Things to Do in New Zealand
Mythical and enchanted, New Zealand is pretty much the southernmost point on earth and is essentially tucked right under our little globe hiding beneath its belly.
Despite being so damned Southern that it doesn’t even appear on most maps, New Zealand remains one of the most popular destinations in the world today for both backpackers and immigrants alike. Each year, the nation attracts countless scores of visitors and settlers from all across the world arriving on its shores in search of adventure or even new lives. This is really not at all surprising mind, there is a hell of a lot to do and see in New Zealand.
There are actually so many cool places to see and wicked things to do that the hardest part of planning your trip will be deciding exactly what you do have the time (and budget) to do. With that in mind, we have compiled this kick-ass, comprehensive and totally handy guide to the absolute best things to do and see in New Zealand.
You may already know that New Zealand is made up of 2 major islands, Te Ika-a-Mui (North Island) and Te Waipounamu (South Island) plus lots of smaller islands. We have not split this guide into separate sections about the North and South Islands simply because many of the best things to do in New Zealand can be found on both islands. If you are planning on visiting New Zealand it is therefore pretty much imperative that you visit both in order to get the full experience.
Before we start, here is a fun bit of trivia for you, Old Zealand (or simply Zealand) is one of the major islands which makes up Denmark. A lot of people asked me that so I thought I’d clarify it for you here!
Best Things To Do in New Zealand
Explore Middle Earth with a Lord of The Rings Tour
The varied, dramatic and utterly breathtaking landscapes of New Zealand are cinematic in a way that few other places on earth are and this is why the archipelago was chosen by Peter Jackson as the set for his epic Lord of the Rings film adaptation. For many, it was Lord of the Rings which put New Zealand on the map and the nation has been savvy in capitalizing on the success and offers all manner of Lord of the Rings set tours. You can visit the real-life idyl of the Shire to clamber inside Bilbo Baggins house (Bagg End), and take a horseback ride around Rohan.
Both islands were used in the film so you will not be able to see all the locations in one go. In fact, our advice is to simply pick the ones you want to see the most (Hobbiton is our pick) or alternatively simply make a visit to whichever ones fit in best with your overall itinerary.
Many of the locations are only available through guided tour meaning that you will have to part with some cash in order to see them. There are also several tour operators now specializing entirely in Lord of the Rings tours and this may be a good option if you want to see a number of locations and are short on time. However, they do not come cheap.
The good people at Backpacker NZ have prepared a useful resource which you may wish you to look at.
Take the Ferry from North to South
The most common way to cross between the 2 islands is by flying and Auckland in the North and Christchurch in the South as these the major aviation transit hubs. This is the fastest, easiest, and in many cases, cheapest, option and domestic airlines offer daily flights between Auckland and Christchurch.
However, another option is to take either the Interislander or Blueridge Cook ferry from Wellington to Picton. This is the only way across if you are traveling New Zealand by campervan or car and consequently, the ferry option is very popular amongst tourists and backpackers. The crossing itself takes just 3 hours and offers some breathtaking views of the coasts and the ocean. You also get a little glimpse of just how life must have been for the seafaring explorers who arrived in the Pacific 300 years ago.
Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua
Sitting at the tipper-most tip of the Northernmost point of the Northern island, Cape Reinga is a spectacular peninsula which can be reached by taking the stunning Highway 1 route from Auckland. The road trip up along the Cape is a favorite of locals and travelers alike. The cape is where two oceans meet although to be perfectly honest I can’t actually tell them apart!
Out on the cape, you can tour the sea caves by boat or even engage in a bit of sand surfing. The best way to do this is by campervan taking as much time as you need to stop and enjoy the scenery.
Whilst most people come to New Zealand for its stunning natural beauty, the cities also do have a lot to offer. Wellington on the North Island is the nation’s capital and its second largest urban space
The city is compact, easy and pleasant to walk around and with only half a million residents won’t feel too crowded. The pick of the museums if the Te Papa National Museum which brings the history and fascinating geology of New Zealand to life. You must also climb Mount Victoria to take in a 360 panorama and ride on the old cable car system. The city also has a happening food scene, some friendly bars and loads of microbreweries who are mixing up their own artisanal ales.
Whilst not the nation’s capital, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest, most popular and in many ways best city. It is very likely that you will begin your adventure here as this is where most international flights come in to and it is well worth hanging around a while.
The city itself has a few fine museums, some colonial pretty buildings and a lively cultural scene with regular comedy and music festivals. The culinary scene is also world class and there are more pubs and microbreweries than you will ever be able to drink. However, a few days here is enough unless you are planning to take some day trips to One Tree Hill or perhaps Hobbiton. Auckland can also get a bit expensive.
The city is nicknamed “the city of sails” as its harbor is filled with leisure boats. There are many tours harbor boat tours available as well as sailing lessons and even boats for hire to properly qualified and licensed sailors.
If you are headed to Auckland, then check out our guide to the best backpacker accommodation to help you find your perfect abode.
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and represents its cultural, administrative and commercial hub. The city of Christchurch was widely devastated by a major earthquake in 2011 and a lot of its charm has sadly been lost. Reconstruction attempts are still ongoing 7 years on. There are nevertheless loads of awesome day trips such as Arthurs Pass (a jaw-dropping train ride over mountain rail bridges) and some first-rate whale watching out in the bay.
Drink up on a Wine Tour!
You know, when the European explorers first, ahem, “discovered” New Zealand one of the very first things they did was work out the most efficient way to get drunk? Bringing wine in from Italy and France wasn’t exactly practical considering the 1 year round trip so at the very earliest opportunity they set to work planting grapes to make their own vino.
Since then New Zealand has blossomed into one of the world’s premier winemaking nations and exports its produce throughout the world. The Marlborough region is particularly successful and its Cabernet Sauvignons are a personal favorite of mine.
You can take wine tours where you tour from vineyard to vineyard to see the grapes growing, watch the harvest and learn all about the winemaking process. The best part, of course, is that you get to sample everything they make. Tours can be done by bicycle or by joining a bus tour where your designated driver has responsibility for keeping you safe so you don’t have to use the spitoon
Get Out into the National Parks
New Zealand has 13 National Parks covering over 30,000 sq km of terrain spanning the entirety of both islands. These can be explored by car, bike or on foot and are perfect for day trips, camping trips leisurely strolls, arduous treks and anything in between. The various parks also offer you the chance to check out some natural wonders, do some wildlife watching and if you are so inclined you can even get your adrenaline fix. Our picks are as follows;
Fiordland park way down south is like a little piece of Scandinavia with dramatic sea mountains and loads of offshore islands and islets. It also offers rainforests, snowy peaks and is a photographers paradise.
Tongariro is the nation’s oldest national park and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its mix of cultural and natural importance. Come here for volcanoes (active, dormant and extinct), winding rivers and over 50 different species of bird. If you’re feeling energetic then there os Mountain biking, snowboarding, and white-water-rafting. If you just feel like a good old walk then a good old tramp then the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is just over 12 miles long and well worth the effort
Squatting at the north peak of the south island, Abel Tasman park may be New Zealand’s smallest but is still one of its most charming. The reason we love it for the wooden swing bridges which come straight out of a movie as well as the opportunity to camp right on the beach. If you do this, be mindful of tidal changes.
A full list of all National Parks in New Zealand is featured below.
Tongariro (North Island
Whanganui (North Island)
Egmont (North Island)
Abel Tasman (South Island)
Kahurangi (South Island)
Nelson Lakes (South Island)
Paparoa (South Island)
Arthur’s Pass (South Island)
Westland Tai Poutini (South Island)
Aoraki/Mount Cook (South Island)
Mount Aspiring (South Island)
Fiordland (South Island)
Rakiura (South Island)
9. Most Incredible Ice Cream in the World!
Whilst Italian ice cream remains the most popular and revered in the world, little New Zealand is fast establishing itself as a rival world leader in the sweet, frozen dessert sphere. Yep, just like it is doing with wine, the new world is truly rivaling the old.
Auckland, in particular, is a true gourmet city specializing in every conceivable foodie niche to satisfy all appetites and please all palettes. In Auckland you can find prime meat (including the famous New Zealand lamb), some of the best vegan food in the world. Whatever you eat, the finest way to finish any meal off is with delicious Ice Cream from Giappo, founded by Giapo Grazioli and his wife Annarosa. Giappo has been described as a whole “New language for ice cream” and has elevated ice-cream into an art by pushing boundaries with its unique flavors and presentation ideas – I mean, imagine an ice cream version of a giant Antarctic squid!
Cheer Along at an All Blacks Rugby Match
Kiwis are passionate about Rugby and the national side, the All Blacks, remain one of the all-time world great teams. Such is the profile of the game in New Zealand that the most universally famous Kiwi in modern memory is perhaps Jonah Lomu who was perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game. Lomu tragically and prematurely passed away in 2015 aged only 40 years old.
The national side usually plays at Eden Park in Auckland and if you are lucky there will be a home match on during your stay in New Zealand. If you do manage to get game tickets then be sure to get there before the game begins so you can watch the All Blacks perform the legendary Hacker, an ancient Maori war dance reimagined for a 21st-century occasion.
Here is another little fact for you. Did you know that the hacker is considered so important in Kiwi culture that is taught in school to all pupils? Australia and the US could both learn a lot about reconciling the indigenous population with the mainstream population by taking a few leaves out of New Zealand’s book.
Trek the Tongariro Northern Circuit
One of the most popular and satisfying adventure treks in New Zealand is the expansive Tongariro Northern Circuit, a 43 km round trek which winds around an active volcano. The trek is usually completed in 4 – 5 days depending on individual fitness levels and whether or not you also pause to do some of the side treks.
The route takes in some jaw-dropping scenery ranging from heather covered moorland to pristine lakes. The trail is nicely punctuated by huts set up along the way at which you can stay the night (booking in advance is necessary) and there are a few campsites where you can pitch up your tent.
Whilst trekking is a safe and accessible activity which anybody can enjoy, make sure to check ahead for weather conditions and pack the appropriate comfort and safety gear.
Surf the Coastline
With over 15,000 KM of surrounding coastline, New Zealand is without any doubt a first class surfing destination and Kiwis, like their Aussi cousins, are mad about the sport.
There are amazing spots across both islands so you won’t need to think too hard about exactly where to go to get all gnarly. The surf varies drastically depending on where you are so you need to ensure that your chosen surf coast matches your skill level as well as your equipment. Beginners should check out Raglan where there are a lot of introductory classes on offer whereas Northland, Auckland, Waikato offer a nice challenge for more experienced wave riders.
In terms of gear, you will need a board and wetsuit and these can generally be hired locally or you can shop for them online. Just bear in mind that if you do buy the gear you have to lug it around and check it in on flights.
Camp Beneath the Stars
As you can see from this list, New Zealand is absolutely great for getting outdoors and the best way to do this is by pitching your tent on an empty mountain, beach or field and watching the stars come out to shine.
You can camp out in most of the national parks, up on Cape Reinga or on most the trekking routes. However, some special noteworthy camping locations include Matouri Island in the Hauraki Gulf, Fantail Bay in Coromandel and Poukaraka Flats on Waiheke Island.
If you are going to do some camping then be sure to check out our awesome camping gear and packing post.
Summary of North Island
Tongariro National Park
Hobbiton Lord of The Rings set tour
Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua
Wellington to Pickton ferry crossing
Summary of South Island
Marlborough region wine tour
Abel Tasman & Nelson Lakes National Park
Christchurch city tour
There is so much to see and new down in New Zealand that it might take you several trips or even several lifetimes to take it all in. With that in mind, you best get started and book your flight right now!
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