From the second you arrive in Whanganui, you can feel this area’s rich history and vibrant creativity. First off, it’s one of those picturesque locations in New Zealand you don’t want to pass by, but I’ve found it also has plenty to offer in the way of fun and adventurous activities.
Located on the North Island of New Zealand, Whanganui is one of my favorite places to stay when exploring the West Coast. It has that perfect mix of city comforts while still having that classic coastal vibe. Whether you’re here on a day trip from Wellington or have a full week to travel the area, there’s always something going on!
Whanganui is the spot to explore one of New Zealand’s longest rivers (with an epic canoe trip!), discover historic and sacred spots along the Coastal Arts Trail, or get your tan on at Castlecliff Beach, one of the best NZ beaches. During your time here you’ll also meet friendly, down-to-earth locals that add to the charm of this small city.
To take all the guesswork out of planning a stop here, I’ve compiled a list of the best things to do in Whanganui. Regardless of your interests, there is definitely something for you to see or do here that you’ll love!
- 1. Canoe part or all of the Whanganui Journey
- 2. Visit the Bushy Park Sanctuary
- 3. Touch up on some history at the Whanganui Regional Museum
- 4. Cruise down the Whanganui River on the Paddle Steamer Waimarie
- 5. Get lost exploring Virginia Lake
- 6. Take in the views from the Durie Hill Elevator
- 7. Enjoy a meal at Maria Lane Eatery & Bar
- 8. Explore the Bason Botanic Gardens
- 9. Drive out to Aramoana Viewpoint
- 10. Play a round of golf
- 11. Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail
- 12. Visit one of the many nearby beaches
- 13. Wander the Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics
- 14. Riverland Family Park
- 15. Learn how to blow glass at New Zealand Glassworks
Things to do in Whanganui
1. Canoe part or all of the Whanganui Journey
The Whanganui Journey is one of the Great Walks in New Zealand, which is actually kind of funny because it isn’t a walk at all – it’s a canoe/kayak journey along the Whanganui River. It’s incredibly scenic, and a worthwhile experience, so naturally it’s one of the best things to do in Whanganui!
The route starts in Taumarunui, about 2 hours from the town of Whanganui, and finishes at Pipiriki. It’s a whopping 145 km (90 miles) long. It will take most people 5 days to complete the full journey. However, you can also just do smaller portions on a day trip; just be sure to have transport organized at your chosen ending point.
It’s a wild ride, taking you through truly amazing landscapes, such as steep-sided canyons and forested valleys. On your journey, you’ll be met with peace and quiet and see some of New Zealand’s unique wildlife and birds like the kereru, tui, and fantail. You may even spot the brown kiwi, which comes out at night!
You’ll even get the chance to leave your canoe and follow an easy hiking trail to discover an abandoned bridge deep in the forest.
If you’re looking to rent canoes, Taumarunui Canoe Hire rents canoes by the day, along with life jackets and all other equipment you might need. Prices range from $125-$200 NZD per adult and $100-$165 NZD per youth (under 18) for 1-5 day journeys. The company can even help you book accommodations, store your luggage, and meet you at your endpoint if desired.
While the Whanganui Journey is a fun adventure, I should warn you – it’s tough. If you’re not used to paddling, your arms might not be ready for this intense workout. And if you’re not a seasoned kayaker, I’d consider the shorter, 3-day version instead. This is the route that I took which starts in Whakahoro and is only 88 km (54 miles) long.
There are a number of campsites and DOC huts on your route that are all only accessible by boat. Depending on the time of year, reservations or tickets are required for huts and campsites.
During the Great Walks Season (October through the end of April), campsites and huts MUST be booked and paid for in advance. For huts, adults pay $30 NZD, foreigners under 18 pay $15 NZD, and locals under 18 are free. For campsites, adults must pay $16 NZD, but all children under 18 are free.
From May through the end of September, huts and campsites are on a first come first serve basis. Huts cost $15 NZD per adult and all children under 18 are free. Campsites cost $8 NZD per adult and kids are also free.
As I mentioned above, one important thing to note is that although the Whanganui Journey has the same name as Whanganui town, this epic canoe trip’s official starting point is over a 2-hour drive away from Whanganui along the S4 in Taumarunui. The endpoint is Pipiriki, about 1 hour and 45 minutes from Whanganui.
If this is too far to travel, you can always just canoe closer sections of the Whanganui River. However, you will miss out on those iconic sights that make the Wanganui Journey so famous.
2. Visit the Bushy Park Sanctuary
A 25-minute drive away from central Whanganui, you’ll reach a forest sanctuary and historic homestead known as Bushy Park. This 89-hectare (220 acre) property is home to native and rare birds, reptiles, fungi, and plants such as the Hihi.
Bushy Park is a cherished piece of ancient land that is accessible to all (but please keep any pets at home!). The sanctuary is maintained by many volunteers, has free entry, and can be visited during daylight hours.
There are several self-guided walking tracks available in the forest, an informative visitor center, and wooden benches to sit and relax.
In this beautiful forest, you’ll listen to birdsong as you walk along the shaded, easy tracks through this predator-free environment. The diverse forest of broadleaf podocarp, rimu, and more offers a tranquil environment for you to explore the protected species and also learn about conservation and environmental issues.
This is a place I would definitely return to. I was surprised at the vast variety of birds I could see and hear in such a lush, peaceful forest. I recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes and allowing at least two hours to explore.
Bushy Park also has a gorgeous historic Homestead, open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday 10 am – 4 pm. Pop in and enjoy a delicious scone and a cup of tea! You can even stay at this charming country bed-and-breakfast with prices starting at $190 NZD per night.
Related Read: There are also some beautiful gardens (and an incredible coastal walkway!) if you head further along the coast to visit New Plymouth.
3. Touch up on some history at the Whanganui Regional Museum
Are you interested in the history of the Whanganui region? The Whanganui Regional Museum is located in Pukenamu Queen’s Park and is a great place to start.
Wandering through the museum, you can learn all about the history and people of Whanganui through the art, manuscripts, maps, artifacts, and exhibitions on display. A personal favorite from my visit was the Taonga Maori Collection.
I found the museum well organized across multiple levels and you could spend hours wandering around the place. Plus, it’s free which is great too! I went on a rainy day and it was the perfect way to stay dry and entertained.
There are both regular and changing events, exhibitions, and programs, but you can always check out what is coming up before you go. It’s suitable for all ages too if you have kids along. There is also a little gift shop inside if you want to buy a memento and support the museum.
Admission is free and the museum is open daily from 10 am – 4:30 pm.
4. Cruise down the Whanganui River on the Paddle Steamer Waimarie
If you’re in Whanganui during September – May, why not jump aboard the only coal-fired paddle steamer in the whole of New Zealand! You’ll cruise in style along the beautiful Whanganui River on Paddle Steamer Waimarie.
I loved the experience of being on this unique, historic vessel that was a common form of transport back in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It was sitting at the bottom of the river for fifty years until it was saved and restored for visitors to enjoy today!
Admire the river views from the sun deck or covered area and have the comforts of a galley and toilet. Operating using its original engines, Waimarie provides a great authentic experience for both adults and children.
You can book a seat on the 11 am (and sometimes 2 pm), 2-hour cruise. Adults cost $49 NZD, children ages 5-15 cost $19 NZD, and seniors cost $44 NZD. You can also get a Family Pass for $119 NZD which includes 2 adults and 2 kids. You can purchase tickets online, but you should arrive at the Riverboat Centre Wharf by 10:30 am to pick them up and begin boarding.
Check out the online timetable if you’d like to attend a special event cruise. There are often local singers onboard or events to celebrate themes and special times of the year.
Related read: The most beautiful cruise in New Zealand I’ve been on has to be through Milford Sound – check out our Milford Sound Cruise comparisons here to help you choose which to book!
5. Get lost exploring Virginia Lake
Rotokawau Virginia Lake is located only 4 minutes from the center of town but feels like a total escape. This is one of the top parks in the city where you can stroll around the water, grab an ice cream cone, see an incredible fountain (that lights up at night!), and visit the on-site aviary to see birds up close.
I spent a few hours here and will definitely be back to enjoy a picnic on a sunny day! I loved the quick 30-minute woodland walk around the lake. There are some really neat sculptures around here and the swans on the lake are beautiful to watch too. You can see even more birds at the aviary here which is open daily and free to visit.
Make sure you stop to marvel at the colorful Winter Gardens and the popular lily-shaped Higginbottom Fountain. I’ll let you in on a local secret, make sure you head to Virginia Lake in the evening so you can see the 40-minute light display, where the fountain lights up in a variety of colors! This light display happens every night just as the sun sets and the streetlights start to come on.
This is an excellent spot for families with a playground, toilets, picnic tables, barbecues, and drinking fountains. And if you want to grab a coffee, snack, or some ice cream while you’re here, head to the Funky Duck Cafe which is open daily from 8 am – 3 pm.
6. Take in the views from the Durie Hill Elevator
Take in the views with a trip up Durie Hill via the only public underground elevator in the country! The Durie Hill Elevator was built back in 1919 when the very first modern suburb in New Zealand was being constructed nearby.
From the top, you’ll get the best 360° views of the harbor, the city, and the river. If it’s a clear day, I’ve even been able to spot Mt Taranaki and Mt Ruapehu in the distance!
To access the Durie Hill Elevator, you’ll need to walk through an approximately 200-meter (656-foot) underground tunnel whose entrance is just off the Whanganui Bridge. Once you reach the elevator, you’ll be able to ride up 66 meters (217 feet) to the top of Durie Hill.
The ride costs only $2 NZD per adult or $1 NZD for a child (each way) and comes with a friendly and informative elevator operator. Overall, the quick elevator trip is exciting yet very affordable. For the trip back, you can take the elevator back down or head down the stairs.
After, admiring the view, we stopped by the Durie Hill War Memorial Tower next door. It honors all the people from this area who died during WWI.
7. Enjoy a meal at Maria Lane Eatery & Bar
In the heart of Whanganui, Maria Lane Eatery and Bar offers delicious gourmet dinners and snacks. Treat yourself to a night out, savoring a plate of slow-cooked beef brisket or beetroot salmon gravlax as you sip on an amaretto sour.
Upon entering Maria Lane Eatery and Bar, we were greeted by friendly staff and given the choice of sitting inside, outside, or in the courtyard.
The dinner menu is available from 5 pm and most dishes range from around $20-$35 NZD, which is well worth it. If you can’t decide what to eat, leave it up to the chef! We opted for the Feed Me Menu. For $66 NZD per person, you get a 4-course meal showcasing the restaurant’s specialties which were all amazing!
End your night with a sweet treat or nightcap. I recommend Litza Devine’s blueberry cheesecake!
The restaurant is open Tuesday to Saturday from 4 pm till late. Simply make a reservation online to secure your table. Located in central Whanganui, there is plenty of parking in the area. There are also a couple of bus stops nearby so if you plan to knock back a few drinks, check out the local schedule and fares.
8. Explore the Bason Botanic Gardens
Take a short trip out to the gorgeous Bason Botanic Gardens and explore the 25 hectares (62 acres) of diverse land. This place is home to native forest and wetland, 8 unique gardens, large sculptures, conservatories, and more – and entry is free!
Stanley and Blanche Bason donated the gardens in 1969, with the intention of it being a botanic reserve where people could come to learn about the gardens and appreciate their beauty.
Open daily from 8 am, the gardens are located 15 minutes from Whanganui. Here, you can walk or run the Basin Circuit or wander the beautiful gardens and simply relax and have a picnic.
I personally enjoyed wandering around the Homestead Garden with its English garden vibe, bright blood lilies and delphiniums, cool-looking succulents, and range of herbs for both medicinal and culinary use. If it’s a clear day, you can even get a view of Mount Taranaki through the fence “window”.
You can also get involved in some fun outdoor activities here. Just bring a frisbee along and play some disc golf or go orienteering or geocaching.
I highly recommend exploring the Bason Botanic Gardens for a couple of hours before heading to Kai Iwi Beach, which is only an 8-minute drive down the road. On our visit, we combined the two for the perfect day trip.
9. Drive out to Aramoana Viewpoint
Looking for a scenic drive with a great view of the Whanganui River? Take a 20-minute drive from central Whanganui along State Highway 4, and then up to Whanganui River Road to reach the hilltop known as Aramoana Viewpoint.
From here, you can see the length of the river, nestled between the rolling banks and native shrubs. You can also catch a glimpse of Mount Ruapehu and the small town of Pungarehu in the distance. Stand behind the short barrier, sit on a bench, or just park in your car and admire the picturesque landscape.
I suggest heading here in the evening. Packing a picnic or bringing some fish and chips to enjoy while watching the sunset!
Or, if you are visiting during the day, continue following Whanganui River Road to reach Whanganui National Park, one of the best national parks in New Zealand. Follow the narrow, winding Whanganui River Road to get the most authentic experience as you pass through small river communities and sacred maraes. We took this much more scenic route and would definitely recommend it compared to taking the main highway.
Related Read: If you’re wondering when to plan that North Island road trip, check out our guide on the best time to visit New Zealand here!
10. Play a round of golf
Head out on a golf day! Tawhero Golf Club is open to the public, 7 days a week to play a round of golf with family or friends. Enjoy time outdoors on the well-maintained courses in the midst of the residential suburb of Gonville.
The course is located only a few minutes from central Whanganui, so it’s really convenient to fit in a round or two while you’re staying in Whanganui.
Green fees for 9 holes are $15 NZD or $20 NZD for 10 holes. Need to hire gear? No worries, club hire is $15 NZD which includes 7 clubs, a bag, and tees.
Fill your belly and quench your thirst at Tawhero Bar and Bistro after a round of golf (open Friday 11 am – midnight and Saturday and Sunday 10 am – midnight). Snacks run $5-$10 NZD and a meal is only $15 NZD. You can’t go wrong with their chicken and bacon burger with fries!
11. Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail
While in Whanganui, I recommend cycling part of the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail. You could spend days riding along the different trails. It all depends on how much cycling you want to do and how many days you have available on your trip!
Before you go, wear some hi-vis clothing to keep yourself safe from vehicles. Pack enough food and water in your backpack, and know that cellphone reception is not 100% reliable along this trail so you should print a map or know your route ahead of time.
If you need to rent a bike, head to Velo Ronny’s Bicycle Store where you can rent a mountain bike for $50 NZD per day (8 hours) or an e-bike for $60 NZD for half a day (4 hours).
The Whanganui River Road trail is a Grade 3 track and is a full-day (approx 6-8 hours) adventure if you have a moderate fitness level. If desired, make it a two-day trip by staying at the accommodation at Matahiwi Cafe, Gallery, and Roadside Cabins on your way through. The cafe and gallery are open Wednesday to Sunday from 9 am – 3 pm.
The most popular route is to start the journey at Pipiriki and finish at Upokongaro Village. Experience top-notch views of the Whanganui River and cycle along rural roads surrounded by a tranquil green landscape with stunning maraes, mills, and churches.
The trail gets quite steep at about 10 km (6.2 miles) in before reaching Jerusalem, and also at the end of the journey when ascending towards the Aramoana Viewpoint. However, there are multiple places along the way so you can stop and take a break if needed.
I recommend cruising along, taking in the scenery, and making sure you stop off at the villages and special sites along the way. Stop by the Omorehu Waterfall Lookout to catch a glimpse of one of New Zealand’s many gorgeous waterfalls. Other key spots include St Joseph’s Church, Kawana Flour Mill, and the Maori maraes. Enjoy!
Related read: If hiking is more your thing, not to worry, the hiking trails on the North Island are incredible!
12. Visit one of the many nearby beaches
Some of the most beautiful beaches on the North Island are around here, so definitely plan a beach day while visiting Whanganui. Some great nearby beaches include Castlecliff Beach, Ototoka Beach, and Waiinu Beach.
If you are an avid surfer or fisherman, definitely visit Castlecliff Beach and go out to the North Mole. This long, rocky pier offers some great views and you’ll always find it crowded with people fishing near the end. During the summer, there are flags put up by the lifeguards so you can swim safely in the enclosed area.
It’s super easy to find parking lots in the area. The beach is also close to the Citadel Cafe if you need a snack. Or if you’re traveling with kids, check out the nearby playground and skatepark. If you want to stay in this area longer, I recommend booking a room at the Whanganui Seaside Holiday Park for around $100 NZD per night.
Ototoka Beach offers a quiet, natural beach for those that want to avoid crowds. I really like that you can go fossil hunting here (so cool!) or simply walk along the black sand and listen to the waves crash against the shore as you admire the rural coastline.
A must-see spot to explore here is the Ototoka Pool and waterfall which is accessed via the short but steep track descending down from the car park towards the beach. Overall this scenic hidden gem is a personal favorite for sure!
Lastly, situated on the border between Whanganui and Taranaki is Waiinu Beach. A 35-minute drive from central Whanganui, this beach is home to a campground It has great views of the ocean, but can get a bit windy. If fishing is your thing, it’s an ideal spot for surfcasting (fishing right from the beach!).
13. Wander the Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics
For the most gorgeous display of ceramic art, be sure to visit the Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics. Showcasing New Zealand’s best ceramic collections, exhibitions, and installations, the museum is a must-see for anyone interested in art.
It’s the biggest public display of ceramic art you’ll come across with hundreds of creations from New Zealand potters and artists.
Collections include the Rick Rudd Collection, NZ Collection, Focus Collections, Whanganui Collection, and more. There is an annual installation and regular new exhibitions throughout the year.
The Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics is located near the riverfront. It’s open Tuesday to Sunday 10:30 am – 4 pm, and the museum and parking are both free. There is such a diverse collection of work here, that I’d recommend spending at least an hour or two checking it all out!
14. Riverland Family Park
For a fun day out for all ages, check out Riverland Family Park! Try go-karting, play mini golf, ride some bikes or experience the bungy trampoline.
The park is situated on the eastern banks of the Whanganui River just across the Dublin St Bridge. There is a good amount of parking, and there are umbrellas to sit under if you prefer shade. So get outside, play games, and have some family fun!
Open 7 days a week, Riverland Family Park is filled with things to see and do that are fun for kids and kids at heart. Depending on the activity, the weekend and holiday rates range from $10-$35 NZD.
Related read: Another fun experience you shouldn’t miss is trying out ziplining in New Zealand!
15. Learn how to blow glass at New Zealand Glassworks
If you’ve ever marveled at the art of glass blowing, this is your chance to give it a try. New Zealand Glassworks has workshops for everyone – even if you’re complete newbie like me!
Their Saturday workshops are from 9 am – 4 pm and cost $395 NZD. Go online and check out their calendar to book your spot. You’ll learn the skills and experience required to create gorgeous glass art. Wear flat, covered shoes, and clothing made from natural fibers. Before getting started, you should tie your hair back and remove any jewelry.
While we thought the glass-blowing workshop was awesome, we also liked admiring the gallery containing unique contemporary pieces. It’s open daily from 10 am – 4:30 pm (minus some holidays), so you can pop in and browse when you’d like!
Where to Stay in Whanganui
If you’re posting up in Whanganui for a few days, you’ll need a place to stay! Luckily, we found a handful of great options for all price points.
For budget travelers, the Braemer House B&B and Hostel has many options including beds in shared dorms starting at $30 NZD and private rooms starting at $60 NZD. Some rooms come with a private bathroom while others are shared, but all the facilities are exceptionally well-kept. This charming bed and breakfast and hostel combo comes with a nice garden and is located in a cute neighborhood right by the river.
The Gumnut House is a welcoming bed and breakfast located on the west side of the river between the Durie Hill Elevator and Riverland Family Park. Rooms start at $150 NZD and come with private bathrooms, bathrobes, and some even have lounges and dining areas. Continental or full English breakfasts are included, and the hosts are more than happy to give you tips and accommodate your needs.
While there aren’t many luxurious hotels in Whanganui, I found the Aotea Motor Lodge to be comfortable, reliable, and well-located. Just up the street from Maria Lane Eatery and Bar, their rooms start at $174 NZD and are spacious and clean. There are options for studios and suites with their own kitchenette, spa bath, and balcony. With super cozy beds and soundproofed walls, you’re sure to have a solid night’s sleep here!
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
Whanganui is the perfect blend of comfort and adventure and I loved exploring this small city. Hopefully, this guide has helped you discover the best things to do in Whanganui so you can create some of your own special memories here.
If you found my blog helpful while planning your trip to Whanganui, check out my other blogs about all the best things to see in New Zealand! I have loads of information, including location guides, day trips, road trips, and the best places to stay. I’ve included some featured articles below to get you started!
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