New Zealand is one of those places that excites the imagination. A land of mystery, Māori folklore and magical scenery. A country where you can ski and surf in the same day, hike on a glacier before sinking into a natural hot pool the evening, or take a boat through a cave of glow worms before entering the mystical land of Hobbiton for the afternoon. As a New Zealand native, I often forget how incredible my home country really is. So as a reminder to myself, and to inspire others to visit this remote island nation, I’ve compiled a list of the 35 top things to do in New Zealand – that will ensure your visit is unforgettable!
Map of the Best Things to do in New Zealand
New Zealand is a reasonably small country, that is easy to get around. Most of the top New Zealand attractions are accessible by car, and nowhere is more than a few hour’s drive apart. I’ve put together a simple map of all of the top things to see in New Zealand below, so you can create your own itinerary!
#1 Glacier Hiking
New Zealand is home to several glaciers. Two of the most impressive are Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier located near the West Coast of the South Island. While you used to be able to hike up the glaciers from the bottom, their rapid deterioration and subsequent instability led to the closure of the track. These days the only way to access the top of the glaciers is to take a helicopter ride to the top. The trip is part of the experience though and adds to the thrill of walking on a giant iceberg!
#2 Immerse Yourself in Māori Culture
There are many ways to get acquainted with New Zealand’s indigenous culture, from spending the night in a marae, witnessing the power of a haka, eating a hangi, visiting an ancient Māori village, getting a greenstone carved in Hokitika, or learning about Māori heritage at Te Papa. Whichever way you chose to learn about New Zealand’s past, you’ll come away with a new respect for the land and its people.
#3 Star Gaze at the Southern Cross in Tekapo
The sky above the southern town of Tekapo is an International Dark Sky Reserve, making it one of the best places in the world for some serious star gazing. This reputation has meant that several stargazing tours have popped up in the area – allowing you an even more memorable experience with the stars. Be guided through the solar-system as you soak in a hot tub, learn how to take astrophotography, or peer through a powerful telescope. The sky is the limit!
#4 Walk up Auckland’s Highest Volcanic Cone
A surprisingly short walk will have you at the top of Auckland’s highest volcanic cone, Mount Eden. Catch your breath (it’s a short but steep walk) as you take in the expansive views of Auckland City and its busy harbour. The 50m deep crater is unlike anything you’re likely to have experienced before. It’s a sacred place, further witnessed by relics of an ancient Māori village. Then on the way back down, check out the Eden Gardens, a tranquil oasis in a bustling city.
#5 Chow Down on New Zealand’s Favourite Exhibit
Did you know New Zealand is home to the only colossal squid display in the world? Wellington’s Te Papa Museum houses the 470kg specimen that was captured in Antartic waters in 2007. It’s a much loved New Zealand icon and now another of the country’s icons – Giapo – have recreated the squid into an edible work of art! Giapo has long been famous for creating the most incredible ice cream in the world, and their latest creation – the Colossal Squid – is no exception. A visit to Giapo’s Auckland store is always an experience in itself, so head downtown to sample an amazing range of flavours (which includes many vegan varieties!) and tick this New Zealand must do off your list!
#6 Climb a Volcanic Island
Rangitoto Island is New Zealand’s youngest volcano – erupting from the sea a mere 600 years ago. A scenic reserve, the island is uninhabited save for the native birdlife that thrives here. A daily ferry service will deliver you to the island where you can spend the day exploring the various walks on offer – including the most popular summit track. This short, steep track will reward you with breathtaking 360 views over Auckland and its islands. One of the most unique ways of experiencing Rangitoto Island is to take the evening guided kayak. This tour allows you to watch the sun setting from the summit, before paddling back across the Waitemata harbour under the stars.
#7 Swim With The World’s Smallest Dolphins
Hector’s Dolphins are an endangered dolphin native to the South Island of New Zealand. A marine reserve created at the mouth of the Akaroa Harbour has created a haven for Hector’s Dolphins, and consequently, it’s the best place to see these unique dolphins in the wild. A number of tour operators run excursions to see the dolphins, and also offer the chance to have a closer look. I swam with Hector’s dolphins last year and it was truly an unforgettable experience.
#8 See Kiwi Birds in the Wild
While it’s fairly easy to track down one of New Zealand’s native nocturnal birds in a zoo or sanctuary, spotting one in the wild is a rarer occurrence. But this just makes it all the more special! Many New Zealanders (myself included) haven’t had the opportunity to see a wild kiwi. Their population has rapidly reduced in modern times due to introduced species such as stoats, possums and dogs. But thanks to careful conservation efforts, there are still some reserves where kiwi are thriving. Grab your chance to see one of these special birds!
#9 Walk The Milford Track
As one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Milford Track has a reputation for the incredible landscapes you will pass on the way. It’s so spectacular, it was once coined “the finest walk in the world” by poet Blanche Baughan around 100 years ago. It’s a multi-day hike that will take you around 4 days to complete, and walkers are numbered to protect the environment. The 53.5km track will take you through Fiordland National Park, starting at Lake Te Anau and finishing at Sandfly Point in Milford Sound – showcasing some of the country’s finest scenery on the way!
#10 Set Sail in the Bay of Islands
One of the greatest things about New Zealand is its accessibility. The best sights aren’t reserved for the rich and powerful, anyone can enjoy the spectacular nature of this wild land. This rings true no more so than in the Bay of Islands. What feels like a wealthy sanctuary of perfect beaches, deserted islands and secluded inlets is accessible to everyone. Hire a boat or a kayak and immerse yourself in this slice of paradise in New Zealand’s north island.
#11 Searching for Gold in Arrowtown
Arrowtown was once flooded with gold miners searching for their fortune in the Arrow River. These days visitors flock to the petite town for another kind of gold. The trees in and around Arrowtown create a spectacle every Autumn with their leaves turning every shade of yellow and orange – a glowing golden landscape. Once you pull yourself away from these bucolic scenes you’ll find a well-preserved town centre with boutiques well worth a browse. And nearby, you can tempt your taste buds at some of the region’s finest wineries.
#12 Get Acquainted With the Catlins
Visitors to New Zealand often skip over the Catlins in favour of exploring the central South Island. But NZ’s southern corner wholeheartedly deserves your attention! Walk past waterfalls, go in search of yellow-eyed penguins at Curio Bay, witness the magic of Nugget Point and visit the South Island’s version of Cathedral Caves. The Catlins are a nature lovers paradise and should not be ignored if you want to experience the true wild beauty of New Zealand.
#13 Spot Humpback Whales in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is known as the place for whale watching in New Zealand. Not only do you have sperm whales feeding off the abundant, nutrient-rich waters of the Kaikoura Canyon, but you can also spot humpback whales on their migratory route from Antartica, and pods of orcas often swim by too. Humpback whales pass by in winter, while orcas are commonly seen in summer, and sperm whales can be seen year-round. Making whale watching in Kaikoura a great activity in any season!
#14 Walk New Zealand’s Most Iconic Track
The Roys Peak Walk has become a bit of an internet sensation. Photographs of Roys Peak (like the header image for this article) capture your imagination and seem to epitomise the beauty of New Zealand in a single frame. The day walk starts near Wanaka and leads you 1,500m up to the most breathtaking views of Lake Wanaka. Stay a while and appreciate the islands, bays, and mountains that create the most enchanting scene, before making your descent.
#15 Visit “That Wanaka Tree”
Visiting a tree in a lake may not be your idea of an unforgettable experience, but it sure leads to some of the most magical photos of New Zealand! Be warned, it does get busy when everyone wants to take the same photograph, but it’ll be one to treasure when you snap the winning shot. That Wanaka Tree can be found in the western corner of the Wanaka waterfront – just follow anyone with a camera! Despite the tree’s climb to Instafame, Wanaka is still a tranquil Alpine town to visit – like a more serene version of Queenstown next door.
#16 Kayak around Cathedral Cove
Also called Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve, Cathedral Cove is touted as one of the best places to see in New Zealand. Located on the North Island, its isolated position on the Coromandel Peninsula adds to its irresistible appeal. You can’t drive to the secluded cove, you only have the option of walking or taking to the seas. Boat tours will allow you to explore the caves and cliffs while learning about the history of the area, while kayaking allows a more intimate experience with the opportunity to ‘park up’ and enjoy the beach when the desire arises.
#17 Visit Albatross and Penguins in Dunedin
I didn’t realise how lucky I was growing up a stone’s throw from the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross. These majestic birds have a safe haven on the Otago Peninsula, at the Royal Albatross Centre. While sightings of these wild birds are commonplace for many a Dunedinite, the experience will leave visitors to New Zealand spellbound. The centre is also home to Little Blue Penguins – the world’s smallest penguin. Tours can be made at dusk to watch the adorable penguins returning from a days’ fishing at sea. It’s an experience you won’t want to miss!
#18 Visit New Zealand’s Castle
Technicalities aside (there are actually two castles in New Zealand), Dunedin’s Larnach Castle is undoubtedly New Zealand’s Castle. Located on the Otago Peninsula, the 19th-century castle is one of the oldest buildings in this young country. It’s a popular (and grand!) place for weddings and balls, but you don’t need to wait for an invitation to visit. The castle is open year-round to the public and if you want to extend your stay you can book a night in the castle itself. Just be warned, rumour has it that ‘living’ beings aren’t the only ones to roam the halls. If you know what I mean…
#19 Paddle out to the Mine Bay Māori Rock Carvings
One of New Zealand’s most underrated, yet significant sights is that of the Mine Bay Māori rock carvings. The carvings were a labour of love led by Matahi Brightwell and his team of four to create the 10m high depiction of his ancestor Ngatoroirangi. Located on the side of a low promontory, the carvings are only accessible by navigating the calm waters of Lake Taupo. To get there you can paddle out in a kayak, take a boat tour, or even fly in by helicopter or float plane! Whichever way you experience the beauty of these rock carvings, it will leave a lasting impression on you.
#20 Sample Some of New Zealand’s Finest Wines on Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island is a popular day trip from Auckland City and is super accessible by ferry. Although the island’s beaches are noteworthy, it’s undoubtedly the award-winning wines grown here that draw visitors back time and time again. With nearly 30 vineyards competing for space on the 92 sq km island, it’s not hard to see why it has earned a reputation as a wine lovers playground. A popular pastime is to take a wine tour to some of the more popular vineyards, or stay for a few days in an exquisite holiday villa and sample the wines on island time.
#21 Go White River Rafting or Jet Boating Down the Waiau Uwha River
The Waiau Uwha River flows near the spa resort town of Hanmer Springs and is a popular spot for outdoor adventures! We opted for the family-friendly, yet still thrilling jet boat ride, but there’s also the more physically challenging option of white water rafting down the river. Either way, the stunning scenery is sure to impress! The 360-degree spins and sheer speed of the jet boat ride were exhilarating, and surprisingly also educational in the quieter moments. The expert drivers and guides will make this a memorable item on your New Zealand itinerary.
#22 Boogie Board Down Sand Dunes at 90-Mile Beach
For the young and young at heart, 90-Mile Beach is just waiting for an adventure. Miles (deceivingly only 55 of them) of pure white sand awaits at the northern tip of New Zealand’s north island. Popular activities include surfing the left-hand breaks or body boarding down the giant sand dunes. Either one will get your heart pumping and your soul singing!
#23 Unleash Your Inner Movie Geek at Hobbiton
One of the most popular attractions in the north island, Hobbiton is also one of the most unique things to do in New Zealand! Where else can you step inside a movie set and instantly be transformed into the real middle earth. Wander around the shire, the real-life movie set that was featured in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. Take your time to appreciate the effort that has gone into making every detail in this fairytale land a magical place. It’s certainly an experience like no other, whether you’re a fan of the Peter Jackson films or not!
#24 Witness the Southern Lights
Everyone has heard of the northern lights, but did you know there’s another spectacle taking place down south? The aurora australis lights up the sky in hues of pink and green as it dances across the atmosphere, leaving spectators in awe of the incredible show being played out before them. The best place to witness the southern lights is in the deep south, away from major cities and interfering light. But even then, you’ll need a decent dose of luck too! Your best chance is in winter, in remote locations such as Stewart Island, the Catlins and around Lake Tekapo.
#25 Oggle at the odd Formations on Castle Hill
It took me 35 years to discover the ethereal landscapes of Castle Hill near Christchurch. There’s a short walk to follow, but the real fun lies in making your own track. Hike to the top, squeeze between the giant limestone formations and marvel at the sheer beauty of your surroundings. It’s no wonder climbers love this area of Canterbury, it’s an all-natural playground! Castle Hill makes the perfect day trip from Christchurch.
#26 Ride the Rere Rock Slide
The Rere Rock Slide was a much-loved attraction for years with Gisbornites. Local families would head to the remote rock slide brandishing body boards, lilos, or anything at all that makes a smooth ride, in order to careen down the 200m slippery surface. The little-known (outside of Gisborne) attraction was recently thrust into the spotlight when a drone video shot in the area went viral, causing an internet sensation. I suspect it’s busier now than it was when I used to visit in my teens, but I’m sure it’s still one of the best things to do in New Zealand for thrillseekers!
#27 Marvel at Mount Cook
Mount Cook, or Aoraki in Māori, is so stunning that even seeing it from a distance will leave you speechless. Its snow-dusted peak makes an impressive sight as it rises up from the Canterbury Plains, leaving you with no doubt of its presence. New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook is encompassed by a National Park of the same name. There are several short hikes you can do to take in the raw beauty of your surroundings, or those wanting a more strenuous hike might like to challenge themselves to the Mueller Hut Route.
#28 Jump from New Zealand’s Highest Bungy
Said to be New Zealand’s most terrifying bungy, the Nevis Bungy Jump requires a 4WD journey and cable car ride to position you in the middle of the Nevis Valley in Queenstown. It’s here that you’ll plummet 134m towards the gushing waters of the Nevis River. This New Zealand attraction is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s bound to be a tale you’ll tell for years to come.
#29 Go Beach Hopping in the Abel Tasman National Park
Encompassing one of New Zealand’s most unforgettable and unspoilt stretches of coastline, the Abel Tasman National Park feels like a true tropical oasis. Located at the tip of New Zealand’s south island, the national park’s beaches are only accessible by foot or boat. The Abel Tasman Coastal Track will take you around 3-5 days to complete – longer if you stop to savour each golden cove. Boat tours and kayaks are also popular options and a good way to find secluded spots in this tranquil hideaway. Keep your eyes on the water at night and you may notice another natural phenomenon – phosphorescent plankton that glows in the dark as you move through the water. A unique New Zealand experience you’re unlikely to forget.
#30 Dig Your Own Spa at Hot Water Beach
Grabbing a spade and digging your very own hot water pool in the sand is somewhat of a Kiwi institution. Located in the Coromandel, not far from Cathedral Cove, Hot Water Beach has become one of the most popular things to do in New Zealand. For locals as well as visitors! The beach is a spectacular place to visit any time, but 2 hours before and after high tide you’ll find families, couples and friends brandishing gardening tools as they head towards the beach. Soak in the warm water and relax as you enjoy the stunning scenery that surrounds you.
#31 Be Amazed by the Waimangu Volcanic Valley
The world’s youngest geothermal system, Waimangu Volcanic Valley was created mid-1886 by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera. A magical place brimming with bubbling pools, steaming craters and one of the bluest lakes you’ve ever laid eyes on. Inferno crater (pictured below) is a sight to behold, but while it looks inviting, you’d be unwise to swim in the water as it’s highly acidic and can get as hot as 80 °C! Nearby you’ll find Frying Pan Lake, the largest hot spring in the world, and the steaming Cathedral Rocks.
#32 Visit the Glowworm caves at Waitomo
The Waitomo caves have a reputation for being one of the best places to see glow worms in the world. You can find Arachnocampa luminosa, the species of glow worm native to New Zealand, in many parts of the country, but the Waitomo caves host the most accessible and impressive collection. Dive into the ancient caves below the rolling green hills of King Country to see the spectacle created by these luminescent creatures.
#33 Hike an Active Volcano
White Island can be seen letting off steam near the East Coast of the North Island. Tour boats or helicopters will get you up close to one of the most impressive geothermal sights in the country! With the majority of the volcano hiding under the sea, it’s easy to access the crater rim. It’s here you’ll experience hot water streams, bubbling mud pools, an acid lake and steaming vents. On the list of crazy things to do in New Zealand, the White Island walk would be near the top!
#34 Go Cruising in Doubtful Sound
You’ve probably heard of Milford Sound, but you may not have heard of its big brother, Doubtful Sound. Longer and deeper than its northern counterpart, Doubtful Sound is where you’ll find real solitude. It’s less accessible, making it the perfect place to get lost in nature. Marvel at the grand waterfalls, listen to the birdsong and cruise through this majestic part of New Zealand. As you do, you may even be lucky enough to spot visiting dolphins, penguins or seals.
#35 Visit The Otherworldy Moeraki Boulders
One of my childhood favourites, Moeraki Boulders is an iconic place to visit in the South Island. Once the object of Māori folklore, the boulders have an ethereal quality to them that draws visitors to this otherwise tranquil stretch of coast. At low tide, you can climb up and over the boulders, and at high tide, their round heads poke through the swirling sea. There’s a short walk at the opposite end of the beach to the entrance that gives you a beautiful view of the beach and its peculiar boulders.
Without a doubt, New Zealand is an exciting destination that will leave you spellbound. Whether you’re coming for rest & relaxation, or an adrenaline-fueled jaunt, you will find what you’re looking for, and more, in this magical place at the end of the world. I hope this compilation of the best things to do in New Zealand has inspired your next visit!