In consideration of the country’s notoriety as a road trip destination and its relatively compact size, deciding where you should live in New Zealand isn’t nearly as intimidating as more spread out places like Australia and the United States. That being said, the sheer amount of remarkable places there are to choose from makes it a challenge for those who have never lived – or traveled – here before.
While moving between New Zealand’s South and North Island – with a vehicle or not – is certainly more expensive than it needs to be, choosing the absolute perfect place to live before you arrive in New Zealand shouldn’t be a major concern of your initial move, especially if you plan on buying a car while you’re here or intend on having enough money to buy a plane, bus or boat ticket to somewhere else entirely.
Also as a note, this is by no means an exhaustive list of locations you could move to in New Zealand. On the South Island, I have purposefully left off locations like Invercargill, Lake Tekapo, Picton, Oamaru, Cromwell, Blenheim and tons of others specifically because they aren’t popular options for those only spending one year – or even a few years – in the country. Similarly, I’ve purposefully left off North Island locations like Rotorua, Gisborne, Tauranga, Hawkes Bay, Napier and Hastings, among others, because I either wouldn’t recommend living there (Rotorua, because sulfer stinks, people) or didn’t visit them, so therefore cannot recommend them as a liveable place or not.
Where You Should Live in New Zealand
South Island: Queenstown & Wanaka
Why We Like It: We spent 7 of our 10 months in New Zealand living in the gorgeous South Island gem of Queenstown for lots of solid reasons. Assuming you can score a room rental on Queenstown Hill or nearby, most everything in Queenstown is within walking distance, which can either bide you time until you find a car that fits your budget and needs, or perhaps better yet, save you the trouble of buying a car altogether. With a new $2 bus system that travels to and from nearby neighborhoods of Arthur’s Pass, Sunshine Bay and Frankton, as well as an Intercity Bus hub that can transport you all over the country, Queenstown is also conveniently located near the ski spots of Coronet Peak (30 minutes) and the Remarkables (45 minutes), and has upwards of 60 bars, clubs and restaurants packed into its extremely walkable town area. It’s also a world famous destination for bungee jumping, skydiving, mountain biking, snowboarding and jet boating, with plenty of outdoor activities, concerts and festivals to keep you entertained otherwise. A nice kickoff point for wine tasting in Arrowtown and Gibbston Valley, Queenstown is one of the most scenic and fun places I’ve ever lived, and I will always recommend it.
Alternately, an hour’s drive northwest will land you in Wanaka, a quieter, calmer, more local, slightly older and more family-oriented version of Queenstown, with equally gorgeous views and world class snowboarding at Treble Cone and Cardrona. Wanaka is like the responsible older brother of Queenstown, and highlights like Lake Hawea, funky movie theaters, breweries and its proximity to the west coast makes it another South Island favorite.
Why We Don’t: Peter doesn’t like being so far away from the ocean and that the weather is mostly freakin’ freezing in the winter time, but honestly there isn’t much else to add to this list. Queenstown might just be the most expensive town in an already expensive country, and finding a place to live can be somewhat of a nightmare (though we managed to luck out), but overall, I’d be exaggerating if I were to add anything else to the negative pile. Oh! Except that Lake Wakatipu, even on the hottest of summer days, is a gorgeous yet painful body of unfairly cold water.
Live in Queenstown If: You don’t mind being surrounded by thousands of travelers in the 18 to 35 age range (15 of whom are likely to be from New Zealand), enjoy lively nightlife, don’t mind paying higher-than-normal prices for rent (currently approximately $300 – $400/week for a couple in a shared apartment), have alcoholic tendencies, want to up your snow skills in winter months, enjoy Latin music, killer mountain and lake views, and don’t mind wearing extra layers of clothing in winter and sunscreen in summer.
South Island: Dunedin
Why We Like It: Dunedin is actually one of the more surprising cities in New Zealand… in a positive way. Besides Queenstown and Wanaka, I think Dunedin is actually the most liveable city on the South Island, though I’m sure there are plenty who disagree. With Scottish roots and a beautiful oceanside location on the east coast, Dunedin is a nice mix of locals and travelers, with plenty of charming cafes, secondhand shops, art galleries, markets, bars and low-key local eateries and Asian food to keep you wanting more. A university town with an assortment of neighborhoods with their own unique feel, we love Dunedin for its simplicity and laid back beauty. There’s a decent bus system in town, and from personal experience, walking from the Octagon – Dunedin’s downtown area – to the ocean is a little long, but still totally doable.
Why We Don’t: Because there are lots of university students, families and older folks, it may not be the easiest place to make friends if you are in that in-between stage of life. Dunedin would also undoubtedly be an easier place to live with a car, though it isn’t a necessity if you find a place to live in town, or somewhere on a bus route like St. Clair or St. Kilda.
Live Here If: You want to live on the South Island but are on a budget, enjoy decently consistent surf and don’t mind cold water, want to meet plenty of locals, are seeking a good exploration point for further south coast spots like Invercargill and the Catlins, want a nice mix of convenience and privacy.
South Island: Christchurch
Why We Like It: Well we don’t, particularly. On the plus, three things: there are still yummy cafes and restaurants, it is convenient point for flying into and out of (as plane tickets are normally way less expensive than anywhere else on the South Island), and you can find great deals on campervans and cars.
Why We Don’t: For the sake of keeping it short and not so sweet, it is well known as one of the least beautiful cities in New Zealand, though it was likely more enticing before the 2012 earthquake that damaged a large chunk of its architecture. I would not recommend living in Christchurch, or even particularly visiting, however, unless it’s for a specific purpose. Compared to the rest of the country, it just doesn’t have the same type of appeal.
Live Here If: You get a bangin’ job offer with plenty of time off (and money) to explore other areas of the country. Or you really like to root for the underdog.
South Island: Nelson & Golden Bay
Why We Like It: Located about a 2 hour drive from one another, Nelson and Golden Bay are located on the northwest shore of the South Island. Though both are generally warmer and more tropical than the rest of the South Island, Golden Bay (and its town center of Takaka) is absolutely the hippie neighbor of Nelson. With killer drinking spots like the Free House Pub and Sprig & Fern Tavern, as well as cozy parks and beachy scenery, Nelson would likely be a lovely place to live, especially if you work in the F&B industry. Alternately, Golden Bay has its own thing going on, and would be ideal if you don’t mind super small town living and can get over the stereotypical hackey-sack’ing, hula-hooping, poi-perfecting crowd that it entails. While we can’t recommend it for long term freedom camping – they’ve done their best to put an end to that – Golden Bay has a mass amount of nearby natural areas to explore, including the stunning Wharariki Beach, Farewell Spit, Pupu Springs and Abel Tasman National Park.
Why We Don’t: One of the major negatives of living in either Nelson or Golden Bay would be their relatively remote locations, as it is a lengthy drive to reach less expensive South Island airports, larger towns or the ferry port in Picton, the take-off point for traveling to the North Island by boat. You’ll likely need (and want) a car to get out of town once in a while.
Live Here If: You’re seeking a (mostly) uncrowded beach town, enjoy the outdoors, still want to be near all the South Island natural gems, and are looking for better deals on rent than you can find in Queenstown.
North Island: Wellington
Why We Like It: Windy little Welly! How I dig thee. While Wellington ain’t no Queenstown – fight me! – I still like it quite a bit, and think it’s well worth checking out, regardless of whether you choose to live here or not. I loved Wellington for its walkability, nightlife, public transportation options, museums, shops, festivals, massive botanic garden, funky restaurants and bars, cool neighborhoods and general landscape, and generally think it would make for an enjoyable place to live. There are tons of opportunities for employment, plenty of friendly travelers and locals of all ages, and rent is (currently) cheaper than it is in Queenstown or Auckland.
Why We Don’t: Because it is located on the water and is notoriously windy, Wellington is most likely brutally cold in the winter (we were only here during summer), though perhaps no more so than Queenstown. Also, while I read of nice beaches in the area, I was mostly disappointed at the quality of them compared to those in the rest of the country. Because of its location on the south tip of the North Island, it is also far away from other popular North Island spots like Taupo, Rotorua, Mount Maunganui, Raglan, and so on.
Live Here If: You want city life without a big city feel, want to advance your career and get a solid job offer from one of the many up-and-coming businesses in town, like the idea of not needing a car to get around, and aren’t overly concerned with living near the beach or the mountains.
North Island: New Plymouth
Why We Like It: Perhaps the most notable aspect of New Plymouth is how casual it is. A predominantly local destination just north of an area dubbed ‘Surf Highway 45,’ Tarakani still receives its fair share of freedom campers – ourselves included – who come to surf its (sometimes finicky) waves, treat themselves to happy hour in the cozy town center of New Plymouth, wander its galleries and museums, go for a dip at the surprisingly nice aquatic center, and catch up on their reading in trendy cafes. There are plenty of scenic freedom camping areas near here, as well as several around Mt. Taranaki, and the views are gorgeous enough to enjoy without drawing too large of an expat crowd, which ultimately forces the rental prices up.
Why We Don’t: Depending on your social habits, age and interests, I could see this being a difficult place to make friends. Also I think living here for an extended period of time might get a little dull, as it is small and quiet enough not to warrant much of a social life past 8pm.
Live Here If: You want to live near the ocean, are seeking a quiet spot to call home, are on a bit of a budget, and like the idea of living in close proximity to a range of outdoor activities.
North Island: Taupo
Why We Like It: Taupo was a bit of a surprise to me, as in I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. The wide, deeply turquoise, hardcore Waikato River meets directly with a natural hot spring, and it is equally as relaxing as it is exciting. The town area is compact and cutesy, and it is close enough to several bodies of water to not make it seem landlocked.
Why We Don’t: All of that being said, I’m not sure this is a place I’d recommend living for long, if at all, as it is still quite small and mostly tame. I think travelers may have a hard time meeting anyone besides other tourists in Taupo, and while is it beautiful, it doesn’t quite seem to have developed a personality as far as places in New Zealand go.
Live Here If: Natural hot springs are your jam, and you don’t mind the tourist grind.
North Island: Auckland
Why We Like It: It is the only standard spot in the country where big-name artists play concerts, in the rare instance they visit New Zealand at all, and there are quite a few festivals and city events to keep you entertained year-round. Also it is a relatively quick journey to more scenic, serene places like Piha Beach, the Bay of Islands and Raglan. There is also an array of convenient public transportation options, and flight deals to other areas of the country, as well as the French Polynesian Islands, can be found for cheap. Bonus: If you’re a hip hop dancer, Parris Goebel has a dance studio in town.
Why We Don’t: Meh. Honestly, Auckland is like most other large cities I’ve been to, and that’s not a compliment. To me, nothing that special exists here, apart from its convenience as the largest major city in New Zealand. The rent is still outrageous (near to or on par with Queenstown, I believe), and it is spread out enough make the prettiest areas inconvenient to walk to. After spending our last few days in New Zealand here, we recognized most of the previous negative feedback we received about it as being absolutely true.
Live Here If: You get an offer for your dream job and can’t convince them to work remotely (or from any other city on the North or South Island), and you’re looking to expand your Tinder matches beyond the tiny pool outside of Raglan.
North Island: Bay of Islands
Why We Like It: Y’all. I’d be lying if I said the Bay of Islands is anything but freakin’ breathtaking. With stunning areas like Paihia, Kerikeri and Doubtless Bay, you could post up, buy a hammock and start living the simple life in no damn time at all.
Why We Don’t: If you don’t think pretty comes at a price, you’re dead ass wrong, friend. The issue with living in the Bay of Islands is that it is wildly remote, and unless you show up with a job in a cafe or on a tour boat, you might be shit out of luck. While we only saw the Bay of Islands in summer months, I can only imagine that winter turns this whole area into a major ghost town.
Live Here If: You don’t mind a certain amount of weather-dependent solitude, and by a certain amount I mean a shitload.
North Island: Raglan
Why We Like It: Raglan is a toss up. One on hand it is home to a world famous surf break, and on its ‘on’ days it is remarkably beautiful and laid back, which is why we – and in particular, Peter – likes it. It is small enough where you can learn everyone’s faces in a week, and large enough to have a community that sticks together and pushes for forward-thinking reform through fun local events. There are a ton of young, beautiful people, and if you love frolicking in the ocean by day and drinking beers on a patio by night, it can easily be your own little Kiwi paradise. The weekly Yot Club concerts are also where it’s at, assuming you don’t mind forking over the occasional entrance fee to be allowed in where it’s at.
Why We Don’t: Here’s the kicker… as lovely as Raglan is, it is tiny as hell. As in there is one street and a total of about 14 places to eat, and 11 of them are closed by 10pm. Also, despite touting itself as a hippie surfer heaven – or itself being touted as such, because I’m not quite sure which it is – living in a campervan (aka freedom camping) for more than a week of each month in Raglan is still incredibly difficult, if not altogether illegal, unless you want to pay $40/night for a glorified grassy rectangle next to the next dumb sucker. And on a final note, though Raglan is minuscule and easy to navigate, you still absolutely need a car (or scooter), as the nearest beach is about an 8-10 minute drive away from town and you might completely lose your mind (or maybe I just would) if you couldn’t get away sometimes, which also takes nearly an hour drive on winding roads to accomplish.
Live Here If: You won’t get stir crazy living in a town with a population the size of an average U.S. public high school, you plan on surfing most days, and generally want to live in whatever the opposite of a rat race is. You want to live in a snake nap… yes, that’s right. Ahh, the snake nap life.
North Island: Mount Maunganui
Why We Like It: Most likely our top pick for the best place to live on the North Island of New Zealand, Mount Maunganui is an oceanside beaut on the east coast packed with tons of natural beauty and plenty of local – and not so local – appeal. The town area of Mount Maunganui is seemingly always busy (especially in summer months), but not in an overly crowded, annoying kind of way. The beach is gorgeous, and there are plenty of walking trails up the headland – “the Mount” – and around the protected offshore Moturiki Island to keep it interesting, should surfing and beach lounging not be your thing. In addition, the larger area to which Mount Maunganui is a part of has tons of small pockets to explore, with spacious parks and flowing waterfalls not more than a 30 to 40 minute drive away. Maunganui’s nightlife and live music scene, while not overly thrilling, is fun and funny, with cool spots like Astrolabe and nearby bars competing for the crowd on rotating nights of the week. The crowd is a sweet mix of young and old, with no awkwardness or set distinction between the two, and the area is absolutely one of the easiest for long(ish) term freedom camping, should you want to avoid a lease or room rental in summer months.
Why We Don’t: While we didn’t attempt the public transportation system in Maunganui, I can confidently say you wouldn’t want to rely on it everyday, as the area is fairly spread out. Other than that, umm… err… it can be hot, and also probably cold, and the parking options are limited on days when it’s nice outside. That’s all I got.
Live Here If: You enjoy beachy towns with a variety of interesting neighborhoods, like to surf or watch people surf, dig the outdoors, and don’t take yourself – or life – too seriously to appreciate a good thing when you’ve got it.
North Island: Coromandel Peninsula
Why We Like It: If you’ve never considered a peninsula swoon-worthy, you’re missing out, bro! Located north of Mount Maunganui, the Coromandel Peninsula is a massive vacation spot for travelers and locals in summer months due to its many white sand beaches, scenic hiking trails, natural hot pools and hidden natural perks. While local highlights like New Chums Beach, Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach hog all the attention (for solid reasons, mind you), towns like Whitianga and Tairua offer an alternative living situation that might be ideal for those seeking a quiet place to call home while they craft their next masterpiece. Or learn to whittle. Maybe both.
Why We Don’t: It is noticeably quiet up here in summer months, so I can’t imagine what it’s like in winter. Though the Coromandel is truly gorgeous, it is not necessarily somewhere I’d recommend living long term unless you absolutely need to escape your own life for a hot minute, or unless you have a generous friend with a boat and a tequila cellar (the dream!). While it is more populated than the Bay of Islands, it is remote enough to make you think twice about running that errand to the next biggest city over the weekend. Also my former client and forever nemesis, an older gal named Jenefer Duane, occasionally lives at her vacation rental in Coromandel Town, so I cannot recommend you live within one million light-years of her, as she is the human equivalent of Ann Coulter’s butthole.
Live Here If: You need somewhere quiet to finish writing your fourth novel, want a one month getaway in the embrace of mother and her nature, or are planning on utilizing the surrounding terrain to train for your next marathon. In any case, best of luck.