Nelson’s a compact, amenably small city on the northern edge of South Island. It’s a very pleasant place to explore, with a thriving coffee shop and craft scene, a good gallery, and weekly markets. But, Nelson is also a base for extending your travels into Abel Tasman National Park, a mass of forests, beaches the shade of straw and a vividly cyan sea. There are numerous ways to experience the park, but it’s perhaps the best place in New Zealand for sea kayaking. Beyond, you come to the long needle of land known poetically as Farewell Spit.
Nelson’s an upbeat, buoyant town (it feels like a town, though in actuality it’s the South Island’s biggest city after Christchurch). As a place where many Wellingtonians come to retire, it has an appealing relaxedness as well as a sense of community. Markets selling everything from produce to toys set up camp weekly in one of the parking lots, and you can’t walk far without stumbling into a café.
There are pockets of history: a row of restored 19th-century workers’ cottages, Italianate-style homes built by British settlers, and its cathedral, built on the site of a Maori pa (fort). On the southern side of the city lies the Maitai River walkway, a boardwalk that meanders through native woodland. To the west, there’s Tahunanui Beach, a wide expanse of soft sand that’s ideal for swimming, ball games, busking, young families… you’ll find the lot.
Nelson and its environs house a vibrant crafts community, and the studios of ceramicists, sculptors and glassworkers (among many other artists) are dotted around this area. You can explore them, and the landscapes surrounding Nelson, on a cycling tour ― as described in our guide to cycling in New Zealand.
Heading west of Nelson, you reach Abel Tasman National Park. Its eponymous Coast Track is one of New Zealand’s celebrated Great Walks, taking you across estuaries and granite rock faces, through manuka bushland, and onto beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the South Pacific.
New Zealand fur seals congregate here: take to a kayak for the best views of them. The water is so clear, you can often watch their progress through the water. You can find out more about the various options for multi-day or day hikes (and kayaking stints) on the Abel Tasman Coast Track in our guide to walking and trekking in New Zealand. Overnight sailing trips are also possible.
Inland, walking tracks lead to tucked-away waterfalls and a lookout over Harwoods Hole, a marble chasm.
Moving northwest from Abel Tasman National Park, you reach Collingwood, a former gold rush settlement and now the staging post for safari trips out onto the remote Farewell Spit. This spine of land ― one vast sandbar ― reaches out to form the northernmost tip of the South Island. It’s a bird sanctuary and restricted-access nature reserve that shelters migratory waders (including several species of heron and oystercatcher), Australasian gannets and Caspian terns, among other species.
Best time to visit Nelson
Nelson benefits from a temperate climate for most of the year, and as long as you don’t mind a spot of rain, you can visit at any time of year. That said, we like visiting in spring (October and November) or in March and April, for mild temperatures and fewer visitors.
Suggested itineraries featuring Nelson
Our itineraries will give you suggestions for what is possible when you travel in Nelson, and they showcase routes we know work particularly well. Treat them as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.
Map of Nelson
Places & hotels on the map
Places near Nelson
- Abel Tasman National Park 48 kilometers away
- Picton 61 kilometers away
- Blenheim 63 kilometers away
- Marlborough Sounds 70 kilometers away
- Kahurangi National Park 70 kilometers away
- Collingwood & Farewell Spit 83 kilometers away
- Wellington 125 kilometers away
- Kaikoura 131 kilometers away
- Hanmer Springs 145 kilometers away
- The Kapiti Coast 151 kilometers away
- Martinborough 183 kilometers away
- Greytown 184 kilometers away
- Wairarapa & surrounds 187 kilometers away
- Punakaiki 187 kilometers away
- Whanganui National Park 211 kilometers away
- Arthur's Pass National Park 235 kilometers away
- Hokitika 251 kilometers away
- Taranaki & New Plymouth 256 kilometers away
- Christchurch 258 kilometers away
- Akaroa & Banks Peninsula 284 kilometers away
- Tongariro National Park 298 kilometers away
- Hastings 352 kilometers away
- North Island 360 kilometers away
- Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers 363 kilometers away
- Hawke's Bay 366 kilometers away
- Napier 367 kilometers away
- Waitomo 369 kilometers away
- Lake Taupo 373 kilometers away
- Mount Cook National Park 379 kilometers away
- Lake Tekapo 381 kilometers away
- South Island 400 kilometers away
- Twizel 423 kilometers away
- Rotorua 431 kilometers away
- Waikato 451 kilometers away
- Tauranga 470 kilometers away
- Bay of Plenty 475 kilometers away
Photos of Nelson
Accommodation choices for Nelson
We’ve selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Nelson. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.
Ideas for experiencing Nelson
Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Nelson, and which use the best local guides.
Farewell Spit Ecotour
Farewell Spit Ecotour
Farewell Spit Ecotour
Farewell Spit, at the very northernmost point on the South Island, has been a sanctuary since the 1930s and is now home to over 90 species of bird including famous waders such as bar-tailed godwits, knots, curlews, whimbrels and turnstones, which spend the summer here.View details