Last updated 20 March 2021
Stretching from beautiful, sandy beaches in the North to the Bombay Hills in the South, the Auckland region has many hidden gems which most travellers never see. There’s a lot to see and do in Auckland, however, to get the most out of your stay, you really need to go beyond the city centre.
Expand your horizons and take one (or more) of these day trips to get a taste of how diverse and beautiful Auckland really is. Just be aware that you may need to hire a car, as public transport to some of these places is sporadic at best.
Blue skies and black sand at Piha Beach. Photo by Scott Venning.
Auckland’s west coast is a stretch of black-sand surf beaches, wild, rough and absolutely stunning. The dark sand and large waves give these beaches a moody, ethereal quality and the nearby Waitakere Ranges offer a green backdrop to this striking coastline. While gorgeous in the summer, these beaches are also wonderful to visit during the winter, when the heat rising from the black sand isn’t as oppressive. The most popular beaches are Muriwai, Bethells, Piha and Karekare, where the Piano was filmed.
The West Coast is about a 40-minute drive from the city centre. Start your day with a short walk in the beautiful Waitakere Ranges - I suggest you pick one with a waterfall - then head to the beach for lunch. Take a picnic and make a day of it, or enjoy the Kiwi favourite of fish-and-chips at the beach (there are small caravans selling food at Muriwai and Bethells). Just remember to take care – the currents on the west coast are very strong, so remember to swim between the flags.
The beautiful, isolated Whatipu Beach. Photo by Martin Sercombe.
For a truly isolated experience of New Zealand, visit Whatipu Beach, situated at the at the very edge of the Waitakere Ranges. A rugged and remote place, the beach seldom has more than a handful of visitors and it can be hard to believe you’re so close to a major city. It’s an odd, beautiful place, which many locals have never seen, and when you’re here it’s easy to image you’re standing on the edge of the world.
It’s a lovely drive from the city to Whatipu – if you go directly, it takes about an hour, but there are many lovely places to stop along way. Have a coffee or morning tea in Titirangi village, the centre of an artsy Auckland suburb which is nestled in trees with lovely ocean views. Then continue towards Huia, stopping at the beautiful viewpoints for a couple of photos. From there, the road winds over a hill through the bush (and is gravel in places) before emerging in Whatipu, a crescent of black sand with contrasting with the blue Pacific Ocean.
Goat Island Marine Reserve
A beautiful marine reserve in the north of Auckland, Goat Island is the perfect local spot for snorkelling. The beach is gravel and not the best for sunbathing, however, it’s one of the few places where you can see full-sized fish in the shallows. Swim with the snapper, blue maomao, and red and blue cod, among others, and you may even see the occasional cray fish hiding in the rocks. From the shore, it’s a short swim to nearby goat island.
Otherwise, if snorkelling or diving isn’t your thing, see the seabed from the glass-bottomed boat. At low tide, you can also walk to the beautiful Pakiri Beach from Goat island, passing a pink sand beach (with a small waterfall if there’s been recent rainfall) along the way. For lunch, head to the delightful Leigh Sawmill Café or bring a picnic.
Looking at Rangitoto Island from Auckland's North Shore
The youngest volcano in Auckland, Rangitoto Island emerged from the sea 600 years ago, taking its distinct place in the city’s landscape. Visible from any east coast beach, Rangitoto is a perfect cone against the sky, and, rather than just admiring it from afar, you can visit the island yourself (don’t worry, it’s a dormant volcano).
Only a 25-minute ferry ride from the city, you’ll find yourself on a small island in the middle of brilliant, blue water. Once there, choose a trail through the native bush and over the grey lava flows. Unsurprisingly, walking up the summit is the most popular option. It takes about an hour and once there, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the Hauraki. There are also a number of longer walks, including the option to walk to nearby Motutapu Island at low-tide. Just remember to wear sturdy shoes and bring food and drinks with you, as there are no shops on the island.
Manukau Heads Lighthouse in Awhitu Peninsula
For a different perspective of Auckland, head South to the whitewashed lighthouse on the Manukau Heads. It’s one of the few lighthouses in New Zealand that’s open to the public and the views from the top of amazing. The coast out there is remote and wild, however there are also a number of walks on the peninsula and some safe, white-sand beaches.
Getting to Awhitu Peninsula from Auckland involves a long yet scenic and beautiful. If you want to stay longer, try glamping or book a romantic stay at Castaways Resort.
Views from a vineyard on Waiheke Island. Photo by Miles Holden.
A trip to Auckland isn't complete without visiting nearby Waiheke Island. A 35-minute ferry ride from the city, Waiheke has a large range of excellent wineries and white sand beaches. Spend your day wine tasting or relaxing by the beach and be sure to enjoy a long lunch either at one of beautiful wineries or at one of the wonderful restaurants on the island.
If you aren't sure where to start, Mudbrick has a lovely restaurant and gorgeous views while Stonyridge offers a more relaxed vibe and occasionally hosts music festivals. Mediterranean-style restaurants Casita Miro and Poderi Cristi are also excellent options for a beautiful long lunch. Just keep in mind that Waiheke is larger than you may think, so be sure to organise transport from the ferry.
A summer's day at Wenderholm Beach
Puhoi is a charming Bohemian settlement in northern Auckland, nestled in the nearby farmland. Stop by the pretty church and visit the museum, chronicling the lives of the Czech settlers who first arrived in New Zealand in 1863. While you’re in the area, enjoy a swim at this beautiful Wenderholm Beach, with crystal water, grassy parkland and beautiful views.
If you’re after something a bit more active, you can even kayak down the Puhoi River to Wenderholm – a lovely trip which culminates at a picture-perfect, sandy beach. A leisurely lunch at the Puhoi Valley Cafe (one of New Zealand's great cheesemakers) in a countryside setting completes a perfect day.
Glowworms in Waitomo Caves. Photo by Corin Walker Bain.
If you are short of time, but want to see more of our beautiful country, here are some day trip options out of the greater Auckland area. Just be aware that the travel times are somewhat longer.
About an hour and a half out of Auckland, Hamilton is a small but lovely city, situated on the banks of the Waikato River. The city centre is very walkable with the main road lined with restaurants, shops and bars. Hamilton Botanical Gardens is a highlight of any visit, with beautiful themed gardens including traditional Maori, Italian renaissance and Japanese styles. The nearby Waikato Museum and art gallery are also worth visiting.
Just two hours' drive from Auckland, on the outskirts of Matamata, you'll find Hobbiton, the set from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Hobbiton is beautifully presented and larger than you'd expect. Visiting is a must if you're a fan of the films or just want to see a large scale film set in New Zealand. You need to take a tour to visit the set and there are also options which include brunch or dinner for an extra cost.
A popular tourist attraction, the Waitomo Caves are known for their glowworms, which light up the vast caverns with hundreds of twinkling lights. The caves are extensive and there are a number of ways to explore them, including cave walks, boat rides, and black water rafting. There are options for all levels of fitness and ability and the caves are really beautiful. The caves are just over two hours from Auckland CBD and there are tours available. Go during the week for a quieter visit.
This historic walkway follows the old railway line through a canyon between the Coromandel and Kaimai Ranges. Only 90 minutes out of Auckland, the Karangahake Gorge manages to combine the history of the goldrush with a beautiful natural setting. In short, it's a lovely place for walks, cycling and photography. Bring a picnic with you or stop for lunch at the cafe or winery in the gorge.