Places to visit in New Zealand - Both north and south islands
New Zealand is a nature experience you don't want to miss out on.
Imagine the bluest lakes you have ever seen, marvelous hikes and road trips in landscapes that make you drop your jaw.
This island country can give you everything from tropical heat in the north to skiing in the south. If you rent a car you will be able to get to places where the tourist buses can´t reach and explore the secret spots of this country.
So let us start from the north and continue south. Here is the list of places you have to see when going to Aotearoa, the land of indigenous people Māori.
This article is produced by our content contributor Lina Conrad Andersson, who by the way loves New Zealand.
Let's start with the biggest city in New Zealand, Auckland. Many people may think this is the capital, which is understandable since it is the largest area and a lot of international flights come in here. This is a great place to start your trip and continue down almost the whole northern island.
If you feel like spending some time here you should definitely go down to the water, because all of Auckland is surrounded by it. There are several ferries you can take from the Viaduct harbor and go to nearby islands. Or why not go sailing or enjoy a drink by the sea?
Besides, you can discover loads of culture here. Cultural performances, art galleries and museums are just a sample of what you can experience.
Paihia is the place where the beaches never disappoint. Make a list of all the beaches you want to visit in the area, bring a picnic and a good book – now you are ready to go. Are you up for more of an adventurous day? Then you can always rent a kayak, book a sailing trip or go on a dolphin/whale-cruise. Paihia is a part of The Bay of Islands, an irregular shaped bay going from northern Whangārei to Cape Reinga.
In Paihia you can easily switch between hours at the beach, go shopping in the boutiques or eat a meal at a restaurant by the water. If you feel like seeing something else for the day you can jump on a boat to one of the other peninsulas surrounding Paihia. The whole Bay of Islands area is well liked for fishing, sailing and its many peninsulas.
The surfer dream and the land of the hippies. Raglan is the perfect mix between a quiet California and Australia´s wavy beaches. In the little centre of Raglan there are the cutest coffee shops, places to rent board and many vegan friendly restaurants. During the night you can go to raves or techno-clubs.
As for New Zealand in general, you will experience much more by going by car. When it comes to surfing you can take a short road trip, with your own car or hitch hiking, to Manu Bay. Among the rocks and sometimes big green waves it is a sight for the eye to watch people ride. Maybe you even want to try? If you are more of a beginner you can always take surfing lessons or rent a board to practice on the white wash at Ngarunui Beach. If you have stayed in cheap hostels or hotels so far, this could be a chance to try something else. For example the eco accommodation Solscape has tipi tents to sleep in with comfy madrassas inside or cozy cottages on a little hill above the ocean, a view you will remember forever.
On the northern island´s east coast you find Tauranga. A stone's throw from the short hike up to Mount Maunganui, which gives you a view over the city and bay. If you are lucky on the way up, you may see some lambs jumping around on the grass during spring. Tauranga offers a little bit of everything. You can just walk around in the parks, rent a bike for the day or go to the climbing centre. You will not have a hard time finding a cheap home here – it is perfect for hostels and if you want to find an airbnb. But the backpacker friendly places to live goes for New Zealand in general.
This country is full of places where Lord of the Rings were filmed. One of them is located close to Tauranga. A 40 min car ride from the city will lead you to Matamata, the movie set for The Shire and Hobbiton, a must for the person who is a fan.
Leave the coastline behind and go inland for a while. In the middle of the northern island you can spend some time in Taupo. Search for the closest mountain bike renting place and go into the forests close by. It is a bit uphill, but five kilometers of biking or hiking takes you to Huka falls.
There you will see thousands of litres of water per second at an incredible speed going down over the 11 meter high waterfall. A sunny day you should definitely bring a meal and find a nice place by the water to have a break. If you want to continue with another day of adventure, or even several days in a row, you can always go around Lake Taupo as well.
This is far from the only adventure nearby. Another thing worth exploring is the geothermal phenomena in Taupo, something that can be explored in different ways. Why not visit the Craters of the moon, a geothermal valley with clouds of steam sweeping over the boiling ground? Or if you want to rest a bit during the time, then Wairakei Terraces & Thermal Health Spa could be even better.
Taranaki, New Plymouth is an area on the west side coast, but maybe more known for being the name home of Mount Taranaki. An over 2000 meter high stratovolcano, luckily sleeping, ready to be hiked. Just looking at it you will discover how special it is, with its symmetrical cone shape. If you want to reach the summit it's best to bring a helmet and other equipment for a trickier hike. But no need to worry, you don't need to go to the top to have an amazing whole day of hiking. You can also enjoy the view of the mountain from the ground, visiting Lake Mangamahoe. If you are lucky you will see Taranaki´s reflection in the still water. As you understand – this is one of the favorite locations for photographers worldwide.
The cities in the Taranaki area are maybe not the most impressive once in New Zealand, even if New Plymouth is proud of having the only deep water port. Therefore it could be a perfect opportunity to find a place to rent in the countryside.
Welcome to Wellington – the capital and third biggest city on the island. Museums, concerts and shopping are some of the things to enjoy here, before grabbing the ferry to the south island. Do you want to get to know more about the Mauri people? The national museum Te Papa Tongarewa, a several floor museum in the core of the city, is worth a visit.
The city is built up by the water and the neighbor to a huge area of nature. There you can bike in Mākara Peak Mountain Bike Park or take a group photo at any of the view-points.
With a half an hour in the car or 40 minute hike it is possible to reach the Red rocks reserve. On a good day a seal or two are laying on the rocks and being lazy in the sun.
Over hundred locations on the south and northern island were a part of the filming of the Lord of the Rings. Therefore the fans can be lucky to know that several of them can be explored close to Wellington. Mount Victoria, the Hutt River and the Wētā Cave are some examples of spots – just pick and choose.
If you are going somewhere after your ferry trip from Wellington to Picton it is the charming city Nelson. A place embossed with neighbourship, good coffee and people walking barefoot on the streets during summer.
To appreciate the views over undulating mountains you do not have to go far. A short spirling walk up to the Centre of New Zealand Monument will give you an amazing start of your day. From the Centre of New Zealand you can continue on other trails, favorably running, down to Branford park and end with a swim in the Black hole in the Maitai river.
From Nelson there are also multiple National parks and possibilities for dreamy views. One of the top places to go is Abel Tasman National Park, where you can do both one or several days of hiking or kayaking. It is always easy to find a guided one if you want to. Another one is Nelson Lakes National Parks, where you can choose the level and length of the adventure, but still have an amazing time.
This is also the place for peanut butter lovers. A bike ride or short car ride away you find Pic's Peanut factory, where you learn about the company's history and can even make your own peanut butter.
The calm city Kaikoura can easily be reached by bus or car. It takes about two hours, both from the harbor of Picton or from the big city of Christchurch. People usually go to this east coast village for a guided tour on the water, hoping to see seals, dolphins or maybe even whales. When done you can take a stroll to a fish restaurant or any of the food-trucks. This is the place to try fish and chips or other seafood.
If you don't want to go by boat to see the animals of the sea you can choose to go around the Kaikōura Peninsula to see a seal or just have a nice walk. On the way back you will probably pass by a small coffee shop or food truck for a break.
The little west coast town Franz Joseph is probably most famous for its glacier, Franz Joseph Glacier. It has become one of the most popular places to visit in New Zealand. Why? Well, after about one and a half hour walk you will be 750 meters within the glacier´s face. A pretty cool sight for the eye! And if you want to go even further it is possible to book a heli-hike. Franz Joseph is the perfect one or two day stop for travelers who want to continue south. Also, because of global warming, the glacier is getting smaller – so take your chance to see it while you can!
In the middle of the south island is Tekapo – just by Lake Tekapo. It would be surprising if you could find more blue water than this in New Zealand. It is not a town for happenings, but will not regret a stop here. After being amazed by the lake during the day it could be time to look up to the sky in the evening, because this is the place for stargazing. You can either go out by yourself or pay to be a part of a stargazing, including first a guided tour and then laying outside in hot pools for the rest of the evening – hopefully enjoying a sky full of stars.
Some travelers go to Wanaka and never want to leave. Seasonal workers all over the world gather here, both during summer and winter. The city is not only located by a beautiful lake and trails, but during winter it has four ski resorts. But even though this place has a lot to offer it is a calm, nature-focused town to be in. After a day on the slopes or after taking a swim in lake Wanaka, then why not go to a local brewery or just enjoy the view over the Wanaka tree, standing in the water. This Willow tree is standing alone in the lake and has become a “must go to”-place for tourists.
While in Wanaka there are many summits to be discovered, but there is one a lot of people have heard of: Roy´s peak. The trail starts only a few minutes car ride from Wanaka, then a five to six hour hike awaits to reach the summit. In this case the journey is really the goal, because on a nice day you will be able to take in the spectacular views over Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains on your way up. At the same time it is hard to beat the 360-degree view that you well-deserved will have on the summit.
Within the Fiordland National Park, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you find Milford sound. When going there in spring, for example october, you could find yourself going through all four seasons in one day. A road trip from Queenstown takes a little bit more than three and a half hours. On a regular day it could begin with sun, start to rain going into the national park and begin to snow while you make your way to the Milford sound - where mysterious clouds and sad rain will greet you.
But don´t worry about having a wet day during your visit, most likely you will with the number of rainy days the area has every year, but it doesn't make it less magical.
Buy a ticket to a cruise and go on the water with a group of people, sharing the quiet and “Lord of the rings”-vibe, surrounded by both the tiniest and mighty waterfalls. Just don´t forget to buy tickets to the cruise in advance if traveling during high season.
Welcome to the nightlife in Queenstown. Compared to a lot of other towns in New Zealand, this one contains party and feels alive in a different way. Of course this attracts youngsters, but also people who want a bit of an adrenaline rush. Bungy jump, zip lining, spontaneous musicians creating a circle of crowds on the street and handcraft markets. This is also the home of Fergburger, a burger nobody wants to miss when visiting. The perfect evening you should order a hamburger take away and sit down on the wall by lake Wakatipu for the sun set.
Queenstown is also a good place to stop for the night when you want to explore Milford sounds the next day (see 14) and a nice option for skiing during winter. If you want to explore as much as you can it is possible to ski Queenstown´s resort and then try out the skiing systems in Wanaka (see 13) – just one hour away by car.
Around lake Wakatipu you find several good places for camping – one of them is Glenorchy. It is also an excuse to take a road trip alongside the water, views you never want to stop.
Look up a good place to set up your tent or find a place to park your van, where they also have a kitchen, toilets and the other facilities you need for your stay. Choose your spot wisely and you will wake up with a view of snow covered mountains. Just make sure you have some warm clothes with you, even in the middle of spring or even summer it can be chilly nights in the south.
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