Nelson, the small and sunny city at the top of the South Island, is a popular Kiwi holiday spot. Not so much for the city itself, but for its proximity to some of the country’s best scenery. Abel Tasman National Park, Golden Bay, Marlborough Sounds and Nelson Lakes National Park are all explorable on day trips from Nelson — I’ll take you through all the details in this Nelson itinerary!
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Three Day Nelson Itinerary
This three-day Nelson itinerary features one day in the city and its surrounds and two days exploring the wider “Top of the South Island” region.
While Nelson isn’t the most packed-with-sights cities New Zealand, there’s enough to keep you busy for at least a day. The Centre of New Zealand Walk is an easy stroll up to a viewpoint overlooking Nelson. It’s worth a look, even though the “Centre of New Zealand” claim isn’t quite accurate.
If you’ve got your own vehicle you could drive out to Cable Bay, where you can hike the track above the beach . This is probably the best proper walk this close to Nelson. If you have time on your hand, you can check out the activities at Cable Bay Adventure Park including the world’s longest skywire – a thrilling ride above the forest canopy
The city centre of Nelson is compact and pleasant to walk around with lots of places to eat and drink. You’ve got museums (including a Peanut Butter World), galleries and some cool streetside dining establishments as well as a big weekend market.
If you’re a wine enthusiast, there are also a number of wineries in Nelson, particularly near Moutere hills, which you can visit for a wine tasting or lunch. There is also a Nelson Wine and Food Festival which is held every February in Nelson.
RELATED POST: 17 of the Best Things to Do in Nelson: Beaches, Hikes, Day Trips + More!
One of our favourite places to visit is Founders Heritage Park. It’s a recreation of an old town and it’s a lot of fun to walk around — a great lunch option too.
The last place I recommend visiting in Nelson is Tahunanui Beach. It’s the main beach in town and there are heaps of hotels, bars and restaurants. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Nelson, Tahunanui is a great option. There are many great options for accommodation in this area and most of them have sea views, check out Tides Hotel | The Sands | The Honest Lawyer, Ascend Hotel Collection. There are some cool holiday houses and motels here too with superb ocean views. Here are some options for your next holiday in Nelson: On The Rocks | Beachcomber Motor Inn | The Wheelhouse Inn | Tahuna Beach Holiday Park.
Rabbit Island is another beach further along towards Motueka — a good beach to stop at but it’s nothing compared to the stunning beaches in Abel Tasman.
You could easily spread out those things I mentioned in day one over a few days, but I’m going to assume a huge part of why you’re visiting Nelson is to explore the wider region. On day two (or day one if your time is limited) you’ll want to get to out of the city, where exactly depends entirely on what you’re interested in.
One option is a day trip out to Kaiteriteri and Abel Tasman National Park. If you have time you could spread this out over two or three days, or also consider doing the entire Abel Tasman Coastal Track. A day trip to Kaiteriteri could include stops at Motueka or Mapua on the way (both good places to eat) and then some beach time at Kaiteriteri.
It’s definitely worth staying the night or two in Kaiteriteri. Our top picks for accommodation in Kaiteriteri includes Abel Tasman Kaiteriteri B & B | Two Tuis Accomodation | Incredible Bay Views – Kaiteriteri Bach | Kaiteri Motels and Apartments | Kimi Ora Eco Resort.
You can walk over to Little Kaiteriteri or drive along the coast towards Abel Tasman National Park. Split Apple Rock is the highlight on that stretch of road. Not long past that is Marahau and the start of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.
If you’re doing all that you probably won’t have time to explore the national park too much, but if that’s the main priority you can take a boat tour to various points along the track. From there you can walk a bit and then get picked up and returned to Marahau. There isn’t much to see at the Marahau end, so if you want to head into the national park your best bet is a boat tour or to drive the long way around over to Golden Bay and then Totaranui.
READ MORE: Check out our post about day walks in Abel Tasman National Park
I’m going to assume you’re heading to Abel Tasman / Kaiteriteri on day two, and there’s a good chance you’ll want to head back there on day three. If so, you should consider staying the night in either Motueka or Kaiteriteri (tough to get a booking during busy summer periods). Otherwise, day three would be a good time to check out Nelson Lakes National Park. It’s only an hour away and there some excellent walks, including Whiskey Falls, Mount Robert Circuit and the St Arnaud Range Track.
There are some nice lakeside areas in the town of St Arnaud, including the much-photographed pier.
Nelson Lakes National Park is better to visit in winter and spring as there’ll be snow on the mountains (and a lot fewer sand flies), but I wouldn’t let that put you off if you’re a hiking fan.
If you’re not so into walking you could visit the Marlborough Sounds instead. It’s a bit more of a drive out there but the scenery is stunning and you’ll see some of the best views right by the road.
READ MORE: Check out our post about the drive to French Pass, Marlborough Sounds
There’s also good hiking in the Marlborough Sounds (including the multi-day Queen Charlotte Track) and Picton is one of the prettiest towns in New Zealand. Again, if you have plenty of time you should consider spending a night or two in the Marlborough Sounds. You’ll find accommodation ranging from camping grounds to luxury lodges, with hotels in towns such as Picton and Havelock.
As with everywhere in New Zealand, I highly recommend being flexible with your itinerary in order to take advantage of the best weather. You don’t want to see the South Island’s best beaches (Abel Tasman) on rainy day! The same applies for the Marlborough Sounds, Golden Bay and Nelson Lakes — all a lot more impressive on a nice day! The top of the South Island does have some of the best weather in New Zealand so your chances of good weather are decent. Check the Nelson forecast here.
Five Days in Nelson
With five days in Nelson you could delve further into all three of the places I mentioned as day trip options (Abel Tasman, Nelson Lakes and Marlborough Sounds).
If that’s not enough I’ll throw in another place near Nelson. Golden Bay, where you’ll find the other end of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, is another huge destination in its own right. It’s a pretty long day trip, so a night in Takaka or Collingwood could be a good idea.
It’s a favourite holiday spot for New Zealanders, with awesome beaches and plenty of other nature spots to keep fans of the outdoors busy. You could visit Totaranui Beach, Tata Beach and Te Waikoropupū Springs on a (long) day trip from Nelson, but spending a night or two in Takaka or Collingwood will allow you to see so much more, including Anatori, Wharariki Beach and Farewell Spit.
A Week in Nelson
A week in Nelson will give you enough time to explore heaps of the Nelson / Tasman regions. If you have a week in Nelson and are keen to explore, the main thing to think about is whether you want to stay in Nelson the whole time and do day trips from there or stay in a few different places. If coming from Picton you could spend a night there (or maybe Havelock) before a night or two in Nelson and then a few nights in Abel Tasman / Golden Bay/ Kaiteriteri.
Or if you really want to move around and see as much as possible try one night in each of Picton, Havelock, Nelson, St Arnaud, Kaiteriteri and Takaka (with one in Nelson on the way back). That would negate the need to backtrack to Nelson every night, but you’d also be packing and unpacking every day.
If I were planning a week in Nelson I’d spend two nights in the Marlborough Sounds, three in Nelson (with day trips to Nelson Lakes and Abel Tasman) and two nights in Golden Bay (or maybe one in Golden Bay and one in Motueka). As you can see there are so many options. Hopefully this post has made planning your Nelson itinerary a little easier!
Where to Stay in Nelson
Nelson: Tides Hotel | The Sands | The Honest Lawyer, Ascend Hotel Collection| On The Rocks | Beachcomber Motor Inn | The Wheelhouse Inn | Tahuna Beach Holiday Park | Grand Arden Monaco Nelson
Kaiteriteri: Abel Tasman Kaiteriteri B & B | Two Tuis Accomodation | Incredible Bay Views – Kaiteriteri Bach | Kaiteri Motels and Apartments | Kimi Ora Eco Resort
Motueka: Nautilus Lodge Motel | The Waters| Motueka TOP 10 Holiday Park
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out our South Island travel guide!
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