Modern New Zealand is a relatively young country, with the first Maori people migrating across the Pacific Ocean in the 13th century and European settlement starting barely 200 years ago. Britain formally colonized the lands of New Zealand Aotearoa from 1840, and although the country has been effectively independent since 1948, it wasn’t until 1986 that it gained full legal independence from the UK.
From archaeological sites that show the marks of early Polynesian settlement in New Zealand to colonial-era sites that mark early interactions between Maori and Europeans to 20th-century monuments to natural and human-made disasters, here are some of the most significant and interesting historic sites in New Zealand.
If travelers to New Zealand have to choose just one historic site to visit, it should be Waitangi. The small settlement in Northland’s Bay of Islands is where, in 1840, Maori chiefs signed an agreement with representatives of the British crown, ceding sovereignty of their land. The Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) is the founding document of modern New Zealand. British colonization of New Zealand is generally considered to have begun in 1840, even though the British and other Europeans had been steadily arriving earlier in the 19th century.
At the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi, visitors can learn about Northland and New Zealand history. A full replica of the Treaty of Waitangi in both English and Te Reo Maori is on display in the Treaty House, an 1830s British-style home that was built for the official British Resident, James Busby. The ornately carved and decorated marae (meeting house) represents the stories of various iwi (tribes) from around the country. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds were designated New Zealand’s first National Historic Landmark in 2019.
Just across the water from Waitangi, little Russell is now a relaxed place full of holiday homes and boutique restaurants. It wasn’t always so peaceful, however. In the early 19th century, the town, then called Kororareka, was nicknamed “the hellhole of the Pacific.” It was a notoriously lawless place, where the crews of British and American whaling ships got drunk, visited brothels, and sometimes clashed with local Maori people. The small wooden Christ Church bears the evidence of Russell’s past. The Battle of Kororareka in 1845 was just one of many conflicts between Europeans and Maori in the area, and the church was caught in the crossfire. You can still see the holes formed by musket bullets in the church’s exterior.
Rainbow Warrior Memorial, Northland
Between the 1960s and 1980s, France tested nuclear weapons in parts of French Polynesia. Environmental group Greenpeace used its ship, the Rainbow Warrior, in protests against this testing, and regularly docked in New Zealand. In 1985, two French agents boarded the ship while it was docked in Auckland Harbour and blew it up. Portuguese-Dutch photographer Fernando Pereira was killed in the second of two explosions.
France, an ally of New Zealand, initially denied any involvement, but the New Zealand Police identified the French agents involved. Two were imprisoned for 10 years, but France threatened an economic embargo against New Zealand unless they were allowed to return to France. New Zealand condemned the bombing as a breach of international law; it strained relations between New Zealand and France for many years.
In December 1987, the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior was taken from Auckland to Matauri Bay in the Far North, near the Cavalli Islands. Now, only divers can visit the wreck itself, but an attractive memorial made by artist Chris Booth stands at Matauri Bay.
Art Deco Buildings in Napier, Hastings, and Havelock North
Many of the 1930s buildings in the Hawkes Bay towns of Napier, Hastings, and Havelock North tell a dramatic story. On the morning of Feb. 3, 1931 a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Hawke’s Bay. It killed more than 250 people, destroyed buildings, and caused the coastline to permanently recede.
The Art Deco artistic style was popular around the world in the 1920s but was just becoming fashionable in New Zealand in the 1930s. Many of Napier, Hastings, and Havelock North’s buildings were rebuilt in the style. Now, a major highlight of visiting Napier is taking an Art Deco tour, either guided or independent.
Botanic Sports Field, Nelson
Sports fans won’t want to miss this place. The Botanics Sports Field in Nelson is the site where New Zealand’s first rugby game was played. Charles Monro was a young local man who studied in England, bringing knowledge of the new game back to New Zealand with him. On Saturday, May 14, 1870, Nelson Football Club played Nelson College, kicking off what is now a national obsession. The score? Nelson Football Club won, 2:0.
Nowadays, the Botanics Sports Field is a large sports field where a variety of games are played. It’s beneath the Centre of New Zealand Monument, which has great views across Nelson, Tasman Bay, and the mountains of the Kahurangi National Park.
Whariwharangi Bay, Golden Bay
Although New Zealand Aotearoa became a British colony, the first Europeans to land here and interact with Maori people were part of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s crew. They first landed at Whariwharangi Bay in 1642, which is now on the Golden Bay side of the Abel Tasman National Park. His crew’s first encounter with Maori turned violent, and their expedition left the area, continuing up to the North Island.
Motuara Island, Marlborough Sounds
The Marlborough Sounds, at the top of the South Island, are naturally gorgeous but they also contain a historically significant site. More than a century after Tasman first visited the South Island, Captain James Cook made several stops in the Marlborough Sounds in the 1770s. On Motuara Island, near the entrance of the Queen Charlotte Sound, there’s a memorial stone marking the place where Cook claimed possession of the South Island on behalf of England’s King George III. A pre-European Maori pa (fortified settlement) lies at one end of the island, and the area was where some of the first sustained contact between Maori and Pakeha (Europeans) occurred. Motuara Island is now a Department of Conservation-run bird sanctuary. The Cook Memorial on the mainland is nearby, at Resolution Bay, and marks the start of the beautiful Queen Charlotte Track, a five-day hike.
Wairau Bar, Marlborough
At the mouth of the Wairau River near Blenheim, the Wairau Bar contains one of the oldest and most important archaeological sites in New Zealand. It was settled by some of New Zealand Aotearoa’s first Polynesian explorers in the late 13th century. Several thousand early Maori artifacts and bones have been found at the site, and give a lot of insights into early human inhabitation of Aotearoa.
Takiroa Rock Art Shelter, Waikaura
Although neighboring Australia is much more famous for its extensive ancient rock art sites, there are a handful of places in New Zealand Aotearoa where pre-European rock art can be seen. Northern Otago and Southern Canterbury, in the South Island, house most of these. The limestone caves at Takiroa contain charcoal and red ochre paintings of birds, animals, and people, as well as some of European ships. They’re believed to date from between the 14th and 19th centuries.
University of Otago, Dunedin
Being a small country, New Zealand only has a handful of universities. The University of Otago, in the southern city of Dunedin, is the oldest and one of the most highly respected. Modern Dunedin was settled by Scottish migrants who valued education for both boys and girls, men and women. In 1869, when Dunedin was barely two decades old, the University of Otago was established. The attractive neo-gothic clock tower building was constructed in 1879 and is a recognizable symbol of the university, although these days most campus buildings are much more modern in design.