New Zealand highlights – A nation-wide must-see list!
New Zealand is filled with must-see highlights! From the tip of the north to the bottom of the south, these are the New Zealand highlights that every kiwi and visitor should experience!
To bring you the best of Aotearoa, we reached out to the most knowledgeable travel writers in the country.
Because who better to share the best spots in New Zealand than those that have travelled the country so extensively?
Join us as these local experts share their picks for the most unmissable spots in the land of the long white cloud.
From North to South, these are our recommended highlights.
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New Zealand Highlights: Hit the North Island
Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes – Northland
The Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes provide beautiful views of the Tasman Sea and a great dose of adrenaline.
This is the perfect sandboarding playground for the whole family!
Riding the Te Paki dunes is awesome fun and as an added bonus, it’s not expensive.
If you don’t have your own sandboard you can rent them for only $15/day directly from the car park. In addition, there is no entrance fee, and you can leave your car either in the car park, or (if you have 4WD) you can follow the stream and drive through the river. If you choose to drive right through to the dunes, you’ll notice them on your right-hand side.
It almost goes without saying that you’ll end up with sand everywhere but we promise it’ll be worth it! Also, be sure to pack some old sunglasses to protect your eyes. When you’re racing down the side of the dunes, you’ll thank us.
Do not skip this spot when you’re in Northland – it is a real New Zealand highlight!
47 Te Paki Stream Road, Cape Reinga 0484
Adriana – Czech the World
Waipoua Forest – Northland
Waipoua Forest is one of the last remaining ancient forests in New Zealand; you’ll find it located on the west coast of the Northland Peninsula.
This special sanctuary is not only home to rare birds, the largest population of North Island brown kiwis and colourful ferns, but also to some of the oldest and best-preserved kauri trees in the whole country.
There you will find the most famous and largest kauri tree in New Zealand – the iconic Tane Mahuta.
Make sure to visit some of the other significant trees like Te Matua Ngahere (which is estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old) and the Four Sisters for example.
The easiest way to do so is to follow several walkways throughout the forest.
To help protect this unique environment it is crucial to respect the rules, stick to marked paths and properly clean your shoes at special cleaning stations before entering the forest.
Katja – Places and Notes
Kai Iwi Lakes – Northland
Located north of Dargaville, you’ll find three breathtaking lakes, known collectively as Kai Iwi Lakes. There’s Lake Waikere, Lake Kaiiwi and finally Lake Taharoa (which is the biggest and is home to the two campgrounds).
These must-see dune lakes were created more than 1.8 million years ago! As a result, we now have crystal clear blue lakes which are perfect for a summer getaway.
The Pine Beach Campground (at Lake Taharoa) has great facilities and a range of spots for you to pitch your tent.
There are so many activities you can do at Kai Iwi Lakes, such as kayaking, jet-skiing, swimming, boating, and even exploring the surrounding bushlands!
Although these lakes may seem off the beaten path, they are well known to locals. So, if you’re thinking about staying at one of New Zealand’s bucket list places, book your camping in advance because it fills up quick!
Jasmine – Kiwi Talks Travel
Book: Kai Iwi Lakes Resort.
Aotea Great Barrier Island – Regional Auckland
This island paradise is like nowhere else in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Totally off the grid, with a subtropical climate, it is the perfect getaway and only a 30-minute flight from Auckland Airport. It’s also possible to travel there by ferry should you prefer.
Aotea is one of only two dark sky sanctuaries – the other being Rakiura Stewart Island. This means it’s perfect for stargazing and astrophotography.
The island is also a hiker’s delight, with tracks and trails to keep you busy for days (including the popular Aotea Track that takes three days and includes two nights in DOC huts). This is currently the only multi-day hike in the Auckland region.
Many visit the island for the beautiful beaches and wonderful marine life. Dolphins frequent the island and if you are lucky you might even see orca or whales. Fishing and diving are also popular activities with charter boats available to take you out to the best fishing spots.
If flora and fauna are your thing then you will be treated to some very special species including some only found on Aotea.
Other Great Barrier highlights include the hot springs, amazing burgers from Swallow in Claris, riding e-bikes from Motu Bikes, surfing, dinner at the Irish Pub, beer tasting at Aotea Brewing, taking a dip in a mermaid pool and standing in the canopy of a 600-year-old kauri tree at Glenfern Sanctuary.
If you are planning a trip to Aotea, the official website is a great place to start. The ladies at the information centre are also a great help – they’re friendly and helpful so give them a call with any questions.
Karllie – Yolo Solo
Hot Water Beach – Coromandel
Can you imagine anything better than enjoying a beautiful beach sunrise in the comfort of your own natural hot spa?!
Well, at Hot Water Beach this is entirely possible!
Located in the Coromandel, this iconic beach destination is unique in the sense that you can actually dig your own personal little hot tub right in the sand on the beach. This is thanks to the hot underground vents that heat up the water, seeping up as you dig.
It really is a neat attraction and one of the most unique things to do in New Zealand.
But besides being a fun activity, Hot Water Beach is gorgeous! We recommend visiting for sunrise (when you can enjoy a colourful show as the sun comes up) or on a clear evening (when the stars are amazing).
From the white sandy beach, you’ll enjoy views of the rugged coastline and rock formations in the ocean – simply picture perfect!
Just be sure to visit near low tide (up to two hours either side.) This is the only time when you can dig in the sand to make your hot spa as outside of this window, the beach will be covered in waves.
33 Pye Place, Hot Water Beach 3591
Daniel – Destinationless Travel
Related: The best Coromandel beaches.
Whenuakura Island (Donut Island) – Whangamata
Donut Island is one of the most memorable places in the Coromandel – and funnily enough, it’s one of our New Zealand highlights!
Looking pretty but unimposing from the outside, Whenuakura (that’s the island’s Māori name) is an out-of-this-world experience and a must-see when you visit the peninsula’s other hotspots!
About 600m off the shores of Whangamata Beach, you can kayak to the island (or even SUP paddle on a calm day.)
A cave tunnel cuts its way to the middle, revealing a round open oasis of white sand and turquoise water. Any pirate would bury their treasure chest on Whenuakura with pleasure!
Unfortunately, the island itself is tapu, meaning you’re not allowed to set foot on the island. Don’t tell the pirate! All the same though, this trip is magic.
On a very calm day, you can hire a kayak or SUP and paddle there self-guided. With that said, the best way to experience Whenuakura is with a tour as the guides can assess how and when to best access the cave.
227 Beverley Terrace, Whangamatā 3620
Alex from Discover Aotearoa – New Zealand from N to Z
Book: Whenuakura Island (Donut Island) kayak tour.
Book: Surf lessons at Whangamata Beach.
Hobbiton – Matamata – The Most Uniquely Kiwi of our New Zealand Highlights
The Hobbiton Movie Set, located 2 hours south of Auckland in Matamata, is one of the prettiest spots to visit in New Zealand.
If you’re a fan of the book, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien or have seen The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies, then you’ll love the opportunity to take a tour of the movie set.
Even if you’re not a fan, this life-sized movie set is guaranteed to win you over with its beauty and detail!
The 2-hour guided tour starts with a bus ride from the visitor centre to the movie set, where you’ll pass over the green rolling hills of the farm.
Once you enter the movie set, you’ll find yourself in The Shire, where all the hobbits live. From the green plants and trees surrounding the colourful hobbit holes to the minute details of each hobbit’s occupation, it’s a fantastic place to explore and take photos.
Fans will be especially excited to visit Bilbo Baggins’s house!
Not a Hobbit groupie? You’ll be amazed by the gardens and attention to detail.
Finally, the tour ends at the Green Dragon Inn – a local hangout spot for the hobbits – with a complimentary drink of beer, cider, or ginger beer (non-alcoholic).
Without a doubt, Hobbiton is a New Zealand Highlight!
501 Buckland Road, Matamata 3472
Jackie & Justin – Life of Doing
Related: Our Hobbiton tour review.
Book: Discounted Hobbiton tours from Auckland.
Book: Tickets to Hobbiton (self-drive). Use the promo code NZTT to save 10%.
Wai-O-Tapu – Rotorua
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is one of the most otherworldly landscapes in New Zealand. And that’s saying a lot for a country that is an official stand-in for Middle-earth!
Lying only 27 kilometres from the town of Rotorua, Wai-o-Tapu geothermal park is the world of boiling waterfalls, psychedelically-bright acidic and alkaline lakes, scorching-hot vents, and sulphurous mounds.
The park’s star performer is Lady Knox Geyser. Each morning at 10.15 am the staff at Wai-O-Tapu ‘encourage’ the geyser to erupt by sprinkling some surfactant into its vent. Depending on the weather conditions and the geyser’s mood, it can shoot up to 10-20 metres into the air!
The rest of the park’s features can be explored via a network of interconnected trails that take you past the steaming multi-coloured Artists Pallet to the largest hot spring in the world – the emerald-green Champagne Pool rimmed with a bright orange terrace, and to the picturesque acidic Lake Ngakoro.
Though there are many geothermal areas in Rotorua, we really do recommend Wai-O-Tapu if you’re just going to visit one.
201 Waiotapu Loop Road, Rotorua 3073
Margarita – The Wildlife Diaries.
Book: Discounted Rotorua activities and accommodation.
Book: Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park.
Related: The best swimming spots in Rotorua | Things to do in Rotorua with kids.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing – National Park
Located in Tongariro National Park in North Island, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is regarded as one of the best day hikes in the world. It passes through the most incredible landscape and has dual UNESCO world heritage site status.
The first half of this 19.4km hike has breathtaking other-worldly volcanic terrain that will fascinate even the most seasoned travellers. Conical peaks, active craters, steaming vents, solidified lava flows and emerald lakes will leave you gasping at the wonders of nature!
The second half comprises of glacial valley views and a long walk through an evergreen forest. The sudden change in scenery from alpine volcanic to lush greenery is remarkable.
In winter, this crossing is covered with snow giving it an altogether different (but spectacular) look.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike is a definite must-do on your New Zealand road trip. This is thanks to its surreal beauty and the incredible experience of hiking in a volcanic zone.
Plus, it’s near Taupō which in itself is a fantastic destination!
Trisha – Try Wandering More
Book: Tongariro Alpine Crossing premium guide hike.
Book: Tongariro Alpine Crossing park n ride shuttle.
Related: Things to do in Taupō.
Related: Free things to do in Taupō.
Art Deco – Napier – A Real New Zealand Highlight for History-Lovers
The cozy coastal North Island town of Napier is the self-proclaimed Art Deco capital of the world, with more than 140 buildings erected in the iconic style in a compact city centre.
Once a year, on the anniversary weekend of the earthquake that initiated the stylistic rebuilding of the city, the town hosts The Napier Art Deco festival. At that time, you’ll find the streets packed with locals and visitors sporting vintage fashion and driving old-time cars.
Napier is located in Hawke’s Bay; a stunning wine region sitting comfortably unearthed in the shadow of Marlborough. Numerous award-winning wineries produce some of the most refined Syrah and unique Chardonnay that will ever grace your palette!
While many of the restaurants in Napier showcase the best of the local wine scene, the best way to experience the area’s flavours is by visiting the vineyards for a wine tasting amongst the vines and machinery used to make it.
7 Tennyson Street, Napier South, Napier 4110
Elliot – The Travel Kind
Book: Art deco city highlights tour.
Book: A small-group best of Napier tour.
Related: Things to do in Napier with kids.
Related: The best things to do in and around Napier.
Red Rocks – Wellington
The Red Rocks Coastal Walk is an incredible half-day hike just out of Wellington. You’ll get some beautiful views while walking along the coast and if you’re lucky, you might encounter a seal or two on the way!
It’s called the Red Rocks (pari-whero) walk because you walk on the coast towards a spot full of big boulders – which, unsurprisingly, are red. Apart from just being a great sight, these rocks also played an important role in Māori history.
The hike to the Red Rocks takes about an hour. Following that, we recommend you continue for another 30 minutes to Sinclair Head where a seal colony lives. You’ll most likely be able to spot some fur seals playing around in the ocean or sleeping on the rocks there!
The Red Rocks Coastal Walk definitely deserves a visit on your travels in New Zealand – not only is it a uniquely beautiful place, but there is also a great chance that you’ll encounter local wildlife on this family-friendly walk.
Ōwhiro Bay, Wellington 6023
Cecilie – Worldwide Walkers
Book: Lord of The Rings Tour.
Book: Wellington’s Seal Coast Safari.
Related: The best walks in Wellington.
Head South to New Zealand’s Travel Highlights
Hooker Valley Track – Mt Cook – One of the Most Talked-About New Zealand Highlights
No New Zealand highlights list would be complete without one of our best easy day hikes – the Hooker Valley Track.
Clearly marked, the Hooker Valley Track leaves just past Mount Cook Village at the main tramping car park. Should you wish, it’s even possible to freedom camp there.
This mind-blowing hike (or tramp, as we call them in New Zealand) takes less than three hours return and is fairly flat. It traverses pathed tracks and wooden boardwalks, making it accessible to the vast majority of walkers.
Throughout the hike, you’ll cross three memorable suspension bridges and will enjoy stunning views of two different glacial lakes. In the wintertime, the final lake even comes complete with icebergs!
Hooker Valley Track, Mt Cook National Park 7999
Sarah Chant – Exploring Kiwis
Related: The best Mount Cook walks.
Related: Things to do in Mount Cook.
Book: Discounted tours from Queenstown/Christchurch to Mount Cook.
Related: Things to do in nearby Tekapo.
Related: Places to stay in Tekapo.
Lake Tekapo – Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is one of the South Island’s most famous and beautiful small towns. Located in the Southern Alps, its dazzling turquoise-coloured lake is one of the prettiest in New Zealand, and its remote setting makes it perfect for nighttime stargazing. Lake Tekapo is a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, so you know it’ll be worth braving even the chilliest of nights.
Hikers will love visiting the region as there are many excellent walking trails of varying lengths where you can enjoy stunning views of the mountains and the valleys.
Tekapo Springs is located right next to the lake and are a really enjoyable way to spend an afternoon unwinding in soothing geothermal waters. They also open at night so you can enjoy stargazing whilst lying in a floating hammock.
Though every time of year is amazing, the months of November and December are possibly the best time of year to visit. These months signal the beginning of summer when you will get to see hundreds of beautiful coloured lupins in full bloom all along the coast of the lake.
Caroline – CK Travels
Book: Discounted tickets to Tekapo Springs.
Book: Dark Sky Project: The Summit Tour.
Related: Things to do in Tekapo | The best hot pools in the South Island.
Fox Glacier – West Coast
One of the most natural and beautiful places in New Zealand is the stunning Fox Glacier!
Fox Glacier is the name of both the town as well as the glacier – both of which were named after Prime Minister Sir William Fox.
The glacier itself stretches down from New Zealand’s Southern Alps all the way to reach the temperate rainforest. This sees it end 300m above sea level.
Four alpine glaciers feed Fox Glacier, which is longer and is moving faster than the neighbouring Franz Josef Glacier (which is also amazing!)
The best way to get close to the glacier is to go heli hiking with a guide. If you’d prefer a more relaxed experience, scenic flights offer an impressive bird’s-eye view (without the energy burst).
Fox Glacier’s terminal face is five kilometres from the village and can also be seen from a vantage point on Cook Flat Road (heading towards Lake Matheson). This lake is another stunning spot and one of the country’s most beautiful lakes – it’s known for creating picture-perfect reflections on a still day and makes for a lovely relaxed walk.
Another attraction in Fox Glacier are the glow worm caves, which are within walking distance from the centre of town. It’s also home to a number of wonderful walking tracks.
Finally, the Fox Glacier township has several fantastic cafes and restaurants, making it a great place to spend some time.
Christina – travel2next
Book: Distinction Hotel Fox Glacier.
Book: Fox Glacier Heli Hike Experience.
Related: The Franz Josef Heli Hike – The Pinnacle of Your New Zealand Bucket-List.
Lake Diamond – Wānaka
Many travellers who put Wānaka in their New Zealand itinerary visit the town for the iconic views from Roys Peak. Though we wholeheartedly recommend this stunning tramp, we’re here to share one you might not be so familiar with.
If you are looking for an easier trek that also offers a splendid panorama of Lake Wānaka and the surrounding mountains, head to Lake Diamond!
It is located some 20km away from the town and is reachable only by car (although hitchhiking there and back is rather easy too).
The emerald colour of the lake is mesmerising – you’ll probably spend way too much time just staring at it, admiring its beauty!
The best place to see Lake Diamond in its full glory is from the viewing platform located up a bit. To reach it you’ll need to climb some stairs through the beautiful native forest.
You might also walk a bit further up towards Rocky Mountain for even more amazing views of the area!
You’ll be pleased to know that there are a few tracks with different lengths and difficulty levels, allowing you to customise your experience based on fitness and time.
Each and every one of them is rewarding and memorable, making a visit to Lake Diamond a New Zealand highlight.
Kami – My Wanderlust
Book: Alternative accommodation in Wānaka.
Related: Things to do in Wānaka.
Related: Amazing walks in Wānaka.
Bob’s Peak – Queenstown
You can’t visit New Zealand and miss out on the epic view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu from up at Bob’s Peak. This iconic viewpoint features Queenstown 450 metres below with The Remarkables in the distance – it’s stunning!
To get to Bob’s Peak you have two different options. You can either ride the gondola from Queenstown or hike the Tiki Trail.
The gondola requires no effort and takes only 5 minutes. However, it will set you back $44 NZD per adult. The Tiki Trail, however, is completely free! With that said, it is a steep hike that takes most people around 1.5 hours to complete at a decent pace.
We’ll let you decide how to make it to the top – trust us though, you will want to make the trip somehow.
To best enjoy the view from Bob’s Peak you can either visit the viewing platform attached to the Skyline building or visit the Stratosfare restaurant and bar.
Personally, I love heading up just before sunset to enjoy the view in the daylight, as the sun goes down (with a glass of wine in hand at the bar of course), and then stargaze once it’s dark!
Bailey – My Queenstown Diary
Book: Aoraki / Mt Cook Scenic Flight from Queenstown.
Related: Things to do in Queenstown with kids | Adventure activities in Queenstown | The ultimate list of things to do in Queenstown.
Milford Sound – Fiordland
The South Island of New Zealand is a remarkable place – around each corner is a view more beautiful than the one before.
However, there is one place that stands miles above the rest – Milford Sound in Fiordland.
Milford Sound is a fiord in the southwest of the South Island of Aotearoa. It is well known for its cascading waterfalls, rainforests and Mitre Peak which towers over Milford Sound.
We suggest you take your time driving into Milford as the road in enjoys countless photo opportunities (including lakes and waterfalls). Likewise, there’s a fabulous little walk just to the left of the Milford Sounds car park – you won’t want to miss it.
The best way to visit the main attraction is by cruise though.
There are several cruises that go across Milford Sound, but Southern Discoveries has a cruise and has the option to go kayaking on Milford Sound and visit the Discovery Centre too.
In addition, we can personally vouch for Cruise Milford – they run a friendly, professional operation that’s second-to-none.
When planning your trip to New Zealand make sure Milford Sound is on the top of your bucket list!
Fiona – Travelling Thirties
Related: Things to do in Te Anau (the gateway to Milford) | Where to stay in Te Anau (and Milford Sound) | Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound – comparing Fiordland’s most popular fiords.
Book: Discounted sailings on Milford Sound | Discounted tours to Milford Sound.
Moeraki Boulders – Near Oamaru and Dunedin, Otago – One of the Most Unique New Zealand Highlights
The Moeraki Boulders are a quick and rewarding stop on the drive between Moeraki and Hampden along the Otago coast of New Zealand.
These large spherical boulders can be found lying on Koekohe Beach, not far from Oamaru.
The Moeraki Boulders occur naturally along the beach due to wave action on local bedrock and mudstone. Over millions of years, waves have carved the giant balls on the beach – some isolated and others in clusters.
They make a fun playground for kids and adults alike!
There is a café up the steep slope from the beach with excellent food and coffee, so should you have the time, we recommend making this a proper stop on your itinerary.
If you’re short on time though, a 15-minute visit to the boulders will suffice.
It’s a unique geological marvel and, being so unique to New Zealand, really is well worth the photo stop!
Jyoti – Story at Every Corner
Book: Moeraki Boulders Holiday Park cabin.
Book: Moeraki Boulders Holiday Park & Motel.
Related: Things to do in Dunedin | Things to do in Dunedin with kids.
Related: The best campgrounds in the South Island (including one at Moeraki).
There are so, so many New Zealand highlights scattered right across the country!
From surprising gems to those that are widely known, each of the spots on our article is worthy of a spot on your New Zealand itinerary.
Which of these New Zealand highlights will you include on your next adventure?
It is factually incorrect to say you can “freedom camp” at Aoraki Mt Cook. Freedom camping implies no charge. Whitehorse Hill is in fact a DoC campsite with basic facilities and requires payment. Rangers check for payment twice daily.
Hi Victoria, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m not sure where we’ve mentioned freedom camping at Mt Cook in this post? We do also define freedom camping above as often being without charge (but sometimes for a nominal charge to cover amenities).
Would love to see Akaroa and Banks Peninsula on this list! So much to do in this area, Walks, Penguin Tours, Mountain Biking, Harbour cruises and swimming with dolphins, Alpaca Tours, Amazing beaches and much more
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