New Zealand is my favorite place in the world to travel. From the North Island to the South Island there is just a ton of amazing things to do, which is surprising considering it is such a small country.
I actually love New Zealand so much that I decided to make the move here permanent and settle in the small mountain town of Queenstown on the South Island. Being a local means I get to explore more than most. In fact, in my trusty van “Bertha” I’ve been just about everywhere and experienced many of the best things to do in New Zealand.
For those coming to New Zealand for the first time, or even on a returning trip, it’s daunting. You don’t want to miss a thing! That’s why I’ve compiled this list of the most amazing New Zealand bucket-list experiences on the North and South Islands, as well as activities you can do on both islands!
Here are the 55 (yes 55!) best things to do in New Zealand to help inspire and plan your upcoming trip!
1. Hike a Great Walk
I’m starting this list with experiences you can do on either island, and first up is the Great Walks. These 10 multi-day hiking trails are known as some of the most diverse in the country showcasing New Zealand’s unique landscapes, flora, and fauna. They’ve been hand-picked by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and hiking part or all of at least one Great Walk is a must in NZ.
The trails are spread over both islands and range in difficulty and length. One of the Great Walks, the Whanganui Journey is actually a canoe trip down a river and not a hike at all! I’ve done it before while visiting Whanganui and wow, what an adventure! Personally though, I love the Great Walks on the South Island the most. My favorites are the Routeburn Track and Kepler Track. Both are alpine hikes on the South Island with some of the most magnificent views in New Zealand!
On the Great Walks, you’ll stay in either campsites or New Zealand huts if you plan to hike the entire trail or go overnight. Of course, you can do shorter day hikes on some of the Great Walks completely free, which I do often!
The 10 Great Walks are:
Abel Tasman Coastal Track
Tongariro Northern Circut
Lake Waikaremoana Track
The Great Walks do need to be booked before you go and trails such as the Milford, Kepler, and Routeburn Track book up months in advance. If you plan on hiking one of the above trails, be sure to do some research before you go and plan ahead to avoid disappointment!
2. Enjoy #vanlife
Without a doubt, the best way to travel around New Zealand is in a campervan or motorhome. “Vanlife”, as it’s called, is an adventurous way to travel that has you staying in remote DOC campsites, freedom camping spots, and holiday parks. You’ll have your very own home on wheels and get to explore New Zealand at your own pace. Plus, staying in a campervan is generally much cheaper than hotels!
Campervan rentals start at around $100 NZD per day but for two people in a comfortable van, you’d best budget around $200 NZD. Of course, motorhomes are a lot more but they are pretty comfortable. With that said, traveling in winter will save you a ton as discounted winter rates are always available.
I originally came to New Zealand with the plan of staying for one year, so I bought a normal van and turned it into a campervan all on my own. For most though, renting a campervan/motorhome is the best option. To find the best deal use Motorhome Republic. It’s basically the Booking.com of campervans and motorhomes where you’ll find the best deals and are easily able to compare prices, facilities, and companies.
3. See glowworms
Can you really come to New Zealand and not see glowworms? Although not entirely unique to New Zealand, you won’t see the sheer number occupying the inside of caves and lighting them up like a starry night sky anywhere else. I was blown away the first time I saw them – definitely one of the best experiences in New Zealand if you ask me!
You can see glowworms all over New Zealand and on both islands. Picking a place to see them just depends on the experience you want. Below are the most popular places to see glowworms in New Zealand:
Waitomo Caves – The Waitomo Caves are the most popular place to see glow worms in New Zealand. Located near Hobbiton on the North Island, the caves can only be accessed on a tour but you’ll get to see one of the highest concentrations of glowworms in NZ.
Waipu Caves – Waipu Caves in Northland is my favorite place to see glowworms in NZ. The caves are completely free to visit and are explored without a guide. In the caves, you’ll see thousands of glowworms.
Te Anau Glowworm Caves – One of the youngest glowworm caves in New Zealand at only 12,000 years old is the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Because they’re located so close to Queenstown, they are popular especially for those who road trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound. This is easily one of the best things to do in Te Anau and done on a guided tour.
Paparoa National Park – Last is the glowworm caves on the west coast of the South Island in Paparoa National Park. These caves are visited on an epic cave tubing tour that has you floating below what appears like the night sky.
Related Read: Stopping at amazing glow worm caves is also included on many of the best multi-day tours of NZ!
4. Spend the night in a mountain hut
New Zealand is famous for its 950 mountain huts dotted all over the country. From the Southern Alps to the epic coastlines of the North Island there are huts everywhere for hikers to take refuge and spend a night.
These huts range in size and comfort level but can be broken down into 4 categories; Great Walk huts, serviced huts, standard huts, and free huts. Prices vary depending on the hut, and bookings are required for the most popular huts in NZ.
On all the Great Walks there are mountain huts, but below I’ll list the huts in NZ you can hike to in a day and spend one night. I’ve stayed at them all and you should seriously consider adding them to your NZ bucket list!
Mueller Hut – This is my favorite hut in NZ! Located in Mt Cook National Park its location over the valley is out of this world. The hut costs $45 NZD per night and needs to be booked in advance in the summer months. In winter, it’s first come, first serve but still costs the same.
Brewster Hut – On the rugged west coast the Brewster Hut sits high above the clouds accessed by a gruelingly steep 3-hour hiking trail. It’s more off the beaten path than most and only sleeps 12 people.
Luxmore Hut – The Luxmore Hut is the most breathtaking hut on the Kepler Track. Although part of the 3 days trail, you can hike up to the Luxmore Hut for the night and back down the same way the next day.
Routeburn Falls Hut – Another Great Walk hut you can visit for a night is the Routeburn Falls Hut. Once again, its location is magnificent and the views over the valley are epic. If you’re up for the challenge, hiking to the Routeburn Falls Hut and back again is one of the day hikes you can do on the Routeburn Track.
Pinnacles Hut – The Pinnacles Hut is one of the largest in NZ. Home to 80 bunks, its location in the Coromandel is perfect for a sunrise hike to enjoy one of the best views on the North Island.
Pouakai Hut – Without a doubt, my favorite hut on the North Island is the Pouakai Hut. The hut is famous for being only 10 minutes from the Pouakai Tarn – a small alpine lake that showcases breathtaking reflections of Mt Taranaki (the first picture in this blog.) The view is now so famous the hut recently moved to bookings only. Hiking here is one of the best hikes on the North Island and one of the best things to do in New Plymouth.
Cape Brett Hut – The Cape Brett Track is not a super popular trail, but it should be! Located in the Bay of Islands, the trail leads to Cape Brett where you can stay in one of the most isolated huts in NZ. Surrounded by cliffs you’ll stay literally on the edge of NZ!
5. Visit a museum
New Zealand may be a small country but there’s an abundance of history and culture here. Although you should experience it (the culture) with the locals, learning about it in museums is also one of the best things to do in NZ.
In museums, you’ll learn a lot about the Maori culture. The Maori were the first people to arrive in New Zealand thousands of years ago by Waka (canoe.) Learning about their culture is a super important part of visiting New Zealand. On top of that, museums around New Zealand tell the story of European settlers and also other historical moments in New Zealand. Without paying for an expensive tour you can learn so much so this is definitely one activity you’ll want to do.
Of course, there are tons of museums around New Zealand but two of the most popular are the Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand) and the Auckland Museum. The Te Papa Museum is located in Wellington and is completely free to visit. Don’t let that fool you though, it’s a world-class museum that I love!
The Auckland Museum is another world-class museum but does have an entrance fee of $10 to $25 NZD depending on status. However, with that, you get access to tons of exhibitions and I actually worked at the Auckland Museum when I first moved to NZ! Trust me, it’s a cool museum and one of the best things to do in Auckland!
Other museums include the Museum of Wellington, Canterbury Museum, Otago Museum, and the International Antarctic Center.
6. Go bungy jumping
Commercial bungy was born in New Zealand…seriously! The first commercial bungy in the world was the Kawarau Bridge Bungy and it’s now considered one of the best things to do in Queenstown. That’s why I can’t agree more that there’s no better place to bungy than in New Zealand.
Don’t worry if you’re not going to the South Island though, there are bungy jumps all over NZ. The most popular company is AJ Hacket and they operate two jumps in Auckland, three in Queenstown, and one in Taupo.
If you want to try the tallest bungy jump in NZ, head to the Nevis Bungy in Queenstown at 134 meters tall!
Fun fact: New Zealand spells it “bungy” jumping (not “bungee” like the rest of the world.) This is how they spelled it back in the day when the first commercial bungy jump opened, so the spelling has remained to this day!
7. Test your nerves on a skydive
Another adventure activity you can do all over New Zealand is skydiving. Now, this sport may not have been born in NZ, but after going twice I can say it’ll make you feel more fear and excitement than you’ve ever felt before. Afterward though, you’ll be so high from the feeling you won’t be able to wipe the smile off your face.
Without a doubt, the best place to skydive in New Zealand is on the South Island. I might be a little biased, but hear me out. Imagine skydiving over the breathtaking Southern Alps! Falling from 9,000, 12,000, or 15,000 feet over huge mountain peaks, glaciers, and lakes. It’s basically a scenic flight and skydive all in one – not that you’ll remember much of it!
Fun fact: When you skydive it’s hard to remember the jump because you get a thing called sensory overload. That’s why you need to get the video!
Some of the best places to skydive on the South Island include Queenstown, Glenorchy, Franz Josef, and Wanaka. On the North Island, you can go skydiving in Taupo, Tauranga, and Auckland. Using the links above you can book your jump in so you don’t chicken out – that’s what I did!
8. Taste amazing New Zealand wine
Did I move to New Zealand for the gorgeous landscapes, food and lifestyle, or was it for the wine? Who knows maybe it was a little bit of everything…
Regardless though, if you love wine you’ll love New Zealand. Both on the South and North Island you’ll find small wine regions (when compared to other countries) that produce amazing wine. The best part is there isn’t a New Zealand itinerary that doesn’t bring you close to a winery!
Some of the best wine regions to check out in New Zealand are:
The Gibbston Valley/ Otago – My hometown doesn’t disappoint when it comes to wine, and without a doubt one of the most romantic things to do in Queenstown is to tour the Gibbston Valley on a wine tour from Queenstown. The Otago Wine Region is one of the best and most beautiful. Within that region is the Gibbston Valley my absolute favorite place to tour the vineyards and drink wine on a hot summer’s day.
Marlborough Sounds – With the South Island’s beautiful beaches, bays, and islands it’s no wonder the Marlborough Sounds is one fabulous place to drink wine. Visit the wineries on a tour or let your designated driver lead the way.
Coromandel Peninsula – The Coromandel isn’t a huge wine region per se, but it’s such a popular place to visit (especially on a romantic getaway) and I don’t want the wine lovers to miss out. Head over to Mercury Bay Estate winery to enjoy magnificent views, taste some wine, and have lunch – it’s my favorite in the area.
Hawkes Bay – I haven’t been to Hawkes Bay (yet!) but it’s one of the larger wine regions in New Zealand. Its famous for Syrah and Chardonnay!
Waiheke Island – Located only a short ferry from Auckland, Waiheke Island is a tiny wine region but one best explored on bike. The small island of Waiheke is a great day or overnight trip from Auckland and once on the island, you can just about ride everywhere you want. Stop by the wineries and have a drink, just be sure you can still ride home afterward!
There are many more wine regions in New Zealand and the truth is, if you want to visit a winery, I guarantee you’re only a short drive away!
9. Surf at a New Zealand beach
Surfing is a huge part of New Zealand’s culture. Like Australia, many of the cities and towns are on or near the coast, and with such rough seas, the surf is actually really great. This is one activity where the North Island is the better island and you can surf all the way from Northland to Wellington here.
Some of the best surf beaches in New Zealand include Piha and Muriwai Beach near Auckland, Manu Beach in Raglan, Ship Wreck Bay, and Surf highway 45 in Taranaki. All provide epic surf, some of which are more suited to the experienced surfer.
On the South Island, the fun doesn’t stop but you do need to be more selective. Head to Dunedin, Kaikoura, or even Colac Bay in Southland! Although not as good as the North Island there are still plenty of waves!
To be honest, my favorite surf spot in NZ is the small town of Raglan. It’s got that hippy surf vibe with beach breaks for all levels and point breaks for the more experienced.
Related read: Want to go surfing in Dunedin? Consider driving the scenic route from Queenstown to Dunedin and stopping at amazing attractions along the way!
10. Eat a New Zealand meat pie
My partner is Australian and loves meat pies. However, you may be surprised to know he says the best meat pies come from New Zealand, and I agree (sorry Aussies!) The best part is they are literally everywhere, like seriously, I don’t think you’ll ever be more than 15 minutes from a meat pie in New Zealand.
You can get a huge range of flavors but my favorite is steak and mushroom, steak and blue cheese, lamb, or butter chicken. There isn’t a must-try place but be sure to hit up the small corner store bakeries. Support the local businesses and you’ll find the best pies in NZ!
11. Go Stargazing
With such a small population you don’t have to go far to see the stars without any light pollution in New Zealand. I actually first started astrophotography in NZ and haven’t looked back – I love it.
The Milky Way core is only visible in New Zealand during winter but at any time of the year, you can see amazing stars and even do stargazing tours. The most popular place is Lake Tekapo. In the region, there is an official dark sky reserve, and on the tour, you’ll visit the Mt John Observatory to stare through a high-powered telescope at the planets.
Oh, and did I mention the Southern Lights? Yep, that’s right, during the wintertime you can see the Southern Hemisphere’s answer to the Northern Lights. You do have to check the forecast and have a little luck on your side, but if you do get to see them, you’ll be amazed!
12. Drink and learn about New Zealand craft beer
The craft beer scene in New Zealand has exploded in recent years. Nowadays, in just about every city and tourist town, you can drink delicious NZ craft beer straight from the tap. For beer lovers like myself, trying a little craft beer in each town and city is one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
There’s certainly no shortage of craft beer in Queenstown, in fact, there are four breweries within a 30-minute drive of town that you can either visit on your own or on a tour. The same goes for Wanaka which is actually home to the most craft breweries per capita in NZ!
There are many more breweries all over NZ so be sure to look them up in each city and town you plan on visiting – you’ll be surprised just how many there are! Also, before going ask if they offer a brewery tour. They’re usually free and involve a tasting!
13. Watch a rugby Game
Rugby is the national sport of New Zealand and the All Blacks, their national team, are one of the best in the world! For sports fans (unfortunately, that’s not me) you shouldn’t miss the chance to see a rugby game in NZ.
Seeing the All Blacks play in NZ will be a hard game to get tickets to, however, New Zealand has lots of other rugby games such as the Super Rugby Season. These games are played all over NZ and tickets are much easier to get!
14. Hit the slopes
Did you know I came all the way to New Zealand from Canada to enjoy my first ski season? A pretty silly thing to do when I think about it now, but “Spring” skiing all year round sounded like my kind of season! The winter temperatures in New Zealand are pretty mild and remind me of what I could expect in Canada in the Spring months. Honestly, winter is one of the best times to visit NZ because of skiing!
There are ski fields all over New Zealand, on mountains in the south and volcanoes in the north! Seriously, the North Island ski fields are on volcanoes! The ski season in NZ runs from around the start of June to the middle of October depending on where you are. To play it safe, go in July and August for the best conditions.
I’ve personally only ever skied on the South Island visiting 4 different ski fields in that time. If you want to ski on the South Island then heading to Queenstown or Wanaka is the best option as there are 4 ski fields in that area with another large one near Christchurch at Mt Hutt. In fact, skiing is easily one of the best things to do in Queenstown in the winter.
On the North Island, Mount Ruapehu is the most popular place to ski. There are two ski fields on the volcano with the largest being Whakapapa. You can also ski on Mt Taranaki (another volcano) at the Manganui Ski Field. It’s famous for being the place where you can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon (although the water is freezing!)
15. Go dolphin watching
Wildlife watching is one of my favorite things to do in New Zealand. From land, the air, and the water you can spot so much wildlife in NZ! One of the most common and majestic species to see in the water is dolphins. The best part is there are so many places to see them, that if it’s on your NZ bucket list, you’ll almost certainly get the chance.
In New Zealand, there are nine different dolphin species including the Hector dolphin which is only found in New Zealand waters. There are a few places that are better than others to view dolphins, with two of the most popular being the Bay of Islands on the North Island and Kaikoura on the South Island. In both places, you can do cruises and see large pods of dolphins. In Kaikoura, you can actually join a dolphin swimming tour too!
Other places to spot dolphins in NZ include on a Milford Sound Cruise, in the Bay of Plenty, Marlborough Sounds, and Curio Bay.
16. Learn about the Maori culture
Have you heard of the Haka? This Maori dance was made famous by the All Blacks rugby team but did you know it’s an actual dance the Maori people used both before war and before making peace with another tribe? This is just one interesting fact about the Maori people!
In New Zealand, you’ll meet lots of Maori people in day-to-day life but learning about their culture is something not to be missed. There are a few ways to do this but one of the most popular is on a Maori experience tour.
On these tours, you’ll be taken to a replica Maori village to learn all about the Maori culture. You’ll be welcomed with a Haka before a person in your group accepts a fern as a sign of peace. Then it’s into the village to learn about Maori life. You’ll finish the night with a “hangi” (traditional Maori underground oven) and a dance show. I loved the experience!
You can do Maori experiences in a few cities including in Rotorua, the Bay of Islands, and Auckland.
17. Soak in some hot springs
After a day exploring New Zealand what could be more rewarding than relaxing in warm hot springs? Soothe those muscles and get some much-needed relaxation time while you’re at it!
There are a huge range of hot springs all over New Zealand and they range from natural outdoor springs to indoor heated pools. Here are my favorites:
Omarama Hot Tubs – These artificially heated hot tubs sit in a beautiful valley with the Southern Alps as a backdrop. The tubs are private so it’s a really intimate experience located in the town of Omarama near Mount Cook National Park.
Onsen Hot Pools – The Onsen Hot Pools are the most popular hot pools in NZ. They overlook the Shotover River near Queenstown and with a really private setting, they are one of the best hot pools in Queenstown. Be sure to book in advance though as this is one of the most popular relaxing activities in Queenstown!
Franz Josef Hot Pools – This is one of my favorite public hot pools. Set in a beautiful tropical garden the three pools provide the most relaxing place to unwind after exploring glaciers and lakes.
Kerosene Creek – Located near Rotorua on the North Island, Kerosene Creek is a natural outdoor creek that’s heated from beneath the ground. The place smells like kerosene (hence the name) but is completely free to visit.
18. White water rafting
Epic views, lush forest, and rapids that will have you holding on for dear life. New Zealand’s rivers are gorgeous and provide the ultimate playground for white water rafting.
When it comes to the best place to go white water rafting in NZ it’s hard to choose. However, one rafting tour people from all over the world come to do is the rafting tour down the Kaituna River. It’s home to the highest commercially rafted waterfall at 7 meters! Obviously not for the faint-hearted the experience is terrifyingly fun. Its located 20 minutes from Rotorua on the North Island and is easily one of the top things to do in Rotorua – and all of NZ, for that matter!
Other places you can raft in New Zealand include Queenstown, Franz Josef, and Christchurch on the South Island. And Hawke’s Bay, Taupo, and Tauranga on the North Island.
19. Go on a scenic flight
I did my first ever scenic flight in New Zealand and to this day it’s still hard to process the experience! I chose to do my scenic flight in Mount Cook National Park and without sounding biased it’s got to be the most beautiful place to do it.
In a helicopter I soared above the Southern Alps coming so close to Mount Cook I felt as though I could reach out and touch its sharp peak. We also landed on a glacier, which in itself was an experience. If you’ve never done a scenic flight before consider making New Zealand your first!
You can do scenic flights all over New Zealand and although Mount Cook is a great place to do it, I also have Milford Sound on my bucket list. Another cool place would be over the Bay of Islands. Although not a mountain experience, that region is so beautiful I’d love to see it from the air! Scenic flights in Queenstown are also very popular.
Without a doubt, a scenic flight is one of the best activities in New Zealand.
20. Visit Lord of the Rings film locations
Any Lord of the Rings fans here? If you are then you already know the movies were filmed in New Zealand. All over the country, you can visit famous film locations. Living in Queenstown means I have a ton right at my doorstep, in fact, in the small town of Glenorchy you’ll find lots of famous scenes including Isengard, Ithilien Camp, Forest of Fangorn, and more! Visiting them is one of the best free things to do in Glenorchy. You can also choose to join a Glenorchy LOTR tour from Queenstown, which is a super popular option!
Another very popular place is Mordor in Tongariro National Park. Many fans hike the grueling Tongariro Crossing and it actually looks like Mordor even without the special effects. You’ll hike past Mt Doom but please don’t climb to the top it’s a sacred place for the Maori people.
Obviously, there are a ton more so if you’re a LOTR fan be sure to check out the best film locations around NZ before you go. Map them out and hit the road!
21. Go jet boating
On a high-powered boat, you’ll scream across the water doing 360’s and coming within inches of rocks, trees, you name it. You’ll get wet, let out a few screams, but it’s so much fun.
Queenstown is the home of jet boating in New Zealand and being a local there means I’ve been lucky enough to go more than a few times. There are actually 5 jet boating experiences that leave from Queenstown! Talk about being spoilt for choice.
Most jet boating tours around New Zealand are the same. You’ll basically book your tour based on the amount of time in the jet boat and most tours run for 1 hour. Then with your experienced guide, you’ll set off and his job is to scare you as much as possible in that time. Most tours also involve a talk about the area at beautiful locations.
Jet boating is easily one of the best activities you can do in New Zealand and the best part is that tours start from as low as $50!
22. Enjoy one of the best day hikes in New Zealand
It goes without saying that hiking is one of the reasons most people come to New Zealand. It doesn’t matter where you go, there will be a worthwhile day hike nearby. My love for hiking wasn’t born in NZ but it’s where I got the majority of my experience. I’m out on hiking trails just about every weekend and I still can’t get enough of it!
It’ll be impossible to mention all of the best day hikes in New Zealand in this post. But, I’ll be sure to mention a few of my favorites that you should add to your New Zealand bucket list.
Roy’s Peak – The most famous day hike in New Zealand is easily Roy’s Peak. As one of the best free things to do in Wanaka, this epic hike was made famous for its views over Lake Wanaka. For a less busy alternative to Roy’s Peak check out Isthmus Peak. Although less famous, it’s still one of the best hikes in Wanaka.
Lake Marian Track – On any road trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound you simply have to leave yourself enough time to hike the Lake Marian Track (it’s one of the best hikes in Milford Sound!) Because of its location between Te Anau and Milford, most miss it. So, despite being beautiful it doesn’t attract large crowds.
Ben Lomond Track – Towering over Queenstown is the famous Ben Lomond summit. Without a doubt, it’s the hardest but most popular day hike in Queenstown.
Mount Maunganui Summit – Located in the Bay of Plenty, Mount Maunganui is a short but beautiful hike to a viewpoint overlooking the ocean.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing – I mentioned this hike above as a Lord of the Rings film location. Regardless of that this hike is epic. Don’t be fooled by its popularity though, it’s a challenging day hike!
23. Go on a overnight hike/multi day
Day hikes are fun, but nothing beats camping under the stars in a backcountry campsite in New Zealand. For me, there are a few favorites that come to mind that, to be honest, are rather unknown. Of course, there are hundreds around the country but to get you started here are my favorites!
Earnslaw Burn – Located just outside Glenorchy, the Earnslan Burn track is one of the most off-the-beaten-path overnight hikes. The trail can be hiked in a day, however, at 5 to 7 hours each way, it’s best to camp the night under the Earnslaw Burn Glacier. Trust me, it’s beautiful and one of the top hikes in Glenorchy!
Mueller Hut – I mentioned the Mueller Hut as one of the best huts in New Zealand. However, you can also camp beside the hut and enjoy this fantastic overnight hike! It’s free to camp but you do have a pay $15 to use the hut facilities which includes the toilets.
Pouakai Circuit – The Pouakai Circuit is a 3-day hike around Mt Taranaki. The Pouakai Hut (also mentioned above) is just one of the hut/campsites along the way. By hiking the trail you’ll get to enjoy magnificent views of Mt Taranaki and enjoy an off-the-beaten-path multi-day hike.
Te Paki Coastal Track – If you’ve ever wanted to explore the very northern tip of the North Island then the Te Paki Coastal Track is the multi-day hike for you. I personally love this trail as the coastline is absolutely stunning. The 48-kilometer trail (30 miles) is hiked over 3 to 4 days with some pretty magnificent campsites along the way.
If you’d prefer to have the entire trip planned for you there are some great multi-day tours in New Zealand that involve hiking and sightseeing!
24. Fall in love with Queenstown
To kick off the best things to do in New Zealand on the South Island I’ll start with an absolute gem! As you can probably tell by the name of my blog, Queenstown is my all-time favorite place in New Zealand. I fell in love with this beautiful mountain town and haven’t looked back ever since.
For visitors to New Zealand, Queenstown simply has to be at the very top of your bucket list. This bustling town is filled with adventure from scenic tours, hikes, adventure tours, and more. When it comes to the best things to do in Queenstown it’s impossible to list them here – there’s just that many!
Luckily though, my blog has so much info on Queenstown including itineraries, guides on hikes, and even the best cruises in Queenstown. The best way to explore it all is to check out my Queenstown section and just browse from there!
25. Drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy
There are a lot of scenic drives on the South Island of New Zealand, but few are as spectacular as the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy. On this epic 46-kilometer (28.5-mile) road trip you’ll pass some of the most beautiful landscapes around Queenstown and take in views of Lake Wakatipu from every angle. It should be part of every south island itinerary!
Some of the best places to stop along the way include Bob’s Cove Track, Moke Lake, Wilsons Bay, Mt Crichton Loop Track, and more. Seriously, before you go you need to read my blog on the best places to stop between Queenstown and Glenorchy so you don’t miss a thing.
Despite the rather short distance, you’ll need at least half a day to truly enjoy the drive. Add on the next best thing to do in New Zealand on this list, and you have yourself a full to multi-day adventure!
26. Enjoy Glenorchy
After you’ve enjoyed the scenic drive to Glenorchy the adventure isn’t over. There are actually a ton of awesome things to do in Glenorchy and one of my favorites is the tour with Wilderness Jet.
On this epic jet boating experience, you’ll zoom down the Dart River making crazy twists and turns on a thrilling jet boat ride. After, you’ll get off in a remote region called Paradise (yes there’s a place called Paradise) to explore on a guided walk. It’s a nature and adventure tour in one.
Of course, if you’re looking for a free thing to do in Glenorchy consider walking the Glenorchy Walkway. This 5-kilometer (3-mile) completely flat walk takes you through the Glenorchy Lagoon to view stunning reflections of the Humboldt Mountain Range. It’s an easy hike that’ll take your breath away.
Regardless of what you do, you need to explore Glenorchy so be sure to read up on my blogs before you go!
Related read: Love hiking? There are a ton of awesome hikes on Glenorchy for all fitness levels.
27. Take in the breathtaking views from Wanaka
Located only a short but scenic drive from Queenstown is the other small mountain town of Wanaka. It’s another adventure town filled with amazing things to see and do and also home to one of the South Island’s best hikes – Roy’s Peak.
The Roy’s Peak Track is such a stunning trail that leads to arguably the best viewpoint in all of NZ. Towering over Lake Wanaka you’ll get a panoramic view of the Southern Alps and the famous spot has become famous on Instagram.
Another attraction you’ve most likely seen before is the #ThatWanakatTree. This lone Willow tree sits in Lake Wanaka and is famous among photographers. Visiting is easily one of the best free things to do in Wanaka.
There’s plenty more to do so don’t just hit up the most popular spots. Instead, spend a few nights in Wanaka and explore the area. It’s also the gateway to epic road trips such as the one from Wanaka to Franz Josef or even the road trip to Mount Cook!
28. Relax at the Blue Pools
One of the most famous attractions in New Zealand is the Blue Pools on the west coast of the South Island. This beautiful attraction is accessed via a short 20-minute walking trail from State Highway 6 and is easily one of the best places to visit on the South Island.
The Blue Pools get their name from the blue water that runs from the glaciers in the mountains into the Makarora River. The color of the pools comes from the rock flour in the glaciers that reflect light. The more flour to darker the color so depending on the time of your, the pools can be a light shade of green or a dark blue.
You can visit the Blue pools any time of the year, however, summer is the most popular and if you can brave to cold, you can even go for a swim. This is one of the best places to visit on the South Island!
29. Visit Lake Matheson
If I had to choose the most beautiful reflection lake in NZ I would have to say it’s Lake Matheson. Located only a short drive from the town of Fox Glacier sits a humble lake that on its own is nothing to rave about. However, with a backdrop of mountains that includes New Zealand’s tallest, Mount Cook, visiting Lake Matheson is one of the best activities in NZ.
To get the view above you’ll need to walk from around 40 minutes from the parking lot to a spot called Reflection Island. From here, you’ll be able to stare in awe at one of the most iconic views in NZ! You can continue hiking for another 20 minutes around the lake before heading back to the parking lot. All up, allow around 2 hours to enjoy the trail.
30. Get lost in Glacier Country
Glacier country is a region in New Zealand that includes both Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. It’s a wild place where you can enjoy lots of glacier activities including short walks to viewpoints such as the Franz Josef Valley Walk or the Fox Glacier Viewpoint Trail. If you want to get even closer to the action then this heli-hike glacier tour takes you on a scenic flight to explore the glacier on foot.
To properly visit the region it’s best to stay in either Fox Glacier or Franz Josef town. From both towns, you have the glaciers at your doorstep and can enjoy the amazing activities in the Franz Josef area. To be honest, Franz Josef is the place to stay and it’s actually home to one of my favorite hot springs in NZ. On top of that, there’s a brewery in town that serves delicious NZ craft beer.
31. Spend the night at Lake Tekapo
Known for its Gatorade blue water, Lake Tekapo is one of the best stops on a road trip from Queenstown to Christchurch or Wanaka to Christchurch. For most people, it’s at the top of their bucket list, and rightly so. But funny enough, many don’t stay long enough. To truly enough Lake Tekapo you have to spend at least one night.
As the sun sets over the lake, Lake Tekapo goes dark, like really dark. In fact, Lake Tekapo is actually in a dark sky reserve and one of the best places to stargaze in New Zealand. On a stargazing tour, you’ll head up to Mt John Observatory to view the stars through a high-powered telescope. Of course, you don’t have to do a tour to see them and with the naked eye, you’ll still be blown away.
During the day don’t shy away though, there’s plenty to do in Lake Tekapo. Go jet boating on the lake, visit the Tekapo hot springs, take a photo of the Church of the Good Shepard, and if you’re visiting in November/December, you’ll see the famous lupins in full bloom!
Related read: One popular road trip is the drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo. Read my blog for details on the best places to stop and attractions along this route!
32. Take in the views at Lindis Pass
The mountain passes around New Zealand offer some of the best views of the valleys and mountains. To me, one of the best is Lindis Pass. I fell in love with Lindis Pass on a road trip from Queenstown to Mount Cook and now it’s a regular stop for me.
Lindis pass is located just before the town of Omarama on State Highway 8 and from the small parking lot you can walk to two viewpoints. The walks are only a few hundred meters and although the views are good, I suggest hiking up the hill for an even better view.
From the top of the hill the views are even better and you can see the tiny road below wind it way through the valley. It’s breathtaking!
33. Explore Milford Sound
Milford Sound needs no introduction. It’s the most famous fiord in New Zealand and known all around the world. In fact, New Zealanders consider it the unofficial 8th natural wonder of the world! Although it doesn’t have an official award, after visiting it’s not hard to see why they think that.
There are many ways to explore Milford Sound with the most popular being on a cruise. These Milford Sound boat tours leave every day of the year and cruise through Milford Sound giving you unmatched views of the surrounding landscapes, get you so close to waterfalls you can touch them, and have you spotting unique wildlife. You can choose tours that leave from Queenstown, Te Anau, and even Milford itself if you plan on exploring at your own pace.
On top of the cruise, you can join scenic flights, kayaking tours, hikes, or just explore some of the other best things to do in Milford Sound. Regardless, this is one place you need to check out!
Related Read: Learn about the best tours to Milford from Queenstown or the best tours from Te Anau to Milford!
34. Cruise Doubtful Sound
Another fiord located in Fiordland National Park in Doubtful Sound. Unlike Milford Sound, you may never have heard of Doubtful Sound. It’s New Zealand’s second most popular fiord but still remains well off-the-beaten-path. Despite this, visiting is one of the best things to do in New Zealand especially for those who like to stray away from the crowds.
Tours to Doubtful Sound are a little more adventurous than those to Milford. On the tour from Queenstown, you first need to take a bus to Lake Manapouri before catching a ferry across the lake, and then yet another bus to the fiord. After, you’ll then finally board your cruise – it’s that remote! You can also do overnight cruises and although I haven’t done one myself, I would absolutely love to!
To be honest, I can’t say which I prefer as they’re simply so unique in their own way. I’ve done both so it doesn’t matter, but for you, this could be a very hard decision!
35. Take a cruise through the Marlborough Sounds
Sticking to the topic of cruises takes us to the very north of the South Island, the Marlborough Sounds. I first cruised the Marlborough Sounds on the ferry to the South Island from Wellington to Picton. Although scenic, it’s not the same as taking a nature cruise through the sounds with a wildlife guide.
That’s why I jumped on a tour the next time I was in Picton and well, I got more than I bargained for. Not only did I explore the sounds on a beautiful warm summer day but I also got to see tons of wildlife. From one of the rarest birds in the world (there are less than 500 left which is really sad) to seals and even a kiwi! Yes, I saw a kiwi. And the best part? It was on my cruise!
I was lucky enough to be on a cruise the DOC was using to transport two baby kiwis to a predator-free island to live for a year. They brought them out to tag them and we got to see them up close. They’re so cute! This was unique and not every cruise will enjoy this experience, but seriously, the Marlborough Sounds didn’t make this list for no reason. It’s a beautiful place filled with wildlife.
Cruises through the Marlborough Sounds typically last for around 3 hours and leave from the small town of Picton. Onboard you’ll get a great commentary from your nature guide as well as a guided walk on an island.
36. See the blue waters of Hokitika Gorge
A journey up the west coast isn’t complete without a quick stop at Hokitika Gorge to view the beautiful blue waters of the Hokitika River. This is only a short stop that involves a walk to stretch your legs and views that’ll take your breath away. It’s completely free to visit and accessible to most. Just be sure to keep back from the edge of the river. It’s a fast-flowing and dangerous river!
The Hokitika Gorge access point is about a 30-minute drive from Hokitika town center. You can park at the Hokitika Gorge Parking for free.
37. Road trip through the Catlins
Want to go on an epic road trip? Then don’t just hit up the usual routes that are often overcrowded. Instead, head to the Catlins! This beautiful region at the very bottom of the South Island gets you away from the usual crowd and into a region filled with epic waterfalls, wildlife, and a coastline like no other.
There are a ton of amazing waterfalls to visit in the Catlins which is my favorite part. Koropuku Falls is my favorite but Mclean Falls is another great choice. You can also visit the southernmost point of the South Island at Slope Point and even venture into the Cathedral Caves (not to be confused with Cathedral Cove on the North Island!)
For those in a campervan or motorhome, the Catlins is the perfect place to explore with some of the most beautiful freedom camping spots in New Zealand. So, lace up those boots and fuel the car, it’s time to explore!
38. Explore Mount Cook National Park
It’s hard to describe what Mount Cook National Park means to me in words. It’s the place I built my confidence in the mountains and home to some of my fondest memories. As a visitor, it’s a place you seriously cannot miss (I know I say that a lot, but this time, I mean it!)
What are the best things to do in Mount Cook? Hikes, viewpoints, and more hikes. From the famous Hooker Valley Track to the harder Mueller Hut there are some amazing hikes and walks in Mount Cook! Spend sunrise at the Tasman Lake to see it rise over the Tasman Glacier or hike the short Kea Point Track and check out the Mueller Glacier. The glaciers are everywhere and make up 40% of the national park!
To properly explore you need to spend at least a few nights in Mount Cook Village which is only minutes from many of the best hiking trails. It’s also beautiful so be sure to book in advance as accommodation is very limited!
39. Drive Arthur’s Pass
Remember when I said mountain passes provide the best views? Well, Arthur’s Pass is arguably the most famous mountain pass in New Zealand. I have only driven it once, but when I did I explored so much. Now I know the views are epic along the drive, but there’s actually so much to do along Arthur’s Pass that the views from the highway took the back seat.
One of my favorites is the short walk to the Devil’s Punchbowl. This massive 131-meter waterfall is so powerful it’ll blow you away quite literally. Another favorite is the extremely hard hike up to Avalanche Peak. This grueling hike takes you high above the valley to what feels like the top of the world.
Aside from the hikes, enjoy the views, stop for coffee, and just road trip like it’s going out of fashion! Arthur’s Pass is most commonly driven on a road trip from Christchurch to Hokitika (or vice versa) and most people take a couple of days to complete this route.
40. Eat Fergburger
Many of the things to do in New Zealand on this list so far have been pretty extravagant. Let’s face it, you can’t do it all, but if you are heading to Queenstown then do yourself a favor and try New Zealand’s best burger!
It’s overhyped, it’s not that good, I’ve had a better burger… Trust me, I’ve heard it all but you can’t have an opinion unless you’ve tried it so regardless, head to Fergburger.
My favorite is the classic Ferg with blue cheese. It’s so good my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Don’t worry if you’re a vegetarian either they have options for you too. Aside from the classic and vegetarian, they have chicken, pork, lamb, and even venison. The burgers start at $13 NZD so it’s a cheap activity in Queenstown.
41. Spot a kiwi on Stewart Island
Sorry to squash your dreams, but it’s very unlikely to see a kiwi bird in the wild in New Zealand. Not only are they nocturnal, but they are also really good at avoiding people. To put it simply, they’re pretty scared of most things.
To increase your chances and give you the best opportunity you need to go to Stewart Island. For those who don’t know, Stewart Island is a predator-free island located at the very south of the South Island. Because it’s predator-free, Stewart Island is home to lots of kiwis.
You can actually do Kiwi encounter tours to Ulva Island as well as just wander Stewert Isalnd which is made up of 85% national park and home to only 450 permanent residents. You don’t need to do a tour though, you just need to head out after dark and be very quiet.
Getting to Stewart Island is easy with the ferry from the town of Bluff near Invercargill. Be sure to book your stay before you go and also plan your activities. Although I love spontaneous trips, Stewart Island is a remote island that’s one amazing place to visit in NZ.
Related read: Get yourself to the ferry by driving. The road trip from Queenstown to Invercargill is actually really beautiful!
42. See a range of marine life in Kaikoura
To finish off the South Island section of this things to do in New Zealand blog, I’ll leave you with one of the coolest marine life regions – Kaikoura.
Located on the east coast a few hours north of Christchurch, Kaikoura is home to more marine life than one can handle. This is thanks to a continental shelf that is 500 meters off the coast that plunges to 2 kilometers deep. This area provides ideal hunting grounds for large marine life including seals, dolphins, and whales.
Because of this marine life, the best things to do in Kaikoura involve viewing and even interacting with the wildlife. The most common tours you can do are whale and dolphin watching tours as well as a dolphin swimming tour. For many, it’s a bucket list experience that has you in the water with Dusky Dolphins.
For lovers of dolphins and whales, Kaikoura should be at the top of your New Zealand bucket list!
Related Read: Learn all about whale watching in Kaikoura before you book a tour!
43. Dig your own spa at Hot Water Beach
To kick the North Island off I’m starting with arguably the most famous and unique experience I can think of. For those that don’t know, Hot Water Beach is a small beach located a few hours from Auckland on the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s home to a very unique experience that has you digging your own hot water spa right on the beach.
This sounds pretty crazy but it’s thanks to some thermal vents underneath the ground that heat the water below. In certain parts of the beach, you can simply dig a hole and enjoy a warm spa with epic views of the ocean.
You need to visit Hot Water Beach within 2-hours on either side of low tide in order to dig the spa without the waves crashing on you, and be prepared for crowds. To avoid them, go in winter like I always do!
44. Walk through the arches of Cathedral Cove
Only a 15-minute drive from Hot Water Beach will bring you to the small town of Hahei. It’s from this small town that the walk to the famous Cathedral Cove begins. This interesting rock formation was actually used in The Chronicles of Narnia films and since then it’s shot to fame and is now a staple on any North Island itinerary.
The walk to Cathedral Cove takes around 30 minutes each way along a well-maintained path. Along the way the views of the coastline are breathtaking and the walk itself is half the fun. With that said, it’s those views of Cathedral Cove and the cool rock formation that forms a doorway from one beach to another that’s the most famous.
It’s a popular place to visit at sunrise but for me, I love tanning on the beach on a hot summer day!
45. Drive the Thermal Explorer Highway between Rotorua and Taupo
New Zealand is a volcanic country and that’s not hard to see with destinations such as Hot water Beach. However, there’s plenty more thermal action to see on the Thermal Explorer highway between Rotorua and Taupo.
On this short 80-kilometer-long journey (50 miles), one could spend an entire day exploring. Believe me, there’s so much to see! Some of the highlights I suggest you visit include Kerosene Creek, Whakarewarewa, Lady Knox Geyser, Wai-O-Tapu, Champagne Pool, Orakei Korako, Craters of the Moon, and Haka Falls.
Without a doubt, the trip from Rotorua to Taupo is one of the best road trips on the North Island!
46. Visit the volcanic beaches on the west coast
If you’re traveling the north island then you’ll need to squeeze in a visit to at least one volcanic beach in your itinerary. Only a short drive from Auckland you’ll find three of the best and most popular volcanic beaches. In fact, on a day trip from Auckland, you could actually visit all three, turning this beach day into an epic adventure.
The first and most popular is Piha Beach. Head down for a swim (between the flags of course) or even climb Lions Rock for an epic view. Next, is Muriwai Beach which is home to a large gannet colony (sea birds) that between the months of August and March occupy the cliffs at the beach. Last is Bethells Beach which is home to some great surf, caves, and even some volcanic sand dunes you can explore.
The wild coastline that is the North Island’s west coast is a rugged place with thriving greenery from the rich minerals in the soil. It’s stunningly beautiful and a must visit!
47. Get to know the nation’s capital
Not many things to do on this list involve big cities. To be honest, it’s not what most come to New Zealand for. With that said, there are some cities you should give some time to explore. Of them, Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, is my favorite.
Wellington is a small, young, and hip city filled with lively streets, amazing restaurants and bars, and a ton of awesome things to do. The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive is the tall, steep hills that surround the CBD. This provides the perfect place to take in the views of the city so I recommend hiking/driving up Mount Victoria or taking the cable car up to the botanical gardens when you first arrive.
After, take a stroll down Cuba Street for lunch before heading to my favorite museum in NZ, the Te Papa Museum. This world-class museum is completely free to visit but inside you’ll find famous exhibitions that in most countries, wouldn’t be free.
48. Stare in wonder at Bridal Veil Falls
Near the small surf town of Raglan is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand. Bridal Veil Falls stands at a whopping 55 meters tall and drops sharply into a pool below. On a visit, you can view the falls from above before taking a steep staircase below to see Bridal Veil Falls from below.
Although only a short stop on any trip around the North Island, it’s well worth it especially for a beautiful photo!
49. Enjoy a cruise in the Bay of Islands
If I had to choose the number one beach destination in New Zealand I would have to say it’s Northland. This huge region is home to hundreds of pristine beaches and if you want to see the best it has to offer, you go to the Bay of Islands.
The Bay of Islands is exactly what the name suggests – a huge bay filled with small islands just waiting to be explored. On a cruise through the bay, you can stop at remote beaches to snorkel with the marine life and even find yourself a beach to yourself.
A popular tour takes you out to the famous Hole in the Rock. This cool rock formation is in the middle of the ocean and boats actually go through the tiny hole. The most famous cruise in the Bay of Island is the dolphin-watching tour. In the bay, there are huge pods of dolphins, and your chances of seeing them are really good!
A trip to the Bay of Islands is about the sunshine and beautiful beaches, but there’s actually a lot more to do here than meets the eye!
50. Discover Ninety Mile Beach
The largest beach and most unique highway in New Zealand is actually the same place. Ninety Mile Beach is a huge stretch of beach located at the very north of the North Island that’s actually an official highway in NZ. Of course, it’s more suited to 4WD vehicles, but 2WDs can manage too (just don’t take your rental car on the sand!)
As a visitor though, it’s likely you’ll come for the sprawling beach, beautiful views, and the feeling of literally having the place to yourself. Funny story though, Ninety Mile Beach isn’t actually ninety miles. In fact, it’s actually only 54.6 miles long. Not sure how they got the name Ninety Mile Beach but hey, it fools most. Regardless though, the beach is huge and you can do coach tours on the beach to explore. Most tours include sandboarding on the dunes and a guide to introduce you to the area.
51. Visit Auckland
Auckland is often thought to be the capital of New Zealand because of its large population size and the fact it’s the economic center of New Zealand. However, this beautiful city is simply a place many New Zealanders love to call home and a great place to explore in New Zealand. As a visitor, you can easily explore the best things to do in Auckland without a car. You can take a ferry to a nearby island, walk the waterfront harbor, and even take the bus to the nearby Tawharanui Regional Park.
If you love amazing views head up the Auckland Sky Tower in the city center for a breathtaking view. You can even do the Sky Jump as a cool (but scary) way to get down. I actually did one in Vegas and it was so much fun! The only problem with the Sky Tower is it does cost money to get to the top otherwise there’s a minimum purchase at the bar. For budget travelers, head to Mt Eden an actual volcano crater for the best free viewpoint of the city.
Auckland’s the place to visit to see how most New Zealanders live and with vibrant nightlife and beautiful weather it’s a place you’ll fall in love with.
52. Take a tour through Hobbiton
As easily one of the most popular things to do in New Zealand, Hobbiton just had to make this list. I am not a Lord of the Rings fan but jumped at the opportunity to visit on a road trip on the North Island. The tour itself through Hobbiton was nothing to talk about, however, just visiting the set was really cool and it’s such a well-crafted movie set.
Tours of Hobbiton run every day at a few different times. In the summer, you should book in advance, especially if you need a specific time slot. My recommendation is to either go in the morning or late afternoon. Not only is it cooler but there will be fewer people around and the experience will be more personal. Around lunchtime, the tours are usually fully booked!
The reason I didn’t overly like the tour was due to the fact there wasn’t much depth to it. More info would have been great! It’s also more of a photo tour and at most places, you’ll line up to take photos (which was a little boring!) If you want a better experience there is a dinner tour, breakfast tours, and more. These tours give you a much better experience but do cost a lot more!
53. Relax on the shores of Lake Taupo
On any road trip on the North Island, it’s hard to miss Taupo. This small town sits on the shores of Lake Taupo which is New Zealand’s largest lake and here you can enjoy lots of amazing activities. In fact, Taupo is actually home to New Zealand’s highest skydive at 18,500 feet. Personally, I’ve never seen a skydive that high before! For another adventure activity, you can go white water rafting down the Tongariro River which is considered one of the best places to go.
When it comes to picking a great place to stay in Taupo be sure to pick a hotel with a natural hot tub. These tubs simply use the thermal water from the ground which is filled with minerals great for your skin.
54. Wander Waiheke Island
My favorite place to visit when I lived in Auckland was Waiheke Island. Located only a short ferry from the city center, Waiheke Island is a place with beautiful beaches, gorgeous bays, and amazing wine. The best part is you can explore much of the island by bike so as a visitor you don’t need a rental car. You can choose to visit Waiheke on a tour from Auckland, a day trip, or choose to spend a few nights. I personally recommend renting an Airbnb and spending 1 or 2 nights.
On Waiheke Island, I love visiting the wineries and renting a bike to do so. Within a short ride, you can visit several wineries and get a little tipsy along the way. It’s a really beautiful way to spend the day, and the best part is you work off the calories from the wine along the way – does that mean I can drink more!?
Other things to do include wandering the sculpture park, relaxing at the beach, kayaking or paddleboarding, and just enjoying the great vibes in Oneroa town.
55. Visit the beautiful beaches of the Bay of Plenty
In the summertime locals and tourists flock to the stunning beaches in the Bay of Plenty. Stretching as far as the eye can see and with beautiful cool waters, it’s the ultimate beach destination in NZ. I actually spent Christmas one year at Mount Maunganui Beach and enjoyed a short walk up Mount Maunganui for a breathtaking view over the peninsula.
Mount Maunganui is just one beach to explore so don’t stop there. Another favorite of mine is Waihi Beach to the north. It’s home to a beautiful town and even a freedom camping spot right on the water. From Waihi, you can take small road trips to nearby beaches and bays to enjoy the sunshine and white sand beaches!
Thanks for reading!
Wow, what a list! To be honest I could easily double it but these are by far my favorite experiences I’ve had in New Zealand (so far!) They have made living here an absolute dream and I really hope others fall in love just as I have! Of course, the most important thing is that you have a bucket list to plan your trip around, and I hope I’ve helped with that!
Thanks so much for reading! If you found this guide to the best things in New Zealand helpful then be sure to browse around. I have so many more great articles for you to check out!