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.
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.
Top things to do in Akaroa
- Soak up Akaroa’s mixed French and British heritage with its colonial architecture and charming shops and cafés.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Visit the 19th-century Akaroa Lighthouse. Although this iconic Victorian landmark has been decommissioned, it’s possible to visit it on certain days.
- 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.
- 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.
- Visit the eye-catching historical Giant’s House, which is famous for its remarkable sculpture park.
- Learn all about the historic township, its people and Banks Peninsula’s wildlife at Akaroa Museum.
- 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.
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.
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.
Top things to do in Arrowtown
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Join a guided walking tour to discover the – in many ways – rich history of Arrowtown.
- 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.
- Go gold panning in Arrow River. Who knows you might make some extra cash on your holiday in New Zealand!
- Watch a film at local’s favourite Dorothy Brown’s boutique Cinema, Bar & Bookshop.
- Sample delicious foods at the Arrowtown Farmers Market. Get a taste of some of locally grown and reared food, while supporting local businesses.
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.
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.
Top things to do in Feilding
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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.
Top things to do in Oamaru
- 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!
- Explore Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct and admire its elegant limestone buildings.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Visit the Oamaru Blue Penguin colony to see the world’s smallest penguins in their natural habitat.
- Oamaru is also one of the few places where you can see the rare yellow-eyed penguins.
- 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.
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.
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.
Top things to do in Russell
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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