Most travelers to New Zealand visit popular destinations such as Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown, but there are lots of fantastic small towns that are well worth a visit too. You’ll have the opportunity to do everything from delving into gold rush history to surfing the waves in a laid-back beach spot. Whether you plan to visit the North Island, South Island or both, be sure to put at least a few of these small towns on your itinerary.
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Russell, North Island
Russell is a picturesque coastal hamlet and the very first European settlement in New Zealand. It’s an ideal place to base your stay for a kayak tour around the stunning Bay of Islands, or for dolphin watching, fishing or sailing, as well as to explore history. Visit Pompallier Mission, the only one of its kind in Australasia, and Christ Church, the country’s oldest surviving church. The streets are lined with alluring historic structures, fabulous art galleries and great waterfront dining spots like Gables Restaurant renowned for its locally caught seafood and spectacular sunsets.
Raglan, North Island
Raglan is a laid-back surfing mecca renowned for its surf beaches with many surf schools in the area for those who want to learn the sport. There are also opportunities for paddle boarding and kayaking. The main beach is sheltered with calm waters that make it ideal for families with little ones who want to build sandcastles and splash around. You’ll also find artisan shops, chilled out bars and tasty fish n’ chip eateries.
Feilding, North Island
A frequent winner of the Most Beautiful Town award, Feilding boasts grand Edwardian architecture, boutique shops and lots of rural charm. If you enjoy art, take a stroll around the central business district where you’ll see murals created by a local artist. Explore the Coach House museum and Manfeild Racing Circuit and visit Feilding Saleyards where a livestock sale has been held in town since 1880. If you visit on a Friday you can take a guided tour and visit the weekly farmers’ market too.
Mangawhai, North Island
Mangawhai is just 62 miles north of Auckland but it feels like worlds away, offering a tranquil experience for surfing Pacific beaches or kayaking through the serene harbor framed by sand dunes. One of the must-dos here is the Mangawhai Cliff Walk, a 5.6-mile roundtrip trek that reveals breathtaking coastal scenery along a well-marked trail. If you’re here on a Saturday morning you can sample local produce and pick up authentic New Zealand souvenirs at the Mangawhai Village Market.
Mangaweka, North Island
Mangaweka is located between Taupo and Wellington at the northern end of the Manawatu Scenic Route. You’ll know you’re there when you see the iconic DC3 aircraft that sits right alongside the main highway. The town has a very interesting historic main street, preserved in its original state as if it was frozen in time, making for some great photo-ops. it also boasts an increasingly thriving artists’ community that’s resulted in some outstanding galleries. Nearby, enjoy swimming, rafting and kayaking in the Rangitikei River.
Akaroa, South Island
Historic Akaroa lies on an old volcano, with its ancient walls still surrounding the village. It was settled by the French 1840 and you can still see many French influences in the local businesses. The main reason to visit, however, is to take advantage of the walks available with routes of varying lengths that can be accessed right from the village. With its connection to the sea, it’s also a great spot for enjoying water sports and watching for marine life like the world’s smallest dolphin, the Hector’s dolphin, and whales.
Hokitika, South Island
The gold rush sparked the founding of Hokitika in the 1860s, but today it may best be known for its jade, or New Zealand greenstone. It’s a must-stop for learning about the stone, to watch it being carved and to buy a unique piece for yourself or as a gift. You’ll have the chance to meet with the greenstone and bone carvers along with sculptors, painters, glass blowers, potters, metal workers and more. This is also a beach town, with the sea practically lapping the main street. Around dusk, get a bonfire burning and enjoy a colorful sunset.
Kaikoura, South Island
This picturesque coastal town along the north end of the east coast on the South Island is famous for its marine life as one of the top spots for whale and dolphin watching in the country. Kaikoura also boasts a beautiful coastline with a backdrop of soaring mountains, which means just taking a walk here and enjoying the scenery can make for a great time. The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway winds from the center of town leading to lookout points at Point Kean. Nearby the rock platforms are home to a colony of New Zealand fur seals.
Glenorchy, South Island
Glenorchy is a frontier town located at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, a 45-minute drive from Queenstown. It’s surrounded by stunning snow-capped mountain peaks, ancient beech forests, pristine rivers and lakes at the edge of Fiordland and Mount Inspiring national parks. Not surprisingly, it’s been the setting for a number of films, including “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” The sleepy town isn’t filled with shops and bars, but you will find a general store for picking up provisions, and it’s the perfect spot for enjoying the great outdoors, including fishing, horseback riding, hiking and scenic flights.
Oamaru, South Island
Oamaru is a popular spot for watching penguins, with the rare yellow-eyed penguins often hanging out at Bushy Beach while little blue penguins can be seen around the harbor district. In this self-proclaimed “Steampunk Capital of New Zealand,” it’s fun to wander through, gazing up at magnificent Victorian architecture and experiencing the off-beat art culture The historic harbor was once an active, vital port in the 19th-century, and it was recently given new life while offering a walkway that links the site of the penguin colony with the Oamaru Harbour Tourist Park. It also passes the world’s preeminent public display of Steampunk machinery.