Last Updated on July 18, 2023
New Zealand is the perfect destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers. With a seemingly endless list of bucket-list-worthy things to see and do, deciding on where to go in New Zealand can be a challenge. To narrow things down, we’ve rounded up 16 of the most incredible places to visit in New Zealand.
From dramatic mountain ranges and otherworldly glaciers to stunning beaches and crystal-clear lakes, New Zealand landscapes will take your breath away. The remote country is also home to quaint towns, sumptuous dining experiences, and unique wildlife.
Read on to discover the best New Zealand destinations and start planning your next trip!
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Cape Reinga is the northernmost tip of the country and should definitely be added to your New Zealand’s North Island itinerary.
It is a stunning natural spot where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide. The focal point of Cape Reinga is a 1940s lighthouse that is still in operation today. Surrounded by rugged cliffs and rolling green hills, it is a majestic sight to behold.
Cape Reinga also has spiritual significance in the Māori culture. It is believed to be a place of leaping from where the spirits of the deceased depart for the afterlife. As Cape Reinga is considered a sacred place, please refrain from eating there when visiting.
On the way to Cape Reinga make sure to stop at the nearby Ninety Mile Beach. Although it is actually 88 kilometers long, the beach is a great place for adventure lovers. From surfing and bodyboarding down sand dunes to 4WD rides and quad-biking, there is plenty to keep you busy.
The Ninety Mile Beach is also a great place to watch the sunset to finish the perfect day of exploring a beautiful part of New Zealand.
A car is the best way to explore the Cape Reinga area as it offers the most flexibility. The drive from Kaitaia, the closest town, takes about 1,5 hours. Alternatively, you can join a guided tour. They depart from Kaitaia and Paihia, another popular base for exploring the top of the North Island. These tours normally stop at the Ninety Mile Beach too.
This bohemian island boasts award-winning vineyards, a beautiful coastline, numerous hiking trails, and a raft of quirky art galleries.
Located just a 40-minute ferry ride from central Auckland, Waiheke feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of New Zealand’s biggest city. You can visit the island on a day trip or stay longer to explore everything it has to offer.
If you’re into active pursuits such as kayaking, mountain biking, or surfing, Waiheke has got you covered. Don’t worry, for those who would rather take things slow, there are plenty of options too. While away an afternoon at a gorgeous beach or take your time to explore the Waiheke Art Trail. When you need to refuel, go for a wine tasting and a delicious lunch with a view.
Speaking of wine, the island is home to 30 vineyards. Waiheke is famous for its reds such as Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon, but you can easily find white and rose varieties too. There are tour companies that organize tastings at multiple wineries, but you can do this independently too. Many wineries also have restaurants with incredible views and various activities for the whole family.
You can explore Waiheke by bus or taxi. The former is an affordable way to get around, but the bus network doesn’t cover the whole island. You might struggle to get to some of the more remote wineries such as Passage Rock or Man’o’War. Taxis are more flexible but are also pricey. Renting a car offers the most flexibility. However, if you are planning to do wine tastings, make sure that you have a sober driver.
Located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Coromandel is a popular holiday destination for locals and tourists alike. Just a two-hour drive away from Auckland, this region is a paradise for outdoor pursuits with a slower pace of life.
The Coromandel offers an incredible diversity of landscapes from dense forests and steep mountains to golden beaches and beautiful waterfalls. It is also home to quaint historic towns with a strong community feel.
It is the perfect place to experience the laid-back Kiwi lifestyle. Take to the many hiking trails, have a beach picnic, explore the coastline by kayak, or enjoy an afternoon of wine tasting at a local vineyard. Many artists and craftspeople have made the Coromandel home. If you are looking for a unique souvenir from New Zealand, check out their studios scattered around the peninsula.
The Coromandel’s arguably most famous spot is Cathedral Cove. It features a picturesque naturally formed rock archway that connects two sandy coves. Cathedral Cove’s beauty even earned it a spot as a filming location for Narnia films. To get there, take the scenic coastal path from the nearby Hahei Beach, which is a gem in its own right.
Another popular Coromandel spot that is worth adding to your itinerary is the Hot Water Beach. This is where you can dig your own hot pool just meters away from the Pacific Ocean. Make sure to do it when it’s two hours on either side of low tide. Otherwise, the sandy area with the hot water underneath will be underwater.
The Hobbiton Movie Set is probably one of the most famous places to visit in New Zealand’s North Island. Located in a sleepy town called Matamata, just a two-hour drive away from Auckland, it is a real-life movie set that was used in the Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbiton movie trilogies based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels.
A visit to Hobbiton involves a guided tour of the set surrounded by picturesque rolling countryside. You will get to see the quaint hobbit holes, enjoy a pint of locally brewed beer or cider at the Green Dragon Inn and hear the stories from behind the scenes. The guides are friendly and are always happy to assist with taking photos.
The standard guided tour is normally two hours long. The tickets are NZ $89.00 (US $55) per person. Extended tour options that include an evening or morning meal are also available. You can get to the Hobbiton Movie Set independently or join a guided tour. Coaches depart from Auckland, Hamilton, and Tauranga.
If you are not a big fan of the movies, the movie set might seem overly touristy. However, if you do love them, the Hobbiton will give you a chance to experience a little Middle Earth magic again.
Experience the magic of natural bioluminescence at Waitomo Caves. This phenomenon is created by Arachnocampa luminosa, also known as a glowworm. This species is endemic to New Zealand and commonly found in caves, grottos, and sometimes even deep woodland.
Although it is possible to see glowworms in many parts of New Zealand, Waitomo Caves offers one of the most spectacular bioluminescence displays in the country. These ancient limestone caves were formed millennia ago by the activity of underground water. They feature an intricate underground network of caverns, tunnels, grottos, and underground rivers.
You can visit Waitomo Caves on a guided tour with prices starting from NZ $61 (US $38) per person. The highlight is a boat ride through the Glowworm Grotto where you can see thousands of glowworms. There are so many of them there that you can easily forget that you are underground as the cave ceiling looks just like the sky on a starry night. The boat ride is done in silence to make sure that the glowworms are not disturbed. This just adds to the otherworldly experience of it all.
If you are after something more adventurous, Waitomo Caves offer adrenaline-filled activities such as blackwater rafting, abseiling, and zip-lining through glowworm caves. Also, Waitomo is not the only cave that you can visit in the area. Additional guided tours will take you down the nearby Ruakuri and Aranui Caves. You might not see huge displays of glowworms there, but they have incredible rock formations that are worth a look.
Tongariro National Park
Located in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, Tongariro National Park is the country’s oldest national park. It is also a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing both its unique natural features and cultural significance to the Māori people.
Tongariro National Park is famous for its unique Martian-like landscapes and three active volcanic mountains. One of them, Mount Ngauruhoe, has even starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. The park is a popular destination for hiking, mountain biking, and skiing in the winter months.
The most famous hike in the area is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Considered the best day walk in New Zealand, this track is just under 20 kilometers long and will take you around 7-8 hours to complete. It requires a good level of fitness as it crosses rugged terrain. However, you will be rewarded with incredible views along the way.
The best time to do this hike is between November and May. From June to October the weather becomes unpredictable and there is a heightened risk of snow and avalanches. Unless you are an experienced mountaineer, don’t attempt this hike then.
The best places to stay for easy access to Tongariro National Park are the nearby villages of National Park, Whakapapa, and Ohakune. They offer a variety of accommodation options for every budget. You can normally organize a transfer to the park through your accommodation. Guided tours of the area are also available.
New Zealand’s small but perfectly formed capital is the nation’s political and cultural heart. Nestled in a picturesque harbor at the bottom of the North Island, allow for a couple of days to experience the best activities and sites of Wellington.
Wellington has a compact and walkable city center with many museums, eateries, and bars on offer. Make sure to check out the amazing Te Papa Museum to learn about New Zealand’s history and culture. Visit the New Zealand Parliament Buildings on a free guided tour to get a glimpse into how the country’s democracy works.
The capital also offers plenty of opportunities to spend time outdoors. On a sunny day, nothing beats a walk or a bike ride along Wellington’s beautiful waterfront. To get away from the hustle of the city, visit the picturesque Wellington Botanic Gardens or Zealandia, an urban sanctuary that protects New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna.
Fans of Peter Jackson’s films can visit the famous Weta Studios on a guided tour. This creative institution produced special effects, costumes, and props for the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies, as well as other Hollywood blockbusters.
Wellington is also a foodie destination with an ever-growing list of excellent cafes, restaurants, and breweries. Experience the best of New Zealand produce at Shepherd and Logan Brown, the capital’s fine dining institutions. For the best street food, check out the lively Wellington night markets where you can try foods from all over the world.
If you are looking for a sweet treat, head to the Wellington Chocolate Factory which specializes in organic and ethically sourced chocolate. You can load up on delicious chocolate bars or enjoy a heart-warming hot chocolate in their store. Or you can even become a chocolatier for the day on one of their guided tours.
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest and most accessible national park. Located on the northern end of the South Island, it is famous for its golden sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and beautiful coastline dotted with unique granite formations.
The park is a popular spot for hiking, kayaking, and camping. The native forests and waters of Abel Tasman are teeming with wildlife, including several endangered species. As you walk through the woods you will be treated to bird songs by tuis and bellbirds. When out at sea, you can spot little blue penguins and fur seals lounging on the rocks along the coast.
The most famous hike in the park is the Abel Tasman Coast Track. At 60 kilometers long, it takes three to five days to complete. Along the way, you can enjoy stunning views, quiet bays, and beautiful beaches. If a multi-day track is not an option, you can still do a section of the track on a day trip. There are water taxis that can drop you off and pick you up at specific spots along the track.
The park is easily accessible from the city of Nelson or the nearby villages of Kaiteriteri, Motueka, and Marahau. You can explore Abel Tasman independently or join an organized tour (check out this Cruise and Hiking Combo). The latter is likely to offer a pickup service directly from your accommodation.
The sleepy town of Blenheim lies in the heart of the Marlborough region. Located in the northeast of the South Island, Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine-producing region. Some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs start their life there. If you’re more of a red wine aficionado, make sure to try the local Pinot Noir.
Blenheim itself is not the most exciting town, although there are a few small museums and historic sites that are worth a look. However, it’s a great base for exploring the nearby wineries and culinary scene. Most of the Marlborough vineyards are just a 30-minute drive away from Blenheim’s town center.
One of the best ways to explore the local vineyards is by e-bike. You can hire one for the day and visit multiple cellar doors. Small–group wine tours are also an option. These are great if cycling seems like too much work. Many wineries also have restaurants on-site, perfect for when you need to recharge.
Keep in mind that some vineyards get extremely busy on shore days. The nearby town of Picton is a popular cruise stop. A visit to the Marlborough region is a popular day trip for cruisers. As a result, many restaurants may be packed for lunch. It might be worth booking a table at your preferred vineyard eatery in advance to avoid disappointment.
Located on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Kaikoura is a picturesque small town nestled between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of ways to make the most of this town’s stunning natural surroundings.
Enjoy the views of the coastline and mountains by hitting Kaikoura’s hiking trails. The 11-kilometer Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is a great option for that. Kayaking is another great way to experience the beauty of the area. If you are after an adrenaline rush, the local mountain bike trails will keep your heart pumping.
Although Kaikoura has a raft of fun activities to keep you busy, this town’s claim to fame is its abundant marine life. The waters surrounding Kaikoura are home to sperm whales, humpback whales, and orcas. You can take a boat tour to see them in their natural habitat. Apart from whale-watching, visitors to Kaikoura can enjoy swimming with dolphins and fur seals. However, they are all wild, so sightings are not guaranteed.
With its wealth of marine life, it is not surprising that Kaikoura is also a seafood destination. From humble fish and chips on the beach to high-end establishments, there is a raft of options for enjoying local produce. Kaikoura’s most famous specialty is crayfish, so make sure to add it to the list of things to try while you are there.
Located on the Banks Peninsula southeast of Christchurch, the South Island’s biggest city, Akaroa is a quaint town with a strong French connection. It was founded by French settlers in the 19th century. Their legacy is the French street names and charming historic buildings.
On your visit to Akaroa, make sure to take a stroll along its quiet streets, check out the historic houses such as the Giant’s House, and visit the Akaroa Museum.
When it comes to dining, Akaroa is true to its French roots. The local bakery serves up delicious French pastries and crepes, while a few bistro-style restaurants are the perfect places to experience the local produce. There is even a vineyard where you can enjoy wine tasting and views over the Akaroa harbor.
One of the most famous experiences in Akaroa is wildlife encounters with Hector’s Dolphins. These dolphins are the rarest and smallest dolphin species in the world. You can only see them in the waters around New Zealand’s South Island. The Banks Peninsula boasts the highest population of Hector’s Dolphins in the country.
You can see Hector’s Dolphins in the wild by joining a small group swimming experience. These dolphins are sociable and curious by nature. They are likely to swim up close to you when you are in the water. However, as they are wild, they might not always appear on cue.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain with a height of 3,754 meters. Mount Cook is part of the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, home to 23 peaks that are over 3,000 meters tall. This area of the South Island is famous for its dramatic alpine scenery, epic glaciers and incredible night sky uninterrupted by light pollution.
You can climb Mount Cook, but this is not a track for the faint-hearted. Unless you have some serious mountaineering skills, it’s better to simply enjoy it from a distance. Thankfully, the national park and the joy of mountains are easily accessible to all.
To visit the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, head to the Aoraki/Mt Cook Village located on the shores of the picturesque Lake Pukaki. The village is a starting point for 10 fantastic day walks that showcase different sections of the park. The Hooker Valley Track is arguably the most popular one as you can enjoy breath-taking views of Mount Cook along the journey. It takes 3-4 hours to complete and is suitable for all levels of fitness.
Apart from hiking, the area is also great for stargazing, skiing, and glacier lake kayaking. If you’d like to take a bird’s eye view over the national park, you can take a scenic flight or helicopter ride. The latter also gives you the option to land in remote areas of the park that are not easily accessible otherwise.
When you’re ready to take a break from all the activity, head to The Old Mountaineers Café or the Hermitage Hotel in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village to refuel and enjoy epic mountain views.
This South Island gem of a town is easily one the most popular places to visit in New Zealand. Nestled between the stunning Lake Wakatipu and the Southern Alps, Queenstown is the country’s adventure capital. It offers a raft of fun activities for adrenaline seekers, vibrant nightlife, and a burgeoning dining scene.
Queenstown is the place to be for those looking to experience bungee jumping, skydiving, and white-water rafting. The first-ever commercial bungee jump took place from the Kawarau Bridge, located near the town. This bungee jump spot is still in operation today.
If jumping off bridges and planes doesn’t sound like you, Queenstown offers other fun activities. There are plenty of hiking trails offering spectacular views over the surrounding area. Some of them, like the Bob’s Peak track, are accessible right from the town center. It’s steep, but you will be rewarded with amazing views at the top.
For a more relaxing experience, consider taking a cruise along Lake Wakatipu. Board the TSS Earnslaw vintage steamship to enjoy the beautiful alpine setting at a leisurely pace. You can also explore the lake by kayaking and paddleboarding. Careful about going into the water though, it’s incredibly cold.
Queenstown is also a great base for exploring other big-hitter attractions such as Milford Sound. Keep in mind though that the town can get extremely busy during the high season (the summer months). Book your accommodation and experiences in advance to avoid disappointment.
When it comes to natural attractions, Milford Sound is the jewel in New Zealand’s crown. The sound, which is technically a fiord, is part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site. It covers the southwestern section of the South Island and includes four national parks. Milford Sound is part of the Fiordland National Park.
Milford Sound is a spot of immense natural beauty. It brings together towering mountains, lush rainforests, cascading waterfalls, and crystal-clear Tasman Sea waters. The fiord is teeming with wildlife from fur seals and adorable penguins to dolphins and even whales.
One of the best ways to experience Milford Sound is by taking a scenic cruise. You can spend just a few hours on a boat or opt for a luxurious overnight option. If you’d like to get up close to the natural wonders of Milford Sound, take a kayak tour. The waters in the fiord are generally calm making it easy to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
One of the reasons for Milford Sound’s popularity is its accessibility. There are other fiords in the area, but getting there requires a lot more effort. In contrast, Milford Sound is accessible by car. If you are driving from Queenstown, the drive takes about 4 hours.
It is a stunning route, so although long, you will be rewarded with incredible views along the way. If you would rather not drive, there is a huge selection of organized tours that will take you there.
Milford Sound is one of the most well-known New Zealand attractions, so be prepared to share the experience with many others. It is especially busy during the summer months when the weather conditions are the best.
Just an hour’s drive from Queenstown, Wanaka is another beautiful town sitting on the shores of a namesake alpine lake and surrounded by epic mountains. However, it has a more low-key and relaxed feel compared to its glitzy cousin.
Wanaka does not offer much in terms of nightlife, but outdoor enthusiasts will be delighted by all the adventures this picturesque spot offers.
From relaxing lakeside strolls and paddleboarding the crystal-clear lake waters to rock climbing and skiing during the winter season, there is something for everyone in Wanaka. If you are up for a challenge, why not hike the Roy’s Peak Track? This 16-kilometer trail involves a steep ascent, but your hard work will be rewarded with incredible views over Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains.
If you are looking for a fun activity for the whole family, check out Wanaka’s weird and wonderful Puzzling World. It brings together optical illusion rooms and a multi-level mega maze that is sure to delight and challenge.
For something more relaxing, head to Cinema Paradiso, Wanaka’s iconic movie-watching experience. It even features half-time intervals and delicious homemade treats.
Wanaka is also a great place for foodies. You can find several excellent restaurants serving international cuisines right in the heart of its lakeside village. From modern pan-Asian eats to classic Italian comfort eats, there is something for every taste.
To top this off, the town is home to a selection of boutique wineries. Make sure to book a tasting at Rippon Vineyard located right on the lakeshore.
The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is an area of rugged and wild beauty. Visit its lush rainforests and geological wonders, marvel at ancient glaciers and rugged mountains, and experience the pioneering New Zealand spirit of its historic towns.
The best way to explore this New Zealand destination is by car. The West Coast’s towns and natural attractions are connected by State Highway 6. The region’s main artery is narrow and winding, but it passes through some of the most incredible scenery in the country. You can travel this region by coach too, but it’s not always the most flexible option.
Make sure to visit the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers where ice, rainforests, waterfalls, and towering mountains come together to create an unforgettable landscape. These glaciers are easily accessible by foot with multiple hiking trails available. If you’d like to spend more time in this part of the West Coast, there is a small namesake township near each glacier with different accommodation options.
Another must-see section of the region is Haast Pass, located within the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site. Haast Pass is a hiker’s paradise with numerous short walks and multi-day hikes that will take you through spectacular alpine scenery. The Blue Pools is a popular short walk option. This relatively easy track showcases unforgettable turquoise-color lakes fed by alpine streams.
Learn about the history of the region at the small coastal town of Hokitika. Enjoy its historic buildings, hear the tales of shipwrecks and the gold rush, and explore artisan shops and art galleries. The town also boasts rugged beaches and a raft of walking trails. You can easily spend a few days in the area.
Things to Know Before Traveling to New Zealand
- Being remote comes at a price and you will find that the country is an expensive destination. If you’re on a budget, the best time to visit New Zealand is during the shoulder seasons between April and May and September and October, with better value and good weather. The high season is during New Zealand’s summer months between December and February. This is when accommodation and flight prices are the highest.
- To keep experience costs down, keep an eye on websites such as Bookme and Grab One for deals on activities and dining. Cooking your own meals will also help you cut food costs.
- New Zealand weather is unpredictable even in the summer, so make sure to pack extra layers and waterproofs. Bring sturdy shoes for hiking. Do not attempt to go into the wilderness in flip-flops.
- New Zealand is highly dependent on cars. Outside major urban centers, public transport is extremely limited. If driving is not an option, consider taking flights between major cities and using the coach network to get to smaller settlements (e.g., the ones on the West Coast).
- New Zealanders drive on the left-hand side of the road, so be extra careful if you are used to driving on the other side. The country has a higher-than-average rate of preventable road deaths compared to other developed countries. This is mainly due to bad driver behavior and poor road infrastructure. If you are not a confident driver, it might be best to take advantage of the local coach network.
- Always wear sunblock and protect yourself from the sun. New Zealand has high levels of UV radiation, and you can get sunburnt even on a cloudy day. New Zealand has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world, so it’s best to be safe than sorry.
- Be realistic about your itinerary – although the country seems small, it still takes time to get from one major attraction to another. You also need to allow more time if you are tackling more remote areas with winding rural roads. Your GPS might not always provide the most accurate timing information.
Article written by Ksenia Khor
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