This first-rate museum experience gives a marvelous introduction to New Zealand history and culture. Its collection of Māori and Polynesian artifacts is the largest in the world, but it’s just the beginning of the attractions here, part of which is the architecture of the building itself. Auckland’s imposing museum building, crafted from Portland stone and designed to be a war memorial to the heroic valor of the New Zealand soldier and the “classical” tragedy of battles such as Gallipoli, stands in the Auckland Domain on the rim of an ancient volcano surrounded by parks and gardens. (The museum’s colonnades are said to be almost a replica of the Parthenon's in Greece.) Of the two entrances, the original harbor entrance has stunning views; the newer rear dome entrance in the Atrium shows off contemporary New Zealand architecture.

Get a shaky start at Volcanoes, a gallery that introduces you to Auckland’s turbulent natural history. It’s one of the only cities in the world built on an active (but dormant) volcano field, and the interactive movie room, simulating the birth of a new volcano, will have you thinking we’re slightly crazy for living here at all. And in case you think this sounds a bit dry and “museumy,” it’s perfectly illustrated by the cool but pretty thought-provoking “volcano house,” in which you go into a typical Kiwi living room, sit down and watch a TV news broadcast as Mount Rangitoto erupts all over the city.

Key attractions in the extensive He Taonga Māori (Māori Treasures) Gallery include the impressive 25m (80-ft.) war canoe chiselled from one enormous totara trunk and covered with intricate carvings. That same artistry is reflected in the 26m (85-ft.) wharenui (meetinghouse), with its carved and painted walls and rafters. Also on display are greenstone weapons, tools, and feather cloaks. Twice times a day—at 11:15am and 1:45pm—kapa haka performances by members of the Ngāti Whātua Māori iwi (tribe) bring the culture to life. It’s well worth the additional cost of NZ$30 adults, NZ$15 ages 5 to 13, and NZ$80 families.

The other thing that’s worth the cost? A guided tour, which will point out objects you might otherwise miss and that provide important context typically not included on tiny placards. If you’ve just arrived in NZ, these two add-ons are an excellent introduction and starting point to things you might experience elsewhere in the country, particularly where Māori history and culture is concerned. The Gallery Highlights Tour  is held daily at 11am and 1pm, and costs NZ$20 adults, NZ$10 for kids ages 5 to 13.

The museum is easy to negotiate. Just remember that the first floor is about the people, the second is about the land, and the third is the war memorial. The moody Pacific Pathways houses a world-renowned collection of Pacific artifacts; New Zealand at War: Scars on the Heart tells an emotional story of New Zealand in conflict, from the Land Wars of the 1840s to its present-day peacekeeping operations. The first-floor Natural History Galleries showcase everything from dinosaur skeletons to live seaside rock pools.

To get the most of your visit, allow three hours minimum. An on-site cafe is open during museum hours (although the service can be patchy and the coffee isn’t always the best). There are two very good shops worth a visit. Be sure to take a stroll around the magnificent Auckland Domain sculpture walk featuring eight works by New Zealand artists. A map can be found online at