15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Wellington
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Good things certainly do come in small packages. Take Wellington, New Zealand, for example. Wellington may be little, but this diminutive capital city is big on funky café culture and beautiful views. Snuggled between steep, forest-clad hills and a wide sweep of bay looking out to Cook Strait, Wellington spreads out across the slopes, and a sturdy pair of walking shoes benefits visitors who want to explore outside of the central business district.
Luckily, the main tourism highlight-the magnificent Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa)-is located near the waterfront, and the quaint Wellington Cable Car provides a scenic and extremely fun alternative to puffing up the hill to the Kelburn Lookout.
Due to the city's position, capturing the blustery conditions right on Cook Strait, it has gained the nickname of "windy Wellington." But don't let that put you off. On a blue-sky summer's day there really is no prettier city in New Zealand. To learn more about this exciting travel destination, be sure to read our list of the top-rated tourist attractions in Wellington.
See also: Where to Stay in Wellington
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
1. Wellington Cable Car and the Kelburn Lookout
Wellington's historic cable car has been climbing up the hill to the Kelburn Lookout, next door to the Botanic Gardens, since 1912. This fun five-minute journey is a scenic (and much more relaxed) alternative to puffing your way up Wellington's steep hill from Lambton Quay in the waterfront central district. There are excellent views across the city along the way, and keen photographers will definitely want to get snap-happy with the cityscape panoramas laid out before them once at Kelburn Lookout.
The Kelburn cable car terminal is also home to the interesting Cable Car Museum, which displays the original cable car used on the tracks. A cable car ride is also one of the top things to do at night in Wellington. Not only do you get the chance to admire the nighttime views over the city below you, but parts of the journey, including the tunnels, are lit up with colorful displays of illuminations. There's also a good café located at the top of the cable attraction.
Address: 280 Lambton Quay, Wellington
Official site: www.wellingtoncablecar.co.nz/English/Home.html
2. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
New Zealand's national museum is an immersive journey into the natural forces that formed the country, the culture of the Maori people who first settled here, and the social history of both Maori and Europeans who have shaped the nation since then.
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (more commonly called "Te Papa" by locals) has a wealth of exhibits to explore, from the Earthquake House that simulates the experience of being in an earthquake, to the much more sedate Arts Te Papa collection, with 11 galleries of artworks focused on New Zealand and Pacific Island artists.
The highlight of the museum though is the Mana Whenua exhibition, which traces the history of New Zealand's Maori with a fine collection of Maori art and treasures and state-of-the-art multimedia displays. Cafés and a shop are also located on the premises and are especially handy if you're planning a long visit or are attending an educational seminar or lecture.
Address: 55 Cable Street, Te Aro, Wellington
Official site: www.tepapa.govt.nz/pages/home.aspx
3. Wellington Museum
Rated one of the top free things to do in Wellington, state-of-the-art multimedia displays help bring the city's history to life in the small but impressive Wellington Museum. Housed in a preserved historic building that was once one of the city's early department stores, the museum features informative exhibits and film presentations that trace Wellington's maritime history and the city's evolution.
In particular, the exhibits on the 1968 Wahine disaster-the sinking of the Wahine ferry near Wellington harbor during a storm claimed 51 lives and is New Zealand's worst maritime disaster-are a sobering and thoughtful reminder of the power of nature and Wellington's connection to the sea. There is also a very well presented gallery focused on Maori myths and legends.
Also worth a visit is the nearby Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, home to the country's national monument to those who have fallen during conflict. Of special interest is the War Memorial Carillon, a series of 74 bells that are regularly played in concerts and are well worth witnessing if you're visiting the city at the time.
Location: 3 Jervois Quay, Wellington
Official site: www.museumswellington.org.nz/wellington-museum/
4. The Beehive
Wellington's most iconic building is The Beehive, site of New Zealand's parliament. Designed by British architect Sir Basil Spence and built between 1964 and 1979, the building with its distinctive shape is the city's most love-it-or-hate-it piece of architecture.
Next door is the more classical looking building of Parliament House, built in 1907 in Neoclassical Edwardian style and home to The Chamber where parliamentary debates are held.
Free one-hour tours of the parliament buildings are held daily between 10 am and 4pm and trace New Zealand's parliamentary history, as well as touring through the important government rooms. They leave from the visitor center on the ground floor of The Beehive.
The parliament gardens around the buildings are open to the public and contain rose gardens and a statue of Richard John Seddon who was prime minister of New Zealand between 1893 and 1906.
Address: Molesworth Street, Wellington
Official site: www.parliament.nz
5. Wellington Botanic Garden
Created in 1868, Wellington Botanic Garden is a lush 25-hectare oasis that sprawls for 25 hectares on the city hillside, full of blooming flower displays and native fauna. A series of walking tracks meander through the gardens, from conifer forest areas to ferneries and seasonal flower beds. The Lady Norwood Rose Gardens here are one of the botanic gardens' finest attractions, with 110 rose beds boasting a flurry of different varieties.
The Space Place at Carter Observatory, with its planetarium show, is sited in the eastern section of the gardens (near the Wellington Cable Car Kelburn Terminal), and the gardens are also home to Begonia House with tropical flower species displays.
If possible, try to time your visit to coincide with one of the frequent summer concerts hosted here. For a fun day out, take the Wellington Cable Car, then walk back down to the city center after exploring the gardens.
And if there's time left in your day for a little more botanic garden-going, pay a visit to the interesting Otari Native Botanic Garden and Wilton's Bush Reserve, located in nearby Wilton, popular for its indigenous plant life.
Address: 101 Glenmore Street, Wellington
6. ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary
Dedicated to exhibiting New Zealand's conservation efforts and its unique nature and wildlife, ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary is a 225-hectare urban eco-sanctuary only two kilometers from the city center. Here, many of the country's native birds-including endangered species such as the stitchbird, saddleback, and takahe-can be heard and seen, as well as more than 100 kiwi (which can be spotted on guided night tours) and New Zealand's famed reptile, the tuatara.
There are 32 kilometers of walking trails throughout the reserve for visitors to explore, plus a museum that documents the natural history of the country. Day time and twilight tours are also available, along with a fun electric boat ride.
Address: 53 Waiapu Road, Wellington
Official site: www.visitzealandia.com
7. Weta Cave Workshop Tour
Fans of the classic Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies won't want to miss out on Wellington's connection to Peter Jackson's successful trilogies. Wellington is home to the director's famous Weta Workshop, where many of the props and special effects for these blockbuster movies were made.
The best way to experience this movie attraction is aboard a Weta Cave Workshop Tour. These professionally-led tours provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how these movies were made, along with other hits, including Avatar and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
You'll also see up close some of the models used to portray various characters and film sets. Included with the tour is round-trip transportation from downtown Wellington, a tour guide, a chance to chat with workshop staff, and an introductory documentary. A great souvenir shop is located on-site.
8. Katherine Mansfield House & Garden
This small wooden house in the Wellington suburb of Thorndon was the childhood home of New Zealand's most famous author. Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was a short story writer whose modernist prose has been highly influential both in her home country and overseas. Most of the writing she became famous for was completed in London, where she moved as an adult and was friends with D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.
The house where she was born and grew up has been restored to its original condition and is now a museum housing many of Mansfield's personal belongings, as well as typical furniture and fixtures of the late 19th century. Guided tours are available, and a gift shop is located on-site.
Address: 25 Tinakori Road, Wellington
Official site: www.katherinemansfield.com
9. City Gallery Wellington
Housed in the historic building of the old city library, City Gallery Wellington opened in 1980 and is one of the leading contemporary art spaces in New Zealand. This bright, spacious gallery features a changing program of temporary exhibitions throughout the year, displaying artworks by both renowned and up-and-coming local, Pacific Island, and international artists. Devoted to modern visual arts, exhibitions range from painting to photography to sculpture, multimedia work, and art installations.
The gallery is also one of Wellington's main cultural hubs with a series of talks, meet-the-artist events, tours, workshops, and live performances taking place throughout the year. A café is located on-site.
Also of interest to art-goers, the New Zealand Portrait Gallery displays important paintings by New Zealanders, including artworks featuring its citizens; of particular interest is a specially commissioned portrait of the Queen.
Location: Te Ngakau Civic Square, Wellington
Official site: http://citygallery.org.nz/
10. Nairn Street Cottage & The Colonial Cottage Museum
Wellington's oldest surviving original home, the Nairn Street Cottage, was built by William Wallis in the 1850s as a home for his family. It has been painstakingly preserved with many of the family's original 19th-century furniture and fixtures in place to recreate the ambience of life in New Zealand's pioneering era, while outside is an organic heritage garden.
Entry to the house is via a guided tour (four times daily) that allows visitors a taste of colonial Wellington and details the history of the Wallis family who lived here for three generations. The garden area is open to tourists throughout the day.
Address: 68 Nairn Street, Wellington
Official site: www.museumswellington.org.nz/nairn-street-cottage/
11. Princess Bay
Nine kilometers south of central Wellington, in the Houghton Bay district, is the sandy cove of Princess Bay. This sheltered sweep of sand with plenty of rock pools is a favorite swimming and picnicking spot for locals during weekends in the summer months.
On a clear day, the beach affords excellent views that can stretch across to the South Island. A short coastal track above the beach runs to a lookout point with even better views and is popular strolling territory in the late afternoon.
Address: The Esplanade, Houghton Bay, Wellington
12. Matiu Island
For nature lovers looking for a secluded getaway close to the city, Matiu Island (also known as Somes Island) in Wellington Harbour offers up a heady dose of wild New Zealand landscapes. During the pre-European era, Matiu Island-the largest of three northern islands in Wellington harbor-was occupied by Maori.
During the modern era, it was used as a quarantine station, internment camp, and military installation until being turned over to New Zealand's Department of Conservation as a nature reserve.
For both day-trippers and overnighters, the island has a series of short hiking trails up to its highest point, with World War II gun emplacements, and around the its perimeter, all with excellent views across to the mainland. Regular daily ferries depart from Queens Wharf to the island, and a campsite accommodates overnighters.
13. Wellington Zoo
Wellington Zoo is the oldest zoo in New Zealand. Established in 1906, it's well known for its conservation efforts. If you have little ones in tow, this is an excellent place to see some of New Zealand's wildlife up close, especially shy animals such as the kiwi bird (the country's national emblem) and the tuatara reptile.
There are also plenty of well-maintained enclosures for animals from across the world, including the Malayan sun bear, along with giraffes, monkeys, chimpanzees, gibbons, meerkats, and big cats. The zoo's animal hospital, known as The Nest, can be visited to see the work of the zoo's veterinarian staff.
Other fun things to do here include daily animal talks, feeding experiences, creature encounters, exploring the adventure playgrounds, and even zoo sleepovers.
Address: 200 Daniell Street, Newton, Wellington
Official site: https://wellingtonzoo.com/
14. Mount Victoria
Immediately east of the city center is Mount Victoria. Topping out at 196 meters high, this peak offers fantastic views over the cityscape, although it can be extremely windy on top. A narrow winding road, signposted "Lookout," runs up from Oriental Bay to the Byrd Memorial below the viewing platform.
From the terrace on the summit there is a magnificent panorama of the broad city, the harbor, and Cook Strait in one direction and Kelburn Park with the university buildings in the other. The Byrd Memorial commemorates the American aviator, Richard Byrd, who in 1929 made the first flight over the South Pole from his base in New Zealand
Location: Access off Kent Terrace, Wellington
15. Wellington Waterfront
Wellington's waterfront area is an attractive district right in the hub of the central city. Both Queen's Wharf and Frank Kitts Park are surrounded by fine buildings, including the Civic Centre and the Museum of New Zealand. From Frank Kitts Park, there is a good view of Wellington Harbour, and the park hosts a market every Saturday. There are plenty of cafés and restaurants in this area, so it's a great place for a pit stop while strolling the central city.
Address: Jervois Quay, Wellington
Where to Stay in Wellington for Sightseeing
We recommend you consider these centrally located hotels in Wellington, located near the harbor and popular museums and attractions:
- Luxury Hotels: The luxurious InterContinental Wellington offers 5-star accommodations in an excellent location overlooking the harbor. It boasts pillow menus, wonderful concierge staff, and valet parking. A good dose of luxury can also be enjoyed at the Bolton Hotel, which offers a number of larger suites with separate bedrooms, living areas, and kitchenettes, as well as an indoor pool and valet parking. Also check out availability at QT Wellington, a fun boutique-style location offering classy rooms and suites, a posh restaurant, plus a gym.
- Mid-Range Hotels: The U Residence Hotel offers boutique-style contemporary apartment accommodations with kitchenettes, friendly hosts, a genuine home-away-from-home feel, plus comfortable beds. The Copthorne Hotel Wellington Oriental Bay is another good choice and comes with water views, an indoor pool, and 24-hour room service. Also worth considering is Novotel Wellington, located in the heart of the business district and featuring bright modern rooms, harbor views, and a fitness center.
- Budget Hotels: The Cambridge Hotel is a good quality budget hotel set in an 1883 building with dorm rooms, shared bathrooms, and a communal kitchen. The brilliantly named Dwellington is a great choice for those on a budget, and features hostel-style rooms spread over two historic old homes, plus a great free continental breakfast. The budget accommodations at The Marion Hostel are also worth looking into. It features dorm-style rooms with reading lights, privacy screens, and linens.
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