Wellington, New Zealand’s cosmopolitan capital city, is located at the southern tip of the North Island and at the physical center of the country. You could say that all roads lead to Wellington — as do all ferries cruising over from the South Island, about 60 miles away across Cook Strait.
According to Maori legend, the two main islands of New Zealand are actually the great canoe of Maui (the South Island) and the giant fish he caught (the North Island). Wellington harbor is the mouth of that huge fish. So where did the city’s name come from? From Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington and British Prime Minster from 1828 to 1830.
Though a geographic hub, Wellington is surprisingly compact — it’s nestled between the harbor and steep, forest-clad hills — and wonderfully walkable. The revamped waterfront area leads from the cruise dock at one end to the must-see Te Papa museum at the other. A stroll along the quay is filled with surprises. There’s a grassy playground for kids, large-scale sculptures and fun wooden walkways. Cross the street, and you’ll have your choice of cafes and shops.
Foodies will love Wellington for its wide range of dining options. Note that coffee has recently replaced tea as the beverage of choice, and New Zealanders have their own lingo for coffee drinks — flat white (not a cappuccino, but similar), short or long black (single or double espresso) and many more.
You could easily spend all day at Te Papa, New Zealand’s marvelous national museum. Six floors of interactive exhibits and displays are housed in an enormous contemporary building showcasing New Zealand’s treasures. The exhibits tell the story of the nation’s past, present and future; highlights include a Maori meeting house, a giant squid and a house where you can step inside and experience a virtual earthquake. Don’t miss a walk through the outdoor Bush City to get a look at New Zealand’s native plants and geology.
For a spectacular overview of the city and harbor, ride the cable car from Lambton Quay (behind the downtown shops) up to the hilltop district of Kelburn. The cars move along a cable in the ground, not in the air. You can ride back down, or spend an hour or more strolling back to sea level through the Botanic Garden, including the gorgeous Lady Norwood Rose Garden. Allow extra time; it’s farther than it looks, especially if you take a wrong turn. Fortunately, the signage is excellent, and you can catch a cab if you need one.
The Wellington Museum, located right on Queens Wharf, is devoted to the city’s maritime and cultural history. Modern technology brings Maori legends to life while a short film relives the 1968 Cook Strait ferry tragedy.
If you’re set on seeing New Zealand’s unique native birds, then Zealandia is the place for you. The protected sanctuary houses a growing number of flightless wonders (with no predators, they have no need to fly away), many endangered since less friendly animals were introduced to the islands. The birds are protected by a revolutionary fence designed to keep out common mammalian predators including cats, possums and ferrets. This is a good place for strolling.
Get a behind-the-counter look at Wellington’s trendy coffee, deli and gourmet market scene with Zest Food Tours. A guide takes you walking from shop to shop, sampling piccolo (espresso) coffee, artisan cheeses, warm-from-the-oven bread and flavored honeys.
City Gallery Wellington, located on Civic Square, showcases contemporary visual art in a series of visiting exhibitions. The Dowse Art Museum is a 15- to 20-minute drive out of town and focuses on craft art, including jewelry, sculpture and ceramics. The Pataka is another gallery within a short drive of Wellington, and is a great place to check out works from New Zealand, Maori and South Pacific artists.
A scenic drive over the mountains takes travelers to the Wairarapa wine-growing region, a trendy weekend getaway spot for Wellingtonians and a bit like California’s Sonoma Valley. Stop in Featherston to see the restored Fell locomotive before visiting the historic village of Martinborough and then traveling on to the Te Kairanga winery for a tour and tasting.
The “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies have boosted New Zealand up the “must-see” travel charts for Middle-earth fans. Wellington, or “Wellywood,” was the center of the filmmaking. Wellington Rover Tours offers half- and full-day tours to the filming sites of Rivendell, the gardens of Isengard and Helms Deep, among others.
You’ll never lack for places to eat in Wellington. Hundreds of restaurants around the city offer a wide variety of cuisine from Thai to Turkish. Funky Cuba Street is a good place to start, with its open-air cafes, bustling pubs and fine ethnic restaurants. Consider trying a little New Zealand wine with your meal. Note: Tipping is not customary in New Zealand.
Looking for a splurge? Step back in time at Logan Brown, set in the rotunda of a classic 1920s bank. Order a la carte or select the chef’s tasting menu; either way, leave room for dessert and some local wine.
Great India earns raves as one of Wellington’s best Indian restaurants. The lengthy menu includes everything from standards (tandoori chicken, rogan josh) to less familiar items (Goan squid masala). Servers are friendly and efficient.
Zibibbo, named for a grape, offers great dining in casual surroundings. Chef Adam Newell, who hails from London’s star-rated La Gavroche, shows off his creative talents with tapas, pizzas and local produce.
Shed 5 is housed in one of the oldest remaining buildings on Queens Wharf. It’s best known for offerings from the sea, from fresh fish to seafood risotto, but there are plenty of other options for the landlubbers among your party. The window tables offer lovely harbor views.
Explore the flavors of Vietnam at Restaurant 88. You’ll struggle to choose among dishes like lemongrass chicken with coconut noodles, “shaking” beef with papaya salad and baked fish wrapped in banana leaves.
For a quick pick-me-up, try Mojo for excellent coffee and pastries. There are nearly two dozen locations around the city.
Shopping in Wellington
Shopping is great fun in Wellington, whether you’re browsing bookstores, sifting through local markets or wandering through upscale boutiques. If you’re looking for souvenirs, consider a bottle of wine, perhaps a pinot noir from the nearby Wairarapa region, or a pair of gloves made from a blend of possum fur and sheep’s wool. Both will warm you up back home.
Get a glimpse of history while you shop in the Old Bank Arcade on Lambton Quay. The building is Old-World beautiful, and the remains of an old-time ship can be seen through a section of glass flooring.
The aforementioned Lambton Quay is the prime spot for big-name designers and department stores. (It’s often called the Golden Mile.)
Head to Cuba Street for second-hand stores and funky boutiques (along with plenty of cafes where you can stop for a refresher).
Wellington has a number of markets worth browsing for food, crafts and artisan wares, including the Harbourside Market (Sunday morning), the Wellington Underground Market (all day Saturday) and the Wellington Night Market (Friday and Saturday nights).
–written by Ginger Dingus