Things of great value often arrive in surprisingly modest containers. Consider the New Zealand capital of Wellington. Despite its modest size, the capital city of Wellington packs a punch with its hip café scene and stunning scenery.
Top 10 Places to Visit in Wellington
Wellington is nestled between forested hills and a bay that opens up to Cook Strait, so guests who want to venture outside of the city centre should bring comfortable walking shoes.
Luckily, the Wellington Cable Car offers a gorgeous and immensely enjoyable alternative to huffing up the hill to the Kelburn Lookout, and the spectacular Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa), the main tourist attraction, is conveniently positioned near the shore.
The city’s location on Cook Strait makes it particularly susceptible to the wind, earning it the moniker “windy Wellington.” Yet, you shouldn’t let that deter you. No other city in New Zealand is more beautiful than Auckland on a sunny summer day.
Read our list of the top Wellington attractions to get a feel for what the city has to offer in terms of sightseeing opportunities.
1. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
The national museum of New Zealand takes visitors on a fascinating exploration of the forces of nature that sculpted the country, the traditions of the Maori people who were the first to live here, and the impact of Europeans on New Zealand’s social history.
The New Zealand Museum, or Te Papa Tongarewa as the locals name it, features a wide variety of interactive displays, such as the Earthquake House, which recreates the sensation of being in an earthquake.
New Zealand’s landscapes, plants, and fauna are the emphasis of the Te Taiao Nature exhibition hall, which features several hands-on exhibits. The collection of New Zealand and Pacific Island art at Arts Te Papa is much more subdued, spanning 11 galleries.
The Mana Whenua exhibition is the museum’s crown jewel; it chronicles the Maori people of New Zealand through cutting-edge multimedia displays and an exquisite collection of art and artefacts.
The museum offers a number of reasonably priced tours, from the introductory “Introducing Te Papa” tour (which covers the history, geography, and culture of New Zealand in just one hour) to more in-depth excursions into Maori history and tradition.
Whether you plan on staying for a while or are attending a long lecture or seminar, the on-site cafes and gift shop will come in very handy.
2. Wellington Cable Car and the Kelburn Lookout
Since 1912, visitors to Wellington have been able to take the historic cable car up to the Kelburn Lookout, which is located near to the Botanic Gardens. At Lambton Quay in Wellington’s waterside downtown district, this enjoyable five-minute voyage offers a gorgeous (and far more relaxed) alternative to huffing your way up Wellington’s steep hill.
During the journey, you’ll get some great vistas of the city, and as you reach Kelburn Lookout, the metropolitan panoramas are just begging to be photographed. There is a fascinating Cable Car Museum at the Kelburn cable car station, where you can see the very first cable car ever used on the rails.
One of the best things to do in Wellington after dark is to ride the cable cars. Parts of the ride, including the tunnels, are illuminated with vibrant displays of lighting, so you can enjoy the sights of the city below even after dark. The cable attraction’s peak is also home to a quality café.
3. Mount Victoria
Mount Victoria may be seen to the east of the downtown area. At its highest point, this hill soars to a lofty 196 metres and provides breathtaking panoramas of the city below. From Oriental Bay, take the “Lookout”-marked twisting road up to the Byrd Monument, where you may get a good perspective of the area.
The view from the rooftop terrace is breathtaking, taking in the entire city, the port, and Cook Strait to one side and Kelburn Park and the campus buildings to the other. Richard Byrd, an American aviator, made the first fly over the South Pole from New Zealand in 1929, and his feat is commemorated by the Byrd Monument.
If you just have half a day to spend in Wellington, take advantage of the Wellington Sightseeing Tour, a small-group excursion that will take you to many of the city’s top attractions.
Mount Victoria’s peak is on the schedule for breathtaking vistas, as is a ride on the historic cable car to Kelburn Lookout and photo possibilities at the Beehive and St. Paul’s Church. Hotels in Wellington can arrange for a pick-up and drop-off service.
4. ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary
ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary is a 225-hectare urban eco-sanctuary located just two kilometres from the city centre that is dedicated to showcasing New Zealand’s conservation efforts and its distinctive nature and animals.
Stitchbirds, saddlebacks, and takahes, all of which are in risk of extinction, can be heard and spotted here, along with more than a hundred kiwi (which can be viewed on guided night excursions) and New Zealand’s famous reptile, the tuatara.
Visitors can explore 32 kilometres of paths across the reserve and learn about the country’s natural heritage at the accompanying museum.
5. The Beehive
The Beehive, the New Zealand parliamentary building, is a Wellington landmark. The edifice, which was constructed between 1964 and 1979 and designed by British architect Sir Basil Spence, is the city’s most divisive structure.
Parliament House, next door, is a more stately structure, having been erected in Neoclassical Edwardian style in 1907 to house legislative debates in a room called The Chamber.
Tours of the Parliament buildings, which last an hour and cover topics such as New Zealand’s parliamentary history and the most important government chambers, are offered everyday for free between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
They start at the Beehive’s visitor centre on the first floor. Rose gardens and a statue of Richard John Seddon, New Zealand’s prime minister from 1893 to 1906, may be found in the public parliament gardens that surround the buildings.
6. Wellington Zoo
The oldest zoo in New Zealand is located in Wellington. It was founded in 1906 and has become famous for its environmental protection work. The kiwi bird (the country’s national emblem) and the tuatara reptile are two of New Zealand’s most elusive creatures, and seeing them up close here is a great way to introduce your kids to them.
Animals from all over the world, such as the Malayan sun bear, giraffes, monkeys, chimps, gibbons, meerkats, and large cats, are housed in spacious, clean cages. Zoo visitors can observe the efforts of the veterinary staff in The Nest, the zoo’s animal hospital.
The zoo also hosts adventure playgrounds, adventure sleepovers, and daily animal talks and feeding experiences with unique creatures.
7. Weta Cave Workshop Tour
Wellington has a connection to Peter Jackson’s successful trilogies, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, that no fan of those films should miss. Much of the sets, costumes, and effects used in the director’s blockbuster films were created at his renowned Weta Workshop, located in Wellington.
From the creation of the creatures and costumes seen in Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and District 9 to the construction of the massive miniature model seen in Thunderbirds Are Go, the workshop offers a variety of tours that take visitors behind the scenes to show how special effects are made from props.
In addition to seeing the artists and designers at work on current projects, you can get a close look at the models they use to portray characters and film settings.
8. Wellington Museum
Modern multimedia displays help bring Wellington’s history to life in the city’s small but magnificent Wellington Museum, which is one of the best free things to do in Wellington.
The museum, located in a restored Victorian structure that operated as an early department store, showcases exhibits and film screenings that document Wellington’s maritime history and urban development.
The Wahine catastrophe exhibits in particular are a sombre and thought-provoking reminder of the power of nature and Wellington’s relationship to the water. Fifty-one people lost their lives when the Wahine ferry sank near Wellington port during a storm in 1968.
A gallery dedicated to Maori folklore and mythology is also available. The neighbouring Pukeahu National War Memorial Park is the national memorial to the nation’s war dead and is also well worth a visit.
The War Memorial Carillon is a set of 74 bells that is played in concerts frequently and is worth seeing if you happen to be in the city.
9. Wellington Botanic Garden
The Wellington Botanic Garden was established in 1868 and occupies a sprawling 25 hectares atop a city hill, where it is filled with flowering displays and native flora and wildlife.
Several sections of the gardens, such as the conifer forests, ferneries, and seasonal flower beds, are connected by a network of pedestrian paths. With over a hundred and ten rose beds containing a dizzying array of species, the Lady Norwood Rose Gardens are a highlight of these botanical gardens.
The grounds are home to both the Begonia House, which shows tropical flower species, and the Space Place at Carter Observatory, which features a planetarium performance (and is located in the gardens near the Wellington Cable Car Kelburn Station).
Visit at one of the many free summer concerts held here if at all feasible. Take the Wellington Cable Car up to the botanical gardens, and then stroll back down to the city centre for a wonderful day trip.
If you still have time in your schedule, you should also check out the adjacent Otari Native Botanic Garden and Wilton’s Bush Reserve, both of which feature interesting collections of native plant species.
10. City Gallery Wellington
City Gallery Wellington, one of New Zealand’s premier venues for contemporary art, has called the city’s former library home since its 1980 opening. This airy, large gallery hosts a yearlong schedule of rotating temporary exhibitions, showcasing the work of established and emerging local, Pacific Island, and worldwide artists.
Featuring a wide variety of contemporary visual art, from paintings and photographs to sculptures and video installations. The gallery is also a major cultural centre in Wellington, hosting exhibition openings, artist talks, tours, workshops, and performances all year round. There is an on-site cafe.
The New Zealand Portrait Gallery, located about 750 metres north of City Gallery, is well worth a visit for art enthusiasts. The gallery features significant works by New Zealand artists, many of which depict prominent individuals of the country.