New Zealand is not usually the first country you think of when you think of big bustling cities. However, the cities that do call New Zealand their home are well worth a visit if you’re heading to Aotearoa. The cities in New Zealand that are dotted throughout the country are some of the most diverse places you could imagine – ranging in style, character, history, and climate.
I’ll admit, we’re playing fast and loose with the definition of city in this list. Even NZ admits it’s confusing, with the notoriously reliable Wikipedia (ahem) stating:
“The word “city” began to take on two meanings in New Zealand after the local government reforms of 1989. Before the reforms, a borough council with more than 20,000 people could be proclaimed a city.”
“The word “city” is used in a general sense to describe the urban areas of New Zealand, independent of local body boundaries. This informal usage is jealously guarded.”
“Today an urban area has to be at least 50,000 residents before it can be proclaimed as a city.”
So there seems to have always been some discrepancies. Nonetheless, destinations such as Queenstown and Wanaka are not actually cities on any list, but they are pretty darn close and they are totally worth including, hence their mention here! Plus, although their populations may be small, their recognition as highly popular tourist spots means they often feel a lot more like cities than you’d think.
As you can see, this is wildly different to the UK definition that a city is claimed as such by having a cathedral, thanks to an old law passed by King Henry VIII. If you don’t have the royal seal of approval, you can’t be a city. Job done.
Read on to discover some of the best New Zealand cities to visit!
Fondly known as Windy Welly (no guesses how it got that name), I’m selecting the coolest little capital city because I adore the city’s innovation and creativity, and its place within the film industry. Thanks to this, Wellington is a city jam-packed with character in every corner – something that makes it stand out against its main rival Auckland!
My favourite time in Wellington has to be visiting Weta Caves. It’s here that they design, develop, and create some of cinema’s most iconic props and costumes! Taking a tour of the workshop, we were guided through the process of getting a simple idea made into a reality through some pretty impressive techniques. As a huge Lord of the Rings nerd, this put me in my element, as they played a key role in producing many of the items used in the movies. I loved seeing how it all came together and even getting to hold some props that I recognised!
When visiting Wellington, of course I’d recommend visiting Weta Caves, but I’d also suggest checking out the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, it’s a huge archive of some incredible New Zealand history and art works. From natural history to Maori culture, you’ll learn so much in a short space of time. Take a look at the special visiting exhibitions on during your visit, they never fail to impress! Afterwards it’s a convenient location to wander along the harbour front and reflect on all the awesome Kiwi things you’ve discovered. And a chance to soak up more of the Wellington atmosphere!
Christchurch is always top of my recommendations to visit in New Zealand. Although it’s easily overlooked in favour of the busier cities, it has so much to offer in the shape of artistic character, dramatic coastal landscapes, and the proximity to some amazing destinations around Canterbury.
One of the best things about Christchurch is the vibrant street art dotted around the city. There’s plenty to see, from your typical murals to political satirical works, and even installations seamlessly worked into the city’s aesthetic. Taking a brief walk around and you’ll quickly notice several creative works decorating the sides of all sorts of buildings. Being a smaller city, you’ll have the advantage of really taking your time exploring the city without feeling like sheep being herded!
After a walk around the city I’d always recommend pausing at New Regent Street, one of Christchurch’s stand out spots. As the most adorable little pedestrian street lined with a unique architectural style, it’s the ideal place to people watch from one of the independent bars and watch the city tram pass by.
Going beyond the city centre, I also recommend the nearby short walks. I’d suggest heading out to the Port Hills to catch some fresh air and a gentle stroll along the tracks. On the edge of the volcanic coastline, the views stretching across the Pacific Ocean and over the city towards the mountains are a unique birdseye perspective of this fantastic city.
As you can see, there’s plenty to do and see in Christchurch itself, and that’s not even all of it! Christchurch has a wealth of history and heritage for New Zealand too, making it one of the most fascinating places in the country.
If people say Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth they’re wrong and they clearly haven’t been to Queenstown. A big kid’s playground, you can take part in any and every extreme activity here. From skiiing in the winter to skydives and jet boats in the warmer months, Queenstown is sure to get your pulses racing. You’ve probably seen the viral videos of people throwing themselves off a giant swing in a garden chair. Yep, that’s in Queenstown! It’s even the home to bungee jumping so is there really any excuse NOT to do something completely out of your comfort zone?!
If death defying activities aren’t quite your thing, Queenstown has some absolutely stunning landscapes to enjoy while safely on the ground. For me, the incredible New Zealand scenery is what makes it really special. A Couple of favourite places to capture the essence of Queenstown’s beauty would be by taking a stroll around Kelvin Heights is a great chance to explore the dramatic Lake Wakatipu and discover unique art installations. Additionally, a short hike up Queenstown Hill will take you to a gorgeous view across the lake and luscious forest below. And lastly, taking the gondola up to Skyline Queenstown is the perfect way to watch the world go by in the city below with The Remarkables as a backdrop. What a view!
If you have access to a car of self-drive transport, driving the length of Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy is a memorable adventure. Literally driving towards Paradise (no joke, that’s what it’s really called!), you’ll be stopping off at every turn to catch another stunning view. About 20 minutes drive from Queenstown centre is the village of Arrowtown. Encased by mountains, this is a trip worth taking for all the history buffs and nature lovers thanks to the quaint gold mining-era streets and vibrant riverside forests.
No trip to Queenstown is complete without sampling the famous Fergburger. Open at all hours and offering the ultimate comfort food, Ferg is not just a burger; It’s an experience. And to wash it down, the adjoining Mrs Ferg Gelateria offers incredible smoothies and milkshakes! It’s a must-do for foodies whenever they’re in town!
Possibly my favourite thing about Queenstown is the city’s atmosphere. Plenty of shops, bars, restaurants, and excitable explorers makes for a vibrant mood throughout the bustling town. If letting loose and enjoying a beautiful part of New Zealand sounds like your thing, then you have to visit!
Ahh Napier. The city where Art Deco architecture meets dramatic coastline. Could you find a quirkier city?! The beautiful city centre is brimming with a fun-loving, artistic atmosphere. Street signs are written with that iconic Art Deco font, and buildings resemble a 20s gangsta movie. Creativity is abundant in Napier, from the markets in the Sunken Gardens, the Sound Shell on Marine Parade, and the Napier Municipal Theatre in the centre of town – all the key buildings are exquisitely kept in pristine condition. You’ll be reaching for the flapper dress in no time!
One of Napier’s shining attributes is its proximity to many, many wineries. Sat in Hawke’s Bay, Napier is one of New Zealand’s prime wine-making spots. Visiting one of the many cellar doors or wine-tasting experiences a little out of town is an absolutely essential Napier activity. With the vineyards continuing the love of all things culture, many even have live music, open mic nights, and lively restaurants to sip delicious local wine and take in a beautiful summer’s evening. The bars in the city centre are no exception to the vibrant nature of Napier. There are plenty of choices to enjoy a lively night out in this bustling coastal city!
Napier is also a great base to see a little more of the surroundings parts of Hawke’s Bay. Hastings is a nearby city that offers visitors the chance to visit Te Mata Peak – a truly stunning summit viewpoint which boasts views stretching across the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island as well as rolling hills across the Heretaunga Plains. It’s even been said than on the clearest days, viewers can see as far as Mount Ruapehu, the country’s largest active volcano all the way in Taupo!
The city of Dunedin is known for two main things: lots of history, and lots of students. Needless to say, most tourists come to see the former rather than the latter, no matter how much university undergrads may resemble mysterious wild animals!
For a relatively new country such as New Zealand, the history that emerges from Dunedin is special, steeped in both Maori and European heritage. The Otago Peninsula is an area that is notable for both of these, with Maori archeological sites densely found across the peninsula, and following the arrival of Europeans the use of the peninsula as a military defence. On top of anthropological points of interest, the natural history of Otago Peninsula is incredible – as it’s home to world’s only mainland albatross breeding colony!
Back in the city of Dunedin itself, the unique architecture and street art across Dunedin makes the city a pleasure to explore by foot. The Dunedin Railway Station is a prime example, with its distinctive facade giving it the nickname Gingerbread George!
On top of the historical sites and architecture of Dunedin, you can’t ignore the quirkiest tourist attraction in Dunedin… The steepest street in the world! Baldwin Street proudly claims that title, and such recognition has not gone unnoticed by keen tourists stopping by the see just how vertical the street really is. I can confirm, that after attempting to run up Baldwin Street, it’s darn near impossible!
Honourable Mention: Wanaka
Ok, I’ll admit that Wanaka is a far stretch from actually being a city. But I couldn’t resist including my favourite town in Otago!
If you think Queenstown was the only destination with outstanding mountain views, think again! Wanaka also sits on the edge of a lake – Lake Wanaka – and is surrounded by gorgeous peaks in every direction. The drive towards Wanaka is truly breathtaking. Following mountain paths and lakeside roads and a new winery at every turn, you find yourself in this small resort town which boasts a number of activities.
Nature alone isn’t the only reason I’ve included Wanaka as one of the (honourable) best cities to visit in New Zealand. Puzzling World is a firm favourite for Wanaka tourists, as it’s the ideal indoor activity for all the family to enjoy. See how quickly you can escape the outdoor Great Maze, and don’t get dizzy in the Tilted House! For a calmer indoor attraction in Wanaka, the Cinema Paradiso is the most charming independent cinema you’ll ever visit. Don’t forget to grab a freshly-baked cookie in the intermission!
For those outdoorsy types, Wanaka is a haven of outstanding natural landscapes. Roy’s Peak day hike is the most popular day hike in Wanaka, with an iconic viewpoint that every Instagrammer just has to get. Visiting That Wanaka Tree is another must-do stop off to see what the fuss is all about. This simple tree sits right in the lake, which makes the perfect resting place after a busy day exploring the Wanaka attractions on offer!
So there we have 5 New Zealand cities to visit that aren’t Auckland! There are plenty of other cities in New Zealand I could include here such as Rotorua and Whangarei however, these cities for me capture my favourite things and all that is special about New Zealand; rich culture, glorious landscapes, and incredible food.
Which New Zealand cities are your favourite? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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