Top places to explore in and around Auckland

Want to make the most of your visit to Auckland?  Embarking on your working holiday visa in New Zealand? Or maybe you’re considering living in Auckland for a while? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

I’ll be honest, Auckland doesn’t always get the best response when it comes to places to live in New Zealand. If you say you live there, the kiwis might say in jest ‘Ohhh you’re a JAFA’ (which basically means ‘just another f****ing Aucklander’ haha), and other backpackers might roll their eyes at you. Particularly if they spent their first jet-lagged night crawling the bars on Queen street, and never saw the real beauty of Auckland before they darted off to the next location. But, don’t let that put you off because once you’ve explored the city and the surrounding area for yourself, you’ll see the true wonders it has to offer and be armed with the experiences to make your own judgement – and in this article, I’m going to help you do just that!

At the end of the day, Auckland is a city. The biggest of the cities in New Zealand with 1.6 million of the 4.8 million New Zealand population living there; so, of course, city life is exactly what you get. If you’re looking to live in the middle of nowhere, where there’s more sheep than people, or in a town surrounded by mountains, then Auckland will probably not be your first choice. The reason I chose to live here was that, in my view, it has so much to offer in every aspect of living and it’s city life with a lot of added benefits. Even the rolling hills and sparse countryside are only a 30-minute drive away, providing a quick getaway for a weekend escape.

What I truly want to get at in this post is that Auckland has a lot of exciting things and places to explore. Whether you decide to live here or you’re just spending a bit of time here, I’d like to give you some ideas on how to maximise your time in the area, see more than just the CBD and find for yourself some of the gems that are a stone’s throw away from the city centre.

Auckland sky tower and rangitoto volcano in distance from above

So let’s take a look…..

Auckland City Centre

There are many things you can do in and around the Auckland CBD which I went into detail about in my article for Travelista Club ‘10 things to do in Auckland CBD‘ – it’s worth taking a read if you’re looking for an itinerary over a couple of days.

If you have a bit more time and like the idea of going a bit further afield, then the other ideas in this post will be more up your street.

Cornwall Park and One Tree Hill

In the Auckland suburb of Epsom, you can find the expansive Cornwall Park. With its rolling hills, tranquil flower gardens, extensive trails and scenic views over Auckland, it’s one of my favourite places to escape to on a sunny afternoon.

It reminds me of the English countryside so it gave me that piece of ‘home away from home’ that I needed every now and again. And to top it off, as working farmland you often find cows or sheep lurking around which is what I’m used to back in rural Cambridgeshire where I grew up. It’s lovely to go there in spring and see all the baby lambs jumping around the place. Also in springtime  (if you’re lucky) you’ll benefit from witnessing the blooming cherry blossom which is pretty spectacular and often draws big crowds for the iconic Instagram pics.

pibk cherry blossom trees against blue sky
The cherry blossom trees in full bloom in Cornwall park

The other significant feature of Cornwall park is its heritage site; the volcano peak, One Tree Hill. This site has a slightly turbulent history when the iconic Monterrey pine was chopped down in protest to the declaration of independence and the resulting treatment of the Māori population. You can read more about it here. Aside from this, it’s a great walk (or if you’re feeling fit a great run) and from the top, you have some epic views in all directions. 100% worth a visit and if you’re unable to walk up, no worries, you can drive up here too.

monument on top of the rolling green one tree hill
One Tree Hill in all its rolling, green glory

Waiheke Island

Waiheke Island is an absolute must-visit if you have some extra time in Auckland and is also a fun place to visit at the weekend if you’re living and working in the city.

Primarily, people are drawn to Waiheke for the many wineries stretched across the island. You can either plan your stops beforehand and take the local bus around the island, hire a car or do the hop on hop off bus. I could write a whole post on the wineries on Waiheke (and I might do a more detailed post on the island in the future) so I’m not going to go into detail here, but you’re sure to find multiple options for a wine in the sun surrounded by expansive vines and stunning scenery.

If you’re looking for a special lunch spot, I highly recommend Mudbrick Vineyard. We went there to celebrate my mother’s 60th Birthday and dined in the restaurant with views overlooking the city in the distance. We had mouth-watering food matched with superb wines and to top it off, impeccable service. It was a lunch to remember!

family smiling at camera in a restaurant
Enjoying my Mum’s Birthday Lunch at Mudbrick

If you’re not a wine drinker, don’t be put off visiting Waiheke. The island is also home to some cool little towns with a hippy vibe, stunning walking tracks, and beautiful beaches. Waiheke Island has something for everyone and definitely worth exploring for a day.

How to get there: Take the ferry across to Waiheke from the Downtown Auckland ferry terminal in Auckland CBD. The journey takes about 40 minutes and they run hourly throughout the day. A return ticket will cost around $40 NZ. 

Getting around on Waiheke: There are a variety of options for transport on the island. If you’re not doing a wine tour with organised transport, you can either buy a ticket at the ferry terminal for the hop on hop off bus (worth doing if you want to see multiple parts of the island, would like extra info and don’t want to research in advance), get taxis from place to place or hop on the local bus which runs regularly around the island (cheapest option).

Rangitoto

Get your hiking shoes out, pack plenty of food and water and catch the 25-minute ferry from Downtown Auckland across to Rangitoto island to climb the majestic Rangitoto volcano.

No fear! It may be a volcano (well Auckland sits amongst roughly 50 volcanoes anyway), but after erupting in a series of explosions 600 years ago (the youngest of the volcanoes) it is not expected to erupt again – so you should be safe for now 😉

I feel a strong connection with Rangitoto. I lived in Mt Eden village during my time in Auckland and often climbed to the top of Mt Eden and took in the view of Rangitoto’s volcano in the distance. It’s symmetrical cone and overpowering presence make it an iconic landmark of Auckland. It stands tall and proud in the distance and I always felt grounded when I gazed upon it. It’s a view I miss.

Once you get to Rangitoto, from the wharf it’s roughly a 1hour 45 minute walk up to the summit where you’ll get incredible 360-degree views and an awesome panoramic view of the city across the Hauraki Gulf.

About 45 minutes up, you can take a little D-tour to wander through the lava caves which are fun to have a look at. In general, it’s a cool place to explore and there are a few different walking trails to check out.

If you’re into camping, you can take all your gear over and spend the night camping on either Rangitoto Island or it’s neighbour Motutapu. This will give you the opportunity to get close to nature and explore both islands (which is a struggle in just one day).

sailing boats in mist
Approaching the mystical Rangitoto on the ferry

The North Shore

Most people that visit Auckland for a few days will find themselves mainly in the central area of Auckland and may not even consider venturing to the North Shore, but if you have the time I recommend popping across for an afternoon.

Over the Harbour bridge, on the North Shore, you’ll find some of the best beaches in Auckland plus a plethora of other activities, walking trails and great foodie spots.

Head into Takapuna to find bustling cafes and restaurants right by a white sand beach. I’ve had some decent brunches here; my favourite spot being Jam organic Café.  And there are many good spots for a beer or two as well.

If you take my advice from my article 10 things to do in Auckland CBD and take the ferry trip over to Devonport (I really recommend doing so), then you can also pop down to Cheltenham beach. It’s a popular spot with the locals for strolling along. You often see people walking far out into the water at low tide because the water becomes very shallow and you can even walk around to Narrow Neck beach.

Another gem on the North Shore, that I can’t miss out, is the North shore Coastal walks along the Te Araroa trail from Long Bay to Devonport.  If you don’t fancy the full 23.5km walk (I wouldn’t blame you!!)  you can do parts of it as smaller walks and still get a taste of the scenery in the area. Check out this link for more info and directions for the different sections of the walk.

The Waitakere Ranges

I’m not even sure where to start when talking about the Waitakere Ranges. This expanse of nature sits only a 45-minute drive out West from Auckland and there is so much to explore and so many great walking trails, it’s hard to just recommend a couple. I loved having this area so close to the city; it was a perfect area to escape to for a day at the weekend where I could immerse myself in nature.

Sadly the area has been hugely affected by the Kauri dieback disease though. This has resulted in a huge number of the tracks being closed while the council attempt to do what they can to save the Kauri trees. Therefore it’s important you check up-to-date information on what’s open in the area before you plan your trip there – I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed and miss out on an opportunity to explore somewhere else equally as beautiful. And, if you do see signs or instructions around the area, please follow what they say to do your bit to help them conserve the area.

Here’s a couple of my top picks in Waitakere ranges to check out (if they’re open):

Kitekite Falls

This is a relatively easy walk. The 40m, three-tiered Kitekite waterfall is just a 1.8km walk from the car park. The best bit for me was climbing up beside the falls through the lush rainforest to the top where you found your own private pools and stunning views across the expansive forest. Wouldn’t suggest looking over the top if you suffer from vertigo though haha!

Te Henga Walkway overlooking Bethell’s beach

Bethell’s beach sits out on the west coast and is a superb beach to spend some time at itself. If you like your walking, the Te Henga Walkway spans up to and across the clifftops by Bethell’s beach providing spectacular views along the rugged coastline and over the beach. It’s an uphill walk but not too difficult.

Piha Beach and Lion’s Rock

Piha beach is one of the black sand beaches in this area. On a sunny day the sand can get very hot so be warned. It’s a popular beach and a great surf spot. The tides and rip currents are quite dangerous here though so please be careful when going in the water. In the middle of the beach, you will find a great big mound of earth known as Lion Rock. You can climb up here for scenic views over the beach. Another spot to enjoy a day in the sun with friends and family at the weekends.

Whatipu Caves

Similar walking trails and beach scenery around this area. From the campsite, you can take a short walking trail to discover the Whatipu caves which range in magnitude. They’re pretty cool to explore and you can see the formations created in the rock over the years. If you fancy a weekend camping trip, this is a nice spot to set up camp.

girl in rock pool looking out over rainforest
Enjoying the view over the extensive forest from the pools at the top of Kitekite falls
rugged coastline and sea
The spectacular view of Bethell’s beach from the Te Henga walkway

Regional Parks (Duder regional park, Waitawa Regional Park)

Like the Waitakere ranges, there are a couple of other Regional parks just a short drive out of the city. Both Duder Regional Park and Waitawa Regional Park (which boast scenic drives to as well) struck me as the traditional New Zealand landscapes that you see on postcards or the New Zealand tourism marketing campaigns. You’ll find sheep and cows grazing on luscious green hillsides, with turquoise blue seas framing the picture.

For me, these two parks were perfect little escapes on an afternoon at the weekend to get me out of Auckland city. Surrounded by nature and the peaceful scenery, I truly switched off from the hustle and bustle of work. Again, these parks offer you a variety of walking trails of various lengths so you can take your pick on what you fancy. They are little gems to be aware of, particularly if you end up living in Auckland but still like to escape the city to the countryside every now and again.

countryside and blue sea
The pretty view in Waitawa Regional Park

Matakana Farmer’s market

Looking for something to do on a Saturday.  Head 50 minutes north of Auckland to the cute little town of Matakana for their Saturday morning village farmers’ market. It’s best to go early, and with an empty stomach, because there’s a whole array of tasty delicacies on offer here. You’ll be buying breakfast, snacks and possibly even ingredients for your evening meal. I have a weakness for Ginger crunch which was started by a kiwi family friend that I stayed within Christchurch. I struggled to find anywhere else in New Zealand that could rival hers, but they weren’t far off at the Matakana farmers’ market.

Matakana is a lovely village to have a wander around too with lots of small arts and crafts style shops to explore.

If it’s a nice day, there are a few options for a beach stop on route back to Auckland. Snell’s beach is a popular surfing beach. It sits in a pretty bay and if you’re not heading into the water with a board, it’s still a nice spot for a paddle in the sea and a stroll along the beach.

A bit closer to Auckland, about 30 minutes north of Auckland is Orewa beach. Being slightly closer to the city this beach is quite popular and can get quite busy in the summer period, but it’s still a nice beach to spend an afternoon on a sunny day.

Whangarei

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the huge benefits of living in Auckland is the extensive options for weekend trips to beautiful places. One place myself and some friends discovered towards the end of my time there was Whangarei. It’s a bit of a drive north of Auckland but the area has some gorgeous walks and beaches. We did a small hike which wasn’t too challenging, but still showed off the scenery that’s on offer here. For a bigger, more challenging hike I would suggest choosing one of the Whangarei heads trails.

The actual town was pretty sleepy and resembles the kind of town you’d expect to find in outback America, not an awful lot to do here. We stayed in quite an unusual hostel called The Cell Block which is a converted police station and the rooms are converted cells. It was quirky and different – fun for a night away, but maybe not the choice if you’re planning to stay there long term.

The main attraction of this area is the scenery, the beaches, and the walking so plan your trip around the weather and be prepared to do some hiking.

hillside and blue sea
Just one of the views you get from a walk by the Whangarei Heads

If you’ve enjoyed this post and are planning a trip to New Zealand, you may enjoy my other New Zealand posts. One of my favourite places is Golden Bay on the South Island so check out my article about it here. You also cannot come to New Zealand without packing in a few wine tours. Read my article about wine touring in Blenheim in the Marlborough region. It’s a lot of fun!

Thanks for reading 🙂

Wonder Seeking Sarah
XOXOX

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