27 Fun-Filled Things to Do in Nelson

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Tucked into the top of the South Island, the Nelson Tasman region has long been a magnet for holiday makers, nature lovers, and a host of creative, industrious folk. 

Perhaps it’s the sun? After all, Nelson can claim top spot as the country’s sunniest region and I spent many of my childhood summer holidays there.

Maybe it’s the mountains, which are almost within a stone’s throw of the sea in places. It could be the friendly vibe, or the long golden beaches sweeping the coast.

Whatever the reason, Nelson city and the wider Nelson Tasman region have a vast array of art, culture, exercise, and adventure experiences just waiting for you to enjoy. Here are 27 of the best of the them.

Get Into Nelson’s Art Scene

Follow an Art Trail

You’ll find unexpected artworks, large and small, dotted all around Nelson city. There are so many of them in fact, that there are three designated trails to lead you past them all. 

The City Murals Walk (pdf) is a stroll around the many vibrant murals painted on walls and buildings around the city centre. There’s a vast range of styles and subjects ranging from a striking kea with outstretched wings and a giant squid to neon-bright graffiti art, along with gentle landscapes and sea views.

The  Quay Art Walk (pdf), on the other hand, is entirely different. Here, you’ll see heritage buildings standing side by side with sleek modern architecture, along with several statues and plaques that all combine to tell the story of Nelson’s history.

Finally, the Secret Street Art Bike Tour (pdf) is a self-guided street ride around Nelson’s private buildings and backyards. You’ll see everything from quirky penguins jostling in front of an old garage to landscape paintings, sculptures, statues, and more on this 1 ½ — 2-hour urban ride. 

Watch Glass Blowing in Action

Glass blowing in action

Glass blowing is a fascinating process, and it’s always fun to watch the artists in action. Nelson has several galleries where you can watch molten glass being blown and moulded into delicate shapes. 

You probably won’t be able to buy the pieces you see being made, since they’ll have to go into the annealing ovens to cool first. Glass shatters in a spectacular explosion if it cools too quickly! You can still buy something from the many beautiful pieces on display in the galleries, however. 

Try Hoglund Studios, a small family business in Appleby, a 20 minute drive from the central city. They’re usually blowing glass five days a week, but the schedule varies — you can always phone to find out the day’s timetable.

Back in Nelson, alongside the cathedral in Trafalgar Square, Flamedaisy’s Anthony Genet has unique glass and neon creations for sale. You can watch him working as he creates his masterpieces, which take the form of colourful patterned bowls, glasses, and sculptures of all shapes and sizes. 

Take an Art Class

Wouldn’t it be cool to be making the art instead of just watching someone else do it? Plenty of one and two-day workshops run throughout the year in and around Nelson, covering a wide range of arts and crafts.

Why not: 

  • Weave your own basket, try your hand at harakeke (flax weaving), or have a go at felting. These are just some of the many textile classes on offer at NZ Textile Experiences during the year. 
  • Learn to paint in watercolours or acrylic at Korimako Studio in St Arnaud, about an hour’s drive from Nelson). Artist Jan Thompson regularly runs two-day workshops for beginner and intermediate painters.
  • Try your hand at working with precious pounamu (NZ jade). Master carver Timoti Moran shares Maori culture, history, and stories of pounamu in the Nelson area, and offers two fascinating classes: Te Rā (sand, polish, and string a pounamu taonga carved especially for you) and Whakairo Pounamu (a six-hour carving workshop.) 
  • Make your own ring. Jewel Beetles holds classes for couples (create your own wedding rings), or you can join a group and learn how to carve a wax ring which then gets cast in your choice of silver or gold.

Explore Nelson’s History

Count Classic Cars

At the last count, Nelson’s Classic Car Museum had 150 immaculately preserved classic cars from a 1908 Renault AX to 1950s Triumphs, not to mention iconic Jaguars and Ferraris. If you’re into old vehicles, expect to spend a lot of time here.

When you get hungry, wander into the Little Engine Eatery, where all the food is made on-site. If you’d like to take home a momento of your visit, you’ll find funky ceramics and jewellery, fascinating prints, and a wide range of books just waiting for you to buy. The cars, unfortunately, have to stay where they are!

See Historic Houses

Maori have lived in the Nelson area since the 1300s, and European settlers established their own base there in 1841, just a year after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. While New Zealand doesn’t have castles and buildings dating back centuries, the Nelson area does have some well-preserved or carefully-restored historic homes. 

Broadgreen 

Broadgreen, a charming two-storied cob cottage, has been beautifully restored with period wallpaper, furniture, textiles, and costumes that all give a real sense of what life might have been like when it was built in 1855. 

Cob houses were made from stone foundations with walls built up from wet, sticky clay and straw or grass. Since Broadgreen is covered in white plaster, though, you’d never know the work that went into constructing those thick walls.  

Once you’ve finished exploring the house, take a tour in the Samuels’ Rose Garden. Summer is the best time to see over 3000 rose bushes in flower, making for a magnificent and fragrant display. Entry is free for local residents, otherwise it’s $7 for adults and $2 for children.

Founders Heritage Park

Founders Heritage Park, in Atawhai just outside the central city, is a great place to bring the family. This replica village has character buildings, lovely gardens, and fascinating displays, including a Bristol Freighter aeroplane. There’s also a working railway line where you can ride the old railcar most weekends. 

You’ll often find artists working in the replica shops at Founders Park, making sails, screenprints, jewellery, furniture, and more. Much of their work is for sale in the nearby Windmill gift store.

Play Golf

Pick Your Surrounds

Nelson has a wealth of affordable golf courses within an hour of the city. As you’d expect in a province that contains everything from mountains and hills to farmland and a long coastline, the various courses reflect the stunning surrounds. Some have sweeping sea views, others majestic park-like grounds, while some are quietly set in rural surroundings. 

Most are close to the vineyards, craft breweries, and cafes that serve the Great Taste Trail (below), and golfers are just as welcome as cyclists.  

Road Hogs

If you’d rather have a round of mini-golf, that’s not a problem. Road Hogs is Nelson’s only indoor mini golf course, so if you manage to strike a day where the weather doesn’t live up to the area’s reputation, you can still get the putter out.

As the name suggests, roads are the prevailing theme here, so players get to navigate courses filled with road cones, tyres, rocks and even an ambulance. If that wasn’t enough fun, the whole place shines at night, filled with fluorescent glow-in-the-dark lighting. 

Go Cycling

The Nelson region has an extraordinary number of cycle trails, that range from beginner-friendly tracks over easy terrain to ridiculously difficult paths that challenge even experienced riders. 

Many of these trails are in the three national parks in the Nelson Tasman area (Abel Tasman, Kahurangi, and Nelson Lakes) and start anywhere between one and three hours drive from Nelson city. Not all off them, though! The world-famous Great Taste Trail and the lesser-known Coppermine Trail are both fantastic rides, and you can start them both from central Nelson. 

The Great Taste Trail 

There’s nothing like riding through sparkling scenery and quiet green river valleys, over hills and past coastal estuaries, to give you an appetite. Fortunately, Nelson’s Great Taste Trail was so named because of the extraordinary number of food and drink experiences along its 174 km length.

Starting in Nelson, the trail heads south to Richmond, and you can then choose a smaller or larger loop to match your time, fitness, levels, and motivation. Or, if you’re really keen, turn them into a figure-eight and do both!

Whenever you’re in need of refreshment, just detour a few metres off the trail to sample award-winning wine and beer from a multitude of wineries and craft breweries. Relax over coffee and lunch from the many cafes along the route, or grab a real-fruit ice cream to keep you going. 

Many people make the loop trail a multi-day trip and take the time to stop in at shops, museums, and restaurants along the way. Others do day trips, cycling just one or two sections. The trail is mostly graded 1-2 (easy), with many sections being purpose-built while others travel along quiet country roads.

If you’d like a little more exertion, though, try riding from Riwaka to Kaiteriteri (grade 3, intermediate). This section includes some tight corners and some steeper narrow tracks in the local mountain bike park before descending to the golden sands of Kaiteriteri Beach. 

The Coppermine Trail 

The Coppermine Trail is a different experience altogether. This grade 2-4 trail starts in Nelson before heading up into the hills and beech forests outside the city. You’ll ride narrow forest trails lined with ferns and alpine sections that wind between tussocks towards the Matai Dam, before following the river back to town.

The whole trail takes 3-6 hours, and unlike the Great Taste Trail, you’ll be on your own: no cafes or real-fruit ice creams here! Go prepared with enough food and water, and appropriate clothing. 

Many cyclists like to make this a whole day trip and stop to picnic at Coppermine Saddle with its spectacular view. Some would rather avoid the next difficult alpine section to the Matai Dam and turn back at that point to retrace their route back to Nelson.  

Go Helibiking 

If you’ve really got the cycling bug, Helibike Nelson runs vehicle shuttles and helicopter trips to many of the mountain bike trails in the greater Nelson area. 

The small family company offers several different options, including guided rides, scenic flights, and transport for independent riders and hikers. Fully-guided and semi-supported multi-day rides on the Heaphy Track and Old Ghost Road are two particularly popular options.

These trips aren’t for casual riders, though: you do need a good amount of fitness, stamina, and experience to ride most of the trails on Helibike Nelson’s list. 

Take a Hike

There are some spectacular walks in the Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Parks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great options closer to home. Here are some other beauties to try. 

The Centre of New Zealand Walk

Sculpture at the top of the Centre of New Zealand Walk, in Nelson

Looking for a short (albeit steep) trail with great views that you can do in central Nelson? Check out the Centre of New Zealand Walk.

Starting from the Botantical Reserve (the site of the first rugby match played in the country), the walk to the summit will take 20-30 minutes depending on fitness levels as you zig-zag up the side of Botanical Hill. Take the Kauri Track from the northeast corner of the reserve until you hit the main track, then follow it to the top.

There, you’ll find some welcome benches to catch your breath, along with a large sculpture, and some interpretive signage that explains what you’re looking at. On a clear day, there’s plenty to see out over the city, ocean, and surrounding hillside.

You can return the same way you came, or follow the sign to continue on for another hour along the side of the Malvern Hills and finishing up in Atawhai at Founders Heritage Park (above).

Note that unless you’re a surveyor, the Centre of New Zealand Walk does not in fact take you to the centre of the country! The name refers to the fact that this was the central point for surveying the Nelson land district, and since this district is in the middle of 12 others, it’s apparently the “centre of New Zealand”. Ok, if you say so.

Matai Valley Walkway

Path alongside a river near Nelson, New Zealand, on the Matai Valley Walkway

Starting at the mouth of the Matai River in downtown Nelson, the Matai Valley Walkway meanders for 8km largely beside the river, through the city and out into the countryside through native trees and open pastures, before finishing up at a motor camp.

It’s an easy walk, largely flat, and on sealed pavement through the city and well-formed dirt or gravel the rest of the way. There are a number of natural swimming holes along the way, some with seats and picnic tables alongside, so pack a picnic and your swimming gear on a hot day.

You can either return the same way you came, or turn the walk into a roughly 12km loop by climbing over the stile at the end of the track beside the pedestrian bridge and heading up the hill, past the arboretum to the top of the ridge at Tantragee Saddle. From there, you have several tracks available that take you down the Brook Valley and back into town.

You can arrange to get picked up outside the motor camp if you don’t fancy either of those options, although keep an eye on your phone: you may not have cell service the entire way.

Cable Bay Walkway

View of two bays from the top of a hill, at Cable Bay, New Zealand

Cable Bay, a 25-minute drive north of Nelson, is where the first international telegraph cable in the country came ashore, running between here and Sydney, Australia, back in 1876.

It’s a beautiful spot regardless of its history, though, with two bays separated by a long, thin gravel bar that has been formed by the strong tides that rush through here. Depending on the tide level, the difference in colour between the two bays is striking on a sunnry day.

While it’s pretty enough at ground level, you need to get up high to really appreciate the scenery. Luckily, the Cable Bay Walkway lets you do just that.

It’s a very picturesque hike, with views across the Horoirangi Marine Reserve and the beautiful Cable Bay inlet. The inlet is particularly impressive at sunset, but the track is worth walking at any time of day. There are glorious coastal views for much of the walk, and the middle section goes through some attractive native forest.

Most people choose to walk the 8km track (three hours) one way and have a car collect them from the other end at Glenduan, but it’s possible to make the return trip if you’re feeling energetic.

You can also choose to only go as far as the top of the first hill (it’s still pretty steep!) and back, which takes about an hour. There are toilets but no drinking water or food at Cable Bay, so go prepared.  

Lake Rotoiti Walks

Jetty at Lake Rotoiti, New Zealand

Lake Rotoiti, in the Nelson Lakes National Park, is just over an hour’s drive from Nelson city and has several easy short walks, along with a bunch of more challenging trails. Many start from the Kerr Bay carpark beside the Instagram-famous jetty: there’s a handy map at the trailhead, but you can get more information from the nearby visitor centre if you need it. 

Bellbird Walk

About as easy as a track gets in New Zealand, the Bellbird Walk is a 15-minute wheelchair-friendly track around the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project area. It winds through enormous red beech trees, home to native birds such as tui and bellbirds, and returns through a small wetland area. 

Honeydew Walk

Looking for something slightly longer? Follow the obvious signage to detour off the Bellbird walk and go further into the Nature Recovery Project on the 45-minute return Honeydew Track. 

The track gets its name from the sugar-rich sapwood of the red beech trees that feed insects and nectar-feeding birds. Depending on the time of the year, you could see bellbirds and tui, robins and the delightfully cheeky piwakawaka (fantails) fluttering along the track.

You may even spot a few lizards, and if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of kākā or kākāriki (NZ parakeets) fluttering in the trees.

There’s also a longer loop track (called, imaginatively, the Loop Track) which follows the track further along the lake before branching off uphill and back down towards the carpark. It takes around 90 minutes to complete.

Whisky Falls

On the other side of the lake, the Whisky Falls track goes through mānuka, kānuka, and beech forests and streams to reach the glorious 40-metre-high falls that rush between thick walls of ferns and mossy cliffs.

Accessed via the Lakeside Track that’s part of the Lake Rotoiti Circuit overnight hike, you’ll need a reasonable standard of fitness and good walking shoes to tackle this 11km, four-hour trail. You can also take a water taxi across the lake to a small jetty that lets you cut out almost all of the walking, but where’s the fun in that?

Have an Adventure

I talked about hiking around Cable Bay earlier, but if you’re after a different kind of adventure, there’s plenty more on offer just down the road. The Cable Bay Adventure Park, a few minutes back up the access road, has a surprisingly large range of fun activities for just about everyone. 

Archery With a Difference

The archery park takes playing bows and arrows to a whole new level with the Dragon Hunt. After a quick lesson, even beginners can join in the thrill of an archery eco-adventure. 

The whole experience takes place in Cable Bay Park’s native forest sanctuary. You’ll quickly find yourself drawn into the action, sneaking around the forest tracks, spotting and shooting at the lifelike dragon models hidden around the course. 

If you’re with a group, you might prefer the park’s other offering: Archery Battle. This team game is action-packed, something like a cross between paintball, dodgeball, and archery tag, but without the bruises and paint splashes at the end. 

Ride the Skywire

Strap yourself into a Skywire seat and hold on tight: you’re in for a wild ride on one of the world’s longest flying foxes. 

The ride starts with a trip in a 4WD vehicle through the forest and is unlike anything you might envision when you think of the flying foxes you used to play on as a kid. Imagine a four-person chairlift crossed with a carnival ride, and you might get closer to reality. 

The Skywire has it all: high speeds and an adrenaline rush, but also time to enjoy the magnificent scenery along the way. You’ll reach speeds of up to 100 kph as you free-wheel down a kilometre-long length of wire, then catch your breath as you slow for another 600 m of scenic views before picking up speed for the return trip… backwards!  

Cable Bay Quad Bikes

Have you ever seen farmers zooming around on quad bikes and wondered what they’re like to ride? You can discover the feeling for yourself on a guided tour over farmland and forest tracks. The minimum age for drivers is 16 years, though, so if you’ve got children in the group, they’ll need to ride as passengers. 

Quad bikes can be tricky to master, so the tour starts with a driving lesson and practice session on an easy track. Then, once your skills pass muster, you head out with your guide on one of two tours. The more leisurely Farm Forest ride goes up to the Skywire, while the popular 2.5 hour Bayview Circuit continues on to the spectacular Bayview lookout.  

Argo

If you like the idea of an off-road adventure but aren’t so keen on being the one behind the wheel, a trip in the Argo will be right up your alley.

The amphibious 8-wheeled all-terrain vehicle can go pretty much anywhere, and because the tours are specific to each group, you can make it as calm or thrilling as you like. Farm paddocks, rivers, bogs, forests: anything’s possible on the Argo. Waterproof gear is provided… and there’s a reason for that! 

Paintball Park

Finally, if you feel like a battle and plenty of running around, try dodging the missiles in Nelson’s largest paintball theme park. With all its trenches, streams, forts, bushes, dugouts, trees, and buildings, the park offers plenty of cover for players as their team strives to take the opposition’s flag. 

Paintball games need a minimum of 8 players, but smaller groups can join together to form a team. Wear old clothes — you’re bound to be covered in paint by the end — and take advantage of all the protective gear provided by the park. Trust me, you’re gonna need it!

Take A Drive Out of Town

As lovely as Nelson is, there are several small settlements nearby that are well worth exploring if you feel like taking a short drive out of town. 

Mapua

Just a 25-minute drive from Nelson, the little town of Mapua at the mouth of the Waimea estuary is home to a collection of vibrant restaurants and cafes, stores, and galleries known as Mapua Wharf. Unsurprisingly built around the town wharf, you’ll often see people jumping off it in the summer months, so take your bathing suit if you feel like joining them.

Once you’ve had something to eat and drink, check out the galleries and explore the photo museum, which documents the rich early Maori and European history of the area.

There’s also a passenger and cycle ferry that runs between Mapua and Rabbit Island. A great place for wandering, swimming, and admiring the many seabirds, you can also drive onto the island — but if you’re cycling the Great Taste Trail, the ferry will save you about 20km of riding! 

Moutere

Not far from Māpua, Moutere is home to a host of (as they put it) “creative and productive people”, making and selling everything from specialty food like mushrooms, olives, and black garlic to sculptures, jewellery, and more.

Heartstone Baskets is one such fascinating example, housed in the Old Post Office. That’s where artist Tanya Doty makes handmade baskets with supple willow branches, raupo, rattan and — would you believe it — even pine needles. 

Kaiteriteri

50 minutes along the coast from Nelson lies lovely Kaiteriteri, the jumping-off point for many hikers, kayakers, and others heading into the Abel Tasman Park. 

It’s a great little destination in its own right, however, and is extremely popular as a summer holiday destination thanks to the lovely, golden-sand beach that’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing, or hiring kayaks for a half-day paddle around the coastline.

Go to the Beach

Tahunanui

Looking down Tahunanui beach on a sunny day with hills in the distance in Nelson, New Zealand

Nelson’s closest beach is Tahunanui, nearly 18km of glistening sand and sea right near the city centre. It’s a safe, family-friendly beach, with plenty of room for kayaking, kite surfing, and swimming. In the right season, you’ll often catch a glimpse of dolphins, orcas, and even stingrays swimming in the warm waters off the coast.

Locals like to paddle or swim out to Fifeshire Rock or Haulashore Island, where you can picnic, fish off the wharf, swim, or see the Little Blue Penguins and other birds that sometimes take refuge there. If you’d rather not visit the island under your own steam, though, a ferry makes regular trips in summer.  

Tahunanui Reserve has so many activities it’s easy to see why people keep coming back to it. Explore rock pools, play in the sand dunes, or head to the playground area that’s filled with activities for people of all ages and stages.

You’ll find go-karts, a BMX track, roller skating, laser tag… and that’s just the start! There’s also a trampoline park, sack slide, bumper boat rides, model railway, and more, all super-close to the beach.

When you’re hungry, you can bring your own picnic or barbecue, eat fish and chips on the beach, or dine in one of the many nearby cafes, restaurants, and pubs. 

Awaroa: The People’s Beach

Tahunanui may be the closest and most accessible beach in Nelson, but beautiful Awaroa, right in the middle of the Abel Tasman National Park, is the most interesting. 

In 2016 the privately-owned beach came up for sale, and amid fears that a new owner might not allow access it, Kiwis from all over the country joined a crowdfunding campaign. Together they raised more than two million dollars to repurchase it for the nation, which is why it’s now called the People’s Beach. 

In the summer months, you can even book accommodation to stay the night in Awaroa. There’s a charming lodge (complete with a restaurant and an outdoor pizzeria open to day visitors), along with a DoC hut and campsite for hikers, kayakers, and others who want to stay the night. Be sure to book well in advance!


Main image via Naruedom Yaempongsa/Shutterstock.com, glass blowing image via kim chul hyun/Shutterstock.com, other images via author

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