How to Plan the Best Trip to Nelson
Tucked away in Tasman Bay at the top of the South Island, Nelson doesn’t sound like much but it’s sure close to much. New Zealand’s sunniest city is surrounded by the Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Parks to the east, the Nelson Lakes National Park to the south and the Mt Richmond Forest Park to the west. What’s more, the city is the home of creatives and productive people where culture is easy to find between the multitude of vineyards and breweries, art galleries and artisanries. Some might say that the best bits of New Zealand are wrapped into one here in the city that’s also the city with the most sunshine hours in the country.
So whether you’re a couple, solo traveller or a family; on a budget or looking for a luxury getaway, you’ll find the right lever to pull in this complete travel guide to Nelson.
Common Questions About Nelson
Let’s cut to the chase with this travel guide to Nelson and answer the most common questions that travellers have.
Is Nelson Worth Visiting?
Yes – if you are into arts, crafts, wine, beer, artisan goods and sunny weather, Nelson is known for all of these things and more. While Nelson is associated with its surrounding national parks (such as Abel Tasman), it is still an hours’ drive away from most, so we recommend staying closer to the national parks if that’s all you’re here to do.
What is Nelson Known For?
Nelson is known as New Zealand’s sunniest city due to having the most sunshine hours. It’s also the place where the first rugby match was played in New Zealand.
Where is Nelson Located?
At the top of the South Island in the Nelson Tasman region of New Zealand.
What is the Weather Usually Like in Nelson?
Nelson is the city with the most sunshine hours in New Zealand, therefore, the weather is usually mild and sunny. The daily average temperature is 12.7°C/54.8°F, while the yearly average rainfall is 1,240mm/48.8″. Find out more in What is the Weather Like in New Zealand?
How Do You Get to Nelson?
Nelson is well connected to the rest of New Zealand by road along State Highway 6. The closest international airport in terms of travel time is Christchurch Airport (5h45min drive). Nelson also has a well-connected domestic airport, Nelson Airport, with frequent flights between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Nelson is on the main national bus route, which you can find more information about in Bus Networks in New Zealand.
What to Do in Nelson
Aside from epic day trips into the surrounding national parks, what else is there to do in Nelson? Heading to the beach is a popular option in the city with the most sunshine hours, with Tahunanui Beach and Rabbit Island being at the top of most peoples’ list. If you’re a bit of a foodie, you have the Great Taste Cycle Trail taking you to various vineyards, breweries and artisans to indulge in. Of course, Nelson has its fair share of museums, nature parks and gardens.
The Top Experiences in Nelson
What are the must-dos? Here are some of the Nelson highlights:
- Feel your toes in the sand at Tahunanui Beach
- Cycle the Great Taste Trail, Dun Mountain Trail or one of the others listed in our guide to Mountain Biking in Nelson Tasman
- Check out the views from The Centre of New Zealand
- See native birds at Brook Waimarama Sanctuary
- Step back in time at Founders Heritage Park…
… And the list continues over in our 20 Best Things to Do in Nelson.
Rainy Day Activities
Although Nelson is New Zealand’s sunniest city, it’s still New Zealand. Therefore, a rainy day backup is never a bad idea. Some options include:
- Visit the Nelson Classic Car Museum
- Enjoy tastings at the breweries listed in the 8 Best Craft Breweries in Nelson
- Take a free tour of Pic’s Peanut Butter World.
For more ideas, head over to the 10 Things to Do in Nelson on a Rainy Day.
Where to Stay in Nelson
Other than the accommodations we recommend on the righthand side of this complete travel guide to Nelson (or at the bottom, if you’re on mobile), we have compiled entire lists of places to stay based on price, what’s best for families or a couples’ getaway, as well as premium stays. What’s more, each list is compiled by real writers; not some algorithm.
Nelson for Budget Travellers
Got your eyes on some pricey experiences in the Abel Tasman National Park? Perhaps you want to do one of the Great Walks, which comes with its associated costs? No worries. Nelson city is a good base to keep the costs low in between exploring the highlights of the top of the South Island. Not only does the city have a variety of free and cheap attractions within walking distance of the city centre, but its budget accommodations are abundant, friendly and refreshing. Check them out and more in The Guide to Nelson on a Budget.
Budget Activities in Nelson
- Walk to The Centre of New Zealand
- Check out the Queen’s and Miyazu Gardens
- Hike the Cable Bay Walkway
- Browse the Suter Art Gallery
- Check out the One Ring at Jens Hansen – The Ringmaker.
Learn about each activity and many others in the 15 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Nelson.
Budget Accommodation in Nelson
Nelson is home to some of the most impressive backpacker hostels in the country, all offering excellent value with many freebies and a welcoming ambience. You’ll also find plenty of affordable motels and a couple of holiday parks in Nelson. Check out the best in the 10 Best Budget Accommodations in Nelson.
Nelson for Luxury Travellers
Nelson has the vineyards, the golden sands, subtropical forest and magnificent mountains: all you need to do is find the experiences to match. We’ve made it effortless with The Luxury Guide to Nelson outlining the lavish land, sea and air experiences across the Abel Tasman National Park and Nelson. From sailing to soaring, there are many premium ways to enjoy Nelson, as well as day spas and wineries should you need some pampering. Complete your stay in an international hotel or boutique lodge for a trip to remember.
Luxury Activities in Nelson
- Explore Nelson Tasman by helicopter with Helicopters Nelson (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor)
- Take a scenic flight with Golden Bay Air
- Do a day tour or liveaboard holiday with Abel Tasman Sailing Adventures (on Viator and Tripadvisor)
- Hire a private charter with Abel Tasman Charters – Day Tours (on Viator and Tripadvisor)
- Do a small-group or private tour of Abel Tasman or Golden Bay with Wine, Art & Wilderness (on Viator and Tripadvisor).
For the finer details on each experience and others, take a look at the 8 Best Luxury Experiences in Nelson.
Luxury Accommodations in Nelson
Nelson is best known for its international and boutique inner-city hotels, especially the Grand Arden Nelson Monaco with its brick architecture and village ambience. Outside of the city, you’ll find all sorts of luxury lodges and eco-resorts scattered around Tasman Bay. Check out our recommendations in the 10 Best Luxury Accommodations in Nelson.
Nelson for Families
With lots of sunshine and so many things for families to do, a trip to Nelson is too easy. In town, you have wonderful gardens and a heritage park that kids love, educational experiences and the museums and the wildlife sanctuary, as well as active adventures on the family-friendly bike trails. However, a family visit to Nelson is not complete without a detour to the Abel Tasman National Park, which is the most accessible for families with waka (Maori canoe) and sailing tours suitable for all ages. So, plan your family vacation complete with where to stay using The Guide to Nelson for Families.
Family Activities in Nelson
- Ride the world’s longest flying fox and much more at Cable Bay Adventure Park (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor)
- Paddle in a Maori canoe in the Abel Tasman National Park (on Viator and Tripadvisor)
- Visit the old-timey town of Founders Park
- Check out the birds at Brook Waimarama Sanctuary
- Ride bikes to Rabbit Island.
For more details on each activity and more, see the 10 Things to Do in Nelson with Kids.
Family-Friendly Accommodation in Nelson
Nelson is almost overrun with motels and apartments that make a family stay affordable and easy with access to the comforts of home. Alternatively, the holiday parks surrounding Nelson are an attraction in themselves for kids with their recreational activities and facilities. Check them out in the 10 Best Family Accommodations in Nelson.
Nelson for Couples
There’s something about Nelson that’s effortlessly romantic, whether it’s the soothing sunny climate, the golden-sand beaches or surrounding vineyards. Either way, couples are spoiled with the number of fabulous date nights they could be having here between the lavish sunset dinners at Mapua Wharf and the active adventures like kayaking together on the vibrant turquoise water of the Abel Tasman National Park. Plan your honeymoon or romantic getaway to Tasman Bay with The Honeymoon & Romantic Getaway Guide to Nelson.
Things to Do in Nelson for Couples
- Team up in a double kayak in the Abel Tasman National Park with Abel Tasman Kayaks (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor) or Wilsons Abel Tasman
- See the love birds at the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary
- Tackle a hike together in the Kahurangi, Nelson Lakes or Cable Bay
- Dine and watch the sunset from Mapua Wharf
- Indulge in a couple’s massage.
For more information on each experience, see the 10 Most Romantic Things to Do in Nelson for Couples.
Romantic Accommodation in Nelson
Whether your idea of romance is a four-star hotel, a boutique historical hotel or quaint cottages among the vines, there’s something to suit all couples in and around Nelson. Check out some options in the 5 Best Romantic Accommodations in Nelson.
Nelson for Foodies
While we’ve mentioned a lot of amazing things to do in Nelson between the national parks and city attractions, some might argue that the best thing about Nelson is the food. We know, we know – New Zealand is about the landscapes, not the food. But the artisans, brewers and winemakers of Nelson really start to change travellers’ priorities with their alluring foodie experiences to excite the senses. The food scene is so prominent in Nelson that there’s a 177km bike trail called the “Great Taste Trail“. If we need to say more, then scooch over to The Food Guide to Nelson: Places to Eat & Food Tours to learn more about Nelson’s food scene.
Food Tours and Activities in Nelson
- Cycle the Great Taste Trail
- Visit Nelson’s wineries and breweries
- Take a look around one of Nelson’s markets
- Tour Pic’s Peanut Butter World
- Visit Upper Moutere and its artisans.
For more details on each experience and its locations, see the 9 Best Foodie Experiences in Nelson.
Where to Eat in Nelson
- Urban Eatery (278 Hardy Street)
- The Styx (272 Wakefield Quay)
- Bistro 276 (276 Trafalgar Street)
- The Indian Cafe (94 Collingwood Street)
- East St. (8 Church Street)
Foodie Accommodation in Nelson
Either stay in self-catering accommodation where you can get creative with the local products found at The Nelson Market or stay in a hotel with a restaurant to ensure treating your tastebuds is never too far away. Check out some options in the 10 Best Accommodations in Nelson for Foodies.
More About Nelson
That’s it for our complete travel guide to Nelson but by no means the end of our Nelson travel tips! Check out the following guides for more advice on what to do nearby:
- 11 Best Things to Do in the Abel Tasman National Park
- 10 Best Things to Do in Nelson Lakes National Park
- 10 Best Things to Do in Kahurangi National Park
- 10 Nelson Tasman Must-Dos
- 10 Best Things to Do in Richmond
- 10 Best Things to Do in Motueka
- 5 Best Things to Do in Wakefield & Tapawera
- 10 Best Things to Do in Murchison
- 7 Best Things to Do in St Arnaud
- 6 Best Things to Do in Maruia
- The Complete Travel Guide to Takaka
- The Guide to The Lord of the Rings in Nelson Tasman
Finally, plan more of your South Island trip using the South Island in Two Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary or South Island in One Week: Road Trip Itinerary. You’ll also find more advice for planning an epic NZ trip in The Best Travel Guide to New Zealand.