Last updated on January 26, 2024 by Wandering our World
New Zealand is well-known as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with truly majestic, magical scenery that looks like it fell from the pages of a fairy tale or fantasy story – that’s just one of the reasons why this country has famously been used as a filming location for the likes of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movies.
It’s also known for its Maori culture, along with vast beaches, world-class adventure opportunities, wonderful wildlife, delicious food, and friendly natives. In short, there’s a bunch of reasons to visit this country. However, when planning a trip to NZ, travelers have to answer one key question: should you pick the North Island or the South Island?
You see, New Zealand is spread across two large islands, known as the North and South Islands, respectively. And despite being part of the same nation, these two islands are remarkably different in lots of ways, from their weather conditions to their scenery, populations, vibes, and activities. In other words, you can have a totally different experience on each one.
For example, the North Island is where more than ¾ of the New Zealand population lives, making it busier and livelier. It therefore tends to be the better option for those who want to explore cities and discover Maori culture. Meanwhile, the South Island has more rugged wilderness and dramatic scenery, an ideal location for explorers and adventurers of all ages.
There are many other big differences that separate New Zealand’s North and South Islands. And that’s exactly what we’ll be digging into in this guide. Read on to find out about what makes each island special, how they differ, and which one is best for families, couples, backpackers, and other kinds of travelers.
- A Quick Overview Of New Zealand’s North Island vs South Island
- Which Has The Best Weather?
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Best For Beaches?
- Which Is Best For Hiking And Nature?
- Which Is Best For Towns And Cities?
- Which Is Best For Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Best For Couples?
- Which Is Best For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheapest?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- North Island vs South Island: Which Is Better?
Wandering Our World’s Ten-Second Comparison:
A Quick Overview Of New Zealand’s North Island vs South Island
North Island: A Quick Overview
New Zealand’s North Island, known as Te Ika-a-Maui, is one of the two main islands that make up most of the country’s landmass. Specifically, the North Island measures up at 43,911 square miles, which is about 44% of all of New Zealand. It’s smaller than the South Island, but way more populated, with close to 4 million residents (around 77% of the country’s total population).
With its larger population, the North Island is home to most of NZ’s big cities, including its largest city, Auckland, along with its capital, Wellington, and other major cities, such as Hamilton, Tauranga, and Napier. It’s also worth noting that most of the Maori people live on the North Island, making it a prime location to fully immerse yourself in Maori culture and traditions.
Beyond its cities and towns, New Zealand’s North Island is also home to many natural wonders, from neon lakes to volcanic landscapes, natural underground springs, soothing mud pools, and some of the country’s most sublime white sand beaches. Large wine regions like Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne can also be found here, and famed “Middle Earth” filming locations, like “Hobbiton.”
South Island: A Quick Overview
The South Island, or Te Waipounamu to native Maori people, is the second of New Zealand’s two main islands. It’s bigger than the North Island, stretching out across 58,084 square miles. which is around 56% of the country. However, in terms of population, the South Island is much quieter than its northern sibling, with just 1.2 million people.
The South Island is definitely much quieter and less densely populated than the North Island, but there are still some fun big cities to visit here, such as Christchurch, which is the second-largest city in the country, and Dunedin, which is famed for its eclectic cultural heritage, mixing elements from Scottish, Chinese, and Maori culture.
However, what the South Island is truly famous for is its majestic landscapes. Large parts of the island are covered with towering, snow-capped mountains. Visitors can also see NZ’s biggest glacier here, along with ski resorts, spectacular lakes, fjords, and sounds, making it one of the best places in the world for outdoor recreation and adventure.
Which Has The Best Weather?
It’s easy to assume that the weather conditions are reasonably similar across all of New Zealand. However, many first-time travelers to this country are surprised to learn just how much the temperatures and rainfall levels can differ between the two islands, with each one having its own distinct climate.
As you may expect, since it’s closer to the equator, the North Island is the warmer of the two, with quite hot summers and relatively mild winters. Over on the South Island, temperatures are notably lower, all-year long. In terms of rain, both islands can be a little unpredictable, with certain regions staying dry and others seeing regular rainfall throughout the year.
So, in terms of which one has the best weather, the North Island is the sunnier and warmer destination, perfect for swimming and other seaside activities. But, if you don’t mind milder temperatures, or if you’re looking for some wintry, snowy fun, the South Island is a great place to go.
Which Is Best For Activities?
There’s so much to do in New Zealand, from exploring its big cities to trekking up its mountains, basking on its beaches, sampling its fine foods and wine, and exploring its one-of-a-kind attractions, both natural and man-made. But which of the two islands has the best things to do? Let’s take a look and find out.
North Island: The Activities
As mentioned earlier on, visitors to the North Island will have access to the majority of New Zealand’s big cities, including Auckland, which is by far the largest. There, you can visit a range of museums, like the Auckland War Memorial Museum and Auckland Art Gallery, along with family attractions, such as Auckland Zoo, the Sky Tower, and the Sea Life Aquarium.
Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, is also worth exploring, boasting beautiful botanic gardens, a huge zoo, beautiful buildings, and museums. Or, if you’re interested in indigenous Maori culture, head to Rotorua. There, you can learn all about local myths and folklore in the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley or admire indigenous artists at work at the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute.
Wine lovers, meanwhile, may like to traverse the North Island’s stunning wine regions and sample some local favorites, while movie buffs won’t want to miss out on a trip to two of the most thrilling “Lord of the Rings” filming locations: the Hobbiton movie set, not far from Matamata, as well as Wellington’s Weta Workshop, home of iconic props and costumes.
The North Island is also famed for its volcanic landscapes and unique geothermal features. Visitors can dip their toes in green lakes, soothe their skin in hot mud baths, and be amazed at the sight of grand geysers bursting water into the air. There are even parts of the coast where you can dig down and make your own natural hot water pool.
South Island: The Activities
While the North Island is famed for its big cities and breathtaking beaches, the South Island is synonymous with jaw-dropping natural scenery. This is the place to come if you want to spend most of your time outdoors, exploring the mountains, lakes, waterways, and other awesome landscapes that so many people associate with NZ.
Many visitors, for instance, will want to see the Southern Alps, which stretch along the center of the island. You’ll find multiple world-class ski resorts here for wild winter sport excitement, as well as enormous peaks to scale and crystal clear alpine lakes. A helicopter ride is a terrific and unique way to take it all in, but there are also lots of super hiking trails to trek along, too.
Beyond the mountains, New Zealand’s South Island also has many dramatic fjords and waterways to cruise along, as well as grand glaciers and massive national parks, like Abel Tasman. It’s also one of the world’s leading locations for extreme adventure sports, like skydiving, paragliding, and white water rafting, all of which can be enjoyed from Queenstown.
Like the North Island, the South Island is also home to extensive wine regions, like Marlborough, perfect for romantic day trips. And, despite having a much smaller population than the North Island, the South still has some super cities to see, such as the English-style Christchurch, home to beautiful botanic gardens, wildlife reserves, and charming architecture.
Overall, both islands offer plenty to do, with the North Island providing a nice mix of natural escapes and urban adventures, and the South Island being almost unbeatable in regard to hikes, scenery, and outdoor activities.
Which Is Best For Beaches?
With over 9,000 miles of coastline, New Zealand is home to a long list of beautiful beaches, with many of the best examples boasting stunning white sands and magical views all around. But which of the two islands is best for beach goers?
Well, the North Island has the big benefit of being much warmer. So, if you want to go swimming and sunbathing, that’s the place to be. It’s also got most of the country’s best-known white sand beaches, like the breathtaking Cathedral Cove and Opito Bay. It’s also home to the gigantic Ninety Mile Beach (which actually only runs for about 55 miles).
The South Island may not boast the same sugar-like sands as the North, but it’s still got some gorgeous golden sandy strips to check out. Many of its beaches also feel secluded and romantic, like Purakaunui, where visitors can bathe or snorkel in natural swimming pools, or the beaches of the Marlborough Sounds, where it’s easy to find your own private spot.
Overall, it all depends on what kind of beach experience you’re looking for. For the softest sands and warmest waters, the North Island is the clear winner. But, for seclusion, romance, and potential wildlife encounters, the South Island is a terrific choice.
Which Is Best For Hiking And Nature?
A huge number of travelers choose to go to New Zealand for its scenery. And it’s easy to see why. This country is incredibly picturesque, with wonderfully diverse natural landscapes including lakes, mountains, fjords, plains, and more. So, if you’re a hiker or a nature lover, which island should you go to?
Well, of the two, the South Island is generally considered to be the most beautiful. In fact, the landscapes here are out-of-this-world, ranking among the prettiest on the planet. This island is home to the towering Southern Alps, dramatic Norwegian-style fjords, scenic waterways, and shimmering lakes.
The South Island is also home to seven of New Zealand’s 10 “Great Walks,” which are regarded as the best trekking trails in the country. So, if you’re into hiking, this is the better of the two islands to visit. It’s also the best for other sorts of outdoor adventures, like kayaking, rafting, paragliding, and more.
At the same time, the North Island still has wonderful scenery of its own. Its volcanic landscapes are something to behold, and this is one of the best places on earth to see geysers and natural hot springs. There are also several Great Walk trails to try here, along with pleasant coastal tracks to walk along, like Duke’s Nose in Northland.
Overall, if you want to be wowed by the scenery that surrounds you, or if you plan on spending a large part of your vacation hiking, trekking, and diving headfirst into nature, head to the South Island. If you want beautiful scenery without even being too far from a major city, stick to the North Island.
Which Is Best For Towns And Cities?
Along with vast swathes of stunning scenery, New Zealand is also home to some super cities, filled with museums, galleries, parks, gardens, restaurants, and more. If you want to experience Maori culture or other elements of New Zealand lifestyles, it’s definitely a good idea to visit some of the nation’s major cities. But which island is best suited to urban exploration?
Well, as mentioned earlier on, most of New Zealand’s big cities can be found on the North Island. It’s got a way bigger population than the South, with close to 1.5 million people living in Auckland alone. From Hamilton in the west to Napier in the east, there are big, interesting cities all over the North Island, with excellent transport links connecting them to each other.
Because of this, all of the typical urban activities we associate with big cities – like shopping, dining, museums, and family attractions – tend to be better on the North Island. Plus, with a large part of the Maori population being based here, it’s the best place to go to learn all about their way of life.
The South Island still has a couple of notable urban centers, like Christchurch, home to the Canterbury Museum and Christchurch Gondola, as well as Dunedin, where you can visit landmarks like Larnach Castle or admire the many artifacts on display in the Otago Museum. However, most of the towns and cities here are smaller and quieter than those to the north.
Which Is Best For Nightlife?
If you love staying out late, mingling with the locals and visiting fun hangouts, like bars, and clubs, you’ll find a lot of interesting places to spend your evenings across both of New Zealand’s islands. The North Island may seem like the better choice, due to its bigger population, but some of the best nightlife locations are actually found on the South Island.
Queenstown, for example, is located on the South Island and is arguably the best place to be after-dark, with countless music clubs and thrilling party vibes, particularly through the summer months. Other hotspots to the south include Christchurch, which has fun themed bars and casinos, along with Dunedin, with a big student population and quirky cocktail bars galore.
Not to be outdone, the North Island also has several stellar cities in which to drink, dance, and party the night away. As the biggest NZ city, Auckland has a massive list of bars and clubs in areas like Queen Street and the Viaduct Harbour, with the trendy capital of Wellington also ranking highly for evening entertainment, home to many cool craft pubs and comedy clubs.
Overall, it’s tough to call a winner here, as both islands have fantastic nightlife scenes. They’re very closely-matched, though the bigger number of cities on the North Island make it easier to find bars and clubs, no matter where you’re based.
Which Is Best For Families?
New Zealand is one of the best countries to visit as a family. It’s safe, scenic, and filled with fun things to see and do. However, depending on the tastes and preferences of your family, you may find one of the country’s two islands to be a better fit for your vacation than the other.
A lot of families will prefer the North Island, due to its more exciting cities, gorgeous beaches, and warmer weather. There are also so many great family attractions here, including multiple zoos, aquariums, museums, parks, and gardens. Children and teens who like the Middle Earth movies will also be blown away by a visit to Hobbiton or the Weta Workshop.
Over on the South Island, you might not find quite as many traditional touristic attractions, such as theme parks or live entertainment venues. However, you will find a wonderful world of fantastic landscapes, with mind-blowing mountains, magical hiking trails, and extraordinary outdoor recreation opportunities, ideal for the most active and energetic families.
Overall, the North Island is best for the majority of families, especially those with younger children. Meanwhile, those with teens or more active, outdoorsy lifestyles may prefer the South Island instead.
Which Is Best For Couples?
Couples of any age can also have the time of their lives on a trip to New Zealand. It’s such a beautiful, romantic place, perfect for bringing people closer together in their shared amazement at the jaw-dropping scenery all around. But which of the two islands is more appealing to the average couple?
Well, if you want to know which is the more romantic of the two, many travelers tend to agree that the South Island takes that particular title. It’s quieter and calmer, while also boasting the more impressive landscapes, perfect for couples who want to get away from it all. It’s also a dream destination for active and adventurous couples who like hiking and similar activities.
At the same time, there are also many reasons why you might prefer to pick the North Island for your honeymoon. It’s got the bigger cities and a longer list of attractions and landmarks to check out, as well as more diverse accommodation options and restaurants too. Plus, it’s the best island for beaches, ideal for couples who love sunbathing or watching the sun go down together.
So, the best option truly depends on the preferences of the couple. Those searching for peace, quiet, and sublime scenery should head south. Meanwhile, those who prefer big city excitement or brilliant seaside fun should opt for the North Island.
Which Is Best For Backpackers?
New Zealand isn’t exactly the cheapest country to visit, especially for those coming from far away locations, like the U.S. or Europe. So it may be a little beyond the budget of most backpackers. However, if you can afford to travel here on a backpacking budget, it’s an awesome place to explore.
The North Island has the benefit of being easier to get around. You can quickly and conveniently hop from city to city and region to region to see all you want to see. And there’s an awful lot to see, from museums and Maori cultural centers to shops, restaurants, beaches, and geothermal wonders. The list goes on and on, and you can easily spend weeks here without getting bored.
On the South Island, travelers will find a rawer and more rugged wilderness, just waiting to be explored. This island feels more pristine and off-the-beaten-path compared to the North, which can be appealing to those with adventurous spirits, but it also means that it’s a little trickier to get around, and there’s not quite as much to do.
Overall, the North Island is probably best for most backpackers, especially those seeking cultural experiences, as well as first-time visitors, but those who really enjoy hiking and trekking may prefer the South Island.
Which Is Cheaper?
You might assume that prices are more or less the same on both islands, since they’re both part of the same country. However, that’s not quite the case.
In reality, most things tend to cost more on the North Island than the South. This is mainly due to the fact that the North Island is more populous and developed, leading to higher rates for the likes of food, drink, accommodation, and touristic activities. So, if you want to stretch your travel budget to the max, you may prefer to visit the more affordable South Island.
Budget: Scenic Hotel Bay of Islands, nestled in Northland, New Zealand, exudes natural beauty. Surrounded by lush landscapes, the hotel’s stunning waterfront location captures the essence of tranquility. With sweeping views of the Bay of Islands, it offers a serene retreat, harmonizing luxury with the breathtaking allure of New Zealand’s Northland.
Luxury: Kingsgate Hotel Autolodge Paihia embraces coastal elegance in its design, situated amid the scenic splendor of Paihia, New Zealand. Overlooking the glistening waters, the hotel boasts a picturesque setting with lush surroundings. A harmonious blend of comfort and stunning views, creating a captivating retreat along the Bay of Islands.
Budget: Foveaux Hotel in Southland, New Zealand, epitomizes timeless beauty. Nestled against a backdrop of Southern Hemisphere charm, the hotel exudes elegance with its architectural finesse. The tranquil surroundings and scenic vistas create a haven of serenity, offering a truly enchanting escape in the heart of Southland’s captivating landscape.
Luxury: The Langlands Hotel in Southland, New Zealand, is a masterpiece of refined beauty. Surrounded by the stunning landscapes of the Southern Hemisphere, this architectural gem harmonizes with nature. The hotel’s charm lies in its elegant design, creating a serene retreat where luxury meets the breathtaking allure of Southland’s captivating scenery.
North Island vs South Island: Which Is Better?
Overall, it truly doesn’t matter where you visit New Zealand’s North or South Island. Either way, you’re guaranteed an experience you’ll never forget, with the most remarkable scenery all around. However, the whole purpose of this guide is to help you pick one island over the other. So, which should you choose?
Well, for most travelers, the North Island is the best one to start off with. It may be smaller, but it’s got much more going on, with the most scenic beaches, the more developed shopping and dining scenes, awesome big cities to explore, and such a diverse range of attractions – you can spend one day learning all about centuries-old Maori traditions and the next one basking on a Caribbean-style white sand beach.
However, that doesn’t mean that the South Island isn’t worth visiting – far from it! In fact, the South Island is, in many ways, just as astounding as the North. It’s got the best scenery, the best hiking, and even a thrilling nightlife scene, which are all worth taking into account if you feel like the North Island might not be quite right for you.