My new years resolution was to get out of my home town at least once every month until the end of the year so my latest adventure would take me 650 km (403 miles) south of Auckland to the capital of New Zealand, Wellington.
Wellington is the world’s windiest city and according to Lonely Planet it might just be, “The Best Little Capital in the World”. With a population of close to half a million people you have the likes of director Sir Peter Jackson and his team at Weta Workshop who call it home.
As you arrive into Wellington you’re immediately immersed in the city’s arts and culture scene, mix of architecture, sports and politics.
After returning from a five day trip and having traveled there many times before, let me show you some of my Favourite Things to See and Do in Wellington as a mega-itinerary we’ll call, “Wellington in One-Day or Bust” (see below):
- Wellington International Airport (Weta Workshop)
- Wellington Cable Car
- Cable Car Museum
- Space Place at Carter Observatory
- Wellington Botanic Garden
- Mount Victoria Lookout
- Oriental Parade, Oriental Bay, and the Wellington Waterfront
- Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand)
- Wellington City
Wellington International Airport (Weta Workshop)
Firstly, I know what you’re thinking. Airports are boring and in most cases you’d be right but Wellingtons’ a little different.
Ever since director Sir Peter Jackson made it big with a small, locally-made movie franchise called “The Lord of the Rings” his team at Weta Workshop have been adding various Rings-themed props inside and around the airport.
A few years ago they installed a giant Gollum (Smeagol). Currently, there’s a massive Smaug the Dragon by one of the check-in areas and you can see Gandalf on one of two giant eagles above the food court. For me, as a Kiwi (New Zealander), this is how to make a great first impression and it’s a nice teaser for what’s to come.
As you leave the airport keep an eye on the vibrant mix of architecture styles dating back 150 years from Art Deco, Modernism, Victorian, and others. For example, our fairly modern hotel on The Terrace (Novatel Wellington) was across the road from a restored Art Deco building.
For our mega-itinerary, try to arrive at our first stop between 8:00 am and 9:00 am. You’ll find out why in a bit…
Wellington Cable Car
There’s two main stops for the cable car; from the bottom-end, nearest to the city you have the entrance on Lambton Quay and at the top-end you have Kelburn Station by the Wellington Botanic Garden. For your first visit, you will almost always catch it from Lambton Quay.
A one-way single adult ticket was $4 or $3.50 with a Snapper (Red) card. Keep in mind it’s an additional $10 for the card without any credit. For my entire trip, I caught the cable car twice ($4 x 2 = $8) and a single bus ride ($3.50) to Mount Victoria later. A total spend of $11.50 meant it wasn’t feasible for me to buy a Snapper card.
Back to the cable car…
It’s a short and fun ride with the inclusion of some very cool tunnel lights. “Kids” of all ages, like me, will appreciate them greatly.
For photos and video, you’re allowed to stand at the very back or front of the cable car by the driver. Just hold onto the rail and make sure you capture the view from the left-side of the cable car while going up. On a clear day you can see the Waterfront to Mount Victoria and beyond.
New cable cars run every 10 minutes so don’t worry if you’ve just missed one and there’s generally a nicely spacious mix of travelers, locals and university students on board.
Wellington Cable Car is open between 7 am and 10 pm during the week with reduced hours in the weekends and holidays. Click here for current pricing and more.
As you exit your cable car from Kelburn Station one of the first things you’ll see is the cafe, a few lookouts and the Cable Car Museum but there’s also Space Place, Wellington Botanic Garden, and the free shuttle to Zealandia.
If you arrive at Kelburn Station after 9 am, I recommend skipping the Cable Car Museum and heading straight to Zealandia. Time is short, you can do it on your return, and you’ll need at least 2 hours for our next location.
Zealandia is “the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary”. It’s a 500-year project we’ll never see completed in our life time, and features 18 species of native wildlife that haven’t been seen on the mainland for over 100 years.
The free shuttle to Zealandia stops outside the Kelburn Station but you can also catch it from the City i-SITE (visitors centre) which is all the way back in town, across the road from Lower Cuba (Cuba Street), and on one corner of the Michael Fowler building.
General admission for a single adult was $19.50 (self-guided) or $55 for a guided tour. My ticket allowed me an extra day which would’ve been perfect if I had the time to come back.
Now that I’ve been there, I recommend starting as early as possible and sticking to the Lake Road “Red” Track. This is where all action is and it’s still a round trip of 2 hours. The Valley View “Green” Track was a lot of fun but after three hours I saw four native New Zealand birds compared to at least twelve at a single feeding station on Lake Road.
If you’re offered a visitors map take one. You’ll need it, especially if you decide to be adventurous like I was. There’s multiple paths that intertwine. You won’t be able to do them all in a day or even two, maybe a week.
Zealandia is open between 9 am and 5 pm. Check with the shuttle driver when they finish otherwise you’ll have to find you own way back like someone… ahem… I know.
For our itinerary, it should now be around mid-day so you can either pop into the cafe for lunch or catch the free shuttle back to Kelburn Station for our next attraction.
Cable Car Museum
Admission into the Cable Car Museum is free. It used to be a two-story house so you should be able to sweep through it in 10 – 15 minutes. Like many of the other museums and art galleries in Wellington they have an elevator (lift) which is handy if you’re unable to take the stairs.
In the basement there’s a beautifully restored cable car (Grip Car No. 3) from the 1900’s and the original winding machine room which was fully operational between 1930 and 1978. If you have time, the ground floor has a theater “room” with a video on Wellington’s cable car history.
The Cable Car Museum is open daily between 9:30 am and 5 pm, and closed Christmas Day.
Space Place at Carter Observatory is a stone’s throw from the Cable Car Museum and a great addition to your itinerary if you’d like to know how our southern skies differ from the northern hemisphere. You can look through the Thomas Cooke telescope and learn how Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, used astronomy to navigate our seas and determine seasonal changes.
Admission for a single adult was $12.50 with varying prices for seniors, students, children and families. Your ticket includes a planetarium show (half-film and half-presentation that’s projected onto an overhead dome/screen). I asked for the very next show which was, “We are stars” starring Andy Serkis. The presentation was equally fascinating as we were taken on a virtual tour of our skies and universe.
Space Place is open Tuesday and Friday (4 pm to 11 pm), Saturday (10 am to 11 pm), and Sunday (10 am to 5:30 pm). They’re closed Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
My stay in Wellington was from Monday to Wednesday so it was Tuesday or nothing. Let me add, in my personal opinion, Space Place was my second favourite paid attraction from this itinerary with first-place going to Zealandia.
FYI: You can exit and re-enter Space Place without paying again, just hold onto your ticket. This is handy if your preferred show is later and you need to leave for lunch or dinner.
For our itinerary, it depends when you’re in Wellington. If you’re doing this on the weekend, Space Place is open almost all day so you can do this directly after Zealandia and the Cable Car Museum otherwise you’ll have to skip it or come back later. Time-wise it can take you about an hour depending when your show is so at this point on our itinerary it could be 2 pm after doing Zealandia, the Cable Car Museum and Space Place.
Wellington Botanic Garden
Kelburn Station, the cafe, lookouts, shuttle to Zealandia, Cable Car Museum and Space Place are basically an extension of the Wellington Botanic Garden with walking tracks that take you back down to (or up from) the city. Personally, I prefer to walk down after riding the cable car up.
Entry to the Garden is free with the main walkway open daily from dawn to dusk. The Begonia House, Botanic Garden Shop and Picnic Cafe have varying hours which you can find on the Wellington City Council website.
For our itinerary, it should take you an hour walking through the Garden (smaller gardens, collections, and attractions). I started from Space Place, to the Australian Garden, Treehouse Visitors Centre, and finished up by the waterfall near the Lady Norwood Rose Garden. From there you can follow any of the walking tracks back to Lambton Quay or head directly to our next stop.
Mount Victoria Lookout
Mount Victoria Lookout is a Wellington must-do with stunning panoramic views of the city, harbour, and beyond.
To get there you can catch a bus, drive, taxi, bike, or walk. I caught a bus from Lambton Quay to Brougham Street and I walked the rest of the way. Some buses will take you further. You should be able to reach the top in less than an hour. It took me longer but that’s because I like to take lots of photos and film everything.
On a side note, the walking tracks weren’t as refined as Zealandia or the Botanic Garden. Considering they filmed a couple of scenes from “The Lord of the Rings” made it somewhat cooler for me. Time permitting, try to find the “Hobbit Hole” which I still haven’t been able to find from an earlier attempt.
Admission is free and I think there’s no restrictions when you can go to the lookout.
Oriental Parade, Oriental Bay, and the Wellington Waterfront
Oriental Bay is Wellington’s most popular beach for swimming, picnicking, walking or cycling along the waterfront. In the centre of the bay is the Carter Fountain which shoots water up to 16 meters in the air. It operates at predetermined times and when the wind speed conditions are below 10 knots. Remember, it’s the world’s windiest city.
You can get to the Bay by travelling down from Mount Victoria onto the Parade. If you take a right you’ll end up at the Airport or Miramar (Weta Cave and Weta Workshop). A left turn will land you back in the city and our last stop.
Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand)
That exhibit, in particular, really shook me to the core and almost had me in tears. The most manly of tears ever, of course.
At this point in our itinerary you’ll probably be strapped for time so you can catch the elevator (lift) to the top floor and work your way down zipping through as much as possible. Te Papa deserves a proper visit so consider coming back if you can, otherwise my personal favourite areas are:
- Te Marae and Mana Whenua (level four)
- Blood Earth Fire (level three)
- Gallipoli: The scale of our war (level two)
- Mountains to Sea (level two)
Te Papa is open daily between 10 am and 6 pm (except Christmas Day). And like the other locations in this list refer to their (Te Papa’s website) for any changes or closures.
While you’re in the city here’s a few honorable mentions:
- Shop, drink and eat on Cuba Street
- Check out the Bucket Fountain (also on Cuba Street)
- Go to a rugby game at Westpac Stadium
- Book a Guided Tour of the Parliament Buildings
- Visit all the other museums and art galleries
And there we have it, “Wellington in One-Day or Bust”. It’s an itinerary that’s completely flawless …until it isn’t!
Also, while I’m proud of this list it doesn’t have everything you can See and Do in Wellington. For example, I still haven’t been to the Weta Cave (Weta Workshop) and I’ve wanted to go there for years so on that note here’s a closing thought for you…
Always leave at least one thing off your itinerary so it gives you a reason to come back.