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.
First, let New Zealand inspire you …
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.
Malcolm Flowers Insurances Taupo Winter Festival
An annual family-friendly free winter festival filled with activities ranging from ice and roller skating to the Mercury Light Hub and a free pancake breakfast. It runs for more than 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 old 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 southwest 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. (Reserve your kayak tour here, often with discounts.)
Check for discounts on other options (not free) to see the Māori rock carvings. Each of these is a two hour adventure:
- Sail on the yacht Kindred Spirit.
- Enjoy a cruise on a charter boat with swimming and fishing options.
- Cruise on Ernest Kemp, a vintage replica steamboat.
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 well-being 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 10 am to 5 pm weekdays and opens at 9 am on weekends and holidays.
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 $12.50 per person or $40 for a family (up to 4 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 Wednesday to Sunday.
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.
- 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.
- There are also plenty of free activities in nearby Rotorua.
- To do many of the activities above, you will probably need to have your own transportation.
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These are our go-to companies when we travel. We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Accommodations: we use Booking.com (hotels) or BookABatch (self-contained).
- Cars (gas or electric): we use RentalCars to search for deals and dealer ratings.
- Campervans or Motorhomes: we use Campstar where Albom Adventures readers get a 3% discount
- Activity discounts: we check Bookme.com for discounts of up to 70% on activities.
- Private guides: we love the private guides at Tours by Locals
- Travel Insurance: our go-to is World Nomads*.
Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
*World Nomads provides travel insurance for travellers in over 100 countries. As an affiliate, we receive a fee when you get a quote from World Nomads using this link. We do not represent World Nomads. This is information only and not a recommendation to buy travel insurance.
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Which of these free things to do in Taupo will you do first?
For more on New Zealand, start here: New Zealand Road Trips: Itineraries for North or South Island Adventures, or you might like …
Such stunning scenery and so much water! It’s hard to imagine coming from a country that is so much drier. Would love to visit New Zealand one day.
I love waterfalls Rhonda and I also love desserts You always have the right things for me. I was amazed about the MacDonald’s plane. You can sit down and have lunch. Keep safe my friend.
What a beautiful place! Thanks for the virtual tour, and for sharing.
Never been to Taupo but that place looks absolutely great. It’s amazing to see a lot of wonderful areas to explore.
New Zealand is very high on my travel list and now I need to put Taupo on it! Absolutely breathtaking!!
I used to go to Taupo quite a bit as a kid, so it was nice to see some of the things we used to do on this list!!
Wow!!! A great list. I would love to kayak around those Maori rock carvings and hit the thermal pools too. I’ve never been to NZ, but would love to go.
Ah, what an amazing list! I’ve never visited New Zealand but it looks like such a magical place! Huka Falls looks spectacular and Aratiatia Dam looks really impressive! Kayaking to Mine Bay Māori rock carvings looks like and incredible experience and I’m absolutlely in love with that mosaic cafe! I love mosaics! Thanks for the wonderful guide, I hope I’ll have the opportunity to visit in person one day!
I have always wanted to go to New Zealand. Thank you for the free suggestions.
Free hot pools! Sounds amazing. My husband has lived in New Zealand and is constantly trying to convince me to go there! I see why.
OK Taupo looks so cool! I didn’t know about this thermal river!!! We are still in the south island but will definitely check this out later this year!
Wooww so many free things to do! I wish I had read a post like this when I went a few years ago. I loved Huka Falls (the water is this crazy aqua blue right?) but I didnt realise there were things like all the street art and the rock carvings etc!
Im planning to go back to NZ when we can travel again so this is a great list of all the outdoor adventures I what to do there. I’d like to see the Maori rock carvings.
WOW!! This place sounds incredible!! So much to see and do!!
This is awesome! I love the street art, L’Arte Cafe & Gallery, and of course the hiking. New Zealand is on top of my list, will have to add Taupo to my visit.
This is great! I love anything that gets you away from the city for a while! I love the restaurant suggestions as well! Thanks so much for sharing!
When the free things involve water, they are usually every bit as good as the paid things (and sometimes even better). I bet that is especially true in New Zealand!
What an amazing blog…. it’s not everyday I say to myself “I want to go to that McDonalds” lol!!! Besides that, L’Arte Cafe & thermal pools also look like must visits. I’m pinning & saving your blog for future NZ travel inspo.
Rob + Ann
We were pretty wowed by the natural beauty all around Taupo in this post, plus the street art and, I suppose water-side art (?) in that amazing Maori rock carving. And then that McDonald’s! We love unique places like that, so it’s just icing on the cake. Looks like a good place to base for several days, with so much to see and do.
What a neat place! Love all the outdoor things to do in Taupo, and ngl, I’d have to check out that McDonald’s!
New Zealand is truly very amazing and interesting place to visit and explore..Glad you shared this with us..Wanna go once too..
This looks like such a cool place to visit! Can’t wait til we can travel again!
These places looks pleasant and I love to visit. Maybe after covid. Thanks for sharing those beautiful pictures.
This looks like an incredible place! I’d love to go for a dip in that Thermal pool! I am a sucker for good thermal pools! 🙂
These things to do really spoke to me – love nature and love a good farmer’s market.
I’ve never though Taupo was so pretty and serene. Just loved this place!
Harshi & Aman
NZ has been on our list for a while now! Can’t wait to visit, also Mine Bay Māori rock carvings looks so beautiful and plus that is one cool McDonald’s outlet.
I didn’t know there were a lot of enjoyable things to do in Taupo ! Thanks for sharing this with us, I’ll be sure to keep these in mind!
Beautiful list! I’ve been wanting to get to New Zealand since seeing LOTR ages ago! Stunning hikes and scenery. I love Farmer’s Markets too and love checking out all the local goodies!
Such fun and free things to do in Taupo. That McDonald’s plane looks like fun to sit in.
I have been to NZ and it’s my favourite place. I have only seen Huka falls from your list. I will make sure to explore taupo more next time.
I visited NZ in 2014 and LOVED it! Taupo was amazing! I loved Huka Falls! I wish I had seen some of the cool street art; I definitely missed out on that!
Always like advice on what to do for free when traveling! Have always wanted to visit New Zealand.
Oh man, this is AMAZING. I would love to be able to get to visit New Zealand someday!
oh my god!!! I heard NZ is gorgeous but I had no idea how beautiful it is…I would live there in a heart beat…Amazing…
There is so much to do there! I love it. And because I have one son that can’t eat gluten, we would be living at that restaurant. That dessert looks amazing!
Aside from New Zealand basically being Covid-free right now, it would still be a great place to be during quarantine. So many open, outdoor spaces!!! I loved it there.
Hi Sarah – good to see you here … New Zealand sounds just amazing … I hope to get there – whether I will or not we’ll wait to see! Enjoy being home with so much to do … take care – Hilary
Mine Bay and the hot pools look / sound so awesome! Such a great list and I love that they’re all free! Considering NZ will likely be a super pricey trip for me – this helps! Free is great and these are all brilliant suggestions! Thank you ☺️
SO many great spots, thanks for sharing this post!! have to add it to bucket list
This is my kind of adventure. I’m not a fan of the big cities, but love out in the wide open places. Beautiful.
Have a fabulous day, Rhonda. ♥
Oh wow, these spots look INCREDIBLE!!! I can’t believe they are free to visit! I love free stuff, who doesn’t? HAHA I hope to one day retire in NZ.
I love New Zealand! I’ve been a few times, but never to Taupo. I think I’ll have to go back again because I’d love to see the Mine Bay Māori rock carvings! Incredible!