As much as New Zealanders like to take a (mostly friendly) jab at Hamilton, this is not a place that should be struck off anyone’s travel lists. It is the country’s fourth largest city, after all, with its own unique flair and attractions to share. Whether you’re en route to neighbouring gems like Hobbiton, or you’re simply visiting out of sheer curiosity, here are the top 10 things you should definitely check out while in town.
The Hamilton Gardens are renowned for their exceptional concept. Its focus is on the history of gardens and how different cultures have embraced them – similar to a museum in that culture and civilisations are given top priority. Some of its prime attractions include the Victorian Flower Garden, the Chinoiserie Garden, the Italian Renaissance Garden, and the Indian Char Bagh Garden, all of which encapsulate the different styles, plant choices and architecture that is characteristic of their respective themes and countries.
The ArtsPost Galleries are located in one of Hamilton’s finest heritage buildings. The former Post and Telegraph Office premises were transformed into a hub of creativity in 1998, after undergoing a series of refurbishments that helped preserve its distinguished historic features. These days, ArtsPost is a place that promotes artists and creatives from the Waikato region and across New Zealand. Three exhibition spaces house an ever-changing art collection, while the gallery’s shop offers a diverse set of arts and crafts for visitors to take home.
Within a short walk of ArtsPost, you’ll find the Waikato Museum. The current building, which was opened in 1987, was designed by the late Ivan Mercep – the same architect who was tasked with conceptualising Wellington’s Te Papa Museum. Some of its best known features include the magnificent Te Winika waka (a Maori war canoe), Waikato WWI Story exhibit, and an array of interactive science galleries for children. The Waikato Museum consists of 13 galleries that regularly hosts hundreds of events annually – including the National Contemporary Art Award, which has been a regular feature of the museum since the year 2000.
Hamilton proves that even an inland city can be surrounded by large stretches of water. The Waikato River is actually New Zealand’s longest, covering a solid 425 kilometres (264.1 miles). It rises through Mount Ruapehu, passing through Lake Taupo, Cambridge, Hamilton, Ngaruawahia and Huntly before flowing out into the Tasman Sea at the Port of Waikato. The river is a popular spot for kayaking and fishing, and the Waikato River Trail is quite a hit among experienced cyclists too.
Hamilton Zoo is home to more than 600 animals from New Zealand and abroad. It is also where you’ll find the largest free-flight aviary in Australasia – with a trove of native, Antipodean and exotic species making their mark among the local plants and streams in its environs. Other noteworthy wildlife to look out for include the prehistoric Tuatara, an array of endangered exotic animals, and a rare New Zealand amphibian known as Hochstetter’s frog.
The Hamilton Lake Domain is an ideal place for a leisurely lakeside stroll. Its namesake lake, which is also known as Lake Rotoroa, stretches across 3.8 kilometres (2.4 miles) and has a mostly-flat walkway contouring it throughout. The area is complemented by grassy parklands that are perfect for a picnic, as well as a flourishing birdlife in and out of the water. There’s also a cafe playground on-site for families wanting a nice outdoorsy place to relax and unwind.
Taitua Arboretum began as a simple tree-planting project in 1973, after Hamilton locals John and Bunny Mortimer decided they wanted to do something to protect the animals in the area. As their newfound lifelong passion evolved, the couple continued to cultivate native and exotic trees and shrubs on-site, before gifting the land to the council in 1997. Nowadays, the Taitua Arboretum boasts 20 hectares (49.4 acres) of open pasture, surrounded by mature trees, lakes, woodland gardens and a series of scenic walking trails that bring visitors up close and personal to the local birdlife and farm animals.
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The Riff Raff Statue
New Zealand has a soft spot for quirky sculptures, and Hamilton is no different. At the southern end of the city’s main Victoria Street, you’ll find an fitting tribute to The Rocky Horror Picture Show: a statue of the film’s iconic Riff Raff character. Richard O’Brien, who wrote both the musical stage show and the film screenplay, actually grew up in New Zealand – he lived Hamilton for an extended period of time, working next door to the location where the Riff Raff statue resides.
This bustling underground night market is a definite must-visit if you’re coming by on the weekend. Cuisines of all flavours and nationalities line the food stalls. Local arts and crafts are also a part of the equation, as are kids activities and live entertainment. The Hamilton Night Market operates every Saturday from 5pm-11pm, at the Kmart carpark on Bryce Street. Make sure to bring cash, as many stalls don’t take credit/debit cards.
This is a seasonal attraction that’s bound to please those visiting in the summer months. Ye Olde Berry Farm is known for its pick-your-own strawberries and/or raspberries days, homemade ice creams, and a shop filled with fresh fruits, veggies, free range eggs, honey, jams and preserves. The farm is located just 10 minutes from Hamilton and is particularly popular among visiting families.