It’s not hard to work out why the North Island’s Waikato region is known to New Zealanders as ‘The Mighty Waikato’.
It’s home to some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most dramatic and magical natural wonders. From deep limestone caves and plunging waterfalls, to craggy coastline and the country’s longest river, the Waikato (meaning ‘flowing water’ in Māori language), awe-inspiring sights abound.
Kirikiriroa Hamilton is the region’s largest city and administrative centre. Located just over an hour’s drive from Auckland Airport, it’s the ideal base for exploring everything The Mighty Waikato has to offer.
Here are ten of the best things to do in in Hamilton and the Waikato.
The award-winning Hamilton Gardens should be at the top of your to-do list in Hamilton. Located on the edge of the Waikato River in the city’s east, this themed floral wonderland has something to offer everyone. Over the course of more than forty years, the gardens have evolved to encompass a wide variety of designs and themes. Entry is free, but visitor donations fund maintenance and new plantings. There’s an on-site information centre and gift store, along with an excellent café and restaurant. To get the most out of your visit, consider booking a guided tour (which I highly recommend). It doesn’t matter what time of the year you visit; the gardens change dramatically with the seasons and there’s always something stunning to see.
When you’re done blissing out amongst the blooms, get to know the Waikato River on a sightseeing cruise. Life in Hamilton and the wider Waikato region revolves around this lengthy waterway, which stretches for 425 kilometres from Mount Ruapehu to Lake Taupo, and on to Port Waikato. Waikato River Explorer offers a two-hour cruise, departing from Waikato Museum’s city jetty. Enjoy a beverage or bite to eat from the licensed on-board cafe as you soak up the scenery and commentary on points of interest along the way. There’s also a ferry service that runs at various times between the Hamilton Gardens and CBD. The trip takes 15 minutes and is a hassle-free way to travel from one to the other.
Hamilton Zoo houses more than six hundred native and exotic animals, and plays an active role in the conservation of endangered species through education, research and breeding programmes. Spread over 25 hectares north-west of the city, there’s a lot of ground to cover — but that also means the enclosures are spacious and have plenty of room for the larger animals to roam. Top attractions include the Sumatran tigers, southern white rhinos and chimpanzees. The zoo also has New Zealand’s largest walk-through aviary, and you’ll spot a number of native birds that are rarely seen in the wild. Free talks by zookeepers are offered throughout the day, so check the schedule when you arrive.
Those who love a good cup of char are in for a treat in Hamilton. Located on the northern outskirts of town, Zealong Tea Estate is the only commercial tea estate in New Zealand — making it a unique experience for most visitors. Zealong serves a traditional high tea from Wednesday to Sunday, which showcases local produce and can be upgraded to include a cheeky bottle of bubbles. Guided tours and tastings are also popular, and you can take home your tea of choice from the onsite store.
A good cuppa isn’t the only thing brewing in Hamilton. From humble beginnings in the old St George Church in Frankton back in 2012, Good George Brewing has expanded tenfold and now has venues across the country. Their ales and ciders can also be found in pubs throughout Hamilton and the Waikato, but you can’t beat taste-testing the pride of this success story at the source. Drop by the Good George Dining Hall to do a brewery tour and discover what goes into the creation of their amber drops.
Prior to the pandemic, half a million visitors flocked to the Waikato region every year to walk in the fantasy footsteps of Bilbo Baggins at the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata. Right now the crowds are non-existent, making this the perfect time to enjoy a less frenetic stroll through The Shire in Middle-earth. At just 40 minutes’ drive from Hamilton, it makes a great day trip and brings the magic of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies to life. Even while things are quiet, it’s advisable to book in advance.
An hour south of Hamilton by car will bring you to Waitomo Village, which is best known for its subterranean marvels. The famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves will light up the faces of all ages. Take a boat ride through an ancient cave system full of glowworms, accompanied by a local Māori guide. Tours depart every 30 throughout across the day.
Thrillsters may like to ramp up the adrenalin flow on a range of adventure-based experiences. Go black water rafting (tubing in rapids below ground) with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, or delve deep into ‘The Lost World’ with Waitomo Adventures. It involves an exhilarating 100-metre free-hanging abseil — the highest commercial course of its kind on the planet!
If sun, sand and surf sound like the ideal holiday combo, Raglan on the Waikato’s west coast is the destination for you. Just a 40-minute drive from Hamilton, this popular surf town is well known for some of the longest left-hand point breaks in the world. However, you don’t have to be an experienced surfer to tackle the waves; Raglan Surf School will get you upright in no time.
Surfing isn’t all this popular spot has to offer. Check in with Raglan Rock, which offers canyoning, caving and rock climbing. Take a drive out to the popular and totally gorgeous Bridal Veil Falls, or hike up Mount Karioi for incredible views. You can do as much or as little as you like, and Raglan offers a range of accommodation options to suit all budgets.
Heading into the heart of the North Island east of Hamilton, Te Aroha may look like a quaint rural town but don’t be fooled. Located on the northern side of the Kaimai Ranges, this is the gateway to a range of outdoor adventures. As the highest peak on the Kaimai Ranges, the popular Mount Te Aroha summit climb offers incredible vistas across the Waikato. Drive for another 20 minutes to reach the start of the Wairere Falls Track — a five-kilometre return trek to the North Island’s highest waterfall. This is a very popular walk, especially on weekends, so a weekday hike is the way to go if you can swing it.
A stay in Te Aroha also puts you right on the Hauraki Rail Trail — a two hundred-kilometre cycling track split into five different sections. From Te Aroha you can head south to Matamata, or north to Paeroa to connect with the other three sections.
There’s nothing like finishing off a day’s hiking or biking by taking a soak in a soothing mineral spa. Te Aroha Mineral Spas offers the opportunity to revive those tired muscles in wooden baths filled with warm mineral infused water. They also offer a range of massages and beauty treatments.
If you have a need for speed, Hampton Downs has the wheels to match. This world-class motorsport park hosts a number of major events each year, attracting thousands of racing fans to the bleachers. But you can get a lot closer to the action by booking one of several high octane hands-on experiences, including a ride in a Supercar, hot-lapping in a V8, and getting behind the wheel of the Hampton Downs Go Karts. This petrol heads’ paradise is conveniently located on State Highway One between Hamilton and Auckland.
The stylish Novotel Hamilton Tainui is located right in the heart of Hamilton (adjacent to the river) and features a range of room types. From business travellers to family groups, there’s something here to suit every kind of traveller. The hotel has onsite parking, a gym and sauna, and two dining options — Restaurant on Alma and The Lobby Bar. There are all the amenities and comforts you would expect from a hotel of this standard.
If you want to escape city life altogether, a luxury farm stay could be the answer. Situated less than 30 minutes by car from Waitomo, Kamahi Cottage is a relaxed retreat from the outside world, and is perfect for a romantic getaway. The surrounding garden overlooks rural farmland in the direction of the Otorohanga township (just a 15-minute drive away). And of course, you can get starry-eyed in the nearby glowworm caves. Request your included home-cooked breakfast to be delivered to you, or join hosts Liz and Evan in their home. They’re great company!
Cambridge Top 10 Holiday Park offers good value accommodation, including self-contained cabins, holiday units and motel rooms. But one of the best things about a stay here is the location. You’re centrally positioned between Hamilton, Waitomo, Raglan, Matamata and more, putting everything we’ve covered in this guide within easy reach.
Cambridge itself is an idyllic town with a renowned dining scene, so finding a place to eat is always a breeze.
The writer travelled as a guest of Hamilton and Waikato Tourism.
For more inspiration, visit www.waikatonz.com.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Hamilton and the Waikato region? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Hamilton Gardens. Additional images: Bigstock
Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. At the end of 2015, Karllie left her teaching profession, sold her home and became a nomad for the next few years. It sparked a real passion for budget solo travel, which she now loves to inspire others to do. In the last few years alone, Karllie has visited over twenty countries and ticked off more than 50 cities across three continents. She loves the great outdoors — especially hiking and anything to do with the ocean.