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I’ve had an ongoing love affair with the city of Wellington, New Zealand, for the majority of my life. I first visited in 2005 (right after I graduated high school), and immediately told my parents I was going to move to the New Zealand capital. I did just that three years later during university with a semester abroad in Wellington, falling in love with the quirky, creative, windy city even more.
I’ve since been back to Wellington several more times, and it remains one of my favorite cities anywhere in the world – and that’s saying something, considering how many awesome cities I’ve visited!
Wellington is a city that’s full of character. It’s the political capital of New Zealand, yes, but it’s also the country’s cultural and creative capital. At times it feels more like a small town than a major city, which has helped it be named the “coolest little capital in the world.”
Fun facts about Wellington
First, let’s get to know Wellington a bit better:
- Wellington is located at the south-western tip of the North Island, near the Cook Strait that separates the North and South islands of New Zealand.
- Legend tells that the Polynesian explorer Kupe first discovered and explored the region that would become New Zealand in the 10th century. The Wellington area was inhabited by indigenous Māori peoples before European colonization in the 1800s (and its name to them is Te Whanganui-a-Tara).
- Wellington was named in 1840 after Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (who never visited New Zealand).
- Wellington is the southernmost capital city in the world, sitting at 41.2924° S. (It wasn’t the country’s first capital, though; Old Russell/Okiato was the first capital from 1840-41, and Auckland was the capital up until 1865.)
- The population of the Wellington metro area is around 420,000.
- Wellington is one of the windiest cities in the world, earning it the nickname “Windy Welly.” Winds here average 16 mph (7.15 m/s).
- Wellington is reported to have more cafes per capita than New York City!
RELATED: 7 Things You Must Do in Auckland, New Zealand
The best things to do in Wellington
As someone who’s visited Wellington many times – and even lived there briefly! – here are my personal picks for the best things to do on your first visit to Wellington.
1. Have a beach day at Oriental Bay
Oriental Bay is the name of both a Wellington neighborhood and the city’s only true beach. On a sunny day, the water here turns a beautiful deep turquoise color, and the colorful houses climbing up Wellington’s hills make for a great backdrop.
Oriental Bay is the spot where the first stirrings of my feelings for Wellington were born. On a nice day, this is, hands-down, my favorite place to be in Wellington. And I’m not alone in feeling this way — locals and visitors alike gravitate toward Oriental Bay on weekends and sunny days.
2. Visit Te Papa
New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, is located in downtown Wellington, right at the end of Taranaki Street near the waterfront. Not only can you learn all about New Zealand’s history here, but entry into the sleek, modern museum is free.
I may be a bit biased, but this is one of my favorite museums in the world because of its layout, displays, interactive features, and wide range of exhibits. Popular things to see at Te Papa include exhibits on New Zealand nature and Māori and Pacific culture; the only Colossal Squid on display in the world; and an incredible, groundbreaking exhibit about the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.
Te Papa makes for a great rainy day activity in Wellington (which you could very well need!). They also offer a guided museum tour if you’re into that.
3. Wellington Waterfront Walk
There’s a whole walking and cycling route along the entire Te Whanganui-a-tara (Wellington harbor) called The Great Harbour Way / Te Aranui o Pōneke. A great section of this is the Wellington Waterfront Walk that stretches from Te Papa to Frank Kitts Park.
This is always a lively area, with people walking, biking, skating, and even rowing when the weather is good, along with bars and restaurants spilling over into outdoor terraces filled with bean bag chairs. If locals aren’t at the beach on a sunny day, they’re probably in this area.
The Wellington Writers Walk also follows this route, and features large carvings of different literary quotes you can look out for.
(And, if you’re traveling to Wellington with kids, Frank Kits Park has a nice play area with a big slide shaped like a lighthouse.)
4. City to Sea Bridge to Civic Square
When you’re walking along this section of waterfront, you’ll eventually see the City to Sea Bridge, a pedestrian bridge and public artwork that connects the Whairepo Lagoon to Civic Square. The bridge is covered in wooden sculptures carved by Maori artist Paratene Matchitt, and is really an attraction in its own right.
At the other end of the bridge lies Te Ngākau Civic Square, which is home to the famous “fern ball” sculpture suspended in the air.
The original “Ferns” sculpture by artist Neil Dawson was removed in 2015 due to safety concerns, and a replacement was finally put up on 2020.
In Civic Square, you’ll also find the entrance to the City Gallery Wellington. Entry to this art museum and gallery is also free!
5. Ride the historic cable car
From Civic Square, it’s a short walk into Wellington Central to the lower station of the Wellington Cable Car, which is definitely a must-do in Wellington.
The historic Wellington cable car is a funicular railway that has been running between Lambton Quay (the city’s main shopping street) and Kelburn for more than 100 years, carrying both locals going about their day-to-day lives and tourists looking for some great views. (I love this about Wellington – nothing is solely for locals or only for tourists.)
A ride up to the top takes just 5 minutes, with one stop in the middle. Once at Kelburn Station, there’s a small (and free) cable car museum you can visit, plus a viewing area that offers up some of the very best views of Wellington. It also basically puts you right in the Wellington Botanic Garden.
(You can technically pre-book your cable car tickets if you want, but you don’t have to. It’s easy to purchase them at the station.)
6. Wellington Botanic Garden
Covering 64 acres, the Wellington Botanic Garden is a beautiful place to explore with 150+ years of history in the city. The garden itself includes various floral displays and planned gardens (the Lady Norwood Rose Garden is particularly famous), and is free to visit!
You’ll also find sculptures, a duck pond, and a cafe within the gardens.
Space Place at Carter Observatory is also within the garden grounds, and is a science museum that covers stars, planets, constellations, and New Zealand’s contribution to astronomy. This is a paid museum.
7. See The Beehive
Wellington is New Zealand’s political capital, and is home to all the usual government buildings. One that’s not so “usual” is the Executive Wing of New Zealand’s Parliament Buildings, which is colloquially referred to as “The Beehive” because of its interesting shape.
The famous building was constructed between 1969 and 1981, and today houses the offices of government ministers.
You can take a tour of NZ Parliament (which includes The Beehive) if you have time. I did it while I was living in Wellington, and found it interesting. Tours are offered multiple times per day, 7 days a week, and are free! But you do need to reserve tour spots in advance, as group sizes are limited. More info here.