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An aerial shot of an azure-blue beach in Motueka, near Nelson, New Zealand. Overlaid text says "Greetings from Nelson"
They don’t call it the sunshine capital for nothing, mates. Image: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller

PartnersOctober 15, 2019

Top of the List: five of Nelson’s must-try attractions

An aerial shot of an azure-blue beach in Motueka, near Nelson, New Zealand. Overlaid text says "Greetings from Nelson"
They don’t call it the sunshine capital for nothing, mates. Image: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller

Sunshine capital? Check. Rich artisan tradition? Check. Incredible sausages? That’s a big check. We’ve put together a list of all you need to know before you explore the truly gorgeous Nelson region this summer. 

If you’ve got friends or relatives visiting Aotearoa, top of their list should be sorting out their NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority). Head to the Immigration New Zealand website for all the details.

Ah, Nelson. Top of the south. Whakatū. It’s known for sunshine, orchards, hippies, hops, and – in certain circles – being the birthplace of yours truly. 

OK, I left when I was three, so can’t really claim true local status, but I’ve returned plenty of times over the years and am well-placed to tell you it’s a lovely place to visit. 

The city itself is located on the shores of Tasman Bay in Te Tau Ihu – the prow of Māui’s waka, as the top of the South Island is known – but the region is generally considered to extend to the west and south to take in the Tasman district that includes Abel Tasman, Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes national parks.

With three national parks right there on its doorstep, natural wonders abound in this region, but there’s a lot more to Nelson than golden sands and stunning vistas (though you should definitely get amongst some of those too). To really get a feel for this charming part of the world, make room for the following in your itinerary. 

A black-and-white photograph of paddleboarder travels past Fifeshire Rock on the glassy waters of Tahunanui, Nelson
Love a paddle? You’ll love Tahunanui. Image: Tamzin Henderson, via

The Best Family Swimming Spot

The wider Nelson region boasts stunning beaches galore, but even right on the doorstep of the city itself you’ve got a damn fine one. Tāhunanui (often just called Tāhuna by locals) is a great swimming spot in the summer, but equally lovely for a stroll in the winter sunshine, when you can gaze out towards the snow-capped peaks yonder.

And, perhaps best of all, just behind the beach is an array of retro fun. Go-karts! Hydroslide! Mini golf! Bumper boats! Miniature train! Hell, there’s even a roller-skating rink. My personal favourite, however, is Natureland: famous in my family as the site of my sister’s run-in with an otter, circa 1985 (the little bugger bit her). Perhaps for the best, the otters are no longer there, but you can hobnob with pygmy marmosets, African crested porcupines, tufted capuchins and the like, as well as native birds and reptiles. Be sure to feed the farm animals too.

After all that excitement, stop in at the pleasingly retro Beach Cafe and Bar to refuel with a milkshake (they are excellent) and panini. 

The Best Sausage

I’ve been to many a market in my time, and the Nelson one still holds its own. Held every Saturday from 8am-1pm in Montgomery Square in the city, it’s a bustling little set-up that exudes those quintessentially Nelsonian laid-back vibes. 

There’s stuff other than food – the vintage tool stall is a particular favourite in my family – but really, let’s be honest, markets are about eating. And here you shall eat well. Start at the Dutch stall for olliebollen (delicious doughnuts) and filter coffee, then peruse the array of artisan goods on offer (cheese, bread, preserves, meat, fresh produce, so on and so forth). By that time you’ll have worked up an appetite for the pièce de résistance: a sausage from legendary Bavarian smallgoods specialist Doris. Doris has been selling her glorious German sausages at the market since 1996 and is now world famous in Nelson. There might be a queue, yes, but once you’ve got your hands on that mustard-smothered bratwurst in a bun, believe me, you will not regret a second of the wait.

People dining in a sunny, high-ceilinged dining room at Nelson's Suter Art Gallery Cafe.
Toi! Kai! The Suter Art Gallery truly has it all. Image:

The Best Art-Inclined Outing

Nelson has long been a haven for artistic types, from Toss Woollaston and his modernist landscapes to the avant-garde creations of the World of Wearable Art. Named after the second bishop of Nelson, Andrew Burn Suter, who was an art enthusiast, the Suter Art Gallery / Te Aratoi o Whakatū opened in 1899, undergoing a major redevelopment in 2016. 

The temporary exhibitions are always worth checking out and the permanent collection is of national significance, including a large selection of works by Woollaston and an impressive number of pieces by renowned ceramic artists. There’s also a cinema, and the gift shop and cafe are worth a visit too. 

After you’ve got your art fill, go for a wander in Queens Gardens, a Victorian ornamental garden opened in 1892 to commemorate the jubilee of Queen Vicky herself. The site has historical significance as an important mahinga kai (food gathering place) for Māori.

The Best Seaside Stroll

Directly across Tasman Bay from Nelson as the crow flies is Mapua, a seaside village on the Waimea Estuary. When I was a kid there wasn’t much of note on the wharf besides the (admittedly excellent) smoked fish shop, but now it’s quite the destination, with a range of bars, cafes and restaurants to choose from and some decent shops too. Alberta’s is my pick for a coffee – they use beans from their neighbour, Rabbit Island Coffee – and Rimu is a classy wine bar if you fancy a local drop. If it’s beer you’re after, microbrewery Golden Bear is worth a try. 

If you’ve got time, jump on the ferry for a 10-minute trip over to Moturoa (Rabbit Island). This long, narrow island (motu means island and roa long) is a lovely spot for a picnic (take some smoked fish from the Mapua Smokehouse). You can hire bikes on the wharf and carry them over on the ferry too – the island’s a not-too-taxing 8km in length. 

A group of people with bikes, boarding a ferry on Mapua Beach, Nelson region
Huge news: the Mapua ferry is bike-friendly. Image:

The Best Short Trip for a Beer and a Stroll

Head north from Mapua for 20 minutes or so, stopping in at the friendly town of Motueka on the way for a look around if you fancy, to the wee settlement of Riwaka. This is hop country, a place of pilgrimage for beer nerds like me (it even has a deliciously citrussy hop named after it). Before you hit the beer, grab a sausage roll from Ginger Dynamite and a real fruit ice cream at Thomas Bros, then cross the road to Hop Federation to taste some brews (responsibly, if you’re driving) and fill up a growler. I recommend the Rakau IPA. 

Carry on another 15 minutes or so from Riwaka and you’ll enter Kahurangi National Park, where an easy 10-minute walk through beautiful native bush and moss-covered rocks will take you to Te Puna o Riuwaka, the Riwaka Resurgence. As soon as you walk through the carved waharoa at the beginning of the pathway, the temperature drops and the air feels deliciously damp. Recognised as a wāhi tapu by the people of Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Rārua, this is where the Riuwaka River emerges from Tākaka Hill in a deep, clear pond that remains a frigid 9C year round. It’s one of those places that will leave even the most cynical city-dweller feeling spiritually cleansed and reinvigorated.  

For more from our ‘Top of the List’ series, check out the below:

Six great reasons to check out the Far North this summer

Five ways to fall in love with the Coromandel

Five essential tips for visiting Taranaki this summer

A starter’s guide to summering in Central Otago

Keep going!