Wellington, Maori name Te Whanganui a Tara, is one of the easiest capital cities to explore. Its scenic harbour is a useful navigational aid, as are the steep hills overlooking the compact central business district.
Home to New Zealand's central government and a diverse population, cosmopolitan Wellington has plenty to offer visitors, expats, and locals alike- whatever their tastes and interests. Some consider it to be New Zealand's culinary capital, with its wide range of restaurants and foodie festivals. You definitely won't go hungry in this city.
Coffee is also a serious business in Wellington. In my opinion, the best coffee in the world is to be found here. A Wellington flat white is a thing of joy, and there's no shortage of great cafes in which to enjoy one.
After years of living in Wellington as a expat, my suggestions for things to do in Wellington include a mix of cultural, sporty, fun, indoor, and outdoor activities. Let's dive into the best things to do in this beautiful city so you can plan your trip to New Zealand with total confidence.
We'll begin in the city's oldest neighborhood - Thorndon - then head south and east, around the harbor.
Things to Know Before You Go
Now that you’re gearing up for your trip and planning the specifics of where and when you’ll go, there are a few things you don’t need to overlook.
I know just how easy it is to look towards the big hike, bucket list city, or beach of my dreams and forget about all of the little things in between that’ll make your trip run as smoothly as possible. Be sure to take into consideration these few things before you go to make sure you get all the good bits of your trip without the stress.
- Make sure you have travel insurance. A good travel insurance, like SafetyWing, will ensure you’re covered in case of emergencies. While you will have to pay upfront for your doctor or hospital costs, unless it’s for a pre-existing condition, you can file a claim and should be reimbursed. For any Americans reading this, fear not, healthcare in pretty much every other country is far more affordable than ours, even if you’re paying out of pocket.
- Do your best to learn a few local phrases in their language. No, I’m not expecting you to be able to have a fluid conversation with locals at the bus stop if you’re just visiting their country for a week but knowing your numbers (for prices), how to order something (“I would like…”), and basic greetings really will take you a long way. Mondly is a great app for phrases and vocabulary.
- Book any popular tours you want to do in advance. I’m really not a great planner and I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count. I plan a trip to a destination knowing that I want to do a sailboat trip or food tour and wait until the day before to book only to realize it’s not available the day I’m in town. Don’t make that mistake - if there is something you know you want to do - book your tour in advance.
- Same thing goes for rental cars. If you want to rent a car to cover more ground in a country, do it in advance. Prices will be more affordable and that way you’re guaranteed to have your wheels waiting for you.
- Last tip certainly isn’t mandatory but it is helpful. Before you start booking your flights, hotels, and tours, consider opening up a travel credit card. Thanks to our Capital One Venture card, my husband and I have gotten countless free flights just by gaining points on everyday expenses.
Things to Do in Thorndon (Pipitea)
Take a guided tour of New Zealand's parliament buildings
Your expert tour guide will lead you through the Beehive, Parliament House, and the lovely old Parliamentary Library. They will explain the quirks of our system of government and - provided that parliament isn't sitting - take you through the main debating chamber.
Guided tours are free and last around 60 minutes. There's also a twilight tour option with dinner. Advance booking is highly recommended.
When you leave the parliament buildings, glance across the road at the graceful cream heritage building facing you. This is Old Government Buildings, one of the largest timber structures in the world. It's now the Law School of Victoria University of Wellington.
Be inspired at the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden
New Zealand's best-known author was born in Thorndon. Her former family home is now a museum dedicated to her life and works. The house is also a time capsule, giving a fascinating glimpse of middle-class life in Edwardian Wellington.
It was a life from which free-spirited, rebellious Katherine longed to escape. You can read more about her, and the museum, in my blog post about visiting Katherine Mansfield House.
Enjoy a moment of reflection in Old St. Paul's
It's no accident that this +150-year-old church is far more popular than the starkly modern St Paul's Cathedral a few blocks away. Take a pew and find yourself in a haven of peace and tranquility, surrounded by soaring wooden arches and stained glass.
Dine or stay at one of Thorndon's historical inns
Thorndon boasts some wonderfully atmospheric old pubs. They often close at weekends, however, so please do check before visiting.
In Tinakori village, a 10-minute walk from the Katherine Mansfield House, is the Shepherd's Arms Hotel, built in 1870. Although it has been refurbished many times, it retains its Victorian charm. The food is excellent and you can stay in the hotel's boutique accommodation upstairs.
10 minutes walk downhill is the Thistle Inn, one of our family's favorites. It dates back to 1840 and is one of New Zealand's oldest public houses. It even features in at least one of Katherine Mansfield's stories! The Thistle serves great food and is a very friendly place.
Opposite Parliament is the locally famous Backbencher gastropub, a favorite of parliamentarians and civil servants. Dating from the early 1900s, its unique selling point is the satirical puppets of politicians gracing its walls.
Enjoy Wellington's flora and fauna
A number 2 bus to Karori from Lambton Quay, or up the hill at Tinakori Village, will take you to Zealandia. This wonderful predator-free reserve is the world's first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary. It's home to many rare native birds, including the kiwi, rifleman, and stitchbird.
Zealandia is also a beautiful place, set around a reservoir surrounded by native bush. You would never guess that you were in a capital city as you walk around its fragrant paths. There's plenty of information to tell you about which species to look out for, and you can enjoy refreshments at the excellent on-site café.
A return trip on the same bus can drop you back in Thorndon, opposite the grand entrance to the Wellington Botanic Garden. Its 25 hectares extend across the hills to the neighboring suburb of Kelburn.
On the Thorndon side, you can enjoy the formal lawns and flower beds, the rose garden, Begonia House, the duck pond, the rock garden, and Treehouse Visitor Centre. As you head uphill through the wooded areas, you'll pass the amazing collection of succulent plants and the Australian Garden.
You can take the path leading to the Carter Observatory, Space Place, and eventually to the Kelburn Lookout, where you can take your Instagram-worthy shots of the panoramic views across the harbor.
Things to Do in the Central Area (Te Aro)
Ride the iconic Wellington Cable Car
Next to the Kelburn Lookout is the Wellington Cable Car Museum and the terminus of the Cable Car itself. Take a look at the fascinating old vehicles in the museum, then hop on the next cable car for the short journey to Lambton Quay.
The tunnel's sparkling lights sometimes take on a topical theme, especially at Christmas!
Go shopping in the quirky Cuba Quarter
Lambton Quay is often referred to as the 'golden mile' for shoppers, being home to popular New Zealand and Australian chain stores. For something more individual, head to the edgier Cuba Quarter, some 15 minutes walk away.
Cuba Street, home to the infamous bucket fountain (you either love it or hate it) has a colorful and bohemian quality to it. Whether you're looking for artisan goods like arty stationery, vegan personal products, or mystical crystals, you'll find them all here.
Cuba Street also has cool and stylish bars and restaurants. It's not surprising that many of the city's creatives choose to live and work in this neighborhood.
Not too far away, in Eva Street, is the heavenly Wellington Chocolate Factory. You'll enjoy the zany wrapper artwork as much as the delicious flavors of this exquisite hand-made chocolate. You can take a Chocolatier Day Tour or even a Masterclass with the co-founder.
The factory is a great place to buy original Wellington gifts for your family and friends. Best of all, you can taste before you buy!
Explore Wellington's heritage at the Nairn Street Cottage Museum
Wellington's oldest house, home to 3 generations of the Wallis family from the 1860s to the 1970s, is now the Nairn Street Cottage Museum. The different rooms of the house have been painstakingly restored and decorated to reflect different eras.
You'll learn fascinating details about the family's history and Wellington's social and economic development through the decades.
Spend a day at the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa)
Take a stroll around the Wellington Waterfront in a southerly direction from Thorndon, and you'll end up at Te Papa Tongarewa - 'Our Place'.
Te Papa focuses on history, natural history, Maori treasures, and Pacific cultures. The museum holds the national art collection and hosts a rolling program of exhibitions and events alongside its static displays, so it's well worth checking out what's on at the time of your visit. This is one of the best museums in Wellington.
You can visit the Quake House and experience what a significant earthquake feels like, by means of the shaking floor simulator. (New Zealand has around 15,000 quakes a year!)
Te Papa has 2 cafes. My favorite is the one on the 4th floor, which has comfy chairs, a peaceful atmosphere, and some very decadent sweet treats.
Explore Wellington's boutique craft breweries
Wellington is considered by many to be the craft beer capital of New Zealand. Should you happen to time your visit with the Beervana festival in August, held at the Sky Stadium, this offers a great chance to taste a whole range of craft beers, many of which are made at out-of-town breweries.
There are some breweries in the city center, however. Garage Project is probably one of the best-known and most successful independent Wellington craft breweries. You can take a tour at their 'Wild Workshop' in Furness Lane.
Other names of note are Fork & Brewer, Rogue and Vagabond, and Goldings Free Dive. One of the newer breweries, Heyday, has gained a loyal following. They offer brewery tours during the summer months.
The breweries mentioned are all within walking distance of each other, so you won't need a designated driver! Most also serve bar food or meals.
Things to Do in Mount Victoria (Matairangi)
Enjoy spectacular views of Wellington from Mount Victoria Lookout
The swanky suburb of Mount Victoria overlooks Wellington Harbour and the city from the south. The lookout, situated at the summit, arguably gives even better views of Oriental Bay, the harbor, and the city than the Kelburn Lookout. The number 20 bus from Courtenay Place will take you there.
After admiring the panoramic views of Wellington city, walk just a few minutes down the road from the lookout and you'll enjoy an equally stunning view of the south coast, Evans Bay, the Miramar Peninsula, Wellington Heads, and the Orongorongo ranges.
Hike around the Town Belt
One of the great things about Wellington is its wide expanse of green spaces. The Town Belt's 520 acres stretch from Mount Victoria south to Berhampore and back towards Thorndon in a horseshoe shape.
The City Council's website has useful guides to the town belt and its various walking and biking tracks. One option, the southern walkway, stretches around 10.5 km from Oriental Bay to Island Bay on the south coast. The walk takes around 4-5 hours. You'll enjoy the native bush, fresh sea air, and awesome views.
Take a bus trip around the bays to Miramar
For a more relaxed way to see the eastern bays, here's a local's tip for you. Take the number 24 bus from the city center in the direction of Miramar. You'll pass Clyde Quay Marina, Oriental Bay, Evans Bay, and its many smaller bays (Little Karaka, Balaena, Weka, and Kio). You'll also see the colorful Evans Bay boatsheds, boatyards, and marina.
For a quicker but much less scenic ride to Miramar, you can take bus number 2 instead.
Things to Do in the Miramar Peninsula (Te Motu Kairangi)
Enjoy a Kiwi brunch at the Chocolate Fish Cafe, Shelly Bay
One of the best things to do in Wellington is to enjoy a delicious brunch and lucky for us, there are many wonderful places to get your fill. I mention the Chocolate Fish Cafe in particular because it's a real Wellingtonians' haunt, too far out of town and tucked away for many visitors to find.
It's one of the best restaurants to enjoy some real Kiwi favorites such as whitebait fritters and paua patties, along with the usual range of popular dishes such as burgers and salads.
The suburb of Miramar is the somewhat unlikely center of the highly successful Wellington movie industry, thanks to 2 names in particular: director Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop. Their studios and post-production facilities are located here alongside other related businesses.
Weta are the creators of the amazing props and digital effects for films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was made in Miramar along with top-grossing films by other directors - the latest being Avatar, the Way of Water, by James Cameron.
When shooting is taking place, it's not unusual to glimpse a celebrity or two enjoying Wellington's bars and restaurants. Lisa Kudrow, Scarlet Johansson, Rita Ora, and Tom Cruise have all been spotted.
Weta offer a range of tours and interactive workshops for visitors. The founders of the company also own the local cinema, The Roxy, housed in a wonderful period building. The Roxy shows a mix of contemporary and older films, including themed events with food and drink. There's also a lovely restaurant on site called Coco at the Roxy.
Things to Do Outside of the City
Although there's plenty of things to do in Wellington, should you feel like getting out of the city, there are a handful of enjoyable and easy day trips. A few of my favorite nearby spots include:
- Somes Island (Matiu, 20-35 minutes by ferry)
- Days Bay (20-35 minutes by ferry)
- Paekakariki on the Kapiti coast (45 by train)
You Can't Beat Wellington - On a Good Day
So says a popular local song, which goes on to say, "...and even a bad day too!" Even if our unpredictable weather doesn't give you a good day, I hope that my suggestions will ensure that you will have a great time in our cool little, albeit underrated capital city.
With so many things to do in Wellington, it's no wonder I feel in love with the city and decided to permanently move here so many years ago. While there's a lot of other incredible places to visit in New Zealand, Wellington is something special.
Kia hararei koe - have a happy holiday!
Hero photo by Adana Hulett