At the far end of (Middle) Earth lies what Lonely Planet has long referred to as “the coolest little capital.” Wellington, New Zealand, capital of this tiny island country, packs a punch that a lot of visitors tend to skip it in favour of Taupo and Queenstown. I’m here – as a former short-term resident of Wellington – to tell you why it really is the coolest capital city and what everyone needs to see and do while in Windy Welly.
How To Get – And Around – Wellington, New Zealand
Wellington is accessible from across New Zealand, Australia, and South Pacific Islands. To get to Wellington from the US, you’ll first need to fly to Auckland, Sydney, Brisbane. or Melbourne. All major US carriers and their codeshares carry these routes. Fiji Airways also flies into Wellington from Nadi.
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Since most of my clients take a two to three week trip around the entire country, Wellington is often a stop on a full New Zealand itinerary. This means that most of my clients either arrive by car on a self-drive itinerary or on a domestic Air New Zealand flight. Some also enter Wellington by ferry from the South Island. There are two ferry companies: Interislander and Bluebridge.
The Wellington GO bus system is extensive and easy to use to get around town. There is also a direct airport express bus, called the Airport Flyer, which travels between the airport and Wellington’s railway station on a regular schedule.
Wellington, New Zealand — A Pristine Cityscape
Wellington lies at the southern edge of New Zealand’s North Island. It is surrounded by incredible scenery, everything from gently rolling hills covered in vineyards to rugged mountains and rocky beaches. Wellington city center sits around a large harbor. The rugged hills of Brooklyn and the Miramar Peninsula protect Wellington Harbour from the sometimes-vicious Antarctic winds that plague New Zealand’s coastline.
As New Zealand’s capital, Wellington is home to most of the nation’s government operations, national museums and a thriving tourism industry. It’s also home to Sir Peter Jackson’s The Weta Workshop, along with other creative industry. Wellington has earned the nickname Little Hollywood. There is so much to see and do here that I suggest at least two to three days in Wellington, New Zealand.
What To Do In Wellington
No matter what your interests are, you will find them in Wellington. I’ve long compared Wellington to Melbourne, Australia, because they both have a distinct European feel and a vibrant, compact city center. Both cities are also extraordinarily creative, with numerous laneways, a lot of unique shops, and plenty of local cafes and bars. While there’s hundreds of things to do in Wellington, I’ve compacted the list into various sections below.
Arts And Culture
One of my favorite places in Wellington is Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of New Zealand. It’s located at the harbor and features exceptional displays of New Zealand history. Not only that, it also showcases the geological and ecological history of the island.
Patrons can experience an earthquake, view a giant squid, learn about Maori culture, and understand what makes New Zealand so wonderful. Further along the harbor is the Wellington Museum, which highlights the history of Wellington City and its growth over the last hundred years. The National Portrait Gallery is next door.
Wellington, is a really vibrant city and hosts a number of festivals throughout the year. Don’t miss CubaDupa, a two-day street festival along Cuba Street, the New Zealand Festival in even-numbered years, or the Jim Beam Homegrown music festival each April. If you’re in town over the winter, you can also attend Matariki ki Poneke, the Maori New Year festival!
As I’ve already hinted, Wellington is home to some rather odd creatures … small, hairy-footed, big-eared people, goblin-looking creatures, and gigantic tree men. I’m talking about the creatures from the Lord of the Rings, which put New Zealand and its creative filmmakers, post-production facilities, and actors on the map. LOTR fans definitely need to visit The Weta Workshop, a fascinating workshop-cum-museum with props from movies and tv shows like Mad Max Fury Road, District 9, Avatar, and Thunderbirds Are Go! The Weta Workshop is located in Miramar, but very easy to get to by the Wellington bus system.
Food And Drink
Wellington, New Zealand is blessed with an incredible local food scene, its own wine region, and a craft beer industry to rival Portland, Oregon (dare I say?!) or Melbourne, Australia. Some popular local spots are the vibrant laneways (what Kiwis and Aussies call alleys) in city center. Here, you’ll find passionate people making chocolate, peanut butter, pizza, beer, coffee, and sometimes a mix of all of the above.
New Zealand’s Martinborough wine region is just an hour’s train ride away. Visit award-winning wineries set among gorgeous landscapes. In November, wine lovers descend on Martinborough for Toast, a one-day wine festival where attendees can meet vintners, taste great wine, and listen to live music.
Sports And Leisure
Rugby is New Zealand’s unofficial national sport. Kiwis revere their national team, the All Blacks, as well as their local team. If you visit New Zealand during rugby season, head to Westpac Stadium for a game, no matter whether you can snag tickets for the ABs or for the Wellington Hurricanes. There is both rugby union and rugby league. Rules and style of play are different, but you’re more likely to attend a rugby union game as the major teams play union.
Other sporting activities you can do in and around Wellington include hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, or sailing. As Wellington is a super hilly city, I suggest an e-bike to get you around town. Switched on Bikes, located at the harbor, rents them out by the half or full day. Fergs, also located at the harbor, provides single and double kayaks. You can also rock climb inside Fergs – a fun rainy day activity!
Nature And Wildlife
Within the city limits, just on the other side of the motorway from Bolton Street, is the Botanic Gardens. The extensive grounds have flora and fauna from New Zealand, Australia, and other locations as well as sculptures, an observatory, and a cable car museum. I always enjoyed taking the cable car from Lambton Quay to the top, then walking down through the gardens and cemetery back into the city.
Perhaps the most popular nature and wildlife reserve in Wellington, New Zealand is Zealandia, a 560 acre, fenced “urban ecosanctuary” reserve, that is home to some of New Zealand’s most endangered species. Visitors to Zealandia go through two gates and cleaning stations on the way in and out. This system is designed to protect the creatures inside. Here at Zealandia, you will find kiwi birds, tuatara, weta, and kaka, among others. A must-do in Wellington!
Nature Outside of Wellington
Wellington, New Zealand also has plenty of nature and wildlife nearby. Head for remote Cape Pallier (two hour drive) to visit the seal colony. In the summer, you’ll find numerous baby seals among the rocks. Cape Palliser is also the North Island’s southernmost point and there is a striking lighthouse accessible by a hundred steps.
To the west, the Kapiti Coast stretches up past Paraparaumu. It’s rugged coastline hides beautiful white beaches with birdlife, whale and dolphin spotting, and more. Kapiti Island, just off the coast, is a bird sanctuary and nature reserve. It is open to the public through only a few operators. Closer to the city, Matiu/Somes Island is a predator-free scientific nature reserve. It’s accessed by ferry from the city.
Where To Stay In Wellington
Wellington has some wonderful accommodation, but little in the way of hotels affiliated with reward programs.
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For business travelers, there’s the InterContinental (IHG rewards) on Grey Street, near the financial quarter, the Grand Mercure Wellington, at The Terrace, or the brand new Sofitel on Bolton Street. Closer to the cultural hub of Wellington there’s the new QT Museum Wellington, the CQ Quality Hotel, or the Copthorne Oriental Parade.
Outside of Wellington, about an hour’s drive around through Martinborough, is an exceptional luxury estate. Wharekauhau (pronounced “farry-ko-ho”) is the ultimate in farm stay experiences. The luxury 18-villa property is tucked above the cliffs just west of Cape Palliser and south of Martinborough and boasts a working sheep farm, outdoor activities, farm-to-table dining, and warm kiwi hospitality. Oh, and a super adorable dog named Merlot. The owners also own several wineries and a gin distillery. How do you get here? Either drive from Wellington through the Rimutaka mountain range, or helicopter from Wellington city.
During my two months living in Wellington, New Zealand, I spent a lot of time exploring the city. I’ll admit I fell totally head over heels. This city deserves every accolade it gets and everyone I’ve sent there has nothing but great things to say. There are hundreds of things to do and see, plenty of nearby attractions, and wonderful locals to meet.