Top things to do in New Zealand: The ultimate travel bucket list

As a travel writer, the question you often get asked is ‘what’s your favourite place in New Zealand?’

The answer is invariably ‘everywhere’. This is a destination packed with highlights, and every city, town and village has a story to share and something special within its grasp. So putting together a definitive list of the must-dos was no mean feat. However, here are ten top things to do in New Zealand that should be on the radar for every first-time visitor. Book your stay with Choice Hotels.

1. Reach for the horizon from Sky Tower in Auckland

It may surprise you to learn that Sky Tower has only been a part of the Auckland skyline since 1994, and it’s quite hard to imagine the city without it! Sky Tower is the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere (pipping the Gold Coast’s Q1 by five metres) and that means you’re assured of mind-blowing views. Every tourist in town heads up to the observation deck, but if you want to set yourself apart, consider taking a stroll around the outside of the tower with SkyWalk, or take the high road back to ground level with SkyJump. Even walking across the glass floor tiles of the observation deck is quite a challenge!

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Take the plunge with SkyJump. Image: Mark Downey

2. Cruise the sublime Bay of Islands

New Zealand’s Northland region covers much of the North Island above Auckland, and regional capital Whangarei makes a great base for road tripping to sublime highlights like the Waipoua Kauri Forest, Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga. But for many visitors, the jewel in the region’s crown is the shimmering Bay of Islands. This aqueous wonderland beguiles travellers with its myriad waterways, and getting out on a boat during your visit is a must. Fullers Great Sights’ Hole in the Rock Cruise will have you saying g’day to resident dolphins (and even the occasional whale), before cruising through a sea cave on Motukokako Island. The cruise departs from Paihia, which is just on an hour’s drive from Whangarei.

Need a place to stay?

Comfort Hotel Flames Whangarei offers a fabulous location overlooking Whangarei Harbour, and adjoining rooms that are ideal for accommodating families. For those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, head to Quality Hotel Oceans Tutukaka on the Northland east coast. It’s just 30 minutes by car from Whangarei, and features stylish accommodation options with a coastal vibe.

Cruise through the Hole in the Rock. Image: InterCity Group

3. Admire the might of the Huka Falls

Many of mother nature’s most stunning sights are on display in New Zealand, but few are as dramatic as the Huka Falls outside Taupo. Here, some 250,000 litres of foaming water is forced through a 15-metre-wide channel of volcanic rock every second, before plunging 10 metres-or-so into the Waikato River. It’s an exhilarating sight, and one of the most photographed natural attractions in the country. Take a boat cruise up close to the falls and feel the spray tingling on your skin.

Need a place to stay?

Quality Suites Huka Falls offers a tranquil stay just a few minutes’ drive from the Taupo town centre and Huka Falls.

Feel the spray from the Huka Falls in Taupo. Image: Bigstock

4. Learn the history of the Art Deco architecture in Napier

In February 1931, the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand was rocked by an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. It flattened the city centres of Napier and Hastings and resulted in the loss of more than 250 lives. But from the utter devastation rose what would become one of the world’s most celebrated centres of Art Deco architecture. Today thousands of visitors flock to Napier to take in its exquisite collection of boxy edifices, alongside an array of buildings in other popular styles from the era, including Spanish Mission, the Prairie Style, Stripped Classical, and the International Style (which arose in Germany). Recognising the value of its trove of stunning architecture, the city formed an Art Deco Trust in 1985. It offers an array of guided walking tours, alongside a self-guided option.

Need a place to stay?

Enjoy Art Deco-era accommodation by the beach at Comfort Inn Westshore Beach, which has two award-winning on-site restaurants. Quality Inn Napier is located in the heart of the city, within easy reach of popular sights and attractions, restaurants, cafes and bars. Galleries and boutique stores will keep the keen shopper or art lover busy for hours.

An old car parked outside a cinema that was built in Art Deco style following a major earthquake in 1931. Napier, New Zealand.
Step back in time to the Art Deco era in Napier. Image: iStock

5. Channel your inner All Black in Palmerston North

All Blacks fans will definitely want to visit the New Zealand Rugby Museum in Palmerston North – the world’s first cultural facility dedicated to rugby. Learn the history of the game in New Zealand, and test your own on-field skills in the ‘come and try’ section. The museum is open daily.

Need a place to stay?

Located on The Square in the heart of Palmerston North, Quality Suites Central Square offers easy access to cafes and restaurants and is a short walk to city attractions (including the New Zealand Rugby Museum).

Comfort Inn Kauri Court is located just south of the city centre and offers a range of guest amenities, including free parking.

Wellington to Palmerston North road trip
New Zealand Rugby Museum. Image: Palmerston North City Council

6. Unpack the box of treasures at Te Papa in Wellington

As the nation’s capital, Wellington has plenty to offer culture lovers, but the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (which loosely translates as ‘treasure box’) should be at the top of the to-do list. Located on the waterfront, the museum’s collection of artworks and artefacts is vast and you’d need to spend a week to really do it justice. General entry is free, but it’s worth investing in tickets for a couple of the excellent daily guided tours (which can be booked online). They’re fantastic value and a great way to break the collection down into chewable chunks. Challenge your perception of Māori cultural heritage in the contemporary art halls.

Need a place to stay?

Quality Hotel The Angus in Lower Hutt offers an idyllic alternative to staying in the busy heart of Wellington, and you’ll enjoy complimentary parking and Wi-Fi.

How to spend 48 hours in Wellington
Te Papa. Image: Wellington Tourism

7. Grape-graze in the Marlborough wine region

The Marlborough region needs no introduction to wine lovers. This corner of the South Island is responsible for around three quarters of the country’s wine production, and if you’re partial to a sav blanc (which accounts for 80+ percent of the fruit grown), pinot noir, chardonnay or sparkling, you can’t go wrong in this neck of the New Zealand woods. The secret is the maritime climate of warm to hot days, and colder than average nights, which gives rise to the region’s signature crisp finish. With 150 plus wineries in operation, many with attached eateries, deciding where to sip and sup can be tricky. Book a day trip with Na Clachan Wine Tours and put yourself in the hands of the experts.

Need a place to stay?

There are plenty of wineries within easy reach of the Quality Hotel Marlborough, and you can walk to the Blenheim town centre with ease.

Go grape grazing in the Marlborough wine region. Image: Bigstock

8. Go punting in Christchurch and dolphin spotting in Akaroa

While a vibrant new Christchurch has emerged over the past decade, some links with the past remain as strong as ever. Punting on the Avon River has long been a tradition in the city and hugely popular with visitors. Sit back, relax and enjoy as your punter, in boater and braces, propels you along this picturesque waterway as it meanders through the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. It’s also well worth taking to the water on a dolphin spotting cruise from nearby Akaroa to see the famously diminutive but sadly endangered Hector’s dolphins.

Related: Places to Discover Before 30: South Island NZ

Need a place to stay?

Quality Suites Amore offers contemporary accommodation in picturesque Riccarton, just west of Christchurch and close to Riccarton Bush, Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens. Econo Lodge Canterbury Court is situated just a few minutes’ drive from the Christchurch city centre. There are 20 ground floor rooms in a tranquil garden setting, all with kitchen facilities. Located north of the CBD, Quality Hotel Elms features stylish and contemporary accommodation. Perfect for business or leisure travellers, the hotel features a range of room types — including standard rooms, executive suites and a luxury apartment. 

Go dolphin spotting from Akaroa. Image: Graeme Murray

9. Admire mighty Mount Cook

New Zealand’s South Island is not short of stunning natural landscapes, and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park would certainly make the short-list for the most beautiful. Framed by around 3,000 soaring peaks, at 3,754 metres Mount Cook itself is the highest mountain in the country and is famed for having been the training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest climb – a point in history celebrated at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in the Mount Cook Village. While accomplished climbers will be in their element, anyone of a reasonable fitness level can get a taste of this alpine wonderland by doing one of the short walks that fan out from the village.

Need a place to stay?

While it’s best explored over a couple of days, if you’re short on time, Mount Cook National Park can be done as a day trip from Christchurch. Get an early start and be prepared to make plenty of stops along the way to soak up the epic vistas!

Mount Cook New Zealand - February 16 2015; Tourists stop to look at view on wooden walkway on Hooker Valley Walk in South Island, New Zealand.
Go for a hike in Mount Cook National Park. Image: Bigstock

10. Take a walk on the wild side on Stewart Island

Situated at the southernmost extremity of the South Island, Subantarctic Stewart Island is virtually all designated national park and a nature lover’s paradise. Home to the famous Rakiura Great Walk (32 kilometres and generally done over the course of three days), there are actually some 300 kilometres of walking tracks that traverse the island’s wide variety of landscapes and ecosystems. The island’s one and only town, Oban, is accessible by air from Invercargill (15 minutes) or by ferry from Bluff (one hour)

Need a place to stay?

Invercargill’s Comfort Inn Tayesta offers a selection of comfortable studios, and one and two-bedroom apartment-style accommodation options, just a three-minute drive from the CBD.

Meet the locals on Stewart Island. Image: Matt Crawford

Plan your New Zealand adventure with Choice Hotels

Choice Hotels has you well and truly covered in New Zealand with a superb range of accommodation options to suit every budget. Search online and book direct for a Lowest Price Guarantee.

About the writer

Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.

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