Napier - Art Deco City

Napier, is unique in the world of Art Deco. Rebuilt after the 1930's earthquake, this east coast city is almost all art deco in style. Join an escorted small group tour that visits and explores Napier for mature and senior travellers, couples of solo traveller to explore and learn more.

17 Nov 20 · 7 mins read


By Marco Stojanovik

Napier city and port is the centre of the Hawke’s Bay region on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. With a well-established Maori history spanning centuries, Europeans began settling here in the mid-19th century. After the city was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1931, its streets were beautiful restored in Art Deco and it is now world renown as one of the most complete collections of the architectural style remaining. But perhaps it is best known for its wine. Located in the Hawke’s Bay wine region – the oldest and second largest in New Zealand – visitors can enjoy a diverse range of high standard varieties across the wineries that dot its surrounding landscape.

Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of Napier as part of our small group tour of New Zealand’s North Island for mature and senior travellers. Odyssey specialises in offering small group tours limited to 12 people, a mix of couples and solo travellers, partnering with local guides chosen for their local knowledge. We enjoy the art deco streetscape of Napier with a guided walk as part of a private day tour, head to the world’s largest Gannet colony, and undertake a tasting at one of the region’s recognised wineries. This article explores Napier’s history and attractions to assist your tour.

Overhead view of Napier city, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.

The Founding of Napier

Napier has a deep-rooted Maori history, originally settled many centuries ago for its rich soil and availability of seafood. When the Ngāti Kahungunu party of Taraia reached the district many centuries ago, the Whatumamoa, Rangitane and the Ngāti Awa and elements of the Ngāti Tara iwi already existed in the nearby areas. Later, the Ngāti Kahungunu became the dominant force from Poverty Bay to Wellington, and were one of the first Maori tribes to come into contact with European settlers.

The future site of Napier was first sighted by Europeans in October 1769 by Captain Cook sailing down the east coast of the North Island. Traders, whalers and missionaries subsequently visited and settled there temporarily in the early nineteenth century. And then from the early 1850’s the first permanent residency began as farmers and hotel keepers arrived.

It was around this time in 1855 that Napier, Hawke’s Bay’s oldest town, was officially founded. Following the Crown’s purchasing of a block of land from the Marois called Ahuriri, the town was established on a small semi-island between the sea and an inner harbour. Streets and avenues were laid out and the new town was named for Sir Charles Napier, a military hero of the Battle of Meeanee fought in the Indian province of Scindh.

Development was generally confined to the hill and to the port area of Ahuriri. An early account described it as a ‘hopeless spot for a town site’, an oblong mass of hills prone to flooding. However, it was an ideal location for a port and soon flourished to become the leading town of the region and the centre of government, business, social and leisure activities.

The Dome clock of Napier New Zealand in twilight sky.

1931 Earthquake & Art Deco Style Rebuild

On the morning of February 3, 1931, most of Napier and nearby Hastings was devastated by New Zealand’s worst ever natural disaster, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter magnitude scale. Lasting over three minutes the earthquake rocked the town, killing 162 people (a total of 258 in the Hawke’s Bay area) and destroyed the vast majority of the commercial centre of Napier. Subsequent fires ravaged what was left.

As the tectonic plates moved, some areas of land were raised by as much as 2.5 metres and approximately 4,000 hectares of sea bed became dry land. Napier’s airport and its surrounding residential and industrial property are now built on this land.

The rebuilding of Napier began almost immediately with new buildings reflecting the architectural styles of the times –predominately Art Deco, but also Stripped Classical, Spanish Mission – complete with Maori motifs to give the city a unique New Zealand character.

The beautiful art deco town of Napier, New Zealand – as summer night approaches.

Fashionable in the 1920s, the Art Deco architecture style is characterised by the skyscraper shape, sunbursts and fountains, and geometric shapes. Some of the Art Deco buildings were subsequently replaced with contemporary structures during the 1960s through to the 1980s, including the Art Gallery. However, most of the centre remained intact and is now recognized as architecturally unique with the buildings being protected and restored since the 1990s.

Today Napier is famous as one of the most complete collections of Art Deco buildings, second only to South Beach, Miami, Florida. Buildings such as the Daily Telegraph Building and the Municipal Theatre remain as fine examples of this era.

Ornate art deco building, Napier, New Zealand

Napier Wine Tour

Blessed with a warm, temperate climate, long sunshine hours, fertile plains, and sea breezes, Napier is ideal for grape growing. Inevitably it has become the home of New Zealand Wine, housing the oldest wineries and wine-making establishments in the country, some producing wines for over 140 years.

The first vineyard planted around Napier were by French missionaries in the mid-19th century. Establishing the still existing Mission Estate near the Ngaruroro River, they were to begin the Hawke’s Bay region’s fine wine tradition. By the 1920s, Te Mata Estate, Vidal Estate, McDonalds Winery and Glenvale Winery (now Esk Valley Winery) had followed to establish themselves. Today tiny family-owned boutique producers thrive alongside the multi-regional entities, all committed to great wine making, evident in the numerous world-class awards they have won over the years.

New Zealand’s wine country is located in Napier near Hawke’s Bay

Today the Hawkes Bay is New Zealand’s second-largest wine region with countless wineries and vineyards dotting the landscape. A relatively large and diverse region capable of producing a wide range of varieties to a very high standard, Hawke’s Bay is especially revered for its Boudreaux blend reds and Chardonnay. In Napier Pinot Gris and Syrah are also consistently good and incredibly impressive.

Napier is home to an outstanding wine tourism culture with guided tours a great way to discover the local gems. A number of the wineries have cellar doors and many boast superb winery restaurants that capitalise on the abundant fresh local produce. A number of regular food and wine festivals also take place throughout the year, most popularly the twice yearly Hawke’s Bay Food and Wine Classic set in stunning locations throughout the region.

Wineglass with red wine standing on wooden table in vineyard in Hawkes bay in New Zealand

Napier Attractions

One of Napier’s most famous highlights is Marine Parade. Palm trees line an ocean boulevard with fountains, gardens, shaded picnic areas, statues, and spas. Located on the south end of Marine Parade is the National Aquarium of New Zealand, one of the foremost aquariums in New Zealand featuring a wide collection of sea animals. On the Northern end is the historic Napier Prison, the oldest prison in New Zealand where visitors can learn about the history of prisons, and the only place in Napier where some of the earthquake damage has been left in place.

Marine Parade is also host to one of the most photographed tourist attractions in New Zealand, the statue called Pania of the reef. Pania is a beautiful maiden figure featuring in Maori mythology and is a symbol of Napier.

Pania of the Reef statue in Napier / QFSE Media / CC BY-SA 3.0 NZ

Another highlight of Napier is MTG Hawke’s Bay – a museum, theatre, and art gallery. The fine arts collection includes works by national figures such as Rita Angus, Roland Hipkins, Jenny Campbell, Avis Higgs, Frank Carpay, Joan Trollope and Walter Bowring. The museum also has significant historical artifacts including archive material, natural history specimens, social history artefacts, Taonga Māori objects, costume and textiles, and a World Cultures collection

The nearby Cape Kidnappers Gannet Colony is also popular. A tractor ride along the beach is the best way to view the cliffs, shoreline and the local gannet population. Other popular outdoor activities include a trip up Bluff Hill for a spectacular view and a relaxing day out at Tiffen Park.

Gannets at Cape Kidnappers Gannet Colony, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Tour of Napier

Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of Napier as part of our small group tour of New Zealand’s North Island for mature and senior travellers. Led by a tour guide chosen for their local knowledge, our tour is for up to 12 people, typically mature and senior travellers joining as a couple or as solo traveller. Off the beaten track, our itinerary follows the east coast from Auckland to Wellington as we guide travellers through the history, Maori culture, and landscapes of the beautiful North Island of New Zealand.

For many visitors, the South Island gets all the attention, with the big tourist draws of Franz Josef Glacier, Milford Sound, Queenstown and historic Christchurch. But dig deeper and you’ll find that New Zealand’s North Island has as much to offer, including the beautiful Bay of Islands, Poor Knights Island, White Island, and Waiheke Island, the bird sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi, the Art Deco of Hawke’s Bay, alpine Tongariro, and the glow worm caves in the Waitomo Caves complex.

Heading from Auckland we journey through the Coromandel Peninsula, then track south through the Bay of Plenty to Tairawhitu (The East Cape) rich in Maori culture and travel experiences. From Gisborne through Hawkes Bay and the Wairarapa, grape vines dominate the landscape. We will enjoy several wine tasting experiences, focusing on the different regions of grape that we travel through. The area is also home to several beautiful national parks. Finally, our North Island road trip arrives in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations. Odyssey specialises in offering small group tours, partnering with local guides to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here.

Articles about New Zealand published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Napier and New Zealand:

Related Tours


13 days

Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, Feb +1

Small group tour of New Zealand's North Island


Escorted 13 day small group tour of the East coast of New Zealand’s North island. Off the beaten track, for like minded people curious about history, culture, wine and landscapes. Your tour director and local guides share their knowledge with you the traveller on this New Zealand tour for senior travellers.

From A$10,450 AUD

View Tour

Join 22,383 like-minded travellers receiving our weekly newsletter.

Special offers and promotions
A$350 AUD first trip travel voucher
The latest tours and articles