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The 5 biggest cities in New Zealand and what to do there


Whilst it might be the beaches, lakes, mountains and volcanoes that hog all the limelight, New Zealand also has some really cool cities which are just waiting to be explored. From the hustle and bustle of Auckland, framed by the surrounding volcanoes to the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua with its bubbling mud pools and towering geysers. New Zealand’s cities are diverse both in terms of size as well as the things to see and do there.

When it comes to size, New Zealand might not have the biggest cities but what they lack in size they more than make up for in beauty and amazing things to do! Here is the run-down of the 5 biggest cities in New Zealand and the top three things to do in each of those cities – get exploring!

New Zealand’s 5 biggest cities

  1. Auckland
  2. Wellington
  3. Christchurch
  4. Hamilton
  5. Tauranga

1.      Auckland (population 1,495,000)

The beautiful Auckland skyline at dusk

The beautiful Auckland skyline at dusk

With a population of just under 1.5m, Auckland is comfortably the biggest city in New Zealand. It’s right up there with the best cities in the world when it comes to shopping, places to eat and things to do. From world-class, Michelin-starred restaurants to some of the best fish and chips in the world, Auckland’s bustling night life and restaurant scene is a big draw for many but for most, it’s the amazing waterfront location and access to golden sandy beaches or trips out to discover the amazing marine life that also calls Auckland home. Here are our top three things to do in Auckland:

  1. Sky Tower – a trip to the top of the iconic Sky Tower is a must on a visit to Auckland. Our top tip if you want to make the most of a trip up there is to find a lunchtime special at the Orbit 360 restaurant that will also get you access to the observation deck too as well as lunch in the revolving restaurant.
  2. Waiheke Island – a trip to Waiheke Island is a great way to get out and explore the water on the 40 minute ferry ride before exploring this beautiful island. From the vineyards to the beaches, Waiheke is a great place to visit and comes alive during the summer months.
  3. Mt Eden – with so many volcanoes to choose from it’s difficult to know which one to climb. Our top two are Rangitoto and Mt Eden but Mt Eden just pips it for the amazing views back across the city and out towards Rangitoto. Stunning.

For more ideas of things to do in Auckland, check put our awesome Complete Guide:

Auckland Complete Guide

2.      Wellington (405,000)

Oriental Bay, Wellington

Oriental Bay, Wellington

New Zealand’s capital city is number two on the list of biggest cities and is often referred to as one of the ‘coolest’ cities in the world (we’re not sure if they are talking about the weather or cool like the Fonz!). Whilst it can get a bit windy down in Wellington, it’s a beautiful city to visit and another of our wonderful waterfront cities. Wellington is also home to some of New Zealand’s best museums and is the home of the iconic World of WearableArt Show every year. Here’s our top three things to do in Wellington:

  1. Te Papa Museum – New Zealand’s national museum is a must on a visit to Wellington. It’s a wonderful and fascinating museum, documenting New Zealand’s rich cultural history. With some fun exhibits, it’s also a great place for the whole family and many of the exhibits are free – another bonus!
  2. Botanic Gardens – a trip to Wellington’s Botanic Gardens should be on your list and getting there is part of the fun. Take a trip up the iconic Kelburn Cable Car which provides great views down over the city and then have fun exploring the beautiful gardens.
  3. Lambton Quay – it is said that Wellington has more restaurants per head than New York and with rich farmland to the north and the ocean right on the doorstep, the supply of fresh ingredients makes Wellington a foody’s heaven!

For more ideas of things to do in Wellington, check put our awesome Complete Guide:

Wellington Complete Guide

3.      Christchurch (389,700)

Image of Christchurch post-earthquake with the redevelopment that has taken place

Re:Start, Christchurch

Christchurch is known as the Garden City and is New Zealand’s third largest city. As the name would suggest, Christchurch is a city full of parks and gardens and that makes it a special place to visit at any time of year, but particularly in the shoulder seasons of autumn and spring when the colours in the city can be pretty spectacular. Christchurch is the biggest city in the South Island by some distance and is a great place to base yourself for exploring all the delights of the South Island. Here’s out top three things to do in Christchurch:

  1. Antigua Boatsheds – Christchurch has a distinctly English feel and you could easily be wandering the streets of Oxford or Cambridge as you stroll through the parks and gardens. To complete the English experience, take a punting trip down the River Avon on a sunny summer’s day. Lovely.
  2. Re:Start – the earthquake that devastated Christchurch in February 2011 was a huge blow to the city. Out of the rubble however emerged a resilience and a huge sense of community and nowhere is this reflected more than at the Re:Start container city which has grown into a thriving business district and a cool place to hang out.
  3. International Antarctic Centre – ever fancied experiencing an Antarctic storm? With a wind-chill of -18 degrees Celsius you have to be pretty brave to head into the storm. If you don’t fancy that, make sure you check out the awesome little blue penguins or take a ride on the Hagglund.

For more ideas of things to do in Christchurch, check put our awesome Complete Guide:

Christchurch Complete Guide

4.      Hamilton (230,000)

Image of Hamilton Gardens

Hamilton Gardens

Coming in at number four on the list of New Zealand’s biggest cities is Hamilton or ‘the Tron’ as it is affectionately known. Situated on the banks of the mighty Waikato River, Hamilton is the main city on the region of Waikato. It’s a great place for a stopover on a trip to Raglan, Waitomo or further south to Taupo or Rotorua. The annual hot air balloon festival is always popular as people from all over the country descend on the beautiful city to marvel at the aerial displays. Here’s our top three things to do in Hamilton:

  1. Hamilton Gardens – probably the biggest draw in Hamilton are the stunning Hamilton Gardens. Rated as some of the best gardens in New Zealand, definitely add a stop off to the gardens to your list of things to do as you come through the region.
  2. Waitomo Caves – whilst it’s not in Hamilton, the Waitomo Caves are only a short drive from Hamilton and it’s definitely worth the trip out. The stunning glowworm caves are homes to millions of tiny glowworms and it’s a pretty special occasion heading underground to see them all doing their thing!
  3. Hamilton Zoo – there aren’t that many zoos in New Zealand so if you love a good trip to the zoo, Hamilton is as good a place as any to go and check out the awesome wildlife that calls Hamilton home.

5.      Tauranga (134,400)

Tauranga Marina

Tauranga Marina

Tauranga is one of New Zealand’s fastest growing cities and for good reason. Finding itself in the top five, Tauranga and Mt Maunganui offer up a great lifestyle for people young and old. With beautiful sandy beaches, and the iconic Mt Maunganui in the backdrop, this is a popular holiday destination for a lot of Kiwis. Tauranga itself has some amazing restaurants which seem to be growing to cater for the expanding population and is a super-relaxing place to spend a few days. Here’s our top three things to do in Tauranga:

  1. Waimarino Adventure Park – if you are looking for something a bit more adventurous, the Waimarino Adventure Park is a great place for small and big kids alike! Located on the banks of the Wairoa River and just 10 mins from the city centre, Waimarino is one of NZ’s premier water parks.
  2. Mt Maunganui Walks – take the short drive to the Mount and head for a walk up or around the iconic Mt Maunganui. If you can manage it, take a walk up in the early morning before the sun rises – it’s one of the best places in New Zealand to watch the sunrise.
  3. Adrenalin Forest – Tauranga has lots of activities for adrenalin junkies and the Adrenalin Forest is one of the best. With six different aerial courses to choose from which will take you up as high as 20m above the canopy floor, this is a great way to spend a few hours.

For more ideas of things to do in Tauranga, check put our awesome Complete Guide:

Tauranga Complete Guide

So there you have it – New Zealand’s five biggest cities and the best things to do in them all. If you want to know the cities that make up the top 10 biggest cities in New Zealand, here you go!

  1. Napier-Hastings (131,000)
  2. Dunedin (118,500)
  3. Palmerston North (84,300)
  4. Nelson (65,700)
  5. Rotorua (57,800)

If you are planning a trip to New Zealand and heading to any of our wonderful cities, make sure you check out our awesome Complete Guides which gives you some great tips on where to stay, what to do and where to eat and drink. If you need any help planning out your route or your itinerary, make sure you check out our awesome Trip Planner which has 80+ awesome road trip itineraries with some great suggestions for places to stay and things to see along the way.

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