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Updated on June 15th, 2020

Please note this blog contains affiliate links that give me a small commission from any purchase, at no extra cost to you. I would never advertise anything I wouldn’t use myself, and this commission helps Finding Alexx reach more travellers. Thank you for supporting me!

You’d be forgiven for not knowing much about Ghent, as it seems to fly under the radar of lots of Belgium’s tourists. I skipped it on my first trip to Belgium in favour of bustling Brussels, super cute Bruges and the hipster hangout of Antwerp, but I’m stoked that I gave Flanders’ second-largest city a chance during week #3 of my 52 in 52 adventure. Turns out there are loads of quirky things to do in Ghent, not to mention a vibrant food scene and one of Europe’s biggest cultural festivals!

Ghent is an easy day or overnight trip from Brussels or Bruges, but there are more than enough things to do in this charming city to warrant a long weekend trip too. Here’s a bunch of interesting things to see, do and eat in Ghent.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: All the FAQs about my 52 in 52 adventure

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Ghent buildings lit up at night

Ghent travel basics

Is it Ghent or Gent? Ghent is the English name of the city and Gent is the Flemish name.
Currency: 
Euro (€)
How to pay for things: Card is accepted in most places, and there are ATMs all over the city
Language: The official language of the Flanders region, where Ghent is, is Flemish, but most people speak English too (especially anyone working in hospitality)
Weather: Mild year-round, rain is common
Best time to go: The city hold a huge music and theatre festival, Gentse Festeen, in mid to late-July, which is an epic time to experience Ghent

Ghent buildings and people at restaurants next to the canal

15 epic things to do in Ghent

  • Experience the festivities of the annual Gentse Festeen, with music, art, theatre, comedy and fashion shows all through the city
  • Take a canal tour to hear about the city’s history from the water
  • Visit the 800+ year old St Bavo’s Cathedral, an 89 metre tall Gothic church
  • Wander down Werregarenstraatje, an alleyway covered in graffiti
  • Search for the city’s best street art. There’s incredible graffiti all through the city that you’ll discover as you’re going about your day, but you can see a more detailed street art guide here.
  • Add to your vinyl collection with a special purchase from one of the many independent record stores, like Music Mania, Vinylkitchen or Vynilla
  • Visit Kouter flower market on a Sunday morning for the perfect start to the day
Ghent graffiti street
Werregarenstraatje graffiti alleyway
  • Climb the Belfry Tower for an incredible view of the city
  • Learn all about 12th century Ghent at the Castle of the Counts
  • And nearby, watch the Ai Nati Oggi street lights flash each time a baby is born in Ghent
  • Hang out at Korenmarkt, one of the city’s beautiful main squares
  • Design geeks can’t miss the Design Museum
  • Find some of the best city’s restaurants and bars in the Medieval Patershol neighbourhood
  • See the view up and down some of the main canals from St Michael’s Bridge
  • Eat at wallet-friendly food trucks and search for flea market bargains at Vrijdagmarkt on Fridays
  • Pay a visit to MSK, the Museum of Fine Arts in Citadelpark, to see a huge collection of Flemish and other European masterpieces
Gravensteen Castle of the Counts in Ghent from the canal boat
The Castle of the Counts view from a canal boat tour

15 of the best things to eat in Ghent

From traditional Belgian favourites like frites and waffles to local delicacies you won’t find anywhere else, Ghent is a real culinary hidden gem. Here’s some of my suggestions for the best food in Ghent that you just can’t miss.

  • The classic Ghent dish of waterzooi, a creamy stew traditionally made with fish but now often made with chicken. ‘t Klokhuys and ‘t Vosken are known for their waterzooi.
  • Take a quick break at the Kouter flower market for a klapke (a glass of white wine with an oyster)
  • The best pizza in town from Otomat, complete with expert beer pairings
  • Soup from one of the cheapest eateries in the city, Soup’r
  • DIY pasta dishes from Bavet
  • Delish burgers from Paul’s Boutique
  • The most Instagrammable drinks in the city, the freakshakes from In Choc (warning: you will definitely fall into a food coma)
Ghent freakshakes from In Choc
Yes, I bought two for the ‘gram, and yes, I drank both of them
  • Choc fiends, this one’s for you. Charlie Tours runs a chocolate walking tour that takes you to seven of the best sweet shops in the city!
  • Organic tea and vegetarian dishes at Lokaal
  • Waffles from Brasserie Agrea
  • Kroakemandels, a local dish of salted peas deep fried in oil, available during the Ghent festivities
  • Cuberdons, a traditional Ghent candy with a soft raspberry centre
  • Fries with loads of different sauce options from De Frietketel
  • A Michelin-starred meal from the ultra-trendy Publiek, run by two local Flemish foodies
  • A traditional Belgian fruit beer, ask your waiter for recommendations when eating at a restaurant and you won’t be disappointed
Pizza and iced tea at restaurant in Ghent, Belgium
Delicious pizza and homemade iced tea from Otomat

How to get to Ghent

Ghent is a 35-40 minute train from Brussels, and a one way ticket will set you back €9.


How to get to Brussels

The easiest way to get from London to Brussels is by train. The Eurostar will take you from London to Brussels, then you can easily get a ticket from Brussels to Ghent, Bruges or any other Belgian city or town.

Book your London to Brussels train on Klook and save 5% using the promocode ALEXXH05

If you book early enough and travel in the low season you can find London to Brussels train tickets from only £29 one way, or if you’re booking at a busier time expect to spend between £45 and £60 each way. The Eurostar trip takes about two hours.

If you’re coming to Belgium from other European cities, check out your train options here or search cheap flights to Brussels on Skyscanner.


TRAVEL TIP:

I find all my flights using Skyscanner! You’ll get the best deal if you’re flexible on where to go. Just put in your origin, your departure date (or month) and type ‘everywhere’ into the destination bar to see the cheapest locations to fly to on your next holiday.


Bridge in Ghent at night
An evening boat tour is a beautiful way to see the city

Looking for somewhere to stay in Ghent? Check out all the hotels and apartments right here, and don’t forget to sort by ‘review score and price’ to see the best value options first.

Are you thinking of adding Ghent onto your Belgium trip? Let me know in the comments below.

Like this blog? Pin it!

Read more about my 52 in 52 adventure here, see all of my blog posts from the trip here, or check out my Instagram @findingalexx to see all of my travel photos.


All the basic details from my big trip:

How do you find your flights? Skyscanner! I use the Everywhere tool to find the cheapest place to fly to each Tuesday
Do you fly every week? Not every week no, once I have the destination I check trains and buses to see if there’s any other transport options aside from flying. If so, I usually book these using the Trainline app.
How do you book your accommodation? I book all my hotels, hostels and apartments on either booking.com or Hostelworld.
Do you have travel insurance? YES, I always travel with travel insurance and you should too. I’m insured for an annual policy with Worldcare NZ.
Do you offset your carbon credits? I sure do! I always offset when I book if the airline gives me the option (Ryanair does), and I also offset all my flights using Co2nsensus.com.
What luggage do you travel with? I travel with a 75cm Samsonite Cosmolite suitcase, a matching Samsonite Cosmolite 55cm cabin luggage hardcase, and a cheap laptop backpack.
What camera do you use? You can see the full list of what’s in my camera bag right here.
What laptop do you use? I have a super powerful ASUS Zenbook Pro Duo and I LOVE it. It’s got an extra half-screen for maximum productivity and more than enough space and memory for intense video editing. Win win!
For more FAQs about my 52 in 52 trip, see this post.


Huge thanks to Visit Ghent for providing me with two nights’ accommodation on this trip. As always, all opinions are my own and are based on my personal experience.

Updated on June 12th, 2020

Please note this blog contains affiliate links that give me a small commission from any purchase, at no extra cost to you. I would never advertise anything I wouldn’t use myself, and this commission helps Finding Alexx reach more travellers. Thank you for supporting me!

Here’s a big call: I think Bruges is one of my all-time favourite weekend trips from London. My first visit was earlier this year in the second week of January, when it was bitterly cold and half the city was shut after the busy Christmas season, and I still loved it. So when I got the chance to spend 48 hours in Bruges on week #3 of my 52 countries in 52 weeks adventure, I was stoked to be able to see this beautiful city in the summertime.

If you’re considering a short break from London to Bruges then I’d absolutely recommend it, and I’ve pulled together an ultimate Bruges travel guide to help you plan where to stay, what to eat and the best things to see in this super cute city.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: All the FAQs about my 52 in 52 adventure

Or skip straight to:

Bruges walking tour around the city

Bruges travel basics

Is it Bruges or Brugge? Bruges is the English/French name of the city, Brugge is the Flemish name. So both!
Currency: 
Euro (€)
How to pay for things: Everywhere I stayed, ate and shopped at accepted card, markets are more likely to be cash only
Language: The official language of the Flemish region, where Bruges is, is Flemish, but a lot of people (especially in hotels, restaurants and shops) speak English too
Weather: I’ve experienced Bruges at both weather extremes – the freezing cold of early January and the very unusual heat wave of 40°C in July. June to August are the summer months and normally are a mild warm, but this year Europe was hit by crazy temperatures. November to March can be wet and cold so be sure to bring appropriate wet weather gear.
Best time to go: Bruges can be enjoyed year-round, as long as you’ve packed the right clothing! I would say avoid January just because a lot of shops and restaurants take a much needed holiday after the craziness of Christmas markets. December is a great time to see some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, but expect to spend more on accommodation than other months. And aside from the intense temperatures I experienced (which was totally abnormal for Belgium) summer in Bruges is stunning.


How to get from London to Bruges

The easiest way to get from London to Bruges is by train. The Eurostar will take you from London to Brussels, then you can easily get a ticket from Brussels to Bruges on the Trainline app or from Brussels train station when you arrive.

Book your London to Brussels train on Klook and save 5% using the promocode ALEXXH05

If you book early enough and travel in the low season you can find London to Brussels train tickets from only £29 one way, or if you’re booking at a busier time expect to spend between £45 and £60 each way. The Eurostar trip takes about two hours.

Then you’ll need to buy a train ticket from Brussels to Bruges. If you’re travelling after 7pm on a Friday and returning to Brussels on the Sunday, you can get a weekend return for €15.20. If you’re travelling outside of these days, you’ll pay €14.10 each way. The train from Brussels to Bruges takes around an hour, and they run every half hour.

Bruges gothic architecture with girl walking in front

How to get to Bruges from other European cities

Brussels, like many European cities, is a Ryanair hub, so it’s super easy to find cheap flights from other major destinations around the continent. I flew from Bilbao in Spain for £27 one way with Brussels Airlines, and flew out to Warsaw for only £12.90 on Ryanair! Adding luggage onto my Ryanair flight cost more than twice the price of the ticket itself.

If you fly into the main Brussels airport, Zavantem or the code ‘BRU’ on your ticket, you’ll need to jump on an 18 minute train to Brussels Central station for €12.70, where you can then switch trains to one going to Bruges.

But if you’re flying with Ryanair, WizzAir or another low-cost carrier, you’re probably flying into Charleroi, or airport code ‘CRL’. Charleroi is further from the city but you can catch an easy one-hour bus for €14.20 from Exit 4 at the airport.

If you’re keen to get to the city centre quickly and comfortably, you could look into a private airport transfer. If you’ve got a full car or van of people then they can sometimes end up being cheaper than everyone getting bus or train tickets anyway! Check out the transfers available here and you’ll save 5% if you use the promocode ALEXXH05.


TRAVEL TIP:

I find all my flights using Skyscanner! You’ll get the best deal if you’re flexible on where to go. Just put in your origin, your departure date (or month) and type ‘everywhere’ into the destination bar to see the cheapest locations to fly to on your next holiday.


Colourful houses in Bruges

How to get around Bruges

Bruges is really small and compact, so once you’re in the city there’s no need to drive or use public transport.

The train station is a 20 minute walk from the city centre, but if you’re travelling with luggage you can jump on bus #12 from bus stop #1 right out the front of the station, tickets are €3 each. I’d recommend walking around the city, and jumping on a boat for a canal tour if you can afford it (they’re around €10).

If you want to get around quicker, or to explore outside of the main city centre, you could rent a bike for €4 an hour or €13 a day from Bruges Bike Rental.

Bruges boat tour
See the city from the canals with a boat tour

Where to stay in Bruges

Please note that the prices here are based on example dates mid-week in shoulder season, check booking.com for prices and availability for the best Bruges hotels on your travel dates.

Best budget hostels in Bruges

On my first trip to Bruges I stayed at St Christopher’s Inn at the Bauhaus. St Christopher’s is a hostel chain found in major cities all around Europe, and they’re particularly known for their social atmosphere and on-site bars. If you’re looking to party, this place is probably perfect for you!

They offer a range of room options, from 16-bed dorms starting at about €15 per night all the way to private twin rooms with private bathrooms from around €64 per night. Breakfast is available for a charge but note that there’s no kitchen on-site, just a microwave, a vending machine and a bar with the usual bar snacks, pizzas etc. You can check your travel dates here.

If I was going to Bruges again and looking for a hostel, I’d personally book a room at Snuffel Hostel. They have 6-bed and 4-bed mixed or female dorms starting from around €20, or private rooms from €55. Their prices also include breakfast, plus there’s a full kitchen available so you can save money cooking your own food. See more about Snuffel Hostel and search your travel dates right here.


TRAVEL TIP:

When I look for hostels, I always try and find somewhere with a full kitchen, so I’m not forced to spend money on restaurant meals. If you use booking.com then you can tick ‘self-catering facilities’ in the search filters, or if you use Hostelworld just check the facilities available at the bottom of the page.


Bruges Burg square

Best mid-range accommodation in Bruges

Bruges has a fantastic range of B&Bs and decent hotels for less than €80 a night. I spent my second trip to Bruges staying at the quaint little Hotel Bla Bla, located right in the centre of the Old Town. It’s basic but the bed is comfy, the breakfast is good and the location is unbeatable! Prices start from around €75 for a small double room.

Two cute B&Bs I found online that I would book myself are B&B ‘t Walleke and B&B Eliantho, both with great reviews, shared kitchens and prices around €75-€80 for a double room.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: How I can afford to stay at world-class hotels without blowing my budget

Best luxury hotels in Bruges

If you’re looking for an elegant European city break, Bruges is the perfect place, with fancy hotels that are much cheaper than you’d find in other major tourist destinations around the continent.

The city’s only five-star hotel, the Hotel Dukes’ Palace, is absolutely one to consider for a special occasion in Bruges. With opulent decor, marble bathrooms, a spa and wellness centre, and high tea on the terrace in the summer months, it’s the perfect place if you’re looking to treat yourself. And if you travel outside of high season, you can score double rooms from only €150 a night!

Another option for a luxury hotel in Bruges, and the current holder of the best-rated hotel in the city on both booking.com and TripAdvisor, is the gorgeous Hotel van Cleef. Located right in the historic centre and backing onto a canal, this family-owned hotel is famous for incredible service, stunning interior design and beautiful shared facilities, like a tea room, a canal-side terrace and an on-site masseuse.

Oh, and they’ve also got a library decked out with palm tree wallpaper, green couches, funky knick knacks and loads of coffee table books, basically made for Instagram. This is where I’m staying next time I come to Bruges!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: My ultimate Paris travel guide

Best waffles in bruges
Straight out of your waffle dreams

How much to budget for Bruges

Belgium is not a cheap country, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it cheaply, so here’s a bit of info for anyone visiting Bruges on a budget.

As you’ve read above, you can score a dorm bed from about €15 per night, or €20 per night if you want a full kitchen (which I’d recommend). If you’re travelling as a couple, a decent but budget private room will set you back at least €50.

There’s no transport costs in Bruges apart from getting there from Brussels or bike rental, so no need for an expensive daily transport pass like in other European cities.

Attractions can set you back quite a bit, depending on what you’re into. Canal boat tours are about €8, the Belfry costs €12 to climb to the top, Groeninge Museum entry is €12 and the famous chocolate museum is €8 to enter.

A free walking tour is a must-do in Bruges for anyone on a budget, and Legends are the people to do it with. They’ve got a day tour, a night tour and a food tour, all tip-based so you pay what you want at the end of it. In Europe I generally tip €10 for a free walking tour, a bit more if the guide was particularly fantastic.

If you’re cooking your own meals, you could get away with less than €10 a day for ingredients to make your own breakfast, lunch and dinner. For a cheap breakfast out you’re looking at €4-€5 for a coffee and a pastry, a cheap takeaway lunch will set you back €5-€10 and a sit down dinner somewhere outside of the historical centre will probably be around €15.

If you’re eating at any of the restaurants around the Markt square, expect to spend upwards of €20-€25 for a meal. A pint of beer at a restaurant or bar starts at €3, going up to €8 for fancy craft beers.

Bruges things to do

15 of the best things to do in Bruges

From historical buildings to funky neighbourhoods, a thriving cuisine scene to local boutiques and designers, and art galleries and museums galore, Bruges is overflowing with things to see and do. Here are some of my favourite Bruges activities and experiences.

  • Wander around Markt, the main square in the city centre, famous for the rows of colourful buildings that border it
  • Take a boat tour down the canals, the best way to see the city
  • Climb 366 stairs to the top of the Belfry, a 15th century bell tower and UNESCO World Heritage site, to see the view over Markt and the rest of the city
  • See Rozenhoedkaai, the intersection of two of the main canals and possibly the best photo spot in the city
  • Visit Groeningemuseum, a must-do for art lovers and home to a vast collection of Flemish art
  • See the super creepy Basilica of the Holy Blood, a Gothic church that houses a relic of (supposedly) Jesus Christ’s blood
Basilica of the Holy Blood Bruges
The Basilica of the Holy Blood
  • Take a break from exploring and chill out at Minnewater Park
  • Into a bit of dark tourism? Don’t miss the Torture Museum, a collection of pain-inducing tools housed in one of Europe’s oldest prisons
  • Stroll the streets of Hoogstraat and Langestraat, searching for the best vintage stores, independent art galleries and funky little cafes
  • See the incredible City Hall, an exquisite (and huge!) Gothic building from 1421 on the main square
  • Escape the city for a quick walk up to Sint-Janshuis Mill, a working windmill that was built way back in 1770
  • Visit the Church of Our Lady and catch a glimpse of Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, amongst other famous works of art
  • Get cultured at Concertgebouw, a cultural centre packed with exhibitions of contemporary art, dance performances, photography galleries, orchestra concerts and loads more
  • Learn about medical history from the past 800 years at St John’s Hospital
  • Do some sustainable shopping! Some of my faves are Juttu who have a monthly local pop-up in-store, Leeloo who sell super trendy 100% vegan clothing, and Think Twice, a vintage store that repurposes old clothes

15 of the best things to eat in Bruges

The gastronomy scene in Bruges is next level, with renowned chefs, traditional cuisine and specialised eateries sitting side-by-side. Like many of you, one of my favourite things about travelling is the food, so here’s a definitive list of the best things to eat in Bruges.

Best breakfast in Bruges Sanseveria Bagelsalon
The best bagel of my liiiiife
Cute Bruges restaurant with outdoor seating

Looking for somewhere to stay in Bruges? Check out all the hotels and apartments right here, and don’t forget to sort by ‘review score and price’ to see the best value options first.

I hope this Bruges travel guide was helpful if you’re planning your trip! Did you have any other questions, or do you have something to add to the guide? Let me know in the comments below.

Like this blog? Pin it!

Read more about my 52 in 52 adventure here, see all of my blog posts from the trip here, or check out my Instagram @findingalexx to see all of my travel photos.


All the basic details from my big trip:

How do you find your flights? Skyscanner! I use the Everywhere tool to find the cheapest place to fly to each Tuesday
Do you fly every week? Not every week no, once I have the destination I check trains and buses to see if there’s any other transport options aside from flying. If so, I usually book these using the Trainline app.
How do you book your accommodation? I book all my hotels, hostels and apartments on either booking.com or Hostelworld.
Do you have travel insurance? YES, I always travel with travel insurance and you should too. I’m insured for an annual policy with Worldcare NZ.
Do you offset your carbon credits? I sure do! I always offset when I book if the airline gives me the option (Ryanair does), and I also offset all my flights using Co2nsensus.com.
What luggage do you travel with? I travel with a 75cm Samsonite Cosmolite suitcase, a matching Samsonite Cosmolite 55cm cabin luggage hardcase, and a cheap laptop backpack.
What camera do you use? You can see the full list of what’s in my camera bag right here.
What laptop do you use? I have a super powerful ASUS Zenbook Pro Duo and I LOVE it. It’s got an extra half-screen for maximum productivity and more than enough space and memory for intense video editing. Win win!
For more FAQs about my 52 in 52 trip, see this post.


Huge thanks to Visit Bruges for providing me with two nights’ accommodation at Hotel Bla Bla on this trip. As always, all opinions are my own and are based on my personal experience.

Updated on June 12th, 2020

Please note this blog contains affiliate links that give me a small commission from any purchase, at no extra cost to you. I would never advertise anything I wouldn’t use myself, and this commission helps Finding Alexx reach more travellers. Thank you for supporting me!

For me, San Sebastian is one of those cities that I had never even heard of and then suddenly a couple of years ago it was everywhere. It’s been on my bucket list the whole time I was living in London and I never made it, so I was stoked to be able to include three days in San Sebastian during week #2 of my 52 countries in 52 weeks adventure. Here’s a detailed San Sebastian travel guide, as well as what the best things to see, do and eat in San Sebastian.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: All the FAQs about my 52 in 52 adventure

Or skip straight to:

San Sebastian La Concha beach
The main beach, La Concha

San Sebastian basics

Currency: Euro (€)
How to pay for things: Major shops and restaurants will accept credit card, but most pintxos bars will be cash only
Language: Basque, which is totally different to Spanish. Fun fact, Basque is a language isolate, which means there’s no other living languages that are related to it.
Weather: San Sebastian has mild weather all year. Summer temperatures are generally between 15° and 25°C (59° to 77°F) and winter days are usually between 6° and 12°C (43° and 54°F). August has the warmest seas, and due to it being a coastal city it rains all through the year.
Best time to go: I would suggest to avoid the high season of European summer holidays, from late June to late August. I was there mid-July and while the weather was beautiful, the beaches and pintxos bars were jam-packed. I’d recommend visiting just before summer (late April to early June) or once the summer crowds have dispersed (September to October).


How to get to San Sebastian

I made my way to San Sebastian by train, after spending a couple of nights exploring the stunning and underrated city of Zaragoza to kick off my second week of my year-long adventure. My train ticket cost €21 one way and it took three and a half hours.

If you’re flying to San Sebastian, you have a couple of options. San Sebastian has an airport that’s only 30 minutes from the city centre by bus, and the bus costs €2.45, but flights are notoriously expensive. Expect to pay at least £70 return in the off season from London, and likely at least £150-£250 return in summer.

One cheaper option is to fly into Biarritz Airport across the French border, and then catch the 45 minute bus to San Sebastian for €7 each way. You can easily find Ryanair flights for as low as £25 in the low season, or around £65 in high season, so a significant saving.

Your other budget-friendly option is to fly in and out of Bilbao, another Ryanair hub. Return flights in low season are from only £20 and you can fly in high season from £55, but the bus to San Sebastian costs €17 each way and takes about an hour and 15 minutes.


TRAVEL TIP:

I find all my flights using Skyscanner! You’ll get the best deal if you’re flexible on where to go. Just put in your origin, your departure date (or month) and type ‘everywhere’ into the destination bar to see the cheapest locations to fly to on your next holiday.


San Sebastian at night town hall
The Town Hall

How to get around San Sebastian

San Sebastian is easily explored by foot or bike. There’s not much parking available, and the parking that is available is pricey, so it’s not a great place to rent a car.

The city centre is small and most of the key things to do and see are within walking distance, plus it’s a great way to get in some exercise for all the delicious food you’ll be eating! If you’re heading out to the beaches on the outskirts of the city you could rent a bike or e-bike and use the fantastic bike lanes the city’s set up.

Or if it’s wet and you want an easy transport option, there’s a decent bus network and it’s €1.70 per ride.

San Sebastian bike rental
Always wear a helmet, kids!

Where to stay in San Sebastian

Please note that the prices here are based on example dates mid-week in shoulder season, check booking.com for prices and availability on your San Sebastian travel dates. San Sebastian is notoriously expensive for accommodation, especially in summer, so I’d definitely recommend travelling outside of peak season to get the best bang for your buck.

Best budget accommodation in San Sebastian

One of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, and I’ve stayed in many, is A Room in the City in San Sebastian. It’s just a couple of minutes from the beach so the perfect location, and it’s housed in a renovated convent, complete with a huge chill out lounge, a nightclub, a rooftop terrace and a restaurant, bar and patio.

I only stayed for two nights but I would happily spend a week in San Sebastian staying at this hostel. The rooms are super spacious and clean, and each bed has a privacy curtain and its own plug, light, shelf and hooks, the ideal set up for a backpacker. There’s lockers under each bed, and the locker key (and hostel key) is a waterproof bracelet so you don’t have to worry about it getting stolen while you’re out surfing or swimming. Hostels in San Sebastian aren’t allowed to have full kitchens as it stops travellers from spending money on local food, but they do have a decent kitchen with microwaves and two large fridges.

The hostel bar/café had cheap sangria, plus delish breakfasts like avo and tomato or peanut butter and banana on toast. What a treat! I’d recommend this as my best place to stay in San Sebastian for sure, and they have private rooms too if you’re not looking for dorm life. Prices start at about €26 for a dorm bed or €60 for a twin private with a shared bathroom, and you can check your travel dates here.

A Room in the City hostel courtyard San Sebastian

Best mid-range accommodation in San Sebastian

San Sebastian is one of the most expensive to visit in Spain, even more so than Barcelona and Madrid, so mid-range here means very basic double rooms without any extra facilities.

Two decent options are Pensión Old City House which starts at around €68 for a double with a shared bathroom, or Pensión T5 Donostia, where you can get a double room with a private bathroom from €87.

Best luxury accommodation in San Sebastian

If you’re heading to San Sebastian for a treat yourself trip, there’s plenty of nicer options if you can afford to splurge. Here’s three of my best finds!

This apartment is brand new and right next to Old Town, with a full kitchen, washing machine and space for four people (one double bed and one sofa bed). Shoulder season prices start from about €300 a night.

For an ultra-fancy hotel in the city, the Maria Cristina 5* hotel is the winner. This is where movie stars and Spanish royalty stay when they’re in town! A double room will set you back about €250-280 in low season, closer to €350 in shoulder season and probably €550-€650 in summer.

And finally, for a coastal getaway from your dreams, the Akelarre is a couple of kms from the city and is very, very high up on my must-stay list. There’s a three Michelin-starred restaurant, a wellbeing and spa centre and even wine tasting on-site. Double rooms start at about €300 for shoulder season, or you can get a suite with a private pool from €550. One day!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: My ultimate Paris travel guide


How much to budget for San Sebastian

If you thought that visiting this small coastal city would be cheaper than Spain’s main tourist spots, you’re going to be disappointed. San Sebastian is one of the most expensive places to visit in the whole country.

But on the plus side, outside of accommodation and food, you probably don’t have too much to worry about.

Swimming is free (obviously!) and if you’re going to surf then you’ll spend from €30 to rent a board per day, at least €20 per day for a wetsuit, and lessons will cost around €90 for a private lesson or €50 per person for a grouo of four or more.

I didn’t spend any money on transport at all because I walked everywhere, but if you think you might use a bus it’s €1.70 per ride or you can rent a bike for €5 for one hour, €10 for three or €20 for 24 hours.

Food is probably going to be your main expense, but if you were ever going to splurge on food, San Sebastian is the place to do it. You’ll be able to find a cheap breakfast (juice, coffee and a pastry or sandwich) from €5, a healthy takeaway salad for lunch from €8 and a sit-down meal from €15. If you’re going for evening pintxos you’ll be paying from €1.50 to €4 per pintxo at most places, and a nice restaurant for dinner will probably cost at least €20 for a main meal.

Drinks are from €5 for a house wine or beer, and you can find fancy cocktails from between €8 and €10.

San Sebastian things to do
The gardens in front of the Town Hall

The best things to do in San Sebastian

1. A walking tour

If you haven’t noticed already, I’m a huge proponent for walking tours to get your bearings! Plus in Europe there are so many free options where you just tip as you please afterwards.

The best free walking tour in San Sebastian is run by the legends at Go Local, a fully local team who know basically everything about the city, from places to eat and drink to the best gift shops to secret sunset views and photo spots. They also pride themselves on their sustainability practices like limiting group sizes, taking their tours to less-visited places and using locally-owned and run restaurants on their food tours.

If you want to explore slightly further afield or get some exercise in, Go Local also offers hiking tours, e-bike tours and bike rental.

Bike tours in San Sebastian

2. Hit the surf

Zurriola Beach, just northeast of the Old Town, is the beach of choice for anyone looking to get active. The surf is ideal for beginners and intermediate surfers, and this golden stretch of sand is home to a number of championships throughout the year. Check out Zurriola Surf Eskola if you’re looking for board rental or lessons.

3. Treat yourself to a spa day

La Perla Spa is a health and beauty centre that’s fit for royals… And it was even the spa of choice for Queen Maria Cristina in the early 20th century. When the queen started spending time in the city over a century ago, the city transformed from a quaint beach town to a hub for Spain’s rich and famous. These days the fanciness is still real, with glitzy hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants and spas dotted along the seaside.

Despite its high class clientele, La Perla is still affordable for normal travellers looking for a bit of luxury, with hydromassage baths starting at only €20.

San Sebastian best beaches

4. Shop up a storm

Let’s be real, most European shopping streets look like the exact same mix of Zara, Bershka, Mango and probably a five-storey H&M. And yes, sometimes we’re looking for that polkadot maxi dress that every other girl on the continent seems to have.

But if you’re looking for one-of-a-kind outfits, beach threads to squeeze into your backpack, or locally-designed jewellery for a souvenir, San Sebastian delivers.

Head to the Gros district for surf shops and antique stores, visit Apartamento 14 to stock up on the funkiest local boutique goods, and see the team at Joyería Munoa in the Old Town for jewellery inspired by La Concha Bay and other San Sebastian hot spots.

5. Get dressed up for San Sebastian International Film Festival

San Sebastian’s annual Zinemaldia is one of Europe’s biggest film festivals, held every year in late-September. The city is packed to the brim with upcoming movie stars and famous directors, and although hotel prices skyrocket, it’s a buzzing time to visit. If you’re thinking of going during the festival then I’d definitely recommend booking early and staying at A Room in the City hostel to lock in a bed without breaking the bank.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 20 things to do in Zaragoza


The best things to see in San Sebastian

1. The view from Mount Igueldo

This is the classic panoramic shot of San Sebastian, but it’s well worth seeing it in person. Catch the funicular up to the viewpoint (and amusement park) for €2.30 one way or €3.75 return, or you can walk up steep stairs for about half an hour to reach the top.

Other San Sebastian views worth mentioning are Mount Ulia on the other side of the city, and Mount Urgull in between La Concha and Zurriola beaches.

Mount Igueldo viewpoint best view in San Sebastian
The gorgeous view over the city from Mount Igueldo

2. Santa Clara Island

Sitting right in the middle of Concha Bay, Santa Clara is easily accessible by swimming, kayaking or ferry. Once you’re there you can float the day away in the quiet little bays, trek to the top of the island or grab a refreshment at the island cafe.

The swim is just over 400m from Ondaretta Beach, at the bottom of Mount Igueldo, or 1.1km from the middle of La Concha beach. There are floating jetties on the way if you need to take a breather. Kayaks can be hired from multiple spots along La Concha, and the ferry costs €5.50.

3. Sunrise and sunset

Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, head to the beach or mountains for either sunrise or sunset and you’re guaranteed to witness some incredible colours in the sky.

Mount Urgull is a local favourite to watch the sun set over the Bay of Biscay, or grab a gelato from Old Town and wander down to Zurriola Beach to watch the sky change colour.

For the early risers, Mount Igueldo is the perfect spot to see the sun come up, or pay a visit to La Concha to get in a dip before the rest of the city wakes up.

Girl leaning on railing in front of La Concha beach in San Sebastian
This photo was taken at 7.30am, hardly anyone else around except for two drunk people sleeping on the beach!

4. Tabakalera, the International Center for Contemporary Culture

In a huge building that was a tobacco factory for 90 years, the International Center for Contemporary Culture was opened in Tabakalera in 2015, in preparation for San Sebastian being 2016’s European City of Culture. These days it’s a cultural institution of the city, home to artists, schools, foundations, small businesses and loads more, who are all involved in keeping the Basque culture thriving through art and leisure.

The exhibitions change often and it’s hard to describe what to expect, so you should go and experience it for yourself to get an insight into Basque history, art and culture.

5. The mix of modern art and Basque history at San Telmo Museum

San Telmo Museum, known locally as STM, is a newly-renovated museum with an incredible range of exhibitions, from ancient archaeological discoveries from Basque Country to fine art to robotic showcases from Basque engineers.

Cityscape of San Sebastian

The best things to eat in San Sebastian

Before I start this part of the list, let me just say that the best things to eat in San Sebastian would be EVERYTHING. The city is bursting with world-class eateries, with more Michelin stars per square metre than any other city on the planet. My top two suggestions for foodies in San Sebastian would be 1) do a food tour at the start of your trip to learn about some of the local secrets, and 2) do a full day food crawl through Gros or the Old Town to try lots of small bites at loads of different pintxos bars.

BUT if I have to choose some San Sebastian must-eats (and one drink), these would be them.

1. Pintxo-pote Thursdays for cheap pintxos

Okay, this is a cop out because it’s not an actual meal itself, so sue me. Pintxo-pote is a weekly event, where every Thursday a bunch of pinxto bars have a pintxo and a pote (a drink, like a house wine, beer or soft drink) for CHEAP. And by cheap I mean €1 or €1.50 in Amara Viejo district or €2 in the vibrant Gros district.

Head to either of the suburbs armed with stretchy trousers and loads of small change, and you’re guaranteed to have the best night of your foodie life.

Best pintxos in San Sebastian
Some bite-size goodies from Pintxo-pote

2. A Michelin-starred meal

There’s no better place on the planet to try your first Michelin-starred meal than San Sebastian, with over 18 Michelin stars in the 25km radius from the city.

Arzak is a three-star favourite, famous for stunning food presentation and mind-blowing gourmet flavours. Adventurous eaters will love two-star Mugaritz, where you can choose a 24-course degustation menu or alternatively trust the chefs to custom-make dishes to your preference and palate. Then to get a taste of traditional Basque cuisine with a world-class twist, Alameda is a one Michelin star with reasonable prices, perfect for someone wanting a fancy experience without splurging the week’s food money.

3. Cheesecake at La Viña

This creamy goodness is the best dessert in the city, hands down. La Viña gets busy in the evenings but it’s worth the wait, this traditional Basque dish is probably the best cheesecake you’ll ever have in your life.

4. Coffee and brunch at Sakona

Unlike seemingly every human in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US, Spaniards just aren’t fussed about brunch. In a city that’s famous for award-winning gastronomy, the pre-midday offerings are pretty scarce. That is, except for Sakona.

Sakona is one of the only spots in San Sebastian to get a classic eggs, bacon, avo, salmon etc. breakfast, as well as a really legit coffee. It’s the perfect place for a brew and an eggs benny after a morning stroll along the river.

5. Get amongst good vibes at Dabadaba

One of the most raved-about nightlife spots in the city, Dabadaba is the place to see upcoming artists, groups and DJs. Their events range massively from punk rock to EDM to indie bands, and they’re known for their top notch craft beer selection.

San Sebastian boardwalk along the beach

Looking for somewhere to stay in San Sebastian? Check out all the hotels and apartments right here, and don’t forget to sort by ‘review score and price’ to see the best value options first.

Are you a fellow foodie that’s dreamed of going to San Sebastian? If you’ve already visited and have some more tips to share, let me know in the comments below!

Like this blog? Pin it!

Read more about my 52 in 52 adventure here, see all of my blog posts from the trip here, or check out my Instagram @findingalexx to see all of my travel photos.


All the basic details from my big trip:

How do you find your flights? Skyscanner! I use the Everywhere tool to find the cheapest place to fly to each Tuesday
Do you fly every week? Not every week no, once I have the destination I check trains and buses to see if there’s any other transport options aside from flying. If so, I usually book these using the Trainline app.
How do you book your accommodation? I book all my hotels, hostels and apartments on either booking.com or Hostelworld.
Do you have travel insurance? YES, I always travel with travel insurance and you should too. I’m insured for an annual policy with Worldcare NZ.
Do you offset your carbon credits? I sure do! I always offset when I book if the airline gives me the option (Ryanair does), and I also offset all my flights using Co2nsensus.com.
What luggage do you travel with? I travel with a 75cm Samsonite Cosmolite suitcase, a matching Samsonite Cosmolite 55cm cabin luggage hardcase, and a cheap laptop backpack.
What camera do you use? You can see the full list of what’s in my camera bag right here.
What laptop do you use? I have a super powerful ASUS Zenbook Pro Duo and I LOVE it. It’s got an extra half-screen for maximum productivity and more than enough space and memory for intense video editing. Win win!
For more FAQs about my 52 in 52 trip, see this post.


Huge thanks to San Sebastian Tourism for providing a free bike tour with Go Local on this trip. As always, all opinions are my own and are based on my personal experience.

Updated on June 12th, 2020

Please note this blog contains affiliate links that give me a small commission from any purchase, at no extra cost to you. I would never advertise anything I wouldn’t use myself, and this commission helps Finding Alexx reach more travellers. Thank you for supporting me!

In these days of Instagram, where each adventure abroad is prepped for with hours of online research (guilty!), it’s a special thing to be actually surprised by a destination. Zaragoza, Spain’s fifth-largest city and capital of Aragon, was one of those rare places, and it’s the perfect cheap Europe getaway. Here’s a Zaragoza travel guide with all you need to know about the city, as well as 20 things to do in Zaragoza, from visiting exquisite cathedrals and historical palaces through to eating your way around the city.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: All the FAQs about my 52 in 52 adventure

Or skip straight to:

Girl standing on Stone Bridge over Ebro River in Zaragoza
The view of the Basilica del Pilar from the Stone Bridges

Zaragoza basics

Currency: Euro (€)
How to pay for things: Hotels, chain retail stores and sit down restaurants mostly accept credit card, smaller local shops and tapas bars may be cash only, but there are ATMs in all the tourist areas of the city
Language: Spanish
Weather: June to August is hot, sunny and dry, with some days reaching the early 30s Celcius. In winter expect highs of around 10° and lows of 3°. April and May are known for being the rainiest months in Zaragoza.
Best time to go: The city gets quiet in summer because the residents take their own summer holidays, which means less people but also shops and restaurants may be closed. The months just after summer (September to October) are a great time to visit, when the humidity and temperature drops a bit. The city holds a Catholic festival in October, Las Fiestas del Pilar, for seven days around October 12 to celebrate the Virgin of the Pilar, which would be an amazing time to experience the best of Zaragoza.


How to get to Zaragoza

My 52 in 52 adventure is taking me to a new country every single week based on the cheapest flight, and one of the best things about this style of travel is that I’m at the mercy of where Skyscanner tells me to go every Tuesday, no matter how random the destination is. From my first week in Paris, the cheapest flight out was £18 to Zaragoza flying Ryanair (plus £20.63 for adding on a checked bag, priority boarding with two cabin bags, and carbon offset).

Zaragoza is on the flight map for some of the major low cost airlines, including Ryanair and Volotea, so you can get there for cheap from London, Milan, Brussels, Paris and loads more. Right now there’s flights from London from only £13 one way and £30 return!


TRAVEL TIP:

I find all my flights using Skyscanner! You’ll get the best deal if you’re flexible on where to go. Just put in your origin, your departure date (or month) and type ‘everywhere’ into the destination bar to see the cheapest locations to fly to on your next holiday.


It’s also easily accessible by train from any of Spain’s major cities (1.5 hours from Barcelona or Madrid, 3-3.5 hours from San Sebastian) or by car if you’re road tripping around this beaut country.

View of Zaragoza city from Basilica del Pilar tower

How to get into the city from Zaragoza Airport

You can get a taxi from Zaragoza Airport into the city for about €25 for a 20 minute ride, or catch a 30 minute-ish public bus for €1.70 each way.


How to get around Zaragoza

Zaragoza is super easy to get around by foot, bike, e-scooter or public transport. If you’re staying near the Old Town then it’s easy to walk to the museums, cathedrals, up to the palace and through the foodie streets, but if you want to venture further out you can jump on a bus or a tram, rent a bike or rent a Lime scooter (but be sure to ride on the streets or bike lanes, scooters on footpaths are not allowed).

For getting out to the gorgeous gardens of Parque Jose Antonio Labordeta or the activities and art installations around Parque del Agua, there’s a hop-on hop-off tourist bus for only €8 for a day pass.

Aljafiera Palace best things to do inin Zaragoza
One of the gardens at Aljafería Palace

Where to stay in Zaragoza

Please note that the prices here are based on example dates mid-week in shoulder season, check booking.com for prices and availability for the best Zaragoza hotels on your travel dates.

Luxury

I was hosted by the beautiful people at Zaragoza Tourism, and they put me up in a stunning room at super stylish Hotel Alfonso, located just between the Old Town and the central business district. It’s a 4* with a rooftop pool and buffet breakfast, and prices start at only €80 a night for a double room, about half the price of similar hotels in other Spanish cities! If you’re looking for a cheap luxe getaway, this is your answer.

Hotel Alfonso Zaragoza places to stay
A BATHTUB in my hotel room, what a dream

Mid-range

There are countless apartments available in Zaragoza, which means full kitchens so you can save money by cooking. Some of my favourite finds are El Balcón de Espoz y Mina I, Apartamentos Sabinas Don Jaime and Fantastica Buhardilla Plaza Pilar, with prices starting from €60-€90 for two to four people.

Budget

Zaragoza only has one hostel that I could find, Albergue Hostel, but there are quite a few cheap pensións (budget basic hotel rooms with shared bathrooms) to choose from. Check out Pensión Corona or Pensión Fuenterrabía, both have double rooms starting at €25-28.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: My ultimate Paris travel guide


How much to budget for Zaragoza

Zaragoza is significantly cheaper than the busier cities in Spain, and it got me into a false sense of financial security before I got to super pricey San Sebastian!

As mentioned you can get a double room from about €25 (or cheaper if you’re okay to stay somewhere ultra-basic), an apartment from €60, or a fancy hotel from €80.

If you explore mainly by foot, bike, scooter or public transport you probably won’t spend any more than €4-€6 a day, and most of the activities or things to see are less than €10.

In terms of food, your budget will totally depend on what type of meals you’ll be having. If you buy fresh fruit and veges from the market and stock up on supermarket staples to cook in an apartment, you’ll be able to easily eat for less than €15 per day, and if you want to eat out then expect to spend anywhere from €5 for a couple of tapas to €15-€20 for a nice sit-down meal.

Zaragoza cathedral roof
The incredible tiled ceiling of the cathedral

20 things to do, see and eat in Zaragoza

This gorgeous underrated city really blew me away with the amount of things to do, see and eat, so here’s a quick hit list of all my favourite Zaragoza activities and experiences.

1. Jump on a free walking tour

The best way to see any city, especially one with historical, cultural and art significant, is a free walking tour with a local, where you tip what you want at the end. They’ll take you to the key spots, give you some insider tips for the best times to visit certain places, help you decide on where to eat, and give you a basic understanding of the city’s history.

Bonus tip: Do one when you first arrive and ask your guide about any basic phrases you should know in the local language, so you’re never caught without being able to say thank you.

Zaragoza walking tour
The walking tour I did was the best way to get a basic understanding of the city

2. Visit the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar

This gigantic cathedral is the most famous building in the city, and it’s exquisite both inside and out. You’ll find the Cathedral in the middle of Plaza del Pilar, backing onto the Ebro River. It was the second cathedral in Zaragoza (La Seo is the other one), and the current building was mostly built between 1681 and 1872. The cathedral has huge significance to the Catholic church, and it’s said to be the site of the first ever church dedicated to Mary, way back in 40AD.

I’m not usually one to listen intently to religious stories, but the history behind this cathedral was honestly mind-blowing. It involves the only recorded apparition of Mary, a regrown amputated leg miracle, an un-detonated bomb, and a half-finished interior. SO interesting.

3. Go up the Basilica del Pilar tower

For only €3 you can get the lift up 60 metres high in one of the towers, and then walk up stairs to 80 metres. You’ll get an amazing view of the Plaza del Pilar, across the Ebro River, and of the stunning blue, green and yellow tiles on the cathedral’s roof.

Zaragoza Basilica del Pilar tower view

4. Wander around the Plaza del Pilar

The main square in Zaragoza’s Old Town is bordered by cathedrals, museums and art installations on all sides. It’s one of the largest squares in Europe, and probably one of the quietest too! Don’t miss the waterfall at one end, dedicated to Latin America, and the Goya Statue at the other.

5. Visit La Seo Cathedral

The first cathedral in Zaragoza is just a couple hundred metres from Basilica del Pilar, it’s much smaller but still boasts beautiful architecture and artwork. It’s also home to a tapestry museum which is worth a visit!

La Seo cathedral Zaragoza
La Seo Cathedral on a rainy day

6. See an exhibit at La Lonja

Once a merchant market back in the 16th century, La Lonja is now an exhibition hall home to a variety of art and photography galleries throughout the year. When I visited there was an amazing (and free!) photography exhibit showcasing photojournalists from the Aragon region and the neighbouring Catalonia, Navarre and Basque Country.

7. Explore Aljafería Palace

This 11th century palace has a crazy cross-religious history, originally being an Islamic medieval palace, then home to Christian kings, then Catholic monarchs, then a military base and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as housing the Aragon parliament.

Entry is €5 and I’d really recommend jumping on a guided tour to get a full history lesson.

Aljafiera Palace arches Zaragoza things to do
Aljafiera Palace

8. Check out Museo Goya

Much to my mother’s dismay, I’m not a huge fan of art museums, or even really art or museums in general. It’s not my fault, I guess I just prefer doing things or eating things or photographing things rather than reading about things. Sorry Mum! So in full transparency, the Muso Goya is absolutely a Zaragoza must-do, but I didn’t actually do it myself.

Museo Goya is probably Zaragoza’s most famous museum, home to a massive collection of Aragon-born Francisco de Goya’s works of art, along with loads of other paintings from the 15th to 20th century. It’s €4 to enter and again, totally worth getting the audio-guide.

9. Pedal around the city

Zaragoza is a fantastic city for cycling, with great bike lanes for safe riding. There are some bike rentals available via app, or pop into one La Cicleria, Bizi or Ciclos Richi to rent a bike for a longer period of time.

10. Hop on and hop off around the main sights

A hop-on hop-off bus tour is a fantastic way to see any city, especially one like Zaragoza which has a couple of key areas for things to do and see. The bus is only €8 for a day and it means you can tick off the Parque Jose Antonio Labordeta, the Old Town, and the Expo area easily without splurging on taxis or having to walk miles and miles.

Zaragoza fountain in the main square
Plaza del Pilar Latin America statue and waterfall

11. Parque Jose Antonio Labordeta

And on that note, let’s talk about the park! This is the green lung of the city, a huge space filled with fountains, trees and perfectly manicured gardens. It’s also home to the highest point in the city, so it’s a beautiful place to watch the colours of the sky change as the sun goes down.

12. See the cathedral from the Stone Bridge

Cross the Stone Bridge for a fantastic view of the Basilica of Our Lady the Pillar, and a great photo spot too.

Zaragoza travel guide Stone Bridge
The Basilica from the Stone Bridge

13. Explore the Expo area

Northwest of the Old Town, if you cross the river, you’ll reach the Expo Zone, opened in 2008 when it was home to a three month exhibition for sustainable development. It’s packed with ultra-modern buildings, bridges and art installations, as well as an aquarium. It’s a crazy contrast with the rest of the city so absolutely worth a visit.

14. Chow down on croquettes at Taberna Dona Casta

And the moment all you foodies have been waiting for, a definitive list of my favourite eats in Zaragoza!

Let’s kick off with the best croquettes in town, Taberna Dona Casta. With loads of croquettes to choose from, I’d recommend picking three or four to try, leaving a bit of room to get another one of your winning flavour combo. I can vouch for the mushroom and goats cheese, the ham, gorgonzola and nuts, and the apple and blue cheese. YUM.

And the moment all you foodies have been waiting for, a definitive list of my favourite eats in Zaragoza!

Let’s kick off with the best croquettes in town, Taberna Dona Casta. With loads of croquettes to choose from, I’d recommend picking three or four to try, leaving a bit of room to get another one of your winning flavour combo. I can vouch for the mushroom and goats cheese, the ham, gorgonzola and nuts, and the apple and blue cheese. YUM.

Best croquettes in Zaragoza Taberna dona casta
Insanely delicious croquette flavours at Taberna Dona Casta

15. Try the patatas sherry at La Ternasca

I’m a foodie through and through, and I’m constantly searching for the best things to eat in each place I visit. So with that in mind, I don’t say this lightly… The patatas sherry at La Ternasca was one of my favourite meals I’ve ever had in my life.

The dish is made up of freshly cooked thinly-sliced potatoes covered in scrambled eggs, pulled lamb and truffle oil, and, along with other lamb dishes, it’s one of La Ternasca’s specialties. It’s just basic ingredients but the flavours are deliciously intense, and the lamb is super tender. SO GOOD, please do yourself a favour and try it!

Patatas sherry La Ternasca best food in Zaragoza
I’ll admit the photo doesn’t do it justice, but you just have to try the patatas sherry at La Ternasca

16. Treat yourself at Casa Lac

Spain’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1825, is the ideal spot if you’re looking to get fancy for an afternoon or evening. Casa Lac is famous for making vegetables the hero of all their dishes, and they’ve got set menus, a la carte, and tapas available.

If you can’t stretch the budget for a full meal, pop in for dessert and order the traditional bread pudding. Divine.

Best dessert Zaragoza travel tips
Delicious traditional dessert

17. Do a chocolate crawl

Zaragoza’s chocolate scene is on fire, with choccy shops down basically every street. For €9 you can pick up a chocopass from any of the tourism offices in the city, and that gives you chocolate treats from five chocolate establishments of your choice out of a list of 21. It’s a fun way to see the city, not to mention gives you a much-needed afternoon sugar boost in the middle of a day of exploring!

18. Get an ice cold refreshment from Heladeria Tortosa

Heladeria Tortosa is the best gelateria in the city for sure, with a line out the door at peak ice cream times. They’ve got loads of flavours to choose from but they’re particularly famous for their meringue milk gelato.

Best gelato in Zaragoza

19. Eat your way down El Tubo

El Tubo is one of the main alleys in Old Town, and it’s completely packed with tapas bars and nightlife hot spots. Head there after a siesta and get ready to eat your weight’s worth of tapas for the next few hours.

If you’re travelling with a friend or a group, why not do a food crawl? It’s my favourite way to get amongst the gastronomic scene of a new place! Share a small meal or tapas at one place, then move onto the next and do the same, and repeat as many times as you can until you roll back to your hotel room.

El Tubo is one of the main alleys in Old Town, and it’s completely packed with tapas bars and nightlife hot spots. Head there after a siesta and get ready to eat your weight’s worth of tapas for the next few hours.

If you’re travelling with a friend or a group, why not do a food crawl? It’s my favourite way to get amongst the gastronomic scene of a new place! Share a small meal or tapas at one place, then move onto the next and do the same, and repeat as many times as you can until you roll back to your hotel room.

20. €2 tapas and a drink for Juepinchos at La Magdalena

Budget travellers, this one’s for you! If you’re in Zaragoza on a Thursday, you can’t miss Juepinchos at La Magdalena, a suburb slightly to the east of the Old Town. On Thursday evenings the bars in La Magdalena offer a drink (normally a house wine or beer) with a tapa for just €2!

It gets busy, obviously, and the tapas sit on the bar without English translations or a menu, but it’s an incredible way to experience local delicacies without breaking the bank.

Zaragoza travel guide
Stone Bridge and the Basilica

Zaragoza, you were a foodie’s dream! There’s so much to do in this little city and it’s still off the beaten track, which means lower prices and less tourists. Get in for a sweet weekend getaway before everyone else cottons on!

Looking for somewhere to stay in Zaragoza? Check out all the hotels and apartments right here, and don’t forget to sort by ‘review score and price’ to see the best value options first.

Have you heard of Zaragoza before, or is it on your bucket list? Tell me in the comments below.

Like this blog? Pin it!

Read more about my 52 in 52 adventure here, see all of my blog posts from the trip here, or check out my Instagram @findingalexx to see all of my travel photos.

Huge thanks to Zaragoza Tourism for hosting me on this trip to Zaragoza! As always, all opinions are my own and are based on my personal experience.

Updated on June 15th, 2020

Please note this blog contains affiliate links that give me a small commission from any purchase, at no extra cost to you. I would never advertise anything I wouldn’t use myself, and this commission helps Finding Alexx reach more travellers. Thank you for supporting me!

Ahhh Paris, one of my favourite cities in the entire world, and the perfect place to kick off my 52 in 52 adventure. I’ve visited four times so far and have seen the city in a completely different way each time, so I’ve got lots of Paris travel tips and tricks to share in my ultimate guide to Paris!

Read on for the low down on where to stay in Paris, the best places to eat, the most Instagrammable spots and experiences you just can’t miss.

Skip straight to what you’re looking for:

Girl walking in front of Malabar Cafe in Paris
A classic Parisian corner café

Paris basics

Currency: Euro (€)
How to pay for things: Anything touristy (restaurants, hotels and hostels etc.) will accept credit cards. Outside of tourist areas or at small shops and cafes you will likely need cash, but there’s ATMs all around the city.
Language: French, obviously
Weather: It can get really hot and stuffy in July and August, as well as incredibly busy. The colder months are November to February, and you’ll likely get some snow around that time.
Best time to go: I always like visiting the big European cities in shoulder season, when it’s not school holidays and not too hot but not wet and cold either. Paris is particularly beautiful in spring and autumn, where flowers and trees change colour. Consider travelling between March and June, or September and November, if you’re looking for mild weather and affordable prices. Of course summer in Paris brings loads of free events, plus Bastille Day celebrations, and winter brings gorgeous snowy photos and Christmas markets, so it just depends on what you’re looking for!

Jardin du Luxembourg
Jardin du Luxembourg sunset

Things to know before you go to Paris

  • The city is broken up into arrondissements numbered 1-16, that represent areas. Then there’s suburbs which are smaller than arrondissements.
  • Parisians are notriously intolerant to people who speak English right off the bat (and I don’t blame them!), so it’s always good to have a few local phrases up your sleeve. Bonjour means hello, bonsoir means good evening, s’il vous plait means please and merci means thank you. If I need to ask a question or have a conversation in English, I always start with ‘Parlez-vous anglais?’ which means ‘Do you speak English?’ and this seems to always be appreciated! I’m not going to type out pronunciation on here because with my Kiwi accent it’d probably be wrong for most of you reading anyway haha.
  • There are a lot of pickpockets in Paris so always wear a cross-body bag and leave valuables (like passports) locked at your accommodation instead of on you.
  • As of July 2019 there are currently a lot of political activity going on in Paris, so avoid any areas with organised protests.
  • If you’re a freelancer or a ~digital nomad~, there are five stunning WeWork offices (with loads more being opened soon) where you can rent hot desks. I visited four of them and I’m obsessed! Find out more info about WeWork here.
  • If you are looking for a café where you can use your laptop, there are loads of co-working cafés that offer a table for an hourly rate.
Eiffel Tower with girl walking in front
The Eiffel Tower from Pont de Bir-Hakeim

How to get cheap flights to Paris

I started planning my 52 countries in 52 weeks adventure by looking at the cheapest flight available from Dubrovnik, after my epic week island hopping through Croatia.

Using Skyscanner’s Everywhere search tool, it showed me that the cheapest place to fly was Paris Orly airport, for only £26 (plus seat selection and 20kg luggage, so total of £55) flying with Transavia, a French budget airline. BARGAIN!

Paris is a transport hub with loads of low cost carriers flying in and out, so if you’re flexible with your travel dates then you should be able to find a good deal. Note that low cost carriers often use secondary airports rather than the main one, so there might be additional costs or time involved with airport transport.


TRAVEL TIP:

I find all my flights using Skyscanner! You’ll get the best deal if you’re flexible on where to go. Just put in your origin, your departure date (or month) and type ‘everywhere’ into the destination bar to see the cheapest locations to fly to on your next holiday.


If you’re coming from London, you can find good deals on the Eurostar (as low as £59 return!) if you book early. Consider leaving work early on a Friday if you want to avoid the weekend rush.


How to get from Orly Airport to Paris

My flight arrived at Orly airport, which is 25km south of Paris and is actually closer than the main airport, Charles de Gaulle, which is 40km northeast. To get from Paris Orly to Paris there’s a bus for €12, which comes every 15 to 20 minutes.

Because I was staying in Montparnasse, in the southern part of Paris, flying into Orly was actually perfect and meant I didn’t have to deal with any crazy train stations or mid-city bus traffic. The bus took 30 minutes for me to get from Orly Airport to Montparnasse, and then it was a 10 minute walk to my hostel.

Paris travel tips flight photo
The view from my flight, probably over the Alps in Switzerland or Italy

Where to stay in Paris

Because travelling to a new country each week isn’t busy enough for me, I decided to test out three different places to stay in Paris during this week… Why do I do this to myself?!

Sometimes due to budget, availability or content partnerships (where I do some photos for a hotel or hostel), I have to move to new accommodation in the same destination.

The upside of dragging my suitcase through crowded train stations and on local buses a few times a week is that I get to experience multiple different neighbourhoods in one city, which means more Paris travel tips to share with you guys. Glass half-full and all that!

The three places I stayed during my week in Paris were Enjoy Hostel in Petit-Montrouge, LAZ’ Hotel & Spa in the 9th arrondissement, and St Christopher’s Hostel near Gare du Nord.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: My full LAZ’ Hotel review

My first hostel in Paris was Enjoy Hostel, which cost me £128 for four nights in an 8-bed dorm with a private bathroom (which was actually two adjoining 4-bed dorms, each with a private bathroom).

This hostel was smack-bang in the middle of the 14th arrondissement, in a suburb called Petit-Montrouge, just a short walk from Gare Montparnasse train station.

Enjoy Hostel was fine for what I paid based on normal Paris prices. The location is in a more residential area but there were easy transport options (a bus stop right outside meant I could get to any of the main tourist spots in less than half an hour, and a couple of Metro stations were within 8 minutes’ walk).

The dorm rooms were small but bearable, and the beds were comfy which is always a plus. There was no lift and I was on the 3rd floor (with a 25kg suitcase, ughhh) but that’s often the case in European hostels. This place was nothing special but was adequate for a cheap stay in Paris if that’s what you’re looking for.

Check your travel dates and book your stay at Enjoy Hostel right here.

A quick rundown on my stay at Enjoy Hostel
Price: £32 per night in JulyBunks or beds: BunksDorm size: 8 bed
Check in: 2pmCheck out: 12pmPlugs in room: Yes, by each bed
Private bathroom: YesBed curtains: NoLinen provided: Yes
Towel provided: No, €2Lift: No, and 4 floorsKitchen: Yes, full kitchen
Breakfast: Yes, bread with spreadsCleanliness: Clean enoughLocation: 14th Arr.
Staff: Super friendlyVibe: Quiet, chilled outLuggage storage: Yes
Air con: YesOrganised events: NoWiFi: Yes, worked perfectly
Lockers: YesLaundry facilities: NoPublic transport: Bus stop outside

On my fifth night of my year-long trip I probably reached the peak… When I got to stay at the stunning LAZ’ Hotel & Spa Urbain for one night!

Luxury Paris hotel
The stunning penthouse at LAZ’ Hotel

I’ve got a full review right here if you’re interested, but let’s just say it involves a penthouse upgrade, a bath tub with a view of the Sacre Coeur, watching the Bastille Day military flyover from my terrace, and a treat yo’self moment with a room service cheeseboard. Dreamy.

Located in the swanky 9th arrondissement, this place is incredible, and because it’s reasonably new the prices are nowhere near what you’d expect! The legends at LAZ’ hosted me for one night but rooms are on average around €150 per night, which is cheap for any decent double room in Paris, let alone a fancy 4-star with a pool. I’d absolutely recommend checking out LAZ’ Hotel if it’s within your budget.

A quick rundown on my stay at LAZ’ Hotel
Price: From €130-€170 per nightLift: YesBreakfast: Not always included
Check in: 3pmCheck out: 12pmLuggage storage: Yes
Location: Ideal, 9th arr.Staff: Super friendlyVibe: Ultra-stylish
Air con: YesFridge: YesWiFi: Yes
Pool: YesFitness room: YesLaundry facilities: No

My final night in Paris was at St Christopher’s Gare du Nord, just a short walk from one of Paris’s major train stations, unsurprisingly called Gare du Nord.

St Christopher’s is a huge chain with hostels all through Europe, and this is one of two in Paris (the other is near St Martin’s Canal, about 15 minutes’ walk from this one). I paid £23 for a bed for one night in a female 8-bed dorm with a shared bathroom.

The hostel was fine but is very obviously a chain, with loads of people coming and going, huge tour groups checking in when I got there, and a bar/restaurant connected to it (with a 10% discount on food and drinks for hostel guests).

I generally prefer staying at smaller hostels with a more chilled vibe but this place would be perfect if you’re looking to party with other travellers.

Because of the restaurant there’s no full kitchen, only a fridge and a microwave, so not ideal if you’re hoping to save money on making your own meals. They also don’t have free luggage storage after check out, it’s about €5 to store a large suitcase. These are the types of things that can add up quickly when you travel so always good to check for these facilities when you book.

St Christopher’s is a classic choice for first-time travellers because it’s the contracted hostel for some tour companies (like Contiki and Topdeck) as well as travel agencies, so the average age is a bit younger than other places I’ve stayed. 

A quick rundown on my stay at St Christopher’s Gare du Nord
Price: I paid £23 for one night in JulyBunks or beds: BunksDorm size: 8 bed female-only
Check in: 2pmCheck out: 11amPlugs in room: Yes, for each bunk
Private bathroom: NoBed curtains: YesLinen provided: Yes
Towel provided: TBCLift: YesKitchen: Fridge and microwave only
Breakfast: €5Cleanliness: Very cleanLocation: Next to Gare du Nord
Staff: Other travellers, very helpfulVibe: Social, quite youngLuggage storage: €5 for a large locker
Air con: NoOrganised events: Pub crawlsWiFi: Yes
Lockers: YesLaundry facilities: NoPublic transport: Train station right outside

Looking for a hotel in Paris? Check out all the best Paris hotels on booking.com, and make sure to sort the results by ‘review score and price’ to see where you’ll get the best bang for your buck.

If you’re keen to find a cheap hostel in Paris instead, search your travel dates on Hostelworld.


How to get around Paris

There are plenty of ways to explore Paris depending on where you’re going and how much time you have.

Paris is a beautiful city to discover by foot, because there’s super cute cafes, fancy restaurants, gorgeous views and boutique shops around every corner. I’ll be writing an Ultimate Paris Walking Tour guide soon with an accompanying map, and I’ll link it here!

If you need to get somewhere in a hurry or just want to get home, there’s the RER, the Metro, and the bus system. The RER is the train that services some key Paris stations as well as regional France; the Metro is the underground system all throughout the city, and buses are self-explanatory!

I usually prefer buses or trams to any underground system just because I like looking where we’re driving in case I spot somewhere I’d like to go back to, but obviously the Metro is faster in most cases.

You can choose from a travel pass with unlimited public transport use (one day passes start at €7.50), buying single tickets (€1.90 per ticket, or €2 if you pay on the bus) or buying a pack of 10 tickets for €14.90. Note that you can use one ticket to move between the Metro and RER on one journey, but can’t transfer them to a bus.

Paris also has Uber, as well as e-bikes (Jump is the main one, download the app here) and e-scooters available for hire (you’ll see Lime, Dott and Bird scooters all over the city).

Please note that e-scooters in Paris can only be used on the road and bike lanes, and if you get caught on the footpath you will get fined up to €135! Helmets are not compulsory but please be careful when riding on the road.

How to get around Paris
The Métropolitain is Paris’ underground system

How much to budget for Paris

Paris is a magnificent city, but it’s definitely not cheap.

Dorm rooms at hostels are usually between €25 and €45, a 3-star hotel will set you back between €75 and €110 per night and a 4-star from about €140-€150 per night, and splurging on a 5-star will likely cost at least €200 per night all the way up to over €1000.

Supermarkets are reasonably priced so cooking your own food or having picnic meals will help you to stay within a budget, and you’ll find classic Parisian breakfasts (a juice, a coffee and a pastry) for between €6 and €10 depending on the area you’re in, but adding anything hot will cost you extra.

For lunches and dinners, certain parts of the city have streets of restaurants that offer menu deals. The Latin Quarter is one of the best spots for cheap eats, where you can score a three-course meal for as low as €15!

You can’t skip dessert in a country like France so expect to pay between €4 and €6 for a banana and Nutella crepe.

While the prices are high, Parisian food on a whole is fantastic, so at least it’s worth the money.

Paris food budgeting tips
The perfect Parisian picnic

Do you need a visa for France?

I’m on a Kiwi passport and we don’t need a visa for France if our stay in the Schengen Zone is less than 90 days in a 180 day period. If you’re on a different passport, check your visa requirements with the French embassy, or see visa guides for Canadian, Australian, US and other citizens here.


Paris travel tips for foodies

This is an impossible question to answer succinctly, so I’m just going to hit you with some bullet points about the best food to eat in Paris.

  • You’ll find authentic Parisian breakfasts at almost every corner cafe, but I can recommend Le Square Trousseau in the Quinze-Vingts area, and Carette near Trocadero has the best croissants in Paris hands down
  • For a less-authentic but still delicious breakfast (and fantastic coffee!), check out Holybelly 19. It’s an Aussie-inspired cafe with small sharing plates and is one of my favourite places in the city. I can vouch for the mini doughnuts with dulce de leche, the Brillat-Savarin cheese with elderflower jelly, and the soft-boiled egg with dark toast. They’ve also got a sister cafe, Holybelly 5, down the same road that offers classic breakfast meals like eggs, pancakes, and even Vegemite on toast for homesick Aussies!
  • You’ll find macarons all around the city but my favourites are from Ladurée and Pierre Hermé.
  • For a cheap lunchtime deal, check out L’As du Fallafel in the Marais neighbourhood for the best falafel sandwich of your life for only €8
  • Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free or anything-free, there’s bound to be something in Paris for you
  • For a good value, hearty dinner, Sacrée Fleur in Montmartre is one of the best steak restaurants in the city
  • Angelina is a world-famous cafe that offers one of the most decadent hot chocolates I’ve ever had
  • Or if you want to try some local delicacies without smashing the credit card, Chartier is a 100+ year old French restaurant serving up classic French fare for cheap, with mains priced between €8.50 and €13.50
  • One of my top Paris travel tips is to have a DIY picnic somewhere with a view! Pop into a fromagerie (cheese shop) and get a couple of options, grab a fresh baguette or two, and take a bottle of wine to a spot in the Champs de Mars or Jardin du Luxembourg.

Top tip: To avoid using plastic glasses for your picnic wine, consider getting a Dopper bottle, a drink bottle that has a cap than can double as a wine glass!

Best breakfast in Paris
Some delicious breakfast plates at Holybelly 19

How to explore Paris on a budget

  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, DIY picnic! It’s an authentic way to eat, you can enjoy Eiffel Tower sunset views or gorgeous squares at lunch time, and you’ll pay far less than eating out
  • Loads of restaurants have fixed menus where you can get two or three courses for cheap. The best areas for this are the Latin Quarter, Republique and the Marais if you look hard enough
  • If you’re staying at a hostel or an apartment with a kitchen, stock up on fresh food from a Carrefour or a weekend market and cook at home
  • Walk everywhere! It’s a reasonably small city so no need to spend money on taxis unless you’re heading somewhere with your suitcases, and public transport is cheap if you need to travel a decent distance
  • If you want to treat yourself to a bit of luxury without hurting your credit card, go somewhere fancy for a hot chocolate or dessert. You’ll get a five star experience without having to eat microwave pasta for the rest of your trip.
  • Take it easy on the drinking. Alcoholic bevvies in Paris are expeeeensive! You might be able to score a €6 house wine in areas like the Latin Quarter and Montmartre, but a spirit and mixer will set you back a minimum of €8, likely more.
  • If you do want to drink then consider getting a bottle from the supermarket and heading to Champs de Mars or the banks of the Seine, or try the neighbourhoods of Oberkampf or Belleville for budget-friendly nightlife.
  • If you’re travelling to Paris in summer, there are loads of free events put on around the city. From open air cinemas and free music festivals to Pride and the insane Bastille Day fireworks, there’s plenty to do without having to spend money.
  • On the first Sunday of every month, some of the most famous museums in Paris are free! That includes the Louvre, Musée Picasso and Musée Rodin.
Best fireworks in paris
The best fireworks display I have EVER seen hands down, Bastille Day at the Eiffel Tower

The best things to do in Paris

For a full list of epic things to do in Paris I’ll publish a new blog post soon, but here are some of my favourites.

  • See the Eiffel Tower, obviously! My favourite view is from Trocadero.
  • Wander around the Jardin du Luxembourg
  • Take a spin on the Roue de Paris if you’re there during summer
  • Grab a coffee and a pastry and people-watch from a sidewalk table
  • Stroll down the banks of the Seine
  • Get a caricature done in Montmartre
  • See a cabaret show
  • Visit one of the many museums
  • Have a picnic at the Champs de Mars
  • Go shopping at classy boutiques in the Marais neighbourhood
Cheap cabaret in Paris
La Nouvelle Eve is an incredible (and affordable) cabaret show

The best day trips from Paris

  • Disneyland Paris for anyone young-at-heart!
  • The Palace of Versailles
  • The castles of the Loire Valley
  • Monet’s Garden in Giverny
  • You can get a cheap train from Paris to Brussels in only 1.5 hours
  • Luxembourg is less than 2.5 hours away by train

The best Paris photo spots

  • Palais Royal
  • Pigalle basketball court
  • Pont Alexandre III
  • Pont de Bir-Hakeim
  • Malabar Cafe
  • The sinking house of Montmartre
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Jardin du Luxembourg
  • Place des Vosges
  • Petit Palais
Paris Instagram spots Palais Royal
The stunning black and white column display at Palais Royal

My ultimate Paris recommendations

This blog is looong, so I don’t blame you if you skipped all the way to the bottom. As promised, here’s a definitive list of my ultimate Paris travel tips, with must-sees, must-eats and must-dos.

Must-see view: The panoramic view from the Arc de Triomphe, €12 to go up

Must-eat: Broken record but a DIY bread and cheese picnic with a bottle of vino

Most beautiful interior: The department store Galeries Lafayette for sure

Best sunrise spot: Looking over to the Eiffel Tower from Trocadero

Best dessert: Pierre Hermé macarons

Best suburb to visit: The Marais is definitely my favourite neighbourhood. Stylish boutiques, classy cafés, funky gift shops and good looking people everywhere!

An event you shouldn’t miss: Bastille Day on July 14. I know this sounds dramatic (classic me!) but standing under the Eiffel Tower watching the crazy Bastille Day fireworks display was honestly one of my favourite ever travel memories. It’s set to some sweet tunes, the pyrotechnics and light show are absolutely insane, and you’re surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people all in awe just like you. So special.

Best free experience: Wander through the stunning gardens all over the city. My favourites are Jardin du Luxembourg and Jardin des Tuileries

Best way to see the city: On foot, for free! Just wander up and down random streets and I guarantee you’ll find cafés, boutiques and views that you’ll fall in love with.

Best splurge-worthy activity: See a cabaret show. We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to pay €100+ for Moulin Rouge, but we found a smaller cabaret just around the corner called La Nouvelle Eve and LOVED it. We paid €59 each and that included half a bottle of champagne each. A super fun night, very entertaining from start to end, well worth the money.

Best nearby adventure: I’m a child at heart so I’ve got to say Disneyland Paris!

Paris travel tips and guide
Just another gorgeous corner café

I could write LOADS of blogs from my week in Paris but I’d love to know what you want to hear about! More Paris travel tips? Cheap eats? Photo spots? A neighbourhood guide? Tell me in the comments below.

Like this blog? Pin it!

Read more about my 52 in 52 adventure here, see all of my blog posts from the trip here, or check out my Instagram @findingalexx to see all of my travel photos.

WeWork Champs Elysees view

Thanks to the legends at LAZ’ Hotel & Spa for hosting me for one night, and to WeWork for partnering with me throughout my 52 in 52 adventure. As always, all opinions are my own and are completely based on my personal experience.

Updated on June 11th, 2020

52 countries, 52 weeks, mostly solo, sharing all my adventures and misadventures with the whole world! Exciting? Yes. Crazy? Also yes. I started planning this insane trip back in January 2019, booked my first flights in April, and officially set off on July 9 to Paris for my first stop.

I’ve got LOADS of messages and comments from people wanting to know more about why I’m doing it, how I’m planning it, where I’m going and how I can afford it, so I wanted to put all the FAQs in one easy place. Read on to learn all about my 52 in 52 travel project!

If you want to learn more about me and my previous trips, check out my personal FAQ here.

Skip straight to what you want to know:

Mljet National Park aerial view in Croatia

What is 52 in 52?

I’m visiting a new country every week for a year (almost), with the route based entirely off the cheapest flight available each week.

I used Skyscanner’s Everywhere search tool to check for the cheapest flight each Tuesday, then chose the first country that came up, booked a flight (or a train or bus if they were better), and repeated that over and over again!

As of writing this blog, I’m three weeks in to the year-long trip. Hello from Warsaw, Poland!

Why did you decide to do this trip?

This is a long one! In June 2019 my UK working holiday visa was expiring, so in early 2019 I started thinking about my next move. I definitely wasn’t ready to settle back in NZ just yet, and after an extended period in an unhappy job situation I felt sick at the thought of sitting in an office in another country, so long-term travel was the obvious option. But that was the easy part!

With no travel buddy, not a huge amount of savings and no financial security, and on the other hand literally endless opportunities of where to go and what to do, this was going to be a crazy trip to bring to life.

My previous full-time job of encouraging other young people to get out and see the world definitely grew into a personal mission, and I knew that I wanted to do some type of trip that helped break down the barriers that get in the way of people booking their next adventure. The two biggest ones? Time and money.

I know that the vast majority of people who follow me or read this blog don’t have the freedom to take months off work, or the budget to explore Europe for weeks at a time.

There are plenty of incredible travel bloggers out there who share epic experiences of extended South America backpacking trips, or spending six months months in Asia, or road tripping across the entire globe (massive shout out to Expedition Earth!), but I wanted my trip to showcase adventures that any young traveller could replicate.

To tackle the time barrier, I decided to do a trip made up of 52 one-week adventures, showing how I make the most of seven days in each of the 52 destinations. I don’t expect anyone else to try and visit 52 countries in a year (not sure if anyone else is that crazy haha) BUT I do hope my trip inspires someone to spend a week in Spain’s Basque Country, or Turkey, or Tel Aviv, or any of the 52 places I’m visiting.

Oh, and budget? I’m just going where the cheapest flight tells me to go each week, which means no forking out because I need to be in a specific place on a specific date. Flexibility is key to getting cheap travel deals, and the route is taking me to loads of places I probably never would’ve added on to a world trip if I was planning it myself.

How cheap are your flights?

So. Cheap. I’ve booked the first 26 weeks so far, and the weekly transport (mostly flights, two trains, not including Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore because I’m on a tour) has come to a total of £1750. That’s 26 countries, all through Europe, the Middle East, Asia and down to NZ, for less than £2000! That also includes luggage, so if you were travelling hand luggage only (good luck to you haha) the price would be less than £800.

The second half of the trip will be more expensive as flying in Australasia, Asia and the Americas is pricier than Europe, but the total for the year should be between £4000 and £5000.

How do you find cheap flights?

The best way to find cheap flights is to be flexible on where and/or when you go. If you want to visit Disneyland in the school holidays then obviously you’re going to be paying the highest prices, but if you can travel mid-week or in the shoulder season, and if you can consider visiting somewhere that’s not necessarily a tourist hot spot, you’re far more likely to get a good deal.

Of course, being flexible with time isn’t always an option depending on your job or study situation. If there are specific dates you want to travel, I’d really recommend putting them in to Skyscanner’s Everywhere tool to see all the cheap flight options for your dates.

You might not visit somewhere that’s been on your bucket list forever, but you might find a hidden gem and you’ll have loads more money to spend while you’re there too. It’s a win-win.

Is this trip sponsored by Skyscanner?

I wish! I do work with some travel partners but Skyscanner is not a sponsor of this trip, yet… I really, really love Skyscanner and I find all my flights through them, so I’d obviously love for them to come on board. If you try out the Everywhere tool or use Skyscanner because I’ve mentioned it, please let me know, and I can use that as a testimonial for when I finally speak to Skyscanner’s marketing team 😉

What about your carbon footprint?

Sustainable travel is a really important topic, and something I want to talk about throughout my trip. I’m offsetting all of my carbon emissions throughout the year, either at the time of purchase (if the airline offers that) or in bulk on myclimate.org.

While this trip entails a lot of flying, the majority of my flights are short-haul, and on low cost carriers who have higher occupancy and (generally) newer and more eco-friendly fleets than legacy carriers.

For the first 26 weeks, my carbon emissions come to the exact same amount as a single return flight from Auckland to London via Dubai in economy class, or a return flight from Auckland to LAX direct in business class, so the number of flights doesn’t necessarily mean it’s far worse than one long-haul trip.

My carbon offset for the first six months comes to around £150 total. It’s not as much as you’d expect, and I’d recommend everyone to consider offsetting their flights next time you travel somewhere.

I’m also taking trains between routes where that’s a logical option (like Amsterdam and Zurich) but because a lot of the destinations aren’t capitals and major hubs or aren’t next to each other, unfortunately there aren’t as many train options as you’d expect.

In terms of sustainability outside of flying, here are some other things I’m doing to try minimise my impact:

  • Cutting down any single-use plastic
  • Travelling with a filtered drink bottle to avoid buying bottled water
  • Using Ethique shampoo, conditioner, body wash and other toiletries, a zero-waste Kiwi company
  • Walking as much as possible throughout the week, or using public transport where possible instead of taxis or Uber
  • Decreasing my meat consumption, and I have Huel at least once if not twice a day, which is vegan and sustainably-sourced
  • Trying to find accommodation with strong sustainability policies

Always keen to hear new tips on how to be more sustainable!

How much will the whole trip cost, including accommodation and everything else?

It’s impossible to know, because I don’t even have all the destinations confirmed yet. My weekly spend changes drastically depending on where I am (Warsaw is shaping up to be incredibly cheap, but my bank account was nooot happy in Paris!). I’ll be sharing exactly how much I spend in each place on my weekly wrap up blogs.

Are you just booking on the fly each week or planning in advance?

I’ve got the first six months booked so far, because I need to be able to plan ahead for visas, accommodation etc. I’ll be booking the second half of the trip in the next few weeks.

How can you afford to travel so much?

Unsurprisingly, this is what I get asked the most! To clear up any immediate assumptions, I do not have a rich boyfriend, my parents do not pay, and I’m not in some high flying job. Dammit!

I did have some savings back home that I’m using over the year (about $12,000 NZD/£6500), I had about £3000 from my final pay and savings from the last few months in London, and I will be doing a small amount of freelance work over the year (probably worth about £700 per month).

I also want to say that travel does not cost as much as you think. My flights so far have cost less than £80 on average (some as low as £30 including luggage), my hostel dorms are between £10 and £25 per night depending on the destination, and I’m mostly making my own food so not spending loads on eating out.

I’m being totally serious when I say that the majority of weeks are going to cost me significantly less than what I spent each week in London over the past two years.

The budget side is something I’m definitely winging (with confidence, I like to think haha) so I’ll continue being transparent about it throughout the year, and you can all learn from my inevitable mistakes.

What do you do for work?

I’m a freelance travel content creator, which is something that hardly existed five years ago. My job can mean loads of different things depending on the partner, but essentially I write travel blogs and articles, take photos and video, and share my experiences with different products, destinations or suppliers on social media.

My freelance activity, e.g. writing for huge companies like Hostelworld and STA Travel, is paid, but a lot of the content work I do for hotels, tour companies and so on is just in return for freebies or discounted rates. Ideally I’ll get to a stage where this type of activity actually gives me an income, but getting to that point takes time.

I don’t make any money off this blog yet but again, that will change as my audience grows.

Please note that any brand partnerships will never get in the way of me telling the truth. I will always be 100% honest and transparent in my content, so if I’m gifted something or sponsored by a company I wouldn’t use or don’t like myself, I’ll tell you.

Are you travelling solo?

Mostly, yep! I do have some friends and family coming to hang out with me at various points of the trip, but 95% of the time I’ll be by myself.

Do you get lonely travelling solo?

Ask me again in a year and I might have a different answer, but I haven’t felt lonely yet! I speak to my mum most days (probably incredibly annoying for her haha), I’m always in contact with my closest friends, I meet people in hostels and I am constantly chatting to new people through my Instagram or on travel Facebook groups.

I always thought of myself as an extrovert but after a few weeks solo I actually feel really comfortable being by myself in a random country. Because this trip isn’t all fun and games, it’s a lot of work around shooting, writing, editing and so on, it’s been amazing to be able to split my days between exploring the destination, doing some work and having down time, without needing to consider anyone else.

In saying that though, for the first six months I’ve got someone coming out to see me once a month for a quick visit, which will be amazing!

Who takes your photos?

Me, myself, and I! When I travel solo all my photos are taken with this tripod, aka my best buddy for the foreseeable future.

I use self-timer or WiFi on my camera to set it up to my phone, or if I’m shooting with my phone I’ll use the app Manual Camera where you can set an intermittent timer to take a photo every second for ten seconds. Then I just walk around and pose, and voila!

Taking photos with a tripod is tough when there’s people around so most of my shoots are super early in the morning, before anyone else is up and about.

I never really ask strangers to take a photo of me, but if I need to then I’ll keep an eye out for a family with kids taking a selfie, and offer to take one of all of them first. Then I’ll ask them to return the favour, and they probably won’t steal my phone because no one with a pram will be able to out-run me anyway!

Are you going back to countries you’ve already been to?

I’m visiting countries that I’ve visited before the start of the 52 in 52 trip, but once I’ve been to a country during the year then I can’t go back.

The only exception to this is that I’ve got two weeks in NZ for a family wedding, two weeks in Australia to be able to showcase two different states, and two weeks in the USA to showcase two different states as well.

Where did you start from?

I started the trip from Croatia, after a couple of weeks of relaxation and island hopping before kicking off a crazy year. The first flight I booked was the cheapest flight from Dubrovnik airport on Tuesday 9 July, which was to Paris for £26 one way (£55 including luggage).

What’s the itinerary?

My itinerary so far is:

July 9-16: Paris
July 16-23: Zaragoza/San Sebastian/Bilbao
July 23-30: Brussels/Bruges/Ghent
July 30-Aug 6: Warsaw
Aug 6-13: Vienna
Aug 13-20: Milan
Aug 20-24: Budapest
Aug 24-Sept 2: Jordan
Sept 2-10: Cyprus
Sept 10-17: Crete
Sept 17-24: Sofia
Sept 24-Oct 1: Hamburg/Munich for Oktoberfest
Oct 1-Oct 9: Porto
Oct 9-15: Zurich and the Swiss Alps
Oct 15-22: Amsterdam
Oct 22-29: Dublin/Killarney/Galway
Oct 29-Nov 5: Bucharest (Transylvania for Halloween!)
Nov 5-12: Israel
Nov 12-19: Turkey
Nov 19-26: Azerbaijan
Nov 26-Dec 3: Dubai/Abu Dhabi
Dec 3-10: New Delhi
Dec 10-15: Bangkok
Dec 15-28: Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore on a tour
Dec 28-30: Singapore
Dec 30-Jan 7: Bali
Jan 7-21: Home for a family wedding
Jan 21 onwards: No idea yet!

What if the cheapest flight is to somewhere unsafe?

I’m not going anywhere with an “avoid non-essential travel” rating of safetravel.govt.nz, not just because of my own personal safety concerns but also because travel insurance may not cover high risk destinations. Most high risk countries don’t have cheap flights going there anyway so this hasn’t come up yet.

Do you have travel insurance?

YES! I always travel with travel insurance, and you should too. Not only does it cover you for lost luggage, but it can cover damaged or lost belongings on your trip, sickness or accidents, cancellation if something unexpected stops you from going (like an injury or death of a loved one), flight delays and LOADS more.

I have a long-term policy with Worldcare, which covers me for every single part of my trip until I am back in NZ in January, when I’ll get a second policy to cover the second half of my trip.

Always look at the policy wording when you buy insurance, as policies can differ quite significantly. I always go for policies with gadget cover, the ability to add high value items (like my drone), decent activities cover (like hot air ballooning, skiing, PADI diving etc.), a 24/7 contact number, and rental vehicle excess.

Sometimes if you book with a credit card, your credit card insurance will automatically cover you, but just be aware that this may not include comprehensive medical or luggage cover and you may be left out of pocket if you need to make a claim.

What about visas?

I’m travelling on a Kiwi passport, which comes in at 9th equal for strongest passport in the world, so I’m really lucky to get visa-free entry to loads of countries.

There are some places that require visas on arrival and a couple of e-visas, but anywhere that would need me to send my passport away (like Russia or China) are a no-go on this trip unfortunately as I can’t be without my passport. They’re on the list for a future trip for sure!

This website is a great resource for checking visa requirements for various passports.

Won’t you get burnt out going to a new place each week?

Another one to ask me again in a year! One week doesn’t seem like that long in each place, but as a Kiwi most of my international trips have been whirlwind, because you need to squeeze as much of a continent as you can into two or three weeks of leave. Living in London wasn’t too different either, except I’d have a monthly three or four day trip to somewhere in Europe.

Some of my stops include visiting more than one city so these will be busy for sure, but a lot of the weeks I’ll spend in a single city.

Most of the journeys are short-haul so only a couple of hours in the air, and aside from travel days I’ll have six full days in each destination, which I think is actually quite a decent amount of time.

My normal lifestyle in both London and Auckland was incredibly fast-paced, with a high stress job, a bustling social life, a gym routine and doing my blog on the side, so while I’ve added in the complication of constantly moving, I don’t need to worry about a job, social life or sticking to a gym routine! Woohoo!

How will you stay fit and healthy on the road?

This one is a work in progress. To stay healthy physically and mentally, I think the most important things are diet, exercise and sleep.

For exercise, I haven’t quite locked in a routine but ideally I’d be doing a short work out of some sort each day. I’m going to try out Les Mills on Demand, the app version of NZ’s best gym and the creator of gym classes found all around the world. If you’ve been to Virgin Active or FitnessFirst in the UK, you’ve probably done a Les Mills class!

LMOD is available on your computer or an app, and you can choose from hundreds of different work out classes, from deep stretching to combat to HIIT, and everything in between. As of July 2019 a monthly subscription is £11.95 for the UK or $29.99 for NZ. I’ll let you know how I find it once I get my A into G and try it out!

In terms of sleep, I have a terrible sleeping pattern that I am desperate to change. I can’t get to sleep until between 1am and 2am! This was a huge problem when I had an office job with a start time because I was constantly sleep-deprived, but being funemployed (well, self-employed kinda) I can sleep until 9am and not get in trouble.

I’m a super night owl so my best hours of productivity are from 8pm to 1am, but that means it’s hard to switch my brain off when it’s time to sleep. A work in progress!

To make sure I fall asleep and stay asleep while in hostels, I use these cheap silicon earplugs which are comfortable and completely silencing, and this eye mask if the room is light.

What do you eat when you’re travelling?

I have some weird dietary requirements after a complicated gallbladder surgery back in my late-teens, which can make eating while travelling really difficult. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as cutting a specific food group out, as a random variety of foods seem to mess with me and give me serious abdominal pain. Think of the stitch, but about a hundred times worse. It sucks!

The best way to avoid this is for me to eat a consistent diet, which is impossible when I’m flitting between cuisines on a weekly basis! Enter Huel, my lifesaver.

Huel is a powdered nutritionally-complete meal, just add water and it’s got the entire make up of carbs, protein, iron, and all other vitamins and minerals you need in a meal. It sounds and looks like a protein shake but it’s dietitian-approved as an actual meal, and it’s mainly used by busy people who would otherwise choose unhealthy food.

I find it perfect for travel because all I need is water, it’s got all the goodness I need, and it brings some consistency to my meal plan each week. I usually have it for breakfast each day and sometimes lunch too, if I’m travelling somewhere where food is expensive.

Huel is super cheap (less than £1.40 for a 500 calorie meal), vegan, there’s a gluten-free version and loads of flavour boosts to choose from, plus it’s sustainably-sourced and zero waste! Win, win, win.

If you want to try out Huel for yourself, click here to get £10 off your order

For dinners I try and stay at hostels or apartments with kitchens, and will do a supermarket shop when I get to a new destination. Food wastage can be an issue when you’re moving every week so normally I stick to basic meals, like pesto pasta with veges, wraps, or a stir fry.

What apps do you use when you’re travelling?

This question probably deserves a full blog so I’ll add that to my to do list, but here is a quick guide of apps to get before your trip:

  • Citymapper, for making sure you know how to get from A to B on public transport in major cities all around the world
  • Google or Apple Maps for obvious reasons
  • Uber (or local equivalent, like Grab in Southeast Asia, OlaCabs in India and Takkun in Japan)
  • Hostelworld and Booking.com for booking and managing accommodation
  • Google Photos to back up all my phone photos online
  • Google MyMaps, where you can create bespoke maps and pin important places. I have one for every destination I visit where I pin my accommodation, food suggestions, photo spots, shops to visit and loads more.
  • Snapseed and Lightroom mobile for photo editing
  • Lime, Bird, Dott or whatever the local equivalent is for e-scooter rental
  • Netflix and Amazon Prime
  • Google Translate
  • Life360, a tracking app that’s perfect if you’re travelling solo and want your family to be able to see where you are
  • Klook for booking activities and experiences
  • Audible for audiobooks
  • Skyscanner for booking flights
  • Transferwise for cheap currency exchange
  • Curve for managing all your different cards and currencies, with no overseas fees!

How do you deal with foreign exchange and always using different currencies?

I have a couple of different ways to manage my money on the road.

First of all, I swear by Monzo! (UK only, sorry Kiwis and Aussies.) Monzo is an app-based bank and is probably the best thing to happen to money since credit cards were invented. The app has a fantastic budgeting section, automatically categorises all of your spending, they offer super quick 24/7 service and you can freeze your card at the tap of a button.

You can also split bills and pay other Monzo users just by standing next to them and tapping their name, there’s no overseas fees and you get up to £200 a month free ATM withdrawals while travelling. Literally the bank of the future.

I use Transferwise for any currency exchanges I do, and I also have a Transferwise Borderless account for euros. THEN I have another UK bank, an NZ credit card and an NZ debit card. Travelling with this many cards can be super frustrating, so I was stoked when I heard about Curve!

Curve is a payment card, not a bank, where you can connect multiple bank cards in different currencies and manage them all through an app. I’ve connected all of my cards to it and then switch which card I want to use on my phone!

Curve also charges your cards in their local currency so you never have to pay foreign exchange fees, gives you 1% cashback at select retailers, and you can even go back in time and switch a payment to another card up to 14 days after purchase.

There’s a free version available with up to £200 fee-free overseas ATM withdrawals, or you can upgrade to Black for £9.99 a month or metal for £14.99 a month for £400 and £600 respectively, plus on the paid plans you get worldwide travel insurance and gadget insurance.

Definitely something that’s worth looking into if you’ve got multiple cards with different currencies.

Will you be staying in hostels, hotels or Airbnbs mostly?

I’ll be staying at hostels the majority of the time, with some hotels a few times a month and maybe Airbnbs when I’ve got friends coming out to see me.

How do you choose a hostel?

I’m obsessed with getting the best bang for your buck, so the number one thing I think about when choosing a place to stay is value for money. I don’t search for the cheapest option but I don’t search for the fanciest option either, I look for the best-rated option based on cost.

On Hostelworld I’ll filter by free WiFi, luggage storage and self-catering facilities, then show hostels rated only 8 and above, and then sort by price.

Let me say this once: Review scores are gospel. I always try and stay somewhere rated 9 or above, and will do an 8 if I have to due to price and availability, but it’d have to be tough times for me to consider anything in the 7s.

Reviews are written by travellers like us, so if other people haven’t been impressed then it’s likely you won’t either. In saying that though I’ll always check the review breakdown into categories (location, staff, comfort etc.) and what people have written, because then you can consider what (if anything) you’re okay to compromise on.

If they’ve mentioned security issues, hygiene concerns or *gasp* bed bugs, it should be a definite no. But if somewhere has an 8.3 rating because some people didn’t like their roommates, the WiFi was spotty or they had to wait ten minutes at the front desk to check in, then you’re probably fine.

And how do you choose a hotel?

Booking.com makes it super easy to search for the best value option, you just need to sort your search by “price and review score”. This shows you the cheap highly-rated options first, then the prices increase and ratings decrease.

If you’re on a budget (obviously I am haha) then adjust the maximum price on the sidebar, so it cuts out the five star hotels that are so expensive you’ll cry.

I really love staying at places with character, so I never go for business-y chain hotels (which are usually overpriced anyway). I’ll always aim to stay somewhere with super funky design, breakfast included, and a fridge so I can have a small amount of my own food.

How much luggage are you taking?

I’m travelling with one 75cm wheeled check in bag, a matching (of course) 55cm wheeled cabin luggage bag, and a laptop backpack.

Both of my suitcases are Samsonite Cosmolites, and they are absolute game changers. Packing for a year-long trip is tough, as you’d imagine, so I was desperate to find hard-case bags that were sturdy without being too heavy.

Samsonite UK kindly gifted me these two beauties for the trip, and they are basically straight out of my dreams!

 

The big one is 2.6kg and the small one is 1.7kg, both around half the weight of your average suitcase. Lightweight luggage is a lifesaver, and means I’ve got an extra couple of kgs for my stuff.

My laptop bag is just a cheap one from Amazon, but it can fit my 15.6″ laptop, notebook, my tech organiser with my camera gear, chargers etc.

Please note that I was gifted these bags by Samsonite, but I would never promote something I don’t truly love myself! All opinions on this blog are my own and are from my personal experience.

What clothes did you pack?

I have a confession to make: I’m a chronic over-packer. It all comes back to my analysis paralysis, I always feel like I need to have the perfect outfit for each potential situation! I’ll do a full blog on what I packed at some stage but just know that it’s probably way too much.

Because my destinations are ranging from European heatwave to Dublin in November to conservative countries in the Middle East, I had to take a massive variety of outfit options, and then also needed to think about comfort, weight and what would look good in photos. Not an easy task haha.

I did try to go for a ‘capsule wardrobe’ though, where each item has to match multiple other items to maximise the amount of potential outfits I could wear. This means mostly classic, basic pieces in neutral colours with a small amount of stand-out items that are coloured or patterned.

What’s in your camera bag?

A LOT. I normally shoot with a Lumix GX85 mirrorless camera, but I also take a lot of photos with my Pixel 3XL phone and Moment wide angle lens, my Mavic 2 Pro drone, an Insta360 360-degree camera, a GoPro Hero 7 Black and a DJI Osmo Pocket. Phew! For a full list of my tech, head on over to this blog.

Do you need a travel buddy?

Always looking for travel buddies! If your trip matches up with any destinations on my itinerary, or if you live somewhere I’m visiting and want to meet up, flick me a message on Instagram @findingalexx ????

How do I do something like this?

Just do it! You do need a bit of money (not as much as you’d think) and obviously a decent amount of time, but if you’re fine on those fronts then you can absolutely do this too. It’s scary, it takes a lot of planning, and it’s a tiny bit crazy, but I guarantee it’ll be the best thing you ever do.

If you have any other questions that I haven’t answered then comment below or flick me a message on Instagram @findingalexx, and I’ll add it to this list!

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Planning a New Zealand North Island road trip? You’re in the right spot. This post covers everything you need to know to plan an epic three week North Island road trip, as well as options for one or two weeks in the North Island or longer suggestions if you’re lucky enough to have more time.

While the South Island tends to get more attention in terms of tourism, New Zealand’s North Island isn’t to be scoffed at. It’s got thriving cities, some world-class wine regions and adventure activities for the thrill seekers, as well as having snow-capped mountains and surf beaches within a few hours of each other.

cape reinga at the top of a north island road trip
Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of the North Island (and your North Island road trip)

If you’re a Kiwi wanting to discover your own backyard, thanks for being a legend and supporting local tourism operators. They need our help and being able to see our own country with fewer crowds and people on the road is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we really shouldn’t pass up!

I built this epic North Island road trip itinerary last year for my own Aotearoa adventure and had the most incredible time visiting places I’d never been before, despite growing up in the mighty Waikato and spending eight years living in Auckland 🙃

And if you’re an international traveller planning for a trans-Tasman bubble trip or a future New Zealand trip, I’m sure you’ve heard of Auckland, Hobbiton, Rotorua and Wellington, but there are plenty more places in the North Island to add to your New Zealand bucket list.

I hope this guide helps you plan an incredible North Island road trip, and if you have any specific questions feel free to message me on IG at @findingalexx.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley in Rotorua

North Island road trip itinerary overview

  • Stop #1: Auckland
  • Stop #2: Waiheke Island
  • Stop #3: Paihia
  • Stop #4: Cape Reinga
  • Stop #5: Tutukaka
  • Stop #6: Coromandel Peninsula
  • Stop #7: Mount Maunganui
  • Stop #8: Rotorua
  • Stop #9: Hamilton & Raglan
  • Stop #10: Waitomo Caves
  • Stop #11: New Plymouth
  • Stop #12: Tongariro National Park
  • Stop #13: Taupo
  • Stop #14: Napier
  • Stop #15: Martinborough
  • Stop #16: Wellington

North Island road trip map


How long to spend in the North Island

If you’re able to fly into Auckland and out of Wellington (or catch the ferry to the South Island), I think you could see the key North Island tourist spots with a week as a minimum, but you’d be in a rush.

Two weeks would be best suited for the major spots at a slightly slower pace, but three weeks or more would be ideal to experience some lesser-visited areas and be able to have a couple of days in the busier destinations.

Here are some North Island itinerary options for different time restrictions.

1 week North Island road trip

If you are super short on time and only have a week, I’d suggest doing an Auckland to Wellington road trip via Rotorua, Hobbiton, Waitomo Caves and Taupo. You’ll have to prioritise activities that are important to you because you won’t have time for them all but you’ll still be able to experience some of the best things to do in the North Island.

Polynesian Spa, Rotorua

2 week North Island road trip

If you have two weeks in the North Island, you could customise the below itinerary to fit your preferences.

If you’re visiting in winter or you’re not fussed on beaches then consider skipping Northland and/or the Coromandel, if you aren’t interested in hikes then you could miss New Plymouth and Tongariro, and if you’re not a big wine drinker you could skip Napier and Martinborough.

3 weeks in the North Island (or more)

The route below fits perfectly into a three week road trip, and at the end of the itinerary I’ve got some options for alternatives or additions based on your interests.

You could definitely spend more time in Auckland or Wellington, and there are other places like Gisborne (don’t miss the Dome Cinema if you head there), Whanganui and the Kapiti Coast which you could add on.

Starting and ending from the same place

My North Island road trip itinerary is based on starting in Auckland and ending in Wellington (or vice versa), but if you fly in and out of Auckland you can just add a day to relocate from Wellington back up north.

The drive from Wellington to Auckland is just over eight hours without stops (645km) so it’s doable in a day if you’re happy to drive for that long, otherwise add an overnight stop in Taupo which is about half way.

Seals on the Red Rocks walk Wellington

Hiring a car or campervan

New Zealand’s regional transport options are limited so I’d highly suggest hiring a car or a campervan for your road trip if you don’t already have your own transport.

Click here to check out car hire options on rentalcars.com for your North Island road trip, they show all the options from different rental car companies so you know you’re getting the best deal. I’ve used Apex, Snap Rentals and GO Rentals recently and have had great experiences with all of them.

For a campervan you can cross-check prices of different companies here. If you want a big motorhome I used one from Sunrise Holidays last year which was ideal, modern and comfortable with brilliant insulation and heating. We also tried out a Jucy van which is much more basic but a great option on a budget.


North Island road trip or group tour?

If you aren’t keen on driving or if you’re travelling solo and would prefer to explore the North Island with like-minded travellers, there are group tours that follow a similar North Island road trip itinerary.

I haven’t personally done a group tour in New Zealand yet but I’ve done quite a few around the world and I think they’re a brilliant option for solo travellers especially. New Zealand is expensive to travel around in terms of gas, car hire, accommodation for one etc. so joining a group tour and sharing those costs can often save you money.

Here are some of the best options for New Zealand group tours, or you can see all the options on one page right here at TourRadar.

G Adventures

Global small group tour company with a range of tour styles including Classic (no age limit), 18-to-Thirtysomethings (18-39), Active, National Geographic Journeys (luxury adventure tours). I’ve done G Adventures tours in Indonesia and Cambodia/Vietnam and loved them both.

Check out all G Adventures New Zealand tours >

Contiki

Global youth tour company for 18-35 year olds. They’re definitely known for their party vibes but they aren’t only for drinking! I’ve done Contiki tours in the USA (when I was 20), Europe (24) and Southeast Asia (27) and have only had good experiences with them.

Check out all Contiki New Zealand tours >

Kiwi Experience

Kiwi Experience is one of the most popular ways to explore New Zealand for backpackers. They offer hop-on hop-off passes on their extensive bus network allowing you to see the country at your own pace (currently paused due to COVID, restarting Oct 2021), as well as small group tours (available now).

Learn more about Kiwi Experience >

Haka Tours

Kiwi-owned small group tour provider mainly focusing on the 25-40 age group (but no hard limit), but also with Haka Plus tours which include upgraded accommodation. These guys are actually ranked as New Zealand’s #1 tour company!

See all Haka Tours >

Stray

Stray is similar to Kiwi Experience, with a hop-on hop-off network that’s currently hibernated, but with small group tours available now.

Learn more about Stray >

Wild Kiwi

These guys are quite new but they’re a sister company to Medsailors, who run EPIC sailing trips in the Mediterranean (like the one I went on, Croatia Sailing). Wild Kiwi has flash-packing tours for 18-35s, guided by locals.

See all Wild Kiwi tours >

Backyard Roadies

Another newbie to the scene, Backyard Roadies are specifically focused on helping young Kiwis explore more of their own backyard. Their short tours are designed to be accessible (in terms of budget + length), meaningful and ethical.

Learn more about Backyard Roadies >

The Giant Sand Dunes in Northland

The perfect North Island road trip route

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland

Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest city, home to 1.7 million people, including me for eight years.

While it gets a pretty bad rap for traffic and house prices (a cool $1.2 million on average, no biggie), the city is actually a melting pot of culture with some really amazing open spaces, a vibrant entertainment scene, brilliant eateries and easy access to beaches, wineries, waterfalls and day hikes.

Things to do in Auckland

  • Eat! There are options for all tastes and budgets but some of my favourites are Odette’s for brunch, Blue Breeze Inn for Asian fusion, Amano for Italian, Jervois Steak House for a fancy meal and Soul Bar for luxury dining on the water
  • Walk up Mount Eden, a dormant volcano with incredible views of the city
  • Head up the Sky Tower and even jump off it if you dare!
  • Drive out west to the Waitakere Ranges for black sand beaches, waterfalls, gannet colonies and some amazing day hikes
  • Spot whales and dolphins on this half-day eco-cruise

Where to stay in Auckland

Camping | There’s not really any decent camping options in Auckland and parking can be a nightmare in the city, so if you’re hiring a campervan I’d recommend picking it up once you leave Auckland.

Budget | Haka Lodge, YHA Auckland and the Attic are the best-rated hostels, with options for dorm beds and private rooms

Mid-range | The Convent Hotel in Grey Lynn is tastefully decorated and offers great value (rooms from around $150 a night which is cheap for Auckland!)

Luxury | The Sofitel Viaduct Harbour, the Park Hyatt Auckland and Hotel DeBrett are some of the most popular luxury hotels in Auckland, or for somewhere self-catering check out the Swisse-Belsuites Victoria Park


Day 2: Waiheke Island day trip

Waiheke Island is one of the best day trips from Auckland, with things to do for wine connoisseurs, foodies, beach lovers and active adventurers.

The Waiheke Island ferry costs $42 return from downtown Auckland and takes about 40 minutes, or the car ferry leaves from Half Moon Bay (in East Auckland) and costs $102 return for a car and between $19 and $23 for an adult.

Waiheke is super easy to explore without a car however, so don’t feel like you need one! There are taxis all over, public buses which cover the whole island, transfers to wineries and activities from the ferry terminal, and an awesome hop-on hop-off bus with 16 stops around the island.

Things to do on Waiheke Island

  • Hit the wineries. The most popular ones are Mudbrick, Stonyridge and Cloudy Bay, and some lesser-known options that I love are Tantalus Estate (delicious dessert wines), Batch Winery (an amazing high tea) and Man’O’War (who make my all-time favourite pinot gris).
  • Try your hand at archery and clay shooting at Wild on Waiheke, a winery + brewery + activity provider
  • Enjoy the island’s microclimate at the one of the many beaches, like Oneroa, Onetangi and Palm Beach
  • Zip through the treetops with an EcoZip zipline tour

Where to stay on Waiheke

You can easily visit Waiheke Island on a day trip from Auckland but if you’d like to stay the night you could try Kiwi House Waiheke for somewhere highly-rated but cheap and cheerful, or Delamore Lodge for somewhere fancy (complete with an ocean-view infinity pool!).


Day 3: Paihia

Drive time from Auckland: 3 hours (230km)

Paihia is the gateway to the Bay of Islands and the “Winterless North” as it’s known colloquially.

Paihia itself is a laidback coastal town with a few eateries and places to stay, but the main drawcard is access to Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the historic town of Russell and the indulgent food & wine mecca of Kerikeri, as well as almost 150 paradise islands scattered around the area.

Urapukapuka Island, an included stop on the Hole in the Rock tour

Things to do in and near Paihia

  • Explore the region in style on a private tour with Rogue Pony, run by local guides who will take you around wineries, historic sites and incredible viewpoints in a funky Jeep or a V8 Mustang Convertible
  • Catch the ferry to Russell and enjoy a fancy dinner at the iconic Duke of Marlborough restaurant
  • Do the Rock Adventure Overnight Trip, the only overnight cruise in the Bay of Islands with options for fishing, kayaking, target shooting and more! These guys didn’t have availability when I was in Northland but it’s been on my to do list for ages, the tour has brilliant ratings. They also have a day cruise available if you can’t fit an overnight into your Northland itinerary.
  • Taste test local wines at the vineyards, I rate the Marsden Estate and Paroa Bay Winery
  • Go for a scenic flight to get the best view of all the islands
  • Try spot dolphins and see a famous unique rock formation on a Fullers Hole in the Rock cruise
  • Learn about New Zealand’s history at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed
Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Where to stay in Paihia

Camping | Paihia TOP 10 Holiday Park is located right on the water between Paihia township and Opua or Russell TOP 10 Holiday Park is ideal if you’re on the other side of the harbour

Budget | Peppertree Lodge was where we stayed and it was ideal, with comfy rooms, a huge kitchen and great location near eateries and close to the water

Mid-range | Absolute Bliss Apartments have a 9.6 rating on booking.com and offer kitchenettes, modern amenities and brilliant value, or Changing Tides BnB is another option that’s slightly cheaper

Luxury | The Sanctuary and The Boathouse are stunning options near Opua (just south of Paihia), or head over to Russell and check out the ultra-luxurious Donkey Bay Inn or the Eagle’s Nest, both known as some of the best luxury accommodation in New Zealand


Day 4: Cape Reinga (stay in Ahipara)

Drive time from Paihia: 2h 35m to Cape Reinga (198km)

Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand, marked by an iconic lighthouse and signpost showing distances to cities around the world. It’s also where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, creating crazy criss-cross patterns in the waves.

Maori legend considers Cape Reinga (known as Te Rerenga Wairua in te reo Maori) as the departure point for souls making their way to their spiritual homeland of Hawaiki, and this legend is marked physically by an 800+ year old pohutukawa tree where the spirits slide down a root into the ocean below.

Cape Reinga is super remote and there’s minimal food and accommodation options nearby, so you’ll need to visit during the day and then head back down to stay somewhere for the night. There’s also quite a few epic places to see and things to do on the way, so make sure you set aside some time for the stops.

Te Rerenga Wairua

Ninety Mile Beach

Ninety Mile Beach is a 54 mile/88km-long (yes, the name is infuriating) sandy stretch along the western coast of the Far North between Kaitaia and Cape Reinga.

It’s an official highway however it’s only suitable for 4WD vehicles, not accessible during high tide, and most rental car companies have clauses that won’t cover you for driving there.

If you don’t have your own 4WD, consider taking a bus tour from Paihia which will show you all the best spots along Ninety Mile Beach, take you up to Cape Reinga, and then return you back to Paihia for a second night.

Te Paki Sand Dunes

One of the best stops on the drive up to Cape Reinga is the famous Giant Sand Dunes of Te Paki, where you can rent a boogie board (or bring your own) and surf down them head first!

Boogie board rental is $15, you could probably buy one cheaper yourself at the Warehouse which might be useful if you’re planning on using it at the beach throughout your trip, but buying it just to throw it out after is wasteful so try and avoid that if possible.

The landscape is seriously jaw-dropping, the dunes are so huge that I forgot I was in New Zealand for a moment. The walk up to the top is a hard slog and it’s super steep but zooming back down was super fun.

Cape Reinga

Cape Reinga is beautiful at any time of the day but we absolutely loved our visit at sunset. We took the day to make our way up from Paihia, then got to Cape Reinga at about 5om where we had it almost to ourselves!

You can add it to your Far North itinerary at whatever time it suits best, but there’s no shade so avoid the middle of the day or make sure you take a hat and load up on sunblock.

Other things to do on the way

  • Stop by Matauri Bay for a dip! This stunning beach is one of Northland’s best hidden gems. There’s also a holiday park right on the water if you’ve got a night to spare.
  • Get a feed at Mangonui Fish Shop, serving up freshly caught seafood. This place has been ranked as one of the best fish and chip shops in NZ and their prices have risen because of it, but it’ll still worth a visit.
  • See the white sandy beaches in Karikari Peninsula
  • Stop for gas and food in Kaitaia, it’s the last town before you head up to the top!

Where to stay near Cape Reinga

There’s no accommodation at Cape Reinga so here are some options further south depending on how far you’d like to drive.

Camping | Taputupotu DOC Campsite is the closest place to camp, just a five minute drive from Cape Reinga, with basic facilities like cold showers and non-flush toilets. For better facilities you could try Houhora Head Holiday Park, 50 min south of Cape Reinga.

Budget | Tekao Lodge offers cheap rooms 30 mins south of Cape Reinga

Mid-range | Araiawa Raio Lodge Pukenui is about 55 minutes south of Cape Reinga, or Heartland Eco Retreat is in Ahipara, 1h 45m south of Cape Reinga

Luxury | For somewhere fancy check out the Fern Ridge Hideaway with an outdoor bath and stunning views just south of Kaitaia (1h 20m south of Cape Reinga), or the Old Oak Boutique Hotel back down in Mangonui (1h 35m south)


Day 5: Tutukaka

Drive time from Kaitaia: 2h 20m (174km)
Drive time from Cape Reinga: 3h 40m (278km)

Tutukaka is a playground for both on-water and underwater adventurers, home to some of New Zealand’s most epic dive spots, beaches and bays.

It’s best known as the gateway to the Poor Knights Islands, a protected marine reserve 23km off the coast offering dramatic drop offs and arches created by volcanic activity millions of years ago. The marine life here is abundant, boasting incredible biodiversity for divers to experience for themselves.

If you’re not a diver you can also snorkel, horse trek, cruise and paddle board around the laidback Tutukaka Coast.

Sandy Bay, Tutukaka

Things to do in Tutukaka

  • If you’re a certified diver or if you’ve ever considered trying SCUBA, diving in Tutukaka is an absolute must-do. Jacques Cousteau, the inventor of SCUBA, even called the Poor Knights Islands one of the best dive spots in the world! I did a dive with local legends Dive! Tutukaka and we had a brilliant time.
  • If you don’t want to dive, Dive! Tutukaka also offers snorkelling gear, kayaks or just boat cruises
  • Explore Tutukaka’s coastline while testing your balance with a SUP (stand up paddleboard) tour with Sup Bro Tours
  • Take an eco tour around wrecks, ruins and stunning natural scenery with Pacific Coast Kayaks
  • Trot along Sandy Bay on horseback with Sandy Bay Horses
  • Go beach hopping, some spectacular ones to add to your list are Whale Bay, Matapouri Beach and Whangaumu
  • Do the short 10 min walk to Whangarei Falls

Where to stay in Tutukaka/Whangarei

Camping | Tutukaka Holiday Park has basic facilities for a low price, or there’s a highly-rated freedom camping spot right by Matapouri Beach, download the Rankers app to see the details

Budget | The Cell Block Backpackers in Whangarei has dorms and private rooms for cheap, and Whangarei Falls Holiday Park has a hostel onsite with decent reviews

Mid-range | True North Tutukaka and Pacific Rendezvous Motel are both rated 9/10 on booking.com

Luxury | The Glasshouse is an architecturally-designed villa in Taiharuru, a short drive from Whangarei, with mind-blowing views over the ocean

The walk to Whangarei Falls

Days 6 & 7: Coromandel Peninsula

Drive time from Tutukaka to Whitianga: 4h 50m (376km)

I might be biased considering I spent every single summer holiday here throughout my childhood, but I think the Coromandel Peninsula is a must-do for every North Island road trip!

You could easily spend a week or two discovering secluded bays and refreshing swimming spots in this area, but for the sake of this itinerary, I’d recommend setting aside two nights to see the main hot spots.

Many international tourists choose to base themselves in Whitianga because it offers easy access to Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach, however Whangamata, Coromandel Town and Cooks Beach also have a decent range of accommodation options.

Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove is the main tourist destination in the Coromandel, and it gets around 150,000 visitors per year (in normal times). Yup, it’s busy!

It’s only accessible by foot or by water, but the clear water and iconic rock formations make it worth the effort.

You can walk to the beach if you’re okay with walking 45 minutes one way along a rocky path. It’s not a difficult walk but there are steps and uneven sections, so I’d recommend wearing actual shoes rather than jandals if you’re worried (or take the boat instead).

Keep in mind that from October to April the carpark is closed due to traffic control so you’ll have to use the park’n’ride service, which costs $5 return per adult or $3 per child.

There are a few different boat options to experience Cathedral Cove. A water taxi from Hahei for $15 each way (runs October to April) which will allow you to swim or relax for however you want, ideal if you’re keen to spend a whole day at the beach or if you have specific timing you have to work around.

You could also go for this two-hour glass bottom boat tour to get a sneak peek at the underwater life (it also includes a snorkelling stop), this two-hour small boat cruise with Cave Cruzer meaning you have access to smaller caves plus better photography opportunities, or this three-hour sailing trip which includes a drink and snack.

Cathedral Cove

Other things to do in the Coromandel

  • Visit Tairua, my little beach town! My family has been coming here for decades, and my grandparents now live here for the warmer half of the year. It’s got super local vibes, a great fish and chip shop (Surf ‘n’ Sand), awesome surf spots, a fishing club with cheap drink deals, and a couple of brilliant brunch spots. Don’t miss the 15 min walk to Mt Paku Summit, you get the most insane 360 degree view over the estuary and across to Pauanui.
  • Soak all your worries away with a visit to the Lost Spring Hot Pools in Whitianga
  • Kayak of paddle board out to Donut Island from Whangamata
  • Take or rent a spade and dig yourself a private geothermal hot pool at Hot Water Beach
  • The Kauaeranga Kauri Trail is better known as the Pinnacles Walk, a full day or overnight walk with impressive views over native bush
  • See the view from Shakespeare Cliff Lookout
  • Spend a couple of hours in the treetops with Coromandel Zipline Tours

Where to stay in the Coromandel

Camping | Shelly Beach TOP 10 Holiday Park has powered sites + cabins in Coromandel Town, or Mercury Bay Holiday Park is a great option in Whitianga

Budget | Anchor Lodge Motel in Coromandel Town has backpacker rooms for a good price, or Tatahi Backpackers in Hahei is budget-friendly too

Mid-range | Pipi Dune Bed & Breakfast in Whitianga is super cute and Hush Boutique Accommodation is a good mid-range option for Coromandel Town

Luxury | Casa Aquila and Tangiaro Retreat are two luxurious options in the Coromandel Peninsula

For a family or group | My parents have an Airbnb in Tairua right on the water, with three bedrooms and room for up to 8 guests. I’ve spent many weekends here with friends and it’s a quintessential kiwi bach experience if that’s what you’re looking for! Book it here >

Glamping | Slipper Island Resort is a private island off the coast of Tairua with safari tents and lodge rooms available. You can even rent out the whole resort if you’ve got 30 people! Read my full review of Slipper Island or book it here >


Day 8: Mount Maunganui

Drive time from Whitianga to Mount Maunganui: 2h 35m (171km)

Colloquially known as “The Mount” in Aotearoa, this bustling coastal hub is a summertime mecca for beach lovers.

The mountain itself is names Mauao, meaning ‘caught by the dawn’ in te reo, which is apt given that a sunrise up Mount Maunganui should be on everyone’s New Zealand bucket list.

Unlike many New Zealand beach towns, Mount Maunganui boasts decent infrastructure, loads of accommodation options, a main street packed with shops and so many cafés you’ll have a hard time choosing where to brunch.

Nearby Tauranga is the fourth-largest city in the North Island, with its own busy city centre, a couple of shopping malls and even a hotel with an infinity pool and overwater rooms!

The view from the Mount

Things to do in the Mount

  • Walk up Mauao for sunrise, the views are just stellar
  • Rest your legs afterwards with a visit to the Mount Hot Pools
  • Hit the waves with a surf lesson, there are signs for instructors along the main beach
  • Try a Copenhagen Cone, the best ice cream in town
  • Go skydiving for the best views of the Bay of Plenty, including the Mount, Tauranga, White Island and even Mount Taranaki on a clear day!
  • See the Mount and Tauranga while getting a serious thrill with this V8 trike tour
  • Swim with wild dolphins (I’ve done this in Picton and Kaikoura and both experiences have made it onto my mental life highlight reel!)
  • Go for an evening kayak tour to see glow worms, complete with wine and cheese in a glorious setting before your trip
  • If you’d like to learn about the Māori history around Mauao, consider this cultural walk complete with stories about the significance of the maunga (mountain)

Where to stay at the Mount & Tauranga

Camping | Mount Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park is as close to Mauao as you can get but it does get booked up during peak season, so Cosy Corner Holiday Park is another option

Budget | Wanderlust Hostel in Tauranga looks epic, or Seagulls Guesthouse is a highly-rated option in Mount Maunganui

Mid-range | The Mission Belle Motel has sun-soaked compact rooms for a great price and the Pacific Apartments has self-contained studios right by Mauao

Luxury | Trinity Wharf in Tauranga is my favourite hotel in the area, and it’s the cheapest infinity pool hotel in New Zealand! Other luxurious options are Belle Mer Beachfront Apartments and Pacific Palms Resort


Days 9 & 10: Rotorua

Drive time from Mount Maunganui to Rotorua: 1 hour (73km)

Rotorua is basically the Queenstown of the North Island but with two additional bonuses of geothermal activity and being a hub of Maori culture.

There are so many things to do in Rotorua that you could easily could fill a week-long itinerary, from thrill activities to nature walks to hot pools to high tea.

My dad’s family is from Rotorua, we’re a part of the Ngāti Whakaue iwi (tribe) and our iwi is based at Ohinemutu, a living Maori village on Rotorua’s lakefront.

You can wander through the village free of charge and I highly suggest you do, we have a beautiful church right on the lake and geothermal activity bubbling under the ground. Just be sure to keep to the paths and don’t walk onto any private land or enter the maraes without an invitation.

Things to do in Rotorua

  • Rotorua Canopy Tours are my top pick if you could only choose one Rotorua activity, they offer epic zipline tours through native forest with a strong focus on education around conservation
  • Hit the hot pools. The Polynesian Spa is an upmarket geothermal hot pool facility with both shared and private pools, Waikite Valley is a cheaper option with more of a natural vibe, or Kerosene Creek is a free geothermal pool accessed by a short bush walk.
  • Roll down a hill in an inflatable ball called a Zorb, an excellent example of Kiwi ingenuity and something you have to do while you’re in New Zealand
  • Learn about the incredible Maori culture with a visit to Tamaki Maori Village, Te Puia or Mitai Maori Village
  • Take the Skyline Gondola up the hill and try out the luge, a gravity-powered toboggan-go-kart hybrid that will have you zooming down the tracks
  • Treat yourself to a high tea at Prince’s Gate Hotel for only $29 per person
  • Visit the Redwoods Forest to see Californian Redwoods stand tall amongst native fern forest down below. You can visit the forest on foot or try out one of the mountain bike tracks for free, but I highly recommend doing the Redwoods Tree Walk which takes you across bridges and platforms up in the trees. They also have a Nightlights option where you’ll see the forest all lit up after dark!
  • Get amongst the geothermal activity with a trip to Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and Waimangu Volcanic Valley to see dramatic geothermal landscapes, geysers and lakes
  • Raft down the world’s highest commercially-rafted waterfall (7m!!) with Kaituna Cascades. I’ve done this twice, once on school camp and once for team-building at work, and it’s as epic as it sounds!

For more tips on Rotorua activities check out my in-depth destination guide: 25 Epic Things to Do in Rotorua

Where to stay in Rotorua

Camping | There’s a freedom camping spot right by the Polynesian Spa, or Rotorua Lakeside Holiday Park is a good option if you need facilities

Budget | YHA Rotorua is the best budget option in town, with dorms and private rooms available

Mid-range | Quest Rotorua and the Pullman are both decent options in the city that won’t break the bank

Luxury | For a luxury experience in Rotorua you can’t go past Solitaire Lodge, set on Lake Tarawera with access to a private beach and magical views

Glamping | I’ve got a full blog on glamping in Rotorua but my favourite spot is Finesse Luxury Glamping


Day 11: Hamilton & Raglan

Drive time from Rotorua to Hamilton: 1h 24m (108km)

My hometown! I grew up in Hamilton before moving to Auckland for university (and later London), and I’ve had to return thanks to something that starts with C and ends with OVID-19.

Hamilton gets a bad rap for being boring but I really think that’s undeserved, the city is home to a growing food scene and world-class gardens, and there are an endless number of short walks within an hour’s drive.

Most tourists probably drive straight through Hamilton, but adding a night here (or in the beach town of Raglan 30 minutes west) will give you some time to enjoy the food on offer as well as tick off some of the epic scenery in the mighty Waikato region.

NOTE: If you’d like to visit Hobbiton (you probably should if you’re in the area!) then you’ll want to add that in as a slight detour while driving from Rotorua to Hamilton.

Things to do in Hamilton & Raglan

  • The Hamilton Gardens are reason alone to stop in Hamilton, they even won the global title of International Garden of the Year in 2014! The gardens are unique in that instead of focusing purely on plant collections, Hamilton Gardens is based around garden design. There are more than 20 gardens in total so set aside a couple of hours to see them all. My favourites are the Indian Char Bagh Garden, the Italian Garden, Te Parapara Garden (traditional Maori garden) and the newly-opened Surrealist Garden.
  • Go for brunch! I’m a brunch fiend and I always try and eat my way around a city, so I’ve tried the vast majority of Hamilton’s brunch options. Go to the Kirk or Sisterfields for something Instagrammable, Sentinel Cafe for something in the CBD, Punnet for an option on the way to Cambridge or Archie’s is my favourite suburban option
  • Wander along the river, there’s a long walking and bike track
  • Head out to Raglan and go surfing
  • Visit the Bridal Veil Falls on the way out to Raglan (10 mins to the viewing platform, another 10 mins to the base of the falls)
  • See the bright blue water at Putaruru’s Blue Spring/Te Waihou. The main walk is 1.5 hours each way but if you drive to the Leslie Road carpark and walk from the other way it’s only 15 minutes to the main spot. This spring is protected so do not touch the water, however tempting it may be!

Where to stay in Hamilton

Budget | If you’re on a tight budget I’d suggest staying in Raglan for a night, which has a better range of cheap but decent accommodation. Some of the best options are Solscape, Raglan Backpackers and Raglan Farmhouse.

Mid-range | Camelot on Ulster and Albert Court Motor Lodge are both motels with great reviews and good facilities

Luxury | The Hilly House is at the top of my list for a luxury getaway in the Waikato, you can book it on Bookabach (I can’t link to the exact page but just click here, then search ‘Hilly House’ and it will come up)


Day 12 day stop: Waitomo Caves

Drive time from Hamilton to Waitomo Caves: 56 minutes (68km)

The magical Waitomo Caves are one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions, and for good reason. You just have to look up to see why!

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

With millions of shiny glow worms dotted all around the top of the limestone caves, this place truly has to be seen to be believed. There are quite a few different places to see glow worms in New Zealand but Waitomo Caves is certainly the most impressive display, as well as being the most commercial.

You can see the glow worms in a number of different ways depending on your budget and taste for adventure.

The cheapest way to see the glow worm caves is the classic Glow Worm Cave 1 hour tour for $55, which includes a boat tour in the darkness under a ceiling packed with tiny shimmering creatures. There’s also the Ruakuri Cave (also $55) which is accessible to wheelchairs and allows photography of the glow worms, and I’d recommend adding on the Aranui Cave which doesn’t have glow worms but does have a spectacular collection of stalactites and stalagmites.

For a longer and more in-depth experience, check out this three hour small group eco-tour which will get you up close and personal with the glow worms in unspoilt privately-owned caves.

Black water rafting

My absolute favourite thing to do in Waitomo, and actually one of the best things to do in the North Island, is black water rafting through underground rapids below a sky of glow worms. Yep, it’s as epic as it sounds.

Run by the same company who look after the commercial glow worm caves, there are two black water rafting options to choose from, but they’re not for the faint-hearted.

We did the three hour Black Labyrinth tour, where you will do a short bush walk, clamber through some tight caves and jump off waterfalls in the dark before floating in a tube underneath the glow worms.

For an even more thrilling experience, check out the Black Abyss tour. This one is five hours in total, and it kicks off with a 35m abseil and then a zipline into the caves!

black water rafting waitomo
This is probably the most unflattering photo I’ll ever put on the internet…

Other things to do in Waitomo

  • For a free way to spot glow worms, you could do the Ruakuri Bush Walk at night (with a torch to get you there safely, obviously). This walk doesn’t go right into any caves but you can see the glow worms lit up along the banks of the track.
  • The thundering Marakopa Falls are a short 20 min return walk through lush native bush
  • Get up close and personal with New Zealand’s flightless national bird at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, 15 mins north of Waitomo Caves

Where to stay in Waitomo

Camping | Waitomo TOP 10 Holiday Park has campsites and budget cabins available

Unique | Ever wanted to sleep in a Hobbit House or an aeroplane? Woodlyn Park has a bunch of unique accommodation options just a short drive from Waitomo, as well as powered sites for campervans

Budget | Waitomo Caves Guest Lodge has basic but comfortable rooms with beautiful garden views and access to kitchenette facilities

Mid-range | Abseil Inn is a bed & breakfast with a shared lounge and BBQ for guest use

Luxury | Waitomo Boutique Lodge is 30 minutes from the glow worm caves, with free cooked breakfast, an outdoor pool, hot tub and tennis court


Days 12 & 13: New Plymouth

Drive time from Waitomo Caves to New Plymouth: 2h 25m (171km) or 3h 10m direct from Hamilton

With easy access to black sand beaches as well as the mighty Mount Taranaki, the coastal city of New Plymouth may be slightly off the beaten track (if ‘the beaten track’ is State Highway 1) but is totally worth adding on to your North Island road trip.

The natural highlights of the mountain, wild west coast surf spots and thick forests are definitely a reason to visit, but the buzzing arts scene and local eateries are reason to stay for longer!

Hiking Mount Taranaki

There are a range of hikes available depending on your fitness level and how much time you have, but the Pouakai Tarns walk is probably the most popular and definitely the most Instagrammable.

It’s an in-and-out track just over 12km in total and DOC suggests setting aside 4-5 hours round trip, but many people spend the night at the Pouakai Hut to be able to see both sunset and sunrise at the reflective tarn for the best photos of the mountain.

You can book your spot at the Pouakai Hut here >

The view of the mountain from Pouakai Tarn

Other things to do in New Plymouth

  • See the views from the top of Paritutu Rock after a short but steep walk/climb. Wear proper shoes because you’ll be scrambling your way up the last little bit using a chain rope for support.
  • See the Three Sisters and the Elephant rock formations in Tongaporutu, but make sure you visit at low tide to be able to access that part of the beach
  • Walk across the funky Te Rewa Rewa Bridge
  • Go for brunch at Federal Store, I guarantee you won’t regret it
  • Set aside a few hours to explore the contemporary art galleries and incredible gift shops selling locally-made crafts and kiwiana-themed art

Where to stay in New Plymouth

Camping | Fitzroy Beach Holiday Park and Belt Road Seaside Holiday Park both have excellent ratings

Budget | Purakau Bed & Breakfast is a charming little B&B perfect for travellers on a budget

Mid-range | The State Hotel is a brilliant option right in town and the Residence Fitzroy has modern self-contained apartments near Fitzroy Beach

Luxury | King & Queen Hotel Suites have luxury apartments available opposite the art gallery, or Country Retreat Glamping offers a sophisticated safari tent glamping set up


Day 14: Tongariro National Park

Drive time from New Plymouth to Tongariro National Park: 3h 20m (261km)

DRIVING TIP: The easiest way to get from New Plymouth to National Park is to take SH3 north of New Plymouth, then turn onto SH4 at Te Mapara.

Another more thrilling option with windy roads and tight corners is to take SH3 south from New Plymouth to Midhurst then turn onto SH43, also known as the Forgotten World Highway.

Whatever you do, do not accidentally take the road in between these two options, unless you want the three hour trip to take you twice as long and almost kill you multiple times along the way.

We made this mistake in our HUGE 6.3m campervan and then dealt with 100+kms of dirt road, speeding trucks coming straight at us around corners, landslides, cows in the middle of the road and a terrifying moment where we thought we were about to run out of gas 50km from the nearest gas station. 0/10 would not recommend, please learn from my mistake.

A trio of volcanoes stand tall amongst the North Island’s Central Plateau, with a plethora of hikes, two ski resorts and other outdoor adventures to get you moving.

Tongariro NP was the first National Park in New Zealand after Ngati Tuwharetoa (the local tribe) gifted it to the people of Aotearoa. It holds dual Unesco World Heritage status for spiritual significance to Maori as well as outstanding natural landscapes, including moon-like craters and brightly-coloured alpine lakes.

The Tongariro Crossing

The obvious must-do here is the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand’s most popular day hike, but there are some other attractions to add to your North Island itinerary too.

Completing the 19.4km day walk is a rite of passage for any active Kiwi or international visitor, and it’s a mainstay of local shcool camps.

The walk takes 7-8 hours during the warmer months (Nov to May) and is rated Intermediate by DOC, however if you’re planning on doing it in winter/spring (June to October) you’ll need to set aside around 9 hours and you’ll need alpine skills and gear (or an experienced guide) to complete it.

No matter what time of the year you go make sure you have enough water and food, take layers in case of inclement weather, and check conditions with the local information centre or shuttle operators to make sure you’re aware of any issues.

Other things to do in Tongariro National Park

  • After your hike you deserve a rest, so why not enjoy a fancy high tea at the iconic Chateau Tongariro Hotel. Take a seat in their sophisticated lounge and enjoy a glass of bubbles with club sandwiches and sweet treats with a view of Mount Ruapehu.
  • If you’re a sucker for exercise and a huge day hike wasn’t enough, or if you need a rainy day activity, Vertigo Adventure Centre has some fun indoor rock climbing walls with auto-belay systems meaning you and your travel buddies can all climb together
  • For a shorter alternative or add on to the Tongariro Crossing, there are tonnes of easy walks in the area. You could consider Tawhai Falls (20 mins return), Taranaki Falls (2 hour loop), Mangawhero Forest (1 hour loop) or Rotopounamu (2 hour loop)
  • Hit the slopes on an active volcano! There are two ski fields on Mt Ruapehu: Whakapapa which is ideal for beginners and intermediate skiiers/snowboarders, or Turoa which is more suited to intermediate/experts.

Where to stay in National Park

Camping | You can freedom camp at National Park Village Kiwi Camp, or Whakapapa Holiday Park is the best-rated option with powered sites

Budget | Howards Mountain Lodge in National Park Village (closer to Whakapapa ski field) has basic dorms, private rooms and even a five-bedroom home to rent, or YHA Station Lodge Ohakune has excellent reviews and is better for Turoa visitors

Mid-range | Tongariro Suites, Tongariro Crossing Lodge, The Gables B&B and Rocky Mountain Chalets are all great options for good value mid-range accommodation

Luxury | Night Sky Cottage is a boutique eco-friendly hideaway that can fit four guests, or the Chateau Tongariro is the quintessential luxury experience in the National Park

High tea at the Chateau Tongariro

Days 15 & 16: Taupo

Drive time from National Park Village to Taupo: 1h 20m (100km)

The largest lake in the Southern Hemisphere (it’s the size of Singapore!), Lake Taupo and its resort town of the same name are one of the North Island’s most popular destinations.

Visiting on a clear day will take your breath away, with the mighty volcanoes of Tongariro National Park watching you from a distance.

The town has most certainly been hit by travel restrictions but there are still plenty of things to do in Taupo (both free and paid) to keep you busy no matter what you’re into.

Any trip to Lake Taupo requires at least one water activity, whether it’s a cruise to the spectacular Huka Falls, a drive-your-own boat trip on the lake itself or a visit to geothermal hot pools. Then on land you can hike, bike or eat to your heart’s content. Prefer your adventures in the air? Skydiving, bungy jumping and scenic flights are all on offer.

Things to do in Taupo

  • Play captain with your own Doughboat! These bright pink electric boats fit six passengers and are a unique way to experience the lake, with the added bonus of being eco-friendly. Stock up on snacks or even order a pizza, throw on your matching pink life jacket (safety first), hook up your phone to the Bluetooth speaker and you’ve got your own little party on the water.
  • Watch 220,000 litres of water thunder over Huka Falls every second. Yep, you read that right! It’s just a short walk from the carpark to the falls, and then there are a few longer walks available if you’d like to make your way up or down the river.
  • The Rapids Jet is the only jet boat company in New Zealand to actually take you through white water rapids, as opposed to other jet boat options which stick to the flat parts of the river. We did the Rapids Jet trip on a very cold winter morning so I’d recommend rugging up with beanie, scarf and gloves, and enjoy a thrilling 35 minute boat ride on the Waikato River
  • Enjoy the growing local food scene. I love Cozy Corner for brunch and Sorrento Wine Bar for dinner!
  • You don’t need to head to Queenstown for a bungy jump, in Taupo you can bungy jump off a 47m-high platform above the river
  • Enjoy mountain and lake views from 9,000ft, 12,000ft or a slightly insane 18,500ft skydive with Taupo Tandem Skydive, who are actually the top-rated skydive company in New Zealand
  • See the Ngatoroirangi Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings, a famous piece of contemporary art created by traditional Maori carver Matahi Brightwell. You can see the 14m carving by catamaran, yacht or kayak.
  • If kayaking floats your boat, this 2 hour guided kayak trip will take you down the Waikato River with stops at swimming holes, nature reserves and thermal springs
  • Enjoy some rest and relaxation at the hot pools. I love Wairakei Terraces (adults only) but DeBretts is a family-friendly option and Spa Thermal Park has a free hot pool where geothermal mineral water flows into the Waikato River.

For more Taupo travel ideas check out my in-depth blog: 19 of the Best Things to Do in Taupo

Where to stay in Taupo

Camping | Taupo TOP 10 Holiday Park is awesome, with sunny spots separated by hedges for privacy, a huge kitchen and thermal plunge pool

Budget | Haka Lodge Backpackers has great value dorm and private rooms a short walk to restaurants and shops

Mid-range | Taupo’s Treat is the cutest little self-contained homestay complete with freshly-baked bread and fluffy chickens (you can read a full review of Taupo’s Treat here) or Acacia Lake View Motel is on the main road right on the lake

Luxury | For somewhere romantic check out Dunalistair House, or for somewhere ultra-luxe then Huka Lodge is unbeatable. If it’s good enough for Queen Elizabeth, it’s good enough for you!

If you want more suggestions for Taupo accommodation, read my full blog on the best places to stay in Taupo.

wairakei hot pools in taupo
Wairakei Terraces hot pools

Days 17 & 18: Napier & Hawke’s Bay

Drive time from Taupo to Napier: 1h 45m (141km)

Probably my favourite small city in New Zealand, Napier and the surrounding region of Hawke’s Bay are a must-visit for anyone who loves food and wine as much as I do. There are enough cellar doors and world-class winery restaurants to keep you busy for weeks!

Aside from eating and drinking the day away, there are also some incredible beaches and mountain views to enjoy, an impressive range of gift shops and antique stores, and a fascinating past to learn about.

Wine and food in Napier & Hawke’s Bay

Alright, we all know this is the main reason to visit this area.

It’s hard to give a full run down of the options because I (unfortunately!) haven’t been able to personally visit them all, however some stand outs for me were the Urban Winery for food and music, Black Barn for views, and Church Road for a classic Hawke’s Bay experience.

If you have a car and a sober driver, you could easily do a self-drive winery tour with the help of the Hawke’s Bay Wine & Food map. If you’d prefer to get some exercise between cellar doors, you could do a self-guided bike tour along coastal paths which ends with three wineries.

There are a bunch of guided tours available too, like this small group half-day tour, this gourmet lunch + wine tour, this twilight winery tour or this luxurious private tour including 4 wineries, Devonshire Tea and a platter lunch. Fancy!

Te Mata Peak

You can’t miss the walk or drive up Te Mata Peak to see the 360° view.

The drive is windy and narrow with a steep drop (there’s a barrier though) so if you’re not a confident driver or if you’re in a wide vehicle it might be best to walk, there are walking tracks from 40 mins to 2.5 hours long.

We did the drive in our 6.3m campervan and we were totally fine but there weren’t many other people there when we visited, so busy days + big vans might not be ideal.

Other things to do in Napier

  • I recommend getting your bearings with a super unique way to see the city, a trike tour! These local legends have a range of trips available, from short and sharp motorway bursts through to extended drives around rural Hawke’s Bay or even food and wine tours via trike.
  • Get amongst the Art Deco vibes with a city tour by vintage car
  • Head out on a day tour to Cape Kidnappers to see the gannet colony

Where to stay in Napier

Camping | Perfume Point in Ahuriri is one of my favourite freedom camping spots in New Zealand, right by the ocean with clean public toilets. For holiday parks check out Hawkes Bay Holiday Park which is slightly out of the city but has far better reviews than the options closer to town.

Budget | Greenmeadows on Gloucester has self-contained motel studios for a great price, or Archie’s Bunker and Toad Hall Backpackers are two hostels with decent reviews

Mid-range | Pebble Beach Motor Inn has modern studios right on Marine Parade

Luxury | The Dome and the County Hotel are both fancier options for a luxurious stay (although accommodation in Napier is pretty cheap so even the nice hotels are less than $250 a night)


Day 19: Martinborough

Drive time from Napier to Martinborough: 3h 10m (267km)

Even more wineries await as you head south on your North Island road trip to Wairarapa, where historical towns and decadent vineyards are bordered by a spectacular coastline.

I’ve only allowed for an overnight trip here but if you are a sucker for cute buildings, gastronimic delights and exploring at a slower pace then consider adding on some extra time here if you can.

Things to do in Martinborough

  • Explore the wineries. Martinborough has more than 20 cellar doors within biking distance of the main square in town, and there are bike hire options or guided bike tours as well as small group walking tours around the wineries. My favourite is Poppies, they do a delicious rosé and a brilliant platter!
  • Taste test some local beer from Tui Brewery or Martinborough Brewery, or try locally-distilled spirits from Reid+Reid or Lighthouse Gin
  • C’est Cheese in Featherston is an essential stop for any cheese lovers (meeeee!)
  • Shop til you drop in Greytown, a charming little town packed to the brim with quirky gift shops, independent clothing boutiques and antique stores
  • Spot fur seals and climb the 250 steps to the top of the lighthouse at Cape Palliser, the southernmost point of the North Island (check out this Cape Palliser walking tour if you want to go with a local guide)
  • If you’re lucky enough to be visiting on a weekend, be sure to head to one of the many farmers’ markets in the Wairarapa region. Check with your accommodation to find the closest one near you.
  • Head down to the Putangirua Pinnacles to see some otherworldly rock formations
  • Explore the Patuna Chasm (open from mid-November to end of March)

Where to stay in Martinborough & nearby

Camping | Martinborough TOP 10 Holiday Park has great facilities onsite, or Morrison’s Bush Campground is a super cheap ($5 a night) option for self-contained campers

Budget | There are no hostels in Martinborough that are open right now but the TOP 10 has cabins available for a low price

Mid-range | Swan House, Te Kopura Lodge and Pinot Villas are all mid-range options with excellent reviews

Luxury | The Martinborough Hotel is a town icon with decadent suites available for a surprisingly low price, Te Pamu Escape is a stunning glamping spot near Masterton and Peppers Parehua is a classic five star hotel


Days 20 & 21: Wellington

Drive time from Martinborough to Wellington: 1h 10m (82km)

You made it! And the pot of gold at the end of this North Island road trip is Wellington, New Zealand’s windy capital city.

Wellington has many things to brag about but the major highlights here are its buzzing cultural scene, award-winning restaurants, the world-class Te Papa Museum, picture-perfect waterfront and easy access to mountains, beaches and bush walks.

Things to do in Wellington

  • Learn about Aotearoa’s history and culture with the interactive exhibits at Te Papa
  • See the Beehive, New Zealand’s wacky parliament building
  • LOTR fans can’t miss going behind-the-scenes at Weta Workshop to see how Hollywood movie magic is made in little ol’ NZ
  • Dive head first into the food and drink scene. Some of the best spots are Fidel’s for brunch, Fix & Fogg’s Window for peanut butter treats (life-changing), and Jano Bistro or Hiakai for something ultra-fancy.
  • Go crazy in the gift shops, boutiques and vintage stores. Ikoiko is my favourite!
  • Enjoy Oriental Bay on a sunny day
  • Spot native birds and learn all about conservation at Zealandia, rated one of the World’s 100 Greatest Places by Time Magazine in 2019
  • Take the bright red cable car up the Kelburn hillside for epic views over the city and harbour

Where to stay in Wellington

Camping | Wellington’s streets are quite narrow, meaning it’s not an ideal city for a campervan. We stayed out at Wellington TOP 10 which is actually in Lower Hutt, but it had recently renovated facilities and was ideal for our big van. An option actually in the city is Camp Wellington Campervan Park.

Budget | YHA Wellington, Marion Hostel and the Dwellington are the best-rated hostels in the city

Mid-range | Gilmer Apartment Hotel has basic but comfortable studios and apartments for a decent price, or the Boulcott Suites are another highly-rated option

Luxury | The InterContinental is a gorgeous five star hotel (they also do an excellent high tea), or the Bolton, QT Wellington and the Sofitel all have excellent reviews


Alternative options for your North Island road trip

If you like active adventures

The most popular multi-day hikes in the North Island would be the Cape Brett Trail in Northland, Lake Waikaremoana on the East Cape, and at Mount Taranaki near New Plymouth, so consider adding these onto your trip and spending less time in the cities.

If you’re a foodie

If you’re all about your food, I’d recommend spending a bit more time in Auckland and Wellington. Both cities have an impressive gastronomic scene and there are eateries for you to experience from all different cuisines.

If you like wine

If you like wine you might want to add on more time in the Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough. I’d recommend spending an extra night in each spot so you can do a proper wine tour (like this one for Hawke’s Bay or this one for Martinborough) without having to worry about doing a long drive the following day.

If you want more beach time

If you’re doing your North Island road trip in summer and want to make the most of the sun and heat, focus your itinerary around Northland (like Kai Iwi Lakes and Waipu Cove, where they have an epic holiday park right on the beach), the Coromandel, the Bay of Plenty (Tauranga and surrounds) and the East Cape.


North Island road trip travel tips

Now that you’ve hopefully got a rough itinerary for your road trip around the North Island, there are some things you need to know before you go.

What to pack for the North Island

Regardless of what season you’re visiting, come prepared with a range of clothing. That means always bring your togs (the Kiwi word for swimsuit) in case of beaches or hot pools, jandals (flip-flops) for convenience, a waterproof jacket, an umbrella and a scarf.

If you’re getting a campervan for your North Island road trip, some other essentials you’ll want to bring are a head torch (super handy at campsites), rubbish bags to dispose of your rubbish responsibly, an emergency and first aid kit, reusable shopping bags and quick-dry microfibre towels.

It’s also a good idea to pack some sunblock and insect repellent for summer, and a hot water bottle for winter.

Be prepared for the weather

One thing to know about New Zealand’s weather is that it can change in an instant. You might have a perfectly sunny day one minute and then twenty minutes later there’s a hail storm!

You could check the weather forecast before you plan any outdoor activities but also take the predictions with a grain of salt, you don’t want to cancel plans for a winery day and then the predicted rain never turns up 🙃

Always carry clothing options for a potential weather change, avoid going hiking if the weather forecast looks dodgy, and don’t forget that there are loads of things to do in the North Island whether it’s sunny, raining, or both!

Phone service isn’t a given

New Zealand’s cellphone service is notoriously bad, and there are many places in both the North and South Island that will be completely off grid.

I always try and book accommodation or campgrounds with free WiFi so I’m able to at least plan the next day’s adventures and download directions.

Many rural areas and the mountains in particular have shoddy service, so if you’re planning on going for a hike, make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you’re due to get back. That way if you don’t get in touch with them, they’ll be able to contact local search and rescue to let them know you might be in trouble.


How to see the North Island on a budget

Here are a bunch of tips to help you save $$$ on your North Island road trip.

  • Buy a TOP 10 Holiday Park membership card for $49 (for two years), it gets you 10% off all TOP 10 campgrounds, 15% off Interislander tickets and discounts on more than 500 travel operators
  • Check out the activities available on Bookme.co.nz, a discount website for last minute travel deals. You could get up to 60% off scenic flights, skydives, cruises and more!
  • Join the New Zealand Travel Tips (NZTT) Facebook group for member-only deals on activities around the country
  • Food is pretty expensive in New Zealand, but you can save money by cooking your own meals. Make sure you buy in-season produce and check out farmers markets for cheap fruit and veg.
  • In terms of supermarkets, Pak’nSave is definitely the cheapest. Countdown, New World and Fresh Choice have similar prices but check their websites for their weekly deals. Many cities also have Asian supermarkets which are great for fresh produce and meat.
  • Avoid alcohol if you really want to save, drinks in New Zealand are about $7-8 for a beer or wine, and even more expensive in Auckland and Wellington or the tourist towns.
  • If you do want to treat yourself to a dinner out, check First Table to book an early or late table for $5-10 and you’ll get a 50% discount on food
  • Download the Rankers and Campermate apps to get the low down on the best freedom camping spots and holiday parks to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck

Planning a big New Zealand road trip?

I’ve got a tonne of helpful travel guides for all around New Zealand which will help you make the most of your time and money on the road. Here are some blogs that you might also want to read:


Well done for making it to the end of this monster blog post! I hope I’ve helped you plan your North Island road trip itinerary, you’re going to have the BEST time.

If you have any questions pop them in the comments below or head over to Instagram @findingalexx and flick me a message.

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If you’re heading to the South Island and planning a Queenstown to Christchurch road trip, this itinerary will give you all the best sights to see, things to do and places to stay.

New Zealand’s South Island is basically made for road trips, boasting some of the most beautiful drives on the planet.

Driving from Queenstown to Christchurch gives you a couple of different road trip options to choose from, and no matter which way you end up taking, I guarantee you’ll be blown away by the views.

Whether you’re doing the drive as part of a larger South Island road trip, or if you’re only visiting the South Island for a quick holiday and want to tick off some of the major hot spots, this itinerary will help you plan an unforgettable adventure between Queenstown and Christchurch.

Scroll down for my suggestions for an epic Queenstown to Christchurch road trip!

south island road trip wanaka
Glendhu Bay Motor Camp in Wanaka, one of the best places to stay on your Queenstown to Christchurch road trip

Car hire or campervan hire

Queenstown and Christchurch are the two busiest airports in the South Island, so most rental car and campervan companies have pick up and drop off options in both cities.

If you’re going for a car, the best thing to do would be to cross-check prices on rentalcars.com, which will show you all the options available in price order from the main rental companies.

My favourite car rental company in New Zealand is GO Rentals, they offer brilliant value for new and comfortable cars, and their insurance policies are clearly explained on their website. This is rare in the rental car world!

I’ve also recently used Apex and Snap Rentals and haven’t had any issues with them.

In terms of campervans, I’d recommend checking out Sunrise Holidays if a luxury motorhome is what you’re looking for, or Jucy for a cheap and cheerful campervan.


When is the best time to do a Queenstown to Christchurch road trip?

The routes for this road trip are pretty stunning year-round, so it’ll depend on what you’re into.

Summer (December to February) will be the busiest time of the year, so expect more people on the road and busier activities and accommodation. You’ll need to book hotels and campgrounds in advance, and keep in mind that many freedom camping spots are limited and will be full by the early evening.

March to May will bring autumn colours and amazing landscape photography opportunities, and on the other side of winter you’ve got September to November springtime with shoulder season prices and slightly warmer weather.

June to August/September is likely to see snow and icy roads at higher elevation, so make sure you have a 4WD and/or chains.

If you happen to be heading from Queenstown to Christchurch in late November/early December you’ll coincide with the seasonal lupins, bright pink and purple wildflowers that cover the roadside of the Tekapo and Aoraki Mount Cook area. DOC has sprayed a lot of the lupin hot spots so they apparently aren’t as good as they used to be, but I visited for the first time last year (2020) and they were still pretty impressive!

Lupins in Tekapo in early December

The route options for driving from Queenstown to Christchurch

There are two main routes to get from Queenstown to Christchurch to choose from: driving up the middle of the South Island past Aoraki Mount Cook and through Tekapo, or driving up the West Coast and Glacier Country before heading across Arthur’s Pass.

You can obviously do the same trip the other way round too if you’re wanting to do a Christchurch to Queenstown road trip, just start at the bottom of the blog and scroll up!

I’ve got some helpful info for both routes below.

lake wanaka sunrise

Queenstown to Christchurch road trip itinerary option #1: Southern Alps & Lakes

Arrive in Queenstown

This photogenic lakeside town is the perfect place to start your South Island road trip.

Landing at Queenstown Airport is a highlight in itself, with epic views across snowy mountains and the stunning Lake Wakatipu.

Once you settle into your Queenstown accommodation, there’s an endless selection of activities and experiences on offer depending on what type of adventure you’re looking for.

There’s some suggestions of things to do in Queenstown below but for a more detailed guide, check out my 5 day Queenstown itinerary blog.

Things to do

Get your heart racing

Queenstown is New Zealand’s premiere adventure tourism destination, with high-octane experiences on offer for all types of thrill seekers.

Zoom through a canyon on a jetboat, bungy jump off a bridge or go all out with a skydive.

For slightly less terrifying options, check out Ziptrek Ecotours for ziplining, go paragliding off Coronet Peak or try indoor skydiving.

Pamper yourself

And after all that adrenaline pumping around your body, you deserve a rest.

The Onsen Hot Pools are Insta-famous for good reason, with cedar-lined hot tubs overlooking the dramatic Shotover River, as well as a day spa that offers massage and soak combos. These book up well in advance so be sure to lock in your hot tub session earlier rather than later.

Another Queenstown hot tub option is Kamana Lakehouse, a boutique hotel in Fernhill with exclusive hot pools only available for guests to use. The hot pools cost $100 for an hour for up to three people, compared to Onsen’s $126 for two people or $174.50 for three.

If Onsen is booked or if you’d like to have a hot tub experience coupled with a fancy hotel stay, Kamana Lakehouse is a brilliant option that offers great value.

Get moving

There’s a bunch of incredible day hikes around Queenstown to soak up some fresh air and get your steps up.

The Ben Lomond Summit Track is one of the best-known for experienced hikers, and you’ll be treated to panoramic views across Lake Wakatipu and over to the Remarkables mountain range.

If you’d like something a bit shorter, you could take the Tiki Trail up to the top of the gondola, Sawpit Gully in Arrowtown or head to Lake Hayes for a beautiful 2-3 hour loop walk around the lake.

ben lomond hike queenstown
Ben Lomond Track, Queenstown
Enjoy the view

If your spending money allows it, Queenstown is one of the best places in the South Island for a scenic flight.

The cheapest flight in town is a $150 20 minute heli flight including a glacier landing, or you could opt for a longer Queenstown flight or even a scenic flight over Milford Sound.

You can see all the different Queenstown scenic flight options on GetYourGuide.

5 day queenstown itinerary
Eat your way around town

The food scene in Queenstown is impressive, with brunch, lunch, dinner and snack options available for all budgets.

Yonder, Bespoke Kitchen and Vudu are my favourite brunch spots, and the Cookie Time Café has $1 coffees every morning from 8am-9am.

For a heartier meal head to the world-renowned Fergburger or their bakery next door, Searle Lane for cheap eats, and The Grille or Botswana Butchery for a bit of a splurge.

TOP TIP: You can find dining deals in Queenstown on Bookme.co.nz, they often have discounts of up to 50% off the best restaurants in town!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: The Perfect 5 Day Queenstown Itinerary

Where to stay in Queenstown

Camping | Queenstown TOP 10 Holiday Park is the best-rated campground in Queenstown.

Budget | YHA Lakefront, Nomads Hostel and Adventure Hostel are ideal for solo travellers or travellers on a budget.

Mid-range | Kamana Lakehouse is my top pick, or Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel is another option with comfy rooms for a great price.

Somewhere fancy | The Rees Hotel and Eichardt’s are two of the best luxury hotels in Queenstown

Sunrise at Kamana Lakehouse Queenstown
The view from Kamana Lakehouse

Queenstown to Wanaka

Queenstown’s lesser-visited neighbour holds its own as a tourism destination, with easy access to outdoor adventures year-round, as well as a thriving food and drink scene.

There are plenty of things to do in Wanaka to keep you occupied!

Driving time from Queenstown

1 hour via Crown Range Rd (steep road with sharp turns), or 1h 20m via Cromwell

Where to stop on the way

  • lf you’re coming over via Crown Range Rd make sure you stop at Cardrona Pub for a mulled wine or a beer
  • If you’re driving via Cromwell, there’s a bunch of wineries in the Gibbston/Bannockburn area for a lunch stop or a wine tour
cardrona hotel is one of the best things to do in wanaka

Things to do

Climb a waterfall

Wildwire Wanaka was one of the top highlights from my South Island road trip last year. They offer three levels of cable climbs (also known as via ferrata) up the Twin Falls near Treble Cone!

This adventure is so epic and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for unique things to do in Wanaka. We did the intermediate option which involved about three hours of climbing up iron staples and over suspension bridges while enjoying incredible views.

You don’t need any climbing experience but you’ll need decent fitness for the intermediate option, and be able to hold your bodyweight with your arms for the advanced option.

Click here to learn more about Wildwire Wanaka

Do one of the famous hikes

Roy’s Peak is most popular hike in Wanaka, offering 360° views over Lake Wanaka and into Mount Aspiring National Park. Set aside 5-6 hours allowing for photo stops.

The walk crosses farmland and is closed for lambing season from 1 October to 10 November, but the alternative option is Isthmus Peak. DOC recommends 5-7 hours for Isthmus but it is a slightly more advanced track than Roy’s Peak.

coromandel peak mt roys peak wanaka bucket list
Go for a lake cruise

Explore Lake Wanaka by boat with a cruise. If you’d like to relax you could choose this happy hour sunset cruise, or for a more active adventure take a cruise to Mou Waho Island and then enjoy a guided walk through the conservation area.

Hit the slopes

If you’re visiting Wanaka in winter, make sure you head up to one of the mountains for a day on the snow.

Treble Cone and Cardrona are both within 40 minutes of Wanaka.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 25 Epic Things to Do in Wanaka

skiers at cardrona wanaka

Where to stay in Wanaka

Camping | Glendhu Bay Motor Camp has decent facilities and stunning views right on the lake

Budget | YHA Wanaka is ideally located close to town, with both private and dorm rooms available

Mid-range | Clearbrook Motel is the best-rated motel in town, with studio rooms and apartments right in town

Somewhere fancy | Lakeside Serviced Apartments are a brilliant option for self-catering, or the Edgewater Hotel is a lush spot for a romantic getaway

#thatwanakatree

Wanaka to Aoraki/Mount Cook Village

Aoraki/Mount Cook Village is small and basic, with accommodation options but not much else. However it’s absolutely worth adding to your Queenstown to Christchurch road trip for the views alone!

Note that there’s no shops in the village so make sure you stock up on food and anything else you might need in Queenstown, Wanaka or Cromwell before you make the drive.

Driving time from Wanaka

About 2 hours 30 minutes

Where to stop on the way

  • Omarama to see the Clay Cliffs ($5 cash needed for entry) and for a soak at the Omarama Hot Tubs
  • Twizel to visit High Country Salmon, who have the best salmon paté I’ve ever had in my life
  • If you have time to add on an overnight detour on your Queenstown to Christchurch itinerary I highly recommend the magical Valley Views glamping spot in Waitaki Valley, 45 minutes east of Omarama

Things to do in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village

Take a scenic flight

Experience the glory of Aoraki from the sky with an epic scenic flight around the mountain!

There are a number of scenic flights to choose from, you can see all the scenic flight options on GetYourGuide here.

See the Tasman Glacier

Get up close and personal with the blue caves and crazy ice formations of the Tasman Glacier by taking a quick helicopter flight up and then a two hour hike on the glacier itself.

For a cheaper way to see the glacier, check out the Glacier Explorer boat trip run by the Hermitage Hotel.

Day hikes

Aoraki Mount Cook is one of New Zealand’s hiking hot spots, with a variety of walks for different timeframes and experience levels.

The shortest hike is the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint, a quick 40 min return walk up a hill to a viewpoint looking over the Tasman Glacier Lake. A 20 min side trip takes you down to the lake itself.

Another popular option is Hooker Valley, a reasonably flat 2-3 hour return walk to Hooker Lake where you’ll be able to spot icebergs and enjoy a panoramic view of the Southern Alps.

For a more adventurous trek you could head up to Mueller Hut, a 3-4 hour one way hike to the iconic red hut surrounded by mountains. In winter you’ll need alpine gear for this one, so make sure you’re prepared.

Where to stay

Camping | White Horse Hill Campground is a DOC campsite with non-powered sites for $15 a night per person

Budget | YHA Aoraki is sustainably run with solar power, offering private and dorm rooms plus a full kitchen

Mid-range | I stayed at the Aoraki Court Motel on my last trip to Aoraki Village and it was faultless. Comfortable beds, a decent kitchen and a patio with mountain views for a great price.

Somewhere fancy | The Hermitage Hotel is the most well-known hotel in the village, with incredible views from their rooms and a fancy restaurant. For somewhere even fancier, check out the Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat at the other end of Lake Pukaki, just before you reach the main road.

driving from queenstown to christchurch via mount cook

Aoraki Village to Lake Tekapo

Tekapo is one of my favourite places to visit in the South Island, I just love the vibe of this charming little tourist town. Cross your fingers for cloudless weather to experience the magic of Tekapo’s night sky.

Driving time from Aoraki Village

An hour and 10 minutes without stops

Things to do

See the stars

Tekapo is part of the International Dark Sky Reserve in the Mackenzie Region, meaning that there’s minimal light pollution at night so some amazing opportunities for stargazing.

We loved the Tekapo Stargazing hot pools experience, which includes seeing stars and planets through the telescope, learning about astronomy, and then soaking in the hot pools under the stars while hearing about local Maori legends.

Another option is the Dark Sky Project who offer a Summit Experience at the Mt John Observatory each night, or see their indoor multi-media Dark Sky Experience at their base in the Tekapo township.

Photographers might also be interested in an astrophotography lesson with local photographers at Silver River Stargazing.

tekapo stars
Explore the backcountry

Experience the finest of Tekapo’s rural backcountry with a scenic 4WD tour over private high country farms.

Book a tour with Tekapo Adventures here

Soak in the hot pools

Tekapo Springs is the perfect spot for a mid-road-trip relaxation day. There are three hot pools with mountain and lake views, as well as a day spa for extra pampering.

Book your trip to Tekapo Springs here

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: The Best Things to Do in Tekapo

Where to stay

Camping | Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park are in the perfect spot, only a few minutes’ walk from the Springs and a short walk or drive to the township

Budget | YHA Tekapo is unbeatable for travellers on a budget, it’s a brand new hostel right on the lakefront in the middle of town

Mid-range | Three Rivers Lodge offer modern rooms and stunning views for a great value price

Somewhere fancy | On my second trip to Tekapo I stayed at the stylish Cairns Alpine Resort in one of their two-bedroom lodges. They’re beautifully decorated with a high country vibe, equipped with a full kitchen and laundry facilities, and the bed was the most comfortable bed I slept in on our whole trip!


Tekapo to Christchurch

I’ll admit that I kind of passed off Christchurch as a transit city, a place to arrive or depart from after experiencing the magical South Island. But on my most recent visit I actually managed to explore some of the activities on offer and I was seriously impressed!

If you’re flying out of Christchurch I’d still recommend setting aside at least two or three days to experience the city before you head off.

Driving time from Lake Tekapo

About 2 hours 40 minutes

Where to stop on the way

  • Burkes Pass for a quick photo stop at Three Creeks, packed with Route 66-style memorabilia
  • Fairlie for a pie stop at the famous Fairlie Bakehouse. I recommend the Pork Belly & Apple Sauce pie, absolutely delish.
  • Geraldine for the Barkers Foodstore, an incredible eatery that showcases the iconic Barkers products like sauces, chutneys and cordials
  • Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula are up near Christchurch and would add on about an hour and a half to your total road trip, but they’re well worth a day trip or overnight stay if you have extra time to spare

Things to do in Christchurch

Learn about the dark history and current rebuilding efforts of Christchurch

Christchurch was hit by two major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, the former causing huge damage and the latter killing 185 people and destroying many more buildings.

In the past ten years the city has essentially been rebuilt, with a new town centre, some incredible art installations and innovative solutions to fixing a city that was decimated in a matter of minutes.

To get a real insight into the history I’d recommend a city tour or a Christchurch Tram tour.

Go ziplining

A 10 min drive from the city centre is the Christchurch Adventure Park, an outdoor haven in the Port Hills with mountain bike tracks, walking trails and an epic four-zipline course including the longest and highest ziplines in New Zealand.

ziplining on my queenstown to christchurch road trip itinerary
Ziplining in the Port Hills
Riverside Market

Riverside Market is an indoor market packed with stalls and shops selling everything from fresh fruit and veges to gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to fancy cocktails and everything in between.

The laneway leading into the market is worth a stop too, with some gorgeous boutiques selling locally-made products and artwork.

Other eateries

The Christchurch food scene actually blew my mind, I feel like I need to visit for a month to try all the restaurants and cafés on my list!

I’d recommend Miro (the smoked salmon and parmesan waffles are what dreams are made of), Amazonita or the Caffeine Laboratory for brunch, and add Twenty Seven Steps, Earl and Jaba Grill to your dinner options.

riverside market in christchurch
Riverside Market

Where to stay

Camping | Christchurch TOP 10 Holiday Park has modern facilities and is a short drive from the main city centre

Budget | YHA Christchurch offer basic but good value accommodation in the middle of the city or Jucy Snooze has funky pod-style dorms by the airport

Mid-range | The Tack Rooms are self-contained studio units with modern furnishings and beautiful decor just a short walk from the entertainment district

Somewhere fancy | The Britten Stables is one of the best places to stay in New Zealand, with rooms ranging from studio to one-bedroom self-catered apartment to a full guest house. Guests have access to a shared billiard lounge and a stunning conservatory with a Moroccan-tiled pool.


Queenstown to Christchurch road trip itinerary option #2: The Wild West Coast

The second Queenstown to Christchurch road trip option starts off with the same suggestions for Queenstown and Wanaka, then instead of heading up the middle, you’ll drive out west and take the coastal route through Glacier Country.

Wanaka to Franz Josef Glacier

Driving time from Wanaka

About 3h 40m

Where to stop on the way

  • The Blue Pools Track, 1h return flat walk to stunning alpine pools
  • Fantail Falls, beautiful waterfall easily accessed with a two minute walk from the carpark
  • Thunder Creek Falls, a super tall waterfall with a viewing platform a short walk from the carpark

Things to do in Franz Josef Glacier

Do a heli hike

Get kitted out with warm clothes, boots and crampons, jump in a heli for a quick (and epic) flight up to the Franz Josef Glacier, and head out onto the ice for a 2-3 hour walk around the otherworldly icy landscape.

Book a Franz Josef Glacier heli-hike here

See a kiwi

The West Coast Wildlife Centre has resident rowi kiwi and Haast tokoeka kiwi as well as the prehistoric tuatara, giving you the chance to see New Zealand endangered icons up close in a breeding and raring facility.

You can visit with a self-guided ticket or book a backstage pass to learn from the wildlife rangers.

For a chance at seeing a kiwi in the wild, head to nearby Okarito and get in contact with Okarito Kiwi Tours.

Skydive

Skydiving with views of two glaciers, the rugged coast and the Southern Alps is one for the bucket list.

There are options for 9000, 13500 or 16500ft jumps, or if you fancy yourself as a true daredevil, try the Kea Jump. At an insane 20,000ft it’s the highest skydive in New Zealand!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 15 of the Best Things to Do in Franz Josef Glacier

mountains from franz josef glacier things to do

Where to stay

Rainforest Retreat is my go-to for accommodation in Franz Josef regardless of budget.

Rainforest’s holiday park has loads of powered campsites nestled amongst native bush with mountain views, and there are dorm rooms and private rooms available with access to shared kitchen and other facilities.

For mid-range accommodation, they’ve got motel rooms and studio tree huts with comfortable furnishings and private bathrooms.

And if you want a bit of luxury during your Franz Josef visit, check out their newly-built deluxe treehouses!

treehouse at rainforest retreat franz josef glacier
The deluxe treehouse at Rainforest Retreat

Franz Josef Glacier to Hokitika

Driving time from Franz Josef Glacier

About 1h 40m

Where to stop on the way

  • Okarito Lagoon for kayaking or a scenic cruise
  • Ross Beach for an insane sunset
  • Lake Mahinapua for picture-perfect mountain reflections

Things to do in Hokitika

Walk the Hokitika Gorge

This easy one hour loop walk has a bunch of incredible photo spots to capture the bright blue glacial water. It’s a 25 minute drive (about 31km) from Hokitika town centre.

Carve your own pounamu

Experience the Māori tradition of carving at Bonz ‘n’ Stonz, with skilled local craftspeople teaching you how to carve your own jade (pounamu), paua or bone. This is the perfect Hokitika activity for a rainy day!

Watch the sunset

West Coast sunsets have to be seen to be believed. Grab some fish and chips, head down to the black sand beach and watch the sky turn red, orange and yellow as you say goodnight to the sun.

hokitika gorge
Hokitika Gorge

Where to stay

Camping | Ross Beach TOP 10 Holiday Park is one of my favourite campgrounds in New Zealand, 20 mins before you reach Hokitika

Budget | Amberlea B&B is highly-rated and offers cheap rooms and included breakfast

Mid-range | Awatuna Sunset Lodge is rated as the best value option in town, with modern rooms and incredible ocean views

Somewhere fancy | This newly-converted fire station apartment in the middle of town looks epic!

hokitika sign on the west coast

Arthur’s Pass

Driving time from Hokitika to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass

3 hours 10 minutes

Places to stop while driving Arthur’s Pass

  • Lake Brunner & Moana for nature walks, bird life and trout fishing
  • Arthur’s Pass Walking Track, 2h 40min return 6.8km walk past waterfalls and alpine wetlands up to the summit
  • Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall, a 1h return easy walking track
  • Sheffield Pie Shop to refuel yourself with award-winning pies

Where to stay in Arthur’s Pass

Camping | Jackson’s Retreat Alpine Holiday Park has been rated NZ’s best holiday park in the past, with a full kitchen, communal lounge and dining, and free bike hire

Mid-range | Arthur’s Pass Motel & Lodge has modern and cosy motel rooms and apartments

queenstown to christchurch itinerary

And then you’ll reach Christchurch!

I hope this Queenstown to Christchurch road trip itinerary has given you some helpful tips & suggestions for your upcoming South Island trip.

MORE NEW ZEALAND TRAVEL GUIDES:

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Updated on April 26th, 2021

Planning to spend a week in Queenstown? This 5 day Queenstown itinerary covers all the usual suspects as well as some hidden gems beyond the obvious attractions.

Whether you’re visiting Queenstown in winter or in summer, here are some travel tips for making the most of five days in Queenstown (with options for longer or shorter itineraries).

Queenstown is undeniably New Zealand’s premiere tourist destination. With a picture-perfect lake bounded by rocky mountains, a seemingly endless supply of thrilling adventures on offer, and easy access to wineries, ski fields, hiking trails and luxury lodges, it definitely deserves the hype it gets.

If you’re visiting Queenstown for the first time, this five day Queenstown itinerary will help you plan a trip to see all the best bits, some you’ve definitely heard of, some you probably haven’t.

Read on for the best way to experience Queenstown in five days, plus my suggestions on where to stay in Queenstown, and some travel tips to help you make the most of your time.


How to get around Queenstown

You’ll arrive in Queenstown by flight, car or bus.

If you’re driving to Queenstown, it’s just under 6 hours from Christchurch or just under 5 hours from Franz Josef Glacier.

Queenstown Airport is normally an international airport, although right now due to border restrictions it’s only open to domestic travellers and (as of 19 April) flights from Australia.

If you’re arriving by air, the airport is a 15 minute drive from Queenstown’s main centre and there’s public transport options, shared shuttles and private transfers available if you don’t have your own car.

You can book your Queenstown Airport shuttle here.

If you’re comfortable driving, I’d highly recommend booking a rental car in Queenstown so you have easy access to explore the nearby gems of Arrowtown, Glenorchy and Wanaka, but there are certainly ways to see the town and beyond without a car.

The town itself is small so you can easily walk from one side to the other, and if you’re planning an activity outside of the town centre, many of the tourism suppliers offer free shuttles for customers staying in Queenstown.


When to visit Queenstown

Queenstown is one of those unicorn year-round destinations so it totally depends on what you’re after.

Keen for a bit of snow? Winter in Queenstown is world-class, with some of the best skiing on offer in the whole southern hemisphere and a pumping après-ski scene to boot. The ski fields are open from around mid-June to mid-October, depending on snowfall.

Winter in Queenstown (June to August) is reasonably mild compared to other ski towns around the world, with average temperatures ranging from -2°C to 8°C. It does sometimes snow in the township itself in winter however at only 310m above sea level and with a giant lake right there which warms the area, the snow generally melts after only a couple of days. The mountains however will be doused in powder throughout the season.

Summer in Queenstown (December to February) is a whole other kettle of fish, with long days of sunlight (around 5am-10pm in mid-summer) and average temperatures between 20°C and 30°C.

With plenty of adventures on the lake (cruises, kayaking, swimming) as well as on land (hikes, wineries, bike trails) seeing this typically winter-wonderland destination in warmer weather is worth adding to your New Zealand bucket list.

In the shoulder seasons (March to May + September to November) expect temps of between 8°C and 25°C, landscapes that come alive with flowers blooming in spring or vibrant autumn colours, and lower prices with less tourists.

green island in the middle of the lake during daytime

5 Day Queenstown Itinerary

This five day Queenstown itinerary is my suggested itinerary for first-timers to spend 5 days in Queenstown. If you have a specific interest, like culinary adventures or high-octane thrills for example, or if you’re visiting for a shorter or longer time period, I’ve given you some options to change up the itinerary at the bottom.

Already visited Queenstown on a previous South Island trip? Consider spending some of your time in alternative destinations like Wanaka, Milford Sound, Te Anau, Stewart Island or Franz Josef Glacier instead.

Day 1: Get your bearings

Morning

To kick off your Queenstown adventure, go for a wander around the city centre and the lakefront to get your bearings.

Treat yourself to a nice brunch (I’d recommend Yonder, Bespoke Kitchen or Vudu) or opt for an iconic Fergburger for lunch! The line can get long so it’s best to order online or by phone, then pick up your burger of choice and eat it down at the waterfront.

Afternoon

Tick off one of Queenstown’s must-dos with a gondola trip, which takes you up 450m on the steepest cable car in the southern hemisphere.

The view from the gondola is pure magic, overlooking Lake Wakatipu, the Remarkables mountain range, Coronet Peak and Queenstown itself.

Once you’re up there, there’s a few activities to choose from.

One of the most popular things to do in Queenstown is the Luge, a gravity-powered go-kart-looking-thing that you can drive down a couple of tracks from the gondola.

The Blue Track is the leisurely option, with incredible views and easy bends for first-time riders and kids. The Red Track is steeper, with sharper corners and more thrilling, ideal for racing your travel buddies.

You can get gondola + luge tickets depending on how many luge rides you want, starting from $61 for gondola + 2 luge rides, to $69 for gondola + 6 luge rides.

Book your gondola and luge combo here.

If you’re keen to try something even more adventurous, Ziptrek Ecotours run zipline tours from their treehouse just a short walk from the top of the gondola. Ziptrek aren’t associated with the gondola so the signage isn’t great but turn left at the top of the gondola and you’ll soon see the track to the treehouse.

Ziptrek have six epic ziplines on offer, with three tours to choose from (either two, four or all six ziplines). We did the Kea Tour, which does all six ziplines including the steepest zipline in New Zealand!

Their ethos is all around sustainability and eco-friendly tourism, and throughout the tours you learn about conservation of flora and fauna, Queenstown’s history and even a bit of Maori mythology. And as an added bonus, as you’re zipping between sky-high treehouses you’ll be treated to killer views of the lake and mountains!

Click here to learn more about Ziptrek Ecotours and book a zipline tour.

Other activities available up the gondola are the onsite Stratosfare Bar and Restaurant (which serves up an impressive buffet-style lunch and dinner), The Ledge Bungy and Swing, G Force Paragliding (more on that below) and a range of hikes either further up the mountains or back down to Queenstown.


Day 2: Get your heart racing

Did you really come to Queenstown if you didn’t get a bit of an adrenaline rush?

On your second day of your 5 day Queenstown itinerary I’m challenging you to get out of your comfort zone.

Morning

Let’s get the scary ones out of the way shall we? Pick your thrill: Skydive, bungy or paraglide.

It’s widely recognised that Queenstown is one of the most beautiful places in the world for a skydive, with bird’s eye views of lakes and mountains as far as the eyes can see.

With altitude options of 9,000, 12,000 and 15,000ft (the latter involving an insane freefall at up to 200km/h for up to 60 seconds), NZONE Skydive are the most experienced tandem skydive operators in New Zealand.

The Queenstown skydive is more expensive than other NZ skydive options but you’re paying to jump out of a plane in one of the most iconic skydive destinations in the world, so it’s well worth it if you can afford it.

Better yet, check bookme.co.nz for last minute deals on Queenstown skydives and you might nab yourself a sweet discount.

For a cheaper skydive-esque experience without the impact, or if you want to get used to the feeling before splurging on a jump, check out iFLY who offer indoor skydiving and VR skydives at their Queenstown base.

If you like the idea of jumping, swinging or catapulting instead, check out the various AJ Hackett bungy options around Queenstown.

The Kawarau Bridge Bungy is the original commercial bungy location, and it had a huge hand in creating Queenstown’s “Adventure Capital” reputation. The jump is 43m high and there’s also a zipline onsite for a less terrifying adventure.

The Nevis site is a step up in terms of thrill level, with the highest bungy in Australasia (143m), the 300m arc infamous Nevis Swing and an extreme catapult that will have you flying at 100km/h for 1.5 seconds.

There’s also the Ledge Bungy & Swing available at the top of the gondola that I mentioned for day 1.

bungy jump in queenstown
The Kawarau Bridge Bungy

For a slightly lighter thrill if you want to try something epic but don’t like the idea of a freefall (me either), try paragliding in Queenstown!

Paragliding involves being harnessed in with your instructor, running down a slope or off a launch pad and floating through the sky for 10-20 minutes towards the landing pad.

You’ll still get the incredible views and the thrills from being so high above ground, but you’ll be more supported with a seat-style harness so your body isn’t dangling like when you skydive. And if you want to push yourself further out of your comfort zone, tell your instructor to do some spins. It’s like being on a rollercoaster!

You can paraglide with G Force from the gondola, however I highly recommend going with Coronet Peak Tandems instead who offer higher take offs which means more time in the air.

If you’re really not keen on heights, consider taking a jet boat trip to get your adrenaline pumping. Zoom through canyons, around rocky bends and over crystal clear alpine water while feeling the wind whip through your hair at speeds of up to 85km/h.

The jetboat options in Queenstown are Shotover Jet, K-Jet, Go Orange, Dart River Adventures and Skippers Canyon Jet.

You can check all the current deals on Queenstown jet boat tours on Bookme here.

Afternoon

After a busy morning, take it easy this afternoon with a scenic cruise on Lake Wakatipu aboard the 109-year-old TSS Earnslaw. Learn about the boat’s history in the onboard museum, or sit back and enjoy the views with a wine in hand.

You can either do the 90 minute cruise, or opt to extend your trip with a stop at Walter Peak High Country Farm for a BBQ.

The TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu

Evening

Get amongst Queenstown’s vibrant entertainment scene with dinner and drinks on the town.

If you want somewhere fancy, check out Botswana Butchery, Rata, the Grille at Eichardt’s or Nest at Kamana Lakehouse.

For cheap eats, head to Caribe Latin Kitchen, Searle Lane, Fergbaker or Fergburger, or Fat Badgers.

One of the best steaks of my liiiife at Eichardt’s Grille

Day 3: Go on a seasonal adventure

Ski season (mid-June to end of September or mid-October)

If you’re heading to Queenstown in winter, I’m going to assume you’re keen for some mountain time.

There are four main commercial ski areas that are accessible from Queenstown: The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, Cardrona and Treble Cone.

If you don’t have your own car there are shuttles that run from Queenstown to all four ski fields, and you can either hire your gear in town (we always use Browns Ski Hire, great service) or once you get up the mountain.

Bluebird day at Cardrona

Spring, summer and autumn

For the warmer months, I’d highly recommend trying out one of the many hiking trails on offer in the area.

You could do the one hour Tiki Trail up to the top of the gondola, the full day Ben Lomond Summit hike (6-8 hours), the flat and easy 2-3 hour Lake Hayes loop, or Tobin’s Track (1-2 hours) or Sawpit Gully (2-3 hours) both starting in Arrowtown.

If you enjoy exploring on two wheels instead, the Queenstown Trail is a 130km-long Great Ride with lots of different sections for short rides, half-day rides or full-day rides. You can get more info on the trails here.

Ben Lomond Hike, photo by Sebastien Goldberg from Unsplash

Day 4: Enjoy some sightseeing

Day four in your 5 day Queenstown itinerary is for sightseeing, with a few different options depending on your preferences.

Scenic flight

If you can afford it, a scenic flight around Queenstown is an absolute bucket list experience.

The cheapest option is this 20 minute helicopter flight with an alpine landing, available for only $150 on GetYourGuide.

There are longer flight options if you’ve got a higher budget, or if you want to go all out you can’t beat a scenic flight either over Milford Sound, or stopping at Milford Sound for a cruise (known as a Fly Cruise Fly tour).

The alpine landing on the cheapest Queenstown helicopter flight, epic!

Milford Sound

If you’re keen to make the drive to Milford Sound yourself it is doable in a day if you don’t mind a long road trip. The drive is about four hours each way without stops, but I’d suggest setting aside at least an hour extra for various photo stops on the way there.

If a bus tour sounds more up your alley, there are a number of large group, small group and private options that leave from Queenstown.

In saying that though, Milford Sound is a stunning destination in its own right and it really does deserve at least an overnight trip (either stay in Milford itself or in Te Anau, half way between Milford Sound and Queenstown). There’s loads of things to do in Milford Sound to pack out your visit, so if you have time, I’d highly recommend giving it its own section in your itinerary.

Read more: The Best Things to Do in Milford Sound

milford sound things to do
Milford Sound is a must-do if you’ve got room to add it into your Queenstown itinerary

Arrowtown

For some sightseeing closer to Queenstown, Arrowtown is a charming little gold rush village that will take you back in time. It’s less than 20 minutes’ drive from Queenstown and there’s a bunch of cafés, gift shops and restaurants that are worth visiting.

I love the Gibbston Valley Cheesery for cheese and deli goods, Patagonia Chocolates for sweet treats, the Chop Shop for brunch and Slow Cuts for a heartier meal.

Skippers Canyon

Skippers Canyon is home to the infamous Skippers Road, named as the most dangerous road in the whole of New Zealand. This sightseeing adventure is not for the faint of heart.

Best explored by a guided 4WD tour, Skippers Canyon is 22km long with the Shotover River running between its cliffs. The area was used in the gold mining days, and gold is still being found on the river’s shores!

Skippers Road towers above the river with loose schist on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Much of the road is one-lane-only, and you wouldn’t want to meet another car on your way in or out.

The road is so dangerous that rental companies don’t allow their cars to be driven, and I would NOT recommend driving it yourself unless you’re in your own beasty 4WD and you have experience with off-roading on gnarly gravel roads without any barriers.

If you are keen to tick the country’s scariest road of your New Zealand bucket list, book a Skippers Canyon tour with Nomads Safaris, a locally-owned and operated company who offer a range of 4WD safaris in the area.

Our local guide, Dave, was an absolute legend, giving us loads of info about the gold mining history of Skippers Canyon as well as stopping for some of the most magical views I’ve ever seen.

You can book your Nomad Safaris Skippers Canyon tour here, and check out their other 4WD adventures: Macetown 4WD, Lord of the Rings Queenstown, or Lord of the Rings Glenorchy.

Glenorchy

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is one of the best things to do in Queenstown, and it’s known as one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

The road winds around Lake Wakatipu to your left with mountain ranges lining your right, with a few famous photo stops along the way. The drive is about 45 minutes without stops, with Bennett’s Bluff Lookout being the main photo spot to capture the iconic road + lake + mountain shot.

Glenorchy Village is small and quiet but there’s a few different adventure activities on offer to help you get up close and personal with the area, as well as loads of walks around Glenorchy as well as nearby Paradise and Kinloch.

The drive to Glenorchy, rated as one of the most beautiful roads in the world

You could try a jetboat tour, hire an e-bike, go ziplining, do a horse trek or take a funyak (like a kayak-raft hybrid) down the river. If you’re a LOTR fan, there are a number of film locations from both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, as well as Narnia, so take your camera and get exploring.

Check out all the Glenorchy activities available on GetYourGuide or click here to see the best-rated Glenorchy things to do on Viator.

Please note: Unfortunately due to border closures a number of the Glenorchy suppliers are running either on a reduced schedule or closing for winter, so click on the links above to check availability for your travel dates.

There’s also the option of doing an organised tour from Queenstown to Glenorchy, like this Lord of the Rings half-day tour or this 4WD bus tour to Glenorchy and Paradise.

Wanaka

If you haven’t set aside another part of your trip for Wanaka, it’s one of the best day trips to add to your Queenstown itinerary.

It’s only an hour’s drive if you are game enough to take the steep and sharp Crown Range Road, or an extra 20 minutes if you go the flat way via Cromwell.

SAFETY TIP: The Crown Range Road is well-maintained and confident drivers will be totally fine. If you’re not confident driving on the left side of the road, or if it’s winter and you’re not used to driving in cold conditions, I’d suggest taking the Cromwell route instead.

Once you’re in Wanaka, there’s lots of activities to choose from. Do one of the famous hikes (like Roy’s Peak), challenge yourself to a cable climb or head to Puzzling World, full of optical illusions and brain games.

READ MORE: 25 Epic Things to Do in Wanaka


Day 5: Slow day

You’ve had four days so far of thrills, sightseeing and adventure, so for your final day in Queenstown it’s time to relax.

Daytime

Enjoy a slow start to the morning with a brunch or coffee stop, before getting ready for a day of wine and good food.

Central Otago is one of New Zealand’s premiere wine locations, with wineries ranging from world-renowned commercial estates to national icons to family-owned boutique vineyards. Queenstown offers easy access to six main wine regions: Gibbston, Cromwell, Bengido, Bannockburn, Wanaka and Alexandra.

You can do a self-drive tour (with a sober driver of course), a hop-on hop-off bus tour, a small group winery tour, a self-guided bike tour or a private food and wine tour.

Some of the most popular wineries are Amisfield, Gibbston Valley, Wet Jacket and Mt Rosa.

Afternoon/Evening

Wrap up your Queenstown itinerary with a well-deserved soak at the stunning Onsen Hot Pools.

Rising to the highest levels of Insta-fame in the past five years, these Japanese-inspired hot pools have an incredibly photogenic outlook over the Shotover River.

They book out well in advance so lock in your time on Viator ASAP.

QUEENSTOWN HACK: If Onsen Hot Pools are all booked up, or you want to go somewhere a bit different instead, consider spending a night at Kamana Lakehouse. This is my favourite hotel in Queenstown and they have their own private hot pools with mountain and lake views exclusively available for guests to book. They do cost extra, although they’re cheaper than Onsen, or you could book their top room and get a private outdoor tub on your balcony.


Other Queenstown itinerary options

If you have a week in Queenstown (or more)

Woohoo! This beautiful place always deserves more time and with a week in Queenstown you’ll be able to take your itinerary a bit slower, and hopefully will be able to add on an overnight in Te Anau or Milford Sound to have a more thorough experience in Fiordland National Park.

I’d also recommend splitting your time between Queenstown and Wanaka if you can, for example five days in Queenstown and two or three days in Wanaka, so you’re able to explore that side of the Crown Ranges without having to make that drive each day.

If you only have three days in Queenstown

If you’re having to condense a five day Queenstown itinerary into three days, I’d keep day one (get your bearings + gondola), day two (thrill activity + lake cruise) and day four (sightseeing to nearby towns).

Snowcapped peaks all around you

If you really want to get out of your comfort zone

There are a couple more activities for thrill seekers that I couldn’t fit into the short Queenstown itinerary, but if you want to spend more time doing active adventures then you could consider adding the following to your trip:

paragliding in queenstown
Holding onto the paraglide handles for dear life

If you’re celebrating something special and don’t mind splurging on something epic

While Queenstown has activities and accommodation that are accessible for all budgets, there’s also a bunch of companies who cater to what the travel industry calls HNWIs, or high net-worth individuals.

While that may not be me or you (or maybe it is you, and if so then congrats!), it does mean that if you have something special to celebrate, like a birthday, engagement, anniversary or a lotto win, Queenstown is hands down the place to do it.

Some of the best luxury experiences to add to your Queenstown itinerary are:

scenic flight queenstown itinerary

The best accommodation in Queenstown

Queenstown is definitely one of the most expensive places to visit in New Zealand, but you can get great value by staying at hostels, apartments with self-catering facilities, or hotels with extras like parking and breakfast included.

On a budget

Mid-range

  • Kamana Lakehouse is my favourite hotel in Queenstown, with modern rooms, a world-class restaurant and private hot tubs overlooking the lake available exclusively for guests to book. They have rooms available in the off season from only $142 NZD which is crazy cheap for Queenstown, let alone at a gorgeous hotel like this one.
  • The award-winning Hidden Lodge offers incredible views, top-notch service and brilliant value
  • Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel is another mid-range option that gives you proximity to town, comfortable rooms and alpine views

Somewhere fancy

  • Azur Lodge has private villas a short drive from Queenstown, with exceptional reviews for their staff and service. Each room has a spa bath with mountain views, and you’ll get breakfast delivered each morning. Sounds like a dream!
  • Matakauri Lodge offers luxury suites with private terraces overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Also Prince William and Kate stayed there!
  • Hulbert House is a luxury boutique hotel set in a restored Victorian villa, with vibrant décor and indulgent service
  • Eichardt’s Private Hotel is right in town with a range of sophisticated suites and apartments to choose from if you really want to splurge

Self-catering

  • Goodstays Queenstown manages a huge range of holiday homes and apartments available for rental, ideal if you’re heading down for a longer group or if you have a large group. We stayed in this apartment on Hallenstein St which had a garage, three huge bedrooms, three bathrooms and an open plan living and dining area.
flying out after 5 days in queenstown itinerary
Flying out after your epic 5 days in Queenstown!

It’ll be busy, but there’s your five day Queenstown itinerary! Do you think I’ve missed anything important? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see if I can squeeze it in.

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Big thanks to Ziptrek Ecotours, Nomad Safaris and Kamana Lakehouse for hosting me on my Queenstown itinerary. As always all opinions are my own and are completely based on my personal experience.

Updated on April 20th, 2021

As Queenstown’s quieter yet equally stunning neighbour, Wanaka boasts lots of fun things to do from thrill-seeking to active adventures to culinary experiences. Read on for all the best things to do in Wanaka.

Queenstown is the undisputed Adventure Capital of New Zealand (and probably the entire world) but Wanaka should absolutely not be ignored.

With its very own lake set against a backdrop of rugged mountains, a thriving entertainment scene that’s growing by the season, and easy access to ski fields, hiking tracks and water adventures, Wanaka is definitely one of the best places to visit in the South Island.

things to do in wanaka roys peak
The view from Mount Roy

Whether you’re looking for a heart-racing adrenaline rush, a viewpoint for magical photos or the best things to do in Wanaka on a rainy day, read on for my top picks for Wanaka activities and experiences.

south island road trip wanaka
Glendhu Bay, Lake Wanaka

How to get to Wanaka

Wanaka is about an hour’s drive from Queenstown via the Crown Range Road, or just under 1.5 hours if you take the easy drive via Cromwell on State Highway 6.

The Crown Range Road is well-maintained these days but it’s very steep with sharp turns, and can get icy in the colder months. If you’re not a confident driver or if you’re not used to driving on the left side of the road in difficult conditions, consider taking the Cromwell route instead.

If you’re coming from Franz Josef Glacier and the West Coast, you’ll arrive in Wanaka after driving through Haast Pass and past Mount Aspiring National Park.

things to do in franz josef
Driving through the moody Haast Pass

How long to spend in Wanaka

There are so many things to do in Wanaka that it warrants at least a few days of your South Island adventure, if not more. I’ve been five or six times now and I’m still finding new activities!

If you’re spending a week in Queenstown for example, I’d recommend splitting it to four or five days in Queenstown and then two or three days in Wanaka.

Wanaka accommodation is slightly cheaper, and staying on this side of the Crown Ranges gives you easy access to the Treble Cone ski field, Lake Hawea, Mount Aspiring National Park and even the West Coast.

If you’re doing a wider South Island road trip, consider basing yourself in Wanaka for a few days to explore the area between the West Coast and Cardrona Valley, and then go to Queenstown for the activities set in Queenstown, Arrowtown and Glenorchy.


When to visit Wanaka

Winter is when Wanaka is at its peak in terms of tourism, with locals and international travellers alike flocking to hit the Cardrona and Treble Cone ski fields. The winter months bring world-class skiing, local festivals and events, and (of course) slightly higher prices.

The ski season normally runs from mid-June to mid-October.

Peak summer in Wanaka (December and January) are the warmest months but they’re also busy as they coincide with school holidays and wedding season.

If you’re wanting warmer weather with less people then February to April, or November on the other end, is best.


The best things to do in Wanaka

This blog started off with 10 things to do in Wanaka but I kept finding more, until I settled on a nicely rounded 25. There’s something for every type of traveller in this bustling lakeside gem, so read on to find the perfect activities for your Wanaka itinerary.

MONEY-SAVING TIP: Check for last minute deals on all the activities below on bookme.co.nz, a travel deal website that often has discounts of between 20%-50% on the most popular things to do in the South Island.

For adrenaline junkies

You don’t have to base yourself in Queenstown just so you can experience the infamous thrills the South Island is known for. Whether you’d like to throw yourself out of a plane, off a mountain, through some river rapids or down a rocky trail, Wanaka’s got your thrill-seeking addiction covered.

1. Do a skydive

Alright crazy people, who here wants to jump out of a plane in one of the most stunning locations on the planet?

Choose from a 9000ft, 12000ft or 15000ft jump, with prices starting at $279.

You’ll be able to spot Mount Cook, Mount Aspiring, Lake Wanaka, Lake Wakatipu and the Clutha River on your way up, before enjoying (or should I say enduring…) a 25-50 second freefall.

Book your Wanaka Skydive on Get Your Guide, or check the Bookme Wanaka skydive page for any current last minute deals.

2. Explore by 4WD

Ridgeline Adventures offer 4WD tours in their iconic Land Rover Defenders to take you to some of Wanaka’s hidden gems and enjoy some of the most spectacular views in the area.

Their range of experiences includes a Wanaka Highlights tour, photography safaris and a high country day walk.

3. Get your bearings with a trike tour

Wanaka Trike Tours is a brilliant way to see the city and its surrounds while soaking up the fresh air and learning all about the history and culture of the area.

Get comfy in the back seats, make it click, pop on your helmet complete with bluetooth walkie-talkie style speaker, and head off on your fresh air adventure.

They have a few different tours on offer, we did the Wanaka & Surrounds which took us out to the beautiful Glendhu Bay and then back to the other side of the lake, and they also have trips to the Blue Pools, Cardrona Pub, and even food and wine tours.

TRAVEL TIP: Don’t wear ripped jeans in winter, my travel buddy’s kneecap almost froze off!

4. Go jetboating

Zoom across the beautifully clear water of the Clutha River in a jet boat going more than 80km/h.

You’ll skim across shallow rapids, spin around in some crazy manoeuvres, enjoy the mountain backdrop behind you and come home with a newfound appreciation for land.

Book your Clutha River jet boat tour on Get Your Guide.

5. Enjoy sky high views while paragliding

I’m never going to skydive or bungy jump (I just can’t handle the idea of a freefall, yuck) but I’m a paragliding addict, and I’ll happily paraglide in every destination where it’s available!

Wanaka is the perfect place to go paragliding, with incredible 360° views that are even better from up high.

If you’re afraid of heights but want to try something that pushes you out of your comfort zone, paragliding is perfect. There’s no freefall involved, your body is supported with a chair-style harness (so you aren’t completely dangling) and it’s surprisingly peaceful floating through the sky hearing nothing but the wind in your ‘chute.

Check Bookme for last minute deals on paragliding in Wanaka here or read about my experience of paragliding in Queenstown.

6. Explore Cardrona Valley on a quad bike

Get off the beaten track (quite literally) with this two hour Cardrona Valley quad bike tour, where you’ll navigate rugged backcountry trails, drive through streams and soak up some of the best views in the South Island.

Learn about Wanaka’s rural history from your expert guide and stop for some epic photos before making your way back down to civilisation.

This quad bike tour has a perfect 100% rating on TripAdvisor so it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Wanaka!

7. Try a scenic flight

Want to see Wanaka from above but don’t fancy jumping out of a moving aircraft? There are a number of helicopter and fixed wing plane companies offering scenic flights from Wanaka to give you the views from the comfort of a buckled seatbelt.

We opted for a trip with Aspiring Helicopters up to Coromandel Peak, the ridge just below the famous Roy’s Peak (but with equally amazing views). We didn’t have time for the half-day hike but a quick 15 minute heli and we were up there soaking up the views and snapping some photos! Lazy? I think genius.

There are also longer flights including glacier landings, Milford Sound (45 min flight + cruise) or try your hand at flying yourself with a pilot trial flight, where an experienced pilot will teach you flight controls and let you have a go.

8. Try mountain carting (summer only)

Cardrona Alpine Resort is a ski resort in winter, but in the warmer months it transforms to an adventure playground with mountain bike trails and an epic mountain cart set up.

Be prepared to get dusty as you take on the rocky downhill tracks in a purpose-built three-wheeled mountain cart. If you’re looking for unique things to do in Wanaka during summer, this has got to be top of the list.


Active adventures

For those of you who prefer getting in some exercise while travelling, there’s lots of fun things to do in Wanaka that will get your heart rate up.

9. Wildwire Wanaka

Cable climbing is my absolute top pick for the best things to do in Wanaka, and it was one of the highlights of my South Island road trip in winter last year!

Wildwire Wanaka runs cable climbs (also known as via ferrata) up the Twin Falls near Treble Cone ski field. You’ll make your way up the rock face using carabiners clipping onto steel cables as you climb up the iron rungs stuck into the cliffs.

There are three levels ranging from easy to difficult, and you don’t need previous climbing experience however the second and third options require certain levels of fitness.

The easiest option, Go Wild, is approximately one hour of climbing and great for families with kids or anyone who wants to trial the climb before really pushing themselves out of their comfort zone.

We did the middle option, Wild Thing, which includes about three hours of climbing and two suspension bridges, reaching your end point at 320m high. You’ll need to be moderately fit for this one but it’s more about overall body strength rather than an intense burst of cardio. Expect to be sore the next day!

The final option is the Lord of the Rungs tour, which involves five hours of climbing, 450m vertical ascent and a helicopter from the top back down to the carpark. This one includes overhangs so you’ll need to be able to support your body weight with your arms.

The views from all the climbs are insane, the Wildwire team are brilliant and encouraging, and it’s a super fun way to test your limits and get your body moving.

You can book your Wildwire climbs here:

10. Climb Roy’s Peak

Possibly the most recognisable peak in the South Island, the hike to and from Roy’s Peak is about 5-6 hours return (16km). It’s a steep but easy walk with a well-maintained trail, however visiting in winter may bring ice and snow so make sure you’re prepared.

The track is closed from 1 October to 10 November each year for lambing so if you’re visiting over those dates, the best alternative is Isthmus Peak. Which brings me to…

11. Climb Isthmus Peak instead

Isthmus Peak is open during Roy’s Peak lambing season (Isthmus is then closed for fawning from 20 Nov to 20 Dec) so it’s a good alternative if you’re fit.

This track takes 5-7 hours return but is graded as Advanced (Roy’s Peak is graded as Easy for comparison). Reviews tend to agree that it’s more of a Moderate track rather than Advanced but it is a step above Roy’s Peak in terms of difficulty and fitness required.

Isthmus Peak

12. Go canyoning in Mount Aspiring National Park (summer only)

Canyoning Wanaka is a thrilling active adventure that combines rock climbing, abseiling, cliff jumping and swimming for a full body workout and mental challenge.

With beginner, intermediate and advanced options available, anyone with water confidence and moderate fitness can enjoy this Wanaka activity.

Book your Wanaka canyoning trip on Viator.

13. Take a guided kayak trip

Give your legs a break and get your core and arms working while you enjoy outstanding views either from Lake Wanaka or the Clutha River.

The Lake Wanaka kayak tour is a leisurely 8-10km paddle along the lake’s coastline including light snacks, with either half day or full day tours available (full day includes lunch).

For something a bit more adventurous, the Clutha River kayak half day tour will take you through grade 1 & 2 river rapids along a 22km portion of the river. You’ll have a tonne of fun and the killer views are an added bonus!

14. Hit the ski fields

Well duh, if you’re heading to Wanaka in winter you can’t not go skiing!

With only a 40 minute drive to two main resorts (Cardrona & Treble Cone) as well as Snow Farm’s backcountry ski runs and huts, Wanaka is the ideal base for skiing in the South Island without the chaos and prices of Queenstown.

You can book your Cardrona lift pass here or your Treble Cone lift pass here.

15. Get on ya bike

Mountain bikers, e-bikers and road cyclists alike have a range of bike trail options in and around Wanaka.

Bike parks like Cardrona Bike Park, Bike Glendhu and Sticky Forest offer some incredible downhill trails for mountain bikers of all experience levels, and there’s plenty of trails that border Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, the Clutha River and through alpine valleys for e-bike fans.

Check out the range of Wanaka bike tours (both guided and self-guided) on Viator.


Lake Wanaka activities

There’s a bunch of Wanaka activities that centre around the lake itself. The mountains may be the main calling of this area but the lake is just as stunning!

16. See #thatwanakatree

It’s a cliché for a reason, seeing #thatwanakatree is a Wanaka must-do.

Easily accessed from a carpark in the southwestern end of the lakefront, That Wanaka Tree sticks out from Lake Wanaka’s chilly water like it was made for a postcard.

17. Glendhu Bay

If you keep driving past the tree and towards Treble Cone, 15 minutes from Wanaka township you’ll reach a quiet little spot called Glendhu Bay.

With a rocky beach and super clear water, Roy’s Peak towering above to your right and snowy mountains to the left, this is one of the lesser known places to visit in Wanaka.

Glendhu Bay Motor Camp is a brilliant campground for campervans looking for a Wanaka holiday park.

18. Go for a cruise on the lake

Enjoy a glass of local wine and snack on a cheeseboard as you spend your late afternoon exploring Lake Wanaka by catamaran for an hour.

You’ll see Waterfall Creek, Ruby Island, Stevenson’s Peninsula and That Wanaka Tree before returning to town for your evening plans.

You can book the cruise on Get Your Guide or Viator.

19. Visit Mou Waho Island

Ever wanted to see a small island within a lake within an island within a lake on an island in the sea? Yep, it’s confusing! Mou Waho Island is one of Lake Wanaka’s five islands, and it’s definitely worth adding to your itinerary.

Home to the curious Weka (a flightless bird) amongst other native creatures, visiting this predator-free DOC reserve is one of the best things to do in Wanaka for nature lovers.

You can opt to take a water taxi and then see Mou Waho at your own pace with 1.5 hours to explore, or for more of a learning experience you could choose a luxury cruise + one hour guided bush walk where you’ll hear about the island’s ecology, geology and Maori history.

20. Take a dip

Feel the need to cool off? Jump in!

Lake Wanaka is totally safe to swim in, and there are a number of spots ideal for a refreshing dip.

Wanaka’s Main beach has a pontoon to swim out to and jump off, head around to Glendhu Bay for a more secluded spot, or pop over to Mou Waho Island for a swim in the lake (within the island etc.).

Food and drink in Wanaka

21. Go wine tasting

Rippon Winery is the best-known Wanaka vineyard, with a cellar door open Wednesdays to Sundays from 12pm-5pm.

The other options near Wanaka are Nanny Goat Vineyard, Maude Wines and Aitken’s Folly.

For a more thorough wine experience you could book a guided Wanaka wine tour, or go for a drive south towards Cromwell and Bannockburn, where there are hop-on hop-off wine tours or luxury wine and food tours.

22. Have a pint at the Cardrona Hotel

You can’t visit drive between Queenstown and Wanaka without stopping in at the famous pub and restaurant at Cardrona Hotel.

With a 1928 Chrysler Model 62 permanently parked out in front and a backdrop of rolling hills, this iconic site has adorned magazines, newspapers and Instagram feeds all over the globe.

There’s plenty of seating both inside and out, with a fire pumping in the colder months, loads of space for kids to run around, and a menu full of local bevvies and winter warmers.

If you’re heading down off Cardrona after a day on the slopes, make sure you pop in for a mulled wine. Your body and mind will thank you!

23. Try some craft spirits at the Cardrona Distillery

Just 2km up the road from Cardrona Hotel sits Cardrona Distillery, a family-owned distillery that produces whisky, gin and flavoured liqueurs using alpine water sourced from the nearby mountains.

You can visit the cellar door for a tasting, take a tour of the distillery for $25 (75 minutes, incl. a tasting), or make a lunch booking to try some world-class culinary creations paired with delicious cocktails.

24. Enjoy the local food scene

Wanaka may not have the quantity of restaurants that Queenstown boasts, but there are some seriously impressive eateries to try for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the lakeside township.

For brunch I’d recommend Relishes, Big Fig, Kai Whakapai or Urban Grind (brilliant for coffee too). For a light lunch check out Alchemy, Fedeli Cafe or the Brownston Street food stalls. For a fancy dinner my top picks are Kika, Kota and Wanaka Gourmet Kitchen.

Iced choccy with lake views, the dream!

Rainy day activities

If you happen to be in the area on a wet and windy day, there’s still some fun indoor things to do in Wanaka to keep you busy.

25. Watch a movie

Wanaka is home to not one but two independent movie theatres, Cinema Paradiso and Ruby’s Cinema.

Paradiso is an old school theatre with funky seating, including sofas, bean bags and classic cars. They’ve got a licensed bar and cafe serving up sweet treats, pizza and nachos, and there’s even an intermission for you to top up your glass and grab something to eat. Just like old times!

Ruby’s is a bit fancier, offering two Gold Class cinemas with an impressive wine list full of local favourites, an intriguing cocktail list (including a Jaffa martini omg) and both savoury and sweet dishes on offer.

26. Put your brain to the test at Puzzling World

Puzzling World was always a mainstay on our Wanaka itinerary when my family headed down for a skiing trip. Full of weird and wonderful puzzles, games and illusions that will boggle your mind, it’s got to be on your list for things to do on a rainy day in Wanaka.

After wandering through the interesting exhibitions you can sit down at the café and try solve some of the puzzles yourself, or grab something to keep the kids (or adults!) entertained on the road.

If you visit on a non-rainy day, or if you don’t mind getting wet, head out to the Great Maze and race your friends to the end.

You can book a Puzzling World ticket on Get Your Guide for $25 or check Bookme for last minute deals.

27. Indoor rock climbing

Basecamp Adventures is a short drive from town towards Cardrona, and it’s an awesome stop for the young and young-at-heart to get in some exercise when it’s miserable outside.

They’ve got one hour Clip ‘n Climb sessions with automatic belay systems so you can race your travel buddies, plus a sport wall and bouldering cave for more serious rock climbers to practice.

28. Visit the virtual reality centre

As well as rugged mountains, idyllic lakes and world-class ski fields, Wanaka is also home to the largest virtual reality experience in the Southern Hemisphere. Who knew?!

REALM Wanaka has state-of-the-art technology to immerse you into the world of VR, with a bunch of games and experiences available.

You can see the range of options to choose from right here.

snow sea road dawn

The best Wanaka accommodation

But before you plan out your full Wanaka itinerary, you’ve got to figure out where to stay during your time in the town.

With a huge range of accommodation options, here are my top picks for the best places to stay in Wanaka for different budgets.

Camping

  • Glendhu Bay Motor Camp is my favourite campground in the area, right on the lake with stunning views and decent facilities.
  • Lake Wanaka TOP 10 is another option if you’d rather be close to town but these guys have pretty small sites and get booked up quickly during the busy period
  • The Camp at Lake Hawea is another lakefront campground with mountain views, it’s a 15 minute drive from Wanaka’s main centre

Cheap & cheerful

  • YHA Wanaka is on the southwestern end of town next to Pembroke Park, they’ve got dorms + private rooms available if you’re visiting Wanaka on a budget
  • Wanaka Bakpaka is another highly-rated hostel, located just north of the city with lake and marina views
  • West Meadows Motel is the best-rated motel in town, with 9.6 on booking.com from more than 750 reviews

Mid-range

Luxury