10 Places every tourist to New Zealand visits
Learn which ten places are very popular with tourists who visit New Zealand.
Okay, maybe not every tourist, but definitely about 80% of them visit these must-see or must-do places in New Zealand.
The 10 places I am about to list are on the must-see or must-do lists of several tourism authorities, and they were also on my list when I visited New Zealand all by myself for the first time.
I’ll list these popular places to go in New Zealand in no particular order, but will be going from the North Island to the South Island, from north to south, and in anti-clockwise direction on the South Island of New Zealand.
While the South Island of New Zealand is all about mountains, lakes, and rivers, the North Island of New Zealand is all about thermal activity in the form of mud pools, hot springs, and volcanoes.
A lot of that thermal activity is concentrated in the center of the North Island where you will find places such as Wai-O-Tapu. Wai-O-Tapu is a 20-minute drive away from Rotorua, which on its turn is about a 3-hour drive away from Auckland.
Wai-O-Tapu is a colorful volcanic area with well-defined tracks you can walk along to see the colorful pools and bubbly mud pools.
You should also prepare yourself to smell (not only see), because the entire area around Rotorua can smell pretty awful with all of the sulfur in the air. But again, it is an experience of a lifetime.
Make sure to go early in the morning not to miss the presentation of setting off the eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser. While artificially ignited, it is something cool to see and experience.
Wai-O-Tapu is not free; you must pay a fee for access.
2. Huka Falls
Huka Falls is located near Taupo in the center of the North Island of New Zealand.
It is an 11-meter (36 ft) high waterfall that plunges into the Waikato River at a rapid rate and with a huge volume.
It is really a sight to behold and not to miss if you are in the region.
It is best to visit Huka Falls on a good weather or sunny day so that you can enjoy the blueness of the water.
[Photo: Huka Falls near Taupo on the North Island (50 KB)]
3. Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park is located in the center of the North Island of New Zealand.
It is an area that is very barren, because there are three gorgeous volcanoes in the neighborhood. So naturally, Tongariro National Park is all about walking around and on volcanoes.
While the three volcanoes in the park (Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, and Ruapehu) are usually dormant, there has been seismic activity and minor eruptions just recently (2012 and 2013).
So check with the Department of Conservation before you head out there, since tracks are generally closed to the public when there is volcanic activity and when conditions are too dangerous for walking.
In any case, you should always check with the visitor’s center anyway before you head out.
But if you get a chance to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is considered one of the best one-day hikes in the world, then do it!
- Turangi walking tracks (Department of Conservation)
- Tongariro Alpine Crossing
4. Abel Tasman Coast Track
Abel Tasman National Park is located on the northern shores of the South Island, not too far from Nelson and Picton.
Torrent Bay in Abel Tasman National Park
So after getting off the ferry from Wellington to Picton, you can drive directly to it. Motueka is one of the towns that is closest to it where you can find food and accommodation.
Abel Tasman National Park is the perfect combination of bush and gorgeous beaches, so that is what you will encounter and see most along the Abel Tasman Coast Track, which is a track that skirts the coast running from Marahau to Totaranui Bay.
There are streams here and there along the track that will tickle your auditory senses.
Together with the waves continuously breaking on the shoreline and the fresh smell of bush, the experience should provide you with total relaxation.
I sound like I’m writing an ad for a travel brochure, but the experience is that good and should not be missed.
If you are not in the mood to walk the entire track, which takes 3 to 4 days to complete with you camping at campsites or in huts (at a fee and with a booking required) along the way, you can also catch a water taxi and be dropped you off at a particular point on the track, and then walk back to the start of the track.
For example, because I do not tramp (do multi-day hikes), when I walked the Abel Tasman Coast Track, I caught a water taxi and got dropped off at Bark Bay, and then from Bark Bay, I took 9 to 10 hours to walk back to my car.
While I would not recommend doing what I did, because it was a very long walk and I was very sore the following day, you can make it easier on yourself and choose to be dropped off on a beach that is much closer to the start of the walk. Or from Marahau, walk partly in and go as far as you want and then return the same way.
- Abel Tasman Coast Track (Department of Conservation)
5. Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
The Pancake Rocks are located in Punakaiki on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand and are part of Paparoa National Park.
Punakaiki is about a 30-minute drive north from Greymouth and if you just got off the ferry in Picton, it can take you up to 4 hours to drive to Punakaiki.
The Pancake Rocks are solidified layers of limestone and mud. It took millions of years to create the unique rock structure you’ll see when you do the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk at Punakaiki.
It is an easy walk that takes between 20 and 45 minutes, so good to do if you are just passing through Punakaiki on your way to Greymouth or the Glaciers further down south. I did the walk as a brief stop to stretch my legs while doing a 6-hour drive from Motueka to Fox Glacier.
The main interesting parts of the Pancake Rocks are the rock formations and structure, which would be something of interest to you if you are interested in geology or are crazy about rocks like I am; and also the blowholes and the crashing sound of the sea.
In any case, driving down the West Coast is always a delight, so whether you are interested in rocks or not, the coastline itself is impressive, rugged, and gorgeous, so it won’t disappoint.
[Photo: Punakaiki Pancake Rocks on the South Island (47 KB)]
- Paparoa National Park (Department of Conservation)
- Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
6. Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier is located 195 km (121 mi) south of Greymouth (about 2.5 hours driving) on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
What I like most about the West Coast is that it is full of bush, the coastline is rugged, and that mountains form the backdrop. So you don’t only have to see ice when you visit Fox Glacier.
Fox Glacier is one of two accessible glaciers on the West Coast of New Zealand. The other one is Franz Josef glacier.
While there are walks at Fox Glacier you can do to admire the glacier from afar, if you want to actually walk on Fox Glacier to experience the glacier and ice up close and on a safe manner, it is best to join a guided tour to walk on the glacier.
[Photo: Glacier Viewpoint at Fox Glacier (51 KB)]
Visiting Fox Glacier is an experience of a lifetime, since with the current global warming conditions, glaciers are quickly melting, so it won’t be long (it will probably not happen in your lifetime, though) until the ice is gone.
While you can book a glacier walk online with a tour operator, you can also just walk into the shop of a tour operator on the day and book a guided walk, although you cannot be guaranteed a spot, since these walks are popular.
In any case, walks are subject to weather conditions, so even if you booked online, your tour could be cancelled due to the weather.
I did the Fox Glacier walk and booked my guided walk on the day instead of pre-booking it online. I did the walk in November. It was busy on the day but not too busy, and I arrived early, so I was able to secure a spot on the bus.
Lake Matheson, which is also very popular with photographers, is nearby, so if you spend a day or two at Fox Glacier, you can easily hop out early in the morning or late in the afternoon to see mountains reflected in the lake – all subject to the amount of wind that is blowing, of course.
They call it the View of Views. You’ll understand why once you’ve seen the view in person.
- Fox Glacier area (Department of Conservation)
- Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
- Fox Guides (guided walks)
7. Milford Sound
Milford Sound is located in Fiordland National Park in the southwestern corner of the South Island of New Zealand.
Milford Sound on the South Island
You can catch a boat tour to see sheer rock walls towering above 1 km (3,280 ft) from the water’s surface. In addition, you will spot several tall and impressive waterfalls along the way while cruising along the fiord.
Milford Sound is another one of those experiences of a lifetime. While the location itself is difficult to reach as in you would have to drive long (about 3 hours from Queenstown) before you get there, you could also do a fly-cruise-fly combi tour to cut down the time.
This means that you could catch a small airplane from for example Queenstown and fly into Milford Sound where you can then hop on a boat, do the boat tour to see the fiord, and then when you get back, catch the plane back to Queenstown.
It is not cheap, but it will save time. All in all, you would lose half a day instead of a whole day driving to Milford. But then again, if you are anything like me and enjoy driving, you can take the road. And if you drive, you can always stop along the Milford Road and go for a walk. The latter cannot be done if you fly into Milford Sound.
There are several walks you can do which take between 1 and 8 hours. And if you are into multi-day hikes, you can choose to do the Milford Track, the Routeburn Track, or the Kepler Track, which are 3 of the 9 great walks in New Zealand.
- Fiordland National Park (Department of Conservation)
- Destination Fiordland
8. Nugget Point
Nugget Point is located south of Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand, and is part of the Catlins.
The Catlins is an area that is rich in wildlife (seals, seabirds, penguins, etc.), bays, caves, beautiful coastal areas, waterfalls, green hills, and nice dense bush. It is definitely worth a visit if you can take the time to drive down there.
Balclutha, which is the first town into the Catlins, is about 80 km (50 mi) south of Dunedin (about a one hour’s drive).
And if you are coming from Queenstown, it would take you up to 3 hours to get to Balclutha. I have done this drive before so know that it is doable as a day-trip from Queenstown.
Nugget Point, in particular, offers gorgeous sea views from the top of a cliff.
You can look down on sea stacks, and if you are lucky, you will be able to spot seals basking in the sun on the rocks far below. There is also a nice lighthouse that has become the subject of many tourist photos.
Nugget Point is just one of the many beautiful places you can find in the Catlins, which is definitely one of my favorite places in New Zealand to go to if I’m close enough to pay it a visit.
[Photo: Nugget Point on the South Island (46 KB)]
- Nugget Point (Department of Conservation)
- The Catlins
9. Moeraki Boulders
The Moeraki Boulders are located on a beach 35 km (22 mi) south of Oamaru and 80 km (50 mi) north of Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand. Driving down from Oamaru to Moeraki is a delight because of the gorgeous coastline.
The Moeraki Boulders are very large round boulders (rocks). What makes them special is that they are huge! They can have diameters up to 3 meters (10 ft). The Moeraki Boulders are very photogenic, so if you are into taking selfies, you can photograph yourself standing next to them…
Since the location of the Moeraki Boulders is on the East Coast of the South Island, it is best visited during the morning hours. And to be able to walk among the boulders, it is best to visit the location when the tide is low.
- Moeraki Boulders (Department of Conservation)
10. Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is located approximately in the center of the South Island and about a 3-hour drive away from Christchurch.
If you do not take a photo of yourself standing next to the Church of the Good Shepherd – I have never done it, by the way – or a photo of the dog statue, you have not been to Lake Tekapo, because that is something every tourist who has been to Lake Tekapo does.
[Photo: Church of the Good Shepherd next to Lake Tekapo (47 KB)]
The color of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, which is about a 25-minute drive away from Lake Tekapo, will mesmerize you.
The suspended tiny particles in the water (also called glacier flour), which were produced from rocks being ground by snow and ice moving down the mountains from higher levels, help keep the color of the lake an incredible turquoise blue.
If you visit Lake Tekapo, you can walk up Mount John or drive up if you are short on time to get a bird’s eye view of the lake and surrounding mountains.
And if you visit Lake Pukaki on a good weather day, make sure to stop at the information center that is located just before the Mount Cook National Park turnoff on State Highway 8 (when you are coming from Lake Tekapo) to see whether the majestic Mount Cook is showing its gorgeous self.
It is very hard to catch Mount Cook out of the clouds, but when you do, it is a sight to behold. So make sure you do not miss that.
Autumn is a very nice time to visit this region, because you’ll have a mixture of blue water and yellow trees, and with a little bit of luck, you might also get a dusting of snow on the mountains.
This article falls under Travel Guide.
Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details
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