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New Zealand’s capital city is the cultural heart of the country, known for its youthful art scene, great coffee, and quality craft brewing scene.

Wellington is also known as the windy city, so named for the strong winds coming off Cook Strait, the body of water that separates the North and South islands. The wind funnels through the strait, hemmed in on one side by the Tararua ranges and the Richmond and Kaikoura ranges on the other. The end result? One of the windiest cities in the world. Hold onto your hat!

New Zealand’s second-largest city, Wellington has almost 420,000 people spread across the hilly harbourside of Wellington central, up to the northern estuary of Porirua, and sweeping into the valley of Lower and Upper Hutt. Wellington is frequently visitors’ last stop on the North Island before catching the Interislander Ferry across Cook Strait to start exploring the south.

There’s something for everyone in Wellington. History buffs and culture lovers will love all the museums, galleries, and historic buildings. Foodies will delight in the vast range of high-quality cafes, bars, and restaurants, while fitness fans and nature enthusiasts can make the most of the large number of number of walks, parks, gardens, and nature reserves.

Discover WW1 History at Fort Ballance

When you look at a map of Wellington, the harbour almost looks like a hook, with a large peninsula forming the barb. Stretching into the harbour at the tip of that peninsula lies Miramar, an old Wellington suburb, and Fort Ballance.

Here, you can explore some of New Zealand’s military history, and enjoy a little slice of nature close to the city. Whether you explore on foot or just drive around the peninsula, there are plenty of spectacular views and historical remnants to enjoy.

Enter the area on either side of the peninsula, via Shelly Bay Road or Karaka Bay Road. Enjoy the waterfront views as you follow the road to the tip of the peninsula and the small Point Halswell lighthouse. You’ll likely have the sea breeze (or gale) in your nostrils as you gaze over the harbour, with some great views of the city.

On the Shelly Bay side, Chocolate Fish Cafe looks out over the water towards central Wellington. Enjoy the view at this quaint little eatery while you eat breakfast or lunch, then join the Miramar Trail nearby and walk up over the headland.

Wander all over the parklands: the views are spectacular, and you’ll find the ruins of several army huts and bunkers, along with underground tunnels to explore. Local artists have practiced their talents here, with graffiti art of various skill levels.

At the top end of the peninsular is Massey Memorial, a beautifully designed monument to William Massey, New Zealand’s Prime Minister throughout World War I.

On the Karaka Bay side sits Scorch O Rama Cafe, another great little waterfront eatery, with views across the harbour towards the rolling hills that form Remutaka Forest Park. Just along from here, Fort Ballance Road leads to an old WW1 army base. It’s in ruins now, but there are plenty of interesting bunkers and the building foundations to explore.

Whichever way you choose to go, by road or on foot, this area is packed full of natural attractions and the history of a war that New Zealand prepared for but never quite reached the shores of this land.

Take a Tour of Weta Workshop

Looking for something else to do in Miramar? After gaining global recognition for its incredible work with animatronics, computer graphics, puppetry, and costuming for movies like Lord of the Rings and Avatar, the Weta Workshop studio is now the go-to for special effects in Hollywood.

Named for a large cricket-like bug indigenous to New Zealand, the company has an onsite souvenir shop selling unique collectables and items from movies they’ve worked on. Miniature figurines, prints from your favourite movies, replica weapons and clothing, it’s all there.

Weta Workshop also offers tours each day that let you get behind the scenes and learn how the studio brings imaginary worlds to life. You’ll get to see the incredible craftsmanship that goes into the creation of mythical creatures and monsters, and check out the exquisitely-crafted miniature movie sets.

Starting at $49 for a two-hour tour, I’d recommend booking in advance: they fill up fast.

Enjoy Eclectic Cuba Street Mall

Cuba Street is one of the oldest streets in Wellington, named after one of the early ships that arrived in Wellington Harbour filled with settlers in 1840. A hub of commercial activity from the outset, the street was partially pedestrianised in 1960s, and has remained that way ever since.

While rising rents and the arrival of a few generic chain stores means Cuba Street isn’t quite as bohemian as it used to be, unique op shops (thrift stores) and boutiques, colourful storefronts, and an artsy vibe remain the hallmarks of this famous street mall.

About halfway up lies the bucket fountain, an iconic water-driven sculpture that has stood here since 1969. Be careful! On windy days (in other words, most of them!), the water doesn’t always aim down. Many unwary pedestrians have learned this to their peril as they walk past.

On the last weekend in March, the street hosts a fantastic music and arts festival called CubaDupa. If you happen to be in town at this time, this weekend-long street party is well checking out. Dance like there’s no tomorrow in a parade of amazing street performances, music, and unique art. It’s the perfect window into Wellington’s artsy culture.

Even if you aren’t here in March, though, this street is still steeped in Wellington culture. Finish your visit with a flat white at one of the boutique coffee shops, or, if it’s a little later in the day, Ghuznee Street is just around the corner, with a great selection of bars and restaurants and plenty of craft beers to try.

If it’s particularly warm outside, I can highly recommend Duck Island Icecream, up towards the top end of Cuba Street. Delicious, and with loads of gluten and dairy-free options, it’s perhaps no surprise I ended up there at least once per day on my most recent trip!

Check Out Parliament and the City Center

Beehive (Parliament building) in Wellington, New Zealand

Not just another boring city centre, central Wellington is well worth a visit, with an assortment of parks, iconic landmarks and retail outlets, historic architecture, and modern high rises.

Begin your journey wandering down Lambton Quay for a bit of retail therapy, and grab a coffee at one of the cafes to fuel you for the rest of your walk.

At the end of Lambton Quay sits New Zealand’s parliament buildings. The Beehive is here, an iconic landmark that houses the Prime Minister and Cabinet, while nearby sits Parliament House, which holds the debating chamber and more. If so inclined, you can take a tour of the buildings, and learn about the various rooms, art, and historical stories of New Zealand’s political centre.

From here, head down Whitmore Street, and wander back past the waterfront along Jervois Quay. If you’re in a historical frame of mind, the old Wellington Museum lets you take a trip through Wellington’s maritime and cultural history with a number of exhibits and interactive displays.

Around the corner from here sits a large open waterfront walkway where you can appreciate the gentle ocean on a calm day, and its raw power the rest of the time! It’s worth spending a bit of time exploring the whole area — when you start to tire, replenish your energy at one of the many cafes along the way.

Visit Te Papa, New Zealand’s Best Museum

Ship exhibit at Te Papa, Wellington

On the waterfront just mentioned lies one of New Zealand’s cultural highlights, Te Papa. This wonderful museum houses a vast range of exhibits about New Zealand history, culture, the environment, and much more. Many of the exhibits are interactive — making learning fun is at the heart of Te Papa’s ethos, for adults and kids alike.

Wander around and through the multiple levels of the open-plan building, but don’t look over the balconies if you’re afraid of heights! With so much to see, you’ll need a full day (or multiple trips) to discover it all.

Learn about the Kiwi-invented “Quake Breaker”, view a colossal squid, pay your respects to Phar Lap (a legendary racehorse), and wander through Mana Whenua, stories of the Maori people of New Zealand.

One must-see section, running through until 2025, is “Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War”. Telling the stories of ordinary New Zealander’s experiences during World War I, it’s a powerful and emotional exhibit.

Weta Workshop teamed up with Te Papa to create the exhibit, including huge, highly-detailed sculptures — right down to the cracked fingernails and hairy knuckles! Take tissues: people often leave extremely moved.

Get Back to Nature (or Into Space) at the Botanic Gardens

Trees in the Botanic Gardens, Wellington

Tucked into the side of a hill on the edge of the Wellington CBD sits the Botanic Gardens and Space Place.

Sprawling down a hillside, the Botanic Gardens is home to a myriad of plants, ferns, shrubs, and trees, both native and imported, along with an abundance of busy birds enjoying the natural habitat. Thousands of species are lovingly cultivated here, with a maze of well-kept paths throughout.

Explore this beautiful place for an hour for a quick overview, or spend much longer to really explore it in detail. Wander through native bush and cultivated gardens, find the Discovery Garden and the Dell, and be sure to visit Lady Norwood’s Rose Garden, a spectacular formal garden with over 200 garden beds.

Finally, if you’ve got any interest at all in the cosmos, be sure to head right to the top of the hill near the Cable Car Station. The Space Place observatory lets you explore space at the planetarium show, look through the telescope at the view of space from this end of the earth, and learn about Maori star legends in the Matariki theatre.

In the interactive galleries you can see a real space rock, learn how it feels to be in a real spaceship, and more. Entry costs $14 for adults, $9 for children, and is free for kids three and under.

Ride the Cable Car

Wellington cable car

For the relatively small price of $9 return, it’s well worth taking a ride on Wellington’s iconic cable car. Jump on board at Lambton Quay station in the city centre, or at Kelburn terminal at the top of the Botanic Gardens mentioned above.

Recently celebrating its 120th birthday, the cable care has been lovingly restored, and is a highlight of any trip to Wellington. You’ll get some great views during your five-minute ride, accompanied by the sound of native birds in the trees as you climb or descend through the gardens.

At the Kelburn end of the journey sits a small museum where you can learn more about this special New Zealand transport.

The cable car isn’t only for sightseeing purposes, though — popular with office workers and students, it’s also a great way to travel to and from attractions just outside the city centre without the steep climb, or to get into the city without having to look for parking!

Explore the Wellington Town Belt

The town belt is a series of parks and reserves that circle the central city; areas filled with native bush and wildlife right in the heart of an urban centre that are protected from further development. Mt Victoria and Te Ahumairangi Hill are particularly worth visiting, and easy to get to.

Mt Victoria

Just east of the city centre, Mount Victoria looms large above the houses below. More of a large hill than a true mountain, it’s a beautiful spot either way, with several good tracks through lovely native bush.

It’s also where several scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies came to life. Particularly easy to find is the spot where the “Get off the road!” scene was filmed. It’s well marked, and instantly recognisable to fans.

The tracks are suitable for average fitness levels, and are well maintained. Taking the 5km loop track to the summit is particularly worthwhile, rewarding you with spectacular 360º views of Wellington city and the harbour.

Te Ahumairangi Hill

Located on the opposite side of the city from Mt Victoria lies Te Ahumairangi Hill, with several walks marked throughout this natural reserve. Half of the area is private property, though, so do keep an eye out for the signs.

There is a conservation project underway in this area, with thousands of trees being planted and efforts to save an extremely endangered freshwater snail that is only found here.

As with Mount Victoria, the best views are from the top. Get your heart pumping on the 5.6km loop track to the lookout at the summit, where you’ll get great views over the ridgeline. It’s not difficult, but does require moderate fitness.

See One of the Oldest Animals In the World at Zealandia

Tuatara at Zealandia

If you have any interest in New Zealand’s native birds, animals, and plant life (and you should, because it’s awesome), a visit to Zealandia is an absolute must-do during your time in Wellington.

Open every day except Christmas, it’s only a ten-minute drive from downtown Wellington, but it feels like a million miles away. If you don’t have your own transport, free shuttles run Tuesday through Sunday from both Wakefield Street in the CBD and from beside the top cable car station.

This eco-sanctuary is an amazing conservation project helping to preserve and protect New Zealand’s unique and spectacular flora and fauna. Zealandia has a goal to restore what this beautiful valley would have been like before humans arrived, with an ambitious 500 year plan for doing so.

The park is fully fenced, and with no predators to harm native wildlife, rare birds, bats, and reptiles have thrived. Over the years the staff here have been able to reintroduce over 18 species back into the wild, some of which had been missing from the New Zealand mainland for over a century.

Covered in native bush and criss-crossed with well-marked walking trails, the 225+ hectares (500+ acres) of Zealandia is somewhere truly special. Here you are able to meet New Zealand’s rarest and most extraordinary creatures.

Be sure to visit the tuataras, which date back 250 million years and are some of the oldest creatures still walking the earth. I was lucky enough to spot several of these remarkable reptiles on the day I visited, the first time I’d ever seen them.

The sanctuary offers multiple different tours, at several times of the day including dawn and dusk. You can also pay for general admission ($28 per adult) and take a self-guided tour at your own pace. Give yourself at least half a day here, but be warned: you may well want to spend much longer!

Go Hiking in the Hutt Valley

On the other side of Wellington harbour sits the Hutt Valley, a lovely part of the Greater Wellington region surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges and extensive bush. This area is full of walking tracks, so if you like to hike, lace up your boots and head north!

Belmont Regional Park

Northwest of Lower Hutt, Belmont regional park is the largest in the area, and has plenty to offer: horse riding, mountain biking, camping, and especially tramping (hiking) are all good options here.

Drive up Maungaraki Road from Wellington to the main carpark, where you can walk the Korokoro Dam loop. This easy yet lovely 2.7km walk takes you through dense rainforest alongside Korokoro stream until you come to a cascade of beautiful waterfalls over the man-made dam.

If you want something a little more challenging, try the Belmont Trig Track. The 10km steep climb to the summit of the mountain means that you’ll earn every calorie of your dessert after you get back, but the panoramic views make the effort worth every step!

Cannon Point

From the roundabout at Totara Park Drive/California Drive in Upper Hutt, park your car in the signposted carpark to start the Cannon Point walkway. Alternatively, towards the top end of Upper Hutt, follow Akatarawa Road, then take Bridge Road to the small carpark and start from there.

From here you can walk through the bush to Cannon Point. The first stretch is quite steep so you want to have moderate to good fitness. At the top, you will find the Birchville dam and waterfall, with magnificent views across the region. Well worth the effort!

You can turn the walk into an 8km loop by walking back along the road, but if you only want to go to the dam and back, note that it’s much closer to the Bridge Road carpark than the California Drive one.

Kaitoke Regional Park

Happy to head a bit further afield? Continue on State Highway 2 beyond Upper Hutt to find Kaitoke Regional Park.

Extensive native forest covers the the hills and mountain range of this park, with the Pakuratahi River cutting through it. A range of short walks are accessible to all fitness levels. For one of the best of them, park in the campground at the foot of the hills and walk the Pakuratahi River Walk and Swingbridge Loop.

This is a 4km track through the dense native bush with swingbridges over the river. All along this walk is information about the Lord of the Rings movie: several scenes were shot here, and the gates of Rivendell still stand. You can get to those via a very short (15 minute return) walk from the carpark.

Main image via Robert CHG/, other images via author

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