9 of the best experiences in New Zealand: get to know this beautiful country

With epic national parks and stunning landscapes, inspiring Māori culture and hospitable Kiwis, your New Zealand trip will be packed with amazing adventures.

From hiking through the wilderness on Stewart Island to soaking up Auckland’s live music scene, there’s so much to experience in this beautiful little country that you’ll want to keep coming back. Here are some of the best things to do in New Zealand.

Explore the planet’s most surprising adventures with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. A Tamaki Maori leader dancing in traditional dress. Seeing an authentic Māori performance is a top experience in New Zealand © Fotos593 / Shutterstock

1. Get to know Māori culture

New Zealand’s indigenous Māori culture is accessible and engaging: join in a haka (war dance); chow down at a traditional hāngi (Māori feast cooked in the ground); carve a pendant from bone or pounamu (jade); learn some Māori language; or check out an authentic cultural performance with song, dance, legends, arts and crafts.

Planning tip: Big-city and regional museums around NZ are crammed with Māori artifacts and historical items, but this is truly a living culture: vibrant, potent and contemporary. Joining in with a Māori event is the best way to experience this part of New Zealand’s identity.

An artist creats a black-and-white mural of a Maori man on a boxcar Auckland is packed with rich culture © Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images

2. Experience the diversity of Auckland

Held in the embrace of two harbors and built on the remnants of long-extinct volcanoes, Auckland isn’t your average metropolis. It’s regularly rated one of the world’s most liveable cities, blessed with good beaches, wine regions, fantastic museums and a thriving dining, drinking and live-music scene, not to mention sub-tropical weather. However, it’s the rich culture of this ethnically diverse place that makes Auckland stand out on the global stage.

Planning tip: Time your visit for any major cultural event, from Pasifika to Diwali. This is when you’ll really see the city at its best.

Female hiker looking at a map on a mountainous section of a hiking trail. Head out on one of New Zealand’s Great Walks © Naruedom Yaempongsa / Shutterstock

3. Hike one of New Zealand’s Great Walks

Hiking, or tramping, as the Kiwis call it, is one of New Zealand’s great pastimes. North and South Islands alike offer boundless opportunities to scramble up scree, spot wildlife and lose yourself in some outdoors truly deserving of the epithet “great.” Whether it’s the rainforest-shaded shores of Lake Waikaremoana or the unspoiled wilderness of the Paparoa Track, hikers will always find their happy place. 

At the center of the North Island, Tongariro National Park presents an awe-inspiring landscape of alpine desert punctuated by three smoldering volcanoes. Often rated as one of the world’s best single-day wilderness walks, the challenging Tongariro Alpine Crossing skirts the base of two of the mountains and provides views of craters, brightly colored lakes and the vast Central Plateau.

Planning tip: As the popularity of the Great Walks has skyrocketed, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) has limited visitor numbers per day. Book your chosen route online ahead of time.

Fern trees near a lush coastline. Explore the protected landscapes of Stewart Island © R. Vickers / Shutterstock

4. Look for kiwis in the wilderness of Stewart Island

Birdwatching, kayaking, tramping and cycling are some of the ways you can explore New Zealand’s third island, one where only 400 people live and 85% of the land is protected by Rakiura National Park. It’s also your best opportunity to view kiwis in the wild. Seeing these small indigenous birds while walking along the beach in the dark under the dazzling Milky Way is an experience to be savored. If you’re lucky, you might even glimpse the Southern Lights.

Planning tip: Ferries run to Stewart Island from Bluff or take a flight from Invercargill.

A lush green view from a train window. Soak in stunning views from the train window of the TranzAlpine Railway © Steve Heap / Shutterstock

5. Ride the scenic TranzAlpine Railway from Christchurch to Greymouth

Among the world’s most scenic train journeys, the TranzAlpine cuts clear across New Zealand from the Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea in less than five hours. Yes, there’s a vast mountain range in the way – that’s the scenic part. Leaving the Canterbury Plains, a cavalcade of tunnels and viaducts climb up the Southern Alps to Arthur’s Pass, where the 8.5km (5-mile) Otira tunnel burrows through the bedrock of NZ’s alpine spine. Then it’s down the other side to Greymouth… a jumping-off point to adventures aplenty.

Planning tip: The TranzAlpine is operated by Great Journeys New Zealand. Check online for special offers.

People stand on a viewing point over the ocean with rocks in the distance. Pancake Rocks can be seen on the West Coast © Anna Gorin / Getty Images

6. Take a road trip along the West Coast

A remote, end-of-the-road vibe defines the West Coast. Road trips along the SH6, from isolated wildlife haven Haast to hiking outpost Karamea, thread together an alluring combination of sights: Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, Hokitika’s greenstone galleries, and geological wonders like Pancake Rocks. There are countless detours to mountain biking and hiking trails, many of which follow the footsteps of early pioneers. Primeval wilderness is often only a short journey away by foot – or helicopter, or jetboat…

A red cable car rises above a cityscape. Wellington might be a small capital city, but there’s plenty to do © Victor Maschek / Shutterstock

7. Hang out in NZ’s cool capital, Wellington

One of the coolest little capitals in the world, windy Wellington is also synonymous with cinema, thanks to local boy Peter Jackson. Residents are also proud of its vibrant arts and music scene and special events schedule (from Fringe to WOW), plus dining choices that range from innovative food trucks to high-end gastronomy. But for visitors to the capital, the proximity to mountain biking and walking trails, not to mention a glistening harbor, scores just as highly. Don’t miss it.

A beautiful bay is filled with boats on a sunny day. Waiheke Island is a popular escape from Auckland © Troy Wegman / Shutterstock

8. Explore Waiheke Island and the Hauraki Gulf

A yachtie’s paradise, the island-studded Hauraki Gulf is Auckland’s aquatic playground, sheltering its harbor and east-coast bays and, despite the heavy maritime traffic, its resident whales and dolphins. Rangitoto Island is an icon of the city, its near-perfect volcanic cone providing the backdrop for many a tourist snapshot. Yet it’s Waiheke, with its beautiful beaches, acclaimed wineries and excellent dining spots, that is Auckland’s most popular island escape.

Planning tip: Waiheke can be visited as a day trip from Auckland, but to really make the most of the island’s quirky galleries, many tasting rooms and its warm, dry microclimate, you’ll probably want to stick around longer than a day.

A massive humpback whale leaps from the waterSpot whales, dolphins and seals off the shores of Kaikōura © Konrad Mostert / Shutterstock

9. Go whale watching in Kaikōura

First settled by Maōri, who demonstrated their taste for seafood by naming it Kaikōura (meaning “to eat crayfish”), this is NZ’s best spot for both consuming and communing with marine life. Feast on crayfish, go on a fishing excursion, or take a boat tour or flight to see whales, dolphins, seals and marine birds. Following a severe earthquake in November 2016, Kaikōura has rebounded and is now a fascinating spot to observe the profound impact of seismic activity along the coast.


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