo Sutton Park. The walkway is a comfortably busy place year-round, with locals and visitors drawn to the al fresco public art including an Indigenous totem. The new waterfront playground here is also epic for all ages and abilities. Dip your toes in Swy-a-Lana Lagoon (a great place for a saltwater swim in the summer), make a wish on the arched bridge, or check out the intertidal zone creatures on the steps leading into the water.
When it’s lunchtime you’ll be a few steps away from the Lighthouse Bistro and Pub. Sitting on the patio while sharing calamari or curried steamed mussels from Salt Spring Island, paired with a local beer, is a recipe for a perfect summer day in Nanaimo.
After lunch, get ready for an afternoon of saltwater fishing, crabbing or prawning with Coastal Blue Adventures. Watch for sea lions, humpback whales, orcas, and eagles that enjoy life in one of the richest marine environments on the planet. Whether you’re trolling for salmon or setting traps for delicious Dungeness, a day on the water is unforgettable here.
Looking for a rainy-day alternative? Book the Taste of Nanaimo Craft Beverage and Culinary Tour with Vancouver Island Expeditions. Sip by sip and nibble by nibble explore Nanaimo’s family-owned vineyards, breweries, distilleries and farm-to-table food producers. If you prefer a self-guided tour, check out Tourism Nanaimo’s Sip and Savour page with suggestions for your local DIY tasting experience.
Save room for an incredible dinner, treating yourself to exquisitely plated seafood at The View Oceanside Grill downtown. Then catch a show just a few steps away at the Port Theatre across the street from the wharf. Performances range from the symphony to ballet, Grammy-winning artists, musicals, comedy tours and more.
Finish your evening with a flight of local craft beer samples at White Sails Brewing, a ‘Best of the City’ favourite local craft brewery with live music, board games and a laid-back atmosphere at this stop on the BC Ale Trail.
A quick getaway to Gabriola Island
Today’s adventure whisks you away to one of the Gulf Islands – Gabriola Island, a quick 20-minute ferry from downtown Nanaimo. There is lots of territory to cover on this ‘Isle of the Arts,’ so you might need to rent a bike or car in Nanaimo.
Your first stop is for a photo op at Malaspina Galleries. This dramatic sandstone rock formation at the water’s edge looks like a frozen wave. Next, spend some time relaxing nearby at Gabriola Sands Provincial Park’s ‘Twin Beaches.’
Do lunch like a local with a sandwich or wrap at Mad Rona’s Coffee Bar. In the afternoon, drive to the island’s south end to take in the ocean views at Drumbeg Provincial Park where, on a clear day, you can see Mt. Baker in Washington.
Before catching the ferry back to Nanaimo, go for dinner at Woodfire Restaurant and try the gourmet wood-fired pizza, or close out the day with sunset views and dinner at Surf Lodge & Pub. Don’t be surprised if, over dessert, you find yourself making plans to return to this magical part of British Columbia year after year.