The top of New Zealand’s South Island doesn’t attract the attention of further south, especially with international visitors.
This is a shame as there’s so much to explore including beaches, mountains, lakes, native bush, wineries, craft breweries, berry farms, art galleries and more. You can hike, mountain bike, kayak, shop, and sample delicious local products.
We spent two months in Nelson and found it an excellent base for exploring the region. It’s a small city that feels like a small town and there’s lots to offer in a compact package.
You can be browsing art galleries or sampling craft beer one minute and strolling along the river or up in the surrounding hills the next. Beautiful nature is easily accessible.
While it’s popular with Kiwis in the summer, Nelson doesn’t attract the tour buses or campervanners you’ll find further south, and we often had beaches and trails to ourselves.
Most tourists only visit Nelson for a couple of days with the main goal of visiting Abel Tasman National Park. I highly recommend spending longer here if possible to enjoy more of the region.
Here are our favourite things to do in Nelson as well as the best places to eat and drink and tips on accommodation and transport.
This post was originally published in April 2020 and was updated in January 2021 after our latest visit to Nelson.
- Where is Nelson in New Zealand?
- Best Things to Do in Nelson
- Central Nelson
- Nelson Outskirts
- Further Afield: The Best Day Trips from Nelson
- Best Restaurants and Cafes in Nelson
- Best Bars in Nelson
- Accommodation in Nelson
- How to Get to Nelson
- When to Visit Nelson
- Nelson New Zealand Map
- More New Zealand Posts
Where is Nelson in New Zealand?
Nelson is located at the top of the South Island of New Zealand on Tasman Bay.
It’s just over 100km (62 miles) east of Picton, where you’ll find the ferry to Wellington, the beautiful Marlborough Sounds, and the nearby Marlborough wine region.
The Nelson Tasman Region is home to three national parks all within a 90-minute drive of Nelson City: Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson Lakes National Park, and Kahurangi National Park.
At the end of this post, you’ll find a map with our favourite places in Nelson and around.
Best Things to Do in Nelson
I’ve divided our top things to do in Nelson into three areas: the city centre, the outskirts, and further afield locations which are great for day trips.
Many of these Nelson activities are free, but I’ve included costs when applicable. All prices are in New Zealand dollars. The current exchange rate is NZD $1 = USD $0.72, GBP £0.53, and EUR €0.59.
These Nelson attractions are located in the centre of the small city and are accessible on foot.
If you need a map or information, it’s worth starting your explorations at the excellent Nelson i-Site Visitor Information Centre next to the river.
1) Stroll Along the Maitai River
I love how much green space there is in Nelson. The Maitai River is the perfect place for an easy walk or run and is close to the shops and cafes in the centre. The 8km (5 mile) walkway along the river is paved near town and becomes gravel as you get further out.
It’s pretty and leafy and it doesn’t take long until you feel far from the city. Along the way there are a few swimming holes such as Black Hole, Dennes Hole, and Sunday Hole where you can cool off in summer.
2) Climb to the Centre of New Zealand
A slight detour off the Maitai River Walkway is another trail that takes you up Botanical Hill to the Centre of New Zealand. It’s not the exact centre of the country, but surveyors in the 1870s used it as the centre point.
This was our regular walking route and we loved seeing how the view from the top changed in different weather. You can see the whole city, surrounding hills, and across the bay to the mountains beyond. It really is a Nelson must do.
It’s a bit of a climb to the top, but it’s not difficult if you’re reasonably fit. It took us about 20 minutes from the Botanic Sports Field at the bottom of the hill where the first rugby game in New Zealand was played in 1870.
From near the summit you can connect to a network of trails on the hillside—look out for the maps to see the different options including forest trails that take you to Branford Park.
Our favourite is the Sir Stanley Whitehead Track which takes you along a ridge past grazing sheep with more fantastic views of the city and port.
At the end of the trail you descend the hill and emerge near Founders Heritage Park ($10 entry). We never visited the park but if you have kids or are interested in history it might be worth a visit. Miyazu Gardens, a pleasant Japanese garden (free entry), is also nearby.
3) Shop at the Saturday Market
The Nelson Market is held every Saturday morning (8am – 1pm) at Montgomery Square and is one of the most popular things to do in Nelson. Head there early to avoid the crowds.
The large outdoor market is an excellent opportunity to buy locally-made products including cheese, olive oil, honey, baked goods, and condiments. There are also many stalls selling clothes, jewellery, and art.
You can pick up an inexpensive meal from one of the many hot food stands. We love the huge veggie rotis from the Taste of Sri Lanka stall and our friends recommend the vegan pies from the Rainbow Kitchen stand (try the lentil tahini pie with chilli sauce).
There are relatively few fresh produce stalls, but they are especially good in the summer when you can pick up the delicious locally grown berries (or see below for how to pick your own).
The much smaller Nelson Farmers’ Market is held on Wednesday mornings (8.30am – 1.30pm) on Kirby Lane. We preferred to pick up bread, vegetables, and fruit here as it is much less crowded than the Saturday market.
4) Hike up the Grampians (Followed by Afternoon Tea)
If you’ve already walked up to the Centre of New Zealand and are looking for more of a challenge, the Grampians is another beautiful walk.
The hike starts a 20-minute walk from the centre of the city in a residential area at the top of Collingwood Street (look for the trail map). From here it took us about 50 minutes on the main trail to reach the summit—the beginning is very steep.
It’s worth it, though, as you soon feel like you’re in the countryside with sheep and horses grazing in the pastures. The view down to the city and bay is superb for most of the way. Note that there is no view from the Telegraph Tower at the top, so there’s no need to go all the way unless you want the extra exercise.
From the centre of town the return walk took us about two hours.
The perfect way to reward yourself after the walk is with lunch and a glass of local wine in the lovely rose garden of nearby Melrose House (see restaurant section below). If you book in advance, you can also order their famous high tea (from 2.30pm).
5) Relax in Queens Gardens
A worthwhile detour while strolling the Maitai River is to Queens Gardens which were opened in 1892 to celebrate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. These small but lovely gardens are one of the best places to visit in Nelson for a quiet stroll or picnic.
The gardens are also home to the Suter Art Gallery and Cafe. The cafe was a favourite hangout of ours on sunny afternoons for cake and wine overlooking the gardens.
6) Follow the Nelson Art Trail
Nelson is home to many artists and at the i-Site you can pick up an Arts and Crafts leaflet to follow the Nelson Art Trail to small galleries which showcase their paintings, ceramics, jewellery, glass blowing and more.
The Suter Art Gallery is the largest art gallery in town. Entrance is free and there’s a lovely cafe, so it’s worth popping in. We found the exhibitions mixed—traditional landscapes alongside more interesting contemporary installations.
We also like having lunch in the Red Art Gallery (see below).
7) Go Mountain Biking
We are not mountain bikers, but there are some quality trails close to the centre including the Dun Mountain Trail and the Coppermine Trail.
Our friends rented electric mountain bikes from Kiwi Journeys and said it was a fun way to explore the trails if you don’t have a lot of experience.
8) Visit Christ Church Cathedral
While I wouldn’t say visiting the 19th-century Cathedral is a Nelson must do, it is worth wandering through Trafalgar Square for a quick look. Stairs lead up to the iconic bellower with its unique cut-out design. It’s surrounded by pretty gardens.
On the outskirts of Nelson you’ll find the suburbs of Tahunanui and Stoke and the neighbouring town of Richmond. Some parts are rather industrial and unattractive, but you’ll find plenty of worthwhile attractions and natural beauty beyond the highway.
This area is best visited by bike or car and you could combine many of these activities for a day trip.
9) Seek Out Native Birds at the Brook Waimārama Sanctuary
The Brook Sanctuary is a hidden gem in Nelson that deserves more visitors. It’s only 6km (4 miles) from the centre, but you feel far away from it all.
It’s the largest fenced reserve for endangered plants and creatures in the South Island. As there are no predators, the native birds thrive and you can enjoy their birdsong as you explore the network of trails through the bush and alongside the river.
You can choose easy or more challenging trails. We wished we had worn hiking sandals as you do need to cross a small river to do the longer hikes.
The sanctuary is run by volunteers who talk you through the options when you arrive. Admission is $15 for adults ($8 for locals). Hours are limited outside summer, so check the Brook Sanctuary website before you visit.
10) Swim and Stroll at Tahunanui Beach
Tahunanui Beach is one of Nelson’s highlights. This long, wide, grey sand beach is only a short drive or one-hour walk from the centre of town.
On sunny summer days the beach is very popular, but there’s plenty of space for everyone. We always found a quiet spot amongst the dunes by driving to the far end of the car park (near the Nelson Fun Park and Beach Cafe) and heading to the stretch of beach just before the dog-friendly section.
The water is shallow and calm and great for swimming.
Close to the playground you can usually find an ice-cream stand or two. We loved the Real Fruit Ice Cream Cart which uses local berries like boysenberries (expect a wait on busy days, though) and the Applebys Farm van who make ice-cream from their own locally-made milk.
There are also lots of activities for kids by the beach including a water slide, mini-golf, go-karting, model railway, and a zoo.
11) Go Standup Paddleboarding
Standup Paddleboarding is one of the Nelson activities that is popular with both locals and visitors. It’s a great way to get out on the water and enjoy Tahunanui Beach.
You can hire SUP boards from Moana right on the beach for $25 for one hour. The water is calm enough that it’s suitable for beginners, but it’s best before 11am when the wind usually picks up. Alternatively, you can arrange a paddle on the Maitai River which is even calmer.
We’ve paddleboarded a little before but decided to book an intermediate lesson to improve our skills ($70 for a one-hour lesson and two-hour board hire). Our teacher Tara is a NZ SUP champion and taught us useful techniques for choppy or windy conditions.
12) Admire Unique Designs at the World of WearableArt & Classic Cars Museum
Update: WOW is currently closed and it’s unclear when or if it will reopen. The Classic Car section of the museum is still operating in the same location.
If you’re wondering what to do in Nelson on a rainy day, head to WOW, the World of WearableArt & Classic Cars Museum ($24) for a celebration of creativity and design.
The museum showcases the extravagant costumes made by finalists in the annual WOW competition in Wellington as well as classic cars dating back to 1908.
We’re not particularly into fashion or cars but still enjoyed exploring the remarkable creations.
13) Smell the Roses at Broadgreen Historic House
Broadgreen is a charming colonial house built in 1855. It’s now a museum that shows what family life was like in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Entrance is $5 and includes an optional tour by one of the volunteers.
While we didn’t make it into the house, we did enjoy strolling the Samuels’ Rose Garden outside (free entry) when it was in full bloom in November. There are a few benches amongst the hundreds of varieties of roses and it’s a peaceful spot to read a book.
14) Sample Local Wine at the Moutere Hills Wineries
The Marlborough Wine Region (90 minutes away) might be more famous, but Nelson has its own, quieter wine region where you can sample Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and aromatic varieties.
There are two wine growing areas near Nelson. The Waimea Plains are nearer to the city, but I recommend heading up to Moutere Hills for a prettier and more rural setting of rolling hills. It’s a 40-minute drive from Nelson.
At Forsters restaurant in the Moutere Hills Vineyard we enjoyed a beautifully-presented lunch with views of the vineyard and a small lake with the hills beyond.
Our cheese plate, goats cheese ravioli, and deconstructed white chocolate cheesecake were delicious and we sampled their wine with our meal. I loved the Sauvignon Blanc while Simon was a fan of their Reserve Chardonnay.
Afterwards we drove to Neudorf Vineyards for a tasting ($10). It was a friendly, low-key tasting at the counter—we enjoyed learning more about their wines but didn’t feel pressured to engage in wine-speak. We bought a bottle of their Rosie’s Block Chardonnay which became our favourite white wine in New Zealand.
Their beautiful courtyard overlooks the vines and snow-capped mountains in the distance. We would have loved to linger here in the shade of the huge tree with a glass of wine, but Simon had to drive. There’s no restaurant but you can buy bread and deli ingredients for a casual lunch.
There’s more to this picturesque area than wine. Pick up the Moutere Artisans leaflet for details of the local food, drinks and crafts you can find.
We were limited to the number of wineries we could visit as Simon was driving, so if you’d like to leave the car behind, you could join this half-day Nelson winery tour.
You can also rent bikes from the Gentle Cycling Company who offer a self-guided wine tour to the flatter wine area.
15) Pick Your Own Berries
One of the summer delights of Nelson is the array of berries that are grown on nearby farms. You can purchase some from the city markets, but it’s more fun to pick your own.
We visited Berrylands in late-December and picked an array of juicy strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries and karakaberries for a reasonable price ($9 a kilo). Afterwards we rewarded our hard work with their tasty real fruit ice-cream.
Berries are usually available from mid-December until the end of January. Check the Berrylands Facebook page as opening hours and availability varies.
16) Follow the Craft Beer Trail
Nelson declares itself the craft brewing capital of New Zealand. In the centre of town there are plenty of pubs where you can sample craft beer (see below), but if you are a beer fan, it’s worth heading to the outskirts to one of the breweries.
The Nelson Craft Beer Trail stretches all the way to Motueka and Riwaka where the hops are grown.
Many of the breweries can be visited on the Great Taste Bike Trail (see below). Simon and his friends rented bikes for half a day from Kiwi Journeys but only had time for lunch at the Honest Lawyer Pub and a tasting at McCashins Brewery in Stoke. If you have longer you can also visit the Eddyline Brewery.
17) Picnic on Rabbit Island
Rabbit Island is a 25-minute drive from Nelson and is a popular spot with locals for picnics, barbecues, walking, cycling, and swimming. There are trails through the pine forest and a long grey sandy beach with safe swimming in the turquoise water.
You can drive onto the island or cycle there (as we did) on the Great Taste Trail (see below).
18) Eat, Drink and Shop at Mapua Wharf
Mapua is a small town that’s connected to Rabbit Island by passenger ferry, and it makes sense to combine the two, which we did when cycling the Great Taste Trail.
The Mapua Wharf features independent cafes, shops, art galleries, and bars overlooking the estuary.
We recovered from our bike ride at the Rimu Wine Bar where you can sample a huge selection of local wines by the glass or try a tasting flight. The service was unusually unfriendly for New Zealand, but the comfy couches made up for it. I think we must have caught them on an off-day as the reviews are usually good.
We followed it up with good craft beer and Mexican bar snacks accompanied by live music on the terrace at Golden Bear Brewery Company.
The Apple Shed Kitchen was recommended to us and has a deck over the water, but they only had one vegetarian option. Alberta’s is another popular spot for brunch with vegan and gluten-free options.
19) Cycle the Great Taste Trail
A great way to combine the previous few items on this list is to cycle part of the Great Taste Trail. The full trail from Nelson to Kaiteriteri (the access point to Abel Tasman) is 175km (109 miles) and takes 2–6 days to complete.
We decided to cycle from Nelson to Mapua which is 32km (20 miles). We rented bikes with Kiwi Journeys who offer transport back from Mapua so we only had to cycle one way. It cost $99 per person including the ferry to Mapua and bus back to Nelson.
The first section is a bit industrial but it gets prettier the further you cycle. Along the way we stopped for a drink at McCashins Brewery, cycled past vineyards and orchards, and on boardwalks across the Waimea Estuary.
Finally, we crossed a swing bridge to Rabbit Island where we relaxed (i.e. collapsed) on the beach before cycling to the end of the island to catch the passenger ferry to Mapua Wharf.
Honestly, we don’t cycle very often and the trip was harder than we expected. It took us around three hours of cycling plus breaks. Once we left McCashins we didn’t pass any shops and there was no shade, so on a hot day we were desperately thirsty. If we did it again we’d get an earlier start, take more water, and rent e-bikes.
If you are interested in cycling the full trail, Kiwi Journeys and Gentle Cycling Company offer self-guided and supported trips.
Further Afield: The Best Day Trips from Nelson
Nelson makes an excellent base for exploring the top of the South Island. For these day trips you’ll need your own vehicle or you can join a tour to most of them.
20) Cable Bay
I fell in love with Cable Bay during our stay in Nelson and we returned a number of times including for a Christmas Day picnic.
It’s only a 25-minute drive from Nelson, so you visit as a half-day trip to hike, kayak, swim, or relax on the beach.
The tiny hamlet features a pebble beach on a causeway that connects to Pepin Island and separates the sea and estuary.
The Cable Bay Walkway to Glenduan is 8km (5 miles) each way but you don’t need to do the whole hike. I do highly recommend walking up the steep hill from the beach for stunning views of the green hills and turquoise estuary.
We also loved our 3-hour kayaking trip with Cable Bay Kayaks ($95) where we explored the rock formations and caves of Pepin Island.
Whether you walk or kayak, make sure you finish with lunch or cake at Cable Bay Cafe (summer only).
On our second visit to Nelson we even chose to stay out here—Kikorangi Retreat is a gorgeous house with stunning views of Delaware Bay and Cable Bay. It’s one of the best places we’ve stayed in all of New Zealand. See the accommodation section below for more details.
21) Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand and you won’t want to miss it during your stay in Nelson.
The park comprises golden sand beaches, turquoise sea, and fairly easy hiking trails through native bush. You have a good chance of seeing fur seals and a small chance of seeing dolphins (we got lucky).
Kaiteriteri is the access point to the park where you can catch a water taxi to many of the beaches. It’s about an hour’s drive from Nelson and if you book an Abel Tasman tour, free transport from Nelson is often included in the price.
We loved the park so much we visited three times: for a hike in the quieter northern section, for a hike/kayak combo tour, and for a sailing trip with friends. There are so many options whether you want to explore by boat, relax on a beach, or be more active.
See our guide to the best Abel Tasman day trips for tips on the best ways to experience the park.
22) Nelson Lakes National Park
Nelson Lakes National Park is the northernmost section of the stunning Southern Alps. There are some fantastic hikes here to explore the rugged mountains, glacial lakes, and native forest.
The main village is St Arnaud, a 90-minute drive from Nelson. Here you’ll find the jetty at Lake Rotoiti, a popular photo spot, and easy trails along the pebble beach and into the forest.
We drove a little further to the Mt Robert car park to hike the Mt Robert Circuit. The DOC estimated time for this 9km (6 mile) hike is 5 hours, but it only took us 3 hours including a 20-minute break. The lake views are spectacular and well worth the effort.
23) Kahurangi National Park
The third national park near Nelson is Kahurangi National Park, another stunning place for a day hike.
As New Zealand’s second-largest national park, there are plenty of access points, but the nearest to Nelson is the Flora car park which is 10km up Graham Valley Road at an elevation of 930m. It’s a 1 hour 20 minute drive from Nelson with the last 15 minutes on an unsealed, steep and narrow road. A 4WD is recommended, especially in winter.
From the car park you could hike to Mt Arthur summit at 1795m, but this is a challenging 8-hour return hike.
A much easier option is the 1 hour 15 minute (4.2km) walk up to Mt Arthur Hut at 1310m. The gravel path is wide and well-maintained and takes you through the forest where we saw many adorable titipounamu (rifleman), New Zealand’s smallest bird.
Make sure you continue past the hut for at least a few minutes. Above the tree line the views are incredible of endless forest-covered mountains, Tasman Bay, Nelson, and even Nelson Lakes National Park’s snowy peaks. There’s a rocky spot that’s perfect for lunch.
If you want more of a challenge, you can hike a loop from Flora car park to Flora Hut (an easy 30-minute walk) up to Arthur Hut and down from there. This should be a 3-hour (9km) hike, but we missed the turning at Flora Hut and added a 4km detour for ourselves.
The trail from Flora to Arthur is much tougher than we expected. The trail heads up a hill behind Flora Hut and keeps ascending through the forest—there’s no real trail but orange triangles help you find your way as you clamber over tree roots. Once you get to the top, you are rewarded with 360º views.
Despite the exhausting climb, we loved this beautiful park and highly recommend a visit. It’s best to start early—even at 9.30am in the summer there were only a few spots left in the car park. Take warm clothes as it’s significantly cooler up here than in Nelson.
On the way back you pass through the Moutere Hills, so you could stop for a wine tasting or lunch (see above).
24) Golden Bay
Beyond Abel Tasman is Golden Bay where there are lots of beautiful attractions. You could visit the area on a day trip from Nelson, but it’s a 2.5 hour drive to the northernmost point, so it’s best to allocate a few days if you can.
We took a side trip for Simon’s birthday and spent two nights in a wonderful beachfront cottage at Adrift in Golden Bay.
Highlights of our trip were the wild and dramatic Wharariki Beach, the ultra clear water at Te Waikoropupu Springs, the hippy village Takaka, and hiking the quiet north section of Abel Tasman from Totaranui.
We enjoyed our meals at Roots Bar in Takaka (burgers and craft beer) and The Mussel Inn in Onekaka, which is a cool rustic pub serving comfort food and their own beer.
If you don’t have a car you can take this day trip from Nelson to Golden Bay.
Best Restaurants and Cafes in Nelson
These are our favourite places to eat in Nelson. With a few exceptions, we preferred the food at cafes for brunch or lunch than the restaurants for dinner.
Note that the cafes are only open during the day and some close on weekends. Check opening hours before you visit.
The Nelson Market (see above) is also a good option for a casual meal on Saturday mornings.
Our new favourite place for dinner in Nelson is Arden, a wine and tapas bar in the centre of town. It’s a casual but stylish place with indoor and outdoor seating (bookings recommended).
The cocktails are delicious and there’s an interesting selection of wines by the glass including natural wines. The menu consists of sharing plates with enough veggie options to keep us happy, and although it’s not advertised, they can adapt most of them to be vegan.
Our favourite dish is the gnocchi with brown butter, spring greens, and pecorino, but we also loved the patatas bravas and roasted broccoli with sesame, miso and pickled chilli.
Harry’s Hawker House
Another excellent Nelson restaurant for dinner, Harry’s Hawker House serves Asian fusion sharing plates with a decent number of vegetarian options.
We especially loved the bang bang cauliflower and the cabbage and shiitake potstickers. The vegetarian green curry and roti are also delicious.
Reservations are recommended (they take bookings for 6pm and 8pm).
The owners also run the Urban Oyster Bar which is recommended by locals, but as vegetarians we skipped it.
Harbour Light Bistro
Habour Light Bistro is another good option for an upmarket dinner with gorgeous sea views. Vegetarian options are a little limited but we enjoyed our vegan cannelloni and vegetable ravioli followed by gingerbread cake.
It’s on the waterfront, a 30-minute walk or short drive from the centre of Nelson.
Melrose House Cafe
The cafe at the historic Melrose House is one of the most beautiful places for lunch or afternoon tea in Nelson.
We loved eating outside by the rose garden after walking up the Grampians (see above). There are some good vegetarian dishes including a Nourished Bowl with a selection of salads and beet hummus. Don’t miss the decadent cakes.
Suter Cafe is another great option if you’re looking for an outdoor lunch as it has beautiful views overlooking Queens Gardens.
For lunch they have a range of cabinet food including salads and filo pastry rolls. We also like coming here for cake and wine.
A Melbourne-style cafe with some interesting brunch options. We liked the avocado smash on a bagel and the bean burger.
Another good spot for brunch. The Hippy Breakfast is huge and features a potato rosti, spicy beans, toast, avocado, and an array of vegetables.
Sublime Brew Bar
Simon’s favourite place for coffee—they roast their own beans in this semi-industrial space and he bought packs to use at home.
Red Art Gallery Cafe
This cute cafe is located inside an art gallery selling lovely gifts and artwork. The menu is small but the bagels are tasty (we got the avocado smash).
New in 2020, Little Dove replaces the 7010 cafe by the river. The creative menu is inspired by the kitchens of the Levant and offers something unique in Nelson. We only had time to try a delicious cheese scone, but we will be back for brunch. Everything is made in-house including their sourdough bread which is proven for 48 hours.
A lovely space with a large garden. We found the vegetarian options a bit limited if you don’t like eggs but enjoyed the massive halloumi and grilled vegetable sandwich.
The Baker’s Coffee Shop
Good coffee and almond croissants. Open on weekdays only.
Other Nelson restaurants and cafes that we found decent, if nothing special include:
- The Kitchen – Health-focused cafe with keto and vegan options including raw cakes. I enjoyed the vegan black bean burger.
- Little India – Our favourite of Nelson’s Indian restaurants with lots of veggie options (the aloo baingan is delicious).
- The Indian Cafe – Standard British-style curry house. You can get a takeaway to eat at The Free House beer garden across the road.
- River Kitchen – The food is pretty good at this central cafe, but the best thing is the setting overlooking the river with bean bag chairs to lounge on.
- Burger Culture – Casual burger place. Simon enjoyed his vegan Beyond Burger, but I wasn’t a fan of the fried tofu patty.
- Lombardi’s – Italian restaurant with outside seating on Trafalgar Square. The best pizza we had in Nelson (but there’s not much competition).
- Nicola’s Cantina – Decent TexMex. The nachos weren’t great, but I enjoyed the veggie quesadilla and Simon likes the burritos.
- East Street Cafe – The only vegan restaurant in town. Our meals (fried rice and risotto) were disappointing, but some people love it here so maybe we just ordered wrong. We plan to give it another go.
Cable Bay Cafe
One of our favourite lunch spots due to the outdoor seating, beautiful sea views, tasty cakes, and vegetarian and vegan options. Perfect for after hiking the Cable Bay Walkway.
Grape Escape Cafe
A 20-minute drive away in Richmond, Grape Escape is worth visiting for lunch if you are in the area. We went before berry picking at Berrylands, but it could easily fit into a number of trips in the Nelson Outskirts section above.
The cafe has a lovely setting with large gardens. There are a few good vegetarian meals and a range of cakes.
Toad Hall Cafe
Located in Motueka (40 minutes from Nelson), Toad Hall is an excellent place for lunch on the way back from Golden Bay or Abel Tasman. It’s a cafe, store and brewery with lots of outdoor seating and plenty of tasty vegetarian dishes (with huge portions). You can also pick up cabinet food to take away.
Best Bars in Nelson
A classy whisky and cocktail bar where you can relax on sofas and armchairs. There’s a huge whisky list and you can do tasting flights. The cocktails are superb—the Secret Garden features absinthe, manzana verde, house-made rosemary syrup and a dramatic, smoky presentation.
The Free House
This pub is in a cute converted church and has a large family-friendly beer garden that’s popular on sunny days. It’s a great place to sample local craft beer, but we weren’t that impressed with their Mexican food. You can also order Indian from across the road.
A cool space with a vintage meets industrial design and an 1950s car on top of the bar. They make their own beer onsite which Simon enjoyed and the wine list kept me happy. The food was disappointing though.
Sprig & Fern
This New Zealand chain has a friendly atmosphere (no TVs) and good craft beer. There are three branches in Nelson—the one on Hardy Street is most central.
If you are looking for a late night drink, this intimate bar is one of the few decent bars open late. They serve tacos and have an open mic night on Thursdays.
Honest Lawyer Country Pub
This “Olde Worlde” English-style pub has a large beer garden overlooking the Waimea Estuary a 15-minute drive (or 30-minute cycle) from central Nelson. The pub food is decent and there are plenty of beers on tap, but you’re really here for the setting which is ideal on a sunny day, especially if you have kids.
Accommodation in Nelson
I recommend staying just outside the centre of Nelson where you can enjoy the beautiful nature but are still in walking distance of everything. Being close to the Maitai River is lovely or you can choose a waterfront location to be nearer to the beach (but further from the centre).
Alternatively, if you want a peaceful retreat from the city, consider staying out towards Cable Bay, a 25-minute drive from the centre.
Wakefield Quay House B & B
We spent part of our first stay in Nelson at Wakefield Quay House, an intimate but luxurious B&B on Nelson’s seafront run by the charismatic Woodi. There are just two rooms in the weatherboard colonial villa dating back to 1906.
The sea views, happy hour drinks and nibbles, and breakfast are superb.
It’s a 30-minute walk outside of the centre and less convenient than staying in the centre of town. If you have a car and want sea views and to be close to the beach, it’s a great option though. There are a few good restaurants a short walk away.
Other B&Bs in Nelson
Warwick House Boutique Hotel – This beautiful historic house was built in 1845 and breakfast is served in the grand ballroom. It’s in a pleasant leafy area just a short walk into town and close to the Grampians walking trails.
If you are looking for a special place to stay in a quiet location, consider Kikorangi Retreat, which feels remote but is only a 20-minute drive outside of Nelson. It’s one of the best places we’ve stayed in all of New Zealand.
This beautiful house on a hill above Delaware Bay has incredible views of Cable Bay, Pepin Island, and the turquoise estuary with its dramatic tidal changes.
Friendly owner Carolyn and her family created the house with love 22 years ago when it was nothing but 10 acres of empty land and native bush. The house is now set amongst beautiful gardens full of flowers and fruit trees as well as a vegetable patch and chicken coop—we were encouraged to help ourselves to the produce.
The terrace is the best place to enjoy the setting—from the hot tub, hammock, sitting around the fire pit, or cooking on the BBQ. It’s so peaceful with nothing but the sound of birdsong and sheep baaing on the island across the bay.
Inside the house big windows make the most of the views and it feels like a real home with artwork, books, CDs, a fireplace, and even a guitar. The large kitchen is well-equipped.
The house feels huge, so it’s surprising there are only two proper bedrooms—we took the upstairs double with open plan ensuite and amazing views. There is also a mezzanine workspace/bedroom, but it lacks privacy, as does the sunroom off the living room which could also sleep one or two people.
The only downside was rather slow WiFi (and no cell service) but it was manageable. We definitely want to return for a longer stay.
Book Kikorangi Retreat on Airbnb here.
Other Options in Cable Bay
On the way to Cable Bay is Thackwood Garden & Cottage. Our friends got married in the beautiful gardens here and it feels far away from it all but is only a 10-minute drive to central Nelson.
There are lots of great Airbnbs in Nelson that will give you more space and the option to cook.
I recommend this well-designed light and sunny studio with views run by our friend’s mum. It’s located in beautiful gardens in a quiet part of town near the Maitai River.
The views out the large windows are stunning, especially at sunset. You feel like you’re in the countryside, but it’s walkable to the town centre.
Search for more Airbnbs in Nelson here.
Cedar Grove Motor Lodge
There are many motels in Nelson which are affordable and convenient, if unexciting, places to stay.
One of the best is Cedar Grove Motor Lodge which we stayed in for a week last Christmas. The location is ideal near to the river and only a few minutes’ walk to the centre of town. The family who owns it are friendly and the shared laundry facilities were useful.
Our one-bedroom unit with balcony was more spacious than most motels and was modern and clean with a small kitchenette.
Waimarie on Riverside Motel & Apartments – Good value apartments in a lovely location on the river close to the centre.
Search for more Nelson accommodation here.
How to Get to Nelson
Nelson has a domestic airport and can be reached by plane, bus, or your own vehicle.
Having a car will give you the most freedom to explore, but more than most places in New Zealand you can manage without one. The centre is walkable and tour companies can take you further afield to the wine region and Abel Tasman.
Wellington to Nelson
To get from Wellington to Nelson you can take a very short flight with Air New Zealand or Sounds Air or a 3.5-hour ferry to Picton plus 2-hour drive.
We took the ferry and spent two nights in the Marlborough wine region to break up the journey, which I highly recommend.
Our North Island itinerary has some suggestions of places to visit if you are visiting both islands.
Picton to Nelson
Picton is where the ferry from Wellington arrives on the South Island. It’s a 2-hour drive from Picton to Nelson or the InterCity bus takes 2 hours 20 minutes.
If you are driving yourself, on the way stop at Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve where you can do some short walks along the turquoise river and through the birdsong-filled forest. This is where the barrel scene in The Hobbit movie was filmed.
Blenheim to Nelson
Blenheim is the hub of the Marlborough wine region. To get from here to Nelson it’s a scenic 90-minute drive or a 2-hour ride on the InterCity bus.
Christchurch to Nelson
The journey from Christchurch to Nelson is quite a long one. It takes at least 5.5 hours to drive it and it’s worth breaking up the journey with a stop in Hanmer Springs (if taking the inland route) or Kaikoura (on the coastal route).
The InterCity bus takes 7.5 hours or you can take a short flight. Alternatively, the scenic Coastal Pacific train runs between Christchurch and Picton in just over five hours and you could then transfer to a bus to Nelson. The train only runs three times a week from spring to autumn.
Nelson to Punakaiki
If you want to travel further down the South Island, the West Coast is a beautiful if winding drive. Punakaiki is a great first overnight stop with some lovely walks along the Pororari River and to see the famous Pancake Rocks.
Punakaiki is a scenic 4-hour drive from Nelson and Murchison is a good halfway point for coffee or lunch.
When to Visit Nelson
Nelson Tasman is the sunniest region in New Zealand and can be visited year-round. The summer (late-December to March) is the best time to visit Nelson if you want to enjoy the beaches, but expect more crowds, especially over the New Year holidays.
We visited from November to early January (late spring/early summer) and found the weather mixed—some cool rainy days but plenty of sunny and warm days too.
Winter is cool but often sunny with average temperatures of 12ºC (54ºF) vs 22ºC in summer.
Nelson New Zealand Map
More New Zealand Posts
- 3 Ways to Explore Abel Tasman National Park on a Day Trip
- A Detailed Guide to Walking the Queen Charlotte Track
- 10 Tips for Visiting the Marlborough Wineries
- 14 Best Things to Do in Wanaka
- Queenstown to Milford Sound Scenic Flight: The Most Beautiful Half-Day Trip in New Zealand
- The Best New Zealand North Island Itinerary
- 15 Best Things to Do in New Plymouth and Taranaki
- Visiting the Magical Hobbiton Movie Set
- Learning to Sail in the Bay of Islands
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