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The best places to visit in the North Island – New Zealand

On a short trip or on a PVT New Zealand, wondering what you can do in the North Island of New Zealand? Here is a list of the best places to visit. Between heavenly beaches, volcanoes, geothermal activities and lakes, you will discover the island in all its facets.

What to do in the North Island of New Zealand?

Living in New Zealand for two years now, I realise how rich New Zealand is. Because of its culture, its landscapes and its people. It’s hard to choose between the North Island or the South Island, as both offer so many things to discover.
The North Island is the most populated island in New Zealand with almost three-quarters of the population. It is here that you can discover Auckland, the largest city in NZ, or the charming capital, Wellington.
And it is not to be outdone on the nature side. Because the North Island, this is also tropical beaches with turquoise water, snow-capped mountains in winter, active volcanoes and some of the most spectacular geothermal areas in the world. You will be spoilt for choice when planning your itinerary in the North Island. Above all, there is always something to discover whatever the season.

If you’re wondering what to do in New Zealand’s North Island? Look no further, here are all the must-sees!

The must-sees to visit in North Island New Zealand

Here I suggest you discover the 12 must-do’s during your visit to the North Island – New Zealand. These spots are all different, but they all seduced me in one way or another.

Auckland and surroundings

Auckland is often the point of arrival for many travellers, being New Zealand’s largest international airport. And also the largest city (it has more than one and a half million inhabitants).
It is here that the lush landscapes meet the sophistication of the city. Indeed, Auckland is a city located close to the sea, and is very green with lots of parks. Nature is omnipresent in Auckland, making it a pleasant city to live in. In fact, did you know that Auckland is home to more than 50 volcanoes?
I recommend that you spend a few days in the area before your road trip to visit the main points of interest around the city.

Must-do activities :
  • Visit the black sandy beaches of the west coast, including the famous Piha beach.
  • Stroll through the districts of Parnell, Ponsonby and Newmarket, go shopping and try out the lovely cafés around.
  • Dinner at the Viaduct Harbour et visit the Sky Tower.
  • Discover the history of New Zealand at the Auckland War Museum.
  • Explore the North Shore and the towns of Takapuna and Devonport.
  • Contemplate the sunset from one of the city’s many volcanoes (Mount Eden One Tree Hill, Mount Wellington, Mount Victoria, …).
  • Treat yourself to a vineyard tour on Waiheke Island (and enjoy its beautiful beaches).
 Auckland City

Bays of Islands

The Bay of Islands, located 235 km from Auckland (3 hrs), is one of the most important places in New Zealand, historically speaking. It was in this bay, in 1840, in Waitangi to be exact, that the treaty was signed which still governs today the status of New Zealand and the Maori people with respect to the Crown of England.

The bay, which enjoys a sub-tropical climate, is made up of 144 islands. There are therefore many activities to do: hiking, kayaking, but also skydive to enjoy the breathtaking views of these islands!

Stay there for around two days in order to enjoy this small New Zealand paradise. Heavenly beaches and turquoise water are waiting for you in the Bay of Islands.

Must-do activities  :
  • Take a boat cruise to discover the ‘Hole in the rock’ and meet the dolphins/seals in the bay.
  • Diving at the wreck of the Rainbow warrior or at Poor Knight Islands (Tutukaka Coast)
  • Visit the small town of Waitangi and its museum to learn more about Maori history.
  • Explore the nearby waterfalls (Kerikeri falls,…)
  • Enjoy relaxing on the heavenly beaches of the Bay of Islands.
  • Take a day trip west to visit the Waipoua Forest and the Kauri, giant trees over 2000 years old.
waitangi
Waitangi Treaty Ground

Read about: Must-sees in the Northland region

– Cape Reinga

Are you lucky and have time to stay a little longer in this part of New Zealand? Northland is much more than just the Bay of Islands. If you have the opportunity and the time, I strongly recommend you to head to the northernmost part of the country: Cape Reinga!

At 230 km North (4 hrs), Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand. It’s a long way to get there, but it’s definitely worth it! The landscapes are just WOW! Many secluded beaches, the famous Ninety Mile Beach (which is used as a motorway when the only main road is under construction), and the beauty of watching the two oceans meet at the Cape Reinga lighthouse.
Plan to stay there for 4-5 days if you also want to do some hiking and enjoy this beautiful area.

The Coromandel Peninsula

The Coromandel peninsula is 85 km long but only 40 km wide. Located not far from Auckland (2 hrs 30 min), this peninsula is well known for its crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches. But not only that! You can also discover superb waterfalls, unspoilt forests and mountains and small villages, each one more charming than the last. Several walks are available in the surrounding area ranging from a few hours to several days.

Must-do activities  :
  • Take the 40-minute walk to discover the beautiful beach of Cathedral Cove. One of the most photographed beaches in New Zealand. This is also where a scene from Narnia was shot. Go there for sunrise, it’s splendid!
  • Enjoy the hot springs by digging your own natural spa in the sand of Hot Water Beach. Accessible only at low tide. And don’t forget your shovel !
  • Climb to the New Chums lookout to admire the superb view of this secret beach, inaccessible from the road. Then get off there to enjoy a day at the beach.
  • Take the unreal road 309, a small gravel road linking the town of Coromandel on the west coast to the town of Whitianga on the east coast.
  • For the more adventurous hikers, climb up to the Pinnacles, watch the beautiful sunset (or sunrise as you prefer) and spend a night in the charming hut at your disposal (reservation required on the DOC website).

Read about: Top 10 must-do on the Coromandel peninsula

Hobbiton, the village of hobbits

Any Lord of the Rings fans among you? This is the place for you! New Zealand is well known as home to the Middle-earth and many scenes from the trilogy were filmed here. So on your trip in the North Island of New Zealand you can’t miss a visit to our hobbit friends. And even if you’re not a big fan, you’ll have a great time there. The Hobbiton scenery is mystical and this enchanted place is a great place to visit. The guided tour will tell you more about the history of this place and the little secrets of the filming. Green hills as far as the eye can see and a peaceful atmosphere prevails. Not to mention the many small Hobbit houses and incredible food at the Green Dragon Tavern.

For a complete and unique experience, I would highly recommend choosing the “Evening Banquet Tour” option if you can. In addition to the traditional Shire tour, you will be treated to a Hobbits-style feast and a moonlit lantern walk on the way home. It’s well worth it! This option costs $199 but you also spend twice more time on site (4 hours in total) and enjoy the fabulous banquet.

  • hobbiton
  • hobbiton
  • hobbiton

Mount Maunganui and the Bay of plenty

Mount Maunganui, located near the town of Tauranga, is a small seaside resort where life is good. It has a warm atmosphere, beautiful beaches, a small town centre and an esplanade with small cafes and restaurants facing the ocean. The perfect place to spend a weekend. The bay of plenty is very touristy and enjoys a pleasant climate with often hot and dry summers.

Must-do activities  :
  • Climbing Mount Maunganui (232 meters / 30-40 min) to watch the sunset.
  • Go out to the local bars and cafés and enjoy this holiday atmosphere.
  • Visit and surf on Tauranga’s main beach overlooking Mount Tauranga.
mount maunganui

Rotorua and its geothermal activities

The city of Rotorua seems to come from another world! It is one of the most spectacular geothermal wonders in the world. And also one of the most active in the world. I can tell you that it’s really worth spending a day or two there!

As you walk around the city, you will be able to see steam coming from the ground. Odd, isn’t it? Well, this is due to the thermal activity that is very present in the area. And you can also smell a funny egg smell everywhere because of the sulphur. This is one of the most surreal places I have seen so far.
Moreover, this region also offers a lot of activities to discover the Maori culture. Indeed, the Maori population represents two-thirds of the inhabitants of Rotorua.

Must-do activities  :
  • Explore the geysers and the Champagne Pool with its amazing colours at Wai-O-Tapu Park (Admission is NZD $32.50 per adult).
  • Take a stroll through Kuirau Park and Lake Rotorua.
  • Getting lost in the Redwood forest
  • Enjoy the hot springs at the Polynesian Spa or Secret Spot Rotorua
  • Visit a Maori village and share their culture over a traditional meal.

Find all the activities to book on the Rotorua official website.

Taupo and its lake

One hour from Rotorua is the town of Taupo and its emblematic lake. The great peculiarity of this region is that Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand and the Pacific. If you are an adventure lover, you will not be outdone in this town. Skydive or jet boat tour in the impressive Huka Falls are a must-do.

Must-do activities  :
  • admire the power of the Huka Falls. Nearly a quarter of a million litres of water per second are poured down the Huka Falls. It’s impressive!
  • Walk around Lake Taupo and enjoy the view with the mountains in the background.
  • Take a boat trip around Lake Taupo and discover the magnificent 14-metre Maori sculpture: Maori Rock Carvings.

Fun fact: Did you know Taupo’s McDonald’s was voted the coolest in the world?! He has a plane in his garden !!! Check it out when you visit this town.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing – THE hike not to be missed on the North Island of New Zealand?

The Tongariro Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the country and also the most visited! It is made up of three impressive volcanoes: Mount Tongariro, Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe. It was also the setting for the trilogy of the Lord of the Rings (the famous Mout Doom being Mount Ngauruhoe).

Several hikes are available in this beautiful park. The best known is the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This 19.4 km long hike takes one day to complete and crosses magnificent landscapes. From snow-covered peaks to waterfalls and turquoise lakes, you will be amazed by the view. As this hike is not a loop, it is important to book your shuttle bus. Usually, people park their car at the arrival and the shuttle will take them to the starting point.

It is also very important to check the weather conditions before starting. The weather can be extremely changeable in this area and at this altitude. Do not hesitate to contact the DOC for the latest information.

My experience :

My Tongariro Alpine Crossing experience is a little different from what most tourists/backpackers do. This hike is very well-known – every year nearly 140,000 people take the route. And you know how much I love crowds… Knowing this, we decided with Ben, to take on the challenge of doing this hike in WINTER and without a guide. Yes, I know, we are not very experienced hikers, especially in winter conditions. But we prepared ourselves well beforehand, we had the necessary equipment, the required level of fitness and above all the desire to challenge ourselves.

Despite a good level of fitness, I found some parts of the hike quite difficult. But the view from the top made me forget the pain and the cold.

Please note that the shuttle service does not work in winter so you will not be able to make the full crossing. You will have to retrace your steps to get back to the starting car park.

It usually takes 7 hours to make the crossing in summer. It took us 8/9 hours because the conditions in winter are more difficult. And also because I kept stopping to take pictures 😉
This experience was one of the hardest, but also the most beautiful I have done in New Zealand. That feeling of pride at the end when you say to yourself “Fuck yeah, I did it”. Now I just have to do it again in summertime.

WARNING – I would NEVER advise you to do what we do! If you are not used to hiking in winter, on snow with equipment such as crampons and an ice axe, take a guide. People have gone missing every year on this hike which can be very challenging in some places.

Raglan and its surfing beaches

Have you ever visited Australia and loved Byron Bay? Well, you’re going to love Raglan too. New Zealand’s little Byron Bay, as I like to call it. The favourite spot for surfers when they are not in Muriwai or Piha (the beaches of West Auckland).
The atmosphere of this small town is really cool. Some surf shops, small boutiques and cafes. We would love to stay there! To be honest, every weekend we spend there, it’s always hard to leave on Sunday and going back to Auckland. 😂

If you want to learn to surf, the main beach, Ngarunui beach, is perfect. You can take a lesson or just rent a board to practice on your own. More experienced surfers, however, will enjoy heading to Manu bay. It also offers one of the longest left breakpoints in the world – those who know, know!

Must-do activities  :
  • Learn to surf on Ngarunui’s black sand beach.
  • Admire the sea at sunset from the Michael Hope Lookout.
  • Visit the impressive 55 metre high Bridal Veil Falls.
  • Stop for lunch at ‘The Shack’ – one of my favourite cafes in New Zealand !

Taranaki

New Plymouth being the main and biggest town in the Taranaki region, there are plenty of things to do in New Plymouth. This region is especially known for the famous Mount Taranaki which you can easily spot from New Plymouth. This one has a very special feature. Did you know that this dormant volcano has a twin in another country in the world? Mount Taranaki is very similar to Mount Fuji in Japan. In fact, it is here that the film “The Last Samurai” was filmed claiming to be Mount Fuji.

Hiking enthusiasts will be in heaven in this region as the Egmont National Park, where Mount Taranaki is located, offers many hiking trails. They range from one day to several days and are suitable for all levels. The more experienced can even attempt to climb the mountain.

Must-do activities  :
  • Stroll the New Plymouth Coastal walkway and discover one of New Zealand’s most famous and photographed bridges, the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge.
  • Visit Pukekura Park
  • Take the Pouakai circuit/crossing hike (accessible to all) and stay overnight in the Pouakai hut to watch the sunset and sunrise over Mount Taranaki.
  • Take the Surf Highway 49 to visit the coast from New Plymouth to Hawera and look for the best surfing spots in the area.
  • Explore the Forgotten World Highway; 148 km from Stratford to Taumaranui.
pouakaicrossing8

Know more about: New Zealand’s most underrated region

Napier and Hawke’s Bay region : the underrated North Island region – New Zealand

The Hawke’s Bay area, and the town of Napier, are, for me, a must in the North Island of New Zealand. I have been living in New Zealand for 2 years now but I only recently discovered the Hawke’s Bay region. And what a good surprise! This area is absolutely incredible with so many beautiful things to do. I really think that this part of the island is too often forgotten during a road trip on the North Island of New Zealand.

Moreover, if you travel by campervan, the city is campervan-friendly and you can park right in front of the sea to sleep. One of the best spots to watch the sunrise from your bed 😉

Must-do activities  :
  • Book a wine tasting day tour at the local vineyards to visit New Zealand’s second-largest wine region. I highly recommend Prinsy’s Tour. I’ve done 2 tours with them and it was amazing. And as for my favourite vineyard: the family vineyard Element wine will charm you with its authenticity. Nb: I would like to mention that these recommendations are in no way partnerships. Just an honest and sincere opinion about two companies that deserve to be talked about (in the interest of transparency, a note is left at the beginning/end of the article if affiliate links are present).
  • Watching the sunrise or sunset from the top of Te Mata Peak. Many walking tracks are accessible from Te Mata Peak.
  • Explore Cape Kidnappers hike and discover the gannet colonies.
  • Stroll through the amazing town of Napier, rebuilt in the 1930s in the period style of Art-Deco.
  • Enjoy a relaxing day on the beaches of Ocean Beach or Waimarama (37 km from Napier.)

Wellington, the capital of New Zealand

And finally, visit the discreet town of Wellington. A charming and cultural town, it is here, located at the southern end of the north island, that you can board the ferry to the South Island. Take a day or two and discover the capital of New Zealand.

Must-do activities  :
  • Visit Te Papa Museum to discover the history and nature of New Zealand.
  • Stroll along the waterfront and enjoy the view on Wellington Bay.
  • Visit the Lord of the Rings production studio at Weta Workshop – Weta Cave.
  • Stroll along Cuba Street, where you will find a multitude of trendy shops, bars and restaurants.
  • Discover Zelandia, a 225-hectare eco-sanctuary dedicated to the protection of New Zealand’s animal and plant species. 
  • Take a ride in the famous little red cable car which will take you to the Botanical Garden.
  • wellington-view
  • wellington cable car

Now you know what to do in New Zealand’s North Island, with all the essential activities and sightseeing to do on the island. And if you plan to visit the South Island as well, check out my 2-week itinerary on the South Island to discover the best spots (coming soon)

Justine


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Must do North Island

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