North Island vs South Island New Zealand: 2024 Travel Guide

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If you are wondering whether to pick the North Island or South Island of New Zealand to visit, I’m here to help. After living in New Zealand for a year and exploring the country extensively on return visits, I know both islands pretty well. 

In an ideal world you’d have a month or more to fully explore the whole of New Zealand, but as this is unlikely for most visitors you may well have to choose just one. 

So which island should you choose?

Well, it really depends on what type of experience you are looking for. Let’s break it down and compare the North Island and South Island to help you decide.

And if you are just looking for a very succinct answer – I would recommend the South Island. But you’ll have to keep reading to find out why!

I’ve arranged this article comparing the islands in different categories – if you are short on time you can just pick the categories that matter most to you to see how the islands measure up.

Enjoy, and I hope you find it helpful!

Auckland skyline at sunset. The sky is tinted orange, the spire of the Sky Tower rises above the buildings, and a boat sails on the water by the harbour in the foreground.

The Overview: Is North Island or South Island Better?

North Island

The North Island is known for its stunning beaches, geothermal landmarks, and vibrant cities. It’s the more populated of the two islands and has a larger urban feel compared to the rugged wilderness of the South Island.

One of the highlights of visiting the North Island is exploring its many unique geothermal areas, such as Rotorua and Taupo. Here you can witness bubbling mud pools, hot springs, and even geysers erupting.

New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, is at the southern end of the North Island and it’s another New Zealand highlight, with coffee culture, museums and shopping. 

Queenstown on the edge of Lake Wakatipu with the Remarkable Mountains behind

South Island

The South Island of New Zealand is a popular travel destination known for its breathtaking landscapes, diverse wildlife, and numerous outdoor activities. One of the main highlights of this island is its stunning mountain ranges, including the Southern Alps, which offer fantastic opportunities for hiking, skiing, and mountaineering.

Another must-see attraction in the South Island is Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that showcases some of the most spectacular fjords in the world.

The South Island is also the location of Queenstown – one of the world’s best destinations for adventure activities like jetboating, skydiving and bungy jumping. 

Landscape and Natural Beauty

The two islands are both beautiful, but in very different ways. The country’s location in the South Pacific and the underlying tectonic plates have caused the dramatic scenery that the country is famous for. 

Steam rising from a multicoloured thermal pool in Rotorua

North Island

The North Island is a showcase of New Zealand’s geothermal activity. Rotorua, with its bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers, and natural hot springs, offers a glimpse into the earth’s raw power. 

Away from the thermal regions, the North Island boasts an impressive coastline. The Bay of Islands, with its crystal-clear waters and scenic islands, is a haven for beach lovers and sailors.

The Coromandel Peninsula, known for its unspoiled beaches like Cathedral Cove and the unique Hot Water Beach, offers a perfect blend of relaxation and natural exploration.

New Zealand’s volcanic past is evident in the North Island, with many dormant volcanoes in the area around Auckland. The largest lake in the country, Lake Taupo, is the result of one of the world’s largest ever volcano eruptions 26,000 years ago. 

Turquoise blue lake with snow capped mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook, behind the lake on an overcast day
Lake Pukaki and Aoraki/Mount Cook

South Island

The South Island is epic. The Southern Alps, running almost the length of the island, create the iconic snow-capped peaks and glaciers that are evident in many images of New Zealand.

Aoraki/ Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, is a truly stunning place, especially from the vantage point of Lake Pukaki with its incredible turquoise water.

Fiordland National Park is another jewel in the South Island’s crown. The fiords, carved by ancient glaciers, create a dramatic and awe-inspiring landscape.

Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, with their sheer cliffs and cascading waterfalls, are must-visit locales for any nature enthusiast. As it is easier to access than Doubtful Sound, Milford Sound is one of the country’s most popular natural attractions.

The South Island is also dotted with pristine lakes that reflect the surrounding mountains like mirrors. Lake Tekapo, with its turquoise waters and the famous Church of the Good Shepherd, offers some of the best stargazing experiences in the world, thanks to the clear skies of the Mackenzie Basin.

If you are looking for those famous New Zealand landscapes, the South Island is the one that you want. 

Maori Culture

New Zealand’s cultural heritage is deeply rooted in the traditions and history of the Maori people. Maori language is used daily, for example ‘kia ora’ is a commonly used greeting.

The haka is also an important cultural tradition, with many variations performed at significant events – weddings, funerals, sports matches and more. Both the North and South Islands offer unique insights into Maori culture, but each showcases it in different ways.

North Island

The North Island offers the most accessible Maori cultural experiences. Rotorua, in particular, stands out as a cultural powerhouse.

Here, visitors can immerse themselves in Maori traditions, from experiencing a traditional ‘hangi’ feast – food cooked in earth ovens, to witnessing the powerful haka and listening to Maori stories. The Te Puia and Whakarewarewa villages offer an in-depth look into the Maori way of life, arts, and crafts.

Bay of Plenty is another significant area, rich in Maori history and legends. The coastal towns in this region are home to many marae (Maori meeting houses), which are centres for the community and culture.

Waitangi is one of the most important sites in the history of Maori-European settler relations. The Treaty of Waitangi had a significant impact on the way that the Maori people were treated by settlers, and the Treaty Grounds serve as a reminder of that.  

South Island

The South Island’s Maori culture, while less prominent than in the North, has its unique characteristics. 

In Kaikoura, a town known for its marine life and whale watching, the Maori connection to the ocean is celebrated. Here, visitors can learn about the Maori respect for nature and their traditional methods of fishing and navigation. 

The South Island also offers opportunities to explore lesser-known Maori rock art sites, particularly in the Otago and Canterbury regions. 

However, if learning about Maori culture and experiencing traditions such as the haka and a hangi is important to you – the North Island is your best bet. 

Towns and Cities

North Island

The North Island is far more populated than the South Island. 

Auckland, the largest city and where I lived in New Zealand, is a cosmopolitan hub with a stunning harbour setting. Known as the “City of Sails,” Auckland offers an international mix of cultures, cuisines, and shopping, alongside beautiful beaches and island escapes within a short ferry ride. 

Wellington, the capital city, is a smaller city but still offers a lot to visitors. It’s famous for its arts scene, coffee culture, and the national museum, Te Papa, which offers an extensive insight into New Zealand’s history and culture. 

The city’s compact nature makes it easy to explore on foot, and its culinary scene is renowned, with more cafes and restaurants per capita than New York City. I highly recommend a visit to Wellington, and especially Te Papa and the Botanic Gardens. 

Napier is another popular urban area to visit. Following an earthquake that destroyed much of the town in 1931, many buildings were constructed in an Art Deco style. 

River Avon in Christchurch New Zealand. A white bridge crosses over a river which reflects grass on the banks and a white arch sculpture behind the bridge
Christchurch’s Bridge of Remembrance

South Island

The South Island’s has a few urban areas, but much of the island is sparsely inhabited. Most towns and cities are in the coast line, as the Southern Alps run directly down the middle of the island. 

Christchurch, known as the Garden City, is still regenerating following the 2011 earthquakes. This city is reinventing itself with innovative architecture, a thriving arts scene, and green spaces. The transitional Cardboard Cathedral and the bustling Riverside Market are testament to the city’s spirit and creativity.

Dunedin, with its Scottish heritage, is known for its historical architecture, including the grand Dunedin Railway Station and the Olveston Historic Home. Dunedin is also the gateway to the wildlife-rich Otago Peninsula, where you can encounter albatross colonies and yellow-eyed penguins.

Queenstown is one of my favourite New Zealand destinations and I highly recommend it to any visitor. It’s a perfect base for day trips to some of the most beautiful parts of the South Island. It’s also a hub of adventure activities and the Central Otago wine region.

The glow worm caves in Waitomo are an essential sight in a 14 day New Zealand itinerary

Adventure Activities

North Island

If it wasn’t being compared with the South Island, you could easily say that the North Island offers a large range of adventure activities. 

In Auckland, adventure activities take advantage of both the urban setting and the surrounding natural beauty. You can bungy jump off the Auckland Harbour Bridge or take a thrilling jet boat ride on the Waitemata Harbour. You can even do a controlled descent jump from the top of the Sky Tower.

Rotorua is a hub for mountain biking, with the Whakarewarewa Forest being one of the top mountain biking networks in the world. For those seeking a unique experience, Zorbing – rolling down a hill in a large, plastic orb – originated here.

The Waitomo Caves offer an unforgettable experience. Here, you can go black water rafting – floating and jumping through underground river systems in a rubber tube, or explore the glow-worm adorned cave systems on a guided tour.

Book a visit to the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves here!

And for the ultimate adventure activity, skydiving in Taupo over the enormous lake is a popular choice. 

South Island

The South Island takes adventure to the extreme, with Queenstown widely regarded as the ‘adventure capital of the world’.

This is where bungy jumping first started, with the iconic Kawarau Bridge Bungy still operating. Queenstown’s adrenaline offerings include skydiving, jet boating on the Shotover River, and paragliding over the stunning Lake Wakatipu.

On my first visit to Queenstown I started with a jetboat ride, and on subsequent visits graduated to paragliding and eventually a skydive. The skydive is still one of my proudest moments, and I’m very glad I paid for photos and videos to prove to the sceptics back home that I did it.

My horseriding experience in Queenstown was slightly less successful, but I can only blame myself for falling off the horse onto a rock and cracking a rib…The surroundings were still beautiful though!

For winter sports enthusiasts, the South Island is a paradise. The Southern Alps provide some of the best skiing and snowboarding experiences in the Southern Hemisphere, with resorts like Cardrona and Treble Cone attracting skiers and snowboarders of all levels.

Wildlife

North Island

The North Island provides a range of wildlife experiences, particularly in marine life. The Bay of Islands is renowned for its dolphin and whale watching tours, offering the chance to see these majestic creatures up close in their natural environment.

Dolphins near Auckland, New Zealand

The Poor Knights Islands, off the coast of Northland, are a mecca for divers and snorkelers, known for their crystal-clear waters and abundant marine life.

For bird enthusiasts, Tiritiri Matangi Island, near Auckland, is a must-visit. This predator-free sanctuary is home to some of New Zealand’s most endangered bird species, including the takahe and the kiwi.

The island’s successful conservation programs make it an ideal place to observe these rare birds in their natural environment.

Zealandia, near Wellington, is another conservation site for native wildlife. This enclosed ecosanctuary is a fenced-in area of more than 500 acres, protecting many native species.

South Island

Kaikoura is a hotspot for marine life, where the unique underwater geography attracts an abundance of sea creatures. Whale watching here is world-class, with sperm whales being a common sighting. The area is also known for its seal colonies and the chance to swim with wild dolphins.

Further south, the Otago Peninsula is known as the wildlife capital of New Zealand. It’s home to the only mainland breeding colony of the royal albatross in the world. The peninsula also offers the opportunity to see yellow-eyed penguins, one of the rarest penguin species, in their natural habitat.

Oamaru is one of my favourites. A Little Blue Penguin colony is located on the east coast in this small town and you can attend daily sightings as these little birds return from the ocean each evening. 

In Fiordland, the remote and rugged landscapes are home to unique birdlife, including the kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. The Doubtful and Milford Sounds, with their pristine waters, are excellent for spotting fur seals, penguins, and dolphins.

Tongariro Crossing

Hiking and Walking

North Island

The North Island’s hiking trails showcase the island’s diverse landscapes. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, often hailed as one of the best day walks in the world, takes hikers across a volcanic landscape with emerald lakes and spectacular views. It’s a challenging trek but immensely rewarding.

For a more leisurely experience, the Waikaremoana Great Walk in the Te Urewera National Park offers a journey through pristine rainforests and serene lakeside paths. This trek is not just a physical journey but a spiritual one, as the area holds significant Maori cultural value.

The coastal walks around Auckland, such as those at the Waitakere Ranges, offer a combination of rugged coastline and lush forest. These trails provide stunning views of the Tasman Sea and are a great way to experience the natural beauty close to the city.

South Island

The South Island is famed for its Great Walks, a series of premier tracks that pass through some of New Zealand’s most awe-inspiring landscapes.

The Milford Track is perhaps the most famous, taking walkers through the heart of Fiordland National Park with its towering peaks and cascading waterfalls.

The Abel Tasman Coast Track is another gem, offering a relatively easy walk through golden beaches, clear blue waters, and native bush. It’s a unique coastal experience that can be combined with kayaking for a different perspective of the stunning Abel Tasman National Park.

For those seeking a true wilderness experience, the Routeburn Track traverses the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks, showcasing the diversity of New Zealand’s alpine and forest environments. This track offers some of the most dramatic alpine scenery in the country.

Food and Drink

There are some differences between the two islands about food and drink, but you’ll have great choices anywhere in the country. Both islands have wine regions and most towns and cities have excellent dining options. 

Woman in red top standing in front of rows of grape vines. Behind the vineyard there is a light blue area of water with several boats.
WIne Tasting on Waiheke Island

North Island

Auckland, with its multicultural population, offers an array of international cuisines. The city’s waterfront precincts like Viaduct Harbour and Wynyard Quarter have a variety of eateries that serve everything from fresh seafood to Asian fusion. 

For first-time visitors dinner at Orbit, the revolving restaurant at the top of the Sky Tower is a fun experience. Waiheke Island, a ferry ride from downtown Auckland, is well known for its wineries and makes a great day trip from the city. 

The Hawke’s Bay region is renowned for its wineries. Here, you can enjoy wine-tasting tours and dine at high-quality restaurants that offer farm-to-table experiences, showcasing the best of local produce.

Wellington is known for its vibrant cafe culture. It boasts more cafes per capita than New York City, offering a range of artisanal coffees and gourmet foods. The city’s craft beer scene is also thriving, with many local breweries offering tastings and tours.

The mountains of Central Otago with clouds in the sky.

South Island

The South Island contributes significantly to New Zealand’s food and drink scene. At the northern end of the island is Marlborough – the most famous of New Zealand’s wine regions.

If you buy a bottle of New Zealand wine outside of the country, it is likely to be a Marlborough wine. Central Otago, known for its stunning scenery, is also famous for its world-class Pinot Noir. 

Wine enthusiasts can explore the vineyards that dot the landscape, many of which offer tastings and food pairings. Wine tours are a great way to spend a day, especially if you are a solo traveller looking for some company with a shared interest.

Book a wine-tasting tour from Queenstown here!

Seafood is a highlight in the South Island, particularly in Kaikoura, where the ocean’s bounty includes crayfish, mussels, and fresh fish. Here, you can enjoy seafood caught just hours before it’s served, offering an unbeatable freshness.

Christchurch also has a great food scene. The city’s food markets, like the Riverside Market, offer a variety of local and international cuisines. From street food stalls to gourmet eateries, there’s something to satisfy every palate.

Wellington

Weather

North Island

The North Island experiences a generally milder climate compared to the South. The northern parts, including Auckland and the Bay of Islands, enjoy a subtropical climate with warm, humid summers and mild, wet winters. This makes the North Island an attractive destination year-round, especially for beachgoers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Winter temperatures in the North Island rarely drop below freezing, although regions like the Central Plateau, which houses the Tongariro National Park, can experience snowfall. The warmer months, from December to February, are ideal for enjoying the island’s beaches and outdoor activities.

Rainfall can be expected throughout the year, but it’s usually heavier during winter and spring. Despite this, the North Island’s weather is generally more stable and predictable than that of the South Island.

South Island

The South Island experiences a more varied climate, largely due to its topography. The west coast, including regions like Fiordland and the Westland, is known for high rainfall, which contributes to its beautiful rainforests and abundant rivers and lakes.

In contrast, the east coast, where Christchurch and Dunedin are located, typically has a drier and cooler climate. The Southern Alps act as a barrier, causing a rain shadow effect on the eastern side of the island.

The inland areas, particularly Central Otago, experience a continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. This region is known for its stunning autumn colours and is popular for winter sports, especially in the Queenstown and Wanaka areas.

The South Island’s weather can be quite changeable. The best time to visit largely depends on the activities you’re interested in. For skiing and snowboarding, winter (June to August) is ideal, while the summer months (December to February) are perfect for hiking and exploring the outdoors.

Transport

Transport between cities in New Zealand relies primarily on cars, coaches and flights. Urban areas have local train networks, but trains between cities are limited and act more as scenic tours than typical public transport. 

It’s a fantastic country for renting a car and road tripping around. Driving is the best way to get around and enjoy the landscapes, and you can take your rental car on the Interislander Ferry between the North and South Islands.

If driving isn’t an option, then between buses, flights and day tours you’ll be able to get to most of the major visitor highlights. 

Auckland Ferry Terminal

North Island

Auckland, as the largest city, is New Zealand’s primary international gateway and has extensive public transport options including buses, trains, and ferries. 

Intercity buses operate between major towns and cities, offering an economical way to travel. The only real intercity train line in the North Island is the Northern Explorer, from Auckland to Wellington. It’s a full-day journey providing scenic views of the island’s diverse landscapes.

Domestic flights are a quick way to cover large distances, with regular services between key cities like Auckland, Wellington, and Hamilton.

Train running along a coast line with bright blue ocean to the right and white waves coming in to the beach and clifts along the left side of the train
Coastal Pacific Train

South Island

The South Island’s transport options are shaped by its geography. While the main cities like Christchurch and Queenstown are well-served by public transport and offer car rental services, getting around the island often involves longer distances and more planning.

What might look like a short distance on a map can take a very long time in practice because there are a limited number of roads that connect the east and west sides of the Southern Alps.

Personally, I don’t mind the longer driving times as it is the ideal way to see as much of the scenery as possible. 

The TranzAlpine train journey from Christchurch to Greymouth is another scenic train journey, providing breathtaking views of the Southern Alps. You can also take the Coastal Pacific scenic train from Picton to Christchurch

Intercity buses connect major towns, but services can be less frequent than in the North Island, especially in remote areas.

Domestic flights are an efficient way to travel long distances or cross the Southern Alps. For instance, flying from Christchurch to Queenstown or Nelson saves considerable driving time.

Whichever island you choose, if you can rent a car that will be your best option. It’ll allow you to be totally flexible with your itinerary and help you access the more remote parts of the country that would take a long time to access on public transport. 

The lonely Wanaka willow tree growing out from the lake waters by the shore of Lake Wanaka

The Verdict: North Island vs South Island New Zealand

The North Island and South Island are both amazing places to visit. But if you find yourself short on time and need to choose just one, my inclination leans towards the South Island. 

Here’s why: The South Island provides all the experiences that most people think of when considering New Zealand. The amazing landscapes with mountains and lakes, the adventures of Queenstown, the fiords of Milford Sound, whale-watching in Kaikoura, and the amazing wine regions. 

That said, this in no way diminishes the appeal of the North Island, with its vibrant Maori culture, geothermal wonders, and dynamic cities like Auckland and Wellington. Ideally, a trip that encompasses both islands would provide the most comprehensive and fulfilling experience of what New Zealand has to offer.

In the end, whether you choose the North or South Island, I guarantee you’ll have an amazing time.

FAQs

What is the best time of year to visit the South Island for outdoor activities?

The best time to visit the South Island for most outdoor activities is during the summer months of December to February. However, if you prefer winter sports such as skiing or snowboarding, then June to August would be the ideal time to visit.

What are some must-see attractions on the North Island?

Rotorua’s thermal pools and Maori villages, Waitomo’s caves, and Wellington’s Te Papa are all excellent attractions in the North Island.

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