Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa
New Zealand’s capital is an attractive, compact city nestled at the foot of bush-clad hills overlooking a stunning natural harbour. Being the centre of government and home to 2 universities, Wellington – Maori name Te Whanganui-a-Tara - has a well-educated and affluent population of around 217,000.
Lonely Planet even named it ‘the coolest little capital in the world’.
I first came here in 2000, intending to give expat life a try for 6 months. The deadline came and went. I’m not the only Brit to fall for the city. Singer Ed Sheeran loves it so much that he declared he would move here, were it not for his family ties in the UK. During a chat with our Prime Minister, he jokingly tried to persuade her to secure him a visa!
In this post, I’ll share what Ed and I love about the place, plus a few insider hints and tips that might help, if you decide to come over and see what all the fuss is about.
Why Move to New Zealand?
From stunning alpine scenery and wild rugged coastlines to the south, to geothermal national parks and endless subtropical beaches to the north, New Zealand – Aotearoa – is a Pacific island nation quite unlike anywhere else.
Visitors from an Anglophone country will, of course, discover familiarities in our cultural and linguistic heritage. Some even claim that New Zealand is rather like the UK was 25 years ago. I disagree. If one has to compare, I'd say it’s more reminiscent of the USA. The ubiquitous timber-built, weatherboard cottages with verandas could be straight out of New England, while some of Wellington’s grand Victorian villas could have been transplanted from San Francisco.
There are communities here from just about every part of the world you can think of. They all seem to find their place and do well. Immigrants appreciate the relative peace, stability and security of New Zealand. The 2022 Global Peace Index rated it second safest country in the world after Iceland.
Where is Wellington?
Wellington is conveniently placed at the centre of New Zealand, on the southern tip of the north island. The city’s hilly terrain and maritime location lend it some beautiful landscapes, spectacular views - and unpredictable weather.
The south coast overlooks the Cook Strait, one of the wildest stretches of water in the world – good news if you’re a surfer. Whether the southerly or northerly winds are blasting, Wellington gets them full-on. Windy and all, the upside is that our air quality is excellent!
The Best Things About Living in Wellington, New Zealand
The Best Coffee in the World
Wellington is rumoured to have more coffee shops than New York City. Coffee is a serious business here and is the best I’ve ever tasted. A flat white from my favourite café, Mojo, is a moment of sheer heaven.
It’s a lovely place to stroll along at weekends, and there are some great bars and restaurants to enjoy. My favourites include Shed 5, Foxglove and Dockside.
The main city beach is at Oriental Bay, but there are several other bays and beaches to enjoy, all with their own unique character. Whether you want to chill out, or participate in the many watersports on offer, Wellington is a top place to enjoy being by the sea.
The Arts & Culture
We have excellent galleries, museums, theatres, cinema, street festivals, the stadium for large events and a good selection of more intimate venues. The crazy, theatrical ‘World of Wearable Art’ awards show takes place in Wellington every year. If street art is your thing, there’s plenty to spot around the city.
The Green Spaces
There are some wonderful scenic bush walks and hikes around Wellington’s town belt. You don’t have to go far to feel like you’re way out in the wild. Designated conservation areas, such as the fabulous Zelandia wildlife sanctuary (paid entry) and Otari Wilton’s Bush are perfect for getting to know the local flora, fauna and wildlife.
Wellington Botanic Garden extends over 25 hectares, incorporating formal cultivated gardens and hothouses along with scenic wooded areas and protected native forest. There’s also a lovely café with an outdoor area next to the rose garden.
The Food & Drink
Wellington offers top-notch restaurants to suit all budgets, and numerous foodie festivals such as ‘Wellington on a Plate’. This culinary indulgence features a wide programme of special events throughout August, with many bars, restaurants and even one or two embassies taking part.
Craft beer enthusiasts will love the wide range on offer from local breweries like Garage Project, Heyday, Double Vision and Fortune Favours.
Cost of Living in Wellington
Living in Wellington is not cheap. Last time I returned here in 2016, after a few years back in London, I was shocked by how much more expensive food had become.
As in many places, the pandemic – along with supply interruptions and spiralling inflation – have kept prices rising. Housing costs have rocketed, although there are signs that this is reversing. One positive note is that there’s a shortage of labour and skills in many industries, so for anyone seeking work, there are more opportunities than usual at the time of writing.
A word of warning: tipping is not the cultural norm here. So if you do intend to find work in bars, cafes or restaurants, don’t assume that you can rely on tips to support your wages. Occasionally restaurants do provide customers with an option to tip, mainly because international visitors expect it and feel uncomfortable not doing it. But don’t count on this!
Where to Find Jobs, Flats – & Just About Anything Else
The hospitality industry is always looking for bar and wait staff and baristas. For anyone with office skills, there are usually temp jobs to be found in one of the many government departments. Specialist agencies recruit for these – examples are Madison, Hays and Chandler MacLeod. Seek website is another good place to find job openings.
By far the most popular place to find jobs – or flats or rooms to rent, things to buy, even a date – is Trademe, New Zealand’s answer to eBay. You can just about run your life from Trademe! It’s used by both companies and private individuals, so it’s a good central place to go to find whatever you need.
The Best Neighbourhoods in Wellington
Living in Wellington can look very different depending on where you choose to base yourself. Your choice of neighbourhood will depend on your lifestyle:
- If you enjoy being in the centre of things and don’t mind noise, you might choose an inner-city area like the colourful Cuba Quarter.
- If you like the beach, you may prefer one of the south coast suburbs like Lyall Bay or Island Bay, both of which have very good bus services to the city.
- If you like hills and valleys, you might go for an inland suburb like Karori or Johnsonville.
When looking for a place to live, 2 criteria tend to be the most highly prized: views and sun. Views are not so hard to come by, given the topography of the city. Sunshine is another matter. Most of Wellington is on the ‘wrong’ side of the hills, facing south or south east, which means that the sun hits in the mornings and disappears early in the afternoons. Neighbourhoods that are rare exceptions to this rule tend to be the most expensive and highly sought-after.
A room in a shared house will cost, on average, between NZ$150-280 per week, depending on the property and the location. A 1-bed flat or unit will cost around NZ$380-550, again depending on location. Here’s my (completely subjective) pick of Wellington neighbourhoods – numbers refer to map references.
Thorndon – Pipitea (1)
This inner city neighbourhood is home to Parliament buildings, the railway station, 3 cathedrals, the PM’s residence, various embassies and the northern end of the Botanic Gardens. It’s the oldest and one of the prettiest suburbs in the city. I lived there for a number of years and loved the quality of life it offers.
It has a village feel, but the city centre is right on your doorstep. Thorndon has some great cafes, bars and restaurants plus a decent supermarket. The downside is that it’s at the foot of a big hill, so some streets lose the sun early.
Mount Victoria (2) and Roseneath (3)
These swanky suburbs overlook the southern side of Wellington harbour and enjoy great sunshine. Some of the priciest homes in the city are located here, especially on the elevated streets. Oriental Bay and its beaches sit at the foot of Mount Victoria. While these areas tend to be out of most people’s budgets, it’s sometimes possible to find rooms in shared houses, even in Oriental Bay, if you’re lucky.
Eastern Wellington & the Miramar Peninsula
Newtown is an affordable, lively, culturally diverse neighbourhood. Home to immigrant communities from the Middle East and South Asia among others, Newtown has some great restaurants, ethnic grocery shops, and markets. Wellington Hospital is located there.
Many bus routes pass through Newtown en route to the outer eastern suburbs, so its public transport is probably the best on offer outside the city centre, making it easy to get around the rest of Wellington.
Hataitai is situated on the other side of Mount Victoria from the city, descending down the slopes towards Evans Bay.
Disclosure: I’m biased, as I live there.
It’s more affordable than the city side of Mount Vic, but has some lovely streets and amazing views if you happen to be on the elevated sections. Hataitai has its own village centre with a couple of good coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. The excellent bus service gets you into town in under 10 minutes.
As is evident from its topography, the peninsula used to be a separate island until an earthquake joined it to the mainland in the 15th century. It’s now home to some very expensive and desirable seaside neighbourhoods. Public transport to the peninsula is not great, however.
The best-served suburb is Miramar itself. It’s a down-to-earth area, handy to the airport, and with a decent shopping centre. Miramar is a good affordable option for those who don’t mind being a little further out of Wellington city.
Miramar is also the centre of the Wellington film industry. Director Peter Jackson lives locally. His Stone Street and Park Road Post studios are based in Miramar, along with Weta Workshops. Lord of the Rings fans, take note.
Ngaio (7) & Khandallah (8)
North of Wellington, you start to leave the sea behind and head for the hills. A lovely scenic railway branch line goes from Wellington station through the Ngaio Gorge to Johnsonville, passing a couple of desirable neighbourhoods on the way – Ngaio and Khandallah.
They have gorgeous hillside locations, a villagey feel with good amenities, and some very desirable streets and fine homes. Khandallah is the more expensive of the two, as some streets enjoy harbour views.
There are some great walks in the area, including on Mount Kaukau which offers outstanding views across Wellington city and harbour.
At the end of the railway line, Johnsonville is a good value neighbourhood with a busy shopping centre, favoured by families.
Other Neighbourhood Options
Some people choose to live in the neighbouring cities of Porirua, Lower Hutt, or Upper Hutt. These areas are more affordable than Wellington but offer their own unique attractions. They are linked to Wellington by rail and bus services.
International & Domestic Travel Opportunities
Distance is one of the few challenges of living in New Zealand, particularly if you have family in the northern hemisphere. We do have some options for holidays, however – like Australia and the Pacific Islands.
You can fly directly from Wellington to Sydney, Melbourne, or the Gold Coast in around 3 hours, or Brisbane in 4. You can also fly directly to Fiji for a relaxing holiday in the sun and experience Melanesian hospitality.
Before the pandemic struck, there were regular flights to Singapore, which were great for connecting with services to Europe without having to go via Auckland. We’re all hoping that these will be re-established in the near future.
Immigration & Visas
New Zealand has no specific ‘digital nomad’ visa at present. Depending on your country of origin, you may be able to enter for up to 9 months as a visitor and do occasional online-only work for your home country employer.
Be careful with this, however, as visitor visas are meant for holidaymakers. Anyone suspected of coming here to work and earn New Zealand dollars, while on a visitor visa, may be refused entry. Check out Immigration New Zealand’s information about visitor visas and associated rules.
If you’re aged between 18 and 30, or 35 in some cases, you may be able to apply for a working holiday visa. This allows you to live and work in New Zealand for 1-2 years.
Otherwise, if you want to work in New Zealand, you generally need a residency visa. There are various different kinds, depending on your home country and your circumstances. I came here on a skilled migrant visa, which I obtained before leaving the UK.
Eligibility for this depends on a points-based system, with criteria such as age, skills, experience, and qualifications. Government policy does change regularly, so keep an eye on the Immigration New Zealand website for up-to-date information.
For most visas you will need proof of having sufficient funds to support yourself during your stay, and a decent command of the English language.
A Few Useful Things to Know
‘The Shaky Isles’
New Zealand experiences regular seismic, volcanic and geothermal activity. Believe it or not there are over 15,000 earthquakes a year! – and there are fault lines right underneath Wellington. This means that you will feel a bit of movement every now and again. If you haven’t been in an earthquake-prone country before, this can be a little disquieting, although you do get used to it.
If a bigger shake happens, or even a tsunami, you need to know the drill. Familiarise yourself with government guidance and be prepared. If you live in an apartment block, expect to have to participate in regular evacuation drills.
The Treaty of Waitangi
This treaty was signed between Maori chiefs and the British crown in 1840. It’s New Zealand’s founding document and forms the basis of the relationship between Maori and government today. Partnership, participation, and protection are its 3 principles.
While interpretation of the Treaty is a subject of endless debate, the fact remains that it affects every aspect of life in New Zealand. Most workplaces respect Maori traditions and world view and will follow appropriate protocols and consultations when necessary. I strongly recommend learning the basics of what these are, and some essential phrases in Te Reo – Maori language. Immigration New Zealand offers a brief guide to Maori culture that goes into more detail and points to some useful resources.
Now You're Ready to Move to Wellington, New Zealand
If New Zealand is at all on your radar, I highly suggest you give living in Wellington a shot, especially if you are still able to apply for the Working Holiday Visa, as that can typically be the easiest way to get your foot in the door. If you're not though, don't get deterred, you now know there are plenty of others ways you can move to Wellington and give life in Oceania a go.
I hope this post has given you useful insight into living in Wellington. Ngā mihi nui – thanks for reading!