Rotorua New Zealand is like nowhere else. Situated near the centre of the North Island, it’s a geothermal wonderland, a playground for adventure seekers, an opportunity for cultural understanding, and a place to relax and heal. If you are wondering what to do in Rotorua, then read on.
Much more than just a tourist destination, each time we visit Rotorua, we discover something new, be it an activity, a piece of history, or a deeper cultural understanding.
Why visit Rotorua?
If you have never been, or you are planning your first visit to New Zealand, Rotorua is somewhere we highly recommend you make time to visit.
Come for an adventure like whitewater rafting, rolling downhill in a giant ball, ziplining, bungy or a treetop walk. Or, take the opposite approach and soak your cares away in the healing thermal waters, or just visit the geothermal fields and stare in awe and wonderment at the huge geysers or bubbling mud pools.
Rotorua is also a place to discover and immerse yourself in Maori culture.
It is one of the world’s most unique places to visit, fun, exciting, or relaxing there are plenty of things to do in Rotorua. And, you will know when you arrive, as there is a distinctive smell of sulphur in the air, that oddly seems to dissipate to my senses in about 10 – 15 minutes.
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Things do in Rotorua for the adrenaline junkie
Skyline Luge (and gondola)
Set on a scenic track upon the volcanic cone of Mount Ngongotaha, the Skyline Gondola ride up to the luge is half the fun. Alternatively, you could hike to the top.
Helmets on, we took the scenic track for our first run. A chairlift brought us back up and our second luge was on the faster intermediate track. Speed and control make Skyline luge an ideal family-friendly activity. Note that children under 110cm ride tandem with an adult.
Historically, it’s the world’s first gravity-fueled three-wheeled luge ride and it was designed in Rotorua in 1985. Get tickets for the gondola plus 5 luge rides from Klook.
Before you take the gondola back down, check out some of the other extreme options up at the top. And when you are ready to relax, enjoy wine tasting at Volcanic Hills (see below) or one of the biggest and most elaborate buffets we have seen at StratosFare. Both options offer stunning views that will encourage you to linger. Note that StratosFare is open for lunch and dinner, takes bookings, and has a standard of dress that is smart casual.
Adventure junkies, this place was built for you! Here you will find (each with age and weight restrictions):
- Agrojet: This jet boat is the world’s first commercial jetsprint reaching speeds of 100km/h and 3 G-force.
- Freefall Xtreme: Flip and fly as you experience 1.5 minutes in the wind tunnel with wind speeds up to 220kp/h. (For comparison, a 12,000-foot skydive has about 45- 75 seconds of freefall).
- V-Force – A reverse bungy launching you 45 metres into the air at up to 80km/h with 4.6 G-force.
- Swoop – a giant bungy swing (see photo above). You will ‘swoop’ from 0 to 130km/h in 1 second.
- Shweeb Racer – This is the world’s only pedal-powered monorail track.
Rotorua Rafting – Grade 5 whitewater adventure with a waterfall drop
Voted #2 in Tripadvisors 25 Best Tourism Experiences in the World in 2021
A pretty impressive ranking, how can you pass up an activity voted the second-best in the world? As your guide takes you over the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall, you will understand why visitors love this adventure.
And if that’s not enough, you will enjoy impressive views along the mighty Kaituna River, learn about the rich Maori history, and experience grade 5 rapids. Check for discounts at Bookme.
Rotorua Canopy Tours – zipline over the trees
Voted #11 in Tripadvisors 25 Best Tourism Experiences in the World in 2021
Another adventure option is to soar through New Zealand’s ancient forest on a zipline adventure with Rotorua Canopy Tours. This eco-tour is an exhilarating opportunity to see this beautiful land the way it once was.
Importantly, a portion of each ticket is invested in conservation. Get below the surface, above the trees, learn about the past, and become part of the future. Check for discounts on Bookme
Zorb – roll downhill in a giant bubble ball
The sensation is hard to define.
Imagine being inside a giant two-layer bubble sphere and rolling downhill. We opted to keep dry (DRYGO) which resulted in a slightly slower ride. A second option, H2OGO, has participants sitting directly in the warm water inside the ball.
Either way, as the ball rolls, the rider remains at the bottom, sometimes almost unaware of the movement, other times sliding around as they roll, either way, laughing with excitement the whole way down.
OGO Zorb is home to the world’s longest, steepest and fastest downhill ball rolling tracks. Check prices and choose your Zorb option.
What to do in Rotorua: geothermal viewing
IMPORTANT NOTE: Geothermal pools can, and frequently are, hot enough to badly burn. Do NOT dip your feet or hands in to test the temperature of the water. Temperatures can change over time, so take extra caution in unmonitored areas.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley – unspoilt beauty
If you are looking to absorb yourself in an untouched, young, and ever-changing landscape, this is it. With the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886 (New Zealand’s largest recorded volcanic eruption) came the creation of the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, also called the Tarawera Rift. It created lakes, changed the landscape, covered the famous Pink and White Terraces, and left a clean slate for nature to rebuild.
Understanding history makes the experience stronger, so be sure to reference the leaflet that is provided when you enter. The main walking trail is about 4km and leads from the visitor centre to Lake Rotomahana. From here, we opted to take the boat and further explore from the water.
There is a shuttle bus option to the lake that makes several stops along the way. Check for discounts from Bookme and enjoy a self-guided visit
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland – colours I didn’t know existed in nature
Formed from volcanic activity dating back 160,000 years, Wai-O-Tapu Volcanic Wonderland is a surreal, mystical place enhanced by rising steam and nature’s dreamlike palette of colours. Visitors walk on boardwalks and paths through the Wai-O-Tapu Wonderland, passing collapsed craters, boiling pools of mud or water, colourful mineral deposits, a forest, and steaming fumaroles.
The craters range in size with the largest measuring 50m (164 ft) in diameter and up to 20m (65 ft) deep. The pools and lakes are even larger.
Lady Knox Geyser
Lady Knox is a natural geyser that gets a bit of help waking up every morning at 10.15. Its exciting history began in 1901 when prisoners were cleaning their laundry. Their soap reduced the water’s surface tension, resulting in the geyser’s eruption. Today, a bit of a similar soap is added every morning, the result being a geyser worth visiting.
Entrance is included with your passes to Wai-O-Tapu, although it is about 3km away with its own car park.
Kuirau Park – see geothermal activity for free
Right in the centre of town, Kuirau Park is New Zealand’s only geothermal public park.
An opportunity to see steaming and bubbling geothermal activity, it’s one of the best free attractions in Rotorua.
Active things to do in Rotorua
Redwood Treewalk – travel across the treetops
A unique mix of nature and adventure, the Redwood Treewalk is an opportunity to view Rotorua’s Redwood forest from 6 – 12m (20-39ft) above the ground. We chose the Redwood Nightlights, taking the 23 suspension bridges after dark, looking out over a forest colourfully lit by 30 lanterns and 40 colour spots. Unique, serene, and magical, I only wish I had walked both day and night, as I imagine the daytime walk feels completely different.
Everyone moves in the same direction through the 600-metre tree walk. Each viewing platform surrounds a 117+-year-old Redwood tree, has interpretive signage and is a resting point between two bridges. Bookme now offers a combination day and night Treewalks entry
Redwood Altitude – a more extreme option
During the day, there is an additional option of Redwood Altitude that includes the bridges and spirals plus a guide, an additional 7 metres of height, and three flying foxes. Check for discounts on Redwood Altitude at Bookme or bring the family with this ticket option.
From their website, “As an eco-tourism business located in Rotorua’s iconic Redwoods Forest, the treewalk has been entrusted by Manu Whenua and we unreservedly work as guardians of the land and forest we operate in.”
Cultural things to do in Rotorua
Rotorua is deeply rooted in Māori history, culture, and legend. From angry gods boiling the earth to love stories, the area is vital to New Zealand history. Much of the sacred lands in the region are shared with visitors by the Ngāti Pikiao, Tūhourangi, and Ngāti Whakaue iwi (tribes).
Experience the culture at one of these options:
- Whakarewarewa Maori Village
Whakarewarewa is where, nearly 20 years ago, we got our first real introduction to Maori culture and a living geothermal Maori village. Therefore it will always be a favourite of ours. It is also home to the Pohutu geyser, steam vents, and boiling mud pools. Check price of entry and a guided tour from Klook
- Mitai Maori Village
Our choice on our last visit, although it is temporarily closed. Our evening at Mitai Maori Village began with the unearthing of our traditional hangi dinner. Cooked in the earth, the kumara (Māori sweet potato), potatoes, chicken, and lamb were impressively tender and flavorful. We also walked through the village, learned about the sacred spring, watched traditionally dressed warriors paddle a waka (war canoe) downstream, and saw eels, trout, and glow worms. However, the evening’s highlight is an exceptionally well done cultural performance.
- Tamaki Maori Village Experience
Tamaki Māori Village is the most award-winning cultural attraction in New Zealand, which says a lot. Discover the origins of the Maori people and their journey to New Zealand. As we walked the grounds, we discovered customs and were captivated by storytellers. We learned poi, haka and more. Then, a feast.
- Te Puia Maori Cultural Experience
A hangi style dinner option, Te Puia is uniquely situated to see the majestic Pohutu Geyser and other geothermal sights in their natural state under the moonlight. They feature a ‘Geyser By Night’ multi-sensory experience.
Ohinemutu – experience a living Māori village (free)
Ohinemutu Māori Village is home to the Ngāti Whakaue tribe that initially arrived in New Zealand around 1350AD. It’s a significant piece of Rotorua history, and free to visit or opt for a guided tour.
Principal structures include a church, carvings, outdoor bathing shed, steam vents used for cooking, a Marae (meeting house) with an exterior of incredibly intricate and beautiful carvings (not open to the public), and St Faith’s Church with a Tudor-style exterior and a Māori influenced interior.
Experience a working farm in Rotorua
Agriculture is New Zealand’s number one industry, and sheep outnumber people by 7 to 1. Agrodome gives visitors a chance to experience a real working farm with its famous farm show and farm tours. We did both. While aimed at tourists, it’s informative and entertaining.
- Agrodome Farm Show
As we were introduced to 19 breeds of sheep, working dogs, and a cow, we learned which sheep are predominantly used for wool (Merino), for carpet (Drysdale), for meat (Romney), and more.
Audience involvement is encouraged. (Tip: sit near the front if you want to volunteer.) Volunteers are invited up on the stage to bottle feed baby lambs (children) or to milk a cow (adults). For an overdose of adorable, be sure to see the baby animals in the nursery.
- Agrodome farm tour
We toured a portion of the 350-acre farm in an open carriage tram with stops to feed sheep and alpaca or to sample honey and kiwifruit juice. Then we passed through olive, kiwifruit and feijoa orchards as well as seeing emu, ostrich, miniature ponies, donkeys, llamas, and the Clydesdale horses used in The Lord of the Rings movies.
Relaxing in Rotorua
Two of the popular ways to relax in Rotorua are to soak in the healing spring waters at one of many locations or to enjoy a wine tasting.
NOTE: It is always advised to keep your head above water in Rotorua thermal pools.
Waikite Thermal Pools
We soaked away our cares in the warm healing waters at Waikite Thermal Pools. Our entry fee included six pools ranging in temperature from 32c – 40c (90f – 104f). My favourite was an infinity pool that overlooks the steaming valley. The soak was relaxing, the view surreal, and the mineral water left my skin soft and smooth. Private pools are available for an extra fee.
Before you leave, check out the Eco-Trail at Waikite Valley, a fascinating and colourful under 10-minute walk leading to a hot spring that has the largest discharge of boiling water in New Zealand, discharging at a rate of between 40 – 50 litres per second at a temperature of 98°c. Get an entry ticket to Waikite Thermal Pools from Klook.
Polynesian Spa Hot Pools
This award-winning Polynesian Spa is possibly the most famous in Rotorua. Sources from two natural springs, there are 28 hot mineral pools, including both acidic and alkaline pools. Plus there are plenty of spa options. Choose amongst several entry options from Klook.
Hell’s Gate Geothermal Reserve and Mud Spa
The famous mud spa, known for its healing properties makes for some really fun photos. At Hell’s Gate, you will find sulphur mineral water pools as well as the mud bath. You’ll leave feeling fresh and rejuvenated. You can also take a guided or self-guided tour.
Volcanic Hills wine tasting
It was the combination of endless views over Lake Rotorua and the chance to sample the wines that New Zealand is famous for producing that enticed us into Volcanic Hills Tasting Room.
The five wines we sampled are Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough Pinot Gris, Gisborne Chardonnay, Wairarapa Pinot Noir, and a Central Otago SV Pinot Noir.
Optional food items can be ordered to compliment your wine tasting.
We stayed at Novotel in Rotorua
If you are like me, and a good night’s sleep in a clean, uncluttered room with friendly staff top your list for accommodations, then you will love the Novotel in Rotorua. While this lovely lakeside hotel was selected for us, it ticked all our boxes.
The unpretentious rooms held surprises like a feather top mattress, huge plush bath towels, fair trade amenities, and USB wall outlets. For us, the Novotel is the best place to stay in Rotorua. Check price or book at Novotel Rotorua Lakeside Hotel.
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Disclaimer: We worked with Destination Rotorua, the local tourism board. We were provided with complimentary entrances, tours and sample items to assist in the writing of this review. The opinions expressed here are strictly our own.