Nelson condenses all of the natural beauty of the country in one place, with some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand located here. It’s an incredible vacation spot for every type of traveler and one of our favorite places to experience all that New Zealand has to offer.
Stunning landscapes with everything from gorgeous beaches to rugged mountains and lush forests make Nelson an ideal vacation destination – you may never want to leave!
Nature lovers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts will be awe-struck by the natural beauty and there’s no getting bored here with plenty of the best activities on the South Island to keep you busy.
Nelson has some of the nicest weather in New Zealand, with year-round sunshine (yes please!), bringing in travelers from around the world.
It’s a massive hub for arts and culture, and festivals, so you might just catch an art show while you’re here on vacation too. Nelson offers the ultimate cultural immersion from world-famous art galleries to colorful markets selling locally-produced crafts and treats.
There’s no limit to the fun you can have in Nelson, and if you’re anything like us, you’ll fall in love with all the fantastic activities this region offers. Whether you enjoy meandering the streets and browsing through the shops and art galleries, sipping fine wine at local vineyards, or adventuring through the great outdoors – you’ll find all that and more when you travel to Nelson. Here are the best things to do in Nelson!
- About Nelson, NZ
- The BEST Things to do in Nelson, NZ
- 1. Explore Abel Tasman National Park
- 2. Visit wineries
- 3. Visit Cable Bay
- 4. Get up high on the SKYWIRE
- 5. Walk to the Centre of New Zealand
- 6. Wander downtown
- 7. Visit Natureland
- 8. Spend a day at Tahunanui Beach
- 9. Have a beer in New Zealand's oldest pub
- 10. Try archery
- 11. Ride on a quad bike (ATV)
- 12. Wander through Queen's Gardens
- 13. Ride the train in Founders Park
- 14. Visit a museum or two
- 15. Golf
- 16. Ride in a helicopter
- 17. Go skydiving!
- 18. Visit Moturoa (Rabbit Island)
- 19. Go bicycling
- 20. Drink your way along the Craft Beer Trail
- 21. Go hiking
- 22. Visit Peanut Butter World
- 23. Check out all the murals
- 24. Visit Isel Park
- 25. Catch your meal
- 26. Go kayaking, SUP, or paddle in a Waka
- 27. Day trip to Motueka
- 28. Enjoy distilleries and craft cocktails
- 29. Eat lots of seafood
- 30. Relax at Awaroa Beach (People's Beach)
- 31. Hit the slopes
- 32. See glow worms
- 33. Visit Mapua and walk the wharf
- 34. Enjoy the scenic drive to Picton
- 35. Day trip to Havelock
- Where to Stay in Nelson, NZ
- Thanks for reading!
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About Nelson, NZ
Nelson, New Zealand is located on the easternmost shore of Tasman Bay. It’s one of the region’s oldest cities with a deep-rooted history that dates back 700 years. The indigenous Maori first settled in the area, and the Waitaha people continued to develop the area, creating the Waimea Gardens. For generations, various tribes competed to control the lush and resource-rich region. Today, there are eight recognized tribes in the region.
In the 1800s, British settlers began to migrate to Nelson and chose the area that’s now Nelson City as their original colony due to the ideal harbor. Over the years, there were a lot of conflicts regarding land and borders between the British settlers and the indigenous tribes of New Zealand. Still, settlers continued to arrive from Europe in search of cultural and religious freedom.
The result is a culturally diverse region with a thriving community. Today, more than 51,000 people call Nelson home, and it is the 15th most populated city in New Zealand. It’s a hub for ecotourism and adventurous recreation opportunities, and tourism is one of the major industries, along with seafood, farming, and forestry.
Surrounded by mountains on three sides and Tasman Bay on the other – it’s an incredibly gorgeous destination with three different national parks: Abel Tasman National Park, Kahurangi National Park, and Nelson Lakes National Park. They can all be reached within a 1.5-hour drive from Nelson City.
Warm summers, mild winters, and a year-round oceanic climate make Nelson the perfect travel spot throughout the year and have led to the nickname “Sunny Nelson.”
The BEST Things to do in Nelson, NZ
1. Explore Abel Tasman National Park
From Nelson, you can reach the park in about an hour by car. Public transportation is another option if you’re not planning on a car rental during your travels. A variety of buses depart Nelson for the park daily. Or you can always join an Abel Tasman tour from Nelson!
You can enter the park through Marahau and Kaiteriteri on the south, and Golden Bay and Totaranui on the north. Water taxis also depart from the south side, so you can view the park from the water as you move along the coast towards Totaranui.
Once you arrive, there is so much to explore! Spend your time lounging in the sun on picturesque beaches or hiking through lush native forests alongside gurgling streams. You’ll likely spot wildlife throughout the park, like fur seals, penguins, and a variety of birds.
One of the best hikes on the South Island is the Abel Tasman Coast Track. This 60-kilometer (37.3 mile) one-way trail is actually one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks. It’s a beautiful hike whether you choose to do a self-guided day hike or choose a guided day hike on the trail or even a kayaking trip.
The park is the smallest in New Zealand and can absolutely be explored on your own without a guide, but if you’re looking for the ultimate experience, you might consider taking a guided tour. You’ll cover more ground, get some neat extras (like kayaking or snorkeling) and have someone who really knows the park show you around.
For an excellent full-day experience, this day tour of Abel Tasman National Park is an epic choice. It is jam-packed with all the best activities the park offers. Experience the park from both water and land as you embark on a boat and sail past landmarks like Spit Apple Rock before anchoring near Tonga Island Marine Reserve and spending time snorkeling and kayaking. The tour includes lunch and drinks and costs $319 NZD.
Travelers with a little more time to spare on their Nelson vacation should consider this awesome 4-Day Abel Tasman Getaway. You’ll join a small group of travelers for days of kayaking, swimming, and sailing along the coast. You’ll visit all of the park’s highlights during your stay and special additional sites outside the park, like Riwaka Resurgence. You’ll stay in a chic boutique hostel on the beach during this top multi-day tour in NZ, and all meals are included. The cost is $1,099 NZD per person.
Related read: Another incredible national park to put on your bucket list is the amazing Mount Cook National Park!
2. Visit wineries
Just outside of Nelson is home to one of New Zealand’s best wine regions, the Nelson Wine Region. Many of the unique vineyards have wine cellars that are open to the public for tastings, so if you’re a wine lover (like me!), they’re a must-visit Nelson attraction. With more than 40 wineries to choose from, you’re in for a fun boozy day in beautiful surroundings.
You might choose to explore the various wineries by car, but visiting by bike is another popular option for tourists and locals alike. There is even a bike trail connecting a bunch of the wineries called the Great Taste Trail.
One of our favorites is Fossil Ridge Winery, which can be reached just 20 minutes from Nelson City. Along with cellar door tastings, the winery has a cafe and serves up a tasty brunch menu.
If you’re looking to get the best bang for your buck and visit multiple wineries in a day, some fantastic tour options allow you to skip the hassle of organizing your transportation. A hop-on hop-off style tour allows you the freedom of your own schedule to enjoy each winery for as long as you’d like.
Once you’ve tasted your fill, you can hop back on the shuttle to visit the next destination. For under $100 NZD, you’ll be able to choose from over 20 of Nelson’s best wineries to visit. The tour starts at 10 am, and you’ll have 8 hours to experience the wineries before the shuttle drops you back in Nelson City around 5:45 pm.
3. Visit Cable Bay
Cable Bay is around 30 minutes from Nelson by car, and it’s famed for its fine rocky beach and crystal clear water. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by just how beautiful the beach was. It’s a peaceful cove surrounded by lush green hillside, and it’s definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to in New Zealand.
Not only is the water here super clear, it’s also the ideal temperature for swimming, averaging around 18 degrees Celsius, (64 degrees Fahrenheit). We absolutely loved swimming here so don’t forget your costume and towel!
As well as swimming, Cable Bay is a popular place to go fishing, kayaking, and rockpooling. Thanks to the clear water, you can see lots of interesting creatures in the rock pools here, including starfish, crabs, and sea slugs.
The Cable Bay Walkway is a 3.5-hour, each-way walking track with incredible views of Nelson, Cable Bay, and the Horoirangi Marine Reserve. The trail begins at the end of Cable Bay Road. There are a few steep uphill climbs on this track, so I only recommend it for those of a reasonable fitness level.
Unless you want to walk the same track back (it will take 7 hours total to walk each way), have a friend park their car at the other end of the trail at Airlie Street in The Glen. It is a particularly popular walk for sunset-chasers who come to watch the scenic scene as the sun sets behind Pepin Island. The skies here are truly beautiful at sunset.
And if you don’t want to walk the length of the Cable Bay Walkway, you can always just hike the first portion of the trail instead and turn back at Sentinel Lookout. You’ll have gorgeous views from the top, and it’s only 1.9 kilometers (1.2 miles) return. I will say that it’s still pretty steep, though, so it will probably take you over an hour to hike to the top of the hill and back to Cable Bay, despite the short distance.
Cable Bay has a fascinating history and was occupied by Maori tribes up until the year 1150. There’s even archaeological evidence of 3 different breeds of Moa (an extinct wingless bird, only found in New Zealand) discovered here. More recently, the country’s first international telegraph cable was laid here in 1876 and transmits across to Sydney, Australia.
Visible from Cable Bay and only a half-hour drive from Nelson is Pepin Bay, a unique working sheep farm that is connected to the mainland by a natural boulder bank. You can spend the night on the island and experience this unique way of farm life as well as explore the many hidden pebble beaches on the island. Pepin Island is a great romantic getaway near Nelson!
Related read: For more perfect honeymoon and anniversary spots, check out the best romantic getaways in NZ!
4. Get up high on the SKYWIRE
If you’re in the mood for a thrilling adventure, book a wild flight with SKYWIRE. Undoubtedly, it’s one of the best Nelson attractions.
The flying fox tour will have you soaring through the native forests and over the hills of Nelson at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour (95 km/hr). If you book for two or more people, you’ll also get free pick-up from Nelson.
Before embarking on your journey, you’ll stop at the Cable Bay Adventure Park, where you can enjoy having a cup of coffee or a light snack at the cafe. There are departures each hour, so it’s easy to fit this adventure into your trip schedule. The cost is $110 NZD per person.
5. Walk to the Centre of New Zealand
The Centre of New Zealand was actually named after a survey point in the 1800s, but in 2019 it was revealed that this label wasn’t quite accurate. Still, this is a nice walk that pretty much anyone can enjoy in Nelson. It’s a bit steep but it’s short at just 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) return, and the track is suitable for strollers, so I think it would make a great family walk.
Head to Botanical Reserve and find the Botanics Sports Field, which was where the first ever game of rugby in New Zealand took place. You’ll find a track there that will take you to the summit of Botanical Hill where you can take a breather and admire the beautiful views from up high.
6. Wander downtown
I love walking around downtown Nelson and exploring all of the cute, quirky shops and boutiques. You can always find something unique around here and of course, you’ll need some fuel for your browsing.
Nelson is a hot spot for arts and culture, and shopping is a dream come true for anyone looking for a unique item to take home. Tons of incredible markets sell a variety of tasty treats and locally made items that make excellent souvenirs or gifts, or pop into one of the boutique shops.
There are one-of-a-kind markets in Nelson and nearby Motueka and Tanaka. The Nelson Farmers Market is extremely popular every Wednesday, and you can take home some pottery, crafts, clothing, woodwork, and food. During the summer months, you can also shop in the evenings at the Thursday Twilight Market in Isel Park.
After exploring all of the booths at the local farmers’ markets, browse through Nelson’s many unique boutique shops in the downtown area that sell beautiful clothing, jewelry, art, and home decor. I love The Rock Box for its high-quality (and really cute!) wardrobe staples. For accessories, Shine has gorgeous jewelry – the statement earrings are stunning.
Then, check out the Parker Gallery for incredible art and to view the work of local artists. The exhibits here change constantly and if you fall in love with a piece, you can buy it on the spot!
If all that shopping and walking gets you hungry, then definitely stop at Falafel Gourmet for a heavenly homestyle falafel kebab! This little restaurant is located in the heart of downtown and is my favorite place to stop for lunch.
7. Visit Natureland
Natureland Wildlife Trust is a combo zoo/petting zoo with a focus on conservation and sustainability. It lets you get up close to some adorable creatures and learn about what you can do to help save local New Zealand wildlife. Little ones love it here – we saw some kids feeding the goats and having a blast!
The conservation project has been around since 2013 when it took over the operations of the Natureland Zoo. The entire aim is to help create a space letting people interact with animals and foster a love for species conservation. It’s definitely a place you can feel good about visiting during your trip to New Zealand!
The zoo specializes in native species to the area, so it’s a great opportunity to view the critters up close that you might also see while visiting the National Parks of New Zealand.
Natureland is located right by Tahunanui Beach and is open daily from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. Admission is $15 NZD for adults and $7 NZD for kids.
8. Spend a day at Tahunanui Beach
After checking out Natureland nearby, head to the beach! The ultimate Nelson activity is spending a long day soaking up the sun on a beautiful beach, and Tahunanui Beach fits the bill.
Tahunanui Beach is the closest beach to Nelson – only 3 minutes from the center of the city! Pack a beach blanket, water, and a picnic, and enjoy an entire day relaxing on the stunning coastline. The calm water of Tasman Bay along the beach is perfect for swimming, paddle boarding, and windsurfing.
Walk along the sandy shores taking in the panoramic views, or explore the pools that appear during low tide at the eastern edge of the beach. Kids will love wading through the tidal pools and checking out the abundance of ocean life, like fish, crabs, and sea snails.
For the fisherman among you, there is a pier jutting out into the bay where locals flock to catch a variety of fish like snapper, kahawai, blue cod, and kingfish. You might even spot dolphins if you keep your eyes on the water!
There are also plenty of amenities like beach volleyball courts, barbecues, and picnic tables to enjoy.
Related read: If beach days are high on your must-do list, make sure to check out the best time to visit New Zealand before you go!
9. Have a beer in New Zealand’s oldest pub
History buffs, foodies, and craft beer fanatics can find common ground at the Moutere Inn. Established in 1850, it’s the oldest pub in New Zealand, and the historic building alone is worth the visit.
The pub has laid-back, welcoming vibes that will transport you back to simpler times as you enjoy eating and drinking the night away. Enjoy the tasting menu with locally-sourced ingredients and specials like rump steaks and wine or their famous pork belly. There are 13 rotating taps for beer lovers, and all wines are sourced from the Nelson wineries.
It’s a great place to sample local cuisine and local history during your trip to Nelson and makes a great stop while you explore Moutere Valley.
10. Try archery
If you’ve ever dreamed of trying your hand at archery, your trip to Nelson is the perfect opportunity! In the heart of lush native woodland, you can enjoy an archery adventure while you hunt “dragons”.
This half-day archery course will teach you the ancient practice of shooting a bow and arrow while surrounded by the natural beauty of the forest. The targets are dragons throughout the course, adding some fun and letting your imagination run wild.
Whether you’re an archery pro or trying it for the first time, this tour is an excellent option for small groups and families with varying skill levels and experience. The tour price of $165 NZD includes transportation, full archery training, and all your equipment during your outing.
11. Ride on a quad bike (ATV)
Enjoy exploring the rugged New Zealand bush via a thrilling ATV ride on this Bayview Circuit Quad tour. After thorough lessons in operating ATVs, you will embark on a high-speed adventure through the bush surrounding Nelson. Take in the breathtaking views of the bay along the way and enjoy plenty of educational stops with your knowledgeable guide, who will share facts about the area.
The tour takes about 2.5 hours, and you’ll cover more than 13 km (8 miles) of trails. Light refreshments are included on your journey; the cost is $190 NZD.
12. Wander through Queen’s Gardens
A beautiful escape right in the city, Queen’s Gardens is one of those Nelson attractions to visit when you need to catch your breath and enjoy nature. The gardens were formally opened back in 1892 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.
They’re registered as a historical place and have remained one of the city’s jewels. Before becoming a garden, this area was actually a meat market! The town held a garden design contest and the winner, Antequil Somerville, created a gorgeous Victorian-style garden for the community to enjoy.
Queen’s Gardens is a classic example of a Victorian ornamental garden, with various beautiful flowers and plants blooming throughout the year. Memorial Gates and the Boer War Memorial were added later, and informational signage was posted around the gardens to teach visitors about Nelson’s history. Various sculptures adorn the park, including the Cupid Fountain, the Water Wheel, and the Boer War Memorial.
You can visit the park on your own, but if you’re looking for a tour – a guided walking tour of Nelson is an excellent choice. Along with a visit to the Queen’s Gardens, your guide will show you other points of interest in Nelson, like Christ Church Cathedral, various jewelers (including a Lord of the Rings jeweler!), the Center of New Zealand, and the Nelson Provincial Museum. It’s a great way to cover a lot of ground and learn so much along the way and it’s only $48 NZD!
13. Ride the train in Founders Park
Founders Park is one of Nelson’s best cultural hubs and an amazing place for families to spend an afternoon. It’s like a whole tiny village with character buildings, gardens, a café and the highlight – a train!
The Nelson Railway Society decided to build a railway through the park to celebrate the history of the Nelson to Glenhope line and the Grand Tapawera Railroad Co. that began in the 1980s. The train runs on weekends from 12-4 pm and departs on the hour. Adults can ride for $5 NZD and children for $3 NZD.
Aside from the train ride, you can enjoy exploring Nelson’s heritage and attend plenty of interesting artistic and cultural events that regularly take place at Founder’s Park.
14. Visit a museum or two
History buffs have no shortage of interesting Nelson attractions to add to their itinerary, so set aside some time to visit a few of Nelson’s exciting museums.
The Nelson Classic Car Museum is a popular attraction for automotive fans and features over 150 classic cars in perfect condition, with models dating all the way back to the early 1900s. You can visit daily from 10 am until 4 pm for the cost of $19 NZD per adult and $8 NZD per child.
Another great option to check out during your trip is the Nelson Provincial Museum, located in the middle of Nelson City. Focusing on the region’s intriguing history, you can view Indigenous artifacts from hundreds of years ago in the permanent Regional Gallery and check out the constantly rotating exhibits in the Upper Gallery.
You definitely want to spend at least an hour experiencing the various exhibitions, and admission is free, although donations are recommended. The museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm daily.
Golf is a popular pastime in Nelson for tourists and locals alike, and the area is home to some genuinely fantastic golf courses. Incredible views and pristine paths offer golfers the perfect place to soak up some sunshine and enjoy the sport during their New Zealand vacation. Some popular courses include Greenacres Golf Club, Motueka Golf Club, and Totaradale Golf Club.
In addition to traditional golf courses, there is a popular frisbee golf course located in Isel Park – just make sure to pack your frisbee!
Are you traveling with little ones? Try out some of Nelson’s fun mini-golf courses. Road Hogs is an indoor course that offers fun for the whole family!
16. Ride in a helicopter
Take in the natural beauty of Nelson with a bird’s eye view on this unforgettable scenic helicopter tour. It’s an incredible opportunity to get out of the city and up to the highest peaks of the surrounding mountains. The private tour is about an hour in total with 25 minutes of flight time and will take you over Tasman Bay, Golden Bay, Nelson Lakes, Abel Tasman National Park, and the mountains.
The cost for a private helicopter for 3 is $940 NZD. Make sure to pack your camera to capture all of the breathtaking views during your flight!
17. Go skydiving!
Brave thrill-seekers searching for a bold adventure can book a skydiving tour over Nelson’s stunning landscape.
Talk about an adrenaline rush – this tandem skydiving experience will have you flying high above South Island before some epic free-falling fun. You’ll fly to an altitude of your choice from 9,000 to 20,000 feet before leaping from the plane with your experienced instructor, allowing you to take in the incredible views of New Zealand’s famous scenery.
The tour includes all transportation and the cost varies depending on the height you choose. After skydiving myself, I always recommend going as high as your budget allows! The cheapest jump is $286 NZD for 9,000 feet – which is actually one of the most affordable places to skydive in NZ.
18. Visit Moturoa (Rabbit Island)
Around 20 minutes from Nelson City, you can venture to Moturoa – also known as Rabbit Island for an unforgettable day trip.
Rabbit Island is located on the southern tip of Tasman Bay. It’s a popular spot for Nelson locals, who frequent the beach year-round for sunshine, swimming, and relaxing on the sand
The island is a beautiful place to spend a day at the beach and was formed 7,000 years ago from barrier islands and the Waimea River. The long, sandy beach is the big draw here with lots of room to find a spot and plenty of room for swimming!
Facilities include washrooms, picnic tables, and barbecues, so it’s a great place to pack a picnic and enjoy time with family and friends. Just make sure to leave once it gets dark as there’s no camping allowed.
19. Go bicycling
Cycling is one of Nelson’s most popular pastimes for tourists and locals, and the area is well-known for its well-established network of trails. The Great Taste Trails run throughout many of Nelson’s wineries and are a great way to explore the area with plenty of boozy pit stops along the way.
Bike rentals can be found around Nelson – we recommend Nelson Cycle Hire and Tours where you can rent a good quality bike for $55 NZD per day.
Mountain biking trails are also numerous throughout the area surrounding Nelson. Dun Mountain Trail, Heaphy Mountain Biking Trail, and Remake Track are a few of the popular routes. If a guided tour is more your style, we enjoyed this self-guided bike tour from Nelson to Mapua. The experience is $109 NZD and includes all your biking equipment, a map, and transportation to the start of the trail. You’ll pedal past the beautiful coastline at your own pace, with plenty of places to stop along the way including wineries and cafes.
Another great tour takes you through the longest decommissioned rail tunnel in the southern hemisphere to see mountains, farmland, orchards, and vineyards galore. There are two options for the Tunnel to Town tour – the first tour is via Mapua and the second tour is from Nelson City. Both tours include a ride through the tunnel and plenty of stops along the way.
20. Drink your way along the Craft Beer Trail
Nelson is well-known for wine-making, but beer lovers will also find plenty of tasty options too. With the perfect climate for growing hops, Nelson’s beer culture has been thriving for years, with breweries of all sizes scattered around Nelson City. The Nelson Craft Beer Trail runs throughout the area and is a great way to experience the local beer scene.
A couple of must-visits include The Mussel Inn which is legendary for producing the first recorded brew in New Zealand. Give the “Captain Cooker” brew a try for a taste of an all-malt beer with locally-grown hops and flavor from the manuka tree.
Hop Farm Brewery is another favorite known for growing the hops they use to brew tasty beers. The classic is Kahurangi Pilsner with its clean, crisp taste.
To knock a few breweries off your list and get some exercise too, this biking and beer combo tour has you covered. For 6 hours, you’ll bike around the Nelson suburbs, where you can stop for a beer at your leisure. The $105 NZD tour includes all your equipment and transportation to the start of the trail and beer tastings. Expect to cover approximately 16 km (10 miles) throughout the day, but it’s mostly on a flat trail, so your legs shouldn’t be burning too badly!
Related read: Another great place to drink craft beer is at some of the best breweries in Queenstown.
21. Go hiking
Nelson is known for its unique landscapes and beautiful nature, so it’s no surprise that some of the best hikes in New Zealand are around here. Believe me, there are some seriously unbelievable hiking trails to explore.
Our favorite by far was the Heaphy Track which stretched 78 km (48 miles) within the Kahurangi National Park. The trail follows the original path of the Maori pounamu tribe when they traveled from Golden Bay to the rivers of Westland. You’ll see rainforests, grasslands, and mountains on one incredible hike.
The Abel Tasman Coast Track is another popular option for hikers. It runs 51 km (31 miles) and takes 3-5 days to hike in its entirety in one direction. You’ll experience epic coastal views and native bush during your hike.
If you’re searching for a shorter hike, the Tahunanui Beach Walk is a lovely 5 km (3 mile) option that takes about 1 hour to complete.
22. Visit Peanut Butter World
Unique and kitschy in a cute way, Pic’s Peanut Butter World is a Nelson attraction unlike any other. It’s dedicated to the snack we all love – peanut butter!
On top of viewing the world’s largest jar of peanut butter, you can learn all about the roasting of peanuts and the creation of peanut butter. A big plus to a visit here is that the tours are completely free!
Pic’s is a full-functioning peanut butter factory so you can see all the cool machinery, and kids can even try making their own peanut butter. It’s best to book a tour online ahead of time to guarantee a spot.
Peanut Butter World is open on weekdays from 8:30 am and 4 pm and closed on weekends.
23. Check out all the murals
Nelson has a fantastic art scene and the city boasts some incredible murals that you won’t want to miss! In fact, there are over 200 pieces of colorful street art to be found around the city, so you can spend a few hours exploring them, using this map to guide you. I promise, it will be a game changer for your Instagram feed!
And it’s not just about street art here, either. There are tons of art galleries around town, so definitely try to visit at least a few while you’re here.
The Alchemy Arts Centre is an awesome place to see locally made pottery, while you can watch mesmerizing live demonstrations at Hoglund Glassblowing Studio. Meanwhile, the Suter Art Gallery Te Aratoi o Whakatū is one of the oldest in New Zealand and houses a diverse range of culturally significant pieces.
24. Visit Isel Park
With lots of flowers, well maintained gardens and picnic areas, and large trees that provide plenty of shade, Isel Park is a wonderful place to spend a relaxing afternoon in the sun. There’s also a frisbee golf course here, and Isel House, a Victorian heritage house that’s been carefully restored to its former glory.
I definitely recommend visiting Isel Park on a Thursday evening if you’re in Nelson during the summer, because the Twilight Market is held from 4 pm until dark every week during daylight savings. You can enjoy live music, lots of fantastic local food carts, and some quirky craft stalls too. Plus, Isel House is also open during market hours, too.
25. Catch your meal
Nelson’s fishing industry is a thriving part of the local economy, and you can try your luck at catching dinner during your vacation.
The Anatoki Salmon farm provides an exciting experience where you can carve out your own little slice of paradise on Lake Anatoki in Golden Bay and cast a fishing line in the hopes of catching your lunch. After you catch your perfect fish, you can enjoy eating it after it’s prepared at the cafe. The fishing gear is provided at no charge! You’ll just pay $32 NZD per kg your fish weighs.
Ocean fishing charters are a great Nelson activity, and Seabird Charters offers amazing full-day excursions. For a luxurious experience you’ll never forget, you can book a private tour that allows you to sail along the coast, taking in the views while you fish. The crew knows the best spots to go, so you’re sure to catch something!
26. Go kayaking, SUP, or paddle in a Waka
Getting out on the water is one of the best Nelson activities to enjoy all that sunshine! Spend part of a day trying SUP boarding, kayaking, or in a Waka – a traditional Maori canoe.
There are some great tour options so you can learn about the area with a knowledgeable guide as you paddle, or take a self-guided tour in the water surrounding Tahunanui beach. Whichever you choose, you’ll be immersed in the gorgeous coastal environment that makes Nelson famous.
For self-guided options, check out Moana Paddle Nelson, which offers paddling adventures from Tahunanui Beach. SUP boards and kayaks are available for rent at an hourly rate (around $25 NZD per hour) so that you can paddle around Nelson Haven for however long you desire. They even offer paddle board lessons if you need a little extra instruction.
If you’re looking for the perfect guided day trip, check out this Waka paddling tour that explores landmarks like Split Apple Rock. In addition to being a great way to get outside, you’ll also have a unique cultural experience while learning how to paddle the Waka canoe during your tour. The knowledgeable guides will introduce you to Maori culture, and you will learn special customs along the way, like karakia and a traditional Waka salute.
Some of our favorite tours of Abel Tasman National Park, like this one, also offer kayaking as part of the experience, so if you’re looking to double up on water sports and check out the National Park, those are great options as well.
27. Day trip to Motueka
Escape the hustle and bustle of Nelson City with a day trip to the smaller town of Motueka. It’s less than a 40-minute drive away and gives you a whole new place to explore.
Despite being located just 41.7 kilometers (25.9 miles) from Nelson, I feel as though Motueka is a bit of a hidden gem. Sure, it’s a gateway to the famous Abel Tasman National Park but lots of travelers just pass through here without stopping to appreciate all the great things to do.
Motueka is a town full of cute boutique shopping, quaint cafes, and lots of local food. If you can, plan to head here on a weekend to catch the Motueka Sunday Market. It’s the best place to pick up some local goodies and amazing fresh produce.
If you go on a Friday, you can visit Jester House, a cafe that makes you feel like you’ve gone through the looking glass into a chapter of Alice in Wonderland. You can even stay in the nursery-rhyme inspired boot hotel suite on site!
While you’re in town, don’t skip out on the famous cheeseburger donut at The Smoking Barrel. With handmade dough around a grilled patty, pickles, and cheddar cheese sauce, it tasted exactly like a cheeseburger and was one of our favorite treats here. They also serve house-smoked American barbecue meats, and the most epic sharing platters you’ve ever seen (although you should only really order one of these if you’re dining with a big group).
After exploring the village, head to the Motueka Saltwater Baths for a refreshing dip and a relaxing swim. These pools are completely free and have a beautiful view of the sea. They were built back in the 1920s after a shark sighting promoted a local fundraiser to enclose the foreshore, and now there’s a playground, picnic, and barbecue area too.
It’s a great place to hang out, swim in the summer, and enjoy the beautiful views all year round.
Related read: If you’re in a exploring mood, plan your route to include one (or more!) of the best road trips on the South Island.
28. Enjoy distilleries and craft cocktails
No visit to Nelson is complete without checking out the local bar scene. We loved sampling tasty craft cocktails and visiting local distilleries during our stay. Check out Kismet Cocktail and Whiskey Bar or Bamboo Tiger Jazz Bar for superb cocktails. The vibes are unbeatable!
There are so many great options to choose from when it comes to distilleries, but one of our favorites was Dancing Sands Distillery. It’s a bit of a jaunt – about 1.5 hours from Nelson – but the free tastings of their award-winning gin make it worth the trip! You also get to view the still and production area, and they will even teach you about the gin-making process while you enjoy free samples.
Kiwi Spirit Distillery is another cool spot in Golden Bay. With every bottle purchased, they offer free tastings at their Cellar Door. They specialize in using local ingredients to bring spirits to life like sun-ripened tangelos in a liqueur and Totara and Kahikatea berries in the Greenstone Gin.
29. Eat lots of seafood
Sampling the local seafood absolutely has to be at the top of your list during your trip to Nelson. On top of being one of the major industries in Nelson, the seafood is among the freshest and most delicious you’ll ever have!
One of our favorite restaurants was the Boat Shed, where you can dine on mussels and fish in their unique restaurant right on the water. The ambiance is perfectly romantic, and it’s an incredible place to enjoy good food while watching the sunset.
Mama Cod is another excellent choice for dining during your stay in Nelson. The restaurant serves up tasty local delicacies like oysters, prawns, and fish. It’s also one of our favorite places in Nelson to grab brunch on the weekends.
30. Relax at Awaroa Beach (People’s Beach)
Awaroa Beach is one of the prettiest beaches around Nelson – it’s truly a slice of paradise. It’s known locally as “People’s Beach” because the New Zealanders bought the beach in an impressive crowd-funding initiative.
It’s located deep in Abel Tasman National Park and can only be reached by hiking along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track or by accessing the coast via boat.
For those who have some extra time, you might consider booking a stay at the Awaroa Lodge or packing a tent and camping out. There’s a lot to explore in the pristine natural setting, including tidal estuaries and endless stretches of golden sand.
31. Hit the slopes
The Rainbow Ski Area can be reached within 2 hours of Nelson, and there you can take ski lessons, rent gear, and enjoy the fresh powder as you zoom down the slopes.
Gorgeous surroundings and views of Nelson Lakes National Park make skiing at Rainbow Ski Area an unforgettable experience for winter sports enthusiasts. There are routes appropriate for all levels – from first-timers to pros. Snowboarders will love the unique terrain that offers many jumps and drops.
The ski season in New Zealand begins in July and ends in September.
32. See glow worms
On the long list of things that make Abel Tasman National Park one of the most incredible places we’ve ever been – you can see glow worms light up the night!
You’ll have to stay at the park overnight to see the glow worms, but they can be viewed from both Anchorage and Awaroa. We recommend staying at Awaroa Lodge, located within the park which provides a great jumping-off point to explore at night and see the glow worms. Trails lead from the hotel directly into the Awaroa Wetlands, where you can see these tiny creatures up close.
33. Visit Mapua and walk the wharf
Mapua is located 24.5 kilometers (15.2 miles) from Nelson, or roughly a 25 minute drive. It’s a charming seaside settlement with plenty of bars, restaurants, and art galleries to explore, as well as plenty of natural beauty.
Mapua is situated on the ocean and has some really cool shops and delicious eateries. You MUST try some of the real fruit ice cream from Hamish’s and the delicious fish and chips from The Smokehouse Cafe. Eating right by the water is one of my favorite things to do at the wharf.
You can also browse the art galleries, taste locally made chocolates, sip on coffee from the cute cafes, and enjoy a sunset by the water before returning to Nelson.
One of my favorite things to do in Mapua is head to The Jellyfish on the Wharf to enjoy coffee with one heck of a view! They have craft beer and a great dinner menu, too, but I recommend coming here in the morning for a caffeine fix before catching the small ferry from the Wharf to Rabbit Island, where you can explore the networking of mountain bike trails.
If you need to, you can hire a mountain bike from around $60 NZD per day from Kiwi Journeys on the Mapua Wharf. The ferry ride from the wharf to the island takes just 10 minutes, and the boat leaves once per hour from 10 am until 4 pm. It costs $15 NZD for an adult return, or $8 NZD for kids under 12.
Once you get to Rabbit Island, you can explore the fantastic network of trails and maybe spend some time chilling out on the tidal beach, which also has picnic tables, changing rooms, and barbecues.
The last ferry back to Mapua departs at 4.10 pm, and then in the evening I recommend rewarding yourself for your cycling prowess with a visit to the Golden Bear Brewing Company. They have a great range of core beers and some fun seasonal ones to try, and a yummy Tex-Mex bar food menu.
34. Enjoy the scenic drive to Picton
I highly recommend that you take some extra time and make stops along the way – you’ll definitely want to enjoy the views and perhaps enjoy a hike on the Governors Bay Walking Track. If you love adorable small towns – make a pit stop in Havelock for lunch (keep reading for more info on Havelock!).
Check out our complete road trip guide for this drive for lots of ideas of where to stop!
Then once you finish the drive, make sure to check out all the fun things to do in Picton! This small coastal town is gorgeous and full of neat experiences like joining the local postman on his delivery route on a mail boat cruise to checking out the many wildlife sanctuaries and even swimming with wild dolphins, you’re sure to keep busy while visiting Picton.
35. Day trip to Havelock
If you’re up for a drive to a cute town not far from Nelson, take a one-hour road trip to Havelock. This small town with approximately 500 people is a historic town famous for its gold mining past and its Greenshell Mussels (more commonly known as Green-Lipped Mussels). This little town is known as the “Greenshell Mussel capital of the world.”
So naturally, in Havelock one of the best things you can do is eat mussels! My favorite place is called Mills Bay Mussels. It’s a small restaurant located right near the marina and they serve the best mussels- trust me!
At the Havelock Marina, you can join this half-day Greenshell Mussel Cruise where you can taste the freshly steamed mussels while exploring Pelorous and Kenepuru Sounds. You can also hop on a fishing charter from the Marina – there’s abundant fish to be caught in the waters near here. The most common fish you can catch is snapper.
Or, just go on a full-day scenic cruise of the stunning Marlborough Sounds. You’ll get to ride on a historic Pelorus mail boat that delivers mail, groceries, and supplies to remote areas. It only allows up to 9 people on board, so it will be a more personal experience.
Thanks to its past life as a gold mining settlement, the town is filled with historic colonial buildings which are now home to art galleries, restaurants, and boutique stores.
The Havelock Museum, which has been open since 1973, displays interesting memorabilia highlighting the town’s past as a saw-milling and gold-mining town. If you are interested in the gold rush era in New Zealand – a visit to nearby Canvastown (a historic mining town) is well worth spending a few hours. It is located 10 km (6.2 miles) from Havelock.
If you want to spend a bit more time here before heading back to Nelson, then why not consider spending the night in Havelock. There are some great places to stay in Havelock, including Havelock Garden Motel conveniently located right in town.
Related Read: Learn all about visiting the Marlborough Sound including the best things to do!
Where to Stay in Nelson, NZ
Now that you know just how much Nelson has to offer, it’s time to find a great place to stay so you can check a few of these things off your travel bucket list!
Luckily, Nelson has lots of choices whether you are traveling on a budget, or planning to splurge a bit. These are our top recommendations for various price ranges.
Bridge Backpackers – $
With its central location, Bridge Backpackers is the perfect spot to set out on your adventures around Nelson. The kitchen and dining area are spacious and there are free bikes, a fitness center, and a garden on the property. You can grab a bunk in a shared room for $30 NZD or a private room for $68 NZD – a great deal that leaves lots of extra spending money. Book your stay on HostelWorld.com or Booking.com to guarantee a room!
The Hotel Nelson – $$
In the city center, The Hotel Nelson is our pick for plenty of space with some nice extras like an excellent on-site restaurant, an outdoor heated swimming pool, and free WiFi. There are more than 70 studios and apartment-style rooms, so if you’re traveling with family, this hotel is a great pick. The rooms offer kitchenettes or full kitchens and there are even laundry facilities inside. Rooms start at $130 NZD and you can book your stay online here.
Beaches Nelson – $$$
If the beach is calling your name, stay just a 5-minute walk away from Tahunanui Beach at Beaches Nelson. It’s a quiet place to stay with huge, comfy beds and spa baths. It has a homey feel with apartment-style rooms including kitchenettes. The staff is really helpful and the location near the beach is a big plus! Rooms are around $215 NZD nightly. Book your stay online through Booking.com.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually purchase it as soon as we land in the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
I hope you’re excited about your upcoming trip to Nelson, NZ! This is a stunning part of New Zealand with its year-round sunshine, gorgeous beaches, and epic national parks. You can easily spend your entire vacation here!
While you’re planning your NZ itinerary, make sure to browse around my other blogs. I have lots of road trip ideas, along with some unique things to do in places on both the North and South Islands. After your trip, come back and leave a comment about your favorite part of Nelson or New Zealand in general!