From North to South: Where & When to Travel New Zealand

New Zealand's incredible scenery, friendly locals, and endless choices for adventure make it a top destination year-round, but when should you go?


Photo © iStock/Onfokus

Keep in mind, New Zealand is almost as close to Antarctica as it is to those sunny islands dotted around the Pacific Ocean. Where and when to visit depends on how long you have, whether you’re seeking adventure, culture or sightseeing, and if it’s snowboarding or warm-weather hiking you’re after.

Which Island is Right for You?

New Zealand’s two main islands are the North Island and the South Island. If you have enough time, check them both out. There’s a stereotype that the North Island is more cosmopolitan, and the South Island more rural – but the reality is you can find plenty of farmland and cityscape on both.

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New Zealand is long and narrow, meaning there are big differences in temperature between Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island, and Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island

Winters (June­–August) are cold and rainy in the north, and near freezing in the south. The houses in New Zealand are also notoriously poorly insulated, so make sure to bring proper sleepwear if you’re planning a winter visit.

Even in the summer (December–February), temperatures in the south stay chilly. In the middle of the country, summer days can be sunny and warm or overcast and windy.

Further north though, in Auckland and Northland, summers are beautiful. Though the weather can be great during the first half of January, cafes and restaurants tend to be closed while Kiwis go on holiday.

Go during one of the shoulder seasons, Spring (September–November) or Autumn (March–May) when there should be less crowds, lower prices for accommodation, and less extreme temperatures. However, don’t let the weather forecast fool you, weather can and will change dramatically.

Climbing to the top of Castle Hill Peak in winter. Photo credit: Lieselot De Brauwer

Where to Go for Culture and Sight-Seeing

For culture and sight-seeing, go to the North Island. Visit the capital city, Wellington, and stop by the Te Papa museum to get a quick run-down on New Zealand’s history (it’s free!). 

Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the Bay of Islands, where the Maori and the British signed a treaty. You’ll get a guided tour and be welcomed onto a marae (a meeting place) with a powhiri (a welcoming dance).

Stay in nearby Russell or Paihia for stunning views of the coastline and one of the best jumping-off points to see dolphins in the wild.

Bay of Plenty, North Island. Photo credit: Liz Carlson

Where to Go for Adventure and Road-Trips

Sure, you can bungy jump off Auckland’s Harbor Bridge, but if you’re a real adventure junkie, go to Queenstown. It’s the best place in New Zealand for thrill-seekers and has beautiful scenery, with picturesque mountains surrounding a glassy lake.

During winter the slopes are popular, but there’s plenty to do year-round. Go bungy jumping, quad-biking, hiking, sky-diving or river-boarding – you name it, Queenstown’s got it

If you’ve got a car, take the scenic route from Queenstown through Arrowtown and Cardrona to Wanaka. Another great option is to rent a campervan in Nelson, and drive along the coast to Collingwood, seeing the Abel Tasman National Park along the way. Though these are both relatively short, they’re also scenic and allow you to pack a lot in.

Tunnel Beach, Dunedin. Photo credit: Kate McDonald

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