Top 10 places to visit in the North Island

Top 10 places to visit in the North Island

From Cape Reinga at the very top to the capital city Wellington, there are many things to see on New Zealand’s North Island. Natural wonders, adventure sports, secluded coves, pristine beaches and one of the best one-day hikes anywhere in the world. A visit to the North Island shouldn’t be forgotten on your New Zealand itinerary. So, with an abundance of places to visit in the North Island where should you go first? Read on and let me know which is your favourite.

Wellington

New Zealand’s capital and a city with so many things to do. It’s where you’ll find the country’s government buildings, such as the striking ‘Beehive’ (the executive wing of parliament), so called because of its shape. Just a short walk from the harbour is Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum which has many cultural and interactive exhibits and is free to enter.

Overlooking Wellington
The view from the top of the cable car is pretty impressive

Wellington is heavily linked with movies and is often referred to as ‘Wellywood’. The area around the city has been used in many films, while world premieres are regularly screened at The Embassy Theatre. In the suburb of Miramar, just a short distance from the city centre, is the Weta Cave. A special effects workshop that was heavily involved in the Lord of the Rings franchise, among many other movies. Tours of the workshop are available for NZ$28 per person.

For the best views of Wellington either take the cable car from Lampton Quay or head to Mount Victoria and climb up to the lookout. It takes around 40 minutes to reach the lookout from the city centre, while the cable car costs NZ$9 for a return ticket. At the top you’ll also find the botanic garden and space observatory.

Auckland

The biggest city in the country and home to a third of New Zealand’s population. As you might expect from a city of this size there is always plenty going on and a busy nightlife. For anyone who doesn’t mind heights, the Auckland Sky Tower offers 360° views around the city.

If you’re looking for somewhere a little more tranquil then take a stroll down to the waterfront. There you’ll find plenty of restaurants and places to sit while you enjoy the views across the water. Many ferries also depart from here, with destinations such as Rangitoto Island, Devonport and Waiheke Island.

Auckland is one of the best places to visit in the North Island
Looking back towards Auckland from the other side of the water in Devonport

Waiheke Island is full of wineries and an excellent place to sample some of New Zealand’s best wines. Devonport is a suburb of Auckland located on the north shore from the waterfront. It’s a very relaxed spot with great views and a nice break from the big city. Rangitoto Island meanwhile is an extinct volcano, one of many in the area, with an incredible landscape. Another volcanic peak which is no longer active sits on the edge of the centre in the form of Mount Eden. From there you can look back to the city and the islands beyond.

Rotorua

Located on a site of geothermal activity, Rotorua is home to many natural wonders and the nearby Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is well worth a visit. Entrance is NZ$32.50 for adults and the area is filled with pools of brightly coloured liquids and shooting geysers.

Hobbiton, one of the best places to visit in the North Island
One of the highlights of the North Island is the Hobbit village at Hobbiton

Just a short drive from Rotorua is one of the most popular attractions in New Zealand. Hobbiton was used for the Lord of Rings franchise and tours of the Shire are available several times each day. Visits take you up close to the Hobbits’ homes where you’ll learn more about the site and filming of the movies. Each visit then ends with a drink in the Green Dragon Inn.

You’ll find a lot of Maori culture in and around Rotorua and it’s a good place to learn more about the indigenous people. There are several nearby Maori villages, each offering tours for an insight into their history and traditions with performances and food. Many people are aware of the famous haka, but you can’t miss out on eating a traditional hangi (a meal cooked in a pit in the ground) while immersing yourself in Maori culture.

Taupo

The small town in the centre of the North Island is dominated by the massive lake of the same name. Lake Taupo was the site of a super volcano that erupted in spectacular style over 27,000 years ago. To give you some idea how big that eruption was, the lake is about the size of Singapore! Now it’s popular for sailing and other water sports. While sailing across the lake you might find some Maori stone carvings etched into the rocks.

Sailing on Lake Taupo
A relaxing sailing trip across Lake Taupo allows you to enjoy the beautiful scenery in complete tranquility

To get the best view of Lake Taupo head up to the skies for a tandem skydive. Not only can you look out across the vast expanse of the continent’s largest freshwater lake but you might be able to see Mount Ngauruhoe on the far side. An active volcano, Mount Ngauruhoe is more popularly known as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies.

If you have any rings you need to dispose of, you can get close to Mount Ngauruhoe on the Tongariro Crossing. The 19.4km trek typically takes six to eight hours to complete and is often called the best one-day hike in New Zealand. Once you’ve finished all the strenuous activities, take a relaxing dip in Taupo’s natural hot springs along the Waikato River.

Bay of Islands

One of New Zealand’s most famous locations and high on any North Island itinerary. The small town of Paihia is the gateway to the Bay of Islands; an area of over 140 islands, each one as stunning as the last. With limited access to many of the islands you can feel like you have the place to yourself at times. Just you and spectacular views over hidden bays, pristine, empty beaches and rocky coastlines.

Overlooking the Bay of Islands, a top places to visit in the North Island
One of the many spectacular vantage points with views all over the Bay of Islands

While exploring the islands you may spot some of the marine wildlife that pass through the bay, including dolphins, penguins, whales or even orca. There are many accessible vantage points throughout the islands, giving you clear views of the bay surrounding you.

The best way to explore the Bay of Islands is on an overnight boat tour. The Rock have been running their adventure cruise for many years with their friendly crew welcoming visitors of all ages. The tour includes a night’s accommodation plus a range of activities such as snorkelling, kayaking and fishing.

Gisborne

The first city to see the sunrise every day, Gisborne on the North Island’s east coast is a small city with a reputation for wineries and great food. The area has plenty of boutique wineries to choose from with various tours running from Gisborne.

Viewpoint overlooking the small town of Gisborne
The small city of Gisborne is surrounded by beautiful green areas

Captain Cook first landed in New Zealand at Gisborne’s Kaiti Beach and there is a statue of the well-travelled Yorkshireman to commemorate this moment. Maori culture is prominent in the area too and many old traditions are widely practiced throughout Gisborne. The Tupapa Heritage Trail is an easy 4km walk leading past many historic landmarks that explain more about the first people to land here following their epic journey from Polynesia.

On the outskirts of the city centre is Titirangi Reserve, also referred to as Kaiti Hill. It’s a nice area for casual strolls, jogging or just enjoying the views from the lookout at the top. If you’re looking for something a bit more active, just outside Gisborne is one of the most consistent surf spots in the country.

Napier

A city rebuilt after a massive earthquake in 1931, Napier is famous for its stylish art deco architecture. You can easily explore the city on foot at any time and every February Napier hosts the Art Deco Festival with vintage cars, fashion and music from the 1930s.

Art Deco style houses in Napier
Some of the colourful Art Deco style houses in Napier

Napier is located in the Hawkes Bay area of New Zealand, a region well-known for its wine. The area is pretty flat, so why not try a bicycle wine tour and see how long you can stay upright.

Away from architecture and wine, there is lots of natural beauty around Napier too. Cape Kidnappers is home to 15,000 gannets (the largest gannet colony in the world). If you want to stretch your legs, the circuit walk around Lake Waikaremoana is one of New Zealand’s nine great walks. The trek takes three days through beautiful landscapes surrounded by thick native forest and the mirrored surface of the lake. Alternatively, head up to Te Mata Peak by hiking, biking or driving for 360° views of Hawkes Bay.

Cape Reinga

The very tip of New Zealand’s North Island. Cape Reinga is where you can witness two great masses collide as the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. From the lighthouse gaze out into the never-ending sea and allow your eyes to follow the white swell towards the horizon. A clear line forming between the two massive bodies of water.

Cape Reinga lighthouse, the furthest point and one of the best places to visit in the North Island
The lighthouse at Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s most northern accessible point

Close by are two other highlights not to be missed on any trip north. The massive sand dunes at Te Paki tower high above you are an amazing location to try sandboarding. The way down is a lot of fun. The only thing stopping you going again is the tiring climb back to the top. Meanwhile, on the west coast is 90-mile beach. It’s actually 88km long but once you drive along this sandy highway, the waves crashing on one side and the dunes on the other, you won’t care too much.

Coromandel Peninsula

Coastal trails, mountain ranges, dense woodland, sea caves, pristine beaches and a geothermal spa. Coromandel Peninsula has many reasons to visit. One of the most popular highlights is Cathedral Cove, the natural rocky archway a famous landmark of the region. You can reach Cathedral Cove either on foot or across the water, and it takes just over an hour to walk there from Hahei Beach. Then relax, enjoy the scenery, share a picnic or take a refreshing dip in the sea. The shore is lined with trees, so you can rest in the shade before heading back later in the day.

The famous landmark at Cathedral Cove
The famous sight at Cathedral Cove

Hot Water Beach is another well visited location on the peninsula. As you might guess from the name, naturally heated water lies just under the surface of the beach. If you’re there within two hours either side of low tide you can dig down into the sand and create your own personal hot pool.

You’ll find plenty of reasons to get active in Coromandel Peninsula too. From kayaking or snorkelling around Cathedral Cove to hiking the forested peaks of The Pinnacles (one of New Zealand’s best overnight walks).

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

One of the most visited places in New Zealand thanks to the world-famous glow worm caves. There are many ways to explore the extraordinary network of brightly lit underground caverns with three main caves to discover, each offering something different.

Waitomo's glow worm caves
Waitomo’s glow worm caves are just incredible (Photo by: 2il org)

The glow worm caves are the most popular, the darkness lit up by the brightly shining creatures. Ruakuri is a complex limestone cave and the largest of the three. It’s also wheelchair accessible. The third cave is Aranui, which, while lacking any glow worms, does have an impressive display of differently coloured stalactites and stalagmites to gaze at. The easiest way to see Waitomo’s caves is a guided tour, either by boat or on foot.

Of course this wouldn’t be New Zealand if they didn’t make the experience more adventurous. Black water rafting, ziplining and abseiling are all alternative ways to see the caves as you slide, swim, float, climb and crawl your way through the darkness.

Map of best places to visit in the North Island

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