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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.

Cathedral in NelsonNelson’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 cafe.

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 rockfaces, through manuka bushland, and onto beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the South Pacific.

Seal on Ohau Point 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.

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Audley Travel specialist Katie

Start planning your tailor-made trip to Nelson by calling one of our New Zealand specialists on 1 800 817 824

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

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    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.