New Zealand Smackdown: North Island vs. South Island

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I've been playing around with this post for a long time in my head. But I've always avoided writing it because, really, how can I possibly chose sides when it comes to New Zealand? Picking a favorite island would be like picking a favorite child or puppy or ice cream flavor. You just can't do it.

Or can you? (Well, maybe not with the child example, but with New Zealand's islands, maybe.)

Kapiti Island, New Zealand

In order to try and decide which island is “best” — the North Island or the South Island — I'm going to look at 10 major aspects of New Zealand to see how they compare on each island. I think this will be a learning experience for us all. People always ask me which island is “better.” … Well, perhaps we're about to find out.

Let the smackdown begin!

Should You (1)


Let's start somewhere easy and non-debatable — size. Now, the whole country only covers roughly the same area as the state of Colorado, so there's not much land to really debate over.

Kaikoura, New Zealand
Kaikoura, New Zealand

But, here are the numbers:

The North Island is roughly 43,911 square miles.

The South Island covers about 58,384 square miles, and feels much bigger when you are traversing through it.

Smackdown winner: South Island

Tally: North Island — 0   South Island — 1


All of New Zealand is relatively accessible (whether by plane, bus, car, boat, or what have you), but some areas are easier to get to than others.

Road to Mount Cook
The road to Mount Cook

For example, the North Island has 4 of New Zealand's 7 international airports, including the one in Auckland, which handles most of the country's arrivals. Wellington, too, has a large airport that handles a lot of domestic and international flights. On the South Island, the biggest airport is in Christchurch, which, while sizable, doesn't handle nearly as many international flights as Auckland.

As far as buses go (which is the best way to get around the country if you can't rent a car or campervan), the two biggest carriers (InterCity and NakedBus) both service more cities on the North Island than the South Island (both make 34 major stops on the South Island, while InterCity has 41 stops on the North Island, and NakedBus has 59). Many of the buses on the North Island also tend to run more frequently. (Though, this could be because the North Island is smaller, has more cities, and isn't divided in half by a gigantic mountain range…)

Smackdown winner: North Island

Tally: North Island — 1   South Island — 1


Which brings us to the cities… This is a tricky one, because New Zealand is full of unique and interesting cities.

Oriental Bay in Wellington, New Zealand
Oriental Bay in Wellington

Roughly 76 percent of the country's inhabitants live on the North Island, with more than 30 percent calling Auckland home. But you know what? I don't really love Auckland. It feels like any other decent-sized city in the world; to me, Auckland lacks a bit of character. By contrast, Wellington (also a North Island city) is bursting at the seams with character. It's no secret that this is my favorite city in the world. The North Island is also home to fun cities like Taupo (a mecca for fishermen), unique stops like Rotorua (full of geothermal wonders), and wine-centric towns like Martinborough. And we can't forget the farming community of Matamata, which is home to Hobbiton!

On the South Island, the largest city is Christchurch, which, while still recovering after a big earthquake in 2011, is truly gorgeous. There's also the popular resort town of Queenstown, which will easily steal your heart if you're not careful. Then there are surprisingly cool towns like Dunedin and Invercargill, and coastal gems like Kaikoura. But, since the South Island is much more sparsely populated than the North, that means that there are also a ton of really small towns that may not have much to offer other than stunning views. (But really, do they need to offer anything else?)

Smackdown winner: Draw, because each island has some great towns and cities.

Tally: North Island — 2   South Island — 2

Cultural Offerings

New Zealand is an interesting country because it's two islands can sometimes feel like completely different worlds.

Rangiatea Church
Rangiatea Church

Looking to tap into New Zealand's native Maori past, the North Island is your best bet. Set aside an afternoon at Te Papa Tongarewa (the national museum of New Zealand) in Wellington, visit the Waitangi Treaty grounds in the Bay of Islands, or take in a cultural dinner and concert in Rotorua. The Maori culture is a very unique one, and it's worth your time to experience it while you're in the country.

On the South Island, the cultural focus is different. The South is home to the rugged “Southern Man,” and the cultural offering of choice down here is either sheep farming or rugby.

Smackdown winner: North Island

Tally: North Island — 3   South Island — 2


Green-lipped mussels in New Zealand
Green-lipped mussels

So what's the food like in New Zealand? Well, there's a lot of lamb and mutton (there are roughly 40 million sheep here, after all), fish and chips, and a delicious invention known as Hokey Pokey ice cream. New Zealand is also known for its Green-Lipped Mussels, and, of course, its wine. The South Island‘s Marlborough Region is said to produce some of the best wine in the world. But, since I'm not much of a drinker, I cannot personally back this claim up.

So what sets the islands apart? Well, the South Island might have a slight advantage, because Dunedin is home to the Cadbury Chocolate Factory, and Queenstown is home to Fergburger. And, who doesn't love chocolate and burgers?

Smackdown winner: South Island, by a hair.

Tally: North Island — 3   South Island — 3


New Zealand may very well be the most diverse and beautiful country on the planet. Remember how I said the whole country was roughly the size of Colorado? Well, packed within that small area is just about every climate and landscape you can imagine. From beaches to rainforests to mountains to rolling green hills to volcanic deserts, this country seriously has it all.

New Zealand mountains

Lupins in Wanaka, New Zealand
Lupins in Wanaka

On the North Island, you have the beaches of Northland, the underrated Coromandel Peninsula, the East Cape, the geothermal oddities of Rotorua, the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park, the rolling green hills of northern farmland, coastal beauties like Castlepoint, and unique spots like the Putangirua Pinnacles.

While the North Island is gently rolling and seemingly perpetually green, things couldn't be more different on the South Island. The South Island is rugged, with the Southern Alps acting like a snow-capped spine that runs down the center of the island. Highlights here include the Marlborough Sounds, the rain-drenched West Coast, the Canterbury Plains, amazingly accessible glaciers like Fox and Franz Josef, the tallest mountain in New Zealand (Mount Cook), the Southern Scenic Route along the coast, the Southern Lakes region around Lake Wanaka, strange rock formations like the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki and the Moeraki Boulders, and amazing fjords like Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound.

Smackdown winner: It's a tough choice, but the South Island gets my vote.

Tally: North Island — 3   South Island — 4


New Zealand isn't exactly associated with beautiful beaches in the way that other South Pacific islands (like Hawaii and Fiji) are — but it actually does have a lot of sand and sun to offer.

Pakiri Beach, New Zealand
Pakiri Beach

On the North Island, the beaches are more traditional white-sand affairs that you might associate with long romantic walks or horseback riding. There's 90 Mile Beach at the tip of the island (which is actually an official part of Highway 1), beaches in the beautiful Bay of Islands, beaches (including Hot Water Beach) on the Coromandel Peninsula, beaches in the Bay of Plenty, Golden Bay and Hawke's Bay, and Oriental Bay in Wellington. The North Island beaches enjoy a lot of sun and warmer temperatures, making the water more inviting year-round. The North is also home to New Zealand's most popular surfing beaches, including ones in Taranaki and Raglan.

By contrast, the beaches on the South Island tend to be a bit more blustery and cooler (with perhaps the exception of some of the beaches in Abel Tasman National Park). But the surf here can be bigger, and the wind-swept effect and mountainous backdrop can lead to some stunning coastal scenery. Popular beaches in the South include those along the West Coast, beaches in Kaikoura, beaches around Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula, beaches along the South Coast, and of course the lakeside beaches in towns like Wanaka and Queenstown.

Smackdown winner: Draw, because while the North Island has more traditional beaches, the South Island has some truly breath-taking ones, too.

Tally: North Island — 4   South Island — 5


New Zealand has some pretty awesome wildlife, both native and non-native. From whales to seals to kiwi birds, there's a lot to spot all over the country. Interestingly enough, though, most of New Zealand's wildlife has been introduced. It's only native mammal is a small bat, and its other native species are mostly birds.

Takahe on Kapiti Island
A rare takahe on Kapiti Island

On the North Island, you can find a lot of wildlife. Take a dolphin-watching cruise in the Bay of Islands, or go on a seal hike along the coast in Wellington. Take a jaunt over to Kapiti Island to see a lot of the country's native bird species, including the adorable kiwi bird, the mischievous kaka, the curious weka, and the extremely rare takahe. Or get up-close with the country's sheep population at the Agrodome in Rotorua.

On the South Island, keep and eye out for the cheeky kea bird, visit the penguins and albatross that call the Otago Peninsula home, go whale watching (or dolphin swimming) in Kaikoura, and play with some of the world's smallest and rarest dolphins (the Hector's Dolphin) in Akaroa.

Smackdown winner: South Island

Tally: North Island — 4   South Island — 6

Adventure Sports

Chances are, if you've thought about visiting New Zealand, you've also thought about some of its adventure sports. The country is definitely a daredevil's paradise, but has activities suitable to all sorts of sensibilities.

Auckland Sky Walk

On the North Island, top adventure sports include the SkyWalk and SkyJump in Auckland, sandboarding in Northland, black water rafting or canyoning in the Waitomo caves, zorbing in Rotorua, skydiving and bungy jumping in Taupo, doing a flying fox in Gravity Canyon, and skiing on volcanos like Ruapehu or Taranaki. There are also popular hikes here, such as the Tongariro Crossing, which is supposed to be one of the best day hikes in the world. Sounds like a lot on offer, right?

Well, actually, the North Island has nothing on the South Island when it comes to adventure sports. The South Island (more specifically, Queenstown) was the birthplace of such crazy activities as bungy jumping and jet boating, and is also home to some of the best ski fields in the country. Here you also have many hiking options, including on glaciers like Fox or Franz Josef, and plenty of climbing/canyoning opportunities. More into water sports? Try whitewater rafting or river boarding. Skydiving is also popular here in towns like Wanaka, as are other sky sports such as parasailing and paragliding. The South Island is all about adrenaline, and you can even try out stunt plane flying in Nelson or gliding in Omarama.

Smackdown winner: South Island for sure. Queenstown alone could sweep the points in this category.

Tally: North Island — 4   South Island — 7

The Locals

No country would be complete without its locals, and New Zealand is no exception. New Zealanders are some of the friendliest, funniest, most laid-back people I have ever met, and living with them for any amount of time will undoubtedly leave an impression on you (even if it just means converting you into a rugby fan).

Auckland, New Zealand
Auckland skyline

But can I really categorize the Kiwis by the island they live on? Well, North Islanders are usually seen more as city-dwellers, while the South Islanders tend to be categorized as farmers and/or adventurers. But, at the end of the day, that has nothing to do with the personality of the locals.

Smackdown winner: It's a draw, because all Kiwis rock, regardless of which island they call home.

Tally: North Island — 5   South Island — 8

Lake Hawea
Lake Hawea

Drumroll, please…

Final Tally: South Island wins!

You know, I'm actually a bit surprised. I didn't think it was possible for me to pick a “favorite” New Zealand island. It still may be hard to say, “Yes, the South Island is best,” because I really love the North Island, too.

In my mind, both islands are winners, and both are well-worth visiting.

RELATED: New Zealand Road Trip: The Perfect Itinerary if You Only Have 2 Weeks

What to Pack for New Zealand

There are definitely a few things you'll want to make sure to bring in order to help you check off these bucket list items. Things like:

Check out more of my New Zealand packing tips here!

READ NEXT: The Ultimate New Zealand Bucket List

What's your opinion? If you've been to New Zealand, can you choose a favorite island? If you've never been there, which island would you be more likely to want to visit after reading this?


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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141 Comments on “New Zealand Smackdown: North Island vs. South Island

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  1. Interesting. I do wish you would tell us where each of your photos were taken and the name of the site/animals featured. Thanks.

    The rain-drenched west coast- I’ve never heard a more accurate description of my home. And I always knew the south island was the best!

      It’s true – and yet the West Coast is still so beautiful!

    Great article! It kept us amused…. Us being – me on my first trip to the north island (from the uk) and my husband, Auckland born and bred. He wasn’t happy ? I thought he was going to punch the screen when we were only at “cities”. I can’t wait to go, the place looks beautiful.

      Haha! Hopefully he thought better of me by the end!

    If NZ wants more tourists coming from outside the Commonwealth that’s the way to do it. If they are satisfied with its current number then there is no reason to change! Although I would be interested to visit your country, it is not a necessity for me and my wife! Although I live much closer than NZ I have never been to the English Virgin Islands in the Caribbean for that same reason, neither did I visit England (except London) when I lived in France.

    The accident I was referring to was a tourist from Papeete Tahiti.

    I read it on the local newspaper when I was there back in December 2014. After people who read it will think twice before going there to drive.

    I read also that the NZ government was (after that tragedy) planning to ask tourists to take driving lessons prior to renting a car ( something like that) .

    This is going to be another deterrent to come and drive there.

    Group tours are not only expensive but also not very flexible where you have to be on schedule to get up etc…

      Well, there’s no mandatory driving tests for tourists yet. The reason for suggesting that is that many of the people who go to NZ and rent cars do HAVE driver’s licenses, but live in big cities (like Singapore or Beijing) and never actually drive cars. There ARE accidents caused by tourists every year in New Zealand, but I don’t think it’s as dire a situation as you are making it out to be.

      Driving in a foreign country is not something everyone is comfortable doing, and that’s fine. But if you’re not open to seeing the country in any other way, then I guess you just won’t travel there!

        It’s not me who is saying it because I do not know the exact situation but this post confirmed my suspicions by someone who is familiar with this problem getting more dire that you think..

        Tourists should note that there is increased scrutiny of their driving due to a large number of crashes and fatalities involving tourists in 2014 and the early part of 2015, particularly in the South Island.

        Rental car companies will revoke contracts and tourists may find themselves unable to hire a car, or worse, end up in court to answer dangerous driving charges.

        Tourists causing carnage on New Zealand roads has become a serious issue – over Queen’s Birthday weekend four people were killed by foreign drivers in two fatal crashes.

        So what real progress has been made since then?

        The answer is none and until something is done, terribly sad stories like that of Shayla Cross’ grandmother will continue to grace television screens…..

          Nevermind that this really has nothing to do with the post you’re commenting on, but I’m not even sure what point you’re trying to make now? Are you saying you wouldn’t ever rent a car there because of people getting into accidents, or are you making an argument for stricter rules about tourists renting cars?

          Yes, car accidents are horrible. And yes, sometimes they involve tourists. But I’m afraid I don’t work for the New Zealand government (and am not from NZ at all, actually), so unfortunately there’s nothing I can do about it except write about how to be safe in NZ, like I did in this post:

            Hi Amanda again :In response to your comments “But I’m afraid I don’t work for the New Zealand government (and am not from NZ at all, actually), so unfortunately there’s nothing I can do about it ”

            Are you are involved in promoting tourism in New Zealand ???otherwise I do not see what’s the purpose of your Blog (if it is yours ???) apart for being informative and I commend you for that!

            So my comments were to POINT OUT that if New Zealand NEED ???? and/or WANT???? to attract more outside tourists .. driving there on the left is a major issue , which can be solved by switching side by lobbying the government or politicians running for office there , like the Pacific Resort Hotel in Aitutaki did per my suggestion with Air New Zealand to change the 5 days (Sunday /Saturday) turnaround flight from Los Angeles to the Cook Islands which is way too short for a 10:30 Hours flights.

            Otherwise you have to stay 12 nights which is too long for Raro and Aitutaki. I usually stay no more than 8 nights total in Tahiti, including 3 or 4 islands

            It would be much easier and quicker for the Residents to get use to the change (like the Swedish and Samoen) did than outsiders on short vacations used to drive on the right side of the road. The rental car companies would benefit tremendously from it

            I might use a tour if I can find a reputable small group company which can give you more flexibility. But I will not drive over there as many of the people I spoke too here in the US also won’t!

            For those who want to drive , Rental Company should offer a full coverage like Alamo and Dollar Rent a car do here in the US for tourists coming from Europe, for even less money that what they charge for US residents for the same coverage.

            Take care

    I go on vacation to relax and not to be stressed out . I have always put off going to NZ and/or Australia for that reason like many people I spoke too here in the US are also afraid to drive there. Our friend, who loved NZ did it once but is not going to repeat it. In todays world globalization, a small touristic county like NZ with 4.5 millions people in 2015 could have switch driving to the right like Sweden did it successfully back in September 2007 with 8 millions people that year. Sweden isn’t the only country to switch sides, of course. As recently as 2009, Samoa made the left/right shift.

      As much as I understand where you’re coming from, I also don’t feel like a country should be expected to change its driving structure (or anything else, for that matter) just to make things easier on foreign tourists. 😉

      Don’t forget that there are plenty of other ways to see NZ, too! There are great group trips, and you can also get to all the major sites by using buses (which are very good in New Zealand).

    I am only interested in breathtaking scenery and after reading this presentation the South is for me. I do not care at about towns which I avoid as much as possible including the best ones. The only major issue for me to go there is to have to drive on the left through towns. I read recently that a French guy with a rented car killed someone , and they would not let him out of the country if he did not pay the $19,000 the court ordered him to pay. Does that mean that rental car company do not offer full CDW and full liability coverage?

      All the rental car companies offer all the insurance – but just as in most countries, you don’t *have* to pay for the extra insurance. I don’t know anything about that case, so I’m afraid I can’t say anything about it.

      Driving on the left takes some getting used to, but it’s really not too bad as long as you pay attention!

    I thought your blog was going to be about New Zealanders feelings about North vs South, and lemme tell ya, feelings run high! There was even a nascent secessionist movement in the South in the 70s. Weird thing about the West Coast is, and you will know this from having travelled there, but it is soooo much like another country! Coasters have always done things differently. The Labour movement began there, as did the welfare state practices that the rest of the country didn’t catch on to for another forty years, plus Coasters do realise there are laws they are meant to abide by: they just don’t follow them! A great example being a sparky I used to work with who is close to being legally blind – he peers at his circuit diagrams from very close up, and on this side of the Great Divide he bikes to get around. Whenever he goes home to the Coast though, he drives a landrover he’s been doing up since back in the day. No rego, no warrant. The local cop knows James, and knows he can drive all right, so he doesn’t do anything about it.

      Haha, yes, the islands really could be two separate countries! But this post is more to help people to decide which ones to visit. 🙂

    I am from the north, but after traveling the south on my bike for the last 7 months- the south wins hands down! I see you are returning here soon- what is on the list of to-sees?

      The South Island is indeed pretty awesome! And yes! I’ll be back in November for about a month! Lots on the to-do list on both islands! I’m doing a Lord of the Rings tour for 2 weeks, then going back to favorites like the Coromandel, Wellington, Queenstown, etc. And hopefully going to some places I haven’t been before like Abel Tasman and the Waitomo Caves. Activities on the to-do list include doing The Ledge bungee in Queenstown (it’s the only one I haven’t done there), hiking the Tongariro Crossing, kayaking to Cathedral Cove, and swimming with seals in Kaikoura. It’s gonna be an awesome month!

    This makes me want to move to New Zealand so Badly! Cannot wait to get out there next year! Thanks so much for the info as I have been trying to figure out where to go and what to do! South Island sounds like just what I would love!

      Glad to be able to help! You will love NZ!

    Love this post, Amanda! I’m headed to NZ in the fall and am trying to decide which island to spend more time on. This definitely helped!

      Glad to hear it helped, Susan! You really can’t go wrong in NZ, though. 🙂

    “There’s also the popular resort town of Queenstown, which will easily steal your heart if you’re not careful.”

    I wan’t careful 😉 <3

    Hi- I loved this “smack-down” it gave me lots of ideas for our upcoming visit to both islands. We are spending most of our time on the South Island in late October and first half of November. What can we expect with the weather? What to bring for clothes? Really all kinds of weather? Can you give me a temperature range?
    Also- we have some parts of the trip booked but others would like to roam and find places to stay wherever we end up. Is that possible on the South Island at that time of year? Or should we have reservations?

      Hey Sue! Glad to hear that you got some good ideas from my post.

      October/November should be a really great time to visit. As for the weather, I would say to expect everything! It will be starting to get nice and warm up north by then, but it will still be chilly (especially at night) down south. So be sure to bring some layers with you!

      I don’t think you should have much trouble booking things as you go at this time of year. You’ll be past ski season, but not quite into the summer holidays yet. It actually should be a great time to travel in NZ!

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