Understandably, people visiting New Zealand often reject its cities in favour of scenic splendour – with the exception of Wellington. The urban jewel in the country’s otherwise bucolic crown, Wellington is by far New Zealand’s most engaging and attractive metropolis, a buzzing, cosmopolitan capital worthy of any visitor’s attention. Wedged between glistening Wellington Harbour (technically Port Nicholson) and the turbulent Cook Strait, Wellington is the principal departure point to the South Island. But, as the country’s only city with a beating heart, it warrants a stay of at least a couple of days – more if you can manage it.
Tight surrounding hills restrict Wellington to a compact core, mostly built on reclaimed land. Distinctive historical and modern architecture spills down to the bustling waterfront with its beaches, marinas and restored warehouses, overlooked by Victorian and Edwardian weatherboard villas and bungalows that climb the steep slopes to an encircling belt of parks and woodland, a natural barrier to development. Many homes are accessed by narrow winding roads or precipitous stairways flanked by a small funicular railway to haul groceries and just about anything else up to the house. What’s more, “Welly”, as it’s locally known, is New Zealand’s windy city, buffeted by chilled air funnelled through Cook Strait, its force amplified by the wind-tunnelling effect of the city’s high-rise buildings.
With a population of around 400,000, Wellington is New Zealand’s second most populous city. And while Auckland grows more commercially important (and self-important in the eyes of its residents), Wellington reaches for higher ground as the nation’s cultural capital. Wellingtonians have cultivated the country’s most sophisticated café society, nightlife and arts scene, especially in late summer when the city hosts a series of arts and fringe festivals.
Central Wellington is easily walkable; the heart of the city centre stretches south from the train station to Courtenay Place along the backbone of the central business and shopping district, Lambton Quay. The main areas for eating, drinking and entertainment are further south around Willis Street, Courtenay Place, arty Cuba Street, and down to the waterfront at Queens Wharf. From the central Civic Square, points of interest run both ways along the waterfront, including the city’s star attraction, Te Papa, the groundbreaking national museum. Also worth a look is the revamped Museum of Wellington City and Sea, which recounts the city’s development, Maori history and seafaring traditions. Politicians and civil servants populate the streets of the Parliamentary District. Nearby, you can visit Katherine Mansfield’s Birthplace, the period-furnished childhood home of New Zealand’s most famous short-story writer.
The city centre is also the jumping-off point for ambling or cycling along Oriental Parade and up to one of the hilltop viewpoints, such as Mount Victoria, or catching the stately Cable Car to Kelburn. From Kelburn, you can either wander down through the formal Botanic Gardens or continue further out to see the ambitious and important conservation work at Zealandia: the Karori Sanctuary Experience, and Otari-Wilton’s Bush, the only public botanic garden in the country dedicated solely to native plants. Zealandia and Otari-Wilton’s Bush form part of the Town Belt, a band of greenery across the hills that encircles the city centre containing several good walks and many of the city’s best lookout points. To the east of the city are the quiet suburbs and beaches of the Miramar Peninsula, now best known as the home of “Wellywood”, the heart of the city’s film industry; you can’t miss it, thanks to the new Hollywood-style Wellington sign, with the letters symbolically blown along by the wind.
Superb hiking opportunities include the seal colony at Red Rocks, or the city’s many trails, notably the Southern Walkway. And at some point during your stay in this harbour city, you really should get out on the water to the serene wildlife sanctuary of Matiu/Somes Island.
Maori oral histories tell of the demigod Maui, who fished up the North Island, with Wellington Harbour being the mouth of the fish; and of the first Polynesian navigator, Kupe, discovering Wellington Harbour in 925 AD and naming the harbour’s islands Matiu (Somes Island) and Makaro (Ward Island) after his daughters (see Matiu/Somes Island). Several iwi settled around the harbour, including the Ngati Tara people, who enjoyed the rich fishing areas and the protection the bay offered.
Both Abel Tasman (in 1642) and Captain Cook (in 1773) were prevented from entering Wellington Harbour by fierce winds, and, apart from a few sealers and whalers, it wasn’t until 1840 that the first wave of European settlers arrived. They carved out a niche on a large tract of harbourside land, purchased by the New Zealand Company, who set up their initial beachhead, named Britannia, on the northeastern beaches at Petone. Shortly afterwards, the Hutt River flooded, forcing the settlers to move around the harbour to a more sheltered site known as Lambton Harbour (where the central city has grown up) and the relatively level land at Thorndon, at that time just north of the shoreline. They renamed the settlement after the Iron Duke and began land reclamations into the harbour, a process that continued for more than a hundred years.
In 1865, the growing city succeeded Auckland as the capital of New Zealand, and by the turn of the twentieth century the original shoreline of Lambton Harbour had been replaced by wharves and harbourside businesses, which formed the hub of the city’s coastal trade; Wellington has prospered ever since.Read More
Riding the Cable Car
Riding the Cable Car
Even if you never use the rest of Wellington’s public transport system, don’t miss the short scenic ride up to the leafy suburb of Kelburn and the upper section of the Botanic Gardens on the Cable Car, installed in 1902. Its shiny red railcars depart every ten minutes from the lower terminus on Cable Car Lane, just off Lambton Quay, and climb a steep, one-in-five incline, making three stops along the way and giving great views over the city and harbour. At the upper terminus on Upland Road, the Cable Car Museum contains the historic winding room with the electric drive motor and a cat’s cradle of cables. Two century-old cars are on display along with plenty of background on cable cars around the world. Take time to catch the short movies, particularly the one about the 400-plus mini cable cars people still use to access their properties locally.
Wellington is the capital of New Zealand’s film industry, which is increasingly centred on the Miramar Peninsula. During World War II, defence bases were set up here, and the large, long-abandoned buildings were prime for conversion into production company studios. The stunning natural setting has also been used for film locations for numerous films including the Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and the two Hobbit films, the first of which is expected to be released in late 2012.
Peter Jackson still lives out this way, and his special effects and entertainment company, Weta, which he co-owns with Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger and Jamie Selkirk, has its base in Miramar. A visit to the workshop’s Weta Cave, on the corner of Camperdown Road and Weka Street, includes an engaging twenty-minute film of behind-the-scenes workshop footage, along with a peek at the small museum, and the chance to buy hand-crafted figurines and limited-edition collectibles at its shop, which also sells movie location guides. Look for the King Kong footprint in the concrete out front.
Weta partner Jamie Selkirk, along with a number of business partners, had a hand in restoring The Roxy, Miramar’s Art Deco cinema. Some ten different Wellington city tour operators, including those listed on, offer movie tours taking in the peninsula’s movie-making hotspots.
To learn more about New Zealand’s film industry – and to watch New Zealand films on demand for free – stop by the New Zealand Film Archive in the city centre.
Walks around Wellington
Walks around Wellington
With its encircling wooded Town Belt, great city views from nearby hills and the temptation of watching seals along the southern coast, Wellington offers some excellent and easily accessible walking. Pick up free detailed leaflets from the i-SiTe (see p.000). for information on walks around Wellington, see p.000.
Red Rocks Coastal Walk (4km each way; 2–3hr return). An easy walk that traces Wellington’s southern shoreline to Sinclair Head, where a colony of bachelor New Zealand fur seals takes up residence from May–oct each year. The walk follows a rough track along the coastline from owhiro Bay to Sinclair Head, passing a quarry and the eponymous Red Rocks – well-preserved volcanic pillow lava, formed about 200 million years ago by underwater volcanic eruptions and coloured red by iron oxide. Maori variously attribute the colour to bloodstains from Maui’s nose or blood dripping from a paua-shell cut on Kupe’s hand, while another account tells how Kupe’s daughters cut themselves in mourning, having given up their father for dead. The track starts around 7km south of the city centre at the quarry gates at the western end of owhiro Bay Parade, where there’s a car park. To get here by bus either take the frequent #1 to island Bay (get off at the Parade at the corner of Reef Street and walk 2.5km to the start of the walk) or, at peak times, catch #4, which continues to Happy Valley, 1km from the track. Both head east from Courtenay Place.
The Southern Walkway (11km; 4–5hr). Offering excellent views of the harbour and central city, this walk cuts through the Town Belt to the south of the city centre, between oriental and island bays. despite a few steep stretches it’s fairly easy going overall. fantails, grey warblers and wax-eyes provide company, and island Bay offers some of the city’s best swimming. The walk can be undertaken in either direction and is clearly marked by posts bearing orange arrows. To start at the city end, simply walk along oriental Parade (or take bus #14 or #24) to the entrance of Charles Plimmer Park, just past 350 oriental Parade. To begin at the southern end, take the #1 bus to island Bay and follow the signs from nearby Shorland Park.
The Northern Walkway (16km; 4–5hr). extending through tranquil sections of the Town Belt to the north of the city centre this panoramic walk stretches from Kelburn to the suburb of Johnsonville, covering five distinct areas – Botanic Garden, Tinakori Hill, Trelissick Park, Khandallah Park and Johnsonville Park – each accessible from suburban streets and served by public transport. Highlights are the birdlife on Tinakori Hill (tui, fantails, kingfishers, grey warblers, silver-eyes); the regenerating native forest of Ngaio Gorge in Trelissick Park; great views across the city and the harbour and over to the Rimutaka and Tararua ranges from a lookout on Mount Kaukau (430m); and, in Johnsonville Park, a disused road tunnel hewn through solid rock. Start at the top of the Cable Car and head north through the Botanic Garden, or join the walk at Tinakori Hill by climbing St Mary Street, off Glenmore Street, and following the orange arrows through woodland. To begin at the northern end, take a train to Raroa station on the Johnsonville line.
Wellington has plenty of accommodation in the city centre, including some excellent backpacker hostels. B&Bs are becoming less common, but there’s an increasing number of stylish self-catering serviced apartments. Breakfasting (or brunching) out is a quintessential Wellington experience, so you might not want a place where breakfast is included. Central motels are in short supply, but many business-oriented hotels offer good-value deals, especially at weekends. For a little peace and quiet, you might want to stay outside the city centre, and drive or take public transport into town.
Wellington has more places to eat per capita than new York and the standard is impressively high, whatever the budget. As the country’s self-professed coffee capital (Wellington has no fewer than ten independent roasteries), you’ll find the good stuff served up everywhere from cosy spots through to the très chic. Gastronomes might want to join a gourmet tour. If you want to head further off the beaten track, local neighbourhoods worth scouting out include newtown and the aro Valley. In the streets around Courtenay Place and Cuba Street there’s a plethora of local and international restaurants – from cheap curry joints and bohemian cafés through to award-winning establishments headed up by some of the finest chefs in the country. During the day many restaurants offer bargain lunch specials. Many pubs and bars also serve impressive and generally inexpensive fare. If you’re here on a Sunday morning, head down to the car park near te papa to the fruit and vegetable market and the nearby of artisan goods from local producers.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
Most pubs and bars are open daily, from around eleven in the morning until midnight or later. The distinction between bars and clubs is often blurred, with many bars hosting free live music and dancing in the evenings, especially at weekends. Resident and guest DJs mix broad-ranging styles to create a party- or club-style atmosphere. Cuba St is home to some of new Zealand’s best nightlife, with a huge array of late-night cafés, bars and clubs within walking distance of each other.