With more than 350 designated heritage buildings, take a stroll back in time as you explore beautiful and historic Nelson BC.
It’s no wonder that Nelson has earned the reputation as one of the finest heritage cities in all of Canada. Over 350 thoughtfully and carefully restored turn-of-the-century heritage buildings and facades – more restored historic buildings per capita than any Canadian city – and an easy walk from one to the other throughout downtown, a walk through Nelson BC is like taking a step back in time.
Initially incorporated as a mining town, the ups-and-downs of a rural, resource-based economy took its toll throughout the second half of the 20th century. Over the last 20 years or so, however, with revitalization efforts and a renewed economic focus on tourism and technology, Nelson has evolved into a quaint, down-to-earth and outdoorsy yet cosmopolitan little city in the Kootenays of British Columbia.
Chock-full of galleries, unique shopping, and cafes, the city is a huge draw for artists and craftspeople. Between the restored historic loveliness, the artsy vibe, and the breathtaking views, Nelson is a city of genuine friendliness and civility.
Ask anyone who’s visited, they’ll rave about the city’s charm and beauty, eagerly anticipating their next visit, if not a complete relocation!
A unique and historic tour through a very walkable city
The modern era of Nelson BC began in 1887 when a group from Colville discovered the Silver King mine on Toad Mountain. The townsite, named for the BC Lieutenant-Governor at the time, Hugh Nelson, was developed shortly thereafter.
Within only a few years, two railways were established to serve the fledgling settlement. They provided transportation for ore and goods, while a fleet of sternwheelers connected the communities cropping up on Kootenay Lake.
As other mines, mainly silver, developed in the region, Nelson and other surrounding communities grew quickly. Incorporated as a city in 1897, Nelson became the administrative hub of the Kootenays.
Infrastructure developed rapidly. The city boasted a streetcar system and hydroelectric power plant — the first in BC — in addition to a variety of impressive stone and brick buildings.
In the years that followed, agriculture and forestry – a successful sawmill – helped support the local economy. Beginning in the 1950s, Nelson became a university town when the Roman Catholic diocese established Notre Dame, which later became David Thompson University Centre.
Unfortunately, the recession of the early 1980s hit the city quite hard. Both the sawmill and the school closed and other employers reduced their numbers of employees dramatically.
But just as things were looking quite lost in the region, Nelson leveraged its history to bring about necessary change – a downtown revitalization project that uncovered and restored many hidden heritage buildings. That Hollywood took notice of the city’s unique historic charm certainly didn’t hurt.
With a current population of a little over 10,000, and a trading area twice that size, Nelson boasts a scenic and vibrant downtown, a thriving arts scene, and the cultural and recreational opportunities and amenities of a much larger city.
A wonderful way to experience and learn about the history of Nelson, BC, and its lovingly restored architecture is to enjoy the Nelson Heritage Walking Tour. Explore all of Nelson’s historic buildings, particularly those constructed between 1895 and 1924.
The tour guides you along Nelson’s main commercial artery, beautiful Baker Street, and within a block or so on either side. You’ll find Baker to be a vibrant, thriving, and busy commercial main street, brimming with restaurants and cafes and quaint local shops and galleries.
Part of maintaining the unique quaintness to Nelson downtown is the absence of any chain franchises. You won’t find a Starbucks or McDonald’s on or around Baker Street but you will find an exceptional cup of coffee at Oso Negro or authentic Latin American cuisine at Cantina del Centro in the revitalized historic buildings. Your choices for exceptional and fresh food are really quite endless in downtown Nelson.
Your Downtown Nelson Walking Tour
The historic walking tour highlights 27 buildings. You’ll be sure to note the distinctive architectural style – reminiscent of that found in Victoria, Seattle, San Francisco, and Spokane.
459 Baker Street, the CIBC building, for example, was constructed of Kootenay Marble in 1907 and includes a facade of four graceful pillars. The Burns Building, at 560 Baker Street, was built in 1899 for cattle baron Patrick Burns and was once home to a butcher shop. The iconic carving above the entrance – a cow’s head – alludes to the building’s bovine history.
The Capitol Theatre, another stop on the tour, has recently undergone a bit of face-lift and is now a community project to support the city’s commitment to arts and culture. It’s a wonderful bonus if you have the chance to explore the theatre’s characteristic indoors!
Another feature of Nelson heritage to include in your walking tour is the Post Office & Customs House at 502 Vernon St. Built in 1902 of Spokane pink brick and Kaslo Marble, this lovely building is a unique and picturesque combination of patterns and textures. It has been a museum, City Hall, and since 2006, as Touchstones Nelson: Museum of Art and History. This is a great stop to linger and learn much more about the region’s colourful and fascinating history.
And, there’s so much more to see!
Want to view a digital map on your phone or computer? Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism recently put together an online Nelson BC – Heritage Walking Tour Map.
Be sure to take in the full list of must-see revitalized historic buildings in downtown Nelson BC – your complete Nelson Heritage Walking Tour starts HERE!