Ready for a fun family adventure to Vancouver Island? In this guide, we provide you with everything you need to plan your perfect Vancouver Island bucket list trip. Vancouver Island, the largest island on the west coast of Canada is rich in scenery, plants, and wildlife. From snow capped mountains, to lush rainforests and wild beaches, and ancient trees. It’s a great place to spend a day or two or a week exploring, especially if you like the outdoor adventures..
As someone who grew up on the Island, I know how special it is. I’ve put together our list of the top Vancouver Island things to do, the best places to visit, hike, and spend time by the ocean. All family friendly, but equally fun for those traveling without kids as well.
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How Long is Enough for a Visit to Vancouver Island?
How many days should you plan for your visit to Vancouver Island? You will need at least a week to 10 days if you are planning on visiting Victoria, and then heading up island to visit some of the other seaside towns. That will give you enough time to get a taste of the island and what it has to offer. You could spend a month or more, and still not see everything, so it really depends on what bucket list activities you want to check off your list.
Best Time to Visit Vancouver Island
The best time to visit Vancouver Island is late spring to early Fall (May to September), due to its lovely weather, and less frequent rainfall. The busiest months tend to be summer, so if you want to avoid the crowds during peak travel season, visit during the shoulder seasons April / early May and September.
WHERE SHOULD YOU GO ON VANCOUVER ISLAND?
This is our list of the top must-sees on Vancouver Island. You’ll find quaint towns with murals, kilometres of beaches to wander, tidepools to peer in, and attractions you won’t want to miss.
Southern Vancouver Island Bucket List
Southern Vancouver Island runs from Victoria on up to just before Nanaimo, and encompasses towns such as Duncan, Cowichan Bay, Ladysmith, Chemainus on the east / Strait of Georgia Side. On the west / Juan de Fuca Strait side you’ll find smaller towns like Sooke, and Port Renfrew. We’ve included some of our favorite places to visit iand things to do on a Southern Vancouver Island Bucket List.
Greater Victoria, BC Area
Victoria is known as the “City of Gardens.” The temperate weather all year round, provides a long growing season and lush greenery. The Greater Victora area has a rich history, and has been inhabited by Coast Salish peoples for thousands of years. Victoria is worth visiting for it’s colonial architecture, accessible beaches, temperate weather, and kid friendly activities.
Growing up in Victoria, I was lucky enough to have visited many of these favorite places many times. These are still some of the places I visit every time I am back home.
Looking for more fun in Victoria? Try some of these free and cheap things to do in Victoria, BC Canada.
Fireworks at Butchart Gardens
Butchart Gardens is a world-renowned botanical garden located in the heart of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. The gardens are open year-round and contain more than 1000 plant species on 50 acres of land. There are many varieties of tropical plants as well as rare native flowers that make Butchart Gardens one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Canada.
Be sure to find the Sunken Garden and Japanese Garden. If you are bringing the kids here are some fun activities for them too:
- Bring some change to let the kids ride the Rose Carousel
- Ice skating in winter
- Concerts in the amphitheatre in July and August
- Gelato in the Italian Garden
One thing you won’t want to miss are their fireworks. Luckily they happen every Saturday night in the summer. Make sure to arrive early to get your spot, and it is very popular in the summer months.
If you are short on time, and wanting a day trip from Vancouver take a day cruise through the Gulf Islands, tour downtown Victoria and then Butchart Gardens with a local guided tour.
Tea at the Empress
Pinkies up! High tea at the Empress is a delightful experience for those who love a little British tradition. Fancy tea cups, flaky scones and other delicacies.
After filling your belly with goodies, head down to the harbour front walkway. In summer months the walkway is alive with street performers and tourists enjoying the views.
Visit Downtown Victoria
Historic buildings, the oldest Chinatown in Canada and winding waterfront streets, downtown Victoria is charming and beautiful.
Fan Tan Alley in Chinatown is the narrowest alley in Canada, and is filled with quaint shops; ice cream, metaphysical, home decor, ans spots to pick up unusual souvenirs. Take a wander through Chinatown and visit the Gate of Harmonious Interest.
To learn about the rich natural and First Nations history of BC, first head down to the Royal BC Museum. You’ll want to plan at least an afternoon here. It makes a great rainy day activity. They are closing it Sept. 6, 2022 to tear it down and build a new complex by 2030, so get in while you can!
Then head down to Fisherman’s Wharf to check out the neighbourhood seals, and grab fish and chips at Barb’s, and sit on the picnic tables.
Take a walk down to Dallas Road, and head out into the harbour on the Breakwater. Or if you are looking to escape to the sea, take a zodiac whale watching tour out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Or if you prefer, a larger covered boat whale watching adventure.
Victoria Butterfly Gardens
Victoria Butterfly Gardens is an attraction for kids, adults and families alike. My daughter loved walking through the gardens with butterflies flying over head, and nooks and crannies to explore. It’s perfect for the younger crowd.
The 2 acres of free-flying butterflies provide a chance for children to delight in the beauty of nature and learn about how these creatures live and interact with the environment. See if you can spot the iguanas, flamingos, red footed tortoise and parrots amongst the tropical jungle foliage. It’s a perfect place to stop if you are heading to or from the ferry, or out to Sidney.
PRO TIP: Stop for lunch at either Sassy’s across the road for easy homestyle Canadian food. Or check out our family favourites nearby, The Roost Farm Bakery or the Prairie Inn Neighbourhood Pub. Check out the seating in the “Chicken Bus” at the Roost.
Bike the Galloping Goose Trail
Bike part (or all) of the 55km Galloping Goose trail which runs from dowtown Victoria to Sooke, BC. This old railway route is a multipurpose trail that will take you through urban, rural and wilderness scenery. It’s rated easy, and is paved in the majority of sections. A day trip could include:
- Victoria to Thetis Lake via the trail and Six Mile Road (11km)
- Park at the Rocky Point Road parking lot and follow the trail to Matheson Lake and Roche Cove Regional Parks – 10km return
- Park at Roche Cove Regional Park, and follow the Trail to Sooke Potholes Regional Park 26km return
Sidney Spit Marine Park
Sidney Spit Marine Park is an ecological reserve on the west coast of Sidney Island, British Columbia, Canada. To get there you must travel by boat.
The marine park was established in 2005. It is an important nesting ground for seabirds and has a diverse ecosystem that includes kelp forests, rocky reefs, sandy beaches, and clubs of wrasses. A bird lovers delight.
There are also areas of land with a variety of plant life as well as the remains of shipwrecks on the rocks off the coast. It’s famous for it’s long walkable sandbar at low tide, the Sidney Spit. You can dock your boat at the Spit, or take the seasonal foot-passenger ferry.
Bucket List Ideas for Southern Vancouver Island Area
These bucket list ides for southern Vancouver Island are fun for when you want to get out of Victoria and explore a little nature.
Hike in East Sooke Park
East Sooke Park is the place to visit for unspoiled wilderness and trails, and is the perfect place to escape and explore nature. It has been a family favorite since I was a kid. You will find gorgeous coastline, sandy beaches and the Strait of Juan de Fuca off into the distance.
The ten-kilometre rugged Coast Trail takes hikers through lush rain forest, windswept bluffs and past snarled arbutus trees.
Aylard Farm is a favourite jumping off point for families. Easy to access to the sandy beach with summer swimming, park facilities, picnic sites, and large meadows to run around in.
Botanical Beach is located on the southern portion of Vancouver Island’s west coast, and is well known for its beach and teeming with marine life. Visit at low tide to take advantage of all the amazing tide pools.
Botanical Beach marks the end (or start) of the Juan de Fuca Trail, which runs 47 kms to China Beach. I helped build the trail, back when I was much much younger. You can hike the whole thing in 3-4 days, or you can enter it for a day hike at points a long the way.
Port Renfrew is nearby, located on the pretty little inlet of Port San Juan. Visit Avatar Grove, a 50-hectare section of old growth forest full of moss-covered trees, meandering creeks, and small waterfalls. It’s also the start of the West Coast Trail. My most memorable memory of Port Renfrew was when I was 9 years old and got on a small boat to be taken to the trailhead of the West Coast Trail.
Gordan Bay Provincial Park, Cowichan
Gordan Bay Provincial Park, Cowichan is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It’s a popular place to enjoy a kayaking trip, and explore the surrounding scenery. Visitors can choose from a variety of routes, all of which offer spectacular scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities. Gordan Bay is great for family camping, in fact it was the first place we camped with our youngest when she was 18 months.
On Cowichan Lake activities include canoeing, fishing, hiking, swimming, windsurfing, and waterskiing.
While in the Cowichan area are be sure to also check out:
- Cowichan Estuary Centre – A place kids can learn about the estuary with hands on fun activities
- Cowichan Bay Village itself is a sweet ocean town right in the Bay. Do a little shopping, visit the art gallery of prominent First Nations artist Arthur Vickers, and eat some halibut and chips at the Cowichan Bay Pub.
Walk or Ride the Kinsol Trestle
Near Shawnigan Lake, the Kinsol Trestle is an old train trestle that has been converted into a gorgeous walkway. As part of the Cowichan Valley Trail, this pathway is open to hikers, horseback riders, and cyclists.
View the Famous Murals of Chemainus
Chemainus is well known for its 63 murals of the areas fishing, mining and forestry history. Wander the town to see if you can find them all.
Then take in the excellent local theatre shows at the Chemainus Theatre. The offer year round professional productions of popular musicals, dramas, comedies and mysteries. Before the pandemic we always enjoyed their brunch and show option, every time we visited VIctoria, as a mini get away for ourselves.
You must, must, must take the 15 minute drive to Ladysmith to buy a cinnamon bun at the Old Town Bakery. It’s Island famous! Expect to wait in line, but it’s worth it.
Pacific Rim, Vancouver Island
Pacific Rim of Vancouver Island runs the west central coast of the island including Port Alberni, Bamfield, Tofino and Ucluelet. It’s home to waterways, surfing, trails, lakes and salmon.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is an ecological wonderland. Spanning over 6,000 kilometers in length, the reserve is home to a diverse range of wildlife including the rare marbled murrelet. The reserve protects a variety of ecosystems, including temperate rainforests, rocky beaches, and temperate coastal forests.
It’s home to the infamous West Coast Trail and the Nuu-chah-nulth people, and sits on the edge of Long Beach between Tofino and Ucuelet.
Close to Pacific Rim is another amazing place to hike and camp in the rugged and remote Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. Visit diverse forests, and some of the last remaining old growth Sitka spruce forests in BC. Access to the park is via private logging road, and is remote, so be prepared.
Tofino & Ucluelet
The Tofino and Ucluelet area is a well-known surfers paradise and is popular for both tourists and locals. In winter, surfers are given the opportunity to ride some of the biggest waves in North America as a result of storms coming in from Hawaii. Check out Long Beach, Chesterman Beach and Cox Bay.
If you are not into surfing there is plenty to do, from beach combing to hiking, kayaking whale watching and more. Be beach ready with your family beach vacation packing list essentials.
Tofino sits in the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, and the area is surrounded by the gorgeous expanse of the UNESCO Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Region. Enjoy rolling waves, old growth forests and hidden lakes.
Over 22,000 grey whales migrate through the waters between February and October. Take a whale-watching tour from Tofino to see whales, playful sea otters, huge sea lions and squawking sea birds.
Visit the Kwisitis Visitor Centre to learn all about local First Nations history, marine mammals and nature.
Don’t leave without tasting fish tacos – the towns “signature dish”
For a magical day trip take a 20-minute floatplane ride or 75-minute boat to Hot Springs Cove. Hike the easy and beautiful boardwalk hike through Maquinna Provincial Park to a series of geothermal pools and a waterfall.
Affectionately known as “Ukee” it sits at the tip of Pacific Rim National Park. Take the kids to the interactive and fun Ucluelet Aquarium, a large catch-and-release aquarium. Then hike part of the Wild Pacific Trail for fantastic views of Barkley Sound.
Try a little SUP (Stand-Up Paddle) boarding at Wickaninnish Beach and Long Beach, perfect for all levels. Or of course there’s surfing. Rent your board from the Relic Surf Shop for great quality and price-point. They also rent skim boards and boogie boards if surfing is not your thing.
Central Vancouver Island Things to Do
Central Vancouver Island is haven of sandy beaches with warm ocean water, mountain-ringed valleys, agricultural and enticing coastal communities like Parksville and Courtenay/Comox.
Mini Golf & Sand Castles In Parksville
Two mini golf courses and 36 holes in the same park…..you can’t go wrong. Parksville is a quaint sea side village, popular with locals and tourists alike.
Parksville was always our summer vacation destination growing up. There are many family friendly things to do in Parksville; sand castle competitions, Parksville Community Park, and Rathtrevor Beach and so much more close by. Even goats on the roof at Coombs!
Parksville is known for it’s long, kid friendly beaches, which were always our favourite growing up. Be sure to stock up on beach vacation supplies before you go.
Cathedral Grove is one of the most magical and favorite spots on Vancouver Island. It’s a forest of giant Douglas Firs and Royal Cypresses, the tallest trees in Canada. There’s a two-mile trail that winds below and through the trees, providing visitors with an opportunity to catch a glimpse of this majestic cathedral.
Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park is really something you do not want to miss on your Vancouver Island bucketlist.
Travel the Oceanside Route
Take a road trip along the scenic Oceanside Route (Old Island Highway) from Parksville to Campbell River. This winding seaside route also passes through Qualicum, Courtney, and Comox. Some highlights:
- Horne Lake Caves are perfect for the adventurous who want to do a little guided spelunking.
- Stretch your legs, and let the kids run around Milner Gardens in Qualicum Beach, 70 acres of winding forest paths. Save time for tea at historic Milner House.
- Hike along the Rosewall Creek Falls and the Lighthouse Trail.
- Take a guided tour at Deep Bay Marine Field Centre, a research facility
- Dinosaur lovers will enjoy the fossil tours at Courtney and District Museum and Palaeontology Centre.
Markets on Vancouver Island
Did you know that there are a number of farmers markets on Vancouver Island that you cannot miss?
If you are looking for a market with an abundance of local vendors, then head to Duncan Farmers Market, every Saturday year round. It’s one of our favorites. Expect to find abundant produce, in-season fruit, honey, eggs, cheese, meat, seafood, wines and spirits, baked goods, plants and flowers, amazing local artisan creations and more. Or try:
- Moss Street Market (Victoria, BC) – Saturdays 10am-2pm in summer, 10-1pm in winter
- James Bay Community Market (downtown Victoria, BC) – Saturdays 9am-3pm seasonal
- Peninsula Country Market (at the Saanich Fairgrounds) – Saturdays 9am-1pm seasonal
Vancouver Island Bucket List
Now you have a good many excellent family friendly things to do to add to your Vancouver Island Bucket List. This is just a starting point of the highlights, as there is so much more to explore.
Related destination guides and travel resources:
- 1, 2 or 3 Day family friendly itineraries to Victoria, BC
- Best places to stay in Parksville
- Easy Road Trip Snack Ideas
- Summer Travel Tips to stay in your budget and have the best time
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