For a long time, it was only possible to visit J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Middle-Earth through imagination. Traveling to the Shire and Rivendell and the realm of Gondor was only possible if you closed your eyes and let your mind wander as you read The Lord of the Rings.
But then Peter Jackson filmed his trilogy and transformed New Zealand into Middle-Earth.
Even though Tolkien created the legends and histories (and languages) of Middle-Earth to serve as the mythology that he felt England was missing, it only takes a few days in New Zealand to second-guess the good professor. Because New Zealand pretty much IS Middle-Earth, brought to life straight off the page.
And, the good news for LOTR fans is that many iconic places from Tolkien's stories can be visited for real in New Zealand.
Here are five Middle-Earth locations you can visit “for real”:
The most recognizable location is Hobbiton — the movie set in Matamata in New Zealand's Waikato district that was used during filming of both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie trilogies. The set was mostly torn down after the Lord of the Rings movies, but it still drew fans wanting to see what was left. So, when they rebuilt the set for The Hobbit, they built it to last.
Today, Hobbiton really does feel like a place where hobbits could be hiding behind every round door or colorful bush. The attention to detail is incredible and makes Hobbiton a fun place to visit even if you aren't a fan.
How to get there: You'll have to book a tour of the Hobbiton movie set in order to see it. These tours aren't cheap, but I promise it's worth it! Book directly with Hobbiton Tours in Matamata, or book a day trip from Auckland.
Must-do: After your tour, be sure to visit the Green Dragon pub for a pint of hobbit-inspired ale (or ginger beer). The pub was built with tourism in mind, but the details here are just as intricate as on the movie set.
If you've ever seen The Two Towers (the second Lord of the Rings film), you'll remember Edoras. It's the capital of Rohan, land of the horselords, where a pale and sad Eowyn can often be seen standing outside the Golden Hall of Meduseld, her hair blowing forlornly in the wind.
You might also remember that this location is EPIC. And I'm happy to report that it's 100% real.
This is probably my favorite film location in New Zealand, simply because the best parts – the wide valley and the snow-capped mountains – are all real. No CGI required here, people. Even though the set itself is gone now, there's no imagination required to picture this as Rohan. It's almost as if Tolkien had seen a photo of Mount Sunday before he began writing about Edoras.
How to get there: Getting to Mount Sunday (the hill that the Edoras set was built on) requires about a 2-hour drive from Christchurch, and a bit of know-how in order to find the road that leads to Methven and Mt. Potts. I'd suggest driving yourself (and maybe staying overnight at the Mt Potts Lodge) or booking a day tour from Christchurch.
Must-do: Climb Edoras, of course! There's a small gravel parking lot and then a well-marked trail that will lead you to the top of Mount Sunday. The hike only takes about 30 minutes one-way. Pack a picnic to eat at the top if it's not too windy on the day you go!
If you watched the new Hobbit movies, you'll remember the scene (which was also a favorite of mine in the book) where Bilbo and the company of dwarves get captured and nearly eaten by a trio of trolls. This scene was filmed in a very unique corner of New Zealand known as Piopio, which is known for its limestone cliffs.
The filming took place on a farm owned by Suzie and Warrick Denize, who have now started a tour company to show people around the filming location. The couple are really passionate about telling their story and the tour through the wild, mossy forest on their farm is pretty cool.
How to get there: As you drive south of Auckland past Hamilton and Waitomo on Highway 3, you’ll reach Piopio and see a brown road sign pointing down a twisty road that says “Hobbit Filming Location.” Follow this road and you'll find Hairy Feet at the end. They run tours twice a day.
Must-do: Be sure to ask them if you can re-enact the scene in the cave where Bilbo is gifted with Sting and lays eyes on the blade for the first time.
Paths of the Dead
In Return of the King, Aragorn must walk the Paths of the Dead through the White Mountains in order to try to convince some undead dudes to fight with him in an upcoming battle. In the movie, most of the scenes inside the mountain were filmed on a set – but the part where Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are riding the Dimholt Road to get to the mountain passage was filmed on location in New Zealand.
This part of the Paths of the Dead can be found in Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve in New Zealand's Wairarapa district. The Pinnacles are made up of ominous-looking gravelly hoodoos and do indeed feel rather creepy. If you walk far enough in and just stop and listen, you'll hear rocks trickling down, seemingly from the sky. It's a cool place for a hike whether or not you've ever seen a Lord of the Rings film.
How to get there: From Lake Ferry, you'll need to drive about 13 kilometers along Cape Palliser Road to reach the scenic reserve. There are no tours that will take you here (and no mention of Lord of the Rings at the site at all, really), so you'll need to have your own transport. There's a campsite at the reserve if you decide to stay overnight.
Must-do: Hike up into the Pinnacles, of course! You can't see the best bits from the parking lot.
In the second movie in the Hobbit trilogy (The Desolation of Smaug), Bilbo gets his “Barrel-Rider” nickname after stuffing the dwarves (and himself) into barrels and dumping them all into a river in order to escape from the wood elves. Much of this was filmed in a studio (if you haven't seen the behind-the-scenes footage of this, I can highly recommend it), but parts of it were filmed on a real river in New Zealand.
The Pelorus River is located in Nelson near the top of the South Island. Seeing the river is cool, but if you really want to see things from Bilbo's perspective, you'll want to get ON the river. It's possible to kayak here and stop at a few spots you might recognize from the film – plus the scenery is pretty awesome in general.
How to get there: I would go with Pelorus Eco Adventures, which offers a themed “Barrel Run” kayaking tour that's easy and suitable for everyone.
Must-do: If someone in your party isn't kayaking, have them take some shots of you on the river! Or take a GoPro along to capture your own photos.
These of course aren't all the Middle-Earth-y locations that you can find in New Zealand. The whole country was used for filming, after all. But many of the other recognizable locations (like the Rohan plains and the Pelennor Fields) are located on private land and are therefore tough to get to on your own.
These five are all easily accessible by the public, though, and are some of the more iconic and cool locations that you can find!
(If you DO want to visit even more locations, check out this Lord of the Rings tour of New Zealand!)
Which of these Middle-Earth locations would YOU most like to visit?
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Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!