New Zealand is known for lush green forests, beautiful beaches, lord of the rings, and the flightless Kiwi bird, but another side to the country too, there are many exciting urban cities in New Zealand worth visiting. The smallest city, Gisborne, is home to only 38,000 people, while Auckland, the largest city, has a population of 1.6 million people, so these aren’t massive, sprawling metropolises!
What New Zealand’s cities and towns lack in size, they certainly make up for in character. A lot of this character comes from the natural surroundings because you can visit cities built by the ocean, on volcanic sites, in the middle of farmland, or even tucked in by the mountains. Whether you’re in the North Island or the South Island, you can travel between exciting New Zealand cities for a trip that’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.
New Zealand lacks a strong public transport network as a rural and young nation. It’s possible to take trains and busses around the country, but they reflect the general New Zealand approach to the pace of life: slow and relaxing. If you’re short on time, it’s worth hiring a car or a campervan to follow your own itinerary. For a small country, there’s still a lot to see and do in New Zealand, so here’s a list of the best cities in New Zealand to visit in 2023:
New Zealand Cities
17 Towns and Cities in New Zealand
When you fly into New Zealand, you’ll likely touch down in the biggest city: Auckland.
Also known as the “City of Sails” because of all the sailing boats there, Auckland is surrounded by water, and its narrowest point is only two kilometres wide (1.2 miles).
This means that wherever you go in this beautiful city, you’re never far from the beach!
Auckland is a must-visit city, with something for everyone to enjoy.
As well as shopping, cafes, and nightlife, the tallest building in New Zealand, the Sky Tower, is located in downtown Auckland.
It’s impressive to look at from below, but it’s even better if you take a trip up the tower to get 360 views of the city.
There’s a restaurant at the top of the Sky Tower, so you can book in to enjoy dinner there, or if you’re the adventurous type, you can even jump off it.
To get views of the city from a different perspective, take a trip to one of the Islands surrounding Auckland.
All within a short ferry ride, you can head to Rangitoto Island for a day out hiking or check out the vineyards and indulge in some wine tasting on Waiheke Island.
Auckland is a great city to visit at any time of year.
Because it’s so close to the ocean, it’s known for its changeable weather, so don’t be surprised if you experience “four seasons in one day”!
Windy Wellington is New Zealand’s second-largest city, situated on the harbour and home to a thriving hipster, cafe culture and incredible street art.
Wellington is also known for having some of the best coffee shops and craft breweries in New Zealand and there are plenty of hidden alleys to explore.
New Zealand was the world’s first country to allow women the right to vote, so take a tour around “The Beehive”, the parliament building, and take in the rich political history.
One of the best things to do in Wellington is visiting New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa.
Translated from Te Reo Maori, Te Papa means “container of treasures”, and from the colossal giant squid to a World War 1 exhibition, there’s something for everybody.
Wellington has a reputation for being windy, so don’t count on getting good weather while you’re there.
However, if you’re lucky enough to get a sunny day, you’ll be in for a treat.
As the locals say “you can’t beat Welly on a good day!”
Moving further down south, you’ll come to Queenstown.
Nestled in the Southern Alps and right on the shores of lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand.
Here, you can take a thrilling jet boat ride up the Clutha River, or have a go at NZ’s biggest bungy jump.
If you’re into hiking, walk up Ben Lomond, or clip yourself into the Queenstown Via Ferrata.
When you’re not busy thrill-seeking, spend a day exploring the local vineyards on a wine tour.
The Otago region, where Queenstown is located, produces some of the best wines in New Zealand.
There’s no shortage of vineyards to explore, and you can choose to be driven between them, or even take a cycle tour.
Queenstown is a great place to visit all year round, but it’s particularly special in Winter.
There are ski fields all around Queenstown, and the Apres Ski culture here is thriving.
Christchurch made international headlines in 2011 when a devastating earthquake struck it.
Since then, the city has worked hard to rebuild, and today you can explore this city, surrounded by a brilliant mix of old and new architecture.
Locals know Christchurch as the “Garden City” because a beautiful botanical garden is a central feature of this city.
It was created in the mid-1800s and has continued to thrive and develop.
Take a day to explore the garden and immerse yourself in this carefully curated display.
As you wander around Christchurch, you can’t miss the towering Port Hills, which have this name because they separate the city from the Port.
There are great walking and biking tracks in these hills, or you can drive to the top and enjoy a 360-degree view of the city and the ocean.
Dunedin is one of New Zealand’s biggest cities, although, with only 130,000 occupants, it still manages to retain a lot of character.
Larnach Castle is one of Dunedin’s exciting attractions, as it’s the only castle in New Zealand.
It was built in the late 1800s, and today it’s open to the public to explore.
It’s also known as one of New Zealand’s most haunted sites, with regular ghost sightings reported.
Don’t take our word for it though, take a tour around the castle and find out for yourself.
The centre of Dunedin city is also worth exploring, with its Scottish influence obvious everywhere.
The Octagon, an 8-sided plaza, helps to shape the layout for the rest of the city, and it’s a great place to grab a coffee and enjoy some of the local monuments and sculptures.
While you’re there, keep an eye out for some of the street art that adds colour to this wonderful city.
For more things to do in New Zealand, read:
When you’re visiting New Zealand, Rotorua needs to be right at the top of your bucket list.
It’s 230 kilometres (143 miles) South of Auckland, and it’s often called the cultural Capital of New Zealand.
Rotorua is home to Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village, where you can learn about the Maori culture.
Here you can see traditional haka and dance performances, eat a traditional Maori feast, and experience this unique way of life.
Rotorua is also a geographically fascinating city, as it’s built on a geothermal hotspot.
Wherever you go in the city, you’ll likely see steam spouts and bubbling geysers.
This geothermal activity gives Rotorua a distinct smell, and it’s been described as smelling like “rotten eggs”.
For the adventure lover, take a trip to the Redwood Forest, where you can rent a bike and enjoy some of New Zealand’s best downhill mountain biking, or walk among these towering trees.
Hamilton is one of the most underrated cities in New Zealand.
It’s just a short 1.5-hour drive from Auckland, and as of 2022, the Te Huia train connects Auckland and Hamilton, so you can easily take a day trip to explore this city.
This city is built around the Waikato River, one of the biggest rivers in New Zealand.
The river is well-utilised; you can stroll down one of the many pathways connecting these bridges.
Hamilton is also a hub of quirky cafes and brilliant second-hand stores.
Venture over to the suburb of Hamilton East, where you can wander down Lovegrove Lane and browse some shops while sipping a flat white coffee.
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, then you can’t miss a trip to Hobbiton, the movie set from Lord of the Rings.
Hobbiton is just a 30-minute drive out of the city, and you can explore Bilbo Baggins’ home and enjoy a mug of beer at the Green Dragon pub.
If you’re lucky, you might even encounter Gandalf.
Tauranga is on the East Coast of New Zealand, in an area known as the Bay of Plenty.
And, there is certainly plenty to see and do here!
You can’t miss Mt Maunganui beach, on the edge of Tauranga.
Take a walk up the iconic Mt Maunganui and snap a picture of the 360-degree views down to the beautiful blue waters below.
You’re likely to see local paragliders taking off from the top and you’ll get a great view of the surfers and paddle boarders enjoying the water.
If surfing looks like fun to you, then give it a go! Mt Maunganui is known for its gentle waves and golden sand, which makes it a perfect place to try surfing.
Many places offer surf lessons on the shore, so take a walk along the beach and find yourself the perfect instructor.
If you prefer freshwater to saltwater, then head to Waimarino Adventure Park.
This is just 10 minutes outside of the city, and it’s a water-based theme park with slides, kayaking and swimming.
On the edge of Tasman Bay, near the top of the South Island, Nelson is a spot you should be sure to visit.
Nelson regularly records the most sunshine hours in New Zealand each year, and with so many warm, sunny days, you’ve got a very high chance of some good weather.
Art and Music Festivals occur regularly in Nelson, and people will travel from all over New Zealand to attend.
If you’re visiting in January, make sure that you head along to the Nelson Jazz and Blues Festival.
If your trip is a bit later in the year, then the Nelson Winter Music Festival, held in July, is also worth visiting.
If you aren’t going to be in Nelson at that time, don’t worry because with festivals taking place all throughout the year, you don’t have to miss out.
Nelson is also known as the geographical centre of New Zealand, and there’s a monument just outside of town to recognize this.
Take a 10-minute drive to Botanical Hill, where you can enjoy the lush gardens and also snap a picture with the cool sculpture at the centre of this beautiful country.
Invercargill is New Zealand’s southernmost city, just an hour from the bottom of the South Island.
It’s also home to the world’s southernmost McDonald’s and KFC!
More importantly, however, Invercargill is known for its transport museums, and there is much to see here.
You can visit museum exhibits dedicated to Burt Munro at the E Hayes Hardware and see the motorbike he used to break the 1,000 cc world speed record in the late 1950s.
The Transport Museum of Invercargill is also an impressive sight, and with more than 300 exhibits, and a great cafe, this is an excellent spot to spend a day.
If you’re lucky, your trip to Invercargill might also provide views of the Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights.
A clear sighting is most likely to happen between March and September, and you’ve got the best chance if you head out of the city away from the light pollution.
Owarua, Sandy Point, and Oreti Beach are all excellent places to try your luck.
New Zealand’s Northernmost city, Whangarei, is a wonderful place to visit.
It’s known as the gateway to the remote coastal lands further North, but Whangarei has a lot to offer in its own right.
With a thriving art community and culture, Whangarei is full of surprises.
One of the highlights of Whangarei is the Hundertwasser Art Centre.
The Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser moved to New Zealand in the 1970s and influenced the Whangarei community with his abhorrence for a “straight line”.
This centre was finally opened in 2022 and is worth a visit.
Another attraction of the Whangarei district is the Bream Heads Walk, although this isn’t one for the faint-hearted.
This walk climbs through beautiful untouched native forests and provides an incredible lookout over the east coast of New Zealand.
There are a lot of stairs and some big hills, but the views make it worth the effort.
12- Palmerston North
Palmerston North is, alongside Hamilton, one of New Zealand’s few inland cities.
It’s built on the North bank of the Manawatu River and surrounded by forests and farmland.
There’s beauty to be found amongst this ruggedness because Palmerston North is known as the City of Roses.
Beautiful gardens in the city’s centre, including the Dugald Mackenzie Rose Garden, have been open to the public since 1968.
In the city centre, it’s hard to miss the Massey University Campus.
This is one of New Zealand’s most prominent universities and the only place in New Zealand where a Veterinary Science Degree can be obtained.
You can wander around the campus and look at some of the projects underfoot; in 2023, it was announced that two large solar farms will be built on the University grounds.
Calling all Art Deco lovers!
Napier is home to some of New Zealand’s most interesting architecture, dating back to the 1930s Art Deco movement.
When a 1931 earthquake severely damaged the city, the residents took the chance to rebuild in style.
Art Deco is known as a style that expresses excitement and optimism.
Walk down Marine Parade, enjoying the gardens, viewing platforms, playgrounds, and artistic murals.
You can also stop for ice cream on your way to the National Aquarium of New Zealand. It is home to an interesting range of aquatic creatures and known internationally for its “Penguin of the Month” awards.
Staff at the Aquarium vote for the best-behaved and the naughtiest penguin each month, to the delight of their social media fans!
If you’ve got time to venture a little further, make sure you take a trip to Cape Kidnappers, a 40-minute drive South of the city.
Cape Kidnappers is home to New Zealand’s biggest gannet colony, with over 20,000 gannets nesting there.
Seeing these birds swooping in the sky above the Pacific Ocean is spectacular.
If you’re a golf fan, visit the world-class Cape Kidnappers Golf Course for a round, although it’s not cheap!
Whanganui is a three-hour drive from Wellington, and it’s a city built on the banks of the mighty Whanganui River.
The Whanganui River flows from the Western slopes of Mt Ngauruhoe in the centre of the North Island, winding its way through forests and farmland for 290 km (180 miles) to reach the Tasman Sea.
The river gives a lot of character to Whanganui City, and it’s so important to New Zealand that in 2020 it became the first river in the world to be given legal status as a “person”.
Of course, a trip to Whanganui wouldn’t be complete without a ride in the Durie Hill Elevator, which was built in 1919 to help locals living on the hillside to travel into town with ease, and it’s still used today.
It’s the only public transport elevator in New Zealand, and it is great fun to take the 66m ride up to the top.
Known also as Te Tairawhiti, Gisborne is New Zealand’s Easternmost city and one of the world’s first places to see the sunrise.
Like most of New Zealand’s cities, Gisborne is on the coast, right on the shores of the beautiful Wainui beach.
Gisborne is home to around 37,000 people, and it’s a hub for people who like to relax, enjoy the sun, and take it easy.
In particular, Gisborne is a perfect spot to spend some time if you’re interested in surfing or good food and wine.
There are numerous vineyards in the Gisborne area, so be sure to check them out and sample some of the award-winning Chardonnays or perhaps a glass of Pinot Gris.
Gisborne is also an important historical city in New Zealand.
Not far out of the city centre, at Kaiti Beach, you’ll find the first spot where Captain James Cook set foot in New Zealand.
As the first European to define the outline of New Zealand, Captain Cook went on to significantly impact the development and colonisation of New Zealand.
Towns in New Zealand
Okay, so Oamaru isn’t technically a city. With only approximately 14,000 people, it’s just a large town. What it lacks in size, however, it makes up for in character as the New Zealand hometown of Steampunk.
As soon as you set foot in Oamaru, you’re transported to a whole new world.
Museums, sculptures, and stores are dotted around the town, all celebrating Steampunk culture.
You’ll see locals dressed in fascinating steampunk attire, and if you’re lucky enough to visit in early June, you can even participate in the Steampunk Festival!
If steampunk isn’t your thing, don’t worry; there is much more to do in Oamaru.
One of the other main attractions of this magical town is the Little Blue Penguin colony that calls it home.
The population fluctuates across the seasons, but you can expect to see up to 200 penguins on the outskirts of the town, and these little birds are an extraordinary sight.
Russell also isn’t a city, but don’t let that put you off!
It was the first capital of New Zealand, and it held the title until 1841, when the capital moved down south.
Located in the picturesque Bay of Islands, Russell is an absolute gem.
You’ll feel relaxed as soon as you set foot in this quaint town and won’t want to leave.
While driving to Russell is possible, taking the ferry across from Paihia is much quicker and more enjoyable.
This is a great day trip.
Explore the old streets, many of which feel like they haven’t changed since the mid-1800s, and stop at some historical buildings.
Russell is home to the Pompallier Mission House and Printery and an interesting and informative local museum.
And, of course, before you leave, make sure that you stop in for a drink at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel right by the wharf.
This is one of New Zealand’s oldest pubs, and it has a whole lot of character, not to mention an unbeatable waterfront view.
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