It’s not often that we break down the differences between two parts of a single country, but there are few countries that divide so neatly into two as New Zealand. Ideally, if you’re budgeting a New Zealand tour, you’ll make time for both islands, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll have the time to accommodate such a large trip, especially if you’re adding New Zealand as a stopover after a vacation to Australia or Southeast Asia. If that’s the case, how do you choose between the North Island and the South Island? Well, first of all, you’ll have to know what the difference is between these two major islands before your visit to New Zealand travel. That’s why we’ve broken down the major differences between the North Island and South Island.
As we’ve done in the past for other countries, we’ve focused on landscape and climate, landmarks, city life and culture, food and wine, and activities. Of course, there’s a tremendous amount of overlap between the two islands as there isn’t an obvious cultural divide between north and south, like there is in China, for instance.
With all that in mind, here’s how the North and South islands of New Zealand compare to each other.
Landscape and Climate
You might think that the North Island and South Island are identical regarding landscape and climate, but things aren’t quite that simple. While both islands have a significant amount of coastline, farmland, and high terrain, the North and South Islands are not identical. However, both islands are breathtaking – which if you know anything about New Zealand, shouldn’t come as a surprise.
In terms of landscape, the North Island is known for its gorgeous coastline and geothermal hotspots. You’ll find incredible beaches in Northland, the Bay of Islands, and around the Coromandel Peninsula, while the central region around Rotorua is known for the hot springs and bubbling mud pools that come with intense geothermal activity. In the island’s south, you’ll find volcanoes around Tongariro National Park. While both islands have beaches, the North Island has more of the traditional white-sand beaches that are perfect for swimming.
New Zealand’s South Island is larger than the North Island and generally considered more beautiful. It also has a gorgeous coastline, but it is best known for the many mountains and fjords that define its inland. This is where you’ll find the Southern Alps, which includes glaciers and the country’s largest mountain, Aoraki/Mt. Cook. In the midst of the mountains, you’ll find the fjords that culminate in Milford Sound and Mitre Peak. As well, in the island’s north, you’ll find several fascinating waterways like the Marlborough Sounds.
While the country as a whole has a generally wet and temperate maritime climate, the temperature gets colder the further south you travel due to the country being in the Southern Hemisphere. Generally, the North Island is warmer, as its northernmost regions are subtropical. Temperatures are cooler on the South Island, with mountain regions obviously being the coolest. Since the temperatures only vary minimally on the two islands, neither island can lay claim to be more comfortable. The activities you want to do on New Zealand travel will dictate which island you favour.
New Zealand is blessed with an incredible number of landmarks. No matter which island you head to on New Zealand tours, you’ll find plenty of world-class attractions and natural wonders that’ll prove the highlight of your vacation.
The North Island has some incredible bays and harbours, including the twin harbours of Auckland, the Hauraki Gulf, the Bay of Plenty, and the Bay of Islands. In the Bay of Islands, you’ll also find important Maori centres like the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. In terms of coastline, there are few spots in the world as gorgeous and pristine as the Coromandel Peninsula. Inland, you’ll find Rotorua, which is home to the geothermal wonders of Te Puia, including bubbling mud pools, boiling hot springs, and geysers, like Pohutu Geyser. A little further to the north, you’ll find Matamata and film locations from The Lord of the Rings at the Hobbiton Movie Set. To the northwest, there is Waitomo with the famous glowworm caves and the Glowworm Grotto. And let’s not forget about Auckland and Wellington, the two largest and most popular cities in the country.
The South Island only has Christchurch in terms of major cities (and maybe Dunedin if you’re being generous), but the natural landscape makes up for any perceived lack of cosmopolitan wonders. On the South Island, you’ll find the Southern Alps, which contribute to the many fjords that define the island. Of these fjords, Milford Sound is the most famous – and likely the most famous site in the entire country along with its central mountain, Mitre Peak. In this mountain range, you’ll also find the country’s famous glaciers, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier, and the largest mountain in the country, Aoraki/Mt. Cook. To the southeast of the mountains, you’ll find the lake country, which culminates in Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown, the nation’s adventure capital. If you head even further southwest to the southwestern corner of the island, you’ll find picturesque Doubtful Sound. And lastly, in the island’s north, you’ll find Abel Tasman National Park and the Marlborough Sounds.
As is apparent from this large (and hardly exhaustive) list of attractions, there is a lot to find on both the North Island and South Island on New Zealand travel. Generally speaking, if you want to engage with city culture or explore Maori history, the North Island is for you. If you want to deep-dive into nature, the South Island has plenty of lakes, mountains, fjords, and glaciers to discover.
City Life and Culture
Normally in these sorts of comparative articles, we’d have infrastructure and cost as their own category. However, when comparing two parts of the same nation, these categories would not warrant their own section. So we’ll briefly mention them here. In terms of cost, both the North Island and South Island are comparable. The cities of the North Island will be more expensive than the smaller centres on the South Island, but the many adventure activities on the South Island will balance out any costs. Regarding infrastructure, the North Island has a slight advantage as it has the major international airports in Auckland and Wellington. As well, transit is more efficient and frequent on the North Island, as the large cities bring with them large transit infrastructures.
Of course, this all has to do with the North Island being home to the largest cities in the nation. Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand by a wide margin and is located on the Hauraki Gulf in the island’s north. While some people have called Auckland something of a typical metropolis, that’s hardly an insult as the city’s size brings with it a diversity of experiences – and that’s not even mentioning the city’s gorgeous natural setting, which you can best enjoy from the heights of the Sky Tower. Wellington is smaller than Auckland, but still large enough to count as the country’s second-largest city. It’s also its capital, which means you’ll find the government buildings and major museums here, including the National Art Gallery and Museum of New Zealand. Wellington is also the cultural capital, and if you’ve ever seen any movies filmed in New Zealand, like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, you’ll want to head to Weta Workshop to get your fill of movie magic.
Outside of the major cities of Auckland and Wellington, the North Island also has Tauranga, Hamilton, Napier and Hastings, and Gisborne. In Rotorua, you can get in touch with a hotbed of Maori culture, while Matamata has the aforementioned Hobbiton Movie Set. Altogether, the North Island has around 76 percent of the country’s population, which means that sheer size favours its cultural supremacy. Furthermore, places like Rotorua, the Bay of Islands, and even Auckland let you get in touch with Maori culture. The Te Papa Tongarewa (National Museum) in Wellington charts the history of the country from the point of view of the Maori while the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua lets you engage with Maori culture first-hand.
The South Island is more agricultural and rugged than the North Island, and thus, it doesn’t match up in terms of city life and culture in New Zealand travel. However, it’s hardly bereft of city life. Christchurch on the South Island’s east coast is the third largest city in the country and its most distinctly English city. The architecture and city culture (think high tea) is worth exploring, as is the Botanical Gardens, which are the best in the country. Smaller cities like Dunedin have their charms, and towns like Queenstown have a lot of restaurants and wineries to enjoy when you’re not taking advantage of the landscape. But overall, the South Island is more about the landscape than the cities. If you want to focus on cities during your New Zealand vacation, favour the North Island.
Food and Wine
Interestingly, the food and wine of New Zealand does not line up exactly with the city life and culture. Typically, you’d assume that cities have the lion’s share of good food and wine, but all regions of New Zealand have something to boast about in this department.
As one of the world’s significant wine-making nations (even if it produces a very small amount of the world’s wine), New Zealand has a lot of winelands that are worth exploring. On the North Island, you’ll find the best wine in the second and third largest wine regions in the country, Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne. Hawke’s Bay is known for its red wines like Merlot and Cabernet Franc, while the Maori area of Gisborne is known for whites like Chardonnay. If you are more a beer or coffee drinker than a wine drinker, head to Wellington. In addition to being the political capital, it’s also the craft beer and coffee capital, so you’ll find a lot of local brews to enjoy.
In terms of food, you’ll obviously find a lot of good restaurants and bars in Auckland. Along the bay or in some of the city’s cultural hubs, you’ll find plenty of fresh seafood to enjoy. However, if you venture out of the city, you’ll still find a lot of good food. For instance, the small port town of Mangonui is famous for its fish and chips, while Taupo is the only place in the country where you can enjoy geothermal-farmed prawns and other Maori delicacies. In Rotorua, you can deep-dive into Maori cultural traditions at the Tamaki Maori Village, while the Coromandel Peninsula will treat you to delicious fresh oysters.
The South Island outdoes the North Island in terms of wine, mostly due to the country’s largest wine region, Marlborough. Located near the Marlborough Sounds, this region has around 65 wineries producing some of the best Sauvignon Blanc you’ll find anywhere in the world. Canterbury and the lake country around Queenstown also have plenty of wineries to explore and enjoy, although if you can only head to one winery during your trip to New Zealand, make sure it’s in Marlborough.
The South Island may not dominate food quite like it does wine, but it still has a lot of incredible cuisines to enjoy. In Kaikoura in northern Canterbury, you’ll find fresh lobsters and crayfish sold in roadside stalls along the coastal highway. Stop off and purchase a freshly-cooked lobster or cray and head down to the rocks near the beach to feast on this incredible shellfish. Of course, New Zealand is most famous for its sheep and lamb dishes, and you’ll find no better spot to enjoy some Canterbury lamb than in Christchurch. As well, as far as oysters go, they don’t get better than Bluff oysters in Southland, where from late March until late August, you can feast on these fatty and succulent ocean treats.
Again, you won’t go wrong no matter which island you focus on. However, due to its incredible wine regions and abundant farmland, the South Island edges out the North Island as more essential for food and drink.
You’ve probably already figured out which island accommodates which activities based on the landscape and the star attractions of each, but we might as well explicitly list the main activities to do on each island.
Since the North Island has more islands and more white-sand beaches, it’s the ideal spot to go surfing or swimming. The Bay of Plenty will accommodate you with many incredible beaches, while the Coromandel Peninsula or the Waitakere Ranges to the east of Auckland are great spots for surfing. As well, the subtropical waters of the North Island accommodate scuba diving better than the cooler waters of the South Island. If you want to take advantage of the bounties of the earth, whether heading underground or soaking in hot springs, the geothermal nature of the North Island will also accommodate you well. Rotorua has all the hot springs and mud baths you could hope for, while places like the Waitomo Caves beg to be explored on spelunking tours.
As the South Island is all about the natural landscape, it offers a bit wider options for activities. You can go skiing in the Southern Alps in winter or test your limits by ice climbing Aoraki/Mt. Cook. You can also helicopter into Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier and hike along their icy surfaces. For boat cruises, you won’t find a better spot to explore by water than Milford Sound. In fact, the entirety of Fiordland National Park begs to be explored by water. The coastline around Dunedin is abundant with wildlife, including Little Penguins and albatrosses. And last but not least is Queenstown, where you can do almost anything you set your heart on. Want to bungee jump off a bridge into a mountainous ravine? You can do that in Queenstown. Want to jet-ski across a crystal-clear lake? Easy as pie here. How about dirt biking through the foothills or skiing down a mountain after flying in a helicopter to the top of your ski route? Look no further than the lake country. Should we even mention skydiving, because it should be obvious you can do that in Queenstown too.
However great the North Island is, it’s hard to match the sheer number of activities to do on the South Island. Few places on the planet can match it for outdoor activities.
So Which One Is for You?
We ask this question every time we do a comparative article, but here more than in other articles, it should be obvious that you should visit both the North Island and the South Island if you have time on your New Zealand travel. However, there’s no guarantee that your trip to New Zealand can accommodate everything you want. So how do you choose between the two?
Based off our rundowns:
- If you want to explore a warmer climate with hot springs, mud pools, and white-sand beaches, explore Maori culture, venture through larger cities, and enjoy more cosmopolitan comforts, the North Island is for you.
- If you want to venture through a more rugged landscape of mountains and fjords, enjoy world-class food and wine, and take activity in all manner of outdoor activities, head to the South Island.
Part of being an experienced globetrotter is knowing how to properly utilize your time. That sometimes means making hard decisions between distinct regions of a country. Equipped with our guide to New Zealand’s North Island and South Island, you’ll know how to best approach this incredible nation.
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