New Zealand is not a very large country, but it offers dozens of nice spots to visit. During the course of two trips I spent three months in the country and visited the places listed below. This list is far from exhaustive but these are locations most often visited by travellers and a very good starting point for building your own itinerary.

North Island

The North Island of New Zealand is home to its largest city (Auckland), its capital (Wellington) and home to 3.5 million people, 77% of the country’s population.

While the South Island is larger and has a more dramatic landscape, the North Island isn’t short on attractions. It has warmer weather than the South Island and better intercity connections. It’s also the volcanic hotbed of NZ and the heart of Maori culture (New Zealand’s native people).

The following places are listed from north to south.

Bay of Islands

This most northernly area is the warmest and most historical in the country. This is where the British and the Maori signed a treaty at Waitangi in 1840. Paihia is a good town to settle in for a few days. Swim with dolphins or on your own, kayak, eat seafood, learn about early New Zealand history, and visit small villages containing important 19th century buildings such as New Zealand’s oldest church in Russell, and Kemp House in Kerikeri.

Paihia, New Zealand

Paihia, the main tourist town in the Bay of Islands

Auckland

Auckland is New Zealand’s most populous city and also the point of entry for many international visitors. It has the feel of a busy commercial city, but fortunately the large harbour and green spaces such as Albert Park give it a softer edge. The Sky Tower and Auckland Museum are also popular attractions.

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Waiheke Island

A short 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland, this heavily indented island is a favourite holiday destination for city dwellers. Hikes, wineries, and beaches (in summer) are the main activities. Although a vehicle is helpful in exploring the island, you can easily spend a few days on Waiheke without a car. Most visitors base themselves in the biggest village, Oneroa, located near the ferry terminal.

Waiheke Island, New Zealand

Rotorua

For the best of geothermal activity and otherworldly landscapes (as well as the telltale odour of sulphur) head to Rotorua. Two major geothermal sites are Wai-O-Tapu and Waimangu. If geysers and mud pools are not your thing, Rotorua is also known for its Maori cultural shows and its 100 kilometres of mountain biking trails. The Government Gardens and the Rotorua Museum of Art and History are also popular attractions.

Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu (New Zealand)

Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu

Taupo

Taupo is a resort town located on the shores of Lake Taupo. Although the town itself is modern and rather plain, the shimmering blue lake – the crater of an ancient volcano – is the largest in Australasia. Taupo is well known as one of the best places in the world for skydiving. You don’t need any experience to try a tandem skydive! Or you could try paragliding. Other attractions are the Craters of the Moon geothermal area, the Huka Falls and some Maori stone carvings accessible by boat.

Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Tongariro

Tongariro is a tiny tourist village on the doorstep of Tongariro National Park, well known for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a stunning one-day walk (19.4 kms) over volcanic terrain. There are easier hikes as well, such as the Tama Lakes walk. The park has not one but three volcanic cones which are often snow covered. It’s a stark alpine area which can be quite cold and windy, even outside of winter.

Ngauruhoe volcano, near Tongariro (New Zealand)

Ngauruhoe volcano, near Tongariro on the Tama Lakes walk

Napier

A charming art deco town, Napier was almost entirely rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1931, which accounts for its clean homogeneous vintage look. A waterfront promenade, local wines, a variety of ethnic food, and being one of the sunniest places in New Zealand are some of the many reasons to visit Napier.

Napier, New Zealand

Wellington

This windy capital sits in a beautiful location between mountains and sea. You can walk for kilometres along the waterfront, or hike for hours in the surrounding mountains and parks. The city claims to have more restaurants and cafés than New York City, calls itself a “craft beer capital”, and has a strong coffee culture. It’s also home to one of New Zealand’s main museums: Te Papa, which is free to visit, along with many more attractions. When the sun shines and the wind abates, it is glorious. Go in summer for a chance at better weather.

Wellington, New Zealand

Other places I haven’t checked out:

If you have a car, the Coromandel Peninsula makes a worthwhile addition to this list. New Plymouth, a coastal city within 30 minutes of snowy Mount Taranaki also looks interesting.

South Island

The South Island is sparsely populated: slightly over 1 million inhabitants occupy more than 150,000 square kilometres of land. The main cities, Christchurch and Dunedin, have a more British feel than the North Island cities. The rest of the island is home to dramatic natural landscapes: blue and turquoise lakes, glaciers, fjords, and the Southern Alps, including many national parks and multi-day walks.

The following places are listed in a clockwise direction around the island, starting at the top (north).

Nelson

Nelson is a pleasant small town and access point to the famous Abel Tasman National Park, where you can combine kayaking and hiking. Because the trail skirts the coast, hikers pass many golden sand beaches lapped by turquoise waters along the way. You can also tour some wineries and breweries here. Nelson is a short bus ride away from Picton, where the ferries arrive and depart for Wellington on the North Island.

Abel Tasman National Park (New Zealand)

Hiking in Abel Tasman National Park

Christchurch

Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and one of the end points of the TranzAlpine scenic train ride. It’s likely that you will come through here at some point since it’s a major transport hub. The city hasn’t completely recovered from the earthquakes of 2010-11 yet, and many of the historical buildings have been damaged or destroyed, but the locals seem in good spirits. The Avon River still flows placidly between its grassy banks and the Botanic Gardens give no hint of the tragedy. New attractions have sprung up such as Quake City, a worthwhile museum about the earthquakes.

Christchurch, New Zealand

Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula

A town of about 130,000 people, Dunedin is not exactly “lively” but it has an interesting history and is also the gateway to the wildlife of the Otago Peninsula where you can see penguins, fur seals and sea lions. Several companies offer day trips so you don’t need a car.

Dunedin, New Zealand

Te Anau and Milford Sound

In the far south,Te Anau is located on the shores of Lake Te Anau, the second largest lake in New Zealand (after Lake Taupo). The lake is backed by high rugged mountains. Te Anau is the gateway to the famous Milford Sound (in reality a fjord) which you can visit as a day trip. This area is also great for walking since it’s located near the starting point of three of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” (multi-days scenic hikes): the Routeburn, Kepler, and Milford tracks. Being located in the far south, it can be chilly at night, even in summer.

Cruising through Milford Sound (New Zealand)

Cruising through Milford Sound

Queenstown

One of the most popular visitor destinations in the country is Queenstown, nicknamed “New Zealand’s adventure capital”. Here you can go bungee jumping, jet-boating, whitewater rafting, river surfing, zip-lining, canyon swinging, hiking, biking, golfing, fishing, or simply go on a wine tour amid beautiful mountain and lake surroundings.

Queenstown, New Zealand

Wanaka

Wanaka is a quieter version of Queenstown, with its own lake and activities on offer. Organized day trips are very pricey, but there is plenty you can do without breaking the bank, especially if you have your own transport. Hike the Rob Roy track (half day), walk the Mount Iron circuit loop (a couple of hours at the most), rent a kayak, or visit a few wineries. With its numerous cafés, restaurants, and quirky cinema, it’s a very pleasant place to spend a few days.

Wanaka, New Zealand

Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers

The two villages of Fox and Franz Josef, only 20-minutes drive apart, are each home to their eponymous glacier and many very pricey activities such as glacier walking, ice climbing, and helicopter rides (or combinations of those). Franz Josef is the larger village with more amenities, but Fox is only five kilometres from Lake Matheson which offers a pleasant circular hike and, on a clear day, a perfect reflection of Mount Cook in its waters.

Hiking Fox Glacier (New Zealand)

Hiking Fox Glacier. (Image courtesy of Steve at Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Punakaiki

Famous for its “pancake rocks”, Punakaiki is a pleasant village which is also endowed with several hiking trails and a windswept beach. It makes a good stop along the West Coast.

Punakaiki, New Zealand

Other places I haven’t checked out:

If you aren’t tired of visiting wineries, you may also want to stop in Blenheim (the heart of the Marlborough wine region) or Kaikoura for whale, dolphin and seabird watching. Mount Cook (in the southern Alps) is very popular. Book far in advance in the high season. You could also stay in nearby Lake Tekapo.


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