Wellington, windy, windy Wellington. The capital of New Zealand, dubbed ‘The coolest little capital in the world’ by the Lonely Planet (2011), is a compact city of less than half a million people tucked between the mountains of the southern North Island and the Cook Strait. It is also one of the windiest cities on Earth. Despite this, it is among my favourite cities; I first visited in February 2015 while taking the Stray backpacker bus around the country and I am now lucky enough to currently live and work here. For a small city, there is plenty to do with many cafés and bars, hiking trails and attractions such as Te Papa museum.
How to get there and when to go?
Being the capital city there are quite a few ways to get here, including flights (domestic and international) into Wellington Airport just a few kilometres from the city centre, ferries across from the South Island or by car via SH1. The backpacker buses such as Stray and Kiwi Experience also stop here. While there are things to do here all year round, I would recommend visiting Wellington in the summer, days are usually dry and warm at around 20°C with light evenings until about 9pm. If visiting over the Christmas and New Year period though then be aware that a lot of the Wellington locals leave the city at this time, meaning that it can be very quiet with shops and cafés having reduced opening hours.
The hills surrounding Wellington make an excellent hiking (or tramping as the Kiwis call it) destination and there are plenty of trails to choose from. The Southern, City to Sea and Skyline Walkways can all be accessed from the city centre and provide a decent days walking. The Southern and City to Sea Walkways run to and from Island Bay on the south coast and mainly pass through the town belt and parkland, the former also taking in Mount Victoria. While both are pretty hilly, neither are too challenging for those with reasonable fitness. I recently made a day of it, walking to Island Bay on the Southern Walkway and back along part of the City to Sea. Further out from the city itself, although still within easy reach, there are walking opportunities from Days Bay and Eastbourne, which can be accessed via the Harbour Ferry, and around the Rimutaka Mountains, accessible by car.
Cafés and bars
Wellington is well known for having an abundance of cafés and you definitely won’t be stuck for somewhere to get a good coffee – it’s difficult to walk down a street without seeing a café or two! A couple of my personal favourites include the very friendly Aro Café on Aro Street and the Enigma Café on Courtenay Place (mainly for their yummy cakes and desserts!) which is open well into the evening. There are also plenty of bars in the city, predominantly around Courtenay Place and Cuba Street. There is a wide range to suit all tastes, from the loud party bars such as Electric Avenue, to craft beer pubs such as Little Beer Quarter and more sophisticated cocktail bars like the Library.
New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa, is right on the waterfront and is well worth a visit. It has several floors full of both permanent and temporary exhibits which include the colossal squid (check it out here: http://www.squid.tepapa.govt.nz/exhibition) and a very popular current exhibition (there until 2018) about ANZAC involvement in Gallipoli during the First World War. Entry to the museum is free, as are most of the exhibitions.
One of Wellington’s main venues, the Westpac Stadium, hosts many sporting events throughout the year. Back in February I managed to see my first ever live game of cricket as we arrived the same week as England played Sri Lanka in the World Cup. I have also seen Aussie Rules football, catching the ANZAC Day game there and have watched several rugby games there as well. It’s really easy to get to from the city centre and is located just a few minutes walk from the train and bus station.
Ideas for a weekend in Wellington
Firstly, I would definitely recommend spending longer than a weekend in the city and if you are travelling on a backpacker bus such as Stray or Kiwi Experience then definitely consider hopping off – I ended up spending a week here the first time I visited! However if a couple of days is all you have then here are a few ideas for how to make the most of it.
Start off the weekend by heading out for a coffee on a Saturday morning at one of the many cafés here before spending a couple of hours checking out the exhibits at Te Papa by the harbour. After lunch, head up Lambton Quay to the New Zealand Parliament for a free tour or take the cable car up to the Botanic Gardens and Observatory. Head down Cuba Street for the Saturday Night Market from 5pm where you will find lots of stalls selling delicious street food such as dumplings and deep-fried ice cream. The market is open until 11pm and is in the perfect location for hanging out in a few bars afterwards. After a relaxed Sunday morning brunch, try a walk up to the summit of Mount Victoria for beautiful views over the city and harbour, or catch the bus up to the top if you prefer. The walk is fairly steep so allow a couple of hours. On calmer days, relax for a while on the beach along Oriental Parade or grab a drink at one of the bars along the waterfront, several of which have beanbags to sit on outside in the sun.
If you do have more time in Wellington then consider a day walk along one of the many trails, such as the City to Sea Walkway which takes you from the Botanic Gardens to Island Bay (you can get a bus back into the city centre) or visit Otari-Wilton’s Bush (about 20mins away by bus), a reserve with several shorter walking routes and access up to the Skyline Walkway. Also consider hiring a car for a day trip into the Wairarapa region. There are many vineyards which can be explored by bike or drive around the coast to Cape Palliser, the southernmost point of the North Island. Brave the 300-odd steps up to the lighthouse or watch the seals basking on the rocks. All in all, this is definitely a city that should be featuring on everyone’s travel wish list!