Often when we see images of New Zealand in the news or advertised as the most magical place to visit, for the most part, we see the stunning scenery of the South Island. New Zealand North Island must do – read on.
This, of course, makes sense, as the South Island landscapes are incredibly dramatic and picturesque. But as someone who has been calling New Zealand home for seven years now, I feel duty-bound to stick my hand up in support for the North Island, which also is exceptional and has heaps on offer.
I love the North Island, and there are so many compelling spots there worth exploring.
In some ways, the North Island is much more diverse than the South Island and home to hidden little corners waiting to be explored by the intrepid traveler.
From beautiful coastlines to old forests to volcanic landscapes to warm lakes and rivers, the North Island is lush and green and outstanding. With a much larger population, including Māori, often, there are more opportunities for cultural experiences here too.
After seven years in New Zealand, here are some of my favorite experiences and must do’s around New Zealand’s North Island – enjoy!
1. Explore the central North Island volcanic region
With love for the mountains, I can’t help but be drawn to their beauty when I’m traveling. Lucky for me, New Zealand has no shortage of incredible mountains to explore, even on the North Island.
What makes the mountains around the central North Island special is that they are volcanoes. The North Island Volcanic Plateau is impressive. Seemingly emerging out of nothing, suddenly, you’re in another world, marked by three iconic mountains: Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe.
Home to two national parks and ski fields, there is so much to explore in this area, from walks, hot pools, waterfalls, big hikes, and adventures galore, I never get tired of this part of New Zealand.
My favorite walk to a Ruapehu waterfall here is to Tawhai Falls.
2. Fall in love with native birds at Zealandia in Wellington
I can quickly pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with birds in New Zealand – when I first visited Zealandia in Wellington in 2013.
Zealandia is an urban eco-sanctuary in Wellington and conservation project. Massive, Zealandia feels like a giant national park in the heart of the capital city of New Zealand. Enclosed in a predator-free fence that keeps out invasive predators like cats, stoats, and possums, native birds like kaka and kiwi have been allowed to thrive here.
I joined in on one of their nighttime Twilight Tours and saw my very first kiwi.
3. Channel your inner hippy in Raglan
Raglan is a coastal hub on the west coast of the North Island, and a bit of a mecca for surfers. Boasting the longest left-hand break in the world, Raglan has long been a relaxed and chill seaside surf spot.
Funky, relaxed and artsy, with good weather, Raglan is a great spot to escape to and chill out for a while, even if you don’t surf.
Don’t miss out on grabbing a cup of coffee from Raglan Roast while you’re there.
4. Be amazed by Tāne Mahuta on the Kauri Coast
I reckon the Kauri Coast in Northland is one of the North Island’s best-kept secrets. Here I am blowing the lid on it, oh well.
Home to Tāne Mahuta, the largest known living Kauri Tree in New Zealand, the Waipoua Forest is magnificent. Go for a short walk and visit this ancient tree and marvel at this crazy canopy.
One of my favorite places to stay is to go glamping at the Highfield River Retreat.
5. Get well off the beaten track at Tolaga Bay
Hidden away on the wild East Cape, Tolaga Bay is part of the area Captain Cook visited in 1769 on his circumnavigation of New Zealand.
Home to the second-longest wharf in New Zealand, Tolaga Bay is a classic kiwi holiday spot to chill out and relax, especially in the summertime.
Be sure to go for a hike along Cooks Cove Walkway.
6. Hang out in a cafe in Wellington
Before moving down to the South Island, I called Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, home for half a year. And I loved every minute of it. Except for the wind. I didn’t like that.
And one of my favorite Wellington past times was to go out for a fantastic cup of a coffee in a trendy cafe, and read or write. Wellington has so many amazing spots for coffee, and it’s part of their urban culture worth indulging in.
Egmont Street Eatery is my go-to brunch spot before exploring all around Cuba Street.
7. Join in for a feast at Hobbiton
If I had to guess, I would say that Hobbiton is probably the most-visited tourist site on the North Island, if not all of New Zealand, and with good reason – it’s fantastic!
But here’s my pro-tip from a massive Lord of the Rings fan – try and go to their evening banquets, or even better, their International Hobbit Day party. It’s so refreshing to stick around Hobbiton after the sun goes down and take it all in at a big party.
So much fun!
8. Explore around the Bay of Islands
Several hours drive north of Auckland in what seems like the middle of nowhere, and you’ll come across a truly incredible part of New Zealand – the Bay of Islands.
Subtropical and chill AF, the Bay of Islands was the first place Captain Cook landed on his exploration of New Zealand in the 18th century. Packed full of history, the Bay of Islands covers over 140 islands with lots of little towns and beaches worth exploring.
My favorite way to get out on the water is on a fishing charter; that way, I can catch my dinner.
9. Marvel at all of the geothermal wonders around Rotorua
Lovingly nicknamed “RotoVegas,” Rotorua is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist towns. You almost always know when you’ve arrived because of the occasional whiff of sulfur you’ll smell in the air from all of the incredible geothermal activity there.
Home to geysers, bubbling mud pools, boiling lakes, natural hot springs, and lots and lots of steam, Rotorua is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.
With heaps of geothermal parks and wonders you can visit, it’s worth spending a few days around here taking it all in – Waimangu is my favorite. Venture further afield to the nearby lakes and have a lovely holiday where the water is always warm and cozy.
10. Get your ass kicked on Mt. Taranaki
Some of the best surf breaks in New Zealand are around Taranaki on the west coast of the North Island.
Somewhat off the beaten tourist track, this side of New Zealand is pretty impressive. Overshadowed by the mighty volcano Mt. Taranaki, the area beckons all who love mountains and sea.
Over 2,500 meters high and a perfect conical volcano often shrouded in cloud, Taranaki juts out from the flat landscape. If you’re fit and healthy, you can climb Taranaki in a day in good weather in summer, though be warned; it’s a deadly mountain. There are plenty of more comfortable and more relaxed tracks around the mountain worth exploring too.
11. Spend a summer’s weekend at the Coromandel
The Coromandel Peninsula beckons many who visit the North Island.
With beautiful beaches, small quirky towns, lush forests, and a bit of mountain, it has something for everyone up here. Cathedral Cove is a marine reserve and a popular spot to visit, and I loved visiting here on a kayak trip from Hahei.
Digging your spa in the sand for a natural hot spring at Hot Water Beach is another must-do in the Coromandel for first-time visitors.
12. Go underground at the famous Waitomo Caves to see glowworms
Visiting the iconic glowworm caves in Waitomo tops the bucket list of many, making it a super popular attraction on any kiwi travel itinerary.
Seeing glowworms is genuinely spectacular, and not something you can experience anywhere else in the world. With heaps of adventures on offer in Waitomo, it’s the perfect spot to take them all in for the first time.
Go Black Water Rafting for a truly adventurous way to experience the caves.
13. Visit the Gannet Colony at Muriwai at sunset
I only just visited the Muriwai Gannet Colony last year, and it completely blew my mind.
Home to over a thousand nesting gannets, a large white seabird with stunning blue eyes, the colony of these birds is impressive. A short walk will lead you up to the colony, tucked seemingly precariously along wild cliffs, as hundreds of birds go to and fro.
It’s like watching a small city in action.
14. Go wine tasting in Martinborough
One of my favorite boutique wine-growing regions in the world is undoubtedly Martinborough in the Wairarapa, just north of Wellington.
A small, boutique wine-growing region just north of Wellington, there are over 20 cellar doors in Martinborough, all of which are relatively close together. It’s fun to bike between them.
If you find yourself in the area come November, grab tickets to Toast Martinborough, their annual food and wine festival.
15. Road trip around the East Cape
If you want to get well off the beaten path and take in classic New Zealand, plan a road trip around the East Cape.
From Napier up through Gisborne and around the easternmost part of New Zealand, the East Cape is likely the least visited region by tourists, leaving it unique and open.
Warm and quiet, I fell in love with the East Cape on my first trip around the area. Watch the sunrise from the iconic East Cape lighthouse and be one of the first people in the world to see the morning.
16. Get sore legs on the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Tongariro Crossing is consistently ranked as one of the best day-hikes in the world. While this means it’s incredibly busy, especially on good weather days, it shouldn’t deter you from tackling it. Almost 20 kilometers long, alpine and unpredictable, and logistically somewhat complicated to start and finish the track, Tongariro is consistently underestimated by those taking it on.
Be sure to be fit and do your research on what to bring and how to prepare safely for it.
17. Drink wine on Waiheke and snooze the day away
Waiheke Island is magic!
Less than an hour ferry ride from downtown Auckland through the Hauraki Gulf will bring you to magical Waiheke – an island paradise home to beautiful beaches, a charming town, and heaps of wineries.
With white sandy beaches, warm weather and bright blue water, it’s the perfect place to head first on a trip to New Zealand to recover from jetlag and get a taste for this incredible Pacific island.
Man O’ War Vineyard was such a nice off the beaten path vineyard to while away an afternoon on Waiheke.
18. Go for an early morning stroll at the Hamilton Gardens
Now now now, I hear what you’re saying. Gardens as a must-do? But trust me on this one, the Hamilton Gardens are not to be missed, especially if you’re a plant lover like me.
More than just another urban garden, the Hamilton Gardens are a museum of gardens, and it’s pretty epic. I can spend more than a day wandering amongst the greenhouses and lawns there, hanging out, napping in the grass, and being inspired by the plants.
It’s a rad little spot.
19. Hang out in Mount Maunganui
Nicknamed the Mount, just outside of Tauranga, is this historic seaside town with one of the best beaches in the world. White, sandy and warm, the vibe is Bali meets California meets the Gold Coast, with a bit of classic kiwi charm thrown in for good measure.
Climb up Mauao overlooking the town and sea for epic views.
20. Stay in a bach near Piha
Piha is a laid-back surf town west of Auckland. With black sandy beaches and a dramatic, rugged coastline, it’s a pretty epic seaside spot to get away to on the North Island.
With a classic kiwi holiday vibe, Piha is the spot to rent a bach and get away from it all. Go for a bushwalk and check out some of the local waterfalls while you’re there.
New Zealand is a special place; we all know that. When you’re planning your next holiday here, be sure not to overlook the North Island.
From waterfalls to geothermal marvels to volcanos to heaps or cute surf beaches, the North Island has so much to offer. Hopefully, this guide is a good start of where to begin with your New Zealand North Island must do.
What did I miss? Have you been to New Zealand? What are your must-visit spots on the North Island? Spill in the comments!