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One of the sunniest places in New Zealand (and it’s geographical centre), Nelson is a pretty city with a vibrant arts scene, with possibly the most gorgeous bar and restaurant precinct in the south island, situated in the shadow of Christ Church Cathedral. We have visited the town several times over the past few years and these are our things to do in Nelson highlights:
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1. Geographical Centre of New Zealand
There seems to be a bit of healthy debate about this at the moment and although the centre of New Zealand on a map looks like it is situated in the midst of the Cook Strait (between the north and south islands), the New Zealand geographical is actually this hilltop which you can access from the city, by taking a short stroll along the Matai River then a short but steep (ish) 15 minute walk up the hill.
At the top, marvel at the 360 degree views of Nelson’s coastal views and learn more from the interpretation panels and trig point at the summit, from which the first New Zealand geographic surveys commenced in the 1870s. Take a picnic or cold drink along as there are a couple of benches at the top for you to get your breathe back at.
2. McCashin’s Brewery / Stoke Brewery
A little outside of Nelson city centre, we made a ‘pilgrimage’ to McCashin’s Brewery (owned by former All Black Terry McCashin), as it has a daily brewery and tasting tour and also produces Stoke Dark, our favourite dark New Zealand beer. Once you’ve worked up a thirst from watching all that beer (or cider) being bottled, stay around and spend some time in the tap-room working your way through their range.
You can read all about our brewery tour experience at McCashin’s Brewery (as well as our other favourite south island breweries) in our south island brewery tour blog >
3. Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson
We have included Christ Church cathedral as given its hilltop location at the foot of Trafalgar Street, it dramatically dominates the Nelson skyline and acts as a nice focal point for when exploring the pretty precinct below.
Forty years in the making (construction was started in 1925 and completed in 1965), you can visit by walking up the granite steps (sourced from nearby Abel Tasman National Park) from Trafalgar Street. We visited one weeknight at around 6pm but there was a church service going on which we didn’t wish to disturb – even so, the views from the top are superb and the grounds are nicely kept.
4. Nelson Saturday Market
Based in Montgomery Square and held every Saturday between 8am and 1pm, we really loved the weekly Nelson Saturday market. There are lots of local crafts to be discovered but we enjoyed it mainly because there were so many delicious food offerings (Kiwi and international – we had Filipino fare) at reasonable prices. There is also a farmer’s market held every Wednesday (which we have yet to visit).
5. Tahunanui Beach
Walkable from the city (1 hour) with glorious views of Golden Bay, Tahunanui Beach is spotlessly sandy and plays host to all manner of activities like kite-surfing and kayaking. There is also plenty of parking and picnic benches, so why not take along some ‘fush and chups’ and enjoy some sunset vibes.
6. Nelson pubs
Most of the city’s bars are centred around Hardy Street, but it isn’t the most salubrious of areas, especially when walking along it in the daytime (maybe it comes alive at night?). The one beacon on this street is the Sprig and Fern outpost, one of several bars run by the famous Nelson craft brewery. We also visited the Sprig & Fern bar on Milton Street (more in the suburbs) and were treated to an impromptu Morris Dance performance.
The most unusual yet welcoming bar we came across was The Freehouse on Collingwood Street, as it situated in an old converted church, has lots of local beers on draft plus has one of the biggest beer gardens in Nelson.
We also like the area on Trafalgar Street, as several bars and restaurants have outdoor seating areas in the square, which gets some of the early evening light. We had a couple of pints from the Nelson Mac’s Bar here, whilst enjoying sunset views of Christ Church Cathedral.
7. Nelson Annual Kite Festival
One of our visits coincided with the Nelson Kite Festival, held annually every January (NZ summer) in Neale Park. Now in the 24th year, this is a fun and free activity (donations encouraged) where you can enjoy all manner of huge colourful kites floating in the sky (the year we visited, one of the kites reminded us of a scene from the famous New Zealand movie Whale Rider.
- Follow in the footsteps of Frodo! Jens Hansen, the maker of the the ‘One Ring’, from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, has a workshop in Nelson, next to Christ Church Cathedral (although we think this may not be suitable for most backpacker’s budgets).
- Retro fans are in for a treat as Nelson still (at the time of writing – April 2019) has a DVD rental store (alas, the only one we saw still trading in the whole of New Zealand). Who needs Blockbuster Entertainment when you have ‘United Video’?!
- Nelson was the first place in New Zealand where we saw ‘wine tasting’ available in a Fresh Choice supermarket!
Where to stay in Nelson
We’ve done a couple of overnight stays in Nelson and both times have booked a private room at the Tasman Bay Backpackers, about a ten minute walk from the CBD. We love this hostel as it is quiet, spotlessly clean and always with a very friendly welcome from the owners / reception.
They also serve their free, ‘famous’ hot sticky chocolate pudding to all residents nightly at 8pm (get in their quick, it goes very fast) plus a nightly ‘social’ hour where they request you don’t use your phone in the communal areas and talk to other travellers.
I like how Tasman Bay Backpackers play a uniquely New Zealand soundtrack in the shared area too, educating traveller’s ears to the like of Kiwi icons like Dave Dobbyn, Hollie Smith and Fat Freddy’s Drop. Sweet as (a bit like their chocolate pudding!).
Watch our New Zealand South Island video
Other Nelson accommodation
Words by Neil Hassall. Photography by Neil Hassall and Caroline Keyzor.
More New Zealand blog posts
- What to do in Queenstown, New Zealand
- Things to do in Kaikoura, New Zealand
- How to spend a day in Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
- Delivering post on the Picton Mail Boat Cruise, New Zealand
- A day trip to Milford Sound, New Zealand
- Wine Tasting at Gibbston Valley, Queenstown
- Visiting the Monteith’s brewery in Greymouth
- Steampunk HQ Gallery in Oamaru