There’s an old-fashioned charm to WANGANUI, the slow pace mirroring the speed of the river that bisects it. Founded on the banks of the Whanganui River, New Zealand’s longest navigable watercourse, Wanganui is one of New Zealand’s oldest cities and was the hub of early European commerce because of its access to the interior, and coastal links with the ports of Wellington and New Plymouth. The river traffic has long gone and the port is a shadow of what it was, leaving a city that feels too big for its 42,000 people – it even has a small opera house. Still, it’s a manageable place that exudes civic pride, both for its quality museums and well-tended streetscape.

The cultural heart of Wanganui beats around Pukenamu, a grassy hill that marks the site of Wanganui’s last tribal war in 1832. Now known as Queens Park, it contains three of the city’s most significant buildings.

The low cost of living has seen a thriving arts community spring up here, and it’s a pleasant place to idle away some time in the renowned art gallery, watch a glass-blowing demonstration or take a class, and to ride on a restored river steamer.

Brief history

When Europeans arrived in the 1830s, land rights quickly became a bone of contention with the local Maori population. Transactions that Maori perceived as a ritual exchange of gifts were taken by the New Zealand Company to be a successful negotiation for the purchase of Wanganui and a large amount of surrounding land. Settlement went ahead regardless of the misunderstanding, and it was not until the Gilfillan Massacre of 1847 that trouble erupted – when a Maori was accidentally injured, his tribesmen massacred four members of the Gilfillan family. Further violent incidents culminated in a full-scale but inconclusive battle at St John’s Hill. The next year the problems were apparently resolved by a payment of £1000 to the Maori. In the 1990s, the central Moutoa Gardens became the focus of renewed tensions, while the spelling of the city’s name also creates divisions – For more information, see Wanganui or Whanganui?.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

New Zealand features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Everything you need to know about backpacking New Zealand

Everything you need to know about backpacking New Zealand

New Zealand’s craggy coastline and beautiful national parks beg to be explored. The scenery gets more spectacular around every corner, with beaches, vineyards…

21 Nov 2017 • Rachel Mills insert_drive_file Article
The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

There's nothing like an amazing view to inspire you to book your next trip, whether you're drawn by rolling countryside, isolated islands or soaring mountain …

30 Aug 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
24 breaks for bookworms

24 breaks for bookworms

1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas In 1971, fuelled by a cornucopia of drugs, Hunter S. Thompson set off for Las Vegas on his “savage journey to the heart of …

02 Mar 2017 • Eleanor Aldridge camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook