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Best Things to do on Vancouver Island, Canada

Best Things to do on Vancouver Island, Canada

Located in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, Vancouver Island is the largest island off the west coast of North America, 450 km long and up to 90 km wide. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring this beautiful island and was amazed by its breathtaking beauty, amazing flora and fauna and the great things to do on Vancouver Island.

beach hike vancouver islan
Exploring the beautiful beaches on the West Coast of Vancouver island.

Part of the Canadian province of British Columbia, Vancouver Island is known for its breathtaking natural beauty, thriving arts community, wild beaches, beautiful forests and rich diversity of marine life. Whatever your interests, there’s plenty to do on Vancouver Island. Give this special place at least a week. With mountains, glaciers, beautiful old-growth forests and an impressive coastline, the island is home to some amazing hiking trails. The most famous is the popular West Coast Trail, a challenging week-long backpacking route along the coast.

The wildlife on the island is incredible and you can see bears, whales, orcas, otters, seals and other amazing animals during your hikes. Whale watching is one of the most popular activities on Vancouver Island, where you can go on a boat ride to see dolphins, humpback whales and killer whales. Victoria, the capital of British Columbia on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, is full of art, culture and fantastic gardens. This small, beautiful city is a very popular tourist destination for visiting gardens, waterfront parks, museums, classic restaurants and craft breweries. Vancouver Island also offers great ocean activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, surfing and scuba diving.

Getting to Vancouver Island

The most common way to get from Vancouver to Vancouver Island is to use BC Ferries. Regular buses serve the ferry terminals on both sides, or you can board the ferry in your car. Ferries depart regularly from Tsawwassen (near Vancouver) to Swartz Bay (near Victoria) according to the ferry schedule, from Tsawwassen to Duke Point (near Nanaimo) and from Horseshoe Bay (near Vancouver) to Departure Bay (in Nanaimo). The ferry ride to Tsawwassen is pleasant, takes about 1 hr and 30 min, there is food and coffee on the ferry, it’s nice when the weather is nice on board, you sail close to the islands with nice views, and if you’re lucky you might even see whales! For lots of information about Vancouver check out our guide to the best things to do in Vancouver.

Get to Vancouver Island by Seaplane

An extremely exciting quick way to get to Vancouver Island is to take a small seaplane ride – this scenic flight takes just 35 minutes – from Vancouver’s Coal Harbour (Canada Place) to Victoria.

Transport on Vancouver Island

You can get around Vancouver Island by bus, but the easiest way is to rent a car. We like to use Rentalcars Connect – this site compares all the major rental companies and gives you the best deal online. It’s easy to rent a car in Vancouver and just take the ferry to Vancouver Island. It is also possible to book a rental car to pick up from Vancouver Island.

Bus transportation is easy to use, but limited for getting around the island. To get from the Schwartz Bay Ferry to Victoria, take the Line 72 bus, which runs every 15 minutes. The bus ride takes about 50 minutes and costs CAD 2.

Arriving in Victoria by seaplane is an awesome thing to do on Vancouver island.

Towns to Visit on Vancouver Island

Victoria is the capital of the province of British Columbia, near the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It is a beautiful city with tons to do. I discuss things to do in Victoria, it is a great base to explore the island from

Tofino, was a small logging and fishing village with a population under 2000 today it is  a center for ecotourism and popular activities include whale watching, surfing, and camping. The best beaches on the island is at Tofino.

Nanaimo is the central hub city of Vancouver Islandand has the second biggest harbour. Nanaimo, has a nice old quarter, good restaurants, beautiful hiking trails, good scuba diving and other outdoor activities.

Ucluelet is a small, coastal fishing village with plenty of outdoor activities in the south west of Vancouver Island not far from Tofino. l Ucluelet has a very interesting seasonal Aquarium. It is a popular spot for activities such as mountain biking, surfing, and fishing. Guided kayaking tours from here are very popular. Hiking in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the Wild Pacific Trail is accessed from Ucluelet.

Port Renfrew is a small village located on the rugged coastline of the west coast of Vancouver Island, located about a 2-hour drive west of Victoria. Port Renfrew is well known because two popular multi day hiking trails, the West Coast trail and Juan de Fuca marine trail start close to one another outside the town.

Telegraph Cove is a charming seaside village surrounded by a pristine environment and attracts many tourists for whale watching, fishing, kayaking and camping. Telegraph Cove is the gateway to the Broughton Archipelago, British Columbia’s largest marine park.

Campbell River located on the east coast of central Vancouver Island is a great natural destination and the place to go if you want to see salmon, bears or whales with tours going to see these animals. Known as the Salmon Capital of the World due to the steelhead runs on the Quinsam and Campbell Rivers and year-round salmon fishing in Discovery Passage. Campbell River is the gateway to Strathcona Park and the Discovery Islands.

Things to do in Victoria

Victoria is a small city for the capital of the Canadian province of British Columbia, but it’s packed with attractions for culture and food lovers, and is a great base for exploring the incredible scenery around the island. A tour of the city

There are several interesting neighborhoods to visit in Victoria, including the Victoria Public Market, Chinatown, Old Town and the Inner Harbour.

Butchart Gardens

The beautiful Butchart Gardens were commissioned by Jenny Butchart in 1904. This popular spot in Victoria, which has been designated a National Historic Site, receives more than a million visitors each year. The sprawling park covers 22 hectares (55 acres) and features impressive floral walkways with more than 900 species of plants. The gardens include an incredible garden in depth, an Italian garden, a rose garden, a dahlia garden, a concrete grassy walkway and a Japanese garden.

You can visit the garden at any time of the year, come and see the colours of the blooming flowers in spring, the fun and fireworks in summer, the golden colours of autumn and the Christmas decorations in winter. 50 full-time gardeners keep this place in shape. The gardens will easily keep you entertained for about 4 hours. Butchart Gardens is located about 25 km from Victoria and can be visited by bus 75. The gardens open daily at 8:45 or 9:00 am and the entrance fee is 33 Canadian dollars.

To avoid the crowds in the summer, visit the park before 10:30am or after 3:30pm.

The Butchart Gardens Victoria on Vancouver Island.
Don’t miss the fantastic Butchart Gardens when visiting Victoria on Vancouver island.

The Victoria Public Market

Located in the historic Hudson Building in downtown Victoria, this is the place to find fresh produce, local meats and farm fresh foods, artisan products, freshly baked breads and other baked goods. A vibrant gathering place for the Vancouver Island community with art and entertainment under one roof! An incredible place to buy food, fine souvenirs or dine on an array of amazing handmade products.

Royal BC Museum

Founded in 1886, the Royal British Columbia Museum is an outstanding natural history and humanities museum with three permanent galleries: the museum’s collections contain some 7 million objects, including natural history specimens, artifacts and archival documents. An entertaining and educational museum with outstanding exhibitions including a world-class First Nations gallery, a cool woolen mammoth and a collection of works by Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr.

Victoria Inner Harbour

Victoria’s Inner Harbour is a fully functioning port that has been transformed into a very touristy neighbourhood with a pleasant atmosphere. In summer, markets, festivals and concerts are held in this beautiful place. You can take a ride on a water taxi, go on a whale watching excursion or board a cruise ship. It’s nice to be close to the water and stroll the pedestrian streets by the harbour full of vendors and pubs, watch the fishing boats and maybe even catch a glimpse of a whale at sea! The streets are dotted with many cafes where you can stop for coffee. If you’re travelling by boat or ferry, chances are you’ll start at the harbour.

The Inner Harbour is also home to some of the most popular Victorian landmarks and beautiful architecture – the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Parliament Buildings. The Empress Hotel (Fairmont) is located adjacent to the Inner Harbour and is a pleasant photo spot with its beautiful gardens.

Inner harbor victoria vancouver island
With its fun atmosphere and beautiful buildings, a visit to the Inner Harbour is one of the most interesting places to visit in Victoria. Wander around, take some photos and sit down for a cup of coffee – a great place to spend the morning.

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Art lovers don’t want to miss the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, which has seven galleries and houses around 17,000 works of art. The gallery houses one of Canada’s largest collections of Japanese art and a number of contemporary international and Canadian works (including the Emily Carr Collection). The gallery has a pleasant gift shop and is surrounded by an Asian garden.

China Town

Little Chinatown in Victoria, British Columbia, is the oldest in Canada and the second oldest in North America after San Francisco’s Chinatown. Chinatown in Victoria was once a ghetto for newly arrived immigrants, mostly miners, who arrived in British Columbia from California in 1858. It is now a protected area with a vibrant business community and a popular area for tourists to visit. Popular tourist attractions in Victoria’s Chinatown include the Gate of Harmonious Interests, an ornate archway that marks the entrance to Chinatown, the famous narrow Fang Tan Alley, and the Old Chinese School. Visit the small shops on Fang Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada, which is only 90 cm wide at its narrowest part!

Explore Victoria’s Food and Drink Scene

Vancouver Island boasts a thriving culinary scene blessed with rich oceans, fertile soil and a temperate climate – all ingredients of a fantastic ingredient-driven food scene live and grow in Victoria. Sample their best wild salmon, local cheeses, fresh seafood, organic vegetables and wines from local island wineries. There are a huge number of places to eat and drink in the Victoria area.  You’ll find everything from great breakfast spots, delis, multiple bars to excellent restaurants.

After many trips around Vancouver Island, I’ve arrived in Victoria many times with a huge appetite and have discovered the super unhealthy Canadian favourite – poutine. The poutine is fries covered in melted cheese and gravy, and there are several combinations, and the addition of pork is a favourite and delicious. Portions are often huge. Many bars in Victoria serve poutine, and I had a delicious poutine from a food truck!

High Tea in Victoria

Tea is a big event in Victoria – both afternoon tea and high tea (no, they’re not the same thing). High tea is drunk at lunchtime and afternoon tea is served between lunch and dinner, with different dishes to accompany them. Many places in the city serve a real high tea with exquisite pastries and mini desserts, while other places serve a more ordinary afternoon tea. The Empress Hotel is a very popular place where high tea is served, but it is not cheap, the price is over 50 CAD with a few desserts.

Take a tour of Bentley with a professional historian, including Butchart Gardens and a British-style tea tour of the Grand City.

Go Craft Beer Tasting

In 1858, beer was first brewed in Victoria, Canada, and today the craft beer scene there is huge. Victoria is home to some of the best restaurants and breweries in the country. There are a few amazing ways to sample beer: you can walk the Beer Mile and visit the pubs and breweries that surround the Upper Harbour, take the Pickle Pub Crawl with the water taxis operated by the Victoria Harbour Ferry, or join a cycling pub crawl with The Pedaler.

craft beer tasting vancouver island
With a host of excellent bars and pubs, be sure to try Vancouver Island’s craft beer.
Accommodation in Victoria

Accommodation in Victoria

Whale Watching from Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island offers impressive whale watching opportunities.There are so many humpback whales in season that some companies guarantee you will see them, but what makes whale watching here special is that you have a great chance of seeing orcas (orca). Other species of whales that are sometimes seen on whale watching tours here are gray whales and bowhead whales. California sea lions, harbor seals, harbor porpoises, Dall’s porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, and a variety of seabirds including golden eagles, Canada geese, cormorants, oystercatchers, and terns can be seen during the tours.

Best Time for Whale Watching from Vancouver Island

Whales can be spotted from Vancouver Island all year round, but the best time for whale watching around Vancouver Island is from May to October. There are countless whale watching operators in the area during the season.

Choosing a Whale Watching Operator

Trips usually last 3 to 5 hours, with some operators offering a 95% or better chance of whale watching. Different types and sizes of boats are available for the tours – open (inflatable) or covered boats.Make sure you know what type of boat you are booking. Zodiac type boats are exciting and get you close to many of the animals, but wheelchair users and pregnant women cannot board them. Indoor boats are often more comfortable, guests can shelter from the elements and are suitable for more people, and some boats have toilets on board and are wheelchair accessible.

As far as I know, no ship can get within 200 yards of a whale, regardless of the type of boat. Try to arrive 30 minutes early and bring something warm to wear.

Well-rated and reviewed whale watching trips from Victoria

humpback whale vancouver island
Humpback whale watching – many companies guarantee that you will see humpback whales on a whale watching trip from Vancouver Island

Although Victoria offers excellent whale watching conditions and good orca sighting opportunities, it is not the only whale watching location on Vancouver Island. Further north to Telegraph Cove, Campbell River and Port McNeill are very good spots for orca and other wildlife watching. Since there are far fewer operators here than around Victoria, the whales are not as numerous as the boats throughout the day.

Additionally, Tofino offers whale watching and many other wildlife sightings. The whale watching season in Tofino is long, from March to October. Orcas and humpback whales can be seen in Tofino, but gray whales are the most common.

You can fly in by seaplane from Vancouver, take a whale watching excursion from Victoria and fly back.  Enjoy a circular flight over the islands in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Northwest, combined with whale and orca watching.

Hiking on Vancouver Island

Covered with mountains, glaciers, beautiful old-growth forests and surrounded by hundreds of miles of coastline, Vancouver Island hosts impressive hiking trails. Try out some of the challenging multi-day backpacking routes or explore shorter day trails along beautiful native forests and stunning beaches. Check out our list of the best Vancouver hikes.

The West Coast Trail

The world-famous 75-kilometre multi-day hiking trail along the beach and forest – the West Coast Trail – along the coast of Vancouver Island can be completed in one challenging week. The trail stretches from the Gordon River trailhead near Port Renfrew in the south to Bamfield in the north. Large sections of the trail pass over kilometres of white sandy beaches separated by dense native forests.

Many wild animals can be seen along the route including otters, whales, dolphins, bears and deer. I was surprised when killer whales came very close to the cliffs during the hike. This is a backpacking and camping trail and you should bring everything you need for the trail, food and gear. The trail is challenging when it rains a lot, walking slowly over difficult terrain including mud puddles, ladders, bridges and ropes. The West Coast Trail is open from May 1 to September 30. You can reserve the trail in advance, as only 30 people can hike the trail each day.

west coast trail vancouver island
Camping on the beaches and enjoying a daily campfire with new friends are some of the most popular things to do on Vancouver Island.

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a moderate to challenging 49-kilometre hike in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This great trail is a good alternative to the West Coast Trail, starting near one end of the West Coast Trail and running in the opposite direction along the coast. It’s cheaper if you’re short on time, you can only walk certain sections of the trail and no reservations are required.  We hiked the trail in four days, which is the most common way to hike the entire trail. The walking route runs along the coast from China Beach near Sauk in the south to Botany Beach near Port Renfrew in the north.

hiking juan de fuca trail vancouver island
The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail on Vancouver Island offers spectacular forest and ocean scenery.

Day Hikes on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island has some amazing day hikes along the coast, through the forests and around the lakes.

Day Hikes on the coast of Vancouver island

The Juan de Fuca Trail is easily accessible from several trailheads with ample parking, allowing for day hikes along the trail or camping for a night or two.

Hike from China Beach to Mystic Beach

Tea Beach and Mystic Beach are the two beaches on the Juan de Fuca Trail, and you can park at Tea Beach on the trail and hike from there to Mystic Beach. China Beach is located about 75 km west of Victoria, on Highway 14, west of Sauk to Port Renfrew on the south side of Vancouver Island. It is a very quiet, long stretch of fine sand that is family and pet friendly. The trail is very nice, clear and not too challenging, if you are of normal fitness, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Between the two beaches you can mostly walk through the woods. The hike is about 4 miles round trip. There are some pretty steep climbs and a long stretch of stairs at the end of the hike. Mystic Beach is very nice, with a small waterfall and rope swing. The water is cold but refreshing! Another option is to stop at the Mystic Beach trail and take a hike for about an hour through the woods to the beach.

beach hike vancouver island
Walk along the beach at Juan de Fuca National Park on Vancouver Island.

Hike the Big Tree Trail on Myers Island

The Big Tree Trail is located near Tofino, on Myers Island, and you can reach it from Tofino by water taxi or take a guided kayak tour. There are huge cedars growing here that are estimated to be 1000-1500 years old! The entire island is a tribal park and has been protected from logging by First Nations. Some of the trees are over 1000 years old!  The hike along the walking trail under the massive trees is only 3 km long, but takes over an hour and a half.

Day Hikes around lakes on Vancouver island

Tethis Lake Regional Park near Victoria contains several lakes and is very popular for hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking and canoeing.  There is a network of hiking trails between the lakes in this beautiful and remote forest. The trailheads for Upper and Lower Lake Tethys are about 11 km from downtown Victoria. The length of the trail is 5.2 km (3.2 miles). For a longer hike, take the Calypso Trail to Mill Hill Regional Park.

Day Hikes around mountains on Vancouver island

Mount Arrowsmith is the highest mountain on Vancouver Island, south of Port Alberni, and is 5,961 feet (1,816 m) high. The judges’ route is about 6 km round trip and takes on average about 5 hours to ascend and descend with a vertical drop of about 1000 m. This mountain with several steep sections can be climbed in different ways. It’s not a technical hike, but to get to the top you have to push yourself. In winter, be prepared for snow and ice with appropriate equipment.

Hiking around Vancouver

We’ve also done some amazing hikes around Vancouver on the mainland. Garibaldi Lake Provincial Park near Whistler is a short drive from downtown Vancouver and offers amazing hikes to Garibaldi Lake and the challenging Black Tusk Mountain. I can also recommend a hike to Chief in Squamish, not far from Vancouver. Right in downtown Vancouver, climbing Grouse Mountain is something of a given for Vancouver hikers. Further north, in Alberta, hiking in Banff National Park was a different but fantastic experience.

Cycling on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island is suitable for all types of cycling thanks to its amazing parks, trails and beautiful open roads; there are bike lanes, bike lockers and bike paths in urban areas for everyone from beginners to experienced cyclists.

The Galloping Goose

The Galloping Goose is a 31-mile (55 km) multi-use trail for walking, running, cycling and even rollerblading and horseback riding that stretches from Victoria to Sauk and passes through several towns. The trail passes through various landscapes, forests, rivers, beaches and lakes. It is an easy, flat, paved trail with some paved sections, mostly near the city of Victoria. You can take a dip in the beautiful Sooke potholes. The Galloping Goose Trail is great for a two or three day bike ride, with plenty of rest areas and campsites along the route.

Seaside Touring Route

This easy and scenic bike trail in the state of Victoria is suitable for all levels. The route is 39km long, but you can ride a shorter section, and there are plenty of places to park your bike and sightsee or stop for coffee along the way. Start your ride from James Bay, travel along the beautiful bays of Victoria’s Inner Harbour and its surrounds, passing picturesque fishing villages located along the route.  To return downtown, join the Galloping Goose Trail.

Vancouver Island One-Day Bike Tour – Cycle Vancouver Island’s bike lanes and quiet country roads on a one-day bike tour from Vancouver Island that combines farm-fresh food, local wine and active exploration.

Surfing on Vancouver Island

Canada isn’t really known for surfing, but Vancouver Island has some nice surf spots. Surfing is one of our favourite things to do in Cape Town and the water isn’t much warmer, you just need to wear the right wetsuit! The water in British Columbia is cold but not icy, with temperatures around 10°C, so you can stay in the water for two or three hours while surfing with a suitable wetsuit. The best time to surf here is actually in the winter, when bigger waves appear.

surfing tofino vancouver island

Surfing at Tofino

Tofino is an area on the west coast of Vancouver Island with several beaches for surfers. It is the most popular area in Canada for wave surfing for all skill levels. Cox Bay and Long Beach are popular spots, and Chesterman Beach is a good place for beginner lessons. Tofino has several surf shops and a great surf culture.Just go to one of the surf shops for lessons, they will provide you with equipment and an instructor to teach you on the beach.

Go to Tofino for surf lessons.

Vancouver 4-Day Camping – Go on an amazing itinerary to explore the island with these awesome locals that includes camping, surf lessons and whale watching.

Surfing at Sombrio Beach

Located between the towns of Victoria and Port Renfrew on Highway 14, Sombriau Beach is a nice spot for surfing on the south side of Vancouver Island. Located on the Juan de Fuca Trail, Sombrrio has a great campground with a beautiful waterfall. The waves here are not as good as in Tofino, they are a bit erratic, but if you go at the right time, it works out and is a great place to spend a weekend. Parking is on the trail at Sombrio beach about 45 minutes outside of Sauk.

Snorkeling on Vancouver Island

Few people expect amazing snorkeling in Canada! From Vancouver Island, you can snorkel with schools of spawning salmon in season! Each fall, millions of salmon swim down Vancouver Island’s Campbell River to freshwater spawning grounds and return to their birthplace, with a variety of salmon species including coho, steelhead, chum, Chinook and pink. Snorkeling trips from Campbell River in central Vancouver Island allow you to swim upriver with schools of salmon.

A popular pastime on Vancouver Island was once snorkelling with playful sea lions in the town of Nanaimo. However, a recent new Canadian law prohibits anyone from swimming, disturbing or interacting with marine mammals, so the popular pastime of snorkelling with Nanaimo seals is no longer allowed.

Scuba Diving

Vancouver is arguably the best place to dive in Canada and one of the best cold-water dive sites in the world, which was praised by French ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau for its incredible marine life. The water around Vancouver Island is cold between 5 and 10°C, so diving here is mostly done with dry suits, but some divers wear thick 7mm wetsuits. Nanaimo offers both shore and boat diving. Some of the amazing animals you can see here are bottle-nosed dolphins, killer whales, sea lions, seals, wolf eels, six-winged sharks and dogs.

Beaches to go to on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island, which is surrounded by 460 km of coastline, has several nice beaches, the water is cold but refreshing, there are nice sandy and rocky beaches, good places to camp on the weekend, and some beaches are good for water sports such as surfing, bodyboarding, skimboarding and diving. Nice places to go to the beach are Pacific Rim National Park, Juan de Fuca Provincial Park and several good beaches on central Vancouver Island.

long beach vancouver island
Long Beach near Tofino on Vancouver Island.

Beaches in Pacific Rim National Park

Pacific Rim National Park is the best place for sandy beaches on Vancouver Island and consists of three areas: the Long Beach, Broken Group and West Coast Trail islands. The Long Beach unit is a 15.5-mile (25 km) stretch of sand between Cox’s Point and Quisitas Point, near the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet. The strip is divided into several beaches, including Radar Beach, Long Beach, Combers Beach, and Wiccaninis Beach. Long Beach, the longest and most famous, is a 10 km long sandy beach near Tofino, popular for games and walks on the beach and for surfing. Chesterman Beach and Cox Bay are two nice sandy beaches popular for surfing near Tofino.

Beaches in the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park

In Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, west of Victoria on the south coast of Vancouver Island, there are several nice and easily accessible rugged beaches with well-established facilities. Mystic Beach and China Beach are sandy beaches suitable for swimming. Sombrio Beach is a beautiful rocky beach that is popular for surfing in the fall and winter, with a large hidden slot waterfall. A great place for weekend camping.

Kayaking in the Broken Group Islands

The Broken Group Islands, located in Pacific Rim National Park, are an archipelago of small rocky islands in the middle of Barkley Sound and can only be reached by boat. The islands are usually accessed from the fishing port of Woollett Inlet, where you can observe whales, bears, seals, sea lions, sea otters and many other species of sea birds and mammals. The Broken Group Islands are best explored by kayak, and guided tours are also available. Experience the raw beauty and untouched wildlife from a kayak.