Located on New Zealand’s North Island, Rotorua is a geothermal gem know for its bubbling mud pools, erupting geysers and natural hot springs. Beyond its geothermal activities, Rotorua is rich in Māori culture, Jurassic like scenery and a wide range of outdoor adventures. I visited Rotorua in January 2020 during a trip around the North Island of New Zealand. After originally planning a two day trip there, I ended up extending my stay to 5 days! Here is a guide on things to do in Rotorua.
Getting to Rotorua
Rotorua is approximately 226km from Auckland and is easily accessible from all major towns and cities. Getting to Rotorua:
- By Car: Rotorua is easily accessible by car with the drive taking around 3 hours from Auckland and 4.5 hours from Wellington.
- By Bus: There are a number of bus companies that operate around all major cities and towns, offering comfortable and affordable rides to Rotorua. I used Intercity throughout my travels around the North Island and highly recommend them!
- By Plane: Rotorua actually has a small regional airport too which serves domestic flights from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
Things To Do In Rotorua
Rotorua is a fantastic mix of natural wonders and cultural experiences, making it a great destination to explore in New Zealand’s North Island. Whether you’re interested in the Island’s culture, outdoor activities or unique geothermal phenomenons, there is something for everyone. I would say Rotorua is more of a ‘day place’, with evening activities fairly limited. Restaurants closed early and the nightlife was very limited.
Redwoods Forest and Tree Walk
Whakarewarewa Forest, or The Redwoods, is a stunning redwood forest with trails for walking, cycling and hose-riding. Home to 75-metre-tall Californian Coast Redwoods and *crystal* clear lakes, the nature here was breathtaking and was one of my favourite things to do in Rotorua! My first time at The Redwoods, I spent the day enjoying a number of walking trails with a picnic lunch to break up the day.
The second time I went was to do the Tree Walk – 28 swing bridges suspended 20 meters high. Spanning 700 meters long, this immersive walk amongst the forest and redwoods took about 40 minutes. I did this Tree Walk during the day, however there is a night time option too. This will allow you to do the Tree Walk with 34 unique designer lanterns hanging amongst the forest. If you want to do both, get a combi ticket and get the forest in the early afternoon! Redwood Tree Walk prices for 2023 are now at $39 NZD for an adult day ticket.
The Redwoods can be found 5km from Rotorua centre, making it easily accessible by car, public transport, bike and foot. If you’re opting for public transport, take the #3 bus from outside the iSite visitors, centre costing $2.80 one way. The Redwoods Forest have great facilities, with picnic benches, toilets and a gift shop at the entrance too. Bring good footwear and plenty of drinks/food given some walks are far from the facilities. This was a highlight of my trip in Rotorua and is a must see if you’re in the area.
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Wai-O-Tapu is probably the most well-known and extensive geothermal area near Rotorua. Home to the famous Champagne Pool, steaming grounds, bubbling mud, volcanic craters and more, this is definitely something worth doing when in Rotorua. Be warned, the place absolutely stinks!
There are 3 walking routes around Wai-O-Tapu depending on how long you’re willing to spend here. As I went with a tour group, we did walk 1 & 2, which took about an hour. The highlight of my time at Wai-O-Tapu was the Champagne Pool – a truly unique geothermal feature that you have to see for yourself! There is a gift shop, toilets and food available at the entrance/exit. Being part of a tour meant I was fairly limited with timings there and what we could do, so I’d recommend going solo and really spending a full afternoon at Wai-O-Tapu. It’s a 30km drive from Rotorua city centre, so very do-able as an afternoon or morning trip. If you’re looking for more detailed information, read this excellent blog post I found on Wai-O-Tapu.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Waitmangu Volcanic Valley is another geothermal area that is definitely worth visiting and is located very close to Wai-O-Tapu. You’ll be treated to some spectacular volcanic craters, geothermal features, huge hot springs and incredible nature. There were many nature walks and hiking trails to choose from. I would recommend taking one of the guided map sheets at the entrance to help you navigate the different routes available. Again, I went as part of a tour group so routes were largely chosen for us at the start. There were boat cruises available too that take you around Lake Rotomahana, but we didn’t opt for this. Waimangu Volcanic Valley is worth a visit, particular is you’ll be seeing Wai-O-Tapu too!
If you’re looking to relax and unwind after the adventures Rotorua has to offer, then head over to Polynesian Spa. Situated on the shores of Lake Rotorua, Polynesian Spa is a world-renowned spa and bathing experience that showcases the area’s geothermal delights. The spa has 28 hot pools to choose from, both alkaline and acidic, with private, public and adult-only pools available. Polynesian Spa also has a range of therapeutic treatments to choose from including massages, mud therapy, facials and body scrubs.
By the time I reached Rotorua, I had been backpacking for over 3.5 months, moving around a lot with a heavy backpack. So I really took advantage of the spa and went twice!! The first time I booked the Deluxe Lake Spa public pool which had 1 cold plunge pool, 4 alkaline pools and 1 acidic geothermal pool. I went in the morning where it wasn’t too crowded. For my second trip, I booked the Pavilion Pools. This consisted of 3 alkaline pools, 3 acidic pools, one deeper bool and a reflexology walk. I hired towels both times, and it was also possible to rent swimwear! Toiletries and lockers were provided. Check out their official site to book a pool or spa day and to see availability.
Rotorua Night Market
Held every Thursday evening, Rotorua’s Night Market brings together a combination of local crafts/goods and a variety of different cuisines. There was live music from local musicians either end of the night market gives this place a great atmosphere. The food options were good and reasonably priced – be sure to bring cash as several stalls didn’t accept card. There is seating but it was somewhat limited so we ended up sitting on the floor to eat. As the market is outdoors, dress for the weather – although I think it’s season dependant! You can find the Rotorua Night Market between Haupapa and Hinemoa Streets.
Located 90 minutes away from Rotorua lies the volcanic mountain, Mount Tarawera. Take a guided tour and trek around the crater, enjoying the 360 degree volcanic landscape and lake views. Given fears by local Maori communities that the sacred area was being abused and mistreated, only one company is now allowed to do tours – Kaitiaki Adventures. You’ll experience incredible once-in-a-lifetime views of this volcanic mountain and crater, whilst learning the areas rich history. Note – wear proper footwear!
Whakarewarewa – The Living Māori Village
If you’re looking for things to do in Rotorua that give you a better understanding of the Māori culture, then check out Whakarewarewa – The Living Māori Village. Home to the Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao people, residents welcome visitors to experience their way of living. You’ll also be treated to some incredible scenery, (more) Geothermal Trails, bubbly mud pools, the world famous Haka and the erupting Pōhutu Geyser. You can also easily access the Redwood Forest from here too. Other popular Māori experiences include Tamarind Maori Village and Te Puia. I didn’t have time to visit these but have heard brilliant things about both.
Skyline Rotorua offers a scenic gondola ride to the top of Mount Ngongotaha, with 180-degree views of Lake Rotorua, the city and the surrounding areas. Take the scenic Skyline Gondola to the top of Mount to start of your trip. You can see the whole of Rotorua and the views are incredible. One of the most popular things to do up here is the Rotorua Luge (toboggan). There are three tracks offering varying levels of difficulty and you can have as many rides as you want – 1 is not enough! Alongside the Luge, Skyline Rotorua also offers many scenic trails (longest is 45 minute return), wine tasting at the Volcanic Hills Winery, Ziplines, the Sky Swing, mountain biking and stargazing. This is definitely something I’d suggest allocating a day to as there’s so much to see!
Rotorua is known for its mountain biking. With over 1,400 cycling routes on MapMyRide and trail maps available in bike shops/tourist centres, you’ll find the best route for you. The trail network is well signposted; with grades and trail lengths clearly marked. Popular routes include the Whakarewarewa Forest and around Rotorua’s Lake. I didn’t have time to go mountain biking, but wanted to mention it given how prevalent it was in Rotorua.
Rotorua has a huge number of adventure tours available from white water rafting and bungy jumping, to off-road 4X4 driving and zip-lining. I didn’t have enough time to book any of these but I found these resources really helpful at the time: Rotorua Site and Kaitiaki Adventures.
Day Trips from Rotorua
Given its location, you can easily make Rotorua your base and do day trips to nearby attractions. Popular day trips from Rotorua include the Waitomo Glow Worms and the Hobbiton tour.