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A student’s guide to living in Hamilton

Hamilton is one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing cities, but what makes it such a great place to study is the location.

Hamilton is located in the heart of the North Island, only a 1.5-hour drive or bus ride from Auckland and located near many scenic towns and outdoor adventure hotspots.

If you truly want to experience all the different aspects that New Zealand has to offer, then Hamilton will be a top choice as your study destination.

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Popular activities in Hamilton

For a small city, there’s a lot of ways to spend your free time, especially if you love nature and the outdoors. Hamilton is located in the scenic Waikato Region, and there’s no shortage of free or cheap sights and activities to explore. 

To help you discover Hamilton, here are three of our top picks. 

Visit the Hamilton Garden 

The Hamilton Gardens has been operating since 1962. Once you’ve spent the day there, it’s not hard to see why it’s the largest tourist attraction in the Waikato region with an array of events, guided tours and seasonal highlights.

What makes Hamilton Gardens so memorable is the huge variety of gardens to look at, with over a dozen speciality gardens. The main attractions are the culturally themed gardens, such as the Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Maori and English gardens.

However, if you're a lover of history, literature or fantasy, there’s the fantasy collection gardens featuring Tudor, Surrealist, Picturesque and other gardens that reflect periods in history and influences from works of art, music and literature.

The Hamilton Gardens is open 7 days a week to the public and admission is always free. Getting there is quite easy, it’s only a 5 to 10-minute drive or 20 to 30-minute walk from Hamilton city centre or the University of Waikato. There are also bus options too.

Spend a day at the zoo 

The Hamilton Zoo is the largest zoo on the North Island and home to over 600 native and exotic animals. Aside from being a tourism and recreation park, the Hamilton Zoo is also committed to animal conservation and breeding endangered species.

You can stroll through the zoo and browse the various animal habitats at your own pace or take part in some of the free or paid experiences to learn or get up and close with animals.

If you get hungry, there’s a café, otherwise you can pack yourself a picnic to take with you or hire a BBQ to cook up lunch for you and your friends.

The zoo is open 6 days a week. Standard admission starts at NZ$19 for students, or NZ$57 for a annual pass if you plan on visiting throughout the year.

Take a cruise, a walk or a ride down the river 

The Waikato river that runs through the centre of Hamilton is New Zealand’s longest river, passing through Mount Ruapehu and Lake Taupo, and flows out to the Tasman Sea.

You can experience the river in one of few ways. You can go on a Waikato River Explorer cruise from NZ$29 to learn about the region and its rich history, or simply to take in the sights.

Otherwise, if you prefer something free or active, you can walk or ride through one of the Waikato River Trails.

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Getting around Hamilton

While the most common way to get around Hamilton is using the bus network, there are sufficient taxi and ride-sharing options to get you from A to B.

Bus

Like most cities in New Zealand, buses are the most common way to get around if you don’t own a car.

The local Hamilton bus network runs throughout the city, and the regional buses extend all the way to the town of Paeroa in the east (home to the ‘world famous in New Zealand’ L & P drink) and Raglan in the west.

To plan your journey or find out what buses are near you, you can use the Journey Planner on the Busit homepage or download the Transit Realtime app to your smartphone.

You can pay for your bus rides in two ways: you can pay by cash directly to the driver, or you can pre-purchase and top up a cheaper BUSIT card, which offers a 30% discount for University of Waikato and Wintec students if you show a valid student ID card. You can purchase a BUSIT card from the Transport centre or directly from the bus driver (cash only) for NZ$15.

Private transport 

Private transport is another option for getting around, and the two most popular forms are taxis and ride-sharing services.

The main taxi options in Hamilton are Hamilton Taxis, Red Cabs Hamilton and Waikato Taxis, You can use the online Taxi Calculator to get an estimate on your fares.

If you prefer ride sharing, then Uber and Ola are available in Hamilton. You can download the Uber or Ola app or use the Uber website to get a price estimate for your journey.

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Places to shop

Figuring out where to go for day-to-day purchases can be intimidating for newly arrived international students.

Supermarkets

The main supermarket chains in New Zealand are Countdown, Pak’nSave and New World, and all three are located throughout Hamilton and surrounding areas.

Figuring out which major supermarket you choose will depend on where you live, your mode of transport and preference for particular range of products or allergy-friendly items.

If you are staying close to campus and want to shop for supplies nearby, you will have the choice of smaller and local Four Square supermarkets and local dairies (the New Zealand term for a bodega). There’s also the New Save Asian supermarkets to stock up on Asian treats, meals and snacks.

Retail

There are plenty of shopping options in Hamilton, from high-end boutique retail such as the Spanish-inspired Casabella lane, to one of New Zealand’s largest shopping malls.

The best place to go shopping for all your needs in one go is to visit a shopping mall. There are three major shopping malls in Hamilton. The first is Centre Place, which is the closest to the University of Waikato if you are living on or near campus.

The other two malls are located on the northern end of Hamilton but you might find them worth the trip. The award-winning Te Awa @ The Base shopping mall is one of New Zealand’s largest malls and largest Hoyts' cinema silver screen in the country.

Located only a 15-min drive from Te Awa @ The Base, you will find the Chartwell Shopping Centre.

To get out and about and experience a diverse range of arts, crafts and fashion stalls, as well as sample some of Hamilton’s fresh produce and artisanal products, then it’s worth checking out one of Hamilton’s markets.

To explore more options, check out Visit Hamilton’s Shopping and Dining webpages.

Unique places to dine out

Hamilton offers many restaurants and diverse eateries all over the small city, from Dumpling houses to pub grub, with options across cheap eats to traditional dining.

If you’re a foodie or looking to experience some of Hamilton’s fresh food adventures, then below are a few ideas worth checking out.

Find the Foodie Hotspots

With so many restaurants and cuisines constantly evolving and changing, it’s always hard to define what’s worth exploring.

However, what makes the food experience in Hamilton unique is the close proximity to the fresh seasonal produce and home of some of the world’s best dairy centres, making it a foodie’s wonderland.

To find the best spots to visit and plan your dining trips, we recommend checking out the latest Foodie HotSpots Brochure on The Mighty Waikato website.

SkyCity Hamilton

While SkyCity is most known in Auckland where the iconic tower design defines the Auckland skyline, SkyCity Hamilton is also a casino and entertainment destination.

SkyCity Hamilton offers a range of dining options, from casual burger and shakes, all the way to locally crafted beer and tapas to high-end cocktails. The range of food is worth checking out for a unique night out in the city.

Ruakura Berry Shop

Fruit picking is one of Waikato’s unique and must-do adventures for those staying or visiting in the region, and Ruakura Berry Shop is often at the top of the list.

Ruakura Berry Shop is a 5-minute drive from the University of Waikato Campus, or a bus ride on the Hamilton to Paeroa 22 bus line.

Throughout the year, you’ll be able to purchase fresh berries and try out their seasonal range of Real Fruit Ice Creams made on-site. A large waffle cone or tub starts at a reasonable NZ$6.

And on the warmer months, you’ll also have the option to pick your own strawberries, making it an ideal day out.

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Best outdoor adventures near Hamilton

Being located in the heart of the North Island, there’s so much to see and do near Hamilton. From traditional Maori villages to Hobbiton, and not to mention the wildlife and outdoors options.

Hamilton is an ideal place for students who want to spend their weekends or holidays exploring New Zealand, and here are three ideas to get you started.

Visit Hobbiton

If you're a fan of the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit or just a film or book enthusiast, the Hobbiton Movie Set Tours are one the most memorable day trips in the North Island.

Hobbiton is located in Matamata, just an hour’s drive from Hamilton, or you can take one of the bus transfer options.

Upon arrival, you are welcomed into an open tour throughout the movie set, exploring all the hobbit holes, Bag End, the Party Tree and finally you can rest your (proud) feet at The Green Dragon Inn, where the ale comes in pints.

Depending on your budget and level of enthusiasm for the franchise, there are a few experiences you can choose from. You can decide on the basic tour or go for the full Party Tree buffet (sorry, no dragon fireworks included). Tours start at NZ$89.

Explore the Waitomo Caves

If you’re going to be living in Hamilton, then add the Waitomo Caves to your must-see list because it is simply worth it.

Waitomo is quoted as being ’30 million years in the making’, and once you venture down into the subterranean and spiritual limestone formations of the Aranui Cave and step into the silent underwater boat ride lit up by thousands of glow worms above you, it’s not hard to marvel at the history surrounding you.

During the tour, you’ll be led by experienced guides who will describe the history and native legends of the caves. But, If you want a more active adventure, then you can also go zip lining or black water rafting in Waitomo’s caves.

The 45-minute Waitomo Glow Worm Caves tour starts at NZ$55 and goes up to NZ$140 for the 3-hour Triple Cave combo tour. You can keep an eye on their website or Bookme for special deals and rates.

Take a trip to Rotorua

Rotorua is a 1.5 hour drive from Hamilton, or you can catch an Intercity Bus from the Hamilton Travel Centre.

Visiting Rotorua is a great option for those who want to learn about the Maori legends, culture and traditions or experience New Zealand’s thermal wonders.

Rotorua is known for its geysers, mud pools and its sulfuric pungent smell that arises from Rotorua’s geothermal activities, aptly described as the smell of rotten eggs (don’t worry, you quickly get used to it).

At Te Puia, you can go on a self-guided tour and get up close to the geysers, or spend a day relaxing in the geothermal mud baths and hot springs at Hell’s Gate Geothermal Park & Mud Spa. Admission starts at NZ$20-$60, and shuttles are available from Rotorua central.

Rotorua has a very rich and deep Maori heritage and is home to Mitai Maori Village to explore New Zealand’s native history and culture. Here you can take part in a traditional hangi (a meal cooked underground through the Earth’s heat), and explore the carvings, weapons and ta moko (tattoo art). Admission starts at NZ$22.50.

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