Nelson, the biggest (and only) city at the top of the South Island, is most famous for being the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. It’s a great reason to visit, but stick around a while and you’ll find plenty of other fun things to do in Nelson, both in the city centre and the nearby regions. Keep reading for all the help you’ll need with planning a trip to Nelson!
Things to Do in Nelson (The City)
Nelson (including Richmond and Stoke) is home to around 70,000 people, making it the third largest South Island city. There are some cool things to do in Nelson itself, which I’ll list below, but for the really good stuff you’ll need to head a little further afield (which I’ll mention a little later on in this post).
The Centre of New Zealand Walk
While it’s technically not quite the centre of New Zealand, this short uphill hike to a viewpoint above the city is easily one of the best things to do in Nelson. It’s fairly easy but is steep at the top. Once you get there you’ll get 360-degree views of the city and surrounding area, including the Maitai Valley and the long stretch of coastline towards Abel Tasman National Park.
Hang out in Downtown Nelson
The city centre of Nelson is compact and easy to get around, and there are a few things worth seeking out. There are some museums, galleries, and plenty of places to eat and drink. In summer you’ll find lots of outdoor seating on Trafalgar Street, which creates a cool vibe.
If you’re a burger fan you’ll be impressed by the offerings at Burger Culture. It’s a cool little bar / restaurant specialising in burgers, donuts and milkshakes and it’s really good! Even if you don’t go for dinner, pop in for a dessert donut!
Walk by the River
The Maitai River winds through downtown Nelson and it’s a decent place to seek out. It’s not the most amazing stretch of river you’ll see (it’s kind of a poor man’s Avon River in Christchurch) but it’s good for a quick stroll or as a picnic spot.
Founders Park is an open-air museum a short drive / walk from the city centre. It’s set up as small historic town, full of old buildings and displays detailing life in the area over the last 150 years or so. It’s a fascinating place to wander and is very picturesque. It feels like you’re walking the streets of a proper old town! There’s a restaurant and a small café there too — it’s perfect for a relaxing couple of hours (and there is heaps to keep kids entertained too).
There are several historic houses which are open to the public scattered around Nelson. These are fun to wander around and most also feature nice gardens. We visited Fairfield House and Isel House and they were both worth a look.
The Nelson Market, held on Saturdays from 8 am – 1 pm, is a massive collection of stalls selling mostly arts and crafts and food. So much food! You can find all kinds of food from around the world — we really enjoyed the Turkish sandwich and the dosas (can’t remember which stalls) but there are so many options and I reckon most of it would be good. You can also check out Monty’s Sunday Market (which is more for second hand goods) and the various weekend markets in the region (we went to the one in Moteuka).
The closest (good) beach to the city centre, Tahunanui Beach is a good option for an afternoon of sea and sand or as a place to stay in Nelson. There are lots of motels and hotels as well as heaps of places to eat (and a few bars). It’s also closer to the likes of Abel Tasman National Park and Nelson Lakes National Park, so if you’re using Nelson as a base for exploring the area it’d be a good option.
Other Things to Do in Nelson City
You could check out some factories (Pics Peanut Butter seems to be a local favourite), explore some more of the coastline (Boulder Bank) or visit one of the museums and galleries in town. There are also some walks and bike trails on the hills above Richmond and probably lots more if you’re willing to seek them out.
A little further Afield
You’ll need your own transport to visit most of these places (or you can book a tour for some of them).
Rabbit Island is a small island joined to the mainland by a causeway. It’s around 30 minutes from the city and is a bit of a local favourite. It seems like a good place to swim and it’s massive, meaning it never seems too crowded.
Mapua and the Ruby Coast
From Rabbit Island there’s a boat (in summer at least) that takes you around to Mapua. Most people just drive though — it’s around 35 minutes from Nelson (or 10 minutes from Rabbit Island). The main appeal of Mapua lies in its eating options. There’s a pier area with a few different places to eat and drink (including a gelato place) as well as your typical boutique shops and galleries. It’d be ideal if you’re looking for a date idea in Nelson.
The Ruby Coast is billed as a “Scenic Drive” but I don’t think it’s that scenic. If you’ve got kids you might want to feed the tame eels though — it’s quite an experience!
Cable Bay Walkway
One of my favourite things to do in Nelson is to hike the Cable Bay Walkway. It takes you around the hills above Cable Bay and gives off some awesome views of the area. It’s easy but there is some uphill hiking involved — check out my post for more details.
Whispering Falls is the closest proper waterfall to Nelson (that I know about) and makes for a good little half day trip. It takes around 45 minutes to drive to the start of the track and from there it’s pleasant walk by the river to get to the falls. It’s not your typical waterfall but it’s worth seeing.
Day Trips from Nelson
If you’re basing yourself in Nelson for a few days (or you live there) you’ll want to explore some of the areas nearby. Some of these are better done as a proper trip (Marlborough Sounds and Golden Bay especially) but you can still see a lot in a day.
Motueka and Kaiteriteri
Kaiteriteri is one of the gateways to Abel Tasman National Park and it’s also home to one of New Zealand’s most loved beaches. Kaiteriteri Beach gets crowded in summer but it’s still a good experience. There are some short walks to other beaches with some nice viewpoints along the way.
Split Apple Rock is also worth seeing — it’s around 10 minutes’ drive from Kaiteriteri and is located just off a stunning beach.
You’ll pass through Motueka on the way to Kaiteriteri / Abel Tasman National Park / Golden Bay. It’s a nice enough small town with a cool Sunday market but there isn’t too much else worth seeing.
Abel Tasman National Park
New Zealand beaches don’t get much better than the ones you’ll see in Abel Tasman National Park. There are so many to choose from, which makes it a hard place to plan a trip to. I’ll write a full post about it soon, but in the meantime you can check out my post about the walk from Bark Bay to Marahau.
Other great Abel Tasman beaches include Totaranui, Anapai Bay and Goat Bay (all of which are accessed from the Golden Bay side). The Abel Tasman Coastal Track is a New Zealand ‘Great Walk’ and takes 3-4 days to complete. The great thing about it is that you can easily just do a day hike there instead.
Nelson Lakes National Park
It’ll take you around 75 minutes to drive from Nelson to Lake Rotoiti, and once you’re there you’ll have some excellent hiking options. You have the Mount Robert Circuit Track, which takes you up a mountain above the lake for incredible views (especially in winter). On the other side of the lake you’ll find the St Arnaud Range Track, which is a little harder but just as (if not more) scenic.
If you want to keep the uphill walking to a minimum you can do the track to Whiskey Falls — there are some amazing lake views from that track. Or you could just hang out at the main pier / beach area and have a picnic!
Golden Bay isn’t really on the way to anywhere, making it the perfect day trip destination from Nelson. There is heaps to see though and you’ll want to spend a night or two there if you can (stay in either Takaka or Collingwood). Golden Bay highlights include Te Waiporopupu Springs, the drive to Anatori and Wharariki Beach. It’s also the gateway to the western side of Abel Tasman National Park. On the way you’ll find Tata Beach and Wainui Falls.
The Marlborough Sounds is a large area and is probably best seen over a few days, but it is a viable day trip option if you’re short on time. I’d suggest driving out to French Pass and Bulwer (some of the best coastal views in New Zealand are found on / near this road) or do some of the Queen Charlotte Track or hang out and hike in Picton.
So, that’s the end of my things to do in Nelson list. I hope it was helpful! As you can see, there isn’t a massive amount to do in the city itself but there is an abundance of options in the nearby area. A lot of people skip through this region quickly but hopefully this post has convinced you to explore a little more.
What are your favourite things to do in Nelson? Let me know in the comments below!
Latest posts by Jon Algie (see all)
- Fox Glacier South Side Walkway, West Coast - September 22, 2023
- Fiordland Itinerary: Day Trip from Queenstown + Longer Stays - September 15, 2023
- 7 of the Best Things to Do in Haast, West Coast - September 12, 2023