South Island vs. North Island

When you travel to New Zealand, it’s understandable to want to see it all. From the sweeping landscapes of the south to the magical glow of the Waitomo Caves in the north, there’s plenty to see and do on both islands, but which is actually better?

New Zealand is full of stunning locations and naturally stunning landmarks, both found in the South and North Islands, so it can be difficult to decide which one to visit first. While you could flip a coin, we thought we’d put together a guide to the differences between the two islands (and who comes out on top) so you can decide which destination is right for you.

Best for landscapes

Doubtful Sound on the South Island in New Zealand.
Doubtful Sound on the South Island

If you love a dramatic landscape (which will also look great on your Instagram feed), this is it The South Island is the way to go. The South Island is full of all kinds of natural beauty, from sparkling lakes to lush forests that promise breathtaking landmarks around every corner.

However, what sets this island apart from its upstairs neighbor are the remarkable snow-capped mountains that stretch all the way from Wanaka to Arthur’s Pass. These snow-capped mountain ranges are an instant eye-catcher no matter what city you’re in, offering sparkling lakes and captivating glaciers to explore.

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Piha Beach on New Zealand's North Island.
Piha Beach on the North Island

North Island‘s landscape is quite different from the south with a variety of destinations that will not disappoint when it comes to natural beauty. From the beautiful sandy beaches of the Hawke’s Bay region to the crystal clear waters of Lake Taupo, the North Island delivers on breathtaking landmarks.

Colors like sparkling blues and lush greens are the norm when you look outside, and as if that wasn’t impressive enough, there are also a large number of volcanoes, adding steaming hot springs, gurgling mud baths and spewing geysers to the list of natural North Island wonders .

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The verdict

Both landscapes on each island are quite different, although equally beautiful as the other. But the island that comes out on top depends largely on what kind of holiday you’re after. The South Island wins the award for ‘most dramatic scenery’ thanks to the Southern Alps and its various national parks, but the North Island is a bit more diverse as you can spend time relaxing on its beaches as well as hiking up its many natural volcanoes.

Best for hiking

Hiking on the South Island in New Zealand.
Hiking on the South Island

You are truly spoiled for choice when it comes to exploring the natural landscape of the South Island. With six of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’, the South Island gives you the opportunity to hike in different types of scenery from lush forests to impressive coastlines. One of the most breathtaking landscapes to take in on foot is the Milford Track, arguably New Zealand’s most famous walk.

With incredible views of mountains, lakes, valleys and waterfalls, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the popular hiking trail. Other notable and worthwhile walks includes Roy’s Peak, Diamond Lake Track, Heaphy Track and Abel Tasman Coastal Track.

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Tongariro Alpine Crossing on New Zealand's North Island.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island

The South Island is not the only landscape that offers beautiful hiking trails, and the North Island also promises literally breathtaking walks with fantastic views. Due to the North Island’s diverse landscape, you can hike up volcanoes and along coastlines with the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing and Cape Brett Walkway, which is popular with keen walkers and beginners alike.

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The verdict

Both islands have impressive hiking trails that offer diverse scenery, but if we had to choose an island worth visiting for hiking alone, the top prize would go to the south. It’s hard to beat the South Island’s natural, dramatic beauty, with hikes to suit every walking level. Having said that, Mother Nature’s work is also exhibited in the Nordics, making it a well-deserved second place.

Best for the weather

Snow-clad Remarkables Mountain Range in Queenstown
Snow-clad Remarkables Mountain Range in Queenstown

The South Island experiences more of a colder climate with the mountain areas covered in snow all year round. The temperatures seen in the South Island can become a little more extreme, especially in winter, with temperatures often in the negative overnight. However, average temperatures are around 1-12°C in winter and around 16-22°C in summer.

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The cable car on a sunny day in Wellington.
The cable car on a sunny day in Wellington

The weather on the North Island is a bit warmer as it is closer to the equator, but that doesn’t mean it ever gets extremely hot, but it does get a bit humid. A great way to describe the weather on the North Island is ‘not too hot, not too cold’ with mild temperatures all year round. You can expect temperatures of 20-30°C in summer and 14-22°C in winter.

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The verdict

The weather can be quite different on each island, so again whether you should visit the south or the north depends on what holiday you want to take. The North Island experiences more of a warmer climate, so you can enjoy warmer weather activities such as sunbathing on the beach, whereas the South Island is slightly colder, perfect for snow activities such as skiing and snowboarding.

Best for activities

A jet boat ride on the Shotover River in Queenstown.
A jet boat ride on the Shotover River in Queenstown

The South Island, and more specifically Queenstown, is known as the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’, so it’s no surprise that you can take part in a whole heap of adrenaline-inducing activities while you’re there, including taking a jet boat ride on the Shotover River. But if you’re not a thrill seeker, there’s still so much to see and do.

From gently sailing on Milford Sound to hiking through the Cathedral Caves, the South Island offers something for everyone with its natural beauty on full display wherever you look. Whether you want to visit Christchurch with its community spirit and exuberant nightlife or take another day trip historic village of Arrowtown (Queenstown’s hidden gem), you’ll never run out of fun things to do.

Waitomo Glow Worms Cave.
Waitomo Glow Worms Cave

The North Island offers plenty of breathtaking activities to see and do, with a visit to the Waitomo Caves at the top of the list. The most famous cave system in New Zealand, the Waitomo Caves are not only home to millions of glowworms, but they are also full of dazzling stalactites and stalagmites.

While the Waitomo Caves are arguably the biggest draw to the North Island, destinations such as Rotorua, Auckland and Wellington also offers a lot of things to do. These things include enjoying the beautiful geothermal activity of various valleys and geysers, dining at world-class restaurants and hopping on and off cable cars for stunning views of Wellington Harbour.

The verdict

Coming to a verdict on this one is pretty much impossible as both islands have plenty of fun activities to offer. Because of this, you really can’t go wrong with any of them.

Best for Māori culture

Endangered Takahe bird at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch.
Endangered Takahe bird at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Unfortunately, the South Island doesn’t offer much when it comes to traditional Maori experiences. However, this does not mean that there are no experiences to be had. In Hokitika, wander around the sacred Māori reserve of Arahura Pa and search for pounamu (greenstone) while learning about the ancient tradition of carving it.

However, it is difficult to access the Arahura Pa area without a guide, so if you want to opt for more of a self-guided cultural experience, Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch offers just that. Cow Tane is a wonderful immersive Māori experience that gives you the chance to learn about New Zealand’s history and take part in activities including a traditional Māori pōwhiri (welcome) and Hongi (nose tap).

Māori monument in the North Island.
Māori monument in the North Island

If you want to experience as much Māori culture as possible, a visit to the North Island is a must. The city of Rotorua is perhaps the best known (and most visited) ‘Māori city’ in the North Island, with 34% of the population being Māori. While there, you can learn about Maori history, how they lived and learned how to carve wood and cook, as well as watch a traditional haka performance.

Other notable Māori towns in the area include Tamaki, Te Puia, Mitai, as well as the Bay of Islands cultural site where Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

The verdict

This one is a no-brainer with the North Island offering far more cultural and traditional Māori experiences than the South Island. This is due to the larger populations found in the north, originating from large cities such as Auckland and Wellington.

Whichever island you choose to visit, you simply can’t go wrong with both destinations offering enough natural beauty, excitement and adventure to make your vacation unforgettable.

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