The Must-Dos in Whanganui
The coastal city of Whanganui is not on many tourists’ travel itineraries but is certainly a city worth visiting for an amazing insight into the real New Zealand: its landscapes, culture and history. Discover the city’s most iconic attractions in this list of the best things to do in Whanganui.
Based along the Whanganui River – New Zealand’s longest navigable river – Whanganui and its surrounding settlements have been a huge part of the Maori and European history. Museums and historical sights provide an excellent insight into this history. There’s also a great mix of contemporary experiences, such as art galleries, mountain bike trails and more to suit any type of traveller seeking the Whanganui must-dos.
For more advice on planning your trip according to your travel style, check out The Complete Guide to Whanganui.
1. Go Through the Tunnel, Up the Elevator Then Up the Spiral Staircase of the Durie Hill Tower
Let’s get Whanganui’s iconic landmark out of the way; and no, we’re not talking about the Whanganui River… The Durie Hill Tower and Elevator, with its magnificent views of the city, is quite the journey to get to. First, walk through the 213m (700ft) long tunnel where you can ride the historic elevator to the base of the tower for a couple of bucks each. Alternatively, brave the steps up the hill! Once you reach the Durie Hill Memorial Tower, climb an extra 176 steps to the top where you can admire views of Whanganui city, the Whanganui River, Tasman Sea and all the way to Mt Ruapehu on a clear day.
Location: Tunnel entrance at 42 Anzac Parade, Durie Hill, approximately 700m (8 yards) from Whanganui city centre.
2. Wander Around Virginia Lake
Whanganui has many picturesque parks to enjoy but if you only have time to see one, make it Virginia Lake. The park with winter gardens, various short walks around the lake, and a wealth of birdlife is a great place to experience the outdoors. Walk the 25-minute woodland walk looking out for the blue pukeko birds, feed the ducks and swans on the lake and see more birds in the aviary. The Winter Gardens contains all sorts of exotic plants to admire year-round, while the Funky Duck Cafe is a good place to relax after your walk. See more activities like this in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Whanganui.
Location: 110 Great N Road, St Johns Hill, approximately 3km (2 miles) from Whanganui city centre.
3. See Native Birds at Bushy Park Wildlife Sanctuary
A 100ha (247-acre) native forest sanctuary kept predator-free for native birds to thrive, Bushy Park Wildlife Sanctuary is a must for nature-lovers. Enjoy a multitude of short walks across 3.4km (2.1 miles) of easy trails while looking out for New Zealand’s unique birds like bellbirds/kōmako, wood pigeons/kereru, saddlebacks/tīeke, stitchbirds/hihi, morepork owls/ruru, blue swamp hens/pūkeko, kingfishers/kotare and more! Another highlight is the diversity of vegetation, from one of the largest rata trees in the North Island at 43m (141ft) high and 11m (36ft) round to colonies of ferns and mosses. Pack a picnic and enjoy relaxing in the historic homestead grounds when you’re done.
Location: 791 Rangitatau E Road, Kai Iwi, approximately 24km (15 miles) from Whanganui city centre.
4. Do a Cruise Down the Whanganui River
A highlight of the city, of course, is its river – the world’s only river that has a legal entity status! Experience a scenic journey and learn more about why this river is so significant on one of the riverboat cruises. Motor Vessel Wairua’s Hipango Park Picnic Cruise takes you to a stunning park only accessible by river. The park is complete with Maori sites of significance, bush walks, barbecues and more. Alternatively, travel on a historic steam paddler, Waimarie, which has a galley and bar to indulge in light meals as you cruise along. A cruise is also one of the 10 Romantic Activities in Whanganui for Couples.
Location: Motor Vessel Wairua – Moutoa Gardens. Waimarie – 1A Taupo Quay, both in Whanganui city centre.
5. Tackle the Whanganui Journey
The Whanganui River is also home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, which isn’t a walk at all but a multi-day canoe trip. While most tour and canoe hire operators are located up north near Ohakune, Ki Tai offers a few options for exploring the Whanganui River from Whanganui. The Maori tour company shares the river’s history with you on their cultural tours, ranging from one-day experiences to a four-day guided canoe trip on the Whanganui Journey. Alternatively, enjoy the experience independently with freedom canoe hire and transport to and from the Whanganui Journey, which Ki Tai can also arrange. See more experiences like this in the 8 Luxury Activities in Whanganui.
Location: Pick-ups available from Whanganui accommodations.
6. Arrive in Whanganui on the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail
To see the very best of the Whanganui region and city, take on the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail! This 3-5 day adventure starts from Mt Ruapehu and takes you on a journey alongside the Whanganui River. Because we know a 3-5 day trip isn’t for everyone, check out the final point on this list for cycling alternatives.
Location: Most start in Ohakune or National Park Village in Ruapehu and end the trail in Whanganui city.
7. See Whanganui’s Beautiful Beaches
While the Whanganui River might steal all of the limelight in Whanganui, there are actually three beautiful beaches to enjoy. Castlecliff Beach is the best option for walking, especially by doing a walk at low tide underneath the rugged coastal cliffs. Kai Iwi Beach is a good swimming beach for families, while South Beach is a long and wild stretch of sand that goes on for miles and miles. All of the above are also stellar places to watch the sunset!
Location: Castlecliff Beach – End of Rangiora Street, approximately 8km (5 miles) from Whanganui city centre. Kai Iwi Beach – Just off Rapanui Road, approximately 17km (11 miles) from Whanganui city centre. South Beach – Adjacent to the Whanganui Airport, approximately 6km (4 miles) from Whanganui city centre.
8. Browse Art at the Sarjeant Gallery
Whanganui has a fantastic array of art galleries, with a few honourable mentions being the Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics, Whanganui Arts @ The Centre, the Whanganui Regional Museum and more. The most iconic, however, is the Sarjeant Gallery. Displaying an array of art from as early as the 1840s to the present day, the Sarjeant Gallery is one of the most significant galleries in New Zealand. There’s so much to see that it’s split between two venues, the original Sarjeant Gallery at Pukenamu at Queens Park and a modern warehouse at Sarjeant on the Quay along Taupo Quay. Entry to the exhibitions is free.
Location: 38 Taupo Quay, Whanganui city centre.
9. Check Out the Whanganui Regional Museum
What would a New Zealand city be without its regional museum?! Whanganui has quite a good one, the Whanganui Regional Museum, which houses all kinds of amazing Maori artefacts from tribes who have lived along the Whanganui River. See ancient skeletons from New Zealand’s extinct giant bird, the moa, and browse the shop with all sorts of New Zealand and Maori-made items. What’s more, the attraction is free and a good option for a rainy day in Whanganui.
Location: Queens Park Memorial Watt Street, Whanganui city centre.
10. Visit the River Traders and Whanganui Farmers Market
A great place to pick up some souvenirs and experience a traditional market that has been running for over a century, The River Traders & Whanganui Farmers Market has more than 100 stalls to check out. Browse and buy local food, art, plants, clothing and crafts alongside the river every Saturday morning.
Location: Taupo Quay, Whanganui city centre.
11. Watch Glass-blowing at New Zealand Glassworks
To continue on Whanganui’s creative flair, New Zealand Glassworks is the national centre for glassblowing in New Zealand and well worth a visit. Not only can you browse beautifully crafted glass art and watch the glassblowers at work, but you can also get stuck into the craft yourself. The glass studio offers glassblowing workshops, the most popular of which being their Make a Paperweight Workshop. The experience lasts approximately 30 minutes and concludes with you taking your own colourful paperweight home with you as a unique souvenir.
Location: 2 Rutland Street, Whanganui city centre.
12. See the Stars at The Ward Observatory
See the stars and Saturn at one of the public viewings at The Ward Observatory – usually on a Friday evening after dark. This observatory houses a 24cm telescope and the largest unmodified refractor telescope still in use in New Zealand. See more experiences like this in the 10 Things to Do in Whanganui with Kids.
Location: Cooks Gardens, St Hill Street.
13. Journey Up the Whanganui River Road
Get amazing views of the Whanganui River, the surrounding countryside and historical sights along the Whanganui River Road. Journey by car or by bike to visit the quaint historical settlements of Maori and European architecture, with a couple of walks and viewpoints along the way. For more information, see 9 Must-Do Stops on the Whanganui River Road.
Location: Between Punahou, just north of Whanganui city, and Pipiriki.
14. Hit the Whanganui Bike Trails
Aside from the iconic Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail, Whanganui is home to some more relaxing rides. In the city, the Round the Bridges Whanganui trail follows boardwalks along the river and crosses four different bridges. Make an event out of it by stopping by various parks, cafes and other finds along the river. Alternatively, you’ll find several mountain bike parks and trails around Whanganui. Get more information in the 6 Must-Do Bike Trails in Whanganui. Bikes can be hired from the Riverland Family Park, eBikes Whanganui and Velo Ronny’s Bicycle Store.
Location: The Round the Bridges Trail can be accessed via Anzac Parade, Somme Parade, Putiki Drive and Taupo Quay.