Where the locals go in Wellington
From boutique shopping to cable car rides and all the best food in between, find out how the locals take advantage of this Kiwi capital.
Wellingtonians go where the wind takes them.
As the southernmost capital city in the world, set smack in the path of the Roaring Forties, Wellington is windier than Chicago and often experiences four seasons of weather—all in one day.
The result is a resilient population passionate about the quirky, innovative city they call home. (They just don’t make plans too far in advance.) Wellingtonians go with the flow, and often a chance encounter, a change in weather, or a wrong turn charts an entirely new course for the day. This compact city (about 30 minutes on foot from one side of the city to the other) is built for exploring, and it’s a joy to get lost.
The Wellington cable car connects Lambton Quay to the Wellington Botanic Garden with great views in between.
The best place to start is with brunch, usually on Cuba Street. Try Fidel’s, Olive, or Loretta, all Wellington institutions and local favorites. Cuba Street starts humming on weekend mornings, so sit near a window to get energized from the buzz of the street scene. And don’t forget to ask around for advice as to what’s on.
“There’s always something happening in Wellington, but you have to go find it, because it changes with the weather,” says Ray Letoa, cocktail master and co-owner of the Roxy Cinema. “If you’re visiting this lovely city, how would you know where to go? You don’t—ask a local. Word of mouth is how we get around here.”
If the morning hasn’t blown anything your way, try some shopping. Cuba Street is “chocka” (jam-packed) with eclectic shops like the vintage clothing Hunters and Collectors, Slow Boat Records, Pegasus Books, and Caughley, which sells clothing brands that aren’t readily available elsewhere, like Copenhagen’s GANNI and New Zealand’s own Wynn Hamlyn.
“Wellingtonians love to experience things that are different,” says owner Rachael Caughley. “In Welly, it’s cool if you have something that no one else has, or no one else has seen before. People love to express themselves through what they wear.”
After a shop, depending on your mood (and what the weather’s up to), the afternoon is yours to discover the city for yourself.
Here Are Some Stops to Try
Hannahs Laneway: Look out for the David Bowie mural on Ghuznee Street and head down Leeds Street where you'll find this revitalized 1930s shoe factory, filled with eclectic eateries and artisan shops, like the Alice in Wonderland-esque Fix & Fogg peanut butter shop, the Wellington Chocolate Factory, and the Six Barrel Soda Factory.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa: New Zealand’s national museum has six floors of historical treasures and informative displays, including an extensive collection of Maori artifacts and cultural exhibits. Entry is free except for some short-term exhibitions.
Moore Wilson’s: Getting a freshly squeezed orange juice and shopping for produce at Moore Wilson’s is a Wellington weekend tradition.
Movie time: Wellington punches above its weight in movie-making and the town is filled with cinephiles. The result is a city with several character theaters, like the Embassy, a revamped 1920s building that’s hosted more than its fair share of world premieres. Keep an eye on events at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, New Zealand’s moving image and sound archive, which shows pieces from their collection.
Cable Car and Botanic Garden: The 1902 Cable Car is a Wellington icon, taking visitors up the hill overlooking Wellington for a sweeping view of the city and access to the city’s more-than-64-acre Botanic Garden.
Coffee: Wellingtonians love their coffee, and you won’t have to walk far to find a good flat white. The city’s coffee culture began more than a hundred years ago, swelling from four roasting companies in 1989 to 400 today. “Coffee is our blood type,” jokes Letoa. “A? B? No, it’s coffee.” Try local favorites Havana or the Hangar.
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Waterfront: New Zealanders have a saying: “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day.” When the weather cooperates, Wellingtonians head outside to enjoy the sun and the Caribbean-blue ocean that surrounds the city on three sides. Strolling down the waterfront and people-watching is its own kind of bliss.
When you’re hungry for dinner, head back to Cuba Street to wrap up the day at Matterhorn, Floriditas, or Logan Brown.
“The good news is that if you’re in Wellington for more than one day, tomorrow will be completely different, and any plans that you have will go right out the window,” says Letoa. “You don’t come to Wellington to find yourself; you come here to lose yourself. That’s what’s fun about this place.”
Carrie Miller is a New Zealand-based writer, traveler, and storyteller for National Geographic Traveler magazine and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
Krista Rossow is a contributing photographer to National Geographic Travel. You can follow her on instagram @kristarossow.