9 Must See Locations on New Zealand's North Island
Although many (rightly) sing the praises of the South Island, New Zealand’s North Island has an incredibly eclectic mix of culture, adventure and scenery. It’s home to over ¾ of New Zealand’s population, so it has a strong infrastructure, which makes it very easy in seeing some of the best of what the country offers.
Whether you’ve finished a ski season, having a holiday for a few weeks, or even live there permanently, the below lists some of the must-see places for your North Island backpacking trip.
For most international visitors, Auckland is the gateway to the rest of New Zealand. Those working a New Zealand ski season tend to overlook “Tamaki” (the Maori name for Auckland) in the hurry to get down to the snowy peaks. But for those who take their time to explore Auckland, they’re certainly rewarded.
Although it is often overshadowed by the more backpacker friendly areas, Auckland has a wide mix of natural beauty and things to do. The likes of Devonport, Mt Eden and Rangitoto Island all provide fun (and challenging) hikes, with all having panoramic views of the city. A short boat ride away from the centre is the vineyard-famous Waiheke Island, where spending a full day exploring (and drinking wine!) is easily done. A 15 minute bus journey over the Auckland Harbour Bridge will bring you to Takapuna, considered by many to be one of New Zealand’s best beaches, whilst on the city-side of the water, Mission Bay beach provides another sandy getaway.
To those whose enjoy ‘pushing life to the limit’, you can even bungee jump off the Auckland Harbour Bridge, or do the sky jump off the iconic Sky Tower.
On the western coast of the Auckland Region, about a 40-minute drive away from Central Auckland, lies Piha. Despite being widely considered as New Zealand’s most famous surf beach, Piha has retained it’s chilled vibe and as a gateway to lots of local sights and hikes.
Lions Rock is a dominating sight which divides North and South Piha beach, and is a decent climb for those looking at getting active. The beaches are famous for their black sand, a by-product of New Zealand’s volcanic history.
A very short drive away lies the Waitakere Ranges, a mountainous area which includes some steady hikes. A popular spot here is Kitekite Falls, a spectacular three-tiered waterfall, with a swimmable area at the bottom. At least during the summer anyway, as only the cold-hardened could deal with the temperature during the winter!
3. Paihia & Bay of Islands
Heading a few hours north will bring you to the beach-side town of Paihia. Here you’ll find loads to do, from jetboats to parasailing, but it’s most famous claim-to-fame is that it’s the gateway to the Bay of Islands.
A collection of nearly 150 islands, the Bay of Islands provides views of one of the most untouched areas of New Zealand, including rugged terrain and golden beaches. It is also steeped in Maori history and most tours provide an insight into the areas past. It’s famous for its wildlife, and often you’ll see wild dolphins whilst on a boat, or a range of marine animals if you take a scuba diving course.
Back on the mainland, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a must do. The Waitangi Treaty is the beginning of “Aotearoa New Zealand”, and tells this story through a range of inclusive ways, including Maori cultural performances, guided tours, a Hangi dinner and much more.
4. Cape Reinga
The most northern point of New Zealand, Cape Reinga is as far as you can possibly go. At the very end, you’ll come across a lighthouse, of which will no doubt make it on to your Instagram. Take a seat and watch the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean trade off against each other, kicking up a swirl of waves and currents against each other.
On your way up, make sure to take in a trip along 90 Mile Beach. It’s known for its sunsets and surf, it also allows for cool tours and fun activities, like sandboarding. Although tour companies are allowed to take their coaches and buses to drive along the beach, make sure you read the fine print if you have a hire car, as most won’t allow you to take it for a spin on the sand.
Rotorua is not only a major cultural area, but one which is also dotted with loads of natural beauty. It is famous for its geothermal activity, and because of this you can find anything from relaxing spas, through to more exciting, geothermal reactions at Wai O Tapu.
Lake Rotorua dominates the scenery, where there’s loads of activities available on the water. As well as this, Rotorua provides more chances for thrill seekers to enjoy, including ziplining, a gondola & luge and the nearby zorbing.
It is important to understand New Zealand’s culture and its history, and there are numerous shows, performances and cultural lessons that can be found. These guide you through understanding, appreciating and aligning with an important aspect of what makes New Zealand such a unique place, and it’s certainly an interesting experience.
6. Mount Maunganui
Like most areas of New Zealand, Mount Maunganui is steeped in Moari heritage and tradition. ‘Mauao’ stands watch over the town at 232m above sea level, and the hike to the top is considered New Zealand’s most popular walk, with the summit providing some of the best 360 views you could hope for.
Although this is a major draw of the area, Mount Maunganui has expanded to become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. It has a big port for the cruise ships to come in, and the constant influx of tourists by sea and land have let it grow to include a range of fun activities. According to Tripadvisor, it also lays claim to having ‘the beast beach in New Zealand’, Main Beach, which is also in the top 25 beaches in the world.
Having the biggest lake ‘Down Under” in Australasia means that Taupo is a huge draw for all water based activities, from watersports to fishing. It is also one of the major stops for most backpackers, with a cool vibe and exciting things to do. Skydiving is always a favourite for the adrenaline seekers during their stay in Taupo.
Slightly out of Taupo, you have one of the major draws of New Zealand; Huka Falls. It is one of the most instagrammed spots in the entire country, and for good reason. The Waikato River flows over a narrow 15 metre gap (which is considerably smaller than the 100 metres it usually is) which makes for a great video!
8. Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park contains that much to do that it’s hard to narrow it down to a paragraph in an article.
This UNESCO heritage site provides loads of activities for the adventurous. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered to be one of the most renowned treks in the world, and at nearly 20km, it’s one that requires a full day and a decent level of fitness. Just plan ahead, it’s challenging in good condition, so be fully ready if the weather isn’t on form. If you do, seeing the Emerald Lake is certainly worth the planning.
For the snow lovers, Mt Ruapehu is also based here. There are two ski slopes, one on each side of the mountain; Turoa and Whakapapa. These are massively popular areas for those looking for a ski job placement in New Zealand, as both hire a big amount of employees to deal with the higher population base of the North Island. Oh, and the fact it’s an active volcano certainly makes it for the adventurers.
Getting down to the ‘south of the North Island’ will bring you out at New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. Here you’ll find a lot of backpackers looking for the greater opportunities that a city provides for work, and with a busy international airport, the city can act as the start or the end of a backpacking journey.
Being the capital, you’ll find important government buildings like the Beehive, mixed with important cultural buildings, such as the Te Papa Museum, meaning you’ll certainly have a full days worth of things to do on a city tour.
For views of the city, take a trip up Mount Victoria, another highly ‘instagrammed’ location of New Zealand. Whereas for nature lovers and activity junkies, Zealandia and the Zoo can easily keep you entertained for a day at each.
This list is only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to opportunities on the North Island. It could’ve easily been expanded to include the forest in Waipoua, drinks in Hamilton, the glowworm caves in Waitomo, ‘The Shire’ Hobbiton Lord of the Rings Set in Matamata, Bay of Plenty and many, many more. Making sure to explore the natural beauty of North Island should be high on every backpackers list.
Done the North Island, but now want to check out the South? Then check out our next article on 9 Must See Locations on New Zealand’s South Island.