One of the most paradisiacal destinations in the world, there is no shortage of things to do on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Vancouver Island is absolutely loaded with prehistoric sites, oceanside villages, dreamlike parks, and outdoor activities. No wonder it clocks in at #1 on our list of the best places to visit in Canada.
I’ve had the privilege of exploring the many unique nooks and crannies that Vancouver Island has to offer, and I can’t wait to share the best activities!
The island is a must visit on any British Columbia road trip itinerary, or a great day trip from Vancouver. The only problem is that leaving Vancouver Island is a lot harder than getting there.
Important note: as of April, 2021, health authorities are strongly discouraging travel to British Columbia. We hope you enjoy using this article to dream now of the incredible trips to British Columbia you’ll be taking when the time is right.
21 Best Things to Do on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
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#1 – Explore Victoria’s Historic Center
The capital city of British Columbia, Victoria was founded in 1843 and is a hub of Canadian history. While in the heart of the city, explore Bastion Square (shops, restaurants, and bars galore), take a walk through Fan Tan Alley (it lays claim to being Canada’s narrowest street), or take a tour!
In particular, this guided food and history tour in Victoria will give you a crash course on the city’s history and culinary scene.
#2 – Have High Tea at the Fairmont Empress
Whether you’re a tea lover or prefer to stick to the pastries, booking a reservation for High Tea at the Fairmont Empress in Victoria is one of the most memorable things to do on Vancouver Island. The Fairmont Empress hotel opened its doors in 1908 and has been an elegant staple in the downtown core since day one.
That said, this activity isn’t exactly budget-friendly, so if you’d prefer to skip the tea and just stop in to the hotel for a drink another time of day, that’s welcome too!
#3 – Check out the Castles
Wait… castles? On Vancouver Island?
Yep! And the ones in Victoria are pretty cool.
Craigdarroch Castle was built in 1890 by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. The stunning Victorian build features stained-glass windows, beautiful woodwork, and great views of the area.
Another castle on Vancouver Island is Hatley Castle. Built by Robert Dunsmuir’s son, James Dunsmuir, Hatley Castle was built in 1908 and the grounds feature over 15 kilometers of walking trails, a First Nations historical site, and a bird sanctuary.
#4 – Wander Through Butchart Gardens
With over 100 years of history, the Butchart Gardens is a meticulously-designed botanical space and is one of the most unique things to do on Vancouver Island.
Located just north of Victoria, the Butchart Gardens cover 55 acres of gardens, employ over 50 gardeners, and are home to over 900 bedding plant species.
The gardens are open year-round, but I recommend visiting them any time from spring through fall for the most colorful, diverse blooms.
#5 – Take a Whale Watching Tour
Did you know that many different whale species pass through the waters of Vancouver Island each year?
It’s true! Depending on the season, you can expect to see Humpbacks, Grey Whales, Orcas, and Minke Whales.
For this reason, taking a whale watching tour is one of the top things to do on Vancouver Island. For the best chance of seeing whales on Vancouver Island, time your visit to be between April and October — this is when the most sightings of Orcas and Humpbacks are almost guaranteed.
This 3 hour whale watching tour from Victoria will take you out on the water via zodiacs and show you an abundance of marine life in the area.
#6 – Visit the Royal BC Museum
Located in downtown Victoria, the Royal British Columbia Museum was founded in 1886 and features exhibits on natural, human, and local history. The museum is home to over 7 million items, and they often feature special touring exhibitions on art and culture.
This is one of the top things to do on Vancouver Island if you’re looking to soak up local history from a more traditional point of view.
📚 Related Reading: The Best Things to Do in Banff National Park
#7 – Visit Sooke Potholes Provincial Park
Feel like taking a load off in crystal-clear water while surrounded by lush nature? Then head to Sooke Potholes Provincial Park, located just an hour west of Victoria.
Very much unlike the potholes you’ll find down your local roads, Sooke Potholes Provincial Park on Vancouver Island is home to deep pools of crystal-clear water carved into the sandstone by ice-age glaciers. Swimming in the pools is allowed, but keep an eye on the water levels while you’re there. Spring rainfall means the water can get quite deep.
In addition to the potholes, the Sooke area on Vancouver Island is also home to beautiful waterfalls and great hikes. So, if you head out this way, definitely make a day of it!
#8 – Take a Harbor Ferry Cruise
Want to see Vancouver Island from a whole new vantage point? Then take a cruise!
This is an easy, laid-back approach to sightseeing that will get you out on the water and give you a local lesson all at the same time. There are plenty of cruises you can take in the area, including ones that depart from Victoria, Comox Valley, Nanaimo, and Campbell River.
This 3-hour coastal cruise from Campbell River will take you through Vancouver Island’s Discovery Passage and Seymour Narrows. Expect a lot of wildlife viewing!
#9 – Photograph Sheringham Point Lighthouse
Located on the south-western coast of Vancouver Island, halfway between Victoria and Port Renfrew, the Sheringham Point Lighthouse is a stunning contrast to the crashing waves below and is one of the best things to see in the area. The lighthouse was built in 1912 and is a historical site in the area — so much so that there are even virtual historical tours you can take.
Also found at this Vancouver Island site is the Lighthouse View Trail. This is a 3.4km loop that goes from the parking lot and into the surrounding nature area.
#10 – Take a Kayaking Tour
Whether you’d like a quick trip or a multi-day excursion, taking a kayaking tour on Vancouver Island is a great way to get up-close-and-personal with the water.
This Ucluelet Harbour Kayaking Tour is 3 hours and is a great way to see both marine and land animals from a safe distance. Or, if you really want to dedicate some time to getting away, this Pacific Rim kayaking tour is three full days of adventure. More on Pacific Rim National Park below!
#11 – Go Surfing in Tofino
Located on the west shore of Vancouver Island, just north of Pacific Rim National Park, Tofino has been recently making waves as a top-tier surfing destination. Some of the best beaches for surfing in Tofino are Wickaninnish Beach, Long Beach, and Cox Bay. Plan your surfing trip from September through November when the water isn’t super cold and the wave size is ideal.
Unless you’re a surfing pro, I recommend taking surfing lessons in Tofino — this private lesson is 2.5 hours and you can pick the time of day. All this said, if surfing isn’t your thing then I still recommend visiting Tofino. A west-coast bohemian hub, this Vancouver Island town is full of art, cafes, and shops, and is worth an explore.
#12 – Visit Pacific Rim National Park
A park located on the western edge of Vancouver Island, Pacific Rim National Park is comprised of three regions: Long Beach (beautiful sandy beaches), the West Coast Trail (75km, multi-day trail), and The Broken Group Islands (over 100 sheltered islets).
Stretching from Tofino to Port Renfew, this park is known for its temperate rainforests, an abundance of marine life, and craggy coastline. I recommend boating out to the islands, hiking a portion of the West Coast Trail, or surfing on Long Beach.
#13 – Go Hiking on the Botanical Beach and Botany Bay Loop
A well-maintained 3.5km trail, the Botanical Beach and Botany Bay Loop on Vancouver Island is a fairly easy walk that is great for all skill levels. The hike is located near Port Renfrew on the west coast and will give you incredible ocean and shoreline views. It’s extremely photogenic!
If you’re looking for a hike that’s a little more involved, then spend a day on the nearby Juan De Fuca Coast Trail — this is an out-and-back trek that could easily add up to 20km to your hike (but it can be as long or short as you’d like!)
#14 – Visit Avatar Grove
Located about 10km from Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island’s Avatar Grove is a protected area full of some of the biggest, oldest, most stunning spruce and fir trees on the island.
Most notably, the area is home to Big Lonely Doug, a gigantic Douglas fir that stands alone in a clearing, the San Juan Spruce, the Red Creek Fir, and the Harris Creek Spruce.
To get to the famous trees, you’ll have to drive down some logging roads and then do some hiking. The trees are all located in separate areas, so I recommend downloading a Vancouver Island map onto your phone before you head out (service can be spotty in this area).
#15 – Wander the Old City of Nanaimo
With one of the most colorful city center’s in all of Canada, Nanaimo is one of the best places to visit on Vancouver Island.
The city is located on the island’s east shore and is full of historical buildings (many of which date back to the 1800s), boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. For something a little different, check out a Nanaimo Seaplane Tour — it’s 40 minutes long and will take you around the Strait of Georgia.
While here, you can’t leave without having a Nanaimo Bar — a layered bar that’s Nanaimo’s signature dessert (pictured below). Made up of a coconut-graham bottom, a custard center, and a chocolatey top, these bars are notoriously sweet, but by reading a few reviews, you can find the best Nanaimo Bar in town (I recommend Bocca cafe).
Trust me, as someone who grew up in Canada and had access to Nanaimo bars at almost every community function, go easy on the things. A nibble here and there will keep you from a sugar overload.
#16 – Visit the Goats at Old Country Market
Located in the small town of Coombs, the Old Country Market is one of the best places to visit on Vancouver Island.
Located an hour south of Campbell River, the market is known for having a ton of imported gifts from all over the world, all kinds of delicious food from Italianiza to Mexican, and, and of course, groceries and other goods on offer. But the Old Country Market’s prize attraction is, you guessed it, GOATS!
Being that the roof of the market is made up of munchable grass, a few local goats can often be found grazing up there, between sessions of hanging out in their pens of course.
👉 Pro tip: The goats stay up on the roof from May through September, so visit them to catch them munching on the roof.
#17 – Hike Tsolum Spirit Regional Park
Located just north of Courtenay on Vancouver Island’s east side, Tsolum Spirit Regional Park rests where the Tsolum River and Dove Creek meet.
There may not be any towering Douglas firs in this area, but it’s full of easy hikes that will take you through the trees and right to the river. In particular, I hiked the Tsolum Spirit River Loop (1.3km) and found it to be a peaceful, easy walk.
#18 – Hike Cathedral Grove
A slight contrast to Tsolum River, Cathedral Grove is located in MacMillan Provincial Park, just down the road from Coombs.
A lush protected area, Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island is full of towering Douglas fir trees (some more than 800 years old) and an ecosystem of draping moss and ferns. One of the best things to see on Vancouver Island, the hiking trails at Cathedral Grove are fairly easy and partly covered with a boardwalk, so it’s great for all hiking levels.
As this Vancouver Island area is an endangered ecosystem, remember to stay on the trails and follow leave no trace principles.
#19 – Stroll the Alberni Harbor Quay
Located a half-hour inland from Coombs you’ll find Port Alberni, Vancouver Island — a town of roughly 17,000 and a world-renowned fishing hub. While there are a lot of things to do here, in my opinion, the Alberni Harbor Quay is the shining star of the town.
The quay is home to a ton of colorful homes, shops, restaurants, and a clock tower that you can climb for great views of the harbor. I recommend coming here in the summer — the area puts on some great festivals.
#20 – See the Petroglyphs at Sproat Lake Provincial Park
Just down the road from Port Alberni is Sproat Lake Provincial Park, famous for its prehistoric petroglyphs and beautiful trails. The petroglyphs at Sproat Lake, called K’ak’awin, were carved onto seaside rocks and depict mythological creatures.
While the exact origins of these petroglyphs are unknown, this area of Vancouver Island has been traditionally home to the Hupacasath First Nation.
#21 – Hike Through Elk Falls Provincial Park
Feel like hiking through a lush forest to a thundering waterfall and a suspension bridge? Then look no further than Elk Falls Provincial Park, Vancouver Island. Elk Falls is located just 2km from Campbell River and features picnic areas, hiking trails of all lengths and difficulties, and some seriously beautiful waterfalls.
I trekked to Elk Falls on my most recent trip to Vancouver Island and found that while there were quite a few people also there, it was a mostly-tranquil hike.
👉 Pro tip: If you’re up for a tour through the region, then this Elk Falls guided nature walk is for you!
How to Get to Vancouver Island
Getting to Vancouver Island can be done a few ways:
Option #1 – Fly Direct
If Vancouver Island is your main attraction, then there are some direct flight options into Victoria, Nanaimo, or Comox Valley.
Non-stop flights are available depending on where you’re flying from, but chances are you’ll still have to take a minimal layover in Vancouver before your island plane departs.
Want to save money on travel? We have a whole guide on how to get cheap international flights — check it out!
Option #2 – Fly Into Vancouver
Vancouver, the closest major city near Victoria, is an international hub and a great way to begin your trip to British Columbia. There are direct flights here from all over the world.
Then, to get to Vancouver Island, hop on the Tsawassen to Swartz Bay ferry, which will take you to Victoria.
Option #3 – Take the Ferry
While I already described above how you can take a ferry to Vancouver Island from Vancouver, you can also grab a ferry straight from Washington, USA. There are a few ferry options for this route, but generally, the trip will only take about 90 minutes to 2 hours.
How to get around Vancouver Island
While there are buses that will take you around Vancouver Island, I highly recommend renting a car and driving.
Not only will this give you ultimate flexibility with timing, but you’ll also be able to see so much more of Vancouver Island than you would have otherwise.
Can You do a day trip to Vancouver Island?
Absolutely! If you’re based in Vancouver or somewhere else along the coast, then one day on Vancouver Island is totally an option.
That said, because you’ll have to take the ferry to the island, I recommend just exploring either Victoria, Nanaimo, or Campbell River — the three main east port cities. This will give you the most amount of time to really dive into a location.
That’s it for my top things to do on Vancouver Island, British Columbia!
Vancouver Island is one of my favorite destinations in the world, and I hope this article gave you a ton of ideas for what to do there.
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Enjoy Vancouver Island!
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