Updated: 01/12/2020 | January 12th, 2020
New Zealand is one of the most sought-after destinations in the world. With its snow-capped mountains, ancient glaciers, rolling hills, and copius amounts of wine, it’s a destination unlike all others.
Tucked away in the corner of the world, it’s a country that requires some planning to visit. Flights here aren’t cheap, after all, and the country itself isn’t made for the budget traveler.
Yet even with that in mind, it’s a country I never get tired of visiting. New Zealand is worth every penny if you ask me.
While it has seen a boom in tourism in recent years, New Zealand is still the beautiful country I first visited many years ago.
Christchurch has recovered from its earthquakes and now a hip place to be; Wanaka is still an incredible place to go hiking; the glaciers were just as mind-blowing as ever; the forests still home to wonderful walks; and Kiwis just as fun and friendly as ever.
In short, if New Zealand isn’t on your travel list it should be. To help you plan your trip, here are my favorite places to visit and things to do in New Zealand that you shouldn’t miss:
1. Explore Abel Tasman National Park
Stepping into Abel Tasman is in some ways like stepping into Thailand. The beautiful beaches and azure water feel like they belong in the tropics, not New Zealand. The hiking is beautiful, with giant ferns, huge, lush trees, and a temperate climate. There are a lot of one- to three-day hikes here. And, if you really want to see this park, kayak around. This lets you explore the tiny coves and beaches that make the area so special.
The park is best as an overnight or multi-day trip as it’s too far from Nelson to really do it justice in a day trip.
2. Glacier Trekking on Fox and Franz Josef
Everyone visits Franz Josef for one reason: the glaciers. Hiking the glaciers here lives up to the hype and is an unforgettable experience. Because the glaciers have receded and are melting quickly due to climate change, the glacier caves and walks have been shut down.
At present, the only way to trek on the glaciers now is via heli-hike (a half-day helicopter/hiking experience). They are expensive ($400 NZD, or $290 USD) but the helicopter ride, trekking, and whole experience are worth the price in my opinion. Conversely, you can just go on a helicopter tour (they last about twenty or minutes) or just hike to the glacier face and take pictures.
No matter what option you choose, pass through this area while you make your way down the South Island. You won’t regret it!
3. Do an Extreme Sport
New Zealand is the adventure capital of the world, where most people blow their budget on a wide range of exciting activities, from bungy jumping to skydiving to white-water rafting. There are a million activities to choose from: you can skydive basically anywhere; Queenstown is home to Shotover jets (rocket-like boats that zip on shallow rivers), ziplines, and bungy jumps; and there’s caving, zorbing, transalpine hiking, paragliding, and so much more. If it can be done outdoors, it can be done in New Zealand.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, don’t miss the Nevis Bungy Jump — it’s the highest in the country!
4. Hike the Tongariro Crossing
Considered the best day hike in all of New Zealand, the track takes you to where they filmed Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The 19.4 km walk is easy in parts (the beginning and end) and steep in others (especially the portion after “Mount Doom”) so you’ll get a good mix of difficulty levels.
However, even if you aren’t a strong hiker (and I am not), the Tongariro Crossing is easily completed in a day. Trekking through this otherworldly, red-colored environment of volcanoes and sulfur was the highlight of my whole time in New Zealand.
5. Learn About Maori culture
Maoris were the original inhabitants of New Zealand and I’ve loved learning about their history and culture (especially after seeing the movie Whale Rider. It’s incredible. Watch it!) They are a friendly and proud people, and there wasn’t one Maori person I met who I didn’t love.
Rotorua is usually the best city to see Maori cultural shows, though there are other noteworthy sites around the country, including the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Tane Mahuta, and the Te Papa museum in Wellington.
6. Don’t Miss Wellington
Wellington has character. Everyone talks about Auckland (which, contrary to popular belief, is not the capital), but the real magic takes place in Wellington (which is the capital). The architecture and eclectic vibe give this city a funky personality.
The city has a popping nightlife, tons of art galleries and cafés, a beautiful harbor (that is best seen from Mount Victoria, which overlooks the entire city), and is easily walkable. Be sure to hit some of the museums like the Museum of Wellington, Te Papa, and the Great War Exhibition.
7. Check Out the Glow Worms
Definitely one of the coolest things I did while in New Zealand, the Waitomo glow worm cave is hyped and touristy but still amazing. You walk or abseil down into darkness and float down the (very cold) river while staring up at caverns covered in “lights.” It’s like looking at the stars — but (spoiler alert) they are actually gnats that glow due to a chemical reaction as they attract food. Still, stunning though. Absolutely stunning and cool.
I found the three-hour trip long enough, but if you like to abseil, you should consider the five-hour version. This experience is one of my most lasting memories of my trip.
8. Hang Out in Queenstown
Everyone hypes Queenstown. Everyone. But Queenstown is everything they say it is — and then some!
The city has such a feisty and outdoorsy energy to it. Even though it has become hugely popular and filled with people, I cannot express my love of Queenstown enough. It’s surrounded by beautiful peaks, has narrow streets and pedestrian lanes filled with shops and restaurants, a spectacular lake, tons of trails and parks, and Queenstown Hill watching over the city like a benevolent overlord.
This is one of the best spots in the country to do an extreme sport (bungy, skydive, shotover jet, etc), take a wine tour, or just chill out on a nearby beach.
9. Visit Hobbiton
If you’re a The Lord of the Rings junkie, New Zealand is perfect for you. This is where they did all the filming, and throughout the country, you can take Lord of the Rings tours and visit Fangorn Forest, Gondor, and where Frodo destroys the one ring. Most of the sets were taken down, but a bit of the Shire and some of the hobbit houses still remain on the North Island.
10. Explore Fiordland
Located in the southwesternmost part of New Zealand (and also home to numerous Lord of the Rings film locations), the Fiordland region is considered one of the country’s most scenic and remote. Filled with gigantic mountains, deep lakes, swelling rivers, untamed forests, and resplendent fjords, most of it has never been set upon by man. Save a few places where boats and planes can go, the government has made the land off-limits, ensuring that that will be the case for a long time to come.
This region is home to the majestic Milford and Doubtful Sounds, the Milford and Keppler Tracks, and lots of camping and hiking opportunities. If you want to experience New Zealand’s nature away from the crowds, come here.
11. Discover Stewart Island
Tiny, out-of-the-way Stewart Island lies off the South Island at the very, very bottom of New Zealand. It’s a place where Kiwis have their summer homes and go to escape the hustle and bustle of, well, I guess Auckland. (There’s not too much hustle and bustle in New Zealand.) The town has maybe a dozen buildings; the coastline dotted with private homes and boats.
Come here to see dolphins and do some single-day or multiday treks. If you aren’t into hiking, you don’t need more than a day or two here, unless you really want some peace and quiet, then stay forever.
12. Chill Out in Christchurch
Though severely damaged by earthquakes in the last few years, Christchurch is becoming a brand-new city. The old Christchurch felt really stale to me but this new one is really on the up. While there’s still a lot of open space from demolished buildings, you’ll also find a lot of new construction, a sense of hope and vibrancy, funky bars, more markets, new restaurants, shops, and exhibits. Locals are really using this chance to make a better Christchurch. I loved my visit.
If you’ll be there for a few days, be sure to check out Canterbury Museum and Quake City, and be sure to ride the gondola, as well!
13. Drink Copious Amounts of Wine
New Zealand is famous for wine, producing some of the best whites the world has to offer. If you like wine, be sure to take a tour in Otago (known for its pinot), Hawkes Bay, or Marlborough (known for sauvignon blancs).
There are lots of biking trails here, so you can drink and bike around (better than drinking and driving!) if you don’t want to pay for an expensive tour. The Gibbston Valley bike trail runs from Queenstown to Cromwell and crosses through a number of vineyards. Be sure to stop at Wet Jacket, a converted sheep shed-cum-winery with a cheese room.
If it’s not clear from this list, I love New Zeland. It’s one of my favotite countries in the world and I never get tired of going back.
And while these may be 13 of the best things to see and do in New Zealand, this list only scratches the surface. There’s also the Bay of Islands, Raglan for surfing, the Coromandel, Dunedin for beer, Wanaka and Mt. Cook for hiking, Hammer Springs for hot springs, and, well, you get the idea.
In short, New Zealand has something to offer everyone. It’s a country filled with adventure and wildlife and travelers rarely have anything bad to say about it.
But don’t take my word for it. Go visit!
Book Your Trip to New Zealand: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay elsewhere, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. Some of my favorite places to stay in New Zealand are:
- Nomads (Queenstown) – Rooms with balconies, showers with awesome water pressure, pillows that are thick and fluffy, and a HUGE kitchen and common area. It’s one of my favorite hostels in the world!
- Urbanz (Christchurch) – This hostel boasts friendly and knowledgeable staff and has a pool table, fast Wi-Fi, laundry, a parking lot, a community bulletin board, movies, and comfy couches.
- Rainbow Lodge (Taupo) – This is my second-favorite hostel in New Zealand. It’s quirky, has a huge kitchen and big common room, pool table, outdoor patio and grill, bike rentals, and a free sauna.
If you’re looking for more places to stay, here is a complete list of my favorite hostels in New Zealand.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel – and I think will help you too!
Want More Information on New Zealand?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on New Zealand for even more planning tips!