Paula May

New Zealand – North and South Island’s Highlights & Places to Visit

Sandra Gouveia

Even though you may not be a J.R.R. Tolkien fan (and have no idea what a hobbit hole is), we’re pretty sure you have already heard about New Zealand. We dare say no bucket list is ever complete without an adventurous trip to this breathtaking country: widely known for its incredible natural beauty and endless outdoor experiences, no wonder it’s been the setting for a myriad of movies. And we guess now it’s time for you to also spend some frames of your life enjoying what this island-nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has to offer.

All big journeys start with one step, we all know that, and so that first step when planning your trip to NZ would actually be to understand what lays within its confines. To help you out, we have prepared a list of the best places to base yourself in and the best places to visit in both the North and South Islands.


To begin with, let’s talk about what awaits you in each of the islands:


A Country Split Into Two

Both the North Island and South Island have to plenty to offer for travellers’ delight, and for that reason, the question is raised: “Which island should I travel to?” If time’s not a problem, you can definitely experience the best of both, but if not, then it surely is a hard pick.


North Island

The North Island is the cradle of the nation’s culture, as it’s where the Polynesian first settled, having brought with them a great heritage that later developed into the famous Maori culture. Nowadays, around 70% of the whole country’s population lives here.


Whether landing in Auckland (the nation’s most vibrant city) or Wellington (its compact waterfront capital city), you’ll feel shaken up by all the adventure and cultural opportunities within and around these urban environments.


From Auckland, you can easily reach the over 140 sun-blessed islands on the Bay of Islands’ enclave to the North, and the spectacular walkways and pristine beaches in the Coromandel Peninsula to the east.


Heading south you’ll find Rotorua, the Maori cultural capital, as well as the Lord of the Rings’ Hobbiton, and the glittering Waitomo Caves.


Lake Taupo, the island’s pulsating heart, lays right in the centre of the North Island, next to the volcanic Tongariro National Park (NZ’s oldest park).


Hawke’s Bay on the east coast is framed with beautiful beaches and great vineyards, while surfers from all over the world head off to Raglan on the west.


On the southernmost point lays Wellington, NZ’s capital city and the bounding point between the North and the South Island through a 3-hour ferry ride.



South Island

33% bigger than its northern sister, the South Island is world-famous for its beautiful fjords, magnificent glaciers, scenic trails, pristine lakes and rivers, or simply put, some of the most breathtaking views in the world; it’s a nature lover’s paradise, no exaggeration.


In the southwest of the island is Te Anau, the gateway to the jaw-dropping Milford Sound – the most famous fjord in Fiordland National Park – and Queenstown, the world’s adventure sports capital: skydiving, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, skiing, you name it.


Lying in the Southern Alps and in the centre of the island is Aori Mt. Cook – NZ’s highest mountain, standing 3,754m high – just a stone’s throw away from the picturesque Lake Tekapo.


The UNESCO World Heritage Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier steal the show on the Westland while in the north, the highlights are Marlborough’s fine wineries, delicious seafood and impressive islets, as well as the scenic trails of Abel Tasman National Park.


Kaikoura on the northeast coast is a well-renowned whale watching destination; Christchurch further south is the island’s biggest city and the busiest international landing point in the South Island; Dunedin on the southeast is known for its Scottish heritage and for the being the country’s first big city.

Places to Stay in New Zealand

Dan Freeman

Auckland (North Island)

Auckland is New Zealand’s most buzzing city, holding a third of its population; the main gateway to the nation offers all the amenities of a cosmopolitan city plus a great coastline. The adventurous Waitakere Ranges National Park is just a half an hour reach and the laid-back Waiheke Island a heartbeat away (an art, food and wine mecca). From Auckland, you can also reach several of the North Island’s highlights in over a couple of hours: Northland and the Bay of Islands on the north, the Coromandel Peninsula on the east, and the Waitomo Caves, Rotorua and Hobbiton on the South.

Devin Kleu

Rotorua (North Island)

Owing its name to Lake Rotorua, the also commonly nicknamed “Sulphur City” is a geothermal heaven and the cultural capital of the Maori: geysers, mud pools, hot springs alongside Maori performance of traditional dancing and singing (in the nearby village of Whakarewarewa) are some of the experiences you’ll get to have here. Some of the island’s must-sees – Lake Taupo and the Tongariro National Park (New Zealand’s oldest national park) – are just 1h away from Rotorua.

Sylvain Cleymans

Hamilton (North Island)

Strategically located in the North Island is Hamilton. From there one has easy access to the glittering Waitomo Glowworm Caves, the legendary Hobbiton and can easily reach the beaches of Raglan and cultural Rotorua. This riverside city has a wide choice of accommodation, great museums as well as a thriving food & drink scene. There’s a large student population in Hamilton so a vibrant nightlife can be expected. Hamilton Gardens and the Waikato Museum cannot be missed but neither should you bypass a visit to the nearby wildlife Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.

CMDR Shane

Hawke’s Bay (North Island)

This region on the southeast coast of New Zealand wins travellers’ smiles over with its premium wines, stunning beaches, and Art Deco city Napier.

Cape Kidnappers, east of Hastings (the biggest city in the region), has one of the greatest golf holes in the world, and the world’s largest accessible colony of gannets.

Pat Ho

Wellington (North Island)

On the southernmost tip of the North Island lies Wellington, NZ’s capital city. Craft beer bars, free museums and art galleries (including the unmissable national Te Papa Museum), a cable car scenic ride and a bird paradise island (Zealandia) are only some of its top attractions. Wellington is also the bounding point for both islands through a 3-hour iconic ferry ride.

Rich Hay

Nelson (South Island)

Sunny Nelson is a coastal city on the Tasman Bay. The artsy capital of the country is the perfect spot to go on exploring the scenic Abel Tasman Coast Track – picture lush forests, golden sands and crystal clear waters – and the neighbouring Marlborough region, home to the world-famous Sauvignon Blanc, as well as delicious, fresh seafood and the impressive Marlborough Sounds.

Tobias Keller

Christchurch (South Island)

Christchurch, named NZ’s Garden City after its many parks and popular Botanical Garden, is the South Island’s biggest city. The city is nowadays creatively regenerating after the 2011 earthquake. From there it takes around 1h to reach Akaroa in the Bays Peninsula – and swim with the world’s rarest and smallest dolphins.

A couple more hours’ drive and you reach the turquoise Lake Tekapo and the highest mountain in the whole country, Mount Cook, which proudly stands in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.

Pablo Heimplatz

Queenstown (South Island)

This action-packed city on the shores of Lake Wakatipu is the place to go for adrenaline seekers. Options include sky-diving in the Southern Alps, tandem paragliding at Coronet Peak, bungee-jumping from the Kawarau Bridge and more, plenty more.

You can also settle around here to visit the beautiful Te Anau town – the gateway to Fiordland National Park, and therefore, to the unforgettable Doubtful and Milford Sounds on the southwest edge of the South Island.

Nik Shuliahin

Greymouth (South Island)

Greymouth is not such a popular one among tourists as it is a small town with mining roots. Nevertheless, it offers good amenities and is considered one of the best bases for those wishing to explore some hotspots on the west coast of the South Island: Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, and Arthur’s Pass National Park.

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