How to explore the best bits of Central Auckland in less than 24 hours: where to eat, what to do
Grab those walking shoes and set the alarm clock. The country’s biggest city, home to aeons-old volcanoes and glitzy bars, is begging to be explored on foot.
Words: Cari Johnson
Central Auckland is so much more than shiny high-rises and smashed avo on (sourdough, of course) toast. The vibrant city buzzes with energy, pulsing from harbourside eateries up to the volcanic mounds that rise above the city.
Ditch the car and do as the locals do — with an open mind and comfortable footwear it is worth getting lost in its laneways and unassuming corridors to find the discover the city’s hidden gems. For those with limited time, this (admittingly chocka) itinerary whizzes through some of the best the city has to offer.
Watch the sunrise at Mount Eden, Maungawhau
The appeal is simple: there is no better way to see the city than from this summit. The 20-minute climb reaches the highest natural point of the city with 360-degree views to the Hauraki Gulf and Manukau Harbour. It’s no wonder Maungawhau is favoured by locals unwinding or sharing a sunset spread of fish ‘n’ chips. It feeds the soul. Follow the path around the bowl-shaped crater to find the perfect spot.
The crater was formed from the last eruption about 15,000 years ago as the result of three overlapping scoria cones. While the crater was once favoured by kids for a wee tumble, its sacred nature is now recognised with a total ban on entry. It is spiritually significant to the Māori whose ancestors occupied Maungawhau. The terraces cut by those ancestors who once called this majestic mountain home are still visible.
Tuck into breakfast at Amano
Amano runs a full-day menu – and it is all exceptionally delicious. Almond croissants made at its adjoining bakery are delicately crispy, worthy of a morning coffee date, the smell of truffle-topped tagliatelle will surely arouse jealousy from the next table at lunch time and a slow-roasted whole shoulder of lamb for dinner is a winner.
This Italian-inspired restaurant is a favourite on the Britomart scene and one of the most popular creations of The Hip Group, which is saying something considering the sheer number of great eateries Jackie Grant’s company has launched in Auckland. Amano has all the tell-tale touches of a Hip Group creation: casual yet sophisticated decor in a trendy locale serving consistently high-quality dishes.
66-68 Tyler Street, Britomart. (09) 394 1416, amano.nz
Stroll along Waitematā Harbour
It’s called the City of Sails for good reason. Take a casual stroll along Quay Street (towards the Viaduct Harbour), stopping at the Auckland Ferry Terminal to witness the harbourside hustle and bustle and Princes Wharf for unobstructed views of the harbour. Finish the harbour tour by heading towards the Viaduct for a coffee (or e-scooter rental) or nearby Wynyard Quarter – an urbanised former section of Waitematā Harbour, where posh bistros intersect with pedestrians and buskers.
Those visiting on Auckland Anniversary Day (27 January 2020) can watch yachts, dragon boats and other watercraft race across the harbour for the Ports of Auckland Anniversary Day Regatta, the largest single-day yachting regatta in the world. Grab a spot along Princes Wharf, one of the best viewing spots in the CBD.
Explore Auckland Domain
This sprawling green space, nicknamed The Domain, is so much more than a park. Trails carve through the native bush and ducks splash about in what was Auckland’s water supply in the late 19th century. Long before the park became a place for picnics and cricket matches, Pukekawa (its Māori name) was a pā – its natural amphitheatre used for fortification and rich volcanic soil for crops. Since 1880 this ancient volcanic site has been a 200ha public reserve, a reminder of New Zealand’s rich past, present and future.
The Auckland War Memorial Museum is perched at the top of the Domain, so iconic and symbolic, the building doesn’t even have an address. At
its steps, tears are shed at every Anzac Day dawn parade and inside is where New Zealand remembers its history as a nation. It’s not just about war, as its name would suggest, with each level telling a part of New Zealand’s natural, cultural and social history.
The story begins with the discovery and settlement of New Zealand by the Māori with the extensive and permanent Māori Court exhibition of 1000 taonga (treasures), exquisite artefacts from pre-European times. Other exhibitions are dedicated to ancient physical features such as volcanoes, limestone caves and the ocean floor. The second level returns to the modern age with bloodshed from the past and lessons for the future.
Don’t miss the award-winning Scars on the Heart twin gallery exhibition for New Zealand’s early and most recent encounters with war, including the Anglo-Boer War of the 19th century and later, extensive coverage of WWI and WWII. Each story is integral to New Zealand’s overall identity, just as the Domain’s biggest landmark is to Auckland.
(09) 309 0443, aucklandmuseum.com
Don’t miss the nearby Wintergardens
This Victorian-era glasshouse, just a 5-minute walk from the museum, houses an exciting collection of temperate and tropical plants earning it heritage status and a 5-star rating from the New Zealand Gardens Trust. Wander between the marble statues in a formal courtyard and, if it’s sunny, lounge with locals on the terraced steps that overlook a sunken pool.
Wintergarden Road, Auckland Domain. (09) 301 0101.
Grab lunch at The Lucky Taco
There’s one rule at this bright taco truck in Ponsonby. “Never eat a taco with a knife and fork,” says co-owner Otis Frizzell. “Ever,” agrees his wife Sarah.
The couple has been roaming Auckland in their mobile kitchen for six years, serving up saucy tacos with homemade tortillas since 2013. The idea for a taco stand came while honeymooning in the United States and exploring endless food trucks. The couple’s tradition of Taco Friday was a hit with friends and family – why not take it further?
“By the end of the trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea,” says Sarah. So they put their house renovations on hold, bought the truck and practised with a few pop-up restaurants before launching The Lucky Taco. Cooking on the road stays interesting with varying locations, though the food truck usually pops up at the same Ponsonby lot several times a week.
Return trips to the US and Mexico have helped Otis and Sarah master tacos de arrachera (marinated beef) and tacos de calabacita (sautéed veggies), each topped with spicy avocado cream, pico de gallo and coriander. And don’t hold back on the extra salsa. The Lucky Taco’s homemade jalapeño and habanero hot sauces (both Outstanding NZ Food Producer Awards gold medalists) are a must on any taco.
Find The Lucky Taco’s whereabouts at theluckytaco.co.nz or on Facebook.
Stroll down Ponsonby Road
Most locals would agree that this trendy neighbourhood is Auckland’s true watering hole. Alluring eateries and bars sit shoulder-to-shoulder along Ponsonby Road, making it common practice for locals to begin or end their revelry here. While it’s all glitzy shopping and eating today, its foundations are humble.
Ponsonby, once an affordable inner-city suburb, attracted a new bourgeoisie of students, artists and musicians in the 1970s. Today the revitalised old homes, a charming reflection of the past, contrast the modern glamour of this much-loved area.
Find one-of-a-kind treasures at Ponsonby Central
It is completely feasible to go to Ponsonby Central for dinner and leave with a candle set in vintage glass and a woven handbag. There’s a sense of spontaneity at this urban food hub – the kind that makes even the most frequent visitors blink twice.
Despite being known for its dozens of eateries, Ponsonby Central is a pop-up shopping haven. Four pop-up spaces change on a weekly basis, offering local designers, artists and vendors the opportunity to showcase their work that may only be available online or at markets. Think handcrafted homewares, locally made jewellery, and always something unexpected, such as painted recycled skateboards.
“We love that the pop-ups keep Ponsonby Central fresh, vibrant and ever-changing,” says operations manager Claire O’Shannessy. Shoppers can peruse the permanent stores too, for wares from sustainable clothing to phone accessories. For the best experience, go for a bite to eat and leave time to explore after – and for the one-of-a-kind treasures to reveal themselves.
136-146 Ponsonby Road. ponsonbycentral.co.nz
Grab a print or bonsai at endemicworld
This narrow shop is a bit like Mary Poppins’ bag – the seemingly tight collection of art gets denser with each step inside. Another room at the back imitates a CD store circa 1990. Hundreds of prints beg to be sifted through, with designs including Andy Warhol-style Kiwiana, intricate tūī portraits and dramatic landscape photography.
Prints are always sourced from local (and sometimes international) artists, never stock image sites. “We only have art from artists we know personally,” says founder Elliot Alexander.
Elliot calls it a one-stop shop for gallery art, affordable prints, ceramics and paintings, indoor plants and printing/framing services. It’s the real deal for both customers and creatives, with pop-up exhibitions at the bright gallery next door and artists working in leased studios in the basement below. Go for the hidden gems ($10 prints) and stay for the unexpected surprises that are inevitable in Elliot’s constantly changing store.
62 Ponsonby Road, Grey Lynn. (09) 378 9823, endemicworld.com
Walk south to Karangahape Road
It’s easy to dismiss Karangahape Road (known locally as K’ Road) for its seedy reputation linked to the arrival of strip clubs and prostitutes in the 1970s. Locals look past this reputation, for its gritty backstory is half the charm.
While gentrification has increased foot traffic (and back-to-back vintage stores), the subtle grunge factor still exists. Vibrant storefronts are almost indistinguishable from graffiti and concert flyers, and colourful characters parade deep into the night at some of the best music venues, gay bars and karaoke halls in central Auckland.
Don’t miss Retro City (161 Karangahape Road, retrocityvintage.com) for antique treasures and Crushes (225 Karangahape Road, crushes.co.nz) for vintage threads and NZ-made gifts. Stop at historic mall St Kevins Arcade for eclectic shops and picturesque architecture, before winding down for dinner.
Eat your heart out at Gemmayze Street
Things operate a little differently at this Lebanese eatery. For starters, there are few walls or doors at Gemmayze Street. Instead, diners spill across the bedazzled atrium of St Kevins Arcade, with the Sky Tower perfectly framed by the ceiling-high windows. Then comes the food – oh, the food.
Chef Samir Allen imagined his Beirut-inspired menu, with mezze fare such as creamy baba ganoush and perfectly tender falafel, enjoyed in a shared setting. This philosophy is likely why the jeeb set menu is so popular. In Lebanon the word jeeb (“bring” in Arabic) will prompt a feast without another word, so too at Gemmayze Street, for $65 per head. Expect silky dips, melt-in-the-mouth grains (trust us, it’s a thing) and flavour-packed mains fit for carnivores and vegetarians alike.
Shop 16, St Kevins Arcade, 183 Karangahape Road. (09) 332 3285, gemmayzestreet.co.nz
Laugh out loud at The Classic Comedy Club
Spending a few hours at The Classic is like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Locals can attend on the same night week after week, knowing that each show will be one-of-a-kind. Comedic experience depends on the day and is priced accordingly – rookies perform earlier in the week, while recognisable jokesters such as Guy Williams and Ray O’Leary will join the fun on Thursday or Friday.
The theatre space, once used as a cinema for adult films, is deceptively large with cabaret-style seating for bigger groups. Choose a table based on how involved you want to be. To be in front of the stage is to be the firing line for personalised digs that will continue into the evening, much to the delight of the rest of the room.
Since opening in 1997, The Classic has become a launchpad for local comedians destined for TV careers. Top comedians from the likes of 7 Days give the club a star quality, but at its roots, The Classic celebrates the road to comedic glory. For the best of both worlds, attend Thursday’s “Pro Night”, which mixes headliners and rising stars for a night to remember.
321 Queen Street. (09) 373 4321, comedy.co.nz
Cap the night by drinking in the skyline at The Churchill
At The Churchill rooftop bar, gin-lovers can craft their own cocktail from a list of gins, mixers and botanicals. Perched at the top of Queen Street, this bar rivals the views of the Sky Tower and makes a great start for a night on the town.
Level 20, 396 Queen Street. (09) 393 8242, thechurchillauckland.co.nz
The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand, created by NZ Life & Leisure annually, is a thorough and independently researched guide to six of the country’s most spectacular regions, and is packed with recommendations on what to do and see on your next holiday.
This is an excerpt from The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand 2020. Order your copy here.