Best things to do in New Zealand
Find out more about those top places in New Zealand
Dunedin, the second largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, is the country’s capital of all things alternative. Famed around the world as the home of Flying Nun Records, which is still going strong until now, Dunedin is a hidden gem bursting with creative energy. With over 25 000 students in the city it is little surprise that Dunedin is buzzing with grungy dive bars and hip art centers displaying the cutting-edge of New Zealand’s creative industries. Beyond Dunedin’s painfully cool image, the city is well-known for its links with Scotland and has a dazzling array of Victorian and Georgian architecture. What is more, the city makes an ideal base for exploring the spectacular Otago Peninsula, which is unrivaled in its diversity of flora and fauna.
For a glimpse inside the lives led by New Zealand’s rich and famous during the roaring twenties, take a guided tour of Dunedin’s gilded Olveston mansion house. Until 1966 the wealthy Theomin family owned the mansion and many of their original period furnishings, including a treasure trove of Japanese art, have been maintained. Surrounding this jaw-dropping house are a series of small botanical gardens that can be freely explored.
Directly east of Dunedin is the spectacular Otago Peninsula, which is peppered with unrivaled beaches, jaw-dropping wildlife and gently rolling hills. To best experience this pastoral landscape, head to Nature Wonder’s Naturally, a vast sheep farm that has left the landscape completely undeveloped. The estate is best explored through guided 4×4 tours that take you to penguin and fur seal colonies, remote beaches and natural swimming pools.
Located at the rugged tip of the Otago Peninsula is the Royal Albatross Center, which is the only mainland colony of these gigantic seabirds anywhere in the world. Access to the reserve is by fascinating guided tours that take you from the abandoned Fort Taiaroa to the viewing platforms where you can get up close to albatrosses and the charming penguin colony at Pilot Beach.
A must visit attraction for anyone interested in the colonization of New Zealand, the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum details the history of human civilization on the island from the first Maori tribes to the mass-migration of the Victorian era.
Undoubtedly New Zealand’s most famous higher education institute, the University of Otago is also what gives the South Island city much of its alternative character. To soak up the student atmosphere, take a guided campus tour that will lead you from the university’s historic core, located around Leith Street, to its magnificent riverside bluestone main building.
Starting out at Dunedin’s spectacular neo-Gothic train station (which claims to be New Zealand’s most photographed building), tours of the Taieri Gorge take place in specially designed observation trains. The gorge itself is one of the country’s most spectacular with plunging ravines formed through thousands of years of erosion.
Overlooking the Otago Peninsula is Larnach Castle, one of New Zealand’s most iconic buildings. Constructed in the Scottish Baronial style in the late-19th century, the castle is filled with exquisite period furnishings that transport you to the rugged Scottish Highlands. After exploring the picture-perfect interiors, head to the immaculate gardens.
The new state-of-the-art Emerson’s Brewery building opened in 2016 and offers insightful behind the scenes tours of the process that makes New Zealand’s favorite beer. Of course, the tour ends with a refreshing tasting where you can sample different brews.
Set against the towering peaks of the Southern Alps, the South Island city of Queenstown is a gateway to New Zealand’s natural wonders. While Queenstown is one of the South Island’s most cosmopolitan cities with a host of picturesque lakeside parks and buzzing eateries, the city is best known as an ideal base for exploring the surrounding region, which became famous across the world as the filming location for much of The Lord of the Rings. Lake Wakatipu can be explored by a variety of means – steamboats, water taxis, jet skis, canoes and submarines – while the churning waters of the nearby Shotover River are perfect for white water rafting. New Zealand’s most spectacular fjord, the Milford Sound, can also be accessed from Queenstown by boat or helicopter. While the Southern Alps are no longer a hidden gem, they remain one of the country’s most jaw-dropping locations.
Queenstown stretches along the zigzagging coast of Lake Wakatipu and there is no better place to start your tour of the city than on the water. Surrounded by the towering snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, the lake can be explored by a variety of means including thrilling speedboats, historic steam cruise-ships and even submarines that give a unique view of its icy depths.
Offering breathtaking views of the Southern Alps and the lightening bolt shaped Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown’s Skyline Gondola is the city’s newest standout attraction. It takes you to a height of 400 meters from which point you can continue upwards on hiking trails to the rocky summit of Ben Lomond, test your mountain biking skills, try the heart-pumping luge track or go bungee jumping. For the more romantically inclined, night trips up the gondola offer remarkable star watching.
Queenstown’s premier day trip takes you to the South Island’s western coast to explore the plunging fjords of the Milford Sound. Tours depart the city by bus, which has a specially designed observation deck, and culminate in a breathtaking cruise down the sound where you will see countless glacier carved fjords, the roaring Stirling Falls and some of New Zealand’s most spectacular wildlife.
Even if you have not heard of Queenstown it is likely you will be familiar with the scenery, which was the backdrop for much of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tours take you from Queenstown to nearby Paradise Forest, which was the filming location for Rivendell, and the Dart River, better known as the setting of Isengard.
One of Queenstown’s most sedate attractions is the ever-charming Kiwi Birdlife Park, which is home to New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi. Guided tours of the complex are available that offer fascinating insights into the lives of these tiny birds and the challenges they currently face from invasive species.
For a relaxing break from Queenstown’s adrenaline fueled activities, head for the city’s gardens that elegantly line the shores of Lake Wakatipu. The Victoria-era gardens contain a historic monument to Captain Robert Scott Cook, who famously led an ill-fated Antarctic expedition, alongside exotic trees, picture-perfect rotundas and stunning views of the Southern Alps.
Wellington, often described as a city worth seeing is New Zealand's capital and it is up there with some of the best destinations in the world. Located at the southern tip of the North Island on Cook Strait, it is a compact city and has a population of just under 500,000 people making it the second most populous city in the country.
It is also well known for its vibrant creative culture, great sights, food and hospitality earning it the title as one of the coolest cities in the world.
The most wonderful of all of Wellington’s natural gifts is the Mount Victoria lookout, rising to an impressive 643 feet (195.99 m). Also known as the Mataurangi, it is located right next to the central business district and is easily accessible by vehicle. The lookout offers a glorious spot for picnics and the view is the most spectacular – it is the best spot in the city to watch a sunrise or a sunset.
The Te Papa Tongarewa is a New Zealand’s National museum and its one of the most visited destinations with over 1.5 million people every year. Established in 1992, Te Papa Tongarewa which translates to "container of Treasures" hold most of the country’s historical items. Its collections include textiles and dresses, some of which dates back to the sixteen century and several contemporary and historic items from the Pacific islands. Generally, admission in to the building is free but some of its big name exhibitions require a fee.
For those familiar with New Zealand’s history, it is no news that it is a country which culture is very immersed in body markings or tattoos. Located on Vivian street, the small but unique museum focuses on the significance of the Maori and Pasifka tattooing. It has various artworks and artifacts related to tattoos - there is also a tattoo parlor for visitors who are interested in getting one for themselves.
The Weta Cave is the perfect place for movie lovers and generally people excited by cutting-edge technology. The Academy Award-winning company Weta – famous for producing blockbusters like King Kong, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit - offers visitors a chance to see how it all comes to live, from the idea stage to the finished works. It also has a mini-museum displaying several artifacts from films produced by the workshop – although photography is not allowed in the workshop, you can take a picture just outside the front door with three life-sized trolls.
Formerly known as the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, is a protected area created in 1999 to be an urban Eco sanctuary. Spanning over 223 hectares, the wildlife reserve is hidden in the hills but offers a great opportunity to see most of New Zealand wildlife in their natural habitat. For easy navigation through its numerous parks, it is advisable to go on the guided tours offered, but they can still be explored independently.
Just south of Auckland on the coast of the spectacular Bay of Plenty sits the boomtown of Tauranga. As New Zealand’s fastest growing city (it recently overtook Dunedin to become the nation’s fifth largest), Tauranga displays a suitably energetic pace of life. Revolving around a lively waterfront, the city center has numerous art galleries, boutique shops and vibrant eateries waiting to be explored. What Tauranga lacks in blockbuster attractions it more than makes up for with splendid views of the extinct volcano Mount Maunganui and the seaside suburb of the same name, which is lined by 20 kilometers of golden sand beaches.
The most historic location of the Bay of Plenty, the Elms was founded in 1838 as the region’s first mission station. Today the original buildings, including the Anglican minister Alfred Brown’s house and the chapel, remain intact and are packed with period furnishings. For the best experience, fascinating guided tours take you through the area’s rich history and the story of the mission.
In a country full of natural wonders, the unassuming Lake McLaren hardly stands out – until nighttime that is. Once the sun goes down, the narrow cliff lined lake becomes illuminated by millions of tiny glow-worms that cling to the rock faces creating a mesmerizing light show. To explore this unusual attraction, regular tours run from Tauranga.
Just south of Tauranga lies the picture-perfect village of Bethlehem and its world-famous winery Mills Reef. While the Bay of Plenty is not grape growing country, Mills Reef source grapes from other areas of New Zealand before processing them in their state-of-the-art facility. For the best experience, head to one of their award wining tastings.
Located in the buzzing heart of Tauranga, the city’s up and coming art gallery is one of New Zealand’s most challenging. With a rotating selection of contemporary art, the gallery punches well above its weight in the national art scene.
Set in the lush countryside south of Tauranga is Hobbiton, the set used as the location for the Shire in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchise. Guided tours of the fairy tale landscape are held throughout the day and conclude with a complimentary drink at the Shire’s famed Green Dragon pub.
Tauranga sits on the aptly named Bay of Plenty, which is home to New Zealand’s most spectacular marine life. Regular boat tours from the city take you out to sea where you can marvel at dolphins, penguins and seals and explore the rugged islands of Matakana, Karewa and Motiti on foot. For the best experience, you are recommended to bring snorkeling gear for a closer look at the bay’s underwater attractions.
Located west of the city center, Minden Lookout provides visitors with a panoramic view of the Bay of Plenty. From the Victorian-era viewing platform you can even see the volcanic island of Whakaari smoking distantly.
Rotorua is unlike anywhere else in New Zealand. This North Island hidden gem is the country’s smelliest city with hydrogen sulfide drifting up from deep below the earth’s surface through a myriad of geysers, air vents and mineral pools. The most impressive of the town’s geysers is the must see Pohutu, which erupts around twenty times a day sending boiling water thirty meters skyward. What is more, in central Rotorua is the volcanic Kuirau Park, certainly one of the few public parks in the world where mud boils in the lakes. Beyond the town’s geothermal thrills, Rotorua is also one of New Zealand’s most historic Maori towns with Ohinemutu and Whakarewarewa villages showcasing the country’s famed indigenous culture.
Rotorua’s Maori Arts and Craft’s Institute undersells itself. While the center does host the National Wood Carving and Weaving School, which are key Maori crafts, it is also built around one of the New Zealand’s most active geothermal areas. On site is the powerful Pohutu, known in English as Big Splash, geyser that sends water 30 meters skyward alongside a host of smaller geysers. Guided tours run throughout the day and are timed to coincide with eruptions.
Whakarewarewa is one of New Zealand’s foremost hubs for Maori culture and still maintains the culture’s traditional village way of life. Tours of the village are conducted by the residents themselves who tell you about the region’s history and enchanting folklore before concluding at another of Rotorua’s spectacular geothermal areas.
Kuirau Park is not your usual green space in the middle of a bustling city. Instead, the park, which can be explored at your leisure, is home to sizzling steam vents, boiling pools of mud and eruptive geysers making it one of the city’s most thrilling experiences – all the more so since it is located in the heart of the commercial district.
Home of Rotorua’s most active geothermal zone, the Hell’s Gate Reserve is one of the city’s most spectacular – and relaxing – attractions. Amongst the volcanic cinder cones you can soak in mud baths and take a dip in sulfurous waters, as has been Maori tradition for the past millennia. The various treatments on offer help open your pores, exfoliate the skin and ease joint pains.
One of Rotorua’s most exhilarating experiences can be had on the Kaituna River, where you can take part in adrenaline-pumping rafting tours. Suitable for all levels of experience, the tours take you over white water rapids, through narrow ravines and end dramatically by plunging over the 10 meters Tutea Falls.
For breathtaking views of Rotorua’s geothermal landscape, take the city’s flashy gondola to the summit of Mount Ngongotaha where you will catch a glimpse of the bubbling springs around Lake Rotorua and the verdant coastline of the Bay of Plenty.