Firstly, you must know that New Zealand consists out of two large parts: the North Island and the South Island. That’s why I make a clear distinction between the things to do in New Zealand in the North Island and the highlights of the South Island.
What to do on the South Island of New-Zealand
1. Go kayaking in search of glow worms
A highlight of New Zealand that wouldn’t have been out of place in the movies of Peter Jackson, are the glow worms.
They can be found in many places, but for a really unique experience I recommend going on a tour together with Waimarino Kayak Tours.
Before you head out to this magical spectacle, you are spoiled with wine and cheese and you’ll get to see a beautiful sunset. Once you’re gliding through the water with your modern kayak, you get to hear great stories while the impressive views slowly start to be gobbled up by darkness. After half an hour you see the first light specks appear in between the walls of trees. At first you think you’re hallucinating, but they only get brighter and brighter. In absolute silence, your guide takes you further to a gorge where you can no longer hide your enthusiasm. Thousands of luminous worms make the cave walls bath in a magical blue-white glow! If on top of that you also have the luck that the clouds stay away, you can also do some star gazing. At that moment you truly are the happiest person alive.
Enjoy this unique spectacle in silence, because it’ll be over way too soon anyway. The force pulsating from these little worms is truly spectacular. Mother Nature -for the umpteenth time- again gives the best of herself. What a beautiful country this is!
2. Otago Peninsula
Another highlight in the south of New Zealand that nobody should skip, is the Otago peninsula.
The rugged nature makes the heart of every nature lover beat faster.
Here you’re always surrounded by the water, which -after thousands of years- has paved its way deep into this region. During low and high tides, the same seawater also provides a completely different view of the peninsula. From the steep hilltops you get breathtaking views over this impressive landmass, and strangely enough the paradisiacal beaches nearby seem to have been plucked away straight out of the Caribbean.
The Otago Peninsula is also called the ‘Galapagos of New Zealand’. Not so strange if you know that here you find some of the most beautiful and rarest animals in the world. Just think of the Hooker sea lion or the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguin. During a wildlife tour you get an almost 100% chance to see these animals, so it’s not a bad idea to spend some money on one of the excursions.
Bird lovers will also love the albatross colony that you can visit on the Otago Peninsula. Those birds are gigantic!!
3. Take a cruise on the Milford Sound
One of the most beautiful places in New Zealand is probably the Fiordland National Park. This large national park consists of two crowd pullers: the Doubtful Sound and the Milford Sound.
The Milford Sound is the most accessible and in this rocky area you can also discover the most. From Te Anau (Downs), the nearest villages, it’s another two hours before you finally reach Milford Sound. But don’t despair! Along the way you already have plenty to see. The meandering highway is surrounded by the most beautiful nature of New Zealand: white-colored mountain peaks that tickle the clouds, vast fields with nothing but fragrant lupine flowers, swirling rivers that force their way through the landscape, coming from the many waterfalls that run along the valley flanks of this magical landscape falling down. The Milford Sound is without a doubt one of the most amazing things to do in New Zealand.
Once you have arrived in Milford Sound, the landscapes may remind you of the fjords of Norway. The reflecting surface of the water is enclosed by gigantic mountains on all sides and again provides a spectacular view. However, the most special view is yet to come!
After all, with a JUCY cruise you can sail in between all of these spectacular landscapes, and honestly: it really is the most spectacular of this entire national park.
The heavy wind blows your hair into a completely new hairstyle, but that doesn’t alter the fact that this New Zealand fjord seen from the water is truly breathtaking. From a boat you get to see much more of the Milford Sound and you also get to see places that are otherwise inaccessible.
Especially the way back is sensational. The giant boulders, where sea lions and sometimes penguins rest on, create one of the most beautiful views in the world: the Milford Sound.
Two times you sail very close to one of the valley flanks and only then do you realize how small you (or that gigantic boat!!!) are compared to this rocky landscape. Depending on the weather, thousands of waterfalls clatter down here, and if you navigate so close to one, you are guaranteed to get (soaking) wet. This is what happiness feels like!
4. Abel Tasman National Park
One of the first things to do in New Zealand’s South Island is the Abel Tasman National Park. From Picton (ferry connection between north and south) it’s a two hour drive to this seemingly tropical paradise.
You wouldn’t expect it immediately in New Zealand, but yes; here you can also find sandy paradise beaches. The Abel Tasman National Park has 41.5 miles or 67 kilometers of hiking trails, and while exploring these dense rain forests you’ll get to see fantastically beautiful viewpoints over the blue water and the stops in between take you to some truly heavenly beaches.
Don’t you want to walk that much? Then book a boat taxi that’ll save you many miles. The section between Anchorage or Torrent Bay to Bark Bay is most beautiful according to most people, but there is something impressive to be seen everywhere in the park.
Are you limited in time, but do you still want to see a lot? Take a look at whether a one-day cruise along Abel Tasman National Park is something for you.
5. Swimming with dolphins or sea lions in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is one of the nicer cities in New Zealand in my opinion. From the Kaikoura Lookout you get very nice views on a clear day, but the reason you have to come here are the unique wildlife experiences.
The waters around Kaikoura are buzzing with life! Thousands of dolphins, sea lions, penguins and many whales are flocking together here because of the wide availability of food.
Every day there are excursions that bring you very close to all that wildlife. You can spend an early morning or noon in between curious dolphins in the ice-cold water (from about $130 or €115 pp). Make as much sound underwater as you can, because that only makes the dark striped dolphins more curious. Before you know it, you are surrounded by dozens of these marine mammals. After your swim, you can dry up while you’re literally surrounded by hundreds of dusky dolphins that perform -at least, that’s how it seems- an orchestrated show. They splash in and out of the water and race next to the boat to satisfy all those curious tourists. This is truly an unbelievable experience!
Does a pool party with seals also sounds exciting? Because that’s possible here too! This is perhaps a little less thrilling than an encounter with wild dusky dolphins, but still … Facing the clowns of the sea is a once in a lifetime experience! Book on time, because these unique tours are sold out quickly. A close encounter with seals in Kaikoura costs approximately $75 or €65 pp.
If you prefer to watch the animals on dry land, then you can do so completely free of charge. The Kaikoura Seal Colony is just a few minutes drive from the center of Kaikoura. From this parking lot you’ll have to walk for a few minutes until you see dozens (and sometimes even hundreds!) of seals and sea lions. Go close, but not too close. Otherwise, they’ll undoubtedly splash into the water because they feel threatened.
Finally, you can also organize a whale safari in Kaikoura. From the deck you can see the impressive silhouettes of all kinds of whales and if you’re lucky, maybe one will jump out of the water. Believe me, it really is impressive to be so close to one of the giants of the sea (from $95 or €85 per person)! Do you prefer to see these mastodons from the air? Then book a helicopter tour for $320 – €290 per person.
6. Castle Hill
Castle Hill is another famous film location in New Zealand, but this time it’s not famous -for once- from the Lord Of The Rings!
All of a sudden, these gigantic boulders appear in the immense green meadows, as if they were thrown down by giants playing with marbles. The further you walk, the more impressive these stones become.
Have you looked at the first Chronicles of Narnia? Then you might remember the blood-curdling fight between the White Witch and the heroes of this story. Well, Castle Hill proved to be the perfect setting for that epic battle! Speaking of magical things to do in New Zealand!
7. Great Alpine Highway
The above mentioned Castle Hill is located along the Alphine Highway, and that’s also one of the reasons why you shouldn’t miss out on this attraction.
Whether you do the full 145 miles or 231 kilometers of this road or just a part: time will fly by fast. The landscapes around this highway are constantly changing. From extensive meadows to rocky high plateaus to exceptionally beautiful valleys. Along the way there are also many walks that you can do, so don’t forget that to discover the entire Great Alphine Highway you need quite a bit of time!
8. Stand face to face with seals and sea lions
I told you earlier that you can see seals and sea lions in Kaikoura, but that is in fact possible in many more places. Scattered throughout the country are dozens of (stinking!!!) colonies of these slippery beasts.
Are you not making a stop in Kaikoura on your New Zealand trip? Then you can also find large colonies in Milford Sound (during a cruise you’ll always see them), Tauranga Bay, Nugget Point, Abel Tasman National Park (especially if you go kayaking) or around the Otago Peninsula.
9. Franz Josef Glacier
The Franz Josef glacier is probably the most famous glacier in New Zealand. This gigantic ice landscape of no less than seven and a half miles or twelve kilometers is impressive from a distance (there are many walks in the area), but for the coolest experience I recommend to arrange a helicopter tour to the glacier itself. During the flight you are already spoiled with dizzying views and once you land in this frozen landscape, you’ll get to climb up and under this gigantic ice layer as well.
The crunching snow and the pure, turquoise colored ice are one of the most beautiful landscapes in New Zealand and it’s therefore worth the hefty price tag.
10. Rob Boy Glacier hike
Can’t you get enough of the glaciers of New Zealand? Then make sure to plan a hike to the Rob Boy Glacier too.
The road to this landmark is somewhat confusing (there is no real road leading to it, and sometimes you have to drive along quite narrow parts) but once you start the walk, you forget about all of this sooner or later.
To start the Rob Boy Glacier hike, you first have to climb over an impressive suspension bridge. From here you get breathtaking views over the fast flowing river and the rocky landscapes in the area. You’ll spend most of your walk in dense rainforest, but once you see fragments of the Rob Boy glacier you know that you’ve almost reached the end point. The final part of this walk is truly phenomenal. A valley with dozens of waterfalls that, as it were, try to escape from the gigantic frozen ice mass that hangs ominously above them.
Take your lunch with you, because this is a great place to picnic.
11. Roys Peak Track
The Roys Peak Track is one of the hikes that everyone recommends, and that probably has a lot to do with the dazzlingly beautiful views that you get from the top.
Although this trek takes ‘only’ five hours (round-trip), this is one of the heavier walks you can do in New Zealand. The road to the top is really incredibly hard. From the parking lot (go early enough, because here are always a lot of people!) begins the endless sloping path that takes you up along fearful sheep and cows.
When you see the last straight line that brings you to the famous vantage point, you undoubtedly utter a cry of relief.
Behind the snake path you can see the gigantic Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains and hills. It really feels like you’re on top of the world here.
Don’t go down too fast! There is, after all, a second viewpoint. About half an hour higher up, you get an even better vantage point, but many tourists seem to skip it. You’re not visiting New Zealand every day, so I urge you to hike all the way to the top. You’ll be grateful once you got to admire these stunning views.
12. Hooker Valley Track
The Southern Alps that surround this ten-kilometer-long hiking trail are without a doubt one of the most beautiful things to see in New Zealand. Moreover, this is a landscaped route and you hardly have to do any climbing. On the way you walk in the shadow of Aoraki (Mount Cook) and you see ever-changing natural beauty.
Prepare yourself for some of the most dramatic landscapes of both islands. The green valley soon makes way for a rocky domain that is flooded with wildly swirling water from the glaciers that stick to the top of the mountain peaks. From the three suspension bridges you can see the vastness and, above all, the power of Mother Earth. The further you walk, the more beautiful this area becomes. At the end you see a beautiful glacier lake (with floating ice floes!) which will make you go completely silent. This is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand, I can assure you that.
13. Nugget Point
Oddly enough, the southernmost part of New Zealand is often skipped by tourists, while there are also some impressive sights to be seen here. One such highlight is Nugget Point.
This excellent headland stands firm against the all-destroying sea. Tens of meters further down you see the tiny silhouettes of seals and sea lions, but before you see them, you probably smell them first.
From the parking lot, it’s a short walk before you see the beautiful lighthouse of Nugget Point looming from behind the high hills. The narrow path takes you past this lighthouse and reveals the end of New Zealand. There you see a dozen gigantic boulders that courageously resist the forces of Posseidon, and which at the same time also yield some great photos.
The wind is furious here! So take an extra sweater with you.
14. Plan a wildlife tour
I mentioned it a few times before, but the wildlife in New Zealand is fantastic! Almost nowhere in the world do you get the chance to get so close to wild animals.
However, some animals are very difficult to track on your own, or even unreachable without a boat. Therefore, it’s not a bad idea to book a wildlife tour. Moreover, during such an excursion you’ll also get interesting information about all the animals you see.
15. Whale watching
There are a lot of whales swimming around the waters of New Zealand. It would be a shame not to get acquainted with these animals from a bit closer, don’t you think?
With a boat you get to sail near these giants, while you can see their beautiful silhouettes through the transparent water. Humpbacks, killer whales and sperm whales are among the most seen species here and they often give a real show for the tourists. Waving tails, dazzling blow holes or swaying fins are among the most seen parts of these friendly marine mammals, but if you’re really lucky they might breach (= jump out of the water). You can only imagine the force that unleashes!
The best places to see whales in New Zealand include Auckland, Christchurch and Kaikoura.
16. Lake Wanaka
From Lake Wanaka you can make many beautiful walks (including the Roy’s Peak Track), but it’s also a very nice place to just stay. The proximity of the beautiful -but freezing cold- lake makes this the ideal place to rest during your road trip in New Zealand. A swim with a background like this? I call it paradise!
17. Visit the southernmost point of New Zealand: Slope Point
If you visit Nugget Point, it’s only a short drive to Slope Point; the most southerly point of ‘mainland’ New Zealand. Don’t forget to make a selfie with the yellow sign that makes it clear where you are! If you travel a little more than 4500 kilometers to the south, you end up at the South Pole. Cool to know, right?!
For me, Queenstown is one of the nicest cities in New Zealand. Moreover, it’s the perfect base for starting (day)trips to Milford Sound.
The incredibly charming location on the lake also makes it one of the most picturesque spots in the country. Nature is never far away here, but you still have all the modern conveniences of a fairly large city.
There are plenty of great restaurants in QT, but if you also want a nice view, I recommend to lunch or dine along the waterfront. It’s often not cheap, but hey… For such a panorama I’m sure you don’t mind paying extra!
Do you like fast food? Then you should definitely try Ferg Burgers. According to many people this burger joint serves the tastiest burgers in the world. Prepare yourself for very long queues. I didn’t want to wait that long, so I decided to have a burger for breakfast. And I must admit that they indeed are incredibly delicious burgers!
Things to see and do on the North Island of New Zealand
Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and with a population of over 1.5 million, you can be sure that there is something to experience here.
In this metropolis you’ll of course find lots of interesting museums, an incredibly wide range of restaurants and international food and plenty of stores to keep the shopaholics happy. In the city there’s also a lot of green to be seen. Climb to the Mount Eden Crater; the crater of a (inactive, of course!) volcano from where you get the best view of the city. Can’t you get enough of the views over the city? Then visit Auckland’s Sky Tower. Daredevils can even jump from the tower! 360 feet or 192 meters vertically down at a speed of about 85 km per hour. And at the same time you can also enjoy a panoramic viewpoint. Now that’s what I call fun!
20. Bridal Veil Falls
Scattered throughout New Zealand, there may be thousands of waterfalls, but of course they aren’t all equally impressive. One that I found very beautiful was the Bridal Veil Falls.
After a short walk you can hear the roaring water and you get a bird’s-eye view of the white swirling mass that tumbles down straight down at top speeds. If you don’t mind giving your legs a good workout, then descend the stairs to see where this waterfall got its peculiar name from.
From the viewing platform, it seems as if Mother Nature will soon be saying ‘Yes, I do’.
21. Huka Falls
Now that we’re talking about waterfalls; the second cascade that’s worth a visit is a lot less high, but still insane to see. From the parking lot it’s only twenty meters until you see the snow-white path of destruction of this waterfall. Thousands of liters flow every second towards the paradise blue water a little further. Unbelievable how powerful such a thing can be!
Adrenaline junkies should definitely take a ride on the Jet Boat. These powerful boats sail in as far as possible against the current to get you acquainted with the inexhaustible violence of this swirling mass.
The fantastic landscapes of New Zealand became world famous because of the Lord Of The Rings films by Peter Jackson. During your tour through both islands you’ll probably visit many places that were also featured in the movies, but none bring you as close to the LOTR and The Hobbit trilogies as Hobbiton.
About two to three hours from Auckland, you’ll find a rolling landscape in a bright green color that I still am unable to describe. The hills seem infinite and sheep or other cattle look like the only sign of life in this beautiful landscape. No wonder Peter Jackson chose this exact location as Hobbiton, the village of the famous Hobbits from the Tolkien books.
For about $55 per person you can enter this magical world. From the visitor center it’s a five minute drive with a tourist bus until you’re on the actual parking lot of this popular attraction in New Zealand. From there, the guide will take you on an enchanting tour of about two hours. Along the way you’ll not only see the detailed Hobbit houses, but you’ll also get to hear stories about how much of importance was given to all kinds of details. Of course you also get more than enough time to take pictures (and the guide of course doesn’t mind taking photos of you!) and any important questions that you have, will also be answered.
At the end of your tour -which goes by very fast!- you get to order a free drink at the authentic Dragon Inn.
Lord Of The Rings fans will be very happy visiting this place, but even if you’re less familiar with the work by Tolkien, this is one of the most magical things to see in New Zealand.
If you would like to arrange a tour from Auckland (whether or not in combination with other sights), you can book these online from about $130 or €120 per person. Pricey, but of course this is one of those things that you have to tick off on your ‘what to do in New Zealand’ list.
23. Whakatane (White Island)
One of my two absolute highlights in New Zealand is White Island or Whakatane.
Off the coast of the north island you’ll find an active volcano that rises out of the water as an island. Already from the boat you can see the gasses and smoke of this fire-breathing crater steam up, but it only becomes really impressive when you set foot on land on this attraction.
The turquoise water stands in sharp contrast with the rusty-brown, gray-white or ash-black stones and rocks that are scattered around the island like rubble. But the further you walk, the more impressive the views become. Just like the smell, because believe me: sulfur stinks!!
With a safety helmet on your head (and a mouth mask to ease your prickly throat) you walk around the whole island with the aid of a guide. If something would happen, you are in safe hands with them. After all, this still is an active volcano. The steamy gases are the clearest proof of this.
The rocky landscapes soon give way to sandy ashes, which in turn are littered with layers of bright yellow sulfur. At times, the interior of the earth evaporates so fiercely that you can’t even see your own hands in front of your eyes. Luckily those disgusting clouds quickly blow over, because there is a lot to see here!
When you see the largest crater lake of Whakatane, you’ll be amazed for sure. A kind of dreamy turquoise lake stretches in front of you and seems to beckon you a little closer. A beautiful, but very treacherous view. Don’t get too close, because water of more than a thousand degrees seems a little too hot to be cozy…
Slightly further away, the landscapes certainly don’t get worse. If you’ve always wanted to drink water from a volcano, try a few drops from one of the (cooled down!!) streams. It tastes salty, metallic or indescribably dirty, but of course it’s yet another thing that wouldn’t be out of place on your bucket list!
Whakatane or White Island gives the impression that you are on another planet. For me this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful things to see in New Zealand.
24. Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The other highlight of my road trip in New Zealand is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This heavy hike (rather a climbing trip) is also named the most beautiful one-day trek in the world; so you can be sure that I’m not exaggerating!
From the nearby villages you have to arrange a pricey return shuttle bus ($35 or €30 pp) to be able to finish this hike. You begin your trek from a different starting point than the one where you’ll end and besides, you can only park there for a maximum of three hours (while the Tongariro Alpine Crossing takes at least five to six hours to complete).
These shuttle buses require you to wear good footwear and good hiking clothes, because many tourists underestimate the importance of these on their climbing trip. The grip of comfortable walking shoes and breathable hiking pants are indeed a great idea! If you don’t have the right gear yourself, you can always rent them (quite cheap).
The beginning of this climb through Mordor starts quite easy. A wooden path accompanies you to the steep (with steps!) mountain flanks that are covered with black ashes and rolling stones. During the first hours you already get some fantastic views from above, but it only becomes really impressive when you reach the red crater. Chocolate-colored stone dust mixes with pitch black ash and transforms the whole environment into a desolate landscape that seems to belong to a planet from a several million light years away.
Here it’s already beautiful, but the most magical part of this tiring trek is surely the walk from the red crater to the emerald lakes.
From the top of this crater you get to see the best view of New Zealand. An emerald green lake with edges in yellow, orange and brown enchant everyone who sees it. It may seem like a cliché; but what you see here seems to come straight out of a fairy tale.
From there it’s still a long way down, but fortunately the natural beauty continues to change all the time. From ash-gray lunar landscapes you walk further into a winding savanna that is covered with dried out grasses and evaporating volcanic breaths. After that, it’ll take you another hour to navigate through dense and dark rainforests until you reach the end of this grueling hike.
It took me seven hours to complete the Tongariro Alpine Crossing myself (!), but I did take about two hours of rest breaks and photo opportunities. Everything is so beautiful here, that you want to take a picture every now and then. Believe me, this is one of the things that absolutely should not be missing on your what-to-do list in New Zealand.
25. Forgotten World Highway
The Forgotten World Highway was once an important hub for freight traffic, but in the meantime most drivers give priority to the much smoother roads that have been built.
This doesn’t alter the fact that the Forgotten World Highway winds through some fantastic scenery. The curling tracks make sure that the engine of your car puts an effort into it! You descend between the green valleys and on the way you see many beautiful sights.
Make sure to stop in (the Republic of) Whangamomona. This tiny village is has torn itself loose from New Zealand and is therefore a republic in itself. Ask for a stamp in your passport at the town hall (= the local pub), it only costs $2 and you’ll have something unique to tell to your friends and family!
26. Mount Taranaki
In clear weather, a visit to Mount Taranaki is a must for the photographers among you. This volcano of 2518 meters high is almost perfectly symmetrical. The best photo locations for this attraction include Pouakai-Circuit-Tarns, the Mangorei track or from Lake Mangamohoe (in windless weather).
The capital of New Zealand is located on the north island and barely has 178,000 inhabitants. Nevertheless, I do recommend visiting this cozy city for about a (half) day. From Wellington you can also catch the ferries to the south island.
In the New Zealand capital you see clearly how varied the inhabitants and the life of New Zealand is.
Be sure to walk along the quay (where you can find delicious ice creams!) or hike up to the steep Mount Victoria Lookout. If you prefer to save your legs, you can also take a ride with the Wellington Cable Car. Another must-do is Te Papa Tongarewa, perhaps the most interesting museum in New Zealand (and it’s free!). Here you’ll learn more about the Maori (the first inhabitants of New Zealand) and the European colonization, but also about the unique wildlife and more.
If you like to eat great food for not too much money, go to a Chippery (there are several): the tastiest fish and chips I ever had!
Comfortable flights to New Zealand
A one-way trip to New Zealand takes over twenty hours from wherever you are located in Europe or the Americas. It’s therefore not a bad idea to spoil yourself with a good airline.
Cathay Pacific flies directly from most European and American cities to Hong Kong, and from there you can easily continue traveling to Auckland or Christchurch.
I booked my trip in Premium Economy and I can really recommend it to everyone. For an additional charge you get a lot more comfort here and most important of all: you can tilt your chair further back (besides the extra legroom), so you can fall asleep way more easily.
Would you like to read more about my own experience with the Premium Economy Class if Cathay Pacific? Then make sure to read this blog post.
Would you like to know more about availability and prices? Check out the options here.
Package deals to New Zealand
Have I convinced you of the beauty of New Zealand? There are plenty of tour operators who’d like to show you magical New Zealand as well.
Just look at these wonderful trips:
New Zealand South Island Explorer
New Zealand South Island Discovery
New Zealand Adventure Southbound (ex Auckland)
New Zealand North Island Discovery
New Zealand Adventure Northbound (ex Christchurch)
Cycle New Zealand South Island
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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.