Long known as the City of Sails, Auckland is the gateway to 100 percent pure New Zealand. A sparkling, fresh, and vibrant South Pacific city, Auckland offers much to those seeking natural beauty and urban adventure. The diverse population and proud Maori heritage have created a unique culture with distinct suburbs and precincts. There’s so much to explore—from the suburban markets to the vineyards of the Hauraki Gulf—that a few days may not be enough.
When’s the best time to go to Auckland?
Auckland shines in the summer, with its best weather between December and March. Coincidentally, this season marks the annual summer exodus, when the entire nation seems to head to the beach. The best month of the year is February—it’s a stunner—but don’t forget to slap on the sunscreen, as the sun is deceptively harsh even though temperatures may be less than 80 degrees.
How to get around Auckland
Auckland International Airport is the country’s hub, and easy transportation options exist for the 45-minute drive into the city. Visas are not required for U.S. nationals staying less than three months. Note that New Zealand has very strict quarantine rules, so avoid bringing food if you want to avoid an instant fine. Cruise ships are an ever-increasing option, and stopovers in Auckland are on the itineraries of P&O, Princess, and Regent Cruises, to name just a few.
While Auckland’s public transportation system is gaining favor with locals, it is a far cry from a metro network. Trains are limited (none cross the harbor), and buses are hub-and-spoke based (rather than point-to-point). In downtown Auckland, the Link bus service has three routes circling the greater and inner CBD (Central Business District). Taxis are plentiful, and all the major rental-car companies have a presence at the airport and in the city (remember that New Zealand drives on the left). Auckland is not built for cyclists, and there are very few cycling lanes. Walking is easy if you’re not going far, and the most enjoyable way to sightsee is on a Fullers ferry.
Can’t miss things to do in Auckland
Jump! New Zealand is home to the bungee jump, invented in Queenstown and now exported all over the world. The good news is that you don’t have to go far (horizontally) to drop far (vertically). Auckland’s Sky Tower, the highest structure in the Southern Hemisphere, has its very own “SkyJump,” with fixed lines to make sure you drop straight down. The rush of falling 630 feet at up to 50 miles per hour will literally take your breath away. Don’t worry—the landing will be soft, just make sure you take in the views before your leap of faith.
Food and drink to try in Auckland
It’s no surprise that Auckland’s cuisine features a mix of Pacific flavors, Asian influences, and European traditions. Fish, lamb, and beef are the staples, but it’s also easy to be a vegetarian in Auckland. Ponsonby Road, while still a popular restaurant suburb, has recently been eclipsed by the downtown Britomart Precinct and Wynyard Quarter. All of Auckland’s restaurants feature New Zealand wines, for good reason! A favorite pastime is wining and dining on nearby Waiheke Island.
Culture in Auckland
Your starting point is the past—the Auckland Museum in the Domain. With the biggest collection of Maori and Pacific artifacts in the world, including a Maori meeting house, the site will inform you about Auckland’s unique culture—through to modern immigrants. The museum also features daily Maori cultural performances, culminating in the impressive Haka war dance (made famous by the All Blacks) and traditional waiata (songs) that are endorsed by the local iwi (tribe) Ngāti Whātua.
Auckland is the biggest Polynesian city in the world, and the biggest Polynesian festival is Pacifika. This two-day event, held at Western Springs Park every March, gives you the opportunity to experience 11 different Pacific cultures all in one place—through taste, dance, and song. Ever more popular is Matariki, the Maori New Year (in June), marked by celebrations and performances throughout the city. Auckland’s large Chinese community is honored every year at the Lantern Festival in Albert Park; go early to beat the crowds, but late enough to catch the lamps at twilight.
Local travel tips for Auckland
If you’re staying in the Auckland CBD, do as much walking as you can. You’ll come across Kiwis (the nickname for New Zealanders) who are more than happy to suggest what to do next and where to go. And when you’re ready, take a cab. Make sure you’re carrying a light jacket, even in summer, as the city’s location on an isthmus can literally produce four seasons in one day.
Guy Needham is an international freelance photographer who calls Auckland home. Brought up in a town of pop. 257, he appreciates small-town values and loves big-city buzz. When not writing and taking photos that have appeared in AFAR, Lonely Planet, National Geographic Stock, CNN.com, Real Travel, and numerous publications and exhibitions, he’s a Director of Marketing. If you’d like to know more about Auckland or New Zealand feel free to contact him through AFAR or guyneedhamphotography.com.