36 hours in Wellington: Where to eat, drink, shop and make the most of your New Zealand holiday
Go between December and March to maximise your chances of a beautiful day in New Zealand's capital, Wellington.
Wellington, the pint-size capital of New Zealand, easily invites comparisons. You might think of San Francisco when you see its vertiginous streets and colourful clapboard homes; the city’s obsession with coffee, craft beer and sustainable living has obvious parallels with Seattle; and its blustery weather (it is the world’s windiest city) makes it deserving of Chicago’s nickname.
As locals often remind one another, you can’t beat Wellington on a good day when the water sparkles, the sky is impossibly blue and the coasts, forests and hills are at their most enjoyable.
Go between December and March to maximise your chances of a beautiful day in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, the city’s name in the Indigenous Maori language (New Zealand is known as Aotearoa).
3pm: Hit the shops
Limited imports to New Zealand and a wider commitment to sustainability mean that even fashion-forward Wellingtonians are keen “op-shoppers” or thrifters.
The best vintage and secondhand shops can be found along colourful Cuba Street, which throngs with students and buskers. (Watch out for the distinctive kinetic bucket fountain, which can splash the unsuspecting.)
For your next great (secondhand) read, nose around The Ferret Bookshop or the labyrinthine Pegasus Books. At Slow Boat Records, Wellington’s oldest independent record store, you’ll find new and used LPs and CDs, as well as local musicians occasionally performing for free.
4pm: Take in some art
Housed in an impressive former public library only a couple of minutes’ walk from Cuba Street, City Gallery Wellington (which has free general admission) showcases modern art.
Exhibitions change frequently: Look out for a retrospective of multidisciplinary New Zealand artist Joanna Margaret Paul, who died in 2003, on until Feb 6.
And don’t miss Quasi by Ronnie van Hout peering down from the roof – not that you could. The monstrous sculpture, a 4.9m human hand bearing a disapproving face, originally stood in Christchurch but was relocated after the earthquakes that began to strike there in 2010.
5.30pm: Wine and unwind
In a country known for its superlative wine, less common natural wines sometimes get short shrift – a mistake.
At Puffin, a shabby-chic organic wine bar on the ground floor of Intrepid Hotel, off Cuba Street, ask for a local recommendation or sip a glass of “pet-nat” sparkling from about 14 New Zealand dollars, or about S$12, all under the imperious glare of an enormous stuffed peacock. Non-wine drinkers are provided for, with two local beers on tap.
On sunny evenings, slip out the back to a hidden courtyard that feels like another bar altogether.
6.30pm: Dip Into Asian cuisine
If you already miss Asian food, New Zealand’s large Asian population (and the country’s proximity to Asia) means finding a Southeast Asian meal isn't a problem.
Mabel’s, a newcomer named after a grandmother of one of the restaurant’s owners Marlar Boon, serves fresh, innovative Burmese food that’s ideal for sharing in bright, bustling surroundings.
Go for sumptuous chicken curry in a cinnamon sauce (27 dollars) or lahpet thoke, a tea leaf salad (18 dollars).
If you’re short on time, KC Cafe And Takeaway, a popular, no-frills haunt, serves large portions of inexpensive Cantonese and Malaysian dishes like duck fried rice and barbecue pork wonton noodle soup (both about 22 dollars).
8pm: Get in the groove
For a typical Wellington night out, take a 10-minute stroll to Meow, where you might catch slam poetry, sultry jazz or homegrown New Zealand grunge on a book-lined stage that bears more than a passing resemblance to a mid-century living room.
Expect emerging local artists as well as more established performers from farther afield, particularly during Wellington Jazz Festival, usually held in October.
In November, during Verb Readers & Writers Festival, book lovers descend on the city for panel discussions, live podcast tapings, poetry readings and other literary events.
9am: Start with a flat white
In a city that takes the pursuit of caffeine seriously, you could do far worse than to join the bleary-eyed locals at Customs for some of the area’s best coffee.
Order a flat white for a perfectly smooth, milky coffee (about 5 dollars) or pose as a Wellingtonian with a long black (4.50 dollars) – though no one will worry if you call it an Americano.
Breakfast here riffs mostly on toast, topped with banana and locally made Fix & Fogg nut-and-seed spread (7.50 dollars) or for a more substantial offering with avocado, labneh and hot, pickled carrots (14 dollars).
As you munch, enjoy a soundtrack of New Zealand music or perch on a stool outside for a sunny start to your day.
10am: Ride along the coast
Drink in Wellington’s 360-degree ocean views by riding an e-bike from Switched On Bikes (70 dollars for a four-hour rental) along the waterfront, starting in the city centre.
You’ll soon hit Oriental Bay, where local glitterati live in pastel-coloured art deco apartments. Forty-five minutes along the coast, Scorching Bay is perfect for a cool-down dip.
On the return trip, refuel with a coffee at the retro Chocolate Fish Cafe on Shelly Bay. As you cycle back, look inland toward quirky cliffside homes, some of which can be reached only by private funicular.
If it’s a wet or windy day, take a ride-share car for 15 minutes to Weta Workshop, a movie production company in the neighbourhood of Miramar for a behind-the-scenes look at Avatar and The Lord Of The Rings (49 dollars per adult, reservations recommended).
1pm: Sample Syrian flavours
Wellingtonians’ appetites for novelty and lavish vegetarian-friendly fare have combined to catapult fast-casual restaurant Damascus to the height of popularity in just a few months.
Until quite recently, the only way to eat the city’s best Syrian food from Syrian-born chef Hasan Alwarhani and his Brazilian partner, Flora Quintana, was at a three-night-a-week pop-up at a bowling club in a far-off suburb.
In sleek surroundings, go beyond hummus and falafel to try the muhammara, a silky walnut-and-red-pepper dip (15 dollars) or the shamander, a bright salad made with smoky beetroot (14 dollars).
2pm: Meet native birds
You don’t have to travel far in Wellington to lose yourself in its lush, jungly forests. Take a five-minute cable car ride from Lambton Quay up to Kelburn (5 dollars for a one-way trip).
Zealandia (24 dollars per adult), an extraordinary bird ecosanctuary that mimics New Zealand’s pre-colonisation forests, is a five-minute shuttle ride from there.
As you walk its trails, bathe in a soundscape of the trilling tui, a boisterous songbird, and the calling kaka, a native parrot. Keep your eyes open for a takahe, an extremely rare flightless bird, and a tuatara, the last survivor of a group of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs.
6pm: Quaff a brew
Beer nuts rave about New Zealand’s hops, which are citrusy, aromatic and, because of their small production, difficult to get your hands on outside of the country.
Experience a tiny taste of Wellington’s world-class craft beer scene at Garage Project, a 35-minute walk down the hill from Zealandia on Aro Street and one of more than a dozen breweries in the capital.
Bask in the laid-back vibe of its narrow, wood-panelled taproom with a pint of one of the 20 or so beers on tap, or sample four with a tasting flight (17 dollars).
7.30pm: Eat national foods
For the best in New Zealand’s seasonal produce and distinctive Pacific Rim cuisine, slip next door to Rita, a 28-seater gem in a 1910 worker’s cottage.
The prix fixe three-course menu, at 95 dollars a person, changes daily. Like the restaurant’s tables, cork-topped and featuring secret compartments, it is deceptively simple: On a recent evening, a familiar yet indiscernible flavour of ice cream – lemon? Vanilla? – turns out to be “fig leaf”, while the sprigs of caramel-coloured floss on a rolled chicken dish are revealed to be pekepeke-kiore, a native mushroom.
Unstuffy service and cheek-by-jowl tables encourage chatting with your neighbours. Reservations required, especially for Friday or Saturday nights.
9am: Wander beside the water
Snaking along the waterfront, Wellington Writers Walk encompasses 23 sculptures by artist Catherine Griffiths, each with a quotation about the capital from a New Zealand author or poet. (You can pick up works by these writers at Unity Books, a great independent bookstore on nearby Willis Street.)
Along the way, you’ll hit Harbourside Market, a Sunday morning fixture in Wellington, where buskers strum and locals pick up their produce for the week.
Grab a whitebait fritter – a delicate concoction of beaten egg and tiny fish fry served on a slice of white bread – and some coffee and take in the sights, sounds and smells.
10am: Learn the history
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, known as Te Papa, sits solidly on the waterfront, just a few feet from the market. (General admission is free.)
On a rainy day, you could spend hours here; if you’re short on time, make a beeline for Mana Whenua, an exhibition about New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori people, which includes historic Maori meeting house Te Hau ki Turanga.
It’s also worthwhile spending some time learning about the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s foundational legal document.
And children and adults alike will be captivated by the colours of the exhibition Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa, especially those in a hypnotic kinetic sculpture by Rebecca Baumann.
12pm: Climb a hill
At Moore Wilson’s, a gourmet paradise and chef wholesaler a 10-minute walk from Te Papa, you’ll find all the components for a picnic, including cheeses, meats and baked goods.
Stock up, then stroll along the Terrace and into Botanic Garden, with Te Ahumairangi Hill Lookout as your final destination. The walk should take about an hour, winding through banks of native plants, a formal rose garden and finally, well-marked trails through a beautiful forest.
You’ll be rewarded for your climb with a bird’s-eye view of the city and its sparkling harbour – a perfect spot for taking photographs and contemplating your next trip to New Zealand’s cool little capital.
By Natasha Frost © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.