History, Culture and Shopping - Tourism Nanaimo

History, Culture and Shopping

Nanaimo has recently undergone a cultural transformation. The thriving Nanaimo arts scene has truly come into its own, attracting art lovers and artists alike. Artists stay here because it is beautiful and un-crowded, and the lively up-front culture in Nanaimo affords a comfortable setting for expression.

Nanaimo hasn’t been quick to shed its history though. With strong roots in culture through the Snuneymuxw First Nation, Nanaimo celebrates the language, history, and art of its first inhabitants. Explore the history through exhibits at the Nanaimo Museum, experience the culture first hand at Newcastle Island, and take home a piece of art from an artisan shop in the downtown core.

Nanaimo Arts & Culture 360

From the artisans of Cedar to the musicians of the symphony, the palette of Nanaimo’s locals is vibrant, and it’s yours to experience. Travel to the galleries of local artists or book in for an evening of live music. In the city centre, a wide variety of art galleries and music venues share the street with bookstores, hip cafes, and fine boutiques.

Read more below about Nanaimo’s history, culture and shopping.


Nanaimo’s History

Nanaimo is the third oldest city in BC, and has a long and colourful history. Nanaimo is located on the traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. The city is full of heritage buildings and interesting stories and the Nanaimo museums are packed with artifacts from the city’s coal mining era, and First Nations communities.

Visit Newcastle Island, Saysutshun, traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, and experience the culture of the Coast Salish people. Sample traditional foods at the Saysutshun Bistro, and catch a cultural tour or presentation.

Downtown Nanaimo has amazing historical sites to discover like the Hudson’s Bay Company Bastion, the Great National Land Building, and dozens of old storefronts and bars along Victoria Crescent and Commercial Street. Take a walk past the old Palace Hotel on Skinner Street and you’ll feel as though the clock has turned back to the early 1900s.

For insight into Nanaimo’s coal mining days, visit the impressive Morden Mine Historical Site at the south end of town. Or, head over to Newcastle Island, where pieces of coal can be found near the beach at the island’s southwest corner. Downtown at Pioneer Plaza the last piece of coal taken from White Rapids Mine in 1949 is on display.

Daily Cannon Firings. Every day at noon from mid May through Labour Day you’ll hear the sound of bagpipes and the blast of the cannon at the Bastion.

Nanaimo Heritage Walking Tour brochures are available at the Tourism Nanaimo Visitor Centre and the Nanaimo Museum. Or take one with one of our trusted guides. Also, check out the schedule of events at the Nanaimo Museum, you will find Cemetery Tours and Old City Walking Tours as well as everyday at Noon (May 18-Sept 2) catch the cannon firing re-enactment ceremony at the Bastion. You can tour all three floors of one of the last remaining Hudson’s Bay Company Bastion’s left in North America (summer hours only).

The Vancouver Island Military Museum offers more than 25 exhibits and displays showcasing Canada’s proud Military History and Traditions.
Pick up a copy of ‘A Walk Through Time’ Heritage Walking Tour brochure at our Visitor Centre.


Nanaimo Art Galleries

There are several downtown Nanaimo art galleries in all, including a renovated heritage building that provides an inspirational 10,000 square feet of space to display the paintings, pottery, glass sculptures and other extraordinary works of many Canadian artists. Within the Region, you’ll also find quaint home studios and even a few studio tours in which you can self-guide your way through the arts!


Shopping in Nanaimo

Shopping in Nanaimo gives you the best of all worlds, from major big name retailers to funky one-of-a-kind shops and boutiques. Nanaimo boasts more than a dozen indoor and outdoor malls, including the largest shopping centre on Vancouver Island.
It’s for good reason that Nanaimo has been named the Island’s “shopping mecca.” Many of the major brand name retailers you know and love are located along the old Island Highway 19A in one of the city’s many fine quality shopping centres including: Port Place Shopping Centre, Country Club Centre, Nanaimo North Town Centre, and Woodgrove Centre, the largest shopping centre on Vancouver Island.

Downtown Nanaimo features three distinct shopping districts: The Arts District in the city core, the Old City Quarter up the hill, and the Waterfront District along the Harbourfront Walkway, each offering distinctive shops and services.

Nanaimo Farmer’s Markets

Learn more about Nanaimo Farmer’s Markets


Nanaimo’s Night Life

Dozens of lively nightspots and performance spaces throughout the city offer a good time whether you’re here for a weekend party, or looking for some evening entertainment. Here are a few places offering evening entertainment:

  • Minnoz Restaurant & Lounge
  • Corner Lounge
  • The Taphouse Restaurant
  • Level 2
  • The Cambie
  • The Queen’s
  • The Vault
  • The Nanaimo Bar

Many live music acts perform at downtown Nanaimo bars in the Commercial Street/Victoria Crescent area. Diana Krall Plaza, the courtyard between the Port Theatre and the library is often used for street performances and during downtown festivals and events.

A good place to check for upcoming Nanaimo entertainment bills is on the community post above the China Steps, where Victoria Crescent, Albert Street, and Wallace Street meet.


Live Theatre in Nanaimo

The performing arts offer a rich source of cultural entertainment in Nanaimo. The Port Theatre is the largest venue, located across from the downtown waterfront, holding more than 250 performances a year, attracting over 100,000 fans of music, theatre, literature and dance. The Port Theatre is the perfect venue to relax and enjoy a variety of performances.

The city is renowned for turning out successful musicians who are products of the excellent Nanaimo School District jazz program and Vancouver Island University music program. International jazz greats Diana Krall and Ingrid Jensen are both former Nanaimo music students.

For more than 25 years Nanaimo’s professional theatre company, TheatreOne, has been bringing high-calibre mainstage productions to the region, along with its popular family and children’s entertainment series “Just Kidding.”

The Nanaimo Theatre Group, an award-winning community-based company, has been entertaining Island audiences for more than 40 years with first-class productions from around the world, presented in the intimate setting of its own 172-seat theatre, the Bailey Studio.


Vancouver Island Symphony

The Vancouver Island Symphony (VIS) under the artistic direction of Pierre Simard is a professional orchestra based in Nanaimo that presents 12 concerts each year at The Port Theatre.
In addition, the Symphony presents Education Shows for students in the central Vancouver Island region; offers a NoteworthyKids Music Club (ages 8-12) and presents two FREE Symphony Community Days, where kids ages 6+ can come and try the instruments of the orchestra at the Musical Instrument Zoo and the public are invited to check out what happens at a Symphony Rehearsal. The VIS is the 2013 Winner of the City of Nanaimo’s Excellence in Culture Award.

Learn more about the Vancouver Island Symphony.

Explore 360°

Get the insider’s take on culture in Nanaimo. A great blues guitarist talks music, a First Nations carver shares his art and cultural traditions, a ferry captain on local gems and a guide tells you about authentic Nanaimo tastes.

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What’s Your Travel Type?

Have you ever wondered what type of traveller you are? Whether you’re more of a history buff, or perhaps a thrill-seeker? Destination Canada created this quiz to help you better understand exactly what type of traveller you are. If you’d like to see an itinerary that matches your traveller type, check out our custom itineraries.

Free Spirit

Free Spirits are most likely to be seen at a tourism hot spot, participating in a group tour, or dining out at a top restaurant.

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Cultural Explorers are most likely to be seen exploring heritage sites and museums. CE's also love to interact with locals.

Authentic Experiencer

Authentic Experiencers are most likely to be seen in nature reserves, hiking and enjoying the great outdoors, at a heritage site or a museum.

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