The land of the long white cloud, New Zealand is famous for its breathtaking landscapes, from lofty mountain peaks and glaciers to mesmerizing blue lakes. It’s also known for its wine, lupins and rugby, as well as its adventure activities and gorgeous train journeys.
From the rolling hills of the North Island to the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the South Island, there’s nothing quite like New Zealand or as the indigenous Maori people call it, Aotearoa. You’ll find bustling cities like Auckland and Christchurch and smaller towns like Queenstown and New Plymouth existing alongside each other. From climbing the Auckland Harbour Bridge to jumping 440 feet from the Nevis Highwire Platform, New Zealand has so much to offer.
I consider myself fortunate to be able to call this beautiful country home. Here is my attempt to give you a list of things you cannot miss in New Zealand, an insider’s perspective.
1. Hobbiton and Lord of the Rings
New Zealand is famous for its connection to the LOTR. There are signs to LOTR shooting locations all over New Zealand, very helpful if you’re a Tolkien fan. Many of these locations are free to visit and photograph.
I wouldn’t blame you if the first thing you want to do is visit Hobbiton! The producers of LOTR built Hobbiton on a privately-owned farm in Matamata on the North Island. As such, you will need to book a tour to visit the Shire.
Tickets for the basic Hobbiton tour cost about NZD 89 (about USD 60). On special occasions, such as the International Hobbit Day, there are unique events that include interactive Hobbit markets and feasts.
2. New Zealand’s famous National Parks
The sheer beauty and scale of New Zealand’s 13 National Parks are unparalleled. Choose from multiple options such as the wild Abel Tasman Park bordering the Tasman Sea or the glaciers of Mount Cook National Park. If it tickles your fancy, climb the Tongariro’s volcanoes, a dual World Heritage site, and the symmetrical Mount Taranaki. Explore the ice-carved fiords in the Fiordland National Park or hike up to the crystal-clear waters of the Blue Lake in the Nelson Lakes National Park.
Although Milford Sound is within the Fiordland National Park, it deserves a special mention because of how jaw-droppingly beautiful this place is. Take the ‘cruise’ if you are short on time and sail past the enormous waterfalls cascading down into the deep green waters. Watch seals sleep on the rocks lining the sides. On a sunny day, the waters turn mirror-like, to reflect the forest and the cliffs, making it a sight to behold!
3. New Zealand’s wines
Of late, New Zealand has become famous for its superior wines, receiving immense international recognition. Many operators offer wine tasting tours. If you land in Auckland, the nearby Waiheke Island is home to some of New Zealand’s most famous vineyards. Alternatively, while in the North Island, travel to Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne for their exceptional Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. In the South Island, Marlborough is where you want to try some wine. The region’s Sauvignon Blanc is outstanding and is the wine that catapulted New Zealand to global stardom.
4. New Zealand’s Maori culture
Rotorua is the Maori cultural hub of New Zealand. Be sure to visit the Mitai Maori Village for an authentic Maori experience. Witness the magnificence of the Haka, the Maori war dance. The Haka is also what New Zealand’s Rugby Team, the All Blacks open every game with.
Get a taste of the famous Hangi, the traditional Maori way of cooking food, especially meats and vegetables, in an underground pit.
If there’s only one thing you do in Taupo, it should be taking a boat ride or kayaking out on the lake to see the giant Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings. The carvings rise 14 metres above the water surface of Lake Taupo and are only accessible by water.
5. Rugby and New Zealand’s famous All Blacks
Just like you’d go to Spain and watch some football, you cannot come to New Zealand and not go to a Rugby match. The All Blacks are the national team. The world recognizes them as a top international side. They are well-known for the Haka they do before the game begins. While you may not get to watch them live, unless you plan previously, a domestic Super Rugby game will show you how passionate Kiwis are about their national sport.
And if you can’t score tickets, just head to a nearby Kiwi pub and soak in some good old-fashioned Rugby spirit along with a locally made ale.
6. Heli hikes in Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glacier
Imagine being dropped off by a helicopter and then hiking through walls of blue ice! This is an experience of a lifetime and one of the few places in the world where you will see a tropical forest while also staring at a glacier.
If you can’t decide between Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier and only have time for one, choose a scenic flight that combines both in one trip. While these are slightly pricier than seeing only one glacier (prices average around NZD 450 or USD 300), they are definitely worth the money.
7. Stargazing in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve
In 2012, the Mackenzie area in the South Island was announced as a Dark Sky Reserve, the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. The region has minimal light and air pollution, and this makes it perfect for stargazing aficionados.
New Zealand’s premier observatory, The Mount John Observatory near Lake Tekapo is home to the country’s most powerful telescope, through which you can see 50 million stars every night, weather permitting.
For the ultimate relaxing experience, try the Tekapo Stargazing tour that combines guided stargazing with a soak in their hot pools. Whoever came up with the idea sure deserves a raise!
8. Lupin season in Mackenzie Country
Every year, Lupin season brings a rush of color to parts of the South Island. Lupins peak from the middle of November to the beginning of January. They are considered an “invasive species” by the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, but if there’s one stunning weed that New Zealand is famous for, it’s the Lupin!
If you wonder where they came from, since they aren’t native to New Zealand, local rumor has it that a farmer’s wife decided that she wanted the region to be more colorful. So, over the course of the few years, she secretly sowed Lupin seeds alongside roads and rivers to achieve her goal.
The best place to see the Lupins in all their splendour would be by Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. Don’t be surprised if you see a few wedding shoots happening during this time!
9. Geothermal activity
New Zealand is well-known for its geothermal activity, and Rotorua is the epicenter of it all. Rotorua is the site of the famous Pōhutu Geyser, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, that consistently erupts every hour. It is known to reach heights of 100 feet.
No matter where you go in Rotorua, you’ll see wisps of steam emerging from under the ground. In fact, geysers are so common that some people have them in their backyards and have constructed structures around them, creating natural private hot pools.
The hot waters of Rotorua have healing properties for joint pains and ailments like rheumatism.
Enjoy soaking your feet in the free footbaths of Kuirau Park. For something more luxurious, book a private pool at the Polynesian Spa and enjoy the stunning views of Lake Rotorua while relishing a hot soak! Or for the ultimate experience, try the outdoor mud pools in the Hell’s Gate Geothermal Park & Mud Spa.
1o. Adventure sports
Two New Zealanders invented Bungee Jumping, and there’s no safer place for you to try out different adventure sports to get your heart racing. Whether is it skydiving in Queenstown and Wanaka (home to that Wanaka tree!) or taking a leap of faith off the Kawarau Bridge, New Zealand is well known for its enthusiasm towards adventure sports.
For the ones who don’t want to feel their hearts in their mouths, try Jet boating – slightly less “crazy” but still very thrilling!
11. Southern Lights
Everyone goes chasing the Northern Lights, a phenomenon that seems to be on every other person’s bucket list. Not many people know that the Northern Lights’ lesser-known cousin, Aurora Australis, popularly called the Southern Lights, are equally magnificent.
The fickle green and pink displays are best seen from the South Island. You’re most likely to get a glimpse of them during New Zealand’s winter (March to September), late at night. Stewart Island and The Caitlins are excellent bases to start chasing the Aurora.
12. The lakes of New Zealand
New Zealand is famous for its gorgeous lakes that offer stunning views and more than enough fodder for your Instagram! Here are some of my absolute favourites!
Located Near Fox Glacier, this lake is famous for picturesque reflected mirror views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Sunsets and sunrises are gorgeous here, providing natural golden light for the best pictures ever!
This lake is famous for its icy blue waters and is especially pretty during Lupin season when hundreds of lupins grow on its banks.
New Zealand’s longest lake, this one is about 80 kilometres (almost 50 miles) long and is close to Queenstown. Because of the unusual lightning bolt shape of the lake, it experiences a ‘tide’ or ‘standing wave’, causing the waters to rise and fall every 25 minutes or so.
Interesting fact: Local Maori legends say that a huge monster, Matau, lies sleeping at the bottom of the lake and his heartbeat is what causes the tide.
Don’t forget to try the adrenalin boosting Shark Ride on the lake. More information about that can be found here.
13. Cathedral Cove aka Narnia
Remember the cave through which the Pevensie children ran through in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian’? That scene was shot in the Cathedral Cove in the Coromandel. The cove is accessible by both foot and water. However, a boat ride or kayaking into the Te Whanganui A Hei Marine reserve is the more popular option.
A 15-minute ride away is the famous Hot Water Beach, where visitors are encouraged to dig holes on the beach and relax in the hot water that appears. Hire shovels or buy one because you do need to dig a little to enjoy this experience.
14. Glow Worm Caves
New Zealand is famous for its glow worm caves, located amidst a seemingly innocent-looking countryside. From the base of the tour, your guide will drive you out to the site that is usually about an hour’s journey. Depending on the tour you opt for, you will now either sit in a multi-person raft or individual tubes and paddle down the dark caves with the glow worms being the only source of light.
I can tell you that this is a surreal experience, almost like nothing else exists other than you and the shimmering glow worms.
15. The Huka Falls of New Zealand
New Zealand is well known for its Huka Falls, the country’s top natural attraction.
Huka (meaning Foam in Maori) Falls is created by the Waikato River dropping 20 metres (approximately 66 feet) through a very narrow gorge, only 15 metres (49 feet) wide. Up to 220,000 litres of water drop through the gorge, every second and is what makes Huka Falls so powerful.
The water is an extraordinary shade of blue, which is due to its rich mineral content. Entry to the viewing platform is free! Feeling adventurous and have the cash to spare? Take the river cruise or high-speed jet to the bottom of the falls; it is a humbling and awe-inspiring sight to behold!
16. Whale watching in Kaikōura
Giant Sperm Whales are year-round residents here and are regularly spotted off the coast of Kaikōura. The town of Kaikōura itself is a beautiful, old whaling town, flanked by snow-capped mountains of the Seaward Kaikōura Range on one side and blue water on the other.
17. New Zealand’s famous train journeys
New Zealand’s KiwiRail is famous for its three scenic train rides and one ferry service from the North Island to the South Island. These are great ways to take in the globally renowned natural scenery of New Zealand.
The Northern Explorer runs between Auckland, which is where most international tourists arrive, to Wellington, the country’s capital city. The train passes through the Tongariro National Park and its three volcanoes.
The Coastal Pacific travels from Christchurch to Picton, which is also home to the Interislander ferry. The ferry runs daily from Picton to Wellington and vice versa. This ferry ride is full of spectacular views of the Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sounds. Choose the ferry ride over flying, and you will not regret it!
The TranzAlpine service runs between Christchurch to Greymouth on the West Coast. Admire the majestic views of the Southern Alps, as the train passes through the Arthur’s Pass National Park. Once in Greymouth, don’t miss the chance to do some fossicking for gold in the nearby Shanty Town Heritage Park!
No matter what you come to New Zealand for, there is no doubt that the beauty and warm hospitality of the country will change you. New Zealand is famous for being a tourist’s dream – safe, strikingly scenic and always ready to welcome a traveler.