The largest city in New Zealand, Auckland has an abundance of things on offer. From the urban delights of museums, art galleries and iconic attractions through to the natural beauty of islands nestled in sparkling waters, black sand beaches, sprawling green parks and volcanic cones.
Discover Auckland, ‘The City of Sails’
Auckland, nicknamed ‘The City of Sails’ due to its 3,702km of coastline and love of sailing, won’t leave you short of things to do whether you’re a nature lover, history buff, adrenalin junkie or shopaholic. The diverse multi-cultural city blends a rich array of art galleries and museums steeped in Maori and Pacific Island culture. Popular attractions such as the iconic Sky Tower boost panoramic views of the city. While the natural beauty of the Hauraki Coast and sprawling green spaces, which are home to some of the best-preserved volcanic cones in the country, will have you reaching for your camera.
So whether you’re starting or ending your journey on the Northern Explorer in Auckland, you’ll want to spend a few days in this vibrant city to enjoy the irresistible feast of activities on offer.
This article includes the following sections you can jump to:
- Auckland must-do activities
- Where to stay in Auckland
- Eating out in Auckland
- Getting around Auckland
- A little bit of history
Where to start! Here are some of our top picks on what to do in Auckland to give you a real flavour of the city and fill your sight-seeing senses. If you want more recommendations, Trip Advisor is a great place for seeking out rave reviews from people who’ve been there, done it and bought the t-shirt.
Glimpse into New Zealand’s history
Auckland War Memorial Museum is an outstanding historical building which sits majestically on top of the volcanic cone of Auckland’s Domain, Parnell. It’s a great introduction to the story of New Zealand; its land, people and culture. Highlights include an interactive volcano exhibition showing the geological history of New Zealand with a simulated ‘real-life’ experience of what would happen if an eruption were to go off in the Hauraki Gulf. The museum is also home to the largest collection of Maori and Pacific Island artefacts including an entire carved meeting house (Hotunui) originally built in 1878 and a Maori war canoe. They regularly have special exhibitions and you can check their website to find out what’s on when you’re in Auckland.
A bird’s eye view of Auckland
The cloud-busting Sky Tower is an iconic feature of the Auckland skyline and the best spot for a coast to coast view of the big smoke. The main observation deck is open late into the evening and the best time to go is just before sunset so you can enjoy day and night time views up to 80km in every direction. If you want to raise your heart rate, you can jump off the Sky Tower (harness attached of course) in one of the highest base jumps in NZ or take a ‘Sky Walk’ around the outside platform (again, harness attached!). For the more demure, watch the dare devils from the safety of the revolving restaurant in the Sky Tower as you enjoy some fine dining.
Stand on dormant volcanic cones
Auckland is home to 48 volcanic cones, all dormant thankfully so you won’t be dodging hot lava flows, and offer amazing views of the cityscape. Many are nestled in luscious green parks meaning pleasant surroundings for a stroll to the summit too. Mount Eden is Auckland’s highest natural point and after taking in great views of Auckland harbour, you can grab brunch, lunch or dinner in one of the many eateries in the quaint village at the base of the mount.
Alternatively, take a ferry to Devonport and hike up Mount Victoria for a view back towards the city. For the more adventurous, carry on to Rangitoto Island, the youngest of the volcanic cones, for a one hour walk to the summit to soak in the views of Auckland CBD.
Meet the local animals
For Happy Feet fans, a visit to Kelly Tarlton’s should be high on the agenda. It has one of the world’s largest penguin colonies and you can coo over freshly hatched fluffy baby penguins at the right time of year. Make sure you buy your tickets online for the best deals.
If jungle giants are more your thing, wander through the wildlife safari at Auckland Zoo to hand feed the giraffes or get up close to the resident elephant who takes a daily stroll around the zoo.
Shop ‘til you drop
You’ll be able tick off the souvenir shopping in Auckland with a bounty of Kiwiana shops. Hit Queen Street to find All Black gear in Champions of the World, greenstone, Maori art and clothes from local designers such as Trelise Cooper and Karen Walker in the nearby Britomart. For the fashion forward, head to Ponsonby and Newmarket for threads from more of the best New Zealand designers including Juliette Hogan, Anna Stratton, Zambesi and World.
a visit to the City of Sails wouldn’t be complete without a mosey along Auckland’s Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter, home to the 2003 America’s Cup events. After you’ve envied over the parked up house-sized super yachts in the harbour, indulge in one of the fine dining restaurants, bars or cafes packed into this stretch of the CBD.
Get black between your toes
If you have time to venture further afield from central Auckland, visit the black iron sand beaches of Piha. Made famous by the movie The Piano and TV show, Piha Rescue, this stunningly beautiful surf beach is more than worth the 40 minute drive to get here.
Hop on a ferry to the charming yesteryear of Waiheke Island
It’s blessed with pristine beaches, a climate ideal for making incredible wine and friendly locals who make great food to match. You’ll find it hard not to relax on Waiheke Island and it’s an ideal spot to stop before kicking off a grand tour of NZ or dusting off some jetlag.
Start your North Island Adventure on the Northern Explorer
Rather than tackle the long drive through the North Island, set off on your North Island adventure from the comfort of the Northern Explorer, previously known as The Overlander. You can do the 680km trip in one go, taking in the extremes of the North Island scenery in a day. Or make the most of the popular destination the Northern Explorer stops at; Otorohanga for the magical Waitomo Caves, Tongariro National Park, the mountain town of Ohakune and finally the cool little capital of Wellington where the journey ends. The Northern Explorer departs from Auckland on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.
The Northern Explorer leaves from the Strand station in Auckland which is closest to Parnell and only a 20 minute walk from Auckland CBD or a 5-10 minute taxi ride. The station is conveniently located in a central location so you can stay a little further afield in Auckland and not be too far from The Strand Station. There is a plethora of options to choose from starting at basic backpackers through to luxury lodges and penthouse, every budget is well catered for!
CBD and Auckland Waterfront
The CBD which covers Britomart, Queen Street and K Road, is home to a stable of hotel chains, serviced apartments and backpackers. The waterfront, close to Auckland’s Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter is mainly serviced apartments and hotels with some apartment options also available on Air BnB. Visit Auckland is a great option for finding accommodation in this central Auckland location as a starting point.
Parnell is the closest suburb to the Northern Explorer station and one of the oldest and most upmarket parts of Auckland. The area is home to elegant, historical buildings including Auckland Museum while the high street is dotted with art galleries, expensive boutiques and fancy restaurants. Despite the affluent appearance, there is still a decent range of accommodation options to suit most budgets.
Conveniently located 10 minutes from the city centre, Ponsonby is chic, lively and overflowing with boutique hotels, villas and unique B&Bs. The area is also well-known for its restaurant options from exquisite fine dining and award-winning coffee shops to pop up street stalls so you won’t go hungry if you choose to stay in this next of the woods.
Sitting at the base of Mount Eden (Maungawhau), the village has a charming vibe with artisan food stores, heritage buildings and neat little cafes. It’s also close to the magnificent Eden Park which hosts sporting events including All Black games. If you’re looking for the more authentic Kiwi accommodation of B&Bs or self-contained villas, this would be the place.
A short 10 minute ferry ride from the CBD, Devonport will serve you with views of Auckland CBD as well as a relaxed atmosphere in its quietly pleasant high street and nearby Cheltenham beach.
Takapuna (North Shore)
Longing for the feel of sand between your toes and breathing in the salty sea air? Just a 20 minute bus ride from the CBD, you can cross the harbour bridge to the North Shore’s unofficial capital ‘Takapuna’. Takapuna has a beautiful white-sand beach will give you views of Rangitoto and has a host of restaurant, cafes and bars to choose from. This is a great spot for families as there is a playground on the beachfront and the majority of eateries are kid-friendly. It also has a great range of accommodation from hotels, motels to hostels.
The abundance of eating options in Auckland serves up endless options whether you’re after a quick bite, fine dining affair or are just going straight in for dessert. Here are some suggestions of where to start your quest to tantalise your tastebuds!
If you want to experience New Zealand’s Master Chefs, you don’t need to venture far from Auckland’s CBD. Irresistible dining options are clustered around Britomart, High Street, Federal Square and Auckland’s waterfront and the perfect place to start your culinary adventure. The notable magazine Metro annually announces the Top 50 restaurants in Auckland and the perfect place to research what might tickle your fine-dining taste buds.
You won’t be able to turn a corner without stumbling across a café, Aucklanders can’t start the day without a trim flat white or soy latte. Add in some smashed avocado on toast with a side of bacon and you’ll be ready to start the day (or afternoon should you be there for brunch). Whichever part of the city you’re in, we suggest you check The Urban List of Auckland’s Top café so whatever brew you choose, you make sure it’s a good one.
Quick Bite and Cheap Eats
The multi-cultural blend of Auckland brings a welcomed selection of food to grab on the run. Burgers, bagels, noodles, dumplings, hangi, sushi, curry – are you hungry yet? We have to recommend some Kiwi icons which aren’t to be missed including Burger Fuel, Best Ugly Bagels, Little Bird Unbakery and the best fish and chip shops in Auckland!
There are not many places that offer ‘desserts only’ but in Auckland, there are a fair few to keep the sweet-tooth fans happy! If you like a generous scope of ice cream smothered in fanciful garnishes, Giapo’s is a must while for pure chocolate scrumptiousness, munch through the dessert degustation menu at Milse. Here’s some more sweet treat suggestions for your delight in Auckland!
Auckland is an international and local transport hub! Getting around is easy when you know how.
It is easy to travel by bus or train throughout the city and beyond. Britomart is the central transport hub for bus and train journeys, just a short walk from The Strand – your stop on The Northern Explorer.
Much of Auckland is surrounded by water; therefore catching the ferry is a common form of transport. You can take a short ride across the harbour to the North Shore or out to the Hauraki Gulf Islands like Waiheke. The central ferry terminal is also known as downtown, 2 minutes walk from Britomart station.
Driving – hire a car or motorhome
Driving is a popular choice if you are wanting to explore more of Auckland. The Northern Explorer stops a short walk to “rental car road” with many rental companies to choose from including Go Rentals, Ezi Car Rental and Jucy.
Make sure you carry your driving licence with you at all times which driving in New Zealand, failure to do so can cause a hefty fine. Check who can drive and what is required from NZ Transport Agency.
If rush hour traffic isn’t your thing, explore the city by bike. Easy routes go along the waterfront or if you are feeling energetic tackle a trail through the suburbs. Head to the i-SITE for more information on bike hire or take a look at these cycling routes for some 2 wheeled inspiration.
Auckland is built on a volcanic field of 50 dormant volcanoes, which have totally changed the city landscape. The hills, lakes and basins of the city are the remains of past eruptions.
Over 650 years ago Europeans purchased Auckland from the Maori people, called the Treaty of Waitangi. On 6th February 1840, the treaty was signed and Auckland was named New Zealand’s capital under British colonial settlement. In 1865 the capital was moved to Wellington and Auckland lost its status.
Since the beginning of the 20th century Auckland has been New Zealand’s fastest growing city, also referred to as “the big smoke”. Some of the most famous landmarks, such as the SkyTower were constructed and the Harbour Bridge opened to connect Auckland and the North Shore. In fact, Auckland has not always been one city, until 2010 Auckland comprised of several separate cities; this included large areas such as North Shore City and Manukau City.
As a young booming global city, Auckland is more diverse than Sydney, Los Angeles, London and New York. Just take a look around on your travels and you will see the multicultural nature of the city. Auckland has the balance just right in embracing its heritage and opening its arms to new foods, music, traditions beliefs and interests. There’s always something happening in Auckland – come and visit!