Best Things to Do in Rotorua: The Ultimate Guide
Rotorua is a top destination in New Zealand's North Island. Read our comprehensive budget travel guide to Rotorua, place of geysers, geothermal activity, Maori culture, beautiful forests, and wild rivers. In this post, we will share up to date information on the best things to see and do in Rotorua, tips on how to get there, what to pack or how to see the most this destination has to offer when traveling on a budget.
We are not exaggerating when we say that you could easily base yourself in Rotorua for several days, and during this time see the best things and do the top activities New Zealand's North Island has to offer.
Rotorua is absolutely outstanding place which is most famous for the geothermal activity, geyser erupting from the earth and the place is also well-known for the rotten eggs smell travelers can hardly ignore.
The main highlights and the top reasons why to visit Rotorua are Wai-O-Tapu geothermal area and Maori culture which are both not budget-friendly activities, but when traveling on a low budget, you can see the volcanic activity, hot springs, interesting trees, and bubbling pools around Rotorua without the necessity to pay steep fees.
As we lived in New Zealand for over a year, we had plenty of time to explore both islands and visit also less-known places, but even when you are traveling on a strict schedule, visiting Rotorua should be high on your list. Not only because the colorful, foaming pools are something you simply have to see, but Rotorua is a perfect place for white water rafting and other adrenaline activities, and it is also well-accessible, so you can quickly get from here to Auckland, Waitomo Caves, Lake Taupo or Tongariro National Park famous for Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
When planning your New Zealand itinerary, first read thoroughly the list below of the best things to see and do in Rotorua and according to it consider how many days would be suitable for you to spend in the area, but even one full day will give you the opportunity to experience the best Rotorua has to offer. In case you want to try some adrenaline activities and travel off the beaten path, two days will be absolutely enough.
BEST THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN ROTORUA
We arrived in Rotorua one summer day early in the morning, and unmistakenly could smell the sulfuric geothermal steam which revealed to us that we were getting nearer to a place famous for geothermal and volcanic activity.
The name Rotorua comes from Maori word and can be translated as Second Lake, but Rotorua does not only have a Maori name, it is also a place with one of the strongest indigenous cultures you can come across in New Zealand.
This is one of the reasons why Rotorua is so attractive to travelers.
It offers both cultural and natural experiences, while visitors don't have to travel anywhere into the wilderness, as the city is very well-accessible.
Here's the list of the best attractions, the most amazing things you can see and perfect activities you can do in Rotorua.
Lake Rotorua | New Zealand has many wonderful lakes, and Lake Rotorua is one of them. It is possible to watch the geothermal activity around the lake's shore, but it is not that spectacular like in Wai-O-Tapu or Rotorua Park. Lake Rotorua is New Zealand's second-largest lake which thanks to high sulphur content often change color. In the middle of the crater is small Mokoia Island you can see up close on a boat tour.
Lady Knox Geyser | Do you want to see a geyser which erupts every day at 10:15 AM sharp? The series of boardwalks which take you around several bubbling and smelly pools will take you to a natural amphitheater, where you must wait for the show to begin. Although we must admit we found Lady Knox Geyser a bit underwhelming if you plan on visiting Wai-O-Tapu area, this attraction is included in the admission, so why not to have a look, right? How does it work? The geyser does not erupt on own but one member of staff must help it by spilling a substance similar to soap into the vent. In a couple of minutes, the geyser starts to erupt up to 20 meters high. We for sure prefer more natural attractions and found Lady Knox Geyser way too staged, but on the other hand, we did not want to miss one of the must-see things in Rotorua.
Wai-O-Tapu | Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland is Rotorua's highlight and the most touristy place in the area. The complex is pretty large, and you can walk here around bubbling mud pools, steaming colorful pools and structures created by volcanic activity. We would compare Wai-O-Tapu to Yellowstone National Park, only on a smaller scale. The most famous attraction is The Champagne Pool, which is the best to be seen from an elevated viewing platform, but the whole complex is absolutely splendid and worth the admission NZD 32.50. Remember, that it is not possible to pay cash, but only by credit card at Wai-O-Tapu. It is really amazing to watch the geothermal activity and read information boards explaining how the pools have been created and where the color comes from. It is easy to navigate yourself in the complex as you must follow boardwalks, but if you want to know more about this special place, do not hesitate to join a tour.
Our Tip: Do not wear anything fancy. Unless you have a washing machine in your hotel or hostel, you will smell like eggs for the next couple of days.
Panoramic Views of Rotorua | If you want to see Rotorua from above, take a gondola to the top of Mount Ngongotaha.
White Water Rafting | Same as Queenstown on the South Island, Rotorua is the capital of outdoor adventure activities on the North Island. In case you want to take a break for a while from seeing mud pools and bubbling water at every corner and you seek to breathe fresh air again for a while, one of the best things to do in Rotorua is white water rafting. Rotorua is home to Kaituna, the fast-flowing river (Grade 5), where you will for sure have a lot of fun. There are several raftable rapids followed by slower sections, but the main highlight here is awesome seven meters high Tutea Falls, which is the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. To try this activity, you need to book your tour here, but if your budget is low, it is pretty cool only watch people rafting down.
Maori Culture | There is a no better place in New Zealand where you could learn more about Maori culture, see Maori habits, traditional dances, and eat the original meal, than Rotorua. Maybe the Te Papa museum in Wellington is getting nearer, but it for sure lacks the authenticity. There are several Maori villages you can visit around Rotorua and take the sought-after photography of a Maori guy sticking out his tongue and popping his eyes. But visiting the Maori village is surely not only about it, and you should leave with a better understanding of the culture of New Zealand's indigenous population. There are several popular tours you can join to experience the cultural shows, but the best shows are in the evening when you can taste Hangi dinner, food which is cooked in the ground by the help of heated rocks.
Whakarewarewa Forest | Set between many lakes near Rotorua is Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest famous for amazingly photogenic trees featuring red tree trunks and many hiking trails. It is a perfect activity for travelers on a low budget or simply for anyone who wants to enjoy stunning nature. Visiting Whakarewarewa Forst is also a good idea when it is raining because the high trees will shelter you a bit, and the atmosphere in the forest is moodier. The forest is not popular only among hikers, but it has also several biking trails.
Canopy | A popular activity in Rotorua (or basically anywhere in the world) is canopy ziplining tour. The forest in this part of New Zealand is super-nice, and zipline among treetops while learning more about the ecosystem is for sure great activity in case your itinerary allows you to spend in Rotorua three more hours.
Rotorua Museum | Not far from Kuirau Park is Rotorua Museum housed in former old bathhouse building. New Zealand is not famous for architecture, but this building is really beautiful and worth visiting. At the moment you can admire it only from the outside because of the earthquake which happened in 2016 and since then the building has not been repaired yet to be fully safe for its visitors. The museum stands in a perfectly-curated garden.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley | 25 kilometers from Rotorua lies quieter and less famous park where visitors can appreciate highlights like Frying Pan lake or Inferno Crater. Waimangu Volcanic Valley was created quite recently, only 130 years ago when the nearby Mount Tarawera erupted. Nowadays, you can walk several trails, if you decide to hike the full loop, it will take you more than an hour, as the path is 4.5 kilometers long. You can buy your entrance ticket here in advance.
Hot Springs | Thanks to the intense geothermal activity in Rotorua, the city's near surroundings are dotted with natural or artificial hot pools. There are several hot pools where you do not need to pay admission and you still can enjoy the hot water and scenic views. One of the most popular hot pools near Rotorua is Kerosene Creek. Also, some of the hotels in Rotorua have own hot pools on their properties, because the ground is hot almost everywhere in the city. Although New Zealand is usually visited in summer, winter in Rotorua has its magic, especially when you can sit in a hot pool and watch the snow and frost around you.
Rotorua Kuirau Park | Good news for all backpackers traveling on a budget is that the geothermal activity cannot be seen only in Wai-O-Tapu, although there are some of the nicest pools, nevertheless, you can spot pools and hot springs easily when walking in Rotorua for free. The best places where you should be headed is Kuirau Park, centrally located park with many natural colorful pools, wooden boardwalks, and in the middle of the park, you will even find artificially built small pools with hot water where you can soak your feet for a while. Although visiting Wai-O-Tapu was for us a bit better experience because everything was more concentrated and we could see several different phenomenons on one spot, this park was for sure an unexpected pleasant surprise.
Hells Gate | Hells Gate does not boast the colors as Wai-O-Tapu, but it is still an interesting place to visit near Rotorua. The geothermal park features many bubbling mud pools and steaming vents that you will soon have a feeling you are no longer on planet earth. Visiting Hells Gate is not free activity (you can buy your admission here) but if you are looking for something more unique, there is an option to soak up in mud spa.
Hamurana Springs | Hamurana Springs is a lovely and very photogenic spot you should not miss when in Rotorua. The spring is at some points up to 15 meters deep and is tucked in a beautiful redwood forest.
One-day trips from Rotorua | Rotorua is perfectly located, and almost everything is pretty close to the city, including some of the top destinations you simply must have on your New Zealand itinerary. From Rotorua, you can take a day-trip (or carry on later) to Waitomo Caves, explore the volcanic Waiheke Island, hear to Tongariro National Park famous for one-day Tongariro Alpine Crossing Track or for multi-day Great Walk Tongariro Northern Circuit, Lake Taupo is just a stone's throw same as the beginning of another multi-day Great Walk, Lake Waikaremoana Track.
HOW TO GET TO AND AROUND ROTORUA
Getting to Rotorua could not be simpler as it is quite easily accessible from all corners of the North Island.
Travelers usually reach Rotorua from Auckland or Taupo.
The most popular way how to get around New Zealand is by rental car, and unless you are traveling on a really low budget, we truly recommend you this option as road tripping the country of Lord of the Rings films is one of those must-do things many travelers have on the bucket list.
In case you decided against traveling by car, no worries, Rotorua is a top tourist destination, and you will always be able to get there either by public bus or by more expensive tourist shuttle.
Getting around Rotorua is for sure much more comfortable by car as the best things to see and do are spread around the city, but you can use either tours or shuttles (some places like for example Hells Gate even offer free shuttles from Rotorua, you only need to make a reservation in advance).
You should only know that if you are dependant on shuttles or public transport,you should make your itinerary realistic as you won't be that flexible.
WHEN TO VISIT ROTORUA
Rotorua is set in a unique hilly location with many lakes and geothermal landscape.
Best time to visit Rotorua is in summer when it's hot, dry and days are sunny.
It gets cold in the wintertime, and you should be especially careful when driving as the roads can be covered with black ice, which is quite dangerous.
Nevertheless, you can still enjoy Rotorua all year round if you pack smart and according to the season.
WHAT TO PACK FOR VISITING ROTORUA
Are you planning on visiting Rotorua? Great, there are only a few things to know. The sun in New Zealand is different from what we have in Europe, and you need to use sunscreen all the time. Or you can cover your skin with clothes. Also, the wind is omnipresent, and you will change layers a lot.
Oh, and you can smell sulfur, but that's part of the experience.
Here is a list of 5 essential things to pack.
Sunscreen | A good sunscreen is always number one on our packing list.
Lip Balm with Sunscreen | When it's hot, dry and windy, you might get chapped lips.
GoPro | Rotorua is not only geysers and thermal pools, but it's also about adventures and adrenaline activities.
Where To Stay In ROTORUA
Rotorua is New Zealand's famous destination for geysers, mud pools, natural vents, sulfur pools, hot springs, and Maori history.
You can stay directly in the town where you will find many great choices of hotels and hostels for every type of travelers. The best accommodations are set on the shore of Lake Rotorua and feature best views and service.
We've handpicked 3 places where you can stay and still feel like at home.
Budget | Funky Green Voyager - Nice comfy rooms, awesome location, friendly staff, and welcoming atmosphere will wait for you in this hostel. A great choice for budget travelers.
Mid-range | Wylie Court Motel Lodge - This hotel is set in peaceful surroundings and within a walking distance to great restaurants and attractions. All rooms feature heating and there are a private spa and pool on site. Great value for money.
Luxury | Peppers on the Point Lake Rotorua - Amazing views of Lake Rotorua, delicious breakfast, wonderful service, comfortable feeling, fine dining in the onsite restaurant, and super comfy beds.
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