A visit to Nelson Bay in Port Stephens is always amazing. We came to this region a few times: on a day trip and a weekend trip from Sydney and as excellent detours during a Sydney to Brisbane road trip on Australia’s East Coast. I always recommend visiting Nelson Bay to anyone who comes to Australia. I’d be happy to go again. There are many things to do in Nelson Bay and Port Stephens!
We went to Nelson Bay for three years in a row during our summer holidays, and it’s been great every single time.
I recommend spending at least a couple of days in Nelson Bay as there are many great things to do in the Port Stephens area. If you don’t have much time and want to do it as a day trip from Sydney, bear in mind it’s a 2.5-hour drive. I’ve done the day trip from Sydney a couple of times, and it was a very long day. If don’t want to get tired from the journey, click here to view tours*.
There are many reasons why the Nelson Bay/Port Stephens area is worth a visit, or actually a few visits.
You’ll find in this article:
- The best things to do in Nelson Bay and Port Stephens
- A map of all these attractions
- Tips on where to stay in Nelson Bay
The best things to do in Port Stephens & Nelson Bay
There are many fantastic and unusual things to do in Nelson Bay and the Port Stephens region. There’s a map at the end of the article that will help you find all the great places I mention.
Here are a few reasons why I believe Nelson Bay is the best destination to get away from Sydney for the weekend:
1. Nelson Bay offers amazing coastal views and beaches
Nelson Bay has attractions to please those who like to be active and those who prefer to save their efforts.
You can get the best view of Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay from the top of Mount Tomaree. It’s an uphill 1km-hike that usually takes around 30 minutes one way, depending on your level of fitness. The track is easy and well maintained, so if you’re a bit late for the sunset like we were and used to hiking uphill, you can tackle it in 15 minutes.
For those who don’t like walking, the Gan Gan Lookout is accessible by car and offers 180-degree views of Nelson Bay. If you can be there at sunset, you’ll be in awe.
If you’re after a short and easy walk with a coffee break opportunity, check out the Nelson Headlight. Don’t expect much of the lighthouse: it’s a small building (there’s no tower), and it’s inactive. However, there are panoramic views of the ocean and a tea room with one of the best views ever! Don’t go too late if you want a bite since the cafe closes at 4 pm.
If you want to see a real lighthouse, plan a trip to Shark Island to see Point Stephens Lighthouse. Fingal Spit reveals a path to walk there at low tide. You’ll get beautiful views of Port Stephens from a whole new angle.
The nearby Boat Harbour area can also be fun to explore. We walked up to Morna Point to check out the rockpools – where we found sea hares (huge sea slugs) – and cliffs. It was very different from the Nelson Bay areas.
If you want to see beautiful beaches, check out Fingal Bay (often described as one of the best beaches in New South Wales), Sunset Beach (I let you guess when it’s recommended to go to this one) and Worimi National Park.
And when you’re done with that area, you can easily board a ferry from Nelson Bay marina to explore the other side of the bay: Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest. You’ll see dolphins almost every time.
2. Dolphins and whales like to hang out in Nelson Bay
And again, you can choose between active or relaxing options to see them.
Dolphins are in Nelson Bay all year round. With more than one thousand dolphins in Port Stephens bay, it’s known as the Dolphin Capital of Australia. If you’re lucky, you may even see them while snorkelling. I always saw them from the shore, but you can join a cruise to maximise your chances. From Nelson Bay, Dolphin Swim Australia even offers to “swim” with the dolphins (or maybe being towed by the boat would be a better description), giving you the opportunity to feel like you’re part of the dolphin pod. Although it’s pricey, it sounds terrific.
Between May and October, whales stop to rest in Nelson Bay during their annual migration along Australia’s East Coast. You can see them from the shore or a boat.
3. Scuba diving is my favourite thing to do in Nelson Bay, and they have great snorkelling sites too
Nelson Bay is particularly reputed for having some of the best shore dives in Australia.
Are you covered for scuba diving by your travel insurance? It’s worth double-checking. If not, I recommend DAN (Divers Alert Network) for those who dive regularly. WorldNomads* and Covermore* also make it easy to add adventurous activities like scuba diving to your plan.
Just a few metres away from the car parks, you can access a beautiful world full of small, intriguing creatures (nudibranchs, seahorses), wobbegong sharks… At Fly Point, I was surprised by the sea hares: I had no idea sea slugs could get that big. I also saw my first Port Jackson shark there. At Pipeline, the decorated crabs were fascinating: they grow sponges and corals on their body to camouflage! At Halifax Bay, friendly blue groupers will give you a tour of their big bommies.
We haven’t visited the Seahorse Garden on Little Beach yet.
Many people were snorkelling at Fly Point when we came back from our dive. We spent a while in 6-meter deep water, so I’m sure you can spot things while you snorkel, such as the big sea hares and the wobbegong sharks. However, it would be hard to see the smaller creatures, so if you’re certified for scuba diving, I recommend you go for it rather than snorkelling in Nelson Bay.
Whether you’re scuba diving in Nelson Bay or snorkelling, you’ll need to plan this carefully as shore dives are tidal dependent. There are dangerous currents in Nelson Bay, so you want to do your shore dives or snorkel at high tide.
There is another shore dive worth a try just outside Nelson Bay. Boat Harbour isn’t tidal dependent and could be a good option when you cannot dive the sites in Nelson Bay. Always talk to locals before planning your dives.
Responsible travel tip: Did you know your sunscreen can pollute the water and harm animals? The best way to protect your body from the sun is to cover it with long sleeves and pants. If you do have to use sunscreen, choose a mineral one (like zinc) and apply it at least 20 minutes before entering the water.
We also did a double dive on Broughton Island to see the Grey Nurse Sharks. A dive we will never forget.
Your underwater pics don’t look that good? Check out my tips for beginners to take underwater photos that aren’t blue!
We are used to seeing the Grey Nurse Sharks on amazing local dive sites not far from Brisbane (Julian Rocks, Wolf Rock, Minjerribah). And we had the reputed Fish Rock Cave planned a few days later during our trip. Not that I would ever complain about having so many opportunities to dive with these beautiful (and endangered!) sharks, but it takes away the wow effect.
Still, Broughton Island surprised us and was a wonderful dive. Not only did we see a lot of sharks, but the schools of fish around the sharks were stunning as well.
If you’re also into macro photography, we were lucky to do the first dive at a spot full of nudibranchs, including many species we had never seen before.
In the right season, you can also visit a seal colony at Cabbage Tree Island and the Port Jackson Sharks at Shark Island.
Diving in Australia? Check out this list of the best dive sites on Australia’s East Coast!
If you cannot snorkel or dive for physical or budget reasons, you’ll still be able to experience a memorable marine encounter in Port Stephens.
I haven’t tried it myself but heard good feedback about the Irukandji Shark and Ray Aquarium at the start of the Port Stephens Peninsula. On top of learning about these incredible species, you’ll get a chance to get very close to them. Click here for more info and to book online*
Although I’m not a big fan of aquariums as I believe animals should remain in the wild, they can be used for education. We need people to be less scared of sharks, rays and other marine life, so they want to protect them.
4. You can have fun in the dunes of Worimi National Park near Nelson Bay
4WD, quad, sandboarding or camel ride… What do you feel like? Nelson Bay activities are so diverse and exciting that it can become hard to make a choice!
I’ve never tried these activities – trying just to sledge on the dune was an epic fail, and I stopped there! – but if you’re keen on these kinds of adventures, you can book them online here*.
You can also simply walk around the dunes in Anna Bay. The planet will thank you for this low carbon impact activity. It’s been my choice every single time I visited, and never regretted doing it the simple way. It’s very photogenic.
5. Nelson Bay is reputed for seafood
With the sea and also many lakes and rivers in the region, Nelson Bay is a great place for seafood lovers to have a feast. The fish market and local restaurants offer a variety of fresh local seafood, including delicious prawns and oysters.
If you’re an oyster fan, you’ll want to visit the Holberts Oyster Farm, for a degustation with a view or to watch the professional oyster shuckers at work. Less than one hour away, the town of Karuah is famous for its premium oysters. A local we met said they are the world’s best oysters. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to stop there to judge if this was a reasonable statement.
Nelson Bay is also home to NSW’s Best Fish & Chips (Bubs). At least that’s what they say on the front of the shop, and we were advised to try it out. It was closed when we reached Pipeline for our dives, so that’s another local tip I cannot comment much about. Near the marina, you’ll find many seafood restaurants with a view.
If you have a bigger budget, you may want to check out The Boathouse at Little Beach or The Point at Soldiers Point (the upstairs restaurant).
6. There’s even a famous brewery and a local winery near Nelson Bay
The activities offered in Bob’s Farm will seduce food and drink lovers. They brought together a brewery, its restaurant and a winery for amazing taste sensations. And they smartly offer a shuttle bus from Nelson Bay so no one misses out on the experience.
If you’ve been in Australia for a little while, you’ll have tried a craft beer from Murray’s Craft Brewing Co. You’ll have the opportunity to learn more about their craft beers and try them all during your visit. We missed the brewery visit (2.15 pm) but still enjoyed tasting their homemade beers at the bar. We opted for a selection of four small glasses to discover new tastes. I liked 3 out of 4, which is a good ratio for me. But none of them beat the Whale Ale, their wheat beer and my favourite beer so far from Murray’s.
If you missed the opportunity to stop at a reputed winery in the Hunter Valley on your way to Nelson Bay, you’ll have a second chance. Although it’s not among the most famous ones in Australia, and most of its wines are actually made out of town, Port Stephens Winery still brings an opportunity to learn more about winemaking and taste wines from the oldest vineyard in the region. A great indoor activity in Nelson Bay and Port Stephens.
What are your favourite things to do in Nelson Bay? Share your experience in the comments below!
If all these things to do in Nelson Bay aren’t enough to keep you busy during your weekend getaway from Sydney, you can also bundle your visit with another beautiful drive or stop in nearby beautiful regions like the Hunter Valley, Myall Lakes National Park or Ku-Rin-Gai Chase National Park.
Where are all these Nelson Bay attractions?
Nelson Bay is at the end of the Port Stephens peninsula, very close to Newcastle and about 200 km north of Sydney. It takes 2.5 hours to drive up there from Sydney. You can even make a nice detour via the Hunter Valley if you go there for a few days.
If you don’t want to drive or if you only have one day available, there are tours organised from Sydney that will take you up there (click here to view*).
Where to stay in Nelson Bay
I recommend spending at least one weekend in the region to make the most of all the Port Stephens and Nelson Bay attractions. If you are travelling during the peak season and a weekend, make sure you book in advance. In summer, it’s not surprising to see all accommodations booked out.
If you can book in advance, you’ll have a long list of accommodations in Nelson Bay* close to the beach. It can be hard to find a spot to park in Nelson Bay during the busy season, so being able to walk to the coast is perfect. Just make sure that a car park at the accommodation is available (and if it’s included in the price).
We stayed at Bay Bungalow Guesthouse*, which offered a good deal considering we were booking quite late for the peak season. We had the comfort of a hotel plus a few amenities to cook simple meals. The guesthouse is ideally positioned to explore the peninsula and only five minutes away by car from the heart of Nelson Bay
When we travelled on a budget road trip where we would not book places in advance to stay flexible, finding a place where to sleep in Port Stephens was challenging. In the peak season of the summer holidays, the only cheap campground we found was the Maitland Showgrounds, more than one hour away!
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