Nelson is a small but lively town in the West Kootenays, nestled in a valley of the Selkirk Mountains on the shores of the west arm of Kootenay Lake. With a population of about 10,000 people, you might expect Nelson to be a quiet and sleepy little place, but in truth it’s anything but.
Spend just a weekend in the city and you’ll learn the secret that all the locals know: Nelson is a quaint but bustling place filled with shops, restaurants, a thriving arts community, natural wonders, outdoor excursions, and adventure around every corner.
Whether you come in spring or summer, fall or winter, there’s always plenty to keep you busy in Nelson. Here are 15 of the best things to do when you come.
1. Hit the slopes
Whitewater Ski Resort is a world-renowned hill that’s loved by locals and tourists alike. Every year, people from around the world come to Whitewater for the chill vibe, the lack of crowds, the downhill thrills, and best of all, the powder.
Whitewater gets an average of 40 feet of dry powder each year, but you’ll have to get there early if you’re looking for fresh tracks. The resort has more than 80 runs of varying degrees of difficulty, and it’s also the perfect access point for backcountry skiers and snowboarders.
If adrenaline is your thing, there are also cat and heli ski options in the area, including through companies like:
- Baldface Lodge
- Stellar Heli Skiing
- Snowwater Heli Skiing
- White Grizzly
- Selkirk Wilderness Skiing
Not an adrenaline junkie but still love getting out in winter? Don’t worry: there’s still plenty to do. The Nordic Ski Club has cross-country skiing, Whitewater has 5 kilometers of mult-iuse trails you can use for cross country skiing or snowshoeing, and The Great Northern Rail Trail (more on that later) is a mult-iuse trail you can use year-round, completely free of charge.
2. Chill out at one of the breweries
No matter what you spend your day doing in Nelson, you can always end the night by enjoying a cold one from one of the city’s three local breweries.
Backroads Brewing Company
Backroads opened its doors in 2017, and quickly became a hotspot for locals and tourists. They brew award-winning beer in small batches, and have a cozy, rustic tasting room where you can sample their brews, get a light snack, and relax after a long day exploring and adventuring.
Located in the heart of downtown Baker Street, Backroads is a great place to meet friends, enjoy some fresh air on the patio in summer, or people-watch from the bar seats facing out onto Baker.
Torchlight Brewing Co.
Torchlight has been in business since 2014, and since then they’ve grown from a small nanobrewery into a thriving microbrewery. Torchlight has everything you could possibly want from a local brewery and more, including plenty of beer on tap, growler fills, a great food menu, live music, tabletop games, and a summertime patio where you can have a pint in the sun.
Nelson Brewing Company (only open for take out at this time)
NBC is the oldest brewery in Nelson, and has been around since 1991. The brewery is located in a beautiful old building that was actually home to the city’s original brewery 125 years ago.
On-site, there’s a small tasting room where you can enjoy a pint, a flight, or a glass of one of NBC’s delicious beers. And if you can’t make it to the tasting room, you can still get NBC beer on tap at just about every restaurant in town.
3. Hike Pulpit Rock and the Flagpole
One of Nelson’s best gems is a hiking trail that takes you to Pulpit Rock, and the Flagpole farther up. It’s not an easy climb to Pulpit, but at the top you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the whole city, Kootenay Lake, and the surrounding mountains.
From the trailhead, Pulpit Rock is a 1.8-kilometer hike up the trail, which is full of switchbacks, friendly people, and excited dogs. If you’re active and used to hiking, you can probably get up to Pulpit in 30 minutes or less, but give yourself 45 minutes to an hour otherwise.
From Pulpit, you can turn around, or continue up to the Flagpole, which is about another kilometer up the mountain. The top boasts one of the best views around. And if you’re wondering why it’s called the Flagpole, it’s because there’s a flagpole at the top.
Later in the day when you’re back in town, you can point to the Canadian flag waving at the apex of the mountain and regale new friends with the story of how you scaled its peak.
Preparing for the hike
Make sure you take your own water and have good hiking shoes. There are usually walking sticks and ski poles at the bottom for hikers to use, but drop them off again when you get back down to the trailhead.
4. Walk down historic Baker Street and check out the local shops
Nelson was established in 1897, and Baker Street has always been the heart of the city. Today, Baker is still the vibrant downtown core of the city, and its tree-lined streets are filled with local shops, artisans, buskers, breweries, art and statues from local artists, heritage buildings, restaurants, outdoor stores, boutiques, coffee shops, bike shops, patios, and cannabis stores.
During the summer months, you can do a self-guided tour of Baker Street and the surrounding area by exploring the various stops on the ArtWalk, which is a free community event that showcases the work of local artists inside businesses and storefronts.
Many of Nelson’s hotels are within walking distance of Baker Street. If you do decide to drive here, bring change because there’s metered parking available right on Baker and on the side streets.
5. Experience the music scene and nightlife
You might not expect to find a thriving nightlife in a small town like Nelson, but this place is full of surprises. There’s something going on at one or more of the different pubs, bars, or restaurants on any given night of the week, as long as you know where to look. Here’s a sampling of the regular weekly evening entertainment you can check out in Nelson:
- Karaoke at Finley’s Bar and Grill every Wednesday and Sunday
- Live jazz at The Library Lounge, every Sunday through Thursday
- Amateur comedy night at Finley’s (the second Thursday of every month)
- Regular concerts and DJ sets at Spiritbar, The Royal, and Bloom Nightclub
- Bingo every Tuesday at Mike’s Place Pub during the winter
- Open mic night at Finley’s every Tuesday
- Karaoke at Torchlight every Saturday
- Eat to the Beat every Friday at Pitchfork Eatery
- Trivia night at Uptown Tavern every Thursday
- Plays and performances at the Capitol Theatre
There’s always something going on in town, so keep an eye out for the old-school poster boards on Baker Street to find out who’s playing where throughout the month.
6. Head to a weekend music festival
Summertime in Nelson is festival season, and that includes a jazz festival, electronic music festival, and more. And the best part is they’re all family-friendly, so you’re welcome to bring everyone from the kiddos to grandma, and sometimes even Fido!
Shambhala Music Festival
Shambhala is an electronic dance music (EDM) festival that runs for 4 days and 3 nights, attracts upwards of 15,000 people each year, and is one of the largest EDM festivals in the world. The festival happens in mid to late July at the Salmo River Ranch, a 500-acre family-owned farm about 30 minutes south of Nelson.
Tiny Lights Festival
Tiny Lights is a weekend music festival that happens every June (starting again in 2021) in Ymir, which is about 20 minutes south of Nelson. The festival happens at multiple venues, and features more than 100 small and intimate performances and workshops. Ymir is a small place and accommodations are limited, so you have to book early or plan to drive back and forth.
Kaslo Jazz Etc. Summer Music Festival
Kaslo is a small town an hour northeast of Nelson. Although fewer than 1,000 people call Kaslo home, each August for the past 30 years the community has hosted an amazing music festival that welcomes over 3,000 visitors from around the world. The festival happens on the sunny shores of Kootenay Lake, and the main stage is a floating stage that you can swim, float, and boat around while the performers jam.
Starbelly is a vibrant and family-friendly music festival that happens each July (starting again in 2021) in Crawford Bay, a small artisan community on the east shore of Kootenay Lake. Getting to Starbelly from Nelson is half the fun, because you get to take the free 35-minute ferry ride from Balfour to Kootenay Bay. Not only is the scenery breathtaking, but the Kootenay Lake Ferry is also the longest free ferry crossing in the world.
7. Soak in the hot springs
One of the best things about visiting or living in B.C. is the natural wonders, and that includes the hot springs.
Whether it’s the middle of summer or the dead of winter, the developed and natural hot springs are a great way to chill out, relax after a long day of activities, meet new people, and enjoy epic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. There are three developed hot springs (the hot springs are natural, but they’ve been built up with proper pools and have adjacent hotels/resorts) within two hours of Nelson, and they are:
- Ainsworth Hot Springs, 45 minutes northeast of Nelson
- Nakusp Hot Springs, 2 hours northwest of Nelson
- Halcyon Hot Springs, 2 hours and 15 minutes northwest of Nelson
8. Eat at a local restaurant
Nelson is home to more than 60 restaurants and eateries, and aside from a few exceptions (like the couple chain restaurants in the mall food court), they’re all locally and independently owned.
No matter what your taste in food, whether you like Thai, Indian, Tamil, pub fare, Asian fusion, Italian, Greek, Japanese, or anything else, you’re sure to find something in Nelson that suits your palate. And most of the city’s restaurants are on Baker Street or in the downtown area, so just take a stroll and you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
November is a great time to be a foodie in Nelson, because that’s Burger Week. Despite the name, Burger Week is actually a month-long competition where restaurants put together their most gourmet burger and vie for the coveted title of Best Burger.
9. Hit the trails on a mountain bike
Nelson has some of the gnarliest single-track around, and if you love mountain biking, then you’ll love the classic downhill trails here. They’ve got steep descents, highly technical trails, roots and rocks, bridges, ladders, and jumps. There are plenty of trails accessible from town, and you can bike or drive to the Mountain Station parking lot and head up from there.
There are also lots of other places to ride that are close to town, including:
- Morning Mountain
- Kokanee Glacier
- Giveout Creek
- Smallwood and Bigwood
- Sproule Creek
10. Check out the parks and beaches
Nelson is a great place to raise a family, and there are many parks throughout the city where you and the kids can play and swim, sunbathe on the beach, go for a hike, sit by a waterfall, or get an excellent vantage point of the city.
Kootenay Lake covers 400 square kilometers of the West Kootenays, and one of the most popular beaches in the area is Lakeside Park in Nelson. Lakeside has it all, including a sandy beach where you can catch some rays or go swimming under the Big Orange Bridge, a large grassy area where you can lounge and play, a volleyball net, tennis courts, and a snack bar.
Kokanee Creek Provincial Park
At Kokanee Creek, you can camp, swim at the beach, play at the playground, go for a walk or bike ride, access the trails to get up to Kokanee Glacier, and more. And if you’re lucky enough to be here in August and September, you can watch the Kokanee salmon spawning in the creek.
Cottonwood Park is a beautiful, quiet park in a historic part of Nelson called Railtown. The park boasts a lovely garden, a summer market, a creek, and best of all, Cottonwood Falls. It’s a wonderful place to wander, have a picnic with the family, or just sit on the rocks by the falls and listen to the sound of rushing water.
Gyro is a great place to spend an afternoon. There’s a playground to keep the kids entertained, and the whole family can wander through the flower gardens, hike the trails, swim in the pool (open July and August), have lunch in the gazebo, and walk to the viewpoint, which gives you a bird’s eye view of the entire downtown, Lakeside Park, and the lake.
11. Get out on the water
The West Kootenays are a playground for water lovers, and if sprawling Kootenay Lake isn’t enough, there are plenty of rivers, creeks, and other lakes for you to explore as well. There are several companies that offer canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddle board rentals, including:
Beyond that, there are also a couple companies that offer water-based tours, excursions, and adventures, and they include:
Smiling Otter Wilderness Adventures Ltd.
Smiling Otter runs out of Slocan, about 50 minutes northwest of Nelson. They offer canoe and kayak rentals, lessons, and tours of pristine Slocan Lake.
Nelson Whitewater Rafting Co.
Nelson Whitewater Rafting has excursions for water-lovers of all ages and experience levels, including scenic floats on the Slocan River. But if you want something a little more heart-pounding, sign up for their Slocan River Facchina Rapids white water rafting trip.
12. Explore Nelson’s art and history
The Nelson and District Museum, Archives, Art Gallery and Historical Society (MAAG), known locally as Touchstones Nelson, is the cultural and historical heart of the city. The museum is home to permanent collections that celebrate and educate visitors about the Sinixt and Ktunaxa nations, Nelson’s mining history, European exploration in the area, and other components of the city’s history.
The gallery also hosts special exhibitions from Canadian and international artists, including visual artists, photographers, sculptors, musicians, and more.
13. Shop at the farmers markets
There’s nothing that Kootenay residents love more than shopping local, and there’s no better place to do that than the farmers markets. Vendors come from all around the area to sell fresh produce, crafts, art, hand-made clothing, locally made craft spirits, pottery, jewelry, soaps, homemade foods and preserves, and just about anything else you could imagine.
There are regular markets through the spring, summer, and fall, as well as special markets that happen throughout the year, including:
- GardenFest in May
- MarketFest Night (one in July and one in August)
- Cottonwood Farmers Market every Saturday from May to October
- The Downtown Farmers Market every Wednesday from June to September
14. Walk the rail trail
Something that people love about Nelson is the access to the outdoors, and if you’re looking for an easy activity for people of all ages, then a hike on The Great Northern Rail Trail is a perfect place to start. The rail trail is a multi-use trail above Nelson, converted from a decommissioned railway line.
The trail runs 48 kilometers from Troupe Junction to the village of Salmo, and is a great opportunity to get into nature, take the dog for a walk, and see incredible vistas of the city, the lake, and the mountains.
15. Find the murals
Back in 2018, the Nelson and District Arts Council held the first Nelson International Mural Festival, and it has become an annual cultural event. Every summer, the city invites artists from around the world to imbue the city with their creative whims by painting large sections of walls and buildings with murals.
Throughout the late spring and summer, you’ll find artists hidden all over the city — in the alleyways, on the side of the road, and in the streets — creating their masterpieces on brick walls and other surfaces. The mural festival happens in August once the artists have completed their beautiful pieces, and the city invites people out to appreciate the creations.
At any time of year, however, you can walk around the city and find the murals from previous festivals. Most of them are in the alley between Baker and Victoria Streets, but there are gems hidden all throughout the greater downtown area.
Any time of year is a good time to visit Nelson because there’s always something to do in this energetic B.C. city. Nelson might have a small population, but it’s got a big heart and a lot of life, and it’s known for friendly people, good times, and endless adventure.
Tourists visit Nelson year-round for various reasons, including skiing and snowboarding in winter, swimming and mountain biking in summer, and sightseeing and shopping in spring and fall. No matter when you visit, you’re guaranteed to find good food, cold drinks, a welcoming atmosphere, places to shop, sights to see, nature to behold, and destinations to visit.
Over to you
What’s your favourite thing to do in Nelson? Give visitors more great things to do and see by sharing your story in the comments.