Those who know me know that Wellington, New Zealand, is perhaps my favorite city. Ever. On the face of the earth.
People find this hard to believe, especially if they’ve ever visited Wellington on one of its more blustery days –- gale-force winds and sideways rain are no strangers to this place.
But the Wellington I am in love with is the one that comes out on sunny days. The one that is full of character and culture. The one with cute little houses perched upon cute little hills (OK, so maybe the hills are more terrifying than cute, but still).
Wellington is unlike any other New Zealand city. It does not have the “big city” feel of Auckland, nor the touristy congestion of Queenstown. It does not smell funny like Rotorua does, and is not flat like Christchurch. Wellington is unique, and that is why I love it.
I’m determined to make you love it, too. But, in order for this to be possible, I should probably first educate you on some of the “must-knows” about Wellington before you go.
Wellington is often referred to as both the political and cultural capital of New Zealand. While it’s true that the country’s government is based downtown, Wellington does not necessarily feel like a political capital. Yes, you’ll see men and women darting about in suits and toting briefcases, and the traditions and rules of Parliament haven’t changed for centuries (they still wear those silly wigs on certain occasions), but the city’s overall atmosphere is very relaxed. Fast-paced at times, but blissfully languid at others.
Part of this is due to the cultural diversity that can be found throughout the city, adding to its quirky character. Take a stroll down Cuba Street, and you’ll find evidence of this diversity in the array of restaurants and cafes there –- everything from French to Malaysian to Turkish to Mexican, and everything else in between.
The diversity isn’t just confined to the people, either. Wellington is also quite diverse when it comes to weather conditions –- often multiple times in the same day. While this coastal city doesn’t exactly experience all four seasons, it CAN experience four different types of weather in one week. Or one day.
Especially during the winter months, it’s smart to bundle up in layers. This is because, while the day may start out warm and sunny, it can quickly turn cold and windy; the city is nicknamed “Windy Welly” for good reason. A sturdy, windproof/waterproof raincoat would serve you well here, too, since trying to wield an umbrella in Wellington is often just silly.
Use the buses
Even though Wellington is an extremely walkable city, don’t be afraid to take advantage of its public transportation system. Big bright GOWellington buses can be seen all over the downtown area, and timetables can be found at most information centers, as well as at most bus stops. Many of the Wellington buses are actually trolley-buses, being run on electricity instead of diesel, in case you’re keeping your carbon footprint in mind. These trolley-buses are a perfect of example of the environmentally-conscious attitude that can be found throughout New Zealand. It’s rather refreshing.
If you’re going to stick around Wellington for a while, consider buying a Snapper card, which is a pre-paid card that you scan as you get on and off a bus. Snapper fares are always cheaper than cash fares. Or, if you’re only going to be in town for a day or two, buy a BusAbout Day Pass for $9 that will get you unlimited rides on all GOWellington and Valley Flyer buses for a day.
Don’t shun the touristy spots
Wellington is unlike a lot of other popular New Zealand cities because it isn’t considered a major stop on the country’s tourist trail. In fact, many visitors to the country skip right over it, opting instead for places that offer up more thermal pools or adventure sports. But this just means that the “touristy” spots in Wellington aren’t really that touristy at all.
Catch a bus up to the Mount Victoria lookout for sweeping views of the city and harbor (at sunset, if you can), ride the historic Cable Car from Lambton Quay up to the Botanic Gardens, visit the Wellington Zoo or ZEALANDIA wildlife sanctuary, take a goofy photo underneath the Fern Ball in Civic Square, or geek out at the Weta Cave in Miramar. But whatever you do, don’t skip Wellington. It likes visitors, too!
Take advantage of free museums
One of the greatest things about Wellington (besides the gorgeous harbor, friendly people and great food) is the abundance of museums -– FREE museums. Te Papa Tongarewa is the national museum of New Zealand, and is located right in downtown Wellington. It’s one of the best museums I have ever been to, and it’s entirely free to explore. Learn about New Zealand’s history, its geological makeup, its native flora and fauna, and where it’s headed in the future. Te Papa’s exhibits are always evolving, and they have a bunch on display now that are interactive and really fun.
You can also check out the Wellington Museum of City & Sea, which celebrates Wellington’s social, cultural and maritime history; the Cable Car Museum near the Botanic Gardens; and a whole array of art galleries around the city -– all free of charge. And, even though it’s not really a museum, you can also take a free guided tour of New Zealand’s parliament buildings (including one they call “The Beehive”). You don’t have to be interested in politics to enjoy this one, either.
Follow the locals
My last bit of Wellington advice is to just go with the flow; do as the locals do. If it’s a nice afternoon, head down to Oriental Bay for a walk along the sand or a tall cone of ice cream. Stroll down Lambton Quay or Willis Street for some window shopping. Grab a bench on Cuba Street and listen to some really talented buskers. Head over to Courtenay Place for a pint or a great night out.
I often feel like Wellington doesn’t get the attention it deserves among New Zealand’s great cities and towns. And it’s a shame, really. Because, as cliché as it is to say, Wellington really does have something for everyone. It’s just up to you to discover it.
Maybe it will become your favorite city on the face of the earth, too.
See our New Zealand travel planning and Rugby World Cup 2011 travel page for more on New Zealand.
This post is part of New Zealand week on Indie Travel Podcast.