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City of the Sails – Things to do in Auckland

January 6, 2020

City of Sails - Westhaven Marina with Auckland Harbour Bridge in the background

Contributor Justine Tyerman visits Auckland New Zealand, ‘The City of the Sails’, with its diverse atmosphere and landscapes and endless things to do


Set on an isthmus between the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Auckland is home to more than 1.5 million people, 32 percent of New Zealand’s population. New Zealand’s largest city, it’s known as ‘The City of the Sails’ because of the myriad of yachts that frequent the sheltered waters of the beautiful Hauraki Gulf.  

Auckland will delight you with its eclectic, diverse atmosphere and landscapes, and the endless things to do here. Explore spectacular volcanic islands; pest-free wildlife sanctuaries; historic coastal defence sites; shady, dark forests; white, golden and black sand beaches; cruise the Hauraki Gulf dotted with more than 50 islands; savour world-class wines and cuisine; and experience the colour and culture of the world’s largest Polynesian community.

Top help you make the most of your time in The City of Sails, be sure to refer our list of the top things to do in Auckland New Zealand.


1. Volcanoes Aplenty

Auckland is built around beautiful Hauraki Gulf amid 48 volcanic cones which provide a unique landscape and spectacular views. Standing 196m, Mount Eden (or Maungawhau) is the highest volcano in Auckland. From the summit, visitors can enjoy splendid 360-degree views of the city and its harbours. The large, well-preserved crater, 50m deep, is named Te Ipu-a-Mataaho (‘The Bowl of Mataah’) after the mythological Maori god who lives inside it, guarding the secrets of the earth. The volcano’s last eruption was around 28,000 years ago when it spouted lava from three different cones to form the land upon which Auckland now sits.

Rangitoto from Mt Victoria
The spectacular view toward Rangitoto from Mt Victoria (All Photos courtesy Auckland Council)

Walk up One-Tree Hill/ Maungakiekie, 182m, the largest, most intact volcanic cone in the city (excluding Rangitoto which is an island). Maungakiekie was the largest Maori pa (fortified village) in pre-European times, home to around 5,000 people. The summit provides great views across the Auckland and her two harbours, Manukau, and Waitemata.

Emerging from the sea just 600 years ago, Rangitoto Island is the youngest volcano in New Zealand and the region’s largest. An Auckland icon, it’s a favourite day trip for walkers and boaties. Rangitoto Island is renowned for its rugged lava terrain, abundant native plants, and the largest pohutukawa forest in the world. The island is a pest-free haven for endangered native birds.

The Rangitoto Summit Track climbs through lava fields to the highest point on the island where you will see panoramic vistas of Auckland City, the Hauraki Gulf and beyond. It took around 200 years for the island to form to its current distinctive conical shape. Maori living on nearby Motutapu, one of the oldest land masses in the Hauraki Gulf, observed the fiery volcanic explosions. There are ancient Maori burial caves on the island which serve as a resting place for bones transported from Motutapu.


2. Reserves, Parks, and Wildlife Sanctuaries

The Auckland area is blessed with outstanding reserves, pest-free islands, wildlife sanctuaries, and more than 30 regional parks.

Tiritiri Matangi Island wildlife sanctuary is located 30km north east of central Auckland. Access to the 220-hectare island is by ferry or private boat. One of the world’s most successful volunteer conservation projects, between 1984 and 1994, volunteers planted 300,000 trees to repair the damage of 120 years of farming. All mammalian predators were eradicated and a number of threatened and endangered bird and reptile species were successfully introduced, including the flightless takahe, one of the world’s rarest species, and the tuatara.

There are few places in New Zealand where you can see so many rare species. If you stay overnight, you might see nocturnal wildlife such as the little blue penguin (the world’s smallest penguin) and the little spotted kiwi.

Goat Island Marine Reserve, one and a half hours’ drive north of Auckland, is New Zealand’s first marine reserve. You can swim, dive, scuba, and snorkel with the fish or view the stunning marine life from a glass-bottom boat. The reserve has unusual rock formations shaped like a giant block of chocolate.

Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pataka kai o Tikapa Moana Te Moananui a Toi covers an area of more than 1.2 million hectares, encompassing five marine reserves and a myriad of islands. It lies on the east coast of the Auckland and Waikato regions, and includes the Waitemata Harbour, Firth of Thames and eastern coastline of the Coromandel Peninsula. Most islands are open to the public, but some are sanctuaries for endangered species so you must have a permit to land.

Shakespear Regional Park at the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula is criss-crossed with excellent walking trails. Hike up to the lookout for 360-degree views of rolling green farmland, Auckland city, white sand beaches, islands upon islands and the Coromandel Peninsula in the distance. Protected by a predator-free fence and automatic sliding gates, the park provides a pest-free habitat for threatened native wildlife and is ‘New Zealand’s most visited and accessible open sanctuary integrating conservation, recreation and farming’.

Tawharanui Regional Park, like Shakespear Park, is a predator-free, open wildlife sanctuary at the end of a peninsula. But it is much more remote and wild with rocky headlands, beautiful white sand beaches, and regenerating native forest and wetlands. Choose one of eight excellent walkways like the north coast track to the spectacular rocky Tokatu Point. You will see magnificent pohutukawa trees on the coastal cliffs and hear bellbirds and tui on the ecology walkway. The park is 82km or about an hour and a half drive from Auckland.


3. Piha and the Wild West Coast Beaches

Piha is part of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, about 50 minutes from Auckland. It’s another world out West. The land and seascapes of the beaches confront the senses: the staggering height of the cliffs; the ferocity of the waves; the texture and colour of the black pearl sand; the fire of the sunsets; the wispy beauty of the waterfalls; the cool, lushness of the nikau palm forests; the vast, empty expanse of the Tasman Sea stretching to infinity; and the dark, misty, moody Waitakere Ranges.

Piha beach through the trees
Piha beach through the trees

Hike to the exquisite six-tier Kitekite Falls, iconic Lion Rock, and Mercer Bay Loop Track. Go to The Gap near Piha to witness the dramatic battle of the tides where incoming and outgoing waves collide, or Karekare Beach, recently voted one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, to capture silvery breakers smashing on shimmering pewter sand against the silhouette of The Watchman rock.


4. The Best Island in Australasia

There’s so much to do and see on beautiful Waiheke Island, just 35 minutes ferry ride from the city, you could spend months exploring the place. It was recently voted the best island destination in New Zealand and Australia and fifth best in the world.

The Matiatia Headland Walkway is stunning. It takes you to the top of a ridge overlooking sparkling bays where dozens of boats are anchored, past World War 2 bunkers dug into the hillside, reminders of the role Waiheke Island played in defending Auckland from attack, and down to pretty Cable Bay with its impressive Stephen Mulqueen sculpture, Rua-Kuriwao, the Red Bush Dog. The track climbs steeply from the bay to a spectacular cliff-top path with views of the rocky shore below and Rangitoto Island and Auckland in the distance.

Matiatia Headlands Walkway on Waiheke Island off the coast of Auckland
Matiatia Headlands Walkway on Waiheke Island

History buffs will love exploring Stony Battery Historic Reserve and learning about the fascinating history of the WW2 military installations at the far north-eastern end of the island. Owned by the Department of Conservation, the area is a Category 1 Historic Place with three concrete gun emplacements and an extensive system of interconnected tunnels, reputed to be the largest in the country. The area is also a nature reserve with unusual rock formations, excellent walkways and fabulous views of the Hauraki Gulf.

Take a winery tour around some of the 30 boutique wineries dotted around the island, many with breath taking views. Waiheke is known for high-quality red wines with intense varietal flavour thanks to its unique soils and micro-climate. Man O’ War Vineyard, located on a picturesque pebble and shell beach, is a real delight.


5. History

Learn about the history and the rich tapestry of cultures that make up New Zealand at the Auckland War Memorial Museum housed in one of the nation’s most outstanding historical buildings. The museum sits proudly on the highest point of the Auckland Domain, a central city garden with exhibitions, carvings, statuary and taonga (treasures) of Maori and Pacific people. Make sure you visit the gorgeous Wintergardens, a highlight of the Domain.


6. Devonport / North Head/Maungauika

Devonport is arguably Auckland’s prettiest neighborhood. Just 12 minutes by ferry from the city, the historic little seaside village on the North Shore has stunning sea and city views, beautiful beaches, boutique shopping, charming accommodation, and a lively café culture.

North Head / Maungauika is located in Devonport at the mouth of the Waitemata Harbour about 16km from downtown Auckland. Its sweeping panoramic view over the Hauraki Gulf and inner harbour have made it a strategic lookout and defence site for centuries, first for early Maori and later during World War 1 and 2. The complex of tunnels, guns, searchlights and other fortifications are fascinating to explore.


7. Art and culture

Check out contemporary and historical artworks at the Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki, the largest art institution in New Zealand. A collection of over 15,000 works includes New Zealand historic, modern, and contemporary art, and outstanding works by Maori and Pacific Island artists, European painting, sculpture, and prints.

For an authentic taste of the Pacific, visit Otara Market, New Zealand’s largest street market bursting with life and flavour.


8. Festivals and Upcoming Events

Throughout the year, Auckland has a host of festivals and sporting events:

Silo Park has your summer weekends sussed. From Friday night to Sunday afternoon, the park has something for everyone: an after-work drinks and food truck on Friday evening, followed by a movie under the stars, a weekend dancing to local DJs, themed pop-up bars, surprise exhibitions, fresh Kokako coffee, smoothies, and a range of healthy foods.

Outdoor cinema at Silo Park
Outdoor cinema at Silo Park

Matariki is the Maori name for Pleiades, a cluster of stars that can be viewed anywhere in the world. The rising of the Matariki is an important time in the Maori calendar as it signifies the Maori New Year and heralds the start of New Zealand’s premier Maori winter festival of music, arts, dance, and food.

Splore is a three-day boutique music and arts festival staged annually in February on the shores of Tapapakanga Regional Park. Described as New Zealand’s greatest dress-up party, it’s an eclectic line-up of musical artists from New Zealand and abroad, performing arts, installations, workshops, forums, and merry-making.

PolyFest is the largest Polynesian Festival in the world. Held in March every year, it features music, dance, costume and speech and is recognised as a showcase of New Zealand’s diverse cultures. Students from the Cook Islands, Maori, Niue, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, Tokelau, Chinese, Korean, and Indian cultures perform traditional song and dance items.

All Black Test Matches: Join the throngs and get caught up in New Zealand’s mad passion for rugby.


9. Take Home an Authentic Piece of New Zealand

Pounamu, or greenstone, is a stone sacred to Maori that’s carved into beautiful necklaces, rings, and earrings. Maori tradition requires pounamu to be gifted, which makes such taonga (treasures) a special and symbolic memory of your time in Aotearoa-New Zealand.

Possum Fur Clothing: Possums are regarded as a serious pest in New Zealand, so help the environment by buying gloriously-light, warm possum fur socks, jumpers, hats, gloves, and scarves.

Locals recommend the Poi Room for New Zealand-made art objects, authentic Maori taonga (treasures), artisan jewellery and contemporary wall art.

And Pauanesia for unique home textiles, merino-possum knitted accessories, bags, sarongs, vintage Kiwi caps, jewellery, and stationery inspired by the wild coast, native bush, our stories and passions, and the wairua (spirit) of Aotearoa-New Zealand.


10. Getting Around 

Auckland’s public transport system has yet to catch up with the rest of the world so it’s a good idea to stay somewhere central like The Rock on Gibraltar in Parnell which is handy to everywhere.

passenger ferry service operates between Devonport, Pine Harbour, Birkenhead, Riverhead, Waiheke Island, Rangitoto Island, and Auckland’s central city. Beat the traffic, enjoy a scenic ferry ride, and experience a different aspect of Auckland.

Auckland has some great cycleways and is creating many more. Te Ara I Whiti / Lightpath, or the ‘Pink Path’, as it is colloquially known (yes, it’s bright pink), connects the upper city with the waterfront, offering cyclists a safe and efficient route to get up or downtown.


11. After Dark

Auckland’s nightlife offers everything from chilled-out pubs and backpacker joints to swanky bars and award-winning restaurants run by celebrity chefs. If you’re in a dance mood, Auckland’s top resident DJs perform at lively bars dotted around the Viaduct Harbour, off Queen Street and Britomart.

 Auckland skyline at sunset with the Sky Tower standing tall
Auckland’s lovely skyline at sunset

Karangahape Road, aka ‘K-Road’, is a kilometre-long strip with an eclectic array of shops, galleries, and eateries, and after-dark entertainment in cocktail lounges, corner bars, indie music venues, nightclubs, cabaret, and some of Auckland’s finest restaurants.

Viaduct Basin, with its 30 bars and restaurants on a prime waterfront location, is the primo place to wine, dine, and people-watch.


12. Where to Eat

Auckland is renowned for fabulous cuisine. It’s the home of Kokako Coffee, certified organic through Biogro New Zealand, and is a fair-trade-certified coffee roastery and coffee distributor.

Keep an eye on Orphans’ Kitchen social media for their Test Kitchen Tuesdays. Delight your senses with a set menu of fresh, seasonal produce and creative cookery in action. Every week night from 5-6pm, join the locals at Coco’s Cantina over a hearty bowl of pasta. It’s vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free friendly, and the Happy Hour drink specials make this a community hit. 

Don’t miss Pasture for dinner, Kokako and Big Sur for breakfast/brunch/lunch, and The Hip Group which has some amazing restaurants across Auckland. Locals also recommend Prego, Ostro, Mexican Specialties, and Catroux for the best baking in town.

Don’t leave Auckland without sampling one of Giapo’s extraordinary ice cream creations, suitable for vegans and dairy-free folk.

Farro’s five Auckland stores showcase the finest of New Zealand food. They provide a place for passionate cooks and chefs to come and be inspired, indulge in tastes, talk food, find something new or revisit an old favourite.


13. For Thrill-seekers

Jump off the Sky Tower and plunge 192m at 85kph at SkyJump, New Zealand’s highest jump and only Base Jump by wire.

Auckland Sky Jump
Taking a leap of faith at Auckland Sky Jump



Contributing Editor Justine Tyerman is an award-winning travel writer, journalist and sub-editor from Gisborne, New Zealand, with 20 years’ experience in newspaper and freelance work. Check out her work at and Tyerman’s Travels Facebook.