On a recent 7 week visit to New Zealand, my photographer husband and I spent a few days in Wellington, now our favorite city in New Zealand. Learn about the diverse experiences it offers, from wildlife to movie sets.
Why visit Wellington
Wellington is a small city with a fantastic active waterfront featuring all types of boating, yacht club, restaurants, office buildings, museums, outdoor free entertainment and even swim platforms to enter the water. Lonely Planet recently named it, “the coolest little capital in the world.” We certainly loved it!
What Places are a ‘must see’ in Wellington
The Harbour is a major draw for so many reasons. Walk along the water and watch all the boating activity. Check out the shops and museums along the waterfront – Wellington Museum (Museum of the City and Sea), and Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand). Find restaurants along the harbour with indoor and outdoor seating serving a variety of cuisine at all price levels; while you can find nearly every nationality of food, seafood is my ‘go to’ when by the sea.
On various weekdays in the warmer weather, you’ll find free happy hour concerts and dancing on the waterfront. Restaurants serve their happy hour menus outdoors during concerts. We watched a band one evening and the crowd was salsa dancing, eating, and drinking.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa is not to be missed! From the incredible architecture to the vast interior spaces and many galleries, it is one of top museums in my experience. Te Papa exhibits indigenous Maori history, Maori artifacts and stories, futuristic exhibits, and world history – all that are significant in New Zealand culture. There is so much to see that we went twice and still did not see it all. It deserves 2 visitsI
At the top of the ‘don’t miss’ list is Zealandia, a nature reserve and wildlife eco-sanctuary where 555 acres of forest have been restored to furnish a predator-free biodiverse natural habitat. Zealandia provides insight into New Zealand’s native animals, including 18 species re-introduced into the area after 100 years, like the Takahe bird. Exhibits and environments include natural habitats, and education on live and extinct animals of New Zealand and its flora. As a reserve, animals live in natural habitats and most roam/fly freely.
Walk the paths through Zealandia, which is about a 2 hour walk, and maybe longer if you read all the signs and stop for photos. Zealandia is designed with paved and natural paths through the forest, and around the waterways with easy walking and wheelchair access. This enables visitors to get up close to the various animals.
Choose between a self-guided visit, a daytime tour with a naturalist guide, or a guided night visit by torchlight to see New Zealand’s nocturnal animals. Our tour was a daytime guided tour; I am so pleased that we were able to join a tour since they have limited spots. Our guide made the visit extremely informative and interesting. He knew which animals to look for in the forests and pointed them out in places we would not have seen them. Our guide explained that New Zealand has more lizard species than bird species – that’s amazing since New Zealand has so many unique bird species. I strongly recommend taking the guided tour option. I would have liked to have taken the night time tour as well, but it was sold out.
New Zealand’s flora and fauna differ from all other large land masses on earth. Indoor exhibits at Zealandia are 3-D, video and audio that describe the evolution of New Zealand’s land masses, animal species, flora, human and natural history.
The Rata Café is a restaurant surrounded by glass with stunning views of the park and treetop views of birdlife. Delicious food includes great healthy options. Rata Café operates as a sustainable business, grows its own organic vegetables, and sources food locally. Be sure to try it; we enjoyed it.
Transportation is easy from downtown; Zealandia provides a free shuttle to and from the cable car. We wanted to stay longer at Zealandia, but there were so other things we wanted to see and do in Wellington.
While we were invited guests by Zealandia for a guided daytime tour, this is a totally independent and honest review based on our experience.
Cable Car and Botanical Gardens
No trip to Wellington is complete without riding the famous Cable Car, a funicular railway between Lambton Quay, the main shopping street downtown, and Kelburn, a suburb in the hills 400 feet above the central city. The Cable Cars offer easy access to city and harbour overlooks, to the Botanical Gardens, Carter Observatory, and the Cable Car Museum (free admission).
The Botanical Gardens are free and lovely to walk around – escape the City Center for a hilly suburban feel with international floral displays and flowers indigenous to New Zealand. Surrounded by 62 acres of natural beauty, enjoy the protected native forest. and special plant collections. Wellington Botanical Garden is a “Garden of National Significance by the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture and is an Historic Places Trust Heritage Area.”
Weta Cave/Weta Workshop
Weta is a special place, unique and amazing. Have you heard of Weta Cave? I hadn’t until I read about this unique, artistic, technological workshop that supplies some of our most loved fantasy and science fiction movies with costumes and props. Weta Cave and Workshop is a world class, award winning, special effects, prop design and production company. Weta invites the public to see their creations and how they design, develop and manufacture props and costuming for movies like:
- Lord of the Rings
- Chronicles of Narnia
- Power Rangers
- District 9
- The Last Samurai
Start your tour with a short film about Weta and its founder, Sir Richard Taylor. Visit the design and manufacturing building, its special effects workshop, and showroom of limited edition character collectibles. You will be surprised by all intricate work that goes into making these films. It’s well worth the visit. Don’t miss it!!
There is plenty to see and do in the downtown, the suburbs, and in areas surrounding the city where you can see some of the Wildlife of New Zealand. It is easy to fill a week with all of the places to experience. With only 3 days in Wellington, we missed a lot. More options to consider:
- Mt. Victoria Lookout
- National Archives
- Tour the Parliament House (Beehive)
- Karori Wildlife Sanctuary
- Old St. Paul’s Cathedral
- Wellington Zoo
- Museum of Wellington City
- Carter Observatory
- City Sculpture Walk
- Kapiti Coast Beaches and Kapiti Island Wildlife Sanctuary
- Wairarapa, famous for Classic New Zealand Wine Trail
We missed Mt. Victoria Lookout and Kapiti Island. They are two places I wish we visited. Buses go to Mt. Victoria, but stopped too early for us to come back after sunset (the best time to go), so we didn’t go. Considering our time limitation, I was happy with the activities, sites, and cultural experiences that we chose.
When to go to
November through April is the best time to visit. We were there at the end of February and the weather was perfect. If you want warm weather, go in summer – December to February.
Getting to and Around
Since it is the entry and exit point to the North Island, we took a ferry from the South Island to experience the gorgeous views when traveling through the Cook Strait, which connects the Tasman Sea and South Pacific Ocean. You can also fly.
Know that you can get around the city and suburbs with public transportation that is easy and safe. Locals are willing to help with directions and bus routes. If visiting wildlife areas outside of the city, you’ll need a car or to arrange for transport.
We started our New Zealand trip in January on the South Island to ensure the warmest weather when we were in the coolest part of New Zealand – the South Island. We took the ferry to the North Island in late February and experienced the end of summer and start of fall as we drove north after 3 days in Wellington. The weather was perfect.
There’s so many great activities to choose from in Wellington so don’t miss the culture, and fun. Put Zealandia and Te Papa into your itinerary. Both provide excellent background and framework to understand and take in all you’ll see in New Zealand.
To learn about other sights in New Zealand, check out:
- Top 10 New Zealand South Island Favorite Places
- Akaroa – For Beach, Wildlife and Seafood
- Karamea – Natural Beauty of the North West Coast