You’re likely to spend much of your time south of Civic Square visiting Te Papa or eating and drinking around Cuba Street and Courtenay Place, but don’t miss out on Oriental Parade – a lovely stroll with harbour views, a small beach and the chance to hike up to the summit of Mount Victoria.
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The constantly evolving Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa, rewards repeat visits – you can spend an entire day among the exhibits and still not see them all. A couple of cafés help sustain long visits.
This $350-million celebration of all things New Zealand occupies a striking purpose-built five-storey building on the waterfront and was opened in 1998 after extensive consultation with iwi (tribes). Aimed equally at adults and children (including hands-on kids’ activities in dedicated “discovery” spaces), it combines state-of-the-art technology and dynamic exhibits. Well worth $3 is the Te Papa Explorer guide, outlining routes such as “Te Papa Highlights” or “Kids’ Highlights”. Alternatively, book one of the amazing guided tours.
The hub of Te Papa is Level 2, with its interactive section on earthquakes and volcanoes, where you can experience a realistic quake inside a shaking house, see displays on the fault line that runs right through Wellington, watch Mount Ruapehu erupt on screen and hear the Maori explanation of the causes of such activity. There’s also the hi-tech multimedia centre OurSpace, where you can project your own text images onto a giant screen, The Wall, and board two simulator rides ($10 each, or $18 for both): The High Ride, whirling you through the 3D world of The Wall, and the Deep Ride, journeying into a virtual underwater volcano. Level 2 also provides access to the outdoor Bush City, a synthesis of New Zealand environments complete with native plants, a small cave system and swingbridge. From November to March, the hour-long Taste of Treasures tour (11am; tickets must be bought before 10.45am; $24) includes traditional Maori refreshments made from bush plants.
The main collection continues on Level 4, home to the excellent main Maori section including a thought-provoking display on the Treaty of Waitangi, dominated by a giant glass image of this significant document. There’s also an active marae with a symbolic modern meeting house quite unlike the classic examples found around the country, protected by a sacred boulder of pounamu (greenstone); check behind the cupboard doors at the back for some imagery that shows both a sense of humour and the incredible significance of the place. Temporary exhibitions include displays by different iwi showcasing that particular iwi’s art and culture.
Adjacent to the marae, look out for displays on New Zealand’s people, land, history, trade and cultures including Michel Tuffery’s bullock made from corned beef cans, and Brian O’Connor’s paua-shell surfboard.
Level 5 is the home of New Zealand’s national art collection, displaying a changing roster of works on paper, oils and sculpture representing luminaries of the New Zealand art world past and present; Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Ralph Hotere, Don Binney, Michael Smither and Shane Cotton are just a few names to watch for.
Immediately east of Te Papa, Waitangi Park is named after a long culverted stream that has been restored to its natural course, creating a small urban wetland. At the end of Herd Street, the Chaffers Dock development incorporates cafés as well as the atrium where Wellington’s Sunday-morning farmers’ market sets up. The park marks the start of Oriental Parade, Wellington’s most elegant section of waterfront. Skirting Oriental Bay, this Norfolk-pine-lined road curls past some of the city’s priciest real estate and even flanks a beach installed here in 2003 with sand brought across Cook Strait from near Takaka. Apart from the Freyberg pool and a few restaurants, there are no attractions as such, but you can extend a stroll into a full afternoon by continuing to Charles Plimmer Park and joining the Southern Walkway to the summit of Mount Victoria.
At 196m, Mount Victoria Lookout is one of the best of Wellington’s viewpoints, offering sweeping views of the city, waterfront, docks and beyond to the Hutt Valley; all particularly dramatic around dusk. If you don’t fancy the steep but rewarding walk, you can also reach the summit by bus (#20; Mon–Fri), the Wellington Rover, or by car following Hawker Street, off Majoribanks Street, then taking Palliser Road, which twists uphill to the lookout.
Courtenay Place and Cuba Street
Courtenay Place and Cuba Street
Wellington’s entertainment heartland is centred on Courtenay Place and adjacent Cuba Street. Named after an emigrant ship (not the island after which the ship was christened, despite the Cuban-themed establishments in this part of town), Cuba Street and its offshoots comprise Wellington’s “alternative” district, with secondhand bookshops, vintage record stores, retro and emerging-designer fashion outlets, quirky cafés, and hip bars and restaurants. Between Dixon and Ghuznee streets, Cuba Street’s colourful and iconic Bucket Fountain was installed in 1969 and still splashes unsuspecting passers-by.
Cuba Street under threat
Cuba Street under threat
If not the character then certainly the look of some parts of Wellington is set to change. Many of Wellington’s older, more atmospheric buildings, primarily along Cuba Street and its surrounds, are under threat, having fallen foul of new legislation on building safety, enacted since the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The cost of bringing these edifices up to standard is, in some cases, prohibitive and may mean their loss to the wrecking ball. As with Christchurch, this is both an opportunity and a bane, since new buildings will almost certainly be high rent, forcing many of the current quirkier occupants to decamp.