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New Zealand’s Best North Island Base

New Zealand’s Best North Island Base

The North Island of New Zealand doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Which is somewhat unsurprising, if we’re being honest: The South Island boasts a more otherworldly beauty, which is more easily accessible than the subtle charms further north.

At the same time, you can have an absolutely transcendental trip to New Zealand’s North Island—especially if you make adequate preparations. I’ve met some travelers who actually prefer it to the South Island!

In particular, I think it’s important to consider the question of Rotorua vs Taupo fully. Although these places are near one another, they’re not identical when it comes to the strength as bases for your North Island travel.

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How I Came to Know Rotorua and Taupo

The best way to decide between Rotorua or Taupo, ironically, is to visit both of these places—I learned this personally. As I planned my “big” trip to New Zealand (which, unbeknownst to me at the time, took place right before the country shut itself off to the world in response to covid-19), I knew that my North Island exploration wouldn’t be complete without seeing both. 

Of course, I quickly realized that these places were not the same, in spite of being relatively close to one another. Taupo’s lake is at the center of recreation there—well, unless you’re doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. You’re more likely to need sailboat rental in Taupo than you are in Rotorua-proper, though some people do consider Tauranga (which is on the ocean) to be part of Roturua as far as tourism is concerned.


Ways to Compare Rotorua with Taupo


In Taupo, there’s only one attraction that I really consider worth the trip to get there: Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which for my money is the best hike in all of New Zealand. Many people come to Rotorua, meanwhile, because of how close the city is to the Hobbiton Movie Set—less than an hour away, if you have your own car. 

Natural beauty

As you drive from Rotorua to Taupo (or vice-versa), it might not seem apparent that both cities are home to exquisite natural beauty. In the case of the former, that mostly consists of Rotorua Treetops, a park that’s full of both redwood trees and iconic New Zealand ferns. In Taupo, meanwhile, I feel less compelled by Lake Taupo itself than I do by the thundering torrent of Huka Falls.


There aren’t a lot of explicitly “cultural” experiences on offer in Taupo, unless of course you consider the bizarre “parking shuttle” that transports you from the Tongariro parking area to the main trailhead. While Rotorua’s Mitai Maori Village is arguably performative and artificial, it at least offers the potential for some kind of fulfilling cultural exchange.


I probably shouldn’t say this, given how proud New Zealanders seem to be of their cuisine, but whether I’m in Taupo or Rotorua, food tends to be of secondary importance. Given the lack of established culinary heritage here (excepting, of course, the foods the Maori prepare), I feel like I might as well just be eating derivate “new American” cuisine back home.

Ease of access

While both Rotorua and Taupo have their own airports, the reality is that you’ll need to rent a car to enjoy both—there’s no practical way to see either place in a reasonable amount of time using public transportation alone. As a result, given that both are several hours from Auckland by road, I’d say that they are more or less even in this regard.

Should You Visit Both Rotorua and Taupo?

If you have time—so, if you’re spending at least two weeks in New Zealand overall, and at least 5-7 days in the North Island—I would certainly suggest you add both of these cities to your list. As you can see combing through the categories above, they offer remarkably different travel experiences, yet both of them are core to being able to understand and appreciate New Zealand as a whole.

If you don’t have time—if, in other words, the discussion of Taupo vs Rotorua really is determinative to which of these places you choose to go—then I’d approach the choice like this. Rotorua, with its colorful hot springs and (literally) performative Maori displays is “easier.” Taupo, meanwhile, can seem boring, at least if you don’t hike at Tongariro, or otherwise make an effort to get away from its lakeside town center.


Other FAQ About Taupo and Rotorua

Is it better to stay in Taupo or Rotorua?

In terms of actual accommodation, both Taupo and Rotorua leave a lot to be desired, if I’m honest. However, when it comes to attractions. each city offers a unique range of them in a short distance. If you’re looking for more rugged adventures, Taupo might be preferable; Rotorua’s hot springs and Maori shows require less emotional and physical buy-in.

Is Taupo New Zealand worth visiting?

If you simply plan to go to Taupo and sit on the shores of its namesake lake, I’m not sure you can say it’s worth visiting. For me, the town’s main utility is as a base for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (which, to be fair, I do consider to be my favorite hike in all of New Zealand).

Why is Rotorua so popular?

Rotorua is popular because it offers a wide range of family-friendly adventures within a few hours’ drive of Auckland. The hot springs are exotic without being threatening; the Hobbiton movie set evokes the sense of being in New Zealand more than almost anywhere else in the country, but without requiring hardly any effort.

The Bottom Line

The Rotorua vs Taupo debate is an important one to have. On one hand, Rotorua has definitely done a better job of marketing itself, whether because of its various hot springs attractions, or because of the native Maori culture that’s so accessible there. On the other hand, I’d say that nowhere in Rotorua is nearly as exciting as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a superlative hike that’s most easily accessible from Taupo. Need personalized help planning your trip to New Zealand? No matter where you choose to hub yourself as you explore, I do hope you’ll consider hiring me as your Travel Coach!


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