New Zealanders are often surprised to discover so many free things to do in Rotorua. A city that is unique and encompassing, it’s a geothermal wonderland, an adventure playground, and a cultural capital. Popular with international tourists, it is too often overlooked by Kiwis for cheaper options. One visit with this list of free Rotorua activities will shatter the misconception and leave you coming back again and again.
Well known for geysers, bubbling mud, and other geothermal activity, the Rotorua region is home to 18 lakes, natural hot pools, towering redwoods, hours of hiking trails at all difficulty levels, and some of New Zealand’s best mountain biking. And, best of all, you can intermix paid events with many of these free things to do in Rotorua, resulting in a getaway that meets your budget.
And regardless of how many free activities in Rotorua you include in your itinerary, you are still part of the country’s solution and can feel good about supporting domestic tourism. Hotels, restaurants, cafés, food manufacturing, and even the local petrol station benefit from you being there.
Note: Always check the official rules regarding New Zealand’s traffic light’ levels. Many options are at reduced capacity, therefore, booking ahead is more important than ever, as is reading cancellation policies.
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See geothermal activity amongst the free things to do in Rotorua
If bubbling mud isn’t where you want to spend your money, there are two great options to see geothermal activity for free. (However, if you have the budget, there are several impressive spots with an entry fee, my favourite being Wai-O-Tapu.)
Location: Pukuatua Street and Ranolf Street, Rotorua
New Zealand’s only geothermal public park, Kuirau Park is located right in town. There is a boardwalk allowing us to pass over steaming and bubbling geothermal activity, plus mud pools, a crater lake, and gardens. There is even a spot to sit and soak your feet in the naturally warm water. Kuirau Park is one of the best free things to do in Rotorua.
Māori legend tells us:
Lake Kuirau was once cool enough for bathing. It was named for Kuirau, a beautiful woman who swam here often. A Taniwha (water monster) also lived in the lake. One morning, the taniwha snatched Kuirau. The legend never determined whether she died of fright or if the Taniwha took her back to his lair. The Gods were so angry that they made the lake boil to kill the Taniwha.
Boardwalk near Wai-O-Tapu
Directions: From Rotorua take SH5 to first Waiotapu Loop Road exit (left). After 400m, turn left onto an unmarked road to the Waioptau Thermal Track.
If it’s just bubbling mud that you are after, check out the boardwalk just beyond the entrance to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. A short walk from the car park, and you can see scenes like this.
Free hot pools, Rotorua
If soaking your cares away in the natural healing hot springs of Rotorua is on your bucket list, it doesn’t have to break the bank. Locals know where to find free thermal pools in Rotorua, and now you can too. As we live in Auckland, we probably haven’t discovered all the spots, but the two we recommend are Hot & Cold Pools and Kerosene Creek.
Important Note: Whether commercial or free, it is always advised to keep your head above water in Rotorua thermal pools.
Hot & Cold Pools (near Wai-O-Tapu)
Directions: From Rotorua, turn on the second entrance of Waiotapu Loop Road (leading to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland). Park near the bridge.
Once a local secret, the swimming hole near Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is often referred to as the Hot and Cold Pools. Perfectly named, it’s a spot where a cool freshwater stream meets a hot spring. It’s soothing, relaxing, and completely free. Remember to bring your own towel.
Located under a bridge, there is a warning sign on the path with two stark reminders about keeping your head out of the water and checking for heat before entering.
Location: About 30km south of Rotorua
Directions: From SH5 turn onto Old Waiotapu Road. It’s 2.2km down a gravel road.
Another not very well kept local’s secret, Kerosene Creek is a hot springs and a waterfall that flows through Rotorua’s natural bush. Upstream, there are also several jacuzzi-like pools. It’s a relaxing stop on the way to Taupo, but remember to bring a towel.
Cultural free things to do in Rotorua
Rotorua is the ancestral home of the Te Arawa people who have been in the region for over 600 years. While there are numerous cultural opportunities targeting tourism, there are also free options to gain a better understanding of the culture. Art galleries and carvings around town and in Government Gardens are just a few options.
Ohinemutu living Māori village
Location: near the intersection of Lake Road and Lakefront Drive, Rotorua
Ohinemutu is a living Māori village whose residents still utilize the natural geothermal waters in everyday life for bathing, cooking, and washing. It is home to the Ngāti Whakaue tribe who initially arrived in New Zealand around 1350AD. In the 1870s, visitors (including royalty) frequently stopped at Ohinemutu for a soak in the healing waters before heading to the former Pink and White Terraces.
Life here revolves around the Tama-Te-Kapua Marae, a meeting house that is not open to the public. However, visitors are welcome in the St Faith’s Anglican Church (built 1915). Its Tudor-style exterior stands in sharp contrast to the Māori influenced interior that is covered in intricately woven tukutuku panels and wood carvings. Added in 1960, the waterfront Galilee Chapel features a window etching of Jesus wearing a Māori cloak.
There are plenty of carvings and lifestyle items to discover, including an outdoor bathing-shed and steam vents used for cooking. While visiting Ohinemutu is one of the free activities in Rotorua, guided tours are available for a fee.
Location: Hinemaru Street alongside Lake Rotorua
Free to enter, the 20 hectares comprising the Government Gardens were gifted by Māori to be enjoyed by the people of the world. Once a spa, the tutor-style Rotorua Museum is the most recognizable park structure, although it is currently closed for earthquake safety. In addition, the gardens are home to over 400,000 plants and to geothermal features all displayed in a well-maintained garden.
Recreationally, there are bowling greens, petanque and croquet courts, and walks to see the sculpture trail, Blue Baths, Gardner’s Cottage, or Kwaqiulth Totem Pole.
Note: The banner image on this page features a section of the fence at the Government Garden’s main gate.
Free things to do in Rotorua: Hikes, walks, and views
Walking or mountain biking in the redwoods of the Whakarewarewa Forest
Location: 5km southeast of Rotorua city centre along Long Mile Road.
Reaching up to the sky, the California Redwoods grow up to 70m in New Zealand. Viewed from the ground, we walked amongst these giants on one of the many walking tracks. It’s also home to several popular mountain trails, so bring that bicycle from home, or hire one for the day (they even have electric mountain bikes).
Although not one of the free attractions in Rotorua, we enjoyed the treetop walk at night. It’s one of the many activities we recommend in Rotorua.
Rainbow Mountain reserve walk
Location: 26km southeast of Rotorua along SH5 heading towards Taupo.
A 90-minute hike to the top and you will be rewarded with fabulous 360-degree views. The 3 km walk passes steam vents, rare plant species, and often interesting coloured terrain. Although uphill, it is generally considered to be easy. If you are feeling less ambitious, there is a 15-minute walk to a crater lake. The choice is yours.
Lake Okaro for a walk or trout fishing
Directions: click here.
Lake Okara isn’t too far from Rainbow Mountian. Popular for trout fishing, if you want to join the fun, be sure to get a fishing license. If not, watching is fascinating, or look for wildlife including ducks and eels from the wetland boardwalk.
Okere Falls Track
Location: 21km from Rotorua on Trout Pool Road off SH33 heading towards Tauranga.
Adventure seekers know Okere Falls as the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. Land-lovers can follow an easy one-hour walking trail along the Kaituna River to enjoy the impressive falls without going over them. If timed right, you watch the whitewater rafters brave the drop from one of the lookouts.
Location: centre of downtown Rotorua
New Zealand’s second-largest lake is 200,000 years old. Formed from a volcano crater, Lake Rotorua offers visitors a centrally located and relaxing place to enjoy the day. We like to stroll along the lakeside trail, watch (but don’t feed) the black swans, and enjoy the scenery, often laced with geothermal steam vents.
The blue and green lakes
Sitting side by side and commonly called the blue and green lakes, Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake) and Lake Rotokakahi (Green Lake) are well known in Rotorua. Beginning near the redwood forest, one can enjoy a peaceful hike to a spot where both lakes are visible. The lakes are also popular for watersports; although, Lake Rotokakahi is sacred.
More free things to do in Rotorua
- Rotorua Night Market
Thursday nights from 5 pm to 9 pm, weather dependent
Locals and tourist flock to the Thursday night market for local Māori and artisan foods, arts and crafts, entertainment, and just to hang out with friends.
- Saturday Market
Similar to the night market, with plenty of food options, arts and crafts, clothing, and entertainment, but it’s also a flea market.
- Bibleworld Museum and Discovery Centre
1141 Eruera St
Entry: Free (Donations appreciated)
Explore biblical times through handcrafted scale models, ancient artefacts, and hands-on activities.
Free things to do near Rotorua
Directions: From Rotorua, about 77km on Thermal Explorer Highway/Wairakei Drive towards Taupo.
Much closer to Taupo than Rotorua, I included Huka Falls here as they are the most visited natural attraction in New Zealand. The largest falls on the Waikato River, it is their power, not their size, that will impress you. Just before the waterfall, the river narrows to a 20-metre wide gorge from an average river width of 100 metres.
Without seeing it, it’s hard to imagine, but every second of every day, up to 220,000 litres of water pound through the gorge and over Huka Falls, creating a deep turquoise pool.
(It’s one of many free things to see in Taupo.)
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Which of these free things in Rotorua will be on your itinerary?
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Disclaimer: We worked with Destination Rotorua on our last visit. They are the local tourism board. The opinions expressed here are strictly our own.