The 10 Best Things To Do In Nelson, NZ - Your Ideal Vacation Hideaway!

things to do in nelson nz
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Maria Cristina
Maria Cristina 
| 8 min read

Find out about the best things to do in Nelson, NZ and plan your itinerary for the perfect holiday!

Nelson (which is called Whakatu in Maori language) is the oldest city in New Zealand’s South Island. It sits on Tasman Bay’s east coast. In Maori language, Whakatu means to build, raise or establish. The city was established in 1841 and is named after a British Vice Admiral Horacio Nelson, who lead the defeat of the Spanish and French fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar. Several of the roads and landmarks in the city are named after significant people and fleets relevant to their history.

The city is popular for its prospering arts and crafts industry. Every year the city plays as the host to festivals and events such as the Nelson Arts Festival and the Wearable Arts Awards which draws in thousands of locals and tourists alike. Aside from these interesting events, the city is captivating itself being surrounded by its rugged terrain of virgin forests and sunny beaches. The strong British influence is evident in its culture and city structures. If you love the arts and want a fun filled vacation in a natural setting where the sun is up all year round, then do drop by and experience Nelson City. It’s your ideal vacation hideaway!

1. Abel Tasman National park

Abel Tasman National Park
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Hector Garcia used under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Abel Tasman National Park is a forest reserve found in the north end of South Island in New Zealand near the towns of Motueka, Takaka and Kaiteriteri. It measures 22,530 hectares (55,672 acres) making it the country’s smallest national park. It is popular for its Abel Tasman Coast Track which is a long and winding hiking trail that encompasses bridges and goes over ridges bordered by Marahau to its south and Wainui on the north. The South Point headland is home to colonies of furry seals. The inhabitants of the Tonga Marine Reserve are little blue penguins, seals and bottlenose dolphins. You can get there by taking the bus, by launch or regular taxi.

The park has three prominent islands - Tonga, Adele and Fisherman. On these islands you can find rare native and exotic plants and animals that are either few in number or no longer found in the main island. If you have the taste for the outdoors you can go camping, swimming, kayaking, hiking, hunting, mountain biking and canoeing in these areas.

Abel Tasman National Park

Address: Millers Acre/Taha o te Awa 79 Trafalgar Street, Nelson 7010, NZ

Website: Abel Tasman National Park

2. World of Wearable Art

WearableArt 13 (30900587084)
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Tony Hisgett used under CC BY 2.0

Did you know that one of the artists who works for the World of Wearable Art is one of the designers of the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show? Yes, the artist designs the awesome wings worn by the fashion models! Such impressive talent is bred in the National WOW Museum where two kinds of design collections are on display. First, there is the World of Wearable Art which is a showcase of the extraordinary talents of artists who create fashionable clothing using unconventional resources (sometimes recycled materials). This international competition draws hundreds of upcoming and established artists from around the world to participate in this famous exhibit of original and innovative artworks.

Second, in the same museum we have the Nelson Classic Car Gallery. On display is a collection of 120 vintage cars that were used by past presidents and other notable figures in New Zealand’s history. It is a treasure trove for car enthusiasts where they will find the rarest, most expensive and most-sought after automobiles in over 100 years of motoring history. You’ll definitely say “WOW what a museum!”

World of Wearable Art

Address: 1 Cadillac Way, Annesbrook, Nelson 7011, NZ

Website: World of Wearable Art

3. Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson Lakes National Park
Source: Pixabay

Nelson Lakes National Park is found in South Island, in between Rotoiti and Rotoroa, two large lakes. It takes a 1-2 hour drive from Nelson or Blenheim to reach the gateway of the park which is St. Arnaud. The park was established in 1856 to protect the northern landscape of the southern Alps. Here you will find a tranquil forest of beech trees, clear springs, rugged mountains, and an assortment of lakes.

According to legend, Rakaihatu, a chief and explorer, traveled to these mountains and along the way dug holes using a digging stick called ko. He filled these holes with water and food (kai) for those who followed him. The food which consisted of waterfowl, eel and fresh water mussels were essential for the Maori traveling on these mountain trails. In the 1840s, Europeans invaded these areas to graze sheep. Today tourists enjoy the vast beautiful landscape where you can picnic, hunt and holiday on these shores where subsequently a hotel was built along Rotoroa.

Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre

Address: View Road, St Arnaud, NZ

Website: Nelson Lakes National Park

4. Nelson Provincial Museum

Nelson Provincial Museum
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Mike Dickison used under CC0

The Nelson Provincial Museum is governed by the Tasman Bays Heritage Trust, a charitable organization that oversees the upkeep of the museum. The museum pays homage to its Maori heritage as well as Nelson and the Tasman neighboring region’s deep roots in history that date back as far as the 19th-century. In 1842, the museum was just a portion of a library on Trafalgar Street. By 1861, the library and museum had outgrown their space on Trafalgar and moved to a new location in Hardy Street. The building that they moved to was destroyed by a fire in 1906. It resolved to resurrect as a brick building and it reopened in 1912.

Until 1963, the museum was on the second floor of the building with the Nelson Library (called the Institute) on its first floor. It was eventually transferred to the Marsden family Isel-house and finally in its current location on Trafalgar St. where it stands as a brick structured edifice. 1983 saw the opening of the Maori History Gallery with subsequent modifications made on the teaching space, workshop, storage room and darkroom completed in the latter years. The museum is basically a showcase of the Nelson and Tasman heritage, a collection from over 160 years, from their geological origins and stories told by their people.

Nelson Provincial Museum

Address: Cnr Trafalgar St and Hardy Street, Nelson, 7040, NZ

Website: Nelson Provincial Museum

5. Queens Gardens

Queens Gardens, Nelson
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Siobhan Leachman used under CC0

The formal opening of Queens Gardens was in 1892 in celebration of Queen Victoria’s jubilee. This Victorian classic ornamental park is a historic place registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. The land where the gardens are located used to be a meat market of the first European settlers. In 1887 the area was designated to become the Queens Garden and a design competition was held in the following year. During the early 20th-century, attractions like the Boer War Memorial and Memorial Gates were added to the gardens.

The inspiration of the garden is taken from the Victorian era and it is a reflection of the city’s growth and development. Here you will find a diverse collection of plants and trees, and it serves as a place where social and civic gatherings take place. Take a stroll around the park and view amazing sculptures like the Cupid Fountain, the Water Wheel, Sentinel, Boer War Memorial and others.

Queens Gardens

Address: Bridge Street east of Collingwood before Normanby Bridge

Website: Queens Gardens

6. Tahunanui Beach

Tahunanui Beach, Nelson, NZ
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Blair McBride used under CC BY-SA 2.0

The main beach of Nelson City is Tahunanui Beach. It is extremely popular among the locals because of its wide stretch of sandy beach and its long shallow slope with calm waters warmed by the sun. The beach lies on the northern shores of Tasman Bay on a peninsula that stretches west of the Tahunanui suburb. Locals and foreigners alike enjoy swimming in the waters, getting sand in their toes while walking on the beach and a number of water sport activities like wind surfing, paddle boarding and kite surfing. The thriving community offers plush residential accommodations with complete amenities like parks, shops and great places to eat. You might think of permanently settling here and trying the beach life, not a bad idea at all!

Tahunanui Beach

Address: Shores of Tasman Bay

Website: Tahunanui Beach

7. Founder’s Park

Founders Heritage Park entrance and church
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Pseudopanax used under PUBLIC DOMAIN

This family friendly park is a huge display of Nelson’s history and heritage. This charming park takes you back in the olden days when Nelson was just a locality. You can take a look around and enjoy stories of the the local people and get amazed with the old fashioned structures. Visit the business and arts center; their building has its own character. There is a train you can ride that takes you around the property so you can enjoy the natural scenery and vintage vibe.

There are several exhibits to explore like the Taste History (beer is really a big thing here in New Zealand), Cycle Down Memory Lane (a private collection of old and new bicycles), Fly the Plane (the last of the Bristol Freighter planes on display) and Meet Dennis and Little Flick (a replica of the 1867 Nelson Fire Brigade Headquarters). There is so much more to see that will keep the whole family entertained for the entire bright and sunny day.

Founder's Park

Address: 87 Atawhai Dr, The Wood, Nelson 7010, NZ

Website: Founder's Park

8. Nelson Saturday Market

Saturday Market
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Steve Morgan used under CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the best ways to truly know the culture of a city is to visit their market. The Nelson Saturday Market has been in operation for 30 years. This iconic market is only open on Saturdays to give local distributors the opportunity to sell their wares which are the arts, crafts and produce indigenous to this region. People gather here to buy souvenirs, experience the local food offerings and mingle with others over brunch and lunch. You’ll know where to find me on Saturday mornings. See you at the market in Montgomery Square!

Nelson Saturday Market

Address: Montgomery Square, Nelson, 7010, NZ

Website: Nelson Saturday Market

9. Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, NZ (2603957522)
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Robert Cutts used under CC BY 2.0

The Christ Church Cathedral is the main church that serves the Diocese of Nelson. The cathedral is built on a hill called Pikimai, a Maori term meaning “come up hither”. The church serves the needs of their Anglican parishioners, the Diocese and the city. The original cathedral was just a parish church established in 1842. With the blessings of Queen Victoria, the diocese was created in 1859 establishing Nelson into a city by her Royal Charter. Today, the cathedral stands as impressive as it looks, keeping its tight historical ties with Nelson city.

Christ Church Cathedral

Address: Trafalgar Square, Nelson, 7010, NZ

Website: Christ Church Cathedral

10. On a beer trail

Best New Zealand beer tasting I've ever done. All gold winners from the NZ Beer Awards. World class. So excited about beer in New Zealand beer right now. @behemothbrewingcompany @mcleodsbrewerynz @northendbrewer @garageproject @emersonsbrewery @sawmillbre
Source: Photo by Flickr user epicbeer used under CC BY 2.0

Nelson is dotted with several pubs and breweries and it is a must that you should try at least one or two during your visit. It’s fun to follow the dots and go on a beer trail! Mussel Inn is one of the popular places where you can get yourself good food and great beer. It is located in the center of Golden Bay, northwest of Nelson. The Inn is open 7 days a week from 11am until late at night. On busy days like from boxing day until the middle of January, you will have to book for a reservation. As an additional attraction, the Inn has gimmicks like Quiz nights, Live Poets Society, which meets on a Thursday every month, live acoustic and piano music and even a tasting competition.

McCashins Brewery Kitchen and Bar is a family friendly restaurant and bar that features a mini brewery. They serve a seasonal menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner along with their great coffee and handcrafted beer. The restaurant ambiance is a friendly cafe style setup that transforms into a busy resto bar at night. They feature a really spacious beer garden with a huge Heritage Oak tree that provides natural shade. It’s a great place to quench your thirst and satisfy your hunger.

The Mussel Inn

Address: Takaka-Collingwood Highway 7182 Onekaka, NZ

Website: The Mussel Inn

McCashins Brewery Kitchen and Bar

Address: 660 Main Rd, Stoke, Nelson 7011, NZ

Website: McCashins Brewery Kitchen and Bar

Where the sun always smiles!

Cable Bay Cafe in Nelson, NZ
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user TheMarchMan used under CC BY-SA 3.0

There’s a lot of reasons to keep smiling in Nelson. It’s the beer capital of New Zealand! It is the center of amazing arts and crafts. It has a fascinating history which is a blend of Maori and European culture. The city has a lot to offer in terms of its untouched natural surroundings and endless beaches together with its agreeable weather. It seems the sun is always smiling on this shiny city. The summers are long and warm. Even during winter and autumn, the weather is cold but you can still see the sun and enjoy outdoor sports and activities. No wonder this is one of the most favored destinations by travelers who want to enjoy a summer-like vacation all year round!

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.


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Tina is a free-spirited writer and traveler. She likes to experience unfamiliar places, cuisines, and scenery. She prefers beaches to mountains though as she is afraid of heights. Visiting museums,...Read more

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