Wellington, New Zealand has been dubbed “the coolest little capital in the world”. Does the tiny city live up to its name? And should you add it to your bucket list of New Zealand destinations?
This quirk of a city sits at the southernmost tip of North Island, New Zealand, and has been my home for five years. Aside from being a ferry hop away from the South Island, it’s a rich cultural hub that encourages diversity and self-expression.
As a local, I am always singing Wellington’s praises. And there’s so much to do that, even now, I am still discovering new places to wine, dine, and adventure.
Welcome to paradise: here are six reasons why Wellington is the coolest little capital in the world and what makes this city so special.
From chill vibes to high-end dining, Wellington is a small city packed with cafés, pubs, and restaurants. And not just in the inner city.
There are many gems in the suburbs, such as bohemian Mount Victoria, seaside Lyall Bay, and eclectic Newtown. Many feature lots of outdoor seating and a thriving coffee culture.
In fact, Wellington has more cafés per capita than New York City. These range from hole-in-the-wall coffee connoisseurs to larger food establishments with local beer on tap.
Most of my decisions are food-based so it makes sense that I feel right at home with this level of culinary commitment.
Wellington is quite small so it’s common to be within walking distance of your favourite pub. Every night of the week, the city is bustling as people leave work and spill into the streets.
Meander down Cuba Street for boutique restaurants like Olive and quirky cafes like Pour and Twist or the local favourite, Customs on Ghuznee. Drink high-calibre hops at local breweries like HeyDay, Fortune Favours or Whistling Sisters. Or wander out to the waterfront for a cocktail at sunset at Dockside or Karaka Café.
These cozy village vibes encourage a finer palette, healthy socializing, and revelry into the night.
Wellington is a bustling artistic hub with a vibrant culture. Galleries large and small are plenty and cater to a wide range of tastes. There’s no shortage of artisans for locally-made treasures, and a good thing too as Wellingtonians value supporting their local communities.
Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum, lives here and happens to be one of my favourite museums in the world. Exhibitions are interactive, a sensory playground for kids and adults alike. It showcases a sprawling exhibition of New Zealand’s natural world, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis that shaped the Pacific.
It also features a chilling exhibition of the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign with larger-than-life sculptures designed by Weta Workshop, the world-famous design studio which produced the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, and Avatar franchises.
Explore Wellington’s art trail by visiting the numerous art galleries, with more and more popping up every year. And if local goods are your thing, visit the Welly Collective on Courtenay Place, a procession of altars showcasing creative treasures you didn’t know you needed.
Wellington is also where the New Zealand Parliament resides, and no better place for it to keep in touch with community values. Visit the Parliament Buildings and watch people in suits rush around everywhere. Or book a tour at the iconic Beehive, a labyrinthine structure and renowned ugliest building, as lovingly dubbed by the locals.
An overlooked fact about Wellington is that it is a scenic and beautiful place. If you have a car, driving around is a treat.
Green hills encircle the city, lined with narrow winding roads and many scenic drives. Take the rollercoaster roads from Newtown to Kingston, or squeeze into the Art Deco suburbs of Roseneath and Hataitai.
Houses are stacked haphazardly on hills, a marvel as you wonder how one would go about building such dangling adobes, much less make them earthquake-safe.
Earthquakes are frequent in New Zealand but that doesn’t stop Kiwis from plugging their homes into a cliff edge to enjoy the view. As they tell me, “she’ll be right.”
And you know what often comes with hills: views, views, views.
Wellington is a coastal city with a harbour and countless beaches. When your car climbs a hill, you are rewarded with sweeping views of the city and the big ocean beyond.
Efforts are continuously employed to keep Wellington green. There is no shortage of natural spaces, like the Botanic Garden and Zealandia. The Town Belt alone is 520 hectares, a nature reserve that spans the length of the city.
And you can visit a myriad of nature reserves for a bit of hiking. A personal favourite is the City to Sea walkway, which delivers on its name, and the scenic trail to Mount Kaukau for panoramic views of the Wellington region.
An interesting fact about Wellington is that it is the windiest city in the world.
When I reached Wellington five years ago, gales blew so strongly that my suitcase rolled itself before me. The wind is so strong, it whistles at your windows and moans eerily in the night.
And while the locals like to whinge about it, there’s endearment there. Sure, you wake up one day and your trampoline is upside down on the neighbour’s lawn but that’s the Wellington charm. Pack a few layers and you’ll be fine.
And a lot of wind means very little pollution or humidity, and great tides for surfing. It’s no wonder Wellington consistently ranks for offering a high quality of life. The air is clean and crisp, healthy gulps for your lungs and there is a booming start-up scene to keep the city clean and green.
In that way, Wellington embodies New Zealand’s core values: that we are part of nature and it is part of us, and we should do everything we can to preserve it. That kind of mission is good for the soul.
If you look at Wellington on a map, you’ll see many coastline kilometres. This means there are a lot of beaches in Wellington, with diverse landscapes to meet your every need.
Perch yourself on Oriental Bay or Scorching Bay for golden sands perfect for swimming and sunbathing.
Find a gentle surf at Lyall Bay, or catch the wilder waves of Houghton Bay.
Take your camera to the colossal cliffs towering over Red Rocks, and catch a glimpse of the South Island on a clear day.
Water activities are plenty, so you can watch kayaks, sailboats, and kite surfers adventuring up and down the coast.
Summer is a lively time as Wellington uses the coastline to host several waterfront markets, festivals, and the famous Full Moon Drumming at Princess Bay.
Wellingtonians don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a leisurely vibe in the air, and the small city means a strong sense of community.
People are open for a chat, and you’ll get a sense of this if you stroll along Oriental Bay or do any of the nature trails. Anyone can be your friend and your network will expand with ease. This is a large reason why Wellington is a great place to live.
The people are eclectic, progressive thinkers, and embody a perfect balance between ambitious and relaxed. Innovation can also be seen in food establishments, so your options are endless if you have particular dietary requirements.
For example, there is a Facebook page that closely follows the plant-based culinary trail in Wellington. Local favourites are Neo Café, Nolita, and the Botanist.
And we can’t forget Welly on a Plate, a yearly culinary celebration that spans weeks where establishments compete for the most unique and delicious offerings in food and drink.
Wellington is also quirky with its sense of fashion and architecture. Many op shops yield a vintage street style that is trendy yet accessible. And adventurous architects have created some truly unique Bed & Breakfasts, like the Lighthouse and the Keep, perfect for a unique getaway.
And if you are looking for a rural escape, drive over the hill to picturesque Martinborough. The Martinborough wine village is a perfect square inundated with wineries so you can have a day (or a few) of wine tastings, gourmet dining, and boutique shopping.
Wellington is a lively city that interrupts the endless wilderness of the New Zealand landscape.
I could go on about why Wellington is worth visiting, but you should come and experience the magic for yourself. You’ll quickly understand why it’s the coolest little capital in the world. Perhaps it will steal your heart as it did mine, and you’ll spend more time here than you had intended.
From the crisp clean air to the creative energy and bustling community which cradles you every day, it is a charming city that embodies all the values of what it means to be a New Zealander.
Planning a trip to Wellington? Stay at the Bolton Hotel for comfortable rooms in the centre of town.
Last Updated 2 April 2023