Napier is best known as the Art Deco Capital of the world, but this offbeat New Zealand town has a lot more to offer. From Māori and European history to wine tasting or adventure, there are plenty of novel and fun things to do in Napier and the surrounding Hawke’s Bay region.
To understand Napier, you need a brief history. In 1931 Napier was devastated by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that levelled the main commercial district but didn’t break the town’s spirit. The extensive rebuild reflects the Art Deco style of the time. Today, Napier boasts a few of New Zealand’s more unique visitor opportunities.
Below is our recommendation of things to do in Napier New Zealand, including several off the beaten path Napier attractions.
Table of contents
- 1 Fun Things to Do in Napier: Art Deco
- 2 Active Things to do in Napier
- 3 Fun Things to do in Napier: Museums and other Napier Tourist Attractions
- 4 Napier Sculpture and Fountains
- 5 Nearby Napier (in Hawke’s Bay Region)
- 6 Where to Stay: Napier Accommodations
- 7 Where is Napier New Zealand?
- 8 Arriving via the Napier Cruise Port
Fun Things to Do in Napier: Art Deco
• Art Deco Tours
Starting with a nearly blank canvas, Napier’s architectural rebuild reflects the trendy Art Deco and Spanish-mission styles of the time. The best way to discover the detail is with a walking tour guided by Napier’s Art Deco Trust. The fascinating stories, history, and detail of the architecture came to life through our passionate volunteer guide.
If a 3k walk is more than you want, there are driving tour options from other groups. (More on our art deco tour coming soon.)
• Art Deco Weekend (Napier events)
If you’re in New Zealand in February, grab some 1930’s period clothing and head to Napier for the Tremains Art Deco Weekend. It’s a citywide themed party that attracts over 40k people over four days. The weekend highlights include vintage car parades, fashion shows, outdoor concerts, and Great-Gatsby-themed picnics and dances.
Active Things to do in Napier
• Walk or Cycle Along Marine Parade
A walk along Marine Parade is a must do for any visitor to Napier. Paralleling the coast, the seemingly endless Napier beach and cliff tops are interweaved with Norfolk pines, gardens, monuments, sculpture, fountains, and flowers. It’s hard to miss the Marine Parade Arch.
• Surf, Swim, or Watch the Waves at a Napier Beach
Napier is one of the sunniest regions in New Zealand, boasting approximately 2350 hours of sunshine per year. This great weather is evident in the popularity of its beaches. Sandy Bay is a swimming beach located north of the Marine Parade, just past the port.
• Hike (or drive) to Bluff Hill
From the Bluff Hill domain lookout, we enjoyed panoramic views of the sea that extended from Cape Kidnappers in the south to the Mahia Peninsula to the northeast. Cape Kidnappers was giving its name when local Māori attempted to abduct a member of Captain Cook’s crew in 1769. Mahia Peninsula is now home to Rocket Lab’s orbital launch site. Bluff Hill held a military battery during World War II.
Fun Things to do in Napier: Museums and other Napier Tourist Attractions
• National Aquarium of New Zealand
The National Aquarium holds New Zealand’s most diverse range of aquatic animals and wildlife, both domestic and international. While I am fascinated by the sharks, stingray, piranha, and kiwi birds, it is the little blue penguins that won my heart. A highlight for many is watching them at feeding times (daily, at 9.30 am, 1.30 pm and 3.30 pm). If you visit in the morning you can watch the daily reef feeding at 10 am. However, an afternoon visit can include the 2 pm shark feeding in the 1.5 million litre Oceanarium.
Hand-feed Penguins at the National Aquarium.
- The Little Penguin Encounter will take a maximum of four people behind the scenes for a tour of the penguin facility and a chance to hand feed these adorable birds. Great for families, with a minimum age of 6 for participation.
• MTG Hawke’s Bay
MTG Hawke’s Bay is a regional museum filled with art, Māori jewellery and artifacts, and local history including extensive detail on the devastating 1931 earthquake. Entrance is always free, so even a short visit will be interesting. The name: MTG stands for: Museum, Theatre, Gallery.
• Napier Prison
It is the stories that make the Napier Prison such a fascinating place to visit. Active from 1862 to 1993, it is New Zealand’s oldest prison. It is brought to life with the audio guide, or if you are brave enough you can enjoy an evening ghost walk (limited weekends). The self-guided audio tour took us through cells, the quarry, the hanging yard, and even the small cemetery where the only four prisoners ever hung here are buried upright to prevent them from achieving eternal rest. In one of the rooms, there is a case with a few random objects including a key retrieved from a prisoner. Apparently, in the 1980’s a prisoner had copied a key and rather than escaping, he used it on a regular basis to go to town for KFC (yes, that is Kentucky Fried Chicken).
• St. John’s Anglican Cathedral
Waiapu Anglican Cathedral is the first cathedral in the world to greet each new day. Also called St John’s Anglican Cathedral, it was originally built in 1886, but, like much of the city was destroyed in the 1931 earthquake. The 19-year rebuild began in 1946. By 1965 an architecturally modernist-style cathedral had been completed. It is best known for its abstract style stained-glass ambulatory windows depicting scenes from the life of Christ. It is closed on Saturdays, and we missed our chance to get inside.
Napier Sculpture and Fountains
• Pania of the Reef
According to the sign, “An old Māori legend tells how Pania, lured by the siren voices of the sea people swam out to meet them. When she endeavoured to return to her lover, she was transformed into the reef which now lies beyond the Napier breakwater.”
• Dancing Fountains at Night
Ever changing colourful lights create a dancing effect from this inground fountain. The late autumn wind gave me a chill as I watched, but it also created a misty fan like effect at the top of each spout. To my surprise, a group of teenagers couldn’t resist running through the spouts, trying to time the water so as not to get wet. They failed.
Nearby Napier (in Hawke’s Bay Region)
• Star Compass
Celestial (star) navigation is a skill passed on through the generations for thousands of years. Using a tool like the Ātea a Rangi Star Compass, and the star, sun, moon and planet positions, navigators can find their way across the open ocean. According to the signage, the Ātea a Rangi Star Compass “splits the horizon into 32 equal areas called ‘whare’ (houses) which are the pou (tall poles) around the compass.”
• Otatara Pa
Just 10 km southwest of Napier (and on the way to Te Mata Peak) is the car park for Otatara Pa. This archaeological site is the largest pa (fortified Māori village) in Hawke’s Bay. The one hour walk passes through quarry and palisades, pou, raised rim storage pits, house sites, views of terraces, and the defensive bank and ditch. Some have been reconstructed. The views from the top can extend from Mount Ruapehu to Cape Kidnappers on a clear day.
Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s second-largest wine producing region, responsible for 80% of the country’s Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah grapes. Winery tours and wine tastings are a popular activity, made much easier with a tour or private driver. Plus, if you indulge a bit too much, it avoids the safety and legal issues of driving after drinking. Here are two great options:
• Hike (or drive) to Te Mata Peak
With so many fabulous Hawke’s Bay walks, choosing a favourite is difficult. Of the amazing views we saw, Te Mata Peak tops my list, and we are not alone as an estimated 200,000 people visit annually.
Rising 339 meters, and towering over the neighbouring countryside and forested areas, the extensive views incorporate nearly all of the Hawke’s Bay region. The surrounding 99-hectare of Te Mata Park host an expansive network of hiking and mountain biking trails. Click here for a map of the hiking trails.
Māori legend tells us that this is the spot where Chief Te Mata O Rongokako attempted to eat his way through the cliffs to win the hand of his lover.
• Longest place name
Named Taumata-whaka-tangihanga-koauau-o-Tamatea-turi-pukaka-pikimaunga-horonuku-pokai-whenua-kitana-tahu, the hilltop behind the sign has the world’s longest place name. It translates to ‘The hilltop where Tamatea with big knees, conqueror of mountains, eater of land, traveller over land and sea, played his koauau to his beloved.’ It is the world’s longest place name. It is located near Porangahau.
• Golf at one of the country’s best courses
Cape Kidnappers Golf Course is rated number 2 in New Zealand. Here you can go 18 holes on one of the world’s top 50 courses. Plus, the scenery is fantastic. We didn’t visit.
• Gannet Colony on Cape Kidnappers
If you are travelling in summer (November to February), take time to observe the world’s largest mainland Gannet Colony at Cape Kidnappers. These graceful birds fly thousands of miles to feast and breed in New Zealand, returning to Australia for winter.
• Watch one of the world’s first sunrises of the day
The east coast of New Zealand is the first place to welcome each new day. Therefore, if you head to any Napier beach at dawn, you will be one of the first people to see the new day’s sunrise. (Only a few seconds after Gisborne in the East Cape).
Where to Stay: Napier Accommodations
Napier options cover the full gambit from beachfront luxury with amazing ocean views to backpackers. We opted to stay in a family-friendly accommodation across the main road from the beach.
Here are our top four recommendations:
Where is Napier New Zealand?
Napier is an east coast city on the North Island of New Zealand with a population of 57,000. It is accessible via plane, bus, or driving. We visited as part of a North Island adventure and drove in from Wellington, and headed to Gisborne and the East Cape when we left. Key drive times are as follows:
- Auckland to Napier: 5 hours
- Wellington to Napier: 4 hours
- Hastings to Napier: 23 minutes
- Napier to Gisborne: 3 hours
Arriving via the Napier Cruise Port
Whether you want art deco, wine tasting, or something else, if you are arriving in Napier via cruise ship, you will not have enough time to see it all. Check out what the ship offers, then take a look at these independent options, all from Viator, a TripAdvisor company. We find they generally have much smaller groups, more personal attention, and lower cost than the ship’s excursions. And, Viator offers of a worry-free shore excursion guarantee on most of their options (read the details of the tour you choose).
Check out these Hawke’s Bay Shore Excursions
Important if you are not arriving via cruise ship
If you are NOT arriving via ship and your plans are flexible, you might want to check here for the Port of Napier cruise ship schedule. As you can imagine, having cruise ships in port makes many of the popular venues crowded.
Which of these things to do in Napier will you do first?
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Disclaimer: We worked with Hawke’s Bay Tourism, the local tourism board. Also, we were provided with many complimentary entrances, tours, sample items, or media rates to assist in the writing of this review. However, the opinions expressed here are strictly our own.