The Kootenays’ cultural capital serves craft brews and cool art.

The auditorium goes crazy as Margo Mayhem steps onto the stage with an inflatable flamingo around her tiny waist. Underneath, she’s wearing a corset and not much else. She strikes me as a Betty Boop character with her black curly hair and bright red lipstick. Next up: her partner both in life and burlesque, Samson Night. New Yorkers might recognize him as Mustafa from Broadway’s Lion King. The audience screams as Samson Night drops his luggage and so much more for the Nelson crowd. 

It’s fitting we’re in the Capitol Theatre—built in 1927, the vaudeville house matches the exotic 1940s burlesque vibe. The duo, called Midnight Mayhem when they perform together, are internationally recognized burlesque dancers, but also regulars in Nelson’s burlesque scene. 

Capitol Theatre in Nelson, BC
Capitol Theatre in Nelson, BC (photo: Melanie Chambers)

Over the century and a half since gold miners first dropped their pickaxes into local dirt, Nelson, BC, has become the cultural hotspot of the West Kootenays region. It became a beacon for counterculture and cool artsy types. Eight hours from Vancouver, through countless mountain passes, Nelson is called, “the best small arts town in Canada.” 

The town also got huge artsy credibility as the location of Steve Martin’s 1986 movie, Roxanne.

“The setting, which is as much a part of the film’s appeal… is the gorgeous, homey-looking little town of Nelson,” wrote Janet Maslin of The New York Times

Much of the energy and creativity is palpable and apparent walking through the alleyways, which serve as giant canvases for murals: cartoon cats, Indigenous art, historical figures and so much more. 

Since it began six years ago, the Nelson International Mural Festival has attracted world-class artists to paint the alleyways. A popular piece called Silver King by Kelowna-based graphic artist and illustrator, Benji Andringa, aka Lowclassart, is a mural that represents the multilayers of Nelson. The trout, named Gerrard, reveals Nelson’s claim to have the largest rainbow trout in the world. The campfire and turtle reveal the fun-loving festival culture. The toad is a nod to nearby Toad Mountain, home of the Silver King Mine. 

And that fun-loving wizard driving the bus of bears and van dwellers? “Those are some of the characters you might run into around town,” says Benji.

It’s true. Nelson locals are a stylish bunch and they aren’t afraid to dress up. At night, I’ve seen everything from feathery boas to puffy orange jackets and odd colourful outfits – likely found at a local thrift shop. There are many consignment shops in Nelson, but none weirder than Moon Monster’s Secret Cave. Walking down into the store is like entering another dimension – the walls and shelves are full of animal masks, twisted-looking baby dolls, religious iconography, buddhas, glass penises and so much more. Vintage clothes hang alongside crystal pendants and amulets of fortune and mystery.

The town itself has unique architecture: giant stone turrets, red brick archways and ornate stone cornices. Thanks to an 1897 bylaw stipulating only brick and stone to avoid fire damage, the buildings are some of the best-preserved architecture in the province.

Nelson, BC, in winter
Nelson in the wintertime. (Photo: Phil Best)

One of my favourite corners of town – the Hume Hotel is on one side with its name in giant bright letters on the top of the hotel beside the Nelson Museum Archives & Gallery, which has a giant, grand turret. Its meticulously restored chateau-like Richardsonian Romanesque-style architecture is made from granite, nearby Kaslo marble, locally made brick, and pink brick from Spokane, Washington. Inside the history is just as intense.

The permanent exhibit reveals bits of local Sinixt and Ktunaxa culture – a meticulously stitched moccasin bootie, a black-and-white photograph of Chief Edward, the last hereditary Sinixt chief dating back to 1872 dressed entirely in animal skins. 

Across the street in the lobby of the Hume Hotel, completed in 1898, a picture of pioneer J. Fred Hume and his wife Lydia resides over the stairwell. Throughout the hotel are giant black-and-white photographs of locals fishing and hiking in bygone days. And, in a glass cabinet near the restaurant—monogrammed dishes from the turn of the century. The Hume’s own dishes! 

I’m not surprised: Nelson takes its food and restaurants seriously. According to Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism, Nelson has more restaurants per capita than Toronto, Manhattan or San Francisco, including a rainbow of diversity (hippie pun intended). 

I’ve tasted Vietnamese Pho at Yum Son, with broth that simmered for 24 hours; indulged in key lime gelato topped with marshmallow and torched like crème brulé at Gina’s Gelato; and eaten mountains of duck, fig jam and multiple cheese trays of charcuterie at The Black Cauldron whose spooky cocktails are potions of tasty herbs, fruits and booze. 

For a town of just over 10,000, there are three craft breweries each with their own brand of cool vibe. Backroads Brewing is a great spot to people-watch on Baker Street, and the bathroom walls are plastered with magazine images of mountain bikers. Meanwhile, Nelson Brewing Co., based in a historic building that housed a brewery back in 1897, has tastings, taproom tours and special artists’ nights. Torchlight Brewing is a fun open space with video games and trivia nights every Sunday. 

My favourite activity is catching the energetic vibe on Baker Street, the main street and heart of the city. At Broken Hill, I pick away at a smoked meat platter and listen to street musicians from Mexico. We meet tourists from Kelowna. “Every server has a side hustle, a passion project,” says Lauren Christoffersen, our server, who repurposes clothes on the side. 

Munching at Broken Hill in Nelson, BC (photo: Melanie Chambers)

The hallmark of any civilized and artsy urban centre: coffee. Nelson is blessed with so many. John Ward Fine Coffee on Baker Street attracts an afternoon crowd closing at 3 pm on Saturdays. Down the hill, No6 is a boutique micro-roastery that has a tasting bar, but don’t expect a take-out cup the eco-minded owners don’t have them! And way up the hill is the ultimate space for reading, working or daydreaming. With its wooden beams and twirly iron fixtures, Oso Negro feels like you’re having java in the forest with the birdies. When owner Jon Meyer renovated the café 18 years ago, the details were important: “Seventeen different metal workers left their mark here; I wanted it to be all or nothing.” 

Arriving by motorcycle from Montreal in the late ’70s, Meyer was fascinated with two things: roasting good coffee and being around good people. They pay fair wages to coffee producers in Guatemala, and every morning seven employees serve upwards of 1,000 customers a day. 

But the coolest thing about Nelson is the mystery and surprises—what’s around the corner, what will happen if you just wander? On our last night in Nelson, it happens—along Baker Street, we discover The Royal’s anniversary: free live music! Inside, it’s packed. A guy playing a ukulele strums amidst the noise and laughter. A giant screen behind the bar plays reruns of Bob Ross painting. 

The next morning, the weirdness doesn’t stop: as we’re walking our dog near the airport, alongside Kootenay Lake and a community of boat garages, we notice the water is exceptionally low on the beach. Walking onto the sand, we see a huge labyrinth: an underwater spiral of rocks. Aliens? I wasn’t able to find who made them, but locals have a variety of names for the formation: Eye of Neldor, The Nelson Lines, The Kootenay Labyrinth. Whatever the name, it makes me giggle. Why are they there? Why not? This is Nelson. Weird? Definitely. Cool? Unquestionably.

Kootenay Labyrinth - Nelson, BC
The “Kootenay Labyrinth” in Nelson, BC (photo: Melanie Chambers)

Want to explore Nelson this fall? The timing couldn’t be better to take advantage of our Fall Sip & Stay deals, including a great package at the Savoy Hotel in Nelson! Available for stays between October 15 to December 20, 2023.

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