Located in the upper North Island, Hamilton is New Zealand's fourth-largest city, with a population of around 240,000 people. Just a 90-minute drive from both Auckland and Rotorua, and approximately two hours from Taupo, Hamilton is conveniently located while traveling around the North Island.
Although Hamilton is located inland, the mighty Waikato River runs through the city, and it's not far from the beaches of the rugged west coast. To the east are attractions associated with "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" movies. Plus, there are some low-key and charming attractions in the city itself. Read on for some tips on the best things to see and do in Hamilton.
Stroll through the Hamilton Gardens
Ask a local Hamiltonian the number one thing you shouldn't miss in their city, and there's a high chance they'll say the Hamilton Gardens. While traditional botanical gardens focus on types of plants and are organized accordingly, the Hamilton Gardens are laid out according to different kinds of garden design. The effect is a showcase of the cultural meaning of gardens over the centuries.
There are more than two dozen different sections at the Hamilton Gardens, including the Indian Char Bagh Garden, the Italian Renaissance Garden, the English Flower Garden, the Chinoiserie Garden, the Tudor Garden... and much more. Plus, it's located along a picturesque stretch of the Waikato River.
To top all this off, entry to the gardens is free. All cities should have their own Hamilton Gardens.
Taste Local Tea at Zealong Tea Estate
Many travelers to New Zealand are familiar with the country's extensive vineyards used in the production of wine, but tea? Not so much. Kiwis drink a lot of tea, but most of it isn't grown here.
However, Zealong Tea Estate, just north of the central city, is New Zealand's only commercial tea estate. As well as beautiful views, at Zealong visitors can enjoy a full lunch or delicious high tea, take a guided tea walk, and participate in a unique tea ceremony. There are sculptures dotted throughout the grounds that add to the scenic environment. Bookings are essential for the tours.
Cruise on the Waikato River
The Waikato River is the longest in New Zealand, running 264 miles through the central and northern North Island. Hamilton is situated on the banks of the Waikato River, so its presence is vital to the natural fabric of the city.
A relaxing and scenic way to experience the river and Hamilton city at the same time is to take a cruise on the Waikato River Explorer. Cruises run daily, and there are also select weekly wine-tasting cruises and cafe cruises. You can even combine a cruise with a visit to the abovementioned Hamilton Gardens, as a "floating cafe" service departs from the jetty at the Hamilton Gardens every hour. Bookings are a good idea.
Learn to Surf at Raglan
One of the most dramatic beaches in a country of spectacular beaches, Raglan is a place to surf rather than just go for a casual swim. The glittering sweep of black sand at Ngarunui Beach, in particular, is an ideal place to take a surfing lesson, with surf schools operating in the area (in season, and conditions permitting). The western end of the beach is best for swimming and surfing, while the eastern end is ideal for long walks.
Raglan town is a small place with lovely cafes and, of course, plenty of places to buy surf clothes and gear. It's about a 40-minute drive west of Hamilton, and one of the closest beaches to the inland city.
Be aware that the west coast of both the North and South Islands is exposed and rugged, and generally comprised of black sand. Always adhere to safety warnings at Raglan and elsewhere, as conditions can often be hazardous.
Pick Your Own Blueberries at the Lavender Backyard Garden
The Lavender Backyard Garden is a delightful destination if you're traveling with kids (or even if you're not!) The family-owned lavender and blueberry farm produces a range of skincare products, essential oils, and health foods, which are available to buy at the on-site shop. And, in the summer season (December to March), you can pick-your-own fresh blueberries to take away with you. It's best to have your own car to visit the Lavender Backyard Garden, as it's about a ten-minute drive out of town.
Take a Day Trip to Hobbiton
A significant reason why some travelers come to New Zealand in the first place is to visit the locations where "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" trilogies were filmed. Fans of the films shouldn't miss a trip to the Hobbiton Movie Set when traveling through the central North Island. Located in Matamata, a previously nondescript farming town less than an hour's drive from Hamilton, the Hobbiton Movie Set transports visitors to the Shire, the quaint village home of the mythical hobbits.
Director of the films, Kiwi Peter Jackson, chose this land in Matamata as the location of the Shire because of its similarity to how he visualized it from the books. The area was previously a farm, and there were no roads or electricity cables in sight, making it a perfect filming location. Now you can see 44 "hobbit holes" on a guided tour. While many filming locations in New Zealand are just landscapes these days, with little evidence that they were filming locations, this isn't the case at Hobbiton.
Tours including transportation run from all over the North Island, but if you're staying in Hamilton and have your own wheels, you can easily make your own way there and join a tour in Matamata.
Learn about Waikato's History at the Waikato Museum
The Waikato district is very significant to New Zealand's modern history, as it was the scene of the Land Wars between Maori and European settlers in the 1860s, when around 1.2 million acres of land were confiscated from local Maori tribes. Learn about this dramatic period of New Zealand history and much more at the Waikato Museum. The museum also displays the work of local artists from the past and present, and has plenty of programs for kids, too. Entry is free.
Encounter Native Flora and Fauna at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari
This "mainland ecological island" is surrounded by a 29-mile pest-proof fence, allowing the ancient forest within its boundaries to be a refuge for some of New Zealand's most endangered birds and animals. There are no mammalian predators at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, allowing native flora and fauna to flourish.
Visitors can take hikes or more leisurely walks around the sanctuary mountain, including guided nature walks with a conservationist. It's as close as visitors can get to experiencing New Zealand before humans arrived here, upsetting the ecological balance. Birds and animals that live on the mountain include kiwis, takahe, giant weta, and tuataras. Bookings for guided tours are essential. The sanctuary is less than an hour's drive south-east of Hamilton.