New Zealand’s four key cities offer art, culture, fine dining and a base from which to explore the country’s legendary scenery.
Aotearoa whimsically translates to Land of the Long White Cloud and the country is so lavished with astonishing natural beauty that it’s easy to overlook the charm of its cities and towns. The four best-known – Auckland, the harbourside jewel; Wellington, the compact arty capital; Christchurch, the evolving metropolis; and Queenstown, the genetically blessed adventure hub – each have a distinct character, culture and appeal that are worthy of exploration.
From Australia’s east coast, New Zealand is close enough to warrant a long weekend but sufficiently wondrous to deserve a longer stay. Taking each of these four centres as a base, we’ve devised itineraries for a short escape, with additional ideas for those with time on their side. Whether you’re seeking heart-pounding adventure, the thrill of seeing wildlife up close, epicurean indulgence or the hedonism of a luxurious lodge, one – or all – of these destinations will prove ideal.
New Zealand’s oldest city is also its newest. Christchurch, on the South Island’s east coast, is in a state of exciting evolution: cutting-edge architecture and street art are now just as synonymous with the city as English-style gardens.
If you have a weekend
Christchurch has often been described as the most English of all New Zealand cities and while a certain buttoned-up Britishness remains – for instance, punting on the Avon – the 2011 earthquake sparked a recalibration.
Get your bearings aboard the vintage, hop-on, hop-off Christchurch trams on a 50-minute circuit that takes in most of the centre’s top attractions, including Canterbury Museum and its permanent Quake City exhibition, which tells the story of the region’s devastating tremors; the New Regent Quarter’s boutiques and eateries; and the “cardboard” Christchurch Transitional Cathedral, initially designed as a temporary structure but now part of the city’s fabric.
Any half-built, semi-ruined or completed structure with an exposed surface is rendered canvas in Christchurch, most spectacularly in the 3D mural at Riverside Market. Don’t just marvel at the exterior – the building, which spans a corner block, houses a daily farmers’ market and a fabulous food hall.
Check into the Observatory Hotel, a 33-room boutique stay situated in the Arts Centre, the restored Neo Gothic former University of Canterbury buildings. In the same complex is the buzzy Cellar Door, where you can sample local wine flights and pleasing mod-Kiwi dishes such as marinated green-lip mussels with XO sauce or octopus carpaccio with ’nduja and pickled celeriac.
For breakfast, South Town Club is a 15-minute walk down lively Colombo Street and serves a sustaining dish of turmeric flatbread with chickpeas, though after an evening at the late-night Austin Club, a bacon butty with hangover sauce might be more appropriate.
City centre discovered, spend a day in the French-flavoured port of Akaroa, about 90 minutes by bus south of Christchurch with Akaroa French Connection. See (or swim alongside) rare Hector’s dolphins with Black Cat Cruises then lunch on mussels at Ma Maison before your return bus home.
If you want to stay a while
Rent a car and head north along the Alpine Pacific Touring Route. The Waipara Valley is renowned for its riesling and pinot noir; hire bikes at Torlesse Wines and ride the cycleway between wineries. Soak tired limbs at Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa before continuing to the seaside village of Kaikōura, situated between the snow-capped peaks of Mount Fyffe and the Pacific. There, on a South Pacific Helicopters tour, you’ll see breaching whales from the sky. Closer to earth, Seal Pedal Kayak Kaikōura hosts tours where fur seals keep you company. Spent? Check in at the new Sudima Kaikōura for epic views of mountains and sea.
Good things come in small packages, as a wise person once said. And what the capital Wellington, at the bottom of the North Island, lacks in scale, it makes up for in substance. Visitors can wander aimlessly and still stumble on a new favourite craft brewery, gallery or eatery.
If you have a weekend
Despite Wellington’s accessibility, it never hurts to get the lay of the land. Take a scenic hike to Mount Victoria Lookout for a spectacular 360-degree panorama or jump on board the Wellington Cable Car from Lambton Quay for city and harbour views from the Botanic Garden.
Famously eclectic Cuba Street, where record stores, second-hand booksellers and vintage-clothing shops share street space, encapsulates what’s great about the city in one neat, pedestrian-only strip. Start at Fidel’s Cafe, a Wellington institution where the coffee is strong, the vibe is good and the party continues Into the night.
Fortified, make time for Te Papa Tongarewa, the county’s national museum, where the story of modern New Zealand is told.
Set up camp at Naumi Studio Wellington, a landmark heritage building on Cuba Street that’s now a whimsical, stylish place to rest your head.
Around the corner is new hotspot Humdinger, where high-concept cocktails are served in an ersatz dive bar. Another newcomer, Graze, in inner-city Kelburn (less than 10 minutes away by car), has a changing menu of share plates (currently tempting: soft pretzel with beer cheese), a zero-waste ethos and an all-local wine list.
Take a morning stroll along harbour promenades past historic buildings, Māori carvings, restaurants and museums. From Queen’s Wharf, the path skirts around Te Papa and Chaffers Marina to Oriental Bay. Stop for smoked salmon bagels at Beach Babylon and a walk along the sand.
If you can’t leave New Zealand without a taste of The Lord of the Rings films, go behind the scenes on a tour with Wētā Workshop, where props and costumes for hometown boy Peter Jackson’s trilogy were created.
If you want to stay a while
Drive 40 minutes north of Wellington to Pipinui Point, a romantic cabin escape on a clifftop high above the Tasman Sea. Marine reserve and nature sanctuary Kapiti Island is reached by ferry from Kapiti Boating Club, an hour’s drive beyond Pipinui Point. Kapiti Island Nature Tours will take you on a search for the island’s most elusive inhabitant: the kiwi. Guest numbers are capped so book ahead.
Planning to stay in this neck of the woods? Kokomea PurePod is a tiny house overlooking Kapiti Island, with tranquillity in spades. Sunsets will leave you speechless and mornings sparkle with promise.
New Zealand’s largest and most international city, cosmopolitan Auckland on the North Island is heady mix of cultures set between two magnificent harbours.
If you have a weekend
Auckland is like a microcosm of the country’s charms. One day, you’re shopping in Queen Street boutiques, visiting the world-class Auckland Art Gallery and wandering the new waterfront Wynyard Quarter. The next, you’re whale-watching in the Hauraki Gulf with Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari, hiking through rainforest to black-sand beaches in Waitakere Ranges Regional Park or stargazing at the Dark Sky Sanctuary on Great Barrier Island, 90 kilometres off the coast.
Take a free guided Auckland Walking Tour then head to Auckland Museum to see its collection of Māori artefacts, including whole buildings, carvings and a war canoe. One of Auckland’s most distinctive features is the islands just offshore. Waiheke, a 40-minute ferry ride away, is known as the “island of wine” and famed for its rich reds. Tiritiri Matangi, a 22-hectare isle just a few kilometres away, is a pest-free sanctuary for native birds. At 600 years, Rangitoto Island is the youngest of Auckland’s 48 volcanic cones. Hire a kayak from Auckland Sea Kayaks at Mission Bay and paddle across the gulf, spotting dolphins on the way. Hike through pōhutukawa forest and fields of lava caves to the summit before the return paddle at dusk. Book a room at The Hotel Britomart near Queens Wharf, where sustainability has become an art form – 99 serene, timber-clad rooms and five rooftop suites occupy the low-emissions hotel, where the slippers are compostable and the bricks are handmade.
Outside, the waterfront area encompasses some of the city’s oldest buildings, newly enlivened with savvy architecture to create a buzzy precinct. Amano is a taste of Kiwi inflected Italian (try spaghetti with Cloudy Bay clams and ’nduja), while nearby, mod-Pacific Mr Morris is the latest project of acclaimed chef Michael Meredith, who plates up dishes such as kingfish with shiso and tamarind, and aged Scotch fillet with bone marrow and salsa verde.
If you want to stay a while
With extra days up your sleeve, hire a car and drive to Bay of Islands, a subtropical micro-region of 144 islands four hours north of Auckland. Check in to the stately Lodge at Kauri Cliffs, a remote idyll with arresting views over the Pacific and its onsite championship golf course. Visitors to New Zealand will be struck by the elevation of Māori culture in the national consciousness. Māori language peppers conversations and the culture is significant to New Zealanders of all stripes. Learn more at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and its state-of-the-art Te Rau Aroha museum, opened in 2020 (about 50 minutes’ drive south of Kauri Cliffs).
Take a slight detour to Ngawha Springs on your way back to the city and soak in the mineral-rich thermal waters sacred to the Ngāpuhi iwi (tribe).
Sitting pretty on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown on the South Island has a lively arts scene, astonishing alpine landscapes and worldclass restaurants. But the reason most people visit? Its status as the adventure capital.
If you have a weekend
Start slowly by taking a dawn flight with Sunrise Balloons. You’ll enjoy a lofty view of the Southern Alps, the lake and landscapes otherwise known as Middle Earth, followed by a champagne breakfast. Or book a scenic day trip to Milford Sound, where you’ll cruise past cascading waterfalls and lush rainforest.
Ramp things up by zooming along the Dart River, near Glenorchy, in a jet boat before paddling back downstream in a Funyak (inflatable kayak) with Dart River Adventures. Lunch and transport from Queenstown is included and the drive to Glenorchy is one of the most scenic in New Zealand.
Queenstown is the birthplace of bungee; book with the original, AJ Hackett, to freefall off the Kawarau Bridge, where daredevils have been doing likewise since 1988.
At Matakauri Lodge, an exclusive 12-suite retreat, clouds drift by floor-to-ceiling windows and from your vantage point above Lake Wakatipu, the snow-capped Remarkables look close enough to touch. Need space? The Carlin offers the seven-bedroom Skyhome, the largest penthouse suite in the Southern Hemisphere.
Dial back the adrenaline aboard the 120-year-old coal-fired steamship TSS Earnslaw for a 90-minute cruise around Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak High Country Farm; extend it with a farm tour or gourmet lunch.
If a quick meal is in order, Fergburger is a cult destination for the finest burgers in town (veggie options include the Ferg-lafel, which can be made vegan). For a more refined experience, visit Amisfield Restaurant, 30 minutes from Queenstown, where executive chef Vaughan Mabee plates dishes starring Central Otago produce, such as Fiordland wapiti and local truffle brioche, accompanied by award-winning wines.
If you want to stay a while Milford Sound may be more famous but Doubtful Sound, also in Fiordland, is the more dramatic. Explore its waters by kayak, spotting aquatic wildlife, or spend a night aboard the Southern Secret and learn why they call this area the Sound of Silence. Tours depart from Manapouri, just over two hours from Queenstown via car or coach.
An hour in the opposite direction, Wānaka is a kind of mini Queenstown with its own stunning lake and alpine views. From here, it’s just 15 minutes to Lake Hāwea Station, a luxury retreat on a working farm. Breathe deeply as you watch the sun rise over the Southern Alps, reflecting on the lake’s mirror-like surface.
Image credit: Susan Wright, Lean Timms, Camilla Rutherford, Lean Timms