People enjoy the outdoor tables underneath colourful signs and awnings in Nanaimo’s historic Old City Quarter district. Don Denton photography

People enjoy the outdoor tables underneath colourful signs and awnings in Nanaimo’s historic Old City Quarter district. Don Denton photography

Shopping Around Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter

Historic district offers unique sights, scents and flavours

  • Sep. 7, 2018 8:40 a.m.

With its cobbled walkways, striped awnings, vibrant window displays and sheer eclectic nature, Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter has always been one of my favourite places.

Nestled on a sharp incline between Fitzwilliam and Wentworth streets, it’s home to dozens of owner-operated shops and restaurants, as well as more than 70 services running the gamut from law offices to tattoo artists to mobile device repair. Some of the buildings are more than a century old, and between the old stone and the spreading maple trees, it’s always felt a little like stepping into a different world.

Growing up in the north end of the city, it was always a treat to make the trip into downtown and wander through the little shops, never knowing what I might find.

Enjoying a quiet moment among the shops of Nanaimo’s Old Quarter. Don Denton photograph.

Now, as autumn creeps in with its golden hues and hints of crisp air to come, the Quarter is a perfect place to spend a September morning. Though it’s been quite a few years since I’ve done the back to school rush — don’t ask how many! — I always get a little thrill at the prospect of getting a few new treats for myself. And with a knitting addiction that’s only grown stronger over the last decade, it’s inevitable that one of my first stops is at the yarn shop in the Quarter’s Heritage Mews.

“The sign should say ‘Mad About Ewe Fine Yarns and Therapy,’” laughs Darlene Rogers, an employee who joined the shop’s fibre family a year ago. “People come in and just hang out. We all sit at the table and talk and knit.”

Cozy is the operative word here. The walls are covered in cubbyholes reaching up to the ceiling, housing silks, mohair, bamboo and even possum skeins. Just the thing to add to my ever-growing basket of yarns at home. For those interested in learning more techniques and skills, the shop hosts drop-in and scheduled knitting classes, and Rogers teaches classes in weaving and spinning in the fall and winter.

Right next door is Lobelia’s Lair, another longtime favourite spot. A treasure trove of new age and metaphysical goodies, it’s been around for 16 years, and is one of the best places to find quality beeswax candles. Incense drifts out to meet me as I duck under a string of prayer flags and pop inside to browse. As well as other mediums, in-store practitioners offer tarot and Turkish coffee readings either by drop-in or appointment. I’m tempted, but I’ll keep my future a surprise for the time being.

Colourful signs and awnings for the shops of Nanaimo’s Old Quarter. Don Denton photograph.

Wandering down towards Wesley Street, there are a handful of eateries along the way. La Stella Trattoria serves Italian fare, including pizza from Nanaimo’s first imported wood-fired oven. Bistro Taiyo is open for lunch and dinner, offering exquisite Japanese cuisine. The sushi and bento boxes here are “superb,” remarks a passerby.

Real Food has “fast food that’s good for you,” says owner Tracy Collis. It’s known for its Creamy Oh So Dreamy tomato soup, she tells me. Just the thing to warm up on a cool, fall day. And Sweet Somethings confectionery has “something” for everyone, including homemade waffle cones and the world-famous Nanaimo Bar.

In the upper half of the Quarter, down a glass-covered walkway, the tantalizing smell of freshly baked waffles snares more than a few people, but I’m heading for an old stand-by: Bocca. This café has been here for as long as I can remember, and is as funky as ever. Local art adorns the spot, both on the walls and beneath the glass tops on the tables from Bocca’s youngest patrons. Meyer Lemon Tea in hand, I sit outside amidst sparrows hopping from table to table and watch the shoppers. Crispin Shoes has an impressive display of adorable boots while Charlie’s Closet has dozens of unique consignment finds.

Heading out to the Fitzwilliam border of the Quarter, there’s a line of shops going down the hill. There’s boutique fashion at Damsel’s, outfits (and some super fun toys) for your little ones at Pumpkin Pie Children’s Clothes and Shoes and entertainment galore at the Board Game House. A Wee Cupcakery is a perennial favourite no matter the season, and it offers both vegan and gluten-free sweets. And at the bottom corner, the newest addition to the block: Bella by Brianna.

Flowers and banners among the shops of Nanaimo’s Old Quarter. Don Denton photograph.

I am immediately charmed by this high-end consignment shop, both by the enviable and fabulous collection of feathered and beribboned hats, and the handsome Mountain Bernese that greets me at the door.

“He’s still a puppy,” says owner Brianne Wilson with a smile as she ruffles his fur.

“Princeton” lies down on the cool floor and watches as people drift in and out of the store. Wilson has only been open for six months, but she’s found the Old City Quarter a welcoming and fun spot, and her inventory certainly brings people in.

There are pieces by Frank Lyman and Joseph Ribkoff. A particularly pretty Coach purse beckons to me from the window display. Fantastic shoes are everywhere. This feels like the place to find my September not-quite-back-to-school treat.

It could take a full day to explore all the shops and sights in the Old City Quarter, but though I’ve only visited a handful, the rumbling in my belly is telling me to find my way back to some of those delectable smells. It’s lunchtime!

-Story by Angela Cowan

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

Like Boulevard Magazine on Facebook and follow them on Instagram

Buy localDiningDinnerHistoricLunchNanaimoOld City QuarterOld QuarterrestaurantShoppingshopping localStorestravelvancouverisland

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cowichan Valley WildSafeBC coordinator Amanda Crowston teaches a Grade 5/6 class at Ecole Cobble Hill last fall. (Submitted)
The bears are back in town and so is WildSafeBC

The bears are back in town so keep an eye out, reminds… Continue reading

The Regional District of Nanaimo has its sights set on busing to the Cowichan Valley in time for March 2022. (News Bulletin file)
Bus link between Nanaimo and the Cowichan Valley expected by next March

Unallocated transit hours already in Regional District of Nanaimo budget

North Cowichan has heated exchange over timelines of its official community plan review. (File photo)
North Cowichan’s OCP review divides council

Tight timelines leads to heated debate

Matt Ellison was a star with the Kerry Park Islanders before embarking on a pro career that included stops in the NHL and KHL. (Submitted)
Ex-NHLers to highlight Kerry Park-Peninsula alumni games

Matt Ellison and Kyle Greentree commit to suit up in August

Aaron Stone, chairman of the Island Coastal Economic Trust, said he’s encouraged with the province providing finding for local agencies to hire staff to help get back on economic track during the pandemic. (File photo)
$70K for Economic Development Cowichan for new analyst

Temporary position to help recover from pandemic

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Winnipeg Jets’ Nate Thompson (11) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Vancouver Canucks see NHL playoff hopes dashed despite 3-1 win over Winnipeg

Montreal Canadiens earn final North Division post-season spot

The B.C. legislature went from 85 seats to 87 before the 2017 election, causing a reorganization with curved rows and new desks squeezed in at the back. The next electoral boundary review could see another six seats added. (Black Press files)
B.C. election law could add six seats, remove rural protection

North, Kootenays could lose seats as cities gain more

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the shooting of an Indigenous woman in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation wants ‘massive change’ after its 3rd police shooting in less than a year

Nuu-chah-nulth woman recovering from gunshot wounds in weekend incident near Ucluelet

Nurse Gurinder Rai, left, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Maria Yule at a Fraser Health drive-thru vaccination site, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The site is open for vaccinations 11 hours per day to those who have pre-booked an appointment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID vaccine bookings to open for adults 40+, or 18+ in hotspots, across B.C.

Only people who have registered will get their alert to book

Dr. Victoria Lee, CEO of Fraser Health, hosts an update on efforts to contain B.C.’s COVID-19 transmission in Surrey and the Fraser Valley and protect hospitals in the Lower Mainland, May 6, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate slowing, 20 more people die

Deaths include two people in their 40s, two in their 50s

Most Read