Looking for the best things to do in Nelson, New Zealand? This guide has got you covered.
One of the sunniest and oldest cities in New Zealand, Nelson is a gateway to incredible natural wonders, adventure activities and artisan communities. Small but perfectly formed, the South Island gem showcases the best of New Zealand.
Last time I visited I was amazed by how the city punches above its weight when it comes to excellent cafes, wineries and access to stunning beaches and national parks. This guide to the best things to do in Nelson will help you plan an unforgettable trip to this part of New Zealand.
The Best Things To Do In Nelson
Visit Abel Tasman National Park
The Abel Tasman National Park is one of the most iconic things to do in Nelson. From turquoise waters and breath-taking beaches to native forests and unique wildlife, this small but perfectly formed national park has plenty to offer.
There are many ways to experience Abel Tasman. You can catch a water taxi to one of its picturesque bays and do a day hike. Or, you can stay longer and cover more ground. Kayaking is another great way to take in the beauty of the park.
Abel Tasman is very accessible, so it can feel a little crowded during the peak season (December through March). However, there are still many spots in the park where you can get away from it all.
There are many tours that you can join to experience the park. For example, this full-day sailing and self-guided walk tour is a great option for enjoying the park’s stunning coastline and doing a section of the main track on the same day.
Explore Golden Bay
Nelson is a great gateway to a stunning area that deserves at least a day trip. Located in the north-west corner of the South Island, Golden Bay offers natural wonders, welcoming communities and a wide selection of adventure activities.
Although still a popular tourist destination, it is less crowded than Abel Tasman and the Nelson region. There is only one road leading to Golden Bay which will take you over Takaka Hill. At the top of it you can enjoy incredible views.
One of the must-see attractions in the area are Te Waikoropupu Springs (Pupu Springs). They are the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand containing some of the clearest water in the world. The springs have spiritual significance to Māori people.
Another Golden Bay gem is Wharariki Beach. The beach is accessible via a short walking track that will take you through picturesque farmland. The windswept Wharariki Beach is truly spectacular. You might even recognise it from a Windows 10 screensaver.
There are other great walking tracks in the area, including Farewell Spit. It is one of the largest sandspits in the world and home to over 90 species of birds.
You can experience the beauty of the Golden Bay coast by jumping on a scenic flight. This Farewell Spit and Northern Abel Tasman scenic flight from Takaka is a great option.
Go to Nelson Lakes National Park
Just an hour’s drive south of Nelson you can find another fantastic national park to explore. It is home to 16 alpine lakes surrounded by rugged mountain ranges and native forests.
In summer you can enjoy hiking, swimming, kayaking and mountain biking. In the winter months, the Rainbow Ski Field opens for a variety of snow-based activities.
Hike up to the Centre of New Zealand
Experience incredible panoramic views of Nelson by climbing to the summit of Botanical Hill just to the east of the city centre. The hike is short and relatively easy.
At the top you’ll find a viewing platform and a monument marking the site of the central point used for old land surveys. Just a note, this is not actually the geographical centre of New Zealand. However, the view is definitely worth the effort.
Tour Wineries and Craft Beer Breweries
The Nelson region is home to many excellent wineries and craft beer breweries. Taste world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or aromatics by visiting one (or more) of 22 cellar doors.
Beer is also a big part of local culture. Nelson is even considered the craft brewing capital of New Zealand.
Hop cultivation was introduced by German settlers who came to the area in the 1840. The trade has burgeoned since then. Now there is a whole beer trail available to explore.
One of the ways you can experience the wines of the region is by cycling the Nelson Tasman Great Taste Trail. The trail will take you to beautiful vineyards, beaches, artists’ studios and seaside villages.
Along the way, you can taste the best food and wine that the region has to offer. You can access the taste trail map on the New Zealand Cycle Trails website.
Relax at Tahunanui Beach
This beautiful stretch of golden sand is Nelson’s main beach. It boasts stunning views of Tasman Bay and has calm, shallow waters making it an excellent spot for swimming.
Both locals and tourists flock to Tahunanui beach to enjoy scenic strolls, paddle boarding, kite surfing or a good ol’ BBQ. You can also grab some fish & chips at a nearby café for the ultimate kiwi summer experience.
Go to the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum Museum
Although classic cars and designer gowns are an unusual combination, the museum is worth a visit. The Museum showcases a collection of 150 iconic cars in immaculate condition. From 1950s classics to aspirational Ferraris and Jaguars, the collection spans more than 100 years of motoring.
The Museum is also home to a collection of exquisite garments from the World of WearableArt Awards Show (WOW). WOW is an international competition that attracts designs from all over the world.
Adult admission is $19 NZ (12 USD). Discounts are available for children, students and seniors.
Shop Till You Drop at Nelson Market
Held every Saturday morning, the Nelson Market is a must for the lovers of all things artisan. The market showcases quality local produce and unique handmade goods by Nelson makers. There are up to two hundred stalls to explore.
The Nelson Market is the perfect spot to experience the creativity of the region and enjoy delicious breakfast, lunch and excellent coffee. The market runs from 8am to 1pm in Montgomery Square in the heart of Nelson.
Visit the Suter Art Gallery
Established in 1899, the Suter is the oldest public art gallery in continuous use in New Zealand. Its diverse art collection, featuring paintings, watercolours, and ceramics by local, national and international artists, is of national significance.
In 2016 the gallery underwent an extensive redevelopment to accommodate the growing collection and bring it up to modern gallery standards. Now, it’s worth dropping by just to experience the architecture of the building that combines heritage elements with modern materials and forms.
The gallery is home to a café, gift store and theatre. Admission is free.
Travel Back in Time at the Founder’s Heritage Park Museum
Discover Nelson’s colonial past in this open air museum featuring a replica historic village, beautiful gardens, a railway and an excellent café serving locally-produced craft beer and wine.
Period buildings are home to galleries, quirky shops and artisan workshops – perfect for those looking for a unique memento from New Zealand. You can easily walk to the Museum from Nelson’s town centre. Adult admission is $11 NZ (6.50 USD), child (5-16 years) – $5 NZ (3 USD).
The Best Time To Go To Nelson
The best time to go to Nelson for warm weather and lots of sunshine is between November and March (New Zealand summer). This is also the busiest time to visit the region, so make sure you book your accommodation and activities well in advance.
New Zealand ski season takes place between July and the end of September. If you would like to hit the slopes, this would be a good time to visit Nelson too due to its proximity to the Rainbow Ski Area.
Getting To and Around Nelson
Nelson is served by a small regional airport with connections to New Zealand’s main cities such as Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The other options of getting there include by intercity bus or car.
Nelson itself is a compact city, so you’ll be able to get around on foot. However, if you would like to go further out, it might be a good idea to hire a car. There are guided tours to major attractions such as Abel Tasman National Park, but your own vehicle offers the most flexibility for exploring.
Hope this list of the best things to do in Nelson will inspire you to spend some time in this beautiful part of New Zealand. I, for one, can’t wait to come back there to see and experience more.
If you’re planning to visit other parts of New Zealand’s South Island, I highly recommend visiting Queenstown, the country’s adventure capital. It’s a great base for exploring some of New Zealand’s most famous scenery.
For something a bit more off the beaten track, head to the charming village of Akaroa. This hidden gem offers unforgettable wildlife experiences, stunning hikes, French-inspired cuisine and charming places to stay.
FAQs: Things to Do in Nelson
Yes, Nelson is a great place to visit as part of your New Zealand adventure. It is the perfect base for exploring the surrounding national parks likes Abel Tasman. The city also boasts a selection of great attractions, hiking trails and a thriving food and drink scene.
There is lots to see and do in Nelson including stunning beaches, hiking and cycling trails, wineries and craft beer breweries, historic attractions and, of course, the incredible Abel Tasman National Park.
I recommend spending at least three-four days in Nelson. You can easily spend more time there if you’re using it as a base to explore the nearby national parks and natural beauty spots.
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