New Zealand is better known for its nature than its cities, but several cities are worth a traveler’s time and act as great bases for further exploration. Don’t imagine sprawling megalopolises of the kind found in North America, Europe, or Asia, though. New Zealand is not a densely populated place. Although Auckland has a population of 1.5 million, it’s a bit of an anomaly and far larger than any other cities in the country.
Traditionally, a city in New Zealand was a settlement with more than 20,000 residents. Many travelers are surprised that places that would be categorized as mid-sized towns in their home countries are considered full-fledged cities in New Zealand. But that’s all part of their charm.
As more than three-quarters of New Zealand’s population of 4.8 million live in the North Island, there are many more cities to visit here than on the South Island. Here are 10 of the best.
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and contains the country’s busiest international airport. It’s not the capital city though (that’s Wellington). Located towards the top of the North Island, Auckland is a convenient jumping-off point for travels around the North Island.
More than this, however, Auckland is a lively and naturally beautiful city that offers plenty of attractions for any kind of traveler. If you’re into good food and buzzing nightlife, you’ll find it here. Alternatively, if you prefer the outdoors, you can swim in the sea, hike, sail, and more in Auckland.
As Auckland is a large city, there’s a variety of accommodation options all over the city. Most travelers will find staying on or around Queen Street the most convenient option. From here you can find public transportation and many attractions are within walking distance.
Wellington is New Zealand’s capital, and with a population of around 420,000 in the greater urban area, it’s the second-largest city. New Zealand went through a few capitals in the early decades of European settlement. Still, Wellington was ultimately chosen because it’s conveniently located at the bottom of the North Island, easily accessible from the South Island as well as the rest of the North Island.
While Wellington does have a stiff bureaucratic side, it’s also a very artsy and creative city. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (commonly known just as Te Papa) shouldn’t be missed while visiting Wellington. When the sun’s shining, a walk down Cuba Mall and along Oriental Parade is the best way to get a sense of Wellington’s unique vibe.
Wellington’s weather is notoriously windy thanks to its particular geographic and topographic features. Flying into or out of Wellington can be nail-biting for nervous fliers. If it’s characteristically blustery during your visit, head to an indoor attraction, but if not, make the most of it and head to the Mt. Victoria Lookout.
New Zealand’s third-largest city (population 400,000) is the biggest on the South Island and has the second-busiest airport in the country. Many travelers fly into Christchurch and then explore the South Island.
Earthquakes have defined Christchurch’s recent history; in 2010 and 2011, they damaged and destroyed many buildings, including the eponymous Christchurch Cathedral. Since then, the city has bounced back in no small degree, and the poignant Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial, on the banks of the River Avon in the central city, is a must-visit.
As well as being a convenient gateway to the whole South Island, Christchurch is close to the attractive Banks Peninsula, where there are abundant outdoor and wildlife-watching opportunities.
If your time is very limited and you can only spend time in one South Island city, make it Dunedin. The South Island’s second-largest city (population 120,000), Dunedin is a charming place with Scottish-inspired colonial-era architecture and a large and well-respected university. The name ‘Dunedin’ is Scots Gaelic for Edinburgh, and the town was planned following the same layout and street names as the Scottish capital.
Located in the far south of the South Island, Dunedin is an ideal base for exploring the spectacular Catlins area, as well as the nearby Otago Peninsula, with penguins, albatross, and seal colonies. Dunedin city itself is one of the most attractive and vibrant in New Zealand, with its large student population giving it a lot of energy (and rowdy nightlife). Dunedin is also well-known in New Zealand for its fashion and music scenes.
The twin cities of Napier and Hastings (population 130,000) are located in the Hawke’s Bay, on the eastern coast of the North Island. The Hawke’s Bay is one of New Zealand’s premier wine-producing regions, so there are plenty of opportunities for eating and drinking well.
Another distinctive feature is Napier’s attractive Art Deco architecture. In February 1931, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Hawke’s Bay, devastating the towns, killing more than 250 people, and causing the coastline to recede permanently. As the Art Deco artistic stylist was in vogue at the time, many buildings were rebuilt in this attractive fashion. A major attraction of visiting Napier is taking an Art Deco tour.
Sunny Tauranga (population 140,000), in the north-eastern North Island, is a city synonymous with the good outdoor life. Locals and travelers alike love Tauranga’s beaches, especially those beneath Mount Maunganui. There are many other natural and cultural attractions in and around the city, including infamous White Island offshore, waterfalls and lakes, and beautiful hiking trails.
Nelson (population 65,000) is the largest city in the upper South Island and is a gateway to some of New Zealand’s most beautiful natural landscapes. To the immediate west are remote Golden Bay, the mountainous Kahurangi National Park, and the popular Abel Tasman National Park; to the east are the gorgeous Marlborough Sounds; and to the south is the Nelson Lakes National Park. Nelson city itself is pretty, with excellent beaches, hilly hikes, and lovely parks, as well as good food and drink. If you can only choose one area in New Zealand to visit, Nelson should be high on the list.
The city of Rotorua (population 60,000) is a firm fixture on many North Island travelers’ itineraries because of its otherworldly geothermal features. Bubbling mud pools, gushing geysers, and colorful mineral deposits can be seen at parks throughout the city and the surrounding area. Rotorua is also a hub of Maori culture, and travelers wanting to learn more about New Zealand’s indigenous people will find many opportunities to do so in Rotorua.
Whangarei is the largest city in Northland, with a population of around 60,000. Long overlooked by travelers in favor of the Bay of Islands an hour’s drive north, Whangarei nevertheless has its own stunning beaches (Ocean Beach and the Tutukaka Coast are highlights), and the vast harbor and volcanic formations of Mount Manaia and the Whangarei Heads provide many gorgeous views. Get up high by hiking to the top of Mount Manaia or Mount Parahaki. The attractive Town Basin marina area is the best place in the city to eat, drink, and shop.
10. New Plymouth
New Plymouth (population 60,000), on the west coast of the North Island, is the perfect base for exploring or just enjoying views of the dramatic volcanic cone of Mount Taranaki. It’s all about the stunning mountain and the wild black-sand beaches here. The Egmont National Park offers hikes for travelers with a range of fitness levels and abilities, as well as attractive waterfalls, all within easy reach of New Plymouth.