Lonely Planet has named Wellington the “coolest little capital in the world” and it’s hard to argue with that. It is indeed little – population in the actual city is only about 190,000. It is also very cool with perks such as an amazing natural backdrop (think ocean and hills), vibrant arts and cultural landscape, an impressive culinary scene, and not to mention the burgeoning film industry (productions of LOTR, The Hobbit films and other international blockbusters were based there). Despite having a reputation for being windy and wet, Wellington is no doubt wonderful. I stayed in Wellington for almost two weeks and after exploring the city, I’ve come up with six things you must do when you visit this charming (and very hipster) capital.
- Visit the best museums and galleries (they’re free!)
The most famous museum in the city is the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This national museum features innovative and interactive experiences. Some of the permanent exhibits showcase New Zealand’s geological, biological, cultural and social histories. Other impressive sections are the ones that feature the Maori history and culture. The exhibits are so comprehensive that a one-day visit is not be enough; I actually visited the museum twice. And by the way, general admission is free!
The Wellington Museum is another outstanding and free museum you have to visit. It tells the city’s history through different collections and exhibits. Like the Te Papa, this museum is also located on the waterfront and it is housed in the old Bond Store building that was built in 1892.
If you’re more into contemporary art, then head to the City Gallery Wellington. It features local New Zealand and international art exhibitions.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
- Hike to Mt Victoria Lookout
It’s a relatively easy hike to the top of the hill and not to mention, it’s so close to the central business district (CBD). There are several trails you can take that will lead you through lush forests. Once you get to the lookout, the panoramic views are just stunning. On one side, you can watch the ferries sail into the harbour and on the other, you’ll see planes fly in and out of the airport. It’s best to visit the lookout on a calm and sunny day. Remember, Wellington’s nickname is Windy Welly so let’s hope you get one of those days while you’re in the city.
LOTR Trivia: A scene in the movie The Fellowship of the Ring was filmed here. It’s the scene where Frodo and the hobbits hide from the ring wraiths.
- Embrace the café and restaurant culture
It’s been claimed that Wellington has more restaurants per capita than New York City. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, but the city is definitely dotted with a diverse range of cafés and restaurants. If you’re a coffee lover, then you’ll feel right at home in Wellington as they certainly take their coffee seriously. To check out some of the city’s famous cafes and restaurants, head to the vibrant Cuba Street. You’ll be sure to find extensive choices of cafés and restaurants in this bohemian district. Midnight Espresso and Fidel’s are two of the most famous ones on Cuba Street. I personally liked Plum Café as well.
Beyond Cuba Street, check out The Hangar on Willis Street. The Hangar is Flight Coffee’s signature café where they serve specialty and ethically sourced coffees. This café has a hipster and relaxed vibe and it’s the perfect spot to start your day.
- Ride the Wellington Cable Car and explore the Botanic Garden
You cannot visit Wellington without riding the city’s iconic cable car. This historic cable car started operation in 1902. The ride itself only takes about 5 minutes, but once you’re at the top, there’s a lookout with amazing views of the city. There’s also the free Cable Car Museum. To head back down, go through the expansive Botanic Garden. Exploring the Lady Norwood Rose Garden is a nice way to end this stroll before you return to the city centre.
- Explore Zealandia
Can you travel back in time? That’s the goal of Zealandia. The 500-year vision of Zealandia is to restore its protected eco-sanctuary back to its pre-human environment. The valley is home to some of New Zealand’s rarest wildlife. This includes tuataras, which are the last survivors of a type of lizards that thrived in the time of the dinosaurs. You can also find the flightless takahe birds here; there are only about 290 of these birds left in New Zealand. Going to Zealandia at night is a completely different experience as well. You’ll be able to see nocturnal animals such as spotted kiwis, and longfin eels. This protected natural area is also very close to the city centre.
- Stroll, relax and people watch around Oriental Bay
As the saying goes, you can’t beat Wellington on a good day. And on a good day, you better spend part of it around Oriental Bay. The beach here has a golden-hued sand that was actually recently replenished. It’s the perfect place to just relax and people watch on a nice sunny day. There are plenty of spots to sit after you grab coffee or ice cream from a nearby cafe or ice cream truck. Be sure to pass by the Clyde Quay Boatsheds on your way to Oriental Bay.
Don’t forget the check out the official Wellington website; it’s a great source of information about the city and the latest happenings. They even have a post about the most Instagrammable spots in the city! The website is also very intuitive and user-friendly, I can’t recommend it enough.
Do you have time to spare while in Wellington? Check out Owhiro Bay. It’s not too far from the city and the coastal hike is just incredible. Check out my photo diary of Wellington’s southern coast.