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 18 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.
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.
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. 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!
6. Go on a Nature and Nosh Tour
A guide will pick you up at Hamilton Gardens in an air-conditioned van for the scenic drive along the east coast before going on an idyllic bush walk on the way to Waihi Beach.
Enjoy a cute picnic with the group sitting under pohutukawa trees and visit a local bistro where there will be a ‘garden to plate’ dining experience. Before heading back to Hamilton, you will get to go on a blueberry farm tour and delight in the taste of gelato too!
This full-day guided experience will be around 10 hours long and cost $405 NZD. If you are a nature-lover and foodie like me who loves to experience local cuisine, you will have a wonderful time.
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. 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.
9. 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!
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. Check out downtown Hamilton
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.
Located on the banks of the Waikato River, you may even get a nice view if you’re sitting outside under a shady umbrella!
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.
The River Kitchen would be my go-to cafe for breakfast or lunch, especially if you want a classic, hearty meal. Open daily and located in the heart of bustling Victoria Street, head there for a yummy Eggs Benedict or the best s’mores hot chocolate!
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.
If you are thirsty, Craft Hamilton will be sure to quench your thirst. Pull your stool up and enjoy a cold craft beer in a friendly environment. If you do get hungry, don’t worry, you can order a delicious pizza served on a wooden pallet to go with your drinks!
13. 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!
14. 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!
15. 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.
16. 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.
17. 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.
18. 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.
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.