The Bay of Islands is a picture-perfect enclave of over 140 sub-tropical islands located towards the top of New Zealand’s epic North Island. Although Paihia acts as the central hub for most travellers, the quaint town of Russell is an equally perfect place to stay when exploring the region.
With delicious restaurants, serene beaches, commanding viewpoints and eclectic shops you’ll find plenty of amazing things to do in Russell to keep you busy.
We’ve thoroughly explored Russell, Paihia and the entire Bay of Islands and love constantly seeking out hidden gems in the area. This guide aims to share all the must-dos and everything you need to know when exploring Russell and the surrounding area.
Things to Do in Russell
From foodies to adventure seekers, Russell and the Bay of Islands will keep you enthralled from the moment you arrive.
The town itself is great with popular dining spots, shops and enough accommodation, however, getting out on the water is the real reason people visit Russell. So, whatever you do, make sure you get out to explore at least one of the 140 islands!
1. Explore Urupukapuka Island
If you’re only picking one island to visit in the Bay of Islands, then make sure it’s Urupukapuka Island. This is the most popular island in the region for a good reason – it’s stunning!
The island is large enough to spend a day exploring, but small enough to do it all on foot. There are beaches all along the coast as well as one of the best campsites in the North Island of New Zealand, Urupukapuka Campsite.
If you’re feeling adventurous, make sure to hike around the island as there are plenty of tracks and countless viewpoints. If you’re more keen on relaxing, make your way to one of the beaches to lie back and soak up the sun.
Getting to Urupukapuka Island from Russell is easy. The ferry costs just $50 return and will allow you a day of exploring. However, if you’re short on time and keen to really see the sights, then we’d recommend booking the Explore Hole in the Rock Cruise which includes a stop at the incredible Urupukapuka Island.
2. Visit Paihia
Paihia town is the typical destination for travellers looking to explore the Bay of Islands. It’s packed with tour operators, shops and eateries, though Russell beats it out by being cuter.
There are a bunch of things to do in Paihia that make it worth a visit, so if you don’t have time to stay there then make sure to check it out.
If you’re staying in Russell then your best option is to take the passenger ferry across for $14 return. It’s cheap, easy and overall a pretty pleasant way to get out on the water.
If you have the time, we’d recommend most people spend a night in Paihia and Russell each. Whenever we stay in Paihia we stay in either Haka Lodge (which is a backpackers with private rooms and great views) or Sea Spray Suites.
3. Dine or Stay at The Duke
The Duke of Marlborough Hotel is hard to miss when you’re visiting Russell. The old building lends itself to the rustic vibe of the town thanks to its 19th-Century architectural design.
If your budget can stretch we highly recommend staying at The Duke of Marlborough Hotel as it’s one of the nicest hotels in Russell with beautiful rooms, great views and the knowledge that you’re staying in one of New Zealand’s most iconic, historic buildings.
With that said, if you’ve opted to stay elsewhere, The Duke is also a great restaurant and bar. The chefs here are experienced in crafting up delectable seasonal dishes using local ingredients so it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Russell!
4. Cruise to the Hole in the Rock
The famous Hole in the Rock, or Piercy Island, is a popular destination in the Bay of Islands. It is a gorgeous rock formation that has developed due to geological processes over many years.
To get here you will, of course, require a boat and the best option is to book on a tour with Explore. You can try your luck at their kiosk in Paihia, but it’s easier to book online.
They have a few different tour options but the most popular is the Hole in the Rock Cruise that takes you out to both the Hole in the Rock and the aforementioned Urupukapuka Island. We highly recommend booking this. Unless you have a boat of your own, or you get violently seasick, then this is pretty much a non-negotiable, must-do in the Bay of Islands.
5. Eat Pizza at Hone’s Garden Restaurant
Everyone loves pizza (I think?) and Hone’s Garden Restaurant is serving up some of the best woodfired pizzas we’ve ever had. You won’t find a shortage of good restaurants in Russell, but this is pretty much the only one you NEED to try.
Hone’s Garden Restaurant is tucked away from the street in what feels like a tropical rainforest. The vibe here is laid back and everything is about enjoying good food and drinks with good company.
We’re pretty fussy with our pizzas and we were stoked – the bases were crispy but not burnt and the toppings were scrumptious.
6. Skydive Over the Bay of Islands
While everyone’s out enjoying the Bay of Islands from the water, why not opt for a different perspective?
Skydiving is the ultimate adventure activity and we reckon freefalling over the Bay of Islands has to be one of the best places in the world to do it. Skydive Bay of Islands offers tandem skydiving from over 9,000ft.
They’re the best option in the Bay of Islands, with experienced skydivers controlling the entire experience.
7. Explore the Russell Museum
One of the best things to do in Russell is to explore the iconic Russell Museum. The museum is tiny and located in the heart of town, so it may come as a surprise that we reckon it’s actually worth visiting!
The exhibits are gorgeously displayed with modern displays and interactive shows. It’s a very informative, and concise, exhibition of Russell’s history.
8. Kayak & View Haruru Falls
If you’ve found the time to visit Paihia then there are a couple of things you really must do while you’re here. Haruru Falls is one of them.
This powerful waterfall is actually the point where the Waitangi River flows into the lagoon. There is a 5-minute walk down to find some impressive views of the falls. It is a popular spot for photographers.
You can also rent a kayak or join a tour in Paihia which will enable you to kayak up to the waterfall itself.
9. Explore the Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Unquestionably the most important and poignant historic site in New Zealand, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds are where the country’s founding document between the European Settlers and the Maori was signed in 1840.
The Te Tiriti O Waitangi, and the Treaty of Waitangi, played an important role in defining property rights and land ownership in New Zealand. The inconsistent translation of the document into Te Reo Maori caused the Maori people to believe they were signing away the right to use their land when in reality they were exchanging ownership.
Whether you’re a New Zealander or an international tourist, The Waitangi Treaty Grounds and the museum situated here is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand and should be on your itinerary.
10. Climb Up Flagstaff Hill
Maiki Hill, also known as Flagstaff Hill, is the location of a flag post on a hill overlooking Russell and the harbour. Beyond just impressive views, the location holds a historic significance and is one of the best things to do in Russell.
It was a site of historic contention between the European colonial settlers and the native Maori people, or tangata whenua. You can read more about this on the plaques when you explore the park.
11. Drive Up to Cape Reinga & Ninety Mile Beach
If you’re keen on taking some impressive photos and finding breathtaking scenery then making the long road trip up to the northernmost tip of New Zealand is worth doing.
The drive is quite long (mainly because you need to drive there and back) and there isn’t too much up there. We’d recommend making it a day trip, unless you like camping in which case you could check out the DOC campsites up there.
Ninety Mile Beach and the Te Paki Sand Dunes are two popular spots along the way that are surreal, whilst most visitors are really there to make their way to the very top.
12. Browse the Shops in Russell
Russell is a town and the main village is home to a handful of interesting shops. Whenever we arrive in a new place we love to get out and explore the town on foot and this is exactly what we recommend doing in Russell.
As you hit the main sights (the beach, The Duke and the museum) make sure to stop and browse the local shops. You might find something for yourself, but we often shop for gifts when we’re exploring small New Zealand towns.
13. Visit Kerikeri
Kerikeri is Northland’s largest town and home to the country’s infamous Hongi Hika. The town is known for its colourful history, laid-back lifestyle and countless attractions.
If you have the time then Kerikeri is a great place to spend a night as there is so much here, but it can also be visited on the drive north from Russell.
One of our favourite things to do in Kerikeri is to visit Rainbow Falls, although we do really love waterfalls. Also pay a visit to the Stone Store and Kemp House which were built by European missionaries with the support of the local iwi in the early 1800s.
14. Swim at Long Beach
Located on the eastern side of Russell with views out towards the Bay of Islands, Long Beach is a popular beach for locals that is renowned as a safe spot for swimming and relaxing.
Pack a picnic in Russell and head over for a stunning afternoon out at the beach.
15. Visit Christ Church
Christ Church is New Zealand’s oldest church. Built in 1835, with architectural modifications in 1871, the church’s grounds contain the graves of many notable historical people.
As you walk around the church you can even find musket ball holes remaining in the wooden walls of the building.
The Duke of Marlborough Hotel – Certainly one of the best hotels in Russell, The Duke is a historic, 19th-Century building with a noteworthy restaurant and clean, modern rooms. Worth staying here if you can get a room.
How to Get to Russell
Getting to Russell can be a bit of a challenge and it depends on what your plans are. Ultimately, you have two choices: bus or drive.
From Auckland, the drive to Russell takes 4-hours, however, with your car in the town of Russell it is then a substantial 1-hour drive to get back around the coast to Paihia which is necessary in order to explore further north.
There is also a car ferry that runs between Russell and Paihia which can cut down on this travel time.
About half way along the drive you will find Mangawhai, a small beachside town. There are heaps of great things to do in Mangawhai so we reckon it’s a great way to break up the drive.