Nestled between the calm (and cold) waters of Kootenay Lake, and the snow-capped Selkirk mountains, Nelson BC Canada is a small city with a big heart. Its relatively void of commercialization (other than the Walmart that’s been there forever and is easy to ignore since it’s removed from the centre of town) and prides itself on supporting both local business and the environment. There’s a ton of things to do in Nelson BC, so if you’re planning a visit to this little mountain gem, read on!
Nelson is one of my favourite little cities in BC! Actually, it’s one of my favourite little cities in the entire world. I grew up an hour from Nelson and have spent countless hours shopping, eating and getting into trouble here.
Nelson has always been a hippie town, which makes it super unique. I’m pretty sure the town itself invented the zero-waste movement because they’ve been preaching the environmentally friendly/vegan/hippie lifestyle for decades. For as long as I can remember, the town has had a rather distinct smell of marijuana (which I surprisingly didn’t smell on my most recent visit…shocking as it’s now legal!).
If you’re looking for a variety of things to do, Nelson BC has something for everyone. You can connect with your inner hippie, go “green” shopping, eat some seriously incredible local food, or get outdoors in the surrounding mountains. So, what are you waiting for???
What To Do In Nelson BC
You’ll want to spend some of your time exploring downtown Nelson BC. This is where you’ll stay, eat, explore and wander. There’s lots to do downtown so you’ll want to devote at least a full day here.
Stroll Down Baker Street
This is my favourite thing to do in Nelson BC, and something that every single person visiting the city should do. Baker Street has so much charm and is full of beautifully restored historic buildings. This is the heart of the city and is prettiest first thing in the morning (sadly, before the shops open) and right before sunset.
It’s obviously nicer to wander Baker Street in the summer, but ducking in and out of shops and restaurants when it’s sub-zero outside also has a distinct charm!
Shop & Support Local
Even if you’re not typically a “shopper”, you should give it a try in Nelson! Most of the stores are on Baker Street, but it’s also worth wandering up the cross streets as well (especially Stanley & Ward). A few of my fav stops for new items are Otter Books, Le Grand Fromage (which you’ll find down the stairs in the alley behind the Kootenay Bakery Cafe Coop), Shoe La La, Zinnia and of course Valhalla Pure.
There’s also a great selection of up-cycled (new-to-you) clothes at; Still Eagle Planetary Persuasions (in the back), Play It Again Kids, Strutters Boutique and more popping up all the time.
This is far from an exhaustive list, and everyone has their own favourite shop. So give yourself a few hours to pop in and out of all the shops along Baker (and Ward and Josephine…) and see if you can find your own favs!!
Touchstone Museum Of History And Art
I hate to admit that I’ve never actually been in the Touchstone museum. It’s in one of the most beautiful historic buildings in town, a gorgeous and grand stone building from 1902. I’ve walked by plenty of times, but it always seems to be closed when I want to go in!
Inside you’ll find local historical objects, learn about the history of Nelson and view rotating art exhibits. It’s small, so don’t expect to linger all day, but it’s a great place to spend a rainy day or just learn about the area.
- Hours: 10am-5pm Wed/Fri/Sat, 11am-4pm Sun/Tues, 10am-8pm Thurs, Closed Monday
- Cost: Adults $8, Seniors/Students $6, Family $22
- Location: 502 Vernon St
Historic Walking Tour
The Touchstone Museum has created a walking map of the historic buildings in Nelson. If you visit the museum you can pick up a paper copy, or download it from the internet. An alternative is the Nelson Heritage Walking tour (which is basically all the same places, just more pages!).
We started the walking tour, but only made it to about 5 of the buildings before my kids got bored and gave up! It was more enjoyable to read a few of the plaques (along Vernon St) and then have a quick peak to see when a building was built as we stumbled upon them.
Spot The Murals
One of the fun things to do in Nelson BC is spot the murals! It’s easy to find many of them just walking around Nelson’s downtown. However, if you’re looking for a more “guided” tour, check out the map by Nelson International Mural Festival (there are more murals added every year!)
Feel The Leg Burn In The “Uphill neighbourhood”
The city creeps it’s way up the mountainside, offering views down to the lake and a leg-burning work-out. In the summer, many of the homes have spectacular gardens set against beautifully up-kept facades. This city has some serious curb appeal.
If you’re visiting in the summer (and during the weekend) you’ll likely find a treasure trove of garage sales up the hill. Take some time to interact with the locals and pursue the sales, you never know what you’ll find! (Plus, it’s nice to have the excuse to stop walking for a few minutes).
Ride In The Old Street Car (Summer only)
Nelson Streetcar #23 typically runs along the lakeshore from May long weekend until Thanksgiving (weather and tourist dependent). This streetcar was part of the Nelson Street Railway that worked in the city from 1925-1949. It’s a short trip, 15min max, but a fun way to experience the beauty of the lakeside and feel like you’re stepping back in time. It’s definitely worth the trip if you’re visiting with kids!
- Hours: Weekends only before mid-June and after labour day. Trains run eastbound from Hall St every half hour from 11:10am-4:10pm, and westbound from Lakeside park from 11:30am-4:30pm.
- Cost: $3/adult, $2/child 6-12yo and seniors, Free under 6 (with an adult). Max family fare $8.
- Location: Wray Suffredine station on Hall Street & Lakeside Park Station beside the Orange Bridge.
Drink All The Coffee
Nelson has some incredible coffee, and some incredible coffee shops! You could plan your day around where you’d like to be for your first coffee, mid-morning coffee, lunch coffee and whoops-it’s-too-late-in-the-day-I-shouldn’t-have-had-that coffee!
The place to start is Oso Negro, which has been serving incredible coffee since 1993. This place is coffee in it’s purest form…no syrups or flavouring, just straight up coffees, lattes and cappuccinos (with a variety of milk options of course, this is Nelson!). You will find Chai tea on the menu, but that’s about as far as it goes past straight up, delicious coffee.
- Hours: 7am – 4pm every day
- Location: 604 Ward St (one block North of Baker…it’s worth the walk!)
John Ward Fine Coffee is another great coffee option, but this one is right on Baker Street. I’m a bit of a purist, so I’d be tempted to walk the block to Oso Negro (it reminds me of my newly-coffee-drinking youthful self!), but you can’t go wrong at John Ward. The coffee is delicious, and if you want/need flavourings this is a better option.
John Ward Fine Coffee
- Hours: 6:30am-5pm Mon-Sat, 7am-4pm Sun
- Location: 503 Baker St
Empire Coffee makes the list because they serve Stumptown coffee!! My Portland loving heart loves this place for this fact alone. The coffee is delish, as would be expected, but they also have a good selection of food (including vegan and raw options). The only downside is that the staff is sometimes a bit stand-offish. I guess they think this makes the coffee better?
- Hours: 6am-8pm Mon-Fri, 7am-8pm Sat & Sun
- Location: 616 Vernon St
Hike Pulpit Rock
This is another one of those “Nelson BC attractions” that I haven’t taken the time to do! I’ve thought about it a few times, but am always put off by the steep ascent (and always seem to come up with an excuse, usually the weather). However, if you’re only visiting for a few days, the view from the top of Pulpit Rock is definitely worth the effort, or so I’ve been told!
Cross the orange bridge towards Kaslo then turn left on Johnstone Road. The trail head is 2.4km ahead on the right. From here it’s almost a straight climb up to the look out (all 1.8km one direction). This is a popular trail, for tourists and locals, so the lookout is often busy. If you’d rather a more peaceful stop, and still have a bit of energy, continue 1km further to Flagpole. The trail is well signed, but few people make it here because the slog up the hill to Pulpit Rock is usually enough for most!
Enjoy The Beach/Play In The Lake
If you’re visiting Nelson in the winter, you’ll want to skip this one! But if you’re looking for things to do in Nelson BC in summer, the lake should be high on your list.
Kootenay Lake is a mountain lake…translation: it’s COLD! You’ll only want to dip in the lake on a warm summer day. Luckily, Nelson tends to have a lot of these from June to September.
Even if it’s too cold for a swim/SUP/kayak, you can still enjoy hanging out on the beach at Lakeside Park. There’s a great playground for the kiddos, a bocce court and tennis courts (if you brought your racket), picnic tables a boat launch, and a labyrinth. If you get hungry, there’s even a concession here for snacks during the summer months.
Explore by Bike (Rent from Gerick Cycle & Ski)
Spending time in the great outdoors is one of the premier things to do in the Kootenays, and Nelson is no exception. Luckily, Gerick Cycle and Ski rents bikes in the summer (and skis in the winter). If you want to explore the area on a bike, but don’t feel like you have the physical stamina, they even have E-bikes available!
From Nelson you can head in pretty much any direction and find something cool. My suggestion is to bike up the West side of Kootenay Lake to 5-mile beach or 6-mile beach to relax by the water where it’s (quite) a bit quieter than Lakeside Park. While you bike by, take the time to ogle Blaylock Mansion on the left…then keep your eyes peeled for the boat house (you’ll know it when you see it!).
Eat Until You Can’t Eat Anymore!
For such a small city, Nelson has an incredible culinary scene. Even as a college student I’d drive an hour to Nelson for dinner! And trust me, the city has seriously upped it’s game since then.
There are so many options it’s hard to name them all, and food is definitely a personal preference sort of thing. Most restaurants have vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free options, so you’ll be sure to find something to fit your diet. There’s even a plant-based eatery (Sprouts) and a dairy-free ice cream shop (Celestial Scoop, right next door) both on Ward St.
How Long Should You Stay?
Nelson is a small town, and it doesn’t take long to explore most of the Nelson BC things to do. I suggest spending at least 2-3 days exploring the city itself, and tack on a few more days if you want to spend time in the surrounding area.
Things To Do Around Nelson BC
There’s also a lot of things to do near Nelson BC that can easily be done via day trips. From Nelson, you can head up Kootenay Lake to Kaslo, across the Balfour Ferry to Crawford Bay & Creston, or North towards Nakusp’s hot springs.
Ainsworth Hot Springs
I may be a bit biased, but I do love Ainsworth hot springs. They’re unique amongst any other hot springs I’ve visited because of the cave. It may seem a bit creepy initially, but it’s such a cool feature that I’ve never seen anywhere else!
You can spend the night in one of the on-site hotel rooms, which will also give you priority access an hour before the general public in the morning. This is definitely worth it if you want a quiet/less busy swim. The restaurant is also pretty good and has a gorgeous view over Kootenay Lake (reservations recommended in the summer).
Ainsworth Hot Springs
- Location: 3609 Balfour-Kaslo-Galena Bay Hwy, Ainsworth, BC
- Hours: Varies by season, check here for up to date hours.
- Cost: Adult $14, Senior $13, Child (3-12yo) $10, Family Pass $40
- Book your overnight stay at Ainsworth Hot Springs.
Kokanee Creek Old Growth Forest
Further up the road from Ainsworth you’ll find Kokanee Creek Provincial Park. In it itself is worth visiting, especially late-August when the salmon are spawning! The lesser known stop is a beautiful hike through a 600-800 year old Old Growth Forest.
The trail is a short 2km with very minimal elevation change. It’s relatively well marked and easy to follow. The end of the trail has a loop that passes the largest and oldest of the trees. My suggestion is to go left at the loop!
You can continue around the loop then retrace your steps to the trailhead. Or, veer off at the sign that says “Road 300m”. If you parked by the bridge, you can head back down the road to your vehicle.
How To Get There: Turn left up the logging road towards Zip Kokanee (another fun thing to do in the area!) and follow it about 10.5km until you cross the second bridge (Sunset Creek). You may be able to continue the last km to the trailhead, but sometimes a creek runs across the road making it impassable without a high clearance 4WD.
Still heading towards Kaslo, Fletcher Falls is a quick, worthwhile stop along the road. The path down to the base of the falls is short and the falls are lovely, especially in the spring.
There’s a bridge that crosses the river to a small walk way and platform that lets you stand out over the river to view the falls. To be honest, the view from here was good, but the best view was from one of the little outcroppings on the cliff part way down to the falls.
The other thing down here is a small rocky beach along the shores of Kootenay Lake. It’s a worthwhile spot for a picnic, or to let the kids (or yourself) cool off in the lake on a hot day.
Location: 12km north of Ainsworth Hot Springs and on the right side of the road. There’s a small frontage road where you can park (just steer clear of people’s driveways) and the entrance to the hike is just at the corner by the main highway. It’s marked so as long as you’re looking for it you’ll see it!
Where To Stay In Nelson BC
Nelson is home to a decent selection of hotels, hostels and guesthouses for every price range. My favourite little boutique hotel is Cloudside Hotel. It’s just north of Baker Street, but basically next door to Oso Negro (making it the perfect location for me!). There are regular queen-bed rooms as well as family-style apartments.
If you want to stay in one of the great historic buildings in Nelson, the Hume Hotel has lovely, standard hotel rooms. Or, just up the street is the Adventure Hotel if you’re on a bit more of a budget (or are a bit younger than me and looking for a funky vibe!). One caution though is the lack of soundproofing, so if you’re a light sleeper, maybe look somewhere else!
If you’re really on a budget, or just like the community in a hostel, check out the Dancing Bear Inn & Hostel. In true Nelson style, this is an independent hostel with a great communal kitchen, good location on Baker Street and friendly common areas.
How To Get To Nelson
Nelson is nestled in the middle of the Kootenays and isn’t really easily accessible from anywhere! The effort to get here however is rewarded with spectacular mountain scenery, great food & coffee, and (generally) friendly locals happy to share their little slice of paradise.
Castlegar to Nelson BC
The closest airport to Nelson in Castlegar (YCG), affectionately named “Cancelgar”. There are direct flights from both Vancouver and Calgary, with Vancouver usually being the safer bet because there are more flights per day. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had flights seriously delayed or cancelled coming in our out of this airport.
The chances of making a flight are much better in the summer compared to the winter, but it’s always a gamble. Add to this the exorbitant price of flying through Castlegar and it’s sometimes hard to justify the risk!
That being said, it can be faster and easier to fly here than traverse the mountain passes into town.
Calgary to Nelson BC
There are two main routes to drive from Calgary to Nelson. The drive through the National Parks is spectacular at almost every time of year, and would be my suggestion. The roads can be a bit treacherous and icy in the winter, especially coming through Kootenay National Park, but it’s still stunning.
Calgary to Nelson BC Via Radium
If you aren’t going to stop in the National parks, you don’ have to pay a park fee to drive through from Calgary to Radium. So keep to the right and drive past the park gate. Once you’re past Banff keep an eye out for the turn off at Castle Junction (Hwy 93 towards Radium). If you miss it, you’ll end up in Golden and add an extra hour onto the drive.
*expert tip – watch out for mountain sheep on the descent into Radium, and all the way to Invermere.
The other junction to watch out for is in the small town of Salmo. It’s easy to drive right past Salmo on Hwy 3 and miss the turn-off on Hwy 6 to Nelson. Although you’re getting pretty close to Nelson, if you need a small break after driving the Salmo-Creston, stop in at the Dragonfly Cafe in Salmo. It’s absolutely adorable and the food is delicious!
Calgary to Nelson BC Via Fernie
If the weather is awful, or if you’re in the South end of Calgary, it’s easiest to drive through Fernie. The mountain pass down here is significantly less treacherous and the drive is slightly faster.
*expert tip – stop at Lundbreck Falls at the junction of Hwy 22 and Hwy 3. Take the first left after the Hwy 22 junction and park in the little parking lot. You can wander down to the river, see them from the raised platform, or both!
As you enter Sparwood keep an eye out the right side of the vehicle for the World’s Largest truck! It’s worth a quick stop if you haven’t seen it before as you can’t fully appreciate the size without standing beside one of the tires.
You’ll meet up with the Radium road just before entering Cranbrook, so you’ll still need to watch for the Salmo turn-off!
Skip The Salmo Creston
If you’re looking for the fastest route to Nelson, don’t bother with this section! However, if you want something a little different, consider taking the Kootenay Lake Ferry. This adds at least an hour to the drive (depending on how long you have to wait for the ferry), but allows you to skip the Salmo Creston mountain pass.
Instead of turning down Hwy 3 (at the Tim Hortons) in Creston, continue straight on Hwy 3A towards Crawford Bay. The drive along the lake is beautiful and much more relaxing than the pass.
*expert tip – watch for the “Glass House” on the side of the road part way up the bay. This entire house was built out of glass from Embalming liquid because the owner couldn’t bring himself to throw the bottles away.
The ferry runs between 7:10am and 10:20pm from the Kootenay Bay side with more sailings in the summer than the winter. You can check the schedule online.
Vancouver to Nelson BC
The drive to Nelson is much easier coming from Vancouver compared to Calgary. The Hope-Princeton is the worst stretch of the road, but it’s really a piece of cake compared to the Rockies. If you’re coming during a snow storm this might pose a problem, but the rest of the year this is a lovely and relaxing drive.
*expert tip – Stop in Rock Creek at the Petro Canada gas station for the world’s most delicious cheese sticks and incredible deli sandwiches. OR head down the street to the Rock Creek Trading Post for a cup of coffee.
Spokane, WA to Nelson BC
If you want to fly but don’t want to risk “Cancelgar” (Castlegar) you could consider flying to Spokane, WA. The drive to Nelson is about 3 hours and doesn’t cross any mountain passes! You’ll basically drive straight north from Spokane, through Metaline Falls and cross the border at Nelway. The drive by the Pend Oreille River is particularly spectacular in the summer.
- Nelway Border Crossing Hours: 8am – 8pm every day
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Great post! Nelson looks amazing and you’ve made me desperate to visit. I’m from Vancouver and am always kicking myself for seeing so little of BC
Nelson is a pretty incredible city with a ton to do!! It’s such an easy trip from Vancouver (but I think you’ll want more than a weekend).
Covid has been such a good excuse for local travel…I hope you make it to Nelson!!
Nelson has not ALWAYS been a hippie town!!!
I was born there and watched the changes over the years.