With a population of 1.6 million, Auckland is New Zealand’s only big city, but note: it is not the capital. Despite its size, Auckland is a generally safe and surprisingly easy-going place to visit.

One-third of residents were born overseas which is why you'll find Auckland a very cosmopolitan city with strong British, Asian and Pacific Islander influences. This mix underscores Aucklanders' appreciation for different cultures, and travelers will feel welcomed in many places.

Here are some things to know before you visit New Zealand’s largest city.

Pack casual clothes

Auckland is a relatively informal city. There are very few places you need to dress up to go to, even if you’re catching a show at the theatre or going out to a nice restaurant for dinner. While many people do dress up to go out, you can also wear jeans almost everywhere, so don’t feel like you need to pack your best clothes if you’re short on luggage space.

Aerial view of Mt. Eden, Auckland / New Zealand
Auckland is built on a series of extinct volcanoes that offer great city views for walkers © denizunlusu / Getty Images

Bring a pair of good walking shoes

There are several beautiful hikes around Auckland, so good hiking shoes will come in handy. To help protect Auckland’s native bush, give them a good clean before you come; otherwise, they may have to be cleaned at the airport during customs checks (see below).

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Clean your shoes before and after you go for a bushwalk

Auckland has several native forests with walking or hiking trails through the trees. Before you enter, you may see a shoe cleaning station with brushes and spray for your shoes. This is to stop the spread of kauri dieback, a disease that affects the huge, native kauri trees. Clean your shoes before and after walking through the bush to help prevent it from spreading further.

Customs is strict

Your first introduction to Auckland will probably be at the airport. To protect the natural environment, New Zealand has very strict laws around what you can and cannot bring into the country. Read the form carefully and declare any item which could be restricted. This could include food, feathers, shells, seeds, wooden items, traditional / herbal medicines, and sports or outdoor equipment that you've used overseas. It’s much quicker and easier than accidentally bringing prohibited items into the country!

interior shot of Ampersand Eatery in Auckland New Zealand
Tipping is not expected, although appreciated, by service staff in New Zealand © Lonely Planet

You don’t need to tip

While you may see the occasional tip jar at a cafe, tipping isn’t common in Auckland. Tips may be appreciated, but definitely aren’t expected, and tipping is the exception to the rule, rather than the norm. In fact, if you leave change on the table, don’t be surprised if your server tries to return it, thinking you accidentally left it there.

Pay at the counter

When you eat out in Auckland, restaurants and cafes may offer table service, or you may need to order food at the counter. If you order at the counter, you usually pay immediately, before eating. If there’s table service, when you are finished eating, it’s customary to get up and pay at the counter, rather than asking for a bill to be brought to the table.

Bring food if you’re invited to dinner

If you’re invited to someone’s house and asked to “bring a plate,” take a dish of food with you. This could be sweet or savory. If someone invites you to a meal and tells you not to bring anything, it’s still polite to bring a bottle of wine, a small contribution to the dinner or token gift for the host (like a small box of chocolate). After the meal, guests usually offer to help clear the table and clean up.

Take off your shoes when you enter someone’s home

It’s customary to take off your shoes before entering someone’s house unless told otherwise. Nowadays, wearing shoes indoors is a little more common, but it’s safer to assume that you should remove your shoes before coming inside

You can pay for everything by card

Almost no one in Auckland uses cash. Instead, you can use your credit card or debit card to pay for even small purchases. Contactless payments are common. If you’re handed a terminal, you’ll see three options: cheque, savings or credit. The first two options work for local cards only. For international cards, just use the “credit” option and enter your pin or sign as usual.

Surfer venturing into ocean at Piha, North Island, New Zealand
Always swim between the red and yellow flags, especially at West Coast surf beaches © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Swim between the flags on the West Coast

The striking black sand beaches on the West Coast of the city are known for their big waves and good surf. However, there can also be strong currents and rips at those beaches, and it pays to be careful when swimming. If you want to swim at one of the West Coast beaches, swim between the flags as these areas are monitored by lifeguards.

Check Safeswim before visiting a beach, especially after heavy rain

There can be pollution in some of Auckland’s beaches after periods of heavy rain, particularly on the East Coast and in some lagoons. To ensure the water quality is safe before you swim, check the Safeswim website before you go. Along with water quality data, the website also has up-to-date information on swimming conditions and whether there are lifeguards on duty.

If anything goes wrong, dial 111

111 is the emergency number that will get you in touch with the police, fire service or ambulance.

Wear sunscreen, even on overcast days

The sun in Auckland can be very harsh, even when the temperatures don’t seem that high. Remember to wear sunblock before heading out, especially between 11am and 3pm. It’s very easy to get sunburned in a very short amount of time, even when it looks cloudy outside.

An artist creats a mural on a boxcar.
Knowing and sharing your ancestry is important in Māori culture © Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images

Be prepared to talk about where you come from and your heritage

In Māori culture, people introduce themselves by talking about where they came from and their ancestors. In Auckland, many people originally came from other countries, and it’s common for locals to ask you about where you come from and even about your ethnic background and heritage.

If you go to a marae (Māori meeting grounds) during your visit, it’s customary to introduce yourself by talking about where you come from and your family’s connection to that place.

Don’t sit on or lean against tables

Sitting or leaning against tables, countertops or any other surfaces which are used for food preparation is generally frowned upon by all New Zealanders and particularly offensive to Māori. 

Remove your shoes before entering a marae

It’s customary to remove your shoes before entering a wharenui or traditional meeting place, and you’ll often see many pairs of shoes at the entrance of a marae. Be sure to remove yours before going inside.

If you’re visiting a marae, you will usually be accompanied by a local who will give you further pointers about what to expect (and what to do) while you’re there.

Group of friends hanging out in Auckland City
You may need to consult an online dictionary with te reo Māori and the local lingo to interpret © kaz_c / Getty Images

Learn the local lingo

te reo Māori (the Māori language)

te reo Māori is one of New Zealand’s three official languages (along with English and New Zealand Sign Language).

Aotearoa - New Zealand, long white cloud

haere mai - welcome, often written on signs

ka kite ano - see you again soon

kai - food

kia kaha - stay strong

kia ora - hello

koha - gift, often used for a donation, often for entry 

morena - good morning

ngā mihi - greetings / thanks or kind regards (often used to sign off emails)

pākehā - New Zealander of non-Māori descent, usually European

waka - traditionally a canoe, but can be any vehicle

whanau - family

New Zealand Slang

bach - holiday home

bro / cuz / mate - often used when talking to a friend

chilly bin - cooler box or cooler bag

chur - thanks / cheers

dairy - corner store

guttered - disappointed

jandal - flip-flops

scroggin - trail mix

ta - thank you

togs - swimsuit

yeah nah - a non-committal statement or acknowledgement 

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