Hamilton is the fifth-largest city in New Zealand, which sounds impressive until you realise that New Zealand only has a population of four million. Hamilton is home to around 100,000 'kiwis', not including the few thousand in outlying towns with names such as Te Awamutu and Ngaruawahia. It is situated 127km, or an hour and-a-half by car, from Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, which is convenient for anyone who has grown bored of Hamilton.
Hamilton's city centre is situated along the Waikato River. The retail district spans around one or two kilometres, but only north-to-south. Venture more than a block west of the river and you'll find that you've left the city. There are two main shopping centres, Centre Place and Downtown Plaza. Do not let the names fool you. Centre Place is the largest shopping centre in the city, but it boasts less than ninety shops, including the place where you get shoes cleaned and the car-park. Downtown Plaza has thirty-one shops, none of which are as exciting as the shoe-cleaning shop in Centre Place.
On the plus side, there are a few interesting independent shops outside of the shopping centres. Unique jewellery, alternative clothing and used book stores can be found down alleys, along with an overwhelming choice of nightclubs and restaurants. Bring your walking shoes, though, as the one-way streets and parking fees discourage casual shoppers from using their cars to get around.
Hamilton prides itself on being a student city and boasts the largest number of nightclubs per head of population than any other city in New Zealand. Unfortunately, they are all pretty much the same, with the only club which caters to a more alternative lifestyle, Six Feet Under1, having recently closed its doors. For the nightlife-oriented, all the bars, restaurants and nightclubs are conveniently grouped together on the south side of the city and buses run late on Friday and Saturday nights.
Heading away from the city, you can find some nice walks along the river, around the imaginatively-named Hamilton Lake, or through the again originally-named Hamilton Gardens. Hamilton is home to the University of Waikato, a small and picturesque institution which attracts a surprising number of students from New Zealand and across the world. Hamilton also houses several other tertiary education centres.
Attractions in Hamilton include the Hamilton Zoo, several pools, theatres, stadiums and a museum. For the more adventurous-minded, a go-kart racing course can be found in a large warehouse in the industrial part of town, where there are a few more speciality attractions hidden away. The largest shopping centre in Hamilton - larger and more impressive than either of the malls in the city centre - is the Westfield Shopping Centre at Chartwell in the north-west corner of the city. At the time of writing, the mall is being renovated to include cinemas and expand Hamilton's shopping experience to more closely resemble that of a modern city. Other than that, the tourism hotspot, Rotorua, is only an hour away and the Waitomo caves are slightly further off.
Living in Hamilton
Hamilton can be a dangerous town or a quiet one, depending on the places you frequent. Boy racers are a constant problem and there are areas where it would not be wise to leave your pit-bull unattended. The drug culture is rife. 'Party pills' are popular. They claim to contain only herbal ingredients and are legal, but they are definitely not Vitamin C and it would be wise to stay away from them as you would any other drug. The latest designer drug is methamphetamine, for some reason called 'P' in New Zealand.
The city is constantly growing, thanks largely to its relative closeness to Auckland, as well as its relative affordability. Suburbia is spreading into the farmland on all sides and the outer edges of the town are increasingly modern. Among the older suburbs there are no shopping centres, and many houses are a long drive from the nearest supermarket.
Driving in Hamilton can be a hair-raising experience. There are few traffic lights. Instead, the city is peppered with roundabouts and it seems that nobody knows how to use them. You will get used to people indicating right and turning left. Despite the relatively small size of the town, the few roads and fewer bridges that lead into the city mean that the daily rush hour is almost as frustrating as in a large city. Many people have scooters or motorbikes, which are not only good for showing off in front of stationary cars, but also come in handy when the petrol is priced as though it is liquid gold.
Public transport mostly means buses, or often several buses, none of which seem to be synchronised. Especially in rush hour, you may wonder if it would be faster to walk. Many major roads have bicycle lanes, so this is a viable transportation alternative. Hamilton is a flat city, but it is also spread out. Riding from one side of the city to the other is possible, but not greatly enjoyable unless you are a fitness fanatic. There are few hills, but the roads slant ever so slightly - usually uphill, or so it seems.
Many Hamiltonians have great pride and love for the place. However, those who have ventured outside of New Zealand know what they are missing. It is a nice town for those who enjoy suburbia or the semi-rural lifestyle, but most people who come to New Zealand for the adventure drive right through Hamilton and don't miss a thing.