As Queenstown is the adventure capital of the South Island, Rotorua is definitely the North Island equivalent, with the added bonus of geothermal activity and a strong connection to its Maori cultural roots.
Growing up in the North Island, I can’t tell you the first time I visited, but it was somewhere we frequently took holidays and it’s still a favourite with locals and travellers from overseas, thanks to all of the things to do in Rotorua. There are so many great Rotorua attractions and even having visited countless times over the years, I always find something new to do!
These are the top things to do in Rotorua and the top Rotorua attractions you should plan to visit during your stay.
Skyline Rotorua encompasses a range of activities found on the hill behind Rotorua. I’ve been going here since I was a child and it’s still one of my favourite places in New Zealand! Jump on a Gondola and head up the mountain for beautiful views over the city and Lake Rotorua. From there you can do zip lining, mountain biking, wander natural trails or enjoy wine tasting and food overlooking the view.
But by far my favourite thing to do is the luge! I honestly don’t know why this hasn’t caught on more in other places around the world. Basically, you sit in a black luge-like cart with bicycle-like handlebars and wind your way down tracks on the side of the mountain. Hard to explain but it’s awesome!
White Water Rafting
The Kaituna River is rated a Class V for white water rafting, mostly thanks to two large waterfalls, one of which is 7 metres high and the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. I can’t say it’s something I’ve dreamed of doing, but since it was our honeymoon in New Zealand my husband convinced me to give it a go. It was terrifying but exhilarating and amazing at the same time! We went with Kaitiaki Adventures and the guys who were our guides were so great the whole trip. Highly recommended!
Explore the Geothermal areas
The first thing you will probably notice about Rotorua is the smell. Thanks to the geothermal activity in the area the smell of sulphur is strong in the city. There are plenty of different Geothermal areas to explore, where you can see geysers shooting into the sky, natural to springs and pools, and Mars-like landscapes with hot steam pouring from vents into the air. Some options are Kuirau Park, Te Puia, Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Hells Gate Geothermal Park. They all offer something a little different.
We really enjoyed visiting Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, which is about a half an hour drive from the city. The Champagne pool with it’s turquoise-blue waters edged with flaming orange rock was a sight to behold for sure!
Maori villages and performances
Rotorua is a great place to learn more about Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, and their culture. This is something I grew up with and even took part in Maori cultural group performances at school, and I forget how amazing it can be for visitors to have an insight into a culture they may have previously known nothing about.
There are several Maori villages where you can take a tour, learn about culture and traditions, enjoy a meal and watch a cultural show.
Rotorua Lake adventures
While you’re in Rotorua, don’t neglect activities on the lake. The Lakeland Queen is a steam-paddled cruiser offers daily breakfast, lunch, or coffee cruises around the lake. There’s also stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking tours.
Redwoods at Whakarewarewa Forest
Whakarewarewa Forest is home to a huge number of towering Californian Coast Redwoods, surrounding beautiful walking tracks and some of the best mountain biking trails in the country. The forest was decimated by the Mount Tarawera explosion as well, and although native New Zealand trees were planted these can take around 200-300 years to mature, so the much faster growing Redwoods were also used.
Te Wairoa, or the Buried Village, is the most visited archaeological site in New Zealand. It sits close to the banks of Lake Tarawera, 20 minutes drive from Rotorua, and was once a thriving community that saw many visitors on their way to the Pink and White Terraces, a natural wonder similar to Pammukale in Turkey today. Sadly, both were destroyed and buried in the 1886 eruption of the volcano, Mount Tarawera. The village has since been excavated and provides an insight into life in New Zealand at the time. The beautiful green and blue lakes nearby are also worth a visit.
Thermal Swimming Springs & Pools
While many of the geothermal areas have pools of water far too hot for swimming, there are also designated hot pools and free natural hot springs where you can enjoy the thermal waters. Kuirau Park and Kerosene Creek are areas where you can dip your feet in and swim for free, but there’s also the Polynesian Spa on the Rotorua lakefront. We loved relaxing at the end of the day in their natural pools with views out across the lake.
Velocity Valley Adventure Park
Want to try bungy jumping, jet boating, or take a giant swing? Head along to the Velocity Valley Adventure Park. They offer six different speed-related adrenalin activities for both children and adults.
The Rotorua Museum is housed in the Old Bath House in the Government Gardens, dating from 1908. This building is an icon in pictures of Rotorua, and somewhere I remember playing outside of as a child. Unfortunately, after recent earthquakes, the building was found to be below current earthquake standards and is currently waiting to be repaired. It is still possible to view from the outside and the Rotorua Museum are still running events, daily tours of the gardens and education programs in the meantime.
Rotorua Night Market
Every Thursday night on Tutanekai Street is the Rotorua Night Market. We stumbled across it by chance and are SO glad we did. So much so that we still talk about it months later…
You’ll find a mix of food vans, craft stalls, and entertainment. The dumplings are to die for, just look out for the massive line!
Just 10 minutes from central Rotorua is the Agrodome, a 350-acre working farm open to visitors. For anyone looking to learn more about what it’s like in rural New Zealand or who just wants to step into a sheep farm, then this is your chance! They have an hour long Farm Show that can introduce you to farming life, or you can take a Farm Tour too.
Rainbow Springs: Rotorua Wildlife & Nature Park
If you want to meet the elusive Kiwi then Rainbow Springs is a great addition to your list of things to do in Rotorua. Although Kiwi are our national bird it’s extremely rare to see them in the wild outside of Stewart Island. At Rainbow Springs they have a nocturnal enclosure where day and night is flipped, so you can see the Kiwi at their most active. The rest of the park offers plenty of opportunities to see other native New Zealand wildlife too.
Mount Tarawera Hike
As well as white water rafting with Kaitiaki Adventures, you should check out their Mt Tarawera tour. You’re transported to Mt Tarawera up a bumpy mountain road, before walking to the summit of the volcano across loose volcanic rock. From there it’s a sliding run down the scree into the crater, before a hard slog of a climb out the other side.
The views are stunning, and it’s also kind of like an alternative to the much busier and longer Tongariro Crossing.
For another adventurous outdoor activity in Rotorua, there are a couple of different ziplining courses, including the one up Skyline Rotorua and the Rotorua Canopy Tours. The forests you’re ziplining through often contain native trees and it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the landscape while having some fun!
Hobbiton Movie Set
Hobbiton is not in Rotorua, but at an hour away many people visit on a day trip while they’re staying in the city. The former movie set was used originally in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, before being dismantled and then rebuilt before The Hobbit films. And lucky for us, it’s now here to stay!
We absolutely loved visiting the set, which is so well maintained it looks like you’ve literally walked into Middle Earth. We would have loved to linger for hours, but tours are separated into time slots with guides who show you around the Hobbiton homes before finishing the tour at The Green Dragon Inn where you can enjoy one of their specially made brews. From the moment you get on the bus, it’s an amazing adventure!
Rotorua Essential Travel Tips
The best time to visit Rotorua
Summer is the best season to visit Rotorua as temperatures will be the warmest for any outdoor activities you intend to do, especially water-based ones. However, even in winter, it’s still worth visiting the city for the cultural experiences, geothermal areas, and many of the activities like the luge or ziplining are still available. Having said that, many of the attractions like white water rafting will still be available and you’ll be given extra gear to stay warm.
How long to spend in Rotorua
How long you should spend in Rotorua depends on how many of the awesome attractions you plan to do! I would suggest a minimum of 2-3 days, extending it out further if you want to travel more around the area using the city as a base or do a lot of the activities listed here.
Where to stay in Rotorua
Rotorua is a fairly small and walkable city, although a lot of the attractions are located outside of the city centre as well. If you don’t have a car, I would recommend staying in the centre to allow you to easily reach any pickup places for activities and tours. If you’re travelling with a car you can really stay anywhere! We enjoyed staying in the centre for the ease of going out to eat in the evening, and walk around the lakefront.
Since Rotorua has long been a hub for tourists, there are many established hotels at good prices. We stayed in the Millennium Hotel, although I have also previously stayed in the Novotel and many other smaller motels.
Check out more tours, attractions, and activities here:
I hope when you visit New Zealand (or if you live there!) you consider Rotorua as a destination to get your adventure-fix and learn more about Maori culture and the history of the amazing area.
Read more and plan your New Zealand trip:
- North Island Itinerary Ideas + Best Places to Visit
- 23 Epic Destinations for a Honeymoon in New Zealand
- What to Do with 2 Days in Auckland
- What to do in Christchurch
- Visiting Wanaka Lavender Farm
- Things to Do in Mount Cook
- Black Water Rafting at Waitomo Caves
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