With a population of just over 20,000, Taupo is a small mountain town surrounded by stunning landscapes.
Living on the Pacific Coast and in a very flat part of California for most of my life, I’m still getting used to the variety of terrain to be found around New Zealand.
I think the only thing missing in Taupo is a proper beach (which isn’t surprising, being that it’s smack dab in the middle of the North Island), but since I was visiting during the winter anyway, I was content to drool over the picturesque snowcapped mountains and bathe in the natural hot springs.
I’ve already expressed my fondness over Taupo in past posts, so it’s no wonder that after spending a few days in the place, I realized just how many things there are to do and see around town.
These are my top recommendations for what to do if you find yourself in Taupo, New Zealand one day.
1. Go to McDonalds
You may think it’s laughable that I, as an American, would recommend first and foremost to head to McDonalds when you get into Taupo, but believe me, you won’t regret it.
Although I didn’t eat at this particular “Mackas”, it is seriously the coolest McDonalds you will come across in New Zealand, if not worldwide. There’s a decommissioned red and silver DC3 plane attached to the restaurant, and rumor has it you can even eat in the pilot seat!
Apparently, the plane was bought in 1985 by the mayor of Taupo at the time to be used as his office, because obviously those are the kind of offices that appealed to New Zealand politicians in the 80’s…I mean, why not? It later became an icon when attached to the McDonalds in town, because again, why not?
It’s so random, and therefore very Kiwi, but a good place to stop by when you get into town for a photo op, or just to check out the infamous Mackas that has an actual plane nestled into it.
If you’re not after fast food and looking for a really good place to eat after checking out the exterior of McDonalds, stop by the Crafty Trout. It has awesome locally brewed craft beer and wood fired pizzas that you can enjoy while cozying up next to the fire.
2. Try out the Hole in One Challenge
Just a short walk from the McDonalds, there’s the famous Hole in One Challenge to be found along the waterfront, where people passing by can test their luck (or random skill) at making a hole in one from the waterfront into a tiny hole on a small platform floating out on the great Lake Taupo. As you can imagine, it’s a lot harder when there is any kind of wind.
It’s $1 per golf ball, $15 for 18 golf balls, or $20 for 25 golf balls. If you manage to make a hole in one into the red flag, 102 meters away, you can win NZD$10,000!! There are an array of other prizes as well if you make a ball into another one of the flags on the floating platform.
Although we didn’t see any winners during the time we were spectating, there’s usually about one hole in one made every 2 weeks.
3. Take a dip in the natural hot springs
Probably one of my favorite activities to do in Taupo is discovering one of the many natural hot springs around town. Although some of the hot springs cost money, if you care about facilities like toilets and showers, you can find free ones as well.
We went to the Taupo info center to find out where the closest free hot springs were located and walked to the Spa Thermal Park within 30 minutes from town.
There’s also a lake right beside and connected to the hot springs, so if you feel yourself getting too hot, just swim towards the lake and you’ll find refreshing ice cold water or a happy medium between the two.
It felt wonderful swimming in the hot springs. As dusk started to fall in the brisk Taupo setting, the mini waterfall beat at our backs and the minerals soaked in around our skin. It was a great way to relax from the long bus ride and enjoy our first night in Taupo before hiking the Tongariro Crossing the next morning.
4. Tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
I recently wrote about hiking the Tongariro Crossing and how it’s considered the best one day hike in New Zealand (and in the top 10 worldwide!), and I cannot stress enough how much of an amazing experience it was.
Whatever season you’re in when you visit Taupo, the Tongariro Crossing is a doable activity, heck, I did it in winter and ended up having a beautiful day up on the snowy mountains. As long as there’s not a major snowstorm coming through the crossing you should be just fine, although it’s highly recommended to have a guide in the winter, unless you’re some kind of snow ninja.
The hike is not for the faint of heart, there are a lot of steep inclines and kilometers to be walked, and you have to be a reasonably fit person to finish the hike in the course of a day. With that said, DO IT! Go do it now, it is the hardest hike I’ve been on and I don’t regret taking on that challenge for a moment.
5. Visit Huka Falls
Huka Falls is a boisterous example of the pure strength of hydro power. More than 220,000 liters of water flows over the falls per second, say what!? Needless to say, you would not want to try your luck floating down these seemingly short falls, in boat, floatie, or person – you will be crushed.
The incredibly swift water comes from the fact that the Waikato River passes through a narrow ravine of hard volcanic rock before shooting over the falls. There’s even a footbridge directly over the river, just before the falls, so you can feel the full impact of how fast that water is moving beneath you.
Huka is the Maori word for foam, which is fitting if you see the falls up close, it looks like one foamy whirlpool below the drop.
There are a few different trails to hike alongside the falls as well and even a jet boat ride that takes you to the base of the falls, if you want to experience them to the fullest.
6. Wander around Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon is a bit of a tourist trap, but with the admission price at only $8, I was willing to bite and check it out anyway. If you’re really into geothermal activity, this place is the right place for you. If you just like seeing steam come up from the earth and hot mud pools spit up bubbles, then it’s also pretty cool.
It’s a fairly large park, actually the largest geothermal field in New Zealand, and you’re able to follow the steam vents around a circular path and back out to the entrance. Although not as exciting as some of the other activities Taupo has to offer, it was still an interesting and unusual place to check out and spend a good hour or so.
7. Go skydiving or bungy jumping
Taupo is the skydiving capital of THE WORLD. It’s no surprise, with the epic landscape, glistening mountains in the distance, and beautiful blue lake down below. I knew if I wanted to skydive, I had to do it here. I finally got up the nerve my last day in Taupo, and it was such a scary and freeing experience, I wrote a whole post about it here.
I still can’t get over the ethereal feeling I had under the canopy after free fall, and the giddiness I felt in jumping out of a plane.
Bungy jumping is also a huge activity in Taupo, although not as popular as it is in the adventure capital of Queenstown. As we were walking to the hot springs on our first day in Taupo, we stopped by to watch the bungy jumpers on the way.
The Taupo bungy is over a gorgeous cliff out on a beautiful lake, not a bad place to throw yourself off a platform, if I do say so myself.
8. Check out the street art around town
I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of street art I found around Taupo. For some reason, I don’t usually expect small towns to be a hot bed of artistic graffiti, but Taupo blew my socks off with the talented art I saw in back alleys and around town.
For the best pieces of art I found around the city, check out my post on a glimpse at Taupo’s street art here.
I had a feeling I would enjoy my time in Taupo, and the town exceeded any expectations I had coming in. Taupo is cozy, mountainous, clean, and a hell of a lot of fun when you realize all there is to do.
Have you ever been to Taupo? Have I missed anything that you would add to the list?
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