Wellington – The Coolest Little Capital
The Kiwis, as New Zealanders love to call themselves, hail Wellington as ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ and I have to agree that for a tiny city – a population of roughly 250,000 – Wellington packs a pretty good punch. I spent a couple months there on and off, in between my time trying to infiltrate a certain film production and working for Greenpeace, and I was constantly finding new things and places to explore. I also got a taste 0f variety of events including the Seven Rugby Tournament, a Southeast Asian Night Market, and the New Zealand Film Festival. Whether it’s shopping on the lively Cuba Street downtown, checking out the exhibits of the national museum Te Papa Tongarewa, or getting lost in the surrounding hills like a hobbit, Wellington has something for almost everyone. It’s hard for me to sum it all up because it was my home, but I will say this: it’s about a million times better than Auckland!
What to Do
This is a very broad category for any city and it really depends on what you like to do and how much time you have on your hands. Wellington has lots of cultural offerings with film, art, and museums and beautiful nature with the rolling hills and numerous bays. Here’s some recommendations…
- Te Papa Tongarewa – Whether you like museums or not you should check the national museum out because you’ll learn a lot about New Zealand and its diverse population and environment, see Maori art, and the giant squid. I, personally, love museums and I usually visit several in most places I go to. Some are amazing, others are normal, or mediocre. Te Papa is one of the best I’ve been to. Did I mention that this place is free!
- Miramar/Wellywood – The most grandiose filming locations from Lord of the Rings are scattered across the islands and if you want to see Hobbiton you’ll have to drive to Matamata, but Wellington is the heart of Peter Jackson’s filmmaking empire. “Wellywood”, as it is often called, can be found out on the peninsula in the Miramar suburb. Here you can walk by Stone Street Studios, Park Street Post, Weta Workshop and visit the Weta Museum to see some of the film memorabilia.
- Cuba Street & Courtenay Place – Probably the most popular streets in the city, Cuba and Courtenay are home to the best pubs, eateries, cafés, and thrift shops. You can catch independent films at the old Paramount theater on Courtenay or check out live music at the San Francisco Bath House on Cuba. More often than not, you’ll also find buskers setting up shop on Cuba and it’s a prime location for people watching.
- Mt. Victoria – You can spend quite some time hiking around the hills and even wander into the locations for a couple Lord of the Rings scenes, including the scenes shot on the very first day of production. Get yourself to the lookout point and you’ll have an amazing view of the city and surrounding bays. This was one of the advantages of parking my camper van at the base.
- Cable Car & Botanical Gardens – For lovers of funicular railway cars you can take the cable car from Lambton Quay up to the Botanic Gardens. Commuters and tourists use it alike. I never used it myself, but I did spend many afternoons enjoying the Botanical Gardens. During the summer, you can also check out free film screenings in the rose garden section of the park.
- Zealandia – Nestled in the heart of my old stomping grounds of Karori, this park is either for those who have kids or really love nature, specifically birds. If you don’t know, NZ is famous for birds and trying desperately to keep the ones that haven’t gone extinct from doing so. Here’s your chance to see some of them. I was in Wellington for so long I managed to get in here on a Wellington dollar day so I paid only a dollar instead of the almost $20 adult ticket. It was a cool experience to see some rare native birds (i.e. the Kiwi) and I’m glad I got in at a severely reduced price because otherwise I would have missed it.
- Disappear Into Nature – This is the best thing about New Zealand and it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the woods and bays around Wellington. I spent an entire days wandering up in the forest by Karori Park, exploring the coast around the peninsula, and hanging out by Lyall Bay (where the hobbits learned to surf).
- Day Trips – If you have enough time you can take some day trips a bit further and there’s plenty of options. You can go out to the Hutt Valley and visit Rivendell in Kaitoke Regional Park, spend some time along the beautiful Kaipiti Coast, go to Martinborough in the Wairarapa district for wine tasting, or take the ferry down through the Marlborough Sounds to Picton on the South Island.
If you are in town and looking for things that a Wellingtonian might do, check out the site WatzOn which is a community guide to practically everything that’s happening in the city.
Where/What to Eat
As a rule, I wasn’t floored by the culinary options anywhere in New Zealand, but I guess living in Los Angeles has spoiled me in terms of gastronomy. Wellington, however, does have a greater variety than most of New Zealand and if you’re seeking world flavors there’s Indian, Japanese, Turkish, American, Italian, French, Thai, and Mexican (depending on the refinement of your tastebuds). The best streets to check out are Cuba Street and Courtenay Place where you can find lots of unique cafés. Some of the places I found I liked quite a bit were:
- Midnight Expresso – Delicious coffee and lots of vegetarian and vegan options all written out on a chalkboard menu. I could even get avocado! Cool vibe and a window bar so you can look out on the street.
- Espressoholic – More coffee and espresso, duh. They also have some good café breakfast foods on their menu.
- Fidel’s – A super popular café with a great coffee and baked goods selection. It’s got the hip vibe of Cuba Street coffee shops and is a very relaxed atmosphere to hang out in. Try the snickers milkshake — so good!
- Sweet Mother’s Kitchen – I guess I’d call it the soul food of Wellington. Their food is of the Cajun and southwest variety. I ordered a burrito there once and it was good, but not proper Mexican.
- Kapai – The place to go if you want the fresh, local, health food type stuff that reminds me of California vegetarian/vegan places even though they serve meat. Really great salads, falafel, wraps, and nutritionally packed juices.
- The Matterhorn – You don’t get named NZ’s top restaurant on multiple occasions for nothing. A little bit on the pricey end, due to the awards and all, but there’s a menu of full meals, drinks, and even tapas.
- Higher Taste Hare Krishna Restaurant – It’s not actually on Cuba or Courtenay, but it’s unlimited vegetarian food at a fixed price so I can’t not recommend it. You can find it over on Willis Street.
If you’re in the mood for burgers or looking for something really filling check out the Burger Fuel on Courtenay Place. They serve some whopping burgers with delicious sauce and the best part, for me, was there was more than just one vegetarian/vegan option. That’s right, a vegan burger option outside of California! Lastly, if you want to eat like a Kiwi you should have the one thing they are absolutely nutty about: fish & chips. For the most part I maintain my vegetarianism on the road, but I have in the past forgone my dietary restriction to sample specific dishes and I admit that I once ate more than just the chips from a shop with freshly caught fish. You can get them almost anywhere and they all taste roughly the same — I’m no fish and chips expert by any means.
Kiwis love to head to the pub after a day of work and New Zealand, by all accounts, has some decent beers to choose from. Wander up and down Cuba and Courtenay Place in the evening and you’ll find more than enough options, but if you stray from here you can stumble into some hidden places. But here’s a list to get you started:
- The Bristol – A spacious pub/food place that had pool tables upstairs. This is where the Wellington couchsurfing crew always met up.
- The San Francisco Bath House – It’s one of the primary live music venues and, as a Cuba Street staple, worth checking out.
- Bodega – Located on Ghuzee Street, this is another bar/music venue. There’s a couple different environments, with a main stage and a garden bar.
- The Hawthorn Lounge – Hidden in the upstairs room behind a gym on Tory St. this is a 1930s-style bar with an impressive range of cocktails. Definitely an interesting scene to check out.
- Mighty Mighty – Looking for a dance party at the end of the night? You might want to check this Cuba Street joint with a full bar, giant stage and eclectic clientele.
- Ancestral – A restaurant/bar on Courtenay with a courtyard that has a cocktail bar (and lots of smokers). You can order a variety of Asian style food if you get hungry.
- Brühaus – They have a good selection of beer and gave out free samples. I do have a slight beef against them though because they kicked me out once because they thought I wasn’t old enough.
If you’re really into beer/craft beer I would check out the ratings here because there are so many places to choose from.
Where to Stay
New Zealand has a number of excellent hostels and you can find a number of them clustered in the downtown area. The most popular places are YHA Wellington City, Downtown Backpackers, Nomads Capital, and Base Wellington. Doing a simple search on Hostelworld or Hostelbookers will give you plenty of options. If you’re going to be doing hosteling around the country get yourself one of the YHA cards (at any YHA hostel) and you’ll save yourself some money. I like to tout couchsurfing as my favorite way to find places to stay and fellow surfers will be happy to find out Wellington has one of the more active communities with a weekly pub outing. Try hitting one of them up to see if their couch is available. There’s plenty of hotel options in Wellington for medium to high range budgets. Any hotel search would lead you to them. I would pick one close to either the waterfront or Cuba/Courtenay if you can. Or if you are a real adventurer and have decided to tour New Zealand in a camper van/car (which I recommend), I spent several weeks parked up by the Victoria Bowling Club next to the Haitaitai bus tunnel. You didn’t hear it from me.
Internet & Wifi
One of the most important things as a traveler these days is the internet and I can tell you unless you’ve been living without a connection in Siberia, New Zealand will disappoint and shock you with its terrible connection. Okay, maybe I’m overstating it, but seriously, there’s only one cable servicing the entire country. Data costs a small fortune and you pay for every megabyte so be careful! I’m addicted to the internet so I quickly tapped into Wellington’s free wifi sources – namely the Te Papa Museum and the adjacent waterfront and any McDonalds location.
The city is very well connected and the buses will take you anywhere you want to go. If you’re hanging out for a while or are in a big group I would recommend getting a Snapper card. You pay less for each ride and you can charge multiple people to one card. You can buy them at any Dairy or online and then use it on the bus and some of the shops. This is only if you’re staying in Wellington for a while and plan on taking lots of bus trips. Walking was my favorite way to get around and Wellington is very walkable. Admittedly, I have a higher tolerance for walking than most people and I would sometimes hit around 30km/day on my excursion between the suburb of Karori and downtown. If you are just staying in downtown, everything is within half an hour of walking. It’s really the best way if you want to discover all of Wellington’s little secret hideouts. Wellington also had taxis, of course, and if you are staying for an extended period of time and have the cash, cars are extremely simple to buy and sell. There’s just an exchange of cash and one document to sign and bring to the Post Office.
When to Visit
Wellington is nice almost any time of the year and not quite so dependent on seasonal tourism like other New Zealand cities. That being said, I’m terrified of the rain and cold which made me completely miserable when the winter rains came in. I was also living in my van for most of the cold weather. In light of this I recommend being there in or around the summer months — November through March — as it will be the most pleasant and you can take advantage of all the summer events.