While there are a few cities in the country, what makes New Zealand special is its natural beauty. Think white (or black) sandy beaches, thermal springs, towering mountains and colored lakes… for an outdoor experience, New Zealand is the place to go.

Visitors will no doubt spend at least some of their trip in at least one of the major cities, and they’re definitely worth seeing. But to find the best places to visit in New Zealand, try exploring a little further afield to truly experience what this beautiful country has to offer.

A large glass building sits on a high hill overlooking the Queenstown skyline of snow-capped mountains and a large lake with a large chunk of greenery jutting into the water.
Queenstown is packed with stunning views - and lots of blood-pumping things to do in beautiful natural environments  © Terry Lee / 500px

Queenstown

Best for nature-based adventure sports

New Zealand’s adventure capital is a favorite with visitors and for good reason. On the shores of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Queenstown is in a stunning location. There are three good ski fields easily accessible from Queenstown and nearby Gibbston Valley has some of the best wineries in the country (and a couple of good breweries).

Queenstown is also the perfect place to try out some adventure sports – from bungy jumping and ziplines to paragliding and jetboating; there’s plenty of ways to satisfy that taste of adrenaline. In the summer months, there is excellent hiking, cycling and water sports on the lake.

Queenstown is also a great base for exploring the Central Otago region, including the nearby towns of Glenorchy (a smaller, quieter version of Queenstown), Arrowtown (filled with history from the gold-rush era), Cromwell (known for its giant fruit) and Wanaka (with it's low-key lakefront vibes).

View through the large stone opening revealing a beach with a large stone structure out in the water.
Cathedral Cove is a popular picturesque destination on a visit to the Coromandel region © gracethang2 / Shutterstock

Coromandel

Best for beautiful beaches

Situated on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Coromandel region is renowned for its beautiful beaches and native bush. The region is compact, and it's easy to explore the area from one of the charming towns like Hahei, Pauanui or Whangamata.

The Coromandel is known for the stunning Cathedral Cove, with a natural rock archway and sandy beaches, and Hot Water Beach, where visitors can dig a natural hot pool in the sand.

Other notable activities include exploring Karangahake Gorge, the Pinnacles overnight hike and Whenuakura Wildlife Sanctuary (Donut Island), a pristine, natural environment you can only explore from the water.

View from atop Mount Maunganui. Below is coastline is dotted with homes and businesses.
Use Mount Maunganui as a base location to venture out to the other parts of the Tauranga region © Jason Howe / Getty Images

Mount Maunganui

Best coastal city base  
A gorgeous coastal town, Mt Maunganui has the best of all worlds – long, white beaches, good cafes and restaurants and a city just a short drive away. Mount Maunganui makes a great base for exploring the wider Tauranga region while spending time on the beach.

It’s also the perfect place to enjoy a vibrant, quirky town center with lots of eating options, good coffee and a mix of boutiques and artsy shops. The mount itself overlooks the town and a walk to the top offers stunning views over the beach and the town.

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A hiker walking through furn trees on the Abel Tasman Coast Track
Abel Tasman Coast offers hiking trails for one-day jaunts or multi-day adventures © Tobin Akehurst / Shutterstock

Abel Tasman National Park

Best for hiking and kayaking 

Home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Abel Tasman National Park is a great option either for a day trip from Nelson or for a longer stay.

The national park is an unspoiled natural environment with native bush, small, clear bays and white, sandy beaches. No cars are allowed in the national park, so visitors need to either walk to their preferred destination or take a water taxi.

The Abel Tasman Coast Track is a 37-mile (60km) walk through the bush with lovely views of the beach. It usually takes 3-5 days to complete the full walk; otherwise, it is possible to do a section of the walk in a day.

Visiting the park is also great for kayaking (there’s a nearby seal colony), walking through the bush trails, swimming and relaxing in tiny bays, or a combination of the above.

Best road trips in New Zealand

Church of the Good Shepherd by the turquoise Lake Tekapo
Get their early to get uninterrupted views of the Church of Good Shepherd © Marconi Couto de Jesus / Shutterstock

Mackenzie Region

Best for stargazing

A quiet region, around two hours’ drive from Christchurch, the Mackenzie region has some of the country’s loveliest scenery. This is the home of Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd, one of New Zealand’s most recognizable tourist spots.

The small town of Twizel makes a convenient base to explore the region. From there, you can easily access the lakes and Aoraki (Mt Cook) National Park, which has a range of walks from short trails to full-day hikes. It’s also worth venturing outside on a clear night to marvel at the stars as the region is a Dark Sky Reserve with minimal light pollution. 

Steam rising off a geo-thermal pool
Steam rising off a geo-thermal pool in Rotorua © Christopher Chan/Getty Images

Rotorua

Best for thermal springs

The center of New Zealand’s thermal activity, Rotorua is the place to go to learn more about Māori culture, soak in hot pools and explore the geothermal attractions. This is where visitors can see bubbling mud pools, geysers and steaming rivers and experience relaxing in a thermal mud bath.

There is also a wide range of cultural experiences on offer in Rotorua, including visiting traditional Māori villages. The nearby Redwood or Whakarewarewa Forest also has some great walking and hiking trails to explore.

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Dense clouds hang over green-topped mountains as the large Milford Sound is surrounded by greenery
Milford Sound is one of New Zealand's most famous attractions © David Rivest / 500px

Fiordland National Park

Best for epic landscapes

On the edge of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to one of New Zealand’s most famous attractions, the majestic Milford Sound. There, visitors can see waterfalls, magnificent views along the fiord and some marine wildlife.

The nearby Doubtful Sound is also spectacular but less accessible – travelers need to visit with a guide and by boat. There are also a number of walks in the national park past snow-capped mountains and ice-forged fiords, with views of lakes, valleys and waterfalls.

Maori warriors with tattoos, celebrating Waitangi Day, the anniversary of the treaty of Waitangi between the British government and the maori
Paihia is where the  Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 © Uwe Moser / Getty Images

Bay of Islands

Best for sailing between sub-tropical islands

About three hours north of Auckland, the beautiful Bay of Islands is the place to go for a relaxed, laid-back vibe, beautiful coastal scenery and some insight into local culture. There are over 140 sub-tropical islands in the bay and exploring some of them makes a great day out on the water.

For those who would prefer to stay on shore, other options include relaxing on sandy beaches and exploring the towns of Kerikeri (known for oranges and kiwi fruit) and Russell (chill beach town perfect for kayaking and cozy B&Bs). In nearby Paihia, visitors can also learn about New Zealand history at the Treaty Grounds where the historic Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

Introducing New Zealand

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This article was first published June 2021 and updated October 2021

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