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Wellington or Auckland: New Zealand’s Biggest Cities Compared

The question of Wellington or Auckland has been hanging around New Zealand for centuries. Not only was Auckland the original capital of New Zealand, to be replaced by Wellington, the two cities also compete ferociously in rugby, nature, and in being named the best New Zealand city to call home.

Taking a closer look, even though Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and Wellington sits in a comfortable third position, Auckland is still seven (yes, seven) times more populous than Wellington. Auckland also stretches far in all directions, leaving Wellington’s lively harbor feeling small and intimate.

To decide once and for all which should top your list, Wellington or Auckland, we take a deep dive into the heart of the two cities, what makes each one tick, and what you can expect when calling them home for a few nights or a few years.

Wellington or Auckland: Nature

Wellington Botanical Gardens
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Both Auckland and Wellington are sprawling cities, so you won’t find the all-day, stunning hikes from your doorstep you’ll find in Queenstown. Even so, if you know where to look, and even if you don’t, you’ll find plenty of green areas and beautiful parks dotted throughout Auckland and Wellington.

Much of Auckland’s green area is found in the Auckland Botanical Gardens, which is home to over 10,000 plants, numerous gardens, a charming cafe, and plenty of spaces to relax and enjoy nature. Unfortunately, if you do not have a car, getting to the Botanical Gardens can be a bit of a mission as it’s located 25 kilometers (15 miles) outside of town. On the other hand, Wellington Botanical Gardens are located a 20-minute walk or 10-minute cable car ride from the city center. It may be half the size of Auckland’s but still makes for a fabulous afternoon of discovering native and non-native plants.

There are plenty of stunning trails just outside of Wellington and Auckland, for those who want to stretch their legs with a more challenging hike. Many of these will require a vehicle, as public transport can be sparse, and some planning ahead. However, in return, you’ll get fabulous trails like the Te Henga Walkway and Wattle Bay Loop in Auckland, and Red Rocks Reserve and The Stairway to Heaven walk in Wellington.

Verdict: Wellington

Wellington or Auckland: Things to do

Te Papa Museum
Photo by Gagliardi Photography

Like most places in New Zealand, Auckland and Wellington are filled with adventure activities. Both cities also have interesting museums, good shopping, and even their own zoos. At a glance, it’s easy to assume both cities offer similar things to do, so let’s take a closer look.

In Auckland, you won’t have to go far to get an extreme sport in. One can bungy jump off the Harbour Bridge or the Skytower, tandem skydive from 6,100 meters (20,000 feet), and even go canyoning through narrow gorges and over waterfalls. You’ll also find plenty of nearby islands to explore and unique neighborhoods to wander. Auckland is also home to the War Memorial Museum, which tells a fascinating tale of New Zealand’s history but do be prepared to pay its $20 (all prices in USD) entry fee.

Wellington embraces its quirky arts scene, and you’ll quickly notice the top things to do revolve less around adrenaline activities and more on museums, culture, and food. That’s not to say you can’t get your heart racing, with options to kayak, go quad biking or test your aerial skills at the Adrenalin Forest. However, even if you’re not a fan of museums, Wellington’s Te Papa Museum cannot be missed. Ranked in Tripadvisors’s top 25 museums in the world, Te Papa takes you on a journey of Maori culture, unique New Zealand wildlife, through geologic ages, and even has a nature walk. And it’s free to enter.

Verdict: Wellington

Wellington or Auckland: Beaches

Mission Bay Beach
Photo by Rod Hill/Getty Images

Surprisingly, especially considering Auckland and Wellington are both cities surrounded by water, neither are particularly known for their beaches. That’s not to say Wellington and Auckland don’t have beaches, quite the contrary actually, it’s just that New Zealand, in general, has more than its fair share of incredible sandy beaches that well out-compete these cities.

Whether you’re in Auckland or Wellington, you won’t have to go far to sink your toes in the sand. Auckland has Mission Bay, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the city center, and offers golden sand beaches, quirky cafes, and incredible views of Rangitoto Island. Down in Wellington, you won’t have to go as far. Oriental Bay is just a five-minute walk from the city center, just be aware you’ll have to fight the crowds on a hot summer day.

Further out, you won’t have a problem finding seemingly your own private beach. 50-minutes from Wellington, you’ll find the Kapiti Coast, which has 40 kilometers (25 miles) of unspoiled beaches. Also just up the coast is the small town of Plimmerton, which is a great spot to enjoy New Zealand culture and dine on some of the best fish and chips in the country. The story is similar for Auckland – the options are endless if you have a car and don’t mind a drive. Orewa Beach is a favorite for locals and families, and Piha, arguably Auckland’s most famous beach, has beautiful black sand.

Verdict: Auckland

Wellington or Auckland: Weather

Beautiful Wellington Day
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Considering Auckland and Wellington are only an hour’s plane ride apart, you’ll be surprised by how different their weather can be. Auckland, being further north and that little bit closer to the equator, means it has hotter summers and milder winters. However, the main difference is the wind.

There’s no getting around it; Wellington is windy. We don’t just mean the occasional day of strong winds or a consistent breeze. We mean wind gusts over 75 kilometers per hour (46 miles per hour) most days. You get so used to wind that you feel something is missing on calm days, and the quietness is apparent. On the same note, when the wind stops and the sun is shining, you’ll immediately forget your past complaints about Wellington’s weather. The waterfront comes to life, everyone is happy and it’s impossible not to feel the good vibe.

Auckland, on the other hand, doesn’t get consistent wind. However, its winters can be rainy and grey, with showers that stick around for days. Come summer, you can look forward to blue sky days and hot temperatures ideal for swimming. Often this heat can be overwhelming, especially in the middle of the city. When comparing Wellington and Auckland, you need to decide if you prefer mild and windy or hot summers and rainy winters.

Verdict: Auckland

Wellington or Auckland: Day Trips

Hobbiton
Photo by StockSnap/pixabay

Whether you’re visiting Wellington or Auckland for a few days or are looking to call one of these cities home, there’s no doubt you’ll get an itch to leave the city limits and explore the beauty around. Within a 20 minutes drive of either Auckland or Wellington, you can feel like you’ve well left behind the bustling city and are the only one around for miles.

Auckland’s most famous day trip, and a main reason many tourists find themselves in New Zealand, is to see first-hand where Lord of the Rings was filmed. On an unassuming family farm near Hamilton, about two hours from Auckland, you’ll find the Hobbiton Movie Set. Even if meeting Frodo doesn’t top your list, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this little village tucked in the hills. Another favorite day trip, especially on hot summer days, is hopping on a 40-minute ferry to Waiheke Island. Here you can sip some of the best wine in New Zealand while watching sheep frolic next to the ocean. Does life get better?

There’s no shortage of day trips from Wellington, either. Hop on the interisland ferry, and within four hours you’ll be stepping foot on the South Island. For those who want to experience what New Zealand was like before being inhabited, a trip to Kapiti Island showcases an astounding amount of New Zealand wildlife. The day trips from Wellington may not be as famous or well-known, but perhaps that’s what makes them even better.

Verdict: Auckland

Wellington or Auckland: Nightlife

Auckland at night
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Enough with nature. When the sun goes down, and the drinks start flowing, Auckland and Wellington come to life in unexpected ways. In either city, you can dance until the sun comes back up, relax in a sophisticated lounge bar or hang with the locals in character-filled pubs. Comparing the two is like comparing wine and beer. Each has its place, and it depends on what you’re in the mood for.

Auckland’s nightlife is spread out across the city, with the main hubs in Britomart and Ponsonby Road. In Britomart, you’ll find a younger crowd and a mix of packed clubs and unique restaurants. If one bar doesn’t have the vibe you’re looking for, you won’t have to go far to find a new spot to post up. On the other hand, Ponsonby has a more upmarket, hipster vibe going on. Don’t expect cheap drinks and dive bars on this side of town, but you’ll get incredible service, great live music, and more sophisticated fun in return.

Wellington, being much less populated than Auckland, doesn’t have quite the range of nightlife. Instead, most of the city’s main restaurants, bars, and clubs are tucked along Cuba Street, and whether you’ve lived in Wellington for years or have only been for a few days, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll run into somebody you know. Cuba street at night is truly something spectacular, though. Bar’s embrace the city’s quirkiness, and there’s no shortage of exciting street entertainment and live music to keep everyone entertained.

Verdict: Wellington

Wellington or Auckland: Price

Wellington neighborhood
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If you’re looking to live or visit somewhere where your dollar stretches far, we hate to break it to you, but Wellington nor Auckland fall anywhere near the ‘cheap’ category. Enjoying a simple lunch at a cafe will cost you between $10 and $25, and if you think you’ll be saving money by cooking at home, be prepared to pay $5 for an avocado. Although, what you’re really paying for is to eat and live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, far away from everyone else. 

Worth it? It probably depends on who you’re asking. In Auckland, high rent and the staggering price of homes are among the biggest deterring factors from people settling down there. Expect to pay upwards of $480 a week for an average two-bedroom apartment. If you’re thinking of buying, the median house price in Auckland sits above $800,000. Heading down to Wellington will save you some hard-earned cash, but not much. In Wellington, you can rent a two-bedroom apartment for $400 a week, and the median house price sits right at $700,000.

On the flip side, with Wellington’s colder weather and older homes, the high price of heating often evens out any rental savings. Zooming in on the cost of food, fuel, and other life necessities, you’ll find slightly lower prices in Wellington. But all in all, both cities are expensive, and at the end of the day, you won’t notice much of a difference in your piggy bank.

Verdict: Draw

Wellington or Auckland: Culture

rugby players
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If you know a thing or two about New Zealand, you’ll know the Kiwi culture shines bright and lights up everyone’s experience in the country. Whether you’re in the middle of bustling Auckland or a remote corner of Wellington, people are friendly and always happy to help. When comparing the culture in the two, it comes down to size.

As you’ve likely gathered, Auckland is a big city by New Zealand standards. It’s also one of the main landing spots of immigrants and visitors, making it a fantastic mish-mash of cultures. Walking down the street, you’ll hear all sorts of languages, and no matter what type of cuisine you’re craving, you’ll find it in Auckland. However, its large size and spread-out neighborhoods also take away from its culture. People stick to their own group of friends and finding your niche can take some time.

Wellington, being a quarter of the size in population, has a friendlier vibe. It’s much more likely you’ll run into the same people time and time again, and if you embrace Wellington’s unique vibe and tune into the many events, there’s no doubt they’ll befriend you.

Verdict: Wellington

Wellington or Auckland: The Final Verdict

Wellington or Auckland the final verdict
Photo by 12019/pixabay

If you can forgive the wind, Wellington is the clear winner for its friendly, small city culture, the plethora of things to do, and incredible nature right at your door.