For many travelers, New Zealand is both a dream destination and a once-in-a-lifetime place to visit. If you’re planning your first trip to New Zealand, or if you’re planning a return trip to see more of this beautiful and wild country, you may want to know which places in New Zealand are at the top of the must-see list. Here are our picks for the 10 best places to go in New Zealand.
Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is one of the best places to go in New Zealand for fishing, sailing, and other watersports. The Bay of Islands is about three hours by car from Auckland. This gorgeous region is made up of 144 islands between Cape Brett and the Purerua Peninsula.
What’s there to do in the Bay of Islands? Get on or in the water! Try scuba diving with Paihia Dive‘s intro-to-diving course. You will be ferried far out into the bay to explore a whole new underwater world.
Or get up close and personal with the marine life in the Bay of Islands on a Fullers GreatSights Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise. On a good day, you’ll see both whales and dolphins on this cruise.
The cruise will take you to one of the Bay of Islands’ most famous sights, the Hole in the Rock. You can sail through this unique opening in a rock formation when the tide is right.
Where to stay: Spend a night at the historic Duke of Marlborough Hotel, which has the distinction of holding the oldest pub license in New Zealand and is located on a peninsula that sticks straight out into the middle of the bay.
Check Prices for Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell, New Zealand
Milford Sound, New Zealand
Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the “eighth wonder of the world,” and if you visit this region of New Zealand, you’ll see why. Formed by glaciers during the Ice Age, the landscape around Milford Sound still bears evidence of its creation in the form of epic scenery: Cliffs rise from fjords crowned by mountains and waterfalls.
The best way to see Milford Sound is via boat. Take a sightseeing cruise on the fjord to see waterfalls and wildlife such as dolphins and penguins. Or navigate the waters under your own steam on a kayaking tour.
Once you’ve experienced the water from the surface, go underneath with a visit to the Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory. This is the only floating, underwater observatory in New Zealand, and visitors can go more than 30 feet deep (while staying dry) and get 360 degrees of the underwater environment.
Where to stay: There are not a lot of places to stay close to the Sound, but if you’d rather not drive the three and a half hours from Queenstown, consider The Milford Sound Lodge. The lodge offers several packages for hiking and boat tours, and there really is no beating this spot in terms of access to the Sound.
Check Prices for Milford Sound Lodge in Milford Sound, New Zealand
Auckland, New Zealand
As both the largest city in New Zealand and its international air travel hub, Auckland is one of the best places to go in New Zealand. Many international flights arrive in New Zealand through Auckland Airport, which makes it an ideal city from which to start your exploration of New Zealand.
Spend at least a day or two in Auckland to get over your long flight and explore the vibrant metropolis before venturing farther afield in New Zealand. Here are our suggestions for what to see and do in Auckland:
- Get some culture by visiting one of the many museums in Auckland, such as the Auckland Art Gallery. This is the largest art institution in New Zealand, featuring more than 15,000 works of historic, modern, and contemporary art.
- If the weather is nice, take a stroll through the 185-acre Auckland Domain park. If you’re visiting on a Saturday, include a stop at the nearby Parnell Farmers’ Market, which sells fresh produce in the morning.
- Auckland is also home to a host of multicultural bars and restaurants serving up all types of cuisine, so be sure to dine in downtown Auckland (and go out for a cocktail or two to check out the nightlife).
- If you’re looking for adventure activities in Auckland, consider the Auckland Bridge Climb. And if you’re really brave, try the Auckland Bridge bungee jump.
- If you’re looking for guided trips in Auckland, book an Auckland City Tour or an America’s Cup sailing experience on Waitemata Harbour.
Where to stay: No matter where you stay in Auckland, you will be close to something interesting. Try the accommodations at CityLife Auckland, which is within walking distance of several Auckland highlights like the harbor, both North and Princes Wharf, and the SkyTower.
Check Prices for CityLife Auckland in Auckland, New Zealand
Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Just a little more than 30 minutes by boat from downtown Auckland is Waiheke Island, one of the best places to go in New Zealand for wine lovers. For a small island in the middle of Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island sure is home to a lot of vineyards. To sample as many of them as you can on your visit to Waiheke Island, you’ll want to find someone else to drive. Our pick is Waiheke Island Wine Tours, whose expert local guides will shuttle you around to three vineyards to sample 14 different wines.
All that wine from the vineyards of Waiheke Island will make you hungry. When it’s time to eat, book your lunch or dinner at the Mudbrick Vineyard Restaurant, a gorgeous eatery with sprawling views of the vineyard and the sea. For a really special meal, book the Mudbrick Vineyard Restaurant’s tasting menu, a seven-course event with wine pairings.
Of course, there’s more to do on Waiheke Island than just drink wine! Waiheke Island is also famous for its vibrant art community, beaches, forests, and olive groves. We recommend booking a culture tour, scenic flight, or hiking trip while you’re there to really see why Waiheke Island is one of the best places to go in New Zealand.
Where to stay: It’s definitely worth staying overnight on Waiheke Island, too. Choose the Delamore Lodge, one of the best-reviewed Waiheke Island hotels on Tripadvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company). The hotel also offers some great packages featuring everything from wine and food to spa treatments for couples.
Check Prices for Delamore Lodge in Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Christchurch, New Zealand
Despite being rocked by four large earthquakes between September 2010 and December 2011, Christchurch has made a true comeback. Visitors to Christchurch will see evidence of the city’s rebirth everywhere, including new buildings made out of old shipping containers and other unique materials like the Cardboard Cathedral.
Of course, many of Christchurch’s original attractions are still standing. One of the best places to visit is the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, a sprawling network of conservatories, walking tracks, and horticultural displays. The gardens also feature some of the largest, tallest, and oldest trees in New Zealand.
Take in the new and the old of Christchurch from above with a journey on the Christchurch Gondola. This cable car lifts you on a scenic ride to the top of Mt. Cavendish.
Where to stay: Pick Heritage Christchurch for its central location and status as a World Luxury Hotel. It might cost a little extra, but it will be worth it.
Check Prices for Heritage Christchurch in Christchurch, New Zealand
Queenstown, New Zealand
Located on the southwest side of the South Island, Queenstown has a well-deserved reputation as the adventure capital of New Zealand. During the winter and spring months (June to October), Queenstown is known for world-class skiing. Of course, there’s plenty to do in Queenstown year-round. Adventure activities such as bungee jumping, skydiving, jet boating, and river rafting will let you experience the region from dizzying heights and at breathtaking speeds.
Queenstown is also home to the world’s highest cliff jump, the Shotover Canyon Swing, where you can hurl yourself off a cliff in a number of different ways—including backward or tied to a chair.
If you haven’t lost your appetite (or your lunch) on these adrenaline-pumping activities, enjoy the dining scene in Queenstown—it’s one of the best in New Zealand. As locals and tour guides alike will tell you, one of the best places to eat in Queenstown is Fergburger, which CNN says “may be the best burger joint on the planet.”
Where to stay: Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel is located on the edge of town, giving easy access to the restaurants and other shops but also letting you sleep in relative peace away from the hub of activity.
Check Prices for Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel in Queenstown
Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley, New Zealand
No list of the best places to go in New Zealand would be complete without mentioning Te Puia, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute located in Rotorua’s Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley. At this Maori heritage center, you can get an authentic “steambox” meal prepared using ancient geothermal cooking techniques. You’ll also experience a Maori welcome ceremony and traditional song and dance performance.
The Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley is also home to a number of active geysers, including Pohutu, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. Mud pools are another natural attraction in the geothermal valley: These boiling pools reach temperatures of more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Where to stay: The Aura Accommodation in nearby Rotorua is located on the coast of Lake Rotorua. The entire facility is powered by geothermal heat to give you a better appreciation for the valley.
Check Prices for Aura Accommodation in Rotorua, New Zealand
Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves, naturally illuminated by thousands of glowworms, are among the most unique places to go in New Zealand—and a visit to the caves is one experience you’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate anywhere else. You can take a boat ride through the caves to learn about the history and science behind the phenomenon.
Or, if you really want a unique adventure, try black-water rafting with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, which will float you on an inner tube down a subterranean stream. It will be pitch-dark (except for the glowworms), and you’ll get to do everything from jumping off waterfalls to rappelling down cave walls. Choose your own adventure when you book the tour.
There are other (non-glowworm) caves in Waitomo, too. Aranui Cave features ancient cave decorations; Ruakuri Cave has an awesome spiral entrance and unique limestone formations—and, okay, more glowworms, but in this cave, you can do a walking tour rather than a water-based excursion.
Where to stay: The Waitomo Caves Hotel is minutes from the famous glowworm caves. It offers a spa as well as cave tour reservations through its website.
Check Prices for Waitomo Caves Hotel in Waitomo Caves, New Zealand
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
You can hike an actual glacier in New Zealand. The Franz Josef Glacier plays host to both guided walks and jaw-dropping helicopter tours. Tours offer everything from ice climbing to a more relaxed hike on the 6.8-mile-long glacier.
Won’t you be freezing on top of a giant glacier? Nope! The Franz Josef Glacier receives a lot of sunlight, and temperatures on the ice are usually only a few degrees colder than in the nearby town.
Cap off a day touring the Franz Josef Glacier with a soak in the Glacier Hot Pools. The pools are fed by the waters from the Franz Josef Glacier, and you can use one of the three warm pools or get a private pool.
Where to stay: Franz Josef is a small enough town that precise location won’t make too much of a difference (you’ll be close to everything no matter where you are). Consider the Aspen Court Franz Josef, which has received some of the best ratings in the area.
Check Prices for Aspen Court Franz Josef in Franz Josef, New Zealand
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
See New Zealand’s highest mountains and longest glacier in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. There are plenty of opportunities for hiking here, no matter what your skill level. For experienced climbers, there are 23 peaks over 9,800 feet. For those looking for something a little more low-key, there are lots of walks along paved trails or boardwalks that still offer spectacular views.
Make sure you stay past sunset for a visit to the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, where light pollution is strictly controlled for amazing stargazing opportunities.
Where to stay: Located inside the national park, The Hermitage Hotel will put you close to everything you want to see and do. Splurge on a room with a view of Mt. Cook—it’s worth it.
Check Prices for The Hermitage Hotel in Mt. Cook Village, New Zealand
What to Pack on Your Trip
More from SmarterTravel:
- New Zealand Travel Guide
- Tipping in New Zealand: The New Zealand Tipping Guide
- 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2014. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.
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