New Zealand is mostly a wild, open country. There are some small cities dotted throughout, but only Auckland features all the traits of a metropolis. For starters, the country’s largest city has a gorgeous skyline that’s punctuated by the impressive Sky Tower. It’s home to the some of country’s most celebrated galleries and museums. It has a thriving restaurant scene. But among the downtown traffic unique to this part of the country, it’s still home to what we know and love about New Zealand.
From the waterfront you can spot multiple islands home to protected habitats and rare species. The rolling mountains and dormant volcanoes provide for epic outdoor adventures, plus the rugged coastline brings you to remote wind-swept beaches burnt by ancient lava. In short, Auckland is New Zealand with a twist.
Explore the Waterfront
Having just got off the plane or drive from a far off destination, take your time getting to know Auckland by exploring its beautiful waterfront. It may be New Zealand’s biggest city but it’s dwarfed by the never-ending harbor views that stretch out to the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Tasman Sea on the other.
The Waterfront is a colorful and romantic place to visit in the evening. As the ferries come and go, and suits make their way between the office and home, there’s a lot of movement and organized chaos. It’s as local a scene as you’ll witness in Auckland and with the rows of city lights sparkling against the water, it’s also easy on the eyes.
This part of town is broken up into several parts, but there’s really just two you need to see. That is the area around Queen’s Wharf and the Viaduct. The former is the spot to enjoy water views, grab yourself a bike rental or check out the public art. You’ll also find the always hilarious Holey Moley, a mini-golf course with a twist.
But travelers looking to spruce things up should head to Viaduct Harbour where you’ll find some of the best restaurants in town, upscale bars and, later, a vibrant nightlife.
Climb the Sky Tower
At 1,253 feet (328m) high, Auckland’s Sky Tower is the largest structure in New Zealand. It hovers above the city like Toronto’s CN Tower or Sydney Tower, providing the perfect north star for locals and travelers alike. But not only does it help you with your sense of direction, the tower’s observation deck offers the farthest reaching views in town.
Visitors can make their way to the observation deck via an all-glass elevator. This sweeps you up at rapid speeds, quickly leaving downtown in the dust. From your spot above it all, you’ll be able to see vast distances and as far as 50 miles (80km) on a clear day.
In typical New Zealand fashion, a stunning view just isn’t enough. Having invented zorbing and popularized bungee jumping, it’s only logical that the Sky Tower would have a thrilling additional attraction. For a heart in mouth experience, forget the observation deck and complete the Sky Walk. This sees you hover on the edge of the tower, 630 (192m) above the ground.
Hike to Mt Eden
Mt Eden is so covered in lush green grass that it’s hard to picture the mountain as a dormant volcano. But that it is, although it hasn’t erupted in almost 30,000 years. After some amazing views from the top of the Sky Tower, you can enjoy an equally blissful sight from the summit of Auckland, which lies on the bed of lava that flowed from the mountain.
Mt Eden is 643 feet (196m) tall and is the highest natural landmark in the city. Just a brief drive from downtown, it won’t take long until you’re at the trailhead on Puhi Huia Road ready to begin the 2.5 mile (4km) return hike. The easy trek to the peak won’t take longer than an hour. Along the way, the vistas grow ever more impressive until you’re rewarded with beautiful downtown views from the peak.
From the summit, you’ll spot the rows of skyscrapers and the Sky Tower standing between the grassy mountain and the harbor. To your left will be the Auckland Harbour Bridge and to your right, Rangitoto Island.
Head over to Rangitoto Island
In the morning, the sun rises behind Rangitoto Island. The sun lights up downtown, turning the island into a silhouette. In the center, a mountain rises, which is another volcano that shaped the region. Just like Mt Eden, you can climb to the summit.
From the Auckland Waterfront, you can catch a ferry across the Waitemata Harbour and arrive on the Rangitoto Island’s soft sand beaches in a matter of minutes. From your spot on the island’s edge, you’ll have a closeup view of the city’s youngest volcano: one that rose out of the harbor just six centuries ago.
Before the sun reaches its highest point, spend your morning hiking to the summit where you can gaze upon the dark cone that tells the story of the volcano’s beginnings. The hour-long trail takes you through native forest that slowly disperses until you find yourself above treeline. From there, you’ll be blessed with memorable views across the Hauraki Gulf. If you’re not yet satisfied, you may be able to walk across the to neighboring Motutapu Island at low tide.
One particularly cool way to explore the island is at sunset. This epic tour involves kayaking from Auckland out to Rangitoto island in the afternoon, then climbing to the island’s summit for sunset. After a barbecue dinner on the island, you’ll paddle back to Auckland in the dark with your guide, watching the city start to light up. So magical!
Visit the New Zealand Maritime Museum
For all your time spent by the water, or looking at it, it’ll be no surprise that the country has a storied maritime past. This is a story that begins in the 13th and 14th centuries when over 40 large vessels departed Polynesia and, using the stars above them, were able to navigate their way to new lands.
You can learn all about this and New Zealand’s contemporary seafaring history at the New Zealand Maritime Museum. On the harborfront, the museum also explores how closely linked nation’s history on the oceans is to local culture. Upon entering, you’ll find exhibits that explore the first arrivals of the Polynesians, along with replicas of the famed outrigger canoes that carried them across oceans.
Slowly make your way through the centuries, learning about their whaling past, ancient instruments and historic events. This culminates in one of the country’s biggest maritime victories, its 1995 America’s Cup Triumph.
Spend a Day at the Park
Auckland’s Cornwall Park is the city’s top urban green space. In typical New Zealand fashion, the sprawling park envelopes a volcanic cone. It helps to combine the typical inner city park experience with something a tad more wild.
Covering over 400 acres, Cornwall Park became public space over a century ago when Sir John Logan Campbell donated the land to the city. Today, it’s the place to go to escape Auckland, without well, leaving it.
Among the many green lawns are endless places to lay down the picnic rug and break out the cheese and crackers. Whenever you wish to explore, you’ll find historic buildings that bring you back to the park’s 19th century beginnings, along with a modern working farm and a beautiful olive grove. The highlight of the park, however, is One Tree Hill. This dormant volcano, now covered in grass and sheep, features Maori Pa, a fortified village from before European arrival.
The lone tree no longer exists, but this just makes the hill’s single obelisk more poignant. The tower, rising out of the peak, is the grave of Sir Campbell.
Go Whale Watching
Whale watching is a popular activity in many oceanside cities around the world. But most have defined whale watching seasons, when the migratory species comes and settles for multiple months. In Auckland, there’s no defined season, meaning as long as the sun’s out, there’s no bad time to sign up for a tour.
Within Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, six species of whales are spotted with fantastic regularity. This all but guarantees you’ll come upon the majestic beasts, with the below tour offering a free second trip if you don’t. But it’s not just whales you’ll come across, keep the binoculars handy as you search for dolphins and penguins.
Interested in a whale and dolphin watching experience? This half-day eco cruise has you covered. Operating year-round, this tour takes you into the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park for an up close marine life experience on a 65-foot luxury catamaran.
Opt for a Beach Day
Travelers could fill a three-day itinerary with just the best beaches in the Auckland region. From the white sand east coast beaches to the volcanic black sand along the west.
Not far from the city, you can quickly be lazing on the white sand of Takapuna Beach or Milford Beach. Both are popular and scenic, with effervescent green-blue water and soft waves caressing the shore. Wherever you go, you can expect pleasant swimming and amenities. Speaking of, for a quintessential Auckland beach day, head to a local fish and chip shop. With your salty fresh meal steaming in the wrapped paper, return to the soft sand for a hot yet somehow refreshing lunch.
The west coast beaches are more wild and show the scars of old lava flow. Fringed by forests with black sand and sea stacks, they feel remote and the waves show no mercy. Piha and Karioitahi Beach offer stunning scenery, but be sure to bring all you need for a day by the water.
Visit Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island is a microcosm of the wider New Zealand. Surrounded by the spectacular Hauraki Gulf, the island has a splash of the Malborough wine region, the thrills of Queenstown, and a taste of the beaches found at the very tip of the North Island.
With a population of 8,000 people, the island is a prismatic mix of arts and culture, wineries and thrilling adventures. It should capture the imagination of travelers who will look upon the island like a foodie looks upon a quality buffet. Just like a buffet, how you approach your time on Waiheke Island is important.
Hikers can link up with the Church Bay Circuit. Lasting around three hours, this challenging yet rewarding hike comes with mesmerizing views while showcasing the top sights around Waiheke. The 5.1 mile (8.2km) trek takes you through the wine region and along the coast.
For art lovers, the downtown area has a number of galleries along with public installations that add a layer of high culture to the island paradise. While for thrill seekers, you can leave behind the town and zipline through native bush and over gorgeous vineyards.
Sample the Local Tipple
Also known as the Island of Wine, Waiheke Island is home to almost 30 wineries. With just a thirty-minute ferry between the island and Auckland, it’s your best opportunity to experience New Zealand’s fantastic wine scene while in town.
It’s the strength and popularity of the wineries that led to the population growth, art galleries and delectable food scene found on Waiheke. But along the rows of vines and behind the cellar doors is where the real experience lies. Travelers can bring their rental car on the ferry, or make use of the public bus that takes you to all the top sights.
Some of the wineries to add to your list include Stonyridge Vineyards and Mudbrick Vineyards. The former uses traditional French techniques to develop their mostly cabernet blends. The winery is beautiful with the vines strewn across the rolling green hills.
Mudbrick Vineyards has an elevated location which grants visitors gorgeous harbor views while sampling the local tipples. You must try to Reserve Merlot.
If you prefer to leave the driving to someone else, join this full day wine tour with ample tastings and Waiheke’s best culinary delights.
Spend time at the Auckland War Memorial Museum
Within a striking neoclassical building from the early 20th century, the Auckland War Memorial Museum is an invaluable insight into New Zealand’s involvement in overseas conflicts over the last few centuries.
The museum is located on the peak of the Auckland Domain surrounding by manicured grounds that make the structure appear even more stately. The second floor is dedicated to the memorial and focuses primarily on the World Wars.
Outside of the memorial, you’ll discover the museum’s Main Maori Galleries. This includes a series of fascinating exhibits that explore Maori history dating back to the 13th century. These show the stories of Maori warriors and include an 82-foot (25m) outrigger canoe, from 1826. You’ll also find a Maori gateway and the traditional Meeting House.
Last up is the natural history section, which explores the country’s volcanic past along with a look into local flora and fauna, with the highlight being a recreation of New Zealand’s enormous moa birds.
Wander through the Auckland Art Gallery
One of the most impressive buildings in Auckland now boasts the city’s foremost gallery. As you make your way to the gallery, you should first take time to admire the facade of the 19th century building that was inspired by French Renaissance architecture. Still, what lies within the Auckland Art Gallery tops everything else.
Boasting the most complete art collection in New Zealand, the Auckland Art Gallery commands your attention from the get-go. The walls are laden with ancient, modern and contemporary pieces that make part of the gallery’s rich collection of 15,000 works of art.
The first part you’ll wander through is the New Zealand Collection. This focuses on local works, particularly Maori art. To complement this, walk up a floor to the Maori Portrait Gallery that stands alongside the country’s largest section of historic art.
Afterwards, it’s time to journey overseas as you explore the gallery’s European hall. This includes paintings and installations that date as far back as the 1300s.
Explore Tiritiri Matangi Open Sanctuary
Another island within the Hauraki Gulf is Tiritiri Matangu. Roughly 20 miles (30km) northeast of Auckland, the island is now a 543-acre sanctuary that has helped revitalize the island. The Tiritiri Matangi Open Sanctuary replaced many farms with the land once falling victim to extensive agricultural techniques.
This all changed in 1984 when the land was returned to the public’s hands and 100,000+ trees were planted across the island. Over time, native species returned and work began to eliminate introduced pests and predators. As a result, the balance was restored to the point endangered species were brought back to Tiritiri Matangi. One of those species was the takahe, a rare, flightless bird.
On your trip, you can explore this modern day success story. Its habitats are like few in the country, with a vast number of species you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.
Eat Until You’re Stuffed at Elliott Stables
If you’re ever stuck on what to eat in Auckland, then there’s the city’s get-out-of-jail-free card otherwise known as Elliott Stables. This impressive food hall has snacks, dishes and treats from all around the world that will help cut the tension among your traveling crew who can’t pick a single cuisine.
Set within a charming space, the Stables’ vendors are spread out like a mini-village, with the communal tables providing a lively and social atmosphere. Beloved by locals, it’s the sort of place that remains busy throughout the week as city workers, travelers and those on a first date converge on the delectable space.
The Elliott Stables are in the heart of downtown Auckland, making it easy to get to while being close to plenty late-night action. There are around a dozen food stalls to choose from and it’s often best to let your nose lead the way. But to help out, you can look forward to Cajun BBQ, sushi, Italian, Filipino, French and lots of baos.
A fifteen-minute ferry ride from Auckland will bring you to the charming seaside town of Devonport. It’s another chance to get out on the harbor and admire the scenes, but the town that awaits is the real highlight.
Devonport was once a thriving colonial village and there’s evidence of this all throughout town. Within the historic buildings are now quaint coffee shops and local restaurants that provide for a cozy environment in an already blissful part of Auckland.
After a coffee and a quick feed, wander along the coast towards Maungauika, also known as North Head. This dormant volcano cuts into the harbor providing excellent city and gulf views. Along the way, you can stop at Devonport’s Naval Museum or continue on to discover military defenses, including tunnels that were developed during the Second World War.
Go Bungee Jumping
Bristol, England, may be the official place where bungee jumping was invented, but it was New Zealand that carried the sport towards international popularity. This was with the help of Allan Hacket, founder of A. J. Hackett, who created the first commercial bungee jump off the Kawarau Bridge on the South Island.
Without having to venture that far, you can experience a similar jump off of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. The bridge, which was complete in 1959, connects downtown with the northern neighborhoods and stands 141 feet (43m) above the water.
Here, you can walk along the bridge before the thrilling free fall brings you within a few feet of the harbor. It’s a heart in mouth experience and one you won’t soon forget. But if you prefer to keep your heart in your chest, then you can also complete a guided climb of the bridge.
Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
Less than thirty minutes west of downtown Auckland is a 40,000-acre park boasting forests and beaches. It’s an outdoor haven with a long list of gorgeous sights and exciting action that will bring out your inner adventurer. Enjoy hikes through the captivating landscapes or bike long the meandering hills. Around you, birds soar between the trees and the black sand glistens against the sun.
New Zealand’s South Island may steal much of the country’s thunder when it comes to epic natural landscapes. But this regional park helps to take some back. As you venture through the native rainforest that is untouched and wild, you’ll have the chance to stand in front of the stunning Karekare Falls. The white veil of water is split by the mossy rocks with the dark green forest holding on, on either side.
All told, there are 155 miles (250km) of hiking trails, which include multi-day epics such as the Hillary Trail. But beach lovers and surfers can ditch the trails and head straight to the black sand surf beaches which boast Lion Rock, a breathtaking sea stack standing over Piha.
Sail the Auckland Harbour
Auckland is known as the City of Sails, with its sprawling harbor home to a packed calendar of sailing races that often includes the iconic America’s Cup. On any given day, sailors make use of consistent winds to maneuver their craft along the water, creating a mass of white triangles whenever you look across the bay.
Especially on a warm, sunny day, it can be hard to watch as there’s nothing better than cruising with the wind and salty spray rushing past. So instead of watching on with envy, enjoy a 1.5 hour sailing cruise of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour. Kick back and let the crew do all the heavy lifting as you take in the joy of sailing with the beautiful skyline on one side and the islands on the other.
This cruise comes with fun commentary plus plenty of refreshing beverages to enjoy.
Walk down Ponsonby Road
For all the fun and adventures to be had around Auckland, it’s still good to get a little shopping done. If you’re a fan of window shopping and browsing eclectic independent stores, then you’ll be a big fan of Ponsonby Road.
Ponsonby is a suburb a few minutes west of downtown and its main thoroughfare is lined with a varied mix of retail stores with a lovely blend of delicious bakeries, barista coffee and local eats thrown in.
Shoppers will be able to enjoy a series of independent boutiques that showcase the best of Auckland fashion. There are also some well-known brands thrown in for good measure.
After a day wondering down the vibrant shopping street, don’t be in a hurry to make your way back downtown. Ponsonby Road turns into a lively nighttime strip with dimly lit cocktail bars and local pubs ready to bring deliver some classic Auckland nightlife.
Visit the Local Markets
Auckland is laden with markets that lie unexpectedly throughout the city. You’ll likely stumble upon one or two throughout your trip, especially around the waterfront. But there are two markets that you should plan for that will help complete your time in Auckland.
One is the Auckland Night Market. This market actually has seven locations throughout the area, bringing you plenty of opportunities to indulge in local and international cuisine while the tunes float through the air and the atmosphere puts a wide grin on your face. The best of the lot is Pakuranga Night Market, which often boasts over 200 vendors.
Another one to check out is the Auckland Fish Market. In the Wynyard Quarter, next to the Viaduct, this market is akin to an upscale food court mixing great wine and beer with all your favorite seafood creations. Come for the classic fish and chips and stay for the fresh sashimi and seafood cooking classes.
Take a day trip to Coromandel
Boasting a delightful climate, the biggest trees in the country, along with arguably New Zealand’s best beach, the Coromandel Peninsula, is a day trip for the books.
At just over 2 hours east and around the coast, it won’t take you long to experience the famous local views. Plus, the drive is quite scenic. Upon arrival, waste no time and make your way to the Cathedral Cove trailhead.
You’ll find the large car park just north of Hahei and the path will quickly become clear. For the uninitiated, this is one of the most rewarding short treks in New Zealand. Walkers will meander down the cliffside towards the cover of 2 miles (3.2km) of switchbacks.
There are some views along the way, but continue on until you make it to the beach. From there you’ll uncover a remarkable nook home to Cathedral Cove, which forms a natural bridge over the sand. Enjoy the epic scenery before snorkeling through the surrounding water.