Nelson may be a small town but it’s a really cool small town. It’s the second-oldest town in the entire country (established in 1841), so there’s a lot of history here. Your visit will be filled with excellent cafes and restaurants, wonderful mountains and beaches, and, obviously, one (or all) of the three nearby national parks: Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson Lakes National Park, and Kahurangi National Park.
However, other than hiking, visiting the parks, or going to the beach, there’s not much to do in town and most people only spend a few days here if they aren’t spending longer in the national parks. My advice is to come for the nature and then be on your way.
This travel guide to Nelson and the surrounding area can help you plan your visit, save money, and make the most of your time in this cool part of New Zealand!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Nelson
1. Explore Abel Tasman National Park
The pristine beaches and turquoise waters of this park make it feel like you’re in the tropics rather than New Zealand. The park covers over 23,876 hectares (59,000 acres), meaning there are a lot of single and multi-day hikes here. The best way to see the park is by kayak. This lets you explore the tiny little coves and beaches that really make the area special. Full-day rentals start at around 85 NZD, or you can join a guided kayaking tour starting at 130 NZD. If you have more time and really want to soak up the park, you can do the Abel Tasman Coast Track, a 60-kilometer (37-mile) walking track that takes 3-5 days to complete.
2. Visit Founders Heritage Park
Nelson is the oldest city on the South Island and the second-oldest city in the entire country, and this park is a replica historical village from when the city was first founded in the mid-1800s. It has manicured gardens, a museum, a brewery, a bakery, and even a historic train to ride. There are also shops and workshops of artisans that make crafts using traditional techniques, including printmaking and dressmaking. Admission is 10 NZD.
3. Take a wine tour
New Zealand is known for its wines, and there are over 20 wineries around Nelson. Tours take you around the Moutere Hills and Waimea Plains for a half-day or full-day and let you sample the local varieties as you learn about the region. There are a variety of wine tours on offer but expect to pay around 160 NZD for a half-day tour. Bay Tours Nelson even offers a full-day cycling wine tour for 275 NZD.
4. Go hiking
The mountain trails around Nelson are well-marked and some start right from the city. The Wainui Falls Track takes you across bridges and through jungles, eventually leading to a stunning waterfall, while the four-hour Medlands Beach-Abel Tasman route leads to the Torrent Bay inlet for more amazing views.
5. Wander the Nelson Market
The Nelson Market takes place every Saturday when stalls overflow with local fresh organic fruit and veggies, flowers, and locally-farmed organic fish. The market (and Nelson in general) is particularly known for its many kinds of crafts and artisanal products, including silk painting, jewelry, pottery, weaving, and wood turning. Open from 8am-1pm rain or shine, it’s a good place to explore and people watch.
Other Things to See and Do in Nelson
1. Stop by the Suter Art Gallery
New Zealand’s third-largest art museum has a large sizeable collection of works by Kiwi artists, including Gordon Walters and Ralph Hotere. The experience is enhanced by the contemporary space of light-filled rooms and giant windows. There’s also an art-house cinema, a gift shop, and a cozy riverside cafe. They host rotating exhibits so there’s always something new as well. Admission is free.
2. See the Miyazu Japanese Garden
Inspired by Nelson’s sister city Miyazu in Japan, this traditional Japanese garden is ideal for a tranquil and contemplative stroll. During the spring, the cherry blossoms come out in full force. There’s also a century-old camellia tree and the Zen garden with raked sand. Entry is free.
3. Tour the Nelson Provincial Museum
Opened in 1842, this museum focuses on local and regional history. It’s home to an array of cultural heritage exhibits and natural history displays with a strong focus on local work. That includes greenstone human-figure pendants, ancient stone statues, and even the christening gown worn by Nobel-winning scientist (and local) Ernest Lord Rutherford, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908. There is usually a rotating main exhibit. Admission is 5 NZD.
4. Swim in Mapua Leisure Park
Just outside of Nelson, this outdoor park is a great place to swim because of the warm waters from the Waimea Estuary. There’s also a swimming pool, some sporting areas, a café, and a sauna/spa. You can also rent cabins and beach-front rooms here as well. Park entry is free.
5. Visit Farewell Spit
At the northernmost point on the South Island, Farewell Spit is a strip of natural land that runs into the sea. It’s a large bird sanctuary and designated wildlife reserve, with over 90 species that make their home here. Most of Farewell Spit is closed to the public, but you can see the area by arranging a 4WD tour from operators in Collingwood. The Classic Farewell Spit Tour lasts 6 hours and costs 165 NZD.
6. Hang out at Tahunanui Beach
Tahunanui Beach is the most popular beach in Nelson. The 1.75-kilometer (1-mile) long beach is wide and sandy (the name Tahunanui literally manes big sandbank in Maori). The water is also usually calm and very warm due to its shallowness, making it an ideal place for swimmers of all ages. Kitesurfing and other sports (like volleyball) are also popular here.
7. See Te Waikoropupu Springs (Pupu Springs)
Te Waikoropupu Springs (also known as Pupu Springs) is the largest cold water spring in the Southern Hemisphere and a sacred place to the Maori people. The spring pumps out huge amounts of pure water — up to 14,000 liters (3,700 gallons) per second, or enough to fill 2,400 bathtubs every minute. There’s a boardwalk you can stroll around to take in all the scenery. It’s free to visit.
8. Try paddleboarding
Just outside of Nelson, the Murchison “four rivers plain” offers some of the best kayaking and paddleboarding waters in the country. SUP and kayak rentals cost around 60 NZD per day while canoes are 100 NZD per day.
9. See Tokangawha (Split Apple Rock)
Located one hour north of Nelson in Kaiteriteri, this granite rock is 120 million years old. What makes it unique is that it looks like an apple that has been cut in half. According to Maori legend, two feuding gods fought to possess the stone and eventually used their inhuman strength to break it in half. For that reason, the Maori name for the rock is Tokangawha, which means “burst open rock.”
10. Visit Nelson Lakes National Park
Nelson Lakes was one of the earliest national parks established in the country. The park is only 1.5 hours from the city of Nelson and centers on two large, deep blue, and crystal clear lakes: Rotoiti and Rotoroa. As a backdrop to the stunning lakes are beech forests and towering mountains. There are many day hikes as well as multi-day hikes to choose from here, including Whisky Falls (easy), Travers-Sabine Circuit (moderate), and the Mount Robert Loop (hard).
For more information on other destinations in New Zealand, check out these guides:
Nelson Travel Costs
Hostel prices – For such a small town, there are actually a lot of hostels here (it’s a big spot on the backpacker circuit). A bed in a dorm of any size costs around 25-28 NZD per night. Private rooms start at 65 NZD for a single and 75-90 NZD for a double room with an ensuite bathroom. Free Wi-Fi is standard and most hostels here have kitchens as well. Some have extra amenities like a pool, sauna, gym, or free bikes to use. Only a couple of hostels include free breakfast.
For those traveling with a tent, there are campgrounds near Nelson. Expect to pay around 40-45 NZD for a basic plot without electricity.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels start at around 100 NZD per night, though expect to spend at least 120 NZD for a double room. Free Wi-Fi is standard though most do not include free breakfast (some do, however, so book early to secure your spot).
Airbnb options are limited here, with private rooms starting at 40 NZD per night (though they average closer to 75 NZD). For an entire home or apartment, prices start at 100-150 NZD per night.
Food – Food in New Zealand consists mostly of seafood, lamb, fish and chips, and specialties like Maori hangi (meat and vegetables cooked underground). Expect to indulge on things like roast lamb, muscles, scallops, oysters, and snapper.
A cheap meal (like a sandwich from a cafe) costs around 22 NZD while a three-course restaurant meal with a drink costs about 75 NZD. A fast-food combo meal (think McDonald’s) costs around 14 NZD. Chinese food can be found for around 15-17 NZD while a pizza costs around 10 NZD.
Beer at the bar is 8 NZD, a glass of wine is 11-13 NZD, while a latte/cappuccino costs around 4.50 NZD. Bottled water is 3.25 NZD.
If you choose to cook your food, plan to spend around 70 NZD per week on basic foodstuffs like rice, pasta, vegetables, eggs, and some meat. PaknSave is typically the cheapest supermarket.
Backpacking Nelson Suggested Budgets
On a backpacker budget of 75 NZD per day, you can stay in a hostel dorm, cook all of your meals, limit your drinking, use public transportation to get around, and enjoy free activities like hiking and going to the beach. If you want to drink more, add 10-20 NZD per day to your budget.
On a mid-range budget of about 190 NZD per day, you can stay in a private hostel or Airbnb room, eat out for most meals, enjoy a few drinks, take the occasional taxi to get around, and do a few paid activities like visiting museums or renting a kayak.
On a “luxury” budget of 350 NZD per day or more, you can stay in a hotel, eat anywhere, enjoy more drinks, rent a car to get around, and do some paid tours (such as winery tours). This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
Nelson Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Unless you plan on doing a lot of adventure tours in Nelson, it’s easy to visit on a budget. Here are some ways to save money in Nelson:
- Hike for free – The parks have great hiking trails that you’re free to enjoy. Just be sure to take insect repellent or the sandflies will eat you alive!
- Cook for yourself – Save your budget by cooking for yourself. Most hostels, and even a few hotels, offer self-catering facilities so you can buy your own groceries and cook your own food.
- Stay with a local – While there are not many hosts available here, Couchsurfing is still a possibility if you search in advance. You’ll save money on accommodation and have yourself a local guide! Win-win!
- Use bookme.co.nz – This website offers last minute deals for activities. if you’re looking to do an expensive tour, check this website first. If you’re flexible, you can save upwards of 30%.
- Get a temporary job – If you’re running low on money and still have plenty of time left in New Zealand, check Backpackerboard.co.nz for temporary paying gigs.
- Transport vehicles – Campervan and car relocation services provide free vehicles and gas to those able to relocate their vehicles. This can be a great way to save a lot of money if you’re flexible with timing. Check Transfercar.co.nz to see what’s available.
- Bring a water bottle– The tap water in New Zealand is safe to drink so bring a water bottle with you to save money. LifeStraw makes a reusable bottle with a built-in filter so you can always be sure your water is clean and safe!
- Hitchhike – Hitchhiking is easy around Nelson. If you’re on a budget and don’t have a vehicle, look for rides at hostels. You can usually find one easily if you’re willing to chip in for gas. Hitchwiki has some tips for hitchhiking in Nelson here.
Where to Stay in Nelson
Despite being a small town, Nelson has a lot of hostels. Here are my recommended places to stay in Nelson:
How to Get Around Nelson
Nelson is a small town, home to just 54,000 people, so it’s easy to walk everywhere. If you’ve booked tours, transportation is usually included.
Public transportation – Nelson has a public bus that covers all the main sites around town. Cash fares start at 2.50 NZD and go up based on how far you go (there are three zones around the city). With a Bee Card (a pre-paid card you can load with money), fares start at 2 NZD (the card costs 5 NZD to get).
Bike rental – There are a few bicycle rental companies in Nelson, like Nelson Cycle Hire & Tours and Kiwi Journeys. Prices start from 55 NZD per day or 90 NZD per day for an e-bike. Both also offer bike tours.
Taxis – Like everywhere in New Zealand, taxis here are expensive. Prices start at 3 NZD and go up by around 3 NZD per kilometer. Avoid them if you can! Use Uber instead. It’s cheaper.
Car rental – Car rentals in Nelson cost around 45 NZD per day for a small car. You’ll need an International Drivers Permit to rent a vehicle here. You can get one in your home country before you arrive. Keep in mind that they drive on the left here.
For the best car rental prices, use Discover Cars.
When to Go to Nelson
Nelson experiences pretty mild temperatures year-round, making it a pleasant place to visit even in the winter. Because of this, tourism is consistent here so you won’t see prices fluctuate much between peak and non-peak seasons. It rarely rains here.
The hottest months are from December to February, with daily highs around 24°C (75°F). The winter months are from June to August, with temperatures averaging between 12-16°C (53-61°F). Even then, you’ll see people out paddling around Tasman Bay, and the temperatures are ideal for hiking.
March to May are the autumn months, and while temperatures are slightly cooler, you’ll still be able to do all the activities you want — even swimming. There’s really no bad time to visit!
How to Stay Safe in Nelson
On the whole, Nelson is a very safe place to backpack and travel (just like the rest of the country), even for solo travelers. The resident population here is very laid back and you’re unlikely to experience any issues (including petty theft).
If you have a vehicle, don’t leave any valuables in it overnight or while out hiking. Break-ins are rare but they can occur so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
As earthquakes and tsunamis do occur in New Zealand, consider downloading the Hazard App from the Red Cross. It has all kinds of advice and tips for natural disasters and will also send out warnings and notifications should a disaster occur.
Solo female travelers should generally feel safe here, however, the standard precautions apply (never leave your drink unattended at the bar, never walk home alone intoxicated, etc.).
If you’re worried about travel scams, you can read about common travel scams to avoid here. There aren’t many in New Zealand though.
If you do experience an emergency, dial 111 for assistance.
Always trust your gut instinct. Make copies of your important documents, like your passport. Forward your itinerary along to friends or family so they’ll know where you are.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance, especially if you’re participating in any adventure activities. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Nelson Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
- bookme.co.nz – You’ll get some really good last minute deals and discounts on this website! Just select what area you’re traveling in, and see what activities are on sale.
- treatme.co.nz – The locals use this website to find discount hotels, restaurants, and tours. You can save up to 50% off things like catamaran sailing lessons or three-course dinners.
- SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
- LifeStraw – My go-to company for reusable water bottles with built-in filters so you can ensure your drinking water is always clean and safe.
- Unbound Merino – They make lightweight, durable, easy-to-clean travel clothing.
- Top Travel Credit Cards – Points are the best way to cut down travel expenses. Here’s my favorite point earning credit cards so you can get free travel!
Nelson Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling New Zealand and continue planning your trip: