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CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Auckland, New Zealand

  • By Rebekah White
  • Photos by Lottie Hedley
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Auckland feels like several cities jammed together on the same narrow tongue of land. On one coast, there’s a calm harbor studded with islands; the other coast is a completely different character, with steep, bush-clad ranges hemming in beaches where the sand is black and the surf is wild.

In some parts of town, you only have to walk one block over to hear a different language on the street. Forty percent of Aucklanders were born overseas, and the city has significant Samoan, Tongan, Chinese, Korean and Indian communities. That means Diwali is celebrated with the same vigor as Christmas or Chinese New Year, and knowing where to find the best bibimbap or biryani in your neighborhood is a point of pride.

Auckland makes the most sense from the water: Maori, the indigenous people of the country, were renowned seafarers, and the city’s double harbor made it a coveted spot. Auckland’s Maori name, Tamaki Makaurau, translates as the land “of a thousand lovers.” As you skim over the waves on a ferry to Rangitoto or Waiheke, it’s easy to become one of them.

Meet Rebekah White

Born and raised in Auckland, Rebekah White is the editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and travels the country writing about science, nature and outdoor pursuits. When in her hometown, she spends her time finding new running routes and places to eat, or lingering in old-favorite cafes with a book.

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IN THE ACTION
Ponsonby
Ponsonby is on the border of Auckland’s central business district (the grungy-but-gentrifying Karangahape Road) and the upmarket neighborhoods — or, here, “suburbs” — of Grey Lynn and Herne Bay. All those tides collide in the form of chic cafes, raucous late-night bars, art galleries, high-concept boutiques, organic grocers and streets where Victorian-era villas stand shoulder to shoulder. It’s a short walk along tree-lined Franklin Road to the city center — or, in the other direction, to expansive Grey Lynn Park and a slower pace of life. A handful of boutique hotels are scattered around the suburb, as are homes available on Airbnb. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island is a 30-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland, but its narrow roads, overgrown gardens and retro baches (a term for small holiday houses) give it a country feel. The pop star Lorde sequestered herself on Waiheke to work on her second album. Here, you can get away from it all in a cabin hidden among manuka trees and silver ferns, emerging only for the occasional dip in the water. Numerous tiny houses and sleepouts (or backyard cabins) are available on Airbnb; look for accommodations on the northern side of the island, where the beaches are best for swimming. Palm Beach is quieter than neighboring Oneroa. Find this neighborhood.

Eat

BREAKFAST
Bestie Cafe
It’s the loveliest living room in Auckland, occupying one end of historic St. Kevins Arcade and overlooking Myers Park and the office towers of Auckland’s central business district. The mall, built in 1924, feels like a Victorian conservatory: Light filters from the glasshouse roof to the checkered floor and its multitude of indoor plants. Linger over one of the cafe’s flat whites (our go-to coffee order) with a book, watch people from Auckland’s creative industries take meetings at the long table, and stop by one of the vintage stores on your way out.
BTW: The short-but-sweet menu features a posh take on pineapple lumps, an iconic but divisive New Zealand candy. (You’ll either love them or hate them.)
Bestie Cafe, St. Kevins Arcade, 183 Karangahape Rd., Auckland 1010, New Zealand
BREAKFAST
Little & Friday
The panic of indecision is liable to strike anyone who lines up in front of the cabinets here. The raspberry doughnut? The petite quiche? The pinwheel bun? The pear tart? The chocolate cake shaped like a miniature volcano? Every neighborhood in Auckland has its humble corner bakery, but Little & Friday founder Kim Evans has lifted hers to new heights. (It’s not so little anymore; there’s another location in Belmont.) It’s all equally delicious, so choose at random, get it to go, walk around the corner and picnic in one of the city’s best parks, the Domain.
BTW: The most Kiwi breakfast you can get here is a mince-and-cheese pie. The jam-and-custard doughnuts are legendary, but do not attempt one alone.
Little & Friday, 11 McColl St., Newmarket, Auckland 1023, New Zealand
LUNCH
Amano
At the heart of Britomart, the waterfront area of downtown Auckland, Italian restaurant Amano serves lunch with a view: businesspeople at the bar attempting to impress, well-dressed diners lunching at leisure in the window, staff in the open kitchen preparing the evening service from scratch, raviolo by raviolo. The best part, though, is Amano’s adjoining bakery, where you can pick up a pastry, piadina or pizza slice to go, plus loaves of house sourdough. Once a week, usually Fridays, the pastry cabinet includes Auckland’s best custard slice, a corner-bakery staple.
BTW: Grab a takeout lunch and head for Takutai Square, at the other end of Tyler Street: On sunny days there will be beanbags on the grass, street furniture on the pavement and kids playing in the fountain.
Amano, 66-68 Tyler St., Auckland 1010, New Zealand
LUNCH
Little Bird Kitchen
Plant-based cuisine was elevated in Auckland with the arrival of Little Bird, and Megan May’s mostly raw menu continues to lead the way almost a decade later. Little Bird’s flagship cafe is a go-to for those on restricted diets — gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan — without compromising on imagination or flavor. Lunch features the best menu of the day: Order the Vietnamese pancake (a take on banh xeo) or the kimchi burger. If you’re daunted by the extensive list of teas, ask for advice. A small shop area sells plant-based products, including Little Bird’s own granola, crackers and macaroons.
BTW: Leave room for dessert: There’s a cabinet packed with cakes, and the ginger slice is a raw vegan take on a Kiwi classic.
Little Bird Kitchen, Summer Street and Ponsonby Road, Auckland 1011, New Zealand
DINNER
Depot
It’s difficult to define New Zealand cuisine, but chef Al Brown has made the best effort at doing so, roaming the country’s North and South islands for artisanal, unique-to-here ingredients and assigning them starring roles on the menu at Depot. That’s why you’ll see the provenance of many ingredients listed, like a culinary map of the country. Start with freshly shucked oysters and proceed to charcuterie, lamb ribs, potato skins, a side of kahawai and wine by the carafe, rather than the glass. If there’s crumble on the dessert menu, order it — it’s a touch of home-style cooking on an otherwise upscale menu.
BTW: Depot doesn’t take reservations, so if the wait is long, pop next door to the Federal Delicatessen (another Al Brown-helmed eatery) for a craft beer.
Depot, 86 Federal St., Auckland 1010, New Zealand
DINNER
Tiger Burger
It started as a food truck in 2014, but Tiger Burger became so popular that two years later it put down roots in an eclectic cluster of shops in Grey Lynn, rubbing shoulders with the local bakery, doctor’s office and fish-and-chip shop. Tiger Burger’s points of pride are sourcing environmentally responsible products, such as its sustainably farmed Taupo beef, and introducing Korean flavors to American classics. The Kimcheese burger is a must-order; you might blink at the kimchi-and-aged-cheddar combo, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
BTW: If the restaurant is busy, get your burgers to go and walk a third of a mile down Williamson Avenue to Grey Lynn Park. There are picnic tables at the Williamson Avenue end.
Tiger Burger, 549 Great North Rd., Grey Lynn, Auckland 1021, New Zealand
LATE-NIGHT
Satya Chai Lounge
No. 271 looks like a derelict shopfront, the window full of stacked chairs and empty beer cans, but it’s a bluff: Surprisingly, the door opens into a narrow, dimly lit bar. Low wooden tables are surrounded by stools made from recycled timber and burlap sacks. The look is part amateur DIY, part shabby chic, and the craft beer list is cracking, with the small plates even better: Order the dahi puri and the “kurryaage chicken,” a fusion of Japanese and South Indian flavors.
BTW: Too hungry for small plates? Just around the corner, at 17 Great North Rd., is one of this bar’s parent restaurants, also called Satya.
271 Karangahape Rd., Auckland 1010, New Zealand
LATE-NIGHT
Giapo Ice Cream
There are queues outside Giapo in the middle of the afternoon, at dinnertime and late at night, and with good reason. Owner Gianpaolo Grazioli is a mad scientist of ice cream, and at his downtown cafe, you can get an ice cream creation shaped like a colossal squid, or like the Sky Tower, or one with a photo frame made of chocolate for selfies, or five little ice cream cones that you wear on your fingertips to eat. Or how about an ice cream sandwich made with paraoa parai (Maori fried bread)? Don’t be shy in sampling flavors — that’s partly why the line is so long.
BTW: The menu changes with the seasons but usually features the classic New Zealand flavor hokey pokey: vanilla with crunchy lumps of honeycomb toffee.
Giapo Ice Cream, 12 Gore St., Auckland 1010, New Zealand
(Caroline Wilkie for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. In the summer, wear a hat, sunscreen and long sleeves. The sun is harsher here than what you might be used to.
  2. Coffee in New Zealand is espresso-based, and few cafes serve it filtered, the form most familiar to folks from the States. For a brew with a little steamed milk, order a flat white; coffee with a lot of steamed milk is a latte; coffee without milk is a long black. Double shots of espresso are the default.
  3. Don’t eat dinner late: It’s hard to find a restaurant with a kitchen open at 10 o’clock on a weeknight. Most close by 4 p.m., even on weekends.
(Caroline Wilkie for The Washington Post)

Do

Snorkel with Saltwater Eco
At the first hint of summer, Aucklanders flock to beaches at the north of the city. Two hot spots are Goat Island — one of the first marine-protected areas in the Southern Hemisphere — and Tawharanui Regional Park, which offers a tame surf break as well as snorkeling. If you’re new to the world beneath the waves, Saltwater Eco offers snorkeling lessons and guided tours for adults and children, which meet at locations such as Goat Island and Tawharanui, where you’re likely to spot snapper, blue cod, anemones, crayfish and kina.
BTW: Comfortable in the water? Rent gear, including a wet suit, at Goat Island Dive and Snorkel These may look like tropical-island beaches, but the water’s pretty cold, even in summer.
951 Matakana Rd., Matakana 0985, New Zealand
Shop on Ponsonby Road
The boutiques on Ponsonby, which runs along a ridgeline from the landmark Three Lamps, in the north, to Karangahape Road, in the south, include many of New Zealand’s most lauded clothing designers and artists. Zambesi, Karen Walker, Juliette Hogan (a favorite of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern), Kate Sylvester, Ingrid Starnes and the label Lonely all have stores. Independent bookstores are few and far between in Auckland, but Ponsonby Road has both the Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop and the Women’s Bookshop. The Poi Room is a hub for New Zealand art and design.
BTW: Stop at Ponsonby Central, an upmarket collection of eateries, for refreshments. It’s just over halfway down the strip if you begin your walk at Three Lamps, mapped below.
348 Ponsonby Rd., Auckland 1011, New Zealand
Vineyard-hop on Waiheke Island
It’s sunnier in the Hauraki Gulf than it is downtown, and on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from downtown Auckland, 25-odd vineyards profit from the shift in weather. On sunny days, Aucklanders while away the hours touring cellar doors and tasting rooms. Several vineyards have excellent restaurants attached; Casita Miro and Mudbrick, mapped below, are two of the best. Rent a car or scooter or join one of the bus tours that shuttle visitors between vineyards to avoid driving on the island’s narrow, winding roads.
BTW: If possible, visit Waiheke on a weekday. On Saturdays and Sundays, the island’s population swells with day-tripping Aucklanders.
126 Church Bay Rd., Waiheke Island, Oneroa 1971, New Zealand
Auckland Museum
On the crest of a hill overlooking the city, Auckland Museum (alternately called the Auckland War Memorial Museum) is an imposing stone building visible from other high points. Inside, you can literally step into Maori culture. Within the great hall is an entire wharenui, or meeting house, where carvings and woven tukutuku panels tell stories of tipuna, or ancestors. There’s an entire carved waka, or war canoe, as well as other treasures such as cloaks, jewelry and weapons made of greenstone. It’s much-needed context for New Zealand that the rest of the city is missing.
BTW: Leave time to wander in the surrounding park, the Domain, afterward. If it’s raining, head for the Wintergardens, a pair of Victorian glasshouses that now serve as botanical gardens.
Auckland Domain, Parnell, Auckland 1010, New Zealand
Go birding on a wild island
An entire island dedicated to rare birds, Tiritiri Matangi is a portal to a pre-humanity New Zealand. Once stripped bare and farmed, the island’s forest has been restored by volunteers over the past 30 years, and it’s now a safe home for native species that have largely disappeared from the mainland. On a sunny day, the forest chorus is impressively loud, and sugar feeders dotted throughout allow you to see tui, korimako, hihi and tieke up close. It’s about an hour’s ferry ride from downtown Auckland (ticket office mapped below).
BTW: When booking ferry tickets, add on the guided island tour, even if you’re not usually a tour person. It’s small and informal, and the volunteer guides are brimming with knowledge.
Pier 4, 107 Quay St., Auckland 1010, New Zealand
Crushes
Promoting New Zealand creators of sustainable fashion and homewares is the mission of Auckland duo Sarah Firmston and Rose Hope. They’ve been running this central Auckland store since 2011, championing small-scale underground designers and recently starting an in-house line of candles and jewelry. Stop by for a host gift, a travel journal, a greeting card or an ironic pin.
BTW: The holy grail of souvenirs is a vintage plaid wool blanket, made in New Zealand and nearly impossible to buy ... except when Crushes has one in store.
Crushes, 225 Karangahape Rd., Newton, Auckland, New Zealand
Rebekah White
Born and raised in Auckland, Rebekah White is the editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and travels the country writing about science, nature and outdoor pursuits. When in her hometown, she spends her time finding new running routes and places to eat, or lingering in old-favorite cafes with a book.
Lottie Hedley
Lottie Hedley is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post based in Auckland, a city that, in the summer, combines all her favorite things — super-fresh produce, long walks and swimming. The best walk, in her view, is the Milford-Takapuna trail: It has fascinating volcanic geology, you can stop and swim at Thorne Bay, and at the end at Takapuna Beach, you can treat yourself with gelato from the beach cafe.

CITY GUIDES