New Zealand is an incredibly stunning, diverse country with everything from soaring jagged mountains and steep fjords to geothermal active areas, picturesque beaches and pristine trout-filled lakes. And, it’s probably a lot bigger than you think. So how do you know where to go to experience the best of it? These top 12 places to visit are sure to give you a great head start.

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1. Auckland Auckland
Auckland

1. Auckland

Auckland is the city almost every visitor to New Zealand comes through, as the largest in the country and an international air-travel hub. As such, it offers a host of things to see and do, and is an ideal place to begin your exploration of the North Island. It hosts multiple museums like the Auckland Art Gallery, the largest art institution in New Zealand with over 15,000 works of modern, contemporary and historic art, a beautiful waterfront precinct and the Sky Tower, the nation’s tallest man-made structure and an amazing place to take in 360-degree views of the city. The view is pretty incredible from the ground too, with the chance to watch thrill-seekers leap from its 630-foot SkyJump, the highest tethered jump in the country.

Queenstown, New Zealand Queenstown, New Zealand
Queenstown, New Zealand

Queenstown, New Zealand

Located in the southern region of the South Island at the edge of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is renowned as New Zealand’s adventure capital, popular for world-class skiing during the winter and spring months (about June through October). Year round, it’s the place to go for sky diving, bungee jumping, river rafting and even cliff jumping. This is the home of the world’s highest cliff jump, the Shotover Canyon Swing. In it, the courageous can hurl themselves off a cliff in a variety of ways, like tied to a chair or even flying off backward. No matter which adventure you take, you’ll be surrounded by some of the most jaw-dropping scenery of glistening waters and dramatic mountain ranges. The cosmopolitan city may be small and laid back, but it’s also quite lively with lots of cultural attractions, outstanding restaurants, a happening bar scene and a full cultural calendar, including events like the popular Queenstown Winter Festival.

Picton Picton
Picton

Picton

This picturesque coastal village nestled in the Queen Charlotte Sound is a must-visit for wine enthusiasts, with the Marlborough Wine Region right at its doorstep. The Marlbourough Sounds also offer numerous other forest, marine and island attractions. But you’ll find lots to do right in town as well. On its tranquil harbor you can enjoy dining on locally-caught seafood and shopping for locally-made handcrafted gifts as well as browsing various interesting galleries and checking out the aquarium or floating maritime museum. Outdoor adventure outfitters here offer the chance to go sea kayaking, dolphin watching, fishing and scenic cruising too.

Russell and the Bay of Islands Russell, Bay of Islands
Russell, Bay of Islands

Russell and the Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands is a stunning region made up of 144 islands, some beautiful sandy beaches, lots of peaceful secluded bays and an abundance of marine life, including dolphins, penguins and whales. The best way to experience it all is to rent a sea kayak or join a tour and paddle through the waters, or take a cruise. Russell is a great place to base your stay as a lovely coastal hamlet home to some of the nation’s oldest architecture, like the Pompallier Mission and Christ Church. It also boasts charming waterfront eateries, like the historic Gables Restaurant which serves up locally-caught seafood and gloriously colorful sunsets.

Wanaka Wanaka, New Zealand
Credit: Bigstock.com
Wanaka, New Zealand

Wanaka

Wanaka sits on the southern end of its namesake lake on the South Island, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It’s the gateway to the Southern Alps’ Mount Aspiring National Park, a wilderness of alpine lakes, beech forests, waterfalls and glaciers – many of which were featured in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawae offer the chance for all sorts of water sports, including kayaking, cruising and fishing, and on land visitors can enjoy snowboarding, skiing, hiking, mountain biking and more. The town itself also boasts a number of restaurants and cafes serving creative cuisine from award-winning chefs.

Rotorua geothermal wonderland at Rotorua
geothermal wonderland at Rotorua

Rotorua

Rotorua is famous for its geothermal activity. The geothermal reserves of Te Puia, Waiotapu and Waimangu are all found here, and sit within spectacular natural surroundings, including fantastic examples of boiling pools, hot springs, geysers, gurgling mud pots, volcanic terraces, craters and fumeroles. The region is well-known for its abundance of fabulous swimming and fishing lakes as well as lots of native bush ideal for hikes, and it’s also the best place to come to learn about Maori Culture. The Waimangu Valley was completely reshaped by a Mount Tarawera volcanic eruption in 1886, eradicating the Maori villages of Moura, Te Arihi and Te Wairoa. Visitors can take an organized tour of the area, which includes the chance to view Maori rock drawings just below Mount Tarawera on the shores of the lake, as well as a boat excursion to the partly excavated village of Te Wairoa.

Christchurch, New Zealand Avon River, Christchurch
Avon River, Christchurch

Christchurch, New Zealand

Only a few short years ago Christchurch was rocked by four major earthquakes during a 15-month period ending in December 2011, but it’s managed to make a big comeback already. Many of the city’s original attractions still stand, including the popular Christchurch Botanic Gardens with its brilliant horticultural displays and vast network of conservatories and walking paths. It also includes some of New Zealand’s oldest, largest and tallest trees. Throughout the city streets, you’ll see evidence of its rebirth, like new buildings made from old shipping containers and even cardboard. The shipping containers really come into their own at Re:Start, a pedestrianized shopping mall constructed almost entirely out of steel boxes. The bright colored containers house over 40 retailers.

Kaikoura Kaikura
Kaikura

Kaikoura

This postcard-perfect seaside town draws visitors with its laid-back vibe, breathtaking scenery and the opportunity for whale watching, considered an absolute must-do here as one of the best places in the world to spot cetaceans. It also offers a rich Maori culture – it’s name, Kaikoura, is Maori for “eat crayfish,” which happens to be its culinary specialty. Visitors can buy it fresh caught and cooked at local eateries and food trucks across town. Other highlights include the chance to view a unique bird, the albatross, raft the Clarence River, meet up with fur seals, sample award-winning local wines, go on a llama trek, and more.

Hokitika Hokitika Gorge
Hokitika Gorge

Hokitika

Hokitika was founded in the mid-19th-century after gold was discovered before it became a thriving river port. This charming little town’s colorful history, which includes a rather wild reputation, was recently retold in the Man Booker prize-winning novel The Luminaries. It’s one of the most quintessential New Zealand destinations in that it includes both snow-covered peaks and waves that crash against the beach. Hokitika also makes an ideal base for exploring some of the top South Island sights like the Franz Josef Glacier and Arthur’s Pass National Park, and in the town itself, you can marvel at the magnificent old buildings and take part in fun events like the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival.

Waiheke Island Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island

Waiheke Island

Though you can still faintly see Auckland from Waiheke Island, you’ll feel as if you’re miles away from the chaos of the modern world here. Just a 30-minute ferry ride from the capital city and you can enjoy a haven of beautiful vineyards and wine tasting, olive groves, secluded beaches, bush walks, kicking back in chill cafes and dining on fresh Pacific Rim fare. Just a few minutes from the main village of Oneroa is pristine Oneroa beach that sits at the edge of calm, warm waters, so if you visit on a nice sunny day, be sure to bring your bathing suit.

Fiordland National Park Mitre Peak Milford Sound,  New Zealand
Mitre Peak Milford Sound, New Zealand

Fiordland National Park

Fiordland National Park is the country’s largest national park and one of the largest on Earth. Its scenery is what dreams are made of, with dramatic mountains, cascading waterfalls, deep fjords and lush rain forests. It’s also home to one of the most popular tourist attractions, Milford Sound. Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the “eighth wonder of the world,” and if you visit this region of New Zealand, you’ll see why. In addition to the awe-inspiring scenery, it’s home to wildlife like dolphins and penguins.

Stewart Island rare yellow-eyed penguins, Stewart Island
rare yellow-eyed penguins, Stewart Island

Stewart Island

Stewart Island, located just under 20 miles south from the South Island, offers one of the best opportunities to see the kiwi, a national symbol of New Zealand, in its natural habitat, as well as the rare yellow-eyed penguin, native to New Zealand. It also happens to be one of the few places on the planet to view the Southern Lights. Most people come for the bird watching and hiking – the island has about 174 miles of hiking trails.