North Island vs South Island
New Zealand is a unique country for a number of reasons, one of those being that it’s literally broken into two parts, each with its own personality and diverse attractions. When travelling to New Zealand it’s important to consider the sheer magnitude of how much is packed into one small country. For most people, with time and budget constraints, this usually means you only get the chance to cover one of New Zealand’s islands properly.
Whether it’s the charming towns and cities, the great weather you’ll enjoy, the scenery you’re bound to encounter, fantastic accommodation options, or the many activities you’ll take part in, each island contains an array of differing experiences.
There’s clearly no winner, as each island has so much to see and do, and at the end of the day both islands are packed with stunning regions, breathtaking views and fantastic activities. Nonetheless, here’s a guide to New Zealand’s North and South Islands:
With three times the population of the South Island, New Zealand’s northern half is undoubtedly the busier hub. Home to the cosmopolitan cities of Auckland and Wellington, if you’re looking for a mix of big city living and uncrowded adventure sports, you’ve chosen the right island.
Though that’s not to say the North Island has replaced mountaintops with skyscrapers. The north contains just as many breathtaking views as you’ll find in the South – with the stunning Bay of Plenty, a huge number of lush forests, national parks, scenery made famous from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and seasonal skiing spots.
In terms of climate, the very top of the North Island can experience an almost tropical climate, with hot and muggy weather in the summer and a mild climate during winter, proving ideal conditions for travellers all year round.
The North Island is also home to 4 of New Zealand’s 7 international airports, including Auckland International Airport which handles most of the country’s international flights to New Zealand. Most international airlines offer numerous flights to Auckland as it serves as the gateway to the rest of New Zealand.
With smaller towns like Taupo and Rotorua, and wine-centric region Martinborough, there’s still plenty of uncrowded regional spots which are easily accessible from main hubs Auckland and Wellington.
For a taste of New Zealand’s culture, the North Island has a much more apparent connection to the country’s Maori background – from Te Papa Tongarewa museum in Wellington, a traditional Maori dinner and concert offered in Rotorua, to the Waitangi Treaty grounds in the Bay of Islands, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn about the country’s deep cultural history.
While sometimes overshadowed by adventure sports mecca Queenstown in the south, the North Island is still an active hub for visitors with an itching for high adrenalin activity. Top adventure sports in the region include SkyWalk and SkyJump in Auckland, rafting in Waitomo caves, skydiving and bungy jumping in Taupo and plenty of opportunities for hiking across the North Island. Check out some of our adventure tours for ideas.
Home to some of New Zealand’s most dramatic mountain scenery; the South Island features a tonne of natural attractions. The South Island covers about 58,384 square miles, making it the much bigger island of the two. Christchurch is its biggest city, but there’s also the popular resort town Queenstown, and smaller uncrowded spots like Dunedin, Invercargill, Kaikoura.
Landscapes on the North Island are the much more gentle and green of the two islands, whereas the South Island is rugged and raw, with the Southern Alps running down the centre of the island. Sites like the Marlborough Sounds, the Canterbury Plains, Mount Cook (the tallest mountain in New Zealand), and the southern lakes region around Lake Wanaka make it definitely the more spectacular site of the two. In winter which runs from June to August there is some great skiing to be had. For more see our New Zealand ski tours page.
Few other places on the planet offer you the chance to overlook extinct volcanoes. This can be done from the top of Christchurch’s Port Hills. The South Island also offers various ways for visitors to reacquaint themselves with nature. The Botanic Gardens are located by the Avon River and welcome over a million visitors each year making it one of the Christchurch’s most popular attractions.
The South Island of New Zealand also has plenty of opportunities to see marine and bird life – from penguins to seals and dolphins. Don’t forget to visit Kaiteriteri Beach located right next to the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park. Only an hour away from Nelson, this beach is great to visit year-round and the perfect vantage point to interact with some of the aforementioned penguins, seals and dolphins.
Although there’s fantastic opportunities for wining and dining to be had in both regions, the South Island’s Marlborough Region produces some of the best wine in the world. It’s home to over 40 cellar doors and some of the world’s finest sauvignon blanc.
While you’re in the South Island, Dunedin is also home to the Cadbury Chocolate Factory which is a must-visit for everyone with a sweet tooth. Visit the site in the centre of Dunedin and you’ll be able to see, smell and taste some of Cadbury’s finest creations.
Ask any Queenstown local where you should go for a burger and they’ll exclaim Fergburger. It’s the perfect treat after a day of exploring everything that South Island has to offer. Aggy’s Fish and Chips, located right by the idyllic Lake Wakatipu, is another must visit destination for all foodies. It offers all the staples as well as quirky dishes like roasted mutton bird. Aggy’s has fresh seafood brought in daily so you’re guaranteed a fresh meal.
You can’t go wrong with either island; both islands are packed with vibrant sights, beautiful regions and an array of great activities. Whether you choose to visit the North or South Island or try and cover both, you’ll surely leave eagerly awaiting your next trip to New Zealand.