New Zealand is one of those places where, no matter how far you explore, there is always something else that will make your jaw drop. While Auckland and Wellington are must-visits, it’s the small towns of the North Island that really showcase the beauty of the islands.
I’ve teamed up with other travel bloggers to bring you the best small towns to visit on New Zealand’s North Island. If your favorite city didn’t make the cut, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to readers’ favourites!
I have divided these guides into two parts, the North Island and the South Island, to make planning the trip as easy as possible. There is also a map at the end of each article so you can see where the best small towns are!
Nestled in the Coromandel is one of New Zealand’s best seaside towns. It is a popular place for tourists and locals. The white sand beach and sparkling water make it the perfect place to relax and swim. Hahei is one of best beaches of Coromandel.
If you’re looking to get out on the water, the guys at Hahei Explorer are here to help. They will take you to the marine reserve to visit coastal islands, sea caves, reefs, boreholes and Cathedral Cove. Drivers are knowledgeable about the area, including marine life and history. The game is worth the candle.
One of the main reasons people travel to Hahei is to visit Cathedral Cove. It is famous for the natural arch that separates two coves from the beach and is a perfect photo opportunity. It is also an ideal place for swimming. From Hahei, it is a 45-minute walk along a paved path. You can either park up the hill, although parking is limited, or park near Hahei Beach and walk from there.
If you’re looking for a place to eat, look no further than the Pour house. The restaurant offers a wide variety of dishes and brews its own beer!
The best place to stay is Hahei Beach Resort. It offers all types of accommodation, from reserving a camping spot to living in style in one of the villas. Amenities are first class with an onsite cafe and general store, communal kitchen and BBQs, children’s play area, to name but a few. The added bonus is that this place is right on the beach.
Located between Auckland and Tauranga, the Karangahake Gorge is heavily traveled, but often overlooked as a place to visit in New Zealand. Still, it’s one of the best small towns in the North Island.
The main reason I like Karangahake Gorge is for hiking, but you can take short walks and see some historical sites. The shortest walk is the Windows Walk, which gives you high views of the river where the mines originated. And you have the tunnel walk which you can cross on foot or by bike. And there is no shortage of longer hikes, with breathtaking sunrise/sunset atop Mt Karangahake. There are plenty of Karangahake Gorge hikes for any traveler.
If you like bike rides, you have a 30km stretch of the Hauraki Rail Trail between Paeroa and Waihi which is enjoyable. This is the easiest section of the trail, making it a great place for families. There are several places where you can rent bikes, and most accommodation providers can help. It also takes you past the Owharoa waterfall and the Victoria Battery site (kids will love this spot).
Karangahake is tiny so I like to use Riverside Accommodation as a base (they have bikes you can use). On the other side of the road, you have the Talisman Cafe & Crafts to eat. But check the opening hours in advance, as they often change depending on demand.
If you love wine, the historic village of Martinborough is a great place to spend a few days. Surrounded by vineyards, this colonial village is built in the style of an English town, with picturesque buildings arranged around a square. More than 20 wineries are near the village and it is easy to get there on foot or by bike. Martinborough is known for its food and there are several great places to eat, as well as a number of winery restaurants nearby – head to Poppies for a delicious platter in the sun. If you are lucky enough to visit the city in November, be sure to visit the Taste of Martinborough wine and food festival, which is held in the city.
Most visitors to the town spend their days tasting wines and exploring nearby vineyards. If you want to do something more energetic there are lovely walks near Martinborough, otherwise if you have a car the nearby towns of Carterton and Greytown are well worth visiting. If you don’t mind driving a bit further, the rugged coast of Castle Rock is very beautiful, or you can visit the lighthouse and seal colony at Cape Palliser, the southernmost tip of the North Island from New Zealand.
Stay at Brackenridge Country Retreat, just outside of town, for a comfortable experience in a tranquil rural setting.
Located on the east coast of the North Island, just 2.5 hours drive from Auckland, Mount Maunganui is a haven for beach and food lovers. This town is adorably nicknamed The Mount by Kiwis (the full name can take quite a long time to pronounce) because of the surprisingly scenic mountain that sits at the end of the beach.
There’s a whole host of things to do in Mount Maunganui, but the soul of the town is sustained by its great hospitality, gorgeous white sand beach and, of course, the stunning Mauao Mountain.
We recommend getting up early to hike to the top of Mauao to avoid the heat. It’s totally doable by people of all fitness levels, but it will be a challenge if you’re not very active. Allow about 30-40 minutes to reach the top.
Then spend the day lounging on the beach and jumping in the water, before spending your evenings on the town. Dine at a range of delicious and eclectic restaurants, including Rice Rice Baby and Hello Banh Mi for Vietnamese, and Roxie’s Cantina for Mexican. When it comes to accommodation in Mount Maunganui, options can be woefully scarce, especially if you book during peak times. The Pacific Apartments are the best beachfront option for most travelers. For budget travelers, we recommend Seagulls Guesthouse.
Located on New Zealand’s North Island, Rotorua is the stopover in the geothermal wonderland, Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Hot Springs. It is the largest area of thermal activity in the Taupo area, which has one of the highest rates of geothermal activity in the world, with bubbling hot springs, mud pots and geysers. Among the most distinctive features of Wai-O-Tapu is the Champagne Pool, whose bubbling water is framed by a distinct orange line. It owes its name to the fact that it resembles a glass of champagne thanks to its bubbling water. This is one of the best stops on a New Zealand road trip.
Although most of Rotorua’s attractions are based on the geothermal landscape, it is not the only activity in the area. Other popular activities in the Rotorua area include traditional Maori villages, such as the Buried Village, Te Puia or Mitai, as well as the thermal baths and mineral pools known for their healing properties.
The Buried Village is another place worth stopping by. These are the excavated ruins of a village engulfed in ash when Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886. For a bite to eat, stop by the Amazing Thai Restaurant which offers plenty of vegan and vegetarian options on the menu.
If you want to spend the night in the Rotorua area, consider booking a stay at the Hamurana Lodge. This magnificent hotel is a 15-minute drive away and offers spectacular lake views as well as beautiful lush gardens.
Russell is New Zealand’s oldest and prettiest town. It enjoys an idyllic location over the water in the Bay of Islands in subtropical Northland, with easy access to beaches, coastal walks and island exploring.
Russell was the first permanent European settlement in the country. In the 1800s it was known as the Hell Hole of the Pacific due to the riot of traders, whalers and sailors it attracted.
Today it is a relaxed town with beautiful historic buildings. Your first stop should be The Strand to stroll along the waterfront past the iconic Duke of Marlborough Hotel, which dates back to 1827 and is perfect for a sunset drink.
There are excellent short walks in the area, including Flagstaff Hill, Tapeka Point and along the beautiful beach from Long Beach (also the best place to swim).
One of the most popular activities is a cruise to the surrounding islands. Explore offers big boat cruises from Russell, including an hour and a half to the stunning island of Urupukapuka. After a busy day of exploring, relax at Hone’s Garden with one of their delicious wood-fired pizzas. Or, brave the 15-minute winding drive to the Paroa Bay Winery for a meal on its hillside terrace overlooking the bay. The Duke of Marlborough Hotel is the best place to stay in Russell, especially if you choose a room with a balcony and a sea view.
Check out this guide to the best things to do in the Bay of Islands for more details.
Tirau is known as the corrugated iron capital of the world, but before you think that means it’s all industrial, think again – it gets that title because of the fun signs and cute buildings made from this metal. The main street is full of creations such as giant iron elephants and a Pukeko with fluttering eyelashes and a strong taste for shoes. Public toilets are in a giant iron sheepdog – and much more.
Strolling down the main street is one of the best things to do in Tirau, but you’re only a short drive from the absolutely stunning natural blue spring and on the way there and back you have to stop at the private museum of Tirau. You’ll find everything from gas pumps to old honey labels – and a few other iron signs. The famous Hobbiton movie set is also about a 20-minute drive from Tirau.
The main street is lined with little cafes to try, but the Tucker Bar and Eatery is one of the best places where to stop – they are not open on Sundays or Mondays so take that into account when travelling.
Just a two-hour drive from Auckland, Tirau is a great place for a day trip from Auckland – or a stopover between Auckland and Rotorua. If you want to spend the night in Tirau, try the Tirau Motor Inn in the town itself, the Okoroire Hot Springs Hotel or the elegant Lake Karapiro Lodge.
Waitomo has become a famous small town in the North Island thanks to its local celebrity: glowworms. If glowworms made the city famous, there’s more to it than that. The green hills and pristine lakes provide plenty of entertainment during the day. From hiking to water sports, you won’t be bored. You can walk to Marokopa Falls and cross the natural limestone bridge of Mangapohue. There are a number of good cafes in town and farms that put on shows to showcase local life and traditions.
Of course, a trip to Waitomo isn’t complete without a visit to the Glowworm Caves. It is forbidden to photograph without special permission because the light has an impact on the worms. Beneath the magnificent green hills lies an intricate maze of caves, underground rivers and even chasms. There are several ways to view the caves since they are found all around the island. We decided to kayak around the lake and enter the caves. It is also possible to go tubing in the caves. For more adventurous travelers, you can rappel into the caves. Whichever way you get there, it’s impossible not to be impressed by these tiny but magnificent creatures.
For budget accommodation in Waitomo, check out the Waitomo Caves Guest Lodge and for a more luxurious option, check out the Waitomo Boutique Lodge.
Located in the southwest of New Zealand’s North Island, Wanganui is a beautiful town at the end of the Tasman Sea, on the Wanganui River. It is a 3 hour drive from Taupo and 2.5 hours from Wellington.
During the era of European colonization, Wanganui was an important trading center and the river was used for transporting goods and people.
Wanganui is a nice place to stop for travelers exploring the North Island.
The main attraction is the Durie Hill Tower and Lift – an overland lift that rises to the top of the hill. A long pedestrian tunnel connects the road to the lift built into the hill. From up there, one has stunning views of the coastline, Mount Ruapehu, Mount Taranaki and the meandering river.
The “Bridge to Nowhere” is a unique bridge that crosses the Mangapurua River in Wanganui National Park and has no roads leading to it. It is a popular tourist attraction for mountain bikers and bushwalkers.
Heritage walks and river cruises on paddle steamers are other activities to do. There is no shortage of pleasant eating places, with a good range of interesting cuisines. Caroline’s Boatshed Bar and Eatery is ideal for a classic breakfast menu with views of the river from the terrace. High-Kut Bistro, located on Victoria Avenue, offers delicious brunches, lunches and a children’s menu.
Browns Boutique Bed & Breakfast and Rutland Arms Inn, both located in the heart of Wanganui, offer luxury accommodations, while Riverside Motel is a good choice with average prices.