Nelson, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, regularly takes the title of sunniest city in the country. Sun seekers, outdoor enthusiasts, foodies, and culture lovers flock to Nelson for its mix of accessible mountains and beaches, its laid back vibe, and its creative dining and shopping. Plus, three of New Zealand’s 13 national parks are a short drive from Nelson, making the small city an ideal base for adventures in the "top of the south."
Nelson is highly popular with international and domestic travelers in the summer months from December through February, but the famously sunny weather and proximity to ski fields means it’s an attractive winter destination, too. Here are some of the best things to do in and around Nelson at any time of year.
Hike to the Center of New Zealand
Just north of central Nelson, on Botanical Hill, is the "Center of New Zealand" monument and lookout. Despite its name, it’s not actually the geographic center of New Zealand — that’s somewhere in the ocean. But 19th century surveyors used this as a central marker, and the myth stuck. The walk up, along a forested trail, isn’t too challenging, and the views of Nelson, the Tasman Bay, and the mountains beyond are beautiful. Keen hikers or mountain bikers can explore the trails that branch off the main track.
Shop at the Weekend Markets
The Nelson Saturday Market, on Montgomery Square in the central city, is a one-stop destination for locally made crafts, hand-made clothing, fresh produce, baked goods, and cooked food (international fare is well represented, with everything from French crepes to Sri Lankan curry). When the weather’s fine, the market absolutely buzzes with both locals and visitors. On Sundays, a smaller second-hand market is held in the same location. Both markets pack up at 1 p.m.
Ski at the Rainbow Ski Area
Just east of Lake Rotoiti and within the Nelson Lakes National Park is the Rainbow Ski Area, on the northern edge of the Southern Alps. The varied ski runs cater to all levels of ability, and ski lessons are available. Spectacular views of Lake Rotoiti can be seen from the higher slopes. While winter is obviously the best time to ski, hiking and biking can be done the rest of the year.
Try Water Sports at Tahuna Beach
Tahuna Beach is a well-loved strip of white sand and calm waters, around three miles from central Nelson. The often breezy conditions yet calm waters make it a popular spot for all kinds of watersports, especially kite-surfing, paddle-boarding, and kayaking. In the summer, some gear can be rented beachside.
Be Wowed at WOW: World of WearableArt & Classic Car Museum
Until it moved across the Cook Strait to Wellington in 2005, the annual World of WearableArt competition was held in Nelson. Winning outfits are still displayed at this whimsical Nelson museum, which changes its exhibits regularly. The same complex houses a collection of more than 140 classic cars — although the juxtaposition of wearable art and old cars is a bit odd, there are many beautiful creations to check out in both sections of WOW. It’s located out by the airport, three miles from the central city.
Swim at Rabbit Island
For a more vigorous swim in the waves, head to Rabbit Island, a long pine-tree-covered island connected to the mainland by road. There are barbeque facilities and picnic spots, as well as cycle tracks. The sea here is less sheltered than at Tahuna, so Rabbit Island offers a totally different beach experience. Rabbit Island is 15 miles west of Nelson.
Admire the Queen's Gardens
Nelson’s Queen’s Gardens were established in 1892, and still retain their original Victorian character. They’ve been designated as an historic place by the Historic Places Trust. With a fish pond, fountains, a Chinese garden, war memorial statues, and lots of native and exotic plants and flowers, they’re a delightful place to stroll or read a book in the shade on a hot summer’s day. The Suter Art Gallery café overlooks the pond (and is also one Nelson’s best cafes). They’re on the eastern side of the central city.
Tramp the Abel Tasman Coast Track
Tramping is what Kiwis call trekking, and one of the most famous tramps in New Zealand is the Abel Tasman Coast Track. The 37-mile trail follows the coast of the Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand’s smallest, and takes most travelers three to five days to complete. Camp or stay in Department of Conservation huts along the way. There are also shorter trails, plus great kayaking along the coastline. The small town of Marahau is 39 miles northwest of Nelson.
Ride a Heritage Train at Founders Park
Nelson was the first city in the South Island to be settled by European colonizers, back in 1841, and visitors can learn about this history at Founders Heritage Park. The village area includes a colonial-era-style windmill, church, and a heritage locomotive that you can ride along a short track with sea views. There’s also a craft beer brewery on site, McCashin’s Hop Garden, and the park regularly holds events such as food and music festivals. The park is just northeast of central Nelson, within walking distance.
Summit Mount Arthur
The mountainous Kahurangi National Park is New Zealand’s second largest (after Fiordland National Park, further south). Most of the mountains visible from Nelson sit within this park. A fun and scenic day trip from Nelson is to the summit of Mount Arthur, 5,889 feet. The hike from the Flora Car Park to the summit is short (1 1/2 hours) and not too challenging, but the drive up is — four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended in all seasons. The car park is 46 miles from Nelson.
Take a Water Taxi on Lake Rotoiti
The third national park that’s easily accessible from Nelson is the Nelson Lakes National Park. The main lakes giving the park its name are Rotoiti and Rotoroa. At around 2,100 feet altitude, the Nelson Lakes are an ideal place to escape the heat of a Nelson summer. From the settlement of St. Arnaud (54 miles south of Nelson), visitors can take a water taxi across Lake Rotoiti for beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. There are also hiking trails throughout the park, both short and long, and enormous but friendly eels congregate around the pier.