While there is no question that New Zealand is well known for its picturesque scenery and photogenic appeal, there is so much more to the small but exquisite country. This island that is home to over four million people has hidden treasures that create truly lasting memories when you visit.
No matter if you are seeking an adventure, time in nature or just to relax and unwind, New Zealand has the ideal environment for you.
We literally left our hearts in New Zealand after spending 5 weeks exploring every nook and cranny we could find. It’s a place where every travel desire we have was met. There was more adventure on offer than we could partake in and enough nature to satisfy our souls. It sounds cliche, but when you find a place that really speaks to you, you’ll know.
That said, there are hundreds of amazing things to do in New Zealand so don’t sell yourself short on your visit. Give yourself enough time and let this amazing country take you for a ride you’ll never forget.
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2 Week North Island Itinerary and 2 Week South Island Itinerary
35 Epic Things to do in New Zealand
1. Spend the Day at Hobbiton on a Lord of the Rings Movie Tour
The beautiful landscapes of New Zealand proved to be the perfect setting for the filming of the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and on a small farm in the countryside to the south of Auckland, you can experience the wonders of Hobbiton first hand.
Set amongst rolling hills, Hobbiton was created by the production crew to serve as the charming home of the Hobbits.
This is where the Fellowship of the Ring, the first movie begins, and Hobbiton and the Hobbits play perhaps the most important roles in Tolkien’s stories. The set of the village has been preserved and turned into a unique and popular attraction.
You can tour through the charming little house, stroll past colorful Hobbit homes and even call in at the Green Dragon Inn.
Top Recommended Tours:
2. Climb the Icy Walls of the Franz Josef Glacier
Located on the west coast of the South Island, the Franz Josef Glacier is one of the most impressive natural features in a country that’s renowned for its staggering natural beauty. The glacier rolls slowly down from the mountains, carving out a monstrous valley through the rock in the process, and groaning under the shifting mass of ice.
At 12 kilometers in length, it’s a dramatic sight to witness, and there are some great adventures to be had if you are looking to do more than just gaze upon it from below.
The best way to experience the glacier is to join a helicopter flight over the ice, taking in the aerial panoramic before landing at the summit. With a local guide who knows the glacier, and its many tunnels, twists, and turns, you’ll hike off across the ice, with a pickaxe in hand, to get into the heart of Franz Josef itself.
We spent our time on Franz Josef glacier ice climbing and while it was hard, it was a rewarding experience.
Top Recommended Tours:
- Heli-Hike Franz Josef Glacier Walk
- Kayak Adventure from Franz Josef Glacier
- Franz Josef Mountain Scenic Helicopter Flight
- Franz Josef Helicopter Flight with Snow Landing
- Skydive Over Franz Josef
3. Be an Adrenaline Junkie in Queenstown
At the bottom of the South Island is the small town of Queenstown, which has become well known as the extreme sports capital of New Zealand. Set on the beautiful shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is surrounded by mountain peaks, gorges, and fast-flowing rivers, making it perfectly suited for adrenaline lovers to take on extreme adventurers.
There are hiking and mountain biking trails through the forests and mountains to take on in summer, while winter brings deep layers of snow that turn the slopes into ski and snowboarding runs.
As well as these traditional adventure sports, Queenstown became the home site of the world’s first commercial bungee jump, when the infamous AJ Hackett set up his extreme jump from a suspension bridge crossing the Kawarau Gorge.
Since then, over the last twenty years, Queenstown has always been at the forefront of extreme sports, making it the best spot in the world for adrenaline junkies to get their fix.
Top Recommended Tours:
- Dart River ‘FunYak’ Canoe and Jet Boat tour
- Skydive Queenstown
- Half Day Canyoning Trip
- Queenstown Skyline Gondola
- Shotover Canyon Swing
- Nevis Bungee Jump
4. Climb the Auckland Harbour Bridge
The Harbour Bridge is one of the most recognizable sights in Auckland, connecting two halves of the city through an impressive feat of engineering.
It holds the title of the longest bridge in the North Island, and these days, adventure seekers can actually climb to the top of this steel behemoth to enjoy the best of view of Auckland.
You’ll work your way along the walkways as you slowly find yourself higher and higher above the water below as you make it further out into the center of Harbour Bridge.
Because this is New Zealand, you can even take on a dizzying bungee jump once you reach the top, a bungee jump run by none other than AJ Hacket and his extreme sports company.
Top Recommended Tours:
5. Take to the Ocean for Whale Watching
As well as its remarkable natural beauty, New Zealand is also highly regarded for its immense array of wildlife. Along the coastline at certain times of the year, you’re likely to see whales migrating past, making whale watching one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
There is some truly magnificent whale watching spots to be found across the country, but a few of the more popular areas are found in the South Island, including the Bay of Plenty and Kaikoura.
Here, if you are lucky enough, you can spot the largest marine mammals in the world, including Sperm Whales and Blue Whales, just cruising on past the coast.
Top Recommended Tours:
6. Explore the Beautiful Nature of Kaikoura
As well as being a prime whale-watching destination – you can even see different species of whales along the shore here all through the year – a visit to Kaikoura is one of the best things to do in New Zealand because simply put, it’s beautiful.
This small coastal town is absolutely charming, laid back and full of amazing things to do.
There are excellent hikes along the coastline and into the countryside, you can see dolphins swimming in the bays, whales out to sea, and you can even visit a huge seal colony. As a bonus, the restaurants and food stalls in Kaikoura serve up some delicious seafood too.
Top Recommended Tours:
7. Penguin Encounters in the South Island
Amongst its wide variety of wildlife, New Zealand is home to large populations of penguins, including the unusual and incredibly rare yellow-eyed penguins.
These penguins can be found in many locations across the country, but one of the best things to do in New Zealand is to visit the Otago Peninsula in the southeast, close to the city of Dunedin, as here you can find some fascinating eco-tourism ventures.
Call in at Penguin Place, an exciting conservation center where you can learn more about these wonderful creatures, find out what threatens them and see the work being done to save them.
Top Recommended Tours for seeing Penguins:
8. Roam Around Larnach Castle
The Larnach Castle holds the title of New Zealand’s only castle and I have to admit, I was thrilled to learn that there was a castle on the Otago Peninsula outside of Dunedin. Not exactly something I expected, so we made a point to drive out and take a tour of the property.
The castle was built in 1871 and is now open to the public 365 days per year. It took more than 200 men three years to build the Castle before another 12 years were spent embellishing the interior by master European craftsmen.
No expense was spared and the property is lavish with stunning grounds and pristine architecture.
Top Recommended Tour: Larnach Castle & Garden Tour from Dunedin
9. Endure the Thrill of White Water Rafting
With a love for extreme sports and with a population that seems to be perpetually seeking an adrenaline rush, then it’s no surprise that a popular activity, and one of the best things to do in New Zealand, is white water rafting.
There are some top-quality rafting routes along New Zealand’s many pounding rivers. One of the best spots to head to though is the Kaituna River, which is found in the North Island close to Rotorua. The river boasts an opportunity to take on the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. We did it!
Top Recommend Tours: Kaituna River Rafting with River Rats (we did this one!)
10. Marvel at the Unique Beauty of Cathedral Cove
This is a country that’s quite literally brimming with outrageously scenic natural sights, but one of the best things to do in New Zealand, and one of the most scenic spots to see, is the beauty of Cathedral Cove.
Found in the north, the only way to reach the white sand beaches and unique caves of Cathedral Cove is to either hike or kayak in and it’s well worth the energy expended to reach here.
Top Recommended Tours:
- Cathedral Cove Day Trip from Auckland
- Coromandel Day Trip including Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach
11. Witness Unparalleled Natural Scenes at Lake Hawea
Exploring Lake Hawea is one of the best things to do in New Zealand, and when you arrive at this beautiful spot in the South Island, you’ll quickly understand why.
Aesthetically, few other lakes in the world can match this, but throw in the opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and water sports, and you’ve got a destination like nowhere else.
12. See the Blue Water of Lake Tekapo
One place that could perhaps rival Lake Hawea is also found in New Zealand’s southern isle, and a visit to Lake Tekapo is a journey into the wilderness, where you can find beautiful scenery and enjoy outdoor pursuits.
You’ll be amazed at the shimmering, turquoise blue shades of Lake Tekapo, and will quickly fall in love with this beautiful part of the country.
13. Explore The South at The Catlins
The Catlins is an incredible part of the South Island, and this spectacular area encompasses many of the best things to in New Zealand, in the most southernmost part of the country. Here you can explore the rugged and remote coastline, road trip from small town to town, and enjoy the great outdoors, with few others around.
One of the biggest draws to this area, though, is the amazing wildlife encounters that are possible. From massive colonies of seal lions to the possibility of encountering 3 different species of penguins, it is a nature lovers paradise.
Our biggest regret is that we didn’t spend more time here, so do yourself a favor and plan at least 2 full days to explore the Catlins.
Top Recommended Tours: Private tour of the Catlins from Dunedin
14. See the Bluest Water in New Zealand at Blue Pools
In the scenic preserve of Mount Aspiring National Park, close to Wanaka in the South Island, you can find the bluest water in New Zealand at the aptly named Blue Pools.
Hike through the forest to reach the wide river, where a suspension bridge spans the water and gives you the perfect view over the blue pools of water below.
15. Admire The Strange Shapes of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
Only in New Zealand could you find a natural sight that looks just like a bunch of pancakes. Found along the west coast of the South Island, these uniquely shaped rock formations are right on the shore, offering an incredible landscape for visitors to admire.
You can find some impressive blowholes too amongst the rocks here, and the sight of the crashing waves is something to behold in itself too.
16. Hike Along the Karangahake Gorge
In the north, the Karangahake Gorge is one of the best things to do in New Zealand. This spectacular gorge is not just beautiful, but full of history, as this was once a vast gold mine too.
You can hike along old gold mining tracks that cut through the very rock itself, and enjoy impressive hikes through Karangahake Gorge.
17. Eat a Fergburger in Queenstown
Eating a Fergburger in Queenstown is a right of passage for anyone traveling around New Zealand. This hole in the wall burger shop has been serving up burgers since 2001. We even interviewed one of the waitresses about this tiny little institution.
Popular with the late-night, bar-hopping crowd, this place is open for 21 hours a day and in the week we spent in Queenstown, never found a time that there wasn’t a long line.
The menu is creative, testing the limits on combinations and serving you more food than you could ever dare to finish. I guess that makes it worth the money but we would highly recommend splitting your order with a friend on your first visit.
18. Go Dolphin Spotting in Tauranga
Tauranga is located in the northeast part of the North Island and is a commonly overlooked destination in comparison to its famous neighbors at Cathedral Cove. That doesn’t mean you should miss it.
We used the local bus to get access to Tauranga from Rotorua and found the town to be incredibly laid back and quiet. Being on the ocean, the town exudes a beach vibe that is addicting.
One of the top things to do in Tauranga is dolphin watching. Some companies even offer you the opportunity to hop in the ocean with a pod of dolphins, if that is your thing. Truth be told, dolphins are fast and mostly uninterested in humans, so I highly recommend staying in the boat and enjoying them that way.
Top Recommended Tours:
19. Horse Trekking in River Valley
Another off the beaten track place is River Valley. Despite its obscurity, it is a top place in New Zealand for both white water rafting and horse trekking. The River Valley Lodge is very remote but offers comfortable, cabin-style accommodation for adventure seekers.
The horse trekking offered is some of the best we have experienced in our travels, taking you through high valleys, herds of sheep, river crossings, road trots and everything in between. The horses are well trained and taken care of meticulously. If you like to saddle up, this is an adventure you shouldn’t miss in New Zealand.
20. Go Skydiving in Taupo
Every single person should jump out of a plane at least once in their lives. I know, hard to really swallow that but having done it twice now, I truly believe these words. Our first skydive happened during our trip to New Zealand and we both jumped out of a plane at 15,000 feet over the stunning Lake Taupo.
Admittedly, we were both scared but once you get out that door the sensation is unparalleled. With New Zealand being one of the top places for adventure in the world, it is possible to skydive in a couple of different places but the most popular are Taupo and Queenstown.
Top Recommended Tours:
- 15,000ft Taupo Skydive (this is the one that we did!)
- 9,000ft Taupo Skydive
21. Try out Surfing at Piha Beach
Well known for a perfect learning surf, Piha Beach is located not too far outside of Auckland. The hidden cove features a beautiful black sand beach and favorable waves. The first time we ever tried surfing was at this beach and we are still hooked on the sport!
It is possible to book day trips from Auckland to Piha Beach that include a few hours of surf lessons and stops to/from Auckland at scenic overlooks and a visitor center. This is what we did while staying in Auckland.
The pickup was right from our hotel and it was an incredible way to learn how to surf.
22. Take a Kayak trip in Abel Tasman
It is said that the kayaking in Abel Tasman is world-renowned. Boasting crystal clear, teal waters to paddle in, it is impossible to argue with this. There are a couple of operators in town that offer amazing multi-day kayaking and camping trips through Abel Tasman.
It is also possible to book shorter day trips or rent your own kayak if you have the appropriate skills.
23. Go on a Wine Tour
It’s not all about the adventure in New Zealand. If you find yourself with an extra day in Queenstown and enjoy a glass of wine, or two, you should go on a wine tour. Just outside the city is the lovely area of Otago Central, a wine-producing haven.
There is a number of small wineries in this region producing unique blends, many of which never leave the country. Official wine tours can be taken that include tastings, cheese, snacks, and lunch.
Top Recommended Tours:
24. Contemplate the Power of Nature in Christchurch
One of the most humbling things we encountered on our visit was the ruins in Christchurch from massive earthquakes. As a city that rests in a place of perpetual quaking, it’s hard to envision that they ever get a chance to truly get ahead of the destruction that nature bestows on them.
Yet, the city perseveres, rebuilding in sections and trying to maintain it’s historical buildings for us to see.
One of the most interesting districts is one that is built out of semi-truck containers. What started as a solution to get businesses up and running quickly has turned into an entire area of container shops.
Top Recommended Tours: Grand Tour of Christchurch by Tram or Christchurch Sightseeing by Double Decker Bus
25. Climb the World’s Steepest Street in Dunedin
You may think you’ve seen some steep streets until you’re standing at the bottom of Baldwin Street in Dunedin, looking up. With a 35% grade over 350 meters, this street is a real leg burner to reach the top.
It was pretty amazing to watch cars struggle to keep pace as we climbed, mostly backward to save our hamstrings, to the top. Standing at the top and looking down it is easy to see the steepness. It’s almost impossible to maintain a walk on the descent.
26. See Glow Worms in the Waitomo Caves
This destination features three different caves, each one offering a different experience for visitors. For example, the Glowworm cave leads visitors past impressive stalagmites and stalactites to a large cavern, which is known as the Cathedral.
The acoustics are perfect in this location, which is why the Vienna Boys Choir and Kiri Te Kanawa have given concerts here. The highlight of this cave tour is the end when you get on a boat and travel down the water to be met by what looks like millions of little stars – these are the glowworms; hence the cave name.
The second cave is Aranui Cave and is a very dry cave with no glowworms. However, it makes up for their absence with huge limestone formations. The last cave is the Ruakuri Cave, which features a spiral staircase that is 15 meters high.
Inside the vast caverns, you will encounter intricate limestone formations, waterfalls and streams and of course, more glowworms.
Top Recommended Tours: Glowworm Caving Adventures in Waitomo
27. Marvel at the Moreaki Boulders
There seem to be few tours that visit this site, so we opted to rent a car in Dunedin and go find them on our own. You have to plan a visit to this spot carefully as you can only visit and see these unique wonders of nature at low tide.
Other times, they are covered by the ocean and inaccessible. Discovered in the early 1800’s, these boulders are the source of many local and Maori legends.
There is also some good hiking in the area so if you have the time it would be worth driving out from Dunedin and staying in Moreaki overnight to explore more of the area.
If you only have the day, there is a nice parking area at the trailhead to access the boulders and also a restaurant.
28. Soak at Hotwater Beach
One of the coolest natural phenomenons we’ve experienced is at Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel Peninsula area. The land under the peninsula is highly volcanic sending some amazing amounts of heat up through the ground, especially on the beach.
At low tide, people flock to the area, shovels in hand, to dig soak pools on the beach.
In doing this, the holes fill up with the extremely hot water from underneath the surface, making for the perfect natural spa. Even if you do not care to soak, a visit to the beach at low tide to stick your toes in is worth it.
I think you’ll be amazed at just how hot that water can be.
Top Recommended Tours: Coromandel Day Trip including Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach
29. Visit the Te Papa Museum in Wellington
The Te Papa Tongarewa is the National Museum of New Zealand and one of the best things to do in New Zealand. Loaded with displays that share the history of New Zealand, stories of the indigenous people, natural wonders and everything in between, it’s a sight to behold.
In addition to New Zealand centric displays, you can find educational seminars on offer and exhibits that house traveling displays from around the world. We were lucky that our visit to Wellington was met with rain, so we didn’t even feel bad about spending an entire day in the museum.
Top Recommended Tours: Wellington City Sightseeing Small Group or Te Papa Museum Twilight Express Tour
30. Jump Off the Dock in Nelson Lakes National Park
On a hot afternoon, the docks and swimming platforms on offer in the Nelson Lakes National Park are a relief. The park is massive and gives you a chance to visit some beautiful lakes in the hidden backcountry.
For us, the highlight was Lake Rotoiti, where we opted for a long lunch stop and a solid hour of dock jumping.
There are also numerous trails throughout the park for hikers. Several of the tracks are multi-day and it’s highly advisable that you plan well in advance, take a good map with GPS and enough provisions for the length of time you plan to be gone. Nonetheless, for the nature lover, it is a hidden New Zealand gem.
31. Admire Mt Cook
Once you start making your way towards the bottom of the South Island, you’ll find yourself hard-pressed to avoid seeing Mt Cook, if you ever wanted to. It is the highest mountain in New Zealand, towering 3,724 meters above sea level and is the cornerstone of the impressive ‘Southern Alps’.
It can be seen from numerous places and vantage points throughout the South Island.
Besides admiring it from afar, many people enjoy a wide range of hiking trails around the mountain, in addition to climbing the mountain. This, of course, requires a skill set and likely the assistance of a local professional, but it is possible for those that want a killer adventure.
32. Kayak or Hike to the 8th Wonder of the World: Milford Sound
Milford Sound was referred to as the 8th wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling, and if that is not enough to convince you to visit, it was also named the top travel destination in the entire world back in 2008 by a TripAdvisor survey. While many people will opt for the Milford Sound cruise, you can also explore the area by kayak or hiking.
If you want to get up close and personal with the local wildlife the latter is definitely the better option. In addition to the native flora and fauna, you will also experience many cascading waterfalls and scenery that is truly movie-worthy.
Top Recommended Tours:
- Milford Sound Full Day tour from Queenstown
- Full Day Milford Sound Cruise with BBQ
- Milford Sound Cruise with Optional Kayak
33. Experience Mars on the Tongariro Crossing
This is arguably the most fun and unique day hike in the entire world. When you hike the Tongariro Crossing you will be taken through a dramatic journey through a volcanic alpine environment in the northern part of the island.
You will encounter vivid blue crater lakes, which dot the entire perimeter of the volcanic complex, along with several geothermal vents, creating the perfect Mars-like experience. This hike is one of the best day hikes in the world and is also one of the world’s Top 100 Travel Adventures.
Top Recommended Tours:
34. Experience Authentic New Zealand Tribal Life in Rotorua
The indigenous culture in New Zealand is strong and present, and one of the easiest ways you can learn about the culture of these individuals is to attend a cultural performance and hāngi.
During this event, the Maori steam cooks the feast in an oven that is dug into the ground. This is one of the only opportunity you will have to learn what true Maori life is like.
Top Recommended Tours: Maori Hangi Dinner and Performance
35. Enjoy New Zealand!
While this might seem like a lot, we’ve only really scratched the surface of all the amazing things to do in New Zealand. So let this be your starting point for one of the most epic vacations you’ve ever had.
We have a lot of content from our travels in New Zealand that we encourage you to take a look at. If you’re looking for good hotel options, we recommend you start by searching on our dedicated hotel booking site. This platform allows you to search for hotels in areas all over the world and then compare prices.
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More on New Zealand:
- New Zealand Travel Guide
- Two Week North Island New Zealand Itinerary
- Two Week New Zealand South Island Itinerary
- 25 New Zealand Photos That Showcase the South Island
- 19 North Island New Zealand Photos That Inspire Travel
- Travel Recap- 5 Weeks in New Zealand
- Things To Do In Queenstown, New Zealand
10 thoughts on “35 Epic Things to Do in New Zealand (on your First Visit!)”
I am Emilia and I am from Chile and I would love to visit New Zealand. Here in Chile we don´t have so many beautiful places like in New Zealand, special when we talk about natural places.
Also, in Chile we don´t have a chocolate Festival like in NZ, but I hope one day we celebrate one, Chocolate must be celebrated!
I am a Hobbit fan, so if I go to NZ, the first thing that I wanna see, is the “Hobbiton and Rotorua”. I feel that place has magic.
As I said, I really love to visit NZ and maybe stay to live for a while. I think the life in NZ is very active and I love the outdoor activities and how you in your list samples, NZ has a lot of places and activities that I like to see and do.
Absolutely could not agree more with this list! Many of these are actually on my Top 10 list for New Zealand. The beauty of New Zealand’s nature is unparalleled, the diversity of the landscape on both the North and South Island’s, there almost wasn’t a single destination that wasn’t staggeringly beautiful, and each of them in their own, unique way.
We went to NZ last January and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is definitely one of my favourite treks. It’s so impressive and beautiful! Oh, and you were lucky to have some good weather at Milford Sound. We had rain and decided not to go for it… Maybe the only thing I regret from this trip. Cheers!
A great list! New Zealand has SO much to see for such a small country. It’s been a few years, I think I need to go back!
Thank you! Yes, it is hard to narrow it down really. There is so much to do there and so much to see. We want to go back too, one of our favorite countries to date.
Hi! Love your blog! My husband and I, (empty-nesters at last!), are starting our round the world adventure next month. After a month in Mexico, we will be heading to NZ, for the month of January. Do you have any tips you might share on affordable accommodations? Did you book ahead or just take your chances? Our agenda there is wide open.
Hi Luann, thanks for stopping by! Oooooooo, a month in Mexico!!! We absolutely love Mexico, one of our favorite countries in the World, followed by NZ, that is an all star startup for your trip. Regarding accomodation, we didn’t book anything in advance except for the first couple nights after we arrived. However, we rode the Kiwi Ex bus and were able to make same day arrangements at all the hostels enroute. If you have your heart set on somewhere specific, make reservations in advance, if not, just go with the flow and book as you go! You’ll have a great time. 🙂 Feel free to email us directly and we’re happy to answer any other questions you may have. Cheers.
Thanks, Lina! Yes, we were going to book the first couple nights in Auckland, for sure. I’m sure we will be in no mood to wander around looking for a comfy bed at that point. I may email, thanks for the info!
Great list! I just wrote about doing the Tongariro crossing over at my blog – it’s a brilliant one day hike, and I’m not even into hiking. Definitely a must do.
Thank you! I agree, the Tongariro Crossing was the best one day hike, if not THE best hike, we have done to date. SO beautiful and unique.