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Nanaimo Downtown Walking Tour
We begin our downtown Nananimo walking tour at the Dallas Square Cenotaph and head into town on Church St. with neo-Gothic Saint Paul's Anglican Church (1931) with beautiful stained glass windows on your right and the Best Western Dorchester Hotel (1889) on your left. Pop into the Dorchester to see the elegant lobby. The Great National Land Building (1914) with the Corinthian columns at the end of Church St. was originally the Bank of Commerce.
Church St. becomes Commercial St. at the Modern Cafe. The cafe's sign is a registered historic landmark dating from the 1940s. The Barton & Leier Gallery on the left just up Chapel St. exhibits the work of two of Nanaimo's top artists. Back down Commercial St. you'll have the Painted Turtle Guesthouse, originally the Commercial Hotel (1913), on your right, and the Flying Fish furniture store across the street with an original pressed tin ceiling.
The area around Church, Commercial, and Bastion streets is known as The Arts District for its many private galleries. The Nanaimo Art Gallery, 150 Commercial St., is a public art gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is usually free and artworks are for sale. Further down and on the right is Patina Home, 99 Commercial St., with the city's finest pressed tin ceiling.
Across Commercial St. from Patina is Diana Krall Plaza and the Vancouver Island Regional Library (1997). Internet computers are available upstairs in the library at $1 per hour, wifi free (open weekdays 10 am to 8 pm, Saturdays 10 am to 5 pm, Sundays noon to 4 pm). The west side of Commercial St. has retained its late 19th to early 20th century flavour while the east side of the street from the library to Terminal Ave. is taken up by the Vancouver Island Conference Centre (2008). On the Centre's ground floor below the Shaw Auditorium, 80 Commercial St., is a famous mural (1938) by E.J. Hughes of early Spanish explorers, relocated here from a demolished Nanaimo hotel. The Nanaimo Museum inside the Conference Centre's main building opens from Monday to Saturday 10 am to 5 pm (daily in summer), admission $2. The museum does an excellent job of interpreting Nanaimo's history and should not be missed.
In a shed in Piper Park (on the hill behind the Conference Centre) is engine #19 "The Victoria" built in 1889. An original Miner's Cottage is nearby. The Vancouver Island Military Museum occupies the former Nanaimo Museum premises at the top of the hill. It opens Monday to Friday from 10 am to 3 pm and Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm with $4 admission for adults, $2 for students and seniors, or free for children under 12 (soldiers or police in uniform also enter for free).
Go up Skinner St., the one-way street opposite the library, to the red brick Palace Hotel (1889), now a raucous local bar. If the door is open, go in to see the ornate 1941 pressed tin ceiling. Skinner is Nanaimo's nightlife street with Club 241, Spice Lounge, and the Old City Station Pub among others.
Turn left on Bastion St. and cross the Bastion Street Bridge, rebuilt in 1937 on the site of the original wooden trestle bridge linking Nanaimo's railway station to the waterfront. Keep straight on Bastion St., which becomes Fitzwilliam St. at the lights. A display of public art is at Gallery Row, 308/310 Fitzwilliam, and just up the hill on the corner of Wesley Street is massive St. Andrew's United Church (1893). A wonderful pipe organ (1901) is inside.
You're now in the Old City Quarter, a pleasing mix of the late 19th and early 20th centuries wooden buildings and eclectic modern redevelopments. The many trendy boutiques, cafes, and restaurants along Wesley and Fitzwilliam streets are worth a leisurely look. The Occidental Hotel, 432 Fitzwilliam St., opened in 1886, the same year the railway reached Nanaimo. Today it's the Oxy Pub.
Turn left on Selby St. to see Nanaimo's former Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway Station at 321 Selby St., built in 1920. The station was badly damaged by arson in 2007 and had to be completely rebuilt. In 2012 it reopened as a pricey Irish pub. Daily train service to Courtenay and Victoria was suspended in 2011 due to safety concerns regarding bridges along the line.
From the station keep south on Selby St. for 500 meters to Nob Hill Park, another colourful corner of the city. A century ago the city's gentry lived on Nob Hill, but many of the old homes are now serious in need of renovations. Cross the park and go down Robert St. to Victoria Road, then left to red brick Nanaimo Firehall No. 2 (1893) with its tall gray watchtower. Pioneer Square, the long grassy strip below the Firehall, was the site of the Park Head Slope, one of Nanaimo's earliest coal workings.
Continue down Victoria Cres. past the red brick Cambie Hotel (1916), still a hostel, and the Queen's Hotel (1892), now a nightclub. The China Steps on the right, a bit beyond the Queen's, is near the site of Nanaimo's first Chinatown. Turn right on Commercial St. and head back into town.
Updated: 28 July 2015
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