Downtown Nanaimo  lies in a wide bowl sloping down to the waterfront, where forward thinking by early town planners has left wide expanses of parkland. Right in front of the Civic Arena is Swy-A-Lana Lagoon, a unique tidal lagoon full of interesting marinelife.
A promenade leads south from the lagoon to a bustling downtown marina filled with commercial fishing boats and leisure craft. Beside the marina is a distinctive mast-like sculpture that provides foot access to a tiered development with various viewpoints.
In the city’s conference center is Nanaimo Museum (100 Museum Way., 250/753-1821, daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. in summer, Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. the rest of the year, adult $2, senior $1.75, child $0.75). Allow at least an hour for wandering through the extensive displays, which focus on life in early Nanaimo and include topics such as local geology, native peoples, and pioneers. Don’t miss the impressive native carvings by James Dick.
Overlooking the harbor at the junction of Bastion and Front Streets stands The Bastion (daily 10 a.m.–3 p.m. June–Aug., donation), a fort built in 1853 by the Hudson’s Bay Company to protect employees and their families against an attack by natives. Originally used as a company office, arsenal, and supply house, today the fort houses a small museum. For the benefit of tourists, a group of local university students dressed in appropriate gunnery uniforms fire a cannon over the water from here daily at noon in summer.
Newcastle Island is a magnificent chunk of wilderness separated from downtown Nanaimo  by a narrow channel. It’s mostly forested, ringed by sandstone cliffs and a few short stretches of pebbly beach. Wildlife inhabitants include deer, raccoons, beavers, and more than 50 species of birds. A 7.5-kilometer (4.7-mile) walking trail (allow 2–3 hours) encircles the island, leading to picturesque Kanaka Bay, Mallard Lake, and a lookout offering views east to the snowcapped Coast Mountains.
Camping on the island costs $15, and meals are available in the Pavilion Bistro (daily 9 a.m.–7:15 p.m. in summer, Fri.–Sat. nights until 9:15 p.m., $14–23). Ferries (250/754-7893) depart for the island on the hour from Maffeo-Sutton Park daily 10 a.m.–7 p.m. in summer, with extra sailings at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The round-trip fare is adult $8, child $6.
On the road into downtown Nanaimo from the south, two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of the Nanaimo Parkway intersection, a short trail leads through Petroglyph Provincial Park to ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings). The designs at this park were carved thousands of years ago and are believed to represent human beings, animals, fish, and the rarely depicted sea wolf, a mythical creature part wolf and part killer whale.
Along Hammond Bay Road, north of downtown and beyond Departure Bay, is Piper’s Lagoon Park, encompassing an isthmus and a rocky headland that shelter a shallow lagoon. A trail from the parking lot leads to the headland, with views of the mainland across the Strait of Georgia.