Nelson, British Colombia is a little nugget of true north paradise in the middle of the Kootenays offering Canadian mountain charm for rugged, foodie, mountain biking hipsters. Known as the “Queen City”, Nelson boasts a vibrant heritage downtown with well preserved buildings from the days of Canada’s Silver Rush. Nelson, Castlegar and Trail form a trio of cities that make up the West Kootenay region.
While Canadians have known about Nelson for years, Nelson wasn’t on the global travel radar until it was the location for the filming of the Steve Martin movie, Roxanne (1986). Since then, Nelson has welcomed a steady influx of tourism to it’s quaint hillside town.
Most people come to Nelson in the winter to enjoy winter sports at Whitewater Ski Resort, but Nelson is also a great way to experience Canadian summers with it’s array of outdoor activities.
THINGS TO DO
Bike riding – If you bike uphill to Mountain Station, you’ll find the Great Northern Rail Trail at the corner of Cherry Street and Gore Street. If you take a left on the trail, you will eventually get to a fabulous view of Nelson bridge. In the opposite direction, this path continues for miles, I believe all the way to Salmo. But the hill to get up to this path is steep. I recommend an electric bike if you’re not frequently biking hills. Once you get to the path, it is flat and easy to ride. But if you don’t want to trudge to the top of Nelson for the spectacular views, there is also an amazing ride along the river through Lakeside Park. There are a couple of bike shops in Nelson, but we had a great experience with Gerick Cycle and ski. I highly recommend renting bikes from them.
Next to Gerick Cycle and Ski, there’s an interesting sloped park with art and artistic benches. On the map it says it is called I O D E Park. You can walk to the top of the park to get a good view of the river down Hall Street.
Lakeside Park on the water is a must. Lots of green space, outdoor gym equipment, Rose Garden Cafe, and Kayak and Paddleboard rentals on the water.
And while you’re there, you can hop aboard Nelson’s street car that runs along the river at The Nelson Tramway Electric Society. It is an inexpensive way to see Nelson, staffed by volunteers who are happy to show off their adorable hometown.
And if you want to see Nelson’s cultural hub of art and history, check out Touchstones Nelson museum in the middle of downtown. It’s across the street from Nelson’s beautiful city hall building.
Himalaya Salt Cave is great for kids or adults. While there is a whole list of benefits of halotherapy from reducing stress and anxiety to improving muscle injuries to improving respiratory and skin problems, my kids just enjoyed reading, napping, playing with the salt and making music with the Indian bowls. I just found it to be a soothing experience.
You can hike to Pulpit Rock for another amazing view of Nelson. (It is across the river, so you can drive to it in 10 minutes, although you can bike to it as well in about 25 minutes.)
Soak in Ainsworth Hot Springs with a really crowded main pool and a chance to swim through the caves.
Depending on where you’re heading before or after Nelson, try to catch the World’s Longest Free Ferry from Balfour Bay to Kootenay Bay. In the summer, you can check out the nearby Artisans of Crawford Bay.
Across the river, a 25 minute drive from Nelson, you can rent kayaks and SUP (paddle boards) or visit one of the 8 hiking trails that leave from the Info Centre at the Kokanee Creek Provincial Park.
Kokanee Glacier Park is a day trip that is an hour and a half drive from Nelson that offers rock climbing, hiking and outdoor activities.
Nelson Artwalk is available June to September if you happen to make it for this local event.
If you’re in Nelson in late July, you might be able to see the annual summer music festival, Kalso Jazz Fest in nearby Kalso, BC which is an hour away. The water front festival was ranked as one of the “Top 10 places to enjoy outdoor summer music” by REUTERS.
And the Shambhala Center in Nelson offers public meditation and open houses.
THINGS TO DO WITH KIDS IN NELSON
Nelson is a very safe and family friendly town. In addition to all of the things above which are kid friendly, there is also the below activities for children.
The Cube Climbing Center in Nelson has limited hours in the summer, but is a great place to burn off some energy, especially on a rainy day when forced indoors.
Gyro Park has a playground and a great view of Nelson and the river.
Lion’s Park is another park that has a playground and splash park in the summer.
Nelson even has the Nelson Skateboard Park that is BYOB – bring your own board.
I highly recommend Gerick Cycle and Ski to rent bicycles for children. They are very knowledgeable about the area and biking and take the time to make sure kids are on the right size bike. I suggest contacting them ahead of time to reserve bicycles for children as they have a limited quantity.
WHERE TO STAY
Savoy Hotel – The Savoy hotel is right in the heart of downtown on the Main Street, walking distance to shopping, restaurants and bike rentals. Friendly staff, well appointed rooms and this hotel has a sauna on the second floor and a hot tub on the rooftop.
Other hotel options are Cloudside Inn, Prestige Lakeside Resort and Hume Hotel and Spa.
If you’re looking at my limited hotel options and thinking, “Thanks but not thanks, no, namaste somewhere else” then maybe you’re looking for a health and wellness retreat in the Kootenay Lake area. There’s several options. Mountain Trek located 45 minutes away in the village of Ainsworth Hot Springs is probably the most well-know because it has received glowing accolades – it was voted the #2 Top Resort in Canada by Condé Nast, the #1 International Destination Spa by Travel + Leisure and SpaFinder named it the Best in Canada.
Other health and wellness options are the Yasodhara Ashram which has a crazy cool building that offers yoga, retreats and teacher training, but is over an hour drive from Nelson.
And if Nelson is too much city for you and you want to get far away from it all to be in nature in a grass roof cottage, check out Destiny Bay Resort in Boswell, BC. (2 hours away from Nelson.)
WHERE TO EAT
Although Nelson is a city with a population of only 10,000, they. have managed to squeeze in more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, most of which are on or near Baker Street in downtown.
Cantina Del Centro – This Mexican Restaurant is the most noteworthy culinary gem in Nelson, offering authentic Mexican dishes served with Canadian hospitality. It offers small amounts of seating and a large amount of flavor. And you don’t have to wait until 5:00 to shoot tequila if you’re on vacation. It’s 11:30 am somewhere!
The Library Lounge in the Hume hotel is a great place to grab craft cocktails to fend off the afternoon hangover from your lunchtime tequila shots. They also offer a variety of American/Canadian dishes and a children’s menu.
Loka Mediterranean Restaurant has amazing food and a decent tea selection.
Oso Negro Cafe – It’s Oso good! (No, I wasn’t done with the silly puns after namaste here.) Oso a great breakfast, outside seating and a long line that moves pretty fast.
Pitchfork Eatery – Next to the cool artsy park that I mentioned above, this farm to table restaurant has a mushroom and meat heavy menu, and is a solid choice for brunch, lunch or dinner.
And if you like your coffee poured artistically and thoughtfully in the cup and served in a beautiful boutique coffee shop setting, then you’re in luck. Stop by No6 Coffee for their perfectly roasted coffee sourced from family run farms and independent co-ops.
The Bean Here Now Consciousness Cafe is a quick stop for local flavor – a great cup of coffee and interesting conversation at this mobile espresso cantina. Although it’s a phantom listing on google maps, I believe it is near the corner of Victoria Street and Kootenay Street. It only shows up if you type in “Bean Here Now” not if you type coffee or the full name of the shop.
Nelson Brewing Company is a famous local microbrewery brewing organic beers in small artisanal batches since 1991. They offer tastings from 1:00 to 8:00 pm that you can reserve ahead of time, or just stop by and hope for the best. Nelson Brewing Co is located uphill from downtown, so after your tasting it’s all downhill from there.
HOW TO GET TO NELSON
You fly into Vancouver and drive 8 hours East. Or if you’re not an insane person like me, you can fly into Spokane, Washington and drive a mere 3 hours north. Or fly into Kelowna, BC and drive 4 hours through beautiful vineyard country to Nelson. Nelson is a 7 hour drive from Calgary, Alberta, but a great excuse to also pack in a trip to Calgary and Lake Louise.
Or you can try to fly into the West Kootenay Regional Airport in Castlegar, only 35 minutes from Nelson. But beware, locals refer to this airport as CancelGar as it’s notorious for cancelling flights.
*As always at Finding Pura Vida, all opinions are my own.
Live Your Bucket List
If you feel like there’s something amazing in Nelson that travelers need to know about that was missed, please add it the comments below and I will check it out next time I am in BC. Thanks so much for reading!