Wellington is the city of many names: the windy city, WellyWood, the coolest little capital in the world, the most walkable little capital. It is the capital city of New Zealand, although Auckland is larger. Located on the southern edge of the north island, Wellington gets the winds and currents ripping through the Cook Strait.
Established by Maori in about 1280, Wellington became the capital of New Zealand in 1865, taking the title away from Auckland, which had been the capital since 1841. With its access to international shipping lanes, a sizeable harbour, and the second largest city in New Zealand, it was a logical choice.
Wellington is situated on the Wairarapa Fault line and experienced earthquakes in 1848 and 1855. After the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 showed how devastating they can be on even modern infrastructure. Wellington has been hit by earthquakes in 2013 and 2014, although no damage has occurred. Earthquake preparedness remains a high priority in Wellington, with many iconic structures undertaking retrofitting and upgrading to modern earthquake safety standards.
Wellington is a fun and inviting place to visit. Here are the top things to do in Wellington!
Museums of Wellington
Wellington houses a plethora of free and cheap museums. Longer descriptions can be found in previous posts.
The Te Papa museum is the largest museum in Wellington. Housing a variety of natural history-type exhibits, it will easily take 1-2 days to explore this massive museum. Exhibits include the flora and fauna of New Zealand, ANZAC war history, Gallipolis’s scale of war, scientific advancement in New Zealand, Maori history and culture, New Zealand geology, climate, and natural disasters, and many more.
The Space Place is an amazing and interactive planetarium that is located in the botanical gardens and easily reached by taking a ride on the cable car. Clear evenings offer the chance to search the stars through the observatory’s James Cook telescope. There are also a multitude of displays about everything from our solar system, the modern space age, the theory of relativity, and the origin of our universe.
The Wellington Museum is situated on the waterfront and is much more eclectic than the other museums. Offering exhibits on New Zealand maritime history, the progression of pop culture in New Zealand, Maori culture and folktales, and many other things. Make sure to visit the Attic, a collection of the weird and random in New Zealand, including things like the New Zealand UFO files.
The cable car museum makes for an interesting and entertaining visit. Best reached by taking the cable car itself up from the harbour, the museum features the history of the cable car, access to the restored winch room, and two fully restored cable cars from the original system.
The Parliament building isn’t technically a museum, but there is a lot of history. Offering free guided tours every day, a visit to the seat of power in New Zealand can make for a fun and educational trip. It is also interesting to learn about the modifications that have been made to the historical buildings to protect and isolate them from potential earthquakes.
Wellington is also the seat of the film industry in New Zealand. The Embassy theatre near the Wellington Central Business district has been used for a number of big movie red carpet screenings, including The Hobbit and The Two Towers. While I don’t usually advocate seeing movies while on vacation since the same movies will release at home, a visit to the theatre here is worthwhile. A high class bar, spiral staircases, marble sculptures, and an extremely classy theatre make this a unique movie experience.
Various locations throughout the Wellington have been used in movies, most notable the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit Trilogies. Look for a future blog post on this topic!
A variety of sound studios, movie studios, and post production studios line the streets on the way to Weta Workshops. Weta Workshop itself offers two different tours at the time of writing: a workshop tour and a Thunderbirds tour.
The workshop tour takes guests behind-the-scenes into the weapons, sculpting, and prop workshops. They explain how different props are created and guests are invited to hold movie props including a variety from Lord of the Rings. The Thunderbirds tour takes visitors on a behind-the-scenes visit to the stages that are used in producing the new TV Thunderbirds series. The science of model-making and miniaturization are explained.
Walking in Wellington
There are a variety of walking paths throughout Wellington, catering to all ages and ability levels.
The botanical gardens are great for an afternoon stroll or a picnic. With views overlooking the CBD and the harbour, it is a great place to get some postcard-perfect views of Wellington. In addition to some absolutely beautiful gardens, there are interesting sculptures and statues to explore.
My favourite was the sundial of human involvement, which is exactly what it sounds like. Andrew and I ended up visiting at night as well since the planetarium is located in the gardens. It makes a great place for some inner city stargazing with surprisingly clear skies.
Walking up Mount Victoria is well worth the panorama views of the harbour and the city of Wellington. There is both a walking path and a driving path to the top. The top itself has a short walkway with signs that explore the area’s history, offering explanations of notable geological points. It is best to go on a calmer day though, as the exposed point might blow away small children!
A stroll along the harbourside walking paths, from the CBD through to Orient Parade is also fun and entertaining. The path really comes alive on weekends, particularly if it is bright and sunny. Markets, craft stalls, and food trucks line the path, making it a entertaining place to walk.
Wellington is great for outdoor enthusiasts. With a number of large harbours and bays there are a variety of water sports in the area. Nearby beaches are supposedly great for surfing, for all that the weather didn’t cooperate when Andrew and I were there.
There is an indoor climbing wall on the harbour front that also happens to rent paddle boards, windsurf gear, and a variety of other products. I was tempted to try out their massive paddleboards, but they are meant for 8+ people and we don’t know that many people in Wellington!
Andrew and I also had the fortune of meeting Ryan O’Connell, who runs Switched On Bikes. We were given the opportunity to try out electric bikes for the first time and it was a blast! I have thought about buying an electric bike before, but was curious to see how it actually worked.
I had always envisioned a really weak motorcycle, but it was more like an engine assist to get up some of the big hills. It was still necessary to pedal, I just happened to go a little bit faster a little bit more easily. We were having so much fun riding that we decided to ride up one of the many hills in Wellington to the top of the botanical garden instead of sticking with our original plan of taking the cable car up.
Shopping and Eating
No visit to Wellington is complete without a walk in the CBD, particularly on Cuba Street. Full of fun restaurants, funky bars, and unique stores, Cuba street is a shopper’s paradise.
There is a water sculpture on the street that Andrew tells me is ‘internet famous’. It was definitely fun to look at, although don’t walk to close to it if you don’t want to get splashed! Not all of the water stays contained in the kinetic water sculpture, particularly on windy days (which is every day in Wellington!).
Checking out the Hanging Bar, which is an eclectic little bar where all of the alcohol is hanging on chains from the ceiling. A stop for gelato, some Indian food, or some Thai food are all great recommendations as well. Andrew and I ate out more often than we probably should have in Wellington, but in a city that is known for its eateries and cafes it was hard to resist.