Haere mai - welcome! Congratulations on considering a trip to New Zealand, also known as Aotearoa in Maori and Godzone to many of us living here.
This post aims to help you decide when to visit our beautiful country, located far, far away in the wild South Pacific, so that you will arrive fully prepared to enjoy it to the full. As someone lucky enough to live in Wellington, I've been able to experience years of the weather to help you decide when is the best time to visit New Zealand.
From warmer weather around Christmas to colder temperatures in July and August, if you're from the northern hemisphere, you'll need to flip your seasons upside down. Each season offers something unique so based on the outdoor pursuits you're most eager to do and the places you dream of visiting, there will be an ideal time to visit New Zealand.
Let's dive right in so you can plan your trip to this incredible country.
New Zealand's Climate
Many people who have never been to New Zealand expect our country to be warm, sunny, and tropical, rather like our neighbor Australia. So let's begin by debunking that theory.
While the far north of New Zealand, around Auckland, does indeed enjoy a subtropical climate, our southernmost region is a mere 3,885 miles from Antarctica. So, as you can imagine, temperatures vary considerably throughout the country. When that Antarctic blast hits us, we know about it! And we do get quite a lot of rain at times, especially on our west coast.
New Zealand also enjoys the four distinct seasons of the southern hemisphere. (That means our winter is your summer in the northern hemisphere). So the very best time to visit will depend on what you wish to see and do while you are here.
If you're planning an extended trip to explore both the North Island and South Island - which I highly recommend - then I would avoid the peak tourism season, especially if you need to save money.
Choose a shoulder season instead, such as late spring, late summer, or early autumn, when you'll encounter fewer crowds but still enjoy relatively warm weather.
Pro Tip: the sun is very strong here so be sure to bring your Factor 50+ sunscreen and a hat. Ideally, cover up between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. in summer. Even Australians get caught out by our ultra-violet extremes.
New Zealand's Weather Warning
Speaking of the weather, it can be a little - well, unpredictable. You'll often hear people say that we sometimes experience four seasons in one day, and this is definitely true. That's why my favorite things to do in Wellington are a good mix of indoor and outdoor activities.
In February 2023, for instance, when our weather would usually be at its most settled, the North Island - particularly Gisborne and Hawkes Bay - was hammered by storms, followed by Cyclone Gabrielle. So much for the New Zealand summer!
The South Island also suffers from extreme weather at times, including heavy rainfall and long periods of dry, hot sunny days leading to drought and bushfires.
Most of the time, however, we enjoy very pleasant, temperate weather conditions. So my advice is: just be prepared for anything, whichever season you choose - especially if you're planning any outdoor activities.
Let's now explore the pros and cons of the seasons. I've included a small selection of events happening during each one.
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Visiting in Spring: September to November
- Good for: wildflowers, cherry blossoms, swollen rivers and waterfalls
- Downside: cool temperatures and equinoctial gales
- Temperatures: 14-22°C depending on the region
Spring is a lovely time to visit New Zealand. Nature is bursting into life, with spectacularly colorful displays such as the famous pink and purple lupins of Lake Tekapo in Canterbury. Kowhai trees are covered in golden blooms in September and cherry blossom follows in October.
Most cities will have gardens and parks filled with daffodils and tulips. Alas, they are often victims of the equinoctial gales, which start in September and reach their peak in late October and early November. I don't know how many times I've seen 'Tulip Sunday' in Wellington fall rather flat, literally, as a result of these winds!
You'll see the country's great rivers and waterfalls at their best, not the stony little trickles that can look a little underwhelming at other times of the year. They're swollen with melting snow from the ranges. This is great for anyone who enjoys adventure sports like white water rafting.
Spring Events in New Zealand
- WOW - World of Wearable Art awards show, September-October, Wellington. The most amazing fashion show you'll ever see.
- Shepherds' Shemozzle, October, Hunterville, Manawatu-Whanganui region. Part of the Huntaway dog festival, this is a truly authentic Kiwi country event.
- Victorian heritage celebrations, the third week in November, Oamaru. Oamaru is the Steampunk capital of New Zealand and everyone gets into the spirit. The town has gorgeous Victorian buildings.
Visiting in Summer: December to February
- Good for: warmer temperatures, Pohutukawa blossom, summer festivals
- Downside: busiest season for tourism, highest prices
- Temperatures: 11-30°C depending on the region
New Zealand's summer season begins in December when northern hemisphere countries are becoming chilly. So if you're from that side of the world, it's the perfect time to head 'down under' - especially if you have relatives here and can experience a Kiwi Christmas with them.
December is also the time for Pohutukawa trees to unfurl their beautiful scarlet brush blossoms, filling the streets and parks with color and turning pavements pink with fallen stamens.
Christmas in New Zealand
Christmas here is very different from in Europe or North America. Some families do stick staunchly to their traditional western-style roast lunch plus usual trimmings, despite the heat! But most will be barbecuing burgers and sausages in the garden or taking a picnic to the beach.
School holidays extend until late January, so once the festive season is over, Kiwi families typically head off on their summer vacation. Anyone needing to find accommodation during this peak season may experience a lot of difficulties, so be sure to book early.
Summer Events in New Zealand
- Rhythm and Vines, Gisborne Lasts for 3 days up to New Year's Eve. Globally famous as the first music festival to welcome the first sunrise of the new year.
- ASB Tennis Classic, January, Auckland. Attracts top international competitors.
- Marlborough Wine and Food Festival, February. Held in one of the many famous Marlborough vineyards near Blenheim. Wine and food tasting with live music.
Visiting in Autumn: March to May
- Good for: crisp mornings and cooler nights, less wind, autumn colors
- Downside: shorter days after daylight saving ends in early April
- Temperatures: 14-22°C depending on the region
Autumn is probably my favorite time to visit New Zealand. Early autumn still feels like summer. We can enjoy glorious sunshine, sometimes for days on end - and temperatures remain warm.
Autumn colors can be stunning, especially in the Southern Alps of Canterbury and Central Otago. For anyone keen on hiking, this is a great time to head to New Zealand's many picturesque walking tracks such as the Routeburn.
New Zealand autumn is also a good time for spotting marine life. In Wellington, we receive regular visits from orcas (killer whales) and pods of dolphins at this time. It's such a thrill to see the large, black, shiny fin of an orca rise and fall right in front of you as you walk along the shore.
Autumn Events in New Zealand
- Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, March. Test your resolve on some bush tucker!
- Pasifika Festival, March. Auckland's oldest and largest cultural festival celebrates 10 Pacific Island nations that make up the city's diverse population.
- Wellington on a Plate, May. A month of foodie events in the capital, led by local cafes, restaurants and top chefs. Even one or two embassies join in the fun.
Visiting in Winter: June to August
- Good for: winter sports, best time for whale watching in Kaikoura, stargazing
- Downside: cold weather, also see 'seasonal closures' below
- Temperatures: below zero to 15°C depending on the region
The winter months lend themselves to cozy indoor activities as well as outdoor adventures and snow sports. Even if you're not heading for the ski fields, there's plenty to enjoy. Soak in a thermal spring with snow falling around you. Or go stargazing at the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve - the largest Dark Sky in the world. You might get lucky and see the southern lights - the Aurora Australis.
The ski season runs from late June to September, snow permitting. This is generally the cheapest time of year to travel and stay, although popular ski resorts like Queenstown, Wanaka, and Whakapapa do become very busy as they welcome international tourists from Australia and beyond.
When travelling in winter, disruption is more likely due to weather events, so be prepared for delays and make sure you have good travel insurance to cover any last-minute changes or extra arrangements you might need to make.
Winter Events in New Zealand
- Matariki, the Maori New Year. June or July depending on the timing of the rising of the Pleiades group of stars. The date is announced in advance each year. Celebrated everywhere, often with fireworks.
- TranzAlpine scenic train journey from Christchurch to Greymouth, across the Southern Alps. This runs all year but late winter is a great time to do it. The return trip can be done in one day, either the whole way or part way.
- Larnach Castle winter ball, July, Dunedin. Dress up in Victorian style, dance the night away and watch the address of the haggis! Read more in my post about how to spend a winter weekend in Dunedin.
While many attractions, including national parks, campsites and walking trails, are open throughout the year, it pays to double-check before finalizing your itinerary. The following are some examples of seasonal closures:
- The Coastal Pacific scenic train from Picton to Christchurch operates only from late September until the end of March.
- If you're hoping to go wine tasting, be aware that some rural wineries only open their cellar doors during the summer months.
- Because January is the main school holiday period, many small cafes, restaurants and other businesses close for the whole month. This is particularly common in city suburbs. Wellington in January feels rather like Paris in August!
Regardless of when you decide is your best time to visit New Zealand, there's always plenty to see and do throughout the country. While a lot of time, the best way to get to know a country is simply walking around and eating all the unique cuisine, tours really allow you to dive deeper.
When's Your Absolute Best Time to Visit New Zealand?
I hope these suggestions have helped you to plan your perfect New Zealand trip. Whether you're visiting in high season or low season, are here for unique events or stunning nature, you'll love your trip to New Zealand regardless of when you come.
Ka kite wawe koe - see you soon.
Hero image by Casey Horner.
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