Embarking on a whirlwind exploration of Whanganui, where two days unfolded into a tapestry of memorable experiences, Jeff and I can’t wait to return. With limited time, we hit what we believe are the top five things to do in Whanganui.
Nestled along the scenic banks of the Whanganui River, the town boasts a rich history that dates back to the early interactions between European settlers and the indigenous Māori people. Originally a Māori Pa, then later established as a trading post in the mid-19th century, Whanganui quickly evolved into a pivotal hub for commerce and cultural exchange and a vital river port. Today, it’s also known for the early 20th-century architecture.
Two stand-out activities clearly top our list of things to do in Whanganui. First, we savoured the gentle meander of a riverboat cruise, then we walked through the Durie Hill tunnel, ascended the earthbound elevator, and climbed the Durie Hill viewing platform.
Rounding out our list, we took a leisurely stroll around Virginia Lake, enjoyed the black-sand beaches, and wished we had more time to immerse ourselves in the vibrant hues of the local art scene. Though time was short, we did our best to capture the essence of Whanganui in this article.
As American expats who have been living in and exploring NZ for over 20 years, we see things from both a local’s perspective and from that of a visitor. Therefore, we understand what it’s like to come here and have things be similar, but not always exactly what we are used to. We share the information on this page from this perspective.
Five must-see things to do in Whanganui
Don’t have time to read the entire article? Here are the top five must-dos in Whanganui – with plenty more details on all of them below.
- Take a Whanganui Riverboat Cruise
With two options to choose from, this is one of the must-do activities in Whanganui.
- Walk through the Durie Hill Tunnel, take the elevator up to the top, and enjoy the view from one of the two towers at the top.
- Take a relaxing stroll around Virginia Lake
- Head to one of the black-sand beaches.
- Enjoy the art scene.
Where is Whanganui?
Whanganui is on the west coast of the North Island, where State Highways 3 and 4 intersect. It’s about 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Wellington, about 160 km (99 miles) south of New Plymouth, and 75 kilometres (47 miles) northwest of Palmerston North.
The suggested stops in this article are featured on the map with our five must-see in red and additional interesting things to do in yellow. Information on all of them is below.
Whanganui vs Wanganui
The debate over the spelling of Whanganui has been a topic of discussion and contention for years. Formerly spelled Wanganui, the government officially changed its name to Whanganui in 2009. This change was not merely a shift in letters; it represented a significant step towards acknowledging and respecting the Māori language and culture.
While some locals and traditionalists continue to use the old spelling, the city now officially embraces Whanganui. It’s worth noting that you’ll likely find both spellings used interchangeably in various contexts, capturing the ongoing evolution of this vibrant city.
Top 5 things to do in Whanganui
Normally, I put lists like this in order, starting with my favourites, but in this case, the first two options (riverboat and tunnel/elevator) are both what we consider unmissable.
1. Whanganui Riverboat Cruise
The Whanganui River is the longest navigable river in NZ and was once the primary route for trade in the region.
Today, two historic riverboats remain, and both take passengers on what we found to be a relaxing, interesting, beautiful, and historic river exploration. Both follow similar routes, cruising past lush green hills, under bridges and past several historic sights along the Whanganui River.
Competitors, yet friends as is common in smaller NZ cities, the two boats’ schedules don’t overlap. So your choice might be dictated by the day you are there, but either way, we encourage you to add one to your list of what to do in Whanganui.
Motor Vessel Wairoa
This was our choice, and we loved it!
While we were intrigued by the original features of this historical ship, it was the knowledge, fascinating, and entertaining stories told by Capitan Sam that made our tour so memorable. His wealth of general knowledge and history shines through stories from his 20 years on the river and date back over 100 years of history.
The ship itself was built in the UK and joined the Hatrick & Co Whanganui River Steamer fleet in 1904. Its specialty was traversing shallow waters as its propulsion is through a tunnel drive or raised propeller boat. The vessel was brought up to modern safety standards and is otherwise original.
The Motor Vessel Wairoa currently runs two-hour tours on weekdays that travel about 12km upstream before returning. There is both covered and open seating and a toilet onboard.
Learn more or book your tour here. Or enquire about custom trips, like on-board weddings or barbeque sails.
Paddle Steamer Waimarie (and Waimarie Riverboat Museum)
Currently running two-hour tours on the weekends, we have no first-hand experience, yet.
The Paddle Steamer Waimarie is New Zealand’s only authentic coal-fired passenger paddle steamer in operation.
The steam-powered ship operated 100 years ago on this waterway and was relaunched in 2000 after a full restoration following 50 years at the bottom of the river. Today, the tour includes both live and recorded commentary.
There are both covered and open areas, two toilets and food available onboard. Learn more or book your tour here.
Regardless of which boat you choose, we found the Waimarie Riverboat Museum interesting and recommend a quick visit if time permits.
2. Durie Hill elevator and viewing platform
Durie Hill is the steep hill across the river from Whanganui.
Back in 1910, a public transit system was needed to develop it as a suburb, as a cable car system was too expensive. The solution opened in 1919. It’s a heritage-listed 213m tunnel leading from the riverfront into the hill and a 66m elevator up to the top.
You can either start at the top or the bottom. In retrospect, we made the wrong choice.
- Here’s what we wish we had done:
Tunnel > Elevator up > Explore both towers > Walk or take the elevator back down.
- What we did:
Drive to top > Elevator down > Walk both ways through tunnel > Elevator up > Explore towers.
Walking through the Durie Hill tunnel to the elevator
Ideally, we would have either driven or walked over the bridge from town to enter the tunnel, passing the fence of Māori pou on the way.
There’s a staircase to the right of the tunnel entrance, followed by a trail, that leads to the same spot. Personally, I would take the elevator up (as for only $2, it’s a fun experience) and then walk down.
At the end of the tunnel, we pushed the button, and the elevator appeared. One man operates it and basically spends his day talking about it as he shuttles people up and down. He also sells the tickets, so no need to get them in advance.
Durie Hill observation platform
At the top, a set of spiral stairs outside the elevator’s building led us to a viewing platform where we enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the town and the meandering Whanganui River. It’s free to climb.
Durie Hill Memorial Tower
On the same grounds at the top is the 33.5m memorial tower, which is also free to climb, but this one is 176 steps to the top. We opted not to climb as visibility was low. But on a clear day, they say you can see all the way to the top of the South Island, as well as spotting Mt Ruapehu and Mt Taranaki.
3. Rotokawau/ Virginia Lake Reserve
Virginia Lake was our first stop in Whanganui, as we arrived from the North while travelling from Taranaki to Wellington. What we found is a peaceful oasis, a haven for a relaxing stroll around the lake.
With four well-maintained paths to choose from, we opted for the one closest to the water, aptly named the Lower Track. We found this 1.7km walk took us only about 30 minutes to get around the lake. The easy walk is suitable for pushchairs (strollers), and we were surrounded by vibrant gardens and waterfowl.
4. Head to a beach
With all the fabulous old buildings, it’s easy to forget that Whanganui also has some beautiful beaches. Castlecliff is the closest family-friendly beach, whereas South Beach is the nearby surfer’s beach.
While they are both lovely, we opted to spend our beach time a bit farther at Kai Iwi Beach. We started above the beach at the lookout point, and while it’s a great spot for freedom campers or starting a short hike down to the beach, I believe the coastal views of the Tasman Sea were better down by the water.
We arrived close to high tide (on a cool spring day), and as a result of the tide, the beach was seriously reduced to the south of the lifeguard station, but there was plenty of golden and black sand to the north.
Aside from the long stretch of lifeguard-patrolled beach, there is an impressive playground for kids, wood-burning barbeques, two bridges, showers, and toilets.
5. Check out the art scene
This is the number one reason we need to head back to Whanganui. Famous for its art scene, we spent almost no time exploring any of the over 90 galleries. The best time to go is in March to enjoy the famous arts trail.
Other things to do in Whanganui
Not only are there plenty of things to do in Whanganui, but each of the venues listed here is free to enter.
- Whanganui Regional Museum
A chance to learn more about the region and its people, the museum is famed for its Taonga Maori Collection.
- New Zealand Glassworks
The National Centre for Art Glass helps bring together the glass arts community in Whanganui and New Zealand with gallery space and workshops.
- St. Paul’s Memorial Church
Consecrated in 1937, you’ll want to visit this heritage-listed church for its beautiful Māori decorations.
- Kowhai Park
A must-visit in Whanganui if you have young children, this large riverside park has playful and quirky playground equipment, including climbing and water options.
- Bushy Park Wildlife Sanctuary
A forest sanctuary supported by local Māori and Forest and Bird, it has a homestead with available accommodation and a food venue.
- Whanganui River Traders Market
If you are here on a Saturday morning, this is a fun option for food and local crafts. Open Saturdays 8:30am until 1pm.
- Moutoa Gardens
Moutoa Gardens, also known as Pakaitore, is a cultural and historical hub in Whanganui and significant to the Māori people. While tensions around it fluctuate, it has been a source of much controversy in my lifetime.
- Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua
This gallery is temporarily closed, so we will have to wait until next time to see some of its 8,000+ items spanning over four hundred years of European and New Zealand art history. It is currently being redeveloped and scheduled to reopen in Pukenamu Queen’s Park in mid-2024. Check their official website for updates.
We stayed right in the heart of town at Rutland Arms, a classic New Zealand hotel featuring rooms above the pub. And not just any pub, it seemed to be the most popular place in town. In fact, without a booking in advance, we couldn’t even eat dinner there. A mistake we won’t make again.
Our room was charming, with high ceilings, vintage furniture, and tall windows. Modern conveniences like a TV and refrigerator were tucked out of view, but easily accessible. We would stay here again. Reserve your stay at Rutland Arms here.
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Which of these things to do in Whanganui do you want to try?
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