I lived in Auckland for five years; I was a student at the University of Auckland in Auckland Central, so I know the city rather well. I also know that the internet is full of ‘Top 10 Things to Do in Auckland’ lists, so why write another one? Because none of those lists capture what Auckland is for me, my experience of exploring Auckland slowly (and cheaply). Don’t just go up the Sky Tower, look around for ten minutes and then hit the souvenir shop: take the time to wander down Auckland’s side streets and to stare out across the harbour. So here is my list, from my experience, of the top 10 things to do in Auckland City:
1) Explore the Viaduct Basin
I love walking around Auckland’s Viaduct Basin and the surrounding area, from The Cloud to Silo Park – it’s one of the best things you can do in Auckland for free – and you can get very nice ice-creams in the old Ferry Building at the bottom of Queen Street, so you might want to start there. As you lick your ice-cream, you can observe the harbour’s comings and goings – ferries and the occasional cruise liner – and look out to Devonport across the water. There are lots of fancy restaurants in the Viaduct Basin itself, so you’ll want to come back at night when it’s all pretty with the lights, but for now keep on walking – through the slightly psychedelic car park, (you’ll see what I mean,) and across a cool drawbridge to Wynyard Quarter. It’s an interesting walk along to Silo Park, past buildings that look like pieces of modern art, intriguing benches, new bars and even a little vintage tramline. Silo Park is an erstwhile industrial area that’s been turned into a playground, and some of the silos painted with poetry, with a raised walkway from which you can look out over the tops of silos and hundreds of yachts, towards the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
2) Cruise into the Hauraki Gulf
From the harbour we’ve just been exploring, you can book a place on a ferry that will take you out into the Hauraki Gulf and search for a pod of dolphins to swim with. Going on a dolphin trip is awesome, but even without any dolphins, a cruise from Auckland Harbour into the Hauraki Gulf is wonderful, especially when it is undertaken in the evening – pretty city lights! Sailing past Rangitoto, Auckland’s beautiful island volcano, is a treat, and there are so many other interesting sights along the way. Taking a cruise from downtown Auckland is a great way to get a sense of the city and highly recommended by me.
3) Discover the Domain
There are few things lovelier than spending a sunny afternoon relaxing in the Auckland Domain. It’s free, and as well as gorgeous gardens to wander through, it’s got duck ponds, fountains, sculptures, sports fields, a grandstand, a bandstand, a nice café with nice ice-cream, miniature bush walks, a fantastic view of Rangitoto and, most prominently, the magnificent edifice of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The museum’s worth a visit on a rainy day, but don’t go to the museum and miss out on the rest of the Domain. Seriously, there’s so much to explore there. For example, the herb garden is hard to find, so make sure you leave yourself plenty of time and maybe take a picnic, along with some spare bread to feed the ducks and pigeons.
4) Veer off Queen Street
Queen Street is Auckland’s main street. Most tourists will walk up and down it and move on, and while you should definitely experience the hustle and bustle that is Auckland’s epicentre, you should also take the time to discover what lies off the side of Queen Street. Auckland is a relatively safe city; you don’t have to worry about getting lost in the side streets because it’s impossible to get lost with the Sky Tower drawing everything towards it, and it’s in the side streets that Auckland’s magic lies. Look for Lorne Street, High Street, Vulcan Lane and, if you’re in the city centre late at night, look for The White Lady burger van – it can usually be found down Fort Street. Less easy to miss is Aotea Square, which is definitely at its most interesting in the depths of winter, when there’s a midwinter fairground with an ice rink set up that looks magically exciting at night with all the lights.
Tip: For a cheap, scrumptious and somewhat filling snack, seek out No. 1 Pancake on Lorne St, a quirky Korean pancake stall that I can’t recommend enough – just don’t go at lunchtime, as it’s heaving with students. And to all those overcautious tourists: don’t be afraid of the red bean pancake – it’s gorgeous!
5) Do the Sky Tower
Of course you have to do the Sky Tower when you come to Auckland. It’s an overpriced tourist trap, but you can’t not go up it. To make the most of it, I recommend you book a table for an evening meal in the revolving restaurant, but book it for quite early so you get to see the city in daylight, at sunset and in darkness with – you guessed it – all the pretty lights. It’s a really posh restaurant with amazing food that didn’t cost quite as much as I thought it would – you can get any starter, any main and any dessert for $69 – and you can go up to the observation deck for free, (as long as you spend an average of $30 per diner.) Or you can just pay to go up to the observation deck and jump up and down on the transparent bits of the floor to freak people out, or pay a whole lot more to walk around the outside of the tower and jump off it entirely.
6) Go to Mission Bay
By day, Mission Bay is a family-friendly beach a short drive from the city centre with easy swimming, a playground, a fun fountain, ice-cream parlours, fish and chip shops, a cinema, an aquarium where you can get in an enclosure with penguins, and great views of Rangitoto and the Auckland skyline. By night, it’s a romantic spot for walking along the beach with an abundance of nice restaurants to choose from – plus the fountain is lit up all pretty-like. It’s one of my favourite places in New Zealand for a pleasant day out. And there’s a Belgian pub that does good, (if expensive,) beer and yummy Belgian waffles.
7) Sail to Tiritiri Matangi
Tiritiri Matangi is an island in the Hauraki Gulf that is a sanctuary for native New Zealand wildlife. I’ve been a few times and loved it every time. You can get to it by taking a ferry from either downtown Auckland or Gulf Harbour, but it’s cheaper from Gulf Harbour and you don’t have to pay for parking. It’s recommended that you book the ferry a few days in advance, and you can do so on the 360 Discovery ferry website. Once on the island, you can walk around it on your own or take a guided tour – I’d recommend the tour if you’re unfamiliar with New Zealand flora and fauna, as you’ll learn a lot. You’ll definitely see and hear some beautiful birds, (maybe even some penguins,) and enjoy the beauty of the island itself – my friends and I even went swimming once, while we were waiting for the return ferry. (This was after being quite enthusiastically chased by a takahe.)
8) Walk down Parnell Road at night
During the daytime, Parnell Road is quite ordinary, albeit with some expensive boutique shops, (including one dedicated to chocolate), but come the night it’s utterly enchanting. There are restaurants tucked away down fairy light-sprinkled alleyways, gothic buildings, Victorian courtyards, cool bars, old-fashioned lampposts – the whole place has a ‘ye olde’ village feel, but with a dash of modern excitement thrown in. Parnell is Auckland’s oldest suburb. It has art galleries, a rose garden and a cathedral, and is right next to the Auckland Domain. It’s completely lovely, and even if you don’t have money to splash around, (as I didn’t when I lived in university accommodation in Parnell,) you should still walk along Parnell Road to soak up the atmosphere.
9) Spend a day at Auckland Zoo
If you have kids with you on your New Zealand holiday, Auckland Zoo is a must. It’s a brilliant zoo – world class – and you can easily spend an entire day there. As well as the large, impressive animals you would expect, Auckland Zoo is home to many native New Zealand species, such as the kiwi and the tuatara. All of the enclosures are interesting: highlights for me are the sea lion exhibit, the aviary and the meerkat tunnels – you can actually crawl underneath the meerkat exhibit and pop your head up into it. The red pandas are brilliant too – so cute! And the otters. And the tigers. And there’s an enclosure you can walk through and be right next to some wallabies and emus. Fantastic.
10) See a show
Despite what people tell you, New Zealand isn’t completely devoid of culture. Auckland has heaps of theatres, the most popular of which is The Civic. That’s the one that does all the big, international musicals. It’s got a really nice Indian/Art Deco interior. If that’s your thing, then definitely try to catch a show while you’re in Auckland, but if you’re not into musicals then you don’t have to look very far for straight plays. I say straight – they’re often very artsy and experimental. Q Theatre is close to the civic, the other side of Aotea Square, and behind that is The Basement, a stage for young people to exercise their acting, directing and writing talents on. The latter is really cheap and well worth checking out if you don’t otherwise know what to do with your evening, as is the University of Auckland’s Maidment Theatre – I had one of my plays performed there once!
So that was a list of the top 10 things to do in MY Auckland City, and I hope you consider it when you visit this part of the world.