If you plan a trip to New Zealand, then you can’t miss these top tourist attractions.
New Zealand, the ‘land of the long white cloud’, is a world in miniature. There are few other destinations that enable visitors to combine whale watching with skydiving, glacier walking with sunbathing, and wine tours with visits to world-class museums.
A modern, forward-looking nation, New Zealanders take pride in their reputation for fairness and multiculturalism. The mix of indigenous Maori populations and European settlers makes New Zealand’s history as intriguing as its landscapes are superb.
Here is our list of all things New Zealand, including cultural icons such as the All Blacks rugby union team, as well as some of the most exciting places to visit on the islands from the tip of the North Island to the very bottom of the South Island.
On the South Island, Wanaka lies at the southern end of a lake of the same name. The pristine waters of New Zealand’s fourth largest lake at 192 km2 (74 square miles) offers fishing, sailing and swimming. The town meanwhile is a year-round haven for adventure sports enthusiasts searching for both water sports on the lake and ski routes in the nearby mountains. Surrounded by the Southern Alps, it is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park, a popular destination with New Zealanders and tourists seeking out good hiking and mountaineering opportunities.
image source: grownups
Queenstown offers breath-taking panoramic views of nearby mountains including Cecil Peak and The Remarkables. Built around a bay of the zigzag-shaped Lake Wakatipu, it is a hub for adventure tourism with more than 200 different adventure sports and activities on offer. These range from mountain biking to skydiving by way of skiing, bungy jumping and white water rafting. Away from the action, from Queenstown it’s easy to visit the vineyards of the Central Otago wine region, the world’s southernmost commercial wine growing region. Harvesting of the grapes takes place from mid to late April.
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Situated on Lake Tekapo, Tekapo Springs is another year-round destination. The natural hot springs are the perfect place to relax and unwind. Three pools with submerged benches have been formed from the local greywacke rock and are landscaped with the region’s indigenous alpine flora as well as mature shade-giving Radiata and Douglas fir trees. Reaching up to 40° Celsius, the pools look out over the lake and Two Thumbs mountain range. A cooler children’s aqua play pool has been added, as has Godley deep pool. At 1.8 metres deep it is almost twice the depth of the other pools, providing visitors with the opportunity to swim a length or two.
image source: rotoruasuperpasses
The site of the Maori fortress of Te Puia, the town of Whakarewarewa has nearly 500 naturally occurring hot springs and 65 geyser vents of which seven continue to steam across the Geyser Flat area. The largest, Pohutu Geyser, erupts at roughly hourly intervals, shooting water up to 30 metres into the air. Nearby, the local Tuhourangi/Ngati Wahiao Maori welcome visitors to the Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village, allowing them to experience authentic tribal culture dating back centuries. The only living geothermal Maori village, tours provide a unique insight into how the Maori have taken advantage of this natural bounty to cook and cure.
Cuba Street, Wellington
image source: theculturetrip
One of the capital’s main thoroughfares, the bustling Cuba street is a partly-pedestrianized shopping street lined with a number of historic structures including the Bank of New Zealand building. Named after an early settler ship, the Cuba, it is centrally located just south of the Central Business District in the eponymous Cuba Quarter. The diverse mix of cafes, independent fashion boutiques and art galleries gives the street a bohemian feel that differentiates it from much of the rest of Wellington. A place for the avant-garde, buskers and street artists are often in attendance, while within walking distance is the Wellington Arts Centre which houses artists’ studios, rehearsal rooms and a gallery.
Te Papa Museum
The popular museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (often simply referred to as Te Papa) is New Zealand’s national museum and art gallery. Situated on Wellington’s waterfront, collections examine the ideas around New Zealand’s cultures, as well as what it describes as the cultural ‘partnership’ between indigenous Maori and settler populations. In an innovative step, another part of the museum looks at the future. It is one of the best places in the country to discover New Zealand artworks and artefacts of all kinds, with ‘te papa tongarewa’ roughly translating to ‘the place of treasures of this land’.
The Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, amid the beautiful landscapes close to Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island, is the site of the world’s first commercial bungy jumping company. It is accessible by self-drive or ‘bungy bus’. Three decades on, the ‘world home of bungy’ remains a popular place to plunge the 43 metres to the waters of the River Kawarau below, either alone or in tandem with a friend. If you’re the adventurous sort, you won’t want to miss a stop at Kawarau Bridge.
Known since 1998 as Aoraki / Mount Cook, the 3724 metre (12,218 feet) mountain is the highest in New Zealand. Part of the Southern Alps mountain range, it is popular with vista-seekers and mountain climbers alike. Together with Westland, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland national parks, Mount Cook National Park comprises a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A lookout point approximately 10 km (6 miles) from the peak, at the end of the Hooker Valley Track, offers panoramic views of the entire mountain. Aoraki / Mount Cook village is considered the gateway to the mountain, lying 15 km (9 miles) from the mountain’s peak and 7 km (4 miles) from the Tasman Glacier.
Used for scenes in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies, Hobbiton offers two hour guided tours of the movie set. Visitors can see the facades to 44 hobbit hole houses as well as their gardens, a mill and a double arched bridge, all created from scratch for the films. It’s also possible to enter some of the hobbit holes. A café, serving breakfast and second breakfast, is on site, as is a replica of the Green Dragon inn that appeared in the films. Part of a family sheep and cattle farm, Hobbiton is located 8 km (5 miles) west of the town of Hinuera, and 10 km (6 miles) southwest of Matamata, on New Zealand’s North Island.
Gibbs Farm, to the north of Auckland, is a farm with a difference. It is located on Kaipara Harbour, the southern hemisphere’s largest, amid gently rolling hills. But more than that, it is also home to New Zealand’s premier sculpture park. The stunning waterfront landscape provides the artworks with fitting locations that are all the more relevant because the majority of artworks are pieces specifically commissioned for the farm. With works from some of the world’s leading sculptors and artists, including Anish Kapoor, Andy Goldsworthy and Graham Bennett, it is a must for any art lover.
This cave system in the King Country region of the North Island has been a tourist destination since at least 1900. Now, both large and small companies lead tourists through the cave complex. A variety of different experiences are on offer, from walking tours of the biggest and most easily accessible caves, to more adventurous routes requiring specialist equipment and a good amount of courage. The main caves – Glowworm, Ruakuri, Aranui and Gardner’s Gut caves – contain significant stalactite and stalagmite formations as well as endearing populations of glowworms. The caves are also the start point of both short (the Waitomo walkway) and long distance (Te Araroa) walks.
Napier is on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Napier’s major attraction to visitors is its architecture. As a result of reconstruction after an earthquake in 1931 many of the city’s buildings were rebuilt in the art deco style. This city-wide decision makes it strikingly different to any other New Zealand city, and one of the few art deco cities anywhere in the world. The historic prison is the only building where it is still possible to witness the path of the earthquake, while the museum complex MTG Hawke’s Bay helps further explain the quake and the resulting rebuilding.
Christchurch is the oldest city in New Zealand, and the largest city in South Island, established by Royal Charter from the British Crown in 1856. Its grid pattern layout based around the Cathedral Square makes it easy to navigate. Historically, farming has been the key economic success, with farmers’ markets of local products continuing the tradition to the modern day. Though a distinctly English city, its architecture includes a number of gothic revival structures, including the cathedral, seriously damaged during the earthquake of February 2011. There is also a strong Maori presence in the city.
The Cardboard Cathedral
Christchurch’s Cardboard Cathedral was created as a temporary place of worship after an earthquake in 2011. Centred on the South Island city, the quake severely damaged the original nineteenth-century cathedral a few streets away. Seating 700, the A-framed cardboard structure rising 24 metres, its main space constructed from 86 cardboard tubes with a diameter of 60-centimetres resting on white shipping containers. During the opening ceremony in August 2013, a symbolic cardboard key was handed to the bishop of Christchurch by the building contractors. A popular structure in the city, it will remain even after a permanent cathedral is constructed.
The idea of zorbing – entering an inflated clear plastic ball and rolling over ground or water – was invented by two friends in New Zealand in 1994. The country remains one of the best places in the world to go zorbing, with the first company, the Original Zorb New Zealand, still operating out of Rotorua. Here both first time and experienced ‘zorbonauts’ can experience a number of different forms of zorbing. The best for beginners is perhaps the first track constructed, ‘the zig-zag’. The winding path of the zig-zag provides the necessary experience to move on to racing friends or taking on the mysterious forest course known as ‘the drop’.
The New Zealand men’s national rugby union team, commonly known as the All Blacks for their all black kit, represent the country at the national sport. No trip to New Zealand can be considered complete for the sports fan without the chance to watch the All Blacks in action. An additional highlight of such events is the team’s performance before each match of the haka, a traditional Maori ‘posture’ dance.
Almost hidden in an untouched region of the North Island, where the road reverts to gravel, Wharekauhau Lodge is situated in a 5000 acre working farm that dates back to the earliest days of European settlers in New Zealand. A stylish but unpretentious stay awaits anyone who makes the journey here. The food highlights locally sourced products, while the nearby Wairarapa valley is the home of a number of small independent wineries. Leaving the views of the Cook Strait, there is amply space to explore the countryside, whether by foot or quad bike.
image from flickr
Each year, for a month or so, the centre of New Zealand’s South Island erupts into colour as Russell lupins come into flower around the lake shores and river beds of Mackenzie Country. Purples, blues and pinks are the most prominent colours on show as a carpet of flowers develops amid already striking scenery. Far from an indigenous species, local legend has it that a bored farmer’s wife began spreading the seeds to brighten up the South Island’s valleys – some versions going as far as saying she rode naked on a white stallion to do so.
Situated on Tasman Bay at the top of the South Island, Nelson is the second oldest European settlement in New Zealand. It has a flourishing local arts scene, the highlight of which is perhaps the annual Nelson Arts Festival. As a centre for crafts, it is home to potters, glass blowers, weavers and wood carvers. Their wares are available direct from the artists at the popular Nelson Saturday Market. The late nineteenth-century Theatre Royal is the oldest wood-built theatre still functioning in the southern hemisphere. A calendar of festivals and events runs throughout the year, particularly during the summer months of January to March.
Mount Tongariro is an active volcano close to Lake Taupo. It is one of only three active volcanoes dominating the panorama around the central region of New Zealand’s North Island. Its most active vent is on Ngauruhoe, one of at least 12 cones on Tongariro. Having said that, it was last known to erupt in 1975. Other vents have been geologically active more recently, with the Te Mari Craters erupting in 2012. Steam and gases can also still be seen rising from Red Crater. Between March and October, the mountain is often covered in deep snow that can remain in shaded areas throughout the summer.
image source: annettewoodford
Originally from South America, the alpaca is now a much-loved addition to the New Zealand landscape. A number of farms offer tours where it is possible to learn more about the animal and its prized wool, while admiring the spectacular New Zealand countryside. Shamarra farm in Akaroa, close to Christchurch on the South Island, even allow visitors to walk their animals on leads into the paddocks and walk among grazing alpacas before examining the fine knitwear that comes from the herds.
Described as the place ‘where history meets nature’, Arrowtown is an idiosyncratic village borne out of the gold rush of the 1800s. It contains one of the best pre-served collections of goldfield heritage buildings anywhere in New Zealand, but is also famed for its nature trails. The heart of the historic village is the tree-lined Buckingham Street, where you’ll find the historic structures (including the original jail – a log), small miner’s cottages, cafes, independent stores and restaurants. The remains of a separate settlement of Chinese miners can also be found close to the Arrow River, after which the village is named.
The picturesque Pancake Rocks at Dolomite Point near Punakaiki are area of eroded otherworldly limestone rocks 30 million years in the making. During that time they have formed several blowholes through which the sea erupts, rather like the geyser of a hot spring, during high tides. A part of Paparoa National Park, the rocks take their name from the apparent ‘pancake’ layering of the limestone. A number of walkways lead around the formations and include carved stairways that lead up and down the rocks, a natural rock bridge and a surge pool. A pod of dolphins is also known to surface close to shore here, adding to the excitement.
New Zealand’s maritime climate makes it perfect for wine production, and vineyards stretch 1600 km (1000 miles) across the country. The oldest vineyard in existence was founded by French missionaries at Mission Estate in Hawke’s Bay in 1851. Almost all the wineries have cellar doors (tasting rooms), and many have also started to offer full dining experiences and overnight stays. Perhaps the best way to taste your way through the country’s wine regions is to follow the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail. Recommended as a five-day trip, it covers almost 500 km (300 miles) and 120 cellar doors.
This New Zealand native is harvested between March and August each year from the Foveaux Strait fishery close to the town of Bluff at the southern extremity of the South Island. Considered locally to be the best oysters in the world, they are also harvested from the last wild oyster fishery in the world. A highly-valued delicacy, they can be found on the menus of many South Island restaurants, often served simply with lemon or lime to enhance the bivalve’s natural flavors. Limited numbers are harvested each year to ensure the survival of the oyster – exhausted from nearby Stewart Island in 1877 less than twenty years after the discovery of those beds – adding to the cache of ordering Bluff oysters.
Southern Lights Flight
This year has seen the first ever charter flight to witness aurora Australis, the Southern Lights. Caused by particles from the sun interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field, these ethereal bands of coloured light are notoriously difficult to witness. Now, one New Zealand company has made that easier. Departing from Dunedin, the aircraft flies south towards the Antarctic Circle, to capture close-up the Southern Lights over the Southern Ocean. It provided around five hours viewing out of an eight hour flight, but doesn’t come cheap at 2000 New Zealand dollars per economy-class seat. With the plane sold-out, further flights are promised in future.
Just ten minutes from the centre of Rotorua, yet within 350 acres of farmland, the Agrodome promises a unique New Zealand farm experience. Its famed farm show includes a demonstration in sheep shearing, animal control by dogs, and audience participation including milking cows by hand and involvement in a sheep auction. Beyond the show there is the photo-friendly farm nursery, home to the newest inhabitants of the Agrodome. Guided tours enable visitors to hand-feed the animals, as well as sample farm-grown kiwi fruit and honey. A museum tells the story of the Bowen brothers, New Zealand farming pioneers, and the process of turning wool into clothing.
image source: backpackingmatt
Fiordland, in the south-western corner of the South Island, is dominated by the high mountains of the Southern Alps and the deep lakes at their bases. Much of it is encompassed by Fiordland National Park, New Zealand’s largest, which is itself part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the largest national parks in the world, it is an area adored by nature-lovers, hikers and mountaineers. One of the most popular attractions is Milford Sound, one of the larger, and certainly one of the most beautiful, fjord-like inlets. It was described by the writer Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world, and has also been declared one of the world’s top tourist destinations.
Lake Matheson, near to the Fox Glacier, is perhaps best known for its reflected views of Aoraki / Mount Cook and Mount Tasman when calm conditions occur. However, the lake also offers visitors with some great walking trails through its shoreline forests of native white and red pine, where New Zealand ferns are in evidence too. What’s more, it is the perfect place for birdwatchers to lie low with a pair of binoculars, as it is the home of a number of species of water bird. There’s no need to be afraid of the brown colour of the waters, the result of natural leeching from the forest’s organic matter.
The South Island’s second largest city (after Christchurch), Dunedin’s name actually comes from the Gaelic for Scotland’s first city, Edinburgh, giving an indication of the first European settlers to arrive here. The city’s gold rush has left it with a legacy of fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings, such as the town hall and glasshouses of the botanic gardens. This adds to that Scottish old-world feeling, though the city’s student population ensure a good range of bars and eateries. A centre for wildlife tourism, within the city’s perimeter lies the world’s only mainland albatross colony, as well as several penguin rookeries and a colony of seals.
image from flickr
The Wildfoods Festival at Hokitika is an annual celebration of unusual edibles held on the second Saturday of March (during New Zealand’s autumn) since the first festival in 1990. Though they differ each year, stalls specialise in providing the public with strange or non-commercially produced foods, and have previously offered such delights as huhu grubs (the 7 cm young of an endemic beetle), mountain oysters (lambs’ testicles), Paua (sea snails), hangi (oven pit-cooked meat) and gorse flower wine. Beside the food stalls there is plenty of entertainment for the 15,000 attendees from rock bands to mime artists, while many attendees arrive in fancy-dress for a chance to win the best dressed competition.
image source: traveltriangle
If you haven’t realized it already, New Zealand loves its adventure sports. Skydiving is no different, with chances to fall out of a plane – hopefully with a parachute – available across the country. To those tempted to the extreme it is an amazing way to experience New Zealand’s breath-taking vistas without interruption. Skydive in Queenstown, for example, and you’ll see snow-capped mountains surrounded by turquoise blue lakes, while from Lake Taupo you’ll experience the feeling of never-ending forests dotted with volcanoes. If you’re not quite brave-enough for a solo jump, all of New Zealand’s skydive operators run tandem jumps as well.
The vintage steamship TSS Earnshaw has toured the waters of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, for decades. Dating from the turn of the twentieth century, it is a chance to go back in time and understand not only the elegance but also the difficulties of travelling in bygone days. Stokers fuel the fire boxes under conditions of extreme heat to keep the propeller screws turning. It’s not all hard work though, with the Promenade Café serving snacks and meals, and a piano providing suitable accompaniments. What’s more, the Earnshaw is the only commercial passenger-carrying coal-powered steamship in the southern hemisphere, truly making it one of a kind.
If gazing admiringly at New Zealand’s many glaciers isn’t enough, you can always undertake a glacier hike. It’s perhaps only then you can understand the full majesty of these giant slabs of slowly moving ice. Lying on the South Island’s west coast, the country’s two most easily accessible glaciers are the Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. All levels of ability are catered for, from beginners simply after a closer view of the end of the ice sheet from well-trodden paths, to hardened adventurers with ice experience seeking to get off the beaten track. For those content to sit back and let someone else do the work, helicopters can transport you onto the ice of either glacier.
image source: helicoptersnelson
Found within Nelson Lakes National Park, the Blue Lake is sacred to the local Maori, who call it Rotomairewhenua. It has the clearest natural fresh waters in the world, with visibility extending between 70 and 80 metres, very similar to that of distilled water. Be warned though, that the water only ever reaches an upper temperature of 8° Celsius, located as it is at the northern end of the majestic Southern Alps. Bearing a roughly boomerang shape, each arm of the lake extends approximately 200 metres. The Blue Lake is often visited as a detour from the Travers-Sabine walking circuit, and a hut nearby provides bunk space for 16.
Hot Water Beach
Hot Water Beach is a beach on Mercury Bay on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. Warm underground springs rise up through the sand between the high and low water marks, making it possible to create temporary heated pools of mineral water by digging down into the sand with an ordinary beach spade (on hire from the nearby shops and cafes) two hours either side of low tide. The water can reach temperatures of 64° Celsius – the more refreshingly heated sea just a few steps away. Stretching away from the hot water area (opposite off-shore rocks) are more secluded areas of sand for those seeking a quieter time.
Whales and Dolphins
New Zealand’s waters are home to a number of species of whale and dolphin. Swimming with pods of 100 – 1000 acrobatic Dusky dolphins is possible at Kaikoura, near Christchurch. The coastal town is also a well-known place for whale watching. Humpbacks visit this region of the coast in June and July, while orca (killer whales) arrive in December and remain until March. Kaikoura is also one of the only places in the world to see sperm whales, although it is possible to see other species of these enigmatic sea mammals all over New Zealand, including Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.
What better way is there to truly experience the vast panoramic landscapes of New Zealand than by campervan or motorhome? Beyond this, travelling with your accommodation in tow gives total flexibility and freedom to your time in the country. Whether you stick to the main routes or seek out those unheard off spaces for a rest stop is entirely up to you. There are no itineraries but your desires. If you’re worried about the relatively small living space don’t forget to consider pulling into a campervan site for the night, and take advantage of the facilities – such as kitchens, bathrooms and bars – on offer at sites across the country.
White Water Rafting
image source: riverrats
New Zealand’s many rivers provide a multitude of opportunities to indulge in white water rafting experiences. Grade 1 rivers offer tranquil waters with just a touch of turbulence, while rivers graded at 5 are for the experienced only. The full ranges are available in New Zealand, with trips lasting from two hours to five days. Rivers with white water on the North Island are focussed around the Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay and Lake Taupo areas, on the South Island, head to the area around Queenstown, Christchurch and the west coast. Safety gear should be available on any organized rafting trip.
Wrap it Up
Whether you choose to stay within sight of cities such as Christchurch, Queenstown and Napier, or head out to the vast tracks of wilderness around the country’s mountains and lakes, you won’t be disappointed by your decision to visit New Zealand. A year-round destination, there are almost endless possibilities, be they the decision to follow the Classic Wine Trail or seek out sperm whales in New Zealand’s waters.
With its mix of Maori and European cultures, its natural beauty, adventure sports and otherworldly geology, New Zealand has something not only for every taste but also for every budget. We think you’ll agree New Zealand is a country like almost no other.