Auckland is the most bustling and cosmopolitan city in New Zealand. But what surprised me when I first arrived, after nearly 26 hours spent traveling from the U.S. East Coast, was that it didn’t feel at all as exotic as I expected — at least at first glance.
As far as architecture is concerned, downtown Auckland has experienced a building boom in the past few decades. Unfortunately, that means that there’s little historic charm; indeed, the concrete and glass Sky Tower, a massive “needle” type attraction built in 1996, is the city’s most iconic landmark. There are a few signs of the city’s past — the revitalized Ferry House by the waterfront, which houses a couple of restaurants and a gelato bar, is a good example — but downtown’s growth by and large has been marked more by knocking down old buildings than by renovating them.
What makes Auckland a truly unique destination is its fabulous proximity to the water. Lining the Waitemata Harbor, which leads to the Gulf of Hauraki and the Bay of Islands, the city’s waterfront bustles with ferry traffic. From downtown it’s an easy hop to Waiheke Island, a one-time hippie hangout that’s now earning recognition for its beautiful vistas and thriving winemaking culture. There’s Devonport, on the north shore, a charming coastal town (with a great view of Auckland across the harbor); it’s replete with cafes, parks and shops. Beyond the more urban waterways you can travel to other scenic spots — from the gentle Seabird Coast in the south to the rugged Pacific-fringed Northland in the opposite direction. Both are easy day-tripping options.
Another geographic highlight of Auckland, which sits on an isthmus, is the 48 volcanic hills that are scattered around the city. They’re easily identifiable, rising suddenly and steeply and featuring flat tops. On some, such as Mt. Eden, the craters are mossy and furry with grass. You can drive or walk to the top. The views, stretching past the harbors of Waitemata and Manukau and bordered by mountain ranges, are almost as good as those from Auckland’s famous Sky Tower.
What will also impress you is the friendliness of the folks who live and work here. The sense we got, over and over again, is that Aucklanders really do revel in the city’s relatively newfound popularity amongst tourists — whether from the South Island, Australia (a three-hour flight away and the closest major land mass), or Asia, Europe and the U.S. The people we met here displayed a strong sense of pride in their city and took it upon themselves to make sure we enjoyed our visit.
The Sky Tower is the perfect “I just got to Auckland” place to visit. At 1,076 feet high, it, er, towers above the city. Its observation deck offers a superb 360-degree panoramic view. One of the creepiest features of the observation deck — at least for this vertigo sufferer — is the thick, clear glass panels placed in the floor. Step on them and look down many hundreds of feet to the street level. Kids seemed to have no fear of walking on them, but I could not, for the life of me, force myself to do it! There’s a terrific gift shop at the basement entrance to the observation deck. And there’s more to Sky Tower than merely observing the view — the truly daring can also leap off the Sky Deck, a base jumping experience that plunges you down more than 600 feet, or take the Sky Walk, which ultimately takes you up to the 1,000-foot level. The tower is part of the SKYCITY complex, which offers a huge casino along with some restaurants and shops.
The Auckland Museum is not to be missed. You’ll spy it immediately from the Sky Tower vantage point: the Greek Revival style structure makes it easily the most distinctive building in Auckland. Many of its exhibits center around New Zealand’s Maori people, the original inhabitants of the island, but it also has displays focusing on local history and geography.
Art lovers won’t want to miss the Auckland Art Gallery, the country’s oldest and largest art museum. Highlights of the collection include significant works by Maori and other New Zealand artists.
For those in search of local charm and character, don’t miss a foray into Parnell or Ponsonby, two of the city’s most interesting neighborhoods. Parnell is a bit more elegant; there you’ll find jewelry and artisan boutiques, cozy sidewalk cafes and the Parnell Rose Gardens. Ponsonby is hipper and funkier, with trendy designer shops, chic restaurants, and the city’s sleekest bars and nightclubs.
Waiheke Island, located a 40-minute ferry ride away from the Auckland waterfront, reminded me a bit of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ St. John. Like that island, Waiheke was once famed as a nesting spot for people in search of alternative lifestyles and really gained prominence as a destination for arty folks in the 1970s. These days, it attracts Auckland commuters and active types drawn to its great beaches and water sports. It also appeals to connoisseurs of food and wine — Te Whau Vineyard features one of the most storied restaurants in Auckland, with marvelous views of Waiheke Island, Rangitoto and the Auckland isthmus. See Waiheke Island tours on Viator.
Named after Kelly Tarlton, New Zealand’s most famous treasure hunter, Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium is a marine park located harborside that offers everything from a fish’s-eye view of the sea to an Antarctic adventure with dozens of playful penguins.
Devonport, which dates back to the mid-19th century and was the first settlement on the north side of the harbor, is simply a very pleasant town in which to while away an afternoon — particularly if you’ve succumbed to sightseeing burnout. A small village with a main street of shops and boutiques, Devonport faces Auckland proper from across the bay. Attractions there include the military tunnels of North Head and the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum, but we simply enjoyed a meal at the Esplanade Hotel and went window shopping.
Rangitoto Island, formed by a series of volcanic eruptions, is a great place for hiking through lava fields and into lava caves. You can even stroll around the crater’s rim. Fullers offers year-round ferry transportation from New Zealand. See Rangitoto Island tours from Viator.
Auckland has a wealth of fabulous restaurants, many of them offering not only fresh, inventive cuisine but also wonderful waterfront views. Start your restaurant search in Viaduct Harbour, Parnell or Ponsonby, three areas where you can stroll and find dozens of dining choices.
Head over to Viaduct Harbour for a whole range of great restaurants for casual dining. A few of our favorites include Degree, where you can have your dinner delivered to your table on a sizzling volcanic rock, and Soul, a popular bistro offering waterfront views and a wide array of cocktails. The Occidental Belgian Beer Cafe is a perfect place for a pint and a bowl of steamed mussels.
Harbourside specializes in seafood and offers the finest harbor views in town, via its second-floor outdoor deck; definitely try to snag one of those tables on a nice day (or night).
The sophisticated French Cafe was unanimously recommended to us by a number of locals; don’t miss the divine roasted French goat cheese tart. Reservations are essential.
In Ponsonby, you really can just stroll up and down the main drag and pick an eatery based on your mood (they come in all shapes and sizes); we enjoyed Prego for its wood-fired pizzas. Other options include Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, regional New Zealand, French, Italian, and on and on. The restaurants are pretty much clustered in the 100 – 200 blocks of Ponsonby Road. Nightclubbers: There’s a lot of action here after dinner as well.
On Waiheke Island, take a cab from the ferry dock to the aforementioned Te Whau (reserve before you leave home). Menus, which are accompanied by a spectacular wine list, change regularly; recent offerings include twice-cooked duck with pearl barley, slow-cooked beef cheeks, and roasted eggplant and ricotta gnocchi.
Shopping in Auckland
Aside from its department stores, art galleries and fashion boutiques, Auckland is also home to a number of traditional street markets that are great fun to browse. Looking for souvenirs? Local New Zealand specialties include Polynesian handicrafts, Maori carvings and clothing made of sheepskin or lamb’s wool.
Go shopping along Queen Street, the city’s major hub for fashion, restaurants and cafes. Those interested learning about New Zealand’s fashion designers should make sure to visit Smith & Caughey’s, the city’s main department store, and Vulcan Lane (between Queen Street and O’Donnell), where many of its most interesting boutiques are clustered.
The Otara Markets, held every Saturday morning, are one of the country’s largest outdoor markets. Offerings include jewelry, clothes, arts and crafts, and fresh produce.
For upscale boutiques, antique shops and Auckland’s largest art gallery precinct, visit the Parnell neighborhood. The shops are framed by historic buildings and lovely parks.
Ponsonby is often considered the base of Auckland’s creative class, with its numerous art galleries, cafes and upmarket shops. Specialties include housewares and clothing.
–written by Carolyn Spencer Brown