While there are a few cities in the country, what makes New Zealand special is its natural beauty. If you’re looking to lose yourself in secluded, sandy beaches, thermal springs, towering mountains or coloured lakes, New Zealand is the place to go.
Visitors will no doubt spend at least some of their trip in at least one of the major cities, and they’re definitely worth seeing. But to discover New Zealand’s spectacular beauty, you’ll have to explore a little further afield.
On the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a favourite with visitors. The sweeping views of mountains and lakes are visible throughout the region – visit in winter to see the landscape framed with snowy mountain peaks. Queenstown is a great base for exploring the Central Otago region, including the nearby towns of Glenorchy (quiet and scenic), Arrowtown (filled with history from the gold-rush era), Cromwell (known for its wineries and fruit) and Wanaka (perfect if you want a quieter place to base yourself).
As New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown is also the perfect place to get a taste of adrenalin - from bungy jumping and ziplines to paragliding and jetboating, you’ll find a wide range of adventure sports to try. There are three good ski fields easily accessible from Queenstown if you’re visiting in winter, and nearby Gibbston Valley has some of the best wineries in the country (and a couple of good breweries). In the summer months, there are excellent hiking, cycling and water sports on the lake.
Situated on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Coromandel region is renowned for its beautiful beaches and native bush. The Coromandel is known for its stunning Cathedral Cove, with a natural rock archway and sandy beaches, and Hot Water Beach, where visitors can dig a natural hot pool in the sand.
If you have a car, base yourself in Hahei or Whangamata and explore the area from there. You can also do day trips and to Karangahake Gorge and Whenuakura Wildlife Sanctuary (Donut Island), a pristine, natural environment you can only explore from the water. If you enjoy hiking, take a couple of days to follow the Pinnacles overnight trail.
Home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Abel Tasman National Park is a wonderful option either for a day trip from Nelson or for a longer stay. The national park immerses you in an unspoiled natural environment with native bush, small, clear bays and white, sandy beaches. It’s the perfect place for kayaking through clear water (there’s also a nearby seal colony), meandering through bush trails, swimming in tiny coves or simply relaxing on a secluded beach.
The park’s claim to fame is the Abel Tasman Coast Track, a 60km (37-mile) walk through the bush with incredible views of the beach. It usually takes 3-5 days to complete the full walk; although, it is possible to do a section of the walk in a day. No cars are allowed in the national park, so visitors need to either walk to their preferred destination or take a water taxi.
About three hours north of Auckland, the beautiful Bay of Islands is the place to go for a relaxed, laid-back vibe and beautiful coastal scenery. For the most spectacular views, you’ll need to head out on the water - there are over 140 sub-tropical islands in the bay with hidden beaches and blue waters.
If you prefer to stay on shore, other options, spend your time relaxing on the sandy beaches and exploring the towns of colonial towns of Kerikeri and Russell. In nearby Paihia, you can also learn about New Zealand history at the Treaty Grounds where the historic Treaty of Waitangi was signed. For the best perspective of the bay, take a scenic flight for an amazing aerial view of the islets.
If you want to immerse yourself in Instagram-worthy scenery, take a trip to Mackenzie Country, just a couple of hours’ drive from Christchurch. Despite its proximity to a major city, Makenzie Country feels remote, often with open space as far as the eye can see. Home to some of country’s loveliest scenery, the region is home to Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd, one of New Zealand’s most recognizable tourist spots. Visit between November and January to see the countryside (and lake) lined with purple lupins.
The small town of Twizel makes a convenient base to explore the region. From there, you can easily access the lakes and Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, which has a range of walks from short trails to full-day hikes. Venture outside on a clear night to marvel at the stars as the region is a Dark Sky Reserve with minimal light pollution – while it can be very cold, the sky is especially clear in winter. A few days in Mackenzie Country also makes a great stopover on a road trip from Christchurch and Queenstown.
While perhaps not traditionally beautiful, the heart of New Zealand’s thermal activity is the place to go for bubbling mud pools, geysers and steaming rivers. Rotorua's landscape is otherworldly and it’s well worth visiting to experience the volcanic nature of the land firsthand. The nearby Whakarewarewa Forest also has some great walking and hiking trails to explore.
As well as relaxing in a thermal mud bath, soaking in hot pools and exploring geothermal attractions, Rotorua allows visitors to gain some insight into Māori culture. Visit a traditional Māori villages to discover local traditions, foods and ways of seeing the world.
A pretty, coastal town, Mt Maunganui has the best of all worlds – long, white beaches, good cafes and restaurants and a city just a short drive away. Mount Maunganui makes a great base for exploring the wider Tauranga region while spending time on the beach.
It’s also the perfect place to enjoy a vibrant, quirky town centre with good eating options, great coffee and a mix of boutiques and artsy shops. Walk to the top of the Mount for panoramic views of the coast.
On the edge of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to epic landscapes, including one of New Zealand’s most famous attractions, the majestic Milford Sound. There, visitors can see waterfalls, magnificent views along the fiord and marine wildlife.
The nearby Doubtful Sound is also spectacular but less accessible – travellers need to visit with a guide and by boat. There are also several walks in the national park past snow-capped mountains and ice-forged fiords, with views of lakes, valleys and waterfalls.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Lonely Planet.
Last Updated 16 August 2022