Downtown Nanaimo offers eclectic shopping and dining alternatives blended with a dash of history

Modern architecture backdrops the historic downtown shopping area

Modern architecture backdrops the historic downtown shopping area

History, character, eclectic dining options and great personalized service most certainly aren’t the hallmarks of the behemoth shopping malls that have mushroomed throughout North America during the past few decades. But for those who prefer something other than the same old chain stores and food court dining, there are options. One of those is the downtown Nanaimo Commercial Street shopping district.
We have grown very fond of the area, which was formerly a pretty seedy part of town. The merchants have upped the ante, many streetside improvements have been installed, and the inclusion of Diana Krall Plaza, a conference centre and a
regional library have brought fresh life and vibrancy to the city’s core.

Just one of the many beautiful items to be found in the downtown shopping area - try finding this in a mall!

Just one of the many beautiful items to be found in the downtown shopping area – try finding this in a mall!

All of these factions have helped to bring a new charm to the historic area, which is chock-a-block with extraordinary old buildings that now house everything from restaurants to a hostel. The juxtaposition of the beautiful aged structures with the modern office buildings and high-rises looming behind makes one think that maybe – just maybe – the town planners of the old days had it right. Create walkable, engrossing streetscapes and ‘they’ – meaning the general public – will come. Apparently the Canadian Institute of Planners agrees with that concept – Commercial has been designated by the organization as ‘The Greatest Street In Canada’.

The China Steps mark the first of Nanaimo's four Chinatowns

The China Stairs mark the first of Nanaimo’s four Chinatowns

But the real beauty (to us, anyhow) of places like downtown Nanaimo is the discovery of unusual shops that offer items that you will probably not find anywhere else in the city. There are a number of galleries featuring the work of local artisans, so anyone searching for a one-of-a-kind gift is bound to come up lucky. There is an amazing shop packed to the ceilings with beautiful and unique children’s wear. There are accessory boutiques for body and home, amazing book shops, a store dedicated entirely to lingerie, clothing stores featuring unique designs that won’t be found in a mall.
The dining options are great and varied. You can pretty much find anything your heart desires, including an authentic 1950s diner, high-end (but small, owner-operated) places for breakfasts and lunches, vegan, organic, gluten-free – or a casual dinner in a spectacular 1912 Francis Rattenbury-designed building that originally served as a bank. There are ethnic dining options as well.

Not your average restaurant outdoor seating area...

Not your average restaurant outdoor seating area…

In addition to the many lovely old buildings there is a lot of other history in the area. The three-storey brick building that houses the Masonic Lodge is home to one of the oldest chartered Freemasons organizations in British Columbia, which applied for a charter in 1865. There are the China Steps, a commemorative feature complete with information kiosk, marking the location of the first of four Nanaimo Chinatowns. Take a little detour down the steps and you will discover a mostly-hidden commercial area that features a number of funky shops.
Overall, this shopping and dining district is worth a leisurely visit – it’s not hard, with all the discoveries to be made, to spend at least a couple of hours wandering about and enjoying the ambiance of an area that has done a pretty darn good job of re-invigorating itself.
Further information (including where to park) about Nanaimo’s downtown core can be found at the Downtown Nanaimo Business Association website at:
wheelchair-lThe retail section of the downtown core stretches from Church Street, along Commercial and down to Wallace, an area covering several blocks.
GPS co-ordinates are:
Lat. 49.1669289789983 Long. -123.93707719262505
N 49 10.016 W 123 56.225


About Shirley

More years ago than I like to remember, I completed the Journalism program at Vancouver Community College and launched straight into a career as a newspaper reporter (thanks to my journalism professor Nick Russell and an opening at the venerable daily Alberni Valley Times.) My work as a news reporter/feature writer/columnist and ultimately, newspaper and magazine editor, took me to many interesting places and introduced me to hundreds of interesting characters over the years. I loved every minute of it, but burnout caught up with me while I was trying to juggle the simultaneous editing of five trade magazines, and for 27 years I abandoned my keyboard (on a professional basis, at least) and followed my heart in a variety of other careers. In 2010 I returned to the journalistic fold, thanks to the encouragement (nay – nagging!) of my husband. I feel no regret – only great joy to be back at the keyboard, and to be spending time interviewing interesting folks and discovering great places.
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