Rotorua in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island has so much to offer! Like its big sister Queenstown, it’s an action packed city on a lake with great natural beauty.
A lot of the attractions in Rotorua can’t exactly be called cheap, but if you’re on a tight budget or want to mix it up nicely with the paid attractions, there are heaps of free things to do in Rotorua.
There are so many other amazing things to do in Rotorua (against payment).
Stroll through Kuirau Park
Imagine yourself walking through a city park with trees, lovely grassy areas, picnic benches, … bubbling, hissing mud and a colourful, steaming lake? Yes, you read right. Throughout the park there are little huts with free thermal pools, where you can relax your feet in warm water from the hot springs in the area. A little further down you’ll find bubbling mud pools and the highlight of the park, a steaming lake to walk around and marvel at the colors. Of all the things to do in Rotorua, Kuirau Park is my favourite and a must-do every time I visit
Leaving Kuirau Park at the steaming lake, crossing the street and strolling down towards the shores of lake Rotorua, you’ll find a hidden secret spot, the village of Ohinemutu. This village is the birth place of Rotorua and belongs to the Ngāti Whakaue iwi (people / tribe). Walk through the suburb and wonder how people actually live here, as it vents, hisses and steams out of their backyards, the scent of rotten eggs omnipresent. There are also a beautiful marae (Maori church) and meeting house to look at, but please don’t enter unless you’re invited by a local. This is probably the most authentic maori village in Rotorua, and it’s free to visit!
Another geothermal walk leads you along the shores of lake Rotorua. At the far end of the town’s lakefront, follow a wooden boardwalk that leads around the golf course. The first half of the walk is a pretty walk along the water, until at the top of the peninsula where you turn into Sulphur Bay. As you stroll along the lake, keep your eyes and ears open to find cute little geothermal activities. Be careful when venturing off the path, the surface is often not as stable as it looks and the water underneath is boiling!
Watch locals carve Pounamu Jade
Even though most of the famous New Zealand greenstone comes from the South Island, Rotorua is THE place on the North Island to shop for and especially watch how the jewelry is carved. Most shops that are selling genuine Pounamu have the workshop attached to the shop. Through a window you can watch the carvers at work to see how the jade starts as a piece of rock and slowly turns into a masterpiece.
Walking in the Redwood forest Rotorua
The redwood forest is a 5 minute drive from the city center. The trees are Californian redwoods and were planted to commemorate the World Wars. Nowadays, the forest is mostly known for amazing network of walking and biking trails! The walking and biking areas are mostly separated from each other. The walks start in the section closer to town and take anything from 30 minutes to 8 hours, depending on the trail. And even here you will come across some smaller geothermal activities!
Hitting the single trails in the Redwoods Rotorua
Biking in Rotorua is just amazing! There’s a huge network of bike trails between Rotorua and Taupo and the bike park in Whakarewarewa forest (better known as the Redwood Forest) is one of the best. The entrance on the other side of the walking area is for bikers only.
There’s a small rental shop at the entrance, in case you didn’t bring your own mountain bike. The entry to the park is free but if you would like to take a map (and I urge you to) it costs a small fee. The trails are in amazing shape and cater for everyone from beginner to pro.
Sit under a hot waterfall at Kerosene Creek
On your way from or to Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland, take the little turn-off and go take a dip in the amazing hot water river of Kerosene Creek. Of the free hot springs in Rotorua, it’s definitely not a secret tip anymore and you’re hardly ever bathing alone. But no wonder, because who wouldn’t want to bathe in a hot stream in the middle of the forest and jump off the waterfall into the hot water pool underneath? See!
A tip for fewer people is to visit early in the morning. The place usually gets fuller toward the afternoon, when people are on their way back from Waiotapu. This natural wonder is definitely one of the best free activities in Rotorua!
Rotorua mud pools
Also on the way from or to Wai-o-tapu, after taking the turn-off to the geothermal wonderland, there is a little sign that points towards free mud pools. It’s basically a small, very muddy lake that bubbles and spits mud. You’ll be mesmerized watching the mud patterns and mud geysers, so much that you can almost forget the time.
Hike the Tarawera Trail
Ok, so this Rotorua attraction is only really free of charge if you walk the Tarawera Trail both ways, which might be a little long if you’re not a very keen hiker.
Everyone else starts the trip at the landing on lake Tarawera. The water taxi will bring you to hot water beach (yes, there is a hot water beach in Rotorua) where you start your hike. Follow the undulating path for the next 15 km or about 5 hours to get back to the landing. You can also walk in and taxi out or stay at the hot water beach campsite for the night.
Eat dinner at the Rotorua Night Market
You can find a very reasonably priced dinner at the Rotorua Night Market. It’s held once a week on Thursdays on Tutanekai Street. Up to 9pm you will find the most delicious meals in the food trucks and stalls.
Cheap places to stay in Rotorua
There are plenty of good accommodation in Rotorua that don’t cost the world. Here are some ideas
Very low budget: DOC Campground Lake Okareka
This very basic campsite is managed by the Department of Conservation and is located outside of Rotorua directly on lake Okareka. The only facilities are longdrop toilets and a cooking shelter but you’ll have a million stars above you at night.
Low budget: Funky Green Voyager Hostel
Charming backpackers in Rotorua, in walking distance to the center. Most rooms are located around a grassy garden area with a lovely gazebo. More rooms, the kitchen and communal area are in the main building. Newest addition to the facilities is a swimming pool
Mid budget: Accolade Motel
Family operated motel about 10 minutes’ walk from the city center. The rooms have a fridge and tea and coffee and it’s one of the only places in Rotorua that offers a small, but lovely breakfast. Best value for money in Town!