Spectacular and diverse, New Zealand (also known as Aotearoa) is one of the world's most memorable destinations.

From its inspirational Indigenous Māori cultural experiences to its epic and otherworldly national parks, it can be hard to narrow down what to do. You can spend your days soaking in the urban energy of Auckland and Wellington, challenging yourself on outdoor adventures around Queenstown, cycling through Central Otago’s historic towns and big-sky landscapes or trying to spot the country’s iconic kiwi bird on Stewart Island/Rakiura.

Craft your own southern hemisphere adventure from this list of the best things to do in New Zealand.

A Tamaki Maori leader dancing in traditional dress.
Seeing an authentic Māori cultural performance is an unmissable experience in New Zealand © Fotos593 / Shutterstock

1. Experience vibrant Māori culture

There are countless ways to engage with New Zealand’s Indigenous Māori culture while exploring the country. You can expect to hear greetings in te reo Māori (the Māori language) frequently, but for a deeper dive, the Auckland Museum and Waikato Museum both have displays of centuries-old Māori taonga (treasures). Around Rotorua, families from the local Te Arawa iwi (tribe) entertain and energize visitors with cultural performances and experiences, including the opportunity to take part in a haka (a ceremonial war dance made famous by the country’s All Blacks rugby team) or experience a hāngī (a Māori feast cooked in the ground). 

Detour: From Rotorua, travel 61km (38 miles) southeast to the isolated logging town of Murupara. Stays at the family-owned Kohutapu Lodge include excursions to catch tuna (endemic longfin eels), visits to historic Māori rock art sites and hiking through the Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park, a spiritually significant site said to be one of the world’s last prehistoric forests.

A woman sits on a bench at a viewpoint looking across a body of water towards a city skyline
Cosmopolitan Auckland is packed with rich culture © YIUCHEUNG / Shutterstock

2. Be immersed in Auckland’s diversity

Framed by two harbors and built on the sprawling remnants of more than 50 long-inactive volcanoes, Auckland is New Zealand's most diverse and cosmopolitan city. Visit the weekly Otara and Avondale markets to taste Pacific and Asian cuisine from communities drawn to Tāmaki Makaurau (the Māori name for Auckland). Or time your visit to experience popular cultural events including Pasifika, Diwali and the Lantern Festival. Good beaches, nearby wine regions, and a dynamic dining scene are other reasons why Auckland is consistently rated one of the world's most liveable cities.

Planning tip: Join Auckland’s most passionate fans while taking in a match featuring the New Zealand Warriors (a rugby league team) or the Auckland Blues (a rugby union team).

Female hiker looking at a map on a mountainous section of a hiking trail.
Follow some of New Zealand's epic hiking trails © Naruedom Yaempongsa / Shutterstock

3. Hike one of New Zealand’s Great Walks

Hiking (known as “tramping”) is one of New Zealand’s most popular pastimes, with well-established wilderness tracks, shelters (called “huts”) and campsites throughout the country. Highlights include the meandering forest trails of the Rakiura Track on compact Stewart Island/Rakiura and the beach-fringed Abel Tasman Coast Track in the Nelson/Tasman region. Anchoring the rugged geothermal heart of the North Island, Tongariro National Park's most popular trail is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a single-day wilderness experience skirting two volcanoes and taking in views of craters, iridescent lakes and the sprawling Central Plateau.

Planning tip: All of New Zealand's 10 (soon to be 11) Great Walks are very popular, and New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DOC) caps visitor numbers at a safe and sustainable level. To secure your spot, you’ll need to book in advance when the Great Walks booking system opens, usually from around May. The Great Walks season runs from late October to April, and the most popular experiences like the Milford and Routeburn Tracks often sell out in minutes. If you miss out; don’t worry. There are hundreds of other trails throughout the country to explore. 

4. Negotiate a two-wheeled adventure in Central Otago

New Zealand's first – and arguably best – multi-day cycling experience is the Otago Central Rail Trail. An undulating ride through sunbaked southern landscapes and the heritage streetscapes of former gold-mining towns, it takes four to six days to complete. Along the way, you can feast on locally grown summer stonefruit, visit contemporary vineyards known for world-class pinot noir, and toast the end of each day with a well-earned beer at historic pubs. E-bikes are a convenient option to maximize your enjoyment of this classic South Island experience, with operators throughout the region offering rentals and guided tours.

Detour: Linking the towns of Cromwell and Clyde, the 55km (34-mile) Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail traverses the spectacular Cromwell Gorge via an 85m-long (279ft) suspension bridge and a spectacular cantilevered wooden biking track.

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

5. Seek out kiwis on Stewart Island/Rakiura

At the southern tip of the South Island, Stewart Island/Rakiura is New Zealand's third-largest island, home to a rugged community of around 400 hardy souls, where 85% of the land is protected by Rakiura National Park. Birdlife around Stewart Island/Raikura and the adjacent islet of Ulva Island includes rare hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins), raucous kākā (a type of parrot) and mellifluous bellbirds. However, the undoubted avian highlight is viewing tokoeka (Southern brown kiwi) in the wild. Join a twilight expedition with local operators including Beaks & Feathers and Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experiences to see Aotearoa's beloved national bird snuffling about on beaches and in the forest. Visit from March to September to also potentially glimpse the aurora australis (southern lights), the inspiration for Stewart Island's Māori name: Rakiura, which means “glowing skies.”

Planning tip: Ferries take one hour to cross the Foveaux Strait from Bluff on the mainland to Stewart Island/Rakiura. The crossing can sometimes be rough, so an alternative is a 20-minute flight from Invercargill.

6. Commune with marine mammals around Kaikōura 

Attracted by the nutrient-rich waters of the Kaikōura Canyon – a submarine valley just 800m (2624ft) off the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island – the coastal town of Kaikōura is visited by various whale species throughout the year. Join a boat trip with Whale Watch Kaikōura, owned and operated by the local Ngāti Kuri iwi (Māori tribe), to see visiting humpback, orca, southern right and pilot whales. Resident marine mammals include sperm whales, dolphins and kekeno (New Zealand fur seals). The pelagic birdwatching here is also some of the best on the planet.

Planning tip: Kaikōura translates from te reo Māori as "eat crayfish". The spiny crustacean is a popular item on pub menus and roadside food caravans around the region. Try one at Nin’s Bin or Kaikōura Seafood BBQ.

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. Have a capital time in Wellington

Compact and walkable, New Zealand’s harbor capital of Wellington is the ideal urban destination to balance and complement adventures in Aotearoa’s great outdoors. Explore the city’s pioneering craft beer heritage at local breweries including Garage Project, Heyday and Parrotdog, before learning about the movie-making magic of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings franchises at Wētā Workshop. The nation’s capital also boasts a vibrant arts and live music scene, with free events hosted throughout the year.

Planning tip: Visit (and book accommodation well ahead) for the Beervana craft beer festival in August. Also popular is Wellington on a Plate (WOAP), an annual celebration of the city’s dynamic culinary scene.

8. Explore architectural history in Hawke’s Bay

Rocked by an earthquake in 1931, the Hawke’s Bay cities of Napier and Hastings were rebuilt in the popular architectural styles of the day, and now the region boasts some of the world’s best-preserved art deco and Spanish Mission architectural precincts. From Napier’s Norfolk pine-trimmed Marine Parade, join a walking tour of the city’s cavalcade of art deco buildings, some also decorated with the cross-cultural influence of traditional Māori design motifs.

Detour: New Zealand winemaking began in Hawke’s Bay in the 1850s, and the region’s well-established vineyards and excellent winery restaurants are best explored on two wheels. See On Yer Bike online for details of bike hire and recommended wine trails.

Bungy jumper plunges off a bridge towards an alpine river that flows below
The area around Queenstown is a hot spot for outdoor adventures, including bungy jumping © Nicram Sabod / Shutterstock

9. Get active around Queenstown

Nowhere else in New Zealand reinforces the country’s reputation for adrenaline-fuelled adventure activities like Queenstown. Amid beautiful lake and sub-alpine scenery, definitely sign up for a bungy jump. (It’s almost mandatory – the breathtaking leap of faith was invented in New Zealand, after all.) You can also consider other thrill rides like Oxbow Adventures’ exciting combo of jet sprint boats (which can reach up to 100km/h, or 62mph, in just 2.5 seconds) and extreme 4WD offroading. After all the action, adjourn to Altitude Brewing’s ​lakeside location for great beers and tasty visits from local food trucks.

Detour: Reached via a scenic road over the Crown Range, Wānaka is Queenstown’s less manic Southern Lakes sibling. Catch a boat on Lake Wānaka to explore the island bird sanctuary of Mou Waho.

10. Kayak in pristine Fiordland

Cruising through Milford Sound/Piopiotahi on a day trip is popular, but a better strategy for experiencing the scale, spectacle and stillness of Fiordland’s most famous sheltered anchorage is to explore it by kayak. Hook up with Roscoe’s Milford Kayaks for the ultimate on-the-water views of the fiord’s cascading quicksilver waterfalls and massive forest-covered cliffs. Sunriser classic tours loop for 10km (6 miles) around Milford Sound and depart well before the inevitable arrival of daytrippers visiting from Te Anau or Queenstown.

Detour: Fiordland’s Doubtful Sound/Patea (meaning "place of silence" in te reo Māori) is even quieter and less visited than Milford Sound/Piopiotahi. Join a guided kayak tour with Te Anau-based Doubtful Sound Kayak or stay overnight on the MV Fiordland Jewel with Fiordland Discovery.

This article was first published Apr 22, 2021 and updated Oct 4, 2023.

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