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.
Our recent Rotorua visit shattered our misconception that it’s just a tourist town. Instead, we found a paradise that left me wanting more. Even the cloudy, rainy weather didn’t deter us.
Rotorua is just one of many great cities to visit in New Zealand – Let us tempt you with some highlights:
- Active and adventure junkie things do in Rotorua
- What to do in Rotorua: geothermal viewing
- Cultural things to do in Rotorua
- Experience a working farm at Agrodome Rotorua
- Relaxing at a Rotorua spa or wine tasting
- Best places to eat in Rotorua
- Getting to Rotorua (and the Bay of Plenty)
- Where to stay: hotels in Rotorua NZ
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Active and adventure junkie things do in Rotorua
Rotorua adventure activities include something for everyone ranging from extreme adrenalin pumping adult-only and family-friendly experiences.
Race downhill on the Skyline Luge
Speed and control make the Skyline luge the ideal family-friendly adventure activity. Designed in Rotorua (1985), it is the world’s first gravity-fueled three-wheeled luge ride. Young or old, the Rotorua luge is a thrill for anyone who can reach the handlebars (children under 110cm ride tandem with an adult). Control is easy, turning instinctual, and safety is paramount.
Helmets on, we took the scenic track for our first run although, Jeff preferred the faster intermediate option. Once at the bottom of the luge, a chairlift brought us up for another go.
The luge is located at the top of Mount Ngongotaha, a volcanic cone, the main options for getting here are hiking of riding the scenic Skyline Gondola.
Once at the top of Mount Ngongotaha, plan to be here a while. The luge is only one of the many options, ranging from other adventure extremes to a relaxed afternoon of wine tasting and culinary excellence.
Travel across the redwood 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. The newest platform (optional) is up a flight of stairs to 20m (65 ft) above ground level.
During the day, there is an additional option for the true adrenaline junkies. Redwood Altitude includes the 25 bridges and 2 spirals plus a guide, an additional 7 metres of height, and three flying foxes. Check for discount prices here 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.”
Roll downhill at OGO Zorb Rotorua
The sensation is hard to define. OGO Zorb Rotorua calls it downhill ball rolling, but what the name doesn’t mention, is that you are inside the ball. Comfortably encased in a giant two-layer bubble sphere, a push at the top sets the Zorb rolling downhill. We opted to keep dry (DRYGO) which resulted in a slightly slower ride.
The other option, H2OGO, has participants sitting directly in the warm water. 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. Everyone emerged with a smile, and those who chose ‘wet’ also enjoyed a follow up hot tub.
OGO Zorb is home to the world’s longest, steepest and fastest downhill ball rolling tracks.
⇒ Check prices for OGO Zorb
Fly over the trees on a zipline
Another adventure option is to soar through New Zealand’s ancient forest on an award-winning 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.
⇒ Book your canopy tour now
What to do in Rotorua: geothermal viewing
If I only had time to visit one place in Rotorua, I would be hard-pressed to choose between Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. One is new by geological time, the other very old.
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 cautions in unmonitored areas.
Appreciate the unspoilt beauty at Waimangu Volcanic Valley
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 guide 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. If you don’t want to walk all or any of the trail there is a shuttle bus to the lake that makes several stops along the way.
⇒ Click here to check for discounted prices: Waimangu Volcanic Valley Entry Ticket
Discover colours you didn’t know existed in nature at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
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.
⇒ Click here for prices and entry tickets for Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Set your watch to 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 ticket for Wai-O-Tapu, although it is about 3km away with its own car park.
See geothermal activity at Kuirau Park 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, its one of the best free attractions in Rotorua.
Take one of these geothermal Rotorua Tours
⇒ Check price and reviews
Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village
Mitai Maori Experience
*This 11-12 hour tour starts in Rotorua
|Flexible Rotorua Tour |
⇒ Check price and reviews
Plus optional: Wai-O-Tapu, Hobbiton,
Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village
*This 3.5 to 9 hour tour starts in Rotorua
|Day Trip to Rotorua |
⇒ Check price and reviews
*This one day tour starts in Auckland
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 is shared with visitors by the Ngāti Pikiao, Tūhourangi, and Ngāti Whakaue iwi (tribes).
Take a journey of understanding at Mitai Maori Village
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.
In addition to the meal, we 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, on par with the one at Waitangi Treaty Grounds (in the Bay of Islands). It is an introduction to the Māori people and their culture.
⇒ Click here for your Mitai Māori Village Evening Cultural Experience
Experience a living Māori village at Ohinemutu
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, and 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.
Other cultural experiences in Rotorua
- Tamaki Maori Hangi Dinner and Performance
- Te Puia Maori Village Entry & Optional Cultural Performance
- Whakarewarewa, The Living Maori Village with Optional Hangi Meal
Experience a working farm at Agrodome Rotorua
Agriculture is New Zealand’s number one industry, and sheep outnumber people by 7 to 1. Learning about NZ’s farm industry is a Rotorua must-do for visitors who want to understand the country better. 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.
⇒ Click here to check prices on the Agrodome Sheep Show and Farm Tour
Agrodome Farm Show
The Agrodome Farm Show introduced us 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. Headphones at each seat translate the speaker into one of 8 languages.
Audience involvement is encouraged and volunteers are invited up on the stage to bottle feed baby lambs (children) or to milk a cow (adults). After the show, anyone can go on stage for a closer look at the sheep. For an overdose of adorable, be sure to see the baby animals in the nursery.
Pro tip: Sit near the front if you want to volunteer, the room seats 500 at capacity.
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 at a Rotorua spa or wine tasting
When you’re ready to unwind, Rotorua has plenty of options.
Unwind in the spa at 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.
NOTE: It is always advised to keep your head above water in Rotorua thermal pools.
The Eco-Trail at Waikite Valley is 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.
Wine tasting with Volcanic Hills Winery
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 Winery.
We started with a Sauvignon Blanc, a perfect pre-dinner wine with a hint of passion fruit and lime. Next, Pinot Gris, the party starter or ‘seductress’ as our wine host called it adding, “it’s simple, easy, and you just want more.” The queen of white wine, Chardonnay followed, perfect for serving with fish, chicken or pasta. Finally, two different Pinot Noirs, the ideal complement to a steak.
Optional food items can be ordered to compliment your wine tasting.
⇒ Click here to check prices on Skyline Gondola and Volcanic Hills Wine Tasting
Best places to eat in Rotorua
If we don’t know what we want, or often when we do, we head to Eat Streat Rotorua. Here we find just about any flavours we might desire from hamburgers to steak, ethnic foods, or just a few drinks.
Our recommended Rotorua restaurants:
- CBK on Eat Streat – Thick, creamy, and tasty, the Seafood Chowder at CBK on Eat Streat is a satisfying meal. We’ve been told they also do a brilliant stone grill.
- Lone Star – A Texas-themed restaurant, Lone Star’s ribs please my American-born palate. It’s located on Whakaue Street, just around the corner from Eat Streat. Not unique to Rotorua, there are several Lone Star restaurants throughout New Zealand.
- Picnic Cafe – A breakfast so good we returned, thus making it the only place we ate our morning meal in Rotorua.
- StratosFare – Take the gondola up and enjoy one of the biggest and most elaborate buffets I have seen, with stunning views that will encourage you to linger. They are open for lunch and dinner, take bookings, and have a standard of dress that is casual, but smart.
⇒ Click here to save money with the combination of the gondola and a meal at Stratosfare
Getting to Rotorua (and the Bay of Plenty)
It’s easy to get to Rotorua by car or bus (from major cities). Auckland to Rotorua drive time is a bit over 3 hours, while the time from Wellington to Rotorua is about 5.5 hours. You can visit Rotorua (or a few other places) as a day trip from Auckland. Or as a stop when driving between Auckland to Wellington.
Where to stay: hotels in Rotorua NZ
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 secrets 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 and reviews of the Novotel Rotorua Lakeside Hotel
Of course, there are other places to stay in Rotorua. As one would expect in a key tourist destination, the options range from campsites to luxury Rotorua hotels.
⇒ Click here to see more Rotorua accommodation options
Planning tips for your visit to the Bay of Plenty and Rotorua
First-time visitors start here: New Zealand travel guide or with our favourite New Zealand road trips.
Rental Vehicles: For cars, we always use RentalCars.com, a rental car search engine with no hidden costs. However, we recommend Spaceships Rentals NZ for campervans.
Accommodations: In the Bay of Plenty, we stay and recommend a beachfront villa at Papamoa Beach Resort or the Rotorua Lakeside Novotel.
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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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.