Top 9 cities to visit in New Zealand | An Ultimate Travel Guide

It’s time to plan your next backpacking trip to New Zealand! Take a look at this ultimate travel guide that includes 9 of the best cities in New Zealand and what you should do when visiting each one. You’ll find information about Auckland, Christchurch, Rotorua, Dunedin, Wellington, as well as 5 other places you need to visit while traveling through Aotearoa. So get packing and start planning because there are plenty of adventures waiting for you!

Everybody has heard of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, but what about Dunedin, Hamilton, and Nelson? These slightly smaller cities are perfect for those looking to get away from the crowds.

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Auckland City New Zealand
Photo: Auckland City by Tourism New Zealand

1 Auckland, City of Sails

The most populated city in New Zealand, Auckland, is a hub of culture with plenty of things to do. See some of the best views over the city can be found on One Tree Hill. Another well spend day is on the island of Rangitoto. It is very easy to spend a whole day here taking in the sights and hiking up the volcano.

Auckland City Designs

Auckland City Tshirt for Men
Auckland City Tshirt for Women
Auckland City Baseball Cap

My 3 favorite backpacker activities in Auckland city center are

  1. Climbing the SkyTower
  2. Exploring the Auckland Museum
  3. Checking out the Auckland Art Gallery

If you are looking for a peaceful afternoon, visit the Auckland domain. It is a huge tranquil area that has plenty of room and greenery for everyone. Deer are roaming around, an old kauri tree worth seeing, and there’s a large pond with ducks—a good place to relax and get over your jetlag.

Or stroll down to the wharf and the maritime museum. Take one of the ferries across the harbor to Devonport with its pretty village and stunning lookout points. You can even catch a ferry from here to Rangitoto island. 

Tutukaka Lighthouse Walk near Whangarei
Photo: Tutukaka Lighthouse Walk near Whangarei by Kiwishirts

2 Whangarei

Many travelers skip the far north of New Zealand, but it is actually one of my favorite places to go. Whangarei is a small city with a lot of history and a great art gallery. It’s well situated near the ocean, so if you want to go kayaking, swimming, or fishing. There are some really nice beach walks in the area as well as scenic drives.

Whangarei Falls
Photo: Whangarei Falls by Alistair Guthrie

The most visited natural sight close to the city center is the Whangarei Falls. It is a beautiful waterfall that is a short walk from the car park. You can do a short walk to the falls or extend it to a 30-minute loop. A nice stroll to begin your day in this area.

Other must-see attractions around Whangarei are its many beautiful beaches and rock pools. I recommend going to the Rotoiti Nature Reserve, which has several delightful stretches of coastline with sand perfect for long walks on sunny days.

For some of the best views in the Whangarei area, I suggest you climb to the top of Mt Manaia. It is a moderately steep hike, but the views from up there are incredible. The track is well signposted and climbs 324 meters under nikau palms, and kauri stands to the top of this 420-meter mountain.

Hamilton Gardens
Photo: Hamilton Gardens by Sylvain Cleymans

3 Hamilton

Hamilton is located on the banks of the Waikato River and is, of course, named after the famous Scottish city. It’s home to many things like Hamilton Gardens (the second largest in New Zealand), a rich arts scene, interesting restaurants, and cafes. Other city highlights include Waikato Museum (historical) and Hamilton Zoo.

The Hamilton Gardens features over 160 acres (650,000 m²) and includes formal themed gardens like Palm Grove, Italian, and English gardens, as well as New Zealand’s finest rose garden. Home to more than 2000 roses from around the world has also been named one of the World’s Top 20 Rose Gardens by National Geographic Traveler magazine. The Wintergarden alone covers an area of six hectares (15 acres). Plenty to see and to do!

Between Hamilton and Rotorua, you will find the town called Matamata, which is home to the world-famous Hobbiton Movie Set where they filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s around 50 minutes drive from Hamilton, so it can be done as an easy day trip to experience this amazing location.

Photo: Waimangu Volcanic Valley by Miles Holden

4 Rotorua, Sulphur City

It would help if you had a strong stomach to spend some time in Rotorua, but it is worth the visit. It is also known as Sulphur City, and there’s a good reason for that! The geothermal activity in this area has created some of New Zealand’s most unique natural attractions, and many will have strong sulfurous smells to them.

There are so many things to do here that you can easily spend a week in this area. Some attractions include boiling mud pools, geothermal fields, and an active geyser. Or you can relax in one of the many hot pools in the area.

Rotorua Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland
Photo: Rotorua Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland by Kiwishirts

Here are my three favorite geothermal parks in the area:

  • Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
  • Hells Gate
  • Orakei Korako

Fancy a chance to see bubbling mud for free? Go to one of these geothermal attractions close to Rotorua.

  • Kuirau Park
  • Ohinemutu
  • Sulphur Point
  • Geothermal Walking Track
  • Wai-o-Tapu Mud Pool

If you want to do some more mysterious things, then these are for you – there is a night walk where you can view glowworms from close up and learn about their life cycle; or if this sounds too tame, then try out a glowworm paddleboard tour through the caves.

Cable Car Wellington
Photo: Wellington Capital of New Zealand by Graeme Murray

5 Wellington, city of wind or the windy welly

Not Auckland, but Wellington is the capital of New Zealand. It’s the second-largest city in the country and situated on the southwest coast of the North Island. It is often called Windy Wellington or The Windy Welly because it can be quite breezy here at times.

The best way to explore this beautiful coastal town is by foot – wander down Lambton Quay for a dose of history, then head over to Westpac Stadium if you’re keen for some rugby. Or continue your walk down Cuba Street, where you’ll find eateries that will satisfy all sorts of palettes with food from around the globe as well as shopping galore before heading back towards Te Papa Museum, which houses an impressive collection of art and cultural treasures.

My top three activities in Wellington are:

– Te Papa Museum (you can visit the largest part of the museum for free)
– Mount Victoria (walk or take the cable car and enjoy the views and the beautiful botanical gardens)
– Old St Paul’s Church (a stunning piece of architecture and one of the greatest heritage sites of New Zealand)

If you like to meet New Zealand’s animals, go to the Zealandia Ecosanctuary in Karori, just a few minutes from the city center. More than 140 rare little spotted Kiwi birds live here. You can join a guided night tour and get close to these magnificent native and endangered birds.

Wellington is definitely one of my favorite cities in the world. It has something for everyone, is really accessible, has one of the best free museums, lovely little restaurants with cuisines from all over the world, and amazing coastal scenery.

Nelson City by Night
Photo: Nelson City by Night by Phillip Rollo – Nelson City Council

6 Nelson

Nelson is one of the sunniest cities in New Zealand. It is surrounded by mountains and vineyards, has a rich history of gold mining activity, and the right combination of cafes on every street corner.

You can find the center of New Zealand right here in Nelson. It’s just a pretty hefty climb up the botanical reserve before you reach the open hilltop with incredible views overlooking the city and inland mountains.

There are many restaurants and cafes in Nelson city, but one is definitely my favorite: Harry Hawkers House. They offer delicious food inspired by southeast Asian street food. You can order several dishes to share, and they come to you when they are ready. The flavors are amazing!

It is the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park, home to some of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand. You should definitely go to this awesome park and go trekking or kayaking. I kept coming back for more.

View from Gondola Christchurch
Photo: View from Mt Cavendish Christchurch Gondola by Kiwishirts

7 Christchurch the Garden City

Christchurch is a coastal city on the east coast of the southern island. This place has an intriguing history and many museums to explore. The best way to see it is with a fish and chips dinner in hand!

You can spend hours roaming around the Christchurch Botanic Gardens with lots of native plants, trees, and flowers. You can visit the observatory, the amazingly beautiful rosegarden, and hunt for many art objects scattered around the park.

Christchurch Botanic Garden Roses
Photo: Christchurch Botanic Garden Roses by Kiwishirts

The Christchurch Art Gallery displays some impressive collections from local artists. My favorite pieces are by Colin McCahon, who was born and spent his childhood here until he left at age 18. His work can be found everywhere in town and especially in the Botanic Gardens

If you like to see Christchurch from above, you should take a ride up the gondola. It is a bit pricey, but the views of Christchurch are definitely worth it! Check out this offer. You can skip the lines and get your tickets online. Don’t forget to turn around and look the other way towards the Banks Peninsula. It’s a view you will never forget. You can spend some time up there hiking before you take the gondola back down again. But, you can also walk down the hill as I did.

Dunedin - Larnach Castle
Photo: Larnach Castle Dunedin by Camilla Rutherford

8 Dunedin, Edinborough of New Zealand

What makes Dunedin unique? It’s most famous for its student culture, which offers visitors plenty of opportunities to experience nightlife or relax during daytime activities like surfing, cycling, and paragliding.

Start your visit to Dunedin at the Dunedin Railway Station. It’s a historic building in 1875 and had a Victorian-style station house complete with period detailing, including furnishings by noted architect Francis Petre. Other incredible heritage buildings are the Lanarch Castle, built in the 1800s, and the Dunedin Law Court, which was built in a late gothic style.

Don’t forget to drive up the Otago Peninsula to see the mighty albatross soaring the coast at Taiaroa Head. This is the best spot to see them fly in their natural habitat!

9 Invercargill, city of water and light

This is the southernmost city in New Zealand and a great place to visit if you want to experience true Scottish Kiwi culture. It is the capital of Southland and the gateway to Stewart Island. You can get there by car or plane, both of which would take about an hour from Invercargill airport.

Some call Invercargill the city of water and light, referring to the number of daylight hours in summer and the frequent appearance of the southern lights (Aurora Australis).

It is a typically laid-back city with one big obsession, classic motoring. It all started with legend Burt Munro who set a speed record with his Indian Scout Motorbike in 1967. The record still stands today. That was the beginning of becoming the Classic Motor Capital of New Zealand. It has an impressive vintage truck collection and a world-class display of over 300 motorcycles.