Reflecting the diverse people, fascinating history and stunning landscapes that make Auckland one of New Zealand’s most dynamic cities, Auckland’s museums can’t be missed.
Learn about New Zealand’s indigenous Māori culture, uncover the story of the volcanoes that dot the region (over 50 of them within city limits), and take in the historical and wartime legacy of the city’s sprawling location astride the Manukau and Waitematā harbors.
New Zealand Maritime Museum: best for seafaring history
Celebrating an absolute waterfront location in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour precinct, this museum showcases the country’s maritime history from the arrival of the first Polynesian voyaging canoes over a millennia ago – the ocean-spanning origin story for the settling of New Zealand by Māori – to 21st-century yachting success in the America’s Cup. Opportunities to get out on the harbor include jumping aboard the Ted Ashby, a two-masted sailboat, or cruising gently on New Zealand’s oldest steam-powered tug boat.
MOTAT: best for transport history
A regular outing for Auckland school groups – and also handily located adjacent to Auckland Zoo – the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) comprises two locations linked by a heritage tram that trundles along the lakeside at Western Springs. Highlights of the Great North Road location include a decades-spanning collection of fire engines and gloriously retro posters advertising rail travel in New Zealand. MOTAT’s second location, Aviation Hall on Meola Road, features former Royal New Zealand Air Force aircraft, and the world’s only surviving example of a Short Solent MK4 flying boat.
Auckland War Memorial Museum: best for Māori culture
Crowning the grassy crater of Pukekawa, an ancient extinct volcano, Auckland War Memorial Museum was opened in Auckland Domain in 1929 as a memorial to the men and women lost in battle in WWI. Highlights for visitors to the city include the world’s most significant collection of Māori taonga (treasures) – including a 25m-long (82ft) waka taua (war canoe) – and an interactive exhibit about the many volcanic cones and craters that punctuate Auckland’s unique urban landscape. From the neoclassical building’s entrance steps there is an excellent view of the Hauraki Gulf and Rangitoto Island.
Maungawhau Visitor Experience Centre: best for natural history
Located on the slopes of Maungawhau/Mt Eden, the highest of Auckland’s tupuna maunga (ancestral mountains), this often-overlooked center tells the story of Auckland’s volcanic field, comprising more than 50 extinct and dormant craters, and currently shortlisted on Unesco’s «tentative list» for inclusion as a World Heritage Site. Scale models reinforce how important Auckland’s maunga were to local Māori iwi (tribes) in earlier centuries, both for defense and agriculture, and the center’s ten-minute video is worth watching. Continue a day exploring Maungawhau by walking for ten minutes up to the 196m (643ft) summit, and then negotiating boardwalks designed to protect the mountain’s archeological importance.
Stardome Observatory & Planetarium: best for understanding Māori cosmology
It’s worth booking ahead for the Stardome’s regular schedule of southern hemisphere stargazing evenings and planetarium shows – check the website for details – but it’s also good to arrive early to check out their compact but surprising museum. Scale models and interactive Lego versions of space-going craft range from Sputnik 1 to Apollo 11 and the International Space Station, and there are framed front pages of the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Star featuring the pioneering moon landing of July 1969. Integral to learning about how New Zealand’s indigenous Māori interact with the cosmos is a display on Matariki, the Māori New Year which celebrates the rising of the Pleiades star cluster in June.
Catch a ferry from downtown Auckland across the Waitematā Harbour to the heritage suburb of Devonport, and stroll along the esplanade to the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum. The well-presented and often poignant galleries comprise the official museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy, detailing the country’s involvement in sea battles and maritime conflicts around the world. Both World Wars are well covered, and it’s fascinating to learn about New Zealand’s emerging independence from the British Empire during WWII. After visiting the museum, walk up adjacent Maungauika/North Head to explore gun emplacements, and a giant defensive battery installed for protection against a perceived Russian threat in the late 19th-century.
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki: best for New Zealand art
With works by Gauguin, Picasso and Cézanne, art history’s heavy hitters are definitely represented at the city’s main art gallery, but the appeal for visitors is in discovering important works from celebrated New Zealand artists. Highlights include the bold text-enhanced canvases of Colin McCahon, starkly dramatic paintings from Ralph Hotere, and historic portraits of Māori tribal chiefs by Charles Goldie. Even the gallery’s location on the edge of leafy Albert Park could be regarded as a work of art, blending the ornate style of a 19th-century French chateau with an award-winning timber and glass atrium added in 2011. Free 60-minute tours of the gallery depart from the foyer daily at 11.30am and 1.30pm, and international touring exhibitions are regular highlights.
Tautai Pacific Arts Trust: best for contemporary Pasifika art
Around 200,000 Aucklanders celebrate Polynesian ancestry, and the cultural impact of artists with family roots in communities originally from Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Tokelau and the Cook Islands is a vital part of the city’s arts and cultural scene. Opened in 2020, the Tautai Pacific Arts Trust presents a revolving series of events and exhibitions reinforcing Auckland as the cultural capital of the South Pacific. Highlights focus on Pasifika-influenced art, music, film and performance, all presented in the trust’s expansive gallery space of 500 sq m (5382 sq ft). Check out the website to see what’s scheduled. The surrounding Karangahape Road precinct is also worth visiting for street art and independent galleries and studios. Download the Karangahape Rd Art Map on karangahaperoad.com to make a day of it.
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