Whether you’re planning to visit the biggest cities in New Zealand, or would rather purposefully avoid them, these are the largest centres based on population size.
As you probably already know, New Zealand is split into two islands; the North and the South.
Both are home to a variety of awesome cities – each one of them has something unique to offer. If you’re planning to explore Aotearoa or are keen to base yourself in one of these cities you’ll have a lot of options.
The North Island is home to the bustling cities of Auckland and Wellington, along with smaller centres like Tauranga. Whereas the South Island tends to be made up of smaller cities (with Christchurch being the one exception).
Join us as we take a look at the biggest cities in New Zealand (based on population) to see what each one has to offer.
Whether you’re a first time visitor planning to vacation or make a move, these should give you a good idea of where you want to be (or perhaps, where you want to avoid being, if you’re not a fan of crowds)…
When does a town become a city in New Zealand?
In New Zealand, a city is a community with more than 50,000 people.
Fun fact: Timaru, Whanganui and Gisborne are all exceptions to this rule as they were declared cities years ago – if reclassified now, they would be considered towns.
Since 1989, a town has needed 50,000 people to become a city.The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
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The Largest Cities in New Zealand
These statistics were sourced directly from Stats NZ.
They are based on the estimated populations in cities/territorial areas as of June 2022. Because of this, these figures are best used as a guideline.
1. Auckland, North Island (∼1,652,000) – The Biggest City in New Zealand
Auckland is by far the largest city in New Zealand with a population of over 1.5 million people!
The city is based around two large harbours and is known to be one of the country’s multicultural hubs – full of art, food and music.
Auckland, which is also known as the City of Sails, has so much to offer. Whether you want to relax on a beach, hit the hiking trails, set up campgrounds, or explore urban landscapes, you won’t be short of options.
The scenery here is spectacular too as Auckland is a coastal city, yet it’s surrounded by over 50 volcanoes! This means there are plenty of islands in the gulf that you can take a trip out to.
If you’re keen for a dose of cosmopolitan living, while still having access to farmland, bush and the great outdoors on your back doorstep, Auckland is a great choice. It’s also where you’re likely to fly in if you’re visiting New Zealand on vacation, so why not stop and enjoy our biggest city for a while?
2. Wellington, North Island (∼434,900)
Auckland was once the capital of New Zealand in the 1800s, but today the city of Wellington holds that title.
It’s located near the North Island’s Southernmost point and is full of awesome attractions!
The city has a much lower population as it’s relatively compact, but don’t let that fool you – it’s vibrant and full of life.
Boasting sandy beaches, a waterfront promenade and a large harbour, this city is as gorgeous as it is exciting. It’s even been called ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ by Lonely Planet so it’s got a fantastic reputation as you can see.
It has a thriving arts scene (including galleries and live music), wonderful museums and is highly regarded by foodies.
Nowhere is perfect though, and ‘Windy Wellington’ is exactly that – windy. This is due to its location as strong winds are funnelled into the city from the Cook Strait.
However, don’t let this put you off as Wellington is likely to steal your heart as soon as you arrive! And as they say, you can’t beat Wellington on a good day.
3. Christchurch, South Island (∼389,300)
Christchurch is the third biggest city in New Zealand. It’s also the largest city in the South Island.
Located on the East Coast, it is one of the most unique cities you’ll visit in New Zealand. It is full of culture and heritage, mixed in with urban regeneration since the 2011 earthquake.
Christchurch has since become well-known for its efforts to rebuild in an innovative and enticing manner. However, it’s still home to some of the oldest buildings in the country. Plus you’ve got the beautiful Avon River and the nearby botanic gardens, and plenty of memorable seaside suburbs.
You’ll find it situated in the stunning Canterbury region. From there, there are plenty of day trip opportunities or weekend getaways
We recommend heading to:
However, you won’t be short of things to do in Christchurch itself either.
What’s more, Christchurch is celebrated for being a relatively big city that provides its residents with a great work-life balance, so it could be the perfect spot for you if you’re looking to settle in Aotearoa.
4. Hamilton, North Island (∼179,900)
Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch are the biggest cities in New Zealand by far. With Hamilton only having a population of 179,900, it is comparatively small.
Nicknamed the ‘City of the Future’, Hamilton doesn’t tend to feature high on NZ travel wish lists, however, it’s still worth swinging by. Thanks to its proximity to Auckland it also makes for a great day trip, or a stop off on the way to Hobbiton [save 10% using the promo code NZTTPLAY], Waitomo, Raglan or Rotorua.
The city itself is located on the banks of the Waikato River which is the longest river in New Zealand.
Pro Tip: While you’re visiting Hamilton, be sure to pay a visit to the Putaruru Blue Springs. They are breathtaking! Park at the Leslie Road carpark if you don’t have time to walk the full track – within 10 minutes you’ll be at the most beautiful part of the river.
5. Tauranga, North Island (∼158,300)
Tauranga is undoubtedly one of the most scenic cities in New Zealand. This is due to its location along the Bay of Plenty. From the city, you’ll get stunning views of Mount Maunganui (a dormant volcano) too.
With a population of over 150,000 people, it is still one of the biggest cities in New Zealand, though it’s significantly smaller than the ‘big three’.
It’s famous for its work/life balance which is why so many people visit or relocate to Tauranga – so keep an eye out, the population size just might increase!
Locals and visitors alike appreciate that the town of Mount Maunganui is so close (and connected via a bridge over the harbour). This beachside town is famous for its hot saltwater pools and awesome hiking trails.
Having so much natural beauty within easy reach, and locals that know how to switch off, means that Tauranga really offers the best of both worlds.
If you’re looking for some sun, sea, and sand then we think Tauranga is one of the best options!
6. Napier-Hastings, North Island (∼157,400)
Napier-Hastings is located within the stunning Hawke’s Bay region and is actually made up of the ‘twin cities’ – Napier and Hastings.
As these cities are so close to each other their names are often linked together. And their populations are combined too, totalling around 148,000 people. However, figures do seem to differ – presumably because the population in each city fluctuates.
Napier-Hastings often experience the best weather in the country. The region boasts a mild Mediterranean climate and fewer winds than other coastal areas, plus they have heaps of orchards, wineries, hiking trails, art deco buildings, restaurants, and other activities suited for kids. It’s not hard to see why so many people fall for this area!
We also love that this region is very community-based. If you choose to move there, you’ll find plenty of fantastic local businesses to support and friendly locals keen to show you the ropes.
7. Dunedin, South Island (∼130,400)
Not many cities on the South Island have made it onto this list as most of them have a relatively low population. However, Dunedin is one of the more populated cities, seeing it come in at #7 on this list. It’s also one of the southernmost cities in New Zealand.
It is most famous for being home to the steepest street in the world – Baldwin Street. This street has attracted tourists from all over the world and it’s not hard to see why. However, Dunedin has plenty more to offer including activities for kids.
Many people choose to visit on their way to Milford Sound, but we’d recommend spending a decent amount of time there if you can.
One of the main reasons for this is that you’ll have time to explore the nearby Otago Peninsula, which is home to a variety of wildlife. This includes rare yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions, and albatross colonies.
The city itself is also home to Larnach Castle, plenty of stunning old buildings, one of the most famous universities in the country and a growing foodie scene.
8. Whangārei, North Island (~100,500)
For a relatively small city, it has a thriving arts and culture scene – in fact, it’s home to the acclaimed (and newly opened) Hundertwasser Art Centre.
You’ll also find a number of worthwhile things to do there, including beautiful walks, beautiful beaches (particularly if you’re keen to make the trip out to Whangārei Heads) and a lovely relaxed way of life.
A great place to stop on your way north, Whāngarei is also a worthwhile place to consider moving to if you’re looking for that ever-important work-life balance. And as it’s only a 2-hour drive from Auckland, it’s conveniently located for the odd time you need to hit the big smoke.
9. Palmerston North, North Island (∼90,400)
Palmerston North is located towards the bottom of the North Island and is famous for its scenic beauty and slower pace of life. It doesn’t attract a lot of tourists, but surrounded by Ruahine Forest Park and Tararua Forest Park which is close to Levin, this is a great small city to live in if you’re a fan of the outdoors.
The Manawatu River also weaves its way through Palmerston North, making for a charming cityscape.
Whatever your preference, you’ll find a range of things to do here. This includes exploring local museums or visiting a rehabilitation centre for local wildlife.
Palmerston North is also growing as a foodie destination. It’s home to a surprising number of restaurants, bars, and cafes considering its small size.
What else could you ask for in a fairly small city?
10. New Plymouth, North Island (~87,700)
The 10th largest city in New Zealand, New Plymouth is located in the Taranaki. In fact, it is home to two-thirds of the region’s total population.
This is another city known for it’s more relaxed way of life.
Locals and visitors alike enjoy the city’s rugged west coast beaches and bush walks. In addition, Mount Tarankai is one of the region’s main attractions. It provides great opportunities for hiking (which is known in New Zealand as tramping) and can even be claimed right to the top, though the challenge of doing so shouldn’t be underestimated.
If you’re a keen surfer or enjoy having nature right on your backdoor step, New Plymouth could be a great fit for your next visit… or perhaps even to move to.
11. Rotorua, North Island (∼76,800)
Though we planned to stop at 10 of the largest cities, we couldn’t leave this one off…
Rotorua is one of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand and it’s not hard to see why!
Due to its location along the Pacific Ring of Fire, this city is one of the most active geothermal regions on Earth. With boiling mud pools, thermal springs, active geysers and volcanic craters, the landscapes here are truly something else.
Not only that, but Rotorua is rich in culture and history, so it ticks all the boxes. There’s even a living Māori village here [use the promo code NZTTPLAY to save 10%] and our favourite cultural experience (in the whole country)!
The city is located in the Bay of Plenty on the shores of Lake Rotorua. It is also surrounded by a number of additional lakes and forests (which provide world-class trail running and mountain biking).
Though the town itself is small compared to the bigger cities on this list, it has absolutely everything you could need including amazing restaurants.
Seriously, is there anything Rotorua can’t do?!
12. Invercargill, South Island (~ 56,800)
Last but not least, Invercargill holds a number of titles including being the westernmost and southernmost city in New Zealand! It’s also one of the southernmost cities in the world!
With a population of around 60,000, it’s not one of the largest New Zealand cities in this guide. However, it’s famous for its character and warm atmosphere – despite its southerly location.
Home to plenty of lively bars and restaurants, old heritage buildings, and a variety of attractions, there are lots of things to do here.
13. Nelson, South Island (~ 54,500)
Nelson is the oldest city on the South Island and the second-oldest in New Zealand. It’s situated at the very top of the South Island along Tasman Bay and is home to a population of around 56,000 people.
Nelson is known to be one of the sunniest cities in New Zealand. This is where you’ll also find the geographical centre of the country which is marked by a monument, and the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park.
Boasting fantastic markets, pristine beaches, awesome walks and charming gardens, Nelson is a great city to visit if you’re planning a trip to Aotearoa.
14. Gisborne, North Island (~ 52,100)
Gisborne is located on the country’s east coast. It’s also the first city in the world to greet the morning sun – pretty special, right?
With a reputation for great weather and pristine beaches, it’s no wonder that this place is so popular – especially with surfers.
This city is most famous for its wine trail though which takes in several boutique wineries.
Gisborne is one of the smallest cities in New Zealand with a population of fewer than 38,000 people (which you may remember, means that it isn’t officially a city at all).
We recommend you pay it a visit though for its laidback lifestyle and links to Māori culture.
15. Whanganui District, North Island (~ 48,700)
Whanganui is another city that’s located on New Zealand’s west coast. In fact, it was one of the first cities to be founded in the country!
Whanganui translates to ‘big bay’ or ‘big habour’ due to the Whanganui River running through the centre of it.
With a population of around 48,000 people, it’s one of the country’s smaller cities even though it used to be the fifth-largest city in New Zealand at one point!
Home to incredible heritage buildings, beautiful gardens and world-class museums, this city packs a surprising punch.
Did you know? Whanganui was misspelled as Wanganui for years but has since been corrected. In te reo Māori, ‘wh’ is pronounced very differently to ‘w’, so even the way the city’s name is said aloud has changed – though most locals pronounce it the old way.
16. Timaru District (~ 48,500)
Timaru is the most contentious entry on this list, because depending on who you speak to, it may or may not actually be a city.
Although not a ‘city’ based on the current population, many people believe Timaru is a city due to its complicated history.
With a population of around 28,000 people, Timaru is smaller than many towns in New Zealand, although its district has a much larger population (and that’s what Stats NZ records, so its what we’ve gone with).
Located halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin, Timaru is a charming little spot.
With its beautiful beach, botanic gardens, historic buildings and a genuine chance of spotting little blue penguins in the wild, we recommend swinging past Timaru.
Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch aside, New Zealand is primarily home to relatively small cities with a population of 200,000 or fewer.
If you want to base yourself in a bustling city then we’d recommend choosing one of the top three options. Either Auckland or Wellington if you’re leaning towards the North Island, or Christchurch if you’d prefer to stay on the South Island.
Whatever you choose though, you’re bound to have a fantastic stay.
Have you visited any of these cities? What drew you in and what do you love about them?