In 2011, Lonely Planet called Wellington the “Coolest Little Capital in the World,” and it still is, as well as possibly the windiest.1 In addition to the normal things of Te Papa, Old St. Paul’s, a cable car ride to the Botanic Gardens, Cuba Street, Zealandia, etc., I thought I would mention some of the less standard things to do in Wellington, at least for a non-Kiwi tourist.
First, take a tour of the Parliament Buildings. The tour shows not only how they are trying to make the buildings earthquake-resistant, but also the growth and history of New Zealand’s democracy. Important fact: New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, doing so in 1893. The British influence is still strong. In a hallway in Parliament, there is a painting of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, 152 years before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.
The Parliament Buildings consist of two buildings. One is Parliament itself, which is what most of the tour covers.
Like some other buildings in New Zealand (especially churches; see my comment on Trinity Cathedral in Auckland), the plans for the Parliament building started out quite grand. But then World War I and the postwar flu epidemic intervened. In the 1920s, they decided they were done, leaving the building with a center and one wing.
To experience a little of current New Zealand politics, go to The Backbencher, a gastropub across from the Beehive. We went there at 7:00 pm on a Thursday evening, and the place was packed. The restaurant is famous for its puppets of politicians, which hang from the walls. Prime Minister John Key is shown as a disco star. Winston Peters, perhaps appropriately given his recent win in the Northland by-election, is a prizefighter. The menu carries on the theme, with the choices named after New Zealand politicians.
Check the local listings for shows, events, etc., when you are in Wellington. The “Fringe Festival” was on while we there, and we attended a show at the Fringe Bar on Allen Street.
Te Papa, the national museum in Wellington, is a wonder. Even with a whole day, I doubt you could see all of it, so it is a matter of picking and choosing what you want to see. We concentrated on the exhibits on 20th century New Zealand on the fourth floor and the national art collection on the fifth.
If the Old Government Buildings is open, be sure to look at it. (For reasons I do not understand, though the name is plural, there is only one building.) It was originally built to house the civil service. For financial reasons, it was built out of wood, but done to resemble Italian stone. However, because it was built out of wood, it survived earthquakes that it might not have if it was built of stone. Until 1998, it was the second largest wooden building in the world.
In terms of eating, I already recommended The Backbencher. For breakfast, let me suggest Drexels at 32 Waring Taylor Street. A couple of suggestions for lunch. Many of the guidebooks recommend Wellington Trawling Seamarket for fish and chips. I concur; it was quite good. On Cuba Street, Kapai has some great sandwiches.
Obviously, there is lots of shopping in Wellington. Let me suggest two bookstores. Unity Books, at 57 Willis Street, has a great selection of New Zealand books. You might also try one of the Whitcoulls locations. The Arrivals magazine we picked up at the airport when we landed in Auckland included several 20% off coupons for Whitcoulls. These were useful because books in New Zealand are expensive. With small print runs, etc., books cost much more than in the United States. If you see a book you might want, check if it might be available in the U.S. If so, wait and buy it at home. If it is not likely to be available in the United States, buy it. Don’t worry about the price. You’re on vacation.
We were in Wellington on a Sunday, so we went to church, St. John’s in the City Presbyterian Church. It is on Willis Street at Dixon Street. The church was quite full, with lots of young people and young families. It seemed like a dynamic congregation, and the service was very enjoyable. Of course, we stayed for tea.
One final comment about Wellington: You don’t need a car. We drove down from Auckland and were going to the South Island after Wellington. Therefore, we just dropped off our car when we arrived in Wellington and picked up a new one at the ferry terminal in Picton. It was cheaper to not take the car on the ferry. Also, by splitting our car rental into two parts, we were able to take advantage of the extra insurance coverage our credit card provided. It only covered rentals for under 30 days. By separating our rentals, it worked.
1 Because of the Cook Strait and the mountainous landscape on either side of it, Wellington is very windy. As one article said, the combination is “just like squeezing through a funnel and it speeds up as it goes through.” When we were in Wellington and told people we were going to take the ferry to the South Island, people would ask, what day. After we told them, they said we would have a good crossing (which we did), because it was going to be calm that day. We hadn’t even thought about it. Later in the trip, the winds were so bad one day, they cancelled the ferry crossings. Sometimes you are better off not knowing everything there is to worry about.