New Zealand Travel Guide: Everything to Know Before You Go

by EvanBEdler
cover image of mountains and scenery near Queenstown
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Are you dreaming of exploring New Zealand, or already planning your trip? If this stunning country isn’t already on your bucket list, it definitely should be! This New Zealand travel guide covers everything you’ll need to know about this incredible destination.

Welcome to New Zealand, a land where fjords meet rainforests, and snow-capped peaks gaze down upon sun-kissed beaches. With landscapes so diverse they’ve captured the imaginations of filmmakers and adventurers alike, New Zealand promises more than just a journey—it offers an experience. From the geothermal wonders of Rotorua to the bustling urban vibes of Auckland, every corner beckons with a story, an adventure, or a view that defies belief.

Travelers from around the world have raved about New Zealand for centuries, and rightfully so. This gem of the South Pacific is full of natural wonders, rich cultural history, and welcoming people. Traveling to New Zealand is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, so it’s important to make the most out of your trip!

Read on to learn everything you need to know before going to New Zealand. In this New Zealand travel guide we’ll cover logistics, itinerary ideas, history, and more. By the end, you’ll be prepared and excited for land of legends that awaits! Here’s the A-Z on visiting New Zealand in 2023.


Guest Post by Evan Edler


A New Zealand travel guide for all types of travelers
This New Zealand travel guide contains affiliate links, where I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

The History of New Zealand: Māori & Pākehā

New Zealand’s rich history has a huge influence on its modern-day culture, so it’s important to learn a bit about it before you go! The first people to settle in New Zealand were the Māori, who came from Polynesian islands by canoe. They called the country Aotearoa, and hunted and gathered on its lands to grow their civilization. The Māori lived on the island without disruption until the arrival of European explorers.

The Dutch were the first to land on New Zealand soil, in 1642 (and the country gets its name from the Dutch name of Nieuw Zeeland). But it was the English that colonized New Zealand, with Captain James Cook being the first to circumnavigate and map it. As with most other English colonies, the settlers brought weapons and disease that wiped out a large portion of the Māori population. In 1840, the British Crown and the Māori people signed the Treaty of Waitangi, although work to protect Māori rights has continued into the 21st century. In the Māori language, New Zealanders of European descent are referred to as Pākehā.

Where is New Zealand?

New Zealand sits in the South Pacific Ocean, east of Australia’s massive landmass. New Zealand is made up of two main islands – the North Island and the South Island – as well as over 700 smaller islands. Its land is around the same size as Japan, but is home to only 5 million people. 

So what’s the difference between the two islands? The North Island is known for natural features like geysers, volcanoes, and hot springs. Most travelers will go through its largest city, Auckland, a hub for shopping and culture. Islands north of Auckland offer tropical beaches and luxurious wineries, ideal for honeymooners or romantics. The South Island has dramatic scenery made for the big screen – you might recognize Milford Sound from Mission Impossible or Marvel movies. Its mountainous terrain hosts glaciers, fjords, and the most dramatic snowsports you can imagine. 

map of new zealand for travel purposes
There are so many amazing places to see in New Zealand, where should you start? (source: newzealandmap360.com)

Why isn’t New Zealand on my map?

Once you see this phenomenon, you can’t unsee it! Due to its location in the bottom right corner of Mercator projection maps, New Zealand is often left off of world maps. Famous examples include board games, IKEA prints, and international sporting events. If you travel to New Zealand, you’ll be helping to #getnzonthemap!

Why should you go to New Zealand?

Due to its remote location, going to New Zealand can seem daunting for travelers, especially coming from the US or Europe. I’m here to tell you that if you can make the journey, you won’t regret it! New Zealand is one of the most unique places I’ve visited, and I’m hoping to go back ASAP! The people were incredibly welcoming, and the culture is a vibrant mix between its English heritage and the influence of its Asian neighbors. The landscape is dramatic and incredibly varied – where else can you see rainforest, fjord, and glacier on the same hill? 

views from Queenstown, New Zealand
So far from home, New Zealand feels like a totally different world!

New Zealand offers travel experience of all kinds – adventure seekers should visit the South Island in the winter, and snowboard down glaciers. Those looking for a relaxing vacation should go to the North Island in the summer, and treat themselves to sandy beaches and romantic vineyards. No matter what you do with your time in New Zealand, you definitely won’t forget it!

Logistics in New Zealand

Because of its remote location, traveling to New Zealand might seem overwhelming. Let’s break down the basics to make sure you’re totally prepared for your trip!

Currency in New Zealand

New Zealand’s currency is the New Zealand dollar, which you’ll see written with a dollar sign ($). As of July 2023, one New Zealand dollar is equal to 0.56 Euros, or 0.62 US dollars. Though many tourists get confused, New Zealand and Australia do not use the same currency! The Australian dollar is similar in value, but not quite the same, and will not be accepted in New Zealand. 

Language in New Zealand

English is by far the most common language in New Zealand. The dialect sounds similar to Australian English, but you’ll definitely hear some key differences. New Zealand also has two other official languages: New Zealand Sign Language, and Māori. Māori was an endangered language, and today you’ll see it alongside English on signs and in tourist destinations all over the country in an effort to revive it. Many cities and natural features have Māori names, so to sound like a local you’ll want to look up their pronunciation.

road sign seen while traveling New Zealand
Though Maori is making a comeback, you’ll mostly see English in official settings.

Electricity in New Zealand

New Zealand uses the I plug type, also used in Australia. Both countries use a voltage of 230 V and a frequency of 50 Hz. It’s important to note that not all “universal” travel adaptors have this type of outlet, so you’ll want to double check yours or pick some up when you land!

Driving in New Zealand

Due to its English influence, traffic drives on the left in New Zealand! There might be signs near airports and city centers, but this is super important to remember!

Time in New Zealand

New Zealand uses one time zone, with daylight savings in the summer. New Zealand Standard Time (GMT+12) is 11 hours ahead of London, and 2 hours ahead of Sydney.

What’s the weather like in New Zealand?

The first thing to know about New Zealand’s climate is that the seasons are reversed from those of the Northern Hemisphere. Summer in the US and Europe is winter in New Zealand, and vice versa. This means that their summer high season happens from December to February, and June to August are off-season. I recommend traveling in the fall – May in New Zealand was lovely, with gorgeous foliage similar to New England. 

New Zealand sees lots of sunshine and lots of rain, and the weather can change pretty quickly. In general, the North Island is warmer, and the South Island is colder and sees more snowfall. Temperatures are pretty mild year-round, with the extremes being the northern shore or the southern mountains. Essentials for any trip include sunglasses, a raincoat, and lots of layers!

Where to go in New Zealand

There are countless amazing places to visit and things to do in New Zealand, but it would be impossible to see every inch of the country in one trip. Let’s narrow down some of the best New Zealand has to offer, to help you plan the best trip you can!

Auckland

Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest city, and is the main transportation hub of the country. You can reach Auckland from the US, Asia, and other cities in Oceania. It’s a small but metropolitan city, with a laid-back energy. Auckland is also surrounded by gorgeous natural landscapes, visible from the city’s iconic SkyTower. Many travelers use Auckland as a layover, but there’s a lot more to see than just the shops of Queen Street!

skyline of auckland
Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest metropolis, but still has a cozy small-city feel!

Auckland’s small but bustling Central Business District (CBD) is full of shops and restaurants, ranging from international chains to local indie stores. There’s a large pedestrian area by the waterfront, near the city’s train station. Other highlights include Albert Park, and its Auckland Art Gallery. Walk around the campus of the University of Auckland, and imagine yourself studying in such a scenic city. Venture out to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It sits at the top of Auckland Domain, the city’s largest park, which is full of gardens, ponds, and other sights.

Rotorua

A popular day trip from Auckland, Rotorua is well worth a stop when visiting New Zealand’s North Island. Rotorua gets its name from Lake Rotorua, and is known for its unique geothermal activities. There are hot mud pools and active geysers – the most famous being the Pōhutu Geyser. Tons of tour companies will teach tourists about the natural and cultural history of the area, and you’ll definitely learn something new! Rotorua is also a great place to discover the Māori heritage of New Zealand, excellent for history buffs!

Wellington

At the bottom of the North Island is Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. It borders the Cook Strait, and the location gives it waterfront promenades and beaches. Its iconic red cable car carries tourists up from the main shopping district to a lookout with beautiful views over the city and the bay. If you’re feeling more active, you can hike up to the top of Mount Victoria. You should also stop in at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to learn about the country’s history and culture. 

Christchurch

Though the North Island has enough sights and activities to keep you busy for days, the highlight of most trips to New Zealand is the South Island. It’s famous for its natural beauty, including mountains, fjords, rainforests, and more. The biggest city on the South Island is Christchurch, which makes it a great home base to explore all the South Island has to offer! A small but quirky city, its architecture, museums, and parks are sure to excite. Stroll through the Botanic Gardens and the Christchurch Art Gallery before making your way deeper into the South Island.

view from queenstown, new zealand
Queenstown’s city center is adorable, and has amazing views of the surrounding landscape!

Queenstown

Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. Nestled in the middle of the South Island, on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, this small city packs a big punch. Its adorable downtown area is home to sports shops, boutiques, and restaurants galore, busy and bustling on any sunny weekend day. The hotels and apartments in the area are almost all outfitted to fit a summer or winter getaway, as Queenstown is a hub of winter sports as well as summer tourism. You can rent snowboards, mountain bikes, jet skis, or anything else you can imagine. 

Plus, the city’s setting is absurdly scenic. The mountain range to the south is called the Remarkables, and with good reason. I recommend spending as much time on the shore of the lake as possible, especially as sunsets and sunrises over the mountain peaks are stunning. The Queenstown Gardens make for a great excursion, and you can take wonderful day trips to places like Glenorchy and Arrowtown, or guided excursions to Milford or Doubtful Sound.

How to get around New Zealand

New Zealand’s size, as well as its island nature, can make it a bit intimidating to get around. The best way to travel over long distances within New Zealand is by plane – domestic flights are frequent, comfortable, and relatively inexpensive between all major cities. If you’re looking for a public transport option on the ground, New Zealand’s best option is the InterCity bus network. The country also has three main train lines, but they’re more scenic than practical. 

For the most flexibility, you’ll want to rent your own vehicle. Most major car rental companies are present on both the North and South Islands, at airports and throughout big cities. Driving through New Zealand, you can’t go more than a few minutes without seeing a camper van. Camper vans are a popular rental choice because they double as transportation and accommodation, ideal for hiking, trekking, and other outdoor adventures in the Kiwi wilderness. We mostly saw Britz on the road, but other companies such as Jucy also offer a wide variety of rentals. 

Where to stay in New Zealand

New Zealand has tons of travel accommodation options to fit all budgets and itineraries – here I’ve listed some options for each of the biggest tourist cities. 

Interested in accommodation in other parts of the world?

Auckland

Looking to visit Auckland in the near future? Here are the top places to stay in Auckland, New Zealand:

The Attic Backpackers

Situated just a block from Queen Street, the Attic is just minutes from all of Auckland’s best attractions. As its name suggests, the top floor hosts a deck with a dining area and common lounge areas. They offer dorm rooms, female-only options, and private or twin rooms as well. Starting at just under 50 New Zealand dollars, this hostel offers a great bang for your buck in the center of Auckland. 

Avani Metropolis Auckland

This hotel sits right next to Albert Park, and towers high among the tallest buildings in Auckland’s skyline. Its suites are large and comfortable, and offer amazing views in any direction. There’s a pool and a gym, and you’ll be just a few steps away from any shop or restaurant you might need. You can find suites for less than 250 New Zealand dollars per night, so you’ll get a taste of luxury without spending too much!

Wellington

Taking a trip to New Zealand’s capital? Here are some of the best places to stay in Wellington, NZ:

The Marion Hostel

Just on the edge of Wellington’s CBD, the Marion is surrounded by restaurants and nightlife. It offers a rooftop deck, lounge areas with Netflix, and dormitory-style or private rooms starting at under 100 New Zealand dollars a night. It’s comfortable, clean, and a great space to chill out, meet new people, or even get some work done. 

The Cobbler Hotel

The Cobbler is right in the heart of the action in Wellington. It’s brand-new and super comfortable, so you might struggle to get out of bed and see the sights! The staff are attentive and helpful, making your time in Wellington even better! Studio rooms cost over 400 New Zealand Dollars, so this one’s better for those with a bit of a bigger budget. 

Christchurch

Need a place to lay your head on the South Island? These are the best accommodation options in Christchurch, New Zealand:

Urbanz

Not even 10 years old, Urbanz is one of Christchurch’s newest and most exciting accommodation options! You can choose between shared and private rooms, and there are on-site common rooms and a bar. There are also laundry and kitchen facilities available – all the convenience you could need! Bars, cafes, and restaurants are right outside the door, and you can walk to all of the best tourist attractions!

The Observatory Hotel

Right in the center of Christchurch, the Observatory offers luxury at a mid-range price! This hotel offers private parking, continental breakfast, and more. If you’re looking to stay active, check out the fitness center or rent a bike from the front desk! Rooms range from basic to opulent, so you can choose how much splurging you’d like to do!

Queenstown

Queenstown is a hub for sports and adventure, which will definitely tire you out! Here are the best places to stay on a trip to Queenstown, New Zealand:

Absoloot Hostel Queenstown

The Absoloot Hostel is on Queenstown’s lakefront, in the heart of its most beautiful and popular area. There is a communal kitchen, and a separate laundry room that is super convenient. The whole hostel is comfortable and cool, and you’re sure to make other adventurous friends. Plus, the reception is happy to help you book any type of excursion you might need into the surrounding area. 

Blue Peaks Lodge

Though it looks like a motel from the outside, the Blue Peaks Lodge has the comfort of a hotel! Its rooms can get up to 500 New Zealand dollars, so backpackers might want to pass on this one, but it’s definitely worth the money! They offer parking spots, ski and snowboard storage, and other amenities. Plus, the rooms are modern and spacious, with great views over the Queenstown Gardens.

New Zealand naval flag on the side of a boat
No matter how you get around New Zealand, you’ll see amazing sights and cities!

Example itineraries

Planning to travel to New Zealand and don’t know where to start? Here I’ll lay out some options and ideas, ranging from a short break to a long vacation!

Weekend in Auckland

Just traveling through New Zealand in transit, or if you’re looking for a weekend getaway? Because AKL is the biggest airport, we’ll take a look at a weekend guide to Auckland

Start your first day in Auckland by walking around Albert Park and, then head into the Auckland Art Gallery. The gallery has an expansive collection in a beautiful space, and makes for a lovely introduction to Auckland. Then make your way over to the SkyTower, to catch the best views of the city. It’s pricey, but worth it! Finish your afternoon by checking out the shops on Queen Street, and have dinner on one of the cute side streets near Freyberg Square for a relaxing end to your first day in Auckland. 

On day two, head down Queen Street to the waterfront. If you’re itching to do some more shopping, spend some time exploring the Commercial Bay shopping center! Then head out towards Auckland Domain. This massive park has tons to offer, and is a great place to spend an afternoon! First, learn about New Zealand’s history at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and enjoy the views over the city. Next, check out the Domain Wintergardens and fernery, where you’ll find beautiful plants from all over the world. Before ending your day, walk back into the city by way of the University of Auckland, to see the architecture or people-watch!

If you have an extra day in Auckland, you should look into a day trip outside of the city! The two most popular options are trips to Rotorua or to Waiheke Island. Rotorua is full of natural wonders such as geysers and geothermal hot springs. Waiheke Island is known for sandy white beaches and vineyards, and is a great choice for those wanting a taste of luxury!

Queenstown & the South Island in a Week

If you have a bit more time to travel around New Zealand, I’d recommend checking out the scenery of the South Island. Queenstown is the best home base for this, and there are plenty of accommodations for all budgets. There’s also tons of great restaurants, like the breakfast joint Balls and Bangles or the world-famous Fergburger. You can take a number of day tours, but renting your own car is the best and most economic option. Here are some side trips from Queenstown!

Glenorchy is a small town on Lake Wakatipu, and the drive there from Queenstown is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. There are small shops and restaurants, and great views over the lake. In the opposite direction, Arrowtown is a historical mining town that offers great souvenir shops, boutiques, and even a bookstore/movie theater. It’s especially scenic in the fall, and the journey there will take you past rolling farms and a gorge! Both of these towns are less than an hour away from Queenstown by car. 

dock on the harbor of Queenstown
Queenstown’s waterfront promenade is so gorgeous you won’t want to leave!

Just two hours to the south of Queenstown is Te Anau, a small tourist city. Te Anau is an ideal spot to visit the natural attractions of the South Island, especially Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. It is not recommended to self-drive to either of these sounds, so you’ll want to take a guided tour. Tours are available from Queenstown, but all stop in Te Anau, so it might be worth it to spend a few nights there as well! There’s loads of restaurants and some cute shops, and you can even go to a wild bird sanctuary! 

Two Weeks in New Zealand’s Cities

For this two week itinerary, you’ll want to split your time traveling between New Zealand’s four biggest tourist cities: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown. Spending 3-4 days in each city will allow you to see as much as possible, with plenty of room for day trips. This will give you the best sense of the country, and is totally customizable to your interests! Plus, all of these cities are easily connected by plane, train, or bus, so you won’t have to worry about finding your own transportation. 

Start in Auckland, spending a few days in the city and taking a day tour or two to Rotorua and/or Waiheke Island. Then, head south to Wellington. The capital city has tons to offer, and is much more laid-back than the bustle of Auckland. If you think you’ve seen enough of the North Island, head to Christchurch. Its architecture and atmosphere will give you a great introduction to the South Island! Finally, head inland to Queenstown. There, you can take side trips to some of the most beautiful places in the world, the national parks of the South Island. 

Trying to figure out how to plan your next trip?

What to watch / read / listen to before going to New Zealand

Before I go to a new country, I always find it fun to get in the right headspace by watching movies, reading books, or listening to music made in/about that place. Here are some of the best pieces of media to get you excited to travel to New Zealand!

Watch:

Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

One of New Zealand’s biggest claims to fame is its role as a character in the Lord of the Rings films! Loads of tour groups will show you all of the most iconic filming locations – and even if you’re not a superfan, they cover some beautiful scenery! These movies were filmed across both the North and South Islands, and the gorgeous setting will hype you up!

sheep in a field near Queenstown, New Zealand
New Zealand’s natural scenery is the backdrop of tons of movies and TV shows!

Mission Impossible – Fallout (2018)

This 2018 addition to the Mission Impossible series takes Ethan Hunt and his team to the extraordinary Milford Sound. In the movie, the Impossible Mission team finds themselves in Kashmir, India – but in reality, those scenes were shot in and around Milford Sound on New Zealand’s South Island. Tom Cruise takes to a helicopter, meaning there are plenty of great shots of the scenic surroundings! This area was also used in a scene in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Whale Rider (2002)

This emotional film features themes of love, loss, and triumph – and tons of gorgeous New Zealand scenery! It was filmed on the North Island, and shows off much of the stunning coastline that the country has to offer. The story revolves around Māori culture, so this movie is a great way to learn more about New Zealand’s people as well as its landscape. 

Read:

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

One of the most iconic pieces of Kiwi literature, The Luminaries takes place in the late 1800s, the Victorian era of New Zealand’s history. It examines the Europeans who came to New Zealand at that time, and their interactions with the indigenous Māori people. The novel won the Man Booker Prize, and would make for a great read on the long flight to Auckland!

The Bone People, by Keri Hulme

Another winner of the Man Booker Prize, this mystery novel is an entertaining read with a bigger message. Its characters come from European and Māori backgrounds, and their interactions reflect the history of the nation. The story takes place on the South Island, and is undeniably a fascinating look into New Zealand’s culture. 

Listen:

Looking to listen to some new music before your trip? The two most famous musicians from New Zealand are Lorde, a pop singer from Auckland who reached fame in her early teen years, and Keith Urban, a well-awarded country artist from Whangārei. Other iconic Kiwi performers include Hayley Westenra, Phill Judd, Kimbra, and Brooke Fraser. You’ll need a long playlist for that flight!

Real Groovy record store in Auckland, New Zealand
If you’re interested in the music of New Zealand, check out the Real Groovy record store in Auckland!

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about going on vacation in New Zealand

Looking to dive deeper into all the cool and exciting things in New Zealand travel? Here are some common questions (and answers) you should know about:

What should I eat in New Zealand?

New Zealand’s cuisine is quite similar to that of Western Europe or the United States, with a few differences. Because it’s an island nation, there’s an abundance of fresh seafood of all kinds. Plus, there’s a lot of Asian influence due to its proximity. You’ll find authentic Chinese, Korean, and Japanese food especially! In recent years, loads of vegetarian and vegan restaurants have popped up all around the country, so there’s something for every diet.

Why are New Zealanders called Kiwis?

This nickname comes from the kiwi bird, which is found only in New Zealand. It was only popularized as recently as the 20th century, when cartoonists represented New Zealand and its people with images of the bird. Soldiers in the First World War referred to those from New Zealand as kiwis, which brought the term internationally, and it stuck!

Is New Zealand open for tourism?

Yes, New Zealand is open to and actively encouraging tourism! Most tourists will need a visa or visa waiver, and will have to pay a tourism tax. New Zealand no longer requires COVID testing or vaccinations, but both are recommended. Once you’ve gotten your paperwork taken care of, you’re almost ready to hop on that plane!

When is the best time to go to New Zealand?

Deciding when to travel to New Zealand really depends on your interests and priorities. If you want to soak in the sun on the North Island, you might want the summer heat. Just be prepared to deal with some crowds in those December-February months! If you’re looking for the thrill of winter sports in Queenstown, you’ll want to go during the winter. Overall, the best time to go is in the fall, around April-May. This is a shoulder season, so tourist prices won’t be at their peak. Plus, the foliage and scenery are gorgeous, with fewer people in the way!

Fall foliage in Queenstown
New Zealand’s foliage comes out in April/May, and the fall temperatures are lovely!

Do I need a visa to go to New Zealand?

All travelers that do not have a passport from either Australia or New Zealand must apply for a visa before traveling to New Zealand. Some countries offer visa waivers, but you will still need to register with immigration services. The application is quick and easy, and entirely online. Your request might be processed in just a few minutes, but it could take up to a few weeks in times of high demand. Always plan ahead! You can check what kind of documentation you need on this official New Zealand Immigration site

Can US citizens visit New Zealand?

Yes, US citizens can (and should!) travel to New Zealand! There’s just a few things you’ll need. You can apply for an NZeTA, effectively a visa, online. This process costs about 20 NZ dollars, and takes only a few days. You’ll also have to pay a tourism tax of 35 NZ dollars called the IVL. Make sure you check the requirements of any other countries you might travel through in transit as well!

Is New Zealand LGBTQ+ friendly?

Yes! New Zealand is considered to be one of the safest and most welcoming countries in the world for queer travelers! There are queer spaces such as LGBTQ+ bars in most major cities, and the population is generally welcoming. You’ll also find tons of travel experiences aimed towards queer travelers! You can even learn about the history of LGBTQ+ artists in New Zealand by stopping in at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Final thoughts on this New Zealand travel guide

If there’s anything you should take away from this article, it should be: take the trip! New Zealand is one of the most unique and amazing places I’ve been, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

No matter how long you spend there, you’ll be amazed by the people, the cities, the landscape, and everything in between. In every shimmering bay, atop every rugged mountain, and within the heart of its bustling cities, New Zealand radiates a magic that’s both ancient and ever-evolving.

For most travelers, especially those coming from the US or Europe, traveling to New Zealand seems impossible. But keep an eye out for good flight deals, and make the most of the reversed seasons! Whether you’re looking for luxury, relaxation, or adventure, you’ll find it and more in New Zealand!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Evan B. Edler is a full-time student and part-time traveler born in Amsterdam, raised in Boston, and currently living in Dublin. A first-year in university, he explores Europe on the weekends and books flights during class. You can (try to) keep up with his adventures at @evanbedler.

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