Popular Larger Places to Visit in New Zealand

One of the challenges when visiting New Zealand is deciding where to go and what to see. For a small country, Aotearoa New Zealand packs in a lot of destinations. So, let’s start with the most popular places to visit in New Zealand, when it comes to cities and larger towns.

When people think of what they will see in New Zealand, they’re more likely to think of natural beauty and wide-open spaces. But Aotearoa’s population is concentrated in urban areas and those areas have much to offer the visitor. Each place has its own flavour to add to your New Zealand tour experience.


Central Auckland from the Harbour

Central Auckland from the Harbour

Auckland/Tamaki Makaurau is New Zealand’s largest city, spanning an isthmus and two harbours on different coasts. The Tasman Sea often pounds West Auckland with surf while the Islands of the beautiful Hauraki Gulf protect Eastern beaches from the Pacific Ocean. The number of yachts on the gulf and harbour mean the city is known as “The City of Sails”.

About a third of New Zealand’s population live between the wild west beaches and the gentler Eastern and North Shore beaches. And within the bounds of the city, overlooked by its characteristic volcanic cones, you’ll find a vibrant community of communities from all over the world most readily evident in a world-class restaurant scene.

Auckland is often the first place visitors to Aotearoa experience, its airport being the premier entry port. It’s a busy place. But it’s well worth a few days of your time before or after your tour. The many hotels of the city centre offer easy access to the waterfront, shopping in and around the CBD and the city’s museums and art galleries.


A few hours south of Tamaki Makaurau, Rotorua has been welcoming tourists since the mid-1800s. The attraction? an enthralling mix of geothermal wonders, including springs with healing qualities, and the Maori culture. Those attractions remain in the famous bubbling mud, erupting geysers, local hot springs and opportunities to experience Maori hospitality and cuisine at attractions like the Tamaki Maori Village.

Located on the banks of its namesake lake, Rotorua is a must-see destination for local and international visitors today. It boasts a broad range of attractions including: the National Kiwi Hatchery – a world leading conservation centre; The Agrodome  – a  chance to experience aspects of NZ farm life; the Buried Village Museum; – New Zealand’s most visited Archaeological Site; cruise on local lakes; and the well-known Polynesian Spa.


Another hour or so south on the side of Aotearoa’s largest lake, Taupō-nui-a Tia/Taupo is a favourite summer holiday destination for North Islanders and another must-see place to visit.

Like Rotorua it sits beside a lake on the central North Island’s volcanic plateau and offers natural hot springs and attractions created by geothermal activity. The lake, the filled crater of an enormous caldera that erupted 1500 years ago, is a playground for locals in craft of all sizes, and home to a population of trout that attract anglers from all over the world.

And overlooking the lake are the volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park, one of the world’s first national parks. The landscapes and peaks of the park starred in of the Lord of the Rings movies and are home to ski fields and historic hotels.


Napier Waterfront Art Deco Features

Napier’s art deco waterfront

From Taupo we head to the East Coast of the North Island and Ahuriri/Napier, a coastal city surrounded by the fruit and wine producing Hawke’s Bay.

Struck by a devastating earthquake in 1931, much of the city was rebuilt in the art deco style of the time, which left it with a treasure trove of architectural heritage visible across the city. The central city is a great place to spend time with boutique shopping and a stroll along the waterfront recommended.

The treasures of the surrounding area are a treat for the taste buds, with abundant local produce fuelling a food and wine scene characterised by renowned local wines and artisan culinary delights. The characteristic local experience is a delicious outdoor dining experience featuring local produce and wine at a restaurant attached to one of the many local vineyards.


They call Wellington /Te Whanganui a Tara the “coolest little capital” for a reason. Located a few hours south of Napier or a day’s train journey from Auckland, New Zealand’s capital city is the seat of our government and picturesque place built around its harbour – think a smaller but more-hilly San Francisco. The “vibe” here is artsy with a little bit of besuited elegance thrown in.

And the compact central city rewards walkers with much to see. Indeed, as with Napier, a walk through the city and along the waterfront is a must-do. Leaving the tall buildings of the CBD you’ll have a chance to see: art galleries & theatres; Te Papa, Aotearoa’s National Museum (an essential visitor experience); cafes and restaurants; beautiful harbour views; and colourful houses perched on the sides of the surrounding hills… There’s a reason, “you can’t beat Wellington on a good day” is such a favourite saying!

Heading south from Wellington requires a boat or a plane. The capital sits on the Cook Strait that divides Aotearoa’s two major islands The North Island/ Te Ika a Maui & The South Island/Te Wai Pounamu. The three-and-a-half-hour cruise across the strait is not to be missed though, so take the ferry (included in many tours).


Central Nelson

Al fresco dining in central Nelson

Turn west after arriving at Picton, gateway to the South Island and you’ll find Whakatu/Nelson. Wellington has an artsy vibe but Nelson takes that vibe to a new level. Boasting the most sunshine hours of Aotearoa it is the heart of a region characterised by the produce that enjoys that sunshine and an abundance of artists.

It’s also a historic place being one of the first centres of significant European settlement and close to the site of early visits by explorers Abel Tasman and James Cook.

Another coastal city, Nelson is known for its wine, fruit, artisan produce, galleries full of the work of a thriving artistic community and the beauty of the surrounding beaches. It’s the gateway to the West Coast and the beauty of the nearby Abel Tasman National Park.


Heading south rather than west after arriving in Te Wai Pounamu by train or bus offers a stunning coastal and inland journey to Christchurch. Ōtautahi is the South Island’s largest city and an alternative entry point to Aotearoa if you are looking to tour the South island. There’e lots to see and do in Ōtautahi, so its a great place to spend a day or two before or after your tour.

The Christchurch Tram passes diners

The Christchurch Tram passes diners

Like Napier the city experienced the devastating impact of earthquake activity. For Christchurch the impact was much more recent and the formerly historic garden city on the edge of the Canterbury plains is in a process of transformation. A process started in the wake of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, which makes Te Wai Pounamu’s largest city a fascinating place to visit.

Innovative recent architecture sits alongside some of New Zealand’s oldest buildings. And the inner city green spaces that were a feature of the old city now sit alongside a bustling hospitality scene and newly developed spaces. The Avon River still runs through the central city and Ōtautahi still has the references to the old world charm its earliest settlers instilled in the place – try a punt boat ride to really feel this.


Skipping the huge amount to see and do between Christchurch and Queenstown, the next large centre on our journey south is “The Adventure Capital of New Zealand/the world”. Founded in the gold rush of the 1860s the only rush in Queenstown/ Tāhuna these days is up to the ski slopes on a winter morning or to the next adrenalin-inducing activity.

The setting sun highlights the Remarkables Range near Queenstown

Looking across a wintery Queenstown to the Remarkables Mountain Range

This resort town nestled beside a lake overlooked by soaring mountain peaks is an iconic destination in the way that places like Lake Louise, Aspen, Chamonix and St Moritz are iconic destinations. But Queenstown has an edge of thrill-seeking, an abundance of attractions and a local wine scene that those places can’t match.

From 4WD tours to Lord of the Rings locations and boutique winery tours taking in world-renowned vineyards, golf courses, jumping off bridges and amazing dining experiences in stunning settings, Tahuna has something for just about any visitor. Pack your time here with activities or simply relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the surroundings. Your choice. This is a must-be-on-our-New-Zealand-itinerary place.


Four hours’ drive away on the coast is a destination that’s very different to Queenstown. The gaelic namesake of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, Dunedin/Ōtepoti is a thriving “university town” that displays its history in its buildings.

Growing prosperous as the entry port for miners heading to the gold fields of Central Otago in the 1860s and the country’s richest city by the turn of the 20th century, Dunedin is a well-preserved Victorian & Edwardian city. The presence of tens of thousands of students, an intriguing art and fashion scene, wonderful museums and galleries, and nearby natural wonders, including amazing wildlife, give it layers of interest for any visitor.

From haggis ceremonies at castles and scenic train trips to up close encounters with rare penguins and gigantic albatrosses, Dunedin doesn’t disappoint.

Visiting New Zealand’s larger places to visit

Dunedin's Larnach Castle

Larnach Castle overlooks Dunedin’s harbour

Many North Island and South Island tours take in these larger population centers. But you might like to consider the larger cities – Auckland, Wellington & Christchurch – as places to add on to the end or beginning of your tour experience.

Particularly if you are coming a long way, a couple of days in one of these places will help you ease into the local time zone and reset yourself after a lengthy journey.

New Zealand is many hours flight from many places. And the time difference can be significant. The middle of the day here is the middle of the night in the UK and the evening of the previous day in Washington D. C. Why not pause to conquer your jet lag before your tour?

Regardless of whether a visit to a New Zealand city is part of your tour or precedes it, we think urban centres should be part of your Aotearoa experience. Talk to one of our tour specialists about including time in our larger places to visit in New Zealand.