1. A Good Place to Start
As a general jumping-off point, I’d recommend making a visit to Te Papa Tongarewa – The National Museum of New Zealand. Not only is a visit to Te Papa completely free, but it’s also a great way to get a feel for New Zealand’s history and character.
Located at the corner of Cable and Taranaki streets, this modern-looking museum offers visitors five unique floors of exhibits. Visitors can learn about New Zealand’s Maori heritage, its history as a British colony, its geological make-up and trajectory, its environment, and its unique flora and fauna, among other things. What makes Te Papa stand out from most museums I’ve been to is its design and set-up. It’s a visually appealing museum, and has a bunch of interactive facets to some of its exhibits that really enhance the experience.
2. Get a Bird’s Eye View
To really get a feel for Wellington, a panoramic view of the city and harbor is just the ticket. There are two options I’d recommend. The first is to catch a bus to the lookout at the top of Mount Victoria, a large hill – not actually a mountain – that sits just on the edge of downtown Wellington. You can hike to the lookout if you want to make an afternoon of it, but catching the Mt. Vic bus is both quicker and less strenuous. From the lookout, you can see the whole compact city, as well as the harbor, the airport, and a few suburbs. The best times to go are on clear days, in either the morning or early evening to avoid the tourist crowds.
For a slightly different view at a spot that’s much less-visited, catch one of the (less frequent) buses to the suburb of Brooklyn, and then make your way to the Wind Turbine. While not an official city lookout, the spot still affords a stunning view out over the city and harbor.
3. Do as the Locals Do
Anyone who knows Wellington will know that the city is often characterized by windy, wet weather. But, when the skies do clear up – because, I promise, they do – Wellington transforms. The sun (slightly brighter and hotter in this part of the world) makes everything looks fresh, and all the Wellingtonians come out to enjoy the weather. On a nice day, you can find hundreds of people down at the Wellington Waterfront – perhaps at Queen’s Wharf, Lambton Harbor, or Oriental Bay.
Oriental Bay is Wellington’s small beach, where, on a spring afternoon, you can find many people rollerblading, walking dogs, and licking towering cones of delicious gelato. You may even be able to join in on a pick-up game of rugby or volleyball in the sand. Further along the waterfront at Queens’s Wharf, you can rent kayaks to take out into the harbor, which is a nice (and inexpensive) way to see the city from a different vantage point. The real key to “doing as the locals do” is to simply go out and do! Enjoy the weather and what the city has to offer.
4. Get a Taste
Wellington is known for its culture and its creativity, and both of these can be observed in the sights and sounds of Cuba Street. Lined with boutique shops, pubs, galleries, and an array of international restaurants, Cuba Street is a prime destination on any day. If you’re hungry, one notable restaurant is The Matterhorn – an upscale bar/eatery that was named New Zealand’s best by Cuisine magazine in 2008. If you favor international flavors, the following are well-represented on Cuba Street: Asian (Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian), Indian, Turkish, French, Italian, and even Mexican at the Flying Burrito Brothers.
If food isn’t a priority, perhaps find a seat outside a café or pub, sit down with a Speight’s, and just take in the sights of Cuba Street. Part of the street (the Cuba Mall) is reserved solely for pedestrian traffic, and also usually attracts a number of street performers on a warm day. Many nationalities can be seen represented in the faces passing by, and some of the small shops have a certain quirky charm.
5. Take a Ride
One of Wellington’s most well-known attractions is the historic Cable Car. The cable car has been in use in Wellington for over a century, and is still used as a daily mode of transportation by locals. You can catch the red tram yourself on Lambton Quay and ride it up the hillside to the Cable Car Museum, Skyline Restaurant, and Wellington Botanical Gardens. The views at the top drop-off station on their own are probably worth the $5 return fare ($2 if you hold a student ID), but I’d recommend taking a browse through the museum (it’s free), and also taking a walk through the gardens if the season is right.
6. Get to Know the Local Flora and Fauna
If you’re already at the cable car lookout, take a short walk into the Wellington Botanical Gardens. The gardens house a variety of plants – both native and non-native – outdoors and in greenhouses. There’s also a small café and gift shop that you can stop at for a nice cup of tea in the rose garden.
Another place that could be of interest is the Wellington Zoo (also known as the Newtown Zoo). It’s easy enough to hop a bus into Newtown (there’s a stop right outside the zoo gates), and entry is between $10 and $15 for the day. The Wellington Zoo has quality exhibits and a welcoming atmosphere, despite its relatively small size. It’s been around for over a century, and has a great collection of animals, including some interesting native ones. The must-see at this zoo is the kiwi house, where you can catch glimpses of the nocturnal, flightless birds hopping around in underbrush. Try to time it so that you can attend the Kiwi Close Encounter with Tahi the one-legged kiwi in the afternoon. During this informative session, you can get an up-close look at a very special kiwi bird.
If you’re just interested in the natives, however, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary is one of Wellington’s best-kept secrets. Just outside the city in the suburb of Karori, the sanctuary is just what it sounds like – a large protected swatch (roughly one square mile) of land where native flora and fauna have been allowed to thrive. Getting to the sanctuary is a bit tricky, as only one or two bus lines run out to Karori, but the trip is worth it. Wear your hiking shoes, and allow enough time to really explore some of the tramping trails that wind through the park. You can either get a map and go at it on your own, or you can join a guided tour. Along the way, you may get lucky enough to spy some native birds, tuatara lizards, and even giant wetas. If you visit near dusk, or go on one of the Sanctuary’s special night tours, you may even get to spy a spotted kiwi bird in the wild. When I went, entry to the site was $12 with a student ID, although the guided and night tours would probably run you a bit more.
7. Take a Hike
If these ideas get your juices flowing, why not go all out and do some serious tramping? It’s a national pastime in New Zealand; kind of like rugby. In Wellington, a good spot to start is Island Bay, the southernmost city suburb that hugs the coast of the Cook Strait, where you can then hike all the way to the fur seal colony at Sinclair Head between the months of May and October. You can catch a bus to either Island Bay or Owhiro Bay (the Owhiro Bay bus doesn’t run on weekends, however), and then hike the rest of the way. From Island Bay, the flat hike is roughly 10-11 kilometers round-trip, which sounds a lot longer than it actually is. On a clear day, you can glimpse the snow-capped Southern Alps of the south island across the Strait, and visiting a wild seal colony is certainly something worth doing. The best part? All it costs is the bus fare.
8. Get Political
Back in downtown Wellington, don’t pass up a stop at Parliament. This might sound like a really boring trip to anyone not enamored with politics, but it doesn’t have to be. You can take a guided tour of Parliament and learn how the New Zealand government works (hint: it’s a parliamentary democracy where they’re still loosely connected with the British monarch), and I’m told the tours are rather quick and informative. However, just going down to see the buildings would be sufficient, too. There’s a reason the parliament building is referred to as “The Beehive.”
9. Embrace Wellywood
Wellington, in the past decade or so, has emerged as an international leader in film and digital effects. No small part of this has been thanks to Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which was filmed in New Zealand and put together right in what has been dubbed “Wellywood” by locals and foreigners alike. Many Wellington-based tours offer stops at film sites (a majority of them being “Lord of the Rings” locations), though you can often get a taste on your own if you know where to go. Some of the hiking trails on Mount Victoria, for example, are labeled with plaques denoting where certain scenes were filmed.
Recently in the suburb of Miramar (where the studios are), Jackson’s Weta Workshop (that worked on “Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and “King Kong,” among others) opened the Weta Cave – a gift shop and gallery where visitors can watch a video about the Weta studios and view/purchase collectibles and film souvenirs. This might be a budget-buster for the avid film fan, but it’s an interesting visit nonetheless. If nothing more, the free video gives some insight into where Wellington film could be headed.
10. Have a Night on the Town
Once you’ve seen all the sights, maybe you want to do something a little more familiar and check out what Wellington has to offer in the evening. Grab dinner and a movie at the refurbished historical Embassy Theater on Courtney Place. Perhaps catch a local rugby game at Westpac Stadium, and then hit up the pubs on Dixon Street. Try some international cuisine and check out the live music or amateur stand-up comedy at the San Francisco Bath House on Cuba Street. Or, you can support the arts further by picking up tickets to a show at the Wellington Opera House or St. James Theater. Afterwards, wander into one of the many clubs and bars that Courtney Place has to offer and dance the night away.