Sidney: Vancouver’s Top Family Travel Secret

By Nevin Thompson

When we contemplated returning to Canada with our young family after a decade overseas we wanted a friendly, walkable town with plenty of (cheap or free) things to do with kids like the summertime outdoor market to the right. We found Sidney, a former fishing town on Vancouver Island.

We’ve since moved on to bigger Victoria. But we’re still evangelists for this town located on the tip of the Saanich Peninsula, about two hours from Washington state by ferry. We recommend it to anyone we know visiting the Pacific Northwest with kids.

Here are our 5 favorite things to do in town:

1. Hit the beach

The most accessible beach for visitors is Glass Beach, At the foot of Beacon Avenue, Sidney’s main drag, a walkway stretches along the coast to a sandy beach that’s home to a large eagle population.

But our favorite beach is a nameless patch of sand off of Goddard Road, a 15-minute walk up 3rd Street from the town center. It’s hidden from view by a thick forest of towering Douglas Firs, but if you manage tofind it you’ll find a white oyster-shell shingle, and lots of local families wading in  the tidepools looking for sea creatures.

2. Get out on the water

We love the rich marine history of the town, where many people still work in boatbuilding or fish for salmon and halibut for a living. During long summer evenings we like taking our kids crabbing off the Sidney Pier (be sure to pick up a license first).

At least once a summer we still take a short ferry ride from Sidney Pier to Sidney Spit Marine Park, an uninhabited, forested island that’s popular as an anchorage with sailboats traveling to Alaska.

3. Learn about the Salish Sea

Getting an inside look at life under the sea.

The Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre is a newer attraction that’s been drawing us back to the town lately. One of the most unique and innovative aquariums in Canada, the Shaw Discovery Centre does a great job of explaining the ecology of the Salish Sea the local name for the body of water stretching from Puget Sound in Washington State through the San Juan Islands. There are plenty of hands-on exhibits that have staved off boredom during our rainy winter season.

Our family is still a little too young for it, but many people with tweens and teens launch sea kayaks from Glass Beach to explore the Salish Sea and its nearby maze of islands.

Kayakers set out to explore the Salish Sea.

4. Browse Booktown

In an era where bookstores in many cities are going out of business Sidney still has about 10 independent and used bookstores dotting Beacon Avenue, earning it its status as Canada’s booktown.

You’ll find a children’s bookstore, a bookstore devoted to gardening, but my favorite would have to be the Haunted Bookshop. It always has what I’m looking for, no matter how obscure the topic. As an added bonus, it’s just around the corner from a large toy store, as asset I confess I’ve used to bribe my kids to give me more time with books!

5. Hop on a Bike

The opportunities for cycling are one of the chief reasons I wanted to live here. Motorists are used to and generally respect cyclists, and there’s a genuine bike culture here with dozens of bike shops offering specialty parts, advice and a sense of community.

Sidney lies along the Lochside Regional Trail, a 29-kilometer bike that runs from downtown Victoria to the Schwartz Bay Ferry terminal at the tip of the Saanich Peninsula. If your children are old enough, it’s entirely possible to do the round-trip to Victoria and back in one day. The route passes through forests and farming country (though there are times where riders must share the road with cars).

Other Stuff

The most famous attraction near Sidney is Butchart Gardens, which has a carousel for small children and hosts  wonderful fireworks shows on weekend evenings in the summer. There’s also an, independent movie theater with weekend matinees, and The Sidney Museum’s annual Lego expo (above).

Sidney also boasts a collection of at least a half-dozen Greek restaurants in a two-block radius. We have our favorite, but there are some secrets locals will never divulge.

Nevin Thompson writes for the Cedarwood Inn and Suites, a Sidney BC hotel located across the street from the beach and a ferry ride away from Anacortes, Washington.

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  1. Leigh
    May 9, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Last year over Thanksgiving weekend when the temperatures were lovely we kayaked from the Sidney Pier over to the Spit and had lunch. You get a new appreciation for the town from the water. I highly recommend that outing.

    • May 9, 2013 at 4:01 pm

      Sounds like a wonderful day. Kayaking certainly works up an appetite, too!

  2. Sophie
    May 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    I love visiting the book towns, though I must admit I’ve only managed the two here in Norway and Hay-on-Wye so far… books for sale everywhere, in sheds, fishing huts, at castle walls…

    Sidney sounds nice. Another place to add to the Western Canada itinerary, I see.

  3. April 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    This town sounds really cool. Like the type of place I want to move to even though this us the first I’ve heard of it.

  4. budget jan
    April 26, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    I too have been to Victoria but I am not sure about Sidney. I may have to look through my photographs and diary, but from what you have shown us I know our kids would have loved it when they were little. They were already grown and flown when we were on Vancouver Island. I am going to check my photos!

  5. Nancie
    April 26, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Great post! I’m from the other side of Canada (Nova Scotia). I’ve been to Vancouver Island for a quick visit, and would love to go back. I’d like to visit this discovery center, and all those bookstores.

  6. Lisa from Gone With The Family
    April 26, 2013 at 11:29 am

    Great list of things to do! I’ve been to Victoria but never to Sidney and would love to check out that aquarium and maybe do some kayaking.