When researching our 3-month trip to New Zealand we heard one piece of advice over and over again: don’t bother with Auckland. We were traveling between New Zealand’s summer and fall, however, and felt like starting in the South Island and then heading north would give us the best weather further into our trip.
We ended up spending over a week in Auckland City, then settled into a small village just north of Auckland for 7 additional weeks. To all the travel snobs who told us Auckland wasn’t worth seeing, I have some news: You. Were. Wrong.
Yes, the South Island is diverse and beautiful and full of wonderful things to do. I’m not taking anything away from that. But the North Island, and Auckland, especially, is also amazing.
What has struck me the most about Auckland City is the topography. The landmass is actually quite small and punctuated by ocean on both sides. Fingers of earth disrupt the ocean, and it is on these narrow passages that an entire city has been built. The hills and valleys of land were made by ancient volcanoes, which lead to incredible views of the surrounding water and urban sprawl from anywhere in the city. While the rest of New Zealand’s North Island is made of much more sparsely populated towns and farmland, Auckland City stands out as a modern city surrounded by incredible nature.
The greater Auckland area is much more than Auckland City, however. Auckland technically includes villages and towns over an hour north of Auckland City, which means there are lots more options of incredible things to do!
The beaches in Auckland are different from many I’ve seen around the world. We’re used to one type of beach dominating huge regions: long stretches of white, smooth sand, cold water, warm water, shells, rocks… But the incredible thing about Auckland beaches is that they are incredibly different. You’ll find all types here, which we’ve never found anywhere else!
There are incredible parks beaches in Auckland you will love. The country’s culture is built on natural living and outdoor exploration, after all, and Auckland is no different. Free parks, beaches, hikes, waterfalls, and more are everywhere!
Our top 7 parks and beaches in Auckland
We absolutely love the diversity of Auckland beaches. You’ll find black and white sand, rocks and shells, smooth and sticky, calm water and wild surf, sand dunes, rock formations, and more. As much diversity as you’ll find on the South Island you’ll find just among the best beaches in Auckland!
1. Piha Beach
One reason we love Piha Beach is because it is one of Auckland’s black sand beaches. The black sand is actually pulverized lava rock leftover from New Zealnad’s volcanoes. New Zealand’s North Island is home to incredible ancient volcanic activity which left the landscape forever changed. Auckland and the surrounding area is full of hills and valley created by ancient volcanoes, geothermal water basins underground are still a huge part of life around Rotorua and Coromandel, and lava rock and pulverized lava rock powder are found along some New Zealand beaches.
The other reason to love Piha Beach is for the surfing. The small beach is home to some of the best surfing in Auckland, and locals rave about an afternoon on the waves there. The soft black sand is the perfect spot to watch hordes of surfers give the waves a go!
2. Shelly Beach & North Head Military Hill
Shelly Beach is a small stretch of beach which caters to the upscale residents of the charming northern Auckland town of Devonport. It’s near other larger beaches, so people tend to leave Shelly Beach alone. Which is what makes it great.
Make a day of visiting Devonport by visiting Shelly Beach, walking around the charming downtown for fish and chips and Lamingtons, and then spend a few hours catching up on history and a beautiful view at North Head military park.
North Head comprises a hill formed by volcano activity near the Auckland suburb of Devonport. The hill was originally used by local Maori tribes, but was set aside in 1878 for use by the New Zealand Army should military defense of Auckland be needed.
It was first used as a military settlement in 1885 against Russia. Original observation posts, tunnels, weapons batteries, and fortifications were strengthened and modernized in coming decades until it’s final use as Auckland’s administrative center during World War II. The ground was returned to National Reserve status after troops officially left in 1950, though the New Zealand Navy maintains a training school near the North Head Summit.
Today the park is a beautiful combination of nature and military history. Visitors can park near the peak and enjoy a short walk up to the hill’s manicured summit for incredible views of the Hauraki Gulf or wander around the park to find the interactive leftover battery compartments and bunker tunnels.
It was one of our favorite things to do in Auckland because it involves a beautiful view, exercise, and history. It’s perfect for adults and kids!
3. Muriwai Beach and Gannet Colony
Muriwai is one of the best public beaches in Auckland! From the parking lot you can choose to spend a day on the beach and nearby sand dunes swimming, sunbathing, surfing, or observing. Once you’re ready for a quick adventure a walking path on the left leads you to a fun cave and incredible rock formations you can walk down to enjoy a view of the cliffs. Follow the trail up the hill and around to your right to viewpoints from the top, where you’ll be able to observe the local Gannet colony.
The Gannet colony is what makes Muriwai Beach really special.
The Muriwai Beach Gannet colony is one of only 3 in New Zealand. Gannets mate for life, and it’s here that couples commit to making nests and hatching eggs from August to March. At the Muriwai Beach observation stations you’ll be able to watch these interesting birds fly, interact with each other, and labor over their nests and eggs. Towards the end of mating season you’ll also see the gray-feathered young stretching their wings and preparing for life as adults.
I’d never seen Gannets before and found the Muriwai Beach colony fascinating. The birds seemed to show affection, competition, and friendliness just as humans do, and I loved observing their quirky behavior.
The only downside to Muriwai Beach is that it’s a quite popular destination. Though around an hour away from Auckland City, it’s easy to get to and a popular destination for tour groups. It’ll never be as crowded as sites on the South Island, but it will have the highest tourist crowds of any other Auckland location on our list.
4. Goat Island Marine Reserve
Around an hour to an hour and a half north of Auckland City is the Goat Island Marine Reserve. A sidewalk leads visitors from the parking lot down to the mainland beach, where you can nestle in for the afternoon or venture to Goat Island a few meters away.
The water between the mainland beach and the island is full of interesting marine life, making Goat Island one of the best scuba and snorkeling destinations around Auckland. Fishing and feeding of fish and birds is strictly prohibited, which helps the native marine species thrive. Additionally, The University of Auckland Leigh Marine Laboratory is located onsite, allowing marine biologists to regularly study Goat Island Marine Reserve to learn about and protect it and other marine ecosystems.
We love that Goat Island has so much to offer. A sandy beach for sunbathing, open water for kayaking, marine life for easy snorkeling, beautiful landscape, and rocks to explore. It’s been one of our family’s favorite things to do in Auckland because we can each find something that makes us happy!
5. Tawharanui Marine Reserve
This magical stretch of sand is one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and undiscovered in beaches in Auckland. See the graduate gradation of turquoise to dark blue? It’s incredible to see the entire blue ombre from the top of the hill!
A long drive leads you from the reserve entrance to the beach, but you’re rewarded with views of natural landscape and wandering protected birds. Once you arrive you’re greeting by a sweeping view of the water from the top of a hill. Here you can picnic, hike around, or sit and enjoy the view (as I like to do!) A walking path leads you down to the water, and a quick walk from one side of the short beach to the other will reveal incredible caves and rock formations you can walk through.
Not only is the beach perfect for exploring and playing, the water is one of the best (but unknown) spots for surfing. You’ll find great waves for surfing or body boarding and will hardly have to wait your turn!
6. Bethel’s Beach
We were told multiple times that we had to make our way to Bethel’s Beach. Well, everyone was right. It really is amazing!
Bethel’s Beach is not only a large, breathtaking stretch of beach, it’s also the home to one of the best hikes in Auckland, Te Henga. In addition to hiking and sunbathing, at Bethel’s Beach you’ll find large rock formations, sand dunes, and caves to explore. With so much to do, it’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon!
Bethel’s Beach can be hard to find, though. It’s around a 45-minute drive west from Auckland City, and you won’t find much on the road outside the beach. The dirt parking lot gets crowded on weekends and holidays during nice weather, so you may need to prepare to park on the street and walk a ways into the beach. The effort is worth it, though, because this is truly one of the best beaches in Auckland!
7. Mangawhai Heads Cliff Walk and Beach
Oh. My. Word. Mangawhai Heads cliff walk and beach might be the single most beautiful place we saw in Auckland.
A parking lot leads visitors to the beach, where you’ll find sunbathers, surfers, and even sand dune sliders. turn left, though, and the real magic begins. If you have a couple of hours to spare plan on taking the Mangawhai Heads Cliff Walk which will lead you through meandering grassy hills overlooking gorgeous views of the ocean and beach below.
The Cliff Walk lasts 2-3 hours but includes a bigger variety of landscape than we’ve witnessed anywhere else. The first 20 minutes is over the beach as you approach the head of the walk. Another 30-60 minutes takes place up and over some gorgeous hills with beautiful views, and the final portion brings you back to sea level where you walk over shells and rocks to make it back to the sandy beach you started on.
The loop is jaw dropping. I know. I dropped my jaw. Like twice.