Updated: 4/12/2018 | April 12th, 2018
My visit to New Zealand a few months ago marked my second time in the country. Much had changed in the half decade since I had been there. The country was more crowded and expensive with the sleepy towns I remember now bursting with tourists. Yet, in so many ways, New Zealand was still the beautiful pearl I remembered from years ago. Christchurch was recovering from its earthquakes and now a hip place to be; Wanaka was 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.
This second visit allowed me to hit up many new places – as well as visit some of my old favorites. So, for when you go (I say “when” not “if,” because this country is so incredible that is should 100% be on your list and, if it’s not, I’m gonna come find you and drag you there!), here are my favorite places to visit and things to do in New Zealand that you shouldn’t miss:
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.
Glacier trekking on Fox and Franz Josef
Hiking these two glaciers lives lives up to the hype. Because the glaciers have receded and are melting quickly, the glacier caves and walks have been shut down. 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. Additionally, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) they are actually fungus 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 from my trip.
Hang out in Queenstown
Everyone hypes Queenstown. Everyone. But Queenstown is everything they say it is—and more. It 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, crystal like lake, tons of trails and parks, with Queenstown Hill watching over it 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.
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.
Located in the southwesternmost part of New Zealand (and also home to numerous Lord of the Rings film locations), the 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.
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.
Chill out in Christchurch
Though severely damaged by earthquakes in the last few years, it’s 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!
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.
Go visit. It awaits!
For more information on traveling this country, costs, and things to do, visit my guide to New Zealand travel.