Hamilton may not be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of must-visit destinations in New Zealand, but this surprising city certainly offers its share of activities and attractions. In fact, there are a surprising number of things to do in Hamilton.
For us, we include a visit to the Hamilton Gardens every time we visit or even pass through this city. With its impressive collection of themed gardens and beautiful vistas, it’s no surprise it has achieved international attention.
Meanwhile, the Waikato River Walk is a great way to stretch your legs and take in the scenic views. For those looking for something more unique, the Balloons over Waikato festival draws crowds from the world over, while the Riff Raff statue provides a quirky focal point for the city’s downtown area.
Animal lovers can spend their time at the Hamilton Zoo or at Shaw’s Bird Park.
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing escape or an unusual adventure, Hamilton has something to offer everyone.
Top things to do in Hamilton, New Zealand
- Hamilton Gardens
- Shaw’s Bird Park
- Taitua Arboretum
- Waikato River Walk
- Riff Raff Square
- Waikato Museum
- Classics Museum
- Hamilton Zoo
- Zealong Tea Estate
- Balloons over Waikato
Outdoor things to do in Hamilton, New Zealand
Location: Hungerford Crescent, Hamilton East
Hours: Enclosed gardens are open daily from 9 am to 5 pm (last entry 4.30 pm)
A must-see urban oasis, we love the Hamilton Gardens. They are the region’s most visited attraction, drawing nearly one million guests annually.
The 54-hectare public venue features themed gardens that take us through time as they tell the story of gardens domestically and worldwide. The 18 themes cover a diverse range, from a Japanese garden of contemplation to a traditional productive Māori garden.
Hamilton Gardens are easy to visit on your own. However, we picked up a guidebook for a nominal fee at the gift shop to aid us. Alternatively, one can choose this 75-minute guided tour.
Note that while the gardens are currently free, there is talk of charging $10 entry to visitors from outside the area beginning sometime in 2023. It was still free when we last visited in March 2023.
Shaw’s Bird Park
Location: 143 Hall Road, Hamilton
Hours: 8 am – 7 pm
For me, staring into the eyes of a morepork/ruru perched on my arm was an almost spiritual experience. Certainly, it was something I haven’t done before.
A 30+ year passion project of Murray and Margaret Shaw, they opened their park to the public in 2018. While walking the 2km of footpaths is peaceful and relaxing, it’s the birds that make this place so magical.
It’s not a zoo, but rather a place for the rehabilitation of rescued native birds, who are released back into the wild once healthy or given a “forever home” when it’s no longer safe for them in the wild.
Sadly, Shaw’s Bird Park is now fighting with the local Hamilton Council, which wants to put a road through the tranquil bit of paradise. The story has been featured on TV One’s Seven Sharp.
Location: 25 Taitua Road, Temple View, Hamilton
Hours: 8 am – ½ hour before dusk
Gifted to the city of Hamilton in 1997, it is a lovely spot for a stroll or picnic under mature trees or alongside the small lake. There are several optional paths. The main walk around the Arboretum takes about 90 minutes to complete.
Enjoy the Waikato River
Location: Waikato River runs through the city
Hours: always open
Entry: Free for walking and cycling, fee for boat adventures
Tree-lined and peaceful, New Zealand’s longest river is enjoyed by locals and visitors as it meanders through the heart of Hamilton. Stroll or cycle on the 11 km Riverside Walkway as it winds alongside the Waikato River through native bush and a few residential areas. We love to walk, so this was our first choice.
However, if we plan better in the future, we will get out on the water. Visitors tend to take either a relaxing river cruise (not currently available) or an exciting jet boat adventure. In contrast, locals are more likely to enjoy the water, getting wet while floating down the river. Reserve an exciting jet boat adventure here.
Riff Raff square
Location: Embassy Park, 218 Victoria Street, Hamilton
Hours: always open
Riff Raff Square seemed somewhat out of place in Hamilton, as it would in just about any city in the world. It is dedicated to former Hamilton resident Richard O’Brien, who wrote the screenplay Rocky Horror Picture Show and played Riff Raff (the alien from the planet Transsexual).
In the square is a life-sized statue of Riff Raff, instructions for the Time Warp, and ‘Frank N Furter’s Lab’ encasing the public toilets. The statue was designed by Weta Workshop in Wellington (they are the makers of the props for Lord of the Rings and many other films).
For us, Riff Raff Square highlighted our family’s generation gap. It was especially evident from our adult children as Jeff and I did the time warp in the public square. They seemed okay with the jump to the left and a step to the right, but it was the pelvic thrust that had them rolling their eyes.
Note: Due to nearby theatre development, the Riff Raff statue temporarily stands in front of the Waikato Museum. However, plans are for it to return to the square.
Things to do in Hamilton NZ – Museums
Location: 1 Grantham Street, Hamilton
Hours: 10 am – 5 pm daily
Entry: Donations welcome (charges apply for some exhibits)
It’s an exciting regional museum with an impressive collection of Māori artefacts featuring a superbly carved waka (war canoe). With frequently changing exhibitions across its 13 galleries, drawing from the museum’s own collection as well as hosting international expositions, there is always something new to see. And with 130 free events a year at the museum, you’re never short of something to do.
Location: 11 Railside Place, Dinsdale, Hamilton
Hours: 7 am – 3 pm weekdays, 8 am – 3 pm weekends
Entry: $20 adults/$8 children (at time of publication)
With over 100 classic cars on display plus petrol memorabilia, vintage toys, pedal cars, and more, this is the place for auto enthusiasts and the whole family. Continue your vintage experience with a meal or snack at the onsite 1950s-themed Jukebox Diner.
More things to do in Hamilton, New Zealand
Location: 183 Brymer Road, Baverstock, Hamilton
Hours: 9:30 am – 4:30 pm (closed Mondays)
Entry: $26 adults/$12 children (at time of publication)
Home to New Zealand’s only tapirs and fishing cats, a visit to the zoo is one of the best things to do with kids in Hamilton. In total, there are over 600 native and exotic species at the zoo. Bird lovers can enjoy New Zealand’s largest walk-through aviary, which is dedicated to native birds and plants.
Zealong Tea Estate
Location: 495 Gordonton Road, Gordonton
Hours: 10 am – 5 pm daily
Entry: services and prices vary
Sip a cup of organic pure oolong tea at the tea house, indulge in a high tea, or tour New Zealand’s only tea plantation.
Balloons over Waikato
Location: Claudelands Oval, although balloons are seen over the river
I don’t normally include these annual events on a “things to do in Hamilton” type list, but this one is just so cool I couldn’t leave it off. Frequently voted the best free event in Waikato, it’s bright, colourful and fun.
Much more than just impressive hot air balloons, this multiday event includes concerts, carnival-type rides, and food trucks.
Typically occurring in early March, check out the Balloons over Waikato official webpage for details.
Key things to do near Hamilton in the Waikato region
Within an hour’s drive in nearly every direction and still, within the Waikato region, you can have one of several unique experiences. Here are a few of the nearby highlights.
- Surfing, hiking or relaxing in Raglan (45-minute drive west of Hamilton)
Black sand, stunning scenery, and plenty of cafes, but Raglan’s long rides and challenging breaks make it well known amongst surfers. We loved our visit to Raglan
- Waitomo Glowworm Caves (A little over an hour’s drive south of Hamilton)
Enjoy underground caverns featuring limestone formations and thousands of sparkling glowworms, or choose a caving adventure. Check for discount options on a triple cave combo.
- Hobbiton (50-minute drive east of Hamilton in Matamata via SH1)
This is the real middle earth and is often thought of amongst Lord of the Rings fans as one of the top places to visit on the North Island. Available only via tour.
➜ Reserve your Hobbiton and Waitomo Cave tour from Auckland.
- Hakarimata Summit Track (20-minute drive northwest of Hamilton)
A 2km return walking path that climbs 374m to the summit of Hakarimata, offering impressive views towards the coast and out to Ruapehu across the Waikato Basin. This one is still on my list of things to do in Hamilton, but I have been told at times, it feels like an endless staircase but is well worth it once at the top. There are optional, much longer walks here.
- Sanctuary Mountain (50-minute drive southeast on SH3 in Pukeatua)
A place to see takahe, tuatara, giant weta, and kaka in New Zealand’s largest mainland fenced sanctuary, located on Mount Maungatautari.
- Cambridge, a nearby quaint town well known for sporting success, it’s also a wonderful place to spend a romantic weekend. We hit the highlights of Cambridge.
Where is Hamilton?
We typically stop in Hamilton when we road trip from Auckland to Wellington or from Auckland to Tauranga
Hamilton is 125 km southwest of Auckland (New Zealand’s largest city), 103 km northwest of Rotorua (New Zealand’s geothermal region), and 500 km north of Wellington (New Zealand’s capital city). There are four ways to get to Hamilton: self-drive, take a bus, fly, or via train.
- Driving to Hamilton is easy, with state highways 1 and 3 intersecting just south of the city centre.
- There is a daily bus service to and from Hamilton from Auckland, Wellington or Rotorua.
- Air New Zealand offers domestic flights from Wellington.
- Hamilton is one of the stops along the Northern Explorer scenic route from Auckland to Wellington.
A few cool things about Hamilton
- Jacinda Ardern, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, was born in Hamilton.
- Also born in Hamilton was Helen Clark, a current administrator of the UN Development Programme and former New Zealand Prime Minister.
- Hamilton has four sister cities: Sacramento, California USA; Saitama, Japan; and both Wuxi and Chengdu in the People’s Republic of China.
Save on your NZ trip with these resources
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.
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What are your favourite things to do in Hamilton NZ?
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Great post, I grew up in Hamilton and didn’t know about the sister cities
Looks like a great city!
Yep, I’m one of those who’ve never heard of Hamilton. It looks delightful though!! And it’s so close to places I’d love to visit, like the gloworm cave and Hobbiton. The Hamilton Gardens look spectacular – that Italian villa is gorgeous!
Wow that is a great list of things one can do in Hamilton. Museums are high on my list. Loved the pots of the Tea Estate. The gardens of course is very high on my list.
I love to visit cities that are not popular with tourists, so this appears to be the place to go when in New Zealand. I should love to visit those gardens, see all four, and how different they are, would be a wonderful way to spend a full day. And, a stroll along the river in early morning or evening sounds lovely to me.
Wow, I had limited knowledge about Hamilton. Thanks for introducing this beautiful destination. The first thing that attracted me is the garden and greenery. Was wondering how beautiful it would be to have a house there. It’s a perfect city guide for travelers. Fun facts are good addition.
I know a few Kiwis who are embarrassed to be from Hamilton, but the river looks ok! I can’t wait to get back to New Zealand but I wonder if it will be the North Island, I can’t keep my husband away from the South Island!
New Zealand is and will always be a very big dream for me, hopefully I can see Hamilton, Queenstown, Rotorua and many more places on your beautiful country someday 🙂
Your posts give me the “itch” for traveling, but I wouldn’t trust it yet – not with the uncertainty due to coronavirus.
Linda (LD Holland)
We were very sorry we had to cancel our visit to New Zealand this year. We had not got around to detailed planning. But now I know to put Hamilton on the itinerary. Good to know that many of the attractions are free. And that there are such great outdoor green spaces in the city. We would definitely look to rent bikes and bike the Waikato river path. Although a cruise along the river might be a nice way to enjoy the views. We love to do High Tea when we travel. So we now know where to do it in Hamilton!
Hamilton is a city that I have not heard of before, even when I have read of New Zealand before. I think if you ask me about the first thing I will choose to do in Hamilton, it will be visiting the Hamilton Gardens for sure. I will surely take the 75-min guided walking tour. It intrigued me the most.
My kids would love to visit the Hamilton Zoo. They are just so interested with animals that we make sure to visit the zoo in all of our trips abroad. We believe that this is best opportunity for them to see different animals living in the different parts of the world.
Anyway, thank you for sharing this and we hope to visit Hamilton soon. 🙂
Love the idea of riff raff square.
We have visited the glow worm canes but missed here on our tour of New Zealand 20 years ago. When we return I think it would be a great place to stop.
Hamilton definitely has several to do things but my favourite is the Outdoor Hamilton Garden. It’s great to see a Tudor Garden here and I absolutely love a Japanese garden. It must be very calming to sit by the Japanese Garden. This reminds me of Dubai Miracle Gardens.
The wonderful thing about visiting Gardens is you can never be in the position to say that, I’ve seen one so I’ve seen them all! I’ve seen many different Japanese gardens across the world (because these are my favorite style of garden), maybe because they’re the ones that are most foreign to me. But no matter how many I’ve seen each one offers something different. I love that the Hamilton gardens also has a Tudor garden, You don’t see many of those around the world. Great but it’s also free to walk around
I definitely did not pay Hamilton enough attention on my road trip it seems! Those gardens look incredible, I am a little gutted I missed them. I am planning on going to New Zealand again as soon as I can though so I’ll have to go back!
I have been to Hamilton couple of times. But I was not aware that one can do so many things 😀. The only thing that I knew it was famous for was the glow worm caves and Hobbiton. The next time I visit, I must keep this list so I can refer back and visit the places I have missed.
Mt fav thing in Hamilton is the Good George brewery … gosh I miss their APA, wish they exported it to EU hehe
Thank you for a wonderful guide to this beautiful city of New Zealand. Although I knew about this place as a close friend of mine stays there, this is the first time I came to know so much more. Waikato river, Hamilton gardens and the tea estate would be of special interest to me.
New Zealand has always been on my bucket list. I will have to make sure to hit Hamilton when I get a chance to visit this country. I would love to see the Hamilton Gardens.
Wow, there’s so many interesting things to see in Hamilton! New Zealand has been on my bucket list for years – I’ll be sure to check out this cool city when I eventually come to visit! Thanks for sharing such an informative post 🙂
Hamilton in New Zealand has so much to offer! We love to bike so we would definitely bike along the Waikato river! It’s also interesting that there is a tea plantation in New Zealand, must also visit that. And of course I wouldn’t miss the Glowworm cave or the Hobbiton! Hope to be able to visit New Zealand one day and we will visit Hamilton for sure!
There are so many wonderful places to visit in New Zealand and Hamilton is definitely one of them. Thanks for letting me know about this overseen city. I love the abundance of exotic gardens in Hamilton! I could spend an entire day in each one of them. Leave alone visiting Zealong Tea Estate and the famous Hobbiton, just 50 minutes away.
New Zealand has so many wonderful cities and places to go. I loved the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The music was fantastic Rhonda. Go to the left……….
I love the gardens. Okay the river works too. I’d spend lots of time in both places.
Have a fabulous day, Rhonda. ♥
H A Melton-Butcher
Hi Rhonda – lots to do I see – and presumably a quiet city … so fairly easy and less crowded to walk around. I think a few days there would be great – and I’d love to see the glow-worm caves … but New Zealand I’d be grateful to get to one day … all the best – Hilary