Travel

Nelson: A city of contrasts and contradictions

Nestled in the scenic Selkirk Mountains at the shore of Kootenay Lake, Nelson is a small city with plenty of quirky contrasts and contradictions. 

It’s a place where urban and rural worlds meet, a place where the past and the present walk hand in hand, and a place where heritage and progress have found a way to coexist.

“Welcome to the best place on earth,” one resident told us on our first day in the city. “And I’m not just saying that because I live here.”

Over the next few days, we spent time exploring the city and discovering some of what it has to offer.

The compact, walkable downtown is rooted in history and tradition. The city, incorporated in 1897 during a silver rush in the area, has more than 350 designated heritage buildings. These buildings, constructed from 1895 to 1924, provide a connection with this era of the city’s past. 

But there’s more to Nelson’s story than the silver rush at the end of the 19th century. Much more.

From many buildings one can hear the sounds of mainstream 1960s and 1970s rock. The sounds of Bob Dylan, Cream, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and others are from the time during the Vietnam War era when American draft dodgers settled in and around the community. 

Many who came during those years have remained and have made a home for themselves here. Their story is as much a part of Nelson’s story as the silver rush at the end of the 19th century.

Against the backdrop of its rich history, Nelson is also working to define itself as a progressive, forward-thinking community. The vibe of the city is fresh, new and exciting. 

In this place where past and present come together, there are times when it is difficult to know which decade it is. Pieces of the city’s history are close enough to touch, yet the community also has its eye on the future.

Nelson’s motto is “Forge ahead” and the city has attempted to define itself as a vibrant, progressive and optimistic community.

The many unique small businesses range from cannabis shops to second-hand stores, cafes and coffee shops to booksellers, craft breweries to yoga studios and holistic healing centres, jewellery stores to outdoor equipment outfitters. 

There is also a strong emphasis on arts and culture with museums, galleries, concerts and more. Our short visit in November did not allow us enough time to delve into the local arts and culture scene, but its presence can be felt throughout the city.

Amidst this urban environment, there are plenty of parks, hiking trails and even a spectacular waterfall within the city.

Cottonwood Falls is in a park a short distance from the city centre, but it feels like a world apart. This is a place to stop, relax and enjoy the ambiance, to have a picnic with friends or to photograph or sketch the waterfall.

Nelson’s population is slightly more than 10,000, but it feels like a much bigger centre with plenty to see and do. It’s a good idea to bring a small notebook to jot down the things to see and do during a future trip to Nelson. Once is not enough to discover all this city has to offer.

For hungry travellers, Nelson has more than 50 cafes and restaurants, more per capita than any other city in Canada.

Almost every walk in Nelson will take a bit of effort. The city is built on a slope and there are a lot of steep streets. You will be rewarded for your efforts as there are some amazing views and vantage points.

In addition to the many hikes and walks in the city, the Pulpit Rock trail, just outside Nelson, also provides stunning views. 

Some of the reviews of this trail say it is an easy hike; others describe it as tough and demanding. The day we hiked the trail was cool and rainy. The dirt path is steep, especially near the beginning of the trail, and the many rocks along the way make this a challenging climb.

It’s a good idea to use hiking poles for this climb as the dirt path is steep in sections. Poles are available near the start of the climb if you didn’t bring your own. However, some of the locals who climb this path regularly were hiking the path at a brisk pace — almost a jog — without hiking poles.

On our last day in Nelson, we hiked to the lookout in Gyro Park. From here we had a panoramic view of the city, from the Big Orange Bridge (yes, that’s what it’s called) to the downtown and uphill sections of the community.

“With so many places to discover, we’re sorry we missed out on this trip. Maybe next time we can come along.”

Porter & Merlot

Three Nelson locals had gathered at the flagpole at the lookout for a time of reflection and contemplation as they considered the implications of current events. From their music player, 1960s and 1970s oldies rock provided the soundtrack for their gathering.

This moment could have summed up the city of Nelson. The setting was the historic city, the soundtrack was oldies rock and the discussion was about the present.

In a place where the past and the present walk together, this moment makes sense.

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