Things to do in Wellington

New Zealand’s political capital has also become its cultural capital, from museums to craft beer!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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The best things to do in Wellington

The capital of New Zealand has also become the country's capital of cool - with incredible museums, art, dining, and craft beer.

With heaps to see in the city and easy access to the surrounding nature, here are my top tips for what to do in Wellington.

In the city centre of Wellington, down the main pedestrian shopping mall called Cuba Street, there’s an iconic fountain made of buckets that has earned the nickname “Frodo’s Fountain”.

It gets the name from the time that Elijah Wood, filming The Lord of the Rings in Wellington, was walking down Cuba Street with some fellow hobbits after a night of drinking – and decided to relieve himself in the water!

The act was witnessed and it caused an uproar in this small New Zealand city. So much so that Elijah Wood apparently made a donation to the city council as reparations – on the condition it was used to build public toilets in the area. It’s why the conveniences, a block away from the fountain, are now known as “Frodo’s Toilets”.

Frodo's Fountain, Cuba Street, Wellington

Now, let me tell you something else. Despite what the locals say, Cuba Street is not one of the best things to do in Wellington. It’s a pretty standard shopping street with lots of chain stores and dodgy bars.

And one of the reasons you can feel confident ignoring it is that there are so many great things to see in Wellington. This is a city full of activities, with an excellent mix of cultural and natural experiences, great food, and a welcoming atmosphere.

Things to do in Wellington: Craft Beer

It’s easy to spend a long weekend in Wellington, and certainly possible to fill your time if you stay even longer.

What is Wellington known for?

Wellington is known foremost as New Zealand’s capital, but beyond that the city has made a name for itself as a creative city with an excellent food scene and some of the best cafes in the country. It has some of New Zealand’s top cultural institutions and easy access to the surrounding nature.

Is Wellington worth visiting?

Wellington is definitely worth visiting and tourists will find lots of things to do in Wellington, from the masterpiece of a museum, Te Papa, to tours to see some of the city’s movie magic. With a vibrant craft beer scene, good shopping, and excellent restaurants, it’s one of New Zealand’s top destinations.

How many days should you spend in Wellington?

You’ll need at least three days to see the main Wellington attractions, because none of them are sights that you should rush through. It’s also worth taking your time to explore the city centre and try the various food and drink on offer. If you’re staying more than three days, you can take trips to surrounding areas like Kapiti Island.

Wellington could possible be the coolest capital in the world. (It’s certainly been described that way). After having a reputation for being a bit of a boring city, a campaign in the 1990s set out to reinvent its image.

At its core was a television advertisement with the slogan ‘Absolutely Positively Wellington’ that might be considered to be the turning point for the modern image of the city that you’ll find when you visit Wellington today.

The best things to do in Wellington, New Zealand

A push to bring creative industries to the city attracted artists and chefs, and a huge development of the waterfront beginning in the ’90s created fantastic public spaces and impressive cultural institutions like Te Papa, the national museum.

Moviemakers took over and a mini Hollywood popped up (thanks in a large part to Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings movies). And over the years, cool bred cool, with new attractions still popping up constantly.

Things to do in Wellington: Weta Workshop

But, amongst things like the craft beer scene, boutique shops, and art galleries, there are also the important national institutions you would expect to find in a country’s capital, and it’s exploring this blend that will show you the best things to do in Wellington.

A cool city, full of substance, with easy access to some of New Zealand’s best nature – this is how visitors to Wellington should see the city. And it’s why I think so many of them fall in love with the place. There’s something a bit special here.

And with that in mind, I want to share some of my tips for what to do in Wellington to help you make the most of your trip here.

Main sights

If it’s your first visit to the city, there are a few key Wellington attractions that I would recommend putting on your itinerary. They are not only world class, but they are also really important parts of the city’s story, and visiting them will start to give you a sense of what’s so special about Wellington.

Te Papa

The Museum of New Zealand, here in Wellington, is officially known as Te Papa Tongarewa, but is usually just called Te Papa. Opened in 1998, it’s a huge modern institution with cool exhibitions spanning six floors.

One of the biggest sections is dedicated to New Zealand’s nature, with interactive displays about the flora and fauna that was here before humans arrived about 800 years ago, as well as the state of the environment these days.

Another fantastic exhibition at Te Papa tells the story of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, which is still one of the most significant battles in New Zealand’s (and Australia’s) history. With giant lifelike models, it’s a truly moving experience.

Te Papa, Wellington, NZ

On other floors, there are exhibitions about Māori culture, the country’s links to Pacific Islands, plus a large art collection.

Entry to Te Papa is free, but you can pay for this general guided tour or a specific Māori-focused tour. You can also get this ticket to go into the Gallipoli exhibition before the doors officially open and the crowds arrive.

Wētā Workshop

Peter Jackson’s trilogies, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, helped put Wellington on the movie-making map, but there was already a vibrant film scene before that. One of the best places to explore this side of the city is at Wētā Workshop.

This props and physical effects company made many of the items you’ll see in Peter Jackson’s movies and has contributed to more than 50 other films. The techniques the workshop uses to create everything from weapons and costumes, to animatronics and prosthetics is quite incredible.

Weta Workshop, Wellington, NZ

The tour of Wētā Workshop doesn’t take you into the actual workshops because the items they’re working on are top secret, but there’s a good display of pops and costumes from previous movies and the guides are full of knowledge.

There’s also a whole warehouse dedicated to the amazing sets they made for the new Thunderbirds television show.

The workshop is about 20 minutes from the centre of town, on the Miramar Peninsula. To guarantee a spot at the time you want, you can book your ticket in advance, or check availability here:

Zealandia

In the hills above Wellington, the wildlife sanctuary of Zealandia is a wonderful insight into the nature of New Zealand – and a remarkable success story!

The huge 225-hectare swathe of land has been surrounded by a 8.6-kilometre long pest-proof fence that keeps out unwanted animals. Inside, the native species that would’ve roamed the country before the arrival of humans are able to thrive without fear of predators.

Before the first humans came here about 800 years ago, there were no mammals in New Zealand (other than bats – which are basically birds, right?). It was a land of birds, insects, and reptiles… and that’s what you’ll find here at Zealandia, amongst the native plants that are also able to grow in a balanced ecosystem.

Zealandia, Wellington, NZ

There are kilometres of trails that start paved and accessible before gradually becoming wilder – and you can just walk them by yourself, if you like. But I would recommend booking this official tour so a guide can help point out all the interesting animals.

Cable Car

One of the ways to get to Zealandia is to walk (about 20 minutes) from the top of the Wellington Cable Car. It leaves from Lambton Quay in the city centre and is one of the city’s most treasured icons.

The first tramway up the hill here started in 1902 and, in its first year, it did more than 425,000 passenger trips (clearly lots of people were sick of walking home up the hill!).

Wellington Cable Car

Since then, the carriages have become more modern, with the last ‘old’ cars doing their final runs in 1978. But it still serves the same purpose and is as integral to the public transport as it is popular with tourists.

The Wellington Cable Car runs every ten minutes throughout the day and a return ticket costs NZ$9. There’s also a small museum at the top.

Waterfront

Wellington is not New Zealand’s biggest port, but it is one of its most important, strategically located on the strait between the North and South Island. As the port modernised over the years, it needed less land, and so a decision was made in the 1990s to turn a large part of the harbour’s waterfront into a modern development.

There are heaps of things to do on Wellington’s waterfront, and you’ll find its a focus of a visit to the city. It’s where you’ll find Te Papa, for instance, as well as some key museums that I’ll mention in the next section.

The walkway

The walkway that leads along the water’s edge doesn’t just take you to the main sights – it’s a sight in itself, and taking an hour or so to stroll along the path will give you some of the best views of Wellington and the water.

There’s no official starting point, but I would suggest beginning a walk at the train station, going south then east around the harbour. You’ll see the historic sheds that have been converted into new uses, some of the cool modern buildings, plus lovely parklands.

Wellington waterfront, New Zealand

Probably the easiest destination for the walk would be the beach at Oriental Bay, making the distance only about 2.5 kilometres. But this path is just a small part of the Great Harbour Way, a 75-kilometre walking and cycling route along the water around Wellington!

Queens Wharf

One of the main focal points of the Wellington Waterfront is an area called Queens Wharf, named for the original timber wharf that was built here in 1862. As part of the redevelopment, it has incorporated a number of features that pay homage to the heritage of the district.

This includes two cranes that were once commonplace on the wharf but have been left to show people what the are would have looked like.

Queens Wharf, Wellington, NZ

Nearby is the SS Hikitia, a working self-propelled floating steam crane. And there’s also the City to Sea Walk Bridge, which features large Māori carvings depicting the origin story of two sea monsters creating the harbour.

Street Art

Along the length of the waterfront are numerous art pieces – some permanent and some temporary. For instance, when I visit, there’s a video piece being projected onto one of the walls of the TSB Arena.

Permanent pieces that are worth seeing include Solace in the Wind, a sculpture of a naked man leaning out towards the water from the edge of the path; Te Waka Pou, two posts connected by fern frond shapes that commemorates the migration to New Zealand; and Albatross, three white abstract shapes that make up the centre of a water feature.

Art on Wellington's waterfront

This is also a good time to mention that there’s lots of street art in Wellington to spot, most of it in the city centre away from the waterfront. You’ll see most of it as you wander the streets, but look out particularly for the David Bowie mural on Ghuznee Street.

Harbourside market

There are always different events being held in the public spaces along the waterfront, so it’s worth popping into the local visitor information centre on the waterfront (known as i-SITE) to ask what’s on when you’re visiting.

But a regular one to take note of is the Harbourside Market, which has been going since 1920 (although it moved to its current site in 2002). As well as stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, there’s a large collection of street food vans with a huge selection of dishes from around the world.

Harbourside Market, Wellington, NZ

The Harbourside Market is held every Sunday morning from 0730 until 1300 (in winter) or 1400 (in summer).

Kayaking

The waterfront is also a fantastic launching place for kayaks because, from here, you can head past some of the artworks along the coast, pop into the Whairepo Lagoon, head over to Oriental Bay, or go even further afield.

If you’re keen for a paddle, I would recommend Fergs Kayaks, founded by New Zealand’s Olympian canoeist, Ian Ferguson. You can either rent the kayak and head out on your own, or join one of the guided tours to learn more about the harbour… from the harbour!

Museums

I’ve already mentioned Te Papa, which is certainly the star attraction when it comes to museums, but there are also plenty of other museums in Wellington worth visiting. In fact, there are more than 50 (depending on how you define ‘museum).

Wellington Museum

My favourite museum (other than Te Papa) is the Wellington Museum, which tells the story of the city through different lenses. Even its location, in a former cargo warehouse, is a little bit of history.

The exhibition on the lower floor runs through some of the key events and topics that have turned Wellington into the city it is today, while the second floor focuses on maritime issues and the third floor on Māori stories.

Wellington Museum, New Zealand

But the best exhibition of the Wellington Museum is on the top floor, with dozens of ‘quirky’ items that each tell a funny or interesting stale about a little slice of Wellington life that has happened in the city over the years, from UFO sightings to stuffed lions.

City Gallery

You’ll easily spot City Gallery by the five-metre-high sculpture on its roof of a hybrid hand and face. But, go inside, and the bulk of the artworks will be waiting for you.

City Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand

City Gallery is dedicated to contemporary art and has a regularly changing selection of exhibitions in different forms, like painting, photography, and video. There are seven galleries that can be used in different ways to offer a variety of things to see.

National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery, housed in a historic shed, is relatively small but uses its space well to host different exhibitions showcasing items from its own collection or on interesting specialty topics.

The exhibitions could be of famous people like politicians and actors, or it might be about lesser-known characters who have made an important contribution to the narrative of New Zealand. When I visit, for example, the exhibition is about how the New Zealand Wars have been portrayed on film.

National Portrait Gallery, Wellington, NZ

Next door is the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, a group of emerging and established artists that uses its exhibition space to show works from its members. To be honest, there’s a range of quality here, but that’s the point – it’s about celebrating people who love art, not just famous artists.

Dowse Art Museum

The previous museums I’ve mentioned are all along the waterfront and will be very easy to find when you’re exploring that area. (They’re also all free, so there’s no reason not to pop in and have a look.)

The Dowse Art Museum is across the water in Lower Hutt, which is an area many tourists don’t venture to, but I wanted to mention it anyway because it’s got a reputation for really interesting exhibitions, so art-lovers might like to make the effort.

The museum’s been going for more than 50 years and has a focus on studio craft like ceramics, textiles and weaving. But it also has regular temporary exhibitions of the usual media like paintings, photography, and sculptures.

Petone Settlers Museum

While you’re over in Lower Hutt, another museum worth visiting is the Petone Settlers Museum, which tells the stories of people who have made their home in the suburb of Petone, here on the waterfront.

It’s not a large museum, but has several small exhibitions about the culture and the history of the early European settlement, as well as the Māori leaders who were here already. It then traces the story of the industrial era through to modern times.

The museum’s building is particularly significant – the Wellington Provincial Centennial Memorial, which was originally used as a bathing pavilion!

New Zealand Police Museum

And, even further away up at Porirua, you’ll find the New Zealand Police Museum on the campus of the country’s police college.

It has a large collection of items from criminal cases on display, which it uses to tell the stories of prominent events, disasters, and crimes in New Zealand’s history. These include evidence from murder investigations, the infamous 1981 Springbok Tour, and the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.

While the New Zealand Police Museum might be of more interest to locals who know the cases being covered, there’s still plenty of interesting stuff for anyone to discover here.

Parliamentary district

Unlike somewhere like Canberra or Washington DC, it can sometimes be easy to forget that Wellington is New Zealand’s capital, because the political neighbourhood isn’t an overbearing part of the city.

But, for visitors, I would recommend not ignoring the politics completely, because the parliamentary district has some really interesting sights.

New Zealand Parliament Buildings

The focus of the parliamentary district is obviously the New Zealand Parliament Buildings, where the national government sits.

Several distinct buildings make up the complex here, with the most iconic being the modern Beehive, opened in 1977. It’s a strange looking circular building (which apparently makes office shapes quite impractical) that is ten stories high with a copper roof. It’s used by the executive wing, with the Cabinet rooms on the top floor and the Prime Minister’s office one level down from that.

New Zealand Parliament Buildings, Wellington

Next to The Beehive is Parliament House, the main building that has The Chamber for parliamentary business, as well as other important rooms. It looks the most traditional, built between 1914 and 1922 in an Edwardian neoclassical style.

You can go inside the parliament buildings on a guided tour that take you to places like The Chamber, Grand Hall, Parliamentary Library, and Beehive theatre. It’s free but you need to book in advance here.

Old Government Buildings

Right across the road from the Beehive, you’ll see the Old Government Buildings, which are also an important landmark in the parliamentary district. The large yellow structure was opened in 1876 and is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings.

Originally used to house New Zealand’s public service, the Old Government Buildings have also been used by the Cabinet and the Executive Council. But these days it now just has the Law School of the University of Wellington.

Old Government Buildings, Wellington, NZ

Some parts are open to the public, and you can see the displays on the ground floor and the Cabinet room on the first floor, along with the gardens. It’s free to go in, or there are paid tours available.

Old St Paul’s

On the other side of the parliament buildings is the main Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, a modern concrete building that wasn’t finished until 1998 (although it began to be used in 1964).

And while you may like to pop in and see the cathedral, the more significant heritage building is the small church it replaced a few blocks away, now known as Old St Paul’s, which you can also visit during the day.

Old St Paul's, Wellington, NZ

Old St Paul’s was built in 1865 from native timbers that give the impression inside of an upturned galleon. Brass fittings, stained glass windows, and embroidered furnishings add to the colourful textured interior. It’s considered one of the most important heritage buildings in New Zealand.

Thorndon

The suburb to the north of the parliament buildings (and the west a bit too) is known as Thorndon and it is full of historic buildings like Old St Paul’s. I would recommend just wandering the streets to see what you can find amongst the weatherboard exteriors and decorative balconies.

Many of the heritage structures are now used as embassies and high commissions, but the Katherine Mansfield House, now a museum, is a good option if you want to go inside to have a look at an interior.

Tinakori Road, Thorndon, Wellington

There are some pretty impressive houses on Tinakori Road (including the Prime Minister’s official residence – although that’s hard to see from the road), and you’ll also find cute antique and vintage stores along the strip here, so it’s worth a bit of a stroll.

Nature

One of the things I love about the city is that it is surrounded by stunning nature, and some of the best things to do in Wellington will take you amongst the lush greenery to see the wildlife.

I’ve already mentioned the star of the natural attractions – Zealandia – but there are some other great ones worth considering for your visit.

Mount Victoria

Very early on, European settlers saw the benefits of nature, and a large amount of land was set aside in 1841 for ‘public recreation’. This included Mount Victoria, on the eastern side of the city.

Although you can drive up to the top of Mount Victoria, it’s also a popular walking trail that only takes about 20 minutes (one way) from the urban edge, or about 30 minutes from Oriental Bay. From the top, you get a stunning 360 degree panorama of Wellington.

Wellington Botanic Garden

In the hills on the western side of the city centre, the Wellington Botanic Garden brings species from around the wold to the urban environment. Across 25 hectares, there are ancient forests, colourful flower beds, and even cacti.

You can walk through the garden’s trails, through the rose garden and past outdoor art pieces, as well as some heritage areas (the garden was established in 1844).

Wellington Botanic Garden

The Cable Car goes to the top of the Wellington Botanic Garden and you can then walk back down to the city that way – or you can go uphill and then continue on to Zealandia.

Wellington Zoo

As New Zealand’s first zoo, founded in 1906, Wellington Zoo is significant. It has an important breeding program and takes part in a range of conservation project.

But, having said that, it’s not particularly large and has a lot of foreign animals that you would find in zoos all around the world. Personally, I think the native fauna should be a focus of your trip to Wellington and you’ll find those species in better places around the city.

I’m mentioning Wellington Zoo because it might be a good fit for a family holiday, but this isn’t a site you should feel like you need to visit.

Matiu/Somes Island

A better use of your time might be to head over to Matiu/Somes Island, in the middle of Wellington Harbour.

The island has had various uses over the years, including as a defence fortress, a lighthouse, and a quarantine station – and these parts of its heritage can be explored on a visit, with a ferry taking you over.

These days Matiu/Somes Island is being reforested with New Zealand plants, while native animals are being released into the pest-free environment. You’ll see many of these species on the loop track around the island that takes about 40 minutes to walk.

Food and drink

Wellington has always had a bit of a reputation as a foodie destination, but it seems as though things have really accelerated in recent years. Not only are there fantastic new restaurants opening all the time, artisanal producers (often using local ingredients) are becoming more common in all aspects of the city’s food and drink scene.

I think a huge part of why you would come to Wellington is to experience its culinary delights, so here are a few tips for the best food experiences in Wellington.

Food tours

To get an overview of Wellington’s food scene, the best way to start is with a food tour. I’m sure you would be able to find some of the top restaurants in the city centre by yourself, but an expert guide will take you beyond the obvious, with lots of local insight.

As well as restaurants and cafes, most food tours in Wellington introduce you to some of the local producers and also cover things like coffee and possibly craft beer (but more on that in a second). And, as one of the key features of Wellington’s restaurants is their multicultural diversity, expect to try everything from hummus to curry.

Wellington food tours

If you really want to dive into the culinary scene, there’s this full-day food tour. Otherwise I’ve got some suggestions for half-day tours here:

Craft beer tour

Alongside the rise of the city’s food scene, there’s also been an explosion of craft beer breweries in Wellington – so much that it’s now one of the things the city is known for.

While the big player in town (in a craft beer sense) is Garage Project, others are making a name for themselves – particularly those with a strong bar presence in the city centre, like Fork & Brewer, Fortune Favours, and Whistling Sisters.

Wellington craft beer tour

Many of the craft breweries are doing really interesting things with local New Zealand hops and other native ingredients. While you can obviously do a tasting on your own, I would recommend this excellent craft beer tour, where you’ll get to try some really interesting drinks and meet the local brewers.

Best restaurants

There is no shortage of excellent restaurants in Wellington, and I doubt you will be able to try all the ones you want in just one visit. The top ones don’t just offer great food – they also have welcoming atmospheres, with cool interiors without any pretension.

While I don’t have space here to mention all of the best places to eat in Wellington, I did want to mention a few of my favourites that you might like to try when you visit.

  • Neo Cafe: This small cafe puts most of its effort into interesting brunch options, celebrating local artisan producers and seasonal ingredients. It’s also got great coffee (of course!).
  • Karaka Cafe: Conveniently close to attractions like Te Papa, Karaka promotes Māori and Pacifica food – with specialties like a hāngi (a meal cooked underground with heated rocks).
  • Chaat Street: Although it’s all indoors, Chaat Street is emulating the street food of India, particularly dishes from across the country that aren’t as well known.
  • Kisa: Inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine (with a large Turkish focus), Kisa has a wide range of share plates that makes this perfect for a group.
  • Shepherd: You’ll find Shepherd in the foodie hub of Hannahs Laneway, offering excellent seasonal dishes in a space that feels like casual sophistication.
  • Field & Green: The regularly changing menu at this upmarket restaurant finds its origins in European soul food, with homemade ice cream one of the dessert favourites.
  • Atlas: No detail is overlooked in each of the specially-prepared dishes, best enjoyed as part of the set multi-course daily menu matched with excellent New Zealand wines.

As you can see, there’s a real range from hip casual right up to elegant fine dining – it’s one of the reasons everyone has been able to embrace Wellington’s food scene.

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