I was speaking to a total stranger about New Zealand recently. At a certain point in the conversation, he told me he’d never heard anybody say a bad word about the country. “Same for me,” I said.
And it was true. Over the course of two separate New Zealand trips, and a total of 18 months traveling the country, I’ve never heard so much of a whisper of negative conversation about it.
I don’t know of any other country boasting such a positive reputation.
England is cold. India is intense. Southeast Asia is (arguably) over traveled. Australia’s full of stuff that wants to kill you and New Zealand is, well, magnificent, sublime … stupendously beautiful. It’s the sort of country where you run out of superlatives.
For travelers, it’s as close to perfection as it gets.
If you’re thinking of traveling to New Zealand in the future, then I’m envious. I’ve seen pretty much all of it already, but I’d go back in a heartbeat. For now, though, I’m happy taking a walk down memory lane and merely suggesting the unmissable things to do in New Zealand. Here are 28 itinerary ideas that I wholeheartedly recommend for your forthcoming trip.
North Island, New Zealand
Let’s start with the North Island. Both islands are packed full of incredible sights, activities, and attractions. However, you’ll notice that my list for the South Island is slightly longer.
That’s nothing against the North Island! Many people choose to spend more time down South though (because it’s truly immense), so I’ve included more options here in case you do the same.
Anyway, here we go. Here are the top things to do on New Zealand’s North Island.
Don’t go to North Island and skip Cape Reinga. It’s a reasonable drive north of Auckland, but it’s also unforgettable. This is the most northerly (accessible) part of New Zealand, and one of great significance to the Maori people.
The Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea collide beneath a towering white lighthouse. The resulting cacophony provides the background music to the location where, after death, our souls are said to leave New Zealand and take their final homeward journey.
It’s also beautiful. Expect 360 panoramic views over oceans and beaches.
Ninety Mile Beach
Just south of Cape Reinga is Ninety Mile Beach. As you’d expect, there are miles and miles of sun, sea, and sand. If you want a slice of a Kiwi beach to yourself, then it doesn’t get better than Ninety Mile Beach.
You can even take your car onto it (if you’ve got a 4×4!) and race along the expanses of compacted sand. Don’t forget to check out the Te Paki sand dunes, too!
There are also some great camping opportunities around here to look forward to, so be sure to pack your camping gear (these budget sleeping bags are sure to keep you warm at night!).
Bay of Islands
Get ready for one of New Zealand’s tourist hotspots. Bay of Islands is another site of immense beauty that boasts an impressive buzz. It lives up to its name, with bays and islands wherever you look!
It’s a great chance to get out onto the water, before coming back to shore for a beachside restaurant meal and/or drink.
Auckland’s a big city and by no means the most attractive part of the country. It is, however, well worth a visit. As you’d expect, it’s diverse, busy, and bustling. There’s also a lot of stuff to see and do. The marina’s a good place to start, but make sure you spread your wings.
Go over the bridge to see Devonport, and get out into the suburbs to the pristine beaches and volcanos that litter the landscape.
You could write a whole post about the Coromandel Peninsula! It’s another must-see New Zealand location.
Most people go here for the Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove. Both attractions live up to their reputation; make sure you check them out, just expect to have a lot of other people there with you!
Rotorua’s a smelly place. Volcanic by nature, there are geysers and hot pools galore. There’s also a lot of sulfur in the air! I recommend paying the money to see the main geyser attractions for yourself!
I loved Waitomo. It’s a tiny and unassuming town on the surface. Venture into the mass of cave systems beneath it, though, and you’ll be greeted by a sight you’ll never forget. Thousands (millions?!) of glow-worms line the rocks ceilings. It’s a subterranean world that defies belief. Go and see it for yourself!
Taupo’s another major tourist hotspot, and you can understand why. There’s the lake, natural hot pools, Huka Falls (a mighty waterfall just outside town), and a host of extreme sports to enjoy. It’s a special place with a great atmosphere in the town itself too.
Just south of Taupo is Tongariro, home to the world-renowned Tongariro Crossing. This, in my opinion, is one of the best hikes in the world. It’s like you enter another world for about eight hours of your life! It’s a wild and stunning terrain, which will be sure to get your legs working and heart-thumping, too. Oh, and there’s Mount Doom to see (and climb, if you dare) as well. Don’t go to New Zealand without attempting the Tongariro.
The west of North Island boasts one of the country’s most impressive volcanoes.
Mount Taranaki is your quintessential conical volcano. Dormant now, it stands proud and tall, rising from nowhere and dominating the landscape around it. New Plymouth is a cool town to visit while you’re there! Just make sure you’re there on a good day. Anything other than clear blue skies and the weather obscures the volcano from view.
Your journey south will take you to the capital city, Wellington. Windy Welly, as it’s called, is another cool, thriving metropolis. However, it boasts a charm that other cities in New Zealand lack. Make sure you spend a few days enjoying its many offerings.
On to South Island! Get ready for something special. Here is a selection of the best things to do on New Zealand’s South Island.
You can’t miss Picton on South Island. And I mean that as literally as I do figuratively! This is where the ferry over to the South Island docks, making it your first stop in this wondrous place.
Picton itself is worth spending some time in. It’s a pretty little town, nestled away into its own bay, surrounded by hills to its rear, and isles out to sea.
Heading west from Picton will take you to Nelson. This is a major town along your route to Abel Tasman National Park (next). However, it’s not all about the park; Nelson’s packed full of its own appeal.
Hike out to the lighthouse, stay at the awesome Paradiso Hostel, sample the local wines, and soak in the town’s atmosphere.
Abel Tasman National Park
Welcome to my favorite part of South Island. Abel Tasman National Park is breathtaking. Golden sands, turquoise waters, dense native forest … it’s a veritable treasure trove of beauty and opportunity.
Hike, kayak, and boat around until your heart’s content.
Takaka’s just next door to the Abel Tasman National Park. This tiny bohemian haven is tucked away on the other side of Takaka Hill—an enormous landmark that you drive over to access the town.
The relaxed vibe of Takaka makes it an enchanting stop on South Island that you’ll hesitate to leave. If you’re into your climbing, this is where to do it.
Farewell Spit is South Island’s answer to Cape Reinga. The northernmost point of South Island is another must-see destination. An hour north of Takaka, the drive to get there is worth doing in itself! A curved spit of sand extends like a birds’ beak out into the ocean.
While you’re there, be sure to head to the unparalleled Wharariki Beach, where you can witness baby seals and wild white sands.
Punakaiki (Pancake Rocks)
From Abel Tasman, head south to the famed West Coast. The first stop of real note (past the town of Westport) is called Punakaiki. Here you’ll find the Pancake Rocks, a geological tourist attraction so-called for its stacked appearance. On a windy day, the blowholes are very impressive. This makes a nice stopover to break up a long drive.
The West Coast of South Island is one of New Zealand’s most famous drives. There are a few towns along the way as you head south from Abel Tasman, but Hokitika is by far the nicest. It’s known for its jade, where you can carve the mysterious greenstone. However, the primary lure is Hokitika Gorge, which is just outside town.
Stunning turquoise waters glide through an impressive gorge, complete with swing bridges to cross on your way to the viewing platforms.
Further down the West Coast takes you to glacier country. Franz Josef is first. The town shares the same name as the glacier. Franz Josef is a perfect example of New Zealand’s diversity.
A few hours north and you’re on the beach in Punakaiki. Suddenly, you’re in alpine territory, where snow-capped mountains rise above you. See the glacier and enjoy the lively atmosphere of the town.
Fox is a 30-minute drive south from Franz. It’s another tiny little place, but don’t skip it. Fox Glacier is just as impressive. There’s also the famed Mirror Lake, called Lake Matheson. At dawn or dusk, the lake is serenely still, providing the perfect photo opportunity.
Wanaka holds a special place in my heart. Go there for chilled vibes throughout the year, stunning glacial lakes, glaciers, more hiking opportunities than you can shake a stick at, and awesome lakeside bars and restaurants.
Queenstown is party central on the tourist trail through South Island. I see it as Wanaka’s big brother! It has a lot of the same natural beauty, but it’s far more densely populated and busier in every way.
That said, the atmosphere is buzzing, and if you want a night out and extreme sports (set to a backdrop of staggering beauty), then Queenstown’s the place to go.
A quick note on Arthur’s Pass: This incredible pass crosses the south island from west to east. The little village along the way is host to some of the country’s best hiking. Avalanche Peak is a personal favourite, which will have your legs burning like few other hikes around New Zealand!
Wow. That’s the sound you’ll hear coming from your mouth when you go to Milford Sound. The Fiordland on South Island is unmissable. It is as simple as that. Towering cliffs descend steeply into the deepest water. Kayak, boat, and hike in the country’s fullest sublimity.
Go one step further by heading to Doubtful Sound. You can’t access it by road—it’s that remote. You take a boat to get there. Expect more of the same as you enjoyed in Milford, but to an even greater scale.
Snow-capped mountains in New Zealand don’t get much better than Mount Cook. As accustomed as you might have grown to the country’s beauty by this point, you’ll still be blown away by the scenery around Mount Cook. The alpine landscape’ bright turquoise waters in the surrounding valleys defy beauty. If you’re looking for a quality short hike, then the Hooker Valley Track is one I highly recommend.
Northeast from Mount Cook lies Lake Tekapo.Those turquoise waters I just mentioned are on display again here. You could stay in Tekapo for two hours or two days and find something to fill your time. It’s renowned for its night sky reserve; go to the observatory to see the night sky like never before.
I’d feel remiss not to mention Christchurch. Not gonna lie, it’s not my favorite part of the country. Torn apart by tragic earthquakes a few years ago, it’s a city that’s still well and truly in the recovery phase. The ruined Cathedral at its center is a symbol of Christchurch as it licks its wounds.
Go and see it for yourself though. The years ahead are promising. By the time you get there things might look a lot different. Even now, it’s worth seeing—if only to get a sense of its former glory.
There you have it: 28 unmissable places to see in New Zealand.
This country is hard to fault. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you’ll find yourself in awe of your surroundings. It’s a land of friendly faces, stunning scenery, outlandish landscapes, and devilish diversity. You’ll love it!
Hopefully, this post has highlighted some of the key stops to include on your itinerary. Enjoy!
By Danny Newman
Danny is currently writing and travelling his way around the world in a bid to figure out exactly what he’s doing with his life. He’d love you to follow along with his journey over at What’s Danny Doing, and on Pinterest and Facebook.