A visitor guide to the largest cities in New Zealand
As at June 2021, New Zealand has an estimated total population of approximately 5.1 million. That’s an entire country with less people than many large cities (Singapore: 5.6 million, Hong Kong: 7.3 million, London: 8.8 million, New York: 8.8 million). But that’s ok, we like the fact that New Zealand is relatively sparsely populated – it just means we’ve got more room to play.
Thinking of visiting New Zealand for a holiday or even to stay, and want to discover the biggest NZ cities and where they’re located in the country? We’ve created the handy map below and compiled a major cities list based on population data from Stats NZ, New Zealand’s official data agency. And for the purposes of this list, we’ve defined a city as having a population of no less than 50,000, as per New Zealand’s Local Government Act.
New Zealand cities by population map
The numbers above are provisional estimates as at 30 June 2021, as published by Stats NZ. It’s also worth mentioning that the data is somewhat confusing in that Stats NZ’s estimated resident population figures are provided at city level in some regions and at district level in others. This obviously messes with our nice ranking above but hopefully you still get a good sense of the relative size of cities in New Zealand.
Location: Auckland Region, North Island
Population: 1.72 million
With a compact downtown and city centre surrounded by sprawling suburbs, Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, which also makes it the largest city on the North Island. A population of approximately 1.72 million, means that Auckland is home to around a third of New Zealand’s total population.
The majority of people live in the central Auckland area followed closely by south Auckland, north Auckland (the North Shore) and Auckland’s wild west (that refers more to the landscape than the people by the way). To find out more, read our explore Auckland guide.
2. Christchurch City
Location: Canterbury Region, South Island
Located on the east coast, Christchurch (The Garden City) is the largest city on the South Island. Still regenerating and reinventing itself after the devastating effects of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, this vibrant city is the international gateway to the South Island and its many scenic highlights and activities.
Head inland from Christchurch in any direction and you’ll have your pick of activities from walking & hiking to mountain biking and white water rafting. And in winter there’s top class skiing and snowboarding, including some exhilarating off-piste helicopter ski adventures. To find out more, read our explore Christchurch & Canterbury guide.
3. Wellington City
Location: Wellington Region, North Island
Located at the bottom of the North Island, Wellington is both the gateway to the South Island and the capital of New Zealand, despite not being New Zealand’s biggest city. Surrounded by hills, it’s a pretty harbour city with a thriving cultural scene and a compact downtown area that’s easy to explore, filled with boutique eateries, cafes and markets.
The majority of people live in the central Wellington area although the nearby areas of Porirua, Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt (technically a city itself) all form part of the Wellington urban area. You can read more about New Zealand’s capital city in our explore Wellington guide.
4. Hamilton City
Location: Waikato Region, North Island
Referred to by some as ‘The Tron’, Hamilton has long had a bad rap, particularly with Aucklanders. These days, Hamilton is expanding rapidly, filled it seems (rather ironically) with people trying to escape Auckland’s high property prices. While Hamilton only ranks 4th on the list of largest cities overall, it does happen to be New Zealand’s largest inland city. Given the ever increasing threat of rising sea levels, this is one thing Hamiltonians will not have to worry about in future.
Located on the banks of New Zealand’s longest river, The Mighty Waikato River, Hamilton is known for its beautiful gardens and scenic riverside walks. In Spring, a walk though Hamilton Gardens is a must-do activity. It’s the largest city in the Hamilton & Waikato region, considered to be the farming heartland of the North Island, and it makes a good base from which to explore a number of popular spots including Raglan and Waitomo Caves. To find out more, read our explore Hamilton & Waikato guide.
5. Tauranga City
Location: Bay of Plenty Region, North Island
As one of the fastest growing cities in New Zealand, Tauranga is booming. The centre is projected to grow by approximately 78,500 residents over the next 50 years. Surrounded by orchards and gardens growing everything from kiwi and citrus fruit to avocados, Tauranga is the main centre in the Bay of Plenty region.
Known for its coastline which offers hundreds of kilometres of beaches, harbours and islands, the region has something for everyone, from surfing and sea-kayaking to big game fishing. To find out more, read our explore Bay of Plenty guide.
6. Dunedin City
Location: Otago Region, South Island
With an unmistakable Scottish heritage, Dunedin, New Zealand’s first official city, is rich with history, culture and, thanks to its student population, energy. The discovery of gold in the region in 1861 and the subsequent gold rush led to Dunedin becoming New Zealand’s biggest and wealthiest city.
Following the gold rush, growth slowed significantly but what now remains is one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the Southern Hemisphere. Dunedin is the largest urban area the region which is a popular spot for outdoor recreation, filled with wildlife, beaches and stunning scenery. To find out more, read our explore Dunedin & Coastal Otago guide.
Location: Northland Region, North Island
Whangarei is the largest urban area north of Auckland. It’s the location of New Zealand’s northernmost deep water commercial port and the country’s only oil refinery. Whangarei is also the east coast gateway to the Northland region which stretches all the way to Cape Reinga and the northernmost tip of New Zealand. To find out more about this often overlooked region, read our explore Northland guide.
8. Palmerston North City
Location: Manawatu-Whanganui Region, North Island
Located north of Wellington and situated on the banks of the Manawatu River, the university city of Palmerston North (‘Palmy’) is the largest centre in the Manawatu region. The rural heartland of Manawatu sits between the Tararua and Ruahine mountain ranges to the east and the Tasman Sea to the west.
Palmerston North is a great base from which to explore the region’s many scenic walks, and hiking & mountain biking tracks. To find out more, read our explore Manawatu guide.
9. New Plymouth
Location: Taranaki Region, North Island
The port city of New Plymouth sits in the shadow of Mount Taranaki, the North Island’s second highest peak and an iconic feature of the Taranaki region. The city also sits roughly in the middle of over 150 km of rugged coastline with incredible rock formations, beautiful beaches and a number of world-class surf breaks. To find out more about this region, read our explore Taranaki guide.
Location: Bay of Plenty Region, North Island
Rotorua offers an interesting mix of adventure and relaxation. Situated on one of the world’s most lively geothermal fields, the city of Rotorua has a rather unique character with steam rising unexpectedly from drains and cracks in the ground, and a strong eggy sulphur smell in the air.
Being something of an adventure capital, at least on the North Island, there’s lots to do that will distract you from the smell. Bungy jumping, jet boat rides, downhill luge, schweebing and zorbing are just some of the many activities on offer and once you’re done you can unwind in one of a number of geothermal hot pools and spas located around the town. At least there’s some advantage to being the smelliest city in New Zealand. Smelly jokes aside, Rotorua is a great place to visit and should be on every central North Island road trip itinerary. To find out more, read our explore Rotorua guide.
11. Napier City
Location: Hawke’s Bay Region, North Island
Napier (Napier Hastings) is the largest urban area in the Hawke’s Bay region. This sunny region in the centre of the North Island’s east coast is most famous as New Zealand’s oldest wine making region with a Mediterranean-like climate well suited to producing some fine Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah wines. To find out more, read our explore Hawke’s Bay guide.
12. Invercargill City
Location: Southland Region, North Island
Invercargill is the southernmost city on New Zealand’s South Island, and like Dunedin, it has a strong Scottish influence. The city is the largest urban area in the Southland region which is recognised as an agricultural powerhouse with thriving dairy and energy industries. The region is also known for its bird and marine life, including sea lions, penguins, dolphins, whales and, on Stewart Island, kiwis. To find out more about this region, read our explore Southland guide.
13. Nelson City
Location: Nelson Tasman Region, South Island
This small port is considered to be one of the sunniest cities in New Zealand. Located in the north western corner of the South Island, Nelson is the largest urban area in the Nelson & Tasman region. This region is home to three national parks and two Great Walks, all within easy reach of Nelson.
It also happens to be New Zealand’s only hops growing region so after a hard day of hiking, paddling or cycling, you’ll be able to relax with a fine craft beer. To find out more, read our explore Nelson & Tasman guide.
New Zealand Population: North Island vs South Island
Despite being larger than the North Island by almost 37,000 sq km (14,000 sq mi), the South Island has a significantly lower population. This is due in part to the more rugged terrain on the South Island together with the fact that the majority of New Zealand’s largest cities are located on the North Island.
Based on 2021 data from Stats NZ, The South Island has a population of approximately 1.2 million versus the North Island’s 3.9 million, so in other words, three quarters of New Zealanders live on the North Island.
Having read this far, you’ve probably realised by now that New Zealand’s cities are relatively small. In fact, depending on where in the world you come from, you may even think that our biggest cities are rather tiny. But that’s ok. We think it’s all part of what makes New Zealand special. Come and see for yourself.