Blending an enthralling mix of urban lifestyle and rural charm, the best cities in New Zealand are often nestled among towering, snow-capped peaks or alongside glistening coastlines and lakes.
While wilderness is typically New Zealand’s main draw, its cities and towns are also a treasure-trove of cultural and contemporary experiences. A morning hike can easily be followed by an afternoon visit to a Māori Culture Museum or an artisanal shopping spree, rounded off with world-class dining paired with home-grown premium wines.
Whether you wish to witness the spectacle of geysers, delve into the movie-making magic of “Middle-earth”, or learn more about indigenous culture, here are the top cities in New Zealand worthy of a visit.
Culture, coffee, craft beer, and cute critters converge in this coastal capital city, providing the perfect introduction to everything New Zealand offers.
Nestled between verdant forests and lapping waves at the southern end of the North Island, Wellington still retains something of a small-town feel, even though it’s home to the nation’s Parliament, a unique beehive-shaped building that opens its doors for guided visits.
A stroll along Wellington’s Waterfront, a broad coastal path that hugs the harbor, serves as the perfect starting point. At Te Papa Tongarewa, which brings together the National Museum and National Art Gallery, Māori Culture is celebrated at the Mana Whenua exhibition.
Through interactive displays, art collections, and replicas of traditional homes and Teremoe (canoes), you’ll learn more about the indigenous culture of these lands.
If you’re a super fan of the silver screen, then the Wētā Cave workshop alone makes Wellington one of the best cities in New Zealand to visit. The artisans of Wētā are behind the creative costumes and special effects from some of the nation’s biggest blockbusters.
During a tour, you’ll have a front-row seat to the behind-the-scenes magic of these beloved productions.
To best appreciate the postcard-perfect panoramas overlooking the Cook Strait, which separates New Zealand’s two main islands, ride the 120-year-old cable car up to the Wellington Botanic Gardens. Embellished with endemic botanicals and colorful flowers, the vast gardens host collections from across the world.
Another one of the best things to do in Wellington is to visit Zealandia, the world’s first fully-fenced eco-sanctuary. Witness adorable kiwis, the famous flightless birds, wander the paths through native flora, and lose yourself in birdsong while somehow still being in the city limits.
Take a stroll through downtown Dunedin, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported to Scotland—but no, you are still some 11,000-plus miles away.
However, the second biggest city on the South Island has retained plenty of Scottish heritage, visible in the Victorian architecture of the stone buildings, audible as you pass a bagpiper, and palatable while sampling the city’s whisky.
You’ll even find the only castle in the country, Larnach Castle, less than a 20 minutes’ drive away. Poised on the Otago Peninsula, this grand architectural gem of lavishly decorated rooms was constructed in 1871 and has been lovingly restored.
Wander amongst the award-winning gardens before touring the grandeur inside, where you’ll also find plenty of antique artifacts and furniture from New Zealand.
Perhaps more significant than the city’s Scottish influence is the rich Māori history of the region; the Māori called the area home long before Europeans arrived. In the excellent city-center Tūhura Otago Museum, you’ll find exhibitions sharing history, art, and artifacts from the Indigenous People of Aotearoa.
For a chance to spot local wildlife, the Royal Albatross Center is home to the country’s only mainland breeding colony, only a 40-minute drive from the city.
The peninsula is one of the few places you can also look for the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin when joining a conservationist-led eco-tour.
Cradled by craggy mountains and snow-capped peaks, Queenstown is about as quintessentially postcard-worthy as cities come. With a prime position on inland Lake Wakatipu, nature dictates how you spend your days.
Famous as one of the top cities in New Zealand for adventure lovers, you’ll find an array of adrenaline-inducing experiences to choose from. Paraglide, for a bird’s eye perspective, or soar above the forest canopy on a zip-line.
The Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, just a 45-minute drive away, is home to the world’s first commercial bungy jump site—a spellbinding location thanks to the cyan river waters below.
If you prefer to take a calmer approach to touring the city’s scenery, the Skyline Gondola will transport you high above to a panoramic restaurant and awe-inspiring viewing platform. A vintage steamship sail on Lake Wakatipu is another breathtaking way to take it all in.
Queenstown isn’t only scenic views and dare-devil activities, though. You’ll find a growing gastronomic scene of high-end restaurants, the nearby vineyards of the Gibbston Valley, and a small but charming collection of galleries and boutiques dotted across the city.
As the most populated metropolis in the country, Auckland is unsurprisingly awash with everything that makes New Zealand dazzle. In fact, it is often voted as one of the best liveable cities in the whole world.
From the sparkling waters of the city’s two harbors, fringed by trendy restaurants and superyachts, to its blissful New Zealand beaches, and islands of vineyards within the city limits, the volcanic landscapes of the country are present even within the urban sprawl.
To appreciate the best panoramas of this North Island city, head to the top of the 1,076-foot-high Sky Tower. A staple of Auckland’s skyline since 1994, it’s home to viewing platforms and restaurants offering 360-degree dining.
The extinct volcano of Maungawhau, a short journey from downtown, provides more awe-inspiring vistas across the city and countless cone-shaped volcanic domes.
For an urban escape, embark on the approximately 40-minute ferry sailing to Waiheke Island, where you’ll be rewarded with watersports, shaded walking trails, and some of the best beaches in Auckland. The isle is famed for its gastronomy; try exquisite reds and the freshest oysters from nearby Te Matuku Bay.
Arriving in Rotorua is like reaching another planet. Renowned for its geothermal activity, the steam and sulphuric scent are the first, but certainly not the last, of the city’s surprises to awaken your senses.
While there are many places in Rotorua to witness the earth exploding and bubbling, some of the most impressive spectacles are in enclosed parks.
At Te Puia, a geyser field in the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley, the mesmerizing Pohutu Geyser erupts nearly 100 feet into the air, surrounded by bubbling mud pools. In Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, you’ll find colorful geothermal lakes, ranging from ochre to seemingly photoshopped lime-green.
Around three miles from the city center, the towering Redwoods Treewalk is another remarkable experience that will leave you humbled by nature. With heights of up to 250 feet, these coniferous trees are some of the tallest in the world.
Climb the ladders, cross suspended bridges, and reconnect with the great outdoors as you breathe in the scents and sights of nature.
Rotorua is also one of the best cities in New Zealand to learn more about Māori culture and traditions. At the Whakarewarewa Living Māori Village, you will be greeted by the Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao people.
Through locally guided tours, you’ll learn the stories and history of this land in an authentic Māori village setting. Witness a Haka, the traditional ceremonial dance, and learn how the geothermal activity has been harnessed for the Hāngī, a method of cooking where hot rocks are buried in a pit oven so that the food is naturally steamed.
Just an hour (or seemingly a world) away from Rotorua, the harborside city of Tauranga on the east coast is a pretty locale in which to soak up the sun.
Set in the Bay of Plenty region, best known for long stretches of coastline and cerulean-hued waters, it’s no surprise that this is one of the top cities in New Zealand for beach lovers and surfers.
One of the best things to do in Tauranga is to make a beeline for the bridge towards Mount Maunganui, a seaside town flanked by a 760-foot extinct volcano. Take the scenic trails to the summit for exceptional views across the bay or watch the waves roll in from a chic café, coffee or cocktail in hand.
Further along the coast and backed by long stretches of dunes, Papamoa Beach is the perfect place to swim or surf on a sunny day.
The premier port town of Picton is concentrated around a photogenic and sheltered harbor. Fish-focused restaurants, quaint cafés, and the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum are all joyful ways to while away an afternoon. However, the main appeal of this South Island destination is to tour the Marlborough Sounds.
Differing from fjords in that sounds are shaped by river valleys rather than glaciers, the Marlborough Sounds are among the most beautiful places in New Zealand.
Cruising along the seawater-filled valleys allows you to get up close and personal with tumbling waterfalls, spot playful dolphins, and look for dive-bombing gannets.
Four different sounds make up the Marlborough Sounds, each with their own appeal, but they all have cerulean waters, verdant, semi-submerged mountains, and ample photo opportunities in common.
If you prefer to take in the landscapes from terra firma, the Queen Charlotte Track boasts sublime views, passing forested sections and opening to wave-lapping bays. While the entire trail is approximately 45 miles, a selection of shorter, half-day routes are available.
After walking the track, you’ll be more than ready to devour the local seafood specialties. The majority of the country’s delicious green shell mussels are found in this region, so enjoy the chance to try them at their freshest.
For those with a sweet tooth, the Makana Boutique Chocolate Factory, an artisan producer, is just a 30-minute drive away in Blenheim.
The coastal city of Napier is something of a mecca for Art Deco enthusiasts. Due to a devastating earthquake in 1931, much of the municipality was destroyed, and this evocative style of architecture sprung up, resulting in many of the nation’s landmark buildings.
While you can stroll the streets and admire plenty of these exteriors yourself (the ASB Bank and Daily Telegraph Office are of particular note), joining a guided tour is recommended to visit inside more of the private buildings.
As you’re in Hawke’s Bay wine region, the oldest in the country, you can enjoy Cellar Door tastings at most wineries, especially celebrated for their Syrah and Chardonnay.
The rolling green hills and jagged Maungaharuru Mountain Range—one of the best hikes in New Zealand—make for a picturesque backdrop to the rows of vines.
The largest city on the South Island, Christchurch, has been reinventing and reconstructing since four significant earthquakes hit the city between 2010 and 2011.
Innovation has seen independent art stores and trendy cafés popping up in what should have been temporary shipping container stores, alongside plenty of striking modern architecture and a revitalized focus on the arts.
Christchurch is celebrated as one of the best cities in New Zealand for street murals, and colorful and cheerful pieces have sprung up following the devastation to bring the lanes back to life.
While tragically, the earthquakes meant many legacy buildings were lost, the leafy city is now somewhat of a contemporary anomaly compared to its neighboring towns.
A 20-minute drive to coastal Lyttelton, where the first settlers from England arrived, is an excellent side trip to see some of the region’s historic European homes and buildings. The heritage route, which runs through the township, provides an open-air tour of the main historical sights.
To explore the surrounding nature further, consider a day trip to Manderley Family Farm, where homemade afternoon tea and sheep shearing visits are offered in an 1876 homestead.
The Southern Alps Express train, which crosses east to west, will allow you to behold breathtaking vistas of the Alps, the glistening azures of the Waimakariri River, and the plentiful pastures of farmland that New Zealand is known for.
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