Australia vs New Zealand: which destination is right for you?

If you’re planning a great Antipodean adventure, Australia and New Zealand tempt in equal measure.

Yet since that year-long sabbatical that will allow you to travel slowly across both countries may be a long time coming, you’ll likely have to make the tough decision to visit one over the other.

How do you tackle such a choice? Let two of our travel experts help.

Awe-inspiring Australia

Australian travel writer and Lonely Planet contributor Sarah Reid has collected more than 130 passport stamps. But she has yet to visit another country that ticks as many boxes as her homeland.

So our mountains might not be as dramatic, our airline safety not as funny, and our rugby team…well, let’s not get into that. But while I have a deep affection for our neighbor across the Tasman Sea, there’s really no beating what Australia has to offer visitors.

Sites of spiritual significance like Uluru let visitors get close to the world’s oldest living cultures © / Shutterstock

Cultural cachet

Let’s start with the world’s oldest living cultures. Every corner of the country forms part of the traditional lands of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander group with its own language, customs, traditions and stories. And there have never been more opportunities to experience this rich cultural legacy, from being dazzled by Wintjiri Wiru, a new state-of-the-art cultural storytelling experience at Uluru, to climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge with an Indigenous storyteller guide.

Speaking of Sydney: what a showstopper! I lived in the New South Wales capital for nearly a decade, and I still get misty-eyed at the sight of the Sydney Opera House sticking out into the sparkling Sydney Harbor. With regard to new food frontiers, did you know the flat white was invented in Sydney? We realize that might be hard for Kiwis to accept. And while New Zealand might have made the first pavlova, its culinary scene doesn’t hold a candle to Australia’s, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, which both lie within easy striking distance of top wine regions. And let’s not forget our other cool capital cities: Canberra and Hobart, to name two, can get literally as cold as Auckland or Wellington, but rarely as windy.

Koala eating eucalyptus leaves at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.
Only-found-in-Australia creatures like koalas never fail to delight visitors © KAMONRAT / Shutterstock

A world of wildlife

The magical island of Tasmania is home to five of Australia’s 12 Great Walks. And while we won’t deny the Lord of the Rings landscapes experienced on New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks are pretty special, they’re generally lacking one thing Australia has no shortage of: wildlife. (Sheep don’t count.) It never gets old spotting a koala dozing in a gum tree, an echidna waddling across your path or a kangaroo bounding through the bush. And how amazing are Australia’s birds? There are few sounds as joyous as a family of kookaburras erupting into laughter.

I will say that New Zealand’s small size makes for easier and less carbon-intensive trips within the country. Yet across its great girth, Australia is blessed with astounding and unrivaled diversity, best experienced on a road trip to destinations like Cairns and Far North Queensland, where the world’s oldest living tropical rainforest meets the world’s largest coral reef (the Great Barrier Reef is still incredible, by the way). Or the wild and rugged Top End of the Northern Territory, where red-dirt trails lead to Aboriginal rock art and serene swimming holes.

You could spend a lifetime exploring the highlights of mainland Australia. But our territory also encompasses more than 8000 islands. From the colonial heritage of Norfolk Island to the otherworldly natural beauty of Lord Howe Island, many of these spots are bucket-list destinations unto themselves.

It helps, of course, that Australia has an ideal climate for exploring outdoors. What good is a gorgeous beach that’s usually too cold for a dip? At any given time of the year, it’s the perfect time to be somewhere Down Under. Just ask the 15 percent of New Zealand’s population who call Australia home.

The zing of New Zealand

As a Lonely Planet writer and editor, Tasmin Waby has explored almost every corner of New Zealand – from Cape Reinga in the north to Stewart Island off the tip of the South Island (and she loves every bit of it).  

While some of the world’s wealthiest preppers may have chosen New Zealand as the place to move in the face of a global apocalypse, New Zealanders are busy making the world a better place so those billionaire bunkers won’t be needed after all.

New Zealand is the home of my extended family – my whānau – and I honestly can’t understand why I don’t live there myself. I have vivid childhood memories of the South Island: eating my first ripe peach straight from an Otago orchard, smelling lanolin on my hands after petting a lamb, following a cousin into the frigid ocean at St Clair’s beach in Dunedin in winter.

Beautiful bay on Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Within its relatively small borders, New Zealand contains an extraordinary range of landscapes and ecosystems © Troy Wegman / Shutterstock

Small but mighty

One of the best things about going to New Zealand is that you can easily tour its highlights in a week or two. (Honestly, if you’re going to go all that way, take your time and do it properly.) You can’t say the same for Australia – which is really a continent of nations. Despite what your maps might suggest, you need to narrow a visit to one region (and deal with your FOMO later). 

While New Zealand is small, it doesn’t feel it when you’ve pitched your tent in a campground by an almost-empty beach that fades into a distant mist of sea spray. Nor when you’re hiking otherworldly volcanic landscapes at Tongariro National Park, or rainforested valleys with only the call of the local wildlife for company. 

And what of New Zealand’s native animals? Well, for a start, they’re not trying to kill you!

When sailing the azure waters of the Bay of Islands in the tropical “winterless north,” New Zealand is very much a Pacific paradise where bottlenose dolphins frolic. Down south, chiseled mountains plunge into an ocean of marine life, and moody Fiordland could double for Scandinavia.

New Zealand is the country for lovers of nature, who also value a proper coffee (whether Australia or NZ invented the “flat white” is a point of contention) or a quality drop of wine  – ideally sampled at a cellar door restaurant with ocean views.

If you want to keep active, on the North Island you can cycle from one coast to the other in just one day. Down south, test your own limits skiing, bungee-jumping, mountain-biking, jet boating and tackling a via ferrata in Queenstown and Wanaka.

Light Trail Street in Ponsonby, inner-city suburb of Auckland City at dusk. In the background the city centre, and the Sky Tower
New Zealand cities like Auckland have all the luxuries of urban life – with nature never far away © Jose Antonio Maciel / Getty Images

Sophisticated cities (plus penguins)

New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland is a thriving metropolis with harborside restaurants, open-air festivals, and muggy summer nights, comparable to Sydney but without the parking challenges. Pocket-sized Dunedin and Wellington tick all the “city” boxes with destination hotels, cocktail bars and fine dining. Yet, 15 minutes from the center, you can spot penguins – or migrating whales.

But don’t just travel to New Zealand to solely immerse yourself in its incredible landscapes. You’re here to experience the world anew.

Australia may be making strong strides toward reconciliation with First Nations, but in New Zealand, the Māori language and the traditional values of guardianship of the land, sea and sky are very much a part of their worldview. Here, the cultural and spiritual significance of a river is already enshrined in law. We all have plenty to learn from this diminutive island nation. 

You’ll also find that New Zealanders are progressive, friendly, and good-natured. Even though not all of them were extras in Lord of the Rings, feel free to ask anyway: Kiwis have a very wry sense of humor. Get over and discover it for yourself. 

This article was first published May 9, 2023 and updated Jun 20, 2024.

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