At the northern edge of New Zealand’s largest lake, Taupo sits in the middle of the North Island. From fantastic views to a multitude of hikes, there are plenty of free things to do in Taupo.
Alongside being a good base for the hiking and mountain biking trails of Tongariro National Park, there are plenty of interesting things to do around Taupo town. Some Taupo options are worth paying for, but there are plenty of free things to do in Taupo. Take a look below and see if anything interests you.
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Key free things to do in Taupo
Taupo is a lakefront town, sitting on New Zealand’s largest lake and the second-largest freshwater lake in geopolitical Oceania. Nearby are several mountains, which can have snow in the winter.
Huka Falls is one of New Zealand’s most visited natural attractions. The Waikato River travels about 5 km downstream from Lake Taupo before flowing over an 11-metre high drop at more than 200,000 litres per second. The flow is so strong that it prevents upstream migration of fish, which is why there are no eels in Lake Taupo. For easy access, there is a car park a few hundred metres away from the falls. There is also a walk, which is featured below. Huka Falls is a 10-minute car ride from the town’s centre.
Aratiatia Village Road, Rotokawa 3378
Several times a day, a narrow gorge becomes raging rapids as the dam is opened, creating hydroelectric power. The barrel scene in The Hobbit: The Desolation of The Smaug was filmed here by dropping (empty) barrels into the water as the dam was opened. There are three lookout points – the lower lookout gives an excellent view of the dam and the rushing water.
In summer (October to March), the dam is opened at 10 am, 12 pm, 2 pm, and 4 pm. In winter (April to September), the dam is opened at 10 am, 12 pm, and 2 pm.
Free things to do in Taupo: in town
40 Lake Terrace, Taupo
Sometimes, the best places are the easiest to reach. From the town’s waterfront, Lake Taupo is shadowed by Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe. Also on the waterfront is the #LoveTaupo lettering.
Graffiato, the Taupo Street Art Festival, first began in 2011 and brought vibrancy to Taupo’s side streets and alleyways. Now, there are 85 murals. To find some of these, here is a map with 30 of these artworks.
Northcroft Reserve, Taupo
I believe that there are a few farmer’s markets in Taupo, but we only went to the one on Sunday, the Market Central. It runs from 9 am to 1 pm and features a fun array of artisan crafts and food stalls.
Unison Light Trail Event
Tongariro South Domain
A yearly free winter festival, the Unison Light Trail transforms the south domain park in Taupo town into a fun nighttime wonderland, including light sculptures, face painting, and candy floss. It runs for about a week every July.
Hiking and free hot pools in Taupo
Taupo is surrounded by plenty of great places for mountain biking, hiking, or adventures on the water. There are plenty of options for outdoor free activities in Taupo, especially in the Tongariro National Park. Keep in mind that you would have to rent items for some activities if you didn’t bring them.
Huka Falls Walkway, Rotary Ride bike path, and free thermal pool
County Avenue, Tauhara, Taupo 3378
The walking route to Huka Falls, the Huka Falls Walkway, is a 3 km one-way gravel path along the Waikato River. It takes 1.5 hours return and is suitable for walkers of most fitness levels. From the car park by the Spa Park, a 5 minute walk will take you to the river’s edge, where the Otumuheke Stream flows into the Waikato.
One of the free thermal pools Taupo offers, this stream is naturally hot and a good spot for a bathe. Another option for mountain bikers is the Rotary Ride, a grade 3 bike path about 5.5 km to Huka Falls and back. It is estimated to take 2-3 hours return and is suitable for intermediate level riders.
94 Mountain Road, Maunganamu 3379
A 10 minute drive from Taupo town, Mount Tauhara is a strenuous hike that offers panoramic views of Lake Taupo and the surrounding area on a clear day. It is a 2.5 km hike one way, ascending 538 metres to a 1088m summit. The path is steep, narrow, and difficult in some places, worn away by hikers into root ladders and massive dirt steps.
You should bring sturdy shoes, water, snacks, and warm clothes as the top can get a bit chilly. The hike takes approximately 3 to 4 hours return. I strongly recommend paying attention to sundown time, as you do not want to be descending in the dark.
Te Ponanga Saddle Road, Tongariro National Park 3382
Lake Rotopounamu, from the Māori words lake (roto) and greenstone (pounamu), is a crater lake in the Tongariro National Park. It covers one square kilometre and is nine metres deep.
The 5 km walk takes a little over 2 hours. The first 20 minutes is an uphill trek from the car park, while the 90-minute loop around the lake has a mixture of beach and native forest. It is a pretty and relatively easy walk, though keep in mind that it is not possible to directly see the lake for much of the track.
Urchin Campground, Kaimanawa Forest Park 3382
A strenuous alpine tramp, Mount Urchin is a 6.6 km hike that ascends 585 metres to 1391 metres at the Urchin Trig. It winds through a beech forest before crossing the treeline, giving stunning panoramic views of Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe, the Kaimanawa Ranges, and Lake Taupo. The hike takes approximately 3 to 4 hours return.
In summer, the trail would be challenging but suitable for hikers with a reasonable level of fitness. In winter, most of the track sees snowfall, with the final stretch featuring snow at knee-height or higher. Therefore, if you go in the winter months, bring plenty of warm clothing, a wind/rainproof jacket, waterproof shoes with a good grip, and I recommend waterproof pants if possible. My companions did this hike, but I opted out as I felt I didn’t have suitable enough clothing.
More outdoor free things to do in Taupo area
While Mount Ruapehu is better known for its ski resorts, it is also a good place to get easy and free access to snow in the winter. When approaching the Chateau Tongariro Hotel, the surrounding parking lot has an excellent view of Mount Ngauruhoe. The road up the mountain is paved and, when open, is safe for two-wheel cars to drive. After the barricade (which is closed on days when the roads are unsafe to drive), the first car park has a great surrounding area for experiencing snow.
Acacia Bay, Taupo 3330
A short drive south-west of Taupo rewards travellers with a small, picturesque bay, including a small wharf and a floating swimming block.
Mine Bay Māori rock carvings
Mine Bay, Acacia Bay, Taupo 3330
Technically a free option if you bring your own kayak, this 14-metre high Māori carving of Ngatoroirangi is only accessible by water. To visit, you could rent a kayak or take a kayak tour from Taupo Kayaking Adventures in Acacia Bay. (Click here to check for kayak tour discounts.)
Free things to do in Taupo: unique shops
Huka Honey Hive
65 Karetoto Road, Wairakei 3351
The best place to go for all things honey. The Huka Honey Hive features New Zealand honey, mead, and themed natural health and wellbeing products. There is a learning corner for kids and adults alike, and a (paid) guided tour of the beehives and gardens. The store gives tastings of their honey and mead products. While it costs to buy, the place is free to look around and is a fun, quick stop. The store is open from 10am everyday, closing at 4pm on weekdays and at 5pm on weekends.
165 State Highway 5, Wairakei 3377
A store featuring an impressive array of hand-blown glass artworks. It is also possible to view the works being made in a (paid) glassblowing studio, which costs $7.50 per person or $30 for a family (up to 6 individuals). Furthermore, there is a (paid) sculpture garden and an on-site cafe. Photos are not allowed within the store.
Cool restaurants in Taupo
48 Roberts Street
The Taupo McDonald’s, known as the World’s Coolest McDonald’s, is the only location to have a decommissioned DC3 plane as part of the store. There are tables inside for diners and a view of the cockpit.
L’Arte Cafe & Gallery
255 Mapara Road, Acacia Bay
A mosaic cafe, the grounds feature curious, colourful, and somewhat surreal ceramics. Plenty of the works are for sale. The cafe is open from 8 am to 4 pm.
Gluten-free dining in Taupo
Baked With Love
11 Gascoigne Street, Taupo 3330
I’ll admit that this isn’t free, but I had to feature this gluten free Taupo cafe. The top shelf is full of coeliac-safe treats, and there are also an array of gluten free large stuffed donuts. When I went, they even had a coeliac-safe cookie sample. I recommend this place regardless of whether or not you’re coeliac, as the food is delicious.
Where is Taupo?
Taupo is located about 3.5 hours south of Auckland and 4.5 hours north of Wellington. If driving from one of these cities, check out some potential stops on the way with our Auckland to Wellington itinerary.
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