14 best things to do in Nelson: New Zealand’s sunshine capital

Haere Mai ki te Sunny Nelson! Welcome to Sunny Nelson!

When it comes to Nelson, there is always a level of excitement about what lays ahead.

From local Māori legends, early settler arrivals and rugby, to beaches, smiling locals, great coffee, scrumptious peanut butter and much much more, sunny Nelson doesn’t disappoint.

A popular holiday spot for many, Nelson is also home to a significant local population (that will proudly tell you that it’s one of the best places to live in the country!) The combination of both results in a fantastic, well-resourced town. You’ll find absolutely everything you need there, along with world-class natural beauty.

That’s a winning combination, if you ask us!

Join us as we take you through some of the very best things to do in this gorgeous city. 

Welcome to the top of the South Island…

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Tourists kayaking on the clear waters near the white sands of the shores.
Explore the Abel Tasman Park, just out of Nelson.

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The Best Things to Do in Nelson

1. Journey to the Past at These Historical Sites

Te Taero-a-Kereopa, Boulder Bay

Within te ao Māori (the Māori world) it is common for a legend to describe amazingly beautiful landscapes – Boulder Bay is one such feature. Thanks to its unique features, it is hard to miss as you explore the shoreline of Nelson.

Amazingly, the legend relating to this area is also a reminder that Māori have been present there for 700 years. 

Boulder Bank is a 13km spit of granodiorite boulders. According to Māori, the bank was created during the legendary navigator Kupe’s pursuit of Pani and Kereopa (two of his crew members who kidnapped his daughter). In order to escape Kupe, Kereopa offered up a karakia (prayer) which caused the boulders at Horoirangi (Mackay’s Bluff) to fall and be swept into the sea. This created a barrier between his waka (canoe) and that of Kupe’s – what we now know as Boulder Bank.

A site rich in history, archaeologists also found evidence that Māori camped on the bank and used the boulders as tools. 

From a geographical perspective, Boulder Bank is internationally unique. It is made up of the debris of landslides from the Mackay Bluff, which was then swept southwards by sea currents over 10,000 years.

This Māori and natural wonder can be explored by foot or out on the water (by kayak or paddle board). Walking over the boulders for 8 kilometres will bring you to The Cut, which was created in 1906 to enable easier passage to the harbour. It consequently separated Haulashore Island from the bank.

Moana Paddle Nelson also run guided kayak and paddle board tours around the area. They take in the island and stop at the lighthouse, before sharing more amazing local history.

We highly recommend it as a taste of local culture and beauty.

Wakefield Quay

Being the second oldest city in colonial New Zealand (NZ), Nelson has an array of historical sites that are significant to the settler story of the region. 

Wakefield Quay is one of these – it is rich withcaptivating local history

Along the Quay you’ll find fascinating information boards, memorials and statues including the names of the ships, cargoes and importantly, the adventurers, families & entrepreneurs who arrived from 1841.

Read about the lives of the settlers, the vibrant yachting regattas which started in 1843 and the liveliness of the dance hall at The Boat House that was built in 1906.

While you enjoy your trip back in time, be sure to take in the stunning views of Nelson’s sheltered harbour and keep an eye out for some of the new name you’ve learnt when visiting different spots around town. 

This is also a great location to view Boulder Bank from.

The Botanics Reserve

Some would say that life in Aotearoa revolves around rugby.  There may be some truth to this, especially when you consider that the Centre of New Zealand is located right next to the birthplace of rugby in the country. 

Entering into the Botanics Reserve from the city end, you’ll find the Botanic Sports Field, home to the very first game of rugby in NZ back in 1870. The game was between Nelson College and the Nelson Football Club, with approximately 200 people in attendance.

During our visit, we couldn’t help but wonder what that game would have been like. Did those people have any idea that they were witnessing the birth of a NZ tradition? That this rugby game would be embedded into our national psyche for decades to come? 

After you’ve dreamt of rugby glory, tossing your ball and running upon what some might consider a holy spot, it’s time to tackle another iconic location within this reserve – a walk to the Centre of New Zealand. 

Located at the top of Botanical Hill, this well pathed, short walk starts just behind the sports field. Once you reach the top, take a seat and enjoy the incredible vantage point. The magic here is real – brought to life with a 360 degree view of Aotearoa’s natural beauty.  Soak up the lush Maitai Valley, then enjoy views out across the city, harbour, and shadowy hills in the distance. It will take your breath away.

Fun Fact: This isn’t actually the geographical centre of New Zealand. It was, however, a central survey point in the early days of European settlement. The actual centre of New Zealand is located in the Spooners Range in the Golden Downs Forest (to the south-west of Nelson).

Christ Church Cathedral 

As you travel around Nelson, you’ll come across Christ Church Cathedral, on Pikimai, Church Hill. It’s near impossible to miss. This large gothic building is situated on the hill just back from the main city centre and it is seriously stunning.

With services being held on this site since 1842 and the growing size of the Nelson population, Queen Victoria enabled the consecration of a bishop and construction of a cathedral in 1858.

Believe it or not, the presence of this church enabled Nelson to become New Zealand’s second city ever!

2. Ride Around Nelson City

With so much to see, it makes sense to jump on a bike and go for a ride to view this gorgeous city.

Nelson’s cycleway network is well established, offering both on and off road trails ranging from easy to moderate, making it accessible for the whole family.

Three people riding on a bicycle while passing a green and newly grown vineyard.
Bike riding in and around Nelson. Photo credit: Dean McKenzie.

Culture and Nature on the Banks of the Maitai River

We highly recommend a lazy ride in the sun along the banks of the Maitai River. This urban pathway is home to beautiful murals and sculptures, riverside cafes and shady picnic spots. 

It is a fabulous way to spend a few hours and as it’s so flat, it really is accessible to most people.

Stunning Views and Family-Fun Galore on the Waterfront

We also really enjoy the waterfront ride, where you can take in the stunning harbour views, stop at historical locations of interest on Wakefield Quay and chill out at Tahunanui Beach.

This spot is perfect for families, as the beach reserve also contains many attractions – a hydroslide, BMX track, model railway, go-kart track, mini golf course, zoo, playground, skatepark, roller skating rink, laser tag course, trampoline park, sack slide, beach volleyball court and bumper boat park too.

All of this is just a few steps away from the sand dunes at Tahunanui Beach!

3. Pay a Visit to the Nelson Market

If you’re visiting the city over the weekend, be sure to start your Saturday at The Nelson Market. Located in the heart of the city in Montgomery Square, this market is considered one of the best in the country – and when you’re there, it doesn’t take long to realise why. 

Whether it’s a top made from 100% pure NZ wool (the owner will even know the sheep’s name), fresh local produce, amazing art pieces, a hemp hat to protect you from the sun, healthy juices and food, or those not-so-healthy delights, it’s all here.

Our advice – don’t eat beforehand and go along hungry! There are so many delicious options for brunch or lunch, as well as a lot of tasties too.

And as if that’s not enough, the local people, vendors and travellers all make this one of those “must do” things in Nelson. 

Part farmers’ market, part artisanal market, it’s worth planning a trip to Nelson to coincide with a weekend.

47 Montgomery Square, Nelson 7010

4. Eat Your Weight in Peanut Butter at Pic’s Peanut Butter World

In New Zealand, having a Number 8 wire mentality is a way for us to improvise, adapt and solve any problem using the closest things available. The story behind Pic’s Peanut Butter shows how one local character did just that.

Pic (yes, that’s the creator’s name) was not happy with the taste or the amount of sugar in the peanut butters available in our supermarkets, so he decided to make his own, originally using a concrete mixer!

From two nutter-peanut-butter lovers to the next, Pic’s peanut butter is by far the best peanut butter in the world! Due to the incredible success of this golden, 100% natural peanut butter, Pic’s Peanut Butter World opened to the public in 2019. 

The main attraction is obviously the peanut butter. There, visitors are able to see how this magical concoction is created during a free, informative tour of the factory.

You’ll even have the opportunity to make some of your own on a pedal-powered peanut butter making bicycle!

There are only three tours per day and bookings in Pic’s Peanut Butter World are essential. 

After the tour you’ll get to roam the gift store and sample all of their scrumptious products. We highly recommend allowing some time to enjoy the cafe too. The PB&J milkshake and bagel smothered in crunchy peanut butter and drizzled with boysenberry jelly are both to die for!

5. Dine Out in Nelson – It’s Time for Quality Kai

Continuing our focus on good Kiwi food, Nelson is a great place to dine out.

The compact nature of the city means that everything is within walking distance and there are plenty of world-class cafes, bars and restaurants to choose from. Whether you want to eat raw and vegan, quickly grab some good quality takeout, feast on global flavours or treat yourself at high-end restaurants, Nelson is a foodie’s wonderland. 

We recommend Upper Trafalgar Street, with its great pedestrian zone offering alfresco dining. It’s the perfect place to indulge whilst lapping up the sun (because you are in Sunny Nelson, after all).

We also became short-term regulars at Kush Coffee, a vibing little cafe on Church Street. Their coffee is organic, fair-trade, shade-grown and absolutely delicious! 

Did you know? Kai is the te reo Māori word for food. Why not learn a few helpful words for your travels in New Zealand too?

6. Browse Nelson’s Artisan Stores

Nelsonians are creative and talented people, making this a great city to take in some gorgeous New Zealand art – whether you’re looking to purchase or just enjoy in the moment. From art galleries, to antique stores, op shops and artist studios, Nelson is a hub of creative expression.

Take your time browsing the shops or head along to the weekend market.

If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, there is one place you really must head, though –Jens Hansen.

The maker of the One Ring creates quite a range of contemporary artisan jewellery, in addition to the Lord of the Rings themed creations you’d expect also.

Their pieces really are something to treasure. Perhaps one could be a beautiful momento of your recent travels?

For something fun and unique, we also recommend browsing the Eclectic Antique Centre. There, you’ll find an extensive mix of furniture, china, glassware, jewellery and vintage clothing.

It’s a treasure-trove of goodies!

Incredible Things to Do Near Nelson

Moving beyond the urban area, Nelson is home to some easily accessible and gorgeous locations. With these stunning places a short distance away, we definitely recommend adding these to your itinerary. 

7. Enjoy the Beach at Rabbit Island

Have COVID restrictions ruined your chances of escaping on an island getaway? Think again!

At Rabbit Island, it’s possible to lay upon white sand, listen to gentle waves and feel the warm breeze as it sweeps across the beautiful bay. You’ll have 8 kilometres of pristine beach to explore, making it easy to find the perfect (and private) spot for you. 

If working up a sweat before taking a dip is more your thing, then have no fear, pack your running shoes or mountain bike and hit the trails around the island first. 

Or if you like the sound of relaxing on a field under the trees whilst the barbecue does its thing, then Rabbit Island won’t disappoint either. Scattered around the place you’ll find plenty of sheltered spots with wood burner BBQs nearby.

Seriously, at around 30 minutes by car or just over 1 hour by bike from the Nelson i-SITE (which is right in the middle of town), this piece of paradise just has to be enjoyed.

8. Fall in Love With The Vibe At Mapua

We’re pretty sure that like us, many others have ventured to Mapua Wharf and thought they’d found a place to put their feet up and stay put.

Take a walk to the wharf’s edge as walkers and bike riders get off the ferry from Rabbit Island. You may even see a local fishing, though we’re not sure how successful they are alongside the kids jumping off into the currents below.

The wharf is home to old cool-store buildings, which now house boutique gift shops, galleries, restaurants and even a brewery. There’s also a cute wine bar where we found ourselves sitting in the shade enjoying a tasting tray of local wines. We soon discovered that fish and chips ordered from next door could be eaten at our table straight from the newspaper wrapping without even moving, though this may have changed since we were there, so do check.

At less than a 40 minute drive from central Nelson or even a short ferry from Rabbit Island, Mapua Wharf could be just what you’re looking for.

The vibe there is infectious. The smiles of the people you’ll meet there, so generous. Without doubt, this is one of the best things to do in Nelson (well nearby, anyway).

9. Launch a Kayak From Cable Bay 

Cable Bay and Pepin Island (which is privately owned), like so many great locations, is within a 30 minutes drive of the Nelson city centre. It overflows with an absolute abundance of nature’s beauty and is a must-do.

We had heard this was a great place for seeing dolphins from our kayak, so excitement levels were high. After beginning our journey we soon found ourselves part of a community of kayakers scattered around the island.

From fishermen with multiple rods, to dogs on kayaks (with humans of course), divers, adventurers and sightseers like ourselves, we were all there to enjoy the best of Aotearoa. In the 2.5 hours we were on the water, we were able to ride gentle waves into caves a nd through archways around the island’s edge. We were also able to find many great places to go ashore for a well earned break and lunch.

You won’t want to spend too long ashore though as sitting upon the water is where the real action is. From your watery vantage point, you’ll see young seals asleep or cleaning themselves on the rocky outcrops scattered around the coast – it really is an amazing local experience.

Sadly, we learnt that we had just missed a pod of dolphins by a matter of minutes. Hopefully you’ll have more luck!

For us, it’s another excuse to head out again on our next visit.

If this sounds like a bit of you as well, and you don’t have a kayak, head out on a tour with Cable Bay Kayaks. 

While our adventure took us by kayak around Pepin Island, there are many other adventures to be had on the Cable Bay side. The area boasts the Horoirangi Marine Reserve, as well as the three-hour Cable Bay Walkway.

This beautiful walk leads you over farmland south to Glenduan which offers up breathtaking views back to Boulder Bank.

Just a reminder though, like many tracks in NZ, it crosses private farmland, so be sure to close the gates that you open. And whether you are walking or kayaking, remember to leave no trace of your visit.

10. Check Out the Cable Bay Adventure Park

If you’re looking for something on the adventurous side whilst visiting the sunshine capital of NZ, we’ve got you covered.

Be sure to head along to the Cable Bay Adventure Park with your friends and family for a day of fun and adventure.

Not only do they have an incredible scenic flying fox, called the Skywire (which just so happens to be one of the longest in the world!) but they also run self-drive quad bike tours through across incredible native forest and farmland with coastal views.

Or, if you’re looking for something a bit different, hop in their ago (and amphibious all-terrain 8-wheeler designed to go everywhere and anywhere. Your ride will be entirely based on your request – leisurely or action-packed, the choice is yours.

If mountain biking is your thing, they also have a range of trails, designed to suit all fitness levels. Choose to rent your own bike, or take your own and make use of their on-demand shuttle system as you like.

Alternatively, feed and pat the friendly local eels, try your hand at archery or challenge your friends and family to a game of paintball (on the largest park in the region, including forts, creeks, trenches and more).

And when you’re finished, pull up a seat at the cafe to enjoy some delicious kai.

Sounds like the perfect day out to us!

194 Cable Bay Road, Nelson 7071

11. Enjoy the Magic that is Kaiteriteri

Throughout Aotearoa we are blessed with many locations that act like an almost mythical doorway into areas abundant and overflowing with nature’s beauty. Kaiteriteri is one such place. 

With the lands of Abel Tasman National Park just around the corner, Kaiteriteri is the launching place for many guided tours through this natural treasure.

Kaiteriteri is a gorgeous location in it’s own right too though.

The sands here are so golden it’s as if the sunrise lays it each morning. The turquoise waters are so clear you can watch fish or stingray swim past your toes. You may even have the buzzy experience of watching sea fog roll into the beach.

Whether you choose to spend the day at the beach, stop by for an ice cream or spend the night (at the local campground or a motel), ensure that a visit to Kaiteriteri Beach is included in your Nelson itinerary – especially during when the weather is warmer.

At just over an hour’s drive from Nelson City and with so many adventures to embark upon, the magical beach of Kaiteriteri is well worth visiting.

12. Explore Abel Tasman National Park

Just around the corner from Kaiteriteri, you’ll find the Abel Tasman National Park.

Known as the jewel in our national park crown, Abel Tasman really does need to be seen to be believed.

The Abel Tasman Coastal Track, a 3-5 day walk, is the main attraction here as it’s one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and the top 1 best walk in Nelson. The park itself is accessible by boat or by foot, and there are fantastic cruise/walk or kayak/walk options available.

It’s possible to overnight in huts, lodges and campsites along the trail, or if you’d prefer, you can undertake part of the walk as a day trip.

Closer to the entry of the park, you’ll find the iconic Split Apple Rock. This can be reached on the water via a short kayak or onboard a board.

A couple paddling on their yellow kayaks in Split Apple Rock.
Kayaking at Split Apple Rock. Photo credit: Fraser Clements.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to truly experience something special, join a waka tour where you’ll not just enjoy the region’s spectacular nature, but also learn about Māori culture while you’re at it. 

Whatever you do, be sure to check out the Abel Tasman National Park – it’s a must-do near Nelson!

Tourists paddle on their kayaks while passing close to a huge boulder that is split into half.
Join a waka tour in Abel Tasman. Photo credit: Camilla Rutherford.

13. Take to the Skies!

Whilst travelling in New Zealand, there are two adventure activities that should be seriously considered – bungy jumping and skydiving.

If you’re looking for one of the most scenic places in all of Aotearoa to skydive, Abel Tasman is it! With endless turquoise water and native forests lapping at the golden sand, it really is unbeatable.

Not only is it a beautiful place to jump but it’s also home to the biggest jump in NZ – 20,000ft in fact. Though the higher jump height might feel daunting at first, we guarantee that when you’re in free fall you’ll be thanking yourself for squeezing a few extra seconds out of the experience!

Hangar, One/16 College Street, Motueka 7120

Two skydivers sitting on the entrance of a plane ready to jump.
Take the biggest leap of all! Photo credit: Camilla Rutherford.

14. Marvel at the Te Waikoropupū Springs

Though the Te Waikoropupū Springs are a fair way out of Nelson, we couldn’t help but include them in this post. They are absolutely worth the 1 hour drive from Kaiteriteri!

Also known as the Pupu Springs, these are the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand. They are also the largest cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere and incredibly contain some of the clearest water ever measured – anywhere in the world.

We told you they were worth the drive!

To the Māori people of the area, Te Waikoropupū is a taonga (treasure). It is a place of both cultural and spiritual significance and historically was used for ceremonial blessings.

These springs are open to the public at no charge and include a few easy walks, allowing you to enjoy the springs from a range of angles.

Don’t have the time to drive?

Book a scenic flight from Nelson, including a stop at the Pupu Springs and Totaranui Beach, along with a cruise at Abel Tasman.

Pupu Springs Road, Tākaka 7183

A couple leaning on the railings while looking at the clear waters of Te Waikoropupū Springs.
The spectacular Te Waikoropupū Springs. Photo credit: Craig Parry.

With so many fabulous things to do in (and around) Nelson, isn’t it time you planned your trip?

Post by Roisin Bennett of culture.travel.groove. Specialising in travel in Aotearoa (all whilst living in their van, we highly recommend you check them out.

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