Waikato – Guide for Backpackers
Things to do in Waikato.
Behind picturesque green scenery and soft hills, Waikato hides many jewels and a strong Maori culture mixed with welcoming locals.
Spread all along the coastline are plenty of relaxed small towns and wild beaches. Inland, on the other hand, has many short hikes uncovering picturesque waterfalls and captivating views – a reminder of the most picturesque movies shot in the region. Underneath the hills of the Waikato lies the Waitomo Caves filled with glowworms. There are many ways you can explore these 300+ limestone caves formed over 30 million years ago.
Check it all out in our backpacker guide to Waikato below!
Things you can’t miss in Waikato
- Walk to the 55m Bridal Veil waterfall.
- Visit the Hamilton Gardens.
- Surf or relax in Raglan.
- Watch the sunset in Port Waikato.
- Go caving in the epic Waitomo Caves.
- Visit the world famous village of Hobbiton.
“Kirikiriroa” in Maori has always been in the shadow of the huge Auckland city just north of Hamilton. But with unique events like the Balloons Over Waikato, a 5-day event held in autumn where hot air balloons of all shapes parade over the city, Hamilton is hard to miss.
The Waikato River runs through the city and the region. Believed to be the source of mana, it was revered by the Maori tribes of the area. You can walk along the mighty river on a marked 11km walkway in Hamilton city centre. There are many entry points to the Riverside Walkway, which can be walked or cycled, taking you through a mix of bush and residential areas.
Must-Visit Streets in Hamilton
For great food and coffee in Hamilton, head to Hood Street or the Sunday farmer’s market on River Road. Victoria Street is also packed with bars, clubs and restaurants, giving backpackers a great excuse to party! Casabella Lane can easily be described as the most European street in New Zealand, with hints of Greek, Spanish, Italian and French characteristics. Another city centre must-see is Garden Place, a square with sculptures, plants and water features worthy of a photograph!
Gardens and culture in Hamilton
We also love the Hamilton Gardens for a tranquil picnic when passing through the city (and it’s free). It is one of the reasons to visit Hamilton during spring. Plus, the widely unknown Zealong plantation, located 20 minutes north of Hamilton, produces the world’s purest oolong tea. It is New Zealand’s only tea plantation.
Finally, don’t miss the Waikato Museum for a free and quick activity in Hamilton. The museum is rich with Maori exhibitions, both historical and contemporary, giving a great insight to the culture and region.
Raglan town has a laid back atmosphere that you wish you could take back home with you.
New Zealand’s most famous surf spot will not disappoint. Raglan is renowned for its consistent surf. Make sure to surf the three points of the area: Manu Bay, Whale Bay and The Indicators. There are plenty of surf hire and surf schools for all abilities.
For those that would rather stay on land, the little settlement offers numerous bushwalks including a walk to the spectacular Bridal Veil Falls – a 55m fall with several viewing platforms to get some different perspectives. To get to Bridal Veil Falls walk (10-20 minutes return), take State Highway 23 south of Raglan. Turn into Te Mata Road then follow for about 9km then turn left into Kawhai Road. From there you’ll head straight to the car park.
For something more strenuous, hike to the summit of Mt Karioi that overlooks Raglan. The steepest but more scenic route to the top is the Mt Karioi Track (3 hours one way). The track starts at Te Toto Gorge, 13km from Raglan. Alternatively, take the Wairake Track (2-3 hours one way), which starts from Karioi Road, off Ruapuke Road.
After all that, be sure to reward yourself with some fresh fish n’ chips on the wharf of Raglan.
Our tip: if you travel by yourself, make sure to book your hostel in Raglan as the town only has two of them.
You may have heard about Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel, but did you know there is another hot water beach in Waikato? After visiting Raglan, don’t leave the west coast until you have been to Ocean Beach in Kawhia.
When the tide is low, make your way over the sand dunes and start digging to make yourself your very own hot pool. What’s more, you can relax in the peace and quiet while watching the waves roll in with the beautiful ocean view. That’s something you don’t quite experience at the famous Hot Water Beach.
Matamata / Hobbiton
If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, this is your unique chance to experience the real Middle-earth!
The set location includes many structures amongst Hobbit holes and the Green Dragon tavern. Tours leave several times per day from Rotorua, Matamata, and the Hobbiton Movie Set. Discover more Middle Earth locations here: The Hobbit Location Guide.
If you do not feel the urge to rush to New Zealand’s biggest tourist attraction, we recommend the Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park with swimming holes, campsite, lake and reserve spread over 37,000 hectares. The kokako bird, a beautiful but endangered songbird, is very common in the park as well as the kaka, a very entertaining native parrot.
Producing over 70% of the bottled water of the country, Putaruru is home to the beautiful Blue Spring.
From Whites Road, take the Te Waihou Walkway for about 5km. You’ll discover the bluest natural pools in the country. The water certainly looks inviting, but, believe us, it is numbingly cold! [Update: you are no longer allowed to swim in the springs].
The area is also great for spotting native birds like fantails and pukeko.
The vast cave network in Waitomo is a place for adventurous caving and to see a super concentration of glowworms. This is one of the best places in the country to see the glowworms lighting up cave ceilings as if they were starlight.
However, because there are a number of glowworm caves across the country that you can visit for free, it’s the combination of glowworms and the underground activities in the area that make Waitomo worth visiting. There are a number of ways you can explore the caves at Waitomo, which we have kindly listed here: 6 Ways to Tackle the Waitomo Caves. We personally like the underground tubing, abseiling, jumping off waterfalls, side of Waitomo.
But don’t be that tourist who does the caving and leaves straight away. Check out all the other stuff you can do in and around Waitomo with our Waitomo – Guide for Backpackers, as well as 15 Free Things to Do in Waitomo.
Spot unique wildlife at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari
Surrounded by the world’s longest predator-proof fence, Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari protects some of New Zealand’s unique native wildlife. Walking through its network of hiking trails is like stepping back in time to the forests of New Zealand before human migration.
The sanctuary has rare birds like the large blue takahe, that were once thought to be extinct, and the ancient tuatara, a species of lizard that were alive during the dinosaur age. The volunteers at the sanctuary even protect New Zealand’s national icon, the kiwi bird, which we helped out with – read the story here.
The mountain is just south of Cambridge and Matamata.
Finally, at the very southern end of the Waikato region is New Zealand’s largest lake, Lake Taupo. The main town, Taupo, is known for its adventure activities, geothermal activity and the gushing Huka Falls. Travel around the lake and you’ll be in one of New Zealand’s top fishing towns, Turangi, and you’ll venture into the volcanic country of Tongariro National Park.
If you have some extra time in Waikato…
- Go spot the 43 Talking Poles in Tokoroa.
- Visit the giant sheep and dog in Tirau.
- Kayak on Lake Karapiro.
- Check out the impressive limestone bluffs and waterfalls near Piopio.
- Visit the rural town of Cambridge and walk around Lake Te Ko Utu.
Where to stay in Waikato?
- Raglan Backpackers & Waterfront Lodge, Raglan
- Solscape, Raglan
- Karioi Lodge, Raglan
- Eagles Nest Backpackers, Hamilton
- Backpackers Central Hamilton
- Urban Retreat, Taupo
- YHA Finlay Jacks, Taupo
- Rainbow Lodge, Taupo
- Base Taupo
- Silver Fern Lodge, Taupo
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