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Nestled on the banks of the mighty Waikato River, the city of Hamilton is a lesser-known gem of New Zealand, beloved for its gorgeous gardens, riverside walks, excellent restaurants, exciting sporting events, and festivals and concerts that are held throughout the year. The majority of Hamilton’s culinary, shopping, and nightlife options are centered on and around Victoria Street, while outside the city, the bustling metropolis of Auckland and beachside destinations of Rotorua and Tauranga can all be reached within an hour and a half. While you can certainly find ways to fill your time in Hamilton, it’s what surrounds the city that boasts the biggest draw for visitors. Here, in the lush landscape of the North Island’s Waikato region, find mystical caves, mysterious forests, and the enchanting hamlet used to create the onscreen world of The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series.
Hamilton Central — Lying along the west side of the river, Hamilton Central is the heart of the city, home to the largest selection of restaurants, bars, and shopping. During the day, locals and visitors can be found sipping coffee at a cafe on Victoria Street, perusing the shops at Centre Place, or taking a stroll along the blue-green river. After the sun goes down, the neighborhood comes alive with the activity at nightclubs, taphouses, cocktail bars, and casinos. Of the city’s cultural attractions, the most famous can be found in Hamilton Central. The Waikato Museum displays art and artifacts highlighting the history and culture of the indigenous Maori people, while next door, the ArtsPost focuses on the best of local paintings, glass, prints, textiles, and photography.
Hamilton East — On the opposite side of the river, Hamilton East is a quieter part of town, though still offers a variety of international eateries clustered along Grey and Clyde streets. The neighborhood is where you’ll find many of the city’s most picturesque parks, including Hamilton Gardens, a stunning gallery of green spaces ranging from Italian Renaissance to Japanese to traditional Maori-influenced gardens.
Gordonton — To the north of central Hamilton, Gordonton is an idyllic suburb that’s home to the Zealong Tea Estate, the only tea plantation in New Zealand. With private transportation from the heart of town, you can indulge in a luxurious experience complete with some of the world’s purest teas, elegant sandwiches, and beautiful sweet treats.
Rotokauri — The semi-rural suburb of Rotokauri is located to the west of central Hamilton. While it’s largely a residential area, locals and tourists come here to visit the Hamilton Zoo, a park housing more than 600 animals such as tigers, giraffes, and zebras, as well as a walk-through aviary and Face 2 Face encounters.
Raglan — Roughly 45 minutes to the west of Hamilton, Raglan is a seaside mecca, with Manu Bay and Ngarunui Beach featured in the seminal surf movie Endless Summer. Here, you can catch an epic wave or glide through the water on a paddleboard. The lively surf town also boasts a creative culture that has given way to an eclectic selection of cafes and bistros along Bow Street. Further into the region, hiking and biking trails can take you through a tropical landscape to sites like the plunging 180-foot (55-m) Bridal Veil Falls or the 2.4 million-year-old Mount Karioi volcano.
See Hamilton from a new perspective aboard a boat on the Waikato River, the longest waterway in New Zealand. Starting from a number of different spots along the river, you can bask the beauty and tranquility of the water as you sail on the Cynthia Dew Explorer past leafy riverbeds and landmarks like Fairfield Bridge, Memorial Park, and Hamilton Gardens. You can opt for a scenic cruise in the morning, in the evening, or one that includes a tasting of delicious wines from local producers like Mystery Creek and Vilagrad Winery.
Once you’ve explored the city, head out of Hamilton to immerse yourself the magic of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. With a local guide leading the way, venture into the caves on foot to see spectacular limestone features formed 30 million years ago and experience the unparalleled acoustics of the Cathedral, the largest chamber in the caves. Next, board a boat for a ride along an underground river, which takes you into a dark cavern that twinkles with thousands of glowworms. Marvel at the way these luminous insects turn the ceiling into a starry night sky before returning to the world of daylight.
For even more adventure in Waitomo, embark on a thrilling tour into the depths of the Ruakuri Cave. With the Black Abyss experience, you begin by rappelling 115 feet (35 m) into the cave, where you then feel the rush of adrenaline as you fly through a glowworm-filled world on a zipline. Enjoy time to go tubing on the underground river or climb and jump off subterranean waterfalls. Your excursion through the limestone galleries concludes with a hot shower and some warming hearty soup.
Of course, for movie buffs, no visit to Hamilton is complete without diving into the fantastical world created by Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. On a journey into Middle-Earth, visit the real-life location used for Bilbo Baggins’ home, watch the water wheel spin at the Mill, and stand beneath the willowy Party Tree as you learn behind-the-scenes secrets from filming. After your tour, take time to grab a pint at the Green Dragon Inn, tuck into lunch at Shire’s Rest Cafe, or pop into the Shire Store to shop for collectibles, wooden wares, and souvenirs.