The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Auckland
Welcome to Auckland, a land of volcanoes, forested hills, regional parks, beaches, islands and New Zealand’s largest city. Not only does Auckland stretch out into the waters of the Hauraki Gulf, but the whole region encompasses many different landscapes. For this reason, Auckland makes for an amazing backpacking destination.
Known as the “City of Sails”, all around the coast of Auckland you’ll see the water covered in boats. At one point, it was said that there was one boat for every three Aucklanders! The coastline is also a drawcard with its white sand beaches found in the suburbs.
But the boats are not only what Auckland is famous for. The city is easily identified by its iconic Sky Tower, which stands tall and proud as the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. There are some more natural forms that stand tall around the city too, as Auckland has 48 volcanic cones. So take a look at the backpacker guide below to see what the incredibly varied region of Auckland has to offer for backpacking!
Things You Can’t Miss in Auckland
- Experience Auckland Central nightlife with weekly backpacker events
- While you’re bar hopping, you’ll likely see the Sky Tower lit up – or, head up to the top to check out the views (more info and backpacker deals on Viator and Klook)
- Explore the islands out in the Hauraki Gulf; walk on Auckland’s youngest volcano and discover beautiful beaches on Waiheke Island
- Choose from many beaches along North Shore‘s coast
- Head to the suburbs, whether it’s walking in the rainforest of the Waitakere Ranges or shopping too much in the inner suburbs and Sylvia Park.
And that’s just a taste! Check out some amazing experiences (that are still kind to the backpacker budget) in the 20 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Auckland. Or go all out and discover the best of all activities in the 25 Best Things to Do in Auckland.
Backpacking in Auckland Central
With towering buildings, it can sometimes feel like Auckland City is in its own little bubble. Especially because Auckland Central has snippets of everything. There’s all the convenient services, shops, entertainment venues and nightlife, plus, plenty of squares and big green open spaces. The Auckland Domain is the largest of these green areas. A number of walks take you through wooded areas that you would never think could exist in a city!
Things to Do in Auckland Central
- Check out Maori carvings, WW2 memorabilia and more at the Auckland War Memorial Museum (get your ticket on Klook or Viator)
- Take the ferry to Devonport to explore the WW2 tunnels at North Head and swim at Cheltenham Beach
- Hike the Coast to Coast Trail for a true backpacking experience in the city
- Explore the bushwalks and Winter Garden in the Auckland Domain
- See Auckland from the iconic Sky Tower (more info on Viator and Klook)
- Shop and drink coffee down Queen Street and High Street
- Go to the quirky bars in Britomart
- People watch in Aotea Square and Albert Park.
With a whole lot of backpacker hostels, no doubt you’ll find yourself staying in Auckland Central at some point. Don’t waste your time here; check out what there is to do with our Auckland Central Travel Guide.
Auckland nightlife is as if it has been made for backpackers with a super cheap bar crawl and backpacker events. Just check out our Guide to Auckland Nightlife for more information.
Backpacking the Hauraki Gulf Islands
From the Downtown Ferry Building in Auckland Central – a big orange building easily spotted from the end of Queen Street – you can take an affordable ferry ride to one of the islands of the Hauraki Gulf. Around 50 islands are dotted around the Hauraki Gulf, part of the Pacific Ocean that lies next to Auckland. Check them all out in The 10 Best Islands in Auckland to Visit. Otherwise, here’s a quick rundown…
Rangitoto and Motutapu Island
A highlight is Rangitoto Island, Auckland’s youngest volcano, which offers amazing bush walks over black volcanic rock. There are quite a few adventures squeezed into this day trip from Auckland Central:
Adventure #1: You can’t miss the last ferry, which can be as early as 3:30 pm on weekdays in the off-peak season, or else you will have to survive the island overnight!
Adventure #2: Scramble through the lava caves (make sure to bring a torch or use your phone’s light).
Adventure #3: Walk among black volcanic rock on the way to the summit.
Adventure #4: Feast your eyes on the huge volcanic crater and over to the Auckland city skyline. Then use the Summit Track to get a 360-degree view of the surrounding islands.
All adventures aside, Rangitoto Island is a protected island with no predators, hence the chorus of native New Zealand birds perhaps like nothing you have heard before if this is your first time outside of Auckland city.
Keep in mind that there are no shops on Rangitoto, so bring your own food and water.
Although the tracks are well maintained, the jagged volcanic rock requires some decent sneakers or walking shoes.
For a full guide to Rangitoto, as well as the neighbouring Mototapu, check out The Guide to Rangitoto Island and Motutapu Island.
In contrast to Rangitoto, there is the populated Waiheke Island. With beautiful homes overlooking the beach and their anchored sailing boats, it is evident that the rich and mighty have called this paradise home.
We’re not jealous… For us backpackers, Waiheke is a paradise day trip or overnight stay with some reasonably priced backpacker accommodation. Plus, there is more than plenty to do.
Getting Around Waiheke Island
There are some fun (and challenging) ways to get around the island. Depending on fitness level, hiring a bike is a popular option with lots of uphill climbs and downhill fun! Alternatively, there are scooter rentals, car rentals, horse riding, or you could take the bus. Sea kayaking gives a different perspective of the island. Make sure to book in advance.
Of course, don’t underestimate the power of the legs! There are some coastal tracks capturing amazing views. We especially like the Matiatia Headland Path, a beautiful coastal walk easily accessible from the ferry terminal.
Beaches and Vineyards on Waiheke Island
Whether you’re cycling, walking or getting stuffy on the bus, a good way to cool off is by taking a swim in the clear refreshing water. Oneroa, Little Oneroa, Palm Beach and Onetangi are great beaches for relaxing and swimming.
With around 20 vineyards, you can make a ‘vineyard crawl’ out of your journey around the island. Waiheke Island provides the hot dry summers and stony soils to produce excellent award-winning wines.
Get the full Waiheke Island story here: Waiheke Island – Guide for Backpackers.
Great Barrier Island
Further over yonder is Great Barrier Island. Treat yourself to diving in the most diverse underwater worlds in the Hauraki Gulf. For warmer water activities, bathe in the free natural thermal pools of Kaitoke. There is parking just off Whangaparapara Road for the hot pools.
Considering how you are going to travel around Great Barrier Island is important because there is so much to see. The east coast has beautiful stretches of beach and the west has sheltered rocky beaches. Cycling on Great Barrier Island offers something for different fitness levels and is a quick way of seeing the island, as does car hire! You can hire a kayak independently or with a guide to explore off the coast.
Get to Great Barrier Island by the two-hour ferry in the peak season or 4 hrs 30 mins in the off-peak season. Alternatively, a 30-minute flight from Auckland domestic terminal is also available. Due to the lengthier travel time it takes to get to the island, it is worth checking out the backpacker accommodation. Find out more about how to get to the island in Public Transport in Auckland.
Check out Great Barrier Island – Guide for Backpackers for more things to do and places to stay.
Tiritiri Matangi Island
New Zealand has some incredible native wildlife, which is best seen at Tiritiri Matangi. See the three-eyed lizard and a “living dinosaur”, the tuatara, the takahe with its shocking blue feathers, and the little blue penguin.
Best of the Rest
There are many more islands to see in Hauraki Gulf. They are more off the beaten track simply because ferries are not as frequent or you have to take a boat cruise to get there.
Motuihe and Motutapu both have ferries from the Auckland ferry terminal, in fact, Motutapu is connected to Rangitoto Island. They are steeped in World War One and Two history. Motuihe held prisoners and a naval base and Matutapu still has WW2 ex-military barracks. Nowadays, people enjoy their beaches, volunteer for conservation, and camp on the islands. Check out more about the campsites on Where to Camp in Auckland.
Protected wildlife and native bush can be found on Browns Island, Little Barrier Island, Kawau Island and Rotoroa Island. The latter used to be off-limits except for those using the drug and rehabilitation centre in the care of the Salvation Army. Today, you can take the walking trails, go to the four beaches, and visit the museum to learn about this intriguing island’s past.
Backpacking Auckland North Shore
Moving into the upper suburbs of Auckland, North Shore is the area you arrive in when you cross the Harbour Bridge from Auckland Central. Alternatively, take a quick ferry ride across the water from the Downtown Ferry Building.
Beaches, lookout points, military tunnels and a charming seaside town are what attract locals and backpackers to Devonport. A 10-minute ferry from Auckland to Devonport is a quick escape from the bustling city. At around NZ$15 return it makes our list of the 20 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Auckland.
The great thing about Devonport is the awesome skyline view of the CBD captured from a quick climb up Mt Victoria and North Head.
Apart from views, North Head, on the east side of Devonport has a network of military tunnels, caves, bunkers and guns. Armaments started appearing on North Head after 1875 when there was a Russian invasion scare. The Russians did not come… Then in World War Two, there was the anticipation of a Japanese attack. The Japanese did not come… But the guns from WW2 are practically in pristine condition to see atop North Head today.
Make sure to grab some lunch at Auckland’s best-value fish n’ chips, Riba Fish & Chips. It is the cheapest looking fish n’ chips shop but between you and me, it’s the best one. The NZ$10 meal is more than anyone can finish! For more good food, check out our Cheap Eats in Auckland.
North of Devonport, you will come across the stylish Auckland suburb of Takapuna. With beaches to the east showing a spectacular view of Rangitoto Island and Lake Pupuke to the north, there are plenty of cool places to relax after a hard day of being an awesome backpacker.
If you can’t resist a good shopping session, then Takapuna has a 70+ store shopping mall. A well-renowned market is Takapuna’s Sunday Market your best bet if you want a bargain and something locally produced.
There’s more to explore on North Shore’s west coast. A suburb worth checking out is Birkenhead. Apart from close proximity to the amazing beaches of Beach Haven and views of the city, Birkenhead has bush walks and a ‘sweet’ history. You can see New Zealand’s only sugar factory, which was built in 1884. There is even a Sugar Workers Walk to see the main points of interest in Birkenhead and follow in the footsteps of the sugar workers.
Another place where the city couldn’t feel further away is at Leroy’s Bush. This 1-hour Maori Pipi Walk is through native bush with extremely vocal birds all around you. Come here in the evening to see the Riverbank Glowworms.
North Shore Beaches
Around 20 beaches line North Shore, so once the sun comes you are spoiled for choice with bathing beaches. Aucklanders also take advantage of this coast for sailing, paddle boarding and windsurfing. Make sure to never miss a beach by taking the North Shore Coastal Walk from Browns Bay all the way to Devonport.
Cheltenham Beach in Devonport is a long stretch of sand leading to North Head. It has the perfect isolated view of Rangitoto Island. Additionally, check out Takapuna’s 1 km long crescent-shaped beach; a host of recreation activities.
Find some beaches off the beaten track are Beach Haven and Chatsworth: Charcoal Bay, Island Bay, Soldiers Bay, Onetaunga Bay and Kauri Point Centennial Park.
Backpacking in the Other Suburbs of Auckland
The Auckland suburbs stretch far and wide in the Auckland region. 13 suburbs are divided between 5 districts. Within some districts, there is wilderness, walks and waterfalls, while in others there’s shopping and entertainment. We have a whole separate guide to the suburb, which you can check out at Auckland Suburbs Travel Guide. Otherwise, here’s what’s going on there to see if it’s worth the backpacking mission!
The Best Auckland Inner Suburbs
The inner suburbs mainly offer alternative shopping than what is found in Auckland Central. However, there are volcanic cones to climb in Mt Eden and One Tree Hill and birds to feed at Western Springs. Some of the best inner suburbs of Auckland include:
- Mt Eden – What attracts most backpackers here is Mt Eden itself. It is the highest natural vantage point of the city giving you awesome views of the Auckland skyline and surrounding suburbs.
- Newmarket – Newmarket is a shopping and dining option an easy walk from the Auckland Domain. Many backpackers are hired in the suburb’s cafes, shops and restaurants who want to stay in Auckland.
- Ponsonby – Quality dining, bars and shops can be found in Ponsonby.
- Parnell – Apart from the Auckland Domain full of walks and luscious greenery, there’s heaps of history to be seen in the Auckland Museum. More of your upmarket shopping and dining can also be found in Parnell. Plus, you can stroll through Parnell Rose Gardens.
- Kingsland – Catch a rugby or cricket match at Eden Park Stadium. Again, Kingsland is another suburb enticing you with bars, restaurants and posh shops. During the weekend, spend an evening at The Kingslander pub for live bands and meet open-minded locals.
- One Tree Hill – The hill with no tree is connected to the beautiful Cornwall Park, which has so many trees that it has a Tree Trail. This huge area is ideal for walking in, plus you’ll be greeted with more city views from the top of One Tree Hill.
- Western Springs – See animals, birds and fish surrounding a lake or manmade flying birds – aeroplanes to you and me – at the MOTAT Museum, a.k.a. Museum of Transport and Technology. Then take a walk across the bridge in Western Springs Park to see eels squirming about in the water beneath you.
Going further over yonder, there’s the outer suburb of Manukau, which is likely to be the first and/or last place you go to in New Zealand, because this is where New Zealand’s busiest airport, Auckland Airport, happens to be.
With the huge international movement in the airport, it comes as no surprise that Manukau is known to be the most multicultural area of New Zealand with around 165 ethnicities. This is celebrated every third Sunday of the month with a Live Day at Howick Historical Village. Historical events are reenacted by costumed villagers.
As well as different cultures, there are different plants in the Botanic Gardens. This is a nice place to take a stroll through different themed gardens.
On the other end of the scale, there is the not-so-peaceful Rainbow’s End. The theme park has a selection of crazy rides like a corkscrew coaster, the Fear Fall and the Invader. Then there are your classic fairground rides, such as the dodgems and a log flume.
Auckland’s largest shopping centre, Sylvia Park, is also in Manukau. Shop to your heart’s content, go to the cinema, eat and get your supermarket shopping.
The southernmost district of Auckland runs into rolling green hills and holds the mouth of New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato River. The Hunua Ranges can also be found in South Auckland.
This is the largest native forest in the Auckland region. Hunua Falls is the main attraction of the park, so much so that a picture frame has been installed in front of the falls allowing visitors to get their token tourist photo. The picture frame is a feature put in 10 “picture perfect” views in Auckland. Obviously, a park is not a park without some walking tracks. There are full-day options:
- Ernies Track – This 4-hour hike starts at Waterline Road and descends into the forest to reach Mangatawhiri Dam. Follow the swamplands beside the Mangatawhiri River. Then follow the steep track past an old mine.
- Mangatangi Ridge Track – Climb to the highest point in the ranges, Mt Kohukohunui. Start the 6-hour hike from Rate Ridge Track.
- Pukapuka Track – This track is an easier walk than the two walks mentioned above. Start at Mangatangi Hill Road and take the 4-hour walk bush and grasslands. Reach the Pukapuka Summit.
- Lower Mangatawhiri – Staying close to the park boundary, this easy walk starts at Moumoukai Road. It follows forest and farmland.
Popular biking tracks are Mangatawhiri Challenge Track – obviously a challenge, Valley Loop Track – an easy ride, and the Moumourkai Farm Track – a medium-grade detour off the Valley Loop Track.
Another point of interest in South Auckland is the Manukau Heads Lighthouse. Get beautiful views from the lighthouse itself, as it is one of the rare visitor-accessible lighthouses in New Zealand. You may even spot the rare maui dolphins.
Holding the northernmost suburbs, Rodney is mainly farmland. That is why Rodney, in particular, Helensville, is a good destination for WWOOFing. However, along the coast is an adventure playground! Watersports, birdlife and marine life can all be enjoyed in Rodney.
Shakespear Regional Park
There is an abundance of regional parks in Rodney, including the Shakespear Regional Park on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. The park makes a good lookout over the Hauraki Gulf and is full of birdlife and walking tracks.
For more birdlife encounters, visit the gannet colony at Otakamiro Point, Muriwai. The viewing platform allows you to feast your eyes on rock formations dotted with nesting gannets.
Sunny days beg you to head to one of Rodney’s white-sand beaches, such as Pakiri Beach. The 14 km stretch of beach is perfect for long walks, swimming, surfing or just topping up the tan weather permitting, of course.
Another water sports playground is Orewa Beach. Surf, kitesurf, windsurf, kayak and swim! On dry land, catch an amazing sunrise with an early morning stroll on the beach or take the Te Ara Tahuna/Orewa Estuary Path. The walkway starts from Orewa Bridge at the southern end. It is a loop walk taking boardwalks around a lake and into the forest, then onto the beach. Along the way, you’ll see the locals jogging and cycling.
Goat Island Marine Reserve
New Zealand’s most accessible marine reserve is Goat Island. The crystal clear waters make it easy to spot the colourful fish. You can either choose from the dive activity providers to take you to the best spots, see the fish from a glass-bottom boat, or take your snorkel and simply go for a dip! Check out 5 Fun Things to Do at Goat Island Marine Reserve for more inspiration. For more great snorkelling beaches, see 5 Best Beaches for Snorkelling in Auckland.
Who would have thought that, after just a 40-minute drive from Auckland Central, you could be in the complete wilderness? Waitakere Ranges Regional Park is more than 16,000 ha (39,567 acres) of rainforest, streams, waterfalls and beaches. Well-maintained bridges and boardwalks take you through the forest to sensational waterfalls, like the multiple-tiered Kitekite Falls. You can reach Kitekite Falls by taking the Kitekite Track at the end of Glen Esk Road in Piha.
One of New Zealand’s most popular surf beaches, Piha, lies on the coast of Waitakere. The black sand beach has a reputation for “gnarly” waves, but they can also be rough so it is best to be an experienced surfer or go with a surf school like Piha Surf Academy.
For more information, check out Waitakere Ranges – Guide for Backpackers.
More About Backpacking in Auckland
That’s it for our guide to backpacking in the Auckland region but by no means the end of our backpacking advice. Check out the following guides for more tips!
- Auckland City Centre Travel Guide
- Auckland Suburbs Travel Guide
- Waitakere Ranges – Guide for Backpackers
- Great Barrier Island – Guide for Backpackers
- The Travel Guide to Auckland on a Budget
Finally, make sure to bookmark our essential 30 Tips for Backpacking in New Zealand and plan the rest of your trip using the New Zealand Backpacking Itinerary: 3 Weeks or North Island Backpacking Itinerary: 2 Weeks.