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9 Best Things to do in Nelson, New Zealand (with Photos)

Tucked away on the scenic shores of Tasman Bay, Nelson lies in a breathtakingly beautiful part of New Zealand with three wonderfully wild national parks surrounding it. The oldest settlement in the country, the city was founded in 1841 by Lord Admiral Nelson, after whom it is named, and is located in the northernmost realms of the South Island.

Nicknamed ‘Sunny Nelson’ due to its fantastic climate, the city is renowned for its thriving arts and crafts scene and boasts loads of brilliant restaurants and bustling markets. Widely considered to be one of the best places to live in New Zealand, it is a very pleasant place to spend some time, with lots of lovely parks and gardens scattered around town. Due to its many charms, Nelson is very popular with foreigners and New Zealanders alike, who come to enjoy all that it has to offer in terms of culture, cuisine, scenery, and nature.

9. Rabbit Island

Rabbit Island© dreamstime

Lying just across the Waimea Inlet from Nelson, Rabbit Island – or Moturoa, as it is known in Maori, is a great place to head to if you want to relax on the beach, immerse yourself in nature, or simply enjoy a picnic and take in the breathtaking scenery. Formed some 7,000 years ago, the island lies right in the south of Tasman Bay, with a small bridge connecting it to South Island.

Now a recreation reserve, Rabbit Island is home to a number of different ecosystems, with beautiful beaches, mountainous sand dunes, and gorgeous pine forests all on show. With lots of barbecue and picnic facilities on offer and idyllic trails for you to hike or jog along, the peaceful island has something for everyone to enjoy.

8. Saturday Market

Saturday Market© dreamstime

For the past 30 or so years, this wonderful market has been held every Saturday morning in Montgomery Square in the center of town. Loads of fun to peruse, its multitude of stands and stalls proudly showcase the best of Nelson’s local produce, as well as all kinds of artworks and handicrafts produced by local artisans.

Besides buying some of the arts and crafts for which Nelson is renowned, the Saturday Morning is also a great place to sample some local delicacies while taking in the lively but laidback atmosphere.

7. Founders Park

Founders Park© dreamstime

Located in a picturesque spot just to the northeast of the city center, Founders Park is a fabulous outdoor museum that shows you what a Victorian-era village in New Zealand used to look like. Set around a village green, you can find many delightful historic buildings, with a pub, church, and windmill on show alongside antiquated stagecoaches, buses, and farm utensils.

As a number of the buildings and cottages are home to various shops, Founders Park is also a great place to pick up souvenirs or try some delicious baked goods and craft beers. You can even enjoy a ride on its small model railway. Opened to the public in 1986, the heritage park makes for a fun and educational day out for all the family.

6. Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral© dreamstime

Perched atop of a hill overlooking the center of Nelson, Christ Church Cathedral is one of the most famous and recognizable symbols of the city. Exhibiting a curious mix of art nouveau and Gothic features, the cathedral is very distinctive to gaze upon and makes for some fantastic photos.

Built between 1925 and 1965 on the same site where two earlier wooden churches once stood, its magnificent marble-clad nave is topped by an impressive concrete tower that stretches towards the heavens. Although its interior is quite plain in comparison with its gorgeous exterior, Christ Church Cathedral is definitely worth visiting when in town and is just a stone’s throw away from many of the city’s other main attractions.

5. Queen’s Gardens

Queen's Gardens© dreamstime

A very pretty and pleasant place to spend some time, the Queen’s Gardens were opened all the way back in 1892 to coincide with, celebrate, and commemorate 50 years’ of Queen Victoria’s rule. Delightfully laid out, the Victorian-style gardens have lots of beautiful flowers and plants on display alongside a lovely little horseshoe-shaped lake and a number of fine fountains, sculptures, and memorials.

In addition to this, you can also find the Suter Art Gallery in one corner of the park and the charming Huangshi Chinese Gardens in another. Enjoyed by generations of Nelsonians, the Queen’s Gardens are located right next to the city center and are ideal whether you want to go for a stroll around the premises or enjoy a picnic in the gorgeous natural surroundings.

4. Tahunanui Beach

Tahunanui Beach© dreamstime

The most popular beach in the city, Tahunanui boasts glorious golden sands, inviting warm waters and a plethora of great outdoor activities. Nestled away on a peninsula that juts into the Tasman Bay, the beach is perfect for lounging lazily on, with swimming, surfing, and paddleboarding also popular pastimes if you are feeling a bit more active.

Backed by a number of cafes, restaurants, and bars, with a grassy park and playground also on offer, it is very easy to spend all day at Tahunanui Beach. Lots of families come to do just that during the weekends.

3. Center of New Zealand

Center of New Zealand© dreamstime

Lying just to the east of the city center, a short hike up Botanical Hill takes you to the Center of New Zealand. Contrary to the claims of the interesting spire monument that lies at the top, the site is not quite the geographical center of the country, although it is close enough. The main reason for visiting the spot – besides being able to say that you’ve been to ‘the center of New Zealand’ – is for the astounding view it offers from its summit.

Stretching away below you, you can see all of Nelson, the glistening bay before it, and Abel Tasman National Park off in the distance. As such, it is well worth the effort of hiking to the top of Botanical Hill. Around the monument and park, you’ll also find lots of magnificent local flora on show.

2. World of WearableArt & Classic Car Museum

Classic Car Museum© dreamstime

A very unique and unusual place to visit, the World of WearableArt & Classic Car Museum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole of Nelson. Although the city now no longer hosts the eccentric World of WearableArt fashion and design competition, this weird, wacky yet undeniably wonderful museum showcases some of the best entries from previous editions.

Perusing the outlandish garments is loads of fun as you pass extravagant hats and frivolous masks as well as daring, creative, and carefree costumes. In complete contrast to the imaginative and quirky fashion designs, the museum’s collection of classic cars is very classy and refined, as the gleaming bonnets of Cadillacs, Jaguars, and fancy sports cars lie before you.

Despite being very different in terms of style and aesthetics, the two contrasting collections work very well together, united by their shared passion for art, beauty, and design. Not to be missed out on when in Nelson, this marvelous museum promises to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

1. Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman National Park© dreamstime

Named after Abel Tasman, the first European explorer to set eyes on New Zealand all the way back in 1642, this fabulous national park is home to some of the most breathtaking nature and scenery in the country. Despite its small size, the park encompasses a wide array of different habitats, with its densely-forested interior contrasting delightfully with its indented coastline and secluded islands that boast lots of beautiful beaches.

Hidden away among all of this are lots of different birds and wildlife, with possums, penguins, deer, and wild pigs all residing within the park. Very popular with nature lovers and outdoor aficionados, Abel Tasman National Park has lots of scenic hiking trails for you to explore, with its Coast Track being the most famous of the lot. In addition to this, you can also go kayaking around the park’s hidden coves and bays or lounge on one of its amazing beaches.

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