Hamilton is New Zealand’s fourth-largest city, yet is so often overlooked by tourists, many know nothing about it. Home to world-class gardens and situated on the banks of the country’s longest river, it’s a lush green vibrant city in the heart of the Waikato region. Surrounded by some of the country’s highlights, there are also plenty of things to do in Hamilton.
With domestic tourism in full swing this season, Hamilton offers the advantage of affordability, as many of its highlights are free. One can have a stroll along the river, around the gardens, or through the Arboretum. Even entry to the main museum is by donation. Plus, as a university town, there are plenty of affordable, delicious, and fun cafes and restaurants.
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Things to do in Hamilton New Zealand – Outdoors
Location: Hungerford Crescent, Hamilton East
Hours: Enclosed Gardens are open daily from 10 am to 4 pm (last entry 3.30 pm)
A must-see urban oasis, the Hamilton Gardens 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 both domestically and around the world. The 21 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. To aid us, we picked up a guidebook for a nominal fee at the gift shop. Alternatively, one can choose this 75-minute guided tour.
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 a 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.
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. Or, enjoy it from the water on a cruise.
Check price and reviews of daily Waikato river cruises or an exciting jet boat adventure.
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 a small museum with a collection of Māori artefacts featuring a superbly carved waka (war canoe). However, with frequently changing exhibits, there is always something new to see.
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.
Other 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 that 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.
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 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.
- 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. Click here to 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 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.
➜ Use this link to check for discounts on a Hobbiton and Waitomo Cave tour from Auckland.
- 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.
Where is Hamilton New Zealand?
We always include a stop in Hamilton when we road trip from Auckland to Wellington.
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 daily bus service to and from Hamilton.
- Air New Zealand offers domestic flights from Auckland or 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 current 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 Peoples Republic of China.
Accommodation in Hamilton NZ
If you are making a weekend of Hamilton, why not stay like a local at an Airbnb?
Booking tips for your New Zealand travel planning
First time visitors start here: New Zealand travel guide.
Flights: We use Skyscanner to find all the available flight options at the best prices.
Rental Car: We always use RentalCars.com, a rental car search engine with no hidden costs.
Accommodations: We use Booking.com to find all levels of accommodations in most NZ cities.
Activity Discounts: We use Bookme.co.nz to find discounts on entry tickets and tours in New Zealand.
Travel Insurance: We purchase insurance that covers medical and travel emergencies when we head overseas. We start with World Nomads.
Packing Tips: Get a free copy of our New Zealand packing list when you sign up for our mailing list.
**Find more money saving resources on our Travel Resources page.
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