By virtue of its proximity to Vancouver, Nanaimo is the gateway to many other destinations both on the island - Tofino, Rathtrevor Provincial Park - and off its coast - Newcastle Island, Gabriola Island, Valdez Island, and many other of the Gulf Islands.
Nanaimo began as a trading post in the early 1800s; in 1849 the Snuneymuxw chief Ki-et-sa-kun ("Coal Tyee") informed the Hudson's Bay Company of the presence of coal in the area, and 1853 the company built a fort known as the Nanaimo Bastion (still preserved). Subsequently the town was chiefly known for the export of coal. In the 1940s lumber supplanted coal as the main business.
Nanaimo is also home to the Nanaimo Clippers, a Junior A hockey club in the BCHL.
Malaspina University-College is located in Nanaimo.
Nanaimo is named for the Sne Nay Muxw people.