New Zealand is only 1,000 miles long, 280 miles across at its widest, and home to just under five million people, but this long, narrow country contains an enormous variety of things to see and do. Travelers can ski on snow-capped mountains and bask on subtropical beaches, learn about Maori culture and discover its British heritage, sip on some of the world’s finest wines and hike through uninhabited wilderness. Whatever kind of travel experiences you enjoy, you can probably find it in New Zealand.
The country comprises two main islands—imaginatively named the North and South Islands in English, and Te Ika a Maui and Te Wai Pounamu, respectively, in Maori. Although the South Island is larger, more than three-quarters of New Zealand’s population lives in the North. Ideally, visitors should spend time on both islands, although picking one isn’t a bad approach. Here are the 15 best places to visit in New Zealand.
In the central North Island, Rotorua is famous for its geothermal features and Maori culture. Travelers short on time can visit on a day trip from Auckland, but it’s a convenient stop when traveling through the North Island. Hell’s Gate, Wai-O-Tapu, or Orakei Korako (on the way to Taupo) are good options for bubbling mud pools, boiling geysers, and colorful rock formations, and many resorts and holiday parks in the area have hot spring bathing facilities. You can also learn more about Maori culture at tourist villages like Mitai, Whakarewarewa, and Tamaki with their cultural shows of traditional music and dancing, and a hangi meal cooked in an underground pit.
Time commitment: One full day in Rotorua is ideal.
Waitangi is one of the most significant places in New Zealand's modern history. In 1840, Maori chiefs signed a treaty with representatives of the British Crown, the Treaty of Waitangi, which was a founding document that gave the sovereignty of New Zealand to British rule. Visit for a crash course in the country's history in this beautiful coastal location. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds include an indoor museum, the Treaty House, an ornately carved marae (Maori meeting house), and a ceremonial waka (canoe), spread over a large area. There are beautiful views of the Bay of Islands.
Time commitment: The Waitangi Treaty grounds deserve at least half a day.
Often overlooked by travelers, the Hokianga Harbour is an alternative to the Bay of Islands that’s especially good for camping or RV adventures. The area is sparsely populated, and predominantly Maori. Dune boarding, hiking, horse trekking, and dolphin watching are popular activities in the Hokianga. Base yourself in one of the nearby villages of Omapere, Opononi, and Rawene. To expand your exploration, the Waipoua Forest, just south of the Hokianga, is home to two of the largest living native kauri trees.
Time commitment: Aim to spend two days to a week in the Hokianga area.
The Coromandel Peninsula reaches 50 miles into the Hauraki Gulf, across the Firth of Thames from Auckland. It’s a microcosm of all that’s good in northern New Zealand—stunning beaches, hiking trails, and arty, laid-back towns. During low tide at Hot Water Beach, dig a few inches beneath the sand to create your own natural hot spring bath, spend the day at Cathedral Cove, one of New Zealand’s most beautiful beaches (which is saying something), and hike the Pinnacles Walk or Coromandel Coastal Walkway.
Time commitment: To explore the whole Coromandel Peninsula, you’d need at least a week, but it’s possible to make a quick overnight trip from Auckland or Tauranga.
Tongariro National Park
On the high central plateau of central North Island, Tongariro National Park is a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed both for its natural and cultural significance. Most sights and activities revolve around three volcanic peaks: Mounts Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a moderately challenging day hike that is a spectacular day hike. In winter, ski at the Whakapapa or Turoa ski fields.
Time commitment: You need a day to hike the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing (where you can spot the gorgeous emerald lake). With other hikes, biking trails, and skiing options in the winter, it’d be possible to spend several days in and around the park.
The Hawke’s Bay is one of New Zealand’s premier wine-producing regions, and the oldest—there are more than 200 vineyards in the region. The area is popular for its sunny climate, Art Deco allure, and the world’s largest gannet colony. The city of Napier, in particular, is famous for its Art Deco architecture, because after a huge earthquake in 1931, much of the city was rebuilt in this style. Keen bird watchers should visit the gannet colony at the Cape Kidnappers Reserve.
Time commitment: Hawke’s Bay is quite a long drive from other North Island centers (or a short flight to Hawke’s Bay Airport), so spend at least a couple of days here to make it worth the trip.
At the bottom of the North Island, Wellington is New Zealand’s capital. Equal parts bureaucratic formality and bohemian arts hub, Wellington is a perfect small city to explore. The New Zealand Parliament building, known as the ‘Beehive’ (you’ll understand why when you see it), and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (known simply as Te Papa) shouldn’t be missed. The Weta Workshop is a film special effects company founded by Peter Jackson, director of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit," so fans of the film should definitely consider a tour.
Time commitment: Budget at least two days for the central city, and another few to visit outlying areas like the Kapiti Coast or Cape Palliser.
Abel Tasman National Park
Many travelers take the Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton, at the top of the South Island, and then drive west to the Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand’s smallest national park. Abel Tasman is all about the golden beaches, turquoise seas, and forested hiking trails. For longer hikes, enter the park from the tiny town of Marahau. You can also enter the park by kayaking from Kaiteriteri.
Time commitment: If staying in nearby Nelson or Motueka, it’s easy to just visit the park on a day trip. To complete the popular Coast Track walk, you’ll need three to five days.
On the eastern coast of the upper South Island, Kaikoura is famous for its whale and dolphin watching. It’s a marine-life hotspot because of the unique currents and deep trench just offshore. Whale-watching cruises operate all year, and while sperm whale sightings are never guaranteed, there’s a very high chance you’ll see them, as well as dolphins, seals, and albatross.
Time commitment: Many travelers pass through Kaikoura while traveling between Picton and Christchurch. You only need a day for a whale-watching cruise, but extra days in Kaikoura can be spent hiking or enjoying the beaches.
Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula
Jutting southeast from Christchurch, the Banks Peninsula is a volcanic land mass comprised of several volcanos. There are many harbors and bays, wildlife-spotting opportunities, and the French settlement of Akaroa, the oldest town in the Canterbury province. There are many 19th-century buildings there and cute French cafes. The Hector’s dolphin—the world’s smallest and rarest—live in the waters off the Banks Peninsula. (Sea kayaking is a good way to see them.) There are also many biking and hiking trails on the peninsula.
Time commitment: Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula are an easy day trip from Christchurch, but staying a couple of days will allow you to drive to more remote spots.
Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve
The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is one of the largest dark sky reserves in the world. In the central South Island, far from any major settlements, it’s almost completely free of light pollution, making it an incredible destination for stargazing. Stargazing tours are informative, or you can just find a quiet, dark spot on your own. If you're lucky, you might also see the Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights, similar to the Northern Lights). Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain (12,220 feet), is also in this area.
Time commitment: The tiny towns within the reserve—Lake Tekapo Village, Twizel, and Mount Cook Village—are a long way from anywhere, so these are not a quick getaway. Cloud-free skies are essential for stargazing, so you may need to spend a few days here.
Queenstown is not a typical Kiwi town—its real estate is among the most expensive in the country, and the style is more designer than farmer. But there’s no denying that Queenstown is blessed with beautiful geography as it's set on Lake Wakatipu with views of the Remarkables mountain range. Take the cable car to the top of the hill behind the city for spectacular views. Popular activities in the area include mountain biking, bungee jumping, speedboat rides, whitewater rafting, kayaking, canyoning, skiing in winter, or hiking the many trails.
Time commitment: Queenstown city only needs a day to look around, but it’s an ideal base for exploring the Central Otago wineries, trying adventure sports, and making day trips to Glenorchy, Wanaka, Arrowtown, or Fiordland.
Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula
Dunedin is a university town on the South Island’s east coast. Dunedin is the Scots Gaelic name for Edinburgh, and the Scottish influence is strong. The neo-gothic architecture of the University of Otago, the Dunedin Railway Station, and some churches lend an Old World aesthetic to Dunedin. The world’s second steepest street (as of August 2019), Baldwin Street, is also a quirky sight to see. (The first is in Harlech, Wales.)
A short drive from Dunedin is the hilly, windswept Otago Peninsula, one of New Zealand’s finest eco-tourism and bird-watching destinations. Drive (or take a tour) out to see the penguin, albatross, and seal colonies of the Otago Peninsula, making a stop at Larnach’s Castle en route.
Time commitment: A minimum of two or three days is needed here, divided between the city and the peninsula.
Fiordland National Park
In the south-west of the South Island, the Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest, and it’s part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. A vast area of forests, mountains, and glacial fiords, visitors can be as active or relaxed as they like here, on sightseeing cruises, scenic flights, or multi-day treks. The small town of Te Anau is a good base, and has caves with glow worms.
Milford Sound is perhaps the most famous sight, with pointy Mitre Peak rising from the water offering perfect reflections on a clear day. Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri are beautiful places to cruise or kayak.
Time commitment: Some travelers visit the Fiordland National Park on a quick day trip from Queenstown or Wanaka while others stay for much longer to explore. The famous Milford Track trek between Te Anau and Milford Sound takes four days.
Off the southern coast of the South Island, Stewart Island/Rakiura is New Zealand’s third-largest island. Around 85% of the island is a national park, reserved for penguins, kiwis, and seals. While the temperatures are generally quite cold this far south, the beaches are empty and worth the trip across the Foveaux Strait from Bluff.
Birdwatching and hiking are popular activities, especially within the boundaries of the park. The Rakiura Track is a 20-mile (32-kilometer) hiking trail that circles the Rakiura National Park, and it takes two to four days to hike the entire length. The small capital, Oban, is a welcoming town that serves up seriously fresh seafood.
Time commitment: As it’s necessary to get a ferry to Stewart Island/Rakiura (or take a short flight from Invercargill to Oban), it’s worth spending a few days here. Camping is a good option.