For a small country on the edge of the world, New Zealand punches way above its weight when it comes to beautiful scenery and unforgettable travel experiences. One article on the best things to do around the whole country will simply not do it justice. Instead, this is the list of the most epic locations and experiences New Zealand’s North Island has to offer.
From stunning beaches and geothermal wonders to award-winning wineries and lively cities, New Zealand’s North Island is sure to keep you busy. This list of must-have experiences will be a great starting point for planning your own unforgettable trip to the North Island of the land of the long white cloud.
The Best Things to Do in New Zealand’s North Island
Visit Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach
Cape Reinga is nearly the most northern point of New Zealand’s North Island. It is a stunning natural attraction where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. It is also a place of cultural significance to the Māori people. According to their legends, the souls of the dead depart this world from the Cape. To respect the sacredness of this location, please refrain from eating or drinking when visiting.
The closest town to Cape Reinga is Kaitaia. The drive from there takes just over an hour. On the way to the Cape, make sure to stop at the famous Ninety Mile Beach. Although it is actually 88 kilometres long, this stretch of sand is perfect for a relaxing walk or a refreshing swim. If you would like to get your heart pumping, why not try bodyboarding down the local sand dunes or surfing.
The easiest way to get to Cape Reinga is by car. If this is not an option, there are coach tours departing from Kaitaia and Paihia that will take you there. These tours also visit the Ninety Mile Beach.
Sail in the Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is an area of natural beauty located on the east coast of the far north of New Zealand’s North Island. The area comprises 144 islands and a handful of small towns. Famous for its beaches and aquatic activities, the Bay of Islands is popular with international visitors and Kiwis alike. This area also has historical significance as this is where the country’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed.
One of the best ways to experience the beauty of the area is by sailing. This way you can explore the many beautiful bays and islets, find secluded picnic locations and spot native birds and marine life. This is without a doubt one of the best experiences in New Zealand’s North Island. With plenty of sailing tours on offer, you don’t need to be an experienced sailor to enjoy this activity.
Relax at Auckland’s Black Sand Beaches
Volcanic black sand beaches are not unique to New Zealand, but the ones you can discover there are stunning. One of the best places to experience them is in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park in West Auckland. The area has a few beautiful beaches to choose from, but the most popular options are Piha, Karekare, Muriwai, Bethells and Whatipu.
These beaches are great for both relaxing days out and active pursuits, including surfing and hiking the rugged coastline and nearby native forests. Swimming is possible, but the West Coast is infamous for its treacherous currents, so take extra care if you do decide to go into the water. In general, New Zealand’s east coast beaches are considered a safer option for swimming.
Savour Auckland’s Dining Scene
When it comes to dining, Auckland punches well above its weight. The local restaurant scene brings together quality New Zealand ingredients and international influences, from the Far East to Polynesia. From delicious street food at night markets to innovative fine dining, Auckland offers something for every taste and budget.
For affordable eats, check out the Auckland Fish Market that is packed with stalls serving up delicious international fare that won’t break the bank. If you are after a high-end experience, check out The Sugar Club or The Grove. There is also plenty in-between, from casual dining with a waterfront view at SOUL to scrumptious Middle Eastern fare at Ima. If you have a few days in Auckland, make sure to try a few different places to experience the best of the Auckland food scene.
Explore the Wineries of Waiheke
Just a 40-minute ferry ride from central Auckland lies the bohemian Waiheke Island. Despite its geographic proximity to the big smoke, Waiheke feels like it is a world away. The island is famous for its vineyards, picturesque beaches and rolling hills. It is also home to quirky art galleries, boutique shops and independent cafes and restaurants.
Waiheke is famous for its award-winning red wines including Merlot, Malbec and Shyrah varieties. There are 30 vineyards on the island, and many of them have tasting rooms and restaurants. Some of these can be reached by bus, but others are more remote, so you will require your own transport to get there. Alternatively, there is a selection of guided tours that include multiple vineyard visits.
Watch an All Blacks Rugby Match
Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport and an important part of local culture. The All Blacks, the national team, has won many prestigious tournaments, and brings the country’s diverse communities together during international competitions. The team is also famous for performing a haka, a ceremonial challenge dance, before every match.
One of the most iconic venues to see the All Blacks play is Auckland’s Eden Park, the largest sports stadium in New Zealand. The All Blacks have not been beaten there since 1994. Even if, like me, you are not really into sports, watching the nation come together at an iconic sports arena to support their much-loved team is a special experience. You can purchase tickets to upcoming All-Blacks matches on the team’s official website.
Walk up Mount Eden
If you are visiting Auckland, make sure to add a walk up Mount Eden to your list. Just 5 km away from Auckland CBD, it is the highest volcano on the city’s mainland. After a 30-minute walk to the top, you will enjoy excellent views over the city. Mount Eden is also a historic location where you can still find the remnants of an old Māori settlement, including occupation terraces and housing sites.
If you need to relax and refuel after the walk, check out the nearby Mount Eden Village that boasts a good selection of independent cafes and restaurants. Mount Eden is easy to get to by public transport with regular bus services from the Auckland city centre.
See Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove is a natural wonder on the eastern coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. It is an impressive naturally formed rock archway that connects two picturesque coves. It is located near Hahei, a seaside village boasting its own beautiful beach. Thanks to the appearance of Cathedral Cove in the Narnia films, it is one the most popular things to do in New Zealand’s North Island. As a result, this area can get quite busy in high season.
You can only access Cathedral Cove on foot or by boat. At the northern end of Hahei Beach you will find a scenic coastal track. It is relatively easy and will take about 45 minutes to walk each way. Alternatively, you can take a water taxi from Hahei Beach. Scenic cruises and kayak tours are also an option.
Descend into a Glow Worm Cave
A trip to New Zealand’s North Island will not be complete without experiencing the magic of natural bioluminescence courtesy of the humble glow worm. Aotearoa has its own native glow worm species that live in caves, grottos and even woodland. There are many places around the country where you can experience this otherworldly natural phenomenon.
One of the most popular glow worm locations in New Zealand is Waitomo, a tourist-oriented North Island village surrounded by a network of ancient limestone caves. The most popular cave to visit is also called Waitomo and that is where you will find a large concentration of glow worms. Please note, you can only go into the cave on a guided tour.
The Waitomo cave has two levels. The upper level, featuring unique limestone formations, is dry and can be explored on foot. A boat ride is required to see the glow worm grotto located on the lower level. As you glide along the subterranean stream in silence, you will be surrounded by thousands of tiny lights. You will be forgiven for thinking that you are looking at a night’s sky.
Visit Hobbiton Movie Set
Arguably one of the most famous things to do in New Zealand’s North Island is a visit to the Hobbiton Movie Set. Situated on a family farm near a North Island town called Matamata, just a two-hour drive away from Auckland, this location appeared in both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Although this is a touristy activity, it is quite fun if you enjoyed the movies.
The attraction features 44 Hobbit Holes nestled amongst 12 acres of picturesque farmland. They are highly detailed and have their own distinct personalities. You will need to join a guided tour to see them. A friendly guide will point out the most famous spots and help with photos. The two-hour tour finishes with a drink at the cosy Green Dragon Inn. The Hobbiton Movie Set gets quite busy, so I recommend booking your tickets as far in advance as possible.
Experience Geothermal Wonders in Rotorua
A popular tourist destination, Rotorua is famous for its geothermal activity, Māori culture, native forests and beautiful lakes. The city offers many exciting activities, but its geothermal wonders are especially worth adding to your list of things to do in New Zealand.
Rotorua sits within the Pacific Ring of Fire where most of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur. As a result, the city boasts several geothermal parks where you can experience otherworldly landscapes, boiling lakes, bubbling mud pools and hot springs.
You normally need to pay to access these parks, but there is one free option. A 5-minute walk north of the Rotorua city centre will take you to Kuirau Park, the only free public geothermal park in New Zealand. Once you finish exploring unique landscapes, relax in one of the city’s thermal spas.
Walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered one of the best day hikes not just in New Zealand but in the whole world. This challenging but incredibly satisfying track is located within the Tongariro National Park, a dual UNESCO World Heritage site recognised for its unique volcanic landscapes and cultural significance to the local Māori people.
This 19.4 km walk will take you past volcanic peaks, emerald lakes, steaming vents and ancient lava flows. Lord of the Rings fans might recognise one of the volcanic cones, Mount Ngauruhoe, as Mount Doom from the film trilogy. The track involves steep climbs and uneven paths, but you will be rewarded with unique otherworldly landscapes.
The best time to tackle the Tongariro Crossing is between November to May. From June to October, the New Zealand winter months, there is increased risk of snow, ice and avalanches. It is best not to attempt it unless you have special skills and experience in an Alpine terrain.
Stay at Lake Taupō
The largest lake in New Zealand, Lake Taupō is the perfect destination for those who love outdoor activities. From kayaking and trout fishing to mountain biking and white-water rafting, there are plenty of ways to make the most of the beautiful natural setting.
The largest settlement on the shores of the lake is Taupo town, which is a great base for exploring the area. With accommodation options for every budget, the town has plenty going on with a good selection of boutique shops, cafes and art galleries. It also offers easy access to hiking and biking trails, geothermal parks, golf courses and adrenaline activities. This is also where many scenic boat cruises begin their journeys.
If you prefer to stay at a quieter location, check out the villages of Kinloch or Kuratau. The former is home to the famous Kinloch Golf Club and a luxury lodge associated with it. With walking trails, boat cruises and fishing charters, there is plenty to do for non-golfers too. The latter offers a true taste of the Kiwi lifestyle. While dining and shopping options might be limited there, the village is the perfect option for pure relaxation.
Explore the Coolest Little Capital in the World
Wellington, New Zealand’s small but perfectly formed capital city, is boasting the title of the coolest little capital in the world by Lonely Planet. Although Auckland is the biggest city in the country, Wellington is its political, creative and cultural heart with a bohemian vibe. It is worth spending a couple of days exploring the activities and attractions that this city has to offer as part of your New Zealand adventure.
Take a free guided tour of the Parliament buildings to find out about the workings of New Zealand’s democracy, explore the excellent Te Papa museum to learn about the country’s history and culture and take a walk along the city’s beautiful waterfront to enjoy stunning harbour views. Fans of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies may want to visit the legendary Weta Studios that were responsible for the special effects, costumes and props in these movies.
If you would like to get away from the hustle of the city, check out Zealandia. It is an urban sanctuary where you can get up close and personal with unique flora and fauna. Wellington also boasts a vibrant dining scene with cafes, restaurants and bars for every taste. You won’t be short of options when you need a pit stop.
When is the Best Time to Visit New Zealand’s North Island
Some activities and locations on this list of the best things to do in New Zealand’s North Island, including the Hobbiton Movie Set, Auckland and Wellington, are accessible all year-round. However, to make the most of all of them, the best time to visit is in the New Zealand summer, between December and February. This is also the busiest and most expensive time to travel there. To avoid crowds and score some accommodation deals, it is worth considering travel in the shoulder seasons. They are between March to June and from September to November.
How to Get Around New Zealand’s North Island
The best way to get around not only the North Island of New Zealand is by car. This option, although pricey, gives you the most flexibility and freedom. Alternatively, an intercity bus network connects many towns and cities. Traveller can take advantage of specially designed coach tour options like Contiki or Kiwi Experience. They cover all popular New Zealand tourist destinations, including the ones on this list.
Also, cities and major towns in New Zealand normally have airports, so flying could be a viable option too. Although you might still need to hire a car once you are on the ground to reach local attractions. New Zealand doesn’t have an extensive rail network. However, there is a scenic Northern Explorer route between Auckland and Wellington that offers fantastic views along the way. However, this option can be quite expensive.
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