Google “what is Nanaimo famous for?” and you’ll find mentions of fishing, forestry, and harbours. But for international foodies or anyone with a sweet tooth, the city is probably best known as the namesake for the Nanaimo bar.
The origins of the famous confection are shrouded in mystery. Suffice it to say, the first printed recipe featuring the ingredients has been traced back to the 1952 Women’s Auxiliary to the Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook.
Leaving behind its desert bar claim to fame, Nanaimo is a city on the east coast of Vancouver Island. It is known as the Harbour City, a change in designation from “the Hub City.” The latter was due to its original layout, where the streets radiated out from the shoreline like the spokes of a wagon wheel, as well as its generally centralized location on Vancouver Island. Located on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Nanaimo is about 111 kilometres (69 mi) northwest of Victoria, and 55 kilometres (34 mi) west of Vancouver.
The Indigenous peoples of the area that is now known as Nanaimo are the Snuneymuxw. An Anglicised spelling and pronunciation of that word gave the city its current name.
The first Europeans to find Nanaimo Bay arrived in 1791, but it wasn’t until 1852 when the Hudson’s Bay Company established a settlement there.
Nanaimo has had a succession of four distinct Chinatowns. The most recent, also called Lower Chinatown or “new town,” boomed in the 1920s.
Separated from Vancouver by the Strait of Georgia, Nanaimo is linked to the city via ferry terminals in West Vancouver and Tsawwassen. As the site of the main ferry terminal, Nanaimo is the gateway to many other destinations both on the northern part of the island—Tofino, Comox Valley, Parksville, Campbell River, Port Alberni, Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park—and off its coast, including Gabriola Island, Valdes Island, and many other of the Gulf Islands.
Like much of coastal British Columbia, Nanaimo experiences a temperate climate with mild, rainy winters and warm, dry summers.
Notable entertainers from Nanaimo include blues guitarist David Gogo, jazz pianist Diana Krall, actors Ashleigh Harrington (the TV series Hemlock Grove) and Jodelle Ferland (the TV series Supernatural), and YA novelist Susan Juby (Alice, I Think). Sports figures include swimmer Michael Edgson, NHL player Aggie Kukulowicz, Olympians Phil Olsen (javelin) and Pamela Leila Rai (swimming), triathlete Kirsten Sweetland, professional downhill mountain biker Steve Smith, and boxer Shane Sutcliffe.
In 2020, the average selling price of single-detached homes in Nanaimo was $602,905, compared to $559,252 in 2019.
As of the 2016 census, Nanaimo’s population numbered over 90,000 souls. This marked an eight percent increase since 2011. The average age of a Nanaimoite was 45.5 years old, higher than the national median of 41.2.
The city’s original economic driver was coal mining, followed by forestry with the building of the MacMillan Bloedel pulp mill in 1958. Today, employees and local investors own the pulp mill. The provincial government and the service, retail and tourism sectors are the largest contributors to the local economy.
Nanaimo has over 30 elementary and secondary schools. Aspengrove is a JrK-grade 12 private school accredited as an International Baccalaureate World School. The Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique operates two Francophone schools, École Océane primary school and the École secondaire de Nanaimo.
The main campus of Vancouver Island University is located in Nanaimo, which brings many international students to the city.
The Nanaimo Conservatory of Music offers classical music lessons.
Nanaimo is home to one of the largest and oldest sports club on Vancouver Island, the Nanaimo United Football Club, as well as to the Canadian Junior Football League’s Vancouver Island Raiders, the B.C. Hockey League’s Nanaimo Clippers, the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League’s Nanaimo Buccaneers, the B.C. Premier Baseball League’s Nanaimo Pirates, and the Western Lacrosse Association's Nanaimo Timbermen.
Frank Crane Arena, Nanaimo Ice Centre, Serauxmen Stadium, and Pioneer Park are among the city’s sports venues.
Since 1967, the year of Canada’s 100th birthday, Nanaimo has been home to the Great International World Championship Bathtub Race and the four-day Nanaimo Marine Festival. The festival includes live music, fireworks, and a parade.
North America's first legal, purpose-made bungee jumping bridge can be found south of the city over the Nanaimo River.
In the middle of the city, Buttertubs Marsh is a bird sanctuary covering approximately 100 acres (40 hectares).
The Nanaimo Art Gallery exhibits local, national and international artists, and operates Art Lab, a year-round art-based program.
Museums include Nanaimo Museum and the Vancouver Island Military Museum.
The Port Theatre in downtown Nanaimo hosts concerts, staged readings, and more. Local theatre companies include Nanaimo Theatre Group, TheatreOne, Western Edge Theatre and Schmooze Productions. Since 2011, Nanaimo has hosted its own Fringe Festival.
Thanks to the student body of Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo has given rise to a healthy underground music scene. The Nanaimo Blues Society organizes the annual Summertime Blues Festival, which takes place downtown and showcases local, provincial, national and international blues musicians.
Established in 1872, the Nanaimo Concert Band is the oldest continuous community band in Canada. They maintain a regular schedule of concerts.
Downtown Nanaimo restaurants include Gabriel’s Café, Modern Café, and Pirate Chips, which is known for its poutine. Nanaimo breweries include White Sails, Wolf Brewing, and Cliffside Brewing.
Downtown Nanaimo is divided into three separate shopping areas: the Arts District, the Old City Quarter, and the Waterfront District. The Arts District features Gallery 223, an artists’ coop, and Hill’s Native Art, a gallery that is known for its displays of masks, totems, walking sticks, and other items from neighbouring Cowichan Valley.
The city’s Old City Quarter hosts shops and restaurants within a modern red-brick complex. It’s home to jewelry boutiques, New Age shops, and McLean’s Specialty Foods, which carries Scandinavian and UK imports.
Shopping centres include Woodgrove Centre, Nanaimo North Town Centre, and Country Club Centre.