The Octagon, Dunedin. © DunedinNZ

Urban Explorer: four city escapes around New Zealand


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As the weather cools down and the days grow shorter, bright city lights make a welcome escape from the season. Warm your cockles with great places to eat and drink, indulge in some retail therapy and explore the city streets. Where will you head on your next urban escape? 

Auckland

Dubbed “Auckland’s hippest strip,” Ponsonby Road is one of the city’s most dangerous streets for shopping, particularly if women’s clothing and shoes are your weakness. Ponsonby Road is also packed with excellent places to refuel. From raw vegan cheesecakes to media-lauded cheeseburgers, whatever your heart desires, Ponsonby provides. For those who simply can’t decide, Ponsonby Central is a ditherers paradise. With over 30 restaurants, cafes and artisan food shops under one roof, you can wander around eyeballing other people’s plates until something jumps out. 

For better or for worse, nearby Karangahape Road is in the throes of gentrification, but the bohemian spirit that defined it for decades remains intact. Sure, there’s a shop selling artisan doughnuts now and the iconic Las Vegas Strip Club has transformed into a jazz and cocktail lounge, but there are still places to pick up a second-hand frock for $15, rock out to Auckland’s best alternative bands or see cabaret performed by drag queens. 

Art lovers are equally well-serviced. Some of the top galleries include Artspace (a non-profit exhibition space featuring cutting-edge local artists), Bowerbank Ninow, Michael Lett and Starkwhite

From K Road, Queen Street slides down to the sea in a straight line.

On Upper Queen, choose from the many interesting ethnic restaurants, or check out the highly-rated Real Groovy Records, Q Theatre and The Classic comedy club.

At the base of Queen Street, spread over several floors, Commercial Bay is the city’s newest shopping centre showcasing over 100 retailers and restaurants. Downstairs, paved laneways ooze open-air sophistication, flanked by high-end international labels and revered New Zealand brands. It’s also where you’ll find Honest Chocolat for indulgent 'choc-tail' drinks and hot cocoa served in edible biscuit cups. Upstairs is Harbour Eats, an international food bazaar, mixing everything from street-style hawker food to the much-lauded Ahi by chef, Ben Bayly. 

Nearby, Britomart is also a mix of open spaces, sunny parks, low-rise shops and cafes, new architecture and several beautifully renovated heritage buildings. The options for dining here are similarly abundant – with or without harbour views, in the thick of the milling shoppers, hiding in a garden setting – from casual fare, to ultra-modern fusion cuisine. On Saturday mornings La Cigale Market in Takutai Square is the place to be.

Wellington

Wellington’s Cuba Street is, quite simply, cool. Running from Webb to Wakefield Streets, this slice of bohemia positively thrums with culinary and creative soul. It’s the city’s street of choice to dine, drink, meet and even busk.

Brunch is popular here, especially at Fidel’s Café which has been a fixture for as long as anyone can remember. A few doors down is Olive Café, another Cuba street institution (as are its cheese scones), while across the road is Loretta, younger sister of Floriditas Café & Restaurant (owned by the same folk). No matter where you choose to refuel on Cuba Street, make sure you get a window seat so you can watch the lively parade of humanity go by. If you’re in the market for some cool pre-loved clothes and prefer to support local, independent businesses then Cuba Street’s got your back. Hunters & Collectors, about half-way down Cuba Street, is Wellington’s pre-eminent, and oldest vintage clothing emporium. 

Nearby on Ghuznee Street there are cafés, hip clothing stores, craft beer and street art – it doesn’t get more Wellington than this.

Grab a seat in the window of Milkcrate and enjoy a coffee with a view of local artist Xoe Hall’s much Instagrammed David Bowie mural. When it’s time for something stronger, visit Whistling Sisters Beer Co. on the corner of Ghuznee and Taranaki Streets or try HUSK Brewery at the other end of the street, while Fortune Favours on nearby Leeds Street rounds out the troika of conveniently-located breweries. 

Christchurch

Even the city’s longest-term residents are still finding their way in Christchurch’s ever-changing post-quake centre. City Mall was one of the first parts of the city to re-open after the earthquakes, with a collection of converted containers known as the Re:START mall. Now, the new permanent buildings include intriguing laneways and courtyard spaces to explore. The Crossing at the corner of High Street opened with Christchurch’s first H&M department store and plenty of other retail options. 

Alongside the Otākāro Avon River you’ll find The Terrace with a plethora of bars and restaurants to choose from.

Check out the tropical vibes at Amazonita, sip a bespoke brew at Craft Embassy, or try a cocktail upstairs at Botanic. True to the new Christchurch urban design aesthetic, its crisscrossed with laneways and balconies and spills into a new development designed for better access to the city’s iconic river. 

The collection of 19th century Gothic Revival buildings at the Arts Centre were once the home of the University of Canterbury. A $290 million dollar restoration project (one of the world’s largest heritage projects) started after the earthquakes and now you’ll find a collection of shops, eateries and galleries as well as Lumiere, an arthouse cinema where you can enjoy a craft beer or cocktail from in-house bar Bijou with your film. Also here is the Rutherford’s Den interactive museum, where you can explore the discoveries made by Ernest Rutherford and his peers on this very site in the early 1900s. 

Dunedin

Dunedin doesn’t really do the hard sell, but if effortless style and laid back libations warm your cockles, then chances are you’ll find yourself in its eight-sided heart soon enough. 

The Octagon precinct is a crash course in the local lifestyle, stretching from the Town Hall and St Paul’s Cathedral at one end, to the Railway Station and refurbished historic courthouse at the other.

The lower side of the Octagon is the prime spot for outdoor dining or late afternoon drinks in the sun. The most reliable offering for eating (and coffee) sits in a shadier spot though, at Nova. It also functions as everybody’s second office during the week.

Right next door you’ll find Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand’s first art gallery, opening in 1884. Visit to immerse yourself in New Zealand artworks from 1860 to today, and an international collection boasting the only Monet on public display. 

Albar is the closest thing to a ‘local’ pub in the city centre, with a splendid selection of beers and single malts. Upstairs, you’ll find the cocktail and disco set at Carousel, with its outdoor dance floor. Pequeño, with its dim lights, late evenings and roaring open fire, is another back-alley gem worth seeking out. 

For more art and other beautiful things, pop in to local design co-op Guild directly opposite Eskdale Gallery. In the mornings, and for the mornings after, you can’t go wrong with breakfast and cake at Morning Magpie or The Perc

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