All 16 New Zealand Cities – Work Your Way Around Our Largest Centres

Though New Zealand is often celebrated for its wide, open spaces – vast mountain ranges, expansive beaches and dense bush – our cities often catch people by surprise.

Though we don’t have cosmopolitan centres to rival the likes of NYC or London, we have our very own kind of culture and fun.

All of New Zealand’s Cities – Plan Your Visit

From North to South, join us as we introduce you to each and every one of New Zealand’s 16 cities.

Whether you’re keen to head to the big smoke (in which case you’ll want to spend time in one of our largest cities, like Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch) or you want to explore a smaller city (perhaps Whangarei or Gisborne), we’ve got something to draw you in and keep you interested.

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

Cities in the North Island

1. Whangārei

Whangārei is the northernmost city in New Zealand. It is known for its thriving art culture and natural attractions.

With a variety of great eateries, colonial architecture, and quirky art galleries, Whangārei really does have something for everyone.

With a population of around 50,000 in the city, and 91,000 in the whole district, it’s not one of the biggest cities in New Zealand but it does offer a lot in terms of work/life balance.

Before you do anything else, you’ll want to head for the summit of Mount Parihaka which is the city’s highest point!

Two people walking through the bush on a raised platform in Whangārei.
Explore Whangarei. Photo credit: Alistair Guthrie

2. Auckland

Auckland is one of the most iconic New Zealand cities and it’s also the largest by far, with a population of over 1.5 million people!

Known as the ‘City of Sails’, Auckland is undeniably one of the most action-packed cities in the country, full of art, food and music.

Boasting a fantastic coastal location, islands galore, two large harbours, and a surrounding ring of over 50 volcanoes, the scenery here will take your breath away. You’ll also find plenty of pristine beaches in the surrounding area.

Auckland isn’t short of attractions either as there are so many awesome things to do!

Though many people fly into Auckland before racing off to other parts of Aotearoa, we recommend spending some time. The city might just surprise you…

A group of people walking around the outside of the Sky Tower at sunset.
Find adventure, culture, food and fun in Auckland – New Zealand’s largest city.

3. Hamilton

Nicknamed the ‘City of the Future’, Hamilton doesn’t often make it onto many bucket lists – but we think it’s worth a visit.

The city is located along the Waikato River, the longest river in the country, and it’s home to surprisingly fantastic attractions, including the world-renowned Hamilton Gardens.

With a population of nearly 180,000, Hamilton is the fourth largest New Zealand city (after Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch).

It’s well-located too, providing easy access to Auckland, Rotorua, Matamata (where Hobbiton is found), Tauranga and the Waitomo Caves. The incredible Putaruru Blue Springs are nearby too so be sure to include them on your itinerary.

4. Tauranga

If you’re looking a scenic New Zealand city then Tauranga is your place! Situated in the Bay of Plenty and offering stunning views of Mount Maunganui, this city is truly special.

Although it’s only got a population of around 150,000 people, Tauranga is still one of the larger cities in the country.

The charming town of Mount Maunganui is also nearby, and is connected by a bridge so you’ll get the best of both worlds here!

Famous for its work/life balance and laid-back atmosphere, Tauranga isn’t a city that you want to miss.

Skydiving and having a great view of the ocean, a small strait, and the City of Tauranga.

5. Rotorua

Although Rotorua is one of the smallest cities in New Zealand (with a population of nearly 58,000) it’s also one of the most popular spots for people to visit.

Rich in Māori culture, history and dramatic landscapes, this charming city really has it all. It is most famous for its geothermal activity though, thanks to the city’s position on the Pacific Ring of Fire. This results in boiling mud pools, thermal springs, active geysers and volcanic craters… and lots of lovely hot pools.

You’ll also find a range of exciting ecotourism and adventure activities on offerer in Rotorua, including white water rafting, ziplining and mountain biking.

Situated on the shores of Lake Rotorua and within the Bay of Plenty region, this city is undeniably beautiful and action-packed.

Friends eating snacks near the steaming ground of Rotorua.
Credit: Adam Bryce.

6. Gisborne

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.

The view of Gisborne and the blue waters crashing down the white sandy beach taken from the top of Kaiti Hill.
Photo credit: Brook Sabin.

7. New Plymouth

New Plymouth is a somewhat underrated city, but we love it thanks to its location along the west coast and close proximity to natural attractions. This city also offers fantastic views of the towering Mount Taranaki.

With a population of approximately 83,000, New Plymouth is on the smaller side of things but there’s still plenty on offer there.

One of the city’s top attractions is the coastal walkway that takes you between Port Taranaki and Bell Block Beach. It’s 13.2 km (8.2 miles) long can be walked or cycled.

Known for its lush parks, sunny climate and art galleries, New Plymouth is a great addition your New Zealand itinerary if you’ve got a bit of spare time.

A woman walks in front of a building covered with huge paintings and murals.
Photo: Rob Tucker

8. Napier-Hastings

Commonly referred to as the ‘Twin Cities’, Napier and Hastings are actually two separate entities. However, they’re right next to each other so are often grouped together.

Situated in the scenic Hawke’s Bay region, these two cities have a combined population of around 148,000 people.

This region is most famous for its climate – it is home to some of the best weather in New Zealand. With mild-Mediterranean temperatures and fewer winds than other coastal areas, it’s the perfect location if you’re looking for some sun.

The Hawkes Bay is also known for its wineries, restaurants and hiking trails, making it perfect for an adults-only getaway.

Four women posing with a vintage car behind them.

9. Whanganui

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.

Cyclists crossing the well-hidden Ruapehu Bridge located in the middle of the forest.
The Bridge to Nowhere is a concrete road bridge spanning the Mangapurua Stream in Whanganui National Park. Photo credit: Visit Ruapehu.

10. Palmerston North

Palmerston North is one of the least-frequented New Zealand cities when it comes to tourism.

It’s found towards the bottom of the North Island and has a population of 90,000 people (which is relatively large by NZ standards). The city itself is known for its relaxing atmosphere, slower pace of life and scenic beauty.

Surrounded by the Ruahine and Tararua Forest Parks, and with the Manawatu River weaving its way through the city, this is great option for outdoor lovers.

It’s also a great foodie destination and is home to a surprising variety of cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Plus, it is home to a large university (and because of that, a large student population).

A couple walking in the lighted paths of He Ara Kotahi Bridge with paintings on the floor.
Photo: Geoff McKay.

11. Wellington

The southernmost city on the North Island, Wellington is one of the most popular city destinations in the country. It is also our capital.

This city has a relatively small population of around 419,000. Considering it’s a capital city this somewhat surprising – especially when you consider how far it trails behind Auckland.

It is, however, home to tons of awesome attractions, a thriving arts scene, and a waterfront promenade. Really, it’s no wonder that Lonely Planet has called it ‘the coolest little capital in the world’.

Also known as ‘Windy Wellington’ due to the strong winds that frequent here, this city is vibrant and full of life!

We recommend spending a night or two here as you pass from the North Island to the South Island on the ferry.

The lights of the city of Wellington and its harbour.

Cities in the South Island

12. Nelson

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.

A couple leaning on the railings while looking at the clear waters of Te Waikoropupū Springs.
The spectacular Te Waikoropupū Springs. Photo credit: Craig Parry.

13. Christchurch

Christchurch is the third-largest city in New Zealand. It’s also the largest city on the South Island with a population of nearly 390,000.

Located in the charming Canterbury Region, Christchurch is one of the most unique cities you’ll visit in New Zealand.

It’s home to some of the oldest buildings in the country. You’ll also find plenty of urban regeneration mixed in too though – this is partly due to the earthquake of 2011.

Full of incredible things to do (both for adults and kids), plenty of culture, and natural beauty (like the beautiful Avon River), Christchurch isn’t a place you want to miss off your Kiwi itinerary.

It is also the airport you’re most likely to fly into in the South Island and an excellent starting point for onwards travel to Kaikoura, Hanmer Springs, Mount Cook, Dunedin and Queenstown.

What’s not to love!

A gondola in Christchurch that provides a panoramic view of the city.

14. Timaru

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.

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.

Little Blue Penguins with color tags on their left flippers in Caroline Bay.

15. Dunedin

Dunedin is one of the southernmost cities in New Zealand. It is home to a population of around 117,000 people, many of which firmly believe they’ve figured out the best place to live.

Some tourists fly through Dunedin on their way to the iconic Milford Sound. However, you’ll regret not spending a day or two here!

Not only is Dunedin home to the steepest street in the world, ‘Baldwin Street’, but you’ll find tons of other fantastic things to do here too. Visiting Larnach Castle should be one of them, thanks to its close Scottish connection.

It is also a great base for exploring the Otago Peninsula. The area is home to a variety of wildlife including rare yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions and albatross colonies, all of which are easily accessible from the city.

Tourists dipping in the swimming pool while the sea waves crash adjacent to it.

16. Invercargill

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.

Invercargill is in a great location for exploring the nearby coastline too. Plus it’s handy to Bluff (and Stewart Island) and the Catlins.

The pinkish white aurora australis glowing in the nights under the starry skies.
Credit: Videocopter.

And there you have it, all 16 of New Zealand’s cities.

Which are top of your list to visit?

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