The first time you realise that you are getting close to Rotorua is when the initial smell of sulphur hits you! New Zealand’s gorgeous geothermal playground, Rotorua is steeped in Maori tradition and offers an array of adventures activities, from sedate nature trails and bush walks to relaxing in mud pools or zooming down a hill in a giant bubble (talk about extremes). Here is our guide on the best things to do in Rotorua, New Zealand.
How to get to Rotorua
Rotorua is an easy 3.5 hour drive from Auckland (or 5.5 hours from Wellington). It can be done as a long day trip from Auckland, but we would recommend staying a few nights to enjoy as many activities in the region as possible. Check out our Auckland to Rotorua 5 day itinerary or our Auckland to Wellington via Rotorua itinerary for some road trip inspiration.
Driving is the best way to reach Rotorua, but if you do not have your own transport then you can book a seat on an InterCity coach (journey time from Auckland: 4.5 hours), or fly to Rotorua Airport with Air New Zealand (journey time from Auckland: 45 minutes).
There are also many group tours available that depart from Auckland and take you to Rotorua for the day.
Best time to visit Rotorua
Rotorua is a great place to visit all year round but the shoulder seasons of spring (September – October) and autumn (March – May) have the least crowds and most comfortable temperatures.
What’s that smell in Rotorua?
You will notice that Rotorua does have a rather unique and pungent aroma – a bit like rotting eggs! Due to the high level of geothermal activity in Rotorua there is a smell of sulphur in the air but you do get used to it after a while.
Things to do in Rotorua
9 Geothermal attractions:
New Zealand is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire and is therefore very geothermally active. Rotorua is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone (a geothermal field that extends from White Island down to to Mt Ruapehu) and is home to many exciting features such a spouting geysers, bubbling mud pools, steaming vents and boiling lakes. These are the best geothermal things to do in Rotorua:
1. Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland
We return to Wai O Tapu every time we’re in Rotorua as to us, it feels like the most rugged and natural geothermal park of all the ones we’ve visited. Highlights include the amazing colours of the bubbling Champagne Pool (you’ll recognise it from all the Instagram photos) and also the Lady Knox geyser, which spouts large plumes of steam regularly.
Named after the Maori word ‘sacred waters’, Wai-O-Tapu is a wonderful spot to walk around and you can easily spend a morning or afternoon here walking around the trails and native bushland here.
Wai-O-Tapu is located a 20 minute drive out of Rotorua town so if you don’t have your own transport you can book a shuttle.
2. Waimangu Thermal Valley
The Waimangu Thermal Valley is a huge thermal area that was created after the 1886 Mount Tarawera eruption, and is the youngest geothermal eco-system in the world. Wandering through the epic grounds, you will be able to admire a variety of geothermal features such as the beautiful Inferno Crater which rises and falls as it heats and cools, and the Frying Pan Lake, one of the largest hot water springs in the World.
You can purchase a self guided walk ticket, or a ticket that also includes a 45 minute lake cruise. There are a variety of different hikes for all abilities that range from 1.5km to 4km long.
Just like Wai-O-Tapu, Waimangu Thermal Valley is located a 25 minute drive out of Rotorua town so if you don’t have a car you can book a shuttle.
3. Hell’s Gate
George Bernard Shaw once noted that “..this could be the very gates of hell…”upon his visit in the 1930s, although these days, Hell’s Gate is more renowned as a geothermal spa.
The healing qualities of the waters here have been used for 800 years initially by the local Maori people and more so these days by a constant throng of daytrippers. There are several ways to experience Hell’s Gate in Rotorua, ranging from the walking trail that goes around the pools and nearby native bush, through to full on beauty and spa treatments like mud baths or trying hangi (food steamed in the cooking pool).
4. Te Puia
This thermal reserve is located in the Te Whakarewarewa geothermal valley where there are more than 500 geothermal features to be seen. The most famous is the Pohutu geyser, which erupts up to 30 metres high into the air, around 20 times a day. Other attractions in the park include Māori cultural performances, hangi feasts, boiling mud pools, a nocturnal kiwi house, native bush and the National Schools of Wood Carving and Weaving.
This is quite a touristy experience but is an easy attraction to reach if you are staying in town.
5. Kuirau Park
This public park is located in Rotorua town centre and you can view some small bubbling mud pits and steam vents all within safe enclosures, and all for free! There are also some nice hot foot baths to soak your feet in.
6. Sulphur Point, Rotorua Lake
Along the shores of Rotorua Lake is a boardwalk that starts behind the Tudor House in Government Gardens, which takes you to the unique landscape of Sulphur Point. Take a walk along it and you will pass several bubbling mud holes, steaming vents and the naturally hot and bubbling geothermal lake. A number of endangered bird species also reside in the bay’s wildlife refuge.
7. Polynesian Spa
The picture perfect setting of Rotorua’s Polynesian spa, nestled on the shores in Lake Rotorua, combined with the various geothermal hot pools (private and shared) make this one of the most relaxing and reinvigorating experiences you’ll have in Rotorua, if not the whole of New Zealand.
Opened in the late 1800s and developed over time, the Polynesian Spa offers a variety of activities, from massages and mud bath polishes to facials or flat whites in the cafe.
If you do have the budget, we’d recommend you pay extra for a private pool for part of your experience, as during the day, the constant influx of tour buses from Auckland and the chatter of tour groups can be a little off putting (or visit after all the tour buses have left for the day!).
8. Manupirua Springs Hot Pools
These lesser known hot pools are nestled on the shores of Lake Rotoiti in Manupirua Bay with stunning lake views. However getting here is only possible by boat or by air!
There are seven naturally heated mineral hot pools right beside the lake, so as well as having dreamy views, you can also cool down afterwards by hopping into the lake for a quick swim. A cafe is available onsite which sells hot food and ice creams, as well as a variety of beer and wine.
The best way to visit the hot pools is as part of an organised tour (check out the list of tours here), which include the Rotorua jet boat, Waimarino Kayak Tours, Pure Cruise and Volcanic Air scenic flights. A water taxi also runs to the hot pools on weekends between 4 pm-6 pm, and costs $65 per adult including admission to the pools.
9. Waikite Valley Thermal Pools
These hot pools are located a little further out of Rotorua (a 25 minute drive) but have fewer crowds than Polynesian Spa – so if you are looking for a peaceful experience we recommend you head here instead.
The water for the 6 outdoor pools comes straight out of the Te Manaroa natural boiling spring, and it is the only large thermal pool complex in New Zealand using only 100% pure natural geothermal water. You can take a walk along the Te Manaroa Spring Eco-trail within the grounds to visit the source of the geothermal water.
Entry to the pools is 20 NZD, or you can pay a bit extra to book a private pool. You can also book a ‘Geothermal Valley Combo’ on their website which includes the entry fee to Waimangu Volcanic Valley.
10. Skyline Rotorua
Rotorua’s adventure centre starts with the gondola ride to the top of Mount Ngongotaha, with views overlooking the lake at the top. Once you’ve soaked up the vista, have some fun on the luge (like a concrete bobsleigh), slide on the ziplines or grab a bite to eat in the Stratosphere restaurant. If you need to work off the food afterwards, you can walk back down or cycle on one of the mountain bike tracks.
As you’d expect, the set-up here is very similar to the gondola and luge in Queenstown (it is the same operators), although the views at top here are arguably not as remarkable as the…erm Remarkables.
11. Redwoods Forest
Located a 5 minute drive from downtown Rotorua is the iconic Redwood forest, home to the Redwoods Treewalk and Redwoods Nightlights. This award winning eco-tourism walk lets you wander through the huge 117-year-old majestic redwood trees along a series of 28 eco suspension bridges and platforms, 9-20 metres high. This walk can also be done at night illuminated by 30 exquisite lanterns.
If you are looking for something a bit more exhilarating then you can also zipline or mountain bike through the forest!
Crashing down a hill at 50km an hour in a plastic bubble may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but we can hand on heart say it is one of the more fun experiences we’ve encountered in New Zealand, and the closest you’ll get to riding in washing machine (water is added in the bubble to stop friction burns and cushion your landing).
Zorb’s only official location is in Rotorua (near to the Agrodome area, where you can do all manner of extreme sports). Just ‘roll with it’ and see if you also want to attempt the world’s longest zig zag zorb track. As someone who isn’t into high altitude activities like paragliding or bungee, this is a much more sedate but still slightly scary sport.
13. Rotorua Museum and Government Gardens
The beautiful Tudor style Rotorua Museum used to be a famous spa but now houses a museum about its history, plus an art gallery, cafe and gift shop.
The surrounding Government Gardens are also lovely to explore with a croquet green, tea rooms, rose garden, water features and some cool Maori art. Free guided tours of Government Gardens run everyday at 11am and 2pm.
NOTE: The museum itself is currently closed for earthquake strengthening.
14. Rotorua Maori culture
The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand who settled here more than 1000 years ago and Rotorua is a great place to learn all about Māori Culture.
There are three Maori replica villages in town: Whakarewarewa, Tamaki Village and Mitai Village.
Whakarewarewa is a daytime experience, and Tamaki / Mitai are open in the evening, both serving a traditional hangi dinner (food cooked using natural springs and steam in the ground) along with live entertainment (Haka and traditional Maori songs).
If you want to combine geothermal activites with Maori culture then Te Puia offers Maori performances throughout the day, plus a Maori Night Cultural Experience. All of these are all quite touristy experiences but an interesting thing to do if you want to learn more about New Zealand Maori culture.
15. Lake Rotorua boat trips
Lake Rotorua is the north island’s second largest lake, and was created after a volcano collapsed which formed a 16 km wide circular caldera. This then filled with water and geothermal activity continues below and around Lake Rotorua to this day. The high sulphur content gives the lake’s milky waters a yellowish-green hue.
If you want to get out onto the lake, then the famous Lakeland Queen is a unique heritage styled vessel which offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee or wine scenic cruises. Check out their website to book a cruise.
Alternatively take a ride in New Zealand’s only genuine World War II landing craft on a Rotorua City and Lakes Duck Tour! This unique 90-minute sightseeing tour takes you over land and into the water by amphibious vehicle.
16. Mount Tarawera crater walk
The huge eruption of Mount Tarawera volcano in 1886 created the world’s youngest geothermal valley of Waimangu. These days you can now safely visit the summit of this volcano on a guided tour and view the unique landscapes and amazing 360° panoramic views of Rotorua. Check out this Mount Tarawera Volcanic Crater Half-Day Guided Walk on GetYourGuide.
If you have a bit more cash to flash, then you can book a scenic flight to the crater with Volcanic Air. They also offer a variety of other flights that take you over some of Rotorua’s more colourful geothermal attractions.
17. Jet boating trips
A jet boat ride is a really fun thing to do in Rotorua, and there are a couple of jet boating companies that offer ride only or combo package deals. The rides are exhilarating and reach up to speeds up of 80km/hr with thrilling 360 degree spins!
The company Katoa Lake Rotorua offers jet boat rides on Lake Rotorua, and the combo deals include a visit to Manupirua Springs Hot Pools that we mentioned earlier, or to Mokoia Island, which is located in the middle of Lake Rotorua where you can explore the wildlife sanctuary.
New Zealand River Jet run tours along the Waikato River, and also offer combo deals. They are the only river jet tour that allows you to step off the boat and onto a geothermal area (Orakei Korako in nearby Taupo).
18. White water rafting
If you are an adrenaline junkie looking for some thrilling things to do in Rotorua, then check out the grade 5 white water rafting activity tours on offer along the Kaituna River, just 25 minutes drive from town. Here you can brave 14 exciting rapids and the 7 metre tall Tutea Falls, which is the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world.
19. Okere Falls Track
If you want a more sedate way of exploring the Kaituna River then we recommend taking a bushwalk along the short and easy Okere Falls Track. There are viewing platforms along the way with scenic lookouts where you can see waterfalls as well as watch the white water rafters making their way down the Kaituna River. The walk lasts around 1 hour return, and there is a carpark and toilets at the start of the track.
20. Rotorua Night Market
Held every Thursday evening, the Rotorua Night Market is a great spot in town for boutique arts and crafts shopping and sampling a variety of street food from around the world. There is also live music from local and visiting musicians.
Rotorua Night Market runs from 5 to 9pm (weather permitting) on Tutanekai Street, between Haupapa and Hinemoa streets.
There are a few awesome tour companies in Rotorua which offer guided kayaking trips in some epic locations.
Kayak Rotorua have a trip called the Steaming Cliffs Kayak Tour where you can paddle past active geothermal features in Waimangu Thermal Valley! In the evening they offer another trip where you paddle out at sunset to a small cavern which is home to a constellation of glow worms.
River Rats offer a tour where you can paddle out to Manupirua Springs Hot Pools, with free time to relax and enjoy the hot pools or swim in the lake before paddling back.
22. Mokoia Island
In the centre is of Lake Rotorua is a lava dome called Mokoia Island – the sacred island of the Te Arawa people which is steeped in history and local culture, but only accessible by jet boat and on a guided tour.
Katoa Lake Rotorua jet boat which we mentioned earlier offers guided hikes here where you can wander through lush native bush. You’ll also be able to visit New Zealand’s largest island wildlife sanctuary, which is home to native birds such as Tui, Papango and Pukeko, and get a chance to soak your feet in Hinemoa’s Pool (a hot spring).
Things to do near Rotorua
23. Scenic flight over White Island Volcano
Back in 2015 we did an incredible boat/hiking trip to White Island volcano, located off the coast of Whakatāne in the Bay of Plenty (1 hour drive from Rotorua). These tours no longer run anymore after the unexpected eruption in 2019 which tragically killed 21 tourists.
The only way to view the live volcano now is from above by scenic flight, and if you have a whopping 795 NZD to spare then you can book a floatplane flight with Volcanic Air which takes off and lands from the shores of Lake Rotorua. The trip also includes a flight over Mount Tarawera and the colourful Waimangu Volcanic Valley.
Alternatively you can drive over to Whakatāne airport and book this much cheaper scenic flight for 250 NZD!
24. Hobbiton™ Movie Set Tours
Located just under an hours drive from Rotorua is this famous movie set from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Even if you are not a fan of the films (we aren’t) it is still a great day out and it’s so much fun taking photos in front of one of the hobbit holes. Guided tours of the Hobbiton movie set run regularly throughout the day.
Just a 1 hour drive south from Rotorua is this lakeside town that is home to New Zealand’s largest lake and packed with fun things to do. Popular outdoor activities here include skydiving, jet boating by Huka Falls, bungy jumping and Maori rock carving sailing cruises.
Where to stay in Rotorua
BUDGET – Funky Green Voyager
This eco friendly hostel has both private rooms and dorms, huge outdoor garden and communal area with log fire.
MID RANGE – Arista of Rotorua
Located a 20 minute walk from the famous Polynesian Spa with BBQ area and most apartments feature a private hot tub and a private patio.
LUXURY – Ramada Resort By Wyndham Rotorua Marama
Located just 20 minutes outside Rotorua city centre, this resort is situated on the edge of Lake Rotorua with outdoor swimming pool, heated hot tub, fitness centre and a tennis court.
CAMPERVAN SITE – Rotorua TOP 10 Holiday Park
Multi award winning holiday park, located just 1km from the city centre with landscaped grounds, mineral pool complex, heated swimming pool, outdoor BBQ areas and kitchens.