23 Totally Free Things to do in New Zealand, North Island (with Map)
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Awesome Free Things to do on the North Island of New Zealand
New Zealand is an expensive country. But it’s well-worth spending the money when you get to experience such a lush, vibrant and adventurous country. But some days you just want to do something fun that doesn’t cost the Earth, right? Your sick of paying $100 + for, like, literally everything. Well, that’s how I felt anyway. I had already hired my van and embarked on an epic 3-week road trip around the North Island of New Zealand, I simply didn’t have the money to be bungee jumping and going dolphin watching every single day! So, how to experience all of New Zealand’s “must see” when you’re low on funds?
Instead, I took the time out to do equally as fun but totally free activities. And some of them are honestly really cool! This is my list of free things to do in New Zealand, North Island edition!
Free things to do in Northland
Northland consists of the large area stretching from just outside of Auckland all the way to the northernmost tip of New Zealand. I’ll talk about this tip in more detail below in the Cape Reinga section but considering Paihia (about halfway up) is the popular dolphin cruise area, there are still some seriously cool things you can do in Northland for free. Think conservation forests, kiwi night walks and giant sand dunes to slide down. This action-packed part of New Zealand often gets overlooked, but it really shouldn’t be! Read on to find out more about the cool free things to do in Northland.
Check out Cape Reinga lighthouse
‘Te Rerenga Wairua’ in Māori language means the leaping-off place of spirits. There’s a tree here known to be where spirits decent into the underworld. Its roots are steps down to the water. There’s a lot of cool Māori history and stories laid out on plaques around the lighthouse. My favourite is the story of the meeting of the two seas (the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean) who are male and female oceans. And as they collide and churn against one another it symbolises the creation of new life.
Slide down the Te Paki giant sand dunes
The long stretch of beach between Kaitaia and Cape Reinga is home to Ninety Mile Beach. Here, you can find the endless Te Paki sand dunes. If you have no access to cardboard or a body board to slide you can rent stuff from nearby, BUT a barefoot run and roll can also be just as fun!
Getting to the right part of the beach can be a bit tricky if you’re driving. So make sure you check out my map at the bottom of the article for the dropped pin. You can also download the custom map into your phone to help you find even more free things to do in New Zealand!
Visit ancient Kauri trees in Waipuoa Kauri Forest
These are some seriously ancient trees. I’m talking 3, 000-year-old trees here. Trees with a 5-meter wide girth. Trees that have lasted through all of the world wars. Now, these are some really impressive trees. You should go see them. Seriously. One of the trees; Tane Mahuta, is the largest kauri tree in New Zealand and is about 2, 000 years old. Its canopy has an ecosystem of its own and the trunk at 4.4 metres in diameter is still growing! See, I told you!
All of the trees in the Waipuoa Forest are close to each other and within 30-minute walks from the road or parking lot. Although these incredible trees are a popular attraction for the bus tours, it’s worth braving the crowds to see them. While you are there you can take one of the quieter hiking trails in the area and maybe even spot a kiwi bird!
Take the short walking trail to Rainbow Falls
This short and very easy trail takes you to the beautiful Rainbow Falls, is notorious for Kiwi bird sighting. Once you’ve checked out the gorgeous falls from the various viewing platforms, head down to the bottom where, after a little bit of boulder-hopping, you can almost get behind the falls.
If you have more time on your hands, take one of the walking trails next to the falls, I recommend the one that follows the river downstream. Check out the ferns and keep an eye out for the notorious flightless bird!
Kiwi bird night walk from Trounson Kauri Park Campground
If you’re in the market to see a kiwi in the wild then this walk is a great option. At night you can hear their calls all around you and the book inside the campsite kitchen will inform you of the latest kiwi spottings and where. You’ll just need a flashlight, as the campground supply red cellophane to cover your torch and make it night vision!
This is also an awesome campsite to park your van if you’re on a road trip. It does cost $6 per night though, that is inserted into the deposit box inside the kitchen.
Photo by: VENUS 2014 / CC-BY
Check out what I got up to in this spectacular part of New Zealand!
Free things to do in Auckland
Everybody loves free stuff, especially in Auckland, a big and expensive(ish) city. There are loads of free things to do in Auckland, and NONE of them are museums – YAY! Not that we don’t love museums, it’s just that sometimes there’s more to life, right? Right! Anyways, Auckland is full of awesome (and free) things to do. I mean, Auckland was built on a volcanic field, so there are about 48 volcanoes in total for you to explore. And YES, some of them are still active! There are also parks and forests galore, numerous islands, marine parks and harbours. Seriously, this is a cool city. You need to spend some time here.
Walk to the top of Mt Eden – Auckland’s highest volcano
A great day trip from Auckland is the panoramic views you’ll see from the top of Mount Eden. This place is the volcanic cone of a dormant volcano. Also, there are 5.5 acres of award-winning gardens on the side of Mount Eden with colourful plants, waterfalls, rock formations, birds and harbour views.
Don’t have much time? You can easily drive to the top! OR if you actually have an entire day, this awesome viewpoint can be done as part of a full day “coast to coast” hike, where you literally walk from one side of New Zealand to the other in 4.5 hours. Check out below for more information!
Photo by: Allan Harris / CC-BY
Trek the width of NZ on the ‘Coast to Coast’ walk
Yep, that’s right! You’ll be able to tell your mates that not only did you cross the width of the whole country, but that you did it in ONE day! It’s a 16 km walk winding through the city, hitting some of Auckland’s main attractions and finishing on the harbour opposite. The idea is that you begin the walk from the city centre on the gorgeous harbourside of Waitemata, which incidentally means ‘smooth and shining water’ in Maori. Over the course of this walk, you’ll pass by five volcanic sites and walk to the top of Mount Eden where you’ll experience spectacular views of the city. You will also pass through the historic suburbs before finishing at Manukau Harbour.
You can pick up a map of the walk at any visitor centre and probably even your hotel. Once completed you have a couple of public transport options nearby to return to the city. You can catch the light rail from Onehunga or there are buses near the harbour. Alternatively, you could do the trail in reverse, finishing in the city for a well-deserved meal.
Explore Waitakere Ranges and Piha Beach
Only a 40-minute drive from the City Centre of Auckland is the gorgeous Waitakere Ranges, the rainforest right next to the city! Waitakere covers more than 16, 000 hectares of stunning native rainforest and coastline and keeps within the famous black sands of Piha Beach and Karekare Falls. You can take a scenic drive through the ranges and stop in at one of the delicious cafes with a view.
Take one or two of the walking trails since there are’s 250 kilometres of them! Or, why not try climbing Lion Rock, an impressive rock structure that juts out of the ocean? Even the Visitor Centre has great vistas to check out when you stop in to decide where you want to go first! In this park, you can see many different types of ferns, native birds, skinks and kauri trees. Waitakere Ranges are free to enter and make a seriously good day trip option from Auckland if you have access to a vehicle.
Photo by: russellstreet / CC-BY
Smell the roses at Parnell Gardens
If you love roses or gardens, this is the place for you! Go there in the blooming season, from August to November to see the pretty flowers in their most beautiful. Parnell is arguably one of the best rose gardens in the world, with rows and rows of immaculately maintained roses. If you are in Auckland in summer it’s best to visit in the morning or afternoon since the gardens are quite exposed with only a few spots of shade around to shelter under.
There is no admission to visit these gardens! You can access them from sunrise to sunset as they are in a public park. The gardens are easy to reach by bus from the CBD. Bus #703 stops right in front of the garden, and then to head back to the city you can get the same bus number from just outside the park as well!
Photo by: Judit Klein / CC-BY
Swim with huge snapper in the waters of Goat Island
I know that getting to Goat Island isn’t exactly free, and it’s actually quite far away from the city. BUT, once you’re there there’s some pretty cool fish lurking under the water, ready to say hello! These big snappers swim quite close to shore meaning you can snorkel from the beach and have a thrilling time! Snorkelling at Goat Island Marine Reserve is free, or you can scuba dive but that most definitely isn’t free. You can also hire Clearyaks (clear-bottomed kayaks), go in a glass-bottomed boat or head to the Marine Discovery Centre if you have a little extra cash.
Getting to Goat Island Marine Reserve isn’t too hard. It’s just off the mainland at Leigh, which you can drive to in about an hour from Auckland.
Photo by: empty007 / CC-BY
Auckland Art Gallery guided tour
Who doesn’t love a free guided tour? Auckland’s public art gallery set in a beautiful 1887 building with a très moderne facelift and houses international stars such as Picasso, Cézanne and Gauguin. The building itself is worth the visit! There are two daily free tours at 11.30am and 1.30pm. It’s the perfect free activity for a rainy day in Auckland, which by the way are very common!
Free things to do in the Coromandel
The Coromandel holds some of the most natural beauty New Zealand has to offer! And being so rugged and raw, it’s no wonder that most of the things to do in the Coromandel are completely free. You can also easily get to the area by ferry from Auckland, and hire a car near the port. But since the area is big and full of rainforest, you might find it hard to only get around by public transport. Although it CAN be done. There are also loads of free campsites (known as freedom camping) in the Coromandel, meaning if you’re on a road trip, this place is a goldmine!
Dig a hot spa in the sand at Hot Water Beach
How cool is this? Just take a shovel or something to dig and make your own spa! Perfect for those rainy NZ days (you wouldn’t want to go there when it’s really hot!). The hot water is only found on certain parts of the beach though and there’s a specific time you should go. Head to where the rocks are about 2 hours before the lowest of the low tide – so you’ll have about 4 hours to dig and sit in your spa before the waves devour them again.
I read an entire guide on this amazing natural phenomenon so that you could get the most out of your day at hot water beach. If you are heading here, be sure to read more.
Photo Credit: The Coromandel
Admire the natural archway at Cathedral Cove
This beach was possibly the most beautiful beach I saw in New Zealand and I wish I’d spent more time there. It’s an easy 30-minute walk from the car park at Cathedral Cove Lookout, so don’t be put off by this! It opens out to an amazing rock formation (the Cathedral) and some of the clearest, greenest water I’ve ever seen! My photos DO NOT do this place justice.
At one side a Cathedral-shaped hole in the rock leads you to yet another paradise beach – so long as the tide is down. If the tide is high, like it was when I was there, it makes for amazing photographs and Instagram-worthy selfies!
Waiau Falls and Kauri walk
A little bit off the beaten path is this little gem of a walk. We did it in the rain and so we had the entire place to ourselves – no one in sight! The Kauri Walk will take you to the “twin Kauri” (two trees that have fused into one). And we even took a dip in the freezing but the refreshing green milky water of the waterfall!
Waiau Falls and the Kauri Walk are both a short 2-minute drive from each other (or a quick walk) on The 309 Road. They are a little bit “off the beaten path” and we found our 3G didn’t work very well out there which meant had a bit of trouble finding them. However, once on the 309 Road there are signs to Waiau Falls, so just follow them!
Do the Historical Walk at Karangahake
Despite doing it in the pouring rain, I really, REALLY enjoyed this walk of an old gold-mining town. It’s absolutely stunning and the path leads you through some beautiful rainforest and interesting pathways. Wander through kilometre-long abandoned train tunnels, follow gold mine rail tracks, and creep under rocky crevices. Bring a torch so you can see in the dark of the tunnels and admire the spectacular views from the bridges and ridges. Be sure to read the information scattered about the trails as this only adds to the wonderment of this place.
Located in the rainforest only a 1.5-hour drive from Auckland, this little gem is the perfect day trip. Or do as I did and stay overnight in a camper van at nearby Dicky Flat (a seriously gorgeous campsite). I did this during a three-week road trip around New Zealand. Click the link to read more.
Free Things to do in Rotorua
The hot spring city of Rotorua is just bursting with awesome things to do, and loads of them are free! YAY! Rotorua is a beautiful and culturally rich city and the sights and attractions of this place absolutely took my breath away (and it wasn’t just because of the rotting egg smell)! The town captures your heart and I wish that I’d spent much more time here. Although the wellness centres use up many of the more impressive hot springs, there are still loads of awesome free things to do in Rotorua! I’ve listed my favourite ones below, so you don’t have to do the research!
Kuirau Park for free hot springs and geothermal activity
I highly recommend this park right in the middle of Rotorua town. All within an easy stroll of each other are a bunch of different bubbling hot springs. Some are green, others mud and my favourite was a big lake with bright yellow build up on the bottom. It is difficult to find good free hot springs in Rotorua, so this park is easily a great attraction for people on a budget. In the middle, you’ll come across a small paddle pool to soak your feet in. Bliss… Beware – it does smell a little bit… Okay, it smells A LOT, but you get used to it!
Soak in the warm waters of Kerosene Creek
Just in case you haven’t had enough of geo-thermic activity, here’s another good one. Although everyone knows about it, this little spot has everything! The water is just right for a soak and it offers a natural bathing experience like no other. Access to Kerosine Creek is free, making it a popular choice for locals especially. There’s also a cooler lake near the entry, or a waterfall a little more upstream!
The river is easily accessed from the road (only a 200-metre walk) and there is parking with toilets and showers as well. But arrive early, as it gets busy quickly.
Find out what I got up to in Rotorua!
Free things to do in Hamilton and Surrounds
If I’m being frank, Hamilton itself doesn’t have that much to offer tourists. However, the awesome activities surrounding this simple city are seriously flipping fun! Things like blackwater rafting through caves and visiting the movie set of Hobbiton are all a bit too expensive for this post. But that doesn’t mean there’s not cool free things to do in Hamilton’s surrounding areas. Here are a few of the best.
Check out the surf at Raglan
A little west of Hamilton is the surfing mecca of Raglan. Manu Bay is famously known for having the longest and most accessible left-hand break in the world. In fact, the perfect break will allow surfers to travel for up to 2 km or for a full ten minutes!
But even if you aren’t into surfing there is some cool volcanic black sand at Ocean beach to check out and you can swim/body board there as it’s a little safer than Manu Bay. There are also some walks to do near the beaches and the township of Raglan is super cute.
Watch Mokena Geyser burst and spit hot water into the air
About every 45 minutes this little, unassuming Geyser will make a sudden appearance blasting out hot soda spring water. Mokena Geyser feeds the Te Aroha Spa and can be found just behind the facility at the base of Mount Te Aroha.
Free Things to do in Wellington
Look, I’m going to be straight with you. I didn’t have enough time to go to Wellington in the end. But I did research it extensively because I had intended to go to the windy city. So here’s what I found while researching for free things to do in Wellington.
Explore the Te Papa Museum, one of the best in NZ!
Visit the Te Papa museum for all things NZ. Said to be the best museum in the country, this place has it all from amazing art installations, Pacific cultures, natural history and Maori history. Even the name: ‘Te Papa Tongarewa’, translates to ‘container of treasures’. And just to top it all off, it’s totally and completely FREE! Even if you aren’t a big fan of museums, this is one you need to try!
Walk Mount Victoria for incredible views
Mount Victoria is famously part of the Lord of the Rings movies and it sports brilliant views of the city below. Located right in the central business district it is a short drive to the top or an easy walk through the bush-covered town belt.
Get WOW’d by film special effects at Weta Cave
This is definitely one for the movie buffs, but who doesn’t love them some Hobbits? At Weta Workshop you’ll find behind the scenes work such as concept design and prop production used in some of the best movies Weta Digital have produced. These include but aren’t limited to; Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit films, Tintin, Avatar, Thor, Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell. Weta Cave is also totally free unless you would like to participate in a workshop.
Hang out at Wellington’s Cuba Street
Probably New Zealand’s coolest street, an inner city slice of Bohemia where you can check out street art alleyways, buskers, shop, and visit quirky cafes. Great food culture can be found here and people from all walks of life. Anything goes here, so be prepared to hang out with the city’s alternative crowd.
Map of Free Things to do in New Zealand, North Island
I made this custom map, just for you! It includes everything from where I went on my road trip, great free camping sites and super fun (and often cheap) activities you can do on the North Island!Click on each icon to see more information about the location or activity. To open this map in Google Maps simply tap the small square icon on the top right-hand side of the map.
If you are using the map from your phone, the map should save into “Your Places” > “MAPS” automatically. You can select an area (such as New Zealand) to download and use offline if you won’t always have access to data.
Place: North Island
Country: New Zealand
Currency: New Zealand Dollar
$1 AUD = $1.05 NZD
I was there: September 2016
Originally Posted: 9th October 2016
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