At the southern tip of the North Island, New Zealand’s colourful little capital is the heart of a region encompassing the beachy Kapiti Coast and wine-soaked Wairarapa.
Wellington is a quietly confident city, beloved of its close-knit citizens and lauded by visitors for its blend of urban zing and wild environment. Its harbour and hills encourage outdoor activities such as walking and sea sports, alongside cosmopolitan indulgences such as shopping, bar-hopping and dining out. Its lively arts scene punches well above its weight, powered by Te Papa Tongarewa and bolstered by myriad other cultural and creative outlets.
North of the capital on State Highway 1, the Kapiti Coast and Manawatu regions are lined with sandy beaches and liberally sprinkled with spirited towns. The forested Tararua Ranges, that dominate the skyline to the east, separate the coast from the Wairarapa’s pretty rural plains, famed for the production of world-class pinot noir.
- vibrant arts and culture
- sophisticated dining and bar scenes
- gardens, parks and scenic reserves
- Wairarapa wineries
- sandy, sunset beaches
- wildlife, particularly birds and seals
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Arts & culture
The ‘cultural capital’ dishes up plenty more besides the treasures and fun-times of Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum. Wellington City Gallery and Museum of City & Sea are other major highlights, with scores of smaller museum and galleries filling the gaps alongside theatrical and musical companies. Concerts, gigs, busking and fringe events ice the cultural cake.
Notable institutions further afield include Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Gallery, Porirua’s Pataka, and Aratoi in Masterton.
Food & wine
Wellington has a serious obsession with its stomach, and sates itself with literally hundreds of eateries and a dining district regularly touted amongst the country’s best – Cuba Street. Besides a bamboozling array of espresso and craft beer, visitors will discover a wide-ranging culinary scene, covering cheap Asian noodle shops and pizza joints to high-end contemporary restaurants championing local ingredients.
The city’s neighbouring regions are a prodigious source of fresh produce, evident in the roadside stalls lining State Highway 1. The Wairarapa, meanwhile, is a travelling gourmand’s delight, with the likes of chocolate, cheese, pickles and olives mixing it up in the heart of wine country.
The lower North Island supports a surprising array of wildlife, particularly native birds which cluster in sanctuaries such as Wellington’s Zealandia, a fenced reserve with an excellent visitor centre. In the harbour, Matiu/Somes Island is another notable reserve inhabited by penguins, rare reptiles and other interesting creatures. Wildlife sanctuaries further afield include magical Kapiti Island, and two particularly family-friendly reserves – Wairarapa’s Pukaha/Mount Bruce and Kapiti’s Nga Manu.
New Zealand fur seals inhabit craggy shores around the region’s southeast. There is good viewing on the scenic drive to remote Cape Palliser in the Wairarapa, while view-filled 4WD tours take in a colony at Red Rocks, a crazily wild place on the capital’s doorstep.
It’s water, water, everywhere around the Wellington region, which boasts a coastline of extremes. To the west are friendly beaches and sand dunes stretching from Kapiti to the Manawatu; Queen Elizabeth Park and Waikanae are great spots to dip a toe in the water.
The coast is rockier and more rugged to the south and east, as evident on the classic drive around Wellington’s bays. There are, however, decent swimming beaches including Oriental Bay (in town) and Scorching Bay (Miramar Peninsula). Over in the Wairarapa, the memorable drive to Cape Palliser lighthouse follows a wild and woolly shore, dangerous for swimming but great for photo ops and blowing the cobwebs away.
Walks & hikes
Wellington’s city centre offers easy ambles on the flat, but those prepared to puff can reap rich rewards on walkways through hilly suburbs and greenbelt studded with lookouts such as Mt Victoria, the Cable Car terminus, and Brooklyn Wind Turbine. Wellington City Council produces excellent online guides and apps for numerous easily accessible walkways and heritage trails.
This region also offers great wilderness hiking, particularly in the Tararua, Rimutaka and Aorangi forest parks.
A ten-minute drive from downtown or via regular bus service, this delightful park is the only one in New Zealand dedicated solely to native plants. Walkways thread through 90 hectares of precious remnant native forest, and there are display beds, a canopy walkway, picnic areas and an informative information centre.
Wellington’s obsession with the movies manifests in a world-class filmmaking industry, Lord Of The Rings film locations, and more great cinemas that you can poke a boom at. The pick of the bunch is the Roxy, a state-of-the-art suburban theatre with stunning Art Deco style, restaurant and cocktail lounge.
One of the loveliest beaches in the lower North Island, Himatangi is 120km shy of Wellington, just off SH1. Besides an epic, often empty beach (great for a sunset walk), it boasts Himatangi Beach Holiday Park, one of the sweetest, friendliest little campgrounds in the land.
An hour’s drive from Martinborough on the Pacific Ocean coast, this tiny settlement is an essential stop for those driving to the Putangirua Pinnacles, Ngawi and Cape Palliser – all hidden gems in themselves. The short stroll out to Lake Ferry bar reveals all manner of freaky natural phenomena, while the Lake Ferry Hotel dishes up delicious fish and chips.
- There are a reasonable number of campervan parks dotted throughout the wider Wellington region, but they’re thinner on the ground than in other regions. It will pay to plan overnight stops ahead.
- In downtown Wellington, the Waterfront Motorhome Park offers hassle-free daytime and overnight parking within easy walking distance of all major attractions.
Next closest are Hutt Valley Top 10 and Paekakariki Holiday Park, both within 40 minutes of downtown.
- Cheap, back-to-nature camping can be found in scenic reserves and forest parks, but these options are well off the beaten track.
Freedom camping is permitted in some places; i-SITE visitor centres can advise where and what rules apply.
Wellington’s weather is famously changeable, so it pays to carry an extra layer of clothing.
WINE & FOOD
Zest Food Tours; visit gourmet food stores such as Moore Wilsons and Meat on Tory to sample some of Wellington’s finest produce.
If you are a chocoholic, you cannot leave Wellington without visiting Schoc Chocolates, where you can taste a huge variety of chocolates made from interesting combinations such as Lime Chilli and Sea Salt, and purchase beautifully handcrafted chocolates that are almost too precious to eat.
Wellington is home to many restaurants with extensive wine lists – check out Vivo Wine Bar, Boulot, Logan Brown, Matterhorn, Juniper, Arbitrageur, and much more.
Nature & Scenic
Wellington Botanical Gardens with its beautiful Lady Norwood Rose Garden.Take a walk in the Otari-Wilton’s Bush, New Zealand’s only botanic garden dedicated solely to growing native plants. Take a short drive to the top of Mt Victoria for a panoramic view of this gorgeous city Check out the
Wellington Zoo which offers personal encounters with the animals such as the Red Pandas, Tigers, Lions, Giraffes and Cheetahs. Stroll along Wellington's stunning waterfront.
Art & Culture
WellingtonMuseum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa; a bold and innovative approach to telling New Zealand's stories - a must-do! City Gallery; an excellent representation of New Zealand’s dynamic contemporary culture. Museum of Wellington City and Sea; worth a visit if you are interested in Wellington's history which has strong associations with the sea.
Pick up a Wellington Writers Walk guide from the Wellington i-SITE and do a writers’ trail designed to make writing a more visible art form.
Visit Experience Stansborough, makers of
Lord of the Rings and Narnia fabrics, to learn about the time journey of the flock, the farm and the factory to the fabric, fashion and the films.
Take a drive to Porirua and visit the Pataka Museum.
Beach & Coastal Encounters
The Wellington Waterfront; a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. Many activities are based around the waterfront from harbour cruises, strolling from Queens Wharf to Oriental Bay, and swimming at the golden sand beach, rollerblading and rock-climbing for the more adventurous. Or grab a coffee or gelato and sit back and enjoy beautiful views of the Wellington harbour and cityscape.
- Karori Wildlife Sanctuary; a world first conservation attraction and home to some of New Zealand’s rarest and most endangered wildliFE.
- Seal Coast Safari; a 4WD way of exploring Wellington’s nature and encountering New Zealand’s native fur seals.
- Take a drive to Upper Hutt and visit the Staglands Wildlife Reserve, a special look at New Zealand’s natural heritage.Take a drive out to the
Kapiti Coast and visit Kapiti Island Alive, a unique opportunity in New Zealand to view endangered and rare birds in a completely natural setting.
Wellington & Wairarapa Quick Facts
At the southern end of the North Island is the vibrant city of Wellington, the nation's capital. Well known for it's fine wine and creative cuisine, Wellington is a sophisticated boutique city that is only minutes from the rugged South Coast and the many bush walks that wind their way through the city.
Wellington is the site of New Zealand's extraordinary national museum, Te Papa, an exceptional experience for both local and internatinal travellers.Not far away is the Wairarapa, a traditional rural area with exciting new wine makers and boutique accommodation.
To the west you'll find the Nature Coast, including Kapiti Island home to an internationally famed nature reserve protecting some of the world's rarest and most endangered birds.
Lower North Island – the heart of the nation.
Nestled between a harbour and rolling green hills Wellington boasts national treasures, galleries, museums, boutique shopping, superb café and restaurant culture and great nightlife. It offers visitors all the excitement of city life, yet has wildlife and nature attractions right on its doorstep. Wellington’s compact, village-like size makes the city an easy place to walk around, yet its cosmopolitan flavour gives all the stimulation of a big city.
The Wellington region (including Kapiti, Porirua, Hutt Valley and Wairarapa) has the third highest population, containing 11.3% of New Zealand's population.
Wellington has more than 2060 sunshine hours per year, & was recorded as the sunniest main centre in 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2002.
- Mean daily maximum in summer (January) 20.3 C 69F
- Mean daily minimum in summer 13.4 C 56F
- Mean daily maximum in winter (July) 11.3 C 52F
- Mean daily minimum in winter 6.2C 43F
- Annual rainfall mean 1249mm
Wellington City has relatively more people aged 20-34 than other areas and relatively fewer elderly people and children.
The population mix consists of:
- 80.9% European
- 12.5% Maori
- 7.9% Pacific Island
- 6.8% Asian
- 0.9% other
Lord of the Rings/King Kong
Wellington was the main filming and production location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Shot in New Zealand between October 1999 and December 2000, you can experience Middle Earth in all its diversity whilst in Wellington. King Kong was also shot in Wellington in 2004 - 2005.
Fat Freddy’s Drop, Black Seeds, Rhombus, Phoenix Foundation
Maurice Bennett, Peter Jackson (movies), Richard Taylor, Cliff Whiting (Maori sculptor and artist)
Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde, James K Baxter, Bill Manhire, Sam Hunt
Al Brown, Steve Logan, Rex Morgan, Ruth Pretty
Itinerary Ideas – Northbound Scenic Sights This 12-day adventure brings you up close to most of New Zealand's world-famous tourist hotspots from Queenstown, Marlborough, Wellington, Waitomo and Auckland.