The city of sails lies on a narrow isthmus of land between the Waitemata Harbour on the east coast and the Tasman Sea on the west coast. The location makes it ideal for exploring the many diverse areas of natural, historical and cultural interest on day trips from Auckland.
A few of these destinations have driving distances that are on the longer end for a day trip, up to a 3-hour drive from the city. That said they can be done and we have done them a single day trip, particularly when we’ve had overseas visitors who wanted to see a bit more of the area with only limited time.
We’ve included the travel times on each destination and if they feel a bit rushed consider combining them into a multi-day road trip or extending out with a night or two at the destination.
Each place is shown on the map below to help you visualise the relativity of the various destinations to each other and from an Auckland base.
1. Waiheke Island
One of the most popular day trips from Auckland for both visitors and locals is heading out by ferry to Waiheke Island which offers a range of options from beach days and walking tracks to winery tours with million-dollar views of the harbour.
This view is from the Mudbrick Vineyard, the outdoor seating is part of the bistro. You can choose to sit inside of course but these our pick and are understandably popular on a sunny afternoon. The restaurant here is excellent too, inspired by the local bounty it really is New Zealand on a plate whether you opt for the degustation or a la carte option.
You can take a wine tour to Waiheke Island which includes a stop at Mudbrick or head out on your own on foot, by cycle or on the island bus to explore the beaches, cliff top walking tracks, art galleries and some excellent foodie options.
Getting here: If you take one of the tour options, as mentioned above, they will generally include transport from the central city.
The most popular crossing is the Fullers ferry. It leaves from the ferry building downtown, takes around 40 minutes, runs frequent crossing and costs $42 for a return ticket.
If you want to take a car across that is the Sealink ferry and it leaves from Half Moon Bay taking around an hour to make the crossing. If you are using a rental vehicle it’s worth checking that your rental agreement allows the vehicle to be transported on a ferry.
2. Muriwai and the west coast beaches
A trip out to Auckland’s west coast for the day offers plenty of options for those who love to surf, enjoy spectacular views and spending time in nature. Murawai is a great west coast beach with dramatic black sand caused by the iron in the volcanic rock as it breaks down.
Take the Takapu Refuge Walkway from the carpark and toilets at the top to get some stunning views of the coastline to the north and south. It takes you through a section of bush to lookouts above the gannet (takapu) colony. You can then continue on down the track to the beach.
Other beaches nearby include Piha and Bethalls (Te Henga). While all 3 beaches offer rugged scenery, surf and black sand they each offer something more.
Muriwai is the starting point for the Goldie Bush Circuit, a 9 km hike that links up three trails, the Goldie bush walkway, the Mokoroa stream and the Mokoroa falls track. It a pretty circuit with native bush, nikau palm groves, stream crossings, a waterfall and a swing bridge, you name it this track has it.
Bethalls is south of Muriwai and for something different here you can take a hike through to the giant sand dunes, Wainamu lake and waterfall. The dunes are perfect for sledding down and the walk around the lake is very picturesque.
There are two ways to get out to the lake either over the sand dunes or along the creek. The creek is of course flatter if you don’t mind getting your feet wet. This was where I saw the biggest eel in all my years of calling NZ home. It was enormous and presumably female as it was well over a metre long.
Piha surf beach is slightly further south again and from here you can do the short 1-hour return track to Kitekite falls. It’s a relatively easy walk on a well-formed track and the falls are really pretty. The trail can get a little muddy and slippery in parts after a good rain but the falls will be at their best so it’s a trade-off. You can get to both the top and base of the falls and it’s a good swimming spot.
Read more: Exploring Muriwai Beach in Auckland
Getting here: Although Muriwai is part of greater Auckland getting out here by public transport isn’t really an option, but that is why it feels so blissfully remote and beautiful. By car, it will take you around 45 minutes to drive out from the inner city.
Another option is to join a Muriwai tour from your city accommodation and spend the day taking in the scenery, riding a horse along the black sand at the surfs edge and stop in at a local winery and bistro on the way back to the city.
3. Rangitoto Island
This Auckland icon can cause visitors to the city to become a bit disoriented, it’s visible from many different vantage points but being almost symmetrical it looks the same whether you are on the city side, the north shore beaches or out on the water.
The most common and comfortable way to make the 25-minute trip out to Rangitoto island from the city is on the Fullers ferry. You’ll need to take what you need for the day with you as there aren’t shops and cafes out there. There’s also not much shelter from the elements but it’s a great spot to hike or just spend the day.
Rangitoto is an active volcano having last erupted 600-years ago but there have been no recent signs of activity. There are good walking tracks on the island but it is mainly scoria rock so wear shoes that will be comfortable to walk in and will protect your feet.
We suggest you follow the coastal track, then climb up to the summit for its fabulous views and bragging rights before continuing across the causeway to Motutapu Island to experience the contrast in landscape from volcanic cone to green farmland.
4. Waitomo Caves
The glow-worm caves in Waitomo are known around the world, they are spectacular, well managed from an environmental point of view and generally considered a ‘must-do’ on the itinerary for any visitor to New Zealand.
The cave system in Waitomo is extensive but the caves known as the Waitomo glowworm caves are one section of it that you can only visit with a guide. You will learn about the local area, history of the caves, some of the cave formations and then take a silent boat tour under an extensive canopy of glowworms.
There is no photography allowed inside but it is one of those life experiences that is so unique you won’t forget it and a photo would never have done it justice anyway. If you can’t tell we highly recommend this tour, the way it is run is quite commercial but it really is something unique.
That’s not to say you won’t also see glow worms in other caves and even along walking tracks in Waitomo, this species is unique to New Zealand and the area has the most intense population of them.
The Ruakuri Cave tour is another great option, you’ll see much more of the cave structure as you head deeper underground. You’ll also see glow worms in here. There’s an area where you stop in the pitch dark to see them illuminated over the river but you’ll also have the chance to see them close up where you’ll see the detail of their web and structure.
Other attractions to enjoy in the area are the Ruakuri walking track, a free bush walk with some interesting cave structures along the trail and a spot where you can see the glow-worms lit up in their natural environment on the river bank at night.
Blackwater rafting is also a popular option, floating down a river inside a cave in inner tubes and a wetsuit to see the caves and glow-worms from a completely different perspective with a bit of adventure thrown in.
For more ideas click through to read our guide to the Waitomo Caves and other things to do in the area.
Getting here: It’s around a 2.5-hour drive from Auckland to Wellington on good roads. You follow state highway 1 through to Hamilton then join state highway 39 branching west through the Waikato to Waitomo.
If you are making a day trip to do the caves tours we recommend an early morning start to be in Waitomo in time for the first tour of the day if possible, it’s not essential but if you want to fit in a couple of the cave tours and the other attractions in the area you’ll want as much time as possible and that first tour is usually the least busy.
The scenery and unique geothermal parks of Rotorua make a great day trip, or longer stay if you have the opportunity.
The natural hot springs in the area are really extensive, as you drive into town you’ll notice steam rising from the drains at the side of the road and ponds within parks. You’ll also most likely notice the smell of sulphur in the air, it’s totally natural, safe and common to all geothermal areas around the world. After a few hours, you’ll stop noticing it again.
While in Rotorua you’ll want to visit at least one of the geothermal parks. Wai-o-tapu is one of our favourites with a real diversity of scenery, dramatic colours and insta-worth views. It’s all contained into a series of interlinked loop tracks making it easy to cover as little or much as you want.
Looking for a bit of adventure in town? Consider taking a kayak trip out on the lake, taking in the stunning scenery from the water with a detour to float through glow worm caves and soak in a hot spring beside the lake that can only be reached from the water or after a significant hike.
Finally, we always find it hard to leave town without a stop at the Polynesian spa, a hot spring and spa treatment complex on the edge of the lake. There are private spas looking out over the water, a wide range of acidic and alkaline pools fed by different springs and a separate family area.
Getting here: Allow 3 hours to drive from Auckland to Rotorua. It’s an easy drive and there is a choice of routes allowing you to mix up the scenery and attractions along the way. A walk to the Blue Spring in Putaruru or Hobbiton (below) are popular options.
6. Hobbiton Movie Set
This movie set attraction from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings has been restored and maintained with incredible attention to detail. Studio set tours can feel like they take away some of the magic but Hobbiton was the exact opposite. Rather than the illusion behind the big screen, you had the genuine feel of having walked into a Hobbit village.
Everything was exactly as it should be in the Shire, the party tree there in the middle, beautifully presented hobbit holes all throughout the hillside with their trappings of daily life. Beer on tap at the Green Dragon!
Getting here: The drive from Auckland is around 2 hours 15 minutes. It’s on good sealed roads and the final section through rural farmland is quite picturesque, you really could picture Bilbo running down any of these hillsides.
There are a variety of tour options from Auckland if you don’t have your own transport, either for entry and transport to Hobbiton alone or combined with the Waitomo Caves, another popular Waikato attraction.
7. Matakana & Omaha
This area is an hours drive north of Auckland city. This is a relaxed day out and you’ll find a variety of attractions here to add to your itinerary.
One of the best reasons to visit is the Matakana Markets held each Saturday morning from 8 am. They have a fabulous selection of local produce, artisan food items, baked goods and more. It’s a zero-waste so bring your own bags and be prepared to stock up. You’ll find some great coffee and everything you need for a gourmet picnic.
Next head over to Omaha beach for a walk in the salt air and to enjoy those picnic goodies. It’s a lovely spot with white sand and safe swimming.
Along the way, you’ll find a variety of things to tempt you including Morris and James fabulous pottery, the galleries and gardens of the Sculptureum and an array of boutique wineries.
Over the years Ascension Winery has been a favourite for a family lunch with its a pretty vineyard on the rolling slopes behind, they offer great meals and regular live music events.
If you want to enjoy the wineries and tasting without the hassle of driving this winery and food tour of Matakana is an option.
8. Waitakere Ranges
The Waitakere Ranges Regional Park is a great place for visitors to the city to experience the diverse landscape.
The park consists of 16,000 hectares running from the rainforest high in the hills through to the rugged west coast. It is crisscrossed with 250 km of walking tracks ranging from short 10-minute trails through to multi-day walks like the 75 km Hillary Trail.
A number of the tracks in the Waitakere Ranges west of Auckland were closed in 2018 to protect the forest from the Kauri dieback disease. Theses are expected to reopen progressively in the future. Others tracks are still fully or partially open and are worth visiting including the Taraire track where you can take the 45-minute track as far as the Karekare Falls.
You can see a full list of the tracks that are currently open here.
You can help to protect New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna by making sure your shoes, boots and other hiking equipment are thoroughly cleaned between uses to prevent the spread of diseases from one area to another.
Getting here: The ranges are an easy 40-minute drive west of Auckland city and are easily accessed by private car. There isn’t an easy public transport option to the many and remote trailheads but there are some good small group tours.
9. Tiritiri Matangi
Tiritiri Matangi is an island wildlife refuge and you can get the ferry out there from both Whangaparaoa Harbour and the Auckland city ferry building.
Similar to Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington it’s been cleared of predators allowing the population of native birds and small reptiles to regenerate as they did in the centuries before Maori and European settlers arrived bringing with them animals and pests that threatened the native fauna.
Unlike Zealandia, Tiritiri Matangi is an island and has some natural barriers to predators because of that but it still needed substantial effort to remove the threats when it was established.
The Takehe is one of the most endangered birds in New Zealand. Like the Kiwi, it’s a flightless bird and based on 2017 data it’s believed there are less than 350 left in the wild. That compares to 68,000 across the 5 species of Kiwi. Wild sanctuaries like Tiritiri and Zealandia are essential to the survival of both species.
Getting here: While you are able to visit the scientific sanctuary by private boat the vast majority do so by ferry from either Whangaparaoa or Auckland city. The sailings are limited and popular so we would suggest doing as we did and pre-book tickets.
Once on the island, you have the choice to either take the map and explore the paths on your own or take the guided tour as an optional addition. The tour gives a lot of information but does mean you are walking in a group so if others are talking loudly you may find it difficult to hear your guide and spot some of the birds.
10. Mt Maunganui
Mount Maunganui is in the Bay of Plenty and at almost a 3 hours drive from Auckland it’s one of the longer trips.
There is a range of things to do but you’ll likely start with a walk around The Mount itself. The base walk is a fairly flat 3.5 km loop and you can also climb up to the top for great views like this all around.
In the village of Mt Maunganui, you’ll find a sizable collection of street art, there’s a map and more details here but hunting them down is a great opportunity to also scout out a cafe for lunch. You’ll not have any trouble but if you want a hint then watch out for eighty-eight cafe, Mixture Eatery or the newcomer the Mount Cafe!
After lunch head for the beach. You can’t come to town without taking a swim or surf at Mt Maunganui beach and then finish with a walk across the causeway to Moturiki (Leisure Island). Once a Māori pā it’s now a protected reserve with a blowhole that plays on the full tide.
Getting here: The drive from Auckland to Mount Maunganui will take around 2 hours 45 minutes.
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What are your favourite short escapes from Auckland? We’d like to hear your thoughts so feel free to share in the comments below. If you have any questions about the area you can ask that here too.