Whether you’re seeking the big city lights or some peace and quiet and work-life balance, here’s everything you need to know about choosing between the best places to live in New Zealand. Taking into account things like affordability and job opportunities, as well as quality of life and access to nature or activities, plus schools, infrastructure and cultural attractions, this should help any prospective residents who are thinking of making the move to New Zealand.
Let’s start with the cities…
The best New Zealand cities to live in
Depending which one you choose and where you’re coming from, New Zealand’s cities can seem both like buzzing metropolises and sleepy small towns. What they have in common is excellent job opportunities and fantastic infrastructure, so choosing between them might come down to a matter of personal taste and preference.
The Big Five
The biggest city and leading commercial centre in the country, Auckland is the place to seek out a wide range of jobs – from roles in creative industries to high finance positions and plenty of construction work. However, it’s also a big beach town, with more boats per capita than anywhere on Earth, and plenty of places to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
The Pros: diverse job opportunities, warm climate, beaches and watersports
The Cons: expensive, traffic and commute times can be bad
New Zealand’s capital city is not only the political centre of the country; it’s also the cultural capital of Aotearoa, with world-class film studios, cutting-edge professional theatre, national opera and ballet troupes plus budding young street performers and up-and-comers all calling ‘Wellywood’ home. With fantastic schools and international pro sports teams – plus a walkable city centre, and plenty of quiet beachfront suburbs or forested suburban hills within an easily commutable distance by car, bus or ferry – it’s a popular choice for both families and professionals seeking a good work-life balance.
The Pros: specialist job opportunities, rich cultural scene, compact city centre and access to nature
The Cons: the weather...if you’re not blown away by Wellington’s charm, you will be by the wind!
Rejuvenated and revitalised since a devastating series of earthquakes after 2010, Christchurch has flipped from being one of New Zealand’s most set-in-its-ways, “Old English” cities to being arguably the place for young people and creative minds to set up shop. As well as being a large city with plenty of employment opportunities and a diverse range of attractive suburbs from beachside areas to neighbourhoods of stately homes, Christchurch is a dynamic urban hub with an ever-changing cultural landscape – not to mention it has easy access to the incredible beauty of Banks Peninsula, the Canterbury Plains, and the fringes of the Southern Alps all on its doorstep.
The Pros: dynamic, rich heritage, strong sense of community post-earthquake, access to wilderness areas
The Cons: sprawling suburbs mean a car is almost essential and it could take a while to get around, a splash of uncertainty for home-buyers given post-earthquake protocols and regulations
The rise of ‘The Tron’ has flown largely under-the-radar of people living outside the central North Island, but it has grown into a booming agricultural and commercial centre barely an hour’s drive from Auckland. Given its size and location, it has attracted many vibrant young city types who have been priced out of Auckland, so there is a lively local social scene to go with its fantastic range of services and spitting-distance proximity to some truly special natural areas and trendy small towns, such as Tongariro National Park and Raglan, respectively.
The Pros: affordability, healthy local economy, proximity to Auckland and popular travel destinations
The Cons: suffers from a stigma for being “flat and boring”, range of employment opportunities not as diverse as other big cities
The chilly old colonial capital is often left til last (or left behind) on lists of New Zealand’s top cities, but the locals aren’t complaining. Dunedin, which hasn’t fallen victim to the stratospheric rise in house and living costs that its northern relatives have, has somehow managed to remain something of a hidden gem among the best places to live in New Zealand. New Zealand’s oldest and most iconic university is located here, and Dunedin’s colourful ‘Scarfie’ student scene is well known around New Zealand and beyond. But it’s the brilliant food and restaurant scene, gorgeous historical buildings, amazing access to nature and wildlife along the Otago Peninsula, quirky satellite towns around the Otago Harbour, and more relaxed pace of life that attract an array of artists, painters, poets, philosophers and writers to move here along with some of the country’s leading academics, businesspeople, and young families.
The Pros: gorgeous heritage buildings and stunning natural surroundings, a hub for artists and home to a vibrant student population, easy to get around compared with other big cities
The Cons: the weather can be harsh at times, and connections with other major cities and countries are limited compared with other cities
The Charmers: small and medium-sized New Zealand cities to live in
At the heart of the beautiful Bay Of Plenty, Tauranga is home to New Zealand’s biggest cargo port, so there’s no shortage of business and particular jobs here. Tauranga is also adjacent to the iconic Mt. Maunganui and its famous surf beach. House prices are certainly on the up, but if you like delicious avocados and the relaxed beach lifestyle then you could probably swallow that!
The jewel in the Hawke’s Bay crown, Napier offers both sleepy small-town atmosphere and dynamic urban pulse. Between its renowned Art Deco architecture and attractive waterfront you’ll find a buzzing town at the centre of a region known for its fabulous wine and sunshine. With excellent schools and the right size between big town and small city, Napier is a particularly attractive option for young families. Did we mention the beautiful landscapes and countryside nearby, too?
Queenstown is a place that needs little introduction to most visitors to New Zealand, as it has been the poster child of the country’s tourism boom over the past few decades. It’s hard to dispute Queenstown’s status as New Zealand’s favourite playground – come in winter for world-class skiing, summer for incredible boating, kayaking, hiking and cycling with jaw-dropping views, and get a lifetime’s dose of adrenaline at any time of year with the myriad adventure sports and bucket-list activities offered in and around Queenstown. However, beyond the tourism-centered facade is a booming town with plenty of opportunities in industries ranging from hospitality and film to architecture and agriculture. The one drawback for new arrivals is the price tag: it’s one of the most popular destinations in the country, and one of the most visually stunning cities in the world, and you generally get (a little less than) what you pay for in terms of house prices.
The Quiet Achievers
Affectionately known as “Boom Town” by locals, Blenheim has been the epicentre of New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc explosion onto the world wine stage. Routinely among the annual winners of the “sunniest city in the country” tag, too, Blenheim balances a booming economy with a laid-back pace of life that is irresistible to some. Not to mention that it’s right on the doorstep of Havelock (where you can do the popular Hobbit Kayak Tour down the Pelorus River) and the incredible Marlborough Sounds, plus it’s barely a 20-minute drive from the Wellington ferry terminal at Picton.
Gisborne enjoys the earliest (and arguably the best) sunrises of any city on Earth. Miles and miles of wild coastline, pristine beaches and dramatic geographic formations wrap around New Zealand’s East Cape/Tairawhiti region – and this laid-back city, known for its food, wine and surf, sits at the start of it. Gisborne has a strong Maori culture and heritage, with many excellent historical and important cultural sites to go with the stunning natural surroundings of its breathtaking coastline and forested inland hills and mountains. As an agricultural centre, there’s plenty of primary and secondary industries work in the area, especially in forestry and viticulture.
A major South Island port city, Timaru sits halfway between Dunedin and Christchurch and gets overshadowed by each. That makes it an under-the-radar smart choice for new residents, considering that it offers plentiful employment opportunities, very affordable house prices, and amazing access to nature with both the beach and mountains at its doorstep. In Timaru you can go for a surf or stroll a golden-sand beach in the morning, have a few hours at work, and be skiing in the mountains of the Mackenzie District by lunchtime. As well as employment opportunities around its port trade and surrounding agricultural sector, Timaru has good schools and is an attractive option for young families looking for great work-life balance.
Another frequent competitor for New Zealand’s sunniest city, New Plymouth is the humming centre of the majestic Taranaki region. Outstanding natural beauty and attractions (none more so than Mt. Taranaki, standing proudly as the backdrop to the city, and the endless waterfalls and forest trails of Egmont National Park) – including some of the country’s most underrated beaches and world-class surf breaks – combine with a renowned local art scene and strong sense of community. A drawback for some and attraction for others, New Plymouth is also New Zealand’s most prosperous oil town, as the service centre for numerous off-shore rigs that bring plenty of money and jobs to the region.
Don’t like the idea of living in the city? No worries...
Go Rural and Regional
For those attracted to the idea of living in or moving to New Zealand because of its stunning nature and scenery, then chances are you’re not all that keen to move straight to a big city. With that in mind, here are a few of our picks for some of the best regions and rural areas to live in New Zealand (especially for new arrivals and first-time buyers):
Beaches, bush, and beautiful smiles are embedded into daily life in Northland, Auckland’s laid-back northern neighbour. With some major urban hubs such as Whangarei, plus plenty of service towns dotted around, this lush and sub-tropical region is not as remote as it feels – and, if you want it to, it can feel very remote! Think endless forests, miles-long (literally a hundred, nearly, miles long in some cases) stretches of golden sand, rolling meadows and plenty of secluded coves, bays, and valleys. House and living prices are inflated in some places (thanks largely to proximity to Auckland), but if you have a look around there are many affordable places to buy a home and set up shop, or settle a family. As an added bonus for foodies, Northland has one of the country’s best networks and communities of local, organic, and regenerative farmers and food producers.
This could hardly count as an ‘off-the-beaten-track’ addition thanks to the worldwide name recognition of Queenstown, Wanaka, and multiple Central Otago locations made famous by being The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film locations, but Central Otago goes a lot further than that. Stretching from the fringes of West Coast bush towards rugged Pacific coastlines over the impenetrable Southern Alps, Central Otago is characterised by iconic golden-hued grasslands and tussocks. Within all of that jaw-dropping scenery is a huddle of cute, quirky, historical small towns that mix a bit of modernity (brought from the massive tourist trade) with old-timey atmosphere and small-town values. If you’re put off by the people and prices of Queenstown and Wanaka, have a look at the likes of Clyde, Omarama, Lake Alexandra, or Ranfurly and you might find that your little piece of paradise is more attainable than you thought.
Westland has a knack to be whatever you want it to be: if you want to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, then lose yourself in the wild rainforests of New Zealand’s rainiest region, hide away in the mountains, or discover a wild, unpopulated beach along the coast. Greymouth is a humming town with plenty of art and culture, plus a lot of international influence from a transient tourist working population to keep things interesting, while historic Hokitika has world-famous glow worm caves, awesome fishing, and a fantastic view onto Mount Cook on clear days, and Westport is close to the pancake rocks of Punakaiki and only a few hours from both Nelson and Christchurch. There’s also a couple of New Zealand’s most spectacular natural attractions (Fox and Franz Josef Glacier, to name just a few) in the area, plus plenty of jobs in primary and secondary industries such as tourism and mining. The wind and rain are what keep people away (and prices down), so if this doesn’t bother you, then the West Coast could be an ideal choice.
Final word: some resources to help you out when moving to (or around) New Zealand
If you want to dig a little deeper and find out more about moving to New Zealand, these might help you:
- TradeMe.co.nz: New Zealand’s leading online auction and property-selling site, which offers the quickest and easiest way to get a feel for house and property prices in any area.
- Immigration New Zealand: a government-run website with all the information you need about moving to and settling in New Zealand including visas, residency and citizenship rights, and property regulations
- If you’re tossing up between north or south, check out our guide on New Zealand's North Island vs. South Island to get a clearer picture of any differences (and similarities) between the two.