Rotorua: The North Island’s Home of Adventure and Ecotourism

Situated in the central North Island within the Bay of Plenty, Rotorua offers so much to so many. Though may be a relatively small city, compared with many in New Zealand, it certainly packs a punch!

Rotorua is considered the North Island’s adventure capital and it’s not hard to see why. You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to adrenaline-pumping activities there.

It is also famous for the way it authentically showcases Māori culture. As such, Rotorua is one of the best places in New Zealand to learn about Māori people, their way of life, arts and performances.

If you’re still not convinced then just know that Rotorua’s geothermal activity and breathtaking landscapes have undeniably put this place on the tourist map.

This guide will cover everything you need to know about this incredible city!

Three people sitting on top of Kerosene Creek, a small but relatively wide hot waterfall in Rotorua.
Kerosene Creek in Rotorua. Photo: Vaughan Brookfield.

An Overview of Rotorua

Population~76,800 people
Airport codeROT
RegionBay of Plenty, North Island
Area 48 km2
Elevation280 metres above sea level
Main attractionsMāori culture, geothermal parks, mountain biking, hot pools, lakes, adventure activities and eco-tourism.
Nearby destinationsTauranga, Taupō and Hamilton.
A couple standing beside the banks of a steaming river in Waimangu Volcanic Valley.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Photo Credit: RotoruaNZ.

The History of Rotorua

A Proud Māori History

The first settlers in Rotorua were Māori from the Te Arawa iwi (tribe). It was originally founded in the 14th century by a Māori explorer, Ihenga, and after that, the first Māori inhabitants started to arrive here.

This is where many local legends come from. The most famous of which is the famous love story of Hinemoa and Tutanekai, who were initially kept apart due to the tradition of the tribe choosing a sacred maiden’s husband.

A Māori lady in traditional dress, cooking corn in a bubbling hot pool in Rotorua.
Māori culture is authentically showcased in Rotorua at places like Whakarewarewa.

The Original Home of Tourism in New Zealand

Rotorua, as we know it now, was built in the 1880s as a tourist destination, attracting people to visit the region’s geothermal lakes and attractions.

The addition of a train, connecting Auckland and Rotorua, saw a tourism boom in the region. Before long, swathes of people started visiting and the town grew substantially.

As such, it is one of the country’s original tourist spots, attracting people for over 200 years.

Five pontoons extending through the blue waters with boats floating in their tips and small cottages built near the shores of Lake Rotoiti with its Hot Pools.
Manupīrua Bay, on Lake Rotoiti, and its beautiful hot pools. Photo: Brook Sabin.

The Geography of Rotorua

Rotorua is one of the most geothermally active places in the world due to its location along the Pacific Ring of Fire.

The city is situated on the shores of Lake Rotorua which is a volcanic lake. It was formed over 200,000 years ago and is located in a magma caldera that collapsed due to a volcanic eruption.

Due to the geothermal activity in the area today, you’ll find plenty of volcanic craters, active geysers, bubbling mud pools, and thermal springs in Rotorua.

Did you know? Rotorua’s geothermal activity has been enticing people for years.

People travelled from near and far to visit the pink and white terraces on the shore of Lake Rotomahana. These terraces, considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, were thought to be the largest silica deposits in the world.

Unfortunately, they were lost during the 1886 Mt Tarawera eruption.

A man and woman sitting in a hot pool at Hell's Gate, painting each other with clay mud.
Enjoy a mud bath at Hell’s Gate.

Things to Do in Rotorua

Visitors to Rotorua are spoilt for choice when it comes to attractions. In fact, few parts of New Zealand can compare with the massive variety this small city has on offer.

This city also offers a variety of unique features, making it a popular tourist destination and place to live.

Top activities and attractions include:

Zip lining

We recommend The Ultimate tour with Rotorua Canopy Tours. They combine an eco-friendly educational experience with a dose of adrenaline.

White Water Rafting

Take on the tallest commercially-rafted waterfall in the world, at 7 m high! This is one of the best whitewater experiences in the country.

Māori Cultural Experiences

Te Pā Tū is our favourite, but Rotorua is also home to Whakarewarewa, Mitai and Te Puia – all of which are memorable for different reasons.

Hot Pools

Pick from a number of geothermal and freshwater hot pools, along with a number of lakes perfect for swimming. This region is known as “Nature’s Spa of the South Pacific” so it’s the perfect place to relax.

Geothermal Parks

These include Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Wai-o-Tapu, Te Puia and Hell’s Gate. Expect to see bubbling mud pools, active geysers and hot springs.

Forests

You’ll find a number of forests in and around Rotorua. These are perfect for mountain biking and walking. One is also home to the Redwoods Treewalk.

Fishing

Rotorua has a number of prime fishing locations, especially if you’re after trout.

Animal Encounters

If you’re keen to see some of our native wildlife, head along to Wingspan for a free-flight bird display, or to the National Kiwi Hatchery tour. The Agrodome farm show is a highlight for families and overseas visitors too, as is mini golf with rabbits!

Save Money on Your Visit

As a reader of NZTT, you’re entitled to a range of discounts in the region.

Pick up a bargain through BookMe (no promo code required), or save 10% on anything sold through Backpacker Deals using the coupon code NZTT.

We’ve also arranged the following specials for you too…

Places to Eat in Rotorua

After spending all day exploring, you’ll have worked up an appetite. You don’t have to worry though as there are a number of great food options in this wonderful city!

These are some of the best places to eat in Rotorua.

Eat Street

This short street is home to over a dozen bars and restaurants so you’ll have plenty of options to choose from!

Sabroso

This restaurant is known for its Latin American food, tasty cocktails and fantastic atmosphere.

Indian Star Restaurant

As its name suggests, this restaurant serves delicious Indian food and it’s got an excellent reputation.

Urbano Bistro

Urbano Bistro is one of the pricier options in Rotorua but the quality of the food is incredible!

Capers Café + Store

This place is a popular brunch and breakfast destination, and they’ve got a variety of food choices.

Check out our favourite Rotorua restaurants.

Delicious food served on the table inside Pātaka Kai restaurant while a steam at a distance comes out of the forest
Dine at Te Puia.

The Best Places to Stay in Rotorua

Rotorua is a fantastic place to visit so you won’t want to rush. For this reason, we’d recommend spending at least 2-3 days in this area – even more, if you can manage it!

Luckily, there are plenty of incredible accommodations here to choose from. We’ve outlined a few of our top picks below.

Mid-range: Aura Accommodation

This is a fantastic motel that’s just a short walk from the shores of Lake Rotorua. They have a variety of studios and apartments on offer and some of them sleep up to 6 people!

Book with your discount: Aura Accommodation.

Luxury: Peppers on the Point

If you’re looking for a relaxing getaway then Peppers on the Point is one of the best options. With a fine-dining restaurant, an on-site day spa and a bar, this hotel has a lot to offer. You’ll also enjoy striking views of Lake Rotorua.

Check availability: Peppers on the Point.

5* Hotel: Pullman Rotorua

This is the only 5* hotel in Rotorua and is known for its fantastic facilities, including an on-site restaurant, a day spa, a fitness centre and a bar. There are 130 luxury rooms and suites at the hotel, many of which offer panoramic views of Lake Rotorua.

Check availability: Pullman Rotorua.

Self-contained accommodation: Blackwood Fairy Springs

This property sleeps two people and is the perfect option if you’re planning a weekend getaway. It’s just a short walk from some of Rotorua’s most popular attractions and once you’ve finished exploring, you’ll enjoy relaxing in this cosy property. It’s also run by one of our wonderful NZTT members.

Check availability: Blackwood Fairy Springs.

Top Tips for Visiting Rotorua

Whether you’re planning a day, weekend or extended visit to this wonderful area, you might like to consider the following tips.

  • Some parts of Rotorua have a strong smell of sulphur. You’ll quickly get used to this smell, and some parts of the city aren’t affected at all, so don’t let it put you off.
  • We always pay a visit to Ciabatta for amazing sandwiches and cronuts – they’re closed on Sundays though.
  • We recommend having a rental car in Rotorua as many of the attractions and activities are spread apart. Use the promo code NZTTROADTRIP to save 10% (pay upfront to get your discount).
  • As it is such a tourist hub, we recommend Rotorua as a great place to pick up souvenirs.
  • Some accommodation in Rotorua has been used for local emergency housing in recent years. As such, we recommend staying near the main part of town or by the Government Gardens. Fenton Street is the main area in question, but we recently stayed at Jet Park on that street and didn’t have any issues at all.
  • Rotorua is a safe place to be, with warm and welcoming locals. Just take the normal precautions you would when you travel.
    • Don’t leave valuables in the car.
    • Don’t walk alone at night.
    • Consider driving or catching an Uber at night if you’re staying on Fenton.
Two people in a double kayak, paddling in front of the steaming cliffs of Lake Rotomahana.
The steaming cliffs kayak in Rotorua – found at Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

Nearby Towns and Attractions

You’re not likely to run out of things to do in Rotorua, but if you’d prefer to take a day trip out of the city then you’ve got plenty of options. Just keep in mind that hiring a car is the most efficient way to travel around this area.

These are some of the best day trips from Rotorua. Alternatively, they might be your next stop as you continue on your journey.

Tauranga & Mount Maunganui

Tauranga is one of the most scenic cities in New Zealand as it’s located right on the coast. It’s connected to the vibrant seaside town of Mount Maunganui by a bridge too, so you’ll have the best of both worlds here.

Some of the most popular things to do in this area include hiking up Mount Maunganui, visiting Tauranga’s historic village and exploring the local markets.

Tauranga is a 1-hour drive from Rotorua.

>>> Explore Tauranga and Mount Maunganui.

The view of the Bay of Plenty and the cities as seen from Mount Maunganui.
Enjoy incredible views from Mount Maunganui.

Hobbiton, Matamata

If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings then you need to visit Hobbiton! This movie set, which was used in the trilogy and the Hobbit films, is open for guided tours year-round.

They’ll let you inside a hobbit hole and will share a bunch of filming secrets, before welcoming you to The Green Dragon Inn for a drink.

Hobbiton is a 1-hour drive from Rotorua.

Book: Hobbiton.

>>> Explore Matamata.

A person knocking at the round door of the Hobbit's house.
Explore Hobbiton on a guided tour.

Taupō

The town of Taupō is located on the shores of Lake Taupō. Close to Rotorua, it is a fantastic base for exploring Tongariro National Park.

Aside from its breathtaking location, this town has a lot to offer in terms of natural attractions. These include the Huka Falls, Aratiatia Scenic Reserve, the Craters of the Moon and the Wairakei Terraces.

Taupō is a 1-hour drive from Rotorua.

>>> Explore Taupō and National Park.

A blue sail boat close to the Māori carvings on Lake Taupō.
Lake Taupō is a beautiful place to spend some time – and it’s close to Rotorua. Photo: Love Taupō.

Hamilton

Hamilton, known as the ‘City of the Future’, is situated along the longest river in New Zealand, the Waikato River.

It’s the fourth largest city in the country so naturally, you’ll find plenty of things to do here! This includes walking around the world-renowned Hamilton Gardens, visiting the Waikato Museum and heading out on a river cruise.

As you drive between Rotorua and Hamilton, we strongly suggest you stop at the Putaruru Blue Springs and swing past Tirau with its quirky corrugated iron buildings and decorations.

Hamilton is a 1.5-hour drive from Rotorua.

>>> Explore Hamilton.

Waitomo

If you’re looking for unique destinations in New Zealand then we’ve got the perfect place for you.

Waitomo is one of the country’s most iconic attractions – the Waitomo Caves.

These caves are home to thousands of tiny glow worms that you’ll see light up the darkness. You can explore by foot, boat – or our favourite, black water rafting – so there are options for everyone.

Waitomo Caves is a 2-hour drive from Rotorua.

>>> Explore Waitomo.

People sitting on a rowboat, on a river in the Waitomo Caves. Blue glow worms cover the cave close above.
The Waitomo Caves are one of New Zealand’s most popular eco-activities.

As you can see Rotorua has so much to offer so what are you waiting for?

From thermal hot pools to redwood forests, this city and its surrounding area have something for everyone!