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Located on the banks of the mighty Waikato River, Hamilton is a less well-known spot in New Zealand. It’s about 1.5 hours from Auckland and unlike anywhere else in the country, Hamilton provides the perfect experience of being amongst a classic kiwi lifestyle that is passionate about the land, animals, and art, along with a side that is very innovative and entertainment-focused.
Visiting Hamilton, the fourth largest city in New Zealand, I found the atmosphere so welcoming, and I know you will feel eager to explore and learn from the diverse city. Sometimes Hamilton gets a bad rep for not having much to do or see, but I’ve found totally the opposite!
Whether you want to experience the energy of an exciting rugby match at the stadium, visit New Zealand’s only lavender farm, enjoy the unique and historical atmosphere of the stunning Hamilton Gardens, or visit the eccentric shops, cafes, and restaurants in downtown Hamilton, there is so much to do and explore!
So if you plan on making a trip to Hamilton, here is a list of the 24 best things to do while you are there that you definitely do not want to miss.
The BEST Things to do in Hamilton, New Zealand
1. Wander the Hamilton Gardens
Definitely go to the huge, award-winning Hamilton Gardens! It is hands down my favorite place in Hamilton as it has such a sacred atmosphere while being a feast for the senses.
The Hamilton Gardens tell the stories of philosophical ideas and historic civilizations, and the natural world through its unique garden designs. It is free to enter and is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. You will have no issues getting here as it is just a 5-minute drive away from central Hamilton.
There are more than 20 themed gardens here to wander through including an Ancient Egyptian Garden, Victorian Flower Garden, and a Japanese Garden. You will want to spend the whole day taking in as much as you can of this place!
Feel free to visit on your own or go on a guided tour that will take you through the different gardens and teach you about how Hamilton Gardens transformed from a rubbish dump site in the 1960s to the beautiful spot it is today. The tours are $20 NZD and leave from the information center in the gardens at 11 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Related Read: Hamilton is one of the many fun stops on the drive from Auckland to Tauranga – read about the others!
2. Day trip to Raglan
Take a day trip to the relaxed surf town of Raglan! I love going to Raglan, especially during the summer when the whole vibe of the place is buzzing and you can enjoy the sun, surf, and nature. Raglan is also home to some of the best beaches in New Zealand!
Raglan is known for its outdoor activities, especially for its wild surf, bush walks, friendly cafes and boutiques, water sports, and quirky, chilled-out vibe. Raglan is only about a 35-minute drive from Hamilton or about 75 minutes by bus, so you can easily head out there and explore for a day.
If you are keen to get your adrenaline fix, go mountain biking on the trails at Te Ara Kakariki, rock climb up limestone rocks, or catch some waves at some of New Zealand’s top surfing spots such as the popular Whale Bay.
Or instead, wander around the cool, vibrant clothing shops and grab a takeaway coffee at Raglan Roast before heading to the Raglan Museum or take a walk to the Michael Hope Lookout to take in the view of the ocean.
Hot Tip: Instead of a regular car, why not try a motorhome? Here are the best Auckland motorhome rentals!
3. Riverside Walkway
The Waikato River is a key feature of Hamilton, and the Riverside Walkway is a walk that I would highly recommend. Walk, run or cycle along this clear, paved track. It’s suitable for all fitness levels as it is, for the most part, a flat, easy walk.
The Riverside Walkway is accessed through a variety of entry points via the bridges along the walkway. It is about a 10 km (6.2 mile) round trip, but you don’t have to walk the whole way – just walk for however long you want to.
My favorite thing about this walk is that for the majority of the time, you are surrounded by grass, so you can easily stop and sit down and just watch the river or people walk by. Then, head down to the Waikato River and go for a dip – it’s so refreshing!
This walk is perfect if you want to get out and about and enjoy the Waikato River. You’ll be amongst locals as this is a really popular spot!
4. Watch a rugby match
Calling all rugby enthusiasts or first-time rugby game watchers! The FMG Stadium is where you want to head to watch a rugby match in Hamilton, perhaps being played by the famous All-Blacks!
Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport and being amongst the enthusiastic crowd and the unifying atmosphere is something that you do not want to miss.
If you haven’t experienced a rugby match in the city of Hamilton, then definitely check if any games are coming up and book your ticket.
The stadium is on the western side of the Waikato River. Walking there from Hamilton CBD will only take about 15-20 minutes.
If you would rather get public transport, there is a free shuttle bus (BUSIT), that leaves every 10 minutes from outside the Knox Street car park. It is also available to catch after the game. I recommended not driving to the stadium because there is limited parking.
5. Visit the original (and famous) Duck Island Ice Cream
We’ve traveled all over the world, but the best ice cream we’ve ever had was right here in Hamilton (a big statement, I know – but it’s true!)
Well, technically, Duck Island Ice Cream has locations all over New Zealand but Hamilton is home to the original store, so you can go and get a scoop right where it all started.
One of the great things about Duck Island Ice Cream is that they cater to various allergies. Most of their flavors are gluten-free, and they also have plenty of lactose-free options.
Plus, even if you only order the 1 Scoop option, you can still get two flavors, which is great because choosing just one out of their dozens of flavors is almost impossible. Our favorite is salted caramel with chocolate, but peanut butter cookie dough is also good, so if you can’t decide, then we say get both!
6. Hakarimata Summit Hiking Track
Escape into nature with a bush walk up to the Hakarimata Summit. The Hakarimata Summit Hiking track is a great walk on a clear day.
There are quite a few stairs (around 1,000!), so be prepared for a steep climb up to the summit. Set aside at least two hours for the 4 km (2.5 mile) hike. You’ll be walking amongst beautiful native ferns, protected Kauri trees, and scented daphne to reach the top is so rewarding and you will get to rest and enjoy the views of the Waikato Basin, the coast, and Ruapehu at the top!
This is a popular walking track, so the best time to do it is in the morning while the locals are at work. The Hakarimata Summit track is accessed from the Waterworks Walk, which can be entered from Brownlee Avenue.
Related read: Keep exploring all the trails in NZ, and make sure to check out the best hikes on the North Island!
7. Check out the Waikato Museum
The Waikato Museum is a great place to check out while you are in Hamilton if you feel inspired to delve deeper into the essence of the region.
Wander around the 13 galleries by yourself at your own pace or attend a guided walking tour so you can learn from a passionate and knowledgeable guide. It is filled with history, stories, art, and wisdom.
Learn the stories of the Waikato Region and connect on a deeper level to the history and future of the land and people. There are often events and exhibitions on, so be sure to look into what is happening while you are there.
Entry is completely free, and it’s open every day from 10 am to 5 pm.
8. Walk the Blue Springs (Te Waihou)
The water in Te Waihou (Blue Springs) is so pure that it’s actually used for about 60% of New Zealand’s bottled water. These springs are located about an hour’s drive outside of Hamilton, and they’re really pretty, so it’s worth making the trip to see them if you want to get out of the city and enjoy some nature for a while.
You’ve got two choices for visiting the springs. You can drive from Hamilton to the Leslie Road car park and then walk about 10 minutes to the springs.
But if you want a longer walk, you can park in the Whites Road car park instead and stroll along the Blue Spring – Te Waihou Walkway. It’s a really easy walk that’s 4.7 kilometers (2.9 miles) each way, so it takes around 2.5 to 3 hours to complete, with some time to soak in the views.
Although it’s a really nice walk along the entire springs, we were happy to just go and see one end of them from the Leslie Road car park. They look pretty much the same the whole way, so although they are beautiful, you don’t need to do the whole walk to fully appreciate them. With that being said, it is a lovely walk if you’ve got the time.
9. Take a walk through the Taitua Arboretum
I highly recommend spending some time admiring the array of mature, native trees and stunning scenery as you walk through the 22-hectare Taitua Arboretum. Yes, adventurous travel days are great, but sometimes you can’t beat the simple act of soaking up nature and the fresh air around you!
Escape the city for a few hours with a trip to this spot located just a few minutes outside Hamilton. You’ll feel like you’re worlds away from the city as you walk through a land filled with trails, lakes, and woodland gardens and appreciate this relaxing spot while listening to the sound of birds.
Opened in 1997, the arboretum is a popular place with a sanctuary-like feeling to it. The Taita Arboretum is open to visitors daily starting at 8 am. It is busiest around midday, so come early or later in the afternoon to avoid crowds.
For a longer walk with great views of Hamilton city, start at Till’s Lookout and follow the path to the arboretum.
10. See the animals at Hamilton Zoo
Spending a day seeing the animals at Hamilton Zoo is definitely a highlight for any animal lovers that come to Hamilton. Whether you like mammals, reptiles, or birds, the zoo has it all with over 600 animals!
Both native and exotic animals reside here, which makes it an excellent place to see all kinds of creatures and also for conservation purposes. With the zoo open daily and adult tickets costing only $26 NZD, it is an affordable and joyful activity – especially for kids.
To make the most of your zoo trip, talk to the staff and see when any talks or events may be on so you can learn more about a specific animal and perhaps see one up close. Or you may just prefer to wander around at your own pace, just observing the animals from a distance, and that is great to do too.
Wear comfortable shoes and pack a bag with some lunch and a water bottle so you can stop and eat at one of the picnic areas when you feel like it. Upon leaving, be sure to check out the little gift shop.
The Hamilton Zoo will not disappoint and it is easily one of the best things to do in Hamilton – especially for families!
Related read: Animal lovers should also jump at the chance to swim with wild dolphins – one of the best things to do in Tauranga!
11. Visit Hobbiton
For any movie fanatic or lover of Lord of the Rings or Hobbit trilogy, take a day trip out to Hobbiton and experience Middle-earth! This experience is not to be missed if you want to set foot on the exact movie set where these movies were filmed.
I would recommend booking the Hobbiton Movie Set and Rotorua tour and getting them to pick you up nice and early at the Hamilton Central bus stop.
You’ll receive a two-hour tour of the Shire and be able to get a photo at your favorite scene locations such as at the hobbit holes, and grab a drink at the Green Dragon Inn! After exploring Hobbiton, spend some time in Rotorua with your tour group before heading back to Hamilton. The entire experience is under $200 NZD.
You can choose to drive yourself to Hobbiton too, it’s about an hour from Hamilton, or get a bus transfer. However, you will still need to arrange a guided movie set tour or private tour yourself once you get there. That’s why I like booking a guided tour from the start.
Hobbiton is such a unique place and I have no doubt that you will have so much fun here! Many people consider it one of the top things to do in New Zealand, and I’d have to agree.
12. Waitomo Caves
About a 1-hour drive from Hamilton, you will reach Waitomo Caves. These ancient and extraordinary caves full of fascinating glowworms are one of the best things to see near Hamilton! In fact, the Waitomo Caves are one of the most popular natural attractions in New Zealand.
See this galaxy of tiny living lights up close with a Waitomo Caves guided tour. You’ll have the chance to explore Cathedral Cave on foot to see its striking features and unique acoustics before stepping aboard a boat for a 45-minute journey. As you drift inside the caves, you’ll marvel at the twinkling lights from the glow worms that almost look like constellations in the night sky.
The guides here are great and will not only provide details about the glow worms, but many of the guides are of Maori descent and will share some of that history with you too.
The tour is $55 NZD and is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience since these glow worms are unique to New Zealand.
13. Check out the foodie scene
The Waikato region in general is known for its excellent farming and produce, and so it’s no surprise that Hamilton is home to an amazing food scene. As I mentioned earlier, Hamiltonians tend to be really passionate about the land, and so the people here care about where their food comes from. As a result, lots of chefs in the city work hard to cultivate close relationships with farmers and suppliers, ensuring that they get the best and freshest ingredients to use in their dishes.
If you are up for some delicious food and good beers, be sure to head downtown to Victoria Street and the surrounding downtown. It’s a place buzzing with locals and other visitors, so there’s always something to do.
Downtown Hamilton is where the best restaurants, cafes, and bars are at. Gothenburg is hands down one of the best restaurants here. They serve delicious tapas that you can share and have many vegetable, meat, or seafood options. Don’t leave without trying their chocolate mousse dessert and indulging in Pinot Noir.
Mr. Pickles Bar and Eatery is a popular local favorite, and I can attest to that. I love the casual vibe of the place; I always feel so welcome and relaxed. In addition to that, the menu will have you drooling! They always have a variety of dishes available with starters, sides, and extras always available. Save room for a bowl of duck-fat crushed potatoes.
The food in Hamilton is all about high quality meat and dairy, but there’s also a ton of great Asian food here too.
One of my favorites is Banh Mi Caphe, an awesome Vietnamese restaurant that serves yummy authentic dishes that have only been ever-so-slightly tinkered for the western palette. You can get all of the classics here, like pho, rice noodle salad, and of course, banh mi sandwiches. They also offer some excellent, Vietnam-inspired cocktails, but to be honest the highlight of the drinks menu for me is the Vietnamese drip coffee, which is twice as strong as a regular cup and comes served with condensed milk – yum.
Palate is another beautiful restaurant on the banks of the Waikato River, and if you book well enough in advance you can even eat in the wine cellar! The menu is seasonal and changes all the time according to the availability of local produce, but you can expect to find things like freshly shucked oysters and premium-grade beef. Plus, they’ve got an extensive wine menu so you can always find the perfect pairing, or you can just opt for the 7-course kitchen table menu instead and add the wine pairing.
Located on the banks of the Waikato River, you may even get a nice view if you’re sitting outside under a shady umbrella!
14. Wander downtown (City Center)
Downtown Hamilton isn’t just about food; I love exploring downtown Hamilton for all the fun things to do and see! It’s got so many different restaurants, quirky shops, and a buzzing atmosphere, so it’s just a nice place to be.
As I mentioned, Hamilton has an awesome foodie scene and lots of the restaurants I mentioned above are in the downtown area. Honestly, you’re pretty spoiled for choice in terms of where to eat here.
If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend heading to Victoria Street, which runs parallel to the Waikato River and is basically the heart of the downtown area. You’ll get some really nice views as you wander along the street, and there are some cool cafes to check out. Plus, you’ll also find Riverbank Lane, a cute market-style destination with some really cute shops, cafes, and restaurants.
You can also find SkyCity building downtown, which is home to the casino and bowling alley (more on that later on), as well as an escape room and some nice bars. The Waikato Museum and art gallery is also in the downtown area, so you can go and check this out while you’re wandering around.
15. Tauwhare Berry Farm
When you visit, you can have the experience of hand picking your own blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries, which is such a delight if you haven’t done anything like this before!
A must-do while anyone is here, though, is tasting some ice cream. The fresh fruit ice cream is so good and they use berries from the farm. It tastes so creamy and full of natural berry flavor. This is the perfect treat to have on a hot and sunny day after picking your own berries.
This is a seasonal place (closed during the winter) and not all the berries may be ready at the same time, so check out their Facebook page to see what’s available before you go.
You can see how much love, passion, and work has gone into the Tauwhare Berry Farm, and how it can produce such world-renowned berries. I will definitely be back here when I come back to Hamilton!
16. Have brunch at Punnet Eatery
Haven’t had your fill of strawberries yet? Having breakfast on a strawberry farm sounds almost too wholesome to be real, but I can assure you, it is!
The Strawberry Farm is a gorgeous, family-run farm where you can pick your own strawberries during the summer, and there’s also a playground for kids, so this place is perfect for families. However, for me the highlight of the farm is the Punnet Eatery, which serves up amazing brunch favorites like chocolate and caramel waffles, homemade stuffed portobello burgers, English breakfast muffins, and so much more.
This place is just so cute and I love that they specialize in breakfasts! The kitchen is open from 8 am until 2 pm from Monday to Thursday, or 2:30 pm on weekends. You don’t necessarily need to reserve a table but word is spreading fast about this place so I’d suggest booking one online if you don’t want to wait.
17. See the balloons over Waikato/Ride in a hot-air balloon
Whether you just want to attend and watch a hot balloon festival or actually ride in a hot-air balloon, Hamilton has just the thing!
The Hamilton balloon festival is called Balloons Over Waikato and happens during March every year, for 5 days straight. It is one of the biggest free events in New Zealand! You’ll see an array of hot air balloons add color to the Hamilton sky.
You can even go up in a balloon yourself. Flights leave every morning during the festival at around 7:30 am. You’ll get to take off with 20 other hot air balloons and soar over the city. So cool! It’s around $400 NZD per person and must be booked in advance.
In addition to the hot air balloons, the atmosphere of being around the locals, enjoying food truck snacks, listening to performers, going on carnival rides, and even taking part in competitions, can really make the festival fun for everyone! There is also a show at night called Zuru Nightglow where you can watch the eye-catching hot-air balloon show at night.
It is completely free to come to the event and watch the air balloons get ready and take off, so if you are in Hamilton during Balloons Over Waikato, be sure to check it out for at least a day.
Related read: If hot air ballooning has you craving more adventerous activities, try bungee jumping, rolling around in a Zorb, a giant swing or jet boating while exploring Rotorua!
18. Visit the Lavender Backyard Garden
In rural Hamilton, stop by the stunning Lavender Backyard Garden, which is the only lavender and blueberry farm that exists in the whole of New Zealand. If you have always wanted to be surrounded by lush lavender fields and pick your own delicious blueberries, then now is your chance.
If you are visiting during the summer months of December and January, lavender picking and blueberry picking are available. With over 2,000 lavender plants on this stunning private land and an array of blueberries to pick, bring a container from home and get ready to take home some goodies!
Natural products, dried flowers, and gifts are available from their shop, so before you leave, be sure to check it out and find something to take home with you.
The farm is located just outside Hamilton and is open from mid-November to mid-February. Make sure you book in advance if you’re hoping to pick lavender or blueberries in December and January.
19. Good George Brewing
Good George Brewing is one of the most popular breweries in New Zealand, but did you know that it all started right here in Hamilton?
Yup, Good George was born in the old St. George’s Church building (so no prizes for guessing where the company got its name from). You can go and try their wares in their original building, although they have had to make some adjustments and expand it because the business became so popular.
In fact, Good George doesn’t just do beer anymore. As much as we love coming here and working our way through one of their tasting racks, you can also come and sample their range of botanical gins or fruit ciders instead. But regardless of your choice of tipple, it’s pretty cool to come and have a drink at the birthplace of one of New Zealand’s biggest breweries.
Related Read: Heading to Queenstown? Be sure to check out the best places to drink craft beer in Queenstown before you go!
20. Play golf
Up for a round of golf while in Hamilton? I would recommend St. Andrews of Hamilton Golf Club. Put on casual golf attire and sports shoes and take some swings on the 72-par landscape. This is the place to be for a top-notch golf day and experience.
Some of the holes can be quite challenging, and there are many dips and curves in the green, but it’s still fun, even if you’re not the best golfer.
Situated right next to the Waikato River, the golf club has friendly staff and a picturesque location and often holds professional events. Enjoy having a coffee or some lunch at the cafe before putting your golf skills to the test!
For those of us who would like a bit of practice before starting, there is the putting green, practice fairway, chipping green, and practice bunker to have a play at first. Then head out on the course for 18 holes for about $75 NZD.
21. Treat yourself to a high tea and plantation tour at Zealong
For a luxury high tea experience, look no further than the Zealong Tea Estate. This tea estate was inspired by observing a camellia flower and the owner wondering if tea could grow here too. Spoiler alert … it can!
The organic tea company was born with 130 tea cuttings. Now it has now grown to 1.2 million tea plants!
One of the best ways to taste this tea is with a high-tea experience. You’ll sample Zealong tea along with delicate desserts and tasty items using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. Plus, you’ll have a breathtaking view of the Waikato region while you eat.
There are also tours known as ‘Tea Walks’ that take you through the history of tea while you explore the estate with a guide.
Whether you enjoy a succulent beef tataki or are dying to try Zealong’s signature key lime macaroon, you will not be disappointed by the food or the tea here.
22. Shaw’s Bird Park
Get up close to a variety of birds at Shaw’s Bird Park. Filled with native trees, lakes, and grassland, visitors are welcome any day of the week to enjoy the much-loved bird life.
The atmosphere here is so friendly and fun! Plus, it’s free, which is a plus in my book.
This wonderful place is a breeding ground for many bird species. Come and listen to singing parrots or have them land on your arm, observe the wide-eyed morepork and admire the beauty of the peacocks, and so much more!
Take a 10-minute drive from central Hamilton to reach Shaw’s Bird Park and spend a few hours walking through this beautiful, safe sanctuary for birds.
23. Go bowling
Sometimes bowling alleys can feel kinda old school, but Bowl & Social in the city center is not like that at all! It feels very clean and modern, and it has nice views of the Waikato River. Plus, there’s a bar so you can enjoy a drink or two as you bowl.
Bowl & Social is located inside the SkyCity building, which also features a casino and a handful of bars, including The Local Taphouse, which is perfect for craft beer enthusiasts like us!
You can expect to pay $16 NZD per adult and $13 NZD per child for one game, or $28 NZD per adult and $20 NZD for two. Bowl & Social is open from 11 am until 9 pm most days, although it stays open until 11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, giving you more time to get those strikes in the bag!
24. Day trip to Wairere Falls
Wairere Falls is the highest waterfall on New Zealand’s North Island, so it’s definitely worth visiting while you’re in Hamilton!
The falls are about 71 kilometers (44) miles from Hamilton on the drive towards Tauranga, so it takes just over an hour to drive there, but we think it’s worth it, because they’re just so stunning and one of the best waterfalls in the country.
Once you arrive at the parking lot, you’ll need to follow the Wairere Falls Track to reach the water. It’s a big lot and there are toilets here, which you recommend you use because it will probably take you 3 hours to complete the hike, or even longer if you decide to go all the way to the upper viewpoint.
The hike to the lower viewpoint is 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) each way, but there are a lot of stairs, so even though it sounds like a short distance, this is not a quick and easy journey! You’ll probably need about 3 hours to climb up to the lower viewpoint and back again.
Still, once we got to the viewpoint, we were greeted by stunning views and we agreed that the effort had definitely been worth it. Plus, the hike itself was beautiful, which helped a lot!
There is also another, even higher viewpoint you can climb to, but we didn’t actually do this. It would take you about another 1.5 hours (one way) to reach the upper viewpoint, and the trail is very difficult, with lots of rocks, roots, and a very steep incline. If you want to go all the way to the top, then we recommend bringing hiking poles with you!
Where to Stay in Hamilton, NZ
With so many things to do in Hamilton, it’s worth it to find a great place to stay. You’ll love having a home base while you explore the city and venture out on some fantastic day trips.
Luckily there are tons of choices for accommodations for every budget. These are my top picks whether you’re traveling on a budget or craving a bit of luxury during your stay.
Novotel Tainui Hamilton – $$$
Located on the banks of the Waikato River, Novotel Tainui Hamilton is a 4.5-star hotel right in the middle of the city. It’s easy to start your day with breakfast on the terrace overlooking the river and then venture out the door to explore. The rooms feature contemporary decor, lots of natural light, and beautiful views. Rooms here start at $250 NZD per night.
Ventura Inn & Suites Hamilton – $$
Centrally located, the Ventura Inn & Suites is a great option for exploring the city. What’s even better is you can fill up on the yummy breakfast buffet that’s included with your stay before heading out! If you have a rental car, no need to worry about parking as it’s also included here. These little extras really help make the stay affordable for the $175 NZD nightly rate.
Hamilton City Holiday Park – $
These little cabins are a nice option for travelers on a budget. The Hamilton City Holiday Park is just outside the city center, so an easy drive to all the attractions you want to check out. There’s also a playground and BBQ area to enjoy and if you’re interested in camping, they have sites available here too. A small cabin runs for about $77 NZD a night.
Thanks for reading!
While Hamilton sometimes gets overlooked as a place with lots to do, I hope you know now that’s not the case! There are tons of fun things to experience in the city and just outside of it. It’s definitely worth a stop while you’re visiting New Zealand.
If you have New Zealand travel plans in your future, make sure to check out my other in-depth guides for more unique destinations and lots of travel inspiration.