Many visitors come to Wellington only to catch a ferry to the South Island, but the capital deserves exploration. A compact city easily explored on foot, its streets are a delight to wander. Historic buildings grace the downtown, while the rejuvenated waterfront buzzes with activity. The city belies its size with a thriving arts scene, lively nightlife, shopping, and a parade of festivals, concerts, and exhibitions that make it the country’s events centre.
If you want to know Wellington beyond the tourist-infused Te Papa Museum, Botanical Gardens, and Wellington Cable Car, check out these hidden gems which are often ignored by mainstream tourism:
Wrights Hill Fortress
Looking at today’s Wellington, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time which called for the construction of a fortress to protect the city from an invasion. Wrights Hill Fortress was constructed during the Second World War as a precaution for the growing Axis control in the Pacific. Although the two original, massive guns were scrapped and sold to the Japanese (oh, the irony!), the extensive restoration effort has reinstated several original elements of the fortress. Wrights Hill not only takes you back in a time of despair, but also allows you to appreciate the present through breathtaking views of Wellington from its viewpoint, as well as picnic areas, and walking and biking trails.
Many of Wellington’s suburbs are dotted with wooden villas clinging to green hills. The Aro Valley area, south of downtown, has kept many of its elegant houses cottages like these from Nature.house, thanks to resident action urban renewal in the 1960s and ‘70s. Colonial Cottage is Aro Valley’s oldest building, dating from 1858. The cottage is now a museum furnished in 19th-century style with an attractive garden. Just over a mile east of the cottage, The Basin Reserve, one of the country’s prime cricket grounds, was originally a lake until the 1855 earthquake lifted it. The New Zealand Cricket Museum in the Old Grandstand exhibits cricket memorabilia.
Kapiti Island is a conserved nature reserve and is home to a wide range of endangered bird species. Located an hour north of Wellington and accessible by a ferry, the island is a treat for bird-watchers. If you are lucky, you can spot some rare indigenous species such as kākā, weka, hihi, tui, and takahē - the birds as interesting as their names! Entry is restricted only to a handful of visitors per day through licenced tour operators - which protects this island from mass tourism and makes this experience an exclusive affair. Protected flora and fauna are not the only highlights of this island. A hike along the sea cliffs to Tuteremoana, the highest point on the island offers spectacular views of the shore.
While many tourists frequent Wellington’s hip bars in Courtenay Place, only some go for a “welly-exclusive” experience at Garage Project. If you want to get away from blaring music, Garage Project is your place. Located in the Aro Valley, the brewery had humble beginnings from a petrol station. It is now an epitome of craft beer for not only Wellington locals, but also beyond. If you can’t decide on an entire litre of beer or just a pint, drop by their tasting room, just 50 metres from the brewery. In smaller quantities, you can try all the different pints of beer and possibly a hard cider and pair it off with an appetizer.
Rent a car and head to the Makara Beach via Ohariu Valley for a day outdoors. The best way you can explore the area is by walking along the 6-kilometre-long Makara Track. The walk starts with a gradual climb parallel to the shoreline offering magnificent views of the crashing waves against high cliffs on one side and wind farms on the other. There are several vantage points through the trail - some with historical significance. One of them is Fort Opau, which was a garrison during the Second World War. The walk has no sources of food and drinkable water and can be exposed to northern winds - so come prepared.
The popular Cable and Manner streets often overshadow the hidden gem like Hannahs Laneway. Brimming with numerous bakeries, cafes, breweries, chocolate-houses, and pizzerias, this network of alleys is a foodie’s paradise. It’s not surprising Hannahs Laneway is named as the world’s tastiest laneway. The essential stops include peanut-butter-laden Fix and Fogg, organic-themed Shepherd Restaurant, Pizza Pomodoro, cocktail-soaked Hanging Ditch, artistic Leeds Street Bakery, and the Wellington Chocolate factory. Keep an eye for souvenirs and packaged foods you can take home.