Auckland City Vibes: Our Insider’s Guide to New Zealand’s Largest City

It’s 1972, our last night in New York City before giving up our jobs, apartment and Big Apple pleasures for a new life in New Zealand, where we planned to enjoy everything from Auckland city dining to the South Island’s scenic landscapes. Our final meal is at our favorite restaurant in Chinatown. Because my wife, Effin, and I know the waiter, I tell him our news. To my great surprise, he says, “New Zealand? I used to live in New Zealand!”

“Wow. Amazing. Hey, can we get good Chinese food there?” He doesn’t hesitate a second: “No.”

He was right. For our first New Zealand meal, we went to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Auckland. Before we’d even opened our menus, the waiter slapped down the first course — a stack of thickly buttered white bread.

What I didn’t know then was that most of New Zealand’s Chinese citizens were descendants of miners who’d emigrated for the Great New Zealand Gold Rush … in the 1860s. By 1972, their descendants’ culinary taste was far more Kiwi than Chinese. And 1970s Kiwi taste ran to well-done lamb, sweet Pavlova desserts and white bread. And not much else, even in Auckland, the nation’s biggest city.

Auckland dining

That’s hard to believe today. Within two short blocks of our Auckland apartment, there is not only a traditional New Zealand bakery (owned and run by Vietnamese Kiwis), but also at least four Chinese restaurants, plus Thai, Malaysian, Korean, Mexican, an Asian dessert shop, and Wild Wheat, a bread store specializing in a dozen kinds of sourdough. I asked Ting, owner of our go-to Chinese restaurant, Mt. Albert Dumpling House, “since you offer a very full menu, why do you call it Dumpling House?” She smiled. “White people like dumplings.”

If there’s robustly good eating in an ordinary neighborhood, imagine what the rest of the city has to offer. For the Olders’ less expert but no less enthusiastic choices, consider Jules & Effin’s Top Three. Ready?

We have never had better Indian food anywhere — in the world, than at Paradise in Sandringham. I’d tell you our favorite dishes, but they’re pretty much all favorites. If you love Indian or just want to try it, get thee to Paradise.

Mekong Neua, a Thai restaurant in the Kingsland neighborhood, has rambling rooms, an open kitchen, a casual vibe — and such a wide-ranging menu you may find it difficult to decide what to order.

The Grill in SkyCity (beneath the Sky Tower) might seem somewhat touristic. And yet yes, it’s delicious. Yes, it’s elegant. But it’s not the Wagyu steak or the tuna tartare that makes us long for another dinner at The Grill — it’s the duck fat chips. Best French fries ever.

Extraordinary architecture, must-see museums and kiwi culture

Auckland’s War Memorial Museum./Shutterstock

If I had to pick one and only one New Zealand city to visit, I’d choose Auckland. Why? It’s a mix of international sophistication (as in the restaurants above). There’s its Pacific presence (it’s the largest Polynesian city in the world) and local authenticity, including a contemporary Maori presence. As a place to live? We chose Auckland when we left our San Francisco home and returned to New Zealand in 2020. And as for you? Say kia ora (hello) to Aotearoa (New Zealand) through the sights and sounds and tastes of Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland).

Two downtown Auckland edifices fill my eyes with pleasure and my heart with joy. One is the Auckland Town Hall. If you’re thinking ‘town hall’ is just a place for boring bureaucrats to give tiresome talks, think again. This one, designed in the 1900s and beautifully restored in the 1990s, has hosted distinctly un-boring, un-staid performers including the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elton John. You can book seats for a live performance and even take a guided tour of this historic landmark to discover how it adds Auckland city flair to downtown.

Just down Queen Street stands my second architectural love, the Civic Theatre. It opened just before Christmas, 1929, and, like the Town Hall, underwent a major renovation in the 1990s. While its architectural style is officially Moorish Revival, I’d call this combined movie-and-live-performance venue OTT — Over The Top. Inside, its adorned with benign Buddhas, life-size lions, turrets, minarets, spires, the works. It even played a supporting role in Peter Jackson’s remake of King KongAnd yes, the Civic hosts its own guided tours. In addition to performances and movies, both the Town Hall and the Civic have spectacular organs, well worth hearing and seeing.

For appreciators of art and New Zealandia, the Auckland Art Gallery and the War Memorial are must stops. The Gallery, an easy walk from the Civic Theatre, hosts contemporary, often bold, exhibits; they often feature Maori and Pacific art, as well as the usual suspects. But its big draw for New Zealanders and visitors alike is the historic portraits of Maori by our two best-known portraitists, C.F. Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer. And here’s a tip: One flight up is a local’s favorite lunch-and-coffee spot.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum sits atop the Auckland Domain in the inner suburb of Parnell; unless you’re a dedicated walker, it’s best to Uber, Ola or taxi. Once here, get ready for a surprise. If there was a Misleading Name contest for a museum, “War Memorial” wins first place. Instead of cannons and swords, enjoy tea sets and marine monsters, letters of love and stories of Auckland, Maori taonga (treasures) including a treasured meeting house, and more Goldie and Lindauer portraits. Plan to spend at least half a day here. Bring your camera.

New Zealand is not just a sporting country— it’s mad about sports.

New Zealanders are mad for cricket./Photo by Shutterstock

The most fun sport to watch is Rugby Sevens, especially Women’s Rugby Sevens. It’s fast-paced and satisfyingly brutal. Men’s Sevens is right behind; see ’em if you can. Next, netball, a woman’s sport that’s virtually unknown in the U.S. Think basketball without the dribbling. For the patient viewer, cricket is a reflection of New Zealand’s British roots. Where do you find out what sporting events are on during your too-brief visit to Auckland? Easy — check out Ticketmaster.

Daredeviling: Auckland’s a paradise for the adventurous

Auckland’s iconic Sky Tower offers great views — and extreme adventure opportunities./Photo by Shutterstock

The most obvious adventure is one I fear and that my wife, Effin, loves. It’s hard to miss since it takes place atop the tallest building in Australasia. When you look up at it from the street, you’re likely to see people jumping off, bungie-style.

I am not one of those people. When offered a chance to take a controlled leap off Auckland’s Sky Tower, I replied, “I get a nose bleed just thinking about it. So, no thanks.” Effin, on the other hand, immediately said, “I’ll do it. But I’d rather do Skywalk, its other daredevil attraction. It’s 192 meters high and no handrails. Just my kind of fun.”

Effin did it. I most certainly did not. But something we do together is another kind of walk. This one also involves heights but not vertiginous heights. And Auckland is the best place in the world for the experience. While much of the city is relatively flat, Auckland is dramatically punctuated by volcanic cones. Most of them are delightfully walkable. Two of our favorites are Mt. Eden and Mangere Mountain (which is not far from the airport). No need to gear up, just wear comfortable shoes. The views from the top are well worth the walk.

Here’s something to remember about each of them. Mt. Eden doesn’t come to a point — at its peak lies a deep volcanic crater. It’s also the highest volcano in New Zealand. Mangere Mountain has twin peaks, remnants of Maori farms and fortifications, and a lot of pre-British history. Insider tip: You and your party can get a tour of Mangere you’ll never forget, led by a guide from the local iwi (tribe).

Did you know that Auckland is a city of beaches?

Auckland’s Piha Beach/Scott Venning

Auckland is a city of islands and its beaches range from the gentle eastern shores like Mission Bay to the thunderous, black-sand beauty of Piha to the west. One of our favorites sits just over the Auckland Bridge; Takapuna is broad, usually gentle and lined with sweet places to eat, drink and try New Zealand ice cream.

That’s my Auckland. I hope, even briefly, you’ll make it yours during your New Zealand cruise. Before we take leave of one another, let me leave you with a koha, a gift.

Here’s a list of facts to drop into your next dinner conversation, a list of New Zealand Firsts.

  • New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. That was in 1893.
  • New Zealand has had three female prime ministers, including the country’s current leader, Jacinda Ardern.
  • One of the two first humans to summit Mt. Everest was Auckland’s Sir Edmund Hillary. In 1953, he made the death-defying trek with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
  • The first person to break the 3:50 mile barrier was John Walker in 1975.
  • First commercial bungy jump? That was 1988, off the Kawarau Bridge near Queenstown.
  • New Zealand was the first country in the world to introduce the 8-hour work day (way back in 1840).
  • And, finally, the world’s first jet boat! Invented by William Hamilton in 1954.

Ready to experience all that Auckland has to offer? Exciting New Zealand cruise itineraries await.