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Nelson travel guide, tours & things to do

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Karllie Clifton checks in from Nelson in New Zealand...
Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide: Lake Rotoiti. Image courtesy of Tourism New Zealand. Image: Julian Apse

The Nelson Tasman region is one of the most popular holiday destinations in New Zealand, but it’s not one that Australians know too well.

Located on Tasman Bay at the top of the South Island, just 25 minutes by air from Wellington or five hours’ drive from Christchurch, Nelson offers easy access to stunning coastline and three national parks, and more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in Aotearoa New Zealand! Although many holidaymakers visit in the warmer months to enjoy the sparkling bayside setting, Nelson is a year-round destination. Spring and autumn are particularly beautiful times to visit.

Enjoy this Nelson travel guide.

Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide: Meet the locals in Abel Tasman National Park. Image: Bigstock

Top cultural experiences in Nelson

Nelson brings together the best of nature, cuisine and creativity.

Outdoor enthusiasts are attracted to this region by the beaches, countryside and mountains. Foodies flock to the array of restaurants and cafes, while the landscape and climate create the ideal conditions for producing some of New Zealand’s finest wines, ciders and beers. Nelson also prides itself on its creative energy and is home to a large community of talented artists and artisans. Scattered throughout the city and beyond, you’ll find many galleries and studios to explore. All in all, there’s something here for pretty much everyone.

Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide: Visit the studios of local artisans. Image courtesy of Nelson Tasman NZ

Top cultural institutions to check out include the World of Wearable Art and Classic Cars Museum, where you will find two unbelievable collections of innovation and design under one roof. World of Wearable Art is an annual international event that celebrates the world’s most creative minds in wearable design. However, it all began as a local event in rural Nelson over 30 years ago. As the event grew, it moved into the city and eventually to Wellington. It’s only fitting that garments from every annual show end up here in Nelson on display. If you love fashion, you must visit this museum.

Pre-purchase World of Wearable Art and Classic Cars Museum tickets

Nelson travel guide
Image courtesy of World of Wearable Art

The Classic Cars Museum houses an eclectic private collection of vintage vehicles, spanning 100 years of motoring. You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to appreciate just how impressive these machines are. This is one of the largest collections of classic motoring bling in Australasia.

Nelson may be some way down the list of New Zealand’s largest cities (it comes in at number nine) but it’s the geographical centre of the entire country! Although there’s a network of tracks you can take to reach the centre on Botanical Hill, the easiest way is from the Botanic Sports Field (the site of New Zealand’s first ever rugby game in 1888). There is usually plenty of parking on Milton Street and Hardy Street East. The track entrance gives you two options and it’s a good idea to go up one way and down the other. The track to the left will take you via a lone kauri tree, which is an unusual sight in the South Island (as kauri are mostly found in the upper North Island). It’s well worth the 20-minute uphill walk for the spectacular 360-degree-views.

Nelson for history lovers

Māori first arrived in this region about 700 years ago and Europeans in the early 1840s.

Nelson (Whakatū in Māori) is the oldest city in the South Island. To learn more, pay a visit to the excellent Nelson Provincial Museum. It has a wonderful collection of historical artefacts and treasures from across the Nelson Tasman region, and offers a valuable insight into local history and identity.

Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide. Image courtesy of Nelson Provincial Museum

You’ll find New Zealand’s oldest operating pub — The Moutere Inn — just out of the city in Upper Moutere. Built by German Cordt Bensemann, it was completed in 1853. It’s now a good ‘stop and taste’ for a variety of local craft beers.

Ways to relax in Nelson 

The biggest drawcard for visitors to the Nelson Tasman region is undoubtedly the ease of access to the great outdoors.

Popular pursuits include hiking, kayaking, cycling, mountain biking, fishing, paddle boarding, rafting, snow sports and a range of adrenaline-spiking activities. In less than 90 minutes’ drive from Nelson, you can be in any one of three national parks — Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson Lakes National Park, or Kahurangi National Park — the second largest park in New Zealand. Not surprisingly, the Nelson Tasman region is a walker’s paradise and you’ll find two of New Zealand’s Great Walks here — the Abel Tasman Coast Track and the Heaphy Track.

Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide: Head for the great outdoors.

Sun worshippers will also love this destination. I mentioned all that extra annual sunshine, and the Nelson Tasman coastline includes a number of stunning beaches — stretching from Cable Bay to Kaiteriteri Beach, and beyond to Golden Bay. The popular Tahunanui Beach is a favourite with Nelson residents. It’s located right on their back doorstep.

Self-driving is an easy and convenient way to explore the region. However, those who would prefer to concentrate on the jaw-dropping scenery rather than a map should book a day tour with Tasman Tours. You’ll visit stunning Golden Bay, Farewell Spit, Abel Tasman National Park and Wharariki Beach.

Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide: Wharariki Beach. Image: Bigstock

If a good bike ride and great nosh are both something you’re partial to, then you must pedal at least part of the Great Taste Trail during your visit to Nelson. There are a number of tasty stops along the way at cellar doors, breweries, cafes, restaurants and gourmet artisans. The complete trail is 174 kilometres long, so you can do a section over a few hours or turn it into a multi-day experience.

Nelson travel guide
Cycle Nelson Tasman’s Great Taste Trail. Image courtesy of Nelson Tasman NZ. Image: George Guille Media

A section of the trail from Nelson or Richmond takes in Mapua Wharf, which offers a range of eateries, galleries and a museum. You’ll bike across the Waimea River suspension bridge to Rabbit Island, and then cycle to the other end of Rabbit Island to catch a ferry to Mapua Wharf. Alternatively, it’s a 30-minute drive from Nelson.

Wildlife lovers should make tracks to the Natureland Wildlife Trust by Tahunanui Beach. It’s home to a number of native and exotic animal species. The small zoo is open to the public 364 days of the year and given the modest entry fee, it is well worth a visit — especially if you are travelling with children. You can enjoy time in enclosures with native birds such as the cheeky kea, feed some of the animals, learn about the conservation work taking place, and enjoy scheduled talks by the animal keepers.

Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide: Natureland Wildlife Trust. Image: Karllie Clifton

Great places to eat in Nelson

Nelson Tasman produces an abundance of fresh food from land and sea, and you can expect fabulous quality cuisine.

The best place to start your gourmet exploration is in the city centre. At the bottom of the Christ Church stairs, along both sides of Trafalgar Street, you’ll find a great collection of restaurants, cafes, and bars. If you like the sound of seafood and cocktails, the Cod & Lobster Brasserie is a great choice, as is Hopgood’s & Co for an emphasis on the best local produce. Burger aficionados will love Burger Culture, and just around the corner on Church Street is the very popular vegan eatery East St Cafe and Bar.

If you are looking to taste some authentic Indigenous flavours, head to award-winning Kiwi Kai (located right by the Nelson iSite tourist information centre). Here you can try everything from hangi (the Māori method of cooking underground) to a delicious range of seafood pies and more.

Nelson travel guide
Image courtesy of Moutere Hills

With the bounty of wineries and breweries across the region comes an array of culinary experiences to match. Winery restaurant Forsters at Moutere Hills comes highly recommended. It offers a superb menu and gorgeous views of the surrounding vineyard. For an all-in-one experience, nearby Tasteology offers wines from Kahurangi Estate and local craft beers and ciders matched with a simple but refined menu.

For a relaxed dining option that the whole family will love, whimsical Jester House Café in Tasman is something special and should not to be missed. Not only is the food amazing, but the enchanting gardens and friendly eels (which you can hand feed!) add to the experience. In addition, you can check into The Boot B&B — the perfect, slightly quirky, couple’s retreat. Owners Judy and Steve ‘The Imagineer’ have created a truly magical place for all ages. It is no surprise that the Jester House has previously been named New Zealand’s best cafe.

Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide. Image courtesy of Jester House Café

Wine, cider and craft beer

Nelson Tasman is a renowned wine region, spread across two locations known as The Plains (Waimea Plains) and The Hills (Moutere Hills). The Plains is characterised by stony soils, which are great for producing aromatic whites. The Hills have a more gravel threaded clay soil, which produces wines of richness and texture including pinot noirs, chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. You’ll also find other familiar varieties such as syrah, riesling, and pinot gris, along with not-so-familiar drops like viognier, montepulciano, and gewürztraminer. 

With over 20 cellar doors to choose from, the best way to navigate Nelson’s wine scene is on a tour. Tasman Tours offers a fantastic half day wine experience. Their guides are not only knowledgeable about the wine, but also the region.

Book a Nelson half-day wine tour

Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide. Image: Karllie Clifton

While other cities claim to be the country’s ‘craft beer capital’, Nelson Tasman produces all of New Zealand’s commercially grown hops and has a rich history of brewing that dates back to European settlement. For the best brews, hit the Nelson Beer Trail, which takes in boutique breweries from Nelson City to Golden Bay. However, with six stops right in central Nelson, you won’t need to travel too far to taste something amazing. If you are heading to the town of Motueka, then be sure to stop in at T.O.A.D. Hall. It’s packed with character and incorporates the Townshend Brewery taproom.

Wine and beer are not the only Nelson nectars of note. Some of New Zealand’s best ciders are also produced here (many by beer breweries). For the ultimate cider experience, time your visit to coincide with the New Zealand Cider Festival in November. This annual event kicked off in 2016 and as Nelson produces over 60 percent of the country’s cider, it’s the perfect host city!

Nelson travel guide
New Zealand Cider Festival. Image courtesy of Nelson Tasman NZ. Image: Steve Hussey Photography

Where to shop in Nelson

Those in need of some holiday retail therapy should make their way to Morrison Square in the heart of the city.

Open seven days a week, Morrison Square offers a great selection of fashion and retail stores. Alternatively, head out to Richmond and go crazy with your credit card at the Richmond Mall, which has over 70 stores. For a special treat or treasure to take home, head to Upper Moutere to shop for artisanal arts and crafts from the fabulous Moutere Artisans.

Nelson travel guide
Shop for locally crafted wares at The Nelson Market. Image courtesy of Nelson Tasman NZ

If you love a good market, you’re in luck. Nelson has several! The most popular is The Nelson Market on Saturdays, where local growers and artists come together to share their produce and crafts in Montgomery Square. You can easily spend an entire morning exploring the rows of stalls and tasting unique flavours such as mussel pâté or misomite (an NZ-created, miso-based spread). This is also the perfect place to grab your morning coffee and a casual bite to eat.

Held on Sundays in the same location, Monty’s Market offers an array of pre-loved goods and treasures. Alternatively, head out of the city to the Motueka Sunday Market, which combines a farmers market, craft market, and second-hand market.

Nelson travel guide
Nelson travel guide. Image courtesy of Motueka Sunday Market

Shop for an impromptu picnic at the Nelson Farmers Market in Kirby Lane, which is held on Wednesdays. It operates from 8.30am to 1.30pm.

And finally, visiting Pic’s Peanut Butter Factory is a fun, all weather activity and doing the factory tour will not cost you a cent! Book online to ensure your place, as the tour is very popular. If you want to avoid large tour groups, choose the first tour of the morning at 9am. Afterwards you can browse in the store, which stocks a range of Pic’s products and memorabilia. Pic’s also has a café that serves great coffee and a range of delectable snacks.

Nelson travel guide
Tour the Pic’s Peanut Butter Factory. Image: Karllie Clifton

Where to stay in Nelson

The Hotel Nelson

Located just a stone’s throw from the waterfront, The Hotel Nelson is a comfortable and affordable accommodation option. Choose from a great selection of room types, including studio units and multi-room apartments. All rooms are serviced daily and air-conditioned for your comfort. Some rooms have fully equipped kitchens and spa baths.

Nelson travel guide
Image courtesy of The Hotel Nelson

The on-site Flames on 40 Restaurant and Bar offers a menu inspired by seasonal local ingredients and the best of Nelson’s produce. Get your day off to a good start with a continental breakfast or something more substantial from the a la carte breakfast menu. Flames on Forty is also the perfect place to relax and enjoy a meal after a hard day of sightseeing. The restaurant welcomes hotel guests and the public, so this is a great place to eat whether you are staying at the hotel or not.

Other amenities at the hotel include 24-hour reception, complimentary Wi-Fi, complimentary access to Snap 24 Hour Gym, off-street parking, Sky TV and laundry facilities. Enjoy a splash in the outdoor heated pool or simply lounge poolside. The BBQ area offers the perfect setting for some sizzling self-catering on one of Nelson’s many sunny days.

For more information, please visit www.nelsontasman.nz.

Do you have any tips to add to our Nelson travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Cover image courtesy of Nelson Tourism. Additional images: Bigstock

Karllie Clifton

About the writer

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. At the end of 2015, Karllie left her teaching profession, sold her home and became a nomad for the next few years. It sparked a real passion for budget solo travel, which she now loves to inspire others to do. In the last few years alone, Karllie has visited over twenty countries and ticked off more than 50 cities across three continents. She loves the great outdoors — especially hiking and anything to do with the ocean.

 

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