Rotorua, New Zealand City Guide

Nestled in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, Rotorua is best known for its spectacular geothermal landscape and vibrant Māori culture. It’s not a bustling city like Auckland or Wellington, nor is it remote and wild like the coastal reaches at the island’s northernmost tip. Instead, Rotorua is a friendly, residential lake town surrounded by truly stunning natural beauty. It’s also perfectly situated for exploring some of the best attractions on the North Island. 

I hope this city guide inspires you to visit Rotorua and see what they have to offer.

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red door hobbit hole at lord of the rings filming location in Matamata near Rotorua, New Zealand
One of the Hobbit Holes in Matamata, the main attraction for visitors to Rotorua. © Meghan Crawford

Getting to Rotorua, New Zealand

It’s relatively easy to get to Rotorua by car, bus, or plane. Whatever your choice of transport, you’ll first need to fly into one of the airports on the North Island. 

Auckland has the largest airport and is typically the destination airport for travelers to New Zealand, especially those arriving from the Northern Hemisphere. You may fly in through either Wellington or directly into the Rotorua airport for travelers arriving from the South Island. 

Driving to Rotorua

New Zealand is a land of winding mountain roads, two-lane highways, and gravel drives. That means one of the best ways to see the country is by renting a car or a camper van and finding out what lies off the beaten path: remember that Kiwis drive on the left side of the road. 

If you’re used to driving on the right, this can take a little getting used to. You’ll want to budget time to get familiar with this new way of driving before tackling any narrow mountain passes or busy city centers. 

Even if you’re an old pro at driving on the left, I still recommend reviewing this guide for driving in New Zealand from their official tourism board’s website. Road conditions, speed limits, and typical hazards may differ from what you’re used to in your country. 

From Auckland to Rotorua

Rotorua is located about three hours south of Auckland by car. The most direct route is a nearly straight shot on State Highway 1. Head south on Highway 1 until you reach Tirau, then take the eastbound exit for State Highway 5 toward Rotorua. This route is ideal if you’re nervous about driving in New Zealand. State Highway 1 is the largest in the country and, in places, one of the few four-lane expressways. 

There is another more scenic route to Rotorua, though. Take State Highway 2 east, then State Highway 27 south toward Matamata. State Highway 27 is one of the aforementioned two-lane highways and much less heavily trafficked than State Highway 1. 

This route is the best option not only for viewing stunning scenery while you drive (State Highway 2 passes directly through Karangahake Gorge) but also for some excellent pit stops. The drive is only about three hours, but you could easily make a short road trip out of it, stopping to see attractions like Wairere Falls in Okauia, the Hobbiton™ movie set in Matamata, or the Blue Springs at Putaruru. 

From Wellington to Rotorua

The drive from Wellington to Rotorua is much longer, clocking in at around six hours. Fortunately, it’s not a complicated route. Drive north on State Highway 1 until you reach Wairakei, then take the exit for State Highway 5 north toward Rotorua. 

While I wouldn’t recommend attempting this drive in a single day, this is an excellent route if you’re planning to visit Wellington before your trip to Rotorua and want a nice, scenic road trip. 

State Highway 1 hugs the west coast for the first hour or so, giving you stunning views of the Cook Strait (Raukawa Moana in the Māori). Further north, it ascends onto the North Island Volcanic Plateau, skirts the edges of Tongariro National Park, runs beside the banks of several rivers, and hugs the eastern shore of Lake Taupo. 

Getting to Rotorua by Bus

New Zealand’s InterCity Buses are a great way to get around if you’re not planning to rent a vehicle. Not only are they clean, comfortable, and run on time, I also found the website easy to navigate and the prices reasonable. 

You can book in advance for one-way fares or use their FlexiPass hop-on/hop-off system and plan your entire trip around the bus routes. Buses depart daily from Auckland (around 4.5 hours) and Wellington (around 8 hours) to Rotorua. Visit the InterCity website to view timetables and pricing for your selected dates.

I chose this option to get from Auckland to Rotorua, then rented a car in Rotorua. I would recommend this to anyone nervous about driving on the left for the first time. 

Related: Travel New Zealand by Bus: Everything You Need to Know

Flying to Rotorua Directly

If you’re only in New Zealand for a short stay and want to minimize the amount of time spent traveling between cities, I would recommend flying to Rotorua. There is a small airport with daily domestic flights to and from Wellington and Christchurch.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an option if you’re traveling to Rotorua from Auckland, but that’s a relatively short trip by bus or car anyway. 

Travel Planning Tip: Order a prepaid SIM card before you travel!

7 Things to do in Rotorua, New Zealand

Not only is there plenty to do in Rotorua itself, but the city is also within easy driving distance of several popular attractions in the surrounding area. 

Whether you’re interested in exploring the great outdoors, learning more about Māori culture, living your best Middle Earth fantasy, or just kicking back and relaxing, there’s something for everyone in Rotorua. I’ve listed some of the best activities below: 

1. Explore the Geothermal Landscape

Rotorua is like the Yellowstone National Park of New Zealand — minus the buffalo. It’s renowned for its many active geysers, bubbling mud pools, steaming lakes, and natural hot springs. And you don’t have to venture far to see these amazing geothermal phenomena, either! 

Kuirau Park is a public park right in town that features bubbling mud, steam vents, and a steaming lake. It’s so centrally located that you could walk there from your hotel or hostel. It’s just across the street. 

For a more immersive experience, you can check out the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. The valley is home to volcanic craters, hot springs, and other geothermal activity. There isn’t open access for safety and preservation reasons, but organized walking tours, lake cruises, and kayak rentals are available. Visit the Waimangu Volcanic Valley site for the most up-to-date details and rates.

One of the iconic geothermal lakes near Rotorua, Champagne Lake.
One of the iconic geothermal lakes near Rotorua, Champagne Lake. © Lukas Basel, Pixabay

The most important thing to keep in mind while exploring the geothermal wonders that Rotorua offers is safety. Geothermal landscapes are volatile, and eruptions can happen unexpectedly. Pay attention to posted signage, stick to the marked trails, and use common sense. 

2. Visit a Māori Village

While Māori people live across the North and the South Islands, their history with the geothermal landscape in and around Rotorua is particularly unique. Long before European explorers or settlers knew about New Zealand’s existence, the Māori were using the geothermal features for cooking, bathing, and healing. 

The Māori people of Rotorua were the ones who first brought tourism to the region, dating back to the 19th century. By sharing their culture and educating visitors, the tribes can promote their traditional skills and preserve their cultural practices for future generations. 

Because of the long history of Māori tourism in Rotorua, many villages are open in the area to visit. The one you choose will depend on what you’re looking to get out of the experience.

I’d recommend Te Puia. It is owned and operated by the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI). Guests at Te Puia have access to certain school rooms to view students carving and weaving using traditional methods. 

The Te Puia grounds are also full of awe-inspiring geothermal activity, including the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Pōhutu geyser is incredibly active and goes off up to twenty times a day!
The Pōhutu geyser is incredibly active and goes off up to twenty times a day! © Meghan Crawford

I had the opportunity to view geothermal activity elsewhere in Rotorua, but walking through the landscape with our guide and learning how the Māori lived and thrived in this environment gave new context to my knowledge of the geothermal features and the Māori way of life. 

Finally, no Māori Village experience is complete without partaking in a hāngī dinner. Hāngī is a traditional Māori cooking method where food is steamed in an earthen oven for several hours, leaving it tender and smoky. The Māori tribes in Rotorua use the naturally occurring thermal steam for their hāngī.

A day pass to Te Puia is on the pricier side, starting at $80 NZD ($55 USD), but I believe it’s well worth the price tag. It includes access to the Te Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, Māori art gallery, NZMACI, and Kiwi Conservation Center, as well as Māori history and cultural performances.

3. Take a Canopy Tour of the Rotorua Redwoods

Not many expect to find a grove of California Coastal Redwoods in a tiny town on the literal opposite side of the world, but that’s part of what makes the redwood forest just outside Rotorua so magical. 

While the forest is certainly breathtaking at the ground level, I recommend getting up into the treetops to experience them in an entirely new way.

The Redwoods Treewalk is a very accessible, pleasant, forty-minute walk across a network of platforms and suspension bridges about 60 feet off the ground. Adult tickets start at $35 NZD ($24 USD), and there are options for both day and night tours.

In the photo for scale, that's me: these trees are truly giant.
In the photo for scale, that’s me: these trees are truly giant. © Meghan Crawford

4. Visit the Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are a must-see when visiting Rotorua. A two-hour drive from the city, visiting Waitomo is easily doable as a day or weekend trip.

Although there are a few other caves in the area that you can explore on your own, the best way to experience the magic of the glowworms is through the Waitomo Glowworm Cave tours. They offer a guided tour culminating in a silent boat ride through the glittering glowworm grotto.

Being in the glowworm caves truly does feel like being out under the night sky.
Being in the glowworm caves truly does feel like being out under the night sky. © Nicole Geri, Unsplash.

Even if you’re not interested in the fascinating history and geology of the caves, I promise that the illusion of sailing beneath a starry night sky while deep underground is worth the somewhat steep ticket price (starting at $55 NZD/$38 USD). Glowworms are only native to New Zealand, so this is truly something you can’t witness anywhere else.

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves also offers Black Water Rafting for the adrenaline seekers. You’ll raft over underground rapids, float below the glittering glowworms, and jump off underground waterfalls. Tickets start at $150 NZD ($103 USD).

Bonus tip: Round out your weekend trip to Waitomo by stopping in Otorohanga on your way back to Rotorua to visit the Kiwi House. 

The kiwi bird is New Zealand’s national bird. Given that they’re nocturnal and highly endangered, you’re not likely to see one out in the wild. I took every opportunity I could to see kiwis while in New Zealand, and I never regretted it.

There's no photography allowed in the Kiwi House: kiwi are nocturnal and camera shy!
There’s no photography allowed in the Kiwi House: kiwi are nocturnal and camera shy! © Meghan Crawford

The Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park tickets start at $26 NZD ($18 USD) for adults. Not only are the prices reasonable, but your admission fee also helps fund the breeding and conservation of some of New Zealand’s most unique and endangered animals. 

5. Take a Day Trip to Hobbiton in Matamata

New Zealand is essentially the real-life version of Middle Earth, which is probably why director Peter Jackson chose to film the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies here. While there are plenty of filming locations on both the North and South Islands that you’ll recognize from the films, the most famous (and touristy!) is the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata. 

Matamata is about an hour north of Rotorua, making it an easy day trip. I highly recommend stopping at the town before heading out to the movie set. You’ll find Lord of the Rings-themed gift shops and galleries, as well as a thriving local food scene. 

The Hobbiton Movie Set offers many experiences, but the main attraction is the movie set walking tour. You’ll be able to experience the Shire (home to all of the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies), complete with hobbit holes, lush gardens, and pastoral views of the surrounding countryside.

This sign should read 'No admittance at all.' You can't go inside Bag End because they didn't build an inside.
This sign should read ‘No admittance at all.’ You can’t go inside Bag End because they didn’t build an inside. © Meghan Crawford

Every tour has a guide, so you’ll learn plenty of fun facts about the building of the set, the making of the films, and the history of the land. The two-hour tour ends at the Green Dragon Inn, where you can enjoy a refreshing (complimentary) pint of ale, cider, or ginger beer. 

Starting at $89 NZD ($61 USD), this is one of the most expensive activities on this list. But if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan like I am, it’s an absolute must-do while you’re in New Zealand.

6. Relax in a Soothing Hot Spring

Although hot springs are a naturally occurring feature in the geothermal landscape of Rotorua, I decided to list them as a separate activity because the thermal waters in the area have long been their own tourist draw. The warm water and mineral-rich mud are widely considered therapeutic and healing. Plenty of parks and spas have cropped up to meet the demand. 

While these are great if you’re specifically looking for a luxury spa treatment, many visitors think they’re the only option for enjoying the Rotorua hot springs. This misconception is probably due to a mix of marketing tactics and the fact that you can’t swim in just any hot pool you come across, as many of them are too hot to enter safely.

Fortunately, there are plenty of hot springs that are free to access and perfectly safe in or near Rotorua. Enjoy a warm foot bath right in town at Kuirau Park (perfect if your feet are tired from hiking or walking around town), or for the full bathing experience, head to nearby Wai-O-Tapu about 20 miles south of Rotorua.

There are two popular hot springs here: a waterfall and pool at Kerosene Creek and “The Bridge” just outside of the Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park. As these are more popular, they tend to be more crowded, so arrive early.

Want to spend up to a year traveling and working in New Zealand? Learn how:

The waterfall and hot pool at Kerosene Creek near Wai-O-Tapu.
The waterfall and hot pool at Kerosene Creek near Wai-O-Tapu. © Linda Lanjouw, Unsplash

Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind when bathing in the Rotorua hot springs: 

  1. Check that your information is accurate. Geothermal landscapes are constantly evolving, so a hot pool that might have been the perfect temperature for a nice soak two seasons ago could now be hot enough to give you first or second degree burns. Always check that the information you have is up to date for the pool you’ll be visiting. 
  2. Don’t stay in the water too long. This isn’t just to avoid pruney fingers and toes. Even in a pool that is a safe temperature, it’s easy to overheat or become dehydrated. Check in with yourself, take breaks, and drink plenty of water. 
  3. Keep your head above water. While it might be tempting, especially if you visit during New Zealand’s colder months (April through November), you should never put your head underwater in a hot spring. Amoebic meningitis — the life threatening condition caused by amoeba that thrive in warm water — isn’t common in New Zealand, but there have been some documented cases so it’s still best to keep your head above water. 

7. Explore the Local Hiking Trails

There is no shortage of great hiking in New Zealand, and Rotorua is no exception. Whether you’re looking for an all-day trek or an easy stroll, there are plenty of options that will fit your needs. 

The Best Easy Walk in Rotorua: The Blue Lake Track

Rotorua sits on Lake Tikitapu, also known as the Blue Lake. The Blue Lake Track is an easy walking trail that hugs its shores. You’ll get beautiful views of the lake on this walk as well as experience native plant life and some light, geothermal activity. The 3.5-mile loop takes about an hour to walk at a leisurely pace. This hike was the first thing I did when I arrived in Rotorua, and it was the perfect way to stretch my legs after a long day of travel. 

The Hike with the Best Views in Rotorua: Rainbow Mountain and Crater Lake Outlook Track 

This is an excellent trail for seeing more geothermal activity while also enjoying stunning vistas of the Bay of Plenty and two crater lakes. The trail is a 3.7-mile out-and-back hike rated moderate on AllTrails. It is quite steep toward the summit and can be muddy and slippery when it rains — which is often in New Zealand — so I think it more than earns that challenge rating. It’s about a 20-minute drive south of town, making it perfect for a day hike. 

The Best Hike for Seeing Waterfalls in Rotorua: Okere Falls Track

If you enjoy chasing waterfalls, this is the hike for you. At 1.3 miles with an AllTrails challenge rating of easy and only 246 feet of elevation gain, this loop trail won’t take you long to complete. You’ll still want to budget a few hours, though, to stop and admire the numerous waterfalls along the trail. It is only about 24 minutes north of Rotorua by car and easily accessible. I recommend packing a picnic and making a day of it.

Related: 6 Cheap or Free Things to Do in New Zealand

This waterfall is just outside of Waitomo.
This waterfall is just outside of Waitomo. © Meghan Crawford

The AllTrails app is a great resource for finding trails near you as you explore the region. As always, when hiking in New Zealand, make sure to check trail and weather conditions before starting, carry plenty of food and water, and don’t hesitate to turn around if you’re feeling overtired.

Where to Stay in Rotorua

Budget Options

There are almost always hostels to choose from when looking for accommodations in New Zealand because so many tourists tend to be young backpackers. You likely can’t go wrong with any of the hostels in Rotorua. Still, I recommend either YHA Rotorua (a well-known and trustworthy brand) or Rotorua Central Backpackers (with a perfect Hostel World rating).

Both are centrally located and comparable in both price and their amenities. The YHA is across the street from Kuirau Park, while Rotorua Central Backpackers is slightly closer to the Rotorua Museum and lakefront. 

Mid-Range Options

For mid-range options, I almost always recommend Airbnb. You can often find nicer accommodations for less than a hotel. 

I chose Airbnb for my weeklong stay in Rotorua because I wanted access to several amenities (like a kitchen, storage, parking, and privacy) that would have cost me a premium at a hotel or hostel. 

A bonus to choosing Airbnb is the option to stay with a host if you’re interested in making friends on your travels. I found Kiwis and the locals in Rotorua to be very friendly and hospitable.  

Click here to find your next Airbnb.

By Meghan Crawford

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Have you been to Rotorua? What would you recommend? Please share in the comments below!

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