Nelson is beautiful. Located in the ‘Top of the South’, it has a large number of sunshine hours compared to the rest of the New Zealand’s South Island and is often referred to as ‘Sunny Nelson’.
The city itself has a lot to offer, including a lovely weekend market.
And, as it is surrounded by THREE national parks, you can believe that there is a whole lot to see in the area besides the city centre.
I managed to secure five months of work in this area, which means I’ve had a chance to explore, though not as much as I would have liked.
So, if you’re in Nelson and are looking for something to do, check out this list of awesome ideas!
1: Abel Tasman National Park
Fancy golden sand beaches and native forest walks?
Abel Tasman is a gorgeous gem that can be reached within 1-2 hours from Nelson.
Although this is New Zealand’s smallest national park, the Coastal Track between the northern and southern end takes between 3-5 days to hike, and is classed as one of the country’s ‘Great Walks’.
There are DOC huts and campsites along the route, which need to be booked in advance.
You can also book tours and activities, such as sea kayaking and horse trekking, in Motueka, Marahau or Kaiteriteri.
I have visited Abel Tasman on two occasions.
On the first trip, I camped at the Totaranui DOC campground in the north of the park.
The campsite is right by the beach and I woke up early to watch the stunning sunrise and did a small hike along a section of the Coastal Track.
The second trip was similar but this time I stayed in a campground at Marahau, just south of the park, and walked some of the southern end of the track before finding a beautiful beach to relax on.
However you decide to explore, I highly recommend a visit!
2: Rabbit Island
I’ve spent many days and evenings hanging out on Rabbit Island.
There is a gorgeous beach, which is usually pretty quiet, as well as lots of open green areas with free gas barbecues!
It is also a really nice place to go for a walk, and when you reach the top of the beach you can see across to Mapua Wharf.
To get there, drive south out of Nelson on SH6 until you reach Richmond, and turn right at the roundabout onto SH60. Follow this road until you see the turn-off for Rabbit Island on the right.
The island is closed off at night but there is a very obvious sign as you’re driving in indicating the time you need to leave by.
3: Whispering Falls
A magical fairy tale scene with multi-coloured rocks and twinkling curtains of water droplets.
And the walk to get there is gorgeous too!
The walk starts near Aniseed Valley, just a 40 minute drive out of Nelson.
Check out this article for a full walk through.
4: Centre of New Zealand
Not actually located at the centre of the country (but not far off) is a short walk up to a monument with a glorious view over Nelson.
Starting at Botanical Reserve in town, the walk is short but quite steep, leading you up Botanical Hill to the summit.
This point was used as the central survey point in the first geodetic survey of New Zealand, hence the name.
The actual Centre of New Zealand was found to be a remote spot in the Spooners Range.
From the summit, you can see across Nelson to Abel Tasman in one direction, and into the Maitai Valley in the other.
Fun fact: The Botanical Reserve was the setting for New Zealand’s first ever rugby match!
5: Spooners Tunnel
Fancy walking or cycling through an unlit, disused railway tunnel from the 1890’s?
While this was a bit of an obscure find, I actually enjoyed the walk much more than I originally thought I would, once I’d stopped thinking about things jumping out of the darkness.
The tunnel is 1.35km in length, making it the longest in the Southern Hemisphere.
It was built by hand and is now a part of the Great Taste Trail for cyclists.
Remember, there are no lights so don’t forget to bring a torch!
6: Cable Bay
This stunning area is only a 20 minute drive north of Nelson and is well worth a visit.
A sandbank connects Cable Bay with Pepin Island, so you can walk along the beach there or take a hike on the Cable Bay Walkway.
The walkway is 3.5 hours one way and is closed during the lambing season as it passes through farmland.
The bay is truly stunning in terms of views; I highly recommend you go and see it!
7: Nelson Lakes National Park
This park is a bit further out from Nelson to the south.
The village of St Arnaud is a good place to start as there is a visitor centre there, right next to Lake Rotoiti.
There are plenty of hikes in the National Park, from easy lakeside paths to difficult mountain treks.
The other lake in the area that gives the park its name is Lake Rotoroa.
There are DOC campsites near both lakes if you’d like to spend some time in this amazing area.
I visited Nelson Lakes National Park twice in the winter and saw snow both times! This is the only area of New Zealand that I’ve seen snow falling.
8: Motueka salt baths
Motueka is a charming town on the SH60 towards Abel Tasman.
With its Sunday market, a shipwreck and an excellent pub, the town is worth a visit even if the weather is not so warm.
But on a hot day the salt baths are definitely the place to be.
The tide fills the bath twice a day, so there is always water to bathe in, even when the sea itself is so far away at low tide.
It is right on the beach, so you can spend some time sunning on the sand before taking a dip!
9: Tahunanui Beach
This glorious beach is in Nelson itself, and is a long stretch of white sand with plenty of parking and a water park nearby for the kids.
It is usually quite busy on hot summer days, but as the beach is so long you barely even notice.
There is a sand spit that goes out into the water, so when the tide is lower you can walk out quite far.
There is a specific area for dog walkers, and you’ll often see kite surfers in this area too.
10: Nelson’s weekend markets
Every weekend in Nelson there are two morning markets; one on Saturday and one on Sunday.
From local groceries to crafts, regional products and food trucks, you’re bound to find something you like.
There’s a really lovely atmosphere every week and it’s a chance to try some local treats!
I know I’ve only just scratched the surface of all the wonders that the Nelson region has to offer, and I wish I had more time to spend here finding more!
One thing is for sure: from hiking, to swimming, to shopping, to just stopping to admire the views, there’s something for everyone here.
Have you visited Nelson yet? Will it be your first stop on the South Island? Let me know in the comments! 🙂
Want more like this? Check out these articles:
- Whispering Falls: Nelson’s stunning day hike
- Top 7 awesome things to do in Auckland
- Aoraki/Mount Cook: Hooker Valley Track
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