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.

Wellington also makes a good base to explore Kapiti Island and the Wairarapa wine district; and for wine tours from Wellington.

Brief history

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.

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