New Zealand is one of my favourite countries in the world (not just because it’s where I fell in love with Lee).
The Land of the Long White Cloud is just so much fun to explore. The range of different landscapes packed into this small island (from bubbling geothermal pools to rolling green vineyards to ancient rainforests to glaciers) is just incredible. There are only around 4.6 million New Zealanders scattered across a country just slightly bigger than the UK, so there are no crowds and lots of room to explore and play in the great outdoors.
The cities and towns are cool too, packed with great museums, quirky little cafes and bars and chilled out backpacker hostels. (Plus – unlike Australia there aren’t poisonous snakes, deadly crocs, hungry dingos and enormous scary spiders waiting around every corner.)
The people are friendly, funny and welcoming and it’s possible for citizens of several countries to get a Working Holiday Visa, so you can take your time and work your way around New Zealand slowly. You’ll want to stay here as long as you can, because despite the relatively small size of this country there are SO MANY fantastic places to see and attractions not to miss in New Zealand.
I’ve compiled a list of 22 of the most beautiful and interesting things to see and do in New Zealand – from hiking to Mount Doom to exploring a cave filled with twinkling glowworms to joining a Maori feast in Rotorua. You’ll want to add all of these amazing places to your New Zealand travel bucket list.
Table of Contents
- 1 The North Island
- 2 The South Island
The North Island
1. Tongariro National Park
If you are a Lord of the Rings fan, hiking the Tongariro Crossing might feel a little familiar. It was used to film the scenes of Mount Doom in the epic fantasy series. You can follow in Frodo’s footsteps and hike through Mordor, marveling at the rugged, barren volcanic landscapes and strangely coloured lakes. You can see why this foreboding and otherworldly part of New Zealand was chosen as the stand-in for the stronghold of the great and powerful Lord Sauron.
When I watched the first scenes of the Fellowship of the Ring when the first installment of Peter Jackson’s trilogy came out many years ago, I was completely enchanted with the peaceful pastoral community of Hobbiton – with it’s rolling green hills and tiny homes with round doors tucked into the hillsides. If you are also a fan, you will love visiting Hobbiton itself – the movie set still looks exactly as it did in the films. It is located near Matamata on the North Island and you can take a guided tour of the set to learn about how Tolkien’s novel was brought to life. This is one of the top attractions not to miss in New Zealand.
3. Bay of Islands
The turquoise waters and peaceful islands of this bay are one of the most popular tourist draws in New Zealand. This area is popular for sailing and fishing and it also has a significant history. Around 700 years ago it was where one of the large Maori migration canoes journeyed to New Zealand from Hawaiki. The Maori people settled all throughout the bay and on several of the islands, establishing various tribes. The settlements that were established here played important roles in the development of New Zealand. You can explore the beauty of these islands in many ways, including sea kayaking or chartering a yacht (keep your eyes peeled for whales and dolphins).
4. Waiheke Island
If you like wine, you’ll love Waiheke Island. Located only a 40 minute ferry ride from Auckland, this gorgeous spot is where you can spend a lazy, sunny day sipping wine and admiring views of olive groves and beaches. You can also wander along the white sand at Oneroa and Onetangi beaches, swimming in the sheltered waters there. Waiheke also has a thriving arts scene and a very cool sculpture park and hosts regular cultural events.
5. Lake Taupo
Lake Taupo is a mind-boggling expanse of water – almost the size of Singapore. It was created over two thousand years ago by a volcanic eruption that was so big it made the skies dark as far away as China and Europe. These days it is a tranquil lake, warmed by geothermal currents and perfect for boating, swimming and fishing. You can visit the spectacular Craters of the Moon, where you can see evidence of the geothermal birth of the lake in the boiling mud pools and steaming craters. This is a very popular spot to stop at during New Zealand self drive tours of the North Island, as it offers a chance to get out and stretch your legs while admiring the peaceful waters.
6. Museum of New Zealand
The Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, also known as Te Papa, is an innovative cultural institution that is recognised as a world leader in interactive visitor experiences. At this museum, located in a great location on the waterfront, you can learn about Maori history, New Zealand’s nature and much more. Te Papa also hosts a create event program which features performances, lectures and much more. It also hosts traveling art exhibitions from all over the world.
7. Waitomo Glowworm Caves
As you float through this cave, look above you on the ceilings and walls. You will see a glowing galaxy of tiny pinpoints of light, looking like stars twinkling in the blackness. This is one of the most well known attractions not to miss in New Zealand and visitors have been marveling at the glowworms since the late 1880s. The cave is around two hours south of Auckland on the North Island and there are several tours that will take you on a boat through these surreal and magical caves.
8. Downtown Auckland
Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, as well as in all of Polynesia. Known as the “City of Sails” it offers a lot for visitors to enjoy, including world class culture, excellent museums, an exciting nightlife scene and lots of great restaurants. With all of these urban delights surrounded by spectacular coastal scenery, it’s not difficult to see why Auckland is regarded as one of the most livable spots in the world.
With a huge variety of things to see and do and places to dine, shop, drink and dance – you’ll find something for everyone here. Head to the Chancery district if you are interested in fashion or trendy cafes, or wander through the Viaduct Harbour where you can sit at a bar overlooking the water and watch the world go by.
9. Huka Falls
A thundering cascade of 220,000 litres per second flows over Huka Falls as the Waikato River drains Lake Taupo via a narrow, deep canyon. The most thrilling activity to enjoy here is to take a Jet Boat ride, which will take you zooming across the frothy water and bring you so close to the falls that you can feel the cool spray on your face. There is also a beautiful walk along the Spa Park to Huka Falls trail, which will take you through lush native forests and spectacular viewpoints – with the roar of the rushing river never far away.
Napier holds a special place in my heart, because it is where Lee and I met and fell in love (at the creepy old Napier prison, no less). A small seaside town on the North Island, Napier was completely levelled by an earthquake in 1931. It was rebuilt entirely in the popular style of the time – Art Deco. Strolling through the streets lined with elegant pastel colored geometric facades will make you feel like you are on the set of an old film. The city really gets into it during Art Deco Days, a festival where retro cars cruise the streets and everyone is dressed to the nines in zoot suits and flapper dresses.
11. Mount Maunganui
Around two or three million years ago, a large lava dome was formed by the up-welling of rhyolite lava in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand’s North Island. These days, it is known as Mount Maunganui and it is one of loveliest places to visit in New Zealand’s North. This picturesque mountain and the town beside it bearing the same name draw visitors from all over the world for superb hiking, swimming, surfing, golfing, dining and relaxing. Lace up your hiking shoes and climb the steep trail up the mountain – the breathtaking view overlooking the sandbar and the two beaches (one facing Pilot Bay and the other facing the ocean) is worth the effort.
The South Island
12. Milford Sound
This jaw-dropping natural wonder is included on almost every brochure and tourism video for the South Island – and it’s easy to see why. As you drift through the fjord on a boat you will look upward at thousands of feet of cliffs rising from the ocean. Rudyard Kipling described it as the 8th wonder of the world and when it rains the waterfalls cascading down the sheer rock faces are even more impressive. Boat cruises will take you through these fjords, carved by ancient glaciers… or you can explore them by diving, New Zealand self drive tours, sea kayaking or flying over in a helicopter.
13. Lake Wanaka
Head to the crystal clear waters of the fourth largest lake in the country and relax for a while. This gorgeous part of the South Island is a great spot to go fishing, hiking, golfing or wine tasting. Also, the nearby mountains and fast rivers allow for adventure tourism such as jet-boating and skiing. The U-shaped valley in which this spectacular lake lies was created by glacial erosion during the last ice age.
14. Doubtful Sound
The second most famous tourism destination in New Zealand (after Milford Sound), Doubtful Sound got its name because Captain Cook was doubtful as to whether he would be able to navigate it with his ship. It’s actually a fjord, not a sound, and it is a gorgeous natural wonder. Although it is not possible to drive here, you can access Milford Sound via a boat cruise. If you are lucky, you might see Fiordland Crested Penguins and New Zealand fur seals.
15. Lake Wakatipu
Due to the mountain range called The Remarkables, rising from the shoreline of this glacial lake, Lake Wakatipu has an unusual rise and fall in water level – approximately 12 cm every twenty five minutes. The Maori legend behind this is that there is a huge monster called Matau sleeping at the bottom of the late and the rise and fall of the water is his heartbeat.
Shaped like a lightning bolt when seen from above, this naturally beautiful spot also inspired Peter Jackson when he was filming Lord of the Rings – he used it for several scenes in the Fellowship of the Ring, including Amon Hen.
16. Abel Tasman National Park
Named after the first European explorer to sight New Zealand, Abel Tasman National Park is located between Tasman Bay and Golden Bay in the north of the South Island. This is the only coastal national park in New Zealand and you’ll be in awe of the clear turquoise water and golden sandy beaches.
There are many things to do here, including hiking the Abel Tasman Coast Track along the coastline through native bush, visiting the impressive “Split Apple Rock” (pictured above), taking New Zealand self drive tours through the park and sea kayaking in the sheltered bays.
Lee and I lived abroad in Christchurch in 2009, although the city has changed significantly since then. It was hit by serious earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 that left 186 people dead and a large percentage of the buildings destroyed. However, this vibrant and energetic city has recovered in an amazing way from this natural disaster.
There are quite a few construction sites throughout the city and some areas might be off limits, but the city still has a lot to explore. The new city is emerging and it is more interesting and creative than ever before. It features colourful street art, is surrounded by beautiful parks and reserves and is a great jumping off point for skiing and snowboarding.
18. Fox Glacier
Another one of the natural beauties of the South Island is Fox Glacier. It is located on the West Coast in what is known as “Glacier Country” and it can be reached within 4.5 hours by car from Queenstown. Visiting this remote and beautiful place gives you a rare opportunity to explore one of the few glaciers in the world that ends in a lush rainforest 300 metres above sea level. It is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world and it is even possible to walk to the terminal face, go on an ice hiking adventure or take a sightseeing flight. Don’t miss the chance to see this ancient river of ice close up!
19. Mount Cook National Park
The main attraction in Mount Cook National Park is… you guessed it… Mount Cook. Also known as Aoraki, it is the tallest mountain in New Zealand and it tops out at a jaw-dropping 3,724 metres. Most of the time the top of the mountain is shrouded in clouds, but there is the odd day if you are lucky when the clouds will part and the peak will be visible.
A great hike to enjoy is the Hooker Valley walk, which is not too challenging yet offers stunning views. It is an easy groomed trail that leads through the Hooker Valley to a glacier lake at the base of Mount Cook. Another excellent hike is Governors Bush walk, which will take you through an ancient temperate rainforest filled with thick ferns and twisting trees.
Queenstown is a picturesque town on the South Island, surrounded by the rugged peaks of The Remarkables and the sparkling waters of Lake Wakatipu. It’s hard to be bored here – the city itself has a thriving arts and culture scene, many lip-smacking restaurants and a great nightlife. Plus, a nature playground is on your doorstep and you can enjoy every type of wild activity imaginable – from bungy jumping to skiing to snowboarding to hiking and much more. It is an essential stop on any New Zealand self drive tours of the South Island. You can even jump out of a plane and float down slowly, high above the shimmering lake and peaks tipped with patches of snow.
21. Franz Josef Glacier
This stunning natural wonder was named by German explorer Julius von Haast in 1865 after Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. It is a staggeringly huge river of ice, moving imperceptibly slow over the jagged, rocky landscape. The glacier is only a short five kilometer trip from the town of the same name and you can walk up to the terminal face. Local tour companies offer hiking experiences that will take you thrillingly close to the ice.
Rotorua is a town that is a lot prettier than it smells. You’ll catch a whiff of the eggy-fart sulphur smell as soon as you get close, but it doesn’t take too long to get used to. The strange aroma comes from the geothermal hot springs and geysers that have been attracting visitors for over 100 years. You can hike along boardwalks past the steaming cauldrons and bubbling mud pools and even see a 30 metre geyser shooting out of the earth.
As well as geothermal wonders, Rotorua is also known for the spectacular cultural performances put on by its Maori population. While you are there, attend a huge traditional hangi feast in which the meat (pork, lamb, beef or shellfish) is buried underground for hours with hot rocks to slowly cook while the tribes dance and perform the powerful Haka (a war chant).
Where will you go in New Zealand? Which places did I miss that you think should be added to this list? Let me know in the comments below.
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