So, you’ve decided to visit New Zealand. Awesome! You’ve booked your ticket and you’re ready to go. Still, a few questions remain: what places will you visit while traveling New Zealand? And what sights would you like to see? For many travelers, visiting New Zealand is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so it is important to prepare yourself and decide on some of the things you would like to see and do beforehand.
First of all, you’ll have to decide where to start. While most travelers land in Auckland and work their way south, this often means they miss out on New Zealand’s most important highlights when rushing through the South Island at the tail end of their trip. Sure, North Island is where you’ll find big cities such as Auckland and Wellington, but the heart and soul of this island nation lie in the wilderness down south. By starting your trip in Queenstown and working your way up, you’ll not only make sure you get the best of New Zealand, but you’ll also get to experience one of the most amazing alpine aircraft touchdowns ever!
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Queenstown is a small town situated on the z-shaped Lake Wakatipu. The scenic town is surrounded by forests and snow-capped mountains, such as The Remarkables and Cecil Peak. The mountains offer plenty of snow sports opportunities for tourists during winter, and in summer the town offers a host of adrenaline-inspiring activities: Queenstown is home to the world’s first bungee jumping site, the Kawarau Bridge Bungy. Still, Queenstown is at its most beautiful in autumn when the leaves change color around the lake and the mountains slowly turn white.
Kawarau Bridge Bungy
The Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge features the world’s first permanent commercial bungee site. The site was set up by New Zealander A. J. Hackett, who made his own first jump in Auckland in 1983. The Kawarau Bridge Bungy offers a unique experience for thrill-seekers. The bridge itself runs over the Kawarau River and is part of the beautiful Queenstown Trail, which runs through the Otago region.
The town of Te Anau is the perfect base for exploring the national parks of the Southland region. The town is situated on Lake Te Anau, which provides plenty of water sports activities, such as kayaking, canoeing, and jet boat riding. Additionally, Te Anau’s direct surroundings offer plenty of hiking opportunities. While going for a stroll along the lake, make sure to visit the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. One of the park’s highlights is the prehistoric-looking takahē, who’s blue feathers you’ll instantly recognize. The sanctuary is open to the public and there’s no admittance fee.
Another popular local attraction lies across Lake Te Anau: the Te Ana-au Caves. The cave system includes a glowworm grotto, which can be explored during daily guided tours.
Fiordland National Park
The Fiordland National Park is home to New Zealand’s most picturesque fjords, including the mesmerizing Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. The national park features an extensive amount of hiking trails, including the scenic Milford Track and the popular Routeburn Track.
Routeburn Track, classified as a “New Zealand Great Walk”, leads trampers through Fiordland National Park and Mount Aspiring National Park. Keep your eyes peeled for the local wildlife, as many native species find their home in the park’s lush green environment. The park is also home to a handful of wildlife control trappers who spent their days living in the mountains hunting invasive predators.
Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand. Named Aoraki by the Māori, the mountain reaches 3,724 meters. The mountain’s Māori name roughly translates to “cloud piercer”. Though climbing Mount Cook requires expert mountaineering skills, you can view it up close from Hooker Lake in Hooker Valley just south of the mountain. The Hooker Valley Track leads past several glaciers in the Mount Cook National Park before bringing you face to face with Mount Cook.
Franz Josef Glacier
Traveling from Queenstown past Wanaka along the Haast Highway and its many waterfalls, you eventually reach the town of Franz Josef. The town lies on the north side of the Southern Alps and can also be reached by turning west on the Kumara Junction coming from Nelson or Christchurch.
The famous Franz Josef Glacier lies a two-hour walk away from town, but you can easily hitchhike there. The Franz Josef Glacier is one of the only glaciers in the world situated in a rainforest. While visiting, you can take a guided tour up the glacier, trek through the region’s ice tunnels or – if you plan to do some overspending – take a helicopter tour above the magnificent mountain range.
International Dark Sky Reserve
Unless you’re circling the South Island and plan to travel both sides of the Southern Alps, you’ll have a difficult choice to make: visit the Franz Josef Glacier up north, or the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve down south.
Light pollution creeps up in almost every corner of the earth, but the Aoraki Mackenzie IDSR in the Mackenzie District was the first reserve to be awarded a ‘gold’ status, meaning there is no light pollution at all. The reserve is by far one of the best places in the Southern Hemisphere to go stargazing. A visit to the reserve promises to be a stunning and unforgettable experience.
Christchurch is the largest city on South Island. The Kiwi city suffered a series of earthquakes between September 2010 and January 2012, with the most destructive of them occurring in February 2011. Everyone remembers the earthquakes in a different way. When talking to the city’s residents, you’ll find responses that vary from “devastating” to “awesome”. While some residents lost their loved ones during the earthquake, others profited from a handsome insurance policy that allowed them to build entirely new homes for themselves. Compared to towns such as Queenstown and Kaikōura, Christchurch feels very much alive, especially when the pop-up food trucks arrive in Cathedral Square.
The town of Kaikōura rests on the east coast of South Island and watches out over the Pacific Ocean. The Kaikōura Peninsula just south of the town center is arguably one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. The scenic Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway offers you the opportunity to spot the best of New Zealand’s extensive wildlife: from the thousands of New Zealand fur seals inhabiting the peninsula to dolphins, whales, sheep, and more. Hiking the walkway will leave a lasting impression on you.
The fjords of Marlborough Sounds are a collection of ancient river valleys near Picton on the Pacific Ocean. Marlborough Sounds is made up of four different fjords: Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Pelorus, and Mahau. One of the most stunning hikes leading through the region is the Queen Charlotte Track. This 70-kilometer-long track gives trampers the opportunity to really take in the scope of the breathtaking landscape. As a bonus, the track allows you to spot many native bird species, as well as dolphins, seals, and even the occasional migrating orca and whales.
Abel Tasman National Park
If you’ve had enough of New Zealand’s spectacular mountains and lush rain forests, the Abel Tasman National Park’s golden beaches will show you a completely different side of the country. The coastal area is situated near Nelson and is the perfect getaway for travelers hoping to do some kayaking or boating. On top of that, there are plenty of hiking opportunities as well. Walk the beautiful Abel Tasman Coast Track and explore the park’s sandy beaches for some well-earned relaxation.
The Pancake Rocks
The Punakaiki ‘Pancake’ Rocks are the most visited natural attraction on the South Island’s West Coast. Punakaiki Rocks is one of the many popular stops along the South Island’s State Highway 6. The road, known as the ‘west coast highway’ starts in Invercargill and hits the coast around Haast. From there it zigzags past the Franz Josef Glacier and stretches out all the way past the Kumara Junction to the Abel Tasman National Park and Nelson, ending in Blenheim. The Punakaiki ‘Pancake’ Rocks rest between Greymouth and Westport. The rocks feature several vertical blowholes, and really do resemble pancakes.
After watching Whale Rider (2002) in the small cinema onboard the Cook Strait ferry from Picton to Wellington, you’ll arrive in New Zealand’s bustling capital city. That is, of course, if you’ve chosen to travel south to north. Either way, Wellington’s urban vibe stands in sharp contrast to the quiet life down on South Island. There’s always something to see or do in Wellington’s harbor on the Cook Strait. The city’s true highlight, however, is the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. The museum is a must-visit for anyone willing to learn more about the Māori, as well as the history of New Zealand.
Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand
The Te Papa Tongarewa is a wonderful museum that features several exhibitions highlighting different aspects of New Zealand’s history. From the nation’s origin as part of the Gondwanaland supercontinent to its extensive mountain ranges which continue to grow up until this very day, the museum sheds light on all that is New Zealand. Admire the gigantic moa bird, walk the length of a real blue whale skeleton, and admire the pride of the museum, a colossal squid from the depths of the ocean.
Te Papa is also the best place to learn more about the Polynesians who first settled New Zealand, and later became known as the Māori.
The Weta Cave
Aside from the wonderful Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington also features the Weta Cave. The Weta Cave is a shop and mini-museum featuring many artefacts from the world of film. The special effects and prop company Weta Workshop worked on many films, from The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and Black Sheep (2006) to Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and classics such as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). A guided tour through the workshop itself will bring you face to face with both the artists and their work.
Tongariro National Park
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the Tongariro National Park is one of New Zealand’s most popular tramping tracks. The sheer magnificence of the crossing convinces many hikers – both experienced and inexperienced – to take on the challenge of finishing the 20-kilometer track. It generally takes between 6 to 8 hours to finish the hike. One of the route’s most popular sights is Mount Ngauruhoe, the epic mountain which dubbed as Mount Doom in the LORD OF THE RINGS-trilogy.
Keep in mind that the Tongariro Crossing is often closed during winter due to dangerous weather conditions. If you don’t manage to fit the hike into your itinerary, there’s always the option to admire ‘Mount Doom’ from the Desert Road, or from the shores of Lake Taupo.
The area of Rotorua is known for its geothermal activity. Ask any New Zealander how they feel about Rotorua, and they’ll most likely jokingly answer “it stinks!”. Visit the city yourself and you’ll realize it’s not a joke – it’s the truth. A common nickname for Rotorua is the “Sulphur City”, due to geothermal hydrogen sulfide emissions which can be smelled throughout the city. Though it takes a while to get used to walking around in a city that permanently smells like rotten eggs, Rotorua features many wonderful sights, including the Sulphur Flats, luxury hot spas, mud pools, the Rainbow Springs wildlife park, and the authentic Māori village Whakarewarewa.
The Sulphur Flats
The Sulphur Flats lie just beyond the Polynesian Spa and the Rotorua Museum on Rotorua’s tiny peninsula. Here you can walk right in between the bubbling and boiling mud pools and observe the steam rushing out of the many thermal vents. The peninsula is home to thousands of birds and offers unique ocean views. Alternatively, you can visit Kuirau Park, where fenced of natural geothermal pools give you a clear indication of what’s happening beneath the earth.
Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao – Whakarewarewa for short – is a rural geothermal area in the Taupo Volcanic Zone. The volcanic zone includes an authentic Māori village where you can experience the culture and traditions of New Zealand’s aboriginals. Eat from the village’s natural make-shift geothermal ovens, the ‘hangi’, enjoy a live haka performance, visit a local tribal tattoos artist, or await the frequent eruption of the town’s Pohutu Geyser.
Rainbow Springs, Rotorua’s wildlife and nature park, offers you the easiest opportunity to spot a real-life kiwi bird. The park is the world’s leading kiwi conservation center and offers viewers a look into the natural history of New Zealand’s rare wildlife. Aside from the famous kiwi, the park is home to many different types of birds, lizards, and fish, including the kea, New Zealand’s famous alpine parrot.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
As an alternative to the glowworm caves in Te Anau, you can visit the popular Waitomo Glowworm Caves. The North Island hosts several glowworm caves, all featuring the New Zealand glowworm – a species native to New Zealand. The tiny worms light up the caves as stars in the sky, invoking a sense of magic. The glowworms are insect larvae that glow through bioluminescence, using their lights to lure their prey into their webs. While doing so, they create a truly amazing spectacle.
Hobbiton Movie Set
Though not one of New Zealand’s natural wonders, the village of Hobbiton is still one of the most beautiful and picturesque places on the North Island. It’s not necessary to be a fan of The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) to enjoy the amazing details of the tiny fictional village created by Peter Jackson and his amazing creative team. After the filming of The Lord of the Rings, the village, which was built on privately owned land, was partially torn down and fell into decay. On the landowners’ request, it was rebuilt in a more permanent fashion for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). The Hobbiton Movie Set is now open to visitors, and it is even possible to rest and have a drink at the village’s famous Green Dragon Inn.
Hot Water Beach
Between the high and low water tidal reaches, hot water bubbles up through the sands of the aptly named Hot Water Beach. Underground hot springs filter up through the sand, offering visitors the chance to create their own private spa by digging pools in the sand. Make sure to arrive early enough to dig your own pool and wait till it fills up with warm water from the river flowing below the beach. It’s the ultimate relaxing experience!
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city, serving as the nation’s main gateway for foreign visitors. The city’s role as a port of call is reflected in Auckland’s status as a multicultural melting pot. Workers and students from all over the world find their (often temporary) home in Auckland. The city’s metropolitan vibe can be felt in every corner of the city. Auckland highlights are the harbor walkway, the iconic Sky Tower, and Mount Eden, a lush green dormant volcanic cone rising high above the suburban districts.
Finally reaching the northern tip of New Zealand, you can get off the beaten path and travel in the direction few other backpackers choose to go. From Auckland, head north past Matakana towards Cape Reinga on the Aupouri Peninsula. Cape Reinga is situated in the northernmost tip of New Zealand and features a beautiful little lighthouse. The relatively unexplored north of North Island is well worth a visit, as it features ancient forests, high waterfalls, gorgeous lakes and fjords, endless coastlines, and best of all: very few tourists.
More articles on New Zealand
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- Cinema of Oceania and the Pacific
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- Wildlife of New Zealand
- The Best Places to Visit in New Zealand
- Backpacking in New Zealand: a Travel Guide
Content creator Pim Razenberg is an experienced traveller who’s been roaming the planet for many years. After a stint in the Dutch film industry, he lived and worked in Romania, the United Kingdom and Thailand. Pim is currently working in the Netherlands, bringing creative new projects to fruition and writing a novel detailing his journeys across the world.