The gorgeously picturesque town of Picton is the heart of the Marlborough Sounds and the perfect destination to visit for exploring this magnificent region. On top of this, Nelson, Blenheim, Kaikoura and the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park are all on Picton’s doorstep.
Whether you’re looking to burn a few hours while you wait for the ferry, or you’re making Picton your base for a few days, you won’t struggle to find heaps of epic things to do in Picton.
Read on to find out our top picks!
Things to Do in Picton
For such a small town, with a population of just above 4,000, Picton is packed full with some of the best places to visit in New Zealand. The best activities in Picton tend to revolve around nature – with the Marlborough Sounds being the region’s masterpiece.
Beyond this, you’ll get to eat some great food, enjoy some of the world’s best wines and hike to some breathtaking viewpoints!
1. Hike the Queen Charlotte Track
The Marlborough Sounds harbour is a large body of water surrounded by a jagged, mountainous landscape covered in dense, native bush. The Queen Charlotte Track snakes along this mesmerizing coastline for 71km as it forms countless coves and bays.
There’s basically two ways to explore the Marlborough Sounds: by boat, or by walking the Queen Charlotte Track. And we recommend doing both!
If you have the time, then you can look at walking the entire Queen Charlotte Track over 3-5 days, staying in the high-end lodges along the way. However, if you’re short on time then we’d recommend booking this scenic cruise and walk from Furneaux Lodge to Punga Cove.
This is the exact hike we opted for as it covers one of the most picturesque sections of the 71km walk, meaning you can experience the Queen Charlotte Track for a day without feeling like you missed out on much.
This hike takes about 3-hours as you hike 12km. It’s fairly easy with a few light hills along the way. Of course, these are intermittently dotted with viewpoints out over the Sounds. At Punga Cove plan to sit down for a drink and a pizza.
2. Explore Marlborough Sounds on a Mailboat Cruise
Of course, you don’t have to go hiking to experience the Marlborough Sounds! One of the most famous attractions in Picton is the Mailboat Cruise.
I’ll admit, at first we thought this sounded like a chore – why would you want to spend your holiday delivering mail? Well, we quickly realised the appeal. It’s not really about delivering mail, it’s about exploring the Marlborough Sounds. We particularly enjoyed seeing these spectacular landscapes and the lavish houses nestled amidst them.
3. Walk the Tirohanga Track
The Tirohanga Track is a short 4km track up to the best view of Picton town and the Marlborough Sounds! It’s a little challenging with around 200m of elevation gain, but should only take about 1-1.5-hours return.
A number of people recommended this easy walk to us. The top of the hilltop offers expansive views and is a must-do in Picton.
4. Peruse the Edwin Fox Museum Picton
The Edwin Fox is the world’s second oldest surviving merchant sailing ship and the only one surviving that transported convicts to Australia. She arrived in NZ in 1873.
The Edwin Fox Museum is built around the historic Edwin Fox Ship. You will get the opportunity to learn about the ship, read displays, watch a documentary and view artefacts. The ship itself is on display in a dry dock and you will get to explore the hull of the ship.
5. Drive to the Queen Charlotte Drive Lookout
The entire Queen Charlotte Drive is an incredible road and one of our favourite drives in New Zealand. It’s also the recommended route for the drive from Picton to Nelson. Right at the end, near the Picton wharf, is an impressive lookout with views over the Marlborough Sounds.
The views here are great and don’t require much effort. They lookout is found by pulling over the side of the road, and well, looking out. It’s a great activity for travellers with half an hour or so to spare before jumping on the ferry.
6. Have a Picnic by the Water
One of our favourite things to do in Picton is to grab some food and a couple of cold ones, bring them down to the waterfront, and enjoy a picnic. Even better if it’s in the evening!
The supermarket is a short walk from the waterfront, however, Shai Shai’s Takeaway is a bit closer and much yummier. Her burgers are impressive and very affordable too!
Just remember to pick a spot under a tree and bring insect repellent as there seems to be a lot of mosquitoes.
7. Stay at Bay of Many Coves Luxury Resort
Bay of Many Coves is the ultimate luxury resort in Picton. Well, it’s actually located right in the middle of the Marlborough Sounds meaning you can step out of your room to the best views of the Sounds.
As a luxury pick, Bay of Many Coves naturally comes with a price tag to match. If you’re booking a honeymoon, after a special night away or have cash to spend, then 100% consider a night here.
As much as we wish we stayed here, our budget couldn’t stretch to cover the $1,000 a night price. That said, our boat stopped here to deliver some groceries and the place looked dreamy – one day we hope to make it!
8. Day Trip to Nelson
The bustling city of Nelson is just a short (and incredibly scenic) drive from Picton. If you don’t have the time to spend a night or two in Nelson, then consider making your way here for a day trip.
Check out our guide on all the best things to do in Nelson. You’ll be spoilt for choice, but our top picks include lying on the beach at Cable Bay, and wining and dining in the city centre.
9. Visit Motuara Bird Sanctuary
Motuara Island is a scenic reserve and sanctuary for native wildlife. The island presents a wonderful opportunity for bird lovers to watch some of New Zealand’s rarest and most beautiful birds, such as Saddleback and Yellow-Crowned Parakeet.
You’ll also be able to take a short walk up to yet another stunning lookout point.
Getting there will require a boat which can be booked with any of the local providers. However, we highly recommend booking this dolphin watching and motuara island tour with E-Ko Tours. E-Ko tours are specifically an environmentally friendly and eco-conscious tour operator that genuinely cares for the environment – more than we can say for most tour operators.
10. Eat at the Picton Restaurants
Picton is small and doesn’t have a lot of options for dining. Cortado and Le Cafe are our picks for nicer restaurants in Picton and are located along the waterfront.
Despite this, our fave places turned out to be a little cheaper. Shai Shai’s takeaway whips up (well actually, it took quite a while so expect a wait) whilst the toasties at Toastie Picton are next level. Both are perfect to enjoy on the waterfront.
The Picton Village Bakery is the perfect place to grab a snack or a packed lunch before heading out for the day.
11. Go Whale Watching in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a 2-hour drive from Picton which is why we typically recommend it as either a stop over on the drive down to Christchurch, or as an overnight trip. That said, if you don’t mind a bit of driving it’s also a great place to visit for a day trip.
Whale watching in Kaikoura is one of those famous, must-do activities that everyone knows about in New Zealand. Various whale watching cruises in Kaikoura offer you the chance to experience up-close encounters with these majestic animals, amongst other New Zealand wildlife such as seals, dolphins and birds.
Whale Watch Kaikoura is the most popular option. Their crew are extremely experienced and informative. They know exactly where to go to locate sperm whales so your chances with these guys are great.
Wings Over Whales is a unique alternative, offering the opportunity to see pods of whales in their entirety from the air – something you don’t get from a boat.
12. Taste Wine at the Marlborough Wineries
The Marlborough region is world famous for its wines, and one grape in particular stands out the most: sauvignon blanc.
Depending on time and inclination, there’s usually two ways to visit wineries in New Zealand without a sober driver.
The best way if you have half a day to spare is to jump on a half-day wine tour like this one or the hop-on, hop-off bus tour, that will take you to all the popular spots. This way you don’t need to worry about driving or getting from one place to the next.
Or, what we find we do most often, is we aim to drive past and stop at a single winery as part of our plans for the day. Over a few days you can get through a few tastings without worrying about drinking too much.
With that in mind, our favourite wineries in Marlborough are Framingham and Saint Clair. Farmingham has an awesome outdoor area which is great for relaxing on a nice afternoon. Whereas Saint Clair is a bit more formal – plus we prefer their wines.
13. Eat Mussels in Havelock
On the drive from Nelson to Picton (or vice versa) is the cute little town of Havelock. There’s not a whole lot to do here, but they have earned a reputation for having the best mussels in New Zealand.
Mills Bay Mussels tasting room and The Mussel Pot are the most popular spots here, but you could also consider a magical mussel cruise in the harbour.
14. Hike the Snout Track
The entire top of the South Island is packed with incredible hikes and part of the struggle can be choosing which ones are worth prioritising. The Snout Track is definitely one these!
It’s located just a few minutes drive out of Picton town. The track starts at a Queen Charlotte View (find it on Google Maps) and offers some of the best views in the area. From here, walk about 1.5-hours to the ‘Snout’ for even more commanding views over the Sound. It’s then 1.5-hours back to your car.
15. Explore Blenheim
Blenheim is the largest town near Picton and is a lovely spot to visit for a wander and a bite to eat. We were pleasantly surprised by the amount of things to do in Blenheim. From the impressive little art gallery to some amazing parks (and the McDonalds we’d been craving).
Aside from this, if you’re into wine the majority of the region’s wineries are located near Blenheim to make your way to one of these.
16. Eat Makana Chocolates
Macadamia. Butter. Toffee. Crunch. This is all you need to know. If you’re lucky they’ll give you a taster at the door (they know what they’re doing, once you’ve tasted it you won’t leave without buying some).
Honestly, we feel this place is outrageously expensive for what it is. Yet, somehow it tastes so good that it’s worth it. Just don’t think about the cost. Treat yourself or your friends and family.
17. Try Kayaking
One of the more adventurous attractions in Picton is to tackle some kayaking out into the Marlborough Sounds with Sea Kayak Adventures.
This full-day kayak adventure will see you explore the bays of the Queen Charlotte Sound with an experienced guide. It also includes food and the opportunity to go swimming and explore a bit on land. We reckon this is a fun alternative to hiking the Queen Charlotte Track.
18. Visit the Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary
The Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary is a community project aiming to restore 40-hectares of land on an island in the Picton harbour. It is a sanctuary for unique, native wildlife and recovering native bush.
A visit to the island is quick and easy, taking just 10-minutes with Beachcomber Cruises, but we recommend giving yourself a couple of hours on the island to explore. It’s also free to visit (excluding the transport which is $12), but we’d recommend leaving a small donation.
Well, we’ve already told you our top pick for accommodation in Picton, which is naturally, the Bay of Many Coves. But for most, including ourselves, it’s a little out of reach. Luckily we’ve actually stayed at a few places in Picton and can share our recommendations.
For cheaper accommodation that is also extremely conveniently located near town and the ferry terminal, you can’t beat Tombstone Motel, Lodge & Backpackers. We stayed in a very affordable room here and were surprised to get a balcony, ensuite and a view. Plus the scones for breakfast were amazing.
In the under $200 bracket, we loved Harbour View Motel which is literally located in town with views over, you guessed it, the harbour. It’s perfect for anyone and comfortable to come back to after hiking.
And then for a little more luxury, without dropping $1k a night, Picton Waterfront Luxury Apartments has been highly recommended and highly rated. They have rooms around $300, or pay a little more and you can have an apartment. This is an awesome pick for small groups or families.
How to Get to Picton
Getting to Picton is generally the easy part! The real question is where you go from there.
To get to Picton, you’ll either come by ferry from Wellington (the Interislander or Bluebridge, check out our guide on the best things to do in Wellington if you’re visiting Wellington as well) across the Cook Strait, or you’ll have driven here. The drive from Nelson to Picton (and vice versa) is incredibly lovely and I recommend you make sure to take the scenic route. It only takes about 5-10min longer and is sooooo much better.
Picton isn’t going to win any culinary awards and I’d be lying if I said they have the best restaurants around. Le Cafe is a great brunch spot on the waterfront. Shai Shai sells the best burgers in Picton. Cortado is a nicer dining spot.
Picton Village Bakery has solid pies and treats. Toastie Picton has mouthwateringly incredible toasties and probably the best coffee in Picton.
The top attraction in Picton is the Queen Charlotte Track and the Marlborough Sounds itself.
Picton is absolutely worth visiting! We recommend going in Summer and spending at least a night here to experience as much as possible.
Picton’s soul is outdoors, which doesn’t make it the most enthralling place when it’s raining. That said, if it is raining, we’d definitely consider heading to a nice winery for a long lunch.