9 of the Best Places to Visit in New Zealand

Mythologized by film and loved by locals, New Zealand is a dream destination for travelers that crave adventure. Natural wonders like untamed coastlines, lush forests, gurgling geysers, and majestic mountain ranges serve as the stunning backdrop to a cultural experience both Kiwis and Maori are happy to share. Between bungee jumping, heliskiing, rappelling, and whitewater rafting, New Zealand also has some of the best adventure attractions in the world. The compact country is comprised of 27 regions, so many visitors opt for a road trip with a ferry ride from the North Island to the South in between. If you’re planning to explore this wild and beautiful country, check out the top nine places to visit.  

1. Queenstown

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For those lured to New Zealand by promises of adrenaline, Queenstown should be the first stop. Resting on the glistening shores of the Southern Alps’ Lake Wakatipu, the city offers a stunning backdrop for any bungee jumping, skydiving, paragliding, rafting, rock climbing, and mountain biking that strikes your fancy. It’s also home to an extensive network of scenic hiking trails, world-class skiing, and Shotover Canyon Swing, the world’s highest cliff jump. But don’t leave once you’ve had your thrill. Queenstown also has excellent vineyards, cosmopolitan galleries, and quality boutique shops. And what better way to wind down than with a trip to one of Queenstown’s fancy hotel spas? When you get hungry, try the famous Fergburger or surprisingly tasty tacos at Taco Medic. They’re the perfect lining for the huge range of bars you’ll have to hit while in town. Fancier options like The Bunker and Rata are great for toasting your last night. It may look like a town, but Queenstown feels and works like a small city. It’s also a great base for visiting nearby mining towns. 

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2. Milford Sound

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The UNESCO-protected Fiordland National Park is probably what most people imagine when they think of New Zealand: forested peaks reflected in pristine lakes, friendly small towns, far-away glaciers, and plenty of soul-searching solitude. The pièce de résistance of it all is the Milford Sound, one of the country’s most visited destinations. But don’t let the crowds put you off; they’re there for a reason. The unforgettable landscape is full of magnificent sheer cliffs and incredible wildlife. Hiking and sea kayaking are popular exploration options, but cruises are the best way to see all the spectacular scenery. The guides will show you as many cascading waterfalls, sunbathing seals, and remote islands that you can fit in a day. Once you’ve experienced the views from above, head 30 feet underneath the water’s surface at the Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory. You’ll get 360-degree views of all the marine life (think black coral, diving penguins, and dolphins) without so much as a splash. 

3. Raglan

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If you like Venice Beach, you’ll love Raglan. This bohemian town in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s North Island may look familiar from "The Endless Summer" cult surf film, and you’d be foolish to miss the opportunity to get on a board. If you aren’t quite prepared for the epic left-hand breaks of Manu Bay, head to Ocean Beach or the black-sand Ngarunui Beach to practice. A kayak or stand-up paddleboard ride to the limestone layers of Pancake Rocks is another must-do. But leave time to take advantage of the land attractions too, like the walking trails to Bridal Veil Falls or hiking, canyoning, and rock climbing at the extinct Mount Karioi volcano. The latter offers epic coastal views over the Tasman Sea in addition to up-close views of native birds and bush. With its collection of quaint cafes and bars, Raglan is also the ultimate spot to chill out. The idyllic setting has attracted a creative, environmentally-conscious crowd eager to share their lifestyle with visitors. The town’s studios and markets are the perfect place to snag a souvenir, but do your best to attend a local event while you’re in town. Quiz, open mic, and other specialty nights are regularly advertised on the town’s notice boards and online. 

4. Tongariro National Park

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What’s that? You want more natural beauty? You've certainly come to the right country. The Tongariro National Park and its famous turquoise lakes sit in the center of the North Island. The nearby Lake Taupo and its spiritual significance in Maori culture make the area a double World Heritage Site. One of the oldest national parks in the world, it was gifted to the people of New Zealand from Maori chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV in 1887. From its steaming craters and bubbling hot springs to lush alpine pastures and arid plateaus, the dramatic and diverse terrain are best explored on a day trek through the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The park is home to three sizable active volcanoes: Tongariro, Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in “The Lord of the Rings" films), and Ruapehu. The latest eruption was in 2012, but there is an advanced monitoring system in place so you don’t need to be afraid on your climb. The kiwis and "whio" (blue ducks) will keep you company along the way.

5. Auckland

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For a taste of the city life, Auckland will have to do. It’s New Zealand’s largest city, the most populous Polynesian city, and where most international flights land. Known as the “City of Sails” because of its position between two harbors, you’ll want to spend a few days exploring its (you guessed it) beautiful surroundings, top-notch restaurants, thriving arts scene, and revamped waterfront before you move on. Between the Auckland Museum, Auckland Art Gallery, and Kura Gallery, you’ll feel fully immersed and educated about the country’s culture. Meals from The Grove, SidArt, and Clooney will impress even the finest dining aficionados. Leave time to get your retail fix at the shops of Ponsonby Road, Karangahape Road, and Newmarket. For views of the whole metropolis and its beach, volcano, forest, and farmland surroundings, head to the 1,000-foot Sky Tower. The 20-mile long Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride away, is a great place if you want to escape the bustle and bliss out for a few days. The palm trees, sandy beaches, sparkling coves, community art gallery, and sprawling vineyards create a tropical paradise similar to Byron Bay in Australia. 

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6. Rotorua

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You’ll smell Rotorua’s sulfur-rich air before you even arrive. The rotten-egg odor is an indication of the area’s geothermal activity, and it’s worth enduring to experience the incredible geyser eruptions, steaming hot springs, and healing mud pools. It sits on a volcanic plateau, which covers most of the central North Island. Once you’ve taken a dip and seen the sights of the impressive geothermal parks, it’s time to mountain bike past the beautiful lakes and through the lush green forests. Horseback riding and trout fishing are also local favorite activities. Since 35 percent of the city’s population is Maori, you’ll also be able to see traditional performances and taste a "hangi" feast cooked in the ground while you’re here. Head to the city's museum for free tours of the iconic Government Gardens and facts about the area's battle history. For Western eats, take a stroll through Eat Streat dining zone and surrounding street markets.  

7. Waitomo Caves

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Thousands of glowworms illuminate the Waitomo Caves, which were shaped by underground rivers pushing through the soft limestone rock over thousands of years. The area’s name comes from two Maori words, "wai" (water) and "tomo" (hole). The labyrinthine caverns are full of hanging stalactites, jutting stalagmites, and flowing waterfalls -- all of which would be covered in darkness if it weren’t for the worms. You can take an educational walking or kayak tour through the caves to learn the science behind this natural luminescence, but the more adventurous among us may prefer a black-water rafting trip. Led by an experienced guide, you’ll tube, crawl, rappel, and swim your way through the site. The nearby areas offer plenty to experience above ground as well. The Marokopa Falls and Mangapohue Bridge are a great spots for a hike and the nearby Otorohanga Kiwi House exhibits several species of kiwi bird. The cafes and rural charms of Piopio south of Waitomo are also worth a stop. 

8. Fox and Franz Josef Glacier

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A few of our favorite destinations have view of glaciers, but a trip to Fox and Franz Josef in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park gives you a chance to experience arctic ice up close. Both of these ice rivers flow from the Southern Alps nearly all the way to the Tasman Sea, meaning your walks will take you through a unique trip among frozen ice caves, waterfalls, and even rainforest. They’re among the most accessible glaciers in the world and only a 20-minute drive apart. Some of the areas are too dangerous to walk alone, so consider hiring a guide if you want to experience more than the lookout point. Taking a seaplane or helicopter tour above both Fox and Franz Josef is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll get incredible views of the snow piles, deep blue fissures, and ice tunnels of the glaciers, as well as the sheep-filled fields and brightly colored sea around them. 

9. Wellington

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Voted the “coolest little capital” by Lonely Planet in 2011 and named one of the hottest cities to visit by the BBC in 2015, this seaside city on the southern edge of New Zealand’s North Island is certainly deserving of its monikers. Despite its small population, Windy Welly is full of funky street markets, art galleries, and theaters. Wellington is even said to have more bars, cafes, and restaurants per capita than New York City. The city is even home to New Zealand’s oldest pub, the Thistle Inn, where Maori chiefs reportedly used to stop in for a drink. And like many New Zealand cities, it’s surrounded by rolling hills and sparkling waters. A ride on the Kelburn cable car or walk to Mount Victoria Lookout point provides sweeping views. For the best of bohemia, head to Cuba Street and mingle with local artists and merchants. For something more upscale, take a walk or Crocodile Bike ride along the inner-city beach walk, the Oriental Bay Parade. Just don’t miss the national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, which highlights New Zealand’s natural, cultural, and social history through interactive exhibits. General admission is free so there’s no excuse!  

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