When you're not interested in beaches...
Reputation: gorgeous golden beaches. Everywhere. Sunshine all the time.
Why you should go: great arts scene. Good shopping. Excellent local beer, wine and cider. Top-notch restaurants. Green parks. Every outdoor activity imaginable. The jumping off point for some of New Zealand's top walks.
A quick note about accessibility: Nelson is easy to get around with a pushchair or if you use a mobility device. All buildings, by law, are also easily accessible.
Everything's free unless stated.
Main photo: detail from 'Te Awatea' by Sally Burton.
Statue on the waterfront. The port city of Nelson. A gorgeous garage. Enjoy a summer evening in Trafalgar Street.
Immerse yourself in culture
Nelson is one of New Zealand's art hubs. Start at the small but perfectly-formed Suter Art Gallery with its collection of art and other applied arts, mostly from the Nelson region. This is also a good place to buy a locally made souvenir and grab a bit to eat.
World class photographer Craig Potton has a small gallery selling his beautiful photos plus local art and jewellery on Hardy Street in town.
Keep an eye out for street art by artists including Sofles in Nelson's alleyways. You can't swing a cat in Nelson without hitting an art gallery. We like Red Art Gallery on Bridge Street. And you're bound to spot something you like at the flea market on Saturdays.
Nelson hosts a jazz festival at the start of the year and an annual arts festival in October which always includes a great range of theatre, parades and general good times. And check out what's on at the Theatre Royal.
The World of WearableArt and Classic Cars Museum is an unusual but fabulous mix of costumes from the annual World of Wearableart competition, which started in Nelson and is now hosted by Wellington, and classic cars. The costumes are incredible and every single one can be worn. The collection of cars is one of the largest in Australasia and they are truly lust-worthy. You'll need a car to get to the museum as it's a 10 minute drive from town, but parking is free and it's well worth a visit. A rather hefty entry fee applies.
A 20 minute drive from town is Hoglunds Art Glass, which sells gorgeous hand-blown glass. The studio is on site with glass-blowing demos most days. We love its chunky, beautiful pieces, but they're not cheap (or light!). Still, some things are worth it.
Get your culture on at Theatre Royal. Gorgeous glass from Hoglunds Art Glass. Street art by Sofles. A glow-in-the-dark costume from the World of WearableArts Museum.
For a reasonably small city, Nelson has some great shopping. If you like clothes, head straight to Palm Boutique on Bridge Street for a well edited selection of New Zealand designs. Shine - conveniently located next to the Craig Potton gallery on Hardy Street - sells easy-to-wear clothes, shoes and jewellery from local and Australian designers. You'll also find other local boutiques plus the usual range of chain stores (Glasson's, Hallenstein's etc) in the centre of town.
If you're in Nelson on a Saturday, head to the Saturday Market in Montgomery Square - just follow the crowds. This market has been around for years and years and sells clothes, homeware, fruit and veg, food, toys, jewellery, flowers and just about anything else you can imagine. Many local designers and producers got their start here before going on to bigger things. Our tip: wear sunscreen as it can get very hot, especially in summer.
We reckon that Nelson has the best jewellers in New Zealand. There's Jens Hansen, maker of the ring for the Lord of the Rings movies, near the top of Trafalgar Street, Benjamin Black Goldsmith and Jewel Beetle on Bridge Street, and Louise Douglas Jewellery on Nile Street. Most art galleries have a nice range of local jewellery too.
There are also great independent bookshops: Page and Blackmore on Trafalgar Street and Volume around the corner on Church Street. Homewears get a look-in too at Nook and Strangers Collective on Trafalgar Street. And we like the locally-made goodies at Red Art Gallery on Bridge Street.
Nelson's centre is small and easy to cover by foot so go exploring and we guarantee you'll find something you like.
Shop for great locally-made gifts at Red Art Gallery. The excellent Page and Blackmore bookshop. Homewares at Collective Strangers. The Saturday market.
Eat and drink yourself silly
You won't starve in Nelson. Our hands-down favourite is Hopgood's, one of the country's top restaurants. Make a booking to avoid missing out. Check out the other restaurants at the top of Trafalgar Street. Harbour Light Bistro on the waterfront is also very good. Great cakes are found at Nelson institution Lambretta's and Morri Street Cafe, both on Hardy Street. Paasha Turkish Kitchen does great kebabs. They are a little more expensive that other places but are worth it.
Regardless of your preference - meat-eater, vegetarian or vegan - you'll eat well. There are a couple of supermarkets in town if you're self-catering.
Nelson produces brilliant craft beer - try McCashin's or something on tap from Sprig and Fern, which is a local chain with pubs all over town. Or try some Old Mout Cider from nearby Moutere Valley (and the local supermarket).
If you prefer wine, welcome to heaven. The top of the South Island producing outstanding wines and specialises in chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Local wineries include Kahurangi Estate, Neudorf Vineyards (try its Rosie's Block chardonnay), Seifried Estate and Waimea Estates. Check out this guide to the local vineyards. Marlborough is also fairly close so head to Allan Scott, Ara Wines, Cloudy Bay, Kim Crawford and Oyster Bay. Some wineries charge a small fee for tastings.
Dining at the top of Trafalgar Street with the spire of Christ Church Cathedral in the background. Risotto featuring local seafood. Nelson institution Lambretta's - try its pizza and gelato. Hopgood's, one of the country's best restaurants.
Enjoy Nelson's green spaces
Nelson is gorgeously green so grab a picnic and head to:
- Queens Garden, next to the Suter Art Gallery
- Founders Heritage Park, great for the kids and there's a pub on site! An entry fee applies
- Miyazu Japanese Gardens, with it's ponds and manicured gardens
- Botanics Sports Ground, where New Zealand's first rugby match was played in 1870 in case you were wondering. It's also the starting point for the walk to the Centre of New Zealand (which isn't quite the centre but you get a great view of Nelson). Wear sunscreen and take a bottle of water.
A little further out (ie, you'll need a car) is Rabbit Island, with picnic and BBQ areas and 8km (5 miles) of sandy beaches (not that you're into beaches, of course, but others might be interested).
If you prefer watching to doing, grab a ticket to the cricket or rugby at Trafalgar Park. It sometimes hosts international games too.
The kids will enjoy Founders Heritage Park. Gorgeous Botanics Sports Ground. Our arty shot of Miyazu Japanese Garden. And Trafalgar Park if you prefer to watch rather than participate.
Take a break before (or after) heading to the country's top nature spots
Nelson is a popular starting or finishing point for popular Abel Tasman National Park, which can either be walked or kayaked, the Heaphy Track and Kahurangi National Park. Although the town of Takaka is closer, Nelson has more facilities and transport connections. The local tourist office can help with bookings.
Nelson is also handy to Nelson Lakes National Park (home to the clearest lake in the world), the quiet little bays and inlets of the Marlborough Sounds and the Queen Charlotte Track. For snow bunnies, the Rainbow Ski Area is less than 90 minutes drive away.
Enjoy the great outdoors
You can do just about anything in Nelson - swim, kayak, cycle, hike, kite surf, fish, dive, ride a quad bike, horse trek...The tourist office in town or your hotel/motel/hostel can help you book whatever you want to do.
If you like fishing or diving, try Seabird Charters. If you prefer fly fishing, there are some great spots in the Rai and Motueka valleys. For tips and guides, have a chat with the guys at Hunting and Fishing in Achilles Street or the Nelson Trout Fishing Club.
Grab a yummy ice cream at Penguino's. Walk to the Centre of New Zealand for great views. New Zealand's most famous jeweller, Jens Hansen. Jandals (if you want to sound like a Kiwi, flip-flops or thongs if you don't) are standard summer footwear.
Get out of Nelson for the day
You'll need a car for these day trips, but they're worth the effort:
- Head up the Moutere Valley for wineries and the fab Moutere Inn, New Zealand's oldest pub (although this is disputed by the Thistle Inn in Wellington). On the way, stop off at Hoglunds Art Glass, the Old Post Office and Rabbit Island.
- Take a day trip to the wineries of Marlborough, which is only a 90 minute drive from Nelson. This handy interactive map will help you find the vineyards you like.
- Drive over the Takaka Hill to Golden Bay with its laid back atmosphere, great cafes, fishing and nature tours. Golden Bay is better enjoyed over a few days but can be done as a day trip.
Fabulous Moutere Valley: ridiculously gorgeous Neudorf Vineyard. A platter from the Moutere Inn. The Old Post Office, across the road from the Moutere Inn, does indeed have really, really nice stuff. An honesty box - pop the money for your fruit in the box.
If you're driving from Picton, take the scenic route
If you're travelling around New Zealand, chances are you're taking the ferry to or from Wellington. The drive between Picton (where you catch the ferry) and Nelson is gorgeous and only takes about two hours so take the scenic route through Queen Charlotte Sound (it's well sign-posted). It's slightly longer but way more gorgeous that the main route. Stop off at Havelock for a pie and fruit ice cream at the Blue Shop Kaff. Take your time and stop at any spot that appeals - there are lots of small bays and look-outs.
Governors Bay, a great place for a stop and a swim. Fruit ice cream in Havelock. Making friends in the Rai Valley. Driving over the Rai Saddle on the way to Nelson.
If you go to just one beach...
Head to Tahunanui Beach, or Tahuna to the locals. This long, gorgeous stretch of golden beach is close to town and has all the facilities you can imagine. You may not be a beach person but a stroll along the beach early in the morning or evening is pretty nice.
Where to stay
Nelson has the full range of accommodation options, from $NZ16 ($US11) backpacker beds to top-end hotels. If you prefer a hotel, try the Rutherford Hotel right in town. If you want to self-cater check out one of the many motels along Trafalgar Street, such as Delorenzo's Studio Apartments, which was named the second best place to stay in New Zealand by Trip Advisor in 2018.
- Nelson's sun is unforgiving so wear sunscreen. All the time. Every day.
- Freedom camping is legal in New Zealand and is very popular in Nelson. But this may not endear you to locals. Many residents wake up to food scraps and, um, human scraps outside their homes or in the parks. Don't be THAT traveller. Stay in a proper camping ground. They aren't expensive.
- Jandals (flip-flops or thongs to those outside New Zealand) are popular footwear around town.
- Nelson gets crazy-busy over summer so book early.
A great night out starts at the top of Trafalgar Street. Local cider - yes please. Sprig and Fern Taverns are local, everywhere and worth dropping into. The world's greatest chardonnay (in our opinion, anyway).
Contributors: Ann-Marie Nansett, Michael Nansett
Updated: 24 January 2018