Two hikers overlook Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding snow-capped mountains in Queenstown, New Zealand
Tourism New Zealand/Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters

New Zealand Movie Sites to See Whether You Care About Hobbits or Not

From 2001 to 2003, filmmaker Peter Jackson put out an epic, three-part New Zealand tourism brochure called The Lord of the Rings. Ever since the phenomenal success of that series, this small country in the South Pacific has become one of the world’s preeminent destinations for moviemaking and movie-inspired travel.

But New Zealand is more than a film set with a parliament. Once you get here, you see what attracts cinematographers in the first place: The country’s natural beauty is at once dramatic, diverse, and otherworldly. That’s why our tour of New Zealand’s top cinematic spots focuses more on the scenery than on where Gandalf did what. 
 
A cable car climbs Kelburn Hill in Wellington, New Zealand.
Ian Trafford/Tourism New Zealand
Wellington
The North Island city of Wellington is the capital of New Zealand moviemaking (as well as the capital of the country). Some have taken to calling it “Wellywood,” but in truth the vibe of this hip, harborside locale is more San Francisco than Los Angeles—with a lively recreational waterfront and tons of appealing cafes, shops, and restaurants. If you want to sample New Zealand’s top-of-the-line craft beers and artisanal coffees, this is the place to do it. 
 
The movie magic happens on the Miramar Peninsula, an unassuming, formerly industrial hunk of land that stretches into Wellington Harbour near the airport. This is where you'll find the special-effects miracle workers of the Weta Workshop.
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Lord of the Rings artifacts inside the Weta Cave in Wellington, New Zealand
Weta Workshops/Tourism New Zealand
All Things Weta
New Zealand owes its current cinematic prominence to the Weta Workshop, where Lord of the Rings mastermind Peter Jackson, special-effects wizard Richard Taylor, and a huge team of makeup artists, creature builders, weapons makers, prosthetics experts, and digital green-screen pros helped bring JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth to life. In the years since, the company has had a hand in pretty much every movie requiring cool tricks, including Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
 
Options for visitors include the Weta Cave (pictured), a store with a few leftover props on display and a bunch of LOTR memorabilia for sale; and guided tours featuring up-close glimpses of Gandalf’s staff, warriors‘ armor, and knobby, prosthetic dwarf noses. Diehard fans might be fascinated, but layfolk are liable to grow weary of long and somewhat repetitive technical descriptions of how lightweight plastic is made to look like gnarled wood and rusty metal.   
 
Facade of the Roxy, an art-deco movie theater in Wellington, New Zealand
smalljude/Flickr
Dine Like a Star
Wellington nightlife is more laid back than glam, but there’s star power to be felt if you know where to go. The filmmakers working at Weta Workshop are fond of the nearby CoCo at the Roxy, a Gatsbyesque bar and cafe housed inside a recently rebuilt art-deco cinema (pictured). Closer to the heart of downtown, a former Swiss coffeehouse called the Matterhorn has transformed into a handsome, low-lit spot for cocktails, meaty New Zealand fare (rabbit, lamb), and live music. It was a favorite of the Lord of the Rings cast.
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Exterior of a "Hobbit hole" built into a hillside at the Hobbiton Movie Set in New Zealand
Sara Orme/Tourism New Zealand
Hobbiton Movie Set
The unlikely epicenter of film-based tourism in New Zealand is the rural farming village of Matamata near the base of the Kaimai Range about 175 kilometers (110 miles) southeast of Auckland. In The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, the lush, rolling hills here were used to represent the idyllic Shire, where Frodo, Bilbo, and the other Hobbits live. After the film crews left, locals decided to keep intact the 44 quaint “Hobbit holes” built into the hillsides (pictured). You can see them for yourself at what’s now called the Hobbiton Movie Set via a guided two-hour tour, which also includes stops at the Party Tree and a detailed replica of the Green Dragon Inn. Should be good for an Instagram post or two. 
Hikers walk along bridges suspended among trees at the Redwoods Treewalk in Rotorua, New Zealand.
Tourism New Zealand
Rotorua Redwood Forest
New Zealand scenery has proven awfully versatile, depending on where film directors point their cameras. It has stood in for imaginary lands (The Chronicles of Narnia), the Himalayas (Vertical Limit), and North Korea (The Rescue). In Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon, the redwood forest in Rotorua on the North Island serves as the Pacific Northwest. 
 
Incidentally, redwood trees aren’t native to New Zealand, but were brought over from California around the turn of the 20th century for use as a lumber source. Rotorua’s forest is popular with mountain bikers and hikers today. At the Redwoods Treewalk (pictured), you can take a stroll through the woods along bouncy suspension bridges hanging 12 meters (40 feet) above the forest floor.
 
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Lake Wakatipu and surrounding snow-capped mountains in Queenstown, New Zealand
Zac Thompson
Queenstown
Onward to the mountainous, less populated South Island, where you’ll find the gorgeous resort village of Queenstown. The city sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, an S-shaped stunner flanked by snow-capped peaks wearing wispy clouds like shawls. Queenstown is a prime destination for outdoor recreation, attracting skiers, boaters, adrenaline junkies (the world’s first commercially operated bungee jump is at the nearby Kawarau Gorge), and scenery hounds.
 
Part of the highly photogenic Otago region, the city and its environs have appeared in numerous movies (including Wolverine, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the '80s cult fave Willow), as well as TV shows, music videos, and commercials—basically, any visual artifact needing a dramatically rugged backdrop.
Lake Wakatipu and surrounding snow-capped mountains in Queenstown, New Zealand
Tourism New Zealand
The Drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy
One of the world’s great scenic drives follows a winding route for about 45 minutes alongside Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown to tiny Glenorchy. Every bend in the road seems to unveil a new, heart-stoppingly beautiful view of mountains and an expanse of cobalt-blue water. 
 
The lake’s film and TV credits include The Water Horse, in which it stood in for Scotland’s Loch Ness, and Jane Campion’s TV series Top of the Lake, in which it served as the titular lake. 
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A jetboat zips across the Dart River in New Zealand
Ngāi Tahu Tourism
Dart River
In Glenorchy, the shallow, glacier-fed Dart River flows into the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. The waterway’s surrounding valleys and gravelly banks were used as the setting for the fortress of Isengard in The Lord of the Rings; the river also showed up in the music video for Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods.” 
 
A fun way to zip across the Dart is via jetboat (a vessel invented in New Zealand), which is propelled forward at high speeds by shooting water from the back of the craft. Jetboats are designed to skim shallow rivers, meaning you can go places where other boats can’t. Book a piloted cruise—part informational tour, part thrill ride—via Dart River Wilderness Jet.
A crater lake in front of Mount Ngauruhoe in New Zealand's Tongariro National Park
Tourism New Zealand/Destination Lake Taupo
Tongariro National Park
We end our tour of New Zealand movie sites where Frodo’s jewelry-destruction project came to a close: Tongariro National Park, located back on the North Island. This is where you’ll find the conical Mount Ngauruhoe, which played gloomy Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth.
 
Visitors can actually climb the volcano, but be warned: It’s a strenuous, 3-hour journey (hey, it wasn’t easy for Hobbits—why should it be easy for you?). The national park—New Zealand’s oldest, established in 1887—is also home to the famous Tongariro Crossing, a daylong (7-8 hours) hike that serves as a survey of the country’s spectacular scenery, with views of majestic mountains, steaming hot springs, emerald-green crater lakes, and eerie lunar landscapes. 
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