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 30 miles away
- Picton 38 miles away
- Blenheim 39 miles away
- Marlborough Sounds 43 miles away
- Kahurangi National Park 44 miles away
- Collingwood & Farewell Spit 52 miles away
- Wellington 78 miles away
- Kaikoura 81 miles away
- Hanmer Springs 90 miles away
- The Kapiti Coast 94 miles away
- Martinborough 114 miles away
- Greytown 115 miles away
- Wairarapa & surrounds 117 miles away
- Punakaiki 117 miles away
- Whanganui National Park 131 miles away
- Arthur's Pass National Park 146 miles away
- Hokitika 156 miles away
- Taranaki & New Plymouth 159 miles away
- Christchurch 160 miles away
- Akaroa & Banks Peninsula 177 miles away
- Tongariro National Park 185 miles away
- Hastings 219 miles away
- North Island 224 miles away
- Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers 226 miles away
- Hawke's Bay 228 miles away
- Napier 228 miles away
- Waitomo 230 miles away
- Lake Taupo 232 miles away
- Mount Cook National Park 236 miles away
- Lake Tekapo 237 miles away
- South Island 249 miles away
- Twizel 263 miles away
- Rotorua 268 miles away
- Waikato 280 miles away
- Tauranga 292 miles away
- Bay of Plenty 295 miles 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