The remote and popular travel destination New Zealand is known for its beautiful scenery and also its fondness for extreme sports.
Although a sparsely populated with an exceptionally relaxing atmosphere there is still plenty to do for its many visitors. Independent travellers, adrenaline junkies, and photography enthusiasts would especially enjoy a trip here and once in New Zealand, it’s a very easy place to travel around.
The country relies on tourism and the travel system is set up very well. If you want to party every day then the Kiwi Experience is a hop-on hop-off bus very popular with backpackers. For those who want a quieter life then its rivals the Magic Bus might be a better option.
I personally had a great time in New Zealand and would have preferred to stay much longer than the six weeks I allocated. Here are my best and most beautiful places to visit in New Zealand…
Christchurch – a great place to visit and base yourself to explore the South Island
Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand and for those who don’t start your journey in Auckland then you’re likely to land here. It’s a beautiful and friendly city, as you walk around the streets you’ll be amazed how peaceful the city is.
Christchurch is known as the “Garden City” because of its natural and photogenic beauty. One place that should be visited is the Botanical Gardens which was founded in 1863.
There are lots of activities and attractions available here including museums and a thriving art and cultural scene. It will also be hosting various Rugby World Cup games next year. I would recommend The ‘Bard on Avon’ which is a great lively pub where you can drink, eat and watch any sporting events.
There are plenty of hostels and hotels available which makes it easy to find accommodation at short notice – ideal for backpackers.
You will find lots of ex-pats in the city. My sister went to New Zealand with the sole intention of using it as a stepping stone to return to Australia but it wasn’t long until she fell in love with the place and ended up staying three and half years.
Kaikoura – a coastal town worth visiting for its scenery and wildlife
Kaikoura is a small town on the east coast of the Southern Island, approximately two and a half hours north of Christchurch. Kaikoura is a wildlife lovers dream, there’s a wonderful coastline, incredible scenery and plenty of Maori and European history to learn about.
The biggest draw is the ‘Whale Watching‘ tours it offers, you can choose to take a boat tour or even take a flight. The latter isn’t a cheap option but a lot of fun.
Mount Cook – one of the best places to visit in New Zealand
After Christchurch, one stop has to be Mount Cook (Aoraki), which is New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3,754 metres (12,316 ft). The more adventurous can climb the mountain or go on a guided trek which would take you very near the mountain.
Although if you’re like me you may just want to witness the incredible Tasman Glacier on the east side and the Hooker Glacier to the west.
If so an option is to take a plane ride, there are plenty of trips available to the public but if your budget allows I would recommend the small plane trip for the great views and an unforgettable experience. In good weather, you can even land at the top and take a walk around.
Nelson – a great NZ city known for local arts and crafts stores, and galleries
Nelson is a small city in the north of the South Island, it’s almost in the centre of New Zealand. Nelson attracts many arts and crafts lovers and it hosts an Arts Festival every year.
There are some beautiful scenery here and some interesting attractions but my main reason for recommending Nelson is the Happy Valley Adventures.
They offer a guided ATV 4 wheel quad bike tour, a ride on the world’s only Skywire Flying Fox, and paintballing. I went on a quad bike tour and the views from the mountain are incredible.
Queenstown – the centre of all the outdoor action
For true adrenalin seekers, Queenstown will be their ultimate destination. Almost every extreme sport you can think of is available here and the international resort attracts people from all over the world who want to skydive, bungee jump or go snowboarding.
Queenstown is built around Lake Wakatipu, a long thin lake that is shaped like a lightning bolt and connects with Shotover River. Shotover River is now home to the Shotover Jet an incredible and unique vehicle that skids along the river surface.
The jet drivers try to get as close as they can to the edge of the cliffs which is a pretty hair-raising experience. I would also recommend white water rafting and there is even an option to get to the river by helicopter.
Moke Lake – a hidden beauty spot to explore in New Zealand
This is my favorite hidden gem in New Zealand, it’s a lesser-known spot located near the suburb of Closeburn in Queenstown, in the South Island of New Zealand.
Few tourists roam here but it was actually where parts of the popular TV drama series Top of the Lake starring Holly Hunter was filmed.
It’s a tranquil spot but utterly idyllic and here you can camp out if you want to spend a few days soaking up the lovely unspoiled scenery. You can also go hiking or boating here too.
Lake Tekapo – one of the most stunning lakes in New Zealand
I loved this place and some of my best memories of my New Zealand trip are staying alongside the beautiful pristine lake and waking up and seeing the sunrise.
Tekapo itself is a resort town and the area surrounded by beautiful mountains. It also has some of the darkest night skies in the world so perfect if you’re a star gazer!
The Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and the West Coast – a unique beauty spot
Punakaiki won’t provide an adrenalin rush but it will provide you something different. Punakaiki is a small settlement on the West Coast of the South Island which is famous for its “Pancake Rocks.”
It’s a very popular stopover where most visitors see the unusually shaped rocks and wonder why they are shaped like they are.
The truth is that they’re heavily eroded and there are lots of blowholes where you can get some excellent photographs during high tides as water shoots into the air.
You’ll only need a day to see the rocks but it’s worth it and there are also lots of excellent postcards on offer. The hop-on, hop-off bus probably will take you along the rest of the West Coast and stop at the beauty spots so make sure you have your camera ready.
Dunedin – a great city renowned for its wildlife and quirky character
Dunedin is the second-largest city on the South Island, it’s a University town and is classed as one of New Zealand’s main cities. Dunedin has been built on hills and valleys which was once a volcano.
It’s a cool laid-back place with some great scenery and attractions. I would recommend taking the old steam train over Taieri Gorge – it takes around half a day and for those who have the budget you can have lunch on the train.
The journey is very interesting and it feels very authentic – an altogether charming experience.
The Speights Brewery produces a local beer that can be found all over the South Island. It’s an informative and interesting Dunedin attraction with enthusiastic employees and plenty of free pints available!
Otago Peninsula – a stunning beauty spot to explore
Only a half an hour’s drive from Dunedin is this gorgeous beauty spot which is well worth the drive. Filled with lush green fields, of rolling hills, wonderful cliff-top walks, unspoilt sandy beaches, and picturesque bays it’s one of the most beautiful places to visit in New Zealand.
Beautiful scenery aside another great reason to explore is the fantastic wildlife which includes sea lions, fur seals, albatrosses and even super cute penguins.
There is also a small town – Portobello – and also some interesting historical sites to explore as well.
Milford Sound – one of the most famous natural attractions in New Zealand
Milford Sound is an incredible place, it’s a fjord located in the southwest of the South Island, within Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site.
Milford Sound has won many awards for being a top tourist destination and Rudyard Kipling named it the eighth Wonder of the World.
Thousands of people flock to Milford Sound every day to see the wonderful sight, most tend to go on a boat tour (often lasting between one and two hours).
The boat tour allows you to get up close and personal to the amazing waterfalls and you’ll even feel the water come crashing down, although beware you’re likely to get wet!
The most impressive waterfall is ‘Stirling Falls’ which are an incredile189m (480ft) tall – you’ll need to go on a boat tour to get the full effect but if you’ve travelled all the way to Milford Sound you might as well make the most of it.
The Mirror Lakes, Fiordland National Park – makes a great scenic stop
These make a great scenic spot on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
The region is famous for these beautiful mirror lakes and it doesn’t take long to explore them either (around a 10-minute would be fine).
Take a stroll through the pretty lakes and see the lovely reflections of the Earl Mountains along the way.
Lake Wanaka – a pretty gem to visit in New Zealand
This has a wonderful place which has a surreal almost other-worldly beauty that just seems to draw you in – I loved it! Located in the Otago region it’s actually New Zealand’s fourth-largest lake.
It’s not only just easy-on-the-eye, there’s plenty of activities on offer like jet-boating, kayaking, sailing, off-road tours, canyoning and skydiving.
Franz Josef – home to one of the steepest glaciers in New Zealand
This is a great stop on the hop-on-off bus if you’re an adventure seeker. There’s plenty of accommodation options here and the scenery here is simply stunning but the biggest draw is the Franz Josef Glacier which is one of the steepest glaciers in New Zealand.
If you’re an active type then I’d recommend braving the amazing heli-hike glacier tour but if you prefer a more relaxed activity then head into the centre of town and soak in a glacier-fed hot pool instead – blissful!
Rotorua – home to incredible bubbling mud pools
I can’t recommend Rotorua enough, it’s a stunning location found in the heart of the North Island, 230 kilometres (140 miles) southeast of Auckland. Rotorua is a great tourist attraction for two reasons; the first is for the city’s geothermal activity and the other is because it offers a chance to experience Maori culture.
Here you will see steam rising from the ground which is an impressive sight. There are lots of geysers on view, most famously the Pohutu Geyser at Whakarewarewa, just remember to be careful as the water and mud is very hot.
Another essential travelling tip is not to chance opening your window at night as you’ll wake up with your room, bags and clothes stinking of sulfur.
I would recommend visiting Rotorua’s Maori cultural exhibition. You will start off by being given an official Maori invite into the arena and then you’ll be treated to a traditional show which includes an intimidating Hakka.
You will also get shown how to cook traditional food ‘Hunga style.’ A hole is dug, stones are put at the bottom of the hole, then the food is laid on top and the thermal heat heats up the stones and cooks the food.
Once you’ve learned about Maori history and their traditional way of life you get to have a very tasty feast. It was very well cooked and even though it was cooked underground I was pleasantly surprised to find that I couldn‘t taste any sulfur at all.
Castlepoint – a tranquil and pretty beach town
This fairly under-the-radar gem is worth the effort to get to. It’s a tranquil and small beach town located on the Wairarapa coast around a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the city of Wellington.
It’s most famous for its attractive lighthouse but the sea views here also seriously beautiful. The reef here is about one kilometre long and the area offers safe swimming too.
When here also make sure you visit historic Tinui the site of New Zealand’s first Anzac service, climb the Deliverance Track to Castle Rock, explore the nearby Mataikona Rocks and stop for food at the Whakataki Hotel.
Auckland – a great cosmopolitan city to explore on the North Island
Most visit New Zealand for the world-famous natural scenery but to take a taste of how many New Zealanders live visit some of the cities as well.
The major city of the North Island is Auckland and has a fantastic orientation located around two large harbours which is home to beautiful yachts and lined with bars and cafes.
It’s a cosmopolitan, easy-on-the-eye place and I would recommend staying a couple of days here to take everything in.
Don’t miss the iconic Sky Tower has incredible views of Viaduct Harbour, Auckland Domain, which is the city’s oldest and best-loved park, (which is uniquely based around an extinct volcano), and the lovely Mission Bay Beach which is home to a seaside promenade.
Bay of Plenty – a magnificent expanse of coastline
The Bay of Plenty is a truly beautiful destination in the Northern Island, it’s quite out of the way so if you want to visit then you’ll need to plan your time correctly.
It’s a preferred holiday destination for New Zealanders which means it must be worth visiting. There’s something for everyone, for those people who want a relaxing time then you can go walking and take in the fabulous scenery, alternatively if you want something a bit more fast-paced then white-water rafting, kayaking, parasailing or jet boating is also on offer here.
The excellent scenery attracts many artists and Katikati is an art-loving town where there are lots of murals painted on the walls of commercial buildings.
Although these are my ten recommended places, New Zealand offers many more interesting activities and charmingly beautiful spots and I’m sure you wouldn’t regret a visit.
Wellington – the friendly New Zeland capital
I really liked Wellington, it’s another city with has a fabulous orientation located on the shores and hills surrounding beautiful Wellington Harbour.
Despite being the capital it has a pretty relaxed vibe and in some parts it even has a friendly small-town vibe. It’s also a great foodie destination and I’d recommend exploring all the fantastic tucked-away bars, hip cafes, and excellent award-winning restaurants.
Highlights include Cuba Street, Courtenay Place, the attractive waterfront promenade, sandy beaches, the red Wellington Cable Car, and the pretty timber houses perched on the surrounding hills. Here are some great things to do in Wellington.
Huka Falls – one of the top attractions in New Zealand
One of the most popular attractions in New Zealand, this is a seriously stunning natural attraction. Located on the Waikato River which drains Lake Taupo (the largest freshwater lake in Australasia), the falling water and the rapids have a distinctive foamy look.
If you’re feeling daring enough I’d recommend the Jet Boat ride which travels along the river at an incredible 80km an hour (and also has an outstanding recommendation of safety).
Hobbiton – a significant location used for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and the Hobbit
Since the legendary trilogy, New Zealand has attracted Lord of the Rings fans from all over the world. Probably the first stop on their literary pilgrimage will be Hobbiton located in Matamata on the North Island.
The whimsical tourist hot spot is where you can go a journey through the shire, home of the Hobbits, and find your very own Middle-earth adventure!
It’s actually a farm but it was built and used as the outdoor film set on the Hobbit film but now visitors can see The Green Dragon Inn, The Mill, and dozens of amazing hobbit holes!
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves – a unique and magical place to visit
This is a beautiful and unique attraction to explore in New Zealand. Located in a cave at Waitomo on the North Island, this cave is packed full of incredible glowworms – Arachnocampa luminosa to be exact.
It’s a truly magical place and shouldn’t be missed when visiting New Zealand.
This cave is part of the Waitomo streamway system that includes visits to the Ruakuri Cave, Lucky Strike, and Tumutumu Cave so you can explore all of them at the same time. Enjoy!
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Scott started his travelling life back in 1999, when he headed off on a solo jaunt to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia with just a backpack, a camera and a spirit for adventure. After that, the travel bug bit hard and now he is always seeking to head off somewhere new. Over the years he has lived in Italy, Qatar, Ireland, UK and the US but his spiritual home will always be Rome as this is the city which most satisfies his unrelenting craving for culture, good food and great football. Scott loves nothing better than to be behind the camera and also runs his own blog and Instagram page. He also counts Melbourne, Cape Town and Tel Aviv among his favourite places. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @scottbalaam