Have you ever visited a place that stinks of rotten eggs? As the city of Rotorua in New Zealand may confirm, being famous for active geysers comes with a price. But besides its characteristic pungent smells – thankfully only in a few places – Rotorua is home to many more unique tourist attractions. Travelling across the North Island during our first New Zealand trip, we didn’t have a rental car. And although the most famous attractions in Rotorua are actually located outside of the city centre, we discovered there are still plenty of fantastic things to do in Rotorua without a car.
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Things to do in Rotorua without a car (and even more if you do have one)
Here are some ideas, many of which are free activities, to help you plan your city break in Rotorua combining culture and nature. I conclude the article with some suggestions for things to do near Rotorua if you do have your own wheels and practical tips about accommodation and car rental places.
Te Puia: park of geothermal wonders
Being famous for its geothermal activity, geysers are obviously the main attractions in Rotorua. Researching the most spectacular geysers to visit in Rotorua, I mostly found options that would take about half a day to walk to. And despite how much I like walking, this was just a tad too far, even for me.
Ultimately, I came across the incredible Te Puia geothermal park, which you can get to without your own transport. From Rotorua CBD there are several buses that go to Te Puia in about 20 minutes.
What is there to see at Te Puia: geothermal activity, kiwi birds, Māori culture.
Ticket prices Te Puia: the price for an adult ticket is NZD 60 (as of April 2020). There are different prices for the evening experience and also the cultural performances. For full information, go to the Te Puia website.
Book your tickets here: regular entrance including a 60-minute guided tour or exclusive evening access including cultural performances and a traditional Māori dinner.
Pōhutu geyser: one of top things to see in Rotorua
Located in the Te Whakarewarewa Valley, this geothermal park is home to various active and also large extinct geysers. The main star of the park is, Pōhutu, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. It erupts at least once an hour so you’re guaranteed to witness it during your visit. Having never seen a geyser in real life, we were extremely excited about this opportunity.
Arriving just after opening at 8am – thank you, jet lag – we were lucky to enjoy a near empty park. The sun was already out and warming us up nicely, but I’m sure the boiling water around us drove up the temperature too.
We hovered around Pōhutu for a while, eager to behold its mighty eruption. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long at all. With hardly anyone else around, this moment felt truly magical. Sensing the emergency and force of the water and steam erupting metres up into the air, was truly spectacular.
Experience Māori culture in Rotorua
Besides the mighty sight of the various active geysers and mud pools, Te Puia is also a great place to get acquainted with Māori culture. Not only is there the reconstructed historic village called Pikirangi, but also a traditional Māori meeting house, known for their elaborate carvings and impressive decorated panels.
You can also attend cultural performances, including traditional dancing and singing during the day. And in the evening, you can indulge in an authentic Māori dinner Hāngī style, with meat and vegetables being cooked in the natural steam vents.
Kuirau Park: free geothermal walks in Rotorua
Whilst driving into Rotorua on the InterCity bus from Auckland, I thought I saw some thermal fumes coming up from the ground. Wondering if my eyes had just deceived me, I obviously had to go check it out. But whilst wandering around Kuirau Park, I was surprised about the great geothermal activity you could experience here. It was actually one of the best things to do in Rotorua and for free!
Kuirau Park is a large geothermal park with several walking paths and also a footbridge over a steam vent. The eerie looking hot pools covered in mist make for a great photo location (and a game of hide and seek), while the *blub blub* sounds coming from the mud pools are surprisingly enticing.
There are so many things to see at Kuirau Park, you could easily spend 60 to 90 minutes here. You could even soak your weary feet here in the thermal foot spa if you’d want! And with its many benches and playground area, Kuirau Park is a great destination in Rotorua for young and old.
Besides geysers, Rotorua is also home to a whopping amount of 18 lakes in the area! The largest one sits right at the town centre and gave the town its name: Lake Rotorua. With its impressive size of 80 square kilometres, Lake Rotorua is the second largest lake in the North Island of New Zealand. And if you look carefully, you’ll see Mokoia Island, the result of rising lava, sitting in the heart of Lake Rotorua.
Formed by a crater of a collapsed volcano, Lake Rotorua can be enjoyed in many ways. However, how inviting it might seem to go for a swim here, the water is actually unsafe for swimming. The local government is currently undertaking a long-term project to clean up the toxin-riddled water. Until that’s finished, it’s better to enjoy other water activities such as canoeing or kayaking. Or just go for a leisurely walk along the waterfront as we did and marvel at the unique yellowish-green hue of the water, due to its high sulphur contents.
Visit a Māori village and historical Anglican church
Following the waterfront, leaving the town centre behind us, we soon stumbled upon a very serene and most unexpected sight. Welcomed by a bright white angel piercing the blue skies, we were beckoned towards the St Faith’s Anglican Church.
It was completely deserted when we arrived, but when the church is open, it’s possible to visit for a small donation. I’ve gathered that the inside is a beautiful blend between Christian and Māori tradition worth exploring. However, even from the outside the church and its grounds looked very impressive.
But what made the sight even more curious, was the traditional Māori meeting place right next to it. We happened to have landed in the historic Māori village of Ohinemutu, which used to be a suburb of Rotorua. The Ngāti Whakaue tribe had settled here along the shores centuries ago already and the village now offers some insight in pre-colonial New Zealand.
Although this is private property, you can visit the village. Just be sensible and respectful because this is a residential area, not a tourist attraction. If you want to get the full inside story, you could go on a guided tour of the village or more Rotorua highlights.
Government Gardens in Rotorua
Back in the town centre, we discovered more surprising architecture. Amidst the lush Government Gardens we spotted several Tudor-style buildings, which made for a splendid yet peculiar sight.
These recreational grounds now house several tourist attractions such as the Blue Bath geothermal pool, Rotorua Museum and fragrant rose garden. Unfortunately the museum is currently closed due to renovation work. However, this iconic landmark, located in a former bathhouse, is still very much worth a photo.
Taking a break from architecture, history and culture for a moment, we visited the Redwood Forest. Granted, located about a 1-hour walk from the Rotorua i-SITE Visitor Centre, this might be a bit trickier to get to without a car. However, there are several bus services that take you from Rotorua CBD to the Redwood Forest in 20 to 30 minutes. And I’d really recommend making the effort as it was one of the most memorable things we did on our New Zealand trip! Especially if you’re into mountain biking, this is a must-do attraction in Rotorua you can’t afford to miss!
Yeah sure, a forest is a forest, you might think. But I’m telling you, walking along the towering Redwood, trees native to California, that are on average 72 metres tall and 169 metres in diameter, is quite something!
Instead of walking through the forest on ground level, we opted for the Redwoods Treewalk. Situated at a 25m-high altitude, this 650m-long suspended walk forms a loop which takes about 40 minutes to finish. It’s open from morning till evening, with atmospheric lanterns being lit at dusk. Although I was initially hesitant about the price (NZD 30 for an adult) I’m really glad we did it, as it was a really special experience being able to walk among these giants.
Hobbiton tours from Rotorua
One of the reasons for our Rotorua visit, was the possibility to book a Hobbiton movie set tour with transfer from Rotorua. This way we could still go on a Hobbiton tour without having our own transport.
As the name suggests, Hobbiton movie set is where they filmed scenes for both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Located on private farmlands, the Hobbit Holes were initially temporary structures. However, when they rebuilt The Shire for The Hobbit films years later, they made them permanent, allowing tourists and fans to go visit them. You can drive to Hobbiton with your own car, but you can only access the park on a guided tour.
The transfer to Hobbiton from Rotorua starts from The Rotorua Hobbiton Shop (1235 Fenton Street) and cost us about NZD 30 extra per person. The comfortable coach journey was quite relaxing. While we enjoyed the beautiful scenery en route, the driver would at times provide some background information. And to get us all in the right mood (as if we needed the extra motivation for our visit to The Shire!), they showed special behind-the-scenes films about Hobbiton on the on-board screens.
We continued our Lord of the Ring adventures in Wellington when we visited the Weta Cave film studio, where they made props and costumes for the famous Peter Jackson trilogies. More about our visit to Hobbiton will follow in a separate post!
Foodies rejoice and head over to Eat Streat, Rotorua
I love eating, but after a long day of exploring, the last thing I want to do is looking for possible suitable restaurants. Fortunately, you won’t have to rely on Google Maps when you’re looking for a place to eat in Rotorua. Just head over to Eat Streat, located at the lake end of Tutanekai Street, and sit yourself down at one of the restaurants along this pedestrianised food court. Offering anything from Thai to Italian cuisine, this modern foodie hotspot is the perfect location for a bite to eat or to enjoy a craft beer.
If you’re in Rotorua on a Thursday night, do make sure to visit the Rotorua Night Market. This weekly market is on Tutanekai Street from 5pm till 9pm. Besides local arts and crafts, it’s also a great place to tuck into mouth-watering pastries and exotic cuisine.
What to do near Rotorua if you have your own transport
There are many more fun attractions near Rotorua, but require having a car. If you do have your own transport, you might also want to look into these following activities near Rotorua.
Natural attractions near Rotorua
- Lake Rotoito hot pools – deluxe lake spa geothermal hot spring
- Mount Tarawera Volcanic Crater – half-day guided tour to the breath-taking Mt Tarawera, combining Maōri culture and awe-inspiring nature
- Polynesian Spa & Rororua geyser excursion
- Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve – free hiking trails leading up to viewpoints of craters, crater lakes and volcanic peaks
- Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, including the famous Lady Knox geyser
- Waimangu Volcanic Valley – combine your visit to Wai-O-Tapu with the Waimangu Rift Valley on a guided morning tour
- Tamaki Māori Village – cultural evening experience in an authentic Māori village, including performances and dinner
- Te Wairoa – The Buried Village
Activities for thrill seekers
- Kaituna River rafting experience – take on Tutea Falls, the world’s largest commercially rafted waterfall
- Lake Rotorua jet boat – heart-pumping 30-minute jet boat ride on Lake Rotorua passing the sacred Mokoia Island
- Mount Ngongotaha Adventure Pass –this 4-hour pass gives you access to the Rotorua gondola, luge rides, zipline and giant sky swing
- Rotorua zipline canopy tours
- Skyline Rotorua – gondola ride up a mountain, Skyswing, luge rides, Zoom Zipline
- Zorb New Zealand – slide down a hill inside a globe, water-filled globe optional
Activities for families
- Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park
- Railcruising self-drive rail cars
- Rainbow Springs Nature Park
- Rotorua City and Lakes Duck Tour – Discover the highlights of Rotorua in a unique vehicle on land and in the water
Bus from Auckland to Rotorua
As mentioned, we took an InterCity bus from Auckland to Rotorua. Starting from the Auckland Sky City Bus Terminal (102 Hobson Street), we arrived at Rotorua i-SITE Visitor Centre four hours later. It would be about an hour less to drive from Auckland to Rotorua. But having just arrived in New Zealand and feeling jet lagged still, we didn’t mind taking it easy. Enjoying the comfortable bus journey and beautiful New Zealand scenery, it made for a great start of our holiday. There’s free Wi-Fi on board and some seats also have an individual USB charging port. And although there are no toilets on the bus, short toilet breaks are offered along the way.
Where can you rent a car in Rotorua
During our 3-day stay in Rotorua, we hired a car for the day to visit the fabulous Waitamo Caves. We booked it beforehand with Hertz and picked it up from Hertz Rotorua Downtown (1233 Amohau Street). We dropped it off at Rotorua Airport the next morning, at no extra cost, so we could take our early morning flight to Wellington.
There are more car rental places in Rotorua, like Budget and Avis. Research your options and consider your wishes and requirements. Possible things to consider are for example: Can you pick up a car in one place and leave it another, and are there extra costs?
Find your Rotorua accommodation
There are plenty of places to stay in Rotorua, lots of accommodations have a spa or hot tub. We stayed at Union Victoria Motel (26-28 Victoria Street) which is located 1 kilometre from Rotorua i-SITE Visitor Centre. We could’ve opted for accommodation closer to the town centre, because dragging two suitcases and backpacks along for 20 minutes wasn’t that pleasant. However, we chose to stay somewhere that was close to Hertz (5-minute walk) so we could pick up the car when they opened at 7.30am.
The motel was actually a good choice as it was quiet and our large room was equipped with a fully functioning kitchen. We found a big Countdown supermarket at just a 5-minute walk away and the bus to Te Puia also stopped close by.
I hope this article answered your question about what to do in Rotorua without a car. But now to return to MY first question: have you ever been to a place that smells of rotten eggs? (And a self-induced gassy situation doesn’t count ha ha!)
Till next time, Zarina xx
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