I spent three months living in New Zealand last year, interning at a company in Wellington for two months and traveling the third. I fell in love with the city in days and the country shortly after. Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, situated on the southern tip of the North Island and essentially is center of the country. Due to geography it doesn’t get the best of weather (my umbrella shaft snapped in two due to the wind during my second week), but it’s my favorite city in the country and I can’t wait till I can return.
Sadly, locals don’t give much credit to Wellington, but while there I noticed a discourse between what Americans thought of as wonderful places to visit and what Kiwi’s did. I spent over two months in Wellington, and could just as easily return to the country and not see any other part. The capital is just that awesome.
1. Te Papa
Te Papa is the National Museum of New Zealand and entry is free for the public. Make sure you set aside a whole to day to see this site as it will take awhile. Te Papa has six floors of exhibits! My first time through, my mind went number from how much I had seen and learned. I was reduced to just walking around and wondering at the items displayed. With that in mind, I’d recommend picking one or two exhibits you really want to see and visit them first.
Te Papa always has interesting rotating exhibits, so check out the Te Papa website to see what’s in town when you are. Permanent exhibits include the history of the country – in people and in geography, and Bush City – an outside mini sample of NZ’s native land complete with caves, sand pits, and waterfalls.
2. Southern Walkway
Wellington has numerous tramping (Kiwi word for hiking) trails surrounding it. When the city was founded it was seen as a medical retreat and thus a green ring of forest was left undistributed to help keep the air clean. The Southern Walkway is my favorite walk and goes from Mount Victoria on the east end of town down south to Houghton Bay.
It’s an easy walk, capable of being done in half a day. It’s always a little strange taking the bus back, the twenty minutes doesn’t match the 3 hours of breathtaking views. It’s the views that make this walk. From Mt. Albert, the third peak you climb, you can see the best 360 panoramic: downtown Wellington, Wellington harbor, the straight between the New Zealand’s two islands, and on clear days the majestic snow peaked mountains on the other side.
If you don’t have the time or willingness to do the entire walk, at least check out Mount Victoria (aka Mt. Vics). You can walk up to it from the city or drive, but in either case it takes all but twenty minutes. The view from the top allows you to see the entire Wellington region: city, harbor, and Lower Hutt. It’s also on the side of Mt. Vics that filming for the first Lord of the Rings began and you can explore the road the hobbits were on when running from the Nazgul.
3. Red Rocks
Red Rocks is a fur seal colony on the southwest side of Wellington. If you don’t have a car, set aside a full day to do this, as it takes a while to walk from the closest bus stop to the start of the nature preserve. I’m pretty athletic and it took me just shy of an hour. If you have kids, a taxi might be a better bet. Or one of the safari companies that specialize in seals, sometimes they pick you up from your hotel.
From the start of Red Rock Preserve to the seal colony is an hour walk along the beach; some of it sandy, some of it rocky, but all beautiful. Shortly before you get to the colony the rocks turn red, due to the minerals in them.
4. Lambton Quay/Cuba St/Courtenay Place aka The Main Drags
Think of Lambton Quay (pronounced ‘key’) as Wellington’s Sax Fifth Avenue. I’m not going to tell you to shop, as things in New Zealand are pricy, but it’s worth walking down the street. There are a bunch of nice café’s and bakeries down Lambton Quay, not to mention sculptures.
Cuba St is the more bohemian street, full of indie store and street musicians as cars are not allowed in a two block section. Here is where you’ll find those gem restaurants – tiny but good and come night it’s the bars on Cuba that are open.
For a more active nightlife, such as dancing at nightclubs, check out Courtenay Place. It also houses most of the theaters in Wellington, film and stage. Make sure you dress nice, it's not uncommon for guys to be turned away due to dress - mainly for wearing sneakers. But there's no cover charges, so that's good!
5. Matiu/Somes Island
The only way to get to Matiu/Somes Island is via ferry. The island is a nature conservatory crisscrossed with paths and housing a retired lighthouse, but most well known for its colony of Little Blue Penguins. Yes, wild penguins. I had to see them too as soon as I heard.
Sadly, I didn’t see any when I visited the island. It was nesting season and thus they were rather elusive. Plus, they are most active at dusk and dawn, when they come and go for fishing. Which is why you need to pay attention on that ferry ride to the island (or anytime you ride across the harbor), because I did see penguins swimming in the harbor. It’s also not uncommon for orcas or dolphins to be seen from the ferries in late spring. Sometimes pods are so big the ferry has to stop and wait for them to pass.
The Beehive is the nickname given to one of the parliament buildings. It’s pretty distinctive, and tall enough to be seen for a ways around it, making it a good navigational landmark. Free tours of the government compound are given every day, a great thing to do when it rains, and one of the most interesting things to see is the earthquake dampeners the buildings rest on. Designed in Wellington, they are one of the best options available world wide.
7. Frank Kitt’s Park
Being a harbor town, there’s a huge coast for you to walk up and down in Wellington. It's a pleasant one, and every time I took it I found myself discovering something new. My favorite spot is Frank Kitt’s Park. It’s a grassy, elevated area not far from the City Center, and provides a nice view of the Wellingtion Boat house and Queens Wharf. Not to mention there is a really good gelato place too.
Underneath the park (I did say it was elevated) is a parking lot that becomes an arts and crafts market on Saturdays. I found this to be the best place to buy souvenirs, as everything is locally made and not overpriced.
8. Rugby Games
9. Lord of the Rings Tour
Wellingtion is home to WETA, the special effects company that got propelled into fame do to its work on the Lord of the Rings movies. Wellington has tons of filming locations in the area, from Helms Deep to Rivendell, and it’s worth taking a day to do a tour if you’re a fan of the movies. I certainly enjoyed it, though it requires a lot of imagination. It has been ten years since they were filmed after all.
10. Botanical Gardens
There’s a trolley car, complete with bright red paint job, that runs from Lampton Quay to the Botanical Gardens that overlook the city from the north. It’s a great place to simply wander around for a few hours and the perfect spot to layout a blanket and have a picnic.