Year after year, travellers list New Zealand in the top ten of places they’d like to visit – and you rarely meet anyone who has been and didn’t love the place. And what’s not to like? With craggy coastlines, sweeping beaches, primaeval forests, snowcapped mountains and explosive geysers, the scenery is truly majestic. Here's our pick of the best things to do in New Zealand.
This article is inspired by our Rough Guides guidebooks — your essential guides for travelling the world.
1. Visit the stunning fiord of Milford Sound
The most northerly and celebrated of Fiordland’s fifteen fiords is Milford Sound with its vertical sides towering 1200m above the sea and waterfalls plunging from hanging valleys. This national park is located on New Zealand's South Island and is one of our favourite New Zealand attractions.
Experience the grandeur and beauty of Fiordland National Park on the area’s most accessible fiord, great in bright sunshine and wonderfully atmospheric in the mist with the waterfalls at their most impressive.
- For a stay within the park: Milford Sound Lodge
- For a unique cruise stay: Milford Sound Overnight Cruise - Fiordland Discovery
Where to stay near Milford Sound
2. Take a ride on the Taieri Gorge Railway
The scenic Taieri Gorge Railway stretches 116km northwest of Dunedin through a rugged hill country. Constructed between 1879 and 1921, the line once carried supplies a total of 235km from Dunedin to the old gold town of Cromwell. This scenic route should be on your New Zealand itinerary.
Commercial traffic stopped in 1990. However, this rail journey continues to offer a rewarding rail journey at any time of year. The air-conditioned train comprises a mix of modern steel carriages with large panoramic windows and nostalgic, refurbished 1920s wooden cars.
3. Whale watch off of the Kaikoura Peninsula
An impressive range of cetaceans populates the deep canyons of the Kaikoura Peninsula. The seabed plummets into the 1000m-deep Kaikoura Canyon, located on the east coast of the South Island. You'll find here a network of undersea troughs that funnel warm subtropical waters and cold sub-Antarctic flows.
This habitat supports an enormous variety of marine life, including fourteen species of whale. You can expect to see giant sperm whales, dolphins, migratory humpback whales and orcas. Taking a helicopter ride over this peninsula is a great thing to do on your New Zealand adventure.
4. Cycle along the Otago Central Rail Trail
One of the finest ways to explore the Maniototo is to cycle the Otago Central Rail Trail (OCRT), a largely flat route from Clyde to Middlemarch. Taking three leisurely days on a bike is the best way to tackle this 150km trail, which follows the route of a former rail line through some ruggedly barren country.
This trail passes through all the main towns except for St Bathans and Naseby. It includes modified rail bridges and viaducts (several spanning over 100m), beautiful valleys and long agricultural plains.
Are you dreaming of backpacking through the nature of New Zealand? Don't miss our guide to backpacking in New Zealand.
5. Visit the otherworldly White Island
Whakatane’s star attraction is White Island (Whaakari), named by Cook for its permanent shroud of mist and steam. Visitors flock to its desolate, other-worldly landscape, with billowing towers of gas and steam spewing from a crater lake.
Don't miss the opportunity to take a boat trip out to New Zealand’s most active volcano, and stroll through the sulphurous lunar landscape. The crystal-clear and abundant waters around the island make this one of the best dive spots in New Zealand.
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6. Take a tour of Ninety Mile Beach
Ninety Mile Beach, running along the western side of the Aupouri Peninsula, is actually 60 miles long. There are numerous explanations for this quirk, the most plausible being an early mapping error. This beach is located on the west coast of New Zealand's north island.
It is lined with tall dunes and hillocks of shell and flanked by the Aupouri Forest, populated by bands of wild horses of thoroughbred stature. This seemingly endless wave-lashed golden strand is a designated highway, plied by tour buses that regularly stop to let passengers toboggan down the steep dunes.
7. Stroll along the Moeraki Boulders
Stroll along the beach to visit these large, perfectly round, natural spheres with interesting patterns. The boulders were originally formed around a central core of carbonate of lime crystals that attracted minerals from their surroundings. Coastal errosion has revealed these stones in a process that started sixty million years ago.
The large, grey spherical Moeraki Boulders lie partially submerged in the sandy beach at the tide line. Their smooth skins hide honeycomb centres, which are revealed in some of the broken specimens. These are fantastic to visit during sunset.
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8. Climb Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier
Located in rugged Westland National Park, the steep and dramatic Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier can be explored by glacier hikes, ice climbing and helicopter rides landing on the snowfields above. Located on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, these glaciers are some of the most accessible in the world.
Legend tells of the beautiful Hinehukatere who so loved the mountains that she encouraged her lover, Tawe, to climb alongside her. He fell to his death and Hinehukatere cried so copiously that her tears formed the glaciers. Franz Josef is known in Maori culture as Ka Riomata o Hinehukatere – “The Tears of the Avalanche Girl”.
The trip to Farewell Spit, some 22km north of Collingwood, is an iconic New Zealand journey and shouldn’t be missed. This slender 25km arc of sand dunes and beaches is a nature reserve protecting a host of bird species including black swans, wrybills, curlews and dotterels.
During the day you’ll see vast numbers of birds, seals (plus the occasional sea lion) and fossils. Climb an enormous sand dune and maybe see the skeletons of wrecked ships if the sands reveal them. Located on New Zealand's south island, a trip to farewell spit is one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
10. Explore The Catlins — one of the best things to do in New Zealand
The rugged coastal route linking Dunedin and Invercargill is one of the less-travelled highways on the South Island. Visiting the Catlins Coast is one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
This scenic coastline is made of plunging cliffs, windswept headlands, white-sand beaches, rocky bays and gaping caves. Many of which are accessible to visitors. Seals and dolphins and a laidback approach to life make this rugged coast a great place to unwind for a few days.
11. Take a dive at Poor Knights Islands
Diving at Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve is one of the best things to do in New Zealand's north island.
The warm East Auckland current and the lack of run-off from the land combine to create visibility approaching 30m most of the year. The clear waters are home to New Zealand’s most diverse and plentiful range of sea life. You'll find here subtropical species found nowhere else, as well as a striking underwater landscape of near-vertical rock faces and arches that drop almost 100m.
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South of Kaitaia, the narrow, mangrove-flanked fissures of the Hokianga Harbour snake deep inland past tiny and almost moribund communities.
For a few days’ relaxation, the tranquillity and easy pace of this rural backwater is hard to beat. As a low-key antidote to the commercialization of the Bay of Islands, the sand dunes, quiet retreats and crafts culture of this vast inlet are hard to beat.
13. See the many landmarks of the rebuilding Christchurch
The South Island’s largest city, Christchurch (Otautahi in Mãori) was devastated by an earthquake that struck on 22 February 2011. Much of the city centre was subsequently demolished, and the former genteel, English Victorian architecture of Christchurch has largely disappeared.
Though some key historical sights have been restored, what is rising in its place is a stylish showcase of contemporary design, with glass and steel towers, lavish street murals and pedestrian-friendly parks and promenades. Witness the rebirth of a new city, a creative blend of coffee shops, art galleries and contemporary architecture.
14. Surf and more at Raglan
One of the world’s longest left-hand breaks, reliable swells and a chilled-out vibe make this New Zealand’s prime surfing destination. It’s easy to stay far longer than you intended in Raglan, which hugs the south side of the large and picturesque Whaingaroa Harbour. The small surf town has a bohemian creative scene and a laidback spirit.
Don't miss the opportunity to check out the cafés, restaurants, surf shops and boutiques line palm-shaded Bow Street, whose western end butts against the harbour.
15. Visit the beaches of Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is stunningly beautiful with golden sandy beaches lapped by crystal-clear waters and lush green bush. The landscape is interspersed with granite outcrops and inhabited by a huge range of birds. Deservedly it has an international reputation that draws large numbers of trampers, kayakers and day-trippers.
You won't want to miss the stunning trail of Coastal Track connecting Marahau at its southern end to Totaranui in the north. Visiting this infamous national park is one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
If you're looking for an alternative to this amazing park, we suggest trying Golden Bay. See our guide to the best things to do in Golden Bay.
16. Take a wine tour
Kiwis are justifiably loyal to New Zealand winemakers, who now produce wines that are among the best in the world. New Zealand's finest wines are white wines.
Wine lovers will want to make sure to try Sauvignon Blanc. While the bold fruitiness of its Chardonnay and apricot and the citrus palate of its Rieslings will also attract many fans.
17. See the art deco architecture of Napier
Laidback, seaside Napier is Hawke’s Bay’s largest city (population 60,000). This city is one of New Zealand’s most likeable regional centres, thanks to its Mediterranean climate, affordable prices and the world’s best-preserved collection of small-scale Art Deco architecture.
With a huge range of seaside hotels and a decent array of restaurants, Napier does make a decent base. From here visit the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers and or take a wine tour at one of the many local wineries. Or go on a nearby outdoor adventure — such as sea kayaking or jet boating.
- For an art deco stay: Art Deco Masonic Hotel
- For a relaxing stay with a spa: The Dome
Where to stay in Napier:
Or find your perfect accommodation in Napier.
18. Walk the Routeburn Track
One of the country’s finest walks, the famous Routeburn Track is one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
Straddling the spine of the Humboldt Mountains, the Routeburn provides access to many of the southwestern wilderness’s most archetypal features: forested valleys rich with birdlife (including the rare yellow-headed mohua) and plunging waterfalls are combined with river flats, lakes and spectacular mountain scenery.
19. See Wai-O-Tapu of North Island
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is one of Rotorua’s geothermal sites. Visiting this natural site is one of the best things to do in New Zealand. Take the hour-long walking loop through a series of beautifully multi-coloured mineral lakes.
Don't miss the gurgling and growling black mud of the Devil’s Ink-Pots. Visit the ever-changing rainbow colours of the Artist’s Palette pools. And of course take the chance to visit the gorgeous, effervescent Champagne Pool, a circular bottle-green cauldron wreathed in swirling steam and fringed by a burnt-orange shelf.
20. Bungy jumping in New Zealand's south island
For maximum adrenaline, minimum risk and greatest expense, bungy jumping is difficult to beat. New Zealand is home to some of the world’s best sites, with bridges over deep canyons and platforms cantilevered out over rivers.
New Zealand’s trademark adventure sport can be tried at Kawarau Bridge, the original commercial jump site, the super-high Nevis site nearby, and several other spots around the country.
21. Tongariro Alpine Crossing — one of the best things to do in New Zealand
Tongariro National Park contains some of the North Island’s finest walks, all through spectacular and varied volcanic terrain. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing alone is often cited as the best one-day tramp in the country.
Within a few hours, you climb over lava flows, cross a crater floor, skirt active geothermal areas, and pass beautiful and serene emerald and blue lakes. Add this walk to your New Zealand bucket list.
Looking for inspiration for your next big adventure? Don't miss our guide to the most exotic places to travel around the world.
22. Soak at Hot Water Beach
With the opportunity to dig your own hot pool in the sands next to the breakers, Hot Water Beach is understandably one of the most popular destinations on the Coromandel Peninsula. The hot springs bubble up beneath the sand.
Wander 100m across the sands to the rocky outcrop that splits the beach in two, dig your hole and enjoy the hot water, refreshed by waves. You’ll need a spade to dig your “hot tub”.
23. Go on an outdoor adventure at Lake Taupo
This serene lake, and the streams and rivers feeding it, have long lured anglers keen to snag brown and rainbow trout. Meanwhile, visitors flock to diverse sights and activities located near the thundering rapids on the Waikato River, which drains the lake.
On the northeastern edge of Lake Taupo is the fast-growing resort town of Taupo, which offers travellers a beguiling array of outdoor activities. Visiting this beautiful lake is one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
24. Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park — New Zealand's highest mountain
New Zealand’s highest mountain, the spectacular 3754m Mount Cook is increasingly known by its Māori name, Aoraki, meaning “cloud piercer” – with the two names often running together as Aoraki/Mount Cook.
This stunning mountain sits in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park — which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. With 22 peaks over 3000m, the park contains many mountains, many easily accessible on walks to great viewpoints.
25. Te Papa Museum for all ages
The constantly evolving Te Papa Museum rewards repeat visits – you can spend an entire day among the exhibits and still not see everything.
This celebration of all things New Zealand occupies a striking purpose-built five-storey building on the waterfront. Aimed equally at adults and children (including hands-on kids’ activities in dedicated “discovery” spaces), it combines state-of-the-art technology and dynamic exhibits. A visit to this well known museum is one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
This list could truly go on. There are countless fantastic things to do in New Zealand. Ready to start planning your trip? Check out our Rough Guides guidebooks. Read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and best things to do in New Zealand.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to New Zealand without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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