What to do in Taupo, Where to Eat and Where to stay: A comprehensive guide
Taupo New Zealand lies directly on the shores of Lake Taupo, Australasia’s biggest lake. The area is blessed with natural wonders, and Taupo Moana (as the lake is called by Maori, meaning The Great Inland Sea) is only one of the many things to see in Taupo.
Lake Taupo is really a giant volcano crater and its water is incredibly clear. The lake is fed by numerous inflows but has only one outflow: The Huka Falls, which lead into the Mighty Waikato River.
Being smack bang in the middle of the North Island, Taupo makes a great place to base yourself to explore all attractions that can be found within a 2-hour drive (ie Rotorua, Napier or Tongariro National Park, just to name a few).
But you might wonder, what to do in Taupo itself?
Don’t you worry, there are plenty of things to do in Taupo. This very comprehensive guide will show you what to do in Taupo, where to eat and where to stay to make your visit thoroughly enjoyable.
Here we go!
What to do in Taupo: Walks, bike rides and Taupo attractions
Free things to do in Taupo
Once upon a time, when the internet was still young, the free hot pool at Spa Park Taupo was a pure insider tip that no one would know apart from the locals. Nowadays, Otumuheke Stream with its hot waterfall is one of the most popular free things to do in Taupo, apart from the Huka Falls.
And rightly so! It is amazing!
The spot where you soak is where the stream flows into the Waikato River. Depending on Earth’s ‘mood’, it’s either ok or way too hot to stand under the waterfall. If it’s cool enough, there’s really nothing better than a hot natural shower! And if you’re getting too hot, just wade towards where the hot stream meets the cold river and find the temperature that’s right for you.
After you finished soaking in the Taupo hot springs, there’s even a changing room at the parking lot, so you don’t have to drive back soaking the seats of your car.
Huka Falls is the most visited free tourist attraction in New Zealand. Visitors come to marvel at how the incredibly blue water squeezes from a river width of 100m into a 15m wide gorge before it tumbles down the Huka Falls Taupo. An amazing amount of 200’000 litres per second flows through and over the falls. That’s enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in only 11 seconds!
To see the falls, most people park at the main car park. But there are walking tracks on both sides of the river and the falls, in case you’re looking to get away from the masses.
Walks and bike rides in Taupo
Lake Taupo Walkway (or Lion’s Walk) is a 10km long walk along Lake Taupo. It starts in Taupo and leads around the Eastern part of the lake. It’s great for a relaxed stroll along the lake or a cruisey bike ride.
You can also walk from Spa Park to Huka Falls on an easy 3km trail (which takes about 1h30min one way). Bikes take a slightly different trail higher above Waikato River. To extend the walk or ride, you can start at Aratiatia Dam, which will make a total of about 7km and 3 hours (walking).
Watch Aratiatia Dam open its gates
What might sound a little boring is actually quite mesmerizing to watch. Every day at 10am, 12pm, 2pm (plus 4pm in Summer), the dam opens its gate for about 15 minutes, releasing a giant amount of water over the Aratiatia Rapids. Standing on the bridge or on one of the viewpoints along the rapids, you can see how more and more water flows over the rocks where there used to be a trickle just before and fill an empty rock pool within minutes.
Important: Don’t go near the rock pool or the rapids at any time as water can be released without notice. Do not do it for the gram, it’s not worth risking your life!
Pose in front of the #lovetaupo sign
If you want to do it for the gram, do it here! While Los Angeles has the Hollywood sign, Taupo has its very own and Instagram-friendly #lovetaupo sign. Just in case you don’t remember how to tag your pictures ;-)
Strategically positioned to show off Taupo Moana’s (Lake Taupo) beauty, on a clear day you even get to see all the way to Tongariro National Park.
Pose in front of the sing, behind it, on top of it, whatever comes to mind. Just don’t forget to post to to social media later, or it didn’t happen, right.
Awesome paid Taupo attractions
One of the most rejuvenating things to do in Taupo! Wairakei Terraces are thermal hot pools in Taupo. The water comes from the hot stream next to the Wairakei hot pools and the area is built to remind of the famous Pink and White Terraces that got destroyed during Mt Tarawera’s eruption.
The Wairakei thermal pools consist of 4 pools, with the top pool being the hottest. The water there tends to be around 42°C. As the water flows over the terraces, it cools. The bottom pool is the biggest and fed from an (artificial) waterfall.
We love the Wairakei Terraces for their relaxing hot pools, the natural look and the fact that it’s for adults only (bathers have to be 14 years or older to be allowed in the pools.)
The Wairakei Terraces Walkway, however, is for all ages. It walks you through their garden and to the bridge over the terraces at the top pool.
Tip: As all of the pools are outdoors, and the floor can be cold, remember to bring your flip flops (jandals) along.
Sunset Cruise on Lake Taupo
Sail into the sunset with Taupo’s most charming sailing boat, the Barbary. It’s a wonderful sailing boat that can host up to 20 people. They take you out onto Lake Taupo to see the Maori Rock Carvings and you get to enjoy a lazy drink (buy on board or BYO is up to you) while chugging along on the lake. Sunset cruises are available during summer only, but daytime cruises run year-round.
If you’re after the ultimate adrenaline kick, Taupo Bungy will gladly help you out. Obviously, they’re not the only bungy on the North Island, but definitely one with an amazing view over the clear blue Waikato River.
You jump from 47m and if you like, you can tell them to dip you in the river. Bungy jump Taupo offers the highest water touch bungy in New Zealand.
For the ones who are scared of bungy, but still love a good adrenaline kick (like me), Taupo Cliffhanger is the right thing for you. You still fall from 44m, but the big difference is, you don’t have to jump yourself.
For an added rush, choose the tandem swing. They say ‘The higher the weight, the faster you go’.
Huka Falls River Cruise
This is one of the more relaxing Taupo activities. Arrive in time to watch the Aratiatia Dam release water over the Aratiatia Rapids before your tour starts right next to the dam.
The Huka Falls River Cruise chugs upstream slowly as you learn more about the river, the dam and the area of Taupo New Zealand. The boat ride is awesome for kids as they get to be captain for a short time and steer the boat!
The Huka Falls River Cruise is one of only 2 boat companies that has the concession to bring you up close and personal to the Huka Falls. Stand at the bow of the little red boat as the driver approaches the falls as close as possible. It’s quite impressive to get this close to the Huka Falls.
Jet Boat Adventure with Rapids Jet
Jet boating is a must-do when visiting New Zealand. You can find them all over the country and all of the tours have their unique prospect.
There are two Taupo jet boat companies, Rapids Jet and Huka Falls Jet.
Huka Falls Jet is one of the two companies who are allowed at the feet of Huka Falls. This in itself is a huge selling point and attracts a lot of visitors.
The other jet boating company is Rapids Jet Taupo. They are a lot smaller than the big competitor, but also cheaper and just as much fun. Probably even more. Operating where the water from Aratiatia Dam flows into the Waikato River, they claim to be New Zealand’s only whitewater jet boat company.
The jet boat Taupo tour is certainly heaps of fun, racing over the picturesque Waikato, turning and spinning as you go. The coolest, however, is the big rapid the Rapids Jet races over several times. Depending on water levels, these rapids can be very impressive and get you soaked thoroughly.
Orakei Korako Geothermal Park
Also known as the Hidden Valley, Orakei Korako is located on a lake, deep in a valley, off the road between Taupo and Rotorua. It’s one of two Taupo thermal parks, the other one being Craters of the Moon.
Crossing the lake on a boat, you are dropped at the jetty and get to walk around the geothermal park yourself, taking as much time as you like. Marvel at the colourful silica formations, mud pools and geysers and walk through the ever-changing landscape.
Once the boat brought you back, don’t miss out on a coffee or a glass of wine on the lovely terrace at the cafe. It sits right over the water, which makes the cafe pretty special in New Zealand.
Tongariro White Water Rafting
If you’ve been wondering: Yes, white water rafting Taupo is a thing. Although, you’ll need to drive to Turangi, at the other end of Lake Taupo.
From there, an exhilarating Grade 3 rafting adventure awaits.
In Turangi, there are two white water rafting companies. Both raft the same section of the river. Rafting New Zealand employs Kiwi guides who will tell you the Maori history of the area while drifting down the slower parts, while Tongariro River Rafting is determined to save and increase the population of the rare Blue Ducks who are living on the river.
Rafting a grade 3 river brings the whole family together: The ones who love adventure and are looking for an adrenaline kick and action, as well as the ones who are nervous about rafting and would prefer a river cruise. Tongariro white water rafting has it all. It has enough action to please the action seeker but the risks of flipping the raft or falling out of it are relatively low.
Great Lakes Trail Mountain Biking
Mountain biking Taupo is a very popular activity and there is a vast network of trails for all abilities in the area.
The Great Lakes Trail is part of the New Zealand Cycle Trail and winds its way mostly along Lake Taupo, often with great views over the lake.
The trail is divided into three sections, all of which require a bit of planning if done one-way. The complete trail is 71km long and takes 2-3 days to complete, or about 3-5 hours for each individual trail.
The Waihaha section is about 30km long and starts at the Waihaha carpark. It’s an intermediate trail (Grade 3, very well maintained) and there’s not really a possibility of leaving halfway through, so know your fitness.
Waihaha Track winds its last few kilometres down off the mountain along groomed single track, past a waterfall near the end at Waihora Bay, a picturesque little beach. From there, a pre-booked water taxi brings you either to Kinloch, or you can leave the boat at Kawakawa Bay for the K2K Track (Kawakawa to Kinloch), which is another 20km long.
The third section leads from Kinloch to Whakaipo Bay (W2K Track, 13km), with the possibility to add the Headlands Loop (9km).
For all sections, Kinloch is the starting point. The easiest way to access the trails is by pre-booking your shuttle buses and water taxis to make sure you don’t get stuck anywhere.
Restaurants in Taupo
Eating out in Taupo is so easy. There’s an abundance of restaurants and cafes in the town centre, some of them with a view of the lake. There are your usual but not any less tasty chain restaurants like Portofino, Lone Star and Coffee Club. Taupo also hosts the coolest McDonald’s in the world, where you get to eat your burgers in an original DC3 plane.
But if you’re after something more special, here’s a list of bars, cafes and restaurants in Taupo that I created both from experiencing them myself and hidden gem tips I got from Taupo locals.
2 Mile Taupo Sailing Club
A little out of Taupo, in 2 Mile Bay, you find this little gem of a sailing club slash beach club slash restaurant.
Located right on the water, something that is very rare in New Zealand (often, there’s at least a street or a parking lot between a restaurant and the beach), you can still hire your kayaks, SUP paddle boards or sailing boats. Or you just hang out on the beach on their bean bags, sip a coffee and watch the world go by.
If the weather is bad or during Winter, there’s enough space inside their pavilion.
In the evenings, 2 Mile Taupo Sailing Club often hosts live music or other events. No matter the day or event, they sell great wood-fired pizza, which makes 2 Mile Taupo a great dinner place, too.
The Brantry Taupo is the kind of place you go when celebrating something. Or if you’re after amazing food in a friendly atmosphere. Located in a renovated 1950’s townhouse, it almost feels like going to dinner at a friend’s house. If your friend was a trained chef.
The menu changes regularly, with both an a la carte and a pre-set section to suit all preferences.
Make sure you book a table, the Brantry often books out.
The Storehouse Cafe
Ever wanted to try fried chicken with waffles for breakfast? No matter if you are an adventurous eater or prefer the more conservative breakfast variation like eggs on toast, you can get either at the Storehouse Cafe.
The cafe’s a bit of a hidden gem as it’s located a few streets away from Taupo town centre, but it’s an absolute favourite with the locals for their coffees and brunch menu. The cafe has a modern feel to it with a mixture of wooden furniture, concrete walls and a lot of greenery.
Lava Glass Taupo
Lava Glass Cafe is not just a cafe. It’s really a glassblowing workshop that comes with a small, delicious restaurant for lunch.
If you visit any local Taupo resident, it’s very likely they have at least one piece of glass from Lava Glass in their home. Lava Glass makes beautiful glass creations: from drinking glasses to garden sculptures.
In a separate room, you can watch the glassblowers at work while learning more about the delicate work with glass. In their sculpture garden, you feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland as you walk through their garden. And it all rounds off with a delicious meal.
Jolly Good Fellows
If you’re more after the typical English Pub atmosphere and yummy Bangers and Mash, Jolly Good Fellows is your place to go. It’s located just outside of Taupo New Zealand, with a view of Lake Taupo and, if you’re lucky, all the way to Mt Ruapehu and Tongariro.
The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and the food delicious.
Mudcake Cafe at Orakei Korako
Another cafe that sits right above the water. It’s a little outside of Taupo, approximately a 30 minutes’ drive, but it’s a lovely, quiet spot, just opposite Orakei Korako Thermal Park.
Sit on the wooden deck, enjoy the sun together with a coffee or a glass of wine and watch the eels in the water beneath.
There’s some accommodation in the town centre, but a lot of the Taupo hotels are located a bit outside of town and scattered along the lake. It makes sense to travel to Taupo with your own car, it’s the easiest way to get around.
Here’s an idea for great Taupo accommodation during your stay:
Suncourt is located ideally, just on the outskirts of town, while still only a very short walk to the shops and restaurants. Scattered over multiple buildings, almost all of the rooms have lake view.
The Reef Resort
A couple of minutes’ drive from Taupo town centre, this is the perfect Taupo accommodation if you’re after a self-contained apartment or studio. Every room comes with a spa bath. The geothermally heated outdoor pool and spa pool add to the hotel’s tropical charm.
From the resort, there’s direct access to Lake Taupo and the walking path that runs along it.
Courtney Motel offers great value for money. Near the lake and a short drive to town (although Jolly Good Fellows pub is just around the corner). Possibility to use the pool of the sister hotel next door and BBQ grills in the garden are free to use. Apart from the studios, all rooms come with a full kitchen.
How to get to Taupo
Taupo New Zealand is really easy to find. Look at the map of New Zealand North Island, locate the huge lake smack-bang in the centre of North Island and there it is!
Thanks to its central location, you can get to Taupo quickly from almost every corner of New Zealand.
From Auckland to Taupo, it’s just under 300km driving distance. Depending on traffic and stops, this will take you about 4 hours by car.
From the other end of the North Island, Wellington to Taupo, it’s about 370km and a 5 hours’ drive.
If you don’t have a car, both Intercity Bus and Skip express bus will stop at the Taupo i-Site.
Taupo also has a very cute regional airport. From most places, you’ll need a connecting flight, so unless you’re flying from Auckland to Taupo or Wellington to Taupo, you might prefer to fly to the bigger Rotorua airport and drive south from there.
What is your favourite thing to do in Taupo? Have I missed a cool activity? Let me know in the comments!
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