Discover the best places to visit in New Zealand
Made up of two large islands, conveniently named the North Island and the South Island*, along with a number of smaller offshore islands, New Zealand is a relatively small country. But what it lacks in size, New Zealand makes up for in its diverse culture and landscape.
Shaped by volcanoes and the constant shifting of tectonic plates, from north to south and from east coast to west coast, the landscape, the vegetation and even the weather changes significantly. We’ve got beaches, mountains, lakes, glaciers and so much more, and with so much to see and do, as a visitor, choosing where to go and what to see can be a little overwhelming. In this guide we’ll share our thoughts on some of the best places to visit in New Zealand based on our own travels around the country over the years.
We’ll also list all of New Zealand’s regions, showing each region’s particular highlight or unique character, linking through to more detailed guides for each region. Let’s get into it.
*In te reo Māori (the Māori language) the names of the North Island and South Island are Te Ika-a-Māui and Te Waipounamu respectively.
Our Top 10 best places to visit
We realise of course that the idea of the ‘best’ of anything is highly subjective but for the purposes of this guide we’ve chosen places that we feel best showcase New Zealand’s diversity and are in some way unique or at least different to what you might have experienced anywhere else in the world. Like, for example, hiking over an active volcano.
1. Tongariro National Park, North Island
Located on the Central Plateau of New Zealand’s North Island, Tongariro National Park is a dual UNESCO World Heritage site. Officially established in 1894, it’s New Zealand’s oldest national park and is is in fact one of the oldest national parks in the world.
The park is home to:
- Mount Ruapehu, the North Island’s highest peak
- Whakapapa, New Zealand’s largest ski field
- The Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 21km (13 mile) hike across a dramatic landscape of active volcanic vents, crater lakes and other spectacular features shaped by volcanic activity and glaciation over the last 275,000 years.
The crossing is widely considered to be one the best day hikes in New Zealand and having done it many times (it’s literally in our backyard), we have to agree. You can choose to do the hike independently however, if you’re not that experienced in alpine environments (particularly in winter) going guided is definitely the safer option.
The crossing is of course just one of many walking and hiking trails in the Tongariro National Park so if you love the outdoors as much as we do, this park should definitely be on your list of must do places to visit.
Located in the heart of the North Island and just an hour and a half drive north of the Tongariro National Park is Lake Taupo. It’s the largest lake in New Zealand and a popular tourist destination. Taupo town (our hometown by the way) is a small, friendly place with plenty of activities and attractions, making it a worthwhile stopover on your way to or from Tongariro.
If an adrenaline rush is what you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. Sky diving is a popular activity here, and there’s no better place to experience the thrill of freefalling above a stunning lake. You can also try bungee jumping or jet boating to the base of Huka Falls, one of the town’s must-see attractions. Mountain biking is another great way to experience the beautiful surroundings, with plenty of tracks available for all skill levels.
Prefer a more relaxed pace, especially if you’re visiting after having just completed the Tongariro Crossing? A boat tour on Lake Taupo is a good option. You’ll get to see Taupo’s famous Māori rock carvings and along the way enjoy views of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu at the southern end of the lake. For a birds-eye view there’s also the option to take a scenic flight in either a helicopter or in Taupo’s iconic float plane.
And after all the excitement, you’ll want to take some time to unwind and soak in one of Taupo’s natural hot pools, Wairakei Terraces being our personal favourite.
To find out more, check out our detailed guide, Top things to do in Lake Taupō.
When visiting Taupo, you should also consider adding Napier to your itinerary. Located in the Hawke’s Bay region, the charming coastal city of Napier is just a two-hour drive from Taupo via scenic State Highway 5 which crosses the Kaweka Range of mountains.
Napier is known for its art deco architecture which is a must-see for anyone interested in history and architectural design. Tragically, Napier was devastated by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 1931 and as a result, the town was rebuilt in the popular art deco style of the time. Today, visitors can take a walking tour of the city and see many of the art deco buildings that have been preserved, and as you wander through the streets, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time!
But there’s much more to Napier than just architecture. The Hawke’s Bay region is known for its wineries, and there are plenty of them to explore in and around Napier. Napier is also known for having some of the best weather in New Zealand. It’s a great place to visit any time of year, but if you’re looking for some warmth and a good chance of sunshine, Napier is the place to be.
To find out more, check out our detailed guide, Top things to do in Hawke’s Bay.
2. Rotorua Geothermal Attractions, North Island
Located on the edge of Lake Rotorua, the town of Rotorua is a hotbed of geothermal activity, both literally and figuratively. The lake itself was formed after the collapse of a large volcano which last erupted around 240,000 years ago.
Today, Rotorua’s volcanic origins are still very much on display thanks to a number of geothermal attractions which make for a truly unique experience. From the incredible colours of Champagne Pool to the powerful display of Lady Knox Geyser, Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland is highly recommended.
Even the city center is a unique experience thanks to Kuirau Park, New Zealand’s only free geothermal public park, with several walkways guiding you past bubbling mud pools and hot springs.
Rotorua is an important hub for Māori culture and no visit to Rotorua would be complete without experiencing the traditions and customs of New Zealand’s indigenous people. Cultural performances, guided tours, and visits to marae (Māori meeting grounds) provide a fascinating insight into Māori life.
To find out more, check out our detailed guide, Top things to do in Rotorua.
3. West Coast Glaciers, South Island
Running down the length of New Zealand’s South Island, the Southern Alps mountain range is home to the vast majority of our glaciers. For the most part, these glaciers are well off the beaten track so you have to be pretty determined to experience them firsthand.
Fortunately, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are two exceptions. Located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast, these are two of our most accessible glaciers. They’re also quite unique in that they’re some of the few glaciers in the world that extend almost down to sea level.
State Highway 6 which runs down the West Coast of the island will take you to within just 10 km (6 miles) of the glaciers so it’s little wonder that they are two of the main tourist attractions in the area.
There are a number of free short walks with views of the glaciers but to really experience the glaciers up close, you’re going to have to go guided with Franz Josef Glacier Guides or Fox Glacier Guiding. Both outfits offer a number of options from walking to heli-hiking or even ice climbing for a truly unforgettable experience.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
Approximately 3 and a half hours north of Fox Glacier is the small seaside settlement of Punakaiki, home to a rather unique and fascinating natural phenomenon, Punakaiki Pancake Rocks.
This famous rock formation, formed by the layering of hard and soft sedimentary limestone some 30 million years ago, has been eroded over time into distinctive layered stacks, hence the name. Visitors can walk along a boardwalk and see the rocks up close, or visit the nearby blowholes which put on quite a display at high tide.
Abel Tasman National Park
From Punakaiki, Highway 6 continues north for some 260km (162 miles) to Nelson which is the gateway to beautiful Abel Tasman National Park. If you’re planning a road trip itinerary that includes Nelson, you should definitely allow time to visit Abel Tasman.
This national park, known for its golden beaches and lush coastal forests is home to the Abel Tasman coast track, a 60km (37 mile) trail that’s usually completed in 3 to 5 days. While this multi-day adventure is the best way to truly experience the park, local operators offer day trips including boat rides to some of the more scenic beaches with a chance to spot dolphins, seals and even penguins along the way.There’s also the option to go sea kayaking around nearby Kaiteriteri which can include a visit to Split Apple Rock, a massive boulder that looks like it’s been neatly cut in half.
To find out more, check out our detailed guide, Top things to do in West Coast.
5. Coromandel Peninsula and Hot Water Beach, North Island
The Coromandel Peninsula is one of our favourite summertime destinations thanks to its golden sand beaches like Whangamata and Hahei. Hahei in particular is very popular thanks to nearby Cathedral Cove with its natural rock archway, and you will often see people sea kayaking along the coastline to get there – although personally, we prefer paddleboarding.
But since this ‘best of’ list is about highlighting unique experiences, it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Hot Water Beach which gets its name from a geothermal spring. For much of the day, the spring is actually submerged under the waves, but at low tide the spring is exposed and that is when the fun begins. We bet you’ve never tried digging your own hot spa pool on a beach before.
There is of course a lot more to the Coromandel Peninsula than beaches. There’s the historic gold-mining town of Thames and the picturesque town of Coromandel to the north, and the further north you travel, the more isolated things become until eventually you reach the very top of the peninsula and the campgrounds at Port Jackson and Fletcher Bay which feel like a world away from anywhere.
To find out more, check out our detailed guide, Top things to do in Coromandel.
6. Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound, South Island
Located on the southwestern end of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is a truly unique and special place that should be on everyone’s New Zealand bucket list. Yes it’s remote and it takes a fair amount of effort to get there, but the reward is some truly spectacular scenery that you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
As the name suggests, Fiordland National Park is home to fjords (or fiords as they’re spelt in New Zealand) which are essentially deep, narrow sea inlets with steep mountainous sides formed by glacial erosion. Interestingly, our fiords are also called sounds and of the fifteen named sounds in the park, the two most popular are Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound.
Milford Sound is by far the most easily accessible of our fiords, having its own airport as well as direct access by road, State Highway 94. Even the drive to Milford Sound is an unforgettable experience as you drive through glacier-carved mountain valleys and pass crystal clear lakes.
Once in Milford Sound, there’s lots to see and do including cruises, scenic flights and bus or coach tours. Alternatively, you can experience the towering cliffs and thundering waterfalls of the sound from a different perspective on a kayaking tour. There are also a number of short walks in the area from a gentle stroll along the foreshore to more challenging tracks that will reward you with epic views.
On the subject of walking, Fiordland National Park is also home to the Milford Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. At just over 53km (33 miles) this multi-day hike is not for everyone but there is a day walk option that will give you a short taste of the full hike.
To find out more, check out our detailed guide, Top things to do in Fiordland.
If you’re going to go to the effort of travelling all the way to the bottom of the South Island to visit Fiordland, you should definitely consider making the most of your time in the region by also visiting Stewart Island/Rakiura. Located approximately 35km (22 miles) off the coast of the South Island, this 1,746 sq km (674 sq mi) island has a permanent population of around 440 people so it feels anything but crowded.
Stewart Island is home to Rakiura National Park which covers 85% of the island, making it an unspoiled paradise for nature lovers but more importantly, an ideal habitat for the at risk Stewart Island tokoeka, a species of kiwi bird. Interestingly, unlike other kiwi species, tokoeka are active during the daytime which makes Stewart Island one of the best places in New Zealand to see these birds in the wild.
7. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, South Island
The snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps are a defining feature of the South Island and taking pride of place in this stunning landscape is Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The park is home to its namesake, Aoraki/Mount Cook which, at 3,724 meters (12,218 feet), is New Zealand’s highest mountain. That in itself is reason enough to visit this amazing part of the South Island, but if you love the outdoors and you’re willing to spend a day or two in the area, your time will be well spent.
While Mount Cook itself is only accessible to those with advanced alpine climbing experience, for the rest of us there’s the Hooker Valley Track. This relatively easy 10km (6 mile) return walk to the end of Hooker Lake will get you to within around 10km of the mountain itself and along the way you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of rugged cliffs and hanging glaciers.
Another highlight of the park is Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s longest glacier at around 23km (14 miles). It’s just a short drive from Mount Cook Village to the glacier lake parking and from there you can either take a short easy walk to the glacier lookout or you can opt for a boat trip on Tasman Glacier lake. If you’re lucky, you may just get a chance to see a stunning blue iceberg.
Speaking of Mount Cook Village, the village is a perfect base from which to explore the park. It offers a range of accommodation options, from camping at the White Horse Hill DOC campsite to luxury rooms at the iconic Hermitage Hotel, the choice is yours.
Lake Tekapo (Takapō)
Also located in the central south island area and just over and hours drive from Mount Cook is the small township of Lake Tekapo, located on the southern end of the lake of the same name.
Tekapo tends to be a place that most people simply pass through rather than specifically visit, but it does have one particular highlight. Located on a hill that overlooks the township is the Mount John scientific astronomy observatory. Thanks to the fact that Tekapo is located in Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, this observatory provides some spectacular views of the night sky with stargazing tours available for an unforgettable experience.
8. Queenstown, South Island
Queenstown is unashamedly a tourist destination and one that promotes itself as New Zealand’s adventure capital. So is it all just hype or is Queenstown really all that when it comes to adventure sports? The short answer is yes, if you’re an adrenaline junkie looking for an adventure-packed holiday destination, Queenstown should definitely be on your travel itinerary.
From bungy jumping off the Kawarau Bridge to skydiving to jet boating and downhill mountain biking, there is so much crammed into this small lakeside town. There is of course much more to Queenstown than extreme sports so if you just want to kick back and relax, you can take a scenic cruise on Lake Wakatipu and enjoy the natural beauty of the surroundings, dominated by views of the Remarkables mountain range.
Want to get a little high? Then you’ll want to take the cable car up to the Skyline Queenstown complex where you can enjoy a buffet dining experience as you look out over the whole town. And if you’re not feeling too relaxed afterwards, consider coming back down via the purpose built downhill luge track.
And the fun doesn’t stop in winter. With easy access to four ski fields, along with a lively après-ski scene, there’s never a bad time to visit Queenstown.
To find out more, check out our detailed guide, Top things to do in Queenstown.
Wanaka, a picturesque town on the southern shore of Lake Wanaka, is just over an hours drive north of Queenstown. If you’re visiting Queenstown and you have the time, it’s well worth paying a visit to Wanaka.
The town is home to probably the most Instagrammed New Zealand tourist attraction, Roys Peak. A 15 km (9 miles) return track climbs steadily to the 1,578m (5,177 feet) summit of Roys Peak which provides stunning views of the lake and the distant peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park.
Speaking of Mount Aspiring National Park, one of the highlights of the park, besides Mount Aspiring itself, is the Rob Roy Glacier track. This scenic hike takes you through ancient forests and past dramatic waterfalls before culminating in a stunning view of this hanging glacier. Even the 54km (34 mile) drive from Wanaka to the start of the track is an adventure in itself.
9. Auckland’s West Coast Beaches, North Island
The majority of travellers arriving in New Zealand will land at Auckland International Airport, the country’s largest airport. With a population of around 1.6 million, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and it has everything you might expect from a modern, vibrant centre.
Downtown Auckland is of course a shopping mecca and the bustling waterfront is packed full of restaurants and every type of cuisine imaginable. But while all of this is well worth visiting, it’s not too different from what you can experience in other big cities around the world. Since this list is about highlighting unique or surprising aspects of New Zealand, what is it about Auckland that surprised us?
For us personally it was Auckland’s black sand beaches. About an hours drive from Auckland city is Piha, one of a number of popular beaches on the west coast. This rugged coastline is spectacular and well worth visiting for the views alone, and while you can swim at these beaches, they do have a reputation for strong rip currents. Fortunately, during the peak summer season there are lifeguards on duty to keep visitors safe.
To the south of Piha is Karekare, to the north is Te Henga (Bethells Beach) and further north is Muriwai Beach which is home to a rather unique, albeit smelly, gannet colony, all of which makes this stretch of coastline one of our favourite spots in Auckland.
To find out more, check out our detailed guide, Top things to do in Auckland.
Located in the Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island is a little gem that combines natural beauty with delicious food and wine along with a vibrant art scene. Best of all, it’s just a short ferry ride from downtown Auckland.
One of the main highlights of Waiheke Island is its stunning beaches, from secluded coves to family-friendly beaches like Onetangi and Oneroa. There are also several island trails to explore with views of Waiheke’s wine estates and vineyards.
Speaking of vineyards, Waiheke Island is known for its world-class wine tasting. With over 30 boutique wineries on the island, you can sample some of New Zealand’s finest wines and learn about the art of winemaking. Many of the wineries also offer excellent food pairings and at wineries like Cable Bay you can sit outside on beanbags and enjoy the stunning views.
Waiheke Island is also a hub for the arts. From galleries to sculpture parks, you can immerse yourself in the island’s vibrant art scene. Don’t miss the chance to visit the Waiheke Community Art Gallery or the Connells Bay Sculpture Park.
10. Waitangi and the Bay of Islands, North Island
The Northland region of the North Island is known for its warm climate and golden beaches and while the beaches alone are reason enough to explore this stunning part of the country, from an historical perspective, the real significance of the region is that it’s home to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Signed as an agreement between Māori rangatira (chiefs) and representatives of the British Crown in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi is considered to be New Zealand’s founding document. The original intent of the treaty was to establish British sovereignty over New Zealand as a way to protect indigenous Māori from European settlers and other foreign powers that had an interest in the land at that time.
The Treaty of Waitangi is a crucial document in New Zealand’s history and in recent years it’s been the subject of increased focus and attention, particularly in regards to historical grievances between Māori and the British Crown. A guided tour of the treaty grounds is a good way for visitors to immerse themselves in the history of this important place, and by understanding the treaty, visitors can gain a deeper understanding of our unique cultural heritage as well as some of the challenges that New Zealand still faces today.
Just a few minutes south of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is the charming seaside town of Paihia, a great place to base yourself if you want to explore the surrounding Bay of Islands. Known for its marine life, the waters around the Bay of Islands are teeming with dolphins and whales, and there are plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with these majestic creatures.
From Paihia there are plenty of guided tours available that will take you to some of the best spots in the area, including the popular “hole in the rock”, just off the tip of the Cape Brett Peninsula. Feeling adventurous? You can actually hike the 15km (9 mile) track to the end of the Cape Brett Peninsula and spend a night in the old lighthouse keeper’s cottage.
And of course, no visit to Paihia would be complete without a trip to the nearby town of Russell. This historic town’s claim to fame is that it was originally New Zealand’s capital. The town has a number of quaint cafes and charming old buildings including the iconic Duke of Marlborough Hotel.
Tutukaka and Poor Knights Islands
Most visitors heading north from Auckland towards the Bay of Islands will drive along State Highway 1, passing through the town of Whangarei. Just past Whangarei you will see signs for Tutukaka, and if you have the time you should definitely consider driving the scenic coastal loop that takes you past Tutukaka and Matapouri before rejoining State Highway 1.
But the real reason to visit Tutukaka is that it’s the gateway to the Poor Knights Islands. Located approximately 24km (15 miles) offshore, Poor Knights is a marine reserve and one of the best scuba diving sites in New Zealand.
The remains of ancient volcanoes, these uninhabited islands, with their steep cliffs, and cave entrances both above and below the water offer an unforgettable experience for both snorkelers and scuba divers. In fact, the renowned French oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, rated the Poor Knights Islands as one of the top ten dive sites in the world.
Home to a huge variety of sea life, including stingrays, nudibranchs, and countless fish species, The Poor Knights offer excellent diving conditions with great visibility and plenty of dive sites for both beginners and experienced divers alike. And if you opt for an overnight charter experience, you’ll have more time to explore some of the more remote and pristine dive sites.
Even if you’re not a scuba diver, the Poor Knights Islands are still worth a visit. Snorkeling is a great way to explore the shallower parts of the marine reserve and see the abundant sea life and the crew at Dive! Tutukaka will make sure that you have a safe and enjoyable experience.
To find out more, check out our detailed guide, Top things to do in Northland.
And there you have it, that’s our list of the top 10 best places to visit in New Zealand. Of course no single list can truly do this country justice but hopefully we’ve given you some ideas and inspiration to help you plan the ultimate itinerary. Next up, links to all of our region guides.
New Zealand Regions
Across the North and South Islands, New Zealand is divided up into a number of regions, each with its own particular, and in some cases unique, features. These regions are listed below and you can explore each one in more detail to see where it’s located and read about some of the top attractions and activities for adventure travellers.