Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and home to a quarter of the country’s population.
As such, it’s a busy place — but somehow the city manages to maintain a charming, relaxed and low-key feel.
Thanks to its enviable position between two harbours, boating plays a big part in the lifestyle of Aucklanders (with one in three homes owning a boat, the city has earned the moniker ‘City of Sails’). Getting out on the water during your visit is a must-do, as is exploring the vibrant and multicultural food scene — which rivals that of any world city.
Enjoy this Auckland travel guide.
Five Auckland tours we love
A hop on hop off tour is always a great way to get your bearings in a new city. This Auckland hop on hop off bus tour will transport you to many of the city’s top attractions, across two tour routes. You can also explore the historic suburb of Devonport with a complementary return ferry ride from downtown Auckland. Passes are valid for 24 hours.
If you only have limited time in Auckland, this five-hour Auckland city highlights tour takes in all the key sights. The tour includes Sky Tower admission, a harbour cruise, and morning pickup from your Auckland hotel.
Taste the best of the city on this guided food tour with an Auckland foodie. You’ll travel in air-conditioned comfort and visit the Auckland Fish Market, a farmers’ market and a number of artisanal food producers — sampling their wares as you go. A wine tasting and light lunch are also included.
Looking for an Auckland activity the whole family will enjoy? Do a privately guided bike tour of the city’s fabulous waterfront, with full commentary and plenty of stops along the way. The tour is suitable for riders of all ages.
No visit to Auckland would be complete without doing a harbour dinner cruise. Cruise in a sailboat from Viaduct Basin to a local marina, where you’ll enjoy a delicious three-course dinner at anchor. On the return journey, you’ll see the glittering lights of the city, Sky Tower and Auckland Harbour Bridge.
Auckland for history lovers
New Zealand’s first people — the Māori, arrived around 800 years ago from Polynesia.
European settlers and missionaries made an entrance from the early 1800s. They were followed by immigrants from Europe and more recently from Asia. Many have made Auckland their home.
One of the best ways to learn about the city’s history, and the colourful characters that shaped it, is to join a three-hour walking tour with Auckland Free Walking Tours. You’ll visit Auckland’s original foreshore and one time red light district — now home to trendy eateries, and the sites of the city’s first pubs. Guides are passionate and knowledgeable about their city. They’re also a wealth of information on what’s on around town, and where to eat, shop and grab a coffee.
From Māori canoes to America’s Cup winning yachts, boats in their various forms have always played an integral role in Auckland life. This makes the New Zealand Maritime Museum a must-see. A highlights tour with a volunteer guide is available as part of the cost of your ticket. Experience the harsh conditions endured by early immigrants in a simulated ship’s cabin that sways and creaks, and learn about the history of recreational sailing in the city.
Another historical must-see is the Auckland War Memorial and Museum. The monolithic building atop Auckland’s Domain was constructed in the 1920s as a monument to Aucklanders who lost their lives in WWI, and to house a natural history museum. The war memorial galleries hold an incredible collection, with particular emphasis on the two World Wars and how the first ANZAC campaign helped shape New Zealand’s national identity. New Zealand sent 100,000 soldiers and 500 nurses to the battlefields of World War I. Eighteen thousand never returned.
The museum’s natural history galleries share the evolutionary story of New Zealand, including the extinction of the famous Moa. A model Moa on display stands three metres high. That was one big bird!
Top cultural experiences in Auckland
The Māori Galleries in the Auckland Museum tell the story of New Zealand’s first people.
More than 1,000 taonga (treasures) of Māori culture are housed in the museum, making it the most extensive and significant collection of Māori cultural artefacts in the world. Further galleries are dedicated to the peoples of the wider Pacific region.
The stunning Auckland Art Gallery is a must-see, if only for the building itself. An extension featuring swathes of glass and native timber was added in 2011, which dramatically increased the capacity of the original gallery. It also gave each section of the gallery its own distinctive character. The architectural design has taken out numerous international prizes, including the 2013 World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival.
Inside, there are galleries dedicated to New Zealand and international art. The permanent international collections of impressionism and cubism include works by Monet and Picasso. Canterbury landscapes, the works of prominent Kiwi artist Colin McCahon, and a striking collection of Māori portraits are highlights of the New Zealand collection. The gallery also hosts touring exhibitions and special events.
While the locals either love it or loathe it, Sky Tower is an architectural and cultural icon of the city. The 328 metre-high tower is the southern hemisphere’s tallest free-standing structure. Its observation decks — 220 metres above the city — provide great views on a clear day. You can test your nerve by walking on the glass floor or around the outside of the tower on SkyWalk. Others can choose to take the plunge with SkyJump. For the less adventurous visitor, the tower is home to cafes and a revolving restaurant. It sits above a vast entertainment complex that includes a theatre and casino.
Great places to eat in Auckland
The city has a food offering to suit all tastes and budgets.
The diversity of dining options is on display in the Viaduct Basin district. The waterfront precinct was developed in the lead-up to New Zealand’s 1995 America’s Cup defence, and today it’s home to around 30 restaurants and bars. You can’t really go wrong here with plenty of great choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Soul Bar and Restaurant is known for its seafood, while Portofino offers contemporary Italian cuisine. Giraffe by kiwi celebrity chef Simon Gault is the top pick for all-day dining.
For flavour-packed Asian dishes, Monsoon Poon is almost hidden under an overpass at the bottom of Hobson Street, but is well worth seeking out. The Firecracker Chicken comes with a heat warning. The Java Room in Parnell is another top choice for Asian-inspired fare.
For those looking to push the boat out on a fine dining experience, book a table at Botswana Butchery. Located right on the waterfront in the city’s historic Ferry Building, the beautiful décor, excellent wine list and amazing presentation make this a firm favourite. As its name suggests, Botswana Butchery heroes meat (especially lamb and beef), but there are also plenty of seafood and salad options. The menu is pricey but worth the splurge.
Hectors Restaurant at the Heritage Auckland hotel is the place to go for fabulous vegetarian and vegan dining. In 2013 Hectors became the first New Zealand hotel restaurant to be accredited by the NZ Vegetarian Society. For those supporting the global Meat Free Monday campaign, the restaurant does a set five-course vegan-friendly menu. Carnivores are still well looked after with dishes including Taupo lamb rump, pork belly, free range chicken and aged eye fillet.
Brunch is many Aucklanders’ favourite meal of the day, and it shows in the big range of all-day breakfast options across the city. Top picks are Ortolana in the Pavilions at the Britomart retail and dining hub, and Giraffe.
Poke bowls are all the rage in Auckland. This Hawaiian-inspired light meal consists of a bed of rice or noodles topped with marinated meat and vegetables. Poke bars have popped up all over town, and are rapidly gaining on burgers as the city’s fast food of choice. Try Ika Bowl on the corner of Forte Lane and Snickel Lane or Yeah Bowl at Britomart.
Speaking of burgers, Gourmet Burger & Brew Kitchen on the waterfront boasts 26 individual burger combinations that you can wash down with a range of beers.
For something sweet to round things off, the king of Auckland ice cream is Giapo. In a tiny shop and factory in downtown Auckland, Italian-born Giapo and his team create artisanal ice cream like no other. Some of the over-the-top cones come topped with a chocolate rendition of Sky Tower or a giant chockie squid. Ice cream has even been combined with hot chips, hot cross buns and Yorkshire pudding. Genius!
Where to shop in Auckland
Queen Street is the place to head for a spot of retail therapy.
It’s home to two department stores — Farmers and Smith & Caughey’s — as well as a wealth of clothing stores and souvenir sellers. At the waterfront end, you’ll find top line designer labels including Louis Vuitton and Dior. Bivouac has a huge range of outdoor clothing and equipment for anyone planning to hit New Zealand’s great outdoors.
I love a good homewares store and there are two crackers in Parnell. Le Monde is stocked with a huge range of furniture, ceramics, napery, snuggly blankets and lots of divine smelly stuff, while just a few metres away La Cigale stocks candles, bags, tableware and body products. La Cigale also operates a popular French/European-inspired market on Saturday mornings.
For a unique souvenir of your visit to New Zealand (including the cutest soft toy kiwis in town!), head to Pauanesia. This small store in High Street offers textiles, merino possum knitted accessories, bags, jewelry and stationery.
The massive stock of quality second-hand books at Jason Books could put your luggage limit in serious danger. If you can’t find what you want there, take the short ferry ride to Devonport to explore the range at Bookmark.
Ways to relax in Auckland
Auckland’s popular city beaches and waterfront trails offer great options for walking or cycling.
A pleasant and informative way to explore is to join a cycling tour with Adventure Capital. The pace is leisurely and there are plenty of opportunities to take a break and enjoy the views of the city skyline and harbour while hearing about key moments and characters in Auckland’s history. If you prefer to head out on a self-guided adventure, bike hire is available.
Auckland has lots of lovely green spaces, including the Domain — the city’s oldest and largest park. The 75 hectare park sits on top of one of the region’s many extinct volcanos. Don’t miss the lovely Domain Wintergardens, housed in historic Victorian glasshouses. Closer to the city centre, Albert Park (named after Queen Victoria’s husband) is filled with exotic trees and pretty flower beds, and is home to one native kauri tree.
Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf makes an ideal day trip from Auckland. The open nature reserve is home to plenty of feathered New Zealand locals that will delight twitchers. The island also boasts idyllic coves with sandy beaches and stunning coastal walking trails.
If you’re after a more energetic form of relaxation, you can tackle the city’s epic Coast to Coast Walkway. The 16 kilometre walk begins at the Viaduct, and crosses Auckland Domain, Albert Park, Cornwall Park and One Tree Hill Domain. You’ll pass through a university campus and along various suburban streets, before finishing the walk at Manukau Harbour.
For some serious pampering and ‘me-time’, head to Spa Sommaai at the Heritage Auckland. A range of wellness treatments are available including traditional Thai massage, facials and foot treatments.
Where to stay in Auckland
Located right in the heart of the action on Queen Street, CityLife Auckland is an ideal base for accessing Auckland’s many attractions. The hotel offers deluxe accommodation in five different room types, with something to suit all travellers. Superior rooms are a good option for overnight or short stays, while the suites with kitchen facilities are perfect for longer stays. All rooms feature a contemporary décor, spotless bathroom and very comfy beds. Interconnecting rooms are available.
Guests enjoy 2GB of complimentary Wi-Fi per day, and the use of the fully equipped health club and heated lap pool. The on-site Zest restaurant and bar serves up tasty pub-style meals. It’s hard to beat this hotel for location, convenience and comfort.
Down near the waterfront on Hobson Street, CityLife’s sister property Heritage Auckland offers comfortable accommodation spread across its historic hotel wing and modern Tower Wing. The historic wing occupies the former Farmers department store building — which is around a century old. The hotel has retained the store’s original wooden floorboards, period light fittings in the hallways, and art deco charm. The rooftop pool and gym offer a workout with a view of the city skyline and harbour.
The Tower Wing opened in 1999, and its rooms are more contemporary in style. Accommodation options range from standard hotel rooms to luxury suites with kitchen and laundry facilities. The Tower Wing has its own heated lap pool, sauna and spa, and guests are welcome to use the recreational facilities in either wing. Hectors Restaurant is located onsite and provides a top quality dining experience.
Louise travelled as a guest of Heritage Hotels and Adventure Capital.
Do you have any tips to add to our Auckland travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Louise Reynolds made up her mind at the age of about four that she would one day travel the world — and has so far visited around 30 countries across five continents and the Pacific. A hopeless Francophile, Louise has a particular love for France, its language and pretty much all things French. Her favourite way to explore the world is on foot and her boots have taken her walking on famous trails in Europe, South America and New Zealand. Louise also has a passion for her home state and loves exploring regional Victoria.