The vast majority of iconic New Zealand is rural / wilderness, while the vast majority of the population live in the cities. While little of their built environment is beautiful, there are still many attractions in our largest cities. I’ve spent time in the twenty largest (according to Wikipedia), visiting all bar two (Whanganui and Hastings) multiple times, and this is how I would rank them as places to visit as a sightseer (not to live).
1. Wellington (population 215,100)
As they say you can’t beat Wellington on a good day (which apparently happens 7% of the time), and on a bad day there are plenty of museums and art galleries to visit. Almost uniquely in New Zealand a car isn’t needed to explore the city, with generally good public transport, and most things are within walking distance. It has something for everyone – great food, amazing hikes, and plenty of culture. I liked it so much as a frequent visitor from Auckland that I moved here in 2020.
2. Auckland (population 1,470,100)
While the urban sprawl, and horrific traffic, may not give the best first impression, there is so much to love about New Zealand’s largest and most diverse city. The cultural scene is the most vibrant, the museums and galleries are excellent, there are plenty of gorgeous beaches, and the Hauraki Gulf is filled with incredible islands. It is so large there are many hidden gems that one could spend weeks exploring.
3. Dunedin (population 106,200)
On my third visit to Dunedin something clicked and I appreciated how incredible this city is to visit. It has preserved its heritage better than most, the Otago Peninsula is quite stunning, the museums are some of the best in the country, and there was just lots to see and do. If it had a decent waterfront and better weather (mostly cold, and then too hot for a brief few weeks over summer) it would be unbeatable.
4. Christchurch (population 383,200)
Despite visiting half a dozen times I’ve yet to get a good handle on the city. It’s too sprawling and flat (other than the Port Hills), and even more than Auckland it feels like a city sized suburb. Lyttelton is lovely though, Godley Head and Sumner are stunning coastal areas, and the rebuild is well progressed if mostly characterless. It also has the best airport in the country.
5. Rotorua (population 58,500)
New Zealand’s original tourist destination, understandably so for its geothermal wonders, is also surrounded by beautiful lush bush, and highly swimmable lakes. Māori culture remains strong here, and there are plenty of opportunities to learn about it.
6. Napier (population 66,300)
Justifiably famous for its Art Deco architecture, Napier has a lovely city centre, one of the few in New Zealand with character that you’d actually want to stroll around. Right next to it is the coast, and the cycling the easy Water Ride loop is a great way to explore the wider city.
7. Nelson (population 51,100)
Possibly the best located city, in the centre of New Zealand, close to three National Parks, and seemingly endless sunshine. The city itself has a number attractions including a mighty cathedral, pleasant gardens, some well preserved heritage, and a couple of decent museums. It is also an excellent base for exploring a particularly beautiful part of a beautiful country.
8. New Plymouth (population 57,600)
Capital of the Taranaki region, defined by the mighty Mt Taranaki. New Plymouth has a striking coastal location, and is home to some wonderful gardens, good museums and galleries, and lots of street art. The city has done a great job with the coastal walkway.
9. Whanganui (population 42,200)
The last main city I visited was better than expected, with some wonderfully exotic gardens (Bason and Paloma), lots of heritage buildings, fantastic museums and galleries, a paddle steamer, and the unique Durie Hill Elevator. Plenty to fill a couple of varied days.
10. Invercargill (population 50,200)
Often called New Zealand’s worst town, though I think that’s a bit harsh. The climate doesn’t help, as one of the cloudiest cities, and it is a flat grid based city unfavourable to pedestrians. There are a lot of heritage buildings though, multiple museums, possibly the highest number of churches per capital in the country, and Queens Park is an unexpectedly phenomenal city park.
11. Whangārei (population 54,400)
A pleasant city, with an attractive dockside, the new Hundertwasser Art Centre, and the excellent Kiwi North (Museum, Kiwi House and Heritage Park), plus easy access to epic beaches and coastal walks. It’s also a bit warmer up north…
12. Porirua (population 59,600)
Unfairly maligned, if you venture out of the strip mall filled city centre there is plenty of interest in Porirua. Whitireria Park is a beautiful spot at the mouth of the harbour, while Pauatahanui Wildlife Reserve at the other end of the harbour is a great place for bird watching. Pataka has a lovely Japanese garden, great cafe, and good exhibitions, and Camborne Walkway is a beautiful walk past historic boat sheds.
13. Palmerston North (population 81,500)
It has a poor reputation but I’ve enjoyed my multiple visits to Palmy. The city centre is filled with heritage buildings, public art, and a beautiful (and colourful at night) clock tower. There are good tracks by the Manawatu River and the attractive Himatangi Beach is only a 20 minute drive away.
14. Gisborne (population 37,000)
New Zealand’s easternmost city, the first to catch the sunrise, Gisborne has a complicated history in relation to colonisation as one of the first places visited by Captain James Cook. It is very much a summer place, with great beaches, but enough history and museums to fill a rainy day.
15. Hamilton (population 176,500)
Flat cities on rivers aren’t my thing, and Hamilton isn’t a particularly inspiring place. Hamilton Gardens though are amazing, possibly the best in the country, but there isn’t that much else to hold you here for long.
16. Tauranga (population 151,300)
Mostly a non-event from a visiting perspective, a big lifeless rapidly growing city dominated by cars. Mount Maunganui is iconic though and worth a visiting for the endless beach and to walk up the Mount, and there are a few reasonable waterfalls relatively close to the city.
17. Hastings (population 49,000)
Napier’s less visited cousin, only 15 mins away inland, doesn’t have many attractions though apparently has more Art Deco buildings than Napier. Turns out that despite going through it a couple of times I appear to lack any photos…
18. Lower Hutt (population 110,700)
Mostly devoid of culture other than the fantastic Dowse Art Museum and Petone Settlers Museum, but Lower Hutt is sandwiched between the Rematuka Ranges and Belmont Regional Park, filled with wonderful hikes for all abilities. Percy Scenic Reserve is also a bit of a hidden gem.
19. Hibiscus Coast (population 59,800)
North of Auckland’s North Shore, and more an extension of Auckland’s sprawl, the Hibiscus Coast is primarily suburbs by the sea including Orewa, Silverdale, and the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. It is home to many lovely beaches, and little else…
20. Upper Hutt (population 44,300)
A rapidly growing town but there isn’t much in Upper Hutt other than a railway line to Wellington City, affordable housing, and pleasant parks, though it is close to the mighty if often dangerous Tararua Ranges for keen hikers, and Brewtown is a destination.