Things to do in Whanganui

Welcome to Wanganui, a small but picturesque city located on the West Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, within three hours’ drive of both Wellington and New Plymouth.

In the past few years, Whanganui’s destination marketing seems to have leapt into action. It’s a vibey wee city which feels really creative and has a lot happening that you can dip in and out of at your own desire. I’ve listed the best things to do in Whanganui to help anyone planning a trip there.

High up on the side of a cream coloured two story building there are three different sculptures of dogs sitting on different chairs.

Take the Durie Hill Elevator

Now over 100 years old, the earthbound Durie Hill Elevator is still using its original machinery. It was fascinating to learn about the history from both the signage and the patient elevator attendant who answered our questions.

One of the top Whanganui attractions, to get to the elevator you follow the pedestrian tunnel 205 metres into the hill and ring a bell to be collected. The 66-metre elevator journey takes around a minute and costs $2 per person each way.

A young woman dressed in black activewear is pictured from behind walking through a long white tunnel. A neon sign reading "open" in green is above her head.

A wall with four tubs stacked vertically filled with small potted plants, a grey elevator door and a sign on the wall reading "please ring bell for lift".

Looking into the durie hill elevator from the outside. The interior has brick red walls, old wooden cabinet detailing on left and rear, grey squared carpet and posters on the top half of the walls.

Climb up the Durie Hill War Memorial Tower

Visible from across Whanganui and near the top of the elevator is the Durie Hill War Memorial Tower which is built of fossilised shell rock. With 172 steps you can climb up the 33 metre tower (half the height of the Durie Hill Elevator) to take in the spectacular scenery of Whanganui city, the river and the coastline from the top.

A 33 metre tower of remembrance built out of fossilised shell rock pictured from a distance. It is surrounded by lush green lawn, two tall spotlights on the right and trees on the left.

Cage structure at the top of the tower of remembrance. Some people have left closed padlocks on the bars. The city of Whanganui and the Whanganui River is visible in distance at the bottom of the image.

View of Whanganui from top of the Durie Hill Elevator. The Whanganui River runs through the centre of the picture with houses and buildings either side.

Take one of the famous Whanganui River cruises

Surely the most famous Whanganui attraction is the Whanganui River, New Zealand’s longest navigable river, which has been referred to as the Rhine of New Zealand.

We took a two-hour cruise on the Whanganui River on the Paddle Steamer Waimarie (meaning good fortune – peaceful waters) – New Zealand’s only coal fired paddle steamer. It was designed and built in London in 1899 and transported in a kitset form to Whanganui.

The Paddle Steamer Waimarie berthed in Whanganui with Durie Hill visible in the background.

Following tradition, Pigeons are sent back from the to base from the Paddle Steamer Waimarie carrying messages from guests on board. It takes them around 8 minutes to fly back from the turning point and you can see them safely home when you disembark at the end of your cruise around an hour after their departure.

Paddle Steamer Waimarie on the Whanganui River on a sunny day, A foliage covered riverbank is visible on the right. You can see the ship's wheel with two staff operating on the left.

The frequency of Whanganui River cruises on the Paddle Steamer Waimarie varies by season.

New Zealand Glassworks

Whanganui has a reputation as New Zealand’s centre for glass art. A unique collaborative chandelier is the centerpiece at New Zealand Glassworks – made by glass artists from New Zealand and Australia.

New Zealand Glassworks seemed to understand that not every visitor is looking for an expensive statement piece, also selling glass paperweights and other small pieces in their shop. If you’re keen to have a go at blowing glass yourself, they offer a variety of one day classes for beginners across the year.

A Glass Chandelier hanging from the ceiling at New Zealand Glassworks in Whangaui. Each piece of hanging glass has been created by a different glass artist so they are all unique.

If you’re looking for beautiful glassworks to take home I’d also recommend visiting Brown & Co.

Where to go in Whanganui for:

Ice Cream: Frosty Moons had funky decor and a jukebox. It was a tough ask to choose just one flavour but I settled on a lemon sorbet in a waffle cone.

Coffee: Not just a cafe, Article Coffee in the original Whanganui Chronicle building also provides a sales location for local creators, artists and crafters. 

Local produce: The Whanganui River Traders Market is a Whanganui attraction running every Saturday with stalls selling fresh food, crafts, fruit and vegetables.

Live music: Porridge Watson has craft beer, a range of cocktails and wine on offer with cheaper-than-Wellington drink prices. Best described as hip with a chilled, cozy vibe.

Local performance: The Whanganui Repertory Theatre – Whanganui hosts various festivals, markets and cultural events throughout the year. We were there during the Whanganui Literary Fringe Festival in September and we caught Flow Collective preforming Beautrais x de Vegt, a unique show that celebrates the Whanganui River and the stories of its people.

Gin: Papaiti Gin Distillery is around 10 minutes drive of Whanganui in the rural village of Upokongaro (where the Paddle Steamer Waimarie turns). After tasting all three gins and hearing about all their hard work, paying off in awards just two years in, I came away with a bottle of the Whanganui Dry.

Tiered shelving with green bottles of gin on the top shelf, then pink, then white. On the bottom shelf is a book called Still Magic and a mortar and pestle.

Whanganui motels

There are plenty of Whanganui motels to choose from, but our Whangaui-based family member recommended the Riverside Motel to mum and I. Due to some confusion (“River-something motel”) we actually stayed at Riverview Motel a couple of blocks away. 

It was slightly closer to town and our room, had a spa-bath and was quieter being back from the main road.

Bushy Park Tarapuruhi

Top of the list for my next visit to Whanganui is Bushy Park Tarapuruhi, a wildlife sanctuary of more than 80 hectares of lush native forest and a diverse array of birdlife 25 minutes north of Whanganui. Birds calling Bushy Park home include rarer species the toutouwai/North Island robins and tīeke/ North Island saddlebacks, which have been reintroduced since 2005 when a million-dollar predator-proof fence was erected around the perimeter.

Beyond its ecological significance, the park is also of historical importance, with a large heritage-listed Edwardian homestead you can book to stay at.

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