Best of the North Island: Culture

Mine Bay

Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Image: David Kirkland

National Army Museum

Best of the North Island: Culture

With historic and modern culture aplenty, hit up these top North Island cultural attractions, featuring art; film; architecture; and historic and contemporary Māori culture.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds

The birthplace of modern New Zealand, and one of the most significant historical sites in the country. Learn about our nation’s past and take a guided tour of the grounds, see a cultural performance in the meeting house, and explore Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi. See carving demonstrations in the Māori Carving Studio, and be sure to leave plenty of time to explore the extensive gardens and bush tracks, all with wonderful views.

Māori culture in Rotorua

This geothermal and adventure hub is also one of the best places in the country to immerse yourself in Māori traditions, history, and arts. Cultural experiences at several Māori village attractions will enrich your knowledge and deepen your understanding of the past and stories of New Zealand’s indigenous people. Experience historic Māori healing arts at WaiOra Lakeside Spa Resort, and see master carvers at work at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute.

Maunga Hikurangi

Gisborne is the first place in the world to see the sunrise, and a pretty magical place to see it from is Maunga Hikurangi, a sacred mountain to Ngāti Porou and the highest non-volcanic peak in the North Island. This is a place steeped in Māori culture and history, which you can delve into with a tour led by Ngāti Porou guides, who will share the legends and stories of this place and of the nine whakairo (carvings) that stand proud on the peak.

Art Deco architecture in Napier

A massive earthquake basically levelled Napier in 1931, so the city rebuilt itself in the Art Deco architecture of the time. Napier is now an international icon and one of the most complete Art Deco cities in the world. Wander the streets, and learn about the fascinating history of this area at MTG Hawke’s Bay, which holds a permanent exhibition on the earthquake.

Art galleries

The North Island’s many excellent art galleries range from major national galleries to the local gems. The Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki is the largest in New Zealand, with nationally significant collections of historic and modern art, and regular international travelling exhibitions. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in Taranaki has a fantastic collection of contemporary art, and the adjoining Len Lye Centre is the only gallery in the country dedicated to a single artist. The Coromandel’s thriving arts community gave rise to top-notch local galleries like The Little Gallery and the Hauraki House Gallery, and for something a little out of the box, Lava Glass Studio in Taupō boasts an incredible collection of glass art in the Glass Sculpture Garden.


What better way to explore the details of New Zealand’s culture and past than by visiting some of the country’s top museums? The North Island is home to several absolutely world-class museums, including the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington - Te Papa Tongarewa. Te Papa is widely considered to be one of the best museums in the world, while Auckland Museum and the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) are also well worth a visit. Tawhiti Museum in Taranaki is often described as one of the best private museums in the country, and the North Island boasts several specialty museums, such as the National Army Museum in Waiouru and New Zealand Rugby Museum in Palmerston North.

Mine Bay Māori Rock Carving

Huge and impressive, hewn into the side of a cliff, the ten-metre high face at Mine Bay is probably the most famous – and most impressive – Māori rock art in Aotearoa. The carving depicts tohunga Ngātoro-i-rangi, a visionary Māori navigator who guided his tribes to Taupō more than a thousand years ago. Get to it on a cruise or take yourself on a kayak.

Hobbit culture

We’ve accepted and embraced that part of New Zealand’s culture is a fictional race of people from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Enter the Shire at Hobbiton in Matamata, where you can see the round doors of hobbit-holes and the ‘no admittance’ sign on Bilbo’s gate, and enjoy a beverage or even a second breakfast or banquet at the Green Dragon Inn. At Weta Workshop in Wellington, you can see where the props, costumes and creatures for The Lord of the Rings films (and others) were made, and you can see the artists work their magic. Check out Lord of the Rings location tours around Wellington and Tongariro National Park.

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