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 9:40 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

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