Located just off the coast of British Columbia, Vancouver Island is a gorgeous getaway location that’s become immensely popular in recent years.
Home to just under 1 million people and spanning a whopping 456 km (283 miles), this former retirement hotspot is one of the biggest islands in Canada. In recent years, it’s developed a much younger edge thanks to a university, burgeoning arts scene, and the younger crowd of people fleeing Vancouver’s astronomical housing prices. It also has the mildest climate in all of Canada, which certainly adds to its appeal.
You’ll find a flourishing natural food and beer scene here in addition to the island’s beautiful beaches, hiking trails, lakes, rivers, mountains, and scenic farmland. It’s a picturesque island, especially in the fall and spring when the temperature is perfect and there are fewer crowds. If you’re an outdoorsy traveler, Vancouver Island is not to be missed!
This Vancouver Island travel guide can help you plan your trip, save money, and make the most of your visit!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do on Vancouver Island
1. Visit Cathedral Grove
2. Go whale watching
3. Visit Butchart Gardens
4. Hike the rainforest
5. Hang out in Victoria
Other Things to See and Do on Vancouver Island
1. See the “goats on the roof”
For a fun experience, visit the Old Country Market in Coombs that has actual goats living on the roof. Don’t feel too bad for them as the roof has plenty of grass and room for them to roam around! While you’re there, grab a handmade donut or some tacos from the market. There are also several gift shops, produce stalls, a deli, and restaurants located in and around the market.
2. Relax in Beacon Hill Park
This scenic park in Victoria covers over 200 acres and is a tranquil place to relax and take a stroll. There are tennis courts, a golf green, lawn bowling, flower beds, a petting zoo, and a hawthorn tree planted by Winston Churchill in 1929. Bring a book and lounge the day away.
3. Visit a winery
Vancouver Island has over 20 different wineries, most of which are located in the Cowichan Valley. I highly recommend going on a wine tour. Not only is the wine delicious, but the scenic valley surrounded by rolling green mountains provides a stunning backdrop to your visit. A full-day tour including lunch costs 150 CAD, or you can rent a car and drive around yourself (but don’t drink and drive — find a sober friend! to tag along).
4. Visit the U’Mista Cultural Center
This center protects the heritage of First Nations peoples and offers visitors a look at indigenous life on the island. You’ll learn about the potlatch ceremonies (a huge shared feast where gifts are exchanged and wealth is redistributed) of the Kwakwaka’wakw people in Alert Bay who have been living on this island for thousands of years, and discover the unique history and challenges of the region’s indigenous peoples. Tickets are 15 CAD.
5. Take a ghost tour
Europeans arrived in the region in the late 1700s so it should come as no surprise that Victoria has a long (and spooky) past. Discover the Past offers one of the best for combining interesting city history with tales of gruesome crimes and ghostly encounters. The guides are knowledgeable and always have entertaining stories to share. Tickets start at 20 CAD.
6. Admire Abkhazi Garden
Spanning just over an acre, this garden in Victoria was created by a former Russian prince and his wife in 1946. Today, the garden features Japanese Maples, native Garry oaks, and hundreds of rhododendrons. There is also a tranquil teahouse offering a traditional tea service from 11am-5pm. The suggested donation is 10 CAD.
7. Day-trip to the smaller islands
Vancouver Island is the only island that brings in tons of tourists here, but the Gulf Islands archipelago consists of hundreds of smaller islands and inlets in the Georgia Strait, many of which make for a pleasant day trip. Consider renting a boat or arranging a tour to Gabriola, Saltspring, or Thetis, three of the most popular islands (or take the ferry and save money). There, you can hike, spend time exploring the bays and beaches, or visit local artisans and eateries. Ferry rates start at 10 CAD.
8. See the Victoria Butterfly Gardens
This indoor tropical rainforest in Victoria is filled with thousands of butterflies (there are over 70 species here). The gardens also have koi, turtles, poison dart frogs, parrots, flamingos, and tropical flowers. It’s a fun place to visit if you’re traveling with kids. Admission for adults is 17 CAD.
9. Chill out in Tofino
Tofino is a fishing village on the Esowista Peninsula that has become a major surfing hub. Hang out at Wickaninnish Beach, take a surfing lesson in Cox Bay, soak in the hot springs at Hot Springs Cove, or enjoy Tofino’s cafe and restaurant scene. It’s the “hip” part of the island. Surfboard rentals start at 35 CAD while 2.5-hour lessons cost around 90 CAD.
10. Explore Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
This national park is full of beaches, misty forests, and dramatic coastlines. Some of the island’s most popular beaches are here, including Long Beach, Combers Beach, and Wickaninnish Beach. The park is also home to the West Coast Trail Unit, a network of hiking trails covering 193 square kilometers (75 square miles), including the 75-kilometer (47-mile) trek between Bamfield and Port Renfrew (reservations required). Hit the Nuu-chah-nulth Trail, rent a kayak to paddle around Broken Group Islands, or storm watch at Kwisitis Visitor Centre (it’s a pastime here!).
For more information on specific cities in Canada, check out these guides!
Vancouver Island Travel Costs
Hostel prices – A bed in 4-8 bed dorms costs around 35 CAD per night. A private room costs 65-85 CAD per night. Expect basic amenities like free Wi-Fi and self-catering facilities.
For those traveling with a tent, camping is available starting at 18 CAD per night. This gets you a basic tent plot without electricity for two people.
Budget hotel prices – A room in a budget hotel starts at about 110 CAD. This includes basic amenities like AC, TV, a coffee/tea maker, and free Wi-Fi.
Airbnb is available everywhere on Vancouver Island. Private rooms start at 90 CAD per night, while an entire home/apartment averages closer to 180 CAD per night.
Food – Like the United States, food culture and cuisine varies widely from region to region in Canada. Overall, the food here is a collage of dishes from other cultures, owing to the country’s diverse history of immigration. On Vancouver Island, which is fast becoming a foodie hub, seafood is king. Oysters, crabs, and fresh fish are all common staples. Sushi is super popular, owing to the region’s Asian influence, as are fish and chips. Also, be sure to sample more general Canadian staples like poutine (fries with gravy and cheese curds), beaver tails (fried dough with maple syrup), Canadian bacon, and the oddly tasty ketchup chips.
There are lots of places to grab food on the go on Vancouver Island. You can find sandwiches for about 10 CAD, or you can get a soup and salad for lunch for less than 20 CAD.
A fast-food meal (think McDonald’s) costs about 10 CAD. Fish and chips or a burger with fries is around 20 CAD with a drink. A beer costs about 6 CAD. A meal at a higher-end restaurant (like lobster or fresh game) costs about 40 CAD for an entree and a drink.
Pizza costs around 15 CAD for a large while Chinese food is 11-13 CAD for a main dish.
If you cook your own food, a week’s worth of groceries costs around 60 CAD. This gets you basic staples like rice, pasta, vegetables, and some meat or seafood.
Backpacking Vancouver Island Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Vancouver Island, expect to spend about 70 CAD per day. This assumes you’re staying in a hostel, cooking all your meals, limiting your drinking, taking public transportation to get around, and sticking to mostly free activities like swimming and hiking. If you plan on drinking, add another 10-15 CAD to your daily budget. You can lower your budget by around 10-15 CAD per day if you camp.
On a mid-range budget of 165 CAD per day, you can stay in a private Airbnb, cook most of your meals and eat a few fast food meals, have a couple drinks, rent a car to get around, and do more paid activities like whale watching or going surfing.
On a “luxury” budget of 275 CAD per day or more, you can stay in a hotel, eat out for all your meals, drink more, rent a car, and do whatever paid tours and activities you want. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in CAD.
Vancouver Island Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
With a little effort, you can turn Vancouver Island into an affordable travel destination. Most of the outdoor activities are free so if you stick to those and cook your own food you can keep your costs low! Here are some ways to save money on Vancouver Island:
- Stay with a local – If you plan ahead, you can usually find a Couchsurfing host on Vancouver Island. This way, you not only have a free place to stay but you’ll get to connect with a local who can share their insider tips and advice.
- Camp – If you want to camp, use the DiscoverCamping.ca website to find available campsites on Vancouver Island. A two-person site starts about 20-25 CAD.
- Check for deals – HelloBC.com (the official tourism website) often lists seasonal travel deals and discounts in their “Plan Your Trip” section. Check it out for money-saving tips and deals.
- Gas up on the mainland – If you’re coming from Vancouver by car, make sure you gas up before boarding the ferry. Gas prices are always higher on the island, as are most grocery prices. Stock up on everything before you arrive!
- Look for the happy hours – The Ultimate Happy Hours website lists all the happy hour drink and food specials around Victoria. They update with new info frequently!
- Take the ferry as a walk-on passenger – Ferry prices for vehicles aren’t cheap. If you’re just making a short trip and staying in one destination on the island (like Victoria or Nanaimo), consider ditching the vehicle and traveling as a walk-on passenger. W
- Explore the island by bike – British Columbia was made for mountain biking, and Vancouver Island is no exception. There are tons of bike paths, both inside the cities and in the provincial parks. Pack a picnic lunch, bring lots of water, and make a day of it.
- Hitchhike – Since the island sees a huge boost in population during the summer, you can try your hand at hitchhiking between cities if you’re on a budget. It isn’t super common, but it can save you the cost of renting a car or taking the bus. Just don’t get off the beaten trail as you may end up waiting some time for a ride!
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water here is safe to drink so bring a reusable water bottle to save money. LifeStraw makes a reusable bottle with a built-in filter to ensure your water is always safe and clean.
Where to Stay on Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island has a few hostels that make budget-friendly travel here a possibility. Here are my suggested places to stay in Vancouver Island (note that many hostels are either closed or only booking private rooms due to COVID-19):
How to Get Around Vancouver Island
Public Transportation – Victoria is the only major urban center on the island. Downtown is very walkable and the bus can get you everywhere else on the island you need to go. Fares cost 2.50 CAD, or you can get a 10-ride pass for 22.50 CAD. A one-day pass is 5 CAD and is only available on the bus.
Bike rental – You can rent a bicycle in Victoria for about 40 CAD per day from Cycle BC. An e-bike costs 80 per day.
Ferry – You can use BC Ferries to get to several places around the island. The route between Swartz Bay (Victoria) and Fulford Harbour is 10.95 CAD for a return ticket, while Swartz Bay to the Gulf Islands is 11.65 CAD. Nanaimo to Gabriola Island is 9.90 CAD for a return ticket.
Bus – The bus goes just about everywhere on Vancouver Island, although it isn’t cheap. A seven-hour journey from Victoria to Tofino is 105 CAD, while a one-hour trip from Victoria to Cowichan Bay is 20 CAD. A 3.5-hour trip from Nanaimo to Ucluelet is 50 CAD.
Taxi – Taxis are not cheap here. Their base rate is 3.50 CAD, and it’s an additional 2 CAD per kilometer afterward. Skip the taxis if you can as they add up fast and will destroy your budget!
Car Rental – Car rentals can be found for as little as 25 CAD per day. If you’d like to take advantage of all the outdoor attractions that Vancouver Island has to offer, it’s a great option, especially considering how expensive buses are.
Hitchhike – Since the island sees a huge boost in population during the summer months, you can try your hand at hitchhiking between cities. It isn’t super common, but it can save you the cost of renting a car or taking the bus. Just don’t get off the beaten trail as you may end up waiting a long time for a ride. Check Hitchwiki for more info!
When to Go to Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island is busiest during the summer, especially since its biggest draw is the great outdoors. Temperatures are usually in the mid-20s°C (high 60s°F) with little rainfall, making this time of year the best for hiking, cycling, whale watching, and other outdoor activities. Prepare for more expensive accommodations and bigger tourist crowds during this time (whale watching season starts in August and ends in December).
Fall and spring are both excellent times to visit for sunny weather, as temperatures hover around 10-16°C (50-60°F). That means it’s still warm enough to hike and enjoy the outdoors. In the spring, the cherry blossoms start blooming, and the island comes alive. There are less tourists during the spring and fall as well.
Winter (from December to the end of March) is surprisingly mild here, with average highs just under 10°C (low 40s°F). It can be rainy during these months, so bring waterproof clothing. Room rates are cheaper in the winter as well. While this isn’t the best time to visit, if you have to spend winter in Canada, this is as warm as it gets!
How to Stay Safe on Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island is very safe and you’re unlikely to experience any crime here. Even petty crime like pickpocketing and theft is rare.
Always check the weather before you go out hiking or swimming and make sure you avoid getting up close and personal with any wildlife (there are over 7,000 bears on the island, for example).
As with anywhere, keep an eye on your drink when at the bar and never walk home alone if intoxicated.
Scams here are virtually non-existent, but if you want to play it extra safe you can read about common travel scams to avoid right here.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, move somewhere else.
If you experience an emergency, dial 911 for assistance.
And remember, if you don’t do it at home, don’t do it on Vancouver Island!
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Vancouver Island Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Vancouver Island. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or in their spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can share the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all-around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Canada, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B in the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, and boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Vancouver Island Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Vancouver Island Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden
As amazing as Canada is, like most other colonized countries, its history is steeped in violent, bloody conflict…especially with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. This book takes place in the wilderness of 17th-century Canada and follows the lives of a missionary, a young Iroquois girl, and a great warrior of the Huron Nation. The Huron have always battled the Iroquois — but now the tribes face the threat of settlers from Europe. It’s a jarring, graphic read that you won’t be able to put down.
Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada, by Will Ferguson
Will Ferguson is like the Canadian version of Bill Bryson and his travel adventures are laugh-out-loud funny. This travel memoir is about Ferguson’s three years crisscrossing Canada, with adventures as far-flung as the subarctic to the Underground Railroad. He goes coast to coast from the colorful neighborhoods of St. John’s to the idyllic streets of Victoria, encountering interesting people and offbeat attractions along the way (and yes, there’s actually a place in Canada called Moose Jaw).
In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje
Considered a true Canadian classic, In the Skin of a Lion follows Patrick Lewis as he arrives in Toronto in the 1920s, where he earns his money searching for a disappeared millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario. His life intersects with other special characters along the way, giving us a smart, passionate story that blurs the lines between fiction and reality.
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
You can’t have a Canadian reading list without Margaret Atwood! The year is 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted of the murders of her employer and his mistress (who is a housekeeper). However, Grace has no memories of these vicious murders, and so an expert in mental illness steps in to seek a pardon for her. He listens to her story as it gets closer and closer to the day she can’t remember. This book is disturbing but completely captivating, especially if you’re already a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx
A Pulitzer Prize winner, this story follows Quoyle, a newspaper hack who gets thrown out of his regular, mundane life when his wife dies. He moves back to his stark and remote ancestral home of Newfoundland with his two young daughters, where the local delicacy is cod cheeks and it’s easier to travel by boat and snowmobile than by car. This book reads like poetry. It’s beautiful and although it’s fiction, it gives you plenty of insight into the uniqueness of Canada’s easternmost province.
Vancouver Island Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Canada and continue planning your trip: