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One day in Auckland – 8 top activities for slow travellers

Viaduct Harbour, Auckland City
Auckland City and Viaduct Harbour

How to spend 24 hours in the city of sails

New Zealand’s largest city is more than just an international gateway or stopover on the way to somewhere else. Even if you only have one day in Auckland, you can enjoy its lively waterfront, cosmopolitan culture, fine dining and vibrant arts scene.

Auckland, Maori name Tāmaki Makaurau, extends from east to west across this narrow part of the North Island. It’s one of few cities in the world to have two harbours: Manukau to the west and Waitematā to the east. The main central business district is situated on an isthmus between the two.

Map of Auckland New Zealand
Made with Google My Maps

Many people from outside New Zealand (Maori name Aotearoa) mistakenly think that Auckland is the capital. Naturally, this has led to rivalry with citizens of the actual capital – Wellington – with good-natured insults often traded between the two. Despite living in Wellington, I love Auckland. I adore the city’s energy, its waterfront, and – most of all – the gorgeous Hauraki Gulf and its islands. All of these elements lend themselves to an enviable lifestyle for locals and plenty of attractions for visitors.

This one-day itinerary is based in the central city area, assuming that you probably won’t have time to venture further afield. So here are my suggestions for a fabulous mini break in Auckland, with all activities walkable. No public transport required!

1. Rise and shine

In truth, central Auckland isn’t the greatest place to find a good breakfast early in the morning; many of the best cafes are out in the suburbs. And the decent central city ones don’t always open until later. But if you’re not breakfasting in your hotel, one excellent option is Scarecrow, at 33 Victoria Street East. Open from 8 am. Tuesday to Sunday, they offer the traditional big breakfast as well as healthy options.

Sky Tower Auckland

2. Get your bearings at Skytower

I find that if time is limited, one of the best ways to see a lot of a city in one go, is to view it from above. I wrote about this in my post How to see a city – 8 towers with awesome panoramic views – which features Auckland’s Sky Tower, among others.

So after your delicious breakfast, head a few blocks over to Victoria Street West and visit Sky City, where you’ll find the entrance to the Sky Tower. Rising 328 metres above Auckland, Sky Tower will give you breath-taking views in all directions. When you start walking around and exploring, Sky Tower can serve as a useful landmark.

If you need a coffee or snack at this point, there are plenty of options within the Sky City complex itself and in nearby Federal Street.

Albert Park, Auckland
Albert Park

3. Visit New Zealand’s largest art institution

A few blocks away from Sky City is Auckland Art Gallery which boasts an impressive collection of both traditional and contemporary New Zealand art. The gallery also hosts travelling national and international exhibitions.

Take a leisurely stroll through the exhibits and discover the rich cultural heritage of Aotearoa. Then pop into the gallery shop for stylish accessories and gifts along with postcards of your favourite artworks.

4. Take a stroll around Albert Park

If it’s a nice day and you feel like a bit of green space, head into Albert Park which is right next to the art gallery. Take a stroll around palm-fringed paths, admire the formal flower beds and enjoy the sculptures, statues, floral clock and Victorian fountain. Or just choose a park bench, smell the flowers and take some time out.

Shopping at Commercial Bay indoor mall, Auckland
Commercial Bay

5. Enjoy a little bit of retail therapy

Somewhat confusingly, Auckland’s main shopping street is not the High Street, but nearby Queen Street. This is where you find Australasian chain stores and two department stores – Smith & Caughey and Farmers.

Personally, I prefer to head to the High Street itself. Running parallel to Queen Street, this was always a great place to find independent boutiques. Nowadays, it’s increasingly being taken over by Asian restaurants and take-aways. Nevertheless, there are still one or two interesting shops in which to find that gem of a bargain, including some designer outlet stores.

The closer you get to the waterfront, the more upmarket the shops become, because this part of town caters to the many international visitors who step ashore from cruise ships. At the end of Queen Street you’ll find the likes of Prada, Dior and Louis Vuitton. There’s also a new shopping mall called Commercial Bay, which is a great place to escape from rain showers (see ‘weather’ below) as well as hosting some attractive shops and eateries.

Galway Street, Auckland, where you can find upmarket shops like Chanel and Tiffany
Chanel and Tiffany at Britomart, with a glimpse of the Britomart Hotel on the right

Also in this area, behind Britomart railway station, are 9 blocks of beautifully-restored commercial buildings, now housing designer boutiques and cafes. International names like Tiffany, Chanel and Jo Malone can be found here along with top New Zealand fashion labels like Karen Walker and Trelise Cooper. Even if you’re just window shopping, Britomart is a lovely area to stroll around.

6. Explore the waterfront

When you reach the very end of Queen Street, you’ll find yourself looking across at the attractive old red-brick ferry terminal building. To the right is the port of Auckland, where large tankers and cruise ships dock; to the left is Princes Wharf which houses the Hilton Hotel along with some apartment buildings. Smaller cruise ships sometimes dock there.

Cross the road towards the old ferry building. This is your access to Auckland’s waterfront, which has been considerably improved and developed over the past 25 years. There are various areas to explore.

A cruise ship docked in front of the Hilton Hotel at Princes Wharf, Auckland
Cruise ship in front of the Hilton Hotel at Princes Wharf

The Ferry Terminal

The terminal itself is a hub of activity, being the gateway to the islands of the Hauraki Gulf and the North Shore of Waitematā Harbour. There are also some small shops, bars and restaurants in the building, including an excellent artisan gelateria. Head towards Princes Wharf, where you’ll find more cafes, bars and restaurants for lunch stops.

Viaduct Harbour

Beyond Princes Wharf is Viaduct Harbour (see main feature photo), with its attractive marina and yet more bars and restaurants. This is a very lively place in the evenings, particularly at weekends. When major yachting events take place, such as the America’s Cup, it can be very crowded.

Wynyard Quarter

A small bridge called Te Wero leads from Viaduct Harbour to Wynyard Quarter. This area, still under development, is home to the Park Hyatt Hotel and various apartment blocks. It has a long parade of cafes and bars, some of which directly overlook the waterfront while others are situated a block behind. This is a great place to enjoy a meal or drink on a sunny afternoon. It does get very crowded when cruise passengers are in town.

Te Wero bridge which connects Viaduct Harbour with Wynyard Quarter, Auckland
Don’t get stuck in the middle…

Incidentally, the aforementioned small bridge lifts up to allow boats to enter or leave the marina, so watch out if the red light turns on and the alarm sounds!

7. Enjoy a pre-dinner drink with a view

Here’s an insider’s tip: if you’re keen to have a refreshing wine but can’t find a waterfront seat due to crowds of tourists, head to the ferry terminal and the bar-restaurant called Botswana Butchery. It has a few roped-off waterfront seats, which people tend to assume are not publicly accessible. If you spot an empty one, quickly head to the main entrance round the back, on Quay Street. Explain to the staff that you’ve just come for a drink, buy your wine and take it through the main bar towards the waterfront seat. Voilá! You have a prime privileged position behind the ropes, to enjoy your drink and watch the comings and goings from the ferries.

Alternatively, some of Auckland’s tall hotels have superb bars on their upper floors. Bar Albert, on the 38th floor of the Voco Auckland City Centre hotel, is the highest rooftop bar in New Zealand. Other great options are the Churchill gin bar at Four Points by Sheraton, Sunset Bar at the Sudima Auckland City and the Sky Bar at Sky City.

Sky Bar at Sky City Auckland
Sky Bar. Photo courtesy of Visit Auckland

8. Dine in style

Auckland has many dining options, depending on how much you want to spend. The Commercial Bay shopping mall, mentioned earlier, has a whole floor of eateries offering many different styles of cuisine at takeaway prices with communal seating for those who wish to dine in.

If you want to push the boat out, there are some top fine-dining establishments offering the best of New Zealand cuisine. For something a little different, try Homeland, the cooking school and dining room established by celebrity chef Peter Gordon. Located in the Wynyard Quarter, Homeland serves fabulous food using the best of local ingredients, with sustainability being key to their ethos. Also in this area is the very popular Baduzzi, which serves very tasty authentic Italian cuisine. Booking is essential for both restaurants.

Over at Sky City, there’s Peter Gordon’s famous old haunt, The Sugar Club, which offers wonderful tasting menus including a totally plant-based option. Being on the 53rd floor, you also get to enjoy fabulous views! If you choose Sky Bar for your pre-dinner drinks, The Sugar Club would be the perfect dining option.

Cafes and bars along the waterfront at Wynyard Quarter, Auckland
Wynyard Quarter cafes and bars

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Best time to visit

To some extent this will depend on what else you plan to do in New Zealand. If you’re heading to the ski fields, winter is a great time to visit Auckland because it’s outside the cruise season, so is likely to be less crowded.

If you do visit during the warmer times of year, we recommend the shoulder seasons of early spring or late autumn, avoiding school holidays if possible. The summer months of December to February can be very pleasant, but like many other parts of the world, we have been experiencing extreme weather events in recent years. Heavy flooding and cyclones affected a number of North Island regions in summer 2023, including Auckland. So nothing can be guaranteed.

Getting to Auckland

Auckland’s traffic is the stuff of legend, and one of the most complained-about aspects of living in or visiting the city. Unless you’re disembarking from a cruise ship or train – in which case, you won’t have to worry about this – chances are, you’ll need to travel by road for at least part of your journey.

Fortunately, some major roading projects in recent years have made things much easier. The SkyDrive Bus, which takes passengers from the airport to Sky City, took a mere 23 minutes when I travelled on it in early 2024. In past times, the airport to city bus took around 50 minutes.

Maunga mural at Excelsior House, Auckland, by Shane Cotton
‘Maunga’ by Shane Cotton, Excelsior House, Britomart

Britomart railway station serves local commuter routes, but is also the terminus of the Northern Explorer scenic train from Wellington – a great slow travel trip! I say ‘slow travel’ because the journey takes 11 hours, so those used to fast trains need to be mentally prepared! But it’s a great way to see a big chunk of the north island in one hit. Stops en route include the cities of Palmerston North and Hamilton.

Weather

Generally speaking, the further north you go in New Zealand, the more tropical the weather. This is good for enjoying warm temperatures, but it also brings heavy rain at times. Our itinerary above provides plenty of sheltering spots should you be caught out by an unexpected downpour, but it pays to check the weather and take your umbrella if necessary.

Opening hours

A number of cafes, restaurants and other establishments close on Sundays and Mondays. Please check before your visit to avoid disappointment.

Where to stay

Auckland offers a wide range of accommodation, from simple motels to high-end luxury hotels. Here are just 3 examples that would be perfectly located for our suggested itinerary. Note: links provided are affiliate links. If you book through our site, it will cost you no more, but we will receive a small commission which helps us keep this site going.

Front entrance of the Sky City Grand hotel in Auckland New Zealand

The Grand by Sky City

Not to be confused with the Sky City Hotel, which is also in the Sky City complex, the Grand gives you a luxury 5-star stay. It’s perfectly located for some of our suggested attractions, bars and restaurants, plus the SkyDrive airport bus. I first stayed here to attend a conference and loved it.

Street view of the M Social Hotel in Auckland New Zealand

M Social

M Social is one of the newest additions to Auckland’s hotel portfolio. This large, modern establishment, owned by the Millennium group, is perfectly located opposite the ferry terminals. It has a friendly vibe but also high standards, which get great reviews from travellers.

Lounge area of the Britomart Hotel in Auckland New Zealand

Hotel Britomart

If you take the Northern Explorer train to Auckland, you can roll off the train and into this luxurious, stylish, top-rated hotel. Think distressed wood, designer chic and industrial heritage. It’s top of my ‘places I most want to stay in’ list. I’m not sure if Tiffany’s, next door, does breakfast!

Final thoughts

This one-day itinerary will give you a good overview of what Auckland has to offer. If you do have a little more time, I would recommend heading to the ferry terminal and taking a harbour cruise. Or a short ferry ride across to Devonport, a sought-after suburb on the North Shore which has lovely views back to the city. Because Auckland really is all about the water that surrounds it on nearly all sides.

Waiheke Island is a longer ferry trip, worthy of a whole day. Especially as it offers beautiful beaches and fabulous wineries with awesome places to lunch. Although Waiheke does have public bus services that call at its ferry terminal at Matiatia, an organised tour is the recommended way to go for wine tasting. It will make everything much easier. This Quintessential wine tour with lunch, for example, picks up from Matiatia and drops you back there after the tour.

More posts on New Zealand: Marlborough SoundsStreet art in eastern WellingtonRussellKatherine Mansfield, Dunedinbest beaches in WellingtonQueenstownWhanganui and New Zealand English – my hilarious learning journey.

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