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There are lots of fun things to do in Hamilton New Zealand so if you are planning a North Island road trip, make sure to add Hamilton to your itinerary – this surprising city has so much more to offer a visitor than you would think…
Hamilton may not be on a lot of people’s bucket lists for a New Zealand road trip, but New Zealand’s fourth-largest city actually has a number of fun things to do there.
Hamilton is the only major inland city in New Zealand and although it doesn’t have any coastline or beaches, there is a pretty lake, and the mighty Waikato River, the longest river in New Zealand, runs through it.
It’s an unpretentious city that has a large student population and is surrounded by farmland, and because of this, I think it is one of the most quintessential New Zealand cities. Farming is the lifeblood of the country after all.
I called Hamilton home for three years from 2001-2003 and I still visit often because one of my best friends lives there, and let me tell you, Hamilton is SO much better now than when I lived there. I mean I was 18 when I moved there and I mostly just wanted to party so I kinda ignored its non-nightlife attractions at the time.
I discovered much later that this green city has a lot more to it than just dodgy student bars (but it also has these in spades).
I put together a list of my favorite things to do in Hamilton NZ, and the surrounding area, so if you find yourself passing through, stay for a while and enjoy the quiet charms of an under-the-radar New Zealand city.
8 Fun Things To Do in Hamilton, NZ
1) Explore the Incredible Hamilton Gardens
The award-winning Hamilton Gardens are reason enough to add Hamilton to your New Zealand itinerary because these gardens are incredibly impressive. Seriously, I can’t think of any gardens anywhere else in the world that are better, and spending half a day here is absolutely one of the best things to do in Hamilton NZ.
The gardens are made up of numerous themed gardens that are constantly changing and evolving, and exploring these painstakingly accurate gardens is like touring the world and the past without leaving Hamilton.
My absolute favorite gardens are the English Flower Garden, the Italian Renaissance Garden, the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, and the new Ancient Egyptian Garden. But honestly, I love them all.
You can visit the gardens by wandering around at your own pace or join a tour to find out stories and secrets about the gardens. Entry into the gardens is free and tours cost $20.
Make sure to visit the onsite cafe which has delicious cafe fare and tables overlooking a peaceful lake. As you walk around the gardens you will also be treated to glimpses of the deep green Waikato River surrounded by thick native bush.
2) Walk By the Mighty Waikato River
You can’t go to Hamilton and not at least check out the Waikato River – the city is literally built around it. This beautiful dark green behemoth of a river is New Zealand’s longest and even in the city, it is ensconced in a thick, temperature forest of native bush.
There are numerous places to sit by and enjoy the river, and bars and restaurants that overlook it, but my favorite way to experience the quiet majesty of this sacred river is by walking the river path.
There are pathways that follow the river for miles in both directions from the city center so it’s easy to join a trail and walk as far as you’d like.
3) Eat One of the Best Ice Creams in New Zealand at Duck Island Ice Cream
I’m not usually a big ice cream fan but when I am home in New Zealand I make sure to eat ice cream at least a few times because our dairy is the best in the world, and so is our ice cream.
And one of the top-rated ice creams in New Zealand is Duck Island Ice Cream which started out in Hamilton and can now be found all over New Zealand.
Visit their original store in Hamilton East to try one of their colorful ice cream sandwiches, or unusual and insanely delicious scoops (Roasted White Chocolate Miso and Maple Honeycomb Smoked Almond are two of their current flavors I want to try).
They have a wide range of gluten-free and vegan ice cream too, making it one of the more inclusive ice cream brands in New Zealand. It’s World Famous in Hamilton.
4) Check Out Hamilton’s Dining Scene
Hamilton’s dining scene has improved in leaps and bounds in the past twenty years and I love dining out in Hamilton these days. Hamilton is a diverse city with immigrants from all over the world and that is definitely reflected in its restaurant scene.
I haven’t sampled any of the fine-dining options in the city (Gothenberg and Palate are both on my list) but my favorite mid-range restaurants are Mr Pickles Bar and Eatery for family-style dining with rotating dishes, Hayes Common for creative gastropub fare, Saigon Noon for excellent Pho, and The Roaming Giant for drinks and tasty pub grub in a buzzy environment.
5) Walk Around Hamilton Lake (Lake Rotoroa)
Along with the Waikato River, you can’t visit Hamilton without visiting its namesake lake, also known as Lake Rotoroa. Located right by the city center, Hamilton Lake is a peaceful spot for a low-key stroll.
There is a footpath that follows right by the lakeshore with sections of boardwalk that go out over the lake. It runs for 3.8km and there is very little elevation gain so it’s perfect for all the family.
Spot ducks and other water birds, beautiful water lilies and lily pads, native trees, and even a cafe to grab an ice cream or coffee along the way.
6) Go Hiking in the Hakarimatas
For a more challenging walk, hike the Hakarimata Summit Track in Ngaruawahia, just outside of Hamilton. This 3.9km out-and-back trail has 354 meters of elevation gain and more than 1000 stairs.
But it’s worth putting in the effort because you will be rewarded with views over the lush Waikato countryside from the top.
Most of the trail is shaded and follows a clear river with small waterfalls through native New Zealand bush. Make sure to say hi to other hikers along the way – Kiwis are friendly and like to greet each other when hiking.
7) Do a Bush Walk at Taitua Arboretum
Taitua Arboretum is another gorgeous nature retreat in Hamilton that is home to a large collection of mature trees, lakes, pastures, and walking trails set over 22 lush acres.
This is the perfect escape from the city whether you relax with a picnic and enjoy the tranquil surroundings, or tackle some of the hiking trails.
8) Do a Day Trip to Raglan
I don’t usually like to add day trips to my lists of things to do in a city – it’s a cop-out – but I couldn’t not add the hippie, surfie beach town of Raglan when it is one of New Zealand’s best small towns, and it is only a 40-minute drive from Hamilton.
Raglan is home to excellent boutiques and gift shops, cute little cafes and restaurants, and numerous windswept and beautiful black sand beaches perfect for catching some waves or taking a dip. There is a small and interesting museum to learn more about local history and culture too if the weather isn’t cooperating during your visit.
It has an energy about it that most towns of its size can only dream of – largely due to the large number of backpackers who pass through here and the eclectic locals. Spend a night or two if you can spare the time, you won’t regret it.
So have these fun things to do in Hamilton New Zealand convinced you to visit? I hope so. It really is worth the time to go, even if it’s just to check out the gardens on the way somewhere else.
Plan Your Trip To Hamilton, NZ
Where To Stay in Hamilton
There are a number of options for places to stay in Hamilton, no matter your budget.
One of the most affordable options is to camp, and Narrows Park offers simple dorms, powered sites and tent sites in the countryside on the outskirts of Hamilton.
If you prefer staying in a hotel or motel, my top picks are Quantum Lodge Motor Inn, The Narrows Landing Boutique Hotel, Ventura Inn & Suites Hamilton, and Argent Motor Lodge.
For vacation rentals, these options are affordable, highly rated, and have a convenient location close to the city:
- Picture Postcard Hideaway Close to the City
- Agapantha One Bedroom Cottage Retreat
- One Bedroom Apartment Close to City
- Secluded Two Bedroom Woodland Cottage
- Light-filled Three Bedroom Home Close to City
How To Get To and Around Hamilton
Hamilton is only 1.5 hours by car from Auckland and there are regular buses you can catch if you don’t have your own vehicle.
The easiest way to get around Hamilton is to self-drive your own car or a rental vehicle but you can also catch local buses, taxis, and uber. A few of these things to do in Hamilton are pretty close and you can easily walk between downtown, the river, and the lake without needing transport.
The Best Insurance For Your Hamilton Trip
Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your trip, just to be on the safe side. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with.
Safety Wing also allows you to sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers.
If you liked this post, check out some more of my North Island New Zealand content:
- 12 Fun Things To Do in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand
- The Ultimate Northland Road Trip: Auckland to Cape Reinga
- The Best Cheap Eats in Auckland
- 26 Fun Things To Do in Auckland To Best Experience the City
- Fun Things To Do in Matakana, North Auckland
- Hiking the Hillary Trail on Auckland’s Wild West Coast
- Fun Things To Do on Waiheke Island: A Subtropical Island Paradise
- Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit: One of New Zealand’s Great Walks
- My Experience Glamping in the Wairarapa, New Zealand
- Exploring Hobbiton: My Dad’s Home Town