8 of the best places to visit in New Zealand

Destinations

While there are a few cities in the country, what makes New Zealand special is its natural beauty.

Think white (or black) sandy beaches, thermal springs, towering mountains and colorful lakes… for an outdoor experience, New Zealand is the place to go.

Visitors will no doubt spend at least some of their trip in at least one of the major cities, and they’re definitely worth seeing. But to find the best places to visit in New Zealand, try exploring a little further afield to truly experience what this beautiful country has to offer.

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Soak up the views while experiencing the many adventure sports on offer in Queenstown © Terry Lee / 500px

1. Queenstown

Best for adventure sports

New Zealand’s adventure capital is a favorite with visitors and for good reason. On the shores of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Queenstown is in a stunning location. There are three good ski fields easily accessible from Queenstown and nearby Gibbston Valley has some of the best wineries in the country (and a couple of good breweries, too).

Queenstown is also the perfect place to try out some adventure sports – from bungy jumping and zip lines to paragliding and jetboating; there are plenty of ways to satisfy that taste of adrenaline. In the summer months, there is excellent hiking, cycling and water sports on the lake.

Planning tip: If you’re looking to explore the Central Otago region Queenstown is an unbeatable place to base yourself. Nearby towns include Glenorchy (a smaller, quieter version of Queenstown), Arrowtown (filled with history from the gold-rush era), Cromwell (known for its giant fruit) and Wanaka (with its low-key lakefront vibes).

View through the large stone opening revealing a beach with a large stone structure out in the water.
Cathedral Cove is one of the top places to visit on the Coromandel region © gracethang2 / Shutterstock

2. Coromandel

Best for beautiful beaches

Situated on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Coromandel region is renowned for its beautiful beaches and native bush. It’s here you’ll find the iconic Cathedral Cove, with a natural rock archway and sandy beaches, and Hot Water Beach, where visitors can dig a natural hot pool in the sand. Other notable activities include visiting Karangahake Gorge, the Pinnacles overnight hike and Whenuakura Wildlife Sanctuary (Donut Island), a pristine, natural environment you can only explore from the water.

Planning tip: The region is compact, and it’s easy to explore from one of the charming towns like Hahei, Pauanui or Whangamata.

A woman stands by a yellow kayak looking out to a rocky outcrop in the sea
Experience the coastal Abel Tasman National Park on foot or by kayak © Andrew Peacock / Getty Images

3. Abel Tasman National Park

Best for hiking and kayaking 

The unspoiled natural environment with native bush, small, clear bays and white, sandy beaches at Abel Tasman National Park is a great option as a day trip from Nelson, but even better if you can stay longer.

The Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, is a 37-mile (60km) walk through the bush with lovely views of the beach. It usually takes 3–5 days to complete the full walk; otherwise, take on just a section as a day hike. Shorter bush walk trails are available too if you’re not keen on a long-distance route. Alternatively, go kayaking (there’s a nearby seal colony), swimming, or simply relax in tiny hidden coves and bays.

Planning tip: No cars are allowed in the national park, so visitors need to either walk to their preferred destination or take a water taxi.

A woman sits on the deck of a boat looking at the mountain scenery all around her
Take time to admire the gorgeous landscapes of New Zealand’s Milford Sound © Antonio Jacobi / Getty Images

4. Fiordland National Park

Best for epic landscapes

On the edge of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to one of New Zealand’s most famous attractions, the majestic Milford Sound, where visitors can see waterfalls, magnificent views along the fiord and some marine wildlife. There are also a number of walks in the national park past snow-capped mountains and ice-forged fiords, with even more views of lakes, valleys and waterfalls.

Planning tip: The nearby Doubtful Sound is also spectacular but less accessible – travelers need to visit with a guide and by boat.

A small stone church built on the side of a turquoise lake
Get there early to get uninterrupted views of the Church of Good Shepherd © Marconi Couto de Jesus / Shutterstock

5. Mackenzie Region

Best for stargazing

Around two hours’ drive from Christchurch is the Mackenzie Region, a peaceful place with some of the country’s loveliest scenery. This is the home of Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd, one of New Zealand’s most recognizable tourist spots.

The small town of Twizel makes a convenient base to explore the region. From there, you can easily access the lakes and Aoraki (Mt Cook) National Park, which has a range of walks from short trails to full-day hikes.

Planning tip: The region is a Dark Sky Reserve with minimal light pollution so be sure to keep an eye on the forecast. If you get an evening with a clear sky, this is your chance to head outside and marvel at the blanket of stars above. 

Three people of differing ages stand on a boardwalk and pose for a selfie. Behind them the earth is steaming and bubbling
Rotorua is New Zealand’s most dynamic geothermal area © Michelle Page / Getty Images

6. Rotorua

Best for thermal springs

The center of New Zealand’s thermal activity, Rotorua, is the place to go to learn more about Māori culture with a visit to a traditional Māori village such as Tamaki. You also won’t want to miss the geothermal attractions. This is where visitors can see bubbling mud pools, geysers and steaming rivers all before taking a relaxing soak in a thermal mud bath. The nearby Redwood or Whakarewarewa Forest has some great walking and hiking trails to explore.

Maori warriors with tattoos, celebrating Waitangi Day, the anniversary of the treaty of Waitangi between the British government and the maori
Paihia is where the  Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 © Uwe Moser / Getty Images

7. Bay of Islands

Best for New Zealand’s history

About three hours north of Auckland, the beautiful Bay of Islands is the place to go for a relaxed, laid-back vibe, beautiful coastal scenery and some insight into local culture. There are over 140 sub-tropical islands in the bay and exploring some of them makes a great day out on the water.

For those who would prefer to stay on shore, other options include relaxing on sandy beaches and exploring the towns of Kerikeri (known for oranges and kiwi fruit) and Russell (chill beach town perfect for kayaking and cozy B&Bs). In nearby Paihia, visitors can also learn about New Zealand history at the Treaty Grounds where the historic Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

View from atop Mount Maunganui. Below is coastline is dotted with homes and businesses.
Use Mt Maunganui as a base location to venture out to the other parts of the Tauranga region © Jason Howe / Getty Images

8. Mount Maunganui

Best coastal city base

A gorgeous coastal town, Mt Maunganui has the best of all worlds – long, white beaches, good cafes and restaurants and the city of Tauranga just a short drive away. It’s also the perfect place to enjoy a vibrant, quirky town center with lots of eating options, good coffee and a mix of boutiques and artsy shops. A walk up the mount itself offers stunning views over the beach and the town.

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