Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrThe capital of New Zealand, in 2011 Wellington was named “The coolest little capital in the world” by Lonely Planet. Famous for its wind, coffee culture, hipsters, and being the seat of the New Zealand government, this compact, little city is perfect for walking and exploring, devouring delicious food, and experiencing the thriving arts culture.
And as the locals say, “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day.”
HistoryAccording to the tradition of the Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous peoples), a chief called Whatonga was the first person to settle the lands at the southern tip of the North Island. The area was known as Te Upoko-o-te-Ika, meaning “the head of the fish” – the fish being the North Island. Whatonga’s son, Tara, was said to have fallen in love with the deep and beautiful harbor, and Whatonga named the harbor Whanganui-a-tara after his son.
The region was slowly populated with the arrival of a number of peoples of Kurahaupo descent, including Ngai Tara, Mua-upoko, Ngati Apa, Ngati Rangitane, and Ngati Tu-mata-kokiri. Over time, hilltop fortresses called “pa” were established on strategic and sheltered sites around Wellington harbor.
The London-based “New Zealand Company” began sales of New Zealand land in the mid-1800s, with their ship, the Tory, arriving in Tara’s harbor in September, 1839. Aboard the Tory, the Port Nicholson Purchase deed was signed by 16 Maori chiefs and New Zealand Company representatives, led by Colonel William Wakefield.
The deed allocated one-tenth of the purchased land to the signatory chiefs and their families. The rest was to be sold to British settlers, including those who, at the time, were already sailing through the Pacific Ocean en route to New Zealand.
From 1840, British settlers began to arrive in what was then called “Britannia”, and was soon renamed Wellington. A surveyor for the New Zealand Company prepared a plan for the settlement of the city. Town acres were drawn up and allocated to settlers by lottery. The settlers moved onto their land, evicting the former Maori inhabitants.
On 23 January, 1855, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in New Zealand rocked Wellington. The 8.2 magnitude quake was centered 16 miles from the city, and was felt as far away as Canterbury in the South Island.
The quake caused extensive damage in the city. Houses and government buildings were reduced to rubble, and huge waves came ashore. The result of the quake was a coastline that had risen up to 5 feet in places, creating shore platforms that now encircle the harbor.
Wellington became New Zealand’s capital in 1865. Parliament officially sat in the city for the first time on 26 July, 1865.
SightseeingLocated on the Wellington waterfront, Te Papa is the national museum of New Zealand. Spanning multiple stories, and with many interactive exhibits, the museum exhibits New Zealand’s diverse history, as well as showcasing beautiful paintings and artwork by New Zealand and touring artists. General admission is free (although there can be entry fees for touring exhibits).
The red Wellington Cable Car is a must-do for any tourist visiting the city. Running from Lambton Quay up to Kelburn, the ride offers beautiful views over the city, as well as a quick route from the central city up to the suburbs. At the top in Kelburn, also check out the Cable Car Museum and the Carter Observatory. The Observatory hosts a digital planetarium and historic telescopes. Make your way back down to the city with a walk through the beautiful Botanic Gardens.
The Town Hall was completed in 1904. The building exceeded its budget and went through many design changes during the construction process. Its excellent acoustics make it a lovely place to spend an evening at the various classical and contemporary concerts it hosts throughout the year.
For a beautiful view of the city, head up to the Mount Victoria lookout. The number 20 bus runs from the city center up to Alexandra Road, and then the lookout is a short walk from the bus stop. The lookout is especially beautiful by night, as the lights stretch from the city, out to Lower Hutt, and right back around the harbor to Eastbourne.
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, check out the Weta Cave in Miramar. Weta workshop is responsible for the creation and production of an impressive number of Hollywood movies. Take a tour and learn about the magic behind the films.
If you’re coffee’d out and are craving some natural attractions, catch the number 3 bus up to Zealandia wildlife sanctuary in Karori. The sanctuary offers a slice of natural paradise in the middle of suburbia, and is home to a variety of native species, include the national icon, the flightless Kiwi bird.
If you’re lucky enough to strike Wellington on a beautiful, sunny day, take a walk around the waterfront to Oriental Bay. Enjoy the stunning sights and beautiful, historic houses overlooking the harbor, or jump on a crocodile bike and have some fun. Oriental Bay also has a small beach, which is the perfect place to sunbathe or have a dip on a summer’s day. Order some takeaway fish and chips from the nearby Mt Vic Chippery on Majoribanks Street, and take the stairs up to the top of Fisherman’s Table restaurant where you can enjoy dinner with a view over the harbor.
Sevens Rugby TournamentJoin New Zealand’s biggest dress-up party every February at the Wellington International Sevens Rugby Tournament. Under the guise of a sports event, Wellingtonians and New Zealanders from across the country converge on Wellington with elaborate dress-ups. The event averages over 30,000 attendees annually.
ShoppingFor independent stores, try along the pedestrian mall on Cuba Street, also home to a variety of buskers and the colorful Bucket Water Fountain.
For chain fashion stores, walk from Cuba Street along Manners Mall, and along Victoria Street and Lambton Quay. Here you will find high street stores like Veronica Maine, Cue and Max, as well as New Zealand designers, like Trelise Cooper.
A Westfield Shopping Center is located about 15 minutes drive from the city in Lower Hutt. The center carries a variety of chain stores for fashion, gifts, and your usual mall needs.
DiningWellington boasts more cafés, bars, and restaurants per head than New York City. Wellington is well-known for its “café culture”, with a plethora of top quality cafés serving piping hot, strong coffees to suit public servants and alternatively-dressed hipsters alike.
For coffee and café meals, local favorites in the central city include the Cuban-themed Fidel’s at the top of Cuba Street, Midnight Espresso, and Espressoholic.
Mid-range restaurants serving bang for your buck include Duke Carvell’s, which offers delicious tapa-style plates (the sage butter gnocchi is a must!). Sweet Mother’s Kitchen at the end of Courtney Place also offers Cajun-style food in a kitsch environment, and their curly fries are world famous in Wellington.
Brunch is a Wellington Saturday morning institution. Most cafés will serve decent fare, however must-tries include the poached eggs at Floridita’s on Cuba Street, and the kedgeree at Nikau Gallery Café in Civic Square. For a view with your coffee, catch the number 3 bus out to Lyall Bay, and enjoy the delicious fare at Maranui Café, established in the surf lifesaving club buildings overlooking the coast.
If you’re down the northern end of town, pop into the Ministry of Food café on Bowen Street. Buzzing with extra strong coffee and the work chat of politicians and public servants, their cheese scones are legendary.
If you are looking to splurge, top of the line restaurants include:
- Logan Brown, on the corner of Cuba and Vivian Streets
- Boulcott Street Bistro, on Boulcott Street in the city center
- The White House, on Oriental Parade in Oriental Bay
Wellington is also known as the craft beer capital of New Zealand, with craft drops surging in popularity since the mid-90s. Try local brews such as Parrot dog, Tuatara, and Garage Project. Good drinking spots include Little Beer Quarter tucked away on Edward Street in Te Aro, and the Fork and Brewer on Bond Street.
Courtenay Place is the central location for nightlife, with a range of bars and clubs. For a quieter drink, head to Cuba Mall, which offers a range of cool and more alternative bars, such as Matterhorn and the nearby Havana Bar.
LodgingWhether you’re on a backpacker’s budget, or ready to splurge on a five-star hotel, Wellington has a range of accommodation options. Wellington is a walkable city, and a spot in the city center is ideal for exploring on foot.
Check out www.wellingtonnz.com to search Wellington-specific accommodation options.
Tourist TransportationWellington is serviced by Wellington International Airport, which offers direct flights from New Zealand centers and some Australian cities. The airport is located 3.1 miles from the city center. You can make the trip by car, taxi, or the Valley/Airport flyer bus leaves from directly outside the terminal.
Public buses are frequent and service most areas in Wellington. If you’re going to be in town for more than a couple of days, get yourself a red Snapper card for $10 NZD, as fares are discounted significantly with the card. Check out www.metlink.co.nz for more details.
You can also arrive in Wellington from the South Island by ferry, which arrive and depart several times a day from the northern end of the Wellington waterfront.
If driving, State Highways 1 & 2 are the only two major roads into Wellington. State Highway 1 follows the western coast to the north, while State Highway 2 tracks north-east through the Hutt Valley, over the Rimutaka Ranges to the Wairarapa.
InterCity is the national bus carrier offering daily services to Wellington from locations across the North Island.
ClimateWellington is known as the “Windy City” for good reason. The prevailing winds are from the northwest, but the strongest winds come from the south. Try to plan your outdoor activities for calm days, especially around the waterfront.
The temperature in Wellington does not often drop below 32 °F (32°F) at night, and below 46 °F (46°F) during the night. Summertime days can be sunny and warm, although temperatures rarely rise above 77 °F (77°F).
SafetyWhile crime rates in Wellington are reasonably low, as always, use your common sense. Take simple steps like not walking alone at night and locking away your valuables.
More InformationThe Wellington Visitor Information Center (iSITE) is located in Civic Square, on the corner of Victoria and Wakefield Streets.
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Author: Amanda. Last updated: Dec 30, 2014