21 Fun Things to Do in Nelson, New Zealand

You’ll fall in love with the town after checking out all these awesome things to do in Nelson, New Zealand!

Nestled on the northern coast of the South Island, quaint little Nelson is one of the most liveable places in New Zealand.

It is located on the edge of the Tasman Bay and is surrounded by natural beauty. Nelson city is also a fun cultural hub to check out.

There are plenty of things to do Nelson, and with its close proximity to a number of awesome national parks there are plenty of incredible views  

With stunning natural scenery on all sides as well as eateries and galleries galore, it’s easy to see where Nelson’s burgeoning reputation is coming from. 

The Best Things to Do in Nelson for Every Traveller

Not only does Nelson have plenty going on in the city itself, but the city’s outskirts are also filled with numerous hiking trails, awesome mountain biking routes, and a whole heap of great food and wine.  

The Tasman Bay is a beautiful place so there is so much to see and do.

Very often people use Nelson as a place to base themselves before or after a visit to the Abel Tasman National Park or Nelson Lakes National Park.

So grab a drink, kick back and read my personal recommendations for the best things to do in Nelson for your next trip!

1) Check Out the Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu (The Suter Art Gallery)

Nelson city is chock full of art galleries, and wandering between them is a classic Nelson activity. However, Suter Art Gallery is one that deserves a special mention. 

The Suter Art Gallery is one of the most interesting Nelson attractions. If you’re looking to go easy on the pennies, then this is certainly an excellent option because it’s free.

Housing an excellent collection of modernist and watercolour works alongside a variety of other exhibitions it’s sure to spark interest! 

2) Relax on Tahunanui Beach 

A short drive from central Nelson is this rather large and lovely expanse of beach. Jutting out, almost pointing towards the Abel Tasman National Park, Tahunanui Beach is particularly lovely during the summer months. 

With some pretty spectacular views towards the aforementioned Abel Tasman National Park, Tahunanui Beach is a lovely place to relax with a good book and a great view.

If you’re not sure what to do in Nelson, then this is a great place to start.

READ MORE: Plan your trip to New Zealand with our comprehensive New Zealand Travel Guide.

3) Take A Wander Around Nelson’s Markets

Held every Saturday and Sunday in Montgomery Square, in the heart of Nelson city you can find the Nelson Market and Monty’s Sunday Market.

If you’re not sure what to do in Nelson then the Nelson Market is an excellent place to start.

Expect to find a wide range of arts and crafts as well as some fantastic produce and food on offer. 

Everything sold here is produced in and around Nelson, so don’t expect to find any imported goods here.

Saturday morning focuses primarily on crafts, art, and produce whereas on Sundays you will find plenty of vintage and second-hand items looking for new homes. There is always excellent food and produce!

Check the website for the list of vendors and events.

Montys-Sunday-Market
Enjoying some awesome food at Monty’s Sunday Market

4) Visit the Nelson Provincial Museum

This excellent museum located in the heart of Nelson city is home to a variety of exhibits looking at the region’s history, wildlife, and geographic diversity. 

It’s a great opportunity to understand the region’s history and its unique geographical features.

The upper gallery is home to the museum’s special exhibits. Give yourself at least an hour to enjoy the exhibits. 

5) Enjoy the Queens Gardens

These gorgeous gardens are a great example of a traditional Victorian park. The gardens were officially opened in 1892 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee.

Initially, this land was a meat market until the late 1880s until 1887 when the area was named the Queens Gardens and a competition was held for its design. 

This makes for a beautiful place for a lovely walk in Nelson City.

6) Visit The World Of Wearable Art 

This museum is devoted to wearable art and classic cars. A slightly eclectic mix, but then you would expect nothing less from an internationally recognised design competition. 

The museum opened in 2001 and exhibits garments from the World of Wearable Art design competition which is held annually in Wellington, drawing 60,000 attendants.

It’s one of the best museums and art galleries to visit in Nelson City.  

7) Stand in the Geographical Centre of New Zealand

Located a 60-minute walk from the centre of Nelson is a monument to mark the centre of New Zeland.

It’s an easy hike and the lovely views over the city of Nelson are a worthy return.

READ MORE: Be sure to add these activities to your Wellington itinerary.

8) Head to Nelson Lakes National Park

Home to stunning lakes (obviously), forests and rugged peaks this stunning National Park has an awesome combination of hiking trails, ranging from easy lakeside walks to more challenging alpine trails. 

Just over an hour’s drive from central Nelson makes it an excellent option for a day trip. It’s a highlight of the Nelson Tasman Region.

If you find yourself here in the depths of winter then skiing can be accessed through the Rainbow ski field offering all kinds of terrain for skiers and snowboarders alike.

Two excellent one-day hikes that are well worth checking out are the Mt Robert Circuit Track and the St Arnaud Range Track.

The former begins at the Mt Roberts car park and offers the optional side trip along Robert Ridge which offers incredible views. 

The St Arnaud Range Track starts on the eastern side of the lake and ends with spectacular views of the valleys and mountains. Both hikes are certainly at the strenuous end of the scale. 

As mentioned earlier there are a number of shorter routes available in Nelson Lakes National Park. Check out the I-site in Nelson or the DOC Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre for some recommend trails. 

This is absolutely one of the best things to do in Nelson, so get your hiking boots on and get ready to visit one of the stunning Nelson Lakes National Park.

Nelson-Lakes-National-Park
Stunning views over the Nelson Lakes National Park

9) Learn About Nelson’s History at Founders Heritage Park

Take the opportunity to learn more about Victorian-era Nelson at Founders Heritage Park.

Check out the wide variety of exhibitions that focus on a diverse range of topics.

With displays focusing on beer, bikes, and planes to name a few. There is plenty to keep you busy here.

The Founders Heritage Park is also home to a number of artisans and craftsmen selling some excellent products.

10) Go Bird Spotting at the Brook Wanimara Sanctuary

This lovely sanctuary on the outskirts of Nelson is home to a wide variety of native bird and plant species.

The Brook Wanimara Sanctuary has several hiking trails where you can take off and explore the native bush, and hopefully catch a glimpse of some of the native species that inhabit the sanctuary.

With all of the challenges that New Zealand’s native bush and indigenous species face, it’s great to see organizations like this trying to reverse the problems invasive species have brought to these shores.

11) Cycle Through Spooners Tunnel

Built from 1891 – 1893 Spooners Tunnel was once a crucial part of an isolated government-owned railway line.

However now, it holds the rather strange honour of being the longest disused railway tunnel in New Zealand.

Also, it can easily be incorporated into a Kohatu to Norris Gully Section of the Great Tasman Taste Trail.

Grab your bike and head on through the tunnel!

12) Get a Taste of Victorian New Zealand at Broadgreen Historic House

This gorgeous old Victorian house on the outskirts of Nelson is a fantastic example of Victorian life in New Zealand.

Originally built in 1855 it was lived in by two different families until it was brought by the Nelson City Council in 1955. The house itself is full of items that tell the stories of Nelson’s colonial past.

In addition to the house be sure to check out the Samuel Rose Garden which is home to over 3000 plants and is particularly beautiful in spring and early summer.

READ MORE: Check out these amazing things to do in Auckland.

13) Go Hiking in Mount Richmond Forest Park

Another excellent hiking destination that is a very doable day trip from Nelson is Mount Richmond Forest Park. There are numerous hiking trails all with excellent but challenging day hikes.

The park is also home to several multi-day hikes, but you will need to make sure you’re fully prepared.

This is another highlight of the Nelson Tasman Region.

Richmond-Forrest-Park
Take the opportunity to go hiking in Richmond Forrest Park

14) Find Your Inner Zen at the Miyazu Japanese Gardens

The Miyazu Garden is a celebration of Nelson with its Japanese sister city of Miyazu close to the city of Kyoto.

This garden is a wonderful place to channel your inner zen. It has been lovingly created with particular attention paid to the materials and design used to accurately display a true Japanese garden.

The garden is open 24 hours.

15) Check Out the Stunning Architecture of Christ Church Cathedral

In the heart of Nelson you with find the Christ Church Cathedral, not to be confused with the cathedral in the city of Christchurch itself.

It’s a lovely old building that’s well worth taking a stroll around.

16) Day Trip to Tasman Great Taste Trail 

This awesome cycle track takes you through the Tasman region’s stunning coastline and charming countryside.

It’s a great way to take some of the region’s best attractions including wineries, craft breweries, fruit stalls, great restaurants, and art galleries. 

The entire trail is 174km in length however numerous sections can easily be done as a day trip. The trail links Nelson to the smaller towns of Wakefield, Richmond, Motueka, and Kaiteriteri. 

Numerous sections of the trail make fantastic one-day rides. The Richmond to Mapua leg is particularly lovely.

A little further afield is the route running from Motueka to Kaiteriteri which runs along quaint country lanes. There are some nice wineries to check out here.

17) Check Out the World-Famous Abel Tasman National Park 

This is one of the South Island of New Zealand’s most famous national parks. It is also home to one of the most accessible of the country’s 9 Great Walks, the Abel Tasman Coast Track.

You can tackle the entire trail which takes between 3-5 days, however, it is possible to take on part of this trail as a day trip from Nelson if time is not on your side.

Its close proximity makes this one of the best things to do in Nelson.

You’ll need to head to Kaiteriteri and from there you can take a water taxi up into the park itself.

A popular option is to head up to Onetahuti or Bark Bay and then hike down to Anchorage Bay. At around 11km, it’s certainly manageable as a day trip. 

A fun way to sightsee in Abel Tasman National Park is from the water. You can book a scenic boat cruise that sails past all the best scenery, or go kayaking.

We also have an article on kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park for you to check out.

Abel-Tasman National Park
Hiking along the coastal track in the Abel Tasman National Park on the South Island

18) Day Trip to Richmond

This quaint little town located just to the south of Nelson is famous for its orchards and vineyards.

There’s plenty here to keep you entertained, from hiking and mountain biking trails to various stages of the Tasman Great Taste Trail. 

If you like mountain biking then head up to the Silvan Mountain Biking trails. Head over to the Seifried Estate Vineyard for one of the premier stops on the Great Taste Trail.

Home to 8 vineyards over 250 hectares of this is one winery you won’t want to miss.

READ MORE: Check out these great things to do in Queenstown.

19) Visit Rabbit Island (Moturoa)

Home to a stunning 13km stretch of beach just 20km west of Nelson is Rabbit Island. This is a spot that is popular year-round for beach trips and picnics. 

Numerous trails can be easily explored on both foot and bicycle as you hunt for your own little piece of paradise.

There are numerous cycling tours that include trips to Rabbit Island, your accommodation or Nelson’s i-site will be the best place to check out. 

Rabbit Island can be easily accessed by ferry from Mapua Wharf. You can also hire bikes from Mapua Wharf to explore the cycling trails on the island.

If you’re not sure what to see in Nelson then this is a great place to start.

20) Take a Hike to Whispering Falls

Nearby the town of Richmond, you will find the stunning Whispering Falls.

Starting at the Aniseed Valley car park it’s a 3 to 5-hour return walk. The hike is an easy to medium trail so it is accessible to anyone.

With so many other hikes in the area, this one is very rarely visited so be sure to take advantage. Definitely one of the top things to see in Nelson.

21) Get Your Adrenaline Pumping

If you’re looking for a place to set your heart racing with adrenaline activities then Nelson may not be the first place you think of.

Both Queenstown and Taupo would probably be the first places that spring to mind. 

However, Nelson is an excellent place to try your hand at kite surfing, kayaking, quad biking, and paragliding. 

In fact, many tours out to the Abel Tasman National Park will involve taking in some of the area’s stunning coastal scenery by kayak. 

If you fancy throwing yourself out of a plane then head up to Motueka where you can do just that with spectacular views of the Abel Tasman as you hurtle back down to earth. 

Head further north towards the Abel Tasman National Park itself and you be able to take on one of New Zealand’s newest adrenaline activities – Canyoning.

Involving abseiling, climbing, slipping sliding and swimming this is a real mixture of everything and definitely an activity that is worth trying out. 

In addition to the above, there are numerous excellent mountain biking trails in the area as well!

Nelson Travel Guide

Now that you know what to do in Nelson, we want to help you make your other plans as well by sharing the best accommodations and places to eat in the city.

Accommodation in Nelson New Zealand

Here are our recommendations on where to stay in Nelson.

Best Budget Accommodation in Nelson – Bridge Backpackers

This excellent backpacker hostel is located in the heart of Nelson. Offering both dorms and private rooms, with both being very reasonably priced.

With a huge common space and kitchen that wouldn’t look out of place in one of New Zealand’s many holiday parks, this is an excellent option. 

The hostel also offers complimentary breakfast, which is certainly not common at the budget end of the scale. In addition, you can also rent bicycles to head out to the Great Taste Trail!

Best Mid-Range Accommodation in Nelson – Quest Nelson

This funky midrange option offers apartments as opposed to rooms, with a studio, one and two-bedroom apartments available. This is a particularly good option for families or groups of friends travelling together. 

Located in the heart of Nelson it is walking distance from the city’s galleries, restaurants and markets. 

If you’re looking for a bit more than a hotel room for the same price then this is an excellent option to consider. 

Best Luxury Accommodation in Nelson  – Retiro Park Lodge

This stunning lodge is located approximately 10km outside of Nelson and comes with all the refinement and charm one would expect with luxury accommodation in New Zealand. 

Home to a private pool and gorgeous countryside views this is an excellent place to relax and unwind in this gorgeous region of New Zealand.

What to Eat in Nelson New Zealand

You have your room sorted, you know what to do in Nelson, now it’s time to figure out the best places to eat at!

Budget – Monty’s Sunday Market

Monty’s Sunday Market is full of awesome food and produce. Prices are extremely reasonable, and all of the producers are from the Nelson area.

Make sure you come here on an empty stomach as there is plenty of great food on offer. This is also a great place to stock up with some fantastic road trip snacks. 

Midrange – Urban Oyster Bay and Eatery

If you are into seafood then this is an absolute must. You can get incredible, fresh seafood for very decent prices. There is no better way to taste the ocean than at Urban Oyster Bay and Eatery!

Luxury – Hopgoods

This legendary Nelson establishment is the perfect setting for a romantic meal or holiday treat. Hopgoods is extremely popular with both locals and travelers.

With local ingredients used throughout, the food is unfussy and rustic perfectly mirroring this region of New Zealand. 

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About the Author - Richard Barnes

Richard Barnes is our resident China, New Zealand and Central Asia expert, having spent more time than just about anyone backpacking and travelling around there. He is also one of half of the British-Chinese couple that make up abearandapig.com, a blog focusing on travel, life as a local and an expat in the middle kingdom and Chinese social media.

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