Nestled between two beautiful, shallow bays and flanked by 3 pristine national parks, Nelson is a treasure of a destination that can be found on New Zealand’s South Island. No matter what time of year you plan your New Zealand itinerary for, Nelson is an ideal location because it has the reputation for being one of the sunniest travel destinations on the South Island. The nearly perfect year-round weather makes all the things to do in Nelson appealing and enjoyable.
From its top art scene, to the number of wineries, breweries, and stops for cider, paired with the incredible scenery available from the bays, beaches, and hikes, Nelson pulls in visitors as a stop after crossing over from Wellington on the ferry, but keeps visitors around for its small-town charm.
Top things to do in Nelson
From walking around beautiful gardens and art galleries to relaxing on the beach or trekking through the various national parks, Nelson sightseeing packs a serious punch.
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand’s smallest national park and as the cliche goes, “good things come in small packages,” this is true for the stunning natural park. Abel Tasman is a coastal park filled with sights, smells, and sounds of the sea and all the life it supports. Discover stunning views from the sea, sky, or air in one of the most popular places to see in Nelson.
Sea kayaking, paddle boarding, boat tours, and wildlife cruises are all exciting ways to get up close and personal with the marine life and sea birds that make the park their home. You can even go scuba diving and snorkeling if you want to get wet and wild with the real locals.
Abel Tasman is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts and for those who just want a peek into nature. Within the park, you can go canyoning, rock climbing, and hiking where you can find gorgeous waterfalls, tide pools, and beaches to relax on and swim. You can also view the Tasman Bay and all of the park from above with a helicopter or scenic flight tour or a skydive jump if you’re looking for something a bit more thrilling.
Abel Tasman Park is popular with tourists and locals especially in the summer months because of all the great water activities. One of the most popular ways to see the park is by sailing!
One of the most relaxing activities to do in Nelson is to head out to Tahunanui Beach, a long and wide beach with soft sand that has plenty of space, so even on busy days, you can find a space to yourself. It’s about an hour’s walk from the centre of the city or a short drive.
Many people opt to walk along the beach or it’s a great place for swimming as the water is calm for paddle boarding, which can be rented on the beach.
Nelson Lakes National Park
Centred around two alluring lakes, this national park is a Nelson must-see. Lake Rotoroa and Lake Rotoiti are surrounded by thick, enchanting forests and guarded by sharp, rugged mountains, making the park and its lakes a safe, secluded undertone.
You can explore the park by sea or land, guided or unguided. There are endless hiking trails and varying degrees of difficulty as well as mountain bike trails and walking tracks. You can go swimming, kayaking, and fishing and boating. There is rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing, and snowboarding.
Nelson Lakes National Park is one of the best things to do near Nelson no matter what season you visit.
See Nelson from above on the Skywire
The Nelson Skywire gets you above the trees for the very best Nelson sightseeing experience. Take it all in from above and get a lay of the land on the world’s longest Skywire ride . What can best be described as a supped up ski-lift, the Skywire can sit up to four people and reaches speeds of 100kph.
The cart itself is also on wheels letting the car move forward and backward so you can feel the full weight of gravity working on your body. The Skywire also comes with a guide who will make sure you’re safely strapped in and tells you about the area as you zip through the trees.
Enticing ATV exploration
Some of the best places to visit in Nelson are remote and rugged, and what better way to explore the dramatic scenery of the South Island than a quad trip through the lush forests, sun-drenched beaches, fertile farmland, and jagged cliffs cutting into the sky?
Contrary to most people’s ideal day outside, ATV riding is super fun on a rainy or muddy day. Cruising around and over some different trails and terrain gives you a unique way to see the most beautiful places in Nelson. There are various tracks and trails to tear through and rip around.
Kahurangi National Park
Another national park that is one of the top Nelson attractions is the Kahurangi National Park. Meaning “treasured possession” in Maori, this park is filled with rare and exotic lush green trees and plants that protect some of the most unique flowers, birds, and creatures in the country.
Kahurangi National Park is a maze of trails and cave systems through ancient jungle and river systems. Visitors of the park have been known to find fossils and ancient rocks and some are lucky enough to spot some of New Zealand’s rarest animals like giant snails, the great spotted kiwi, and the Kahurangi cave spider.
The park is also home to some of the Lord of the Rings filming sets, unbelievable trekking trails, and glass-like freshwater springs called the Riwaka Resurgence. You can also go caving and white water rafting.
Walk to the Centre of New Zealand
Named because this point was as a survey point in the 1800s as the centre of the country, this short walk will take you just 15 minutes from central Nelson to a viewpoint overlooking the Nelson Tasman area. The walk to the Centre of New Zealand is short but note that it is steep! Start at the Reserve and take the Botanical Hill Walk. From the top there are a number of different routes that you can take back down.
Check out the wineries
Nelson is well known for the areas craft beer, cider, and wine so taking the time to relax and unwind at some of Nelson’s finest wineries is highly recommended. Featuring 4 flawless wineries, this tour explores the history of the area, the process of making wine as well as the secrets of wine tasting and pairing. The Nelson region takes the cake in chardonnays.
Soak up the sun on a sailboat
One of the top things to do around Nelson is to cruise around on a sailboat. Your captain will show you the ropes as you sail around the Tasman Bay and Golden Bay looking for seals and dolphins. You’ll visit the legendary Split Apple Rocks, the fur seal colony, and Anchorage Beach amongst other gorgeous beaches and rock formations.
Lunch is provided for you as well as time to explore uninhabited beaches and caves as well as time to swim and sunbathe.
Golden Bay, Beaches and Farewell Spit Day Trip
Get to visit the best Nelson tourist attractions, all in one day on a trip that will take you through Takaka where you can grab a yummy cup of coffee at one of the small cafes or pick up a unique piece of art from one of the local galleries. The tour continues on the Te Waikoropupu Springs, some of the clearest freshwater springs in New Zealand, and then to Wharakiki Beach where your guide takes you on a hike to the northernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island.
The end of your trip takes you to a gorgeous lookout over New Zealand’s largest sandspit, affectionately called the Farewell Spit. This sandspit reaches 26 kilometers into the bay and is a perfect spot for photos.
Go garden hopping
One of the favourite activities in Nelson for locals is to spend time in the plentiful gardens. The Queens Gardens are filled with water fountains and though these gardens are quaint, they’re beautiful as they were originally made to celebrate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1892. Stop by the Suter Art Gallery & Cafe for a sweet treat or even a class of local wine.
The Miyazu Japanese Gardens also offer a quiet and peaceful oasis for you to stroll through.
Visit the shops on the Nelon Art Trail
Follow the Nelson Art Trail for a mix of art in small galleries that display paintings, glass blown art, jewellery, and much more. The largest gallery is the Sulter Art Gallery, which is free to visit and is in the Queens Gardens which are also worth a visit.
Visit WOW & Classic Cars Museums
From museums and galleries to theaters and show venues, Nelson will inspire the artist in you. The World of Wearable Art displays pieces that were featured in the competition that is held in Wellington annually. It’s easily one of most creative things to see in Nelson. The Classic Cars Museum features stellar cars that date back to 1908 and is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Hike the Grampians
The Grampians can be explored by hiking from the centre of town and offer more of a challenge than hiking to the Centre of New Zealand. About a 2-hour round-trip, the hike through the Grampians offers visitors views of the countryside, including sheep and horses, to Nelson itself and beyond to the bay.
Join a cycling adventure
Pick and choose your ultimate Nelson adventure with this full-day cycle tour. Whether you want to bike bar to bar for a fun day of pub hopping, explore the mountains, farmland or countryside and beaches, or a unique twist of both, the choice is yours for an unforgettable time. Before setting off on your adventure, you’ll be fitted for the proper bike and helmet, and given a repair kit, panniers or carrier bag, odometer and trail documentation, and a souvenir map.
You can even hop on the ferry to Mapua to explore even more of the Nelson area.
Nelson is such a unique mix of natural beauty and human creativity that you don’t want to miss out on while you travel through the south island of New Zealand.
Visit Cable Bay
Just a 25-minute drive outside of Nelson, Cable Bay is worth the small trip as this scenic destination is a top spot for hiking and kayaking with views of bright blue waters and the coast. Opt to do the Cable Bay Walkway hike where you’ll pass plenty of sheep and get incredible coastal and countryside scenery or rent a kayak to explore the caves of nearby Pepin Island.
See the One Ring
Lord of the Rings fans, you’re going to want to stop in at Jens Hansen, where you can ask to see the One Ring that was used in the films as this is the shop where the rings were made!
From the top Nelson tourist attractions and beyond, you’ve got plenty of cool things to do in Nelson and I have no doubt your trip to this charming city will be fantastic! Enjoy your time in Nelson!
Continue planning your trip to New Zealand!
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