New Zealand’s biggest urban area and economic capital is on fast forward to become the South Pacific’s most cosmopolitan destination.
With three expansive harbours, a scattering of islands easily reached by ferry, and an idiosyncratic landscape punctuated by around 50 dormant volcanic cones – don’t worry, none are expected to erupt in the next few hundred thousand years – Auckland is no under-achiever in the natural beauty stakes.
Despite the city’s robust growth, it’s still easy to combine very diverse experiences during a visit. Mix and match a leisurely organic breakfast at Little Bird in Ponsonby with shopping for New Zealand designer labels like World and Juliette Hogan, before catching a ferry to Waiheke Island for wine-tasting, sea kayaking or ziplining in the afternoon.
A second day could combine abseiling and canyoning in the forested river gorges of the nearby Waitakere Ranges, before returning to the city for cocktails and rustic Italian cuisine at the buzzy Coco’s Cantina on bohemian Karangahape Road.
In past decades, Auckland wasn’t known for reinvigorating heritage spaces, but recently a savvy band of architects and developers have created a new urban canvas for restaurateurs, bar owners and independent retailers. In the City Works Depot, once housing workshops for the council’s transport team, a sprawl of industrial warehouses now features some of Auckland’s most interesting addresses.
Brothers Beer is a hip and relaxed ode to the booming New Zealand craft beer scene, and The Food Truck channels an easygoing vibe while serving up healthy (but still very tasty) spins on classic American street food. Best Ugly Bagels is chef Al Brown’s take on the classic Montreal-style bagel; toppings such as Marmite and cheddar cheese or organic Central Otago honey from New Zealand’s South Island conspire to add a distinctly Kiwi vibe to the fragrant and smoky wood-fired ambience.
A 10-minute walk away, La Zeppa Kitchen & Bar serves up tasty bar snacks (think antipasto plates and salt-baked olives with chilli) and hosts some of Auckland’s top DJs.
Smart use of existing spaces is also happening outside of Auckland’s CBD. A full menu of cool restaurants, gourmet provedores and retailers fills the laneways of Ponsonby Central. Standouts are The Blue Breeze Inn’s funky mash-up of Pacifica style and regional Chinese cuisine, and the flavour-packed treats at Burger Burger.
Across the road, The Golden Dawn initially opened as a pop-up bar, but several years on a winning formula of superior bar snacks – the prawn buns with Japanese mayo are legendary – and weekend gigs in the raffish brick-lined courtyard have ensured longevity.
Tucked in behind The Golden Dawn, Miss Moonshine’s American barbecue joint shares space with The Street Food Collective, a rotating collection of the best of Auckland’s growing food truck scene.
Always evolving, Auckland’s current food scene is both exciting and surprising, and guided discoveries from Zest Food Tours are a great way to unearth the city’s diverse flavours. Their Urban Village Delights tour explores one of the city’s hippest strips, Ponsonby, while the Auckland City Tastes tour focuses on the waterfront scenes of Viaduct Harbour and the revitalised Wynyard Quarter and Britomart areas.
It’s not only the Auckland Fish Markets and waterfront restaurants and bars of North Wharf driving the emergence of the Wynyard Quarter. Nearby Silo Park focuses on eclectic re-use of a scattering of giant silos once used to store cement. During summer, classic movies are screened outdoors, and Silo Markets feature stallholders selling artisan foods and local crafts.
New Zealand wines and craft beer are served from a repurposed shipping container to partner an atlas full of ethnic street food, and regular DJ gigs provide laid-back beats to ease locals into a relaxed weekend state of mind.
Views of the elegant bridge crossing to the North Shore are a reminder Auckland is one of the world’s great harbour cities, and the brave/crazy tourists negotiating the narrow walkway atop the Sky Tower prove that Queenstown is not the only New Zealand city with an adventurous spirit. Visitors can even take a bungy leap of faith from Auckland’s iconic Harbour Bridge.
A short walk from the Wynyard Quarter, Britomart is downtown Auckland’s largest slice of urban renewal. A decade ago the laneways and warehouses were largely empty and under-utilised, but by 2012 a modern overlay had resurrected the area.
Britomart’s fusion of heritage and contemporary architecture has seen it evolve to become Auckland’s undisputed fashion hub. Top New Zealand fashion designers Zambesi, Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester all have flagship stores here, and international brands like Ted Baker and Lululemon further reinforce Britomart’s credentials as the city’s designer hub. Other retailers like Made showcase New Zealand’s up-and-coming designers.
The Britomart precinct also hosts a collection of top eating opportunities. Ortolana’s Mediterranean-inspired dishes are packed full of seasonal ingredients from the owners’ farm garden in rural West Auckland, while their nearby sister restaurant Milse focuses solely on the important skill set of crafting very grown-up and sophisticated desserts.
With views across the harbour, nearby Ostro run by top Kiwi chef Josh Emett is just the kind of place to inspire waterborne exploration of Auckland’s sparkling marine backyard.
The city’s Ferry Building is close by to the relaxed passage that takes you to the seaside village of Devonport, where strolling through the shops (try the chocolaterie for handmade chocolates and truffles) and checking out artists’ works is a lovely way to wile away an afternoon.
The islands that neighbour the city offer an array of exciting activities, native wildlife and world-class vineyards. It’s an uncommon blend of sophistication, vibrancy and adventure that’s driving Auckland’s emergence as New Zealand’s only truly international city.
Words by Brett Atkinson