Home to some of the most beautiful places to visit in the world, choosing which destinations are worth visiting can be a challenge. The good news is that New Zealand is pretty small, so even if you choose to do it all, you won’t have to worry about long drives, trains or multi-stop flights.
Many people claim the South Island is the better of the two islands, but we’d argue the North Island has more variety, from bustling metropolises, trendy restaurants and shops, to picturesque beaches, waterfalls and volcanoes.
Keep reading to find out all the must-do places to visit on the North Island of New Zealand!
Auckland is much more than just a boring city. Beyond the nightlife, eateries and culture, you can also expect to find some truly epic views within a short drive of the city centre.
As New Zealand’s largest city (by far) with a population of almost 1.5 million people, Auckland is packed with great restaurants, shops and cafes. It’s also home to New Zealand’s only international airport so it should come as no surprise that it tops this list.
Mount Eden in the heart of town is a must-do offering 360 degree views over the city, whilst the Domain nearby contains the Auckland Museum. Consider catching a ferry over to Waiheke Island where you’ll find awesome beaches and some of the best wineries in New Zealand.
A short drive out west will bring you to some of the best beaches in New Zealand. The views out here are dramatic with intimidating, black sand beaches and jagged rock outcroppings.
One of the most popular getaways for Aucklanders looking to escape the big city vibe for a bit, the Coromandel is a gorgeous beach destination just a 2-hour drive south from Auckland.
There’s actually a lot of epic things to do in the Coromandel. Of course, most travellers head here for the beaches, with the most famous being Cathedral Cove in Hahei. As a bonus, Hahei is just a short drive from Hot Water Beach, which as the name suggests is a beach where you can lie in natural hot pools.
Adventurous travellers should also explore beyond just the beaches with The Pinnacles hike being one our favourites in New Zealand.
We’d recommend visitors stay in Hahei due to its close proximity to everything in The Coromandel. Tatahi Lodge is our top pick.
Tauranga & Mount Maunganui
Heading a bit further south you’ll reach another one of New Zealand’s larger cities, Tauranga. Mount Maunganui, or as the locals say The Mount, is another popular beachside destination within close proximity to Auckland.
Popular activities here revolve around three main pillars: climbing the Maunga (or mountain in English), lounging on the beach and eating on the main strip. It’s really the perfect combination and has just enough of everything to make up the perfect, relaxing escape.
You’ll want to choose your accommodation in Mount Maunganui as close to the main strip as possible. If you choose smartly you should be able to find a place within walking distance to the beach, the shops and the Maunga.
Tairawhiti / Gisborne
Home to (arguably) the first sunrise in the world, Tairawhiti is a town on the far east coast of New Zealand. You can expect to find majestic natural wonders and beautiful beaches, as well as the location where Captain Cook first landed on New Zealand.
The drive to Gisborne along State Highway 35 is beautifully scenic and well worth taking the longer detour to explore. The city itself is home to around 50,000 people so you won’t lack the amenities of any populated area, but a short drive will get you to a remote beach with no one in sight.
There are a few stunning hikes in Gisborne as well with our favourite being the Cook’s Cove walkway which offers commanding views.
Travellers who appreciate wine will also love the region which contains world-class wineries that are most famous for their chardonnays. Our favourites are Matawhero and Milton.
The capital city of New Zealand, Wellington is a gorgeous city that makes up for its small size with a load of character jammed into a small package by the sea.
Where Auckland CBD can be a little grim, Wellington’s city centre is surprisingly pretty. With loads of great things to do in Wellington, it also comes as no surprise that Lonely Planet dubbed the city the ‘coolest little capital in the world’.
If you want to experience being a ‘Wellingtonian’, you’ll want to stay in the city centre near Cuba Street. This is the hub for all things cool, from bars and restaurants to shops and markets. It’s also conveniently close to the iconic red cable car, the Wellington Botanic Gardens, Parliament House, Zealandia and Te Papa – there’s so much!
Perhaps even more importantly, Wellington is a must-visit for anyone roadtripping the country. The interislander ferry departs here to take you across to the South Island where you won’t want to miss all the awesome things to do in Nelson just across the Cook Strait.
As great as the North Island of New Zealand is, we love the South Island and Wellington is the gateway.
Taranaki & New Plymouth
Whether you’re flying or driving across the North Island, Mount Taranaki is pretty hard to miss. This dormant stratovolcano is the second highest point on the North Island and strikes a formidable sight on the west coast of the island.
The nearest town is New Plymouth which is yet another gorgeous beach town, this time on the opposite side of the island.
The town itself is packed with awesome attractions including the Govett-Brewster/ Len Lye Art Gallery which is an internationally recognised, contemporary art museum. Our favourite work of art here is the building itself which is well worth a visit.
Photography options are abundant here and all revolve around views of Taranaki Maunga. The best view (in my opinion) is from the Pouakai Tarns hike which offers a cool vantage point over a small pond. Alternatively, experienced hikers can make the hike up Taranaki Maunga and can even ski there during winter.
Renowned as a surf town with a laid-back vibe, Raglan is located along the west coast of the North Island. A lot of travellers visit Raglan for the great surf beaches so if you’re into surfing then Raglan is one of the best places to catch a wave in New Zealand.
Beyond just surfing, Raglan’s town has turned into a hipster-friendly destination with a fantastic coffee scene including famous-in-New Zealand roasters like Raglan Roast. Eateries such as The Shack and ULO’s are popular picks for a reason so if you’re keen for a bite to eat then you won’t be disappointed.
Accommodation is fairly limited in Raglan so it pays to book in advance, with Raglan Backpackers being a fantastic budget pick, otherwise AirBnB would be the place to look.
It would be weird to visit New Zealand and not at least experience a bit of the culture. The Maori are the indiginous people, or Tangata Whenua, of New Zealand. They have a rich and vibrant culture and Rotorua is the best place in New Zealand to experience it.
Conveniently, Rotorua is also filled with great natural and adventure attractions. Its convenient location along the Ring of Fire treats visitors to a range of geothermal activities, ranging from free and paid natural hot pools and mud pools, to the full on geothermal parks where you can see geysers explode.
Meanwhile, adrenaline junkies will enjoy trying out ziplining, rafting, luging, hiking, zorbing and more, making Rotovegas (a local nickname) a great place for all kinds of travellers.
At the heart of the North Island, like Rotorua, Taupo has a lot of great natural and adventure attractions. The true beauty of Taupo clearly lies in its natural wonders, with powerful waterfalls, volcanoes and stunning lakes all nearby.
As a good sized town, Taupo is also home to a wide array of delicious eateries, bars and cafes.
Our favourite part about visiting Taupo is making the trek out to nearby Tongariro National Park which can be easily visited in a series of day or overnight trips. This park is our favourite part of the North Island thanks to the three gigantic volcanoes that appear to explode out of the land: Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Tongariro.
There are two incredible walks in the Tongariro National Park, The Tongariro Crossing and the Tama Lakes. The former is one of the most popular day hikes in New Zealand, and for good reason – there’s nowhere else like it.
Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is a harbour located a 5-hour drive north of Auckland. The bay is stunningly picturesque thanks to the 140+ islands placed incongruously throughout.
There are two main towns in the Bay of Islands, both offering distinct differences. Paihia is the main hub for activities, hikes, restaurants, bars, waterfalls and cultural attractions, and as such, we’d recommend most travellers stay here.
In contrast, Russell is a quaint town located a short boat-ride away with a bunch of historic buildings and cute eateries, but is a little more secluded.
Paihia is also where the Treaty of Waitangi grounds exists which is one of the most historically and culturally poignant and pivotal locations in New Zealand. It was here where the controversial founding document of New Zealand was first signed, the Treaty of Waitangi.
Besides this, we’d highly recommend getting out onto the water. Urupukapuka Island and Hole in the Rock are two popular locations that can be reached by boat.
Where the Tasman and Pacific oceans collide, Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand.
If you’re already visiting Paihia, then we’d recommend making the drive a bit longer by heading up to Cape Reinga, however, from Auckland it is a 5+ hour drive in total so perhaps not worth the visit in its own right.
The main landmark here is the Cape Reinga Lighthouse, which is what most visitors are here to see. We recommend timing it around sunset to get the best views and capture some beautiful photos.
Hamilton is in many ways Auckland’s little sibling. The city is one of the largest in New Zealand and is located right next door to Auckland. It’s so close and on a major route that chances are you’ll be driving through Hamilton at some point, so naturally, it becomes a must-do.
Our favourite attraction in Hamilton is the sprawling Hamilton Gardens which is home to an eclectic array of elaborately themed gardens based on styles all around the world, from Italy to Asia.
Other highlights include the insightful Waikato Museum and the Hamilton Zoo which is renowned for its ‘Face2Face’ encounters with exotic animals.
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Hobbiton are two attractions that we loved visiting that are located near Hamilton and along the drives to New Plymouth and Tauranga respectively.