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As a previous resident of Wellington, (lived in Island Bay for 6 years), I left few neighbourhoods un-explored and whilst ‘Welly‘ may not have the kitschy tourist attractions like other big tourist hotspots in New Zealand, it’s the understated coolness that makes Wellington worthy of a visit, all on it’s own.
It’s just over a 3 hour flight from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane which means you could easily head there for a long weekend.
You could spend a week in Wellington and still have sights left to see but 72 hours is enough to give you a taste and chances are, you’ll love it. (Be warned, my first 72 hour visit to Wellington enticed me to move there)
Whilst Wellington is off the radar to most tourists visiting New Zealand (unless they happen to catch the ferry across the straight meaning they may spend a night) it’s a cross between Melbourne with it’s indie-artsy vibe and San Francisco with it’s hills, trams and wooden architecture.
But as ‘the coolest little capital’ it has everything a good city should; theatre, independent cinemas, eateries, nightlife, a sports stadium, shopping, arts and museums and excellent markets. Just to top it off, it has a beautiful harbour, which often counts dolphins and orcas as visitors.
Wellington (WLG) being a tiny airport means arriving is always a breeze (pun intended). Welly airport is only a 15 minute drive into town so you can be dropping your bags off and hitting the sights in no time.
There’s two different sides to Wellington. The tourist side which includes Te Papa Museum, The Cable Car and Mt Victoria lookout, along with the WETA cave experience (studio that made The Hobbit).
However on the local side is the funky hidden bars, the beachside cafe’s, awesome fish n chips, the independent theatre and cinemas, the arts and the ease at which everything can be done. It’s a great city to live in and experiencing Wellington as a local is the only way to understand what makes Wellington, unique.
Maybe it’s the cooler climate but Wellingtonians take their coffee seriously. Many arguments have been had over which roaster offer the more exquisite beans. True coffee snobs don’t just choose a cafe because it’s convenient, instead their preferred beans. Ultimately the best bean comes down to personal preference, notable award winners include People’s Coffee, Havana, Flight and Mojo. If these names mean nothing, you’ll soon notice each cafe has a sign out the front advertising what coffee they use. All beans are sustainably sourced, fair trade and organic.
A cute little cafe with handmade gifts, in a quiet street is Little Haven in the suburb of Pinehaven in the northern suburbs of Wellington.
It’s said there are more cafe’s per head in Wellington than there are in New York!
Art, markets, craft and fairs
Being a university town invites a vibrant and thriving arts community. So once you’ve grabbed a coffee, immerse yourself amongst the street Art commonly found around Cuba St, Aro Valley and Newtown; as well as laneways in the CBD. Wind sculpture artist Len Lye created the colourful wind sculptures along the water near the airport.
Markets in Wellington are packed with uniquely kiwi hand-made craft featuring kiwis, Maori motifs, and jewellry made from locally sourced materials such as jade and paua shell.
Notable markets include:
Frank Kitts Underground Market – Fantastic food, lots of jewellery and hand-made accessories. Saturdays 10am-4pm. Jervois Quay, Wellington Waterfront
Capital Market – Vintage, hand-made crafts, clothes and the best Asian streetfood in Welly. Open 7 days 10:30am-9pm. 151 Willis St Wellington.
Harbourside Market – Fresh fruit & vegetables, food trucks, fish off the boat, and fresh bread make this a foodie haven. Sundays 10am-2pm. Wellington Waterfront, adjacent to Te Papa Museum.
Theatre & independent cinemas
Once you’ve had your fill of markets, you’ll want to escape the wind. Being home to WETA & Park Road (Peter Jackson’s film studios) and also filmmaker James Cameron moved here to make the Avatar sequels, means independent cinemas still have a strong place in Wellington. Some cinemas offer intimate lounge experiences with only 8-10 seats! All are licensed.
Notable cinemas include:
Embassy Theatre – Iconic grand classic theatre with modern equipment. At the end of Courtney Place. 10 Kent Terrace Mt Victoria.
Lighthouse Cinema – Technically a chain of small independent theatres. It’s more like watching a movie in a lounge room with cushions and lamps. Intimate. 29 Wigan St Wellington.
Paramount Cinema – Arthouse, documentaries, foreign films. Grungy. Courtney Place.
Roxy Cinema – Located in Miramar (near WETA Studios) it features renovated Art Deco design with a jazz bar, restaurant and leather seats.
Penthouse – Located in Brooklyn. It’s older whilst retaining it’s historic Art Deco feel. Features Arthouse, with modern films and a busy little cafe.
Empire Cinema – As an Island Bay local this was a favourite. It’s been renovated and features a nice cafe not far from I.B shops.
Downtown Wellington is home to five theatres and combined, it would be safe to assume a show could be attended any night of the week.
The St James theatre and the Opera House (both Courtney Place) are the grandest of them all and home to the NZ School of Ballet. Think opera, classical, ballet and Shakespeare.
The Circa theatre (Waterfront, outside Te Papa) is a modern theatre playing established and award winning plays.
Gryphon Theatre (just off Cuba St) sits somewhere between Circa and BATS. More elaborate stages and regularly hosts it’s own versions of Shakespeare.
BATS Theatre(Just off Cuba St, near the Umbrella) is small, intimate and cheap. Shows vary from one person with no set to elaborate multi set changes. Expect edgy, sometimes weird, often humorous and well written plays that change regularly. Usually two plays a night.
The Kiwis love their sport as much as the Aussies and the main stadiums are all within walking distance of the CBD. The waterfront is always full of runners and cyclists and wellington is also home to regular triathlons.
Westpac Stadium (AKA The Cake Tin) is home to the Hurricanes (rugby), the Phoenix (A-League) and of course the All Blacks if they are in town. Bigger cricket matches are played here. Tickets can be purchased for most games on the day unless the All Blacks are playing.
The Basin reserve is the home of cricket in Wellington and is essentially just a big roundabout. Has lots of grassy areas is a short walk from Courtney Place and also houses the cricket museum.
TSB Arena houses sports like basketball, netball, roller derby as well as hosting occasional concerts.
Bars & nightlife
WIth Courtney Place the hub of nightlife, you can easily sample many Wellington bars within a few streets. Some are so small they can only fit a few people whilst others seem to house an entire university crowd. Flavours change and new bars crop up all the time. There’s also a growing craft beer crowd and you can even make your own. The New World Supermarket in Island Bay has more craft beers than any other shop in New Zealand. Here’s a list of some of the more interesting bars:
Ponderosa – A cowboy themed bar with a riding bull. Bar staff used to dance on the bar and pour shots straight from the bottle. Popular music. Opposite Establishment.
The Library – An intimate cocktail bar with walls filled with books including some rarities. Entry adjacent to Burger King.
Alice – The ultimate ‘finding this makes you a local’. It’s a bar within a bar. There’s two entrances, go down the lane behind Burger King to the white rabbit neon sign or go into Boogie Wonderland, head to the bathrooms and take the door to the left. Expect furry green walls and cocktails served in teapots.
Danger Danger – Cheap drinks, non-stop 80’s music and a balcony great for people watching. Courtney Place.
The Cavern Club – A replica of the famous underground Liverpool club which includes it’s own Beatles cover band.
The Welsh Dragon Bar – Located on a median strip near the Embassy Theatre which used to be public toilets.
The Harbour & coastline
Wellington harbour regularly hosts schools of dolphins and orcas and it’s wind makes it a popular sailing spot. There are ferries across the harbour stopping at Somes Island which hosts the annual Zombie run. An ex-quarantine facility it’s spooky by itself, add to that professionally made up zombies (by the WETA crew) with nowhere to run but around the island and you have a literal end of days horror scenario. Spectacular sunsets are seen from the multiple lookouts along the South Coast walkway.
The south coast landscape is like reaching the ends of the earth. Dominating cliffs drop away to freezing cold waves home to penguin and seal colonies and the Island Bay Marine Education Centre.
It’s a mini hands-on aquarium with all creatures sourced locally from cook straight. Staffed by knowledgeable volunteers and famous for their ability to breed octopus eggs to full term in captivity.
Bus #1 heads to Island Bay and the Marine Education centre is the orange building on the waterfront. There is a snorkel trail adjacent to the marine education centre and gear is available to hire from the dive shop near the bus stop.
For a non-Wellingtonian the best fish and chips, like coffee is a highly debatable topic. Paperboat in Berhampore used to feature freshly caught fish from Cook Straight and you could taste the difference. Wellington Trawling Sea Market On Cuba St (head away from the waterfront, up the hill) is pretty good and we used to get a feed there on Fridays at work. Plimmerton Fish Supply However was the one people always raved about. It’s out of town but worth the trip. But if you’re staying in an apartment, you can’t beat the freshly caught fish off the boat from the Sunday markets, and cook it yourself. Whitebait fritters and Paua fritters are a local delicacy and don’t be surprised to see kiwi’s splashing tomato sauce all over their fish.
Out of town
Whilst Welly has plenty to fill your days, it’s proximity to the Wairarapa wine region is another tick for reasons to visit. Accessible via train or rental car the epicentre is Martinborough. An artsy whimsical town with multiple vineyards accessible via bicycle which can be hired in the town square. If hiring a car it’s worth staying overnight and exploring the other towns Greytown, Featherstone, and Masterton. Llandaff Country Residence is an elegant English-style B & B three kilometres out of Masterton.
From the Wairarapa, Cape Palliser is a wild, windstrewn stretch of coastline that ends with a lonely lighthouse atop 500 steps overlooking a permanent seal colony.
You can fish straight off the beach and I caught multiple blue cod within 10 minutes. Don’t be surprised to see sharks trawling the coast at dusk. There is also a free campground on the waterfront.
There’s plenty of apartment style hotels in Wellington. You can easily walk around town but anywhere near Cuba St or Courtney Place is handy. I’ve stayed at the Mercure and the YHA, both decent and convenient. Check Agoda for the best prices.
After a morning wandering markets, an afternoon at a tiny cinema, followed by an evening play.
It’s easy to see why Wellington is the kind of city that doesn’t need kitschy tourist attractions to be put on the map. It has style and charisma and that’s all it needs.
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