Located on the North Island’s South Taranaki Bight, the focal point for most visitors to the city is Te Awa o Whanganui – also known as the Whanganui River. Outdoor adventures await, along with a vibrant cultural scene. The incredibly diverse architecture gives Whanganui, also spelled Wanganui, its own unique identity – one that the locals are extremely proud of. Being one of New Zealand’s oldest settlements, the city oozes history and heritage. Here are seven amazing things to do in Whanganui.

1. Get up close and personal with Te Awa o Whanganui

Te Awa o Whanganui is New Zealand’s longest navigable river and offers a range of adventure activities and outdoor leisure options. The biggest and best adventure would have to be the Whanganui Journey – one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and part of the Te Araroa Trail (a walking trail running the full length of New Zealand). Although the Whanganui Journey is classified as a walk, it’s done as a five-day river journey by canoe or kayak. Other activities and highlights that revolve around the river include the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail, a road trip along the Whanganui River Road, and jet boat rides.

things to do in Whanganui
Whanganui River. Image courtesy of Tourism New Zealand

2. Explore Whanganui’s arts culture

Whanganui is a city full of creativity. Home to over 400 artists, you’ll find at least 15 galleries around town – most of which are open all year round. The arts scene includes fashion and graphic design, photography, fine arts, and last but not least, glass blowing. Be enthralled from the viewing platform at the New Zealand Glassworks, then get involved during a hands-on workshop. If you’re a real arts enthusiast, you won’t want to miss the annual Artists Open Studios event, held over two weekends in March.

things to do in Whanganui
Explore Whanganui’s art galleries, including the famous Sarjeant Gallery. Image – Bigstock

3. Ride the Waimarie paddle steamer

The last coal-fired passenger paddle steamer in New Zealand, the Waimarie is an icon of Whanganui. What makes this boat even more special is that in 2000 it was recovered from the river after 50 years of being under water and restored to its former glory. No visit to Whanganui would be complete without cruising along Te Awa o Whanganui on this historic vessel. Choose from the daily sailing at 11am that runs throughout the warmer months, or the popular Saturday afternoon cruise during the peak season. Also check out the Waimarie Museum for historic photos and artefacts.

things to do in Whanganui
Waimarie paddle steamer. Image – Alamy

4. Shop for local arts and crafts at The River Traders market

With up to 100 stalls, The River Traders is one of New Zealand’s best weekend markets.  Located in the city’s heritage precinct, the markets are held on the river bank between the Waimarie pier and the Whanganui Tramways Museum. Historically a trading post for the Māori, this spot later became known by European settlers as Market Place. Today you’ll find stalls selling everything from local produce to arts and crafts. Whether it’s something to satisfy your taste buds or a gift for that special someone, you won’t be disappointed with what’s on offer here every Saturday morning (rain, hail or shine!).

5. Visit the Bushy Park Wildlife Sanctuary

25 kilometres north of the city is Bushy Park Wildlife Sanctuary – a 100-hectare predator-free native bird sanctuary. If bird-watching is your passion, you won’t be disappointed with the number of bird species that call this beautiful forest setting home. Be delighted by the calls of the bellbirds and grey warbler. It will be a special treat if you spot a falcon or kiwi. The sanctuary is also home to a glow-worm colony and an enormous rātā tree named Ratanui (meaning big rātā). At 43 metres in height and with a girth of 11 metres, this native giant is believed to be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years old.

6. Durie Hill Memorial Tower and Underground Elevator

Durie Hill War Memorial Tower was built in 1919 to commemorate the 513 people from the region who lost their lives during the First World War. If you’re willing to climb the 176 stairs, you’ll be treated to fabulous views of Whanganui and Te Awa o Whanganui (on a clear day you can see as far as Mount Taranaki and Mount Ruapehu). The tower was constructed from shell rock, which is estimated to be two million years old. There’s an easy way to reach the top of the hill where the tower is located; in the same year it was built, New Zealand’s only public underground elevator was also constructed. You access it by walking down a 213-metre long tunnel. For a $2 coin, the elevator will take you 66 metres up to the top of the hill.

things to do in Whanganui
Durie Hill Memorial Tower. Image – Alamy

7. Enjoy the city’s wonderful parks and gardens

Whanganui is abundant with parks and gardens. Whatever the time of year, you won’t have any trouble finding a lake to stroll around or a quiet spot to relax under a tree. Some of the more popular parks and gardens include Virginia Lake Reserve, Lake Wiritoa, Moutoa Gardens, Winter Gardens, Kowhai Park, Lake Westmere and Pukenamu/Queens Park Reserve. For an entry fee, you can visit the private Paloma Gardens, and a little out of town you will find the Bason Botanic Gardens. The city is a nature lover’s retreat!


About the writer

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. In the last few years alone, Karllie has visited over twenty countries and ticked off over more than 50 cities across three continents. She loves the great outdoors – especially hiking and anything to do with the ocean.