Before leaving for our round the world trip Tom and I were lucky enough to get to go back home to Wellington to visit family. For the last few years we have been living in Melbourne, Australia, and although we were only a 3.5 hour flight away we didn’t make it back to Wellington nearly as much as we would have liked to.
Wellington is a small city of only around 400,000 people, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in character and basically just general awesomeness. Although I may be biased, the Lonely Planet agrees with me, naming Wellington as fourth in its list of Top 10 Cities to Visit in 2011 and it even cooling it the “coolest little capital in the world”! Although I knew this to be true already, I have to say that when I visited in August a lot had changed over the last few years and the city was even better (cooler) than I remembered.
Despite all this, Wellington is in many ways one of those cities where you have to know where to look to find all the hidden gems. Therefore, as a native Wellingtonian and lover of all things free and cheap, below is my guide to the top 19 free and cheap things to do in this fine city.
1. Stroll along the city’s waterfront
There’s a saying in Wellington that “you can’t beat Wellington on a good day”. This is because although the weather may not be the best (Wellington is the windiest city in the world!) when the sun does star to shine then so does the city. On a nice day walk along Wellington’s waterfront – from the railway station to Oriental Bay (or beyond) and you will come to understand this saying too. Be sure to check out Frank Kitts Park, the ‘lagoon’, the carved wooden bridge to Civic Square, and the many sculptures along the way. Also keep a look out for the poems and quotes carved into concrete blocks near the lagoon as these are hidden little gems.
2. Ride the historic Cable Car to the Botanic Gardens
After checking out the shops on Lambton Quay, hop on Wellington’s historic cable car for a ride to the city’s lovely Botanic Gardens. The cable car will set you back about NZD$4 one way or NZD$7.50 return, but the scenic ride is worth it. When you get to the top of the hill check out the Cable Car Museum, stroll through the Botanic Gardens, and then wander down the pretty Tinakori Road, which is full of boutique clothing and homewares stores.
3. Wander through the city’s side streets
Similar to other cities like Melbourne, much of Wellington’s character can be found by ducking in and out of the city’s seemingly inconspicuous side streets. One of the best side streets is Eva Street, which hosts the delicious Six Barrel Soda Co. (a craft soda company), the Wellington Chocolate Factory (yum!), Goldings Bar, Pomodoro Pizza and the Leeds Street Bakery. Other fun little streets are Edward Street, where you will find Meow Café, Little Beer Quarter and the entrance to the Capital Market hawker food centre, and Opera House Lane, which is full of interesting graffiti and murals related to the performing arts.
4. See the famous bucket fountain on Cuba Mall
“Meet me at the bucket fountain” is a phrase you will often hear Wellingtonians say. This fountain is an institution in Wellington, famous (or rather infamous) because it has never worked. The fountain was designed to pass water between a number of different buckets until it eventually reached the bottom, but instead it just splashes water everywhere around it. Elijah Wood is also rumoured to have peed in the fountain during filming of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
5. Visit the Gallipoli Exhibit at Te Papa Museum
Te Papa Musuem is New Zealand’s national museum. There are a number of interesting exhibits to see here to give visitors an insight into the country’s history and culture, but right now (and until 2019) the stand out attraction is the free Gallipoli exhibit that explores New Zealand’s role in the First World War battle of the same name. Designed by Weta Workshop, which did the special effects for movies such as Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, Avatar and King Kong, the exhibit features extraordinary lifelike (and giant!) models of New Zealand soldiers.
6. Go bar hopping on Courtenay Place
Although there are many great bars scattered around city, check out Courtenay Place for a real taste of Wellington’s nightlife. Where to go depends on what you’re into, but a few of my favourites include El Horno, the Bangalore Polo Club, and Library. Also be sure to check out the bars on the side streets of Blair and Allen, collectively known as “Blallen Street” by locals like myself who tend to get the two very similar streets confused.
While you’re in town also check out Foxglove on the waterfront (bonus points for finding the secret bar ‘Foxtail’, located inside a hidden entrance on the 1st floor), Havana on Wigan Street, and Southern Cross on Abel Smith Street. If you’re looking for something a little more upmarket, try the delicious cocktails at the Matterhorn (one of the world’s best bars) on Cuba Street, and the Hawthorn Lounge on Cambridge Terrace.
7. Get a flat white
Wellington is known for its coffee and, like in Melbourne, the coffee of choice here is the flat white. Coffee is a big part of the culture in Wellington so almost anywhere you go you will find a good drop, but notable cafes (for their quality and cool vibe) are the Flight Coffee Hangar on Dixon Street, Fidel’s on Cuba Street, Café L’affare on College Street, and the People’s Coffee on Garrett Street.
8. Explore Wellington’s bays
Wellington’s bays are absolutely stunning, but in an unconventional way. Don’t visit for the golden sandy beaches and warm water, because you won’t find these here. Instead, Wellington’s bays are beautiful in a ruggedly picturesque kind of way that makes you feel at one with nature. If you have a car, spend an afternoon driving around the many bays. Start at Oriental Bay and keep driving until you reach Red Rocks, a walk that is also worth checking out. Although the bays are walkable, this will take you some time. On your way around the bays also stop for lunch or a coffee at either Chocolate Fish Café (Shelley Bay), Maranui Café (Lyall Bay) or the Bach Café (Island Bay).
9. Play mini golf at Carlucci Land in Brooklyn
I know, I know, mini golf doesn’t sound so exciting, but this putt putt course just happens to be really cool! A Wellington institution, Carlucci Land is a mini golf / paint ball course / junk yard full of fun and amazing sculptures made out of old scrap metal. One game will set you back NZD$12 for an adult.
10. Check out the craft beer scene
In the last few years the craft beer scene in Wellington has flourished exponentially making it now completely hard to miss (and nor would you want to). Check out the Garage Project microbrewery on Aro Street, which is located in another cool (hipster) part of town. Also check out one or more of the many bars in Wellington that specialise in craft beer, such as the Little Beer Quarter on Edward Street, Crafters and Co. on Victoria Street, and Rogue and Vagabond in Glover park.
11. Go vintage and boutique shopping on Cuba Street
There are many reasons you should visit Cuba Street – it’s alternative, hipster vibe, it’s great food and bars – but Cuba Street is also one home to a number of vintage and second hand stores, where you can find all sorts of goodies. Check out Ziggurat, Paper Bag Princess, Hunters and Collectors and Recycle Boutique (on Vivian Street, just off Cuba). Among many others Cuba Street also has a number of boutique fashion stores, including Madame Fancy Pants and Carly Harris.
12. Catch the Dominion Post ferry to Days Bay in Eastbourne
For a day trip, catch the Dominion Post Ferry from Wellington’s waterfront to Eastbourne, a bay on the x side of Wellington’s harbour. At NZD$11 ($22 return), the ferry isn’t cheap, but it does provide you with a beautiful (albeit rocky) view of the city. A cheaper, less scenic way to get to Eastbourne is the number 81 bus. When you arrive in Days Bay get some fish and chips and an ice cream, sit back, relax and enjoy!
13. Go on one (or more) of Wellington’s many city walks
Wellington is a walking city, so put on your walking and try one of the many designated city walkways. Because of Wellington’s many hills, be prepared to give your glutes a workout. However, the payoff is worth it because in the end you be rewarded with stunning, panoramic views of the city. See this link for info on some of the best city walks.
14. Get your culture on at the City Gallery
Wellington has some great, free public art and sculpture displays. In addition to the many pieces scattered around the city, most notably along the waterfront, also be sure to check out the City Gallery in Wellington’s civic square. While there is usually a fee for special exhibits, some parts of the gallery are open to the public free of charge.
15. Tour the Weta Cave in Miramar
At NZD$24 a pop this isn’t exactly the cheapest item on my list, but this experience is completely worth the money! The Weta Cave in Miramar is home to New Zealand’s film and special effects industry. Do this tour and you will see some awesome models and props, and hear some really interesting stories about how the special effects were made for famous movies such as the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, King Kong, Avatar, and the Legendary Adventures of Tin Tin. Tours are usually taken by actors that worked on the films, which also adds a bit of extra flair to the experience.
16. Bask in the sun at Oriental Bay
If the weather is nice then just sit back, relax, and chill out at Oriental Bay – the most popular of Wellington’s beaches because of its central location. If you’re lucky the fountain will also be on, giving you an even prettier view of the city.
17. Climb to the top of Mt. Victoria for a 360 degree panoramic view of the city
For the best view of the city, walk (warning: it’s steep!) or drive to the top of Mount Victoria. For a different kind of view altogether come up here in the evening, when you may spot a few couples ‘canoodling’.
18. Get a burger at Ekim on Cuba
Don’t walk, run! These burgers are heaven in a bun and are worth every single bite. Prepare to spend a while trying to choose a flavour, because they all sound delicious. I had the Mel, a beef burger layered with bacon, corn fritters, jalapeno salsa and sour cream. Om nom nom nom nom. For a very ‘kiwi’ experience also get one of their ‘longest milkshake in the world’ milkshakes. Do this and you will bring all the kiwi boys (and girls) to the yard.
19. Go to a free concert in summer
Wellington hosts a number of festivals and events, but one of my favourites is the free Summer Series concerts, held at the Sound Shell in the Botanic Gardens. Bring along a picnic and a bottle of one (or more), relax, and enjoy the tunes.