Famous for its glorious unspoilt landscapes, New Zealand is also home to beautiful small historic towns you cannot miss! From a quaint French settlement, an authentic gold mining town, the official most beautiful town in New Zealand, a Victorian steampunk town, to an official Hell Hole, here are five cute towns in New Zealand to add to your itinerary.

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Must-visit beautiful small historic towns in New Zealand

The following charming small towns in New Zealand are all steeped in history. They’re listed in alphabetical order instead of order of preference or location.

1. Akaroa

Located at only 84 kilometres south-east from Christchurch, charming Akaroa is also well worth a visit. This cute New Zealand town lies perched on one of the many bays of Banks Peninsula. Formed by volcano activity, the scenic peninsula is blessed with its own unique landscape, wildlife and atmosphere. And picturesque Akaroa of course!

What is Akaroa famous for?

Akaroa isn’t only one of the most beautiful towns in New Zealand, but also the country’s only French town. The small French settlement was established in 1840. It was founded just after the signing of the momentous Waitangi Treaty between the British colonists and Māori chiefs. (See last entry in this list.) Formerly a thriving whaling station, present-day Akaroa is mostly famous for its French heritage and unique wildlife experiences.

Marble stone on the shore of Akaroa saying: 'This stone is erected to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the French settlers who landed near this spot on 16th Aug. 1840.'
idyllic view of a boat house on Akaroa beach surrounded by montains and golden coloured trees

Top things to do in Akaroa

  1. Soak up Akaroa’s mixed French and British heritage with its colonial architecture and charming shops and cafés.
  2. Go for a walk around Akaroa Harbour. Admire the deep turquoise water and diverse landscape that’s been shaped and moulded over millions of years.
  3. Explore the rich wildlife ofAkaroa Harbour during an Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruise. Banks Peninsula is one of the best places to see the Hector’s dolphin, the smallest and rarest marine dolphin in the world. But also albatross, orcas and whales are known to frequent Akaroa Harbour!
  4. Rather prefer exploring the unique flora and fauna of Akaroa Harbour by kayak or canoe? Go on a guided tour or go peddling on your own.
  5. Visit the 19th-century Akaroa Lighthouse. Although this iconic Victorian landmark has been decommissioned, it’s possible to visit it on certain days.
  6. Get up close and personal with the Akaroa fur seal colony. A unique opportunity as the colony is located on private property and tour groups are kept small. Click here to book your Akaroa seal colony tour.
  7. See penguins in their natural habitat. The Pohatu penguin colony is the largest Little Penguin colony on mainland New Zealand. Just like the aforementioned seal colony, it’s only possible to visit the penguin colony on small guided tours. Click here to find more information about the Pohato penguin tours.
  8. Visit the eye-catching historical Giant’s House, which is famous for its remarkable sculpture park.
  9. Learn all about the historic township, its people and Banks Peninsula’s wildlife at Akaroa Museum.
  10. Discover some of New Zealand’s finest artists at the Akaroa Art Gallery, which is housed in the historic Orion Powerhouse Gallery. Dating back to 1911, this building used to store hydro-electric power equipment. Besides exhibitions, the gallery also hosts concerts.
exterior of the cute looking Silk Italia shop selling European fashion in Akaroa, New Zealand

How to get to Akaroa

Akaroa is only about a 90-minute drive from Christchurch. There are coach companies that offer day trips from Christchurch to Akaroa. If you prefer to travel by car, then simply take Highway 75 into Akaroa. When you leave the peninsula again, travel back via Summit Road to indulge in some stunning panoramic views of the rugged landscape.

Accommodation in Akaroa

Considering staying overnight? Akaroa is known as a seaside resort and offers some great hotels, even with harbour views. We stayed just outside of town, in the lovely Halfmoon Cottage. It’s quiet, clean, spacious, conveniently located and offers good value for money.

Find more accommodation options on Banks Pensinsula in the vicinity of Akaroa here.

2. Arrowtown

exterior of Lakes District Museum & Art Gallery
Lakes District Museum & Art Gallery (Photo credit: Makalu / Pixabay, edited by me)

Voted ‘Most Beautiful Small Town in New Zealand’ in 2020, historic Arrowtown makes for a surprising cultural destination. It’s a great little gem, tucked between adrenalin-fuelled Queenstown and the resort town of Wanaka.

What is Arrowtown famous for?

Arrowtown, New Zealand, is a historic gold mining town.

Chances are, you’ve probably heard of the mid-1800s gold rush in America. That time in history when thousands of fortune seekers ventured to California in search of gold. But, did you know that New Zealand was also a popular gold mining destination at the time? Well, I certainly didn’t!

There were indeed droves of gold diggers – in the literal sense – who made their way to New Zealand. Since one of the gold-rich areas was by Arrow river in the region of Otago, Arrowtown was founded during this time.

exterior of The Gold Nugget, a shop in Arrowtown selling craft, art and jewellery
exterior of the pretty café Dudley Cottage in Arrowtown, New Zealand

Top things to do in Arrowtown

  1. Visit the impressive Arrowtown Chinese settlement which housed over 3,500 Chinese gold miners during the Otago Gold Rush. While the country had welcomed the first wave of Chinese settlers, that attitude changed as the numbers drastically increased. Forced to live in cruddy huts, these restored historic dwellings now show another face of this once booming town whilst highlighting some of its remarkable former immigrant residents.
  2. Wander through Arrowtown Village and explore its architecture that reminded me of the American Wild West. (As seen in films obviously, I’m not that old.)
  3. Visit Arrowtown Autumn Festival and indulge in the radiant autumn colours Arrowtown is famed for. This fabulous annual 5-day festival takes place in April.
  4. Learn all about the fascinating history of Arrowtown and Otago region in the Lakes District Museum & Art Gallery. But do make sure to carve out plenty of time for this! I thought one hour would be enough but disappointingly didn’t get to see all engaging exhibits before we had to hit the road again to our next destination.
  5. Join a guided walking tour to discover the – in many ways – rich history of Arrowtown.
  6. Alternatively, you can explore the town and its surroundings independently. There are no less than fifteen trails you can do on foot, by bike or 4WD, including the popular Sawpit Gully Track and Lakes Hayes Loop. Maps are available from the museum.
  7. Go gold panning in Arrow River. Who knows you might make some extra cash on your holiday in New Zealand!
  8. Watch a film at local’s favourite Dorothy Brown’s boutique Cinema, Bar & Bookshop.
  9. Sample delicious foods at the Arrowtown Farmers Market. Get a taste of some of locally grown and reared food, while supporting local businesses.
streetview of Arrowtown, voted the Most beautiful town in New Zealand in 2020
hut in the 19th-century Arrowtown Chinese settlement, New Zealand
Arrowtown Chinese settlement

How to get to Arrowtown

By car it’s about a 25-minute drive from Queenstown to Arrowtown. Take State Highway 6A and 6 consecutively.

From Wanaka it’s about a 1-hour drive and you can choose between two different routes. First of all, you can opt for the scenic Crown Range Road which, at a dazzling altitude of 1,121 metres, is New Zealand’s highest main road. Alternatively, if you prefer roads that are closer to sea level (like we did), take State Highway 6 instead.

If you don’t have a car, you can take the direct Line 2 bus from Queenstown to Arrowtown. It takes only 33 minutes and costs $7-$11. There are no direct busses from Wanaka to Arrowtown. Instead, you could travel via Queenstown and take the bus from there.

Accommodation in Arrowtown

We only made a day trip to Arrowtown travelling from Wanaka to Queenstown so I can’t share a personal recommendation. However, click here to browse your options for accommodation in Arrowtown.

3. Feilding

town centre of Feilding, voted 16 times as Most Beautiful Town in New Zealand
Feilding town centre (Photo credit: ManawatuNZ.co.nz, edited by me)

Nicknamed ‘Friendly Feilding’, this cute town is the 16-time winner of the title ‘New Zealand’s most beautiful town’!

What is Feilding famous for?

The town of Feilding is a little rural gem tucked away in the Manawatu District, 160 kilometres north of Wellington. Named after Colonel William Fielding, director of the London-based Emigrant and Colonist’s Aid Corporation, the original township was established in the 1870s.

With agriculture as its main industry, Feilding became one of the North Island’s main saleyards, a place where livestock is sold. Although the Feilding Saleyards is still the town’s core trade, it won its prestigious title (many times) thanks to its beautiful town centre.

Famous for its friendly atmosphere, Edwardian architecture, red-bricked pavements and lush flower beds, this beautiful New Zealand town is a real surprise for unassuming tourists.

Feilding Farmers' Market, held under the Clocktower in Manchester Square in Feilding, New Zealand
Feilding Farmers’ Market (Photo credit: ManawatuNZ.co.nz, edited by me)
exterior of the historic Feilding Hotel in Feilding, New Zealand
The historic Feilding Hotel (Photo credit: Michal Klajban / Wikimedia Commons, edited by me)

Top things to do in Feilding

  1. Join a Feilding Salesyards guided tour. Learn about the fascinating local history from your knowledgeable guide and witness a livestock auction at one of the largest saleyards of the Southern Hemisphere!
  2. Eat your way ‘round Feilding Farmer’s Market. This award-winning market takes place on Fridays from 8.30am till 1.30pm in Manchester Square all year round. It’s a great place to buy local produce directly from farmers and growers and to sample some artisan delicacies.
  3. Admire the beautiful heritage buildings. Home to gorgeous historic buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century, Feilding is a great destination for botth architecture and culture lovers.
  4. Visit the Coach House Museum. A surprising museum with a vast collection showcasing 140 years of local history. This is a great place to learn about New Zealand’s rural history and the lives of early settlers. The large farm machinery, horse-drawn carriages and vintage vehicles, help make this piece of history come back to live again.
  5. Attend a car or motorbike race at the Manfeild race circuit. Host to the New Zealand Grand Prix, Manfeild race course is a must-visit for motorsports lovers. Besides car racing, Manfeild organises many different events on its grounds and Manfeild Stadium such as rugby matches and crafts markets.
  6. Visit Cloyton Clocks. Housing time pieces from all over the world, this specialty museum has the largest clock collection in the Southern Hemisphere. With pieces dating back over 300 years ago, you’ll be literally stepping back in time.
  7. Catch a movie at the Focal Point Cinema Coffee & Wine bar. This award-winning boutique cinema is housed in a beautiful art deco style building. Besides the two film screens, the cinema is also a popular place to enjoy a delicious breakfast, coffee, cake or wine.
exterior of the retro art deco style Focal Point Cinema in Feilding, New Zealand
Focal Point Cinema Feilding, New Zealand (Photo credit: ManawatuNZ.co.nz)
visitors looking at the auctioneers and sheep at Saleyards Feilding
Saleyards Feilding (Photo credit: ManawatuNZ.co.nz)

How to get to Feilding

Located on State Highway 54, 20 kilometres from Palmerston North, Feilding is easiest to reach by car. Alternatively, you can reach it by plane or train from Auckland (travel into Palmerston), train or bus.

Travelling by public transport from Wellington, you can either take the train (to Palmerston North) or bus.

Accommodation in Feilding

Click here to find your accommodation in ‘Friendly Feilding’. One of the most popular hotels in Feilding is the charming 19th-century Feilding Hotel.

4. Oamaru

streetview of Oamaru with festive bunting hanging in street with historic stone buildings

Step back into time in this quaint New Zealand town and admire its elegant Victorian architecture. Located only 120 kilometres north of the lovely city of Dunedin, Oamaru sits right on the East Coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

What is Oamaru famous for?

Possibly the most notable Victorian steampunk town in the world, Oamaru is a unique blend of history and science fiction. Using locally quarried limestone, Oamaru is famous for its striking white Victorian architecture built during the town’s economic boom of the late 19th century.

As the local economy declined during the 20th century, the once thriving town sadly started to fade. Fortunately, the town received a cultural boost in the 1980s again, when a small group of individuals founded the Whitestone Civic Trust.

Set to revive the city’s former commercial stone buildings into today’s Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct, the Trust helped put Oamaru back on the map.

streetview of Oamaru, the beautiful historic steampunk town in New Zealand

Top things to do in Oamaru

  1. Visit Steampunk HQ and celebrate steampunk culture. Located in an 1883 stone building, Steampunk HQ is an art collaboration and gallery that promotes … you’ve guessed it: steampunk!
  2. Explore Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct and admire its elegant limestone buildings.
  3. Have a browse in the lovely quaint bookshops in the Victorian Precinct. Specialising in second-hand and rare books, the Oamaru bookshops are real treasure troves.
  4. Join the festivities of the annual Victorian Fete. Taking place in November, this fun annual 5-day family festival raises money for the Whitestone Civic Trust. Festival events include dances, talks, penny farthing races and a garden party while visitors are encouraged to dress in Victorian costume.
  5. Take in splendid sights of Oamaru and its surroundings during a lovely promenade walk along Oamaru Harbour. Keep an eye out for the sea birds, but also seals and penguins.
  6. Watch the entertaining and informational video about the history of Oamaru at the Oamaru i-SITE visitor centre. This is also a great place to pick up information on local sights and activities.
  7. Take a guided tour of Oamaru’s historic precinct. Book your tickets at the i-SITE visitor which is also the starting point of the 1-hour tour.
  8. Visit the Oamaru Blue Penguin colony to see the world’s smallest penguins in their natural habitat.
  9. Oamaru is also one of the few places where you can see the rare yellow-eyed penguins.
  10. Try out some authentic New Zealand locally distilled whisky, the legacy of the Scottish settlers who arrived here from the 1830s onwards. Home to the New Zealand Whisky Collection, Oamaru finds itself at the heart of the recent New Zealand whisky revival.
exterior of Steampunk HQ in Oamaru, New-Zealand

How to get to Oamaru

Oamaru is located right off State Highway 1 on the East Coast of New Zealand. It sits 250 kilometres south from Christchurch and 120 kilometres from Dunedin. From either of these cities you could take a bus to Oamaru, but the quickest way to get there is by car. Although the East Coast isn’t as exciting as New Zealand’s spectacular West Coast, it has some great gems, Oamaru being one of them.

Accommodation in Oamaru

We only spent the day in Oamaru as a stop between Dunedin and Twizel. I therefore don’t have any personal recommendations, but click here to see the different accommodation options in Oamaru.

5. Russell

Exterior of Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell, New Zealand
Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell (Photo credit: Claire Cox / Flickr, edited by me)

Originally named Kororāreka by the Māori, Russell was the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand. Being the oldest town in New Zealand, Russell is famous for its chequered past.

What is Russell famous for?

Today, Russell is a quiet charming town located in the bountiful Bay of Islands region on the North Island. Taking in all the pretty sights, it’s difficult to imagine it was once a rowdy settlement filled with raucous whalers, sailors, brothels and even escaped convicts.

Yet, arriving on the shores of present-day Russell, the wooden stocks are a reminder of the town’s dodgy past. Internationally known as the ‘Hell Hole of the Pacific’ in the 19th century, Kororāreka was eventually renamed Russell after the secretary state for the Colonies (and later British prime minister), Lord John Russell.

In the midst of all the debauchery, European missionaries set up the Pompallier Mission which played a significant role in the spread of Christianity across New Zealand.

Information sign, cemetary and church building of Christ Church in Russell, New Zealand

Top things to do in Russell

  1. Join a tour at the Pompallier Mission and Printery. The printery is housed in a beautiful timber building surrounded by an award-winning heritage garden. This is were the early Christian missionaries in New Zealand saw to the production of Māori Bibles. During the fun and hands-on tour, you’ll learn about the entire local Bible-making process.
  2. Climb up to Flagstaff Hill. Following a steep walk up to this historic site, you’ll get to enjoy fabulous 360 degrees views. Besides a stunning sun dial, decorated with intricate mosaics, you’ll also find a historic flagpole here that has been extremely controversial throughout its entire history. Learn the complete insider story from the information signs in the area.
  3. Step inside Russell Museum. Dedicated to telling the great tales of Russell’s history – originating as a small Māori fishing village to becoming a significant whaling station – this museum is fantastic little gem.
  4. Admire Christ Church: New Zealand’s oldest surviving church. Built in 1835, this Anglican church also holds regular Sunday services in Māori. If you look closely at the building, you can still see the musket holes in the outer wall, a reminder of the conflicts between the early European settlers and Māori.
  5. See if you can spot some of New Zealand’s rarest birds. During our forest walk up to Flagstaff Hill we saw some incredible birds native to New Zealand, such as the tui and weka.
  6. Go wine tasting at a local winery. Located in the Bay of Islands with its sub-tropical climate, Russell is home to two wineries. Both the boutique vineyard Omata Estate and Paroa Bay Winery offer wine tastings.
  7. Immerse yourself in history at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Located across the bay from Russell, Waitangi is a significant historic site as it’s the birthplace of New Zealand. At this very location, the British colonisers and Māori chiefs signed the Waitangi Treaty, New Zealand’s founding document, in 1840. You can learn more about the events leading up to this treaty, and its following implications, at the award-winning Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi. Other important historical sites in Waitangi include the Treaty House, war canoe and flagpole. Also the Māori Meeting House with its intricate carving, representing all Māori tribes, makes for a spectacular sight.
three Moari Bibles printed at the historic Pompallier Mission and Printery in Russell, New Zealand
Māori Bibles in the Pompallier Mission and Printery
cultural performance in the Maori meeting house in Waitangi, zooming in on the intricate carvings
Cultural performance in the Māori meeting house in Waitangi

How to get to Russell

If you want to get straight into your Bay of Islands visit, you can fly from Auckland to Kerikeri in less than an hour. From Kerikeri it’s an hour’s drive from to Russell. Russell is accessible by road, but the easiest way to visit is to catch a vehicle ferry from Opua (5 minutes), or passenger ferry from Paihia, which takes only 15 minutes.

Accommodation in Russell

We visited Russell for the day during our stay in Paihia, a bigger town on the other side of the bay and only a short ferry ride away. Since many exciting excursions depart from Paihia, you want your accommodation in Paihia. Rather stay in quieter and historic Russell? Then click here to find your accommodation. Especially the beautiful hotel Duke of Marlborough right on the shore overlooking the bay is a popular choice amongst travellers. (Their restauarant is lovely too!)

Finally, as Russell is located in the lush sub-tropical Bay of Islands, you may want to stay in an alternative location in this beautiful region. Find all your accommodation in the Bay of Islands here.

Would you consider visiting any of these beautiful small historic towns in New Zealand? If so, which one(s)?
Let me know in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx

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10 Comments

  1. New Zealand has always been on my bucket list for its beautiful sceneries i always see online. I didn’t know it has a french town and also has french influences! Thanks for sharing this comprehensive list of small towns to see! 🙂

  2. MagicandBliss Reply

    I don’t know when will I ever get the chance to visit New Zealand! For now I can only virtually read up and see pictures of it through your blog. Thanks!

  3. I love visiting charming old towns. What a lovely post. Interesting to see the diversity … a French town, a Chinese town, an English town. All beautiful. Really loved the many white limestone buildings in Oamaru, too.

  4. New Zealand looks like such an amazing place. It is on our life bucket list. These historic towns look quaint and fun to explore. We are total outdoor adventure junkies and would love your recommendation to sea kayak the Akaroa Harbour.

    • I hope you’ll get to visit New Zealand one day as it really is such a beautiful country with such diverse landscapes, but also beautiful towns and cities, the perfect combination!

  5. These towns look so cute! I was supposed to be visiting New Zealand this Christmas (until COVID!) so I’ve saved this post to Pinterest for when I can visit! Thanks for sharing

    • Aaaaw, that’s a real bummer for your NZ trip, but I hope you’ll get to go soon. It’s such a lovely place, I’ve been there twice now and wouldn’t mind going again. There’s so much to see and do still! I’ve got some more New Zealand articles on the site if you need more inspiration 🙂

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