Nelson, New Zealand: Best Things to Do
Here is a travel guide to Nelson, New Zealand, including best things to do, top attractions, activities, information on how to get there, when to visit, and budget tips on where to stay.
The second oldest town in New Zealand, nicknamed the Top of the South, and the home of rugby - all that and much more is Nelson.
Thanks to its excellent location and mild climate, Nelson is one of the most desired places to live in New Zealand.
Combine sunshine all year round, golden fine sand beaches, beautiful sunsets, boutique wineries, laidback atmosphere, and you will get one of the finest places in New Zealand which every traveler wants to visit and where almost every local would like to settle for retirement.
Our Nelson Experience
We arrived in Nelson from Picton after we finished moderately challenging multi-day hike Queen Charlotte Track.
We stopped at the DOC camp along the way, where we briefly explored an interesting green looking river and some small waterfalls. The weather was unfortunately not cooperating with us, and we spent a night stuck in our car listening to rain drumming on the roof.
Thankfully, we woke up to completely different weather the next day, and the sun made a smile on our faces as we were excited to finally hit the beach.
In a great mood, we subsequently reached Nelson only to get disappointed again.
We arrived from the north via State Highway 6, and couldn't fail to notice one thing. The sea was gone. The difference between low and high tide in this area was huge and took us by surprise.
The first impression was not that great as we hoped for, so we parked our car in the city center near Trafalgar square and spent the morning exploring the town. After we refilled our supplies in a Countdown store, and we drove to a Tahunanui beach to give it a second chance.
We'll be honest with you, this is still a city beach, even though it's located on the way out of the town, and probably not the best beach in the entire world. But we loved it. After several months of hard work on a vineyard in Martinborough, this was our first proper beach time in New Zealand, and we couldn't get enough of it.
We spent the rest of the day chilling on the beach, and to make it short, we had a great time in Nelson and would love to come back someday in the future.
Best Things to Do in Nelson
Nelson is a vibrant place and offers everything you could expect from a lively coastal town. Here is the list of four best things to see and do in Nelson.
World of WearableArt & Classic Car Museum | Get ready to be WoWed. You can't miss this museum if in the area as you will find here ever-changing displays of dress and vintage cars. You can thoroughly enjoy up-close fascinating garments, creations, and art displays, and then carry on to other section to admire selected classic cars and motorbikes.
Christ Church Cathedral | You have to make a stop at the striking Nelson's cathedral with a 35 meters high tower and 350 seats. You will find it at the end of Trafalgar street, which is one of the main Nelson's retail streets. The history stretches to 1851 when the first construction was erected, but it was moved and rebuilt, and the cathedral you can see today is from 1925. It is also a must-stop sight for several reasons - you won't have a chance to see so many architectural gems on your New Zealand itinerary.
Gardens | Nelson is almost always sunny, and the pleasant weather is tempting visitors and locals alike to spend as much time as possible outside and to chill. One of the best places where to go when in the city are gardens which are spread throughout Nelson. Some of them have water fountains, some of them cute romantic bridges, and of course, you will find here many flowers. One of the most popular gardens you can visit in Nelson is Queen's Garden.
Tahunanui Beach | As we'd mentioned already above, Tahunanui Beach is a great place to chill or have a picnic. We even stayed there until dark and watched a crimson red sunset over the Tasman Bay. The best thing about the Tahunanui Beach is that it is for everyone. There are lots of toilets, dog walking areas, playfields, shops in walking distance, library, children play area, cold shower, tap to wash feet, and plenty of carparks including one for campers. Just remember there is no camping allowed as the gate closes at the night.
What to See and Do Around Nelson
Nelson has an excellent location, and there are so many things to do, and places to see around the town, that you would need months to explore them all.
Unless you live there, you probably won't have that much time to see everything, so we've handpicked the must-visit places in the north part of the South Island in Nelson vicinity to help you choose what place you might include in your New Zealand itinerary.
Cable Bay Adventure Park | Not far from Nelson is an adventure park with its biggest adrenaline attraction called Skywire. In case you like to spice up your travels and enjoy the feeling when your heart rate goes up, this is an activity you should not miss by no means. The ride on the world's longest Skywire is really a thrilling experience you will definitely enjoy. It is possible to buy tickets in advance here.
Rabbit Island | 20 minutes drive from Nelson lies a small island with a beautiful 13 kilometers stretch of sand. Rabbit Island is popular among locals for picnicking, cycling, walking and swimming. We stopped at Rabbit Island when traveling from Abel Tasman National Park, and could not be happier to find such a wonderful place to break the journey.
Abel Tasman National Park | Named after Dutch explorer visiting New Zealand in the 17th century, Abel Tasman National Park is a top travel destination near Nelson. The park is famous for its golden beaches, tidal areas, abundant wildlife, and stunning coastal scenery. We did the Abel Tasman Coast Track, and spent unforgettable four days camping and hiking in the park. Just make sure you pack a bug repellent against sandflies before you go.
Our Tip: In case you do not have time to travel to Abel Tasman National Park, the popular option is to take a one-day boat trip from Kaiteriteri, a small coastal village only one hour drive from Nelson.
Kahurangi National Park | Even though Kahurangi National Park is the second-largest national park in New Zeland, you won't see crowds here like you would at more popular Abel Tasman National Park. This park features a true New Zeland wilderness, astonishing nature, and great hiking trails. The best way to explore the park is to embark on a 4-6 days long Heaphy Track (which belongs among New Zealand's Great Walks) across the park. The park is also a great place to spot some of the New Zealand's native animals as the park is home to kiwi birds, and nocturnal snails, but flora is interesting as well as the vegetation consists of beech forests, ferns, shrubs and nikau palms on the coast.
Wineries | Nelson region is renowned for its outstanding Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc wines, and you should visit at least one of the numerous excellent wineries while exploring the area, especially if you love drinking wine.
Our Tip: Fancy wine tasting? Why not take a half-day tour around wineries near Nelson?
Queen Charlotte Track | One of our favorite easy to moderately challenging multi-day hikes in New Zealand is Queen Charlotte Track. If you are arriving from the south, head north to Picton, catch a water taxi and enjoy the stunning views of sounds and bays on a three-day hike.
Farewell Spit | At the South Island's northernmost point, you will find a 26 kilometers long sandspit stretching into the sea. This unique fine sand natural barrier is almost out of this world, though to fully appreciate the beauty of it, you would have to see it from a bird's eye perspective.
Cycling | Nelson is famous for its winding roads and beautiful surroundings featuring sea views, wineries, swing bridges, and mild hills. One of the most popular cycling destinations from Nelson is Mapua, a village settled in a picturesque nature. Mapua is 30 kilometers from Nelson, and in case you will have enough energy, why not to take a detour to Rabbit Island? You can rent bikes in one of many shops in the center of Nelson, or you can reserve the equipment in advance.
Nelson Lakes National Park | One of the most underrated parks in New Zealand, and another South Island's gem near Nelson that is hidden to the majority of foreign visitors is Nelson Lakes National Park. As the name suggests, you can find here many picturesque lakes, but we were headed to this place to experience the longest trek we've done in New Zealand, Travers-Sabine Track.
Where to Stay in Nelson
Nelson offers a great choice of hotels for all type of travelers.
The city itself is quite compact and most of the hotels are close to the city center.
If you have a car and don't mind a short drive, you can stay a bit farther from the city in Tahunanui close to the beach carrying the same name.
Here are the three best hotel picks for staying overnight in Nelson for every budget.
Budget | Tasman Bay Backpackers - You won't find many budget-friendly places for backpackers in Nelson, but this hostel might be within your price range. Modern, clean, with great facilities, and a shared kitchen.
Mid-range | Trailways Hotel Nelson - Excellent location within walking distance from the restaurants and shops, all rooms are fully airconditioned, and the staff will go the extra mile to ensure a comfortable visit. Great value for money.
Luxury | Shelbourne Villa - If you are tired of the same look of modern hotels, we might have something different for you. In this accommodation, the rooms are decorated with art by local artists, and you can feel the touch of 1920's decor everywhere. Top location, great facilities, and superb hosts will make your stay unforgettable.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
How to Get to Nelson
Air | Only 15 minutes drive from Nelson is Nelson Airport. Despite the fact, that the airport serves only domestic flights, it's one of the busiest airports in the country. You can catch a flight to all major cities like Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, and others.
Sea | There are two big ferry companies Interislander and Bluebridge operating between North and South Island. They provide similar service for a similar price so choose the company depending on availability they have. To get to Nelson from North Island, you must take a ferry from Wellington to Picton, and then take a less than two hours drive to Nelson.
Road | From Picton and Blenheim use a State Highway 6 which will eventually take you to the west coast of the South Island. To get to Nelson from Christchurch, follow State Highway 1 and in Blenheim turn off to State Highway 6.
When to Visit Nelson
Do you know what is the nickname of Nelson?
It's Sunny Nelson. Nelson with its average 2500 hours sunshine per year is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand and the desired place to live, or at least spend a holiday.
Best time to visit Nelson is between December and March when the summer is in full swing, and the temperatures are at their highest.
Winters are mild without snow, but with plenty of sunshine, and you can expect some morning frost and colder temperatures throughout the day.
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