Nelson may be a small town but it’s a really cool small town. Your visit will be filled with excellent cafes and restaurants, wonderful mountains and beaches, and, obviously, the nearby Abel Tasman National Park.
However, other than hiking, visiting the park, 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 park. 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 and save money in the process.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Nelson
1. Explore Abel Tasman National Park
2. Visit Founders Heritage Park
3. Take a wine tour
4. Go hiking
5. Wander the Nelson Market
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. Go to Nelson Provincial Museum
Opened in 1842, this space is 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. There is usually a rotating main exhibit. Admission is 5 NZD.
4. Swim in Mapua Leisure Park
Just outside of Nelson, this is an 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, with over 90 species that you can view by arranging a 4WD tour from operators in Collingwood. The Farewell Spit Eco Tour lasts 6 hours and costs 165 NZD.
6. Hang out at Thunanui Beach
Thunanui Beach is the most popular beach in Nelson. The beach is wide and sandy and the water is 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 springs in the Southern Hemisphere. It pumps out huge amounts of pure water — up to 14,000 liters per second, or enough to fill 2,400 bathtubs per 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.”
For more information on other destinations in New Zealand, check out these guides:
Nelson Travel Costs
Hostel prices – For such a small town, there’s actually a lot of hostels here (it’s a big spot on the backpacker circuit). Large hostel dorms with 6-8 beds cost between 25-28 NZD per night. Free Wi-Fi is standard and most hostels here have kitchens as well. Only a couple of hostels include breakfast. Private rooms start at 55 NZD for a single and 80 NZD for a twin.
For those traveling with a tent, there are campgrounds near Nelson. Expect to pay around 20 NZD for a basic plot without electricity. Check out Marahau Beach Camp or Bethany Park.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels start at around 100 NZD, though expect to spend at least 120 NZD for a double room. Most do not include free breakfast but some do so book early to save money.
Airbnb options are limited here so be sure to book early if you want to use it. Private rooms start at 40 NZD per night (though they average closer to 75 NZD). For an entire home or apartment, prices start at 80 NZD per night though most are double that.
Food – Food in Nelson is much like everywhere else in the country, consisting mostly of seafood, lamb, fish and chips, and meat pies.
A cheap meal costs around 22 NZD while a three-course restaurant meal with a drink costs about 45 NZD. A fast-food combo meal (think McDonald’s) costs around 10 NZD. Chinese food can be found for around 15 NZD while a pizza costs around 10 NZD.
Beer at the bar is 8 NZD while a latte/cappuccino cost around 4.50 NZD. Bottled water is 3.25 NZD.
If you choose to cook your food, plan to spend between 75-85 NZD per week on basic foodstuffs like rice, pasta, vegetables, eggs, and some meat.
Backpacking Nelson Suggested Budgets
On a backpacker budget of around 65-85 NZD per day, you’ll stay in a hostel, 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 185 NZD per day, you can stay in an Airbnb, enjoy all your meals out, have a few drinks, take the occasional taxi, and do any paid activities like visiting museums or renting a kayak.
On a luxury budget of around 455 NZD per day, you can stay in a nice hotel, eat anywhere, enjoy as many nights at the bar as you want, rent a car to get around, and do paid tours (such as winery tours). The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages — some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in NZD.
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 ways you save money in Nelson:
- Hike for free – The park has 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, 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%.
- 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.
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 super tiny town so it’s easy to just walk everywhere. If you’ve booked tours, your transportation is usually included.
Bus – 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 3 zones around the city). With a Bee Card (a pre-paid card you can load with money), fares start at 2 NZD.
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.
Bicycle – There are a few bicycle rental companies in Nelson, like Nelson Cycle Hire & Tours and Kiwi Journeys. Prices start from 35 NZD.
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.
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 flucuate much between peak and non-peak season. It rarely rains here.
The hottest months are from December to February, with daily highs around 75°F (24°C). The winter months are from June to August, with temperatures averaging between 53-61°F (2-16°C). 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). The resident population here is very laidback and you’re unlikely to experience any issues (including petty theft).
That said, it’s always best to trust your instincts when it comes to safe travel. Take the same common-sense precautions you would at home. And make copies of your important documents, like your passport.
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.
The emergency number is 111.
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.
Overall, you’re unlikely to encounter anything problematic here, but keep in mind that any adventure activity comes with its own risks. Whether you’re on a simple guided hike or rafting some rapids, pay attention to what your guide is telling you. They know the landscape better than anyone else, and if you don’t want any broken bones (or worse), pay attention to what they have to say.
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 to Nelson. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- 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.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- 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.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Sweden, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B in the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- 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.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Nelson Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Nelson Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, by Joan Druett
Auckland Island, located 285 miles south of New Zealand, is a place with year-round freezing rain, wind, and little food (but apparently, a lot of seals). Simply put, it’s not a place you want to get shipwrecked on. Yet in 1864, Captain Thomas Musgrave and his crew did just that — and a few months later, on the opposite side of the island, so did the crew of the Scottish ship Invercauld. This well-written account of how the two crews survived (and didn’t survive) offers insight on leadership, camaraderie, and coming together in a crisis.
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning book is a parody of the 19th-century novel and is considered a modern classic. The year is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to New Zealand to get involved in the gold rush. When he arrives, he happens upon 12 men who have met in secret to talk about several mysterious events, including the disappearance of a wealthy man and a prostitute’s attempt to end her life. Moody is drawn into the circle, and the book soon turns into a thrilling page-turner that will keep you hooked the whole way through.
Squashed Possums: Off the Beaten Track in New Zealand, by Jonathan Tindale
This one is a fun, humorous travelogue that will get you super excited about your trip. In Squashed Possums, Tindale shares his adventures (and misadventures) from a year spent exploring the lesser-explored areas of New Zealand. He makes himself a home in an abandoned caravan, and then lives out four seasons getting acquainted with the terrain — including the coldest winter in decades.
A Land of Two Halves, by Joe Bennett
After having spent ten years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett decides to figure out why he’s still living there. A notorious restless traveler, Bennett finds himself examining all the reasons why these two islands have captivated him for a decade — so he packs his bags and heads out on a hitchhiking adventure around the North and South Islands. His encounters along the way are an enlightening look at life in New Zealand!
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: