Straddling the mighty Waikato River at the heart of the vast Waikato Plains lies Hamilton, New Zealand's fourth largest city.
The heart of Waikato
A hub of agriculture, transport and trade, Hamilton has been an essential cog in New Zealand's growth. As a world-class leader in biotechnology and scientific research, Hamilton continues to attract agriculturalists, scientists, and researchers from around the world looking to study and learn from the region's success.
The city's agricultural prowess is broadcast with stunning vibrancy in its biggest attraction, Hamilton Gardens, while the nearby coastal town of Raglan and the film set of Hobbiton are also major attractions for Hamilton.
Read on to find out more about:
- Things to do in Hamilton
- Northern Explorer train journey
- Eating out in Hamilton
- Hamilton Cafes and Bars
- Hamilton accommodation
- Getting to and from Hamilton
- A brief history of Hamilton
Whether you are young or old, travelling alone or as a family, you'll find plenty to do in Hamilton.
Year round, you'll find headline entertainment with international cricket, international rugby, concerts, festivals and markets all making regular appearances.
Meanwhile, the region's rich history, culture and diversity, makes Hamilton's museums fascinating showpieces of New Zealand's incredible growth.
For a complete list of top Hamilton attractions, we recommend consulting TripAdvisor's listings for Things to Do in Hamilton. However, to whet your appetite, we've created our own list of Hamilton must-do activities:
This horticultural fantasy world began humbly in 1960 when a desolate rubbish dump passed over to Hamilton City Council for development.
During the early 1980's, Dr Peter Sergel set Hamilton Gardens on a pioneering new course. Rather than concentrating on botany, he suggested building a theatrical collection of gardens from around the world, charting the evolution of garden design and planting over centuries of horticultural history.
Fifty years on and Hamilton Gardens now covers 54 hectares with more than twenty gardens and walks to experience. These beautiful recreations include everything from ornate Italian, Tudor and Japanese gardens, to resourceful Kitchen, Herb and Te Parapara production gardens.
Walking around Hamilton Gardens is educational, entertaining and relaxing and you will soon see why it won the prestigious Garden of the Year award at the International Garden Tourism Awards!
With beautiful driving roads, a strong import market and resourceful "number-eight wire" fix-it-don't-ditch-it attitude, it is unsurprising that New Zealand is home to many of the world's most desirable and defining classic cars.
Built up from a personal collection of cars and motoring memorabilia, the Classics Museum in Hamilton celebrates automobile history and the spirit of freedom it brought by recreating those glorious colourful days when cars brought liberation.
With over 100 cars and an authentic '50s American Diner serving classic food to excellent modern standards, the Classic Museum is a must-do activity in Hamilton for all ages.
With more than 25 hectares of lush, green, peaceful surroundings to roam and 600 native and exotic animals on show, Hamilton Zoo is a full day's fun.
For that extra-special day-out, you can enjoy hands-on entertainment through the zoo's Meet the Keeper and Face2Face experiences. These encounters provide an in-depth look at how the animals are cared for at the zoo, with opportunities to feed and pet select animals.
The zoo is open from 9:30 to 16:30 every day of the week and is located on the northeastern boundary of the city, a couple of kilometres from the city centre.
Covering everything from regional and international history to science, art and culture, the award-winning Waikato Museum will give you detailed insights and background into the region and plenty more.
Waikato River Explorer
At 425km long, the Waikato River is New Zealand's longest and most important river. Starting on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, the river merges with the Tongariro River, feeds through Lake Taupo, descends Huka Falls, pools into several more lakes as it passes through King Country, then meanders through Cambridge and Hamilton before finally emptying into the Tasman Sea midway between Hamilton and Auckland.
This incredible course has made Waikato River historically very important, providing waterborne transport from New Zealand's timber-rich interior to the sea for exportation. With so much history and so many stories taking place on and around the river, there is no better way to learn about Hamilton and Waikato than by travelling along this mighty waterway.
Waikato River Explorer runs 90-minute cruises exploring the river. Departing from Hamilton Gardens, the Waikato River Explorer combines perfectly with a wander around Hamilton famous gardens.
Walking and cycling in Hamilton
Hamilton has an extensive network of walking and cycling paths and trails that follow the river. There is nothing easier than hiring a bike or a motorised e-Bike and exploring the city's tranquil riverside paths and parks for an afternoon of leisurely bliss.
You won't need a map, as the pathways run alongside the river throughout the length of the city. On the western bank, the path is continuous, while the trails on the eastern bank link with Hamilton Gardens, Memorial Park and Munro's Walkway. The city's seven bridges enable you to zigzag from side-to-side easily and explore the full extent of this beautiful cycle network.
Hobbiton Film Set
Hobbiton is one of New Zealand's top attractions, drawing Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fans from around the world. But you don't need to be a fan of the films to enjoy a tour around this charming film set. The effort invested in recreating an entire tiny village from the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien, complete with village inn and idyllic lake, is enormously impressive. Regardless of whether you have seen or enjoyed the films, the Hobbiton film set provides a fascinating insight into the incredible lengths film production companies undertake to create the perfect shot.
Hobbiton tours are guided and incredibly organised, allowing everyone to enjoy an authentic experience of The Shire's peace and tranquillity. As you walk around the perfect little world, it is easy to believe little Hobbits are sitting inside their tiny homes and may pop out any moment to say hello.
Your guide will fill you in on the canny techniques Peter Jackson and his crew used to create the illusion of Hobbits being tiny. The final destination of this fantastic tour is the magnificent Green Dragon Inn. This authentic olde style pub even serves its own Southfarthing range of 'shire beers - it's a mightily refreshing end to a few hours spent roaming The Shire.
From Hamilton, you can catch a bus with InterCity straight to Matamata or take an organised tour all the way to Hobbiton. You can find out more on the Hobbiton website.
Travelling on the Northern Explorer takes you through many areas used in filming the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In fact, much of Peter Jackson's inspiration came whilst travelling along the Northern Explorer's route, and he is quoted:
"Eighteen years old and reading J.R.R. Tolkien for the first time, I was sitting on a train as it left Wellington and rumbled up through the North Island. During the twelve hour journey, I'd lift my eyes from the book at the familiar landscape - which all of a sudden looked like Middle-earth."
Escape to Raglan
Famous for having one of the longest left-hand surf breaks, rolling into a picturesque sandy beach, Raglan is a buzzing little surfing town. If you are keen to try surfing out, then head to the Surf School on Ngarunui Beach. Alternatively, relax on the beach in the sun, watching the experts and enjoying this spectacular scene.
Buses depart from Hamilton Transport Centre and take approximately one hour - making Raglan a perfect day trip.
Purpose-built to showcase the epic vistas of New Zealand's countryside, the Northern Explorer Scenic train provides a uniquely relaxing way to witness New Zealand's diverse landscapes.
The Northern Explorer train combines spacious, comfortable seating, large panoramic windows with skylights, an open-air viewing carriage and a licensed cafe. So sit back and watch the best of New Zealand roll by whilst sipping on a selection of award-winning New Zealand wines and beers or barista made coffee.
Travelling from Hamilton to Wellington by train on the Northern Explorer takes you through some of New Zealand's finest scenery and across its greatest railway engineering feats.
After leaving Hamiton and crossing the Waikato Plains, the Northern Explorer rolls through the pleasant pastures of King Country before ascending the historic Raurimu Spiral onto the Central Plateau. As the train skirts around Tongariro National Park, two huge volcanoes dominate the skyline while the magnificent Makote and Hapuawhenua viaducts are two of several bridges that come in quick succession as the Northern Explorer traverses the deep ravines carved by rivers forming on the mountains of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.
To the south of Mount Ruapehu, the train brushes the Rangipo Desert before descending into the Rangitikei River valley, with its vast white cliffs scarring the lush green landscape.
In the late afternoon, open farmlands of Manawatu stretch to the horizon, and by early evening the dramatic final scene is playing out as the train soars above the rugged Kapiti Coast with the misty hills of the South Island often visible beneath the setting sun.
Hamilton provides all the culinary choices you would expect from New Zealand's fourth largest city. Whether you are looking for fine-dining, Italian, Indian or Chinese; sushi, pizza, fish & chips or steak & cheese; you will find the flavours your palette desires in the city centre.
To find your ideal choice, we recommend you consult the customer reviews listed on TripAdvisor. Alternatively, Hamilton city centre is not big and wandering the streets investigating with your eyes, ears and nose is also a good way to find the perfect restaurant.
When it comes to pleasant spots for morning coffee or brunch, few places can compete with Hamilton Gardens Cafe. But there are also many excellent spots in the city centre and for an up-to-date list try checking the TripAdvisor listings for cafes in Hamilton.
As is customary in New Zealand, Hamilton's cafes are intent on delivering coffee in the most stylishly delicious manner they can concoct - which usually means highly caffeinated! To help balance this out, you'll find most cafes in Hamilton serve equally fantastic food and cakes. As a result, it's easy to find yourself popping for a coffee and leaving several hours later, filled with delicious food and set up for the day.
When it comes to bars and pubs in Hamilton, there are plenty of choices. You can quaff a cool craft ale in the Good George Brewery, grab a Guinness in Biddy Mulligans, imbibe a Boddingtons in the Londoner, or sip upon a classy cocktail in the Wonder Horse. Whatever tickles your fancy, you'll find it in Hamilton. To find out more, try consulting the 10 Best Bars in Hamilton list on the Culture Trip website.
Hamilton provides the full spectrum of accommodation, from cheap and cheerful to five-star.
There are of course many hotel booking websites, but we encourage you to support the regional tourism website by using the search facilities on hamiltonwaikato.com. The site includes dedicated sections for bed & breakfasts (B&B's), boutique lodges, farmstays, holiday parks (campgrounds), motels, hotels and backpackers.
Hamilton Railway Station is centrally located and served by the Northern Explorer long-distance train from Auckland and Wellington. But, admittedly, there are other less impressive ways to get to and from Hamilton. So we'll start with the best, and work our way down.
Hamilton Railway Station
Northern Explorer train
The Northern Explorer train departs from Hamilton Railway Station six days a week, stopping en-route from Auckland to Wellington on Monday, Thursday and Saturday, and returning en-route from Wellington to Auckland on Friday, Sunday and Wednesday.
Flex and Flexi Plus tickets allow passengers to stop free of charge along the route. We recommend booking online as seats are limited and standing passengers are not allowed. Passengers can purchase tickets on board if seats are available and you can call our contact centre before the train's arrival to check availability.
Hamilton Transport Centre
Long distance buses
InterCity buses depart from Platforms A to D, with coaches connecting throughout the North Island (including Matamata for Hobbiton). See InterCity's online timetable for more information.
Busit runs an extensive local bus network that will get you around the city, travelling out to Cambridge in the east and Raglan in the west. Visit Busit's Hamilton Routes webpage to find out more.
Vehicle hire in Hamilton
Hamilton is a great place to explore the North Island from. Hire a car or campervan and you can easily explore the Coromandel Penninsula, Rotorua, Taupo, Gisborne, Napier and New Plymouth.
Hamilton Airport has regular flights to Wellington, Christchurch, North Shore, Gisborne. Auckland is too close to fly, so we recommend you book the Northern Explorer train instead.
Waikato first attracted settlers in the 16th century, with the fertile soils of the alluvial Waikato Plains making it an attractive place for permanent farming communities.
In 1864, during the New Zealand wars, the 4th Waikato Militia set-up camp either side of the river to bridge it with a punt. Commanding officer, William Moule, named the new settlement after Captain John Charles Fane Hamilton, a naval officer killed in the Battle of Gate Pa.
In 1868 the population was still a mere 250 people spread either side of the river, connected by a simple punt. However, the city's prominence improved significantly when the railway arrived on the western banks at Frankton Junction in 1877.
The need to bridge the river became imperative, and the east and west Hamilton town boards pooled together. In 1878, the unified electorate nominated I. R. Vialou as their Mayor and together they completed the aptly named Union Bridge in 1879.
As the railways grew in size and importance, so did Hamilton. Frankton Junction connected with Wellington and Auckland via the North Island Main Trunk railway, while branches connected to Cambridge, Thames and Rotorua.
Hamilton's strategic position on the railways made it the perfect location for the Railways Department to build prefabricated buildings. The Frankton Junction Railway House Factory went into operation in the early 1920s, building stations, housing, shops and pubs. The flat-pack houses were shipped around the country to provide temporary and mid-term housing for railway workers and navvies. The Frankton House Factory produced 1,591 before it closed in 1929 - many can still be found in railway settlements, such as Otira on the TranzAlpine railway. Although partitioned into smaller business units, the factory still stands in Railway Place, Dinsdale, Hamilton.
By 1945, Hamilton's population had grown to 22,000 and continued to boom throughout the '60s with an influx of skilled workers for Hamilton Hospital, Waikato University and the Waikato Institute of Technology.
Hamilton's population tipped the 100,000 mark during the '80s, staking its place as one of New Zealand's most important cities. International fame soon followed, with televised Test Cricket at Seddon Park and Test Rugby and Super Rugby at the FMG Stadium Waikato (formerly Rugby Park) broadcast around the world.
The modern Hamilton Station replaced Frankton Junction during the 1970s. The old Frankton Hotel still stands opposite the now cleared site of the old Frankton Junction station on High Street, just a couple of hundred metres north of the new station. The renovated hotel has been brought back to life by former All Black Graham (Moose) Whiting and offers a unique place to stay on the edge of today's busy shopping district. Built in 1929, the hotel has overseen a lot of railway history and, although now stranded from the station, the hotel's aptly named "Aleway Bar" is still serving.