With beaches, mountains, rivers, forests, Indigenous and colonial culture and history, and diverse wildlife and birds, New Zealand offers a range of experiences to suit all interests. But despite its deceptively small size, it can be difficult for travelers to know where to focus their attention first. The North and the South Islands are very different, and seeing the whole country on one trip is just not possible. To help you plan your dream trip to Aotearoa, we're recommending the best of the best: Here are the top 20 things to put at the top of your New Zealand bucket list.
Complete a "Great Walk"
Hiking (or tramping, as New Zealanders call it) is a must-do activity while traveling in the country, and there are short and long trails to suit (almost) every fitness level and interest. Travelers who want a multi-day adventure in the wild, with decent hut accommodation and well-maintained trails, should consider one of the Department of Conservation's 10 Great Walks.
These hikes take you through some of the most beautiful landscapes in New Zealand, from beaches to snow-capped mountains, and have well-formed tracks that are easy to follow. The Great Walks are very popular with locals and tourists, so it's essential to book a spot in the huts—where you'll rest along the way—in advance. The 10 Great Walks are:
- Lake Waikaremoana, East Coast, North Island, 3–4 days
- Tongariro Northern Circuit, Central North Island, 3–4 days
- Whanganui Journey, Whanganui/Manawatu, North Island, 3–5 days (note that this is not actually a walk but a journey by kayak or canoe)
- Abel Tasman Coast Track, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island, 3–5 days
- Heaphy Track, Kahurangi National Park, South Island, 4–6 days
- Paparoa Track and Pike 29 Memorial Track, Paparoa National Park, South Island, 3 days one-way
- Routeburn Track, Fiordland, South Island, 2–4 days
- Kepler Track, Fiordland, 3–4 days
- Milford Track, Fiordland, 4 days
- Rakiura Track, Rakiura Stewart Island, 3 days
New Zealand is a geothermally active country, which means that natural hot springs can be found all over the place. Wherever you travel, you won't be too far from a hot spring, but the greatest concentration can be found around Rotorua and Taupo, in central North Island, as well as Hanmer Springs in Canterbury, South Island. Some are very basic and are simply hot water emerging from the ground, whereas others offer spa and fun pool experiences.
In the wine world, New Zealand is best known for its sauvignon blanc, a grape variety grown largely in the country's largest wine-producing region: Marlborough, located at the top of South Island. However, Marlborough isn't the only destination for wine enthusiasts in New Zealand, as various microclimates across the country allow different regions to specialize in different wines. Hawke's Bay, Otago, Auckland (especially Waiheke Island), and Wairarapa are also well-known for their delicious wines, and travelers can drop into many of these areas' wineries for a tasting or even a meal.
Learn About New Zealand History at Waitangi
Waitangi is a small place in the Bay of Islands with enormous significance. It is where, in 1840, representatives of the British Crown signed an agreement with Maori chiefs, ceding sovereignty of what is now New Zealand. The agreement, the Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi), is seen as the founding document of modern New Zealand. At the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, visitors can see a replica of the Treaty, visit the house where it was signed, step inside the elaborately decorated marae (Maori meeting house), and enjoy views over the water to Paihia and Russell.
Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairua) is the northernmost point of the North Island. From the (decommissioned) lighthouse at the end, you'll get to see the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet. It's a spiritually important place to local Maori, too, who believe that the spirits of the recently dead depart New Zealand through an 800-year-old pohutukawa tree here.
The cape can be visited on a day trip from the Bay of Islands or Kaitaia, but there are also many walking trails, isolated white sand beaches, and campsites that make it worth staying a bit longer.
Immerse Yourself in Movie-Making History
To Tolkien fans around the world, New Zealand is best known as the place where the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" trilogies were filmed. While many landscapes were made with CGI, and sets have long been dismantled, there are a number of filming locations you can still visit, either on your own or with a guided tour. In the North Island, the movie set of Hobbiton (i.e. The Shire, at Matamata near Hamilton), Tongariro National Park (the backdrop to Modor), and Weta Studios in Wellington are the easiest options. In the South Island, there are numerous natural landscapes used in the films, from Pelorus Bridge in the Marlborough Sounds to the Mararoa River in Southland.
Up to 13 dolphin species have been sighted in the waters of New Zealand, including rare ones that only live here. These playful creatures can quite often be seen from New Zealand's beaches, and boat tours—even if they don't sell themselves as dolphin-watching tours—will often encounter a pod. Great places to spot dolphins in New Zealand include the Bay of Islands, Tauranga, the Marlborough Sounds, Kaikoura, Banks Peninsula, the Otago Peninsula, and Rakiura Stewart Island.
Enjoy the Views While Paragliding
With a variety of beautiful landscapes, it makes sense to enjoy views of New Zealand from the air. Paragliding is a fun (and relatively safe) activity in which you soar through the skies, suspended by an inflatable wing (similar to a parachute) and kept aloft by warm currents of air (called thermals). Beginners to the sport do tandem flights with a guide. Lots of places around New Zealand offer paragliding flights; we recommend Queenstown for impressive views of the Southern Alps mountains, and the Nelson/Motueka area to see the gorgeous coastline of the Abel Tasman National Park from a different angle.
Hike the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
At the bottom of the West Coast region of the South Island are the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. These rivers of ice start high in the Southern Alps and reach down to almost sea level. While summer temperatures near the glaciers may be warm, and the vegetation nearby is temperate and coastal, Fox and Franz Josef themselves remain frozen. You can see them from a distance or get up-close on guided hikes and scenic heli-tours, some of which land high up on the glaciers. Aim to stay in the small village of Franz Josef, near the glacier of the same name, as there is a range of accommodation available and a thermal hot pool.
Climb the World's Steepest Street in Dunedin
Dunedin is the second largest city on the South Island and an attractive place for many reasons. One of the quirkiest things you can do here is visit Baldwin Street, which the Guinness World Records has officially named the steepest street in the world. Located in the North East Valley, it would just be a regular residential street except for the fact that it's really, really steep.
Why is it so steep? That's because of Dunedin's unique colonial history. Much of the city was planned on paper from London, with cartographers and town planners drawing the lines of streets onto a map of the land, without factoring in just how hilly of a city Dunedin is.
If you visit Baldwin Street, don't bother taking your car up it. There's a dead end at the top, and in the winter the streets of Dunedin can be treacherously slippery with ice.
Soak Up the Sun on a White Sand Beach
Clean and often quiet, New Zealand's beaches are among the best in the world. Beaches on the western coast of both islands are commonly comprised of black sand and have strong currents, while the eastern coasts have white or golden sand and are generally safer for swimming. Popular beach destinations include the Bay of Islands, Bream Bay, Piha and West Auckland, Coromandel Peninsula, and the Abel Tasman National Park. But if you don't mind a cold dip, or are just wanting a walk, the beaches of Otago, Southland (especially the Catlins), and Rakiura Stewart Island are lovely, too.
The Marlborough Sounds are a large area of drowned river valleys at the top of the South Island. Although the sounds have around 1,100 miles of coastline, very few people live here, making it a peaceful and remote place to explore. The 44-mile Queen Charlotte Track is one of the most popular long-distance hikes in the country, but it can get quite crowded during peak tourist season. A great alternative is to explore the Marlborough Sounds by kayak. The waters are calm and there are an almost endless number of sheltered bays around the four sounds: Queen Charlotte, Pelorus, Mahau, and Kenepuru.
Fiordland National Park is the largest national park in New Zealand, and contains some of the country's best-loved experiences and attractions, including three Great Walks and Milford Sound. The waterways of Fiordland are ideally explored by kayak or guided cruise, but as the park is notoriously rainy, be prepared to get wet. On Milford Sound, the sight of Mitre Peak rising directly out of the water is impressive, while cruises on Doubtful Sound are less busy but just as attractive.
Take a Road Trip to Aoraki Mount Cook
At 12,316 feet, Aoraki Mount Cook is New Zealand's highest mountain. Though its height isn't anywhere near that of, say, Mount Everest (29,032 feet), what is especially impressive about Aoraki is that its base is at a much lower elevation than many other enormously high mountains. When looking up at it from near the bottom, it feels as though it could be the highest mountain in the world.
Located in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park in central South Island, the mountain takes a bit of effort to get to—but the road trip from Christchurch (as many people approach it) offers some seriously impressive views. The roads here are generally well maintained, and travel along the western side of Lake Pukaki on the way to tiny Mount Cook Village.
New Zealand, particularly the South Island, is sparsely populated, so in many places there's very little light pollution spoiling the views of the stars in the night sky. Quite a lot can be seen on a clear night from the average New Zealand small town, but for a spectacular stargazing experience, spend a few days at the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve in central South Island, near Aoraki Mount Cook. It's the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world, so there are many good places to stargaze here, including the villages of Mount Cook, Twizel, and Tekapo. Mt. John's Observatory and Cowan's Observatory in Tekapo offer guided tour experiences, while at Tekapo Springs, you can combine two must-dos from this list: hot spring bathing and stargazing!
As New Zealand's public transportation system is not very extensive, driving is a popular way of getting around the country—but if you need to travel the length of the North Island in a relatively short time, taking the Northern Explorer train is a great way to go. Leaving from Wellington early in the morning, it arrives in Auckland about 11 hours later (or vice versa). It travels the 423 miles along the Kapiti Coast, past Tongariro National Park, and through dramatic King Country before reaching the pasture land of the Waikato region.
New Zealand doesn't have very many native mammals (just one, in fact: a flightless bat), but it makes up for that in its variety of bird life. Many native New Zealand birds are flightless (or unable to fly very far) because they evolved when there were no natural predators in the country. Unfortunately, when humans arrived here (first from the Pacific Islands and then from Europe), they introduced predators like rats, stoats, and cats.
Nowadays, many endemic New Zealand birds are severely endangered or vulnerable, but great efforts are being made around the country to revive populations. Birds such as pukeko, kea, and penguins can be spotted in the wild (with a bit of planning), while others, like kiwi or takahe, are better seen in one of New Zealand's dedicated nature reserves. These are different from national parks in that they can be found throughout the country, and are sometimes surprisingly close to urban centers (such as Zealandia in Wellington or the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary in Nelson).
Not your average New Zealand travel adventure, a trip to the Subantarctic Islands is not for the weak of stomach (seasickness is almost guaranteed), but bird and nature lovers are in for a treat. One of New Zealand's three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Subantarctic Islands are five island groups in the Southern Ocean southeast of New Zealand, between the South Island and Antarctica. As the name suggests, a journey here is rather cold, and can only be made in summer, but the variety of bird life and wildflowers on and around the islands makes up for any discomfort.
It's not easy to get to the Subantarctic Islands and they're highly protected, but a small number of scientific expeditions and small-group cruises make the trip down to these remote islands every year.
New Zealand is often considered one of the greatest whitewater rafting destinations in the world because of its clean rivers with fun rapids and a variety of beautiful landscapes to enjoy—especially those that cannot easily be accessed any other way, such as remote canyons and jungle-enshrouded gorges. Rafting can be enjoyed on both islands, particularly around Rotorua/Taupo, Murchison, and Queenstown; you can find trips suitable for both beginners and experts, ranging from a couple of hours to several days.
Tour Hawke's Bay for Some of the Finest Examples of Art Deco Architecture
Although New Zealand is better known for its natural attractions than its manufactured ones, the architecture in the towns of Napier, Hastings, and Havelock North in the Hawke's Bay region are an exception. In 1931, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake devastated towns in Hawke's Bay, flattening many of the existing buildings. In the years that followed, buildings were reconstructed in the architectural style fashionable at the time: Art Deco. Today, Napier considers itself to be the Art Deco Capital of the World, rivaling much bigger cities like Miami, New York, and Mumbai with its architectural treasures. Art and design enthusiasts can sign up for a guided tour with the Art Deco Trust, or plan a visit around the annual Napier Art Deco Festival.