Wellington is the arts and culture hub of New Zealand. With so many great attractions, discover the city’s galleries and museums, or take in its sights and outdoor pursuits. To inspire your next trip to this cool little capital, here are several of its most cherished experiences.
On a sunny day, Wellington Waterfront is the perfect spot for a leisurely stroll. The waterfront is where the city’s key festivals and celebrations take place, including Waitangi Day commemorations, Chinese New Year, and annual fireworks displays. It’s also home to the city’s oldest market, as well as a plethora of enticing cafés, restaurants and eateries.
New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa, is a must-visit for art lovers, history buffs, and science geeks. Its innovative displays are renowned for being interactive and incredibly unique. Te Papa is also home to many fascinating Maori artefacts and treasures.
In the heart of Te Ngākau Civic Square, the City Gallery curates an array of contemporary art exhibitions. Its mission is to inspire and challenge all visitors, whether you’re looking at local avant-garde collections or attending a special event hosted onsite.
Wellington Museum lives in the historic Bond Store, an 1892 heritage building on the waterfront which was previously a cargo and shipping goods warehouse. The iconic museum shares the histories and stories of the wider Wellington region, its maritime tales and natural disasters that have made their mark on the wider community.
Oriental Bay is Wellington’s most popular beach. Close to downtown, it’s a local favourite for swimming, picnicking, walking and cycling along the picturesque promenade. It’s also the best place for waterfront dining.
No trip to Wellington would be complete without a visit to the marvellous Botanic Garden. Its bounty extends over 25ha (60 acres) of exquisite landscapes, exotic plants and native bush, and its myriad of beautiful floral displays is open for everyone to enjoy (for free) from dusk until dawn.
Zealandia Wildlife Reserve is an enclosed urban ecosanctuary – the very first of its kind anywhere in the world. Its mission is to protect New Zealand’s wildlife, and to return Wellington valley’s forests and freshwater systems to their pre-human state. The project has returned 18 native species of wildlife to the area, and rare birds are now thriving in this gated community.
New Zealand’s only funicular railway system, the cable car funnels locals and visitors between many of Wellington’s best attractions, including the Botanic Garden, Carter Observatory, and the Cable Car Museum. You can walk from the museum or kiosk to the Zealandia reserve, or for more relaxed sightseeing, take the free shuttle.
Kiwis love to make fun of this quirky Cuba Street installation, but the Bucket Fountain is such an icon that its absence, even if temporary, is sorely felt. Designed by architects Burren and Keen, this kinetic sculpture made of buckets in primary colours was installed in the middle of the Cuba Street pedestrian mall in 1969, and has been delighting visitors of all ages ever since.
Just around the corner from the more sheltered Princess Bay, Houghton Bay is known for its big southerly swells and rugged coastline. This is not a beach for swimming, but you can enjoy the wildness of the bay, and spot surfers hitting the waves whenever conditions allow.
The Parliamentary Library is the oldest of Wellington’s four parliament buildings. This Victorian Gothic landmark was designed by local architect Thomas Turnbull and constructed in two stages: phase one (the west wing) was completed in 1883, while phase two (the front of the library) was built in 1899. These days, the refurbished library is where MPs and parliamentary staff go to do their research, but it’s also open to the wider public for browsing.
Next door to the Parliamentary Library, you will find Parliament House. Constructed after the old building was wiped out by major fire, the current Parliament House opened its doors in 1918. The Edwardian neo-classical design by two architects, Claude Paton and John Campbell, contains the debating Chamber, Speaker’s office and Rainbow Room.
The most recognisable political landmark in the city, the Beehive is Parliament’s Executive Wing. Its quirky shape and modern design was devised by British architect Sir Basil Spence in 1964. This is where the lucky Prime Minster and Cabinet Ministers have their offices, and where Cabinet meetings take place. Guided tours are available every hour (between 10am and 4pm), and are well worth joining.
In Pukeahu Park, the National War Memorial honours New Zealanders who served or died during the South African War, the First and Second World Wars, and other military operations. It consists of two buildings: the National War Memorial Carillon (a tower erected in 1932) and the Hall of Memories (1964). In front of them is the impressive – and touching – Tomb of the Unknown Warrior (2004).
Founded in 1882, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts is a self-funded society dedicated to all things visual art. The Queens Wharf gallery regularly showcases locally produced pieces by both new and established artists. It curates four seasonal members’ exhibitions every year, with opening events, and sells a variety of members’ works to art-hungry patrons.
The Government Buildings Historic Reserve, commonly known as the Old Government Buildings, is a majestic wooden monolith inspired by Italian architecture. Most of it is leased to Victoria University’s Law Faculty, but the building’s display rooms are open for public viewing.
A Planetarium and museum, Space Place shares galactic stories of the southern constellations from scientific, and traditional Māori points of view. Alongside brilliant interactive galleries, the observatory is home to the historic Thomas Cooke telescope. Come here to learn about planets, constellations, stars, and New Zealand’s mind-expanding contribution to space science.
Also known by the Māori name Pari-whero (red rocks), Red Rocks Reserve can be found on the south coast between Owhiro Bay and Sinclair Head. Featuring remarkable rock formations that would fascinate any geologist, the beach is a popular spot for hiking, mountain biking and seal spotting.
Pencarrow Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in New Zealand, was first lit on New Year’s Day in 1859, and run by its first and only female lighthouse keeper, Mary Jane Bennett. For a lovely afternoon out, walk or cycle the 8km (5mi) to the lighthouse from Burdan’s Gate at the south end of Eastbourne.
Additional reporting by Bianca Ackroyd