The beautiful and adventurous country that is New Zealand offers so much to see and do that it is quite difficult to pick and choose amongst them. We were in such a dilemma while planning our trip; we wanted to do everything. To make it easier for you, we have narrowed down our top 15 things to do in New Zealand that should make it to your bucket list. In addition to suggesting the best place to do a particular activity, we have provided you with more options wherever possible so that you can make the most of your trip. Enjoy shortlisting your preferred things to see and do in New Zealand!
Top things to do in New Zealand North Island
1. See Glowworms in Waitomo
You cannot visit this part of the world and not see these tiny bioluminescent creatures that light up dark caves’ ceilings like the starry sky. Waitomo Glowworm Caves, two hours from Auckland in North Island, are the most popular and accessible. The Waitomo Caves feature stunning geological formations that have developed over 30 million years. Another interesting fact is that most of the guides who bring this cave to life through their story-telling are direct descendants of the Maori Chief that first explored the cave. The most popular way to explore these caves is a 45-minute tour on foot and boat.
If you aren’t visiting Waitomo, you could also see glow worms at:
Te Anau Glowworm caves in Te Anau, South Island: This 2 hours and 15 mins tour takes you on a cruise across Te Anau lake to one of the youngest caves in New Zealand (only 12,000 years old), after which you will be led into a glowworm grotto via a small boat.
Tartare Tunnel near Franz Josef, South Island: A 1 hour 20 minutes round trip on foot to see glow worms in a non-commercial setting. Best of all, it is free.
2. Visit Geothermal Parks in Rotorua
Visiting a Geothermal Park is a must do in North Island. The most interesting one is the Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Located in Rotorua, it is an 18 sq. km active geothermal park formed by thousands of years of volcanic activity. The geothermal springs around this park especially the Artist’s Palette and champagne pool are a truly fascinating mix of greens, blues and oranges. The Park also has the largest bubbling mud pool in New Zealand and a geyser called Lady Knox that erupts at 10.15 am every day. Time to be punctual people! While walking around the park, it is easy to get lost in the walkways covered with eerily twisted old trees, springs with vivid splashes of colour and clouds of wafting hot steam. It is not surprising that this geothermal park features in Trip Advisor’s list of Most Surreal Places in the World. Note that Wai-o-Tapu is a cashless site so queues to buy tickets may be long. To avoid the queue, pre-book your tickets here.
There are plenty of other geothermal parks in the area. Some of the interesting ones include Waimangu Volcanic Valley, on the Geothermal Explorer Highway, and Kuirau Park, located in Rotorua city itself. The latter has foot baths and is absolutely free. You can visit Te Puia for the Pohutu Geyser-the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere that can go up to a staggering 100 feet. Additionally, in Rotorua’s neighbouring town Taupo, there exists another fascinating geothermal park, Orakei Korako, which features one of the only two thermal caves in the World. How cool is that!
3. Take a dip in Hot Springs
This country is located on the Pacific Rim of Fire, an area known for its geothermal activity. As a result, New Zealand has several geothermal hot pools and springs so it is tough to decide which ones to visit. Not all famous hot pools and spas offer geothermal water but are interesting nonetheless.
Polynesian Spa in Rotorua: Built on the site of historic bathhouses, Polynesian Spa is the most renowned hot pool in New Zealand. It is known for its locally sourced natural acidic and alkaline mineral pools that have beneficial properties from soothing sore muscles to nourishing the skin. Additionally, they have a foot reflexology walk path for total-body benefits. You can choose to take a dip in the open-air pavilion pools or deluxe pools overlooking Lake Rotorua, choose to bathe in private pools or opt for a combination of both.
Hot Pool Beach in Hahei: This no-cost option is an intriguing one! Here you can dig your personal spa pool in the sand. If you’re not in the mood for working that hard for a hot water dip, you can also hop over to an abandoned pool. Soak in the mineral-filled water and enjoy the serenity of the beach and ocean beyond. Best time to visit is two hours either side of low tide. Check low tide timings here.
Onsen Hot Pools in Queenstown: Onsen Hot Pools offer private pools with astounding views overlooking the Shotover River Canyon. Here you can physically and visually soak in the marvels of nature in a candle-lit private cedar-lined pool while sipping on a glass of bubbly and munching on delicious snacks.
4. Learn about Maori Culture and Try the Hangi in Rotorua
No trip is complete without delving into the culture and tasting traditional food of the region, especially one as vibrant as that of the Maori people. They came to New Zealand nearly 1000 years ago from the mythical land of Hawaiki in Polynesia and developed a unique Maori culture. Best way to observe Maori Culture is by visiting a Marae, a sacred meeting place. Here you will be greeted with the calming Hongi (pressing of noses), hear harmonious singing, learn about their customs and traditions, observe their intricate traditional arts, see the spirited haka (a ceremonial dance), and enjoy a Hangi Feast (food cooked in underground pits).
There are several places in New Zealand where you can delve into their culture. However, there is no better place than Rotorua in North Island as it is known for its concentration of Maori Culture with plenty of Maori Villages and Maraes to choose from. Te Puia is a good option if you would also like to see Kiwi Birds and the Pohutu Geyser (the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere). However, Tamaki Maori Village is the most renowned as it provides an immersive and interactive cultural experience. If you’re wondering which one to visit then read this article to help make the decision.
5. Hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing near Taupo
With Dual World Heritage Status due to its cultural and natural significance, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Hike simply cannot be and should not be missed. The hike takes you through surreal, almost alien, volcanic landscape with solidified lava flats, red craters, volcanos, steam vents, brightly hued lakes and native beech forests. These otherworldly vistas place the hike not only on the list of New Zealand’s Great Walks but also on every list featuring the world’s best day hikes. Not to mention, it is home to Mount Doom from the famous epic fantasy film ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Aren’t you yearning to go here already. You can choose to do the 19.4 km day hike like we did or the 43.1km 3-4 days trek through the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Click here for details.
Top things to do in New Zealand South Island
6. Have Wildlife Encounters in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a magical place where the mountains meet the ocean in a dramatically beautiful manner. Due to the nutrient-rich ocean water on Kaikoura’s shore, it has a wide variety and abundance of marine wildlife. Here you can witness seals basking in the sun on rocks right next to the road; kayak alongside seals, take a boat ride to view the world’s largest seabirds, Albatross, with their mighty wings soar in the sky; have the opportunity to swim and snorkel with dolphins and seals; and watch whales breach the water so close that you could almost touch them. These are all wonderful experiences you wouldn’t want to miss. Even if you just walk the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway and not take any tours at all, you will be amazed by the scenic beauty and wildlife in Kaikoura.
That said, the activity which is most popular here is Whale Watching by a boat or a scenic flight. Sperm whales sighting is a given as they are present in the region all year round. June and July are the best time to see humpback whales as they migrate north toward the Pacific Islands. December through March are best months to see Orcas (killer whales).
7. Hike on a Glacier in Franz Josef
Franz Josef is a small town built around its central attraction, the Franz Josef Glacier. This is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Earlier you could just walk up to the glacier and hike on it. However, now the glacier has receded due to global warming and the only way to get up to it is through a scenic helicopter ride giving way to the adventurous heli hiking tour.
The helicopter ride to and fro from the glacier offers remarkable views of the glacier valley. On landing on the glacier, you will walk on ice occasionally between brilliant white and blue-hued glacier walls and inside ice caves. Don’t worry about gear for hiking on ice, it will be provided by the tour company. You will see dramatic ice formations and learn about them. Each glacier experience is truly one of a kind as these glacier formations change rapidly plus your route is tailored basis the condition of the ice on that day. After your return flight, you can rejuvenate with a complimentary soak in the Glacier Hot Pools. The entire experience is absolutely phenomenal! You can also do heli-hiking at Fox Glacier or Tasman Glacier (Mt. Cook National Park).
2. The weather is unpredictable in Franz Josef and the tours get cancelled often (happened with us too). However, you can put yourself on the standby list for next day’s tours and fill in the slot of dropouts. So, stay an extra day or plan to leave for your next destination late afternoon the next day.
8. Visit Wanaka
Wanaka is a picturesque town with a laid back yet lively vibe and plenty to see and do. You can see the famous solitary Wanaka Tree, visit a Lavender Farm, go for a wine tour, try a waterfall climb, paddleboard on Lake Wanaka, or just walk around the town and Lake Wanaka taking in the brilliant view of the lake and mountains.
There are some beautiful tramping tracks in and around Wanaka as it is the gateway to Mt. Aspiring National Park. Some of these hikes that you could attempt are:
Roy’s Peak- The most famous one is the Rob Roy Peak, a 17 km moderate difficulty hike that offers a supremely spectacular view often featured on Instagram. However, let me warn you, due to its Instagram popularity expect to wait in a queue for an hour to click THE picture.
Isthmus Peak– If busy tracks don’t appeal to you, hike the Isthmus Peak. It is a 15km hike with views similar to that of Roy’s Peak and hey! no queues. However, it is becoming increasingly popular by the day.
Mt. Iron– If you think the above-mentioned hikes are too long, try the much shorter Mt. Iron walk which is a 4.5 km loop frequented by locals on a daily basis.
For more hiking options, read this article.
9. Wine Tasting at a Vineyard
New Zealand is a haven for wine-lovers as it has world class wineries spread throughout the country. Even if you’re on a budget, you will have no problem finding good wine and options for wine tasting. New Zealand is especially known for its Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region (Area around Picton in South Island) and Pinot Noir from Marlborough (South Island), Martinborough (Near Wellington in North island) and Central Otago (Area around Queenstown in South Island). For the best wine tours in the country, read here. Also, if you intend to just pick up wine from stores or visit individual vineyards, click here for the best wines in New Zealand.
10. Bungy Jump in Queenstown
Queenstown is a fast-paced town where the thrill-seekers of the world come to get their adrenaline pumping. Queenstown has aptly gained popularity as ‘the adventure capital of the world’ with its vast range of activities like jet boating, canyoning, rafting, quad biking, bungees and swings, zip-lining, paragliding, skydiving, skiing, and much more. No matter how much you want to, you simply cannot do all of the mentioned activities and will definitely have a tough time choosing between them.
So, what’s our recommendation? Its hands down bungy jumping and for good reason. Queenstown is the birthplace of the first-ever commercial Bungy, The Kawarau Bridge Bungy, established by A.J. Hackett, a native kiwi. You have a total of three bungees to choose from- Kawarau Bridge Bungy (43 m) where you have the option of a dunk in the river, Ledge Bungy (47m) which is a freestyle Bungy overlooking beautiful Queenstown, and Nevis Bungy which stands at a whopping 134 meters. The best bit is that you don’t need to worry about safety, A.J. Hackett has an impressive record of being accident free ever since they started out. With personal experience on the Ledge Bungy I can ensure you that the recoil is so smooth you hardly feel it. So why don’t you visit Queenstown and take a leap of faith? Quite literally!
11. Drive to Glenorchy
This 45-minute drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy by far is the most beautiful and an absolute must see in South Island. This winding road is lined by the blue waters of Lake Wakatipu on one side and cushioned by mountains all the way through. There are multiple points of interest along the route so you can relax, have a picnic and make it a day.
The Glenorchy Waterfront houses a cute red boat shed which is worth a visit. The crowning point is that the view from the Glenorchy wharf is beautiful no matter the weather- a mystical grey with the mountains peeping through the fog on a rainy day and an impressive fusion of greens and blues on a sunny one. Fun fact- there is a place called ‘Paradise’ a little beyond Glenorchy. Yes, Paradise! Glenorchy and Paradise are epic enough to be made into fantasy movie sets for likes of LOTR, Hobbit, Chronicles of Narnia, Wolverine and many others. If you’re a movie buff, you can actually go on a tour to see these locations. Despite such movies being shot here, Glenorchy still remains quiet and unspoiled.
12. Take a Trip to Milford Sound
A trip to New Zealand is incomplete without visiting Milford Sound which is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. This postcard icon of New Zealand offers an uninterrupted view of towering glacier-carved cliff frontages, snow-capped mountains, glistening fjords and lakes, cascading waterfalls, diverse wildlife and exotic lush greenery. Keep a look out for fur seals, dolphins and Fjordland crested penguins.
The most popular way to absorb this scenery is by a 2 to 3-hour cruise on the fjord. However, you can also choose to kayak to or take an overnight cruise to enjoy the landscape for a longer period. Nature lovers can hike the 53.5 km Milford Track, a New Zealand Great Walk that takes you through rainforests and alpine passes. The walk takes four days to complete with each night spent in a pre-booked hut. These are sometimes fully booked a year in advance; that’s how alluring the track is.
That said, the alpine drive to Milford Sound is equally spectacular if not more. You will hanker to stop at the numerous viewing points to take in the magnificent vistas. Be sure to spare time to also stop at the various points of interest and short walks en route.
13. Visit Mt. Cook National Park
Mt. Cook Aoraki National Park, comprises of 19 peaks which are over 3000 meters tall and glaciers which cover 40% of the area. The drive to Mt. Cook Village is absolutely sensational with the resplendent turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki on the right and the rugged snow-clad peak of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mt. Cook/Aoraki, in front. The sprawling alpine landscape of the park definitely spoils you for choices of hikes.
The best ones that can be done in a single day are:
Hooker Valley Track: A relatively flat 2-3 hour walk with a few picturesque suspension bridges that ultimately lead up to the Hooker Glacier terminal lake. It is the most popular hike due to stunning views that are present throughout the track.
Tasman Glacier View Track: The short 1-hour return track takes you to the Tasman Glacier lake where you can see icebergs floating in the lake.
For information on other tracks in the area, read here.
14. Stargaze in a Dark Sky Reserve - Mackenzie Region
Fascinated by starry sky pictures you see on social media that seem photoshopped? Well, then visit the Mackenzie region (Tekapo/Pukaki/Mt. Cook/Fairlie), a place where the clarity of individual stars and the milky seen with the naked eye will leave you spellbound. The Mackenzie Region, is a Dark Sky Reserve, one of the only 16 such reserves in the world (though a lot of people claim there are only eight). Low levels of light pollution make it the perfect place for stargazing. The starry night sky is a must see in New Zealand.
You can stargaze by yourself or take a tour to Mt. John Observatory to make more sense of that brilliant sky. An interesting thing you could do in Tekapo is stargazing while soaking in hot pools after a guided tour informing you about the glittering sky that seems unreal. Make the most of your time here and take a tour (we regretted not taking one), who knows when you’ll be able to see the milky way so clearly again.
15. Visit the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata
Hollywood Director Peter Jackson found the perfect farm to build ‘The Shire’ for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies more than 20 years back. After the filming of the LOTR movies, the set was brought down and the farm was returned to its original state. Later, the set was built to last for ‘The Hobbit’ movies and guided tours hence began in 2012 in the place popularly known as ‘Hobbiton’.
The tour of Hobbiton takes you through the 12-acre magical property with a guide telling you interesting facts and stories about the set and movies all along. There are plenty of pretty picture opportunities in this immensely green hobbit land. The 2-hour tour ends at the Green Dragon with a free drink.
Note: Tours leave every 10-15 minutes though booking timings online are limited. Do pre-book this experience here as it sells out.
In all honesty, we have put Hobbiton on this list very reluctantly. It was beautiful but still not one of our favourite experiences due to its commercialization. However, if you’re in NZ for the first time you should visit once to form your own opinions about the place. Some really love it despite them being dragged here by their travel partners who are LOTR fans. You might just be one of them.
That brings us to the end! However, there are plenty of places we haven’t been able to mention. So if you’re craving for more or looking for other interesting sites to see then read this post on iconic landmarks in New Zealand.
Also, if you are planning a trip to New Zealand, we have a ton of blog posts that you will find helpful in planning your journey. Click here for the complete NZ guide.
Let us know in the comments if this list of top things to do in New Zealand inspired you to visit the places mentioned. If you’ve already been to New Zealand then which other places do you think should make it to the list?
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This blog post on the ultimate New Zealand Bucket List has affiliate links that enable us to earn a small commission when you make a purchase, with no extra cost to you. We only recommend activities we did or like and those that might interest you.