A city guide to Wellington, New Zealand's cosmopolitan capital

On the windswept southern tip of New Zealand's North Island sits one of the world's coolest capitals: a confident, creative, harbourside city where good living is second nature.

By Glen Mutel
Published 11 Nov 2016, 13:00 GMT, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 17:46 BST
Wellington is an impressive capital: a mini San Francisco with a bohemian streak and idyllic bayside ...

Wellington is an impressive capital: a mini San Francisco with a bohemian streak and idyllic bayside location.

Photograph by Getty Images

The sign says it all. Ten tall letters perched high on a hillside above the airport. The original plan was for them to read 'Wellywood', a reference to the city's recent contribution to world cinema. But the locals deemed this too predictable. So instead, the sign says 'Wellington', with the last three letters apparently blown off course by two swirly, blustery lines.

By most indices, New Zealand's capital is the world's windiest city — a fact with which it seems entirely comfortable. Down on the waterfront you'll find a bronze statue of a naked man, leaning into the breeze. It's a pose every Wellingtonian knows all too well. It doesn't help matters that it's a particularly hilly metropolis, so much so that many houses have their own private funiculars. But these challenges seem to have helped forge the city's sense of identity; I've even heard some locals admit the icy blast of the dreaded Antarctic 'southerly' wind makes them feel strangely at home.

For all its dubious weather, Wellington is an impressive place, a mini San Francisco with a bohemian streak and idyllic bayside location. The seat of government it may be, but there's a palpable coolness here that takes you by surprise. Yet that central tenet of the hipster revolution — the stripping away of bland distractions, so as to focus on what's really of value — has been the Wellington way for the best part of two decades, ever since it first emerged as one of the world's coffee capitals. 

Nowhere is this enlightened approach more evident than in the Laneways, a series of narrow thoroughfares in the CBD (Central Business District), currently being spruced up by the city council. The pick of these is the little alley between Leeds and Eva street, home to a micro chocolate factory, bottled soda shop, cocktail bar, craft brewer, boutique coffeehouse and a tiny basement outlet (Fix and Fogg) selling intriguing varieties of peanut butter out of a small, ankle-level window.

As alleyways go, it certainly packs a punch, and it's a great starting point for any newcomer. But, in reality, it doesn't require much planning to catch Wellington at its sparkling best. Within my first 48 hours here, I'd watched an Iranian documentary at an arthouse cinema; dined three tables away from Peter Jackson; drank craft beer in a converted garage; watched chocolate being made from scratch; sipped nitrogen-enriched iced-coffee dispensed from a pump; and eaten oysters by the waterside. 

Compact, cosmopolitan and full of character, Wellington really is a first-timer's dream. Just remember to pack a few layers.

What to see and do

Wellington Cable Car: It's hard not to fall for Wellington's elderly yet distinguished 114-year-old cable car. Having trundled gracefully up its tracks, it delivers passengers to the city's hillside Botanic Gardens, where alongside fitting views, they'll also find Carter Observatory, home to the Space Place planetarium.

Roxy Cinema: A 1920s theatre that was turned into a shopping mall in the 1960s, the Roxy was restored to its former glory and given a new purpose in 2011, having been bought by Weta Digital founder Sir Richard Taylor. Located in Miramar — Wellington's movie-making district — it hosts film and documentary festivals, and even has its own restaurant and cocktail bar.

Weta Cave: The starting point for the Weta Studio Tours, where enthusiasts can marvel at fake guns, custom-made vehicles, latex heads and remote-controlled battle helmets — in short, many of the eye-catching props Weta crafted for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, plus other films such as King Kong and District 9. The Cave is also a retail store and an exclusive documentary is shown at regular intervals.

Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand): With its eye-catching, six-storey waterfront building, earthquake simulator, Maori treasures and the body of a colossal squid, Te Papa already had quite a bit going for it. But throw in the outstanding Gallipoli exhibition (running until 2019), featuring Weta Workshop's large-scale sculptures of the WWI campaign's doomed protagonists, and you've got yourself a genuinely hot ticket.

Cuba Street: Wellington's 'spunkiest' thoroughfare is worth more than a cursory glance, filled as it is with many of the city's best and most bohemian restaurants, bars and cafes, not to mention the obligatory vintage clothes shops, street art and laudable busking. A great spot to meander if you're feeling lazy or a little weather-beaten.

Where to shop

Garage Project's Cellar Door: Jovial brewers with beards flogging beers by the flagon from a converted garage — it all makes for a wonderfully Wellingtonian retail experience. The Cellar Door is the brewery's on-premises off-licence (its bar, the Taproom, is across the road), and features an ever-changing line-up of wondrous, unorthodox grog. Plus, there's fancy glassware for those looking for a more lasting souvenir.

Wellington Chocolate Factory: Does chocolate taste better when you've just watched it being made? Hard to say, but this is the place to find out. Here, at this bijou little dream factory on Eva Street, they 'roast, crack, winnow, conch and temper' on the premises, before the agonising, purchasing and devouring can commence.

Underground markets: You won't find any Kiwi Del Boys here, as this covered waterfront market is more a vehicle for the city's artists, bakers, crafters and designers to showcase their finely wrought creations to a discerning weekend crowd. Regular live music makes for a pleasant atmosphere.

Where to eat

Field & Green: Having relocated from London with her business partner, chef Laura Greenfield drew upon her Jewish roots to produce a menu of 'European soul food' — essentially, high-quality comfort dishes. While lunches and dinners are reasonably elaborate and pricey, it's the small yet filling simpler dishes on the all-day menu — Welsh rarebit, homemade crumpets, sardines on sourdough — that make this restaurant both affordable and special.

Shed 5: Housed in a Victorian woolshed in Lambton Harbour, Shed 5 really plays to Wellington's strengths: stunning seafood dishes accompanied by fantastic Kiwi wine. The seafood risotto changes daily, 'depending on what the tide brings in', while anyone who can resist the oysters must be tired of life.

Hippopotamus Restaurant & Bar: If you came to Wellington hoping for a hipster dining experience, then French fine-dining might seem a stuffy option. But stuffy it ain't, and, besides the food, the impressive third-floor harbour views and fancy decor make this a smart choice. Located within the Museum Art Hotel.

The local hangouts

Coffee time: If you want to feel like a local, then the first thing to do is grab a coffee — Wellington has been in the grip of bean fever for two decades and every type of brew is available. Head to The Beanery by Mojo where you can sample cutting-edge Nitro, Cold Brew, Steampunk and Pheonix coffee, among others.

Dive in: If the weather's fine and you find the waters in Wellington's harbour too much of a temptation, head to Taranaki Wharf, outside Te Papa, where you'll find an elaborate diving platform, and — if you're lucky — a small crowd of curious, well-meaning spectators.

Seal Coast Safari: For all its charms, Wellington is a small city and longer-stay visitors would be mad not to get out and explore. Take a 4WD tour along the city's rugged coastline for the chance to meet a local colony of fur seals.


Matterhorn: Found through swing doors at the end of a long corridor on Cuba Street, Matterhorn is something of a Wellington institution, having started life in the 1960s as a Swiss-style cafe, before evolving into a restaurant, popular weekend brunch spot, late-night supper club and a highly imaginative cocktail bar. And if that wasn't enough, there's also regular live music, too.

Hawthorn Lounge: The archetypal cosy nook, designed in the style of a gentleman's club, the Hawthorn Lounge is the perfect place to hide away with a drink from the blustery world outside. Its compact size makes chit-chat with the bar staff inevitable — the kind of conversations from which you'll generally emerge with a rather fine cocktail tailored exactly to your mood.

Foxtail Champagne & Cocktail Bar: No city can consider itself truly cutting-edge without at least one fashionable, hard-to-find speakeasy. Wellington has a few, the cutest of which is the Foxtail. To get there, you must first go to the Foxglove Bar & Kitchen and then head upstairs to its snug Sitting Room bar — one of three intimate lounges inside the building — where you'll find a wardrobe, which is actually the secret entrance to a charming little bar with a surprisingly huge whisky collection.

Where to sleep

Gourmet Stay: A 13-room boutique hotel with a strong European design ethos near Cuba Street, offering varying levels of affordability, from smart-yet-basic hostel-style rooms with shared bathrooms to apartment-style family suites, all the way up to a rooftop studio with a terrace and outdoor hot tub.

Comfort Hotel Wellington: A good mid-range option, not least because it puts you right in the heart of Cuba Street. The location means you probably won't need to frequent its cafe, restaurant and bar, but they're there should you wish to do so, as is a lofty, and rather welcome, swimming pool.

Museum Art Hotel: This aptly named silk purse of a hotel positively bulges with art, be it painted, sculpted, daubed onto its outside walls or grafted onto the upholstery of a well-placed bedroom chair. Similarly ornate views of the harbour accompany breakfast, during which guests can ponder how, in 1993, the entire five-storey hotel was shifted wholesale 120 metres across the road to its current site.


Getting there & around
There's no way to reach Wellington from the UK without having to stopover twice. Air New Zealand flies from Heathrow via Los Angeles and Auckland, while other flight options include Qantas, Emirates and Singapore Airlines.

The best way to explore Wellington is on foot, as the city centre can be traversed within 20 minutes and all the key attractions are within easy reach. There are easy-to-use buses, trains and ferries, if needed.

When to go
Wellington's al fresco potential is best realised in summer (mid-December to mid-March), when temperatures average around 18-20C and there's less rain, although there's better availability and value to be found in the shoulder seasons.

Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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