Spread over an area twice the size of London, Auckland is a seemingly never-ending sprawl that’s often treated as a flyover by travelers eager to get to New Zealand’s wild landscapes. But New Zealand’s largest city can be a great little urban getaway for a few days at the beginning or end of your itinerary. Here are the first-time musts.
Stay: Sofitel Auckland
The French-run Sofitel has a lot going for it. Located at the entrance to the Viaduct Harbour and within walking distance of most major sights, it was redone entirely in 2012 and feels fresh and modern. Its 172 rooms and suites, decorated in a chocolate-beige-white color scheme, have comfortable king-size beds, floor-to-ceiling windows and large bathrooms. The staff, including a plugged-in and speedy concierge team, is extremely friendly and works hard to keep guests—many of who are passing through town on business—happy. In the evening, the Sabrage Bar, on the hotel’s ground floor, attracts a mix of locals and visitors. It’s a nice spot for a cocktail or glass of wine before heading out to the trendy Wynyard Quarter for dinner.
Harbor-side Strolling: Britomart
The newly developed Britomart, a sixteen-acre neighborhood in downtown Auckland within walking distance of the harbor, offers a fun mix of restaurants, bars and boutiques selling labels like Karen Walker, Zambesi, Sass & Bide and Kiwi shoe guru Kathryn Wilson.
Lunch: Depot Eatery & Oyster Bar
Within walking distance of the Sky Tower, the popular Depot, helmed by star chef Al Brown, is a great spot for lunch (or dinner) when touring the area. The menu is full of small plates designed to be shared—don’t miss oysters when they are in season—and the vibe is congenial.
Dinner Classic: Clooney’s
One of Auckland’s most lauded restaurants, Clooney, in the historical Freemans Bay neighborhood, is a refined choice for a big night out. The dramatic dining room has leather arm chairs and dim lighting, and the food is innovative, prepared with a light touch and lots of New Zealand ingredients.
Dinner Hot Spot: Ebisu
Britomart, besides being one of the city’s liveliest shopping areas, offers a multitude of dining options, and gritty-cool cool Ebisu is a good choice. The exposed-brick walls and dark-wood paneling are a perfect backdrop for the colorful, beautifully prepared plates. The sushi and sashimi are super fresh, and the larger dishes showcase the chef’s innovative take on traditional Japanese izakaya.
Off the Beaten Path: St Heliers Bay Café and Bistro
A great spot for a laid-back lunch or weekend brunch, St. Heliers has a wonderful location, across the street from a beach that is a twenty-five-minute drive outside Auckland. You want to settle in here, soaking in the local scene while sampling the sophisticated brunch menu that includes such options as smoked market fish, agria galette, Bircher müsli and haloumi and asparagus salad.
Top Shopping Neighborhood: Ponsonby
Long gone are the days where the area of Ponsonby was a gritty neighborhood to be avoided. Now the eponymous road and surrounding streets bustle with boutiques, as well as buzzing restaurants, cafés and bars. The shops, for the most part, are cool independent places like those on New York’s Lower East Side. There are also some nice housewares, design and art stores. After a morning or afternoon of shopping, seek out Ponsonby Central, an area with a lovely organic market and some postage-stamp cafés, bakeries and restaurants (Toro is a favorite).
The tiny, centrally located Pauanesia offers a trove of locally made gifts, ranging from Kiwi bird stuffed animals to beautiful housewares. Best of all, many of the items pack well, including colorfully printed tea towels, colorful stationery and jewelry designed by New Zealand artisans.
Fashion: Karen Walker
Although the funky yet feminine attire from New Zealand’s most famous designer, Karen Walker, can be purchased around the world, fans shouldn’t miss a chance to browse the well-stocked racks in Walker’s hometown.
Breathtaking View: Skytower
Auckland’s Sky Tower, rising nearly 1,100 feet over the city, hosts a number of the vertigo-inducing activities, including the Sky Walk and the Sky Jump. Less adventurous travelers can enjoy 360-degree panoramas from the sixtieth-floor observation deck, glass panels in the flooring that cause a rush of excitement when walked over.
Art: Auckland Art Gallery
Established in 1888, Auckland Art Gallery contains thirty-five exhibition spaces on three levels that display the most extensive collection of New Zealand and international art in the country.