A few months ago marked our one year anniversary of living here in lovely Wellington.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a local yet but I have come to feel at home in this city and seen more of its tourist offerings than any other part of New Zealand. And most parts of the world, come to think of it!
So today I’m going to put my knowledge of the coolest little capital in the world to good use. Read on for my list of top things to do in Wellington, including plenty that are 100% free!
Things to do in Wellington, New Zealand
1. Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand) – Free
As you’d expect from a national museum, Te Papa has a broad and impressive collection. What sets it world apart from any museum I’ve ever visited, though, are its extraordinary collaborations with Wellington-based special effects and design company, Weta Workshop.
Co-founded by Peter Jackson and most famous for their work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the company has brought its talent for hyper-realistic model work to the acclaimed Gallipoli exhibition among others (Bug Lab, earlier this year, was geared towards kids but equally staggering). I do recommend exploring the whole museum, but Gallipoli is truly unmissable!
Zealandia is a predator-free eco-sanctuary and offers an excellent opportunity to observe native New Zealand wildlife, including extremely rare birds like the takahē and kiwi. Some other beauties to look out for are tuatara (living fossils!), kākā, kākāriki (pictured above) and saddlebacks/tīeke.
The sanctuary is also a haven in the middle of the city. You can wander amongst the green and the birdsong with very little suggestion that you’re in the country’s capital.
3. Weta Workshop / Weta Cave
If you know of any films made or produced in NZ, chances are Weta Workshop were involved in some capacity.
The studio tour is short – I wish it were longer! – but it’s still captivating to anyone who loves film. You get to see costumes, models and props big and small, though unfortunately you can’t take photos inside. The shop is also a great resource for unique, Lord of the Rings/Hobbit gifts and souvenirs. They have a couple of things on display in the shop (including the hobbit feet above!) that you can admire without having to go on a tour.
While you’re in the Miramar area, be sure to keep an eye out for the ‘Windy Welly’ sign from the top of this post.
4. Six Barrel Soda Co. – Eva St Soda Shop
This place had me at “Soda Shop”! Six Barrel Soda Co. is a local soda company specialising in experimental flavours. Their Eva Street tasting room might be my new favourite Wellington spot, a small but light and airy first floor location where they offer their drinks alongside a few choice snacks. I went for the ‘tasting board’, which allows you to choose any 3 mini versions of sodas rather than having to gamble on just one larger drink – all of them beautifully presented and garnished.
5. Katherine Mansfield House and Garden
Katherine Mansfield is one of Wellington’s most acclaimed daughters, a writer of short stories and associate of the Bloomsbury Group. I actually wasn’t familiar with her work before my first visit. But whether you are or not, this historic house is a wonderful way to while away a couple of hours. You’ll learn plenty about her adventurous life over the course of a visit.
The house is decorated as it would have been in Katherine’s early years, brimming with elegant gas lamps, peacock feathers and polished wood. If you’re as enamoured with design and interiors as I am, there are a wealth of treasures to discover. My favourites included old perfume bottles and a stellar collection of enamelware.
6. Matiu-Somes Island
Hello sweeping harbour views. 😍 There’s a wealth of natural beauty on Matiu-Somes Island, and quite a bit of history too. The island’s animal quarantine station, which ran from 1893 to 1995, is one of the more unusual places to check out in the Wellington area.
7. Cable Car & Cable Car Museum – Museum is free
Wellington’s Cable Car has been a local treasure since it opened in 1902. Though it now runs with modern cars, it remains New Zealand’s only working funicular railway and a fantastic way to get elevated views of the city with minimal effort.
The route ends up by the Botanic Gardens in Kelburn, and there’s a tiny museum dedicated to its history right next to where you alight. Don’t miss the old cable car on display inside, you can even sit on its slanted exterior seats! There are plenty of information boards, too, which will keep you busy if you want to delve deeper.
8. Mount Victoria – Free
After the top of the cable car, this is probably the most famous lookout for views of the city, harbour and beyond. You can walk or drive up, and as a result of its accessibility it does tend to get crowded (especially during golden hour, when I visited!). I found the walk up through Charles Plimmer Park tiring but not overly strenuous.
9. Cuba Street – Free
Named after a settler ship rather than the country, Cuba Street is hailed as New Zealand’s ‘coolest street‘. It offers a mix of chains and independent shops with a handful of restaurants thrown in for good measure. If you like vintage clothing, don’t miss gems like Ziggurat, Spacesuit and Paper Bag Princess.
10. Botanic Garden – Free
The Botanic Garden features myriad smaller gardens and plant houses over 25 hectares of land. The garden is also home to Space Place at the Carter Observatory, but I haven’t visited myself (it’s more geared towards kids – seems like a fun and educational option for entertaining little folk!).
11. Waterfront – Free
I’d recommend a wander down by the waterfront as a point of interest in its own right (check out sculptures like Water Whirler and Solace of the Wind, take in the harbour views and the City to Sea bridge). It’s also a nice alternative route across the city, say if you’re crossing from the railway station or Lambton Quay to Te Papa or Courtenay Place.
For the more daring among you, you can even indulge in a spot of diving here!
12. The Great War Exhibition (Closing December 2018 – see update below)
You’re rather spoiled for WWI history in Wellington. Not only is there Gallipoli at Te Papa, but also The Great War Exhibition, created by Sir Peter Jackson (him again!). Given the large thematic overlap and similar realistic/immersive dioramas, seeing both is probably best reserved for those who especially love history or are eager to learn more about this period.
Some personal highlights included the recreated European street, some immaculately colourised photos and what I can only describe as ‘smell boxes’. (Y’know, where you lift the lid and there’s a smell inside? I always find multisensory exhibits fascinating!) The guided tour is definitely worth doing too.
Update: Very sad to report that the Great War Exhibition is closing in December. I enjoyed it so much I’m going to make a point of going back before it closes it’s doors. This post will be updated in December to reflect the closure.
13. Nairn Street Cottage
Built in 1858 and believed to be Wellington’s oldest original house, Nairn St Cottage is a very small and unassuming historical spot. While there’s no character as vivid as Katherine Mansfield associated with this house, the tour gives general insights into domestic life during the period and presents a handful of historic interior features and artefacts.
The garden deserves a look too: they have their own chickens and an array of herbs growing.
14. Wellington Museum – Free
I had rather low expectations for Wellington Museum, perhaps because I felt it would pale in comparison to Te Papa. I was very pleasantly surprised! Its cases are replete with intriguing local artefacts, including costumes from the wonderful What We Do in the Shadows (the movie was set here in Wellington – writer/director/actor Taika Waititi is another prominent local son).
15. Old St Paul’s – Free
Old St Paul’s is a historic Victorian church with a distinctive wooden interior and ties with the US military; servicemen attended the church during WWII and were embraced by the community. (You can just about see a US flag sticking out over the top of the red one to the right in the image above.) There are some interesting video clips available on a range of historical subjects relating to the building. And a very cute Christmas shop too!
15. Parliament – Free
There are several free guided tours available. We took the one hour Introducing Parliament tour, which included the debating chamber, the parliamentary library and a few other stops. You can even sit in the public gallery when the House is sitting.
16. Scenic Walks – Free
I expect at some point I’ll do a post devoted to the many gorgeous walks in the Wellington area. For the time being, though, here’s a brief list of some we’ve done and enjoyed:
- Owhiro Bay to Red Rocks Reserve (a coastal walk and fur seal colony)
- Pencarrow Coast (the Parangarahu Lakes are so tranquil!)
- Karori Cemetery
- Skyline Walkway (you can do parts as well as the full walkway)
- Mount Kaukau
- Makara Walkway (pretty steep, some nice views of the coast and a glimpse of South Island)
- Paekakariki Escarpment Track (even steeper than above and tiring, but lovely views of the coast and Kapiti Island)
- Rimutaka Rail Trail
Learn more here, an official guide to Wellington walks.
17 & 18. Smaller Museums – Free
The Dept of Corrections Heritage Centre features a replica cell, officer’s uniforms and a fascinating and macabre array of contraband. (Including a pen used to transmit a radio signal to a prisoner’s cell, ‘tea bombs’, used to heat up tea after lock up and a host of improvised weapons, see above photo.)
At the Reserve Bank Museum, the 1949 Moniac (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer) is a delight to behold. It uses water flowing through its machinery to demonstrate how the macro-economy works. There’s also a plethora of old bank notes – real and fake – on display, including some early bank note sketches. And there’s something about seeing a million dollars in cash (punched so as to no longer be legal tender) that really gives you pause to reflect on the value of money.
19. Kapiti Coast / Kapiti Island – Free (some travel)
Head north on SH1 for some superb Greater Wellington scenery. I’ve mentioned the Paekakariki Escarpment track above, which is a great option for taking in the view, but of course you can drive to a viewpoint instead: the above image was taken from the Paekakariki Hill Road Lookout.
Though we’ve admired Kapiti Island plenty, we haven’t yet managed to make the trip over to the nature reserve itself. It’s high on our list, though! Queen Elizabeth Park is a good option for a picnic spot around here, with added interest from its own small tramway (and museum).
For the most remarkable views of the Wellington region, you can’t do much better than gliding. Provided you’re not afraid of heights, at any rate! Read all about our gliding experience here.
If you’re visiting in December…
Be sure to check out the Wellington Advent Calendar! Each day in December you get a new deal, often discounts or two for one offers from a range of local establishments. If you’re in town in December, browse the already-open windows ahead of time to get yourself a holiday treat. 🙂
Over to you
Would you like to visit Wellington? Or, if you’ve already been, is there anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!
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