The capital city of little old New Zealand will always have a place in my heart. Often overshadowed by its big brother Auckland, Wellington was named the Coolest Little Capital by Lonely Planet – and for good reason. It’s a small but vibrant city which is set amid the beautiful scenery of the South Pacific and is home to countless bars and boutiques, a rich culinary (and caffeine) scene, and the genius that is Sir Peter Jackson. It’s quirky, it’s cool; an energetic city bursting with character.
The world’s southern-most capital is normally only treated to a couple of days on a tourist’s pressured and overpacked itinerary of the country, but, if you can, it really is worth lingering around a little longer. If you’re thinking about coming to New Zealand on a Working Holiday Visa and aren’t sure where to base yourself, I vote Welly.
The first time James and I saw Wellington was the day we got the ferry across the Cook Strait from the sunny shores of Nelson, on the South Island. We were met with grey skies and that horrible drizzly rain that makes you incredibly soaked after just 30 seconds in it. That first day, we drove straight through the city but we knew we’d be back. We had already fallen in love with Wellington, just from what others had told us about it. We knew we would love living there, despite the rain. After travelling the North Island, we returned to Welly in early February, where we planned to work for three months. We ended up staying for 10!
Moving home to the UK from New Zealand was never going to be easy, but moving home from Wellington was really, very difficult. As I struggle to get over my grief for leaving such an incredible place, I find myself remembering all the wonderful things about the city I lived in, worked in, and loved…
It’s small, but charming
The city centre of Wellington isn’t very big and is on the flat part of land by the sea. The houses have been built into the hills, meaning you’re surrounded by nature, but you feel like you’re miles away from the city. Public transport is great, with a network of buses and the cable car, and it only takes between 30-45 mins to get from one side of the city to the other by car or bus. The airport is located in Miramar, and honestly, I have never found it so easy to get from my house to an airport before! Wellington’s small size means it doesn’t feel like a capital city. The only hustle and bustle is in the CBD; you can drive for 10 minutes and feel like you’re lost in the wilderness.
Also, everyone knows everyone. One of my colleagues at work was related to my housemate!
Wellington is still relatively unknown on the culinary scene in global terms, however the options for foods from around the world are almost endless. An article recently published by National Geographic named Wellington one of six unexpected cities for the food lover!
There are cafes and restaurants dotted all over the city, but along with the well-known chains, you have the boutique or family-run gems offering a different experience every time. Cuba Street is the place to be for food, with eateries spilling out onto the pavement, and on a Friday evening, you’ll stumble across the famous Friday Night Market, where you can buy anything from authentic Asian dishes (think dumplings, noodles, rice dishes…), to Italian pizzas, Mexican burritos, and traditional hangi – the traditional Māori dish eaten by native New Zealanders.
Here are some of my favourite places to eat in Wellington:
Fidel’s – For incredible breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and cocktails.
Spruce Goose – Situated in Lyall Bay, the restaurant is in a repurposed airport building. Lots of vegan options and views of both the runway and the sea.
Aunty Mena’s – Best vegan food in Wellington; delicious, affordable Asian dishes.
Mexico – We loved the Mexico in Auckland and so had to go to the one in Wellington too. Their menu changes with the seasons so you always have an excuse to go back!
Ekim – More a food-truck-in-a-courtyard than a restaurant, Ekim’s burgers are the best I’ve ever eaten. No joke!
Midnight Espresso – A quirky little cafe which serves yummy cakes and delicious meals, and they don’t charge extra for soy milk!
Olive – A bit more pricey but so worth it. The most beautiful garden with an outdoor kitchen too!
Rasa – Incredible authentic Malaysian and Indian dishes; we recommend the dosas and the Gado Gado.
Phoenician Falafel – Delicious authentic Lebanese falafel. Located by the Embassy Theatre at the top of Courtenay Place.
The bars and pubs
I’m not much of a night-owl anymore but if I do go out, I prefer to go to a nice bar rather than a crowded, sweaty club full of 18 year olds drinking cheap vodka… been there, done that! And luckily for me, Wellington is home to some really unique bars which pride themselves on quality drinks and great service. Craft beer has really taken off in Welly and there are many micro-breweries dotted around the capital, such as Garage Project on Aro Street, Parrot Dog on Vivian Street and Kererū just out of Wellington in Upper Hutt. If you’re into beer then take it from James that NZ craft beers are some of the best in the world, and luckily almost every bar in Wellington serves them. Here are some bars I love…
C. G. R. Merchant & Co. – “Row upon row of glittering vessels overflowing with delectable concoctions – an abundance of spiced, infused, flavourful gin and rum.” Says it all really.
Hawthorn Lounge – Like stepping back in time to the 1920’s: dim lighting, sofas you sink into and an open fire. The bartenders really know their stuff too.
Vinyl – For 80s rock music and cheap 2 for 1 pints after work, because you’ve got to have a trashy night every once in a while! [note: Vinyl was recently closed post-earthquake, I’m not sure if it’s reopened yet].
Little Beer Quarter – Hidden away in the nook that is Edward Street, LBQ is hugely popular, with many craft beers on tap, and also does a really good vegan burger. Expect to stand.
Basque – A cute bar on Courtenay Place that serves tapas, craft beers and delicious sangria. They also have a “languages cafe” night during the week.
Fork & Brewer – A brewery as well as a bar, at the F&B there are over forty beers on tap.
Havana Bar – This Cuban themed bar is strangely situated in two cottages, with a cover between them and outside in the garden.
The Library – Above the Waffle Window lies a bar laden with comfy sofas, quiet corners and ACTUAL books on the bookshelves… They do 2 for 1 desserts on Tuesdays, 2 for 1 cocktails on Wednesdays… need I say more?
Goldings Free Dive – This little bar is popular with everyone, perhaps because you can have pizzas delivered from the nearby Pizza Pomodoro! Take note of the bizarre collection of artwork and knick-knacks on display.
Rogue and Vagabond – A craft beer bar that I wish we’d gone to more often, which also serves amazing pizzas. Best in summer outside on the beanbags. Lots of live music.
The Cable Car
A must on any tourist’s itinerary for Wellington, but also a very popular mode of transport for commuters who live in the suburbs. The cable car goes from the aptly named ‘Cable Car Lane’ just off Lambton Quay, to Upland Road in Kelburn, a popular suburb. From Upland Road, you can access the gorgeous Botanical Gardens. Take the Cable Car in the evening to experience the light display at its best!
Something I didn’t realise when James and I decided to move to Wellington was that there would be so many opportunities to get outside and enjoy the landscapes at the weekends. We moved to Wellington because of what the city had to offer, so we were pleasantly surprised when we learned we could spend our days off work on mountain-tops and in the bush. Many of the hikes are accessible using public transport. I’ll soon be writing a post about my favourite hikes in Wellington, as there really is something to suit everyone. Stay tuned!
Wellington is situated at the bottom of the North Island, meaning it’s slap-bang in the middle of New Zealand. Being in the centre of the country definitely has its advantages. A flight to the bustling city of Auckland takes only an hour; equally it’s only an hour in the air to Christchurch and the rolling hills and snow capped mountains of Canterbury. The adrenaline capital, Queenstown, is under two hours away by plane. Or you can even go a little further afield, with flights to Australia only taking around 3 hours!
Queenstown is under 2 hours away from Wellington by air
By car, Tongariro National Park, with her volcanoes, waterfalls and emerald lakes, is around a 4 hour drive from Welly. Likewise, the Art-Deco-style city of Napier (and the wineries in Hawkes Bay) – are under 4 hours drive away. Taupo and New Plymouth are around 5 hours away. Or, you can get the ferry across the Cook Strait and visit the sunny shores of Picton, Nelson, the Abel Tasman or Golden Bay quite easily! Long weekends in Wellington mean adventures are a real possibility.
How spoilt for choice you are; you can nip to the South Island to go skiing for the weekend in Winter, or fly North to Auckland for some sun, visiting the Bay of Islands, the Coromandel or Cape Reinga! We flew to Sydney for Easter weekend last year and have taken trips to Taranaki and Tongariro National Park on long weekends.
Because Wellington is nestled amongst the native bush and situated on the coast, the range of native wildlife that you are able to see in and around the city is astonishing. I always picture capital cities to be smog-filled concrete jungles without a living thing in sight. Wellington couldn’t be more different.
The ‘Town Belt’ is an area of land that almost encompasses the city. It was set aside by the city’s founders in 1840 and protected, however despite this it has still been built on and is now two thirds of its original size. It’s home to many walking and biking tracks, as well as a number of native birds, animals and plants.
Takahē at Zealandia
Zealandia is an eco-sanctuary located just a ten minute drive from the city centre. Its conservation projects support the protection and nurturing of native species. They have reintroduced many species that have been lost, following the arrival of humans [along with pests such as rats and stoats] over 700 years ago. Kelburn, where I lived, is only a 15 minute walk from the sanctuary, meaning we would often see the native birds such as the kākā and the tūi swooping over the valley and even walking on the deck! It’s home to some of the most fascinating, endangered native wildlife in all of New Zealand.
And the wildlife doesn’t stop in the trees. Dolphins and orcas have been spotted in the harbour. Seals laze around on the rocks at Sinclair Head, and Little Blue Penguins can be spotted all over the coastline of Wellington’s suburbs [be careful when you are driving!] Something I really regret is not making the trip to Kāpiti Island, where you can see the Little Spotted Kiwi in their natural habitat, however we did see a kiwi in the Nocturnal House at Ngā Manu Nature Reserve.
Seals at Sinclair Head
There is always something to do
I have never lived in a place where there is quite so much going on all the time; if there’s not a band playing somewhere then there will be a full blown festival, an open day or a market to keep you busy! There are a number of museums in Wellington that have won awards for how brilliant they are; the most famous is Te Papa, situated on the seafront. A stroll through the Botanical Gardens is the perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon, and don’t forget that Wellington is home to the Weta Workshop & Weta Cave, the studios behind the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. Activities are a-plenty, with kayaking, sailing and snorkelling possible in the harbour, and you can go rock-climbing, mountain biking or take the crocodile bikes around Oriental Parade. You can go to gigs, comedy nights, the theatre… the Lighthouse Cinema is an absolute favourite of mine.
Wellington’s Botanical Gardens
Because she’s set in the hills, understandably, the views in Wellington are pretty gorgeous. The green of the trees meets the blue of the sea, and the sea is just so blue. On a clear day you can see the Kaikoura Ranges from the Southern coastline and in winter, the distant Tararua Ranges are topped with snow.
Even just looking out of our bedroom window was a treat to the eyes. Hills, leaves, and little houses as far as the eye can see. Just beautiful.
I’m running the risk of repeating myself here, but Cuba Street is one of my favourite in the entire world. Clad with boutique shops, restaurants and cafés, it’s home to the famous Bucket Fountain, which purposefully gushes water onto the streets to soak passing by pedestrians. It’s normally full of bubbles on a Friday night, and a bucket or two have been stolen [and subsequently returned, in full working order]. Oh, and Elijah Wood peed in it on a drunken night out when he was filming the LOTR trilogy. If that’s not a claim to fame I don’t know what is.
The Quirky Vibe
There’s so many things about Welly that make it that little bit different.
Street Art covers many of the walls around the city. Bond Street is covered in polka dots and Eva Street has strings of mirrors hung from the buildings. Bollards are often covered in yarn… because why not? On the waterfront, you can ‘walk the plank’ [literally] and dive into the sea, or if you want to jump in from a height, there’s a diving platform near Te Papa.
Street Art in Wellington
There are sculptures just about everywhere… from the towering “Tripod” monster on Courtenay Place, to John Plimmer walking his dog by the Plimmer Steps, to the “Solace of the Wind” on the waterfront, to the chopped-in-half pyramid in Civic Square, to the stacks of brightly coloured boxes that spin in the wind in Kilbernie, to the ‘Wellywood’ sign set in the hill in Miramar, to the huge model of Gollum who greets you in the airport.
Gollum at Wellington Airport
There’s something quirky everywhere you look.
I think Plum, a cafe on Cuba Street, might be my favourite place to people-watch. There are artists selling their prints or jewellery, skateboarders cruising by, buskers playing guitar, jugglers juggling, singers singing, dancers dancing, balloon sculptors, hula-hoop-ers, Hare Krishnas, people who’ve had a little too much to drink… Anything goes in Wellington. You can wear what you want, style your hair how you like, you’ll never be judged [but having a beard and tattoos might help you fit in!]
Oh, and everyone honks their horn when they drive through the Mount Vic Tunnel. I have no idea why this is a thing, but it is. Try it.
I really miss grabbing my backpack on a Sunday morning and walking down the hill to the Farmers market to get our fruit and veggies for the week! This is my #1 tip for saving money in New Zealand as the supermarkets are so expensive, and it’s also a really great way to support local businesses and to reduce your carbon footprint, as you won’t be contributing to the emissions from traffic transporting produce from afar.
There are two big markets on Sundays in Wellington: the Harbourside market, right next to Te Papa, and the one in the car park at the corners of Victoria Street and Willis Street. We usually went to the Willis Street one as it was closer to home, however the Harbourside market also has all the food trucks, so you can grab some noodles/pizza/falafel wrap/dumplings for lunch!
The produce at the market [and the prices of it] will fluctuate depending on the seasons; sometimes avocados are $4 each, sometimes they’re 3 for $2! To give you an idea of cost, James and I would normally spend around $40 a week on our fruit and veggies (cheap considering we’re vegetarian & eat around 7 portions of fruit and veg a day).
Oh and loads of people bring their dogs along and I love dogs.
Everyone loves Welly
Something that became very clear to me after living and working in Wellington for some time was that Wellingtonians are incredibly proud of their city. In particular, those who have travelled are grateful for their heritage and the place they are lucky enough to call home. It gives you a really warm, fuzzy feeling inside to be able to be a part of such an appreciative community of people.
And some things I don’t miss so much…
As with anywhere you love, there are always a couple of things you might not like quite so much. For me, there’s nothing that could deter me from living in Wellington long-term, but I did dislike a couple of things…
Wellington is nicknamed ‘Windy Welly’ because it’s prone to high winds as it’s positioned at the southernmost point of the North Island. You’ll often hear Wellingtonians talking about Northerly (warm, from Australia) winds or Southerlies (from Antarctica i.e. very cold).
The weather in Welly is really, really crap at lot of the time. Autumn is rainy, Winter is freezing, Spring is rainy, but summer is gorgeous. When the sun comes out, it’s all worth it. You can’t beat Wellington on a good day.
Hand on heart, I never want to experience another earthquake ever again. Even in England, every time I feel a shake when a lorry drives past, I’m itching to drop, cover, hold. There are between 50 and 80 earthquakes every single day in New Zealand, but many are those are so small you can’t feel them. Wellington is located on a major fault-line, meaning is more susceptible to earthquakes than some parts of the country. Experiencing the 7.8 magnitude quake that struck Kaikoura in the early hours of Monday 14 November is a memory that will stay with me for life!
James and I sold our car before we moved to Welly, but we borrowed our flatmates’ cars and rented one a couple of times. The streets in Welly are the narrowest, windiest streets I think I have ever driven, but for some reason everyone drives insanely quickly! The hills mean stopping and starting is a game of “Will I fall backwards down the hill?” and the maze of one-way streets in the city centre is just NOT fun. Then there’s parking, which is mostly parallel parking i.e. my worst nightmare… Luckily, having a car is really not a necessity in Welly. The city is easily walkable and the public transport routes are truly great.
The coolest little capital
Despite her flaws, these are the characteristics that make Welly Wellington and I wouldn’t change a thing [well, maybe just a little less rain…] You really can’t beat Wellington on a good day.
I hope you enjoyed this post on everything I loved about Wellington; if you’re visiting New Zealand, please make sure you include Welly on your itinerary [and I’ll cross my fingers you get good weather!].