Gisborne—called Tāirawhiti by the local Maori people—is a small city on the eastern coast of New Zealand's North Island. Located at the northern end of Poverty Bay, it's a good base for exploring the rugged natural beauty of the North Island and learning about the strong Maori culture that exists here. With a population of fewer than 40,000 people, Gisborne is a chilled-out place that's worthy of a couple of days in your North Island travel itinerary. Here are 10 of the top things to see and do in Gisborne.
Watch the First Sunrise of the Year
New Zealand is one of the easternmost countries in the world, meaning that it's close to the International Date Line (a "line" on the map that determines when a new day begins). And as New Zealand's easternmost city, Gisborne offers the first glimpse of the sunrise before the rest of the country (and most of the world). Gisborne is a particularly popular New Year's Eve destination, as it's cool to say you were among the first people to see the first light of the new year. There are lookouts at the central-city Titirangi Reserve.
If you only have half a day to spend in Gisborne, head to the Titirangi Reserve. It's located on a hill, an old Maori pa (fortified settlement) site close to the city center, and is where Captain James Cook and his crew came ashore at what is now Gisborne, in 1769. This public park offers walkways, picnic spots, playgrounds for kids, and many lookout points for good views across the city and the sea. There's also a large World War II-era gun to check out.
Admire the Historic Matawhero Church
A few miles west of Gisborne city, the Matawhero Church dates back to the 1860s (which makes it very old in the New Zealand context). Originally built as a school room, this was the only building left standing in the town of Matawhero after the 1868 raids of Maori leader Te Kooti, conducted in revenge for his exile to the Chatham Islands. The building became a Presbyterian church in the 1870s; today, visitors can admire the attractive gardens and cute bell spire of the wooden construction.
Gisborne's Eastwoodhill is New Zealand's National Arboretum. It covers 323 acres, which contain more than 25,000 species of New Zealand and international trees and plants. Funnily enough, it contains the largest collection of Northern Hemisphere plants in the Southern Hemisphere! There are walking trails and kids' playgrounds, and walking and Jeep tours are also offered.
Make a Splash at the Rere Rockslide
In a country full of beautiful waterfalls and rivers, Rere Rockslide is one of the most exciting. The rocks are made smooth and slick by the constantly running water, but the gradient is gentle enough that this is definitely more of a slide than a jump off a waterfall—so grab a bodyboard or inflatable and zip down. The rockslide is about a 40 minute-drive west of Gisborne; after you've had your fill of slipping and sliding, nearby Rere Falls are also very beautiful and worth a look.
Located beside the Taruheru River in the central city, the Gisborne Botanical Gardens are a must-visit for keen gardeners and flower enthusiasts. As well as the expected New Zealand plantings, a highlight is the Sister City Gardens, which recreate the habitats of Gisborne's sister cities: Palm Desert USA, Nonochi Japan, and namesake Gisborne Australia. There's also a free-flying aviary.
The Gisborne area has some lovely beaches, but for a unique beach experience, join Dive Tatapouri for a stingray encounter. Equipped with a pair of reef shoes and/or a snorkel, you'll wade into the shallow waters at low tide, where Wild Short Tail Stingrays and Eagle Rays live. This is a great opportunity to learn about the ecology as well as the cultural mythology of the area. These experiences are suitable for both adults and kids.
Ride tandem along 56 miles of disused railway track between Gisborne and Wairoa, on the Gisborne Railbike Adventure. Following the coast, the track offers beautiful views, and you can choose between one-hour or half-day journeys. Although moderate fitness is required, you don't have to be super athletic; no steering is required, and bikes have four wheels, so it's pretty hard to fall off.
The Tairāwhiti Museum houses a collection of art, artifacts, photography, and multimedia works that document the culture and history of the Gisborne area. There's a strong focus on Maori stories from the region, so this is the place to come to learn more about this aspect of New Zealand culture and identity.
Although the Gisborne area doesn't produce as much wine as neighboring Hawke's Bay, there are still approximately 25 wineries in the area. These produce particularly good Chardonnay, as well as Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. An easy one-stop wine shop and tasting center is the Gisborne Wine Centre, which hosts guided tastings that cater to both wine enthusiasts and novices. There's also an on-site restaurant and bar.