Updated: 12/4/20 | December 4th, 2020
New Zealand is one of the most sought-after destinations in the world. With its snow-capped mountains, ancient glaciers, rolling hills, and copious amounts of wine, it’s a destination unlike all others.
Tucked away in the corner of the world, it’s a country that requires some planning to visit. Flights here aren’t cheap, after all. Round-trip flights from the US are almost always over $1,000 USD and the journey takes upwards of 23 hours.
And even when you arrive, the country itself is far from being budget-friendly.
Yet even with that in mind, it’s a destination I never get tired of visiting. New Zealand is worth every penny if you ask me.
While it has seen a boom in tourism in recent years, New Zealand is still the beautiful and unspoiled country I first visited many years ago.
Christchurch has recovered from its earthquakes and now a hip place to be; Wanaka is still offers incredible hiking; the glaciers were just as mind-blowing as ever; the forests still home to wonderful walks; and Kiwis just as fun and friendly as ever.
In short, if New Zealand isn’t on your travel list it should be.
To help you plan your trip, here are my favorite places to visit and things to do in New Zealand that you shouldn’t miss:
1. Explore Abel Tasman National Park
Stepping into Abel Tasman is in some ways like stepping into Thailand. The beautiful beaches and azure water feel like they belong in the tropics, not New Zealand. The hiking is beautiful, with giant ferns, huge, lush trees, and a temperate climate. It’s also home to the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk, a 60km hike and one of the 9 Great Walks of New Zealand.
If you want to explore the park beyond its hiking trails, rent a kayak. This will let you visit the tiny coves and beaches that make the area so special. Rentals cost 60 NZD per day.
The park is best as an overnight or multi-day trip as it’s too far from Nelson to really do it justice in a day trip.
2. Glacier Trekking on Fox and Franz Josef
Everyone visits Franz Josef for one reason: the glaciers. Hiking the glaciers here lives up to the hype and is an unforgettable experience. Because the glaciers have receded and are melting quickly due to climate change, the glacier caves and walks have been shut down.
At present, the only way to trek on the glaciers now is via heli-hike (a half-day or full-day helicopter/hiking experience). They are expensive (485-499 NZD) but the helicopter ride, trekking, and whole experience are worth the price in my opinion.
Conversely, you can just go on a helicopter tour without the hiking (they last about twenty minutes and cost around 200 NZD) or just hike to the glacier face and take photos from a distance.
No matter what option you choose, pass through this area while you make your way down the South Island. You won’t regret it!
3. Do an Extreme Sport
New Zealand is the adventure capital of the world, where most people blow their budget on a wide range of exciting activities, from bungy jumping to skydiving to white-water rafting.
There are a million activities to choose from: you can skydive basically anywhere; Queenstown is home to Shotover jets (rocket-like boats that zip on shallow rivers), ziplines, and bungy jumps; and there’s caving, zorbing, transalpine hiking, paragliding, and so much more. If it can be done outdoors, it can be done in New Zealand.
Here are some prices for activities to help you budget and plan:
- Bungy jump – 150-220 NZD
- White-water rafting – 120-200 NZD
- Zorbing – 105 NZD
- Skydiving – 350-550 NZD
- Paragliding – 205 NZD
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, don’t miss the Nevis Bungy Jump — it’s the highest in the country!
4. Hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Considered the best day hike in all of New Zealand, the track takes you to where they filmed Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The 19.4 km walk is easy in parts (the beginning and end) and steep in others (especially the portion after “Mount Doom”) so you’ll get a good mix of difficulty levels. It’s also one of the Great Walks of New Zealand.
However, even if you aren’t a strong hiker (and I am not), the Tongariro Crossing is easily completed in a day (it usually takes between 6-8 hours). Trekking through this otherworldly, red-colored environment of volcanoes and sulfur was the highlight of my whole time in New Zealand.
Be sure to bring water, sunscreen, a hat, toilet paper, and a sweater or jacket (the weather can change rapidly)
5. Learn About Maori culture
Maoris were the original inhabitants of New Zealand, arriving from Polynesia between 1320-1350. I’ve loved learning about their history and culture (especially after seeing the movie Whale Rider. It’s incredible. Watch it!) They are a friendly and proud people, and there wasn’t one Maori person I met who I didn’t love.
Rotorua is usually the best city to see Maori cultural shows, though there are other noteworthy sites around the country, including the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Tane Mahuta, and the Te Papa museum in Wellington.
Shows usually last around 2.5- hours and include a tour of a traditional village, performances, and a meal. Tickets range from 99-150 NZD.
6. Don’t Miss Wellington
Everyone talks about Auckland (which, contrary to popular belief, is not the capital), but the real magic takes place in Wellington (which is the capital). The architecture and eclectic vibe give this city a funky personality. Wellington is a city with character.
It has a popping nightlife, tons of art galleries and cafés, a beautiful harbor (that is best seen from Mount Victoria, which overlooks the entire city), and is easily walkable. Be sure to hit some of the museums like the Museum of Wellington, Te Papa, and the Great War Exhibition.
7. Check Out the Glow Worms
Definitely one of the coolest things I did while in New Zealand, the Waitomo glow worm cave is hyped and touristy but still amazing. You walk or abseil down into darkness and float down the (very cold) river while staring up at caverns covered in “lights.” It’s like looking at the stars — but (spoiler alert) they are actually gnats that glow due to a chemical reaction as they attract food.
I found the three-hour trip long enough, but if you like to abseil, you should consider the five-hour version. This experience is one of my most lasting memories of my trip.
Tickets cost around 150 NZD for the 3-hour rafting trip and 260 NZD for the 5-hour trip. If you just want to walk around the caves and see the glowworms, tickets cost around 55 NZD.
8. Hang Out in Queenstown
Everyone hypes Queenstown. Everyone. And it lives up to the hype — and then some!
The city has such a feisty and outdoorsy energy to it. Even though it has become hugely popular and filled with people, I cannot express my love of Queenstown enough. It’s surrounded by beautiful peaks, has narrow streets and pedestrian lanes filled with shops and restaurants, a spectacular lake, tons of trails and parks, and Queenstown Hill watching over the city like a benevolent overlord.
This is one of the best spots in the country to do an extreme sport (bungy, skydive, shotover jet, etc), take a wine tour, or just chill out on a nearby beach.
9. Visit Hobbiton
If you’re a The Lord of the Rings junkie, New Zealand is a must. This is where they did all the filming, and throughout the country, you can take Lord of the Rings tours and visit Fangorn Forest, Gondor, and where Frodo destroys the one ring. Most of the sets have been taken down, but a bit of the Shire and some of the hobbit houses still remain on the North Island.
To see Hobbiton, you’ll have to take a tour. Tours last around 2 hours and cost 89 NZD for adults and 44 NZD for kids under 16.
10. Explore Fiordland
Located in the southwesternmost part of New Zealand (and also home to numerous Lord of the Rings film locations), the Fiordland region is considered one of the country’s most scenic and remote. Filled with gigantic mountains, deep lakes, swelling rivers, untamed forests, and resplendent fjords, most of it has never been set upon by man. Save a few places where boats and planes can go, the government has made the land off-limits, ensuring that that will be the case for a long time to come.
This region is home to the majestic Milford and Doubtful Sounds, the Milford and Keppler Tracks, and lots of camping and hiking opportunities. If you want to experience New Zealand’s nature away from the crowds, come here.
11. Discover Stewart Island
Tiny, out-of-the-way Stewart Island lies off the South Island at the very, very bottom of New Zealand. It’s a place where Kiwis have their summer homes and go to escape the hustle and bustle of, well, I guess Auckland (there’s not too much hustle and bustle in New Zealand). The town has maybe a dozen buildings; the coastline dotted with private homes and boats.
Come here to see dolphins and do some single-day or multiday treks. If you aren’t into hiking, you don’t need more than a day or two here, unless you really want some peace and quiet, then stay forever.
12. Chill Out in Christchurch
Though severely damaged by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 (over 185 people were killed and 3,000 buildings were damaged), Christchurch has rebounded and evolved into a brand-new city. The old Christchurch felt really stale to me but this new one is really on the up. It has a new-found sense of hope and vibrancy, funky bars, more markets, new restaurants, shops, and exhibits. Locals are really using this chance to make a better Christchurch. It’s a brand new day for the city and I love where it is going.
If you’ll be there for a few days, be sure to check out Canterbury Museum, which has a detailed replica of the city during the Victorian era; and Quake City, an interactive museum dedicated to the 2010-11 earthquakes. Don’t miss riding the gondola into the nearby hills for a sweeping view of the city as well!
13. Drink Copious Amounts of Wine
New Zealand is famous for wine, producing some of the best whites the world has to offer. If you like wine, be sure to take a tour in Otago (it’s located on the South Island and known for its pinot), Hawkes Bay (North Island), or Marlborough (known for sauvignon blancs and located on the South Island).
There are lots of biking trails around the wine regions as well, so you can drink and cycle around (which is better than drinking and driving!). It’s also much cheaper than paying for a guided tour (which costs around 85-250 NZD depending on the region and tour length). The Gibbston River Trail, an 11km walking and biking path near Queenstown crosses through a number of vineyards and is a fun way to explore and sample some of the area’s best vintages.
If it’s not clear from this list, I love New Zeland. It’s one of my favorite countries in the world and I never get tired of going back.
And, while these may be my thirteen favorite things to see and do in New Zealand, this list only scratches the surface. There’s also the Bay of Islands, Raglan for surfing, the Coromandel, Dunedin for beer, Wanaka and Mt. Cook for hiking, Hammer Springs for hot springs, and, well, you get the idea. There’s a lot here. You’re never going to be bored, especially if you love the outdoors.
There’s a reason travelers never have anything bad to say about the country.
Book Your Trip to New Zealand: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
If you’re looking for more places to stay, here is a complete list of my favorite hostels in New Zealand.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want More Information on New Zealand?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on New Zealand for even more planning tips!
Photo credit: 8 – 2il org, 12 – mikigroup