New Zealand’s biggest city or its capital city? If you are planning to visit or move to New Zealand and don’t know which one to pick, this is the post for you.
I lived in Auckland for a year (and even worked as an assistant to a Prison Manager in one of its prisons!), so I have a soft spot for it. But I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in Wellington. I know both cities pretty well, so here is the guide you need to help you decide.
To be upfront, these cities are pretty evenly matched in my opinion, but there are differences you should know about before you choose.
The Overview: Is Auckland or Wellington Better?
Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, presents scenic landscapes with a city vibe. Known as the “City of Sails” due to its love for yachting and its harbour location, Auckland offers the typical advantages of a bigger city, as well as natural beauty.
The city’s skyline, dominated by the iconic Sky Tower, provides stunning views and is a must-visit. Auckland’s culinary scene is diverse, with a variety of eateries ranging from high-end restaurants to casual street food, reflecting the city’s multicultural heritage.
For nature lovers, the nearby islands, like Waiheke Island, are just a ferry ride away and offer vineyards, beaches, and hiking trails. Auckland’s numerous parks and volcanic cones, such as Mount Eden and One Tree Hill, provide panoramic views and a glimpse into the region’s geological past.
Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, has a vibrant, artsy vibe. While smaller in scale compared to Auckland, its compact nature makes it an ideal city to explore on foot.
At the heart of Wellington’s cultural scene is Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum, which I highly recommend visiting for a deep dive into New Zealand’s history and culture. The Botanic Gardens, a personal favourite spot of mine, are a serene escape within the city, showcasing a rich variety of native plantlife, as well as views over the city’s Central Business District (CBD).
The city also serves as a hub for New Zealand’s film industry, with several attractions located on the Miramar peninsula, a short journey from the city centre.
Adventure and Outdoor Activities
Auckland offers a selection of adventure activities that cater to thrill-seekers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Admittedly it doesn’t have quite the range of Queenstown, it still outperforms Wellington here.
One of the city’s most exhilarating experiences is the SkyJump from the Auckland Sky Tower. This adventure involves a controlled base jump from the tower, offering not only an adrenaline rush but also spectacular views of the city.
For those seeking a less intense but equally thrilling experience, the SkyWalk around the tower’s exterior offers a unique perspective of Auckland from 192 meters above the ground.
Auckland is surrounded by water, which opens up a variety of water-based adventures. Options range from relaxed harbour cruises to hands-on sailing experiences. For more adrenaline-pumping water activities, jet boating on the Waitemata Harbour provides a high-speed adventure with stunning views of the city skyline.
Guided kayak tours to places like Rangitoto Island combine the excitement of sea kayaking with the opportunity to explore Auckland’s volcanic landscape.
Auckland’s diverse landscapes also make it a perfect location for outdoor activities like mountain biking and hiking. The Waitakere Ranges, with their rugged terrain and scenic trails, offer some of the best mountain biking and hiking experiences in the region.
Finally, you can even go skydiving in Auckland. Most skydives have a maximum height of 15,000ft, but the Auckland version offers a free fall from 18,000ft.
One of the most unique experiences in Wellington is exploring the rugged South Coast by quad bike. These tours offer an exciting way to navigate the dramatic coastline, providing stunning views and an adrenaline rush.
For those who love heights, Wellington’s rock climbing and abseiling opportunities are not to be missed. The region’s varied terrain, including areas around the Wellington Harbour and the Hutt Valley, offers climbs for all skill levels, from beginners to seasoned climbers. Indoor climbing facilities are also available for those looking to hone their skills in a controlled environment.
Wellington’s location along the Cook Strait makes it a prime spot for wind and water sports. Windsurfing and kitesurfing are popular activities, with the strong and consistent winds providing ideal conditions. Kayaking and paddleboarding along the waterfront or in the nearby bays offer a more relaxed way to experience Wellington’s beautiful waterscapes.
Wellington also offers a variety of walking and hiking trails. The city’s surrounding hills and the rugged coastline provide numerous tracks, ranging from short city walks to more challenging hikes like the Southern Walkway, which spans from the city to the South Coast.
Nature and Wildlife
You can go whale and dolphin watching in Auckland, so it gains several points just for that! The eco-safari is run by the Maritime Museum and supports research efforts.
Book your Whale and Dolphin Safari here!
One of Auckland’s most prominent natural features is its volcanic field, consisting of around 50 volcanoes. These volcanic cones, such as Mount Eden and One Tree Hill, offer panoramic views of the city and harbours. The volcanic soil also contributes to the lush greenery found throughout the region. But don’t worry, the chances of an eruption during your visit are extremely low.
For wildlife enthusiasts, Tiritiri Matangi Island is a highlight. A short ferry ride from the city, this open sanctuary is home to some of New Zealand’s most endangered bird species, including the Takahe and Kokako. It’s an excellent spot for birdwatching and learning about conservation efforts.
The Waitakere Ranges, to the west of the city, offer a different kind of nature experience. With its rugged coastline, dense rainforest, and cascading waterfalls, it’s a haven for hikers and nature lovers. The area’s tracks lead through diverse ecosystems, showcasing New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna.
A must-visit is the Wellington Botanic Garden, particularly stunning in summer with its flourishing Rose Garden. The gardens are also a showcase of New Zealand’s native plant species. The best way to experience this is by taking the Cable Car to the top and then meandering back down to the city through the gardens.
For those who might be hesitant about riding a cable car, it’s not the precarious type you might find at ski resorts. The Wellington Cable Car is more like an uphill tram.
Wellington also boasts Zealandia, the world’s first fully-fenced ecosanctuary, which plays a crucial role in wildlife conservation. New Zealand’s unique geographical isolation meant that much of its wildlife, including the iconic kiwi, evolved without natural predators.
However, the arrival of humans brought new threats to these species. Zealandia aims to counter this impact by providing a safe haven for native flora and fauna.
Zealandia spans over 500 acres of protected territory, allowing animals like the tuatara, cave weta, and tui to thrive in their natural habitat. A visit here is not only a chance to witness New Zealand’s unique wildlife but also to support conservation efforts.
Culture and Arts
I’ll admit that as a Londoner I’ve been spoiled for choice for most of my life. One of the things I missed about my home city (aside from my family and friends of course…) was the sheer volume of theatres, museums and galleries.
As New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland has more to offer in terms of theatres and arts venues than other places in the country.
Auckland Art Gallery (Toi o Tāmaki) is New Zealand’s largest art institution. It houses an extensive collection of national and international art. The gallery also frequently hosts talks, workshops, and other events. The gallery is currently free to visit – admission charges for international visitors are currently suspended but may be brought back in future.
Another significant cultural landmark is the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which offers a deep dive into New Zealand’s natural and military history. The museum also houses Māori and Pacific collections, giving visitors an insight into the indigenous cultures and heritage of the region.
There are several venues in Auckland hosting a variety of performances ranging from ballet and opera to contemporary theatre and musicals. The Auckland Arts Festival and the Auckland Writers Festival are annual events that attract international artists and performers, further enriching the city’s cultural offerings.
The city’s urban landscape is also a canvas for creativity, with vibrant street art and installations found in many neighbourhoods. Areas like Karangahape Road (K Road) and Ponsonby are known for their eclectic art scenes, offering a mix of galleries, live music venues, and creative spaces.
If you’re visiting Wellington, a visit to Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum, is an absolute must. Perfectly located on the waterfront and offering free entry, Te Papa is a treasure trove of New Zealand’s history and culture.
I visit it every time I’m in Wellington, and I highly recommend spending a bit of time there.
The museum narrates New Zealand’s story, from its prehistoric roots to the experiences of its soldiers in world wars. Its interactive displays provide fascinating insights into the country’s geothermal activity, alongside a stunning collection of artwork. Another highlight is the Maori marae (meeting house), offering a glimpse into the rich indigenous culture.
Wellington also stands out as a centre for the performing arts. The city’s theatre scene is vibrant, with venues like the Wellington Opera House hosting a variety of live performances, from dramatic plays to musicals.
For music aficionados, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, based in Wellington, offers world-class orchestral concerts.
Additionally, Wellington’s contribution to the film industry has earned it the affectionate nickname “Wellywood.” The Weta Workshop, renowned for its contributions to films like The Lord of the Rings, offers tours that give a behind-the-scenes look into movie production and special effects, adding a unique dimension to Wellington’s cultural offerings.
It’s a great place to join a Lord of the Rings tour if that’s the kind of thing you like. As a big fan of the films, I’ve done a lot of these tours in various parts of New Zealand. The Wellington version takes you to a few filming locations, as well as a visit to the Weta Cave.
Book a Wellington Lord of the Rings tour here!
Waiheke Island – the best place to spend a day outside of the city. You don’t even need a car for this one – just hop on the ferry. Once you reach the island you can get around using the bus service, hire a bicycle or just walk around. There are also tours of the island if you want something a bit more structured.
If you do choose the bus, make sure you buy an Auckland Transit (AT) HOP card at the downtown ferry terminal – you can’t pay for the bus in cash. Waiheke is known for its wineries, beaches and beautiful scenery – it’s a perfect place for a day trip from Auckland.
Another option is to visit Hobbiton for the day. It’s about a 2-hour drive each way, but if you are a film fan it’s worth considering. There are tours from Auckland to Hobbiton, some of which also include a visit to the Waitomo glow worm caves, or you can hire a car and drive yourself.
You can even do a day trip to Coromandel, but you should plan carefully as it can be quite a long drive depending on how far into the peninsula you want to go.
Book your tour of Hobbiton and Waitomo here!
Wellington’s location on the southern coast of New Zealand’s North Island makes it an ideal starting point for a variety of day trips, offering experiences from wine tasting to nature exploration.
A popular option is to take the Interislander ferry across the Cook Strait to explore the upper South Island. This scenic journey leads to destinations like Picton, Blenheim, or Nelson.
Each town has its advantages, with Picton offering gateway access to the stunning Marlborough Sounds, Blenheim being a renowned wine-producing area, particularly famous for its Sauvignon Blanc, and Nelson known for its arts and crafts, beaches, and Abel Tasman National Park.
Martinborough, just over an hour’s drive north of Wellington, is a haven for wine lovers. This area is also known for its boutique vineyards, with a particular focus on Pinot Noir. Visitors can enjoy a leisurely day cycling between vineyards, indulging in wine tastings, and sampling local cuisine.
For those interested in nature and wildlife, the Kapiti Coast is worth visiting. The Kapiti Island Nature Reserve, accessible by a short boat ride from the mainland, is a sanctuary for native birds and one of New Zealand’s most important sites for bird conservation.
The island offers unique opportunities for bird-watching, hiking, and enjoying breathtaking coastal views. The reserve’s conservation efforts mean visitors might spot rare birds like the kōkako and takahē. The nearby beaches and coastal towns also offer independent cafes and artisan shops, adding to the day trip experience.
Most flights into New Zealand arrive in Auckland, so if you are flying in, chances are you’ll be in Auckland anyway.
One of the most scenic ways to get from Auckland to Wellington is the Northern Explorer train. It takes a full day and has to be planned for, but if you want to see the North Island without spending several days there, it might be a good choice.
Within Auckland itself, public transport is pretty good. The Link bus services are particularly useful. The CityLink, Inner Link and OuterLink are interconnected and the right combination will get you to pretty much all the major attractions and landmarks.
Commuters into the city will generally use the train system, but if you are visiting the city rather than moving to Auckland you likely won’t need to use the trains.
You can get ferries to Rangitoto and Waiheke Islands as well as to Devonport – a small suburb to the north of the city across the water.
Parking in Auckland can be a pain, so I would recommend that you only use a car if you are heading out of the city – you don’t need one to get around Auckland CBD.
Wellington is a very walkable city. The Wellington CBD is relatively small, so if you are staying in central accommodation you may not need public transport at all.
The city does have a comprehensive bus service if you need it. Buses run frequently and reach all major areas of the city, including commercial hubs, cultural sites, and residential neighbourhoods.
The city also boasts a unique and historic cable car, connecting the central business district with the suburb of Kelburn and offers stunning views of the city and harbour.
The trains are generally less useful than the buses but are still a popular option for daily commuters and those looking to explore the greater Wellington region and areas such as the Hutt Valley.
Food and Drink
Auckland offers an exceptional food and drink scene that reflects its diverse population.
The city’s waterfront areas, like Viaduct Harbour and Wynyard Quarter, are popular hubs for dining, where you can enjoy everything from fine dining to casual eats with stunning harbour views. Seafood, given Auckland’s coastal location, is a must-try here, with local restaurants serving up fresh catches of the day.
Areas such as Dominion Road and Sandringham are famous for their array of authentic Asian and Indian eateries, offering everything from spicy street food to traditional family-style dining. Ponsonby Road, another culinary hotspot, features a variety of trendy cafes, bistros, and international restaurants, making it a perfect place for foodies to explore different flavours.
The city is also home to a vibrant café culture, with a strong focus on quality coffee and brunch. Auckland cafes are known for their creative and delicious brunch menus, often featuring local and organic ingredients.
First-time visitors to Auckland may enjoy the novelty of Orbit, the revolving restaurant at the top of the SkyTower. I also recommend checking out Giapo on Gore Street for some fancy ice cream.
Wine tasting is also popular in Auckland, with wine tours exploring both Waiheke Island and boutique wineries in the wider Auckland area.
Book a Waiheke Island wine-tasting tour here!
Wellington might be smaller, but still offers a range of culinary experiences. Whether you’re looking for hearty traditional New Zealand dishes or inventive fusion cuisine, Wellington has it all.
The area around Cuba Street, the epicentre of Wellington’s eclectic charm, is perfect for food enthusiasts. This busy pedestrian street is lined with a variety of eateries, ranging from quirky cafes and cozy bistros to international restaurants, each offering a unique dining experience.
The city’s coffee culture is particularly noteworthy. While it’s hard to substantiate the claim that Wellington has more cafes per capita than New York City, the city’s passion for coffee is undeniable. The numerous cafes dotting the city are a testament to Wellington’s love affair with quality coffee.
Wellington also celebrates its culinary scene with various food festivals, most notably Wellington On a Plate. This event is a culinary highlight, showcasing the creativity and gastronomic flair of the region’s chefs and food producers.
New Zealand is generally quite expensive to visit and live in. Many visitors will be joining tours and activities that come with a high price tag.
Residents can find that they are paying relatively high prices compared to neighbouring Australia, partly because of higher transport costs and lower competition to drive down prices.
Auckland and Wellington are roughly comparable, but if you are visiting on a budget you can find ways to save. There are excellent hostels around the country which provide safe and cheap accommodation, which would otherwise be one of your highest expenses.
Budget – LyLo Auckland is a central hostel with mixed and female-only dorms. Instead of a typical hostel room with open bunk beds, these rooms have private pods for each person.
Mid-Range – Fable Auckland has beautifully decorated rooms in a central location, but without a sky-high price tag.
Luxury – The Hotel Britomart is just a few minutes from the Viaduct Harbour, with beautiful rooms in a fantastic location.
Budget – The Marion Hostel is in the city centre and has both mixed and female-only dorms for budget-conscious visitors
Mid-Range – QT Wellington is a cool and quirky hotel, and it is right next to Te Papa.
Luxury – InterContinental Wellington has large rooms, a central location and all the amenities you expect from a premium hotel.
Best Time to Visit
Auckland is a great year-round destination, although it can get very humid in the height of summer. Most of its attractions aren’t too affected by the weather, and it doesn’t get anywhere near as cold in winter as places like Queenstown. Generally, the climate is better than in Wellington, but not to the extent that it would be a deciding factor for most people.
Tip: Whatever time of year you visit New Zealand, you should always wear sunscreen. The UV index is deceptively high, and you may find yourself with a sunburn on days that aren’t actually very hot.
Wellington’s weather is known for being unpredictable, often changing several times a day. As a tourist, expect a mix of sun, wind, and occasional rain. The city is famously windy, so it’s wise to pack layers, regardless of the season, to comfortably enjoy its many attractions.
The Verdict: Auckland vs Wellington
So, is Auckland or Wellington better?
They are both fantastic cities. However, the choice between them might lean slightly towards Auckland if considering a move, and towards Wellington for those planning a visit.
Auckland, with its larger size and diverse population, offers a bustling urban environment combined with stunning natural landscapes. The city’s multicultural makeup means a wider variety of food, entertainment, and cultural events.
For those looking to relocate, Auckland’s dynamic job market and numerous educational institutions make it a practical choice. The city’s transport system, although sometimes congested, is comprehensive, connecting diverse suburbs and city areas effectively.
Wellington, on the other hand, shines as a tourist destination. It’s compact and easy to navigate, with a charming blend of culture, history, and nature. The city’s vibrant arts scene, from the renowned Te Papa museum to its lively theatre and film industry, makes it a cultural hotspot.
Wellington’s natural beauty, from its scenic waterfront to nearby nature reserves like Zealandia, offers visitors a great selection of outdoor activities.