More than just a political capital city, Wellington has expanded over the years to become an entertaining and interesting travel destination in its own right; the city sits in a pleasant location with a great outlook, and is brimming with things to see and do that cover all ends of the travel spectrum.
Creative arts, award-winning cuisine, boutique charm and plenty of high quality wildlife attractions can be found either in or just outside Wellington, while it also serves as an ideal gateway for a day trip to any of a number of natural sightseeing hotspots in the vicinity on the North Island.
Culinary culture rules the day in Wellington, and those who love their food and drink will be in their element here; the city boasts more restaurants and cafes per capita than New York City, and has a widespread reputation for offering gourmet dining experiences with some of New Zealand’s best restaurants calling the city home.
Combine all of the above with some fantastic views to be had from a number of great lookouts and other vantage points nearby, a wonderful job of blending European and Maori history, and a rich cultural scene involving some outstanding examples of older architecture, and Wellington offers a complete package to keep both travellers and locals alike busy.
If you’re planning to pay a visit to New Zealand’s “cool capital”, here’s our list of recommendations for the top things to do in Wellington, NZ:
10. Ride the Wellington Cable Car
Location: 280 Lambton Quay, Wellington
The ideal starting point for any trip to Wellington; its iconic cable car system is both a long-standing symbol of the city and a great way to see some of Wellington’s key attractions while taking in great views along the way. Having been in operation in some form since way back in 1902, the Wellington Cable Car is both a charming and scenic way to navigate some of the city’s steep and hilly terrain, while also being something of an attraction in itself as it’s one of the best ways to see the full panorama of Wellington and its surrounds laid out before you at a very reasonable price.
It’s an efficient and smooth ride that only takes around 10 minutes in total, but the length of the trip is hardly the point – plenty of the other top attractions on this list below wouldn’t be nearly as easily accessible for visitors to the city if it wasn’t for the Wellington Cable Car.
Wellington’s iconic cable car system is both a long-standing symbol of the city and a great way to see some of Wellington’s key attractions while taking in great views along the way.
Taking the Cable Car straight up and back down again is thus missing the point; after travelling to the top and getting an amazing outlook of the harbour and other scenery on offer while grabbing a photo or three, you can use the rest of the stops along its route to make for an full day of sightseeing entertainment. Staff on the Cable Car are also always very helpful and friendly, and can serve as a great source of information for first-timers to Wellington who are looking for guidance on how to get from A to B. There’s also a cafe at the top which is a nice place to enjoy a spot of refreshment with a wonderful outlook.
If you’re planning to make a day of the other attractions and are willing to do a bit of walking, it’s a good idea to purchase a one-way ticket to the top and then make your way back down to the bottom via the Botanic Gardens (detailed further below). As a great method of transport, an effortless way to get some panoramic views, and a springboard for enjoying a number of other essential Wellington attractions, the Wellington Cable Car should be the first port of all for anyone looking to get their bearings and orientate themselves with Wellington’s layout.
9. Visit Wellington Zoo
Location: 200 Daniell Street, Wellington
As New Zealand’s first zoo and one of the most highly regarded wildlife attractions in the country, if you’re a lover of animals or have kids along for your trip then it’s a no-brainer to pay a visit to Wellington Zoo.
Perched on a hillside overlooking the heart of Wellington City, while it’s not a massive zoo in a global context, Wellington Zoo offers a wide array of wonderful and weird animals from all over the world and focuses on providing an interactive and immersive experience while still keeping conservation efforts at the forefront. Over 100 different species of animals live here, including native New Zealand favourites such as the Kiwi Bird, Kaka, Kea and Tuatara and numerous animals from Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas.
Over 100 different species of animals live here, including native New Zealand favourites such as the Kiwi Bird, Kaka, Kea and Tuatara and numerous animals from Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas.
The zoo is nicely laid out and quite compact, which both helps from getting from one exhibit to the next while saving the legs of children considering parts of it are quite hilly, and features a range of animal presentations and talks throughout the day included in the cost of the ticket price – the bird show, tiger talk and giraffe presentation are all particular favourites. The staff of Wellington Zoo have also made a concerted effort to keep the animal enclosures as spacious and natural as possible, and its animals all look generally happy, with everything kept immaculately clean and running well. There’s also a large emphasis on being as “hands-on” as possible without disturbing the animals; kids will love it here as there are plenty of chances for them to do hand-feedings as well as slides and other features for them to play and pose on spread throughout the grounds.
Wellington Zoo also offers a variety of other bookable experiences should you wish to spend a bit more money and get a detailed encounter with the likes of cheetahs, lions, giraffes, meerkats and red pandas all available to pay a visit with up close. These last for half an hour, during which you’ll be accompanied by a keeper and get to interact directly and pose for a photo with your choice of animal.
It’s truly a world-class facility that is continually expanding and adding new features, and with its ease of access, well-kept facilities, emphasis on interaction and variety of animals, Wellington Zoo will be sure to put a smile on the faces of both kids and adults alike.
8. Explore Carter Observatory / Space Place
Location: 40 Salamanca Road, Wellington
For those looking for a dose of telescopic stargazing, Wellington’s Carter Observatory offers a state-of-the-art facility for peering deeper into the skies that has been enthralling residents and visitors to the city alike for over 70 years.
The observatory aims to provide a comprehensive space-oriented experience that’s more than just simply viewing the solar system; it’s an exhibition that is filled with displays and greatly enhanced by incorporating digital technology into the proceedings that go a long way to making what can be a complex topic more accessible for both kids and the less informed. An amazing film held in the surprisingly well-equipped planetarium documenting the history of space and the galaxy, as well as short features about each individual planet in the solar system are both entertaining and informative – and help to put a lot of what you’ll be seeing through the telescope into greater context.
Wellington’s Carter Observatory offers a state-of-the-art facility for peering deeper into the skies that has been enthralling residents and visitors to the city alike for over 70 years.
The Carter Observatory also adds a sense of true New Zealand historical and cultural flavour to the standard observatory experience by providing perspectives on the traditional Maori views on the role of the stars, attitudes towards creation, and the universe through the eyes of their culture. Each constellation is given its own little feature, and the differences between European attitudes and naming conventions to other cultures is particularly interesting. There’s also plenty of chances for kids to get hands-on with exhibits and enjoy themselves while hopefully learning something along the way, while the series of self-guided electronic displays targeted at adults allow visitors to make their way through and absorb the information on offer at their own pace.
The Carter Observatory is located in a scenic setting at the top of the city’s Botanical Gardens chosen to grant the most unobstructed viewpoint towards the sky, and can be reached either via a drive up to the Botanic Gardens carpark or by taking the Wellington Cable Car as mentioned above. With the introductory video lasting for 45 minutes, a range of talks available and the numerous exhibits and stargazing opportunities all put together, it’s easy to spend several hours at the observatory which makes it great value for money and well worth visiting regardless of if you’ve got a special interest in space or not.
Location: Pipitea, Wellington
While it’s preferred method of getting from the North Island to the South Island and vice-versa, the Interislander Ferry is a truly scenic journey in and of itself that plies its trade between Wellington and the port of Picton on the tip of the South Island. The trip – which covers a distance of 92 kilometres and takes roughly 3 hours to complete – offers some breathtaking views as the ferry makes its way out of Wellington and navigates its way through the series of islands that dot the vibrant blue waters of the Cook Strait.
The vessel features spacious decks that are great for getting unobstructed views of the spectacle, as well as a host of facilities on board including a restaurant in the front end, activities (including a magic show) to keep kids occupied, and a sheltered indoor section that shows a range of movies detailing both the surrounds and the journey. Sightseeing opportunities abound during the trip, with the Cook Strait a haven for various types of marine life, and spotting ocean-dwellers such as dolphins, seals, whales and orcas in the sections that pass through the Marlborough Sounds and Tory Channel is always a possibility.
The trip offers some breathtaking views as the ferry makes its way out of Wellington and navigates its way through the vibrant blue waters of the Cook Strait.
Weather plays a large role in how enjoyable your journey on the Interislander will be – on clear days its truly spectacular with views that can extend far into the distance, however strong winds are prone to kicking up which can make the experience chilly if you’re looking to enjoy the outer deck. It’s thus highly advisable to wear layered clothing for your journey; if you get good conditions, you can strip off and relax on the deck in the sunshine, while if you’re unlucky you can protect yourself from the elements and still take in the views over the railing. This can also effect how smooth the ride is, as the waters of the Cook Strait can become fairly choppy under adverse conditions, so if you’re prone to seasickness then be sure to plan accordingly.
There are few experiences in New Zealand that make the simple task of “getting from A to B” as enjoyable as the Interislander does, and even if you haven’t been planning to travel to the South Island when in Wellington it’s well worth doing for a day trip, or staying overnight to enjoy the pleasant atmosphere of Picton before returning the next day. Truly worthy of the title of “one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world”.
Location: 53 Waiapu Rd, Wellington
For a wildlife experience that speaks pure “New Zealand”, you can’t go past Zealandia which is truly unique in what it provides – it’s something akin to stepping far back in time to get an in-depth look at how the iconic bird life of NZ existed before affected by the influence of mankind.
Part wildlife park, part tour, part testament to the powers of conservation, Zealandia is a vast sanctuary set within a valley that displays 80 million years worth of the country’s natural history from the prehistoric past all the way up to the country’s colonisation by humans all just 10 minutes from the heart of the Wellington CBD. The valley of Zealandia is a visual feast comprised of an array of forests, lakes and streams that provide as an enjoyable environment to explore the various wildlife offerings, and its difference to the surrounding city environs makes it almost an attraction in itself.
The facility is laid out as a series of walks that allow visitors to journey through some of the lush flora on offer while seeing the unique bird life and other rare animals going about their day in untouched natural environs. Over 40 species including such New Zealand native icons as large Takahe, Kaka and Tui’s can be seen on both ground and air, with the wildlife free to roam around as they see fit – which maintains a natural atmosphere but can also sometimes make it difficult to get up close with the animals. Perhaps the most obvious highlight for visitors coming to Zealandia from abroad will be the iconic Kiwi birds that are a national symbol of the country, and here there are over 100 that can be found within the expanse of the valley – although their nocturnal nature means you’ll have to visit during the night to get a proper Kiwi-oriented experience.
Zealandia is a vast sanctuary set within a valley that displays 80 million years worth of the country’s natural history.
Both day and night experiences are available that each offer a totally different perspective on the wildlife; the day time provides a larger number of sighting opportunities due to the sheer volume of birds that are out in the sunshine, while the night tour comes with a more in-depth look at the inhabitants of the night. Guides are adept at taking night visitors to spots where they are most likely to see the Kiwis, while providing some educational and informative insight as to their behaviour, diet and habitats. There’s even the chance to see glow worms casting their twinkling glow in the darkness – a magical experience that’s popular with both kids and adults alike.
Full credit must go both to the facility’s operators and their volunteer guides who have worked extremely hard to both maintain such a fragile ecosystem while also making themselves available at regular intervals around the valley to answer any questions or provide visitors with guidance when requested. Zealandia is a stunning example of the passion that its staff have shown by being able to showcase such a delicate environment without negatively affecting the endangered species contained within.
If you’ve ever wanted to step directly into a landscape before time, Zealandia is a very reasonably-priced and convenient way to do so during your time in Wellington.
5. Wander along Oriental Bay
Location: Waterfront, Wellington
Water and maritime influence has always played a large part in both Wellington’s and New Zealand’s history as a whole, and Wellington’s own waterfront is the city’s answer to this aquatic reputation.
Other than the views of Mount Victoria (detailed below) and the Cable Car, there’s perhaps no better symbol of Wellington than Oriental Bay with its various waterfront walks and sections of quality sandy beach that can be found mere metres from development on the city shoreline. This is the spot where the combination of Wellington’s culinary, artistic and entertainment offerings all blend seamlessly into a great stretch for a walk, with visitors able to explore as much or as little of the foreshore as they like.
This is the spot where the combination of Wellington’s culinary, artistic and entertainment offerings all blend seamlessly into a great stretch for a walk.
The area is always a hub of activity that’s busy with people enjoying all its offerings, whether it’s swimming in the sea or public pool, stopping to enjoy an ice cream on a warm day, going for a jog or simply relaxing in the sun. From the waterfront, visitors can get a wonderful view of Wellington city during a walk around its curved layout, and its array of pine trees that dot the area at regular intervals can provide a decent respite from the surprisingly-harsh sunshine. There are plenty of high quality cafes and restaurants littered throughout Oriental Bay offering everything from cheap sausage rolls and meat pies all the way up to international-quality cuisine, as well as an array of bars for those who want to quench their thirst while getting a great outlook onto the harbour and beyond.
Considerable investment has gone into developing and expanding the foreshore by local council, to the point that it’s not well worth the standard of an internationally-recognised capital city. Over time they’ve added playgrounds, well-equipped toilet and shower facilities, impressive fountain, plenty of parking and some quality landscaping that makes the foreshore a key focal point of the city as a whole that’s easy to enjoy at both day and night.
4. Admire Old St. Paul’s Cathedral
Location: 34 Mulgrave St, Wellington
One of the finest examples of 19th century Gothic architecture still standing in New Zealand, Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was opened all the way back in 1866 and has been a long-standing icon in the city.
While it’s no longer functioning as a parish church, it makes for an essential spot to visit on any Wellington itinerary for those who have a fondness for architecture and can respect the finery of human craftsmanship. When viewed from the outside, “quaint” would probably be the best word to describe Old St. Paul’s – it’s got a relatively unassuming white wooden facade – however upon stepping inside it’s easy to see why it remains such a popular local attraction to this day.
Carved English oak features throughout, and is just one of six different kinds of timber used in its construction – all of which have been extremely well preserved and maintained.
Intricately crafted timber woodwork intermingles with incredible, multi-coloured windows of stained glass that are both still in remarkably good condition. The warm and peaceful atmosphere inside is palpable, and it doesn’t require any particular level of spirituality or religious worship to appreciate. Carved English oak features throughout, and is just one of six different kinds of timber used in its construction – all of which have been extremely well preserved and maintained. Old St. Paul’s Cathedral is rich with history, and there are always knowledgeable and willing volunteers on hand who will go into detail about the building and surrounds’ history and serve as great ambassadors for the church as a whole.
The church also pays its respect to American soldiers who made their way across the Pacific to aid in the defense of New Zealand during World War 2, with a 48-starred flag of the USA displayed on the church’s nave, which can make for an unexpected yet intriguing story to hear firsthand. Just a few minutes’ stroll from the CBD and located near Wellington’s Parliament buildings, while you may only need to spend a short amount of time here, that’s all it will take to gain an appreciation for the man-made beauty of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral.
3. Relax in Wellington Botanic Gardens
Location: 101 Glenmore, Wellington
New Zealand as a whole is famed for the quality of its gardens, and Wellington’s Botanical Gardens are amongst the best of any on offer throughout the country. As one of NZ’s Gardens of National Significance, these gardens have a lot to live up to, and all it takes is a little exploration to see that they well and truly do. Situated in the aforementioned wonderful spot overlooking Wellington, the Botanic Gardens are a dazzling array of all things floral – exotic forests, stunning rose gardens, lush native bush and smaller specially-themed areas all combine to provide a breathtaking new spectacle to be taken in around every path.
Beginning from the top of the gardens (which is advisable as walking downhill is much easier on the legs), a range of paths wind their way between magnificent trees the specialised gardens over an absolutely massive area; it’s easy to spend several hours or more here, particularly if you’re the type who likes to – literally – stop and smell the roses. The gardens are built around the trek from the top station of the Wellington Cable Car down to the city, so simply grab a one-way ticket to the top and then make your way down over the course of one or two hours. It’s an extremely photogenic walk, with plenty of spots to pause, rest and take some snapshots – the serene duck pond surrounded by greenery with its charming gazebo is a highlight, as is the amazing rose garden which comes into full bloom in the summer months and where the gardens’ restaurant is located.
As one of NZ’s Gardens of National Significance, these gardens have a lot to live up to, and all it takes is a little exploration to see that they well and truly do.
It’s also a spot that’s not entirely unenjoyable for kids, either – while the image of a floral garden might not seem of much interest for the little ones, there’s a robust playground for them to play on along with a flying fox that’s always popular. It makes for a great spot for a picnic; simply bring some food and drink and relax amongst the greenery while the kids burn off their energy. The track through the gardens culminates in a cemetary that features some truly remarkable grave stones and emits an atmosphere of peace, and is well worth a quick look if you aren’t the type to find it depressing.
Featuring a wide variation of native NZ and exotic plants of nearly endless varieties spread out over a massive 62 acre area, there’s something for everyone who can appreciate natural beauty at Wellington Botanical Gardens.
2. Enjoy the views from Mount Victoria Lookout
Location: 172 Oriental Parade, Wellington
Most people visiting any city will want to travel to the best available lookout, and Mount Victoria is Wellington’s answer to this, providing an amazing vantage point that looks out over the waters of the Cook Strait and the many landmarks and panorama of the city as a whole.
Easily accessible via a short drive from the city up to its parking area or by walking a scenic track from its base, you’ll want to bring your camera for this one – it’s one of the most-photographed spots in the region, both from the main lookout and the second which sits around a 300m walk away (no parking here). The striking colours of the harbour take on a particular beauty when viewed from high above, and the various yachts and other boats at berth with the different styles of buildings in the background coupled with the greenery of the surrounding mountain ranges make for an interesting cityscape.
The mountain is 198 metres high and the 360 degree perspective is well worth the effort if walking – or money if taking public transport – to come to its summit.
The mountain is 198 metres high, and the 360 degree perspective is well worth the effort if walking – or money if taking public transport – to come to its summit. Standout landmarks that are prominently visible from this spot include Wellington Airport, Westpac Stadium and the various colonial-style buildings which dot the hillside facing the waterfront. At the top of the mountain you’ll also encounter a unique statue named Byrd Monument which was erected to honour American explorer and aviator Richard Byrd who used New Zealand as a base for several important Antarctic expeditions over the course of 25 years.
The walk up to the top is enjoyable but also quite long – expect to spend around 1.5 hours if you aren’t pushing yourself – while bus serves are available throughout the week which can take visitors directly to the top for a reasonable price. Bear in mind that Mount Victoria’s lookouts are also one of the windiest spots in Wellington, so wearing windproof clothing is essential on blustery days.
Regardless of weather, the fact that you simply can’t get comparable views in any other easily accessible spot in Wellington makes Mount Victoria’s lookout a true must-visit during your time in the city.
Location: 55 Cable St, Wellington
Wellington’s premier attraction also doubles as the country’s best historical and cultural man-made facility and one of the best overall museums in the Oceania region, with 6 floors worth of incredible displays and interactive exhibitions blending European and Maori exhibits within a building that’s a veritable work of art itself.
There are a dizzying array of things to see and absorb at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to properly experience everything in a single day. The museum features a range of collections covering all aspects of everything “NZ”, from Pacific cultures and art, to separate categories of natural history such as birds, reptiles, fish and much more along with an incredible number of curated items that provide some of the most detailed insight into New Zealand’s past available.
Over 200,000 individual items are contained within the museum, all separated out into some impressive attractions in their own right; highlights include the “OurSpace” interactive exhibition with its interactive wall and thrill rides, a massive Colossal Squid display that shows off the heaviest of its kind ever caught, and the “Awesome Forces” earthquake house that goes into detail on the workings, causes and effects of quakes which have had a significant impact on New Zealand both historically and in recent times.
The museum features a range of collections covering all aspects of everything “NZ”, from Pacific cultures and art, to natural history and curated items providing detailed insight into New Zealand’s past available.
The museum simply offers too many essentials to mention, and personal preference and interest plays a large enough role to make recommendations of any specifics pointless – it’s best to simply ensure that you go (preferably on a weekday outside of school holidays, as its popularity means it’s almost always crowded during peak times) and determine your favourite parts yourself. The diverse away of displays and emphasis on interaction means that you won’t need to have a specific interest in history either.
As a final added bonus, the majority of the museum is absolutely free to explore, with only special, seasonal exhibitions requiring payment, so if you’re looking for something to do in Wellington that provides the ultimate balance of entertainment vs. cost-effectiveness, you’d be foolish to pass this up. One of New Zealand’s true must-do experiences.
Other popular things to do:
- The Weta Cave: If you’re a Tolkien fan who’s looking for some special insight into the magic behind the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, the Weta Cave will be a must visit on your Wellington itinerary. This workshop showcases the amazing props, visual effects and other moviemaking techniques that help bring these fantasy worlds to life, and this tour will “pull back the curtain” to show how the talents of all its creative crew put them all into action.
- The Hutt Valley: a popular day trip area from Wellington, this nature-oriented region is renowned for the quality of both its walking and mountain biking tracks, and is the ideal spot for those who like to embrace outdoor adventure on their journeys. Both the Hutt River Trail (on foot) and the Rimutaka Trail (by bike) offer extensive showcases of this beautiful part of New Zealand, crossing a wide variety of terrain and highlighting the diversity of the region.
- Adrenaline Forest: If you’re looking for a fun challenge that the whole family can enjoy, the popular Adrenaline Forest provides a wide variety of rope bridges, flying foxes, swings and more that allow visitors to ascend to the treetops and test their mobility and agility. With a range of difficulty levels to choose from, you can set your own pace and enjoy a balance of scenery, exercise and sunshine all at a reasonable price.
In addition, if you’re looking for all the top things to see and do in and around Wellington including activities, attractions and more, be sure to check out our main region section to browse and book online!