New Zealand Most Famous Places: 11 Must-Sees

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New Zealand, the land of towering mountains, daring coastlines, giant glacier lakes, and endless fields of sheep. Tucked at the bottom of the world, there’s no other place quite like it. Here, birds seemingly prefer to walk, pies are savory, and glaciers flow into the rainforest. It’s no surprise New Zealand’s most famous places range from mindblowing landscapes to the quirky glowworm caves.

New Zealand’s North Island is characterized by rolling green hills, otherworldly volcanic landscapes, and long stretches of golden sand beaches. Head down to the South Island and coastlines become rugged, the Southern Alps stretch from top to bottom, and nature remains largely untouched.

We’ve sought out the best of New Zealand’s most famous places, so you can discover the fascinating landscapes and small towns for yourself. All that’s left to do is hop in your car and get to exploring.

Milford Sound

New Zealand most famous places Milford Sound
Photo by BoucherPhotoStudio/Getty Images

Milford Sound easily tops the list of New Zealand’s most famous places, and for good reason. Here, nature still dominates, all of life’s little hassles become increasingly less important the longer you stay, and it’s nearly impossible to comprehend the beauty around you. Milford Sound’s drowned valleys are so breathtakingly stunning it was deemed the 8th Wonder of the World by famous British writer Rudyard Kipling.

Milford Sound is also one of the few places in the world that is somehow even more magnificent when it’s raining. While there are only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, during and right after the rain, thousands of waterfalls pour down off towering cliffs. Even so, if you happen to visit Milford Sound on a rare sunny day, don’t worry. Birds, seals, penguins, and dolphins come out to play, and the full expanse of the valley reveals itself.

Experience Milford Sound: The best way to see Milford Sound is to book a bus, cruise, bus tour from Queenstown or Te Anau. Expect a full day trip, but one you’ll never forget.

Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park
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Stretching 796 square kilometers, Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park and is packed full of dramatic geothermal landscapes and significant Māori cultural and spiritual sights. Don’t worry, though. We don’t expect you to explore it all in one go.

The top must-do in Tongariro National Park is the world-famous Tongariro Crossing. Known as the best day hike in the world, you’ll walk amongst towering volcanoes, red craters, otherworldly blue lakes, native forests, and lush meadows – all in eight hours. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, be sure to keep your eye out for Mt. Ngauruhoe or Mt. Doom.

If eight hours of hiking isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty to do and see in Tongariro National Park. A visit to Chateau Tongariro is the perfect place to ponder the brilliant landscapes while enjoying warm tea and fresh baking. Or embark on one of the many shorter hikes in the region, showcasing impressive waterfalls and alpine lakes.

Experience Tongariro National Park: Book accommodation and transport to the Tongariro Crossing from Lake Taupo, or stay at Chateau Tongariro itself to wake up with Mt. Ngauruhoe right on your doorstep.

Waiheke Island

New Zealand most famous places Waiheke Island
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Located just a short ferry ride from Auckland, you can step off the plane and be drinking wine overlooking rolling green fields and picturesque bays in just over an hour. Or, if you’re like one of the many wealthy vacation homeowners on Waiheke, the island is only a 12-minute helicopter ride from Central Auckland.

As you can likely guess, Waiheke Island is the ultimate getaway for the rich and was even deemed the Hamptons of New Zealand by Vogue. However, it wasn’t always like this. Fifteen years ago, Waiheke wasn’t on the map for New Zealand’s most famous places and was home to hippies looking to live away from Auckland’s bustling city life. Luckily, this laidback lifestyle has stuck around. It’s not unusual to see backpackers and the incredibly wealthy all basking in the same sunshine, enjoying the island’s many coastal walks, or dining on delicious New Zealand cuisine at a local fish and chips shop.

Experience Waiheke Island: Save yourself the hassle and deciding who’s going to be the sober driver and book yourself a wine tour. You’ll find plenty of options from budget hop-on-hop-off tours to high-end luxury tours complete with food tastings.

Queenstown

Queenstown
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The adventure capital of the Southern Hemisphere, surrounded by the Southern Alps and perched alongside Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is just as beautiful as it is packed full of things to do. When it comes to New Zealand’s most famous places, no list would be complete without this charming town in the middle of the South Island.

At first glance, Queenstown may seem like a giant playground for adults. And well, it is. Home to the world’s first bungy jump and a self-proclaimed world’s most exciting jetboat ride, if you can think up an activity, you can do it in Queenstown. Skydiving, paragliding, rafting, rock climbing, and being shot out of a canyon are just a few to pick from. Just be sure to save up before arriving in Queenstown, as this small town comes with a hefty price tag.

Experience Queenstown: To fully experience Queenstown, you’ll want to spend at least a few days, if not a week, in one of the towns many AirBnB’s or hotels and take advantage of the multitude of activities on offer. 

Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park

Mount Cook National Park
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New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook, is a sight to behold. Standing 3,724 meters (12,217 feet) above sea level, it may not be the world’s tallest mountain, but its vertical stance and alpine conditions continue to make it a true challenge to climb even for experienced mountaineers.

For the large majority of tourists, even avid hikers, this means you’ll be appreciating Aoraki Mount Cook from afar – and the perfect place to do that is in Aoraki Mount Cook Village. This tiny town of just over 200 residents has a few hotels, a couple of bars and restaurants, and one school, so you’ll want to make sure you do your shopping before turning off on the 55 kilometers (34 miles) dead-end road. Also, be sure to stay up past your bedtime to check out the stars, as the sky itself is a natural heritage site.

Experience Aoraki Mount Cook National Park: Book yourself a stay at the Hermitage Hotel and wake up to magnificent sunrises showcasing Aoraki Mount Cook. Hike Hooker Valley or the more challenging Sealy Tarns for incredible views.

Rotorua

Rotorua
Photo by Avi_Cohen_Nehemia/Getty Images

While usually a city doesn’t want to be known for its terrible smell, Rotorua may be the one exception to that rule. Located on the Rotorua Caldera, the city is alive with fascinating geysers, mud pools, and hot thermal springs. Boardwalks have even been constructed around the city so visitors and locals can admire the geothermal activity while wandering around. All this bubbling may make you nervous, but don’t worry, the last time Rotorua Caldera had a major eruption was some 240,000 years ago. 

Besides its lively ground, Rotorua is also known for its abundance of lakes and dense redwood forests. In summer, Rotorua comse alive with domestic tourists swimming, boating, and fishing in the 17 lakes in the region. As Rotorua is also one of New Zealand’s warmest places, when the sun gets a bit too much, head to the Whakarewarewa Redwoods forests for a magical walk or test out one of the superb mountain bike trails.

Experience Rotorua: Choose between luxury resort-style accommodation or the more budget Rotorua Top 10 Holiday Park, stay for a few days to learn about the proud Maori culture of the region and explore the differing landscapes.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

New Zealand most famous places Glowworm Caves
Photo by Fabian Ebi/Getty Images

New Zealand is the only place in the world where glowworms are found, and they are a must-see when in the country. The choice is yours if you’d prefer to take a boat ride, walk, or raft your way through the extensive cave network, and when the time’s right, all lights will be turned off, and you’ll be met with the most magical sight. Hundreds of tiny creatures light the top and sides of the cave, not unlike a vast starlit sky.

That’s not all the Waitomo caves are famous for, though. The extensive network is home to 300 limestone caves created around 30 million years ago. If you prefer to wander with the lights on, be sure to check out the astonishing Cathedral 18 meters (59 feet) high and the delicate cave formations throughout the many passages.

Experience the Waitomo Glowworm Caves: Whether you want to settle in for a relaxing boat ride or get the adrenaline pumping with a black water rafting experience, there’s something for everyone. Check out the many options at Discover Waitomo.

Hot Water Beach

Hot Water Beach, New Zealand most famous places
Photo by Nick Thompson/flickr

How does your own private natural hot tub at the edge of the ocean, for free, sound? All you have to do is bring a shovel or rent one from a local shop, do a bit of digging, and in no time you’ll be soaking in thermally heated water up to 64 °C (147 °F). Although keep in mind you can’t just come at any time. Hot Water Beach is best experienced within 2 hours of low tide. 

If you’re coming from Auckland, Hot Water Beach is about a 2.5-hour drive and is located on the Coromandel Peninsula. Finding the spot won’t be hard as Hot Water Beach has become quite popular in the past ten years. Look for signs on the road that point you to the beach, and you’ll soon come across other eager travelers digging their perfect spa pool.

Experience Hot Water Beach: Head to Hot Water Beach within 2 hours of low tide, bring a shovel, and your all set. Hot Water Beach is especially wonderful when the temperatures are cooler or it’s raining lightly, so don’t let the weather deter you.

Franz Josef

Franz Josef Glacier
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Imagine going to the beach and hiking on a glacier in the same afternoon? With a population of under 500 residents, what the town of Franz Josef lacks in size, it drastically makes up for its one-of-a-kind landscapes. In fact, Franz Josef Glacier is not only one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, it’s also one of the few that cascades right into a temperate rainforest making it a strong contender for New Zealand’s most famous places.

Reaching Franz Josef isn’t overly easy. Located on the West Coast of the South Island, it takes around five hours to reach the town from Queenstown or Christchurch. However, with incredible landscapes to take in on the way, it’s a drive well worth making. It’ll only take you around 10 minutes to walk through town, but with endless hikes nearby, it’s well worth spending a night or two here.

Experience Franz Josef: Stay at the charming Rainforest Retreat and book yourself in for a heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier. While the experience won’t be cheap, it’ll be an incredible day you won’t soon forget.

Wanaka

Wanaka, New Zealand most famous places
Photo by Ronnie Li/Getty Images

Just over the hill, well, technically over the Crowne Range, from Queenstown is Wanaka. While Wanaka may feel like a smaller version of Queenstown, surrounded by mountains and at the foot of a stunning glacier lake, Wanaka is so charming that it deserves its own spot on New Zealand’s most famous places list.

Strangely enough, one of Wanaka’s most famous features is a tree. The Wanaka Tree has miraculously grown seemingly out of Lake Wanaka, along the lake’s edge. With the stunning Mt Aspiring National Park backdrop, it’s likely the most photographed tree in New Zealand. Next on the list of things to do in Wanaka is Rob Roy’s Peak, a hike with a viewpoint so famous you’ll have to wait in line for your chance at the picture spot. If you’re not one for crowds, don’t worry. Wanaka has numerous stunning hikes to tackle and plenty of other trees to admire.

Experience Wanaka: An easy day trip from Queenstown, wander the lakefront, check out The Wanaka Tree and enjoy one of the many restaurants on the water’s edge. If you have more time, be sure to head to Mt Aspiring National Park.

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