Where To Eat, Drink & Play In Hamilton

Model Charlotte Moffat runs through the Hamilton Gardens. Photo / Guy Coombes for Viva Magazine – Volume Five

You might now be able to bypass Hamilton — at a swift new speed limit of 110km/hr, no less — but it doesn’t mean you should, writes India Hendrikse.

In mid-2022, the final section of the Waikato Expressway opened, offering people travelling north or south the option to veer around

But with a slick bar scene, a crop of cool cafes, sustainably minded shopping and expansive, fairy tale-like gardens, you’d be remiss to not stop in this growing city.

With ever-improving cycling routes, hire a River Riders e-bike, take to the Waikato River trails and hop about the great places to try, and the best things to do, in Kirikiriroa.

For coffee, breakfast, and a swim

Duck Island vegan icecream and sorbet. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Duck Island vegan icecream and sorbet. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Down by Wellington Street Beach — a lovely picnicking and swimming spot on the banks of the Waikato River — Hayes Common is consistently voted one of Hamilton’s top eateries. Cafe by day and restaurant a few nights a week, this neighbourhood hub is just around the corner from the buzzing Grey St. Coffee is by Atomic Coffee and food is crowd-pleasing fare with interesting twists; think steak sandwiches with harissa, shallot puree and black garlic, or avo toast with a feta whip, house pickle and olive powder. Try out brews from the Waikato region, with Hamilton’s Bootleg Brewery and Raglan’s Workshop Brewery both available.

In Garden Place, in the CBD, head to Cream Eatery for nostalgic treats. Opened by Chrissy and Luke Houghton (who founded, and then sold fried chicken diner Winner Winner), the space is glossy, airy and always humming with people. With a fit-out by local design firm Designwell (who are behind the decor of a host of the city’s favourite haunts), pink hues, curved fixtures and terrazzo tiles create a diner feel. Jazzed-up lolly cake, pinky caramel slice and “cinni bunz” meet brunch-style menu items.

Notably, the building Cream operates in is owned by Stark Property, who are leading the way in Hamilton developments. Set to open in mid-2023, MADE is an indoor market precinct that will be home to popular local businesses. Beloved icecream brand Duck Island has already moved its factory and head office into the commercial section of the Hamilton East space, giving their seal of approval.

Also try: Cafe Kopi is a favourite for office workers, thanks in large part to their excellent coffee and lunchtime dhal they make on weekdays. Ever-smiley and effervescent owner Dave Tourelle also keeps people coming back. The Riverbank Lane, 298 Victoria St

For free public art

Laree Payne Gallery. Photo / Supplied
Laree Payne Gallery. Photo / Supplied

While New Zealand’s largest shopping centre attracts crowds in north Hamilton, the soul of Kirikiriroa lies in its central suburbs. Since 2015, a slew of street art has beautified buildings and derelict alleyways. Led by Hamilton organisation Boon Street Art, local and out-of-town artists are commissioned to create large-scale murals, telling stories of near and afar, offering vibrancy to the city’s streets.

The array of colours joins sculptures dotted about the city centre. Michael Parekowhai’s 8m-tall Tongue of the Dog — commissioned by charitable trust MESH Sculpture Hamilton — greets you at the entrance to the Waikato Museum. The Lego-like waterfall pays homage to the Māori legend of how the Waikato River formed. Nearby, a bronze statue of Riff Raff honours the Hamilton mastermind behind the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In Garden Place — the city’s central public square — another bronze statue stands tall, in the form of social justice trailblazer Dame Hilda Ross.

In the tiered gardens beside Riverbank Lane, Te Tatau ki Kirikiriroa, also commissioned by MESH, is a steel sculpture by Samoan-German-Irish-Māori artist Robert Jahnke. It’s a frame through which to view the river, and patterns speak to the rich market gardens that once dominated the land.

Also try: Contemporary gallery Laree Payne Gallery is tucked behind the Riverbank Lane precinct and showcases solo exhibitions. The light-filled space is minimalistic, allowing the work of artists — the likes of Rachel Hope Peary, Emelia French and Harry McAlpine — to take pride of place. 286 Victoria St

For sustainably minded shopping

Found store. Photo / Supplied
Found store. Photo / Supplied

“We don’t really follow trends,” says Found co-owner and personal stylist Liz Viviani. She owns the fashion and homewares shop Found with best pal Ann-maree Parsons, and alongside a successful online store, they have a base in the CBD’s Riverbank Lane (also of Stark Property development).

“When we buy pieces we think of the customer and their different, unique styles. You can’t just get trapped in trends, so we’re more focused on style rather than fashion,” she says. This distinction between style and fashion is clear in the brands they stock; Commoners, Dominique Healy, and Checks Downtown all make the cut for a sustainable style that will take you through the seasons, as does their own brand, Mane Project, which they design themselves with their friend and photographer Ash Muir.

Upon opening Found, Liz was overjoyed by the reaction of Hamiltonians. “I was really encouraged because people were just hungry for something new,” she says. “Attitudes of Hamiltonians are changing. A lot of people used to not head into the CBD, but now there’s a lot more going on, with Hamilton East just over the bridge. We should start to think of Grey St [Hamilton East’s main strip] as an extension of town.”

Also in Riverbank Lane is Browsers — a mecca for second-hand books since 1996. But if you do hop over the bridge, you’ll find The Flower Crate for great bouquets and homewares, located in the colourful Lovegrove Lane. For a great spot of yoga, Sun Salute is also down the lane.

Also try: Down a little laneway in the CBD you’ll find Needle in the Hay. Eclectic goods, beautiful ceramics, homewares and art shine in a former panel-beaters warehouse. Nextdoor is Rocket Coffee Roasters, which supplies coffee to many Hamilton cafes.

For a feast

Spicy food fans will love Chilli House — Hamilton’s go-to for all things Chinese cuisine. Xi’an-inspired hand-pulled youpo noodles are married with Cantonese favourites such as braised beef and broccoli, and tongue-numbing Sichuan sauces are ladled over dumplings, of course. Owner Chunyan He is from Sichuan and says her love of food began as a child. “We’d have school outings where we’d bring our pots and pans and learn how to cook in the wilderness of rural China. That memory has stayed with me until this day,” she says.

For an outdoor excursion

The Italian Renaissance Garden at Waikato's Hamilton Gardens. Photo / Supplied
The Italian Renaissance Garden at Waikato's Hamilton Gardens. Photo / Supplied

If you have a dash more time up your sleeve, then The Hamilton Gardens is a mesmerising day out. You can’t rush this place, as there are 26 distinct gardens to explore, with more constantly being constructed.

Some gardens are inspired from around the world; The Egyptian Garden has hieroglyphs etched on to its walls, while the Indian Char Bargh Garden boasts a grand pavilion, fountain and sea of marigolds. Others show traditional horticulture methods, such as Te Parapara, a Māori productive garden, and the Sustainable Backyard, which offers a look at how we could all be a bit more self-sufficient.

The real jaw-droppers exist in the Fantasy Collection. In the Surrealist Garden, normality is flipped upside-down. The lawn turns up at the corners and doors are made to accommodate not humans, but giants. Weird and whimsical sculptures allude to a state of dreaming and childhood.

Another favourite in the collection is The Mansfield Garden, inspired by New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield’s short story, Garden Party. In The Hamiton Garden’s take on it, you peer down to a marquee that’s shading a realistic-looking tea party, complete with the food Mansfield writes about. An elegant table stacked with fancy sandwiches and cream puffs is surrounded by a neatly-trimmed lawn and a 20th-century villa. It’s all rather elaborate, but wonderful.

Also try: Not technically outdoors, but a great excursion is the Hamilton Farmers’ Market. It’s the perfect spot to try regional produce and spot cute dogs. It’s also covered, which is perfect for the wetter months. Every Sunday, The Barn, Claudelands Events Centre

For a nightcap

A cocktail at Ernest late-night lounge. Photo / Supplied
A cocktail at Ernest late-night lounge. Photo / Supplied

When Craig Loveday arrived in New Zealand seven years ago from the United Kingdom, his first stop happened to be Hamilton. But being accustomed to the UK’s lively hospitality scene, he was disappointed when he couldn’t find many high-end bars.

After many years of research and planning, he decided to open Ernest to curb his craving. “I wanted to live in a community where you could bar-hop around Hamilton. And now, we’re getting there,” he says, referring to the slew of places that have popped up in recent years. At Ernest, unique cocktails are the speciality.

Ernest’s “trust the bartender” option puts faith in the bar staff, to excellent results. “I like guests to feel part of the experience so that they have ownership of their time with us. I always tell the staff that this is our house and we’re welcoming the guests into our home,” says Craig. Lush green velvet couches and Persian rugs make it a slick home, at that.

Another Kirikiriroa favourite is Mr. Pickles Bar & Eatery. Warm service, share plates (think prawns on stark white toast with chilli jam, miso-rich vegan cacio e pepe, and slurpy, tangy soba noodle salad) and a sun-soaked terrace make it the jewel of Riverbank Lane.

Also try: For a more motley crowd and relaxed vibe, head to Last Place Bar — Hamilton’s take on a trendy dive bar. The burgers are big and the live bands are good. What more do you need? 54 Collingwood St

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