By Natasha Frost Photographs by Susan Wright. Natasha Frost is a staff writer who has lived in Wellington and travels there often.
Dec. 8, 2022
Wellington, the pint-size capital of New Zealand, easily invites comparisons. You might think of San Francisco when you see its vertiginous streets and colorful clapboard homes; the city’s obsession with coffee, craft beer and sustainable living has obvious parallels with Seattle; and its blustery weather (it is the world’s windiest city) makes it deserving of Chicago’s nickname. As locals often remind one another, you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, when the water sparkles, the sky is impossibly blue and the coasts, forests and hills are at their most enjoyable. Go between December and March to maximize your chances of a beautiful day in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, the city’s name in the Indigenous Maori language (New Zealand is known as Aotearoa).
- Zealandia is a one-of-a-kind bird sanctuary with more than 40 species, many of which can be found only in New Zealand.
- Cuba Street is the city’s zany heart, with an offbeat charm that’s quintessentially Wellington.
- Te Papa is the national museum, with permanent exhibitions on the natural world and the history of New Zealand and the Pacific, as well as an extensive collection of New Zealand art.
Restaurants and bars
- Mabel’s serves authentic, delicious Burmese food that’s perfect for groups.
- KC Cafe and Takeaway is a Wellington institution, quickly turning around inexpensive Cantonese and Malaysian dishes.
- Damascus is the home of the city’s best Syrian food and a great spot for vegetarians.
- Rita’s menu changes daily, but it always showcases the best seasonal produce.
- Chocolate Fish Café in Shelly Bay serves hearty breakfasts amid décor inspired by classic Kiwi beach towns.
- Customs offers superlative espresso and filter coffee.
- Garage Project, one of more than a dozen breweries in the capital, is a great place to try unusual beers.
- Puffin is a natural and organic wine bar on the ground floor of the Intrepid Hotel.
- Meow is one of Wellington’s best live music venues with a distinctive homey feel.
Shopping and markets
Harbourside Market sells edible souvenirs like spice blends and small-batch, local manuka honey in picturesque surroundings.
Unity Books is an independent bookstore with a fine selection of New Zealand literature.
Moore Wilson’s has an impressive array of cheeses, chutneys and just about everything else you can eat, along with kitchenware and homeware for sale upstairs.
Thrift is an inexpensive store with preloved clothes for all genders.
Spacesuit is a mecca for streetwear fans.
- Slow Boat Records, the city’s oldest independent record store, sells CDs and LPs from New Zealand and around the world.
Attractions and outdoor activities
- City Gallery Wellington presents rotating exhibitions of local and international modern art.
- Weta Workshop offers tours of the production company behind the movies “Avatar” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
- Te Ahumairangi Hill Lookout is an easy uphill walk with fantastic views from the top.
- Wellington Writers Walk is a nice introduction to both the waterfront and some of New Zealand’s literary greats.
- Scorching Bay is a pristine swimming spot that’s easily reached from the city center.
Don’t bother renting a car: most things are just a short stroll away. To travel longer distances, Ola and Uber are the most popular ride-share services.
Where to stay
- Sofitel Wellington offers world-class luxury in clean, beautiful surroundings. Rooms start at about 500 New Zealand dollars, or about $319.
- The Intrepid Hotel is a charming boutique hotel with 18 rooms on three floors, starting at about 300 dollars. Expect industrial-chic character, thoughtful touches and a great in-house wine bar (Puffin).
- The Dwellington is a centrally located hostel with a cozy vibe, steps away from Parliament. A private room, with access to a shared bathroom, runs about 130 dollars.
- For short-term rentals, try the hilly Mount Victoria neighborhood, where many homes have spectacular views over the harbour.
3 p.m.Hit the shops (sustainably)
Limited imports to New Zealand and a wider commitment to sustainability mean that even fashion-forward Wellingtonians are keen “op-shoppers,” or thrifters. The best vintage and secondhand shops can be found along colorful Cuba Street, which throngs with students and buskers. (Watch out for the distinctive kinetic bucket fountain, which can splash the unsuspecting.) Ziggurat and the nearby Hunters and Collectors are your best bets for serious designer castoffs, while Thrift and Spacesuit specialize in retro bargains and streetwear. For your next great (secondhand) read, nose around the Ferret Bookshop or the labyrinthine Pegasus Books. And at Slow Boat Records, Wellington’s oldest independent record store, you’ll find new and used LPs and CDs, as well as local musicians occasionally performing for free.
4 p.m.Take in some art
Housed in an impressive former public library only a couple of minutes’ walk from Cuba Street, the City Gallery Wellington (which has free general admission) showcases modern art. Exhibitions change frequently: Look out for a retrospective of the multidisciplinary New Zealand artist Joanna Margaret Paul, who died in 2003, on until Feb. 6. And don’t miss Quasi, by Ronnie van Hout, peering down from the roof — not that you could. The monstrous sculpture, a 16-foot human hand bearing a disapproving face, originally stood in Christchurch but was relocated after the earthquakes that began to strike there in 2010.
5:30 p.m. Wine and unwind
In a country known for its superlative wine, less common natural wines sometimes get short shrift — a mistake. At Puffin, a shabby-chic organic wine bar on the ground floor of the Intrepid Hotel, off Cuba Street, ask for a local recommendation or sip a glass of “pet-nat” sparkling from about 14 dollars, or about $9, all under the imperious glare of an enormous stuffed peacock. Non-wine drinkers are provided for, with two local beers on tap. On sunny evenings, slip out the back to a hidden courtyard that feels like another bar altogether.
6:30 p.m. Experience Asian cuisine
For dinner, New Zealand’s large Asian population (and its relative proximity to that continent) makes a Southeast Asian meal a must: Newcomer Mabel’s, named for the grandmother of the restaurant’s co-owner, Marlar Boon, serves fresh, innovative Burmese food that’s ideal for sharing in bright, bustling surroundings. Go for sumptuous chicken curry in a cinnamon sauce (27 dollars) or lahpet thoke, a tea leaf salad (18 dollars). If you’re short on time, KC Cafe and Takeaway, a popular no-frills haunt, serves large portions of inexpensive Cantonese and Malaysian dishes like duck fried rice and barbecue pork wonton noodle soup (both about 22 dollars).
8 p.m. Get in the groove
For a typical Wellington night out, take a 10-minute stroll to Meow, where you might catch slam poetry, sultry jazz or homegrown New Zealand grunge on a book-lined stage that bears more than a passing resemblance to a midcentury living room. Expect emerging local artists as well as more established performers from farther afield, particularly during the Wellington Jazz Festival, usually held in October. In November, during the Verb Readers & Writers Festival, book lovers descend on the city for panel discussions, live podcast tapings, poetry readings and other literary events.
As you cycle along the waterfront, spot the brightly painted boat sheds lining Oriental Bay. Further along the coast, Scorching Bay is perfect for a cool-down dip.
9 a.m. Start with a flat white
In a city that takes the pursuit of caffeine seriously, you could do far worse than to join the bleary-eyed locals at Customs for some of the area’s best coffee. Order a flat white for a perfectly smooth, milky coffee (about 5 dollars), or pose as a Wellingtonian with a long black (4.50 dollars) — though no one will worry if you call it an Americano. Breakfast here riffs mostly on toast, topped with banana and locally made Fix & Fogg nut-and-seed spread (7.50 dollars), or, for a more substantial offering, with avocado, labneh and hot pickled carrots (14 dollars). As you munch, enjoy a soundtrack of New Zealand music, or perch on a stool outside for a sunny start to your day.
10 a.m. Take in the view on two wheels
Drink in Wellington’s 360-degree ocean views by riding an e-bike from Switched on Bikes (70 dollars for a four-hour rental) along the waterfront, starting in the city center. You’ll soon hit Oriental Bay, where local glitterati live in pastel-colored, Art Deco apartments. Forty-five minutes along the coast, Scorching Bay is perfect for a cool-down dip. On the return trip, refuel with a coffee at the retro Chocolate Fish Café on Shelly Bay. As you cycle back, look inland toward quirky cliffside homes, some of which can be reached only by private funicular. If it’s a wet or windy day, take a rideshare car for 15 minutes to Weta Workshop, a movie production company in the neighborhood of Miramar, for a behind-the-scenes look at “Avatar” and “The Lord of the Rings” (49 dollars per adult, reservations recommended).
1 p.m. Sample Syrian flavours
Wellingtonians’ appetite for novelty — and lavish vegetarian-friendly fare — have combined to catapult the fast-casual restaurant Damascus to the height of popularity in just a few months. (Until quite recently, the only way to eat the city’s best Syrian food, from the Syrian-born chef Hasan Alwarhani and his Brazilian partner, Flora Quintana, was at a three-night-a-week pop-up at a bowling club in a far-off suburb.) In sleek surroundings, go beyond hummus and falafel to try the muhammara, a silky walnut-and-red-pepper dip (15 dollars), or the shamander, a bright salad made with smoky beetroot (14 dollars).
2 p.m. Meet native birds
You don’t have to travel far in Wellington to lose yourself in its lush, jungly forests. Take a five-minute cable car ride from Lambton Quay up to Kelburn (5 dollars for a one-way trip). Zealandia (24 dollars per adult), an extraordinary bird ecosanctuary that mimics New Zealand’s pre-colonization forests, is a five-minute shuttle ride from there. As you walk its trails, bathe in a soundscape of trilling tui, a boisterous songbird, and calling kea, a native Alpine parrot, and keep your eyes open for takahe, an extremely rare flightless bird, and tuatara, the last survivor of a group of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs.
The Wellington Cable Car
6 p.m. Quaff a brew
Beer nuts rave about New Zealand’s hops, which are citrusy, aromatic and, because of their small production, difficult to get your hands on outside of the country. Experience a tiny taste of the city’s world-class craft beer scene at Garage Project, a 35-minute walk down the hill from Zealandia on Aro Street and one of more than a dozen breweries in the capital. Bask in the laid-back vibe of its narrow, wood-paneled taproom with a pint of one of the 20 or so beers on tap, or sample four with a tasting flight (17 dollars).
7:30 p.m. Eat Aotearoa on a plate
For the best in New Zealand’s seasonal produce and distinctive Pacific Rim cuisine, slip next door to Rita, a 28-seater gem in a 1910 worker’s cottage. The prix-fixe, three-course menu, at 95 dollars a person, changes daily. Like the restaurant’s tables, cork-topped and featuring secret compartments, it is deceptively simple: On a recent evening, a familiar yet indiscernible flavor of ice cream — lemon? vanilla? — turns out to be “fig leaf,” while the sprigs of caramel-colored floss on a rolled chicken dish are revealed to be pekepeke-kiore, a native mushroom. Unstuffy service and cheek-by-jowl tables encourage chatting with your neighbors. (Reservations required, especially for Friday or Saturday nights.)
The view from Mount Victoria. As locals often remind one another, you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, when the water sparkles, the sky is impossibly blue and the coasts, forests and hills are at their most enjoyable.
9 a.m. Wander along the water
Snaking along the waterfront, the Wellington Writers Walk encompasses 23 sculptures by the artist Catherine Griffiths, each with a quotation about the capital from a New Zealand author or poet. (You can pick up works by these writers at Unity Books, a great independent bookstore on nearby Willis Street.) Along the way, you’ll hit the iconic Harbourside Market, a Sunday morning fixture in Wellington, where buskers strum and locals pick up their produce for the week. Grab a whitebait fritter — a delicate concoction of beaten egg and tiny fish fry, served on a slice of white bread — and some coffee, and take in the sights, sounds and smells.
10 a.m. Learn the history
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, known as Te Papa, sits solidly on the waterfront, just a few feet from the market. (General admission is free.) On a rainy day, you could spend hours here; if you’re short on time, make a beeline for Mana Whenua, an exhibition about New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori people, which includes the historic Maori meeting house Te Hau ki Tūranga. It’s also worthwhile spending some time learning about the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s foundational legal document. And children and adults alike will be captivated by the colors of the exhibition “Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa,” especially those in a hypnotic kinetic sculpture by Rebecca Baumann.
12 p.m. Climb a hill
At Moore Wilson’s, a gourmet paradise and chef wholesaler a 10-minute walk from Te Papa, you’ll find all the components for a picnic, including cheeses, meats and baked goods. Stock up, then stroll along the Terrace and into the Botanic Garden, with Te Ahumairangi Hill Lookout as your final destination. The walk should take about an hour, winding through banks of native plants, a formal rose garden and, finally, well-marked trails through beautiful forest. You’ll be rewarded for your climb with a bird’s-eye view of the city and its sparkling harbor — a perfect spot for taking photographs and contemplating your next trip to New Zealand’s cool little capital.