A beachfront town nestled between the gorgeous Abel Tasman National Park and the epic Marlborough Sounds, Nelson is the ultimate gateway to exploring the top of New Zealand’s South Island.
The heart of Nelson is its vibrant and bustling city centre. Teeming with numerous, delicious eateries, cafes, bars and shopping it’s the perfect area to spend a night or two as you explore the rest of the region.
Between hiking through national parks, lying on the beach, wining & dining, and exploring the local attractions, there are loads of incredible things to do in Nelson and the wider Tasman area.
Read on to find out our top picks!
Things to Do in Nelson
Nelson is conveniently located at the top of the South Island with the nearest major airport, making it the perfect spot to ‘set up a base’. The city is dotted with fun attractions to keep you busy, whilst venturing further afield will land you amongst some of the best places to visit in New Zealand.
Nelson certainly has a bit of everything, so make the most of it by exploring everything the area has to offer.
1. Explore Abel Tasman National Park
The Abel Tasman National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the country, so it’s no wonder it’s classed as a national park with the track considered one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
With ombre waters flashing from emerald green to turquoise blue, as the gold of the sand blends with the blue of the water. And yes, the sand really is that gold. If you’re visiting Nelson, you certainly won’t want to miss Abel Tasman.
Now, if you have the time, hiking the entire Great Walk over 3-5 days would be the best option. Starting from Marahau and walking 60km through to Totaranui or Wainui. Avid hikers and backpackers can opt to stay in the DOC huts (making sure to book far in advance). Otherwise, add a bit of luxury to your trip by staying in the numerous lodges along the way.
We opted to spend a night in Marahau, an awesome beachfront town that acts as the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. We stayed at Abel Tasman Haven, the place was perfect, located well and the hosts were super lovely.
However, for most travellers who are just visiting Nelson, you won’t have 3-5 days to spend hiking. Luckily, there are other ways to fully experience this incredible park.
The easiest option is to make your way to Kaiteriteri and book a 4-hour scenic cruise through the Abel Tasman National Park. This will give you a great taste of what the park is like and is perfect for people with limited time or who don’t enjoy (or are unable to) hiking.
If you have a day to spare (which we highly recommend), then your best option is to book a cruise and walk from Kaiteriteri to Medlands, returning from Anchorage back to Kaiteriteri. We did this exact trip in 2022 and felt it was the perfect way to explore the park without sleeping over there. This particular section of the hike is arguably the best so you can rest assured you aren’t missing out.
Finally, for the boujee ones out there, New Zealand is arguably best seen from the air. You can book this scenic flight and cruise that departs from Nelson and takes you out to see Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay.
No matter how you choose to do it, make sure your itinerary includes Abel Tasman!
2. Hike to the Center of New Zealand
We didn’t expect much from this short, 20-minute hike near Nelson’s city centre, but we were pleasantly surprised.
For such a short (though somewhat steep) walk, the Center of New Zealand offers breathtaking views out over Nelson and over the water. We recommend making your way up just before sunset when the light is at its best.
3. Visit Cable Bay – A Hidden Gem in Nelson
As cliche as it sounds, Cable Bay is Nelson’s hidden gem. Despite all the talk we heard about Tahuna Beach, we decided to take the slightly longer, but still incredibly short, 25-minute drive out to Cable Bay.
Cable Bay is gorgeous! Definitely up there amongst the best beaches we’ve visited in New Zealand, and as Kiwis we’ve visited a LOT.
Make sure to tackle this short drive and bring all your beach gear. It’s a great spot to spend half a day lying by the beach, swimming, kayaking or SUPing. Also, you’ll want to make your way up a short walk near the start of the beach. Just 5-minutes up will offer incredible views over the beach and the harbour, or keep going for a great 5-hour hike.
Nearby, you can also find the super cool Cable Bay Adventure Park. This place offers a bunch of adventure activities in Nelson, including archery, quad biking, e-biking (around Cable Bay!) and the Skywire. Check them all out!
4. Stroll Through Queen’s Gardens
Located right in the heart of Nelson’s city centre, you’ll likely stumble upon the charming Queen’s Gardens. These gardens are immaculately maintained and well worth a short stroll.
They aren’t big, so you’ll only need to set aside 20-minutes for a wander and a sit down.
5. Try Stand Up Paddle Boarding
Stand up paddle boarding (or SUPing) is a rapidly growing activity in New Zealand. We reckon it’s a better alternative to kayaking, they’re easier to transport, super stable and feels a lot less like a workout.
There’s a bunch of great places to give this activity a try in Nelson. Tahunanui is a popular spot, and you can also book the boards from the beach in Cable Bay. We also considered giving it a try along the Maitai River.
6. Peruse The Suter Art Gallery
Located right next to the Queen’s Gardens, The Suter is Nelson’s leading art gallery and is a great little place to pop in to peruse.
We love to visit local art galleries as we travel around, they often offer a great lens into the culture of the country you’re visiting. When we visited the Suter Gallery they had a great exhibit on that tackled some of the social, political, environmental, and economic issues New Zealand is facing today.
An added bonus is visiting the gallery is also free.
7. Enjoy a Cold One at the Best Bars in Nelson
Whether you’re after a local craft beer, a marlborough sav or a delicious cocktail, the bar scene in Nelson has you covered.
The Vic bar in the heart of town is a great pub with comfortable outdoor seats, great for soaking up the sun and doing some people watching. An added bonus is the food here is decent and they offer some delicious beers.
Across from The Vic is the popular Mama Cod Tiki Bar. We have Covid to thank for this oe, as the bar rebranded from a gin bar to a tiki bar in an attempt to appeal to a more local audience, and we feel it was a success. The cocktails here are on point, all offering a unique twist on the typical tiki cocktail – that being, they almost all use gin instead of rum!
Kismet is another great cocktail bar in Nelson, specialising in whiskey as well as various classic and modern cocktails in a superb prohibition-esque, styled bar.
8. Dine at as Many Nelson Restaurants as Possible
Eating is one of the best ways to travel and experience new places, at least in our opinion. The top of the South Island can be a bit lean on great restaurants, with the majority of them densely packed into a few streets in Nelson.
If you’re planning to travel around, we recommend dining out as much as you can in Nelson as they have a bunch of great dinner and lunch options, ranging from sushi and kebabs to fine dining.
Our top pick was Burger Culture on Trafalgar Street. Although a bit pricey for your typical burger, especially outside of Auckland, they were impossible to fault. Served with a crisp cider and a side of curly fries it’s the perfect late afternoon spot.
9. Shop at the Nelson Saturday Market
The Nelson Saturday Market runs every Saturday from 8am – 1pm and is located right in the heart of town. This large open air market is one of our favourite things to do in Nelson thanks to its huge array of food and drinks.
There’s a few coffee stalls, one which we forgot the name of was also a coffee roaster and served great espresso. We selected two places: one was a Malaysian lady serving a delicious roti dish, and an incredible Dutch stall called Dutch Touch serving pancakes and Oliebollen (a MUST try dish). All of which we devoured in the shade on the edge of the carpark.
Although we felt it was more about the food, the Nelson market is also a great place to grab some gifts or locally crafted products.
Just remember to bring cash as some don’t have eftpos, but if you don’t have most allow bank transfer.
10. Relax at Tahunanui Beach
The entire coast of New Zealand has no shortage of incredible beaches, so naturally, Nelson is no exception. Make your way just a short 5-minute drive from central Nelson to Tahunanui Beach and bring your beach kit.
This is a great beach for a lie down with a book and an occasional dip. Although, if you’re strapped for time we would recommend making your way to Cable Bay or any of the bays around Abel Tasman instead.
11. Go Cycling Around Nelson
A great activity in Nelson is to go cycling around the numerous tracks. There’s a lot of options for this ranging from renting a bike and cycling around town (not a bad option at all) to cycling the entire Great Taste Trail.
The entire trail is 175km and takes 3-6 days to ride. We’re not quite at that level yet so we opted for a one day trip, covering the section from Nelson through to Mapua – still a solid 32km of riding.
And that’s assuming you’re just going one way! If you don’t want to return the way you came, then you’ll most likely want to book a self-guided tour. We booked through Kiwi Journeys here and were stoked with the service, the bikes and the overall trip.
12. Visit Golden Bay, Takaka, Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach
Just on the other side of Abel Tasman and over Takaka Hill, you’ll find a whole new world called Golden Bay. The main town here is called Takaka and it is best described as ‘hippy’. We loved this laid-back town and were impressed with the variety of fun activities and great little eateries here.
From Takaka, you can explore further out to Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach. The latter, in particular, was one of the most awe-inspiring places we’ve visited in the South Island.
From Nelson, this is a pretty full on day with over 5-hours of driving so we’d recommend spending a night in Takaka if possible.
We stayed at a cute hostel called Annie’s Nirvana Lodge for just $70 a night. A bit of a quirky place with tonnes of character and at a ridiculously low price. The garden outside made this place incredible value. However, a nicer option (with private bathrooms) would be The Rocks Chalet.
If you can stretch your budget, we’d also highly recommend this scenic flight by Golden Bay Air as the best way to check out Farewell Spit and Wharariki. Of course it saves on a bit of a drive, but it’s also the absolute best way to see the area.
13. Go Back in Time at Founders Heritage Park
The Founders Heritage Park is a cute historical museum in Nelson. It is made up of a number of historical buildings and is one of the top things to do in Nelson with Families. It’s not too big to be a struggle for toddlers and children, but the colourful buildings will keep them interested.
The museum has a bit of a focus on transport, so make sure to ride the railway train and walk through the Bristol Freighter plane.
14. Walk Along the Maitai River
The Maitai River is a gorgeous waterway that runs alongside Nelson and connects with the sea. The river is a lovely spot to go for a stroll. Part way along the river, near the walk to the Center of New Zealand, is the Black Hole – a popular swimming spot for tourists and locals.
Also consider SUPing along the river, you can hire paddle boards from Moana.
15. Go Quad Biking
Nelson’s not known for its adventure activities (at least not like Queenstown is), so quad-biking is about as extreme as it gets. This quad biking tour by Cable Bay Adventure Park is an extraordinary way to explore the Cable Bay area and find some beautiful viewpoints.
It’s also a lot more fun than hiking 5-hours.
16. Christ Church Cathedral
This stunning piece of architecture stands out within Nelson’s main city centre, heading up the top of Trafalgar Street, standing imposingly above the most popular tourist bars and eateries.
Since you’ll certainly be wandering past it at some point it’s well worth stopping by to check it out. We just took a look and snapped some photos from the outside, but we’ve heard the interior is even more impressive.
17. Dare to Try Nelson Skywire
Where Queenstown has the bungee, Nelson has SkyWire. A thrilling ride that sends you hurtling at over 100kmh in a sheer (but 100% safe) cage over 300m above the ground…
This is one of the best adventure things to do in Nelson and we feel it offers better value than a lot of other extreme activities. The entire experience lasts 10-minutes in the air – that’s a lot longer than a bungee.
18. Drive to Picton
Picton is a fantastic town in itself and is well worth spending a night or two, but if you’re strapped for time, consider making the incredibly scenic drive out there and spend a few hours eating, drinking and picnicking by the wharf.
There’s also loads of great things to do in Picton as well, including boat rides out into the Marlborough Sounds. This mailboat cruise tour is the most popular trip where you head out in a legitimate mailboat to deliver mail to the wealthy individuals who reside in the Sounds.
For us, this sounded ridiculous and a bit like work, but turns out we really enjoyed riding through the sounds, seeing the spectacular landscapes, as well as the lavish houses and hotels amidst them.
One such stop for us was the insanely impressive Bay of Many Coves luxury resort. If you’re one of the lucky few with money to spend, then definitely check it out as it’s the best place to stay in the entire region – but it comes at a $1,000+ per night pricetag.
19. Explore Nelson Lakes National Park
Yet another national park is lying right on Nelson’s doorstep. At just an hour and a half’s drive from Nelson, the Nelson Lakes National Park are a perfect destination for a day trip or an overnight stay.
The Blue Lake in particular contains the clearest freshwater found anywhere in the entire world. It is considered to be optically as clear as distilled water.
Thanks to this, the ethereal Blue Lake is more than just blue – it contains a wide variety of hues, from emerald green to deep, iridescent violets and blues. The Blue Lake, however, requires at least two days with a stay in a DOC hut to visit.
Fortunately, Nelson Lakes National Park contains 16 picturesque lakes so you can absolutely make your way here for a day trip instead.
20. Hike the Queen Charlotte Track
Yet another epic park located just a short drive from Nelson is the entire Marlborough Sounds harbour. Here, a mountainous landscape covered in native bush snakes around a large body of water.
The Queen Charlotte Track traces this coastline for 71km as it forms countless coves and bays. This incredible track contains views and beaches that rival the nearby Abel Tasman National Park, even to the point where it’s been nominated to be turned into a Great Walk itself.
Although we didn’t have time to complete the entire 3-5 day hike, we did complete one of the more picturesque sections. We booked in a scenic cruise and walk from Furneaux Lodge to Punga Cove.
Departing from Picton, we headed out to deliver some mail to the wealthy Marlborough Sounds residents, before getting dropped off at the majestic Furneaux Lodge. From here, we hiked 12km to Punga Cove, where we had a cold drink and a hot pizza before heading back to Picton.
When we went, we actually went with Cougarline but we can’t really recommend them. They didn’t run on time, the boats were overfilled and the staff weren’t very helpful when I injured myself on their boat. Instead, we recommend trying out the same trip but with Beachcomber Cruises.
21. Tour the Pic’s Peanut Butter Factory
One of the best things to do in Nelson indoors is to visit the wonderful Pic’s Peanut Butter Factory! Pic’s is our favourite peanut butter in the world – well, there are a few that taste pretty similar but aren’t from NZ so Pic’s just win by default.
Pic’s run scheduled tours of their factory in Nelson throughout the day. During busy periods they always fill up so book in advance.
22. Visit the Nelson Provincial Museum
Located in the centre of Nelson, the Nelson Provincial Museum is one of the best activities in Nelson for getting in touch with the cultural and historical side of the region.
Overall, it’s a relatively small museum with a number of informative displays. Worth the $16 entry fee and a couple of hours.
23. Explore Little Motueka (and Try the Donuts)
At just a 40-minute drive from Nelson, the tiny town of Motueka is a great destination for some exploration. Even better if you can tack it onto a road trip to Abel Tasman.
Make sure to check out the saltwater baths and head to the donuts at The Smoking Barrel.
Nelson is packed with amazing places to stay so you won’t be short of options – the real struggle is narrowing them down.
You have two main options – stay near the beach or stay in the heart of town. For most travellers we recommend staying in town as getting to the bars and restaurants is a lot more convenient, and you can always drive out to a beach.
We stayed at The Sails, a beautiful hotel located right next to Nelson city centre and just a short walk to all the best bars and restaurants. It’s pretty reasonably priced considering it’s definitely a more upscale accommodation.
As the major town in the area with a population over 50,000, Nelson is the best place for miles when it comes to dining. The best restaurants in Nelson are mostly found in the city centre.
Burger Culture is a great option for a late afternoon drink and a burger. If you’re after a nicer restaurant, then Arden around the corner offers some of the best food in Nelson. The Sublime Roastery & Brew Bar is the best cafe for coffee snobs.
Nelson is absolutely worth visiting, at the very least for a night or two before heading off to explore either the Abel Tasman National Park, the Nelson Lakes or Marlborough Sounds. That said, we think there’s more than enough attractions in Nelson to take your time and enjoy the vibe a little.
The soul of Nelson is really defined by the golden sand beaches and nearby national parks. However, it is known for so much more than just nature. There’s a bunch of activities in town, as well as some great bars and restaurants making it an awesome place in its own right.
Aim to spend about 2 nights in Nelson if you’re just stopping off as part of a road trip to other parts of the South Island. If you’re using Nelson as a base to explore the surrounding regions, then you may wish to give yourself 1-2 weeks.
The most convenient way to get to Nelson (especially from Auckland) is by plane as there is a major domestic airport here. You can also take the interislander ferry to Picton from Wellington and drive to Nelson. If you chose this option, make sure to check out the best things to do in Wellington as well!