Top 12 Jaw-Dropping Places to Explore in New Zealand

In All Topics, Featured, New Zealand, Travel Photography by Ryan8 Comments


New Zealand is a country that is so vibrant and diverse, the rest of the jealous world accuses it of dying the lakes brighter blues, or somehow increasing pigments of flora to make them electric green.


After backpacking New Zealand for 9 months from 2011 to 2012, I can tell you that the natural beauty in the Land of the Long White Cloud is unbelievable. Beaches are so white you can barely look at them. Water shimmers like a million sapphires. Mountains carve out endless white-capped horizons. Neon green grass dances in the wind. Mother Nature flaunts her best traits everywhere you look, but the cities are damn cool as well. From the Auckland Sky Tower piercing the heavens, to Windy Welly’s harbor, to the art-deco themed Napier.

Since this month marks exactly 4 years since I left the United States, and to honor New Zealand as my first country I traveled to, I’ve gathered photos of 12 incredible places in New Zealand that you have to visit. This is just a small taste of what New Zealand has to offer and what I saw on my trip, so there will be more to come.

My New Zealand Top 12 //



Auckland is a hard one to miss given that most people fly into New Zealand here. But, as I discovered when I reached the City of Sails, you can completely miss Auckland’s essence. Most people who fly into Auckland, mainly the backpacker type, are all too eager to leave after they have had their fill of Queen Street boozing. If you escape Queen Street, you’ll find Auckland has a ton to offer from beaches to wine tours to great day hikes like Mount Eden where this photo was shot from.


Waiheke Island //

Waiheke is a small island just a short ferry ride from Auckland. One place that many tourists visit to go on wine tours to the award-winning vineyard dotted around the island, but many will miss out on the pleasure of simply wandering Waiheke. Rent a motorbike or buy an all-day pass for the bus and you’ll find all types of beautiful beaches; from volcanic rock to fine sand. Enjoy solitude in places aptly named “Rocky Beach” like this one above where you’ll find no tourists cramping your paradise. Explore the winding roads and find small snack shacks, hidden churches, ship wrecks, and more.


Doubtless Bay //

Without a doubt, most people who visit New Zealand will miss out on Doubtless Bay. Usually backpackers and tourists will shoot all of the way up to Cape Reinga from Auckland on short bus tour or in a car rental, but tucked in between Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga is this beautiful hidden bay. With a need for adventure tearing out of my chest, I jumped in a car with a German girl, an Austrian Guy, and a stoner guitar-playing Canadian. We made it a point to stop in the small towns or drive to overlooked beaches. Doubtless Bay was where I fell in love with New Zealand, and we found a private cove nearby that we camped in undisturbed for a week. Just hammocks, s’mores, and good friends waking to a sunrise, a soft splash of the bay, and reeds blowing in the wind. Can you beat that?

Cape Reinga //

The epicenter of all spiritual places for the native Maori people of New Zealand. If you don’t make the effort to travel to the very tip of northern New Zealand, you will miss out on one of the most incredible sights in the country. The Maori believe that the spirits of the dead travel all the way to this point and leap off to their afterlife right at this lighthouse. As you stand on the cape, the roar of the ocean travels up the cliffs bringing with it the salty ocean air that fills your lungs. At the edge of Cape Reinga, the sea and the ocean meet and in a spectacular wonder of nature, the green and blue bodies of water collide like warring armies, leaving a line from the cape’s tip into the horizon.


Cathedral Cove //

New Zealand is well known for being the location where Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were filmed, but another famous fantasy movie Narnia was filmed here as well. If you don’t take the time while heading south from Auckland to stop in the tiny seaside town of Piha, you’ll regret missing out on the awe-inspiring sight of these giant white arches. Carved out from millions of years of ocean and wind, many of Cathedral Cove’s arches have collapsed, but there are a few still standing that you can hike to. But if you want a challenge and are up for a bit of physical exertion, make sure to kayak to Cathedral Cove like I did and find out about the Maori history of the area and get a different perspective then most. HISTORY NOTE: This is supposed to be the place where the first Maori settlers of New Zealand arrived.


Huka Falls //

Taupo is known for being one of the top places to go bungy jumping. Besides the town having a beautiful lake and fun night-life, Huka Falls is another must-see while you are passing through. Raging water pounds through the carved rock veins here, frothing as it changes from a midnight blue to white. From Taupo you can get up close and personal by one of those whacky spinning speed boats, but I was content to watch Mother Nature’s power in awe from the bridge. Most bus tour companies that you take down to Taupo will offer a brief stop here, otherwise you’ll want to make it a point to stop here and feel the spray of river water rush beneath your feet.


Napier //

Napier is known most for its art-deco theme that is preserved city-wide. Upon arrival you’ll notice the bulbous elaborate iron lamp posts lining the streets, the 1930’s style, and vintage cars parked all over. A major festival that I was unfortunate to miss is Napier’s Art Deco celebration where the whole town comes out in 1930’s and 40’s flare to dance and jive in the streets. Spend the day like I did poking into the small vintage shops, bakeries, speak-easy and cafés, and wandering back streets and I can guarantee you will fall in love. There is an irresistible charm the city has, and most people I have met that have been to New Zealand have missed out on Napier’s charm. Also, the city is just north of Hastings which is known for great vineyards. Feeling daring? Swim with sharks in the National Aquarium in Napier and try not to scream like me.


Rotorua //

Be happy that this photo isn’t smell-O-vision. The sulfur pits in Rotorua are a fascinating sight watching these bubbling pools spit molten mud and sulfur high into the sky. The smell of rotten eggs crawls into your nose and punches your sense of smell even before you enter the city, but don’t let that deter you from checking out another cultural city in New Zealand. Much around Rotorua to see is shaped by its unique geological features; you’ll find rivers that are icy cold and boiling at the same time, mineral spas, and heaps of adventure sports around. And after one night sleeping in Rotorua, you’ll notice the smell isn’t noticeable anymore. Just don’t fall in, it’s like the Bog of Eternal Stench from Labyrinth. Except deadly and lacking of David Bowie.


Wellington //

Windy Welly as many refer to it is my favorite city in New Zealand for many reasons. Though I was visiting the city during a period of my trip where I was strapped for cash, there was still so much to do and love. Besides my adventure illegally guerrilla-camping on Mount Victoria, Wellington should be on your list to visit because of it’s amazing street art, the incredible coffee and food culture here, and the always-active nature of the city. Rain or shine, people are always out and about and the overall feel is vibrant and alive. It doesn’t hurt that Mount Victoria and the harbor are stunning, but this is also the location of Weta Workshops who worked on Lord of the Rings, and there are tons of Lord of the Rings film locations from the movie just a short drive away.


Christchurch //

Christchurch has been through a lot, after the massive earthquake destroyed much of the city. It will deter most from visiting Christchurch given there is still visual aftermath even though the city has bounced back on its feet, but it is a city that still shouldn’t be missed. Christchurch, though I was only there briefly, is a beautiful city with tons of parks and canals all over, and besides the city being peaceful, the people are too. Drive outside the city limits on a day trip and you’ll find yourself winding through the mountains surrounded by stark grey peaks and golden grass. If you like the outdoors, the hills and mountains around Christchurch is worth exploring as well as stops along the small towns.


Lake Tekapo //

Famous for the Church of the Good Shepard, Lake Tekapo in the South Island of New Zealand is a place I passed through many times but never got a chance to stay long. So don’t miss the chance to stop here for an afternoon! The feeling was calming near the lake; the soft mountains in the distance, the mirror-like blue water, the golden swaying grass, and bright purple lupins popping up in spring. If you are traveling around New Zealand by bus, most of them will only stop here for 10 minutes, so you’ll need to make it a point to either have a hop-on-hop-off ticket, or rent a car and stop here. Most visitors flock to the old church but by the same architect who designed Christchurch, but even just packing a lunch and having a picnic by the lake is worth the visit.


Lake Pukaki //

The lake that people think New Zealand dyes this color. Lake Pukaki, close to Lake Tekapo, is a glacier-fed lake that is so bright it’s hard to take a photo of. Or even look at. The glacial sediments fed into the lake give it this distinct color, and again it was a stop off on a bus journey I could never fully take in. If you’re passing through MacKenzie County where Lake Tekapo and Pukaki are, stay for awhile and relax because these are some of the most beautiful and unbelievable sights in a country filled with unbelievable sights.

Which would you want to see most?


    1. Author

      Awesome Jenny, should be an incredible trip. Glad I could give some recommendations. And no, as it turns out I never did any of the Great Walks or treks like Tongariro Crossing because of the weather those days. Will you be?

    1. Author

      Glad I could Melissa! Where will you be going this time? And I really can’t wait to get back as well!

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