Spending time in Auckland over the holidays? Whether you’re looking for Christmas cheer or simply to relax with your kids, there’s no shortage of fun to be had in this family-friendly city. Check out the Christmas lights at MOTAT, see Santa in his Enchanted Forest, visit the giraffes the Auckland Zoo, then kick off your shoes, head to the beach, and enjoy a classic Kiwi summer.
Read on for a list of indoor and outdoor holiday activities to do with your little ones while you’re visiting the City of Sails.
If you want to stay outdoors …
Christmas at Silo Park, Wynyard Quarter:
Silo Park, in downtown Auckland’s waterfront Wynyard Quarter, kicks off its Christmas festivities at 5 p.m. on December 21st with DJs, carolers, food trucks, and games. Santa just may make an appearance too! The Christmas fun runs through 4 p.m. on Sunday the 23rd. But don’t head to Wynyard just for Christmas – there’s lots to do every day for families. Scale the ropes and clamber over oversized seashells at the Wynyard Play Space on Jellicoe Street. Splash through the wading pool beneath the giant Wind Tree sculpture. Zip down the 7-meter high slide in Daldy Street Park, then grab a meal at one of the many vibrant restaurants along North Wharf. An easy taxi ride from downtown Auckland.
Christmas Lights at MOTAT:
Between December 13th and the 24th, Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Transportation transforms each evening into a Christmas wonderland, with Christmas light displays, carols, holidays activities, and even a chance to meet Santa and his elves. Entry is $2 per person, and children under 5 are free (regular admission rates do not apply)! Don’t miss a daytime trip to MOTAT for planes, trains, and automobiles from New Zealand’s past and present (see below under “Indoors” for more museum information). The Christmas Lights exhibit runs from 8 to 11 p.m. each night, from December 13th to December 24th, MOTAT, Great North Road, entry via Stadium Road for Christmas lights.
Built around an extinct volcano, Auckland’s oldest park features 200 acres of formal gardens, open fields, mature trees, ponds, and native forest walks, as well as the Auckland Museum. Kids will love running barefoot through the grass (a very Kiwi thing to do), climbing on the low-branched trees, visiting the duck pond, and stopping for gelato or snacks at the Wintergarden Cafe. Located in the inner suburb of Parnell, about 10 minutes’ drive from downtown Auckland. Parking is available throughout the park, at the Auckland Museum, and along Titoki Street.
Idyllic Cornwall Park, in the inner suburb of Epsom, offers 425 acres of wonderful climbing trees and lush open fields perfect for playing, kite flying or simply resting on a blanket and staring up at the sky. Watch sheep and cows grazing peacefully in their paddocks, stop into historic Acacia Cottage, and grab lunch or a snack at one of the park’s three eateries: the Bistro, the Café, or the Creamery. And if you and your little one feel up to a hike, climb to the top of One Tree Hill (yes, the same One Tree Hill in the eponymous U2 song). Gates open at 7 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. in the summer months. Accessible via Green Lane West, Epsom, Auckland.
Elephants, giraffes, lions and more! With easy walking paths, zoo keeper talks throughout the day, naturalistic enclosures for the animals, and well-placed cafes and snack bars, the Auckland Zoo is a pleasure to visit with young kids. There’s even a chance to ride a historic tram from the parking lot to the Zoo. The tram also connects to MOTAT (the Museum of Transport and Transportation) if you want to do both in one day. Motions Road, Western Springs, Auckland. Open every day except Christmas, from 9:30 to 5:30, last entrance at 4:15 p.m.
Really, no trip to Auckland is complete without a visit to one of its 48 volcanic cones. If your little ones are in backpack carriers or enjoy a climbing challenge, take a hike up Mount Eden (Maungawhau), Auckland’s highest volcano, located in the suburb of the same name. It’s a short but steep climb through meadow and native Pohutukawa trees to the summit, where you can take in the views over Auckland and peer down into the vertiginous volcanic crater. On the way down, stop off at the Mount Eden playground at the base of the mountain (on Normanby Road) then head to the village of Mount Eden, just a short drive or taxi ride away, and reward your efforts with pastries or lunch at local favorites like Olaf’s or Fraser’s, enjoy handmade pasta for dinner at Pasta e Cuore, or browse the award-winning independent bookstore Time Out Bookstore, with offerings for all ages. Mount Eden/Maungawhau Domain, 250 Mount Eden Road, Mount Eden, Auckland. Village of Mount Eden shops and restaurants along Mount Eden Road.
Mission Bay and St. Heliers in Auckland’s eastern suburbs and Takapuna across the harbor on the North Shore are all shore communities with cafes and restaurants within easy walking distance of the beach. All three of these popular beaches have playgrounds right on the beach and views of iconic Rangitoto Island, the volcanic island that sits in the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland’s shores. Waters are usually calm but please keep in mind that these beaches don’t have lifeguards (they aren’t patrolled, to use the Kiwi term). Mission Bay Beach, along the Mission Bay Promenade and St. Heliers Beach along Tamaki Drive are each about 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Auckland. Takapuna is about 20 minutes’ drive over the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
And, of course, New Zealand is one of the first countries to welcome in the new year, so don’t miss the spectacular New Year’s fireworks over the Sky Tower in downtown Auckland!
If you want to stay indoors …
Christmas Wonderland at SkyCity:
SkyCity, in downtown Auckland’s iconic Sky Tower, has an array of Christmas festivities for the family. Browse the Christmas markets, snap a selfie with Santa, check out the live evening Christmas entertainment, and visit the Federal Street Christmas festival for some downtown holiday fun. SkyCity, between Victoria and Federal Streets in downtown Auckland. Markets and performances run between December 14th and December 24th. See the SkyCity link for more details on specific market and performance hours.
Just a few blocks from SkyCity is Smith + Caughey’s, Auckland’s premier department store. Visit its much-loved Christmas windows to see the Nutcracker-themed decorations. Then head upstairs to meet Santa and his elves in Santa’s Enchanted Forest (advance bookings recommended). Smith + Caughey, 253-261 Queen Street at Wellesley Street West, in downtown Auckland.
With exhibits on New Zealand’s natural and cultural history, a weird and wonderful gallery for kids of all ages, and a renowned collection of Maori and Pacific Island artifacts, the Auckland Museum (officially the Auckland War Memorial Museum) is a wonderful way to spend a few hours. Check out the Maori cultural performances (on offer several times each day), the Secret World of Butterflies (now through mid-February), or wander through any of the informative galleries. Stave off hangry pangs with a stop for treats, sandwiches, and great coffee at the Museum cafe, and enjoy some fresh air afterward in the beautiful Auckland Domain that surrounds the Museum. Located in the inner suburb of Parnell, about 10 minutes’ drive from downtown Auckland. The Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. but closed on Christmas Day. Parking is available in the Museum car park and along surrounding streets.
Watch penguins slide along in the Antarctic Ice Adventure, come face to face with sharks and sting rays, visit the Turtle Rescue Zone. Then relax at Shipwreck Shores, the aquarium’s indoor playground. During the school holidays, from December 26th through January 22nd, there are also Pirate and Mermaid shows especially geared toward families. The shows are included in the price of aquarium admission, though advance booking is recommended to secure a spot. 23 Tamaki Drive, Orakei, Auckland (about 10 minutes’ drive from downtown Auckland). Open 7 days a week, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., last entry at 4 p.m. Free parking is available in the aquarium parking lot and along Tamaki Drive.
From a heritage village to a historic tram and commercial and military planes from New Zealand’s aviation history, there is lots to see and explore at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology. Check out special exhibits like Above and Beyond, a visiting international exhibit on the evolution of aerospace technology (sponsored by Boeing, in collaboration with NASA and the Smithsonian Institute), or Simply Machines, an interactive exhibit on the physics behind the machines we use every day. Parents can relax while kids play at MOTOTs, an interactive exhibit and play area for under 5s and everyone can enjoy the historic tram ride between MOTAT’s two sites (also stopping at the Auckland Zoo). To top it off, kids under 5 are free! MOTAT is comprised of two nearby sites, at 805 Great North Road & Meola Road in Western Springs, Auckland. The best parking is at MOTAT 2 on Meola Road, outside the Aviation Hall; take the free tram (included in price of admission) between the two MOTAT sites. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., last entry at 4:30 p.m., closed on Christmas Day.
Kidz Kingdom at the Rainbow’s End theme park is just for kids aged 8 and under, with a scaled-down roller coaster, carousel, and other rides. It has an indoor area and a covered outdoor area, so it’s a fun place to visit in rain or shine. And check out the special Christmas festivities here. 2 Clist Crescent, Manukau, Auckland. Open Monday – Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Closed on Christmas Day.
How to make the most of your visit …
Christmas is summertime in New Zealand and some shops and restaurants may close down for vacation. Contact businesses directly for their summer holidays hours so you won’t be disappointed.
It’s also really important to know that New Zealand has very strong sun and changeable weather. Sunburns can happen fast. So keep yourselves and your little ones protected with sunhats and sunscreen. Since the maritime climate means weather can change quickly it’s also useful to have light rain jackets and umbrellas for passing showers.
Finally, going barefoot is a classic Kiwi experience. Don’t be surprised if you see kids running around parks (and inside shops too for that matter) in their bare feet. Most parks are gorgeously clean, so let your kids kick off their shoes and join in. You might want to, as well!
Additional helpful websites:
For bus, ferry, and general route information around Auckland, check out Auckland Transport’s website at https://at.govt.nz
Elana Vatsky Mass lived in Auckland for over two years with her husband and two children before returning to the U.S. in 2018. A writer and urban planner, she and her family now live in the New York metro area.