"A Capital on Shaky Hills and wind-swept Seas" Top 5 Page for this destination Wellington by Kakapo2

Wellington Travel Guide: 603 reviews and 1,313 photos

A lovable and elegant City of Art and Politics

Finally – Wellington! It has taken me quite a while to put a page about New Zealand’s capital together. Somehow I had forgotten about this city after a visit on my first NZ trip. As this had been before the digital photo age I waited for a real re-visit, so I did not have to scan the photos ;-)

We had often passed Wellington, though, on the way from the Cook Strait ferry to other destinations on the North Island, and my husband has been there on several business trips. But I would not consider such occasions real visits – although my husband knew the city well enough to navigate around perfectly. He was even born in Wellington and spent the first four years of his life in Karori. And now, there was such a lot to see and do, apart from finding the home of his early childhood ;-)

To put it short: I love Wellington! (Well – not the wind which gives it the name Windy Wellington…) I have been there six!!! times in the past 18 months (as Nov. 2009).

The most surprising thing about “our” capital is that it feels much bigger than it is. Only half the size of Christchurch, it feels bigger, and better in many respects. Its attractive inner city is an accomplished blend of beautifully manicured heritage buildings and modern high-rises with mirrored facades – whereas in Christchurch so much of the heritage just disappears and makes place for cheaply constructed boxes, big and small. The same applies to the suburbs, many of them tucked away in the outer valleys and slopes of the many, many hills the city is built on. You can find entire streets with fabulously maintained villas and cottages, especially on Mt. Victoria, along Oriental Parade, no high-density shoe boxes in neutral colours which are the new kind of living space in the South Island’s biggest city.

Christchurch is poorer, and you see it. The government, residing in a very representative area with the unique Beehive as the striking landmark, feeds its ever-growing exorbitant number of bureaucrats well, and you also see it. Wellington, although the city has only about 180,000 inhabitants (400,000 in the wider region), looks flash, posh, and even has a touch of class, a mundane feeling which you would expect in much bigger cities of the world. The people are dressed better, you see less poor guys in rags lurking in the streets – although Wellington, too, has a problem of alcohol-fuelled misbehaviour and violence in the city centre. Many of the poor folk are hidden for the tourist eye in outer suburbs like Petone.

You are so captivated by Wellington’s pulsating charm that you wonder why it has so much less tourists than Auckland and Christchurch. But sure, Wellington has no real international airport, with only some planes from Australia landing, so the travellers do not automatically fall into this neat and clean place.

Green Sanctuaries and a Touch of Italy

A very attractive feature of Wellington – the world’s southernmost capital – is the Waterfront where you can walk for hours, from the ferries (Interislander and Bluebridge) to Oriental Parade, and further, past the city center including the Civic Square. However, that also is the place where you feel most where the name Windy Wellington comes from. Never leave your accommodation without a hair band if you have long hair and do not want to waste your time get the knots out of your hair – at some point the wind will pick up and hit you. And the chance to get wet is double as high as in Christchurch. Wellington has an average of 1270 millimetres of rain per year.

The most serious concern about the place is just a thought which is illustrated in the first room of Te Papa, the national museum: All those parallel running valleys are sitting on fault lines of the Pacific and the Australasian Plates. Be prepared to be shaken in “Shaky Wellington” by a daily earthquake (slightly exaggerated, I admit ;-) – and hope that the big one does not strike while you are there.

There are two things I love most about Wellington – apart from the comfortable over-all atmosphere.

First: It is a very green place, a lot of green on all those steep hills, and a lot of native bush although many of the parks in the centre would not even qualify as a park in Christchurch. The highlight of it all is not the fabulous Botanic Garden where every visitor goes to by the famous red Cable Car. It definitely is the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. This is a huge area just ten minutes from the city centre, surrounded by a 1.8 metre high fence that keeps out all mammals including high-jumping cats. Behind this protection wall bird life is thriving, and even threatened species are recovering, and not just birds, but also the tuatara, NZ’s mini dinosaur, also called a living fossile, and the giant weta, an invertebrate. We saw nearly all rare bird species they pride themselves of saving from extinction, and could even photograph many of them. But you have to be patient, walk a lot, listen to the sounds in the forests, sit down and wait. This is a sanctuary and not a zoo, just a place where you are more likely to see and meet certain bird species and endemic animals.

Second: Wellington has a touch of Italy, and I miss this a lot in Christchurch. Sure, we have Café Valentino and pasta, pasta, pasta – but it is cooked by anyone. Many of the Italian restaurants in Wellington are purely Italian, with the cosy and welcoming atmosphere of those extroverted southern European people, this nearly too friendly way of being. And Italian ice-cream in so many places, the real gelato – mmmmmmmmh, wonderful! There is definitely no better Italian place in New Zealand than Wellington. But not just this. It is multi-cultural and you feel and see it. On my last visit I was totally into Cuban cafés and Turkish kebab restaurants. There are real Cubans and real Turks making coffee and cooking, not just Kiwis or Asians trying it like in Christchurch.

Little Delights and great Lookouts

Wellington also claims to be the country’s coffee (café) capital, featuring most cafés per capita. If you live in Christchurch you do not get aware of a possible difference as also Christchurch is dotted with an endless number of cafés, and the coffee is definitely not worse. So having coffee would not be no reason to travel to Wellington. In fact, you get great coffee everywhere in the country.

Wellington surely is a city of art, not just because they have an Arts Festival in March. You “meet” art everywhere you go, be it on a stroll along the Waterfront where you pass the Writers Walk, and numerous modern statues. I love the art signs in front of many attractions, be it the sign in front of the Railway Station, Cuba Street, the Cable Car, or a famous restaurant. Yes, and some years ago Wellington stole the Festival of Wearable Arts from Nelson, let’s say, it was transferred… And it also is the centre of NZ cinematography, with Peter Jackson’s films as big red carpet events.

Other things I like about Wellington are the many lookouts, the great public transportation system, with buses in the city and trains to the outer suburbs, and the private cable cars people need to reach their properties on the steep hills. I have visited most of the numerous and rather remote bays that are still easy to reach by public transportation, and my current favourite places are Island and Owhiro Bays, on the way to the Seal Coast.

There was one thing that even annoyed me. They allow a helicopter operator to start his adventure tours right at the Waterfront, and this terrible noise accompanies you during your whole walk along the Waterfront. Sometimes it is more or less frequent – but I think it absolutely kills the nice atmosphere. Not everything that pulls the tourist dollar out of the visitors’ pockets is good for a place. It is one of those activities that are only fun for those who do it – and annoying for the big rest.

To really enjoy Wellington you should at least spend two days there. We were there for four full days on our last visit, spent one of the days on a big and absolutely spectacular trip to Cape Palliser and the Wairarapa, and one day in the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary and Otari-Wilton’s Bush. Another day trip would be to the wildlife paradise of Kapiti Island – already the journey to Paraparaumu where the boats start takes two hours – and smaller trips to Matiu/Somes Island in the Harbour Basin.

If you need a rental car just for a day, shop around before booking. We did not check all companies (we preferred sightseeing LOL), so we probably spent a few dollars too many – but the differences are exorbitant. Whereas we paid NZ$ 55 (unlimited kilometres) with a smaller company it would have cost NZ$ 152 !!!! with a bigger one.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Art, Culture, multicultural Flair, Elegance, Wildlife, great coastal Nature
  • Cons:Too windy to stay forever - and perhaps too shaky...
  • In a nutshell:A fabulous place of diverCity
  • Last visit to Wellington: Nov 2009
  • Intro Updated Nov 16, 2009
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Reviews (93)

Comments (5)

  • tracyskf's Profile Photo
    Oct 30, 2009 at 8:33 PM

    Sissi, hi I am planing my trip to NZ (Wellington and south island) , came across your travel pages! They are most informative! And very beautiful pictures! =)

  • SLLiew's Profile Photo
    Apr 25, 2009 at 5:20 PM

    Wow...amazing photos and detailed write ups on Wellington. Bring back fond memories especially of Te Papa Museum and waterfront and downtown. Was there while taking ferry to Picton. Nice windy place. Cheers, SL :)

  • craic's Profile Photo
    Aug 20, 2008 at 4:55 PM

    marvellous new stuff - what a hoot - BUT I did know it was Rita Angus' cottage - why i wanted to spend time there

  • kiwi's Profile Photo
    Jul 28, 2008 at 8:33 PM

    Haha super tip about craic :-)))) and I'll try the Italian icecream shop for sure. My favourite is not icecream but Lemon Sorbet so hope they have it !

  • Jim_Eliason's Profile Photo
    Jun 5, 2008 at 5:56 PM

    Nice tips Sissi!

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