Somehow, Auckland ended up to be the place I spent the vast majority of my recent New Zealand trip. Yes, I know, I can already hear some people moan at that. Auckland doesn’t have the greatest reputation among New Zealand tourists. Most people chose to get out as quick as they can after flying into the country. In fact, most NZ cities don’t seem to have the greatest reputation, as most people try to keep their city time as short as possible. Which I totally get, considering the many incredible landscapes New Zealand has to offer.
In my case, much of my stay in Auckland was coincidental rather than planned. First, I spent a few weeks there, after arriving in NZ with friends who live there. They took me around the city and its surroundings, which was the perfect way to get acclimatised with New Zealand. It also caused me to get to know Auckland very differently from many other tourists: instead of staying in the city centre, I was on the North shore, only a few minutes from the beach, and took day trips to all the best destinations in the Auckland area.
Auckland without people
Later, I was back in Auckland after some travels around the country, just when Covid-19 hit. Suddenly, New Zealand was in lockdown and leaving the city was no longer an option. During those weeks, all that was left to do was taking walks around the CBD, where I was staying this time around. I now experienced Auckland devoid of people but still hiding many little gems. Before, I had been a fan of Auckland’s surroundings but not necessarily of the CBD. Now, I learnt to appreciate it in a new way, forming a bond with Auckland that will always be special.
While I don’t assume any of you will ever need to go through a lockdown while staying in Auckland, (at least I sincerely hope so,) I still want to show you some of my Auckland faves. Maybe they’ll tempt you to make a longer stop there when you travel to NZ and appreciate all this city has to offer!
Auckland Harbour Cruise
You can’t visit Auckland and not do a harbour cruise in some form. If you haven’t seen Auckland from the water, have you even seen it at all? Luckily, many of its attractions give you a chance to do just this without any extra effort, such as taking the ferry to Devonport or Waiheke.
But failing that, it’s worth investing in an actual harbour cruise. It was on the water that Auckland always reminded me most of Sydney. I have been attacked for saying this by people who insisted Sydney is far superior to Auckland and the two are not comparable. While I agree with the first (part of my heart will always be in Sydney, after all), I beg to differ on the second.
While Auckland is much smaller than Sydney, its outline, as well as some of its vibe, are very similar. There’s the harbour with the ferry terminal in front. From there, the main shopping street leads straight into the city, lined by fancy stores. Even the skyline looks somewhat similar when you look at it from the water, with the high rises and the Skytower dominating them all. Oh, and both feature a Harbour Bridge, even if Auckland’s may look very different and is far less famous. Still, need I say more?
Viaduct Harbour and Silo Park
If we stick with the Sydney-Auckland comparison, then Viaduct Harbour would be the equivalent to Darling Harbour. A former working harbour, it was rebuilt up to attract tourists, mainly with restaurants and cafes. The boats lying here are predominantly yachts and tourist ships for harbour cruises and such. While it can’t compare with Darling Harbour in size, it’s still a cool place you should definitely check out. If you walk a bit further past most of the restaurants, you’ll find some comfy benches to chill and just watch the boats.
Recently, Viaduct Harbour has been connected with Silo Park via a small pedestrian bridge. The whole area is still in the process of being urbanized for tourists and locals. There was still much construction going on when I was there, but already it was a great place for a walk along the waterline. At the very end, there’s a pier with historic yachts at Silo Marina. From here, you have a great view of Harbour Bridge.
Queen Street and Ateoa Square
Queen Street is Auckland’s main shopping street. It begins at the ferry terminal and runs all the way down through the city. It feels like all the major clothing brands have a store here, generally getting more expensive and exclusive the closer you get to the harbour.
Queen Street is usually busy and maybe not the greatest place for an introvert. I’m the first to admit that what I liked about Auckland was mainly the beaches and beautiful surroundings, rather than the CBD. Still, it’s worth just walking down here once to see the heart of the city.
A notable stop along the way is Ateoa square, which houses the Auckland Town Hall. Nowadays, it’s home to a concert hall, the Civic Theatre, and the Ateoa Centre, which also houses conferences and a theatre. The Event Cinema complex also borders on the square.
Further to the end of Queen Street, you’ll find K-Road (short for Karangahape Road). If Queen Street is for fancy shops and luxury brands, K-Road is for alternative shops, cheap eateries and hippie clothes. Quite a change, but no less worth checking out.
Albert Park, the Domain and Emily Place Reserve
If you’re looking for something green while in the CBD, fear not. Auckland has actually quite a lot of green places and parks. Two of the biggest in the CBD are Albert Park and Auckland Domain. Emily Place, on the contrary, is tiny, but a real gem.
Albert Park is probably the most central of the parks, not far from Ateoa Square and just behind the Auckland Art Gallery. It’s reasonably large, features fountains, green hills, plenty of benches and heaps of cool plants. I spent a lot of time here during the lockdown, when we came on ou daily walks to get some fresh air and sunshine. Also, right at the east end of the park, you find some of my favourite little Auckland gems: houses covered completely in leaves. Green in summer, but a vibrant mix of reds, oranges and browns in fall, they’re basically screaming for that Instagram shot.
Just a small way behind Albert Park is Emily Place Reserve, a tiny spot of green right in the CBD. It’s pretty much just two short paths, but the overgrown trees that reach out across the trail and force you to duck under or climb over will make you feel like you’ve suddenly been transported to an enchanted forest!
Probably the biggest park in Auckland is the Domain. Besides just a swathing amount of land, there are also duck ponds, the Winter Gardens with a wide array of flowers, and sports fields. If you want to find a hidden niche to spend a day reading in the grass, ogle colourful flowers or just watch the geese waddle around the lawn, this is the place to go.
Did you know that Auckland is built on about 50 volcanic cones? Don’t worry though, they’re all inactive. At least, so I’ve been told…
Anyway, the most central of these cones is Mt Eden. Which is exactly why it makes a great lookout spot. The hike up the actual mountain is about 20 minutes from the base and not very hard. If you take a tour on the hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus, it even takes you to the very top. Thus, how much physical effort you put in is entirely up to you. If you’re really feeling like earning your dinner, you can also walk there all the way from the CBD, as I did – but it’ll take you close to an hour. Still, the view is worth it!
Devonport and North Head
Devonport is the suburb that basically sits right opposite the Auckland Harbour. Thus, the easiest way to get there from the CBD is by ferry. Devonport itself is a cute, artsy little town with a bit of a colonial vibe still preserved. It’s full of shops, cute cafes and restaurants, historical houses and even an old cinema.
Right at the end of the main street begins the ascend to Mt Victoria. From up there, you have a fantastic view of both Devonport and the Auckland skyline. Don’t worry, it’s not a difficult hike, only about 10-15 minutes from the start of the trail to the peak. I went up there with my aunt, who is over 70 and managed just fine.
Another lookout point is North Head, also a volcanic cone that sits just at the end of the peninsula on which Devonport is. To get there, it’s about a half-hour walk along the beach from the Devonport Ferry Terminal. The climb is about comparable to Mt Victoria, as is the view. There are the CBD and Devonport on one site, the Rangitoto volcano on the other.
Additionally, you can explore the North Head Military Reserve. Tunnels and other remnants will teach you a little about the military history of the place. Visiting is free and its fun exploring the tunnels, so don’t miss out on this! If this motivated you to learn more, Devonport is also home to the Navy Museum.
Waiheke is perfect for everyone craving a break from the city. Made up of sandy beaches, green hills and plenty of superb wineries, it’s the perfect island escape.
You get to Waiheke by ferry from Auckland harbour. It’s about a 40-minute ride, past some of the many islands dotted around Auckland. You can either do a day trip or stay for a few days for a true island getaway.
I did the latter, staying on Waiheke for three days. Originally, I had planned to explore big parts of the island during this time. I wanted to go hiking and visit at least one of its famed wineries. In the end, all I could motivate myself to do was chilling on the beach. Just having ended a long trip with my aunt, this turned out to be exactly what I needed. Waiheke was perfect for it.
However, if you’re more inclined to exploration than I was, then the best way to get around the island, if you don’t have a car, is by bus. There is a hop-on-hop-off tourist bus going around the whole island. Alternatively, if you like to make it more individual, just take the normal buses. They’re not expensive and can take you everywhere, whether it’s a new beach to explore, the weekend farmer’s market in Ostend or a winery for some tastings. The island is also covered by hiking trails of various lengths, so you can take in some of the beautiful scenery on foot.
Staying on Waiheke Island
As to accommodation, there are many places to stay on Waiheke, from cheap to fancy. I chose the Hekerua Lodge Backpackers in Little Oneroa, mainly because it was the only budget accommodation still available when I did my last minute booking. It sits very idyllically right in the forest, giving it a bit of a jungle feel. The nearest beach is only a few minutes away, the town not much further. The atmosphere is very social, with weekly shared dinners and often parties on the patio. As an introvert, I would normally have preferred something a bit quieter. But I still enjoyed my stay as the people were very nice and the location just lovely.
Only remember to take mosquito spray if you plan to hang around at dusk. During dinner the first night, I got pretty much eaten alive.
Just south of the city centre sits cute little Mission Bay, perfect for a day or half-day trip to the beach. You can easily get there from anywhere in the CBD by bus. The wide beach offers a perfect view of the Rangitoto volcano while you go for a swim or work on your tan. Behind the beach, divided from it by a wide park, is a little shopping street with some restaurants and small shops. It’s not much, but you’ll be able to find a snack if you fancy. Or just go for an ice-cream.
For the active people, you can climb up to the Michael Joseph Savage Memorial Park, with look-out points and the Savage Memorial. It takes only about 10 minutes from Mission Bay Beach. Also, as the Sea Life Aquarium sits just on the other side of this hill, so it’s easy to combine those two into a day trip.
Piha is strictly speaking already quite a bit outside of Auckland, but still usually counted among its attractions. To be precise, Piha is on the „wild” west coast, where the surf is rougher and the beaches absolutely stunning! Piha is counted among the so-called black beaches because the sand has a dark colour due to its volcanic origins.
Around Piha Beach, there are many great lookout spots where you have a great view over the coast. Just make sure to only actually use designated lookout spots and not just stop on the side on the road – apparently, there have already been plenty of accidents due to this.
Besides the beach itself, there are some walking tracks around Piha leading to waterfalls and blowholes. My Kiwi friends, with whom I visited on a day trip, showed me some of them. The blowhole wasn’t very spectacular as it was low tide, but that also made standing next to it was much safer.
By the way, as with all West Coast beaches, is difficult to almost impossible to get to Piha on public transport. It would require you to go at least some distance by cab or uber, thus costing a lot of money. It’s easiest to visit if you have a car. Otherwise, there are organised day trips you can do, but obviously you’ll be less flexible with those.
Muriwai Gannet Colony
Muriwai is another one of Auckland’s west coast beaches and similarly beautiful as Piha – though in terms of purely landscape, I probably prefer the latter. Yet, Muriwai has something very special that Piha can’t offer: a gannet colony!
These seabirds nest here from about August to about March. Once the chicks are old enough, they all fly off across the Tasman Sea, all the way to Australia! When they’re older, they’ll come back to raise their own young.
Several viewing platforms allow a close view of the gannets, without disturbing them. The smell will prevent you from wanting to get any closer, anyway. Still, the spectacle is nothing if not impressive! Birds are constantly coming and going, and everywhere in between are the little fluff balls that are their chicks. By the time I visited in February, they were already almost as big as their parents and would soon take off for their maiden flight.
Bonus: 5 more things to do in Auckland
These are places I didn’t personally visit, but that have been highly recommended to me by friends and fellow travellers. Some of them, I’d certainly like to do when I visit Auckland again one day!
This volcanic island not too far from the harbour is a popular day-trip destination. You go there by ferry and then have time to hike up to the top of the volcano and enjoy the view. It’s supposed to be a beautiful walk and not too hard. However, the ferry only goes once or at most twice a day so you’re quite constricted as to how much time you want to spend there. Also, I found it relatively pricey at 39$ return, which is why I ended up not doing it. Still, it’s on my list for the next visit to Auckland!
Auckland War Memorial Museum
The Auckland Museum is that one place I meant to go to my entire stay and never actually got around to. Despite the name, it’s not just about war. Rather, the name comes from the fact that the Auckland War Memorial is right in front of it. The museum itself is focused on New Zealand history and culture in general. The Maori section especially is said to be very good. They also run Maori culture shows with dances and cultural demonstrations.
By the way, for Auckland residents, entry is free. For tourists, unfortunately not. But I have seen some hostels and accommodations offering discounted tickets, so it may be worth asking about those before you buy at the door.
Towering high over Auckland and not easy to miss is the Skytower. At its top is a viewing platform, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. I didn’t go because I thought it would be nicer to have a view of the actual skyline, from Devonport or Mt Eden. It just wasn’t something I felt like spending money on.
However, if you’re interested in going, this is another attraction where it’s worth checking whether your accommodation may have discounted tickets.
Other museums, galleries and the Auckland Zoo
Auckland is full of museums and art galleries, many of which have a very good reputation. So whether your interest is art, history or culture, you should be able to find a good place to visit.
The Auckland Zoo is also beautiful, as I have been told. If you want to see some local animals, like kiwis, this may be a good place to go.
Western Harbour and One Tree Hill
Auckland’s main harbour is the ferry terminal in the CBD. But because the country is so thin at this point, it actually has a second one on the west side. I never got around to go, but many people do.
If you’re on that side of town, you should also stop by One Tree Hill, another of those volcanic cones for great city views.
Enough reasons to visit Auckland?
I hope I’ve convinced you that Auckland may be worth spending some time in during your New Zealand trip. Sure, it may not have the history of a European city or the spectacularity of the landscape you came to see. But I never ran out of interesting things to do.
At the very least, you can form your own opinion on whether Auckland is worth it before you dismiss it. I think a city literally built on volcanoes and featuring so many beaches deserves this, wouldn’t you agree?
Have you been to Auckland? Did you like it? Any favourite sights that I missed? Share in the comments!