Top 10 things to do in Wellington
Proud to flaunt its ‘Coolest Little Capital’ moniker, Wellington is New Zealand’s compact, creative, and culture-packed harbour metropolis located at the North Island’s southern end. Here’s the best things to do in a laid-back hub that punches above its weight when it comes to cafés, museums, gardens, beaches, movie-making locations, and all the activities and attractions of a city five times its size.
Enjoy a stroll down funky Cuba Street
It doesn’t get more bohemian than Cuba Street, Wellington’s colourful, eclectic, and iconic precinct named after an early settler ship that left Gravesend in 1839 and reached the city’s shores a year later. The area soon became a hub of activity, complete with a local market, butcher, violin maker, painter, draper, locksmith, pub, two grocers, and later addition of soldiers' cottages, boarding houses, billiard halls, factories, and brothels (sadly, many of the buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1879). Nowadays, it’s still as buzzy - but it plays to a more sophisticated audience. Head here for vintage shops, specialist boutiques, top-notch bars and restaurants, street entertainers, and the kinetic sculpture known as the Bucket Fountain. There’s also the two famous Wellington Night Markets: Friday in Left Bank (off Cuba Street) and Saturday on lower Cuba Street (next to the Manners Street intersection).
Highlight: Cuba Street is legendary for championing great food and drink, so there’s no shortage of trendy spots for all-day dining. Visit Fidel’s for home-style cooking with artisan ingredients sourced from local suppliers and growers, try 1154 Pastaria for made-from-scratch pasta dishes, and head to Logan Brown for contemporary fish and meat specialities. Also stop at the vegan-friendly Midnight Espresso - one of the quirkiest hangouts for a late-night coffee and a bite to eat.
Walk to the Mount Victoria Lookout
Rising 196-metres above the city, the Mount Victoria Lookout is the go-to attraction for 360-degree views of Tinakori Hill, Hutt Valley and the Eastern harbour bays, the Cook Strait, the Miramar Peninsula, Baring and Pencarrow Heads, and Mount Matthews - the highest peak in the Remutaka Range. While easy to access by bike, car, or Metlink's No. 20 bus that runs from Courtney Place to the Mount Victoria Terminus, it’s more fun on foot (the walkway through the bush-covered Town Belt takes around 90-minutes). At the summit, climb the steps up to the viewing platforms to spot famous landmarks, watch ferries and cruise ships sail into the harbour, count planes flying in and out of the airport, and enjoy spectacular sunrises and sunsets. Remember to pack a picnic, waterproofs (this is one of the city’s windiest places), and a camera for shots of the CBD and harbour in the morning and the mountains in the afternoon.
Highlight: In addition to incredible views, the lookout’s summit features several walking trails (many featured in The Lord of the Rings movies), information panels, and a cannon that fired the noon signal daily from 1877 to 1900. There’s also a statue that serves as a memorial to Richard E. Byrd - the American aviator and naval officer who used New Zealand as a base for his Antarctic expeditions (he made the first flight over the South Pole in 1929).
Understand the city’s love affair with coffee
Given that you’ll find cafés on almost every corner, it’s fair to say that Wellington is just a bit caffeine-obsessed. Ranking among one of the world’s best destinations for a bean-to-brew cuppa, it’s home to over 20 roasteries; from boutique set-ups to large-scale operators offering every flavour, depth, and coffee style imaginable (some companies, such as Flight Coffee, and People’s Coffee run their own farming projects to produce the perfect bean). This scene and culture dates back to the 1950s when milkshake bars started to pop up across the city, followed shortly by coffee houses that attracted a fashionable crowd of poets, writers, artists, and academics. Nowadays, these award-winning and atmospheric spots stay open until at least 10pm and spoil you with a trendy aesthetics, talented baristas, knowledgeable roasting teams, and a myriad of signature frothy whites or strong blacks - many with a double shot as standard.
Highlight: For coffee that really knocks it out of the park, head to Caffe L'affare for its buzzy vibe and industrial packaging plant décor, Caffe L’affare for its emblematic espresso and slick all-day menu, and Peoples’ Coffee for its organic and Fair Trade-certified offerings. Also try Flight Coffee Hangar for manual brewing options like Chemex, V60, and Aeropress and Lamason Brew Bar for an education in how different bean preparations influence the flavour.
Admire the beautiful Wellington Botanic Garden
Classified as a Garden of National Significance by the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture, the 64-acre Wellington Botanic Garden fascinates with exotic trees (some of the oldest in New Zealand), ancient forests, colourful floral displays, international plant collections, and 150 years of history. There’s also a duck pond, a begonia house and cafés, a herb garden, and an Australian garden - all of which are open to the public daily (guided tours are available on request). Further highlights include seven major works by prolific sculptors along the Botanic Garden's Sculpture Trail, including Henry Moore's Bronze Form, Regan Gentry's Green Islands, Chris Booth’s Peacemaker, and Andrew Drummond’s Listening and Viewing Device. Equally visit-worthy is the Bolton Street Memorial Park section (formerly known as Bolton Street Cemetery) for its heritage roses, interesting lookouts, and gravestones of the city's early settlers.
Highlight: Complete with 3,000-plus roses in 110 beds set out in a formal geometric design with the Begonia House as a backdrop, the award-winning Lady Norwood Rose Garden opened in 1953. Named in honour of Lady Rosina Norwood whose husband, Sir Charles John Boyd Norwood was one of the city’s benefactors, the displays are at their best from mid-November to December (the flowering season runs until the end of April).
Work your way around the city’s food and drink spots
As New Zealand’s gastronomic capital, Wellington is home to nearly 900 places where you can find a bite to eat. And while there’s a huge turnover in the restaurant, bar and café industry (it’s estimated that most newcomers won’t last more than three years), there’s a healthy line-up of steady stalwarts that are thriving. Some of the most acclaimed spots include Ortega Fish Shack & Bar for its sensational seafood in a quirky setting, The Larder for its nose-to-tail philosophy of using every part of the animal, and Hippopotamus Restaurant & Cocktail Bar for its artfully-presented dishes and perfectly-mixed tipples. Also try El Culo Del Mundo for its free-range and ethically-sourced Latin American cuisine, Two Grey Bar & Brasseries for its fashionable local and international menu, and Egmont Street Eatery for its thoughtful seasonal fare that pulls focus on quality ingredients, bold flavours, and innovative culinary techniques.
Highlight: Awarded the best New Zealand Culinary Tour company in 2018 and 2019 at the Travel & Hospitality Awards, Wellington’s Zest Food Tours are ideal for foodies who love to explore at ground level. Not only do these mouth-watering experiences connect like-minded gourmands from across the globe, but they offer the opportunity to taste regional food, wine and craft beer, meet with makers and producers, and learn about the city’s dining developments.
Be awed by The Lord of the Rings movie magic
A total of 150 real-life locations were used for key scenes in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with a chunk of them in Wellington. So it’s little wonder that the city is huge on LOTR tours, with many stopping at Middle-earth doubles such as Tongariro National Park (The land of Mordor), Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom), the forested areas of Mount Victoria (Hobbiton Woods), Hutt River (River Anduin), Harcourt Park (Gardens of Isengard), and Kaitoke Regional Park (Rivendell). Another highlight for hardcore Tolkien fans is the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata - three hours away from the city by plane or eight hours by bus. Here you’ll find the bucolic setting for The Shires (a 1,250-acre sheep farm in real life) from which you can enjoy a two-hour guided tour around the 12-acre film set, marvel at the Hobbit Holes and the Mill, stop for a drink in the Green Dragon Inn, and extend your stay to enjoy a special evening banquet.
Highlight: Wellington is home to the dual companies Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, both of which are central to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit productions. A must-do for film buffs is the Weta Cave Workshop Tour - an exciting behind-the-scenes experience that includes close-ups with props, costumes, models, and more. You’ll also catch a glimpse of artists at work on the tour stage and learn all sorts of insider secrets from the knowledgeable Weta tour guides.
Take a five-minute ride on the Wellington Cable Car
New Zealand’s only functioning funicular railway, the iconic Wellington Cable Car rises to 120-metres over a length of 612-metres - with the ride taking just five minutes. Opened on 22 February 1902 (and proving an instant hit with over 425,000 passengers who took the trip in the first year), it departs every ten minutes from Cable Car Lane off Lambton Quay in the city centre to the end of Upland Road in the charming suburb of Kelburn. Over a century later, it has been extensively renovated: electricity has replaced the steam-powered gears and there have been major developments on the line, winding system, track, cars, and viewing platforms. But it has lost none of its charm as it takes eager sightseers through three tunnels, over three bridges, and to three stations: Clifton, Talavera, and Salamanca. Return trips are available- or you can take a leisurely walk through Wellington Botanic Garden and Bolton Street Cemetery to Parliament.
Highlight: Opposite the Kelburn Terminus and located in the historic winding house used for the original cable car system that operated from 1902 to 1978, the free-to-enter Wellington Cable Car Museum brings the story of this historic fixture to life. There’s the original machinery once used to haul the cable cars up the incline as well as two of the three original grip cars used on the line (including Grip Car 3, which has been restored to its 1905 elegance).
Visit the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Famed for its innovative, interactive, thought-provoking and visitor-focused experiences, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (the Maori name means ‘container of treasures') opened on the city’s waterfront in 1998. Complete with short-term, long-term or permanent collections in five unique areas (Art, History, Pacific, Maori, and Natural Environment), you’re met with a wide range of engaging and informative tours, multi media displays, audio guides, and hands-on themed discovery centres - all of which will require your attention for the best part of a half a day. Don’t miss the Weta Workshop’s groundbreaking Gallipoli: The scale of our war, the contemporary Toi Art gallery space, the skeleton of legendary racehorse Phar Lap, and Treaty of Waitangi: Signs of a Nation Document. Admission is free, although some temporary exhibitions, cultural events, and activities incur a fee.
Highlight: If you’re short on time or simply want to add more depth and understanding to your visit, the museum offers several guided or private tours. Book the one-hour Maori Highlights Tour (daily at 2pm), the one-hour Introducing Te Papa Tour (select times during the day), or the 45-minute Twilight Express Tour (daily at 5pm). There’s also cafés, a coffee kiosk, a kids’ play area, and an excellent gift shop for stocking up on Maori arts and books on New Zealand.
Soak up the sun on the city’s best beaches and bays
Wellington is blessed with plenty of beaches or bays for soaking up sunny views from sun-kissed sands; some nearer to the city centre than others. And while Oriental Bay that gets all the love for its safe swimming, summer sporting events, and swanky restaurants, there’s other urban gems just as visit-worthy, including Lyall Bay for windsurfing and kitesurfing action and Days Bay for its exciting watersports. Also head to Island Bay for its scuba diving Taputeranga Marine Reserve, Makara Beach for its seriously good hiking trails, and Island Bay for its boat watching and snorkelling. If you’re happy travel a little further afield, try Petone Beach for jogging, Red Rocks Beach for fiery-coloured rocks and a seal colony, Paraparaumu Beach for awesome views of Kapiti Island, Castlepoint for a lighthouse, and Riversdale Beach for fishing.
Highlight: Set on Wellington’s east coast, the intimate Scorching Bay is arguably the city’s most beautiful beach. There’s grassy plains for picnics and wonderful views of the inter-island ferries entering and leaving the harbour, a kids’ playground with a rope-climbing structure, sheltered sands for all-day lazing, and safe waters for swimming, and. You’ll also find the Scorch-O-Rama café for ice cream, milkshake, and coffee (it opens daily for breakfast, brunch, and lunch).
Tour the ZEALANDIA eco-sanctuary by day or night
The world’s first fully-fenced urban eco-sanctuary, ZEALANDIA offers groundbreaking conservation experiences. Located just ten-minutes from the city centre, this 500-acre protected area features an interactive and inspiring exhibition that reinforces its extraordinary 500-year vision to restore a Wellington valley’s forest, reintroduce native wildlife back into the area, and revert freshwater ecosystems as closely as possible back to their natural state (before humans arrived). To make the most of your visit, book one of the guided tours to discover the sanctuary valley, marvel at native birds, reptiles and plant species, and learn more about New Zealand’s unique ecological history. The two-hour ZEALANDIA by Day runs three times daily while the 2.5-hour ZEALANDIA by Night runs at dusk. Both tours cater for small groups of no more than 12 people and often sell out in advance (it’s best to book tickets early).
Highlight: Bringing back rare and little-seen native birds to the city is high on ZEALANDIA’s agenda. The sanctuary is home to over 40 different species of birds, including the flightless takahe, the elusive kakariki parrot, and the olive-brown kaka. Also keep your eyes peeled for the tiny titipounamu, the brush-tipped tongued bellbird, the kawau pu (black shag), and the North Island Robin (one three subspecies of robin; the others are on South Island and Stewart Island).