Best places to visit on vancouver island

10 of the Best Places to Visit on Vancouver Island

by Ellie Cleary

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One of the most beautiful corners of British Columbia, Vancouver offers a huge range of things to do and places to see. So, after our first few months of living in Victoria, and with some help from some blogger friends, here are some of our favourite Vancouver Island places to visit.

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Places to Visit on Vancouver Island

Often overlooked in favour of its name-sake larger city over on the mainland, we should perhaps point out first of all that Vancouver Island is not where you’ll find Vancouver. It’s also not a small island by any stretch of the imagination, and has more than enough to keep any bucket list filled.

With a population of under a million people (which swells in summer), Vancouver Island is for the most part sparsely populated and covers a huge 32,000 square kilometre area. To put things into perspective, the island runs parallel from south of Vancouver city on the mainland, all the way along to northern British Columbia.

Home to rich Indigenous / First Nations culture, an abundance of forest and wildlife both on land and in the water, Canada’s best surfing spot, some of the region’s most beautiful smaller islands and not to mention the best high tea in Canada, it’s not really about the reasons to visit Vancouver Island. The question is, why haven’t you been here already?!

Although we’ve only been living Island life for a few months, we are constantly overwhelmed by the beauty of Vancouver Island and frequently reminded as to how grateful we should be to experience life here.

The Best Time to Visit Vancouver Island

Peak season for visiting Vancouver Island is during the summer months, with the school holidays in July and August attracting most visitors from within Canada and beyond. If you can, try to visit outside those weeks and you’ll find slightly lower prices and better availability for hotels/accommodation.

May-June and September are great months to visit Vancouver Island too as the season winds down, the weather is still (hopefully) sunny, and the leaves start to change into their beautiful fall glory.

For whale watching on Vancouver island the best time to visit is between May and October. Pods of Orca live in the warm(ish!) waters south of Victoria and around the Gulf islands, while various types of whale including grey whales, Minke whales and dolphins pass through the waters around the island. The Salmon Run can be seen in late summer from Campbell River.

Fall is a great time to see the colours and to enjoy storm watching off Tofino (we were surprised to learn that storm-watching is a thing, in the UK we just normally hide from the rain ;-)), and there are some good deals to be had at this time, too.

Getting to and Around Vancouver Island

Victoria has a small international airport, with flights to Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle, but if you’re flying in from overseas it will be much cheaper to land in Vancouver than in Victoria on the island.

For an unforgettable experience, Harbour Air runs seaplane/floatplane flights between Victoria inner harbour and Vancouver’s coal harbour as well as to Whistler and other towns on Vancouver Island.

If you arrive in Vancouver, you can continue by sea on the BC Ferries service from Vancouver to Victoria. Note that it runs from Tsawassanen, which is about an hour south of Vancouver, to Swartz Bay which is a similar distance from downtown Victoria.

For travelling around Vancouver Island you will need a car. Victoria offers a basic bus service, but it’s hard to get to many nearby attractions without your own wheels. You can rent a car on the mainland and bring it over on BC Ferries (but make sure you reserve your ferry spots ahead of time in the summer), or you can rent a car once you are on the island in Victoria.

Vancouver Island Map

The Best Places to Visit on Vancouver Island

Victoria BC Parliament buildings
The Parliament Buildings, Victoria

Victoria

Victoria is Vancouver Island’s main city and the administrative capital of British Columbia. Located on the far south of Vancouver Island, the city is popular for its beautiful harbour, British colonial architecture and governmental buildings (it still serves as the provincial capital for BC).

There’s plenty of reasons to stay in Victoria – its iconic hotels, tasty bakeries and restaurants, and for some downtime between museum hopping or heading out to watch wildlife. Victoria is one of the most popular spots for whale watching tours in spring and summer, and we highly recommend heading out on a whale watching trip.

Victoria is a popular destination in summer so book well ahead for the best deals.


Where to Stay in Victoria

The Empress Hotel (High End) – For those looking to experience an icon, look no further than the Empress. This classic hotel run by Fairmont is one of Canada’s most iconic, and has beautiful views out over Victoria’s harbour, so you can watch the seaplanes take off and land from your room. Don’t miss the afternoon tea, either. Click here for rates & to book!

The Craigmyle (Mid Range) – Set away from Victoria’s harbour font in the beautiful residential area of Fairfield, the Craigmyle is a chance to experience historic Victoria, in a warm, grand house turned hotel. We love the period style rooms. A 20 minute walk will see you in the heart of Victoria’s downtown, or you can explore nearby beacon hill park and the southern coastline of Victoria from here. Click here for rates & to book!

HI International (Budget) – One of the better budget options in town, HI International is a good option for backpackers wanting to be in the heart of downtown. Click here for rates & to book!


Things to Do in Victoria

There’s plenty to keep you busy in Victoria, even if the sun isn’t shining!

  • Stroll the inner harbour and watch street artists perform in summer
  • Head out on a whale watching expedition – either in a zodiac boat for 3 hours, or take a half day expedition for more chances of sightings – click here to compare whale watching tours & book on Get Your Guide
  • Eat as many cakes as you can at Victoria’s bakeries – some of our favourites include The Dutch Bakery, Crust (Fort Street), and Bubby Roses (James Bay & Cook Street), washed down with a cup of tea
  • Walk up Mount Doug(las) for a bird’s eye view of Victoria
  • Learn all about the indigenous history of BC at the Royal BC Museum (or head to the Imax theatre there)
  • Indulge in an afternoon tea – the Empress Hotel has the best one
The Butchart Gardens in Summer – Image c. Tracy’s Travels in Time

The Butchart Gardens

Contributed by Tracy’s Travels in Time – read more about their trip to the Butchart Gardens here.

One of our favourite places to visit on Vancouver Island is Butchart Gardens. Created over 100 years ago by Jennie Butchart in a former quarry the gardens are wonderful to visit. I highly recommend adding them into your itinerary.

Spread over 55 acres the colourful displays of flowers attract over 1 million visitors every year. As well as the beautiful flowers there are numerous gardens to visit too. The sunken garden is the most iconic. Admire the views of the shrubs, flowers, lawns and trees before descending into the garden itself. 

During the months of June and August enjoy the hundreds of roses which bloom in the rose garden. Pose for a picture under the Rose Arch and enjoy the scent as you wander the paths. The Japanese garden and Italian and Mediterranean gardens are also not to be missed.

If you are visiting during the summer months a firework display is held every Saturday night. This is a popular event so make sure to claim your seat on the firework lawn before the show begins. I recommend visiting the gardens before heading to the concert lawn for some live entertainment and refreshments and then moving over to the firework lawn before the show. Expect the show to start after dark which can be after 10 pm. Also take a blanket to sit on! 

Butchart Gardens has something to offer visitors whatever the season and was one of the highlights of our trip to Vancouver Island.

Compare and book tours to Butchart Gardens from Victoria or Vancouver here!

Tofino from above – Image c. The Coastal Campaign

Tofino

Contributed by the Coastal Campaign – read about their trip to the Tofino hot springs here.

A visit to the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island is a must for any visitor. Tofino is one of the most beautiful towns in Canada and epitomises everything that is great about Vancouver Island. There are numerous stunning beaches dotted along the Tofino coastline and the water is usually full of enthusiastic surfers trying to catch some waves.

If you don’t fancy jumping into the icy cold water then simply walk the long sandy beaches to take in the scenic landscapes and natural beauty of the area. Cox Bay is a local favourite and one of the most popular beaches in the area. As well as having the most consistent waves for the surfers there is also a cool hike at the South end of the beach that offers an aerial lookout of the surrounding beaches and islands.

Once you have had your fill of the beaches, head into the hippy inspired town where there is plenty of good food and drink on offer. Tofino Brewing Co brews amazing beer and you can visit the brewery and try all of the local beers on site. Then enjoy a meal on the patio of The Hatch pub which is a part of Tofino Resort and Marina. The patio is right on the water and has great views of Strawberry Island and the surrounding mountains.

The best place to stay in Tofino is at Long Beach Lodge. Located right on Cox Bay you will have incredible views and the beach is only a few footsteps from your door. There’s nothing better than a wild west coast getaway to the town of Tofino.


Where to Stay in Tofino

Pacific Sands Beach Resort (High End) – For your own private balcony overlooking the beach, a stay in Tofino doesn’t get much better than this! Pacific Sands is located right on Cox Beach, with surf lessons are available on request too. Click here for rates & to book!

Long Beach Lodge (High End) – Probably the best place to stay in Tofino, Long Beach Lodge has charming rooms with super comfy beds, a homely feel that will make you not want to leave, and a gourmet restaurant on site. Book well ahead! Click here for rates & to book!

Tofino Paddlers’ Inn (Budget) – If you’re looking for good value accommodation in town, this small Inn offers a handful of tastefully done double bedrooms with shared bathroom facilities, with plenty of communal space. Click here for rates & to book!


Things to do in Tofino

  • Enjoy walks on the beach (the water is very cold) but the sunsets are spectacular
  • Take a surf lesson – there are surf outfitters all over town as this is Canada’s best surfing destination
  • Head over to Pacific Rim National Park south of Tofino for hiking trails
  • Tofino enjoys a long whale watching season (longer than further south of the island, and grey whales can be seen from March or even February through to October each year) – head out on an open Zodiac or covered boat to spot some.
  • You can also head to the water for a chance to spot bears on Clayoquot Sound at low tide as they come down to the beach to forage. There are several operators offering wildlife tours including Ocean Outfitters and Clayoquot Wild
Cathedral Grove Vancouver Island

Cathedral Grove

Contributed by Holidays from Hels

Cathedral Grove, in MacMillan Provincial Park covers a small area but is famous for being big. It is home to some of the most magnificent specimens of Red Cedar and Douglas Fir in the world. Cathedral Grove derives its name from the way that the sun streams through the canopy above, reminiscent of illuminated church windows.

Stroll for about 30 minutes along a soft pine strewn path amongst the giants. The route is signposted and easy to follow. Looking up, your breath will be taken away by the largest specimens, some of which grow up to 250 feet tall. It takes several people holding hands to encircle one. Looking down, you will see intricately twisted root systems the size of a grown man. Children (and the young at heart) can climb aboard, transporting you into what feels like the Jurassic era (or Lilliput). Don’t miss signs to the oldest tree in the woods, which is an incredible 800 years old.

Free roadside parking is available and there is no entry fee. The best things in life really are free in this neck of the woods. Inspired by the trees, you might want to check out more incredible Canadian nature the nearby Cameron Lake with its crystal-clear waters.

A 20 minute drive will take you to Parksville, where there are plenty of accommodation options (see below).

Dolphins at Campbell River – Image c. That Adventurer

Campbell River

Contributed by That Adventurerread more about their trip to Campbell River here.

Roughly 1.5 hours drive north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island is Campbell River. It’s a small city surrounded by some of the best examples of British Columbia’s beauty. Getting to Campbell River from the mainland is easy since there are multiple ferries to Nanaimo or Victoria and from there is just a drive along the highway. Along the way be sure to stop off in Coombs to see the famous goats on the roof! 

A trip to Campbell River is the perfect BC getaway for those looking for outdoor adventure whether you’re a hiker, mountain biker or just looking to get out in nature. 

One of the best things to do in Campbell River is to explore Elk Falls Provincial Park. A short hike takes you across a suspension bridge and towards the impressive Elk Falls. If you’re visiting in September or October be sure to keep your eyes open for the salmon that are swimming in the waters below! 

Alternatively, if you’re keen to see some of Campbell River’s wildlife then take a whale watching or bear spotting tour with Campbell River Whale Watching. They take small boats out into Discovery Passage which is teeming with wildlife. We took a full day tour and saw orcas, dolphins, humpbacks a mother bear with two cubs and so much more! It was incredible and one of the most fun activities in Campbell River. 

Search places to stay in Campbell River here

Walking the West Coast Trail – Image c. Happiest Outdoors

The West Coast Trail

Contributed by Happiest Outdoors – read about their experiences on the West Coast Trail here.

If you’re a hiker, the West Coast Trail should definitely be on your Vancouver Island bucket list. It’s Canada’s most famous long distance trail, and arguably its most beautiful. You’ll hike 75km of challenging wilderness coastline and temperate rainforest in 6 or 7 days. Along the way you’ll climb ladders, stroll across beaches, clamber over rocks, and cross rivers on hand-operated cable cars. It’s a popular hike, so you need to reserve months in advance.

The West Coast Trail connects two remote coastal towns on Vancouver Island: Port Renfrew and Bamfield. Both are charming small fishing villages worth spending a night or two in before or after your trip. There’s a scheduled shuttle bus that runs between the two villages as well as to Victoria, so it’s easy to get there. 

While you can stay in cute cabins or B&Bs in Port Renfrew or Bamfield, on the West Coast Trail you’ll be roughing it. There are wilderness campgrounds every few kilometres, each with a bear-proof food storage locker and pit toilet. While there are no services on the hike, the highlight for many trekkers is The Crab Shack. It’s an off-the-grid restaurant serving up fresh seafood, burgers and more at Nitinat Narrows, roughly the halfway point. It’s run by the Edgar family of the local Ditidaht First Nation. Be sure to stop to chat with patriarch Carl Edgar, who has been working on the WCT for over 40 years!

Hiking near Port Renfrew – Image c. Stingy Nomads

Port Renfrew

Contributed by Stingy NomadsRead more about hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail here.

Part of the West Coast Trail (see above), Port Renfrew is a village on the west coast of Vancouver Island, located about a 2-hour drive west of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. This little off the beaten track town has well known surf spots, beautiful forest and incredible hiking.

Port Renfrew is best known for two popular hiking trails starting outside the town. The West Coast trail and Juan de Fuca marine trail are two multi day coastal hiking trails starting very close to one another outside the town of Port Renfrew and running in opposite directions on the west coast of  Vancouver island. Several trailheads on the Juan de Fuca trail can be accessed as a short drive from Port Renfrew. This is great if you want to do one-day hikes or only walk part of the trail, in this way some people also do the trail over more than one weekend. 

The trail can easily be accessed from the road at Parkinson Creek, Sombrio Beach and China Beach. Sombrio Beach is a popular surf spot with surfers often camping on the beach or the forest, this beautiful beach also has an amazing hidden waterfall close by. Botanical Beach at the one end of the Juan de Fuca trail is walking distance from Port Renfrew and is renowned for it’s spectacular rock pools.

Port Renfrew is also famous for having some of Canada’s biggest trees growing in the surrounding forest, you will need a 4×4 to reach many of them. Don’t miss Canada’s Gnarliest Tree in Avatar Grove, Big Lonely Doug a massive douglas fir standing alone in the middle of a clear cut or The San Juan Spruce, one of the world’s largest sitka spruce trees.

Ucluelet – Image c. Map Made Memories

Ucluelet

Contributed by Map Made Memories

The small, coastal fishing village of Ucluelet lies in the south west corner of Vancouver Island, a thirty minute drive from its popular, busier neighbour Tofino. Ucluelet is a friendly, laid back village centred around a small, active marina where you can spot anemones, deer and eagles at sunset.

The village offers the fascinating, seasonal Ucluelet Aquarium and numerous outdoor activities such as kayaking, fishing, mountain biking and surfing. Alternatively, browse the locally made artisan crafts in the village’s art galleries and independent craft shops.

Many people visit Ucluelet to access the stunning hikes in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the Wild Pacific Trail, both of which are easily accessible from Ucluelet village. You can hike for as short or as long as you like along dramatic coastal scenery, across pristine, secluded beaches and through temperate rain forest paths. There are well maintained, easy to follow hikes to suit all ages and abilities.

In the summer, enjoy Ucluelet’s beaches – our favourite was the expansive Wickaninnish Beach. These beaches are fantastic for beach combing after a storm. We stayed at the quiet, family friendly West Coast Motel On The Harbour whose large en-suite rooms front onto the marina. The heated indoor pool and sauna was luxurious after a long day hiking!

Search & book places to stay in Ucluelet here!

Telegraph Cove – Image c. Travel2Next

Telegraph Cove

Contributed by Christina from Travel2NextRead about her visit to Telegraph Cove here.

Tucked away on Vancouver Island’s east coast, Telegraph Cove is a charming historic seaside village that attracts crowds in summer. People flock here to go whale watching, fishing, kayaking and camping. It’s a serene getaway in a pristine and beautiful environment. 

Telegraph Cove is the gateway to British Columbia’s largest marine park, the Broughton Archipelago. The park has stunning scenery, with inlets, bays and soaring mountains. It became a park in 1992 to protect one of the world’s last wilderness areas. Things to do in Telegraph Cove include going on grizzly bear tours and whale watching cruises to spot orcas, humpback whales and dolphins.

Telegraph Cove Resort has a range of accommodation choices, from historic houses and cozy cabins condominium suites and rooms in the Telegraph Cove Lodge, which has peaceful views of the cove. Many of the colourful timber houses date back to over 100 years and as you walk around the timber boardwalks, look for plaques that tell stories about the previous occupants of these houses. The old-style General Store is a step back into history and has an array of items for same, including fishing and camping gear.

Search & book places to stay near Telegraph Cove here!

Parksville beaches – Image c. Freedom 56 Travel

Parksville

Contributed by Freedom 56 Travel

One of the best places to visit on Vancouver Island is Parksville.

Located 30 minutes north of Nanaimo, this seaside community is famous for its wide sandy beaches.  Both Parksville Beach and Rathtrevor Beach are world-famous for their parks and long stretches of sand, stretching out for nearly a kilometer into the Pacific Ocean.

Parksville is home to some of Canada’s best oceanside resorts.  Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside resort has been a local favourite for more than 50 years.  Located on 22 acres of tranquil forest and beachfront, this is one of the most romantic resorts on Vancouver Island.  There are also lots of family friendly resorts along Parksville’s sandy beaches including Beach Acres and Ocean Sands Resort.

The Parksville area has the mildest year-round climate in Canada.  Golf courses are open 365 days a year.  Outdoor pursuits such as hiking, wildlife viewing and beachcombing are popular activities in Parksville.

There are many easy day trips from Parksville around Vancouver Island.  Qualicum Beach is very short distance away with a beautiful Provincial park and Regional Park to explore.  Mount Washington has the best skiing on Vancouver Island and is just an hour drive north.  Mount Washington also has excellent mountain biking in the summer.  World-famous Cathedral Grove with it’s towering old-growth forest of 800-year-old Douglas Fir trees is less than 30 minutes away.

Search & Book places to stay near Parksville here or book your stay at Tigh-Na-Mara Resort here!

Chemainus

Contributed by Josie Wanders

Chemainus is located on the east coast of Vancouver Island about one hour drive from Victoria. It is a cute little holiday village best known for the murals decorating walls around the town. There are more than 50 of them currently, mostly depicting the history of this town that was dominated by logging until the huge local sawmill shut down in the 1980s.

Today the town consists of lot’s of B&B style accommodation, picturesque little cafes and eateries, and boutique stores run by local artisans. It is well set up for visitors who can simply enjoy wandering the streets

The murals are spread throughout the town and make the perfect self-guided walking tour. Pick up a map at the tourist information near Waterwheel Park or just follow the footsteps that are painted on the ground.

As you walk around town, look out for some of the beautiful buildings such as the Chemainus Theatre, which has productions year round. The Chemainus Valley Museum is a great place to learn a little more about the history depicted in the murals. Also look out for the numerous festivals and markets that the town puts on year round. 

Chemainus is located in the Cowichan Valley, known for it’s wine production. Spend some time visiting the nearby wineries and tasting the local varieties. More recently Chemainus has become a destination for divers too as a Boeing 737 plane was sunk off the coast to form an artificial reef. Chemainus is perfect for a short break, or even a day trip from Victoria, and a must-see on your visit to Vancouver Island.

Search & book places to stay near Chemainus here!

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Read our guide to the best places to visit on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada for tips on where to go, where to stay and more for your Vancouver Island road trip!
Read our guide to the best places to visit on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada for tips the best places to see and where to stay for your visit to Vancouver island!

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