There was no doubt that Chris and I would be spending some time in Wellington during our New Zealand travels. While Auckland may get a lot of attention as the country’s biggest, busiest city, Wellington is the capital of the country and, importantly, it’s the stop-off point for travellers ferrying their way between the North and South Islands.
It may have been inevitable that we would be there, but what I didn’t expect was that our short time in the city would leave me absolutely smitten. My travels have brought me to a number of cities, but, every so often, I get to a destination and, even after just a few hours there, I think, “I could live here.”
With its stunning waterfront, strategic location and endless supply of food and entertainment options, it should come as no surprise that we both fell madly in love with Wellington. And we’re already considering the practicalities behind relocating there for a while. If you are currently on the fence about spending time in the city, I hope that this 48-hour guide convinces you in the affirmative.
Although I feel like two days could never be enough, here’s what you can get up to during 48 hours in Wellington.
Take in the view from Mount Victoria
If you’ve read this blog before, you might have already stumbled upon one of my travel rules of thumb. Whenever I get to a new destination, one of my very first goals will involve identifying a good vantage point.
In Wellington, a good – and free – place to get a bird’s eye view is Mount Victoria. Standing at almost 200 metres tall, this hill holds a central position in the city. Unlike many other vantage points in the world, there’s not much climbing to be done, as we drove and then scrambled up a few steps to enjoy the views over the city centre, as well as over Cook Strait.
If you do feel like a stroll, though, Mount Victoria is criss-crossed with walking trails, including a very special one for all Lord of the Rings fans. Not far from the viewpoint, you can find a short walk called the Hobbit’s Hideaway. This is the spot where, in the trilogy’s first film, the four hobbits flee from the ringwraiths en route to Bree. Avoid this next bit if you don’t want spoilers – We spent ages trying to find the tree under which the hobbits hid only to, after a quick Google search, realise that they had brought in a fake tree to that spot for the filming. Despite this, the trail is popular for LoTR fans so you can expect to see some keen folk (ahem, like us) re-enacting the scene just off the path.
Travel back in time at Zealandia
When I look back at all of the places we visited in New Zealand, Zealandia goes down as one of the most unique. Both Chris and I had been to a number of wildlife parks before this particular trip, but Zealandia takes the conservation concept to the next level.
A short drive from the city centre, Zealandia is a perfect option for those looking to get back into nature. And the first clue to what makes this ecosanctuary so special is hiding within its name. Zealandia refers to an ancient continent, and the park is attempting to recreate a slice of what it may have looked like.
With the arrival of man, New Zealand’s flora and fauna changed dramatically. Bird species went extinct, native forests were cleared for farming and, when the Europeans settled there, they introduced a number of mammals into the country. Some of the latter, over time, became pests, and it’s a combination of these factors that poses a big threat to the country’s native birdlife as well as its tree species.
When walking into Zealandia, both Chris and I remarked that it felt like we were walking into Jurassic Park. The entire perimeter of Zealandia is ringed with a robust pest-exclusion fence, designed to keep out anything that might cause harm to the environment within. And it’s working; Zealandia is teeming with a rich variety of bird species, including the kiwi, kaka, hihi, kereru pigeon and takahe, as well as tuatara lizards and giant wetas. Up on the slopes, we learned that native trees are beginning to flourish once again.
The best way to explore Zealandia is to choose a trail and walk. There’s a main loop surrounding the lake, but there are other hikes for those who want to get off the beaten track. It was while we were strolling along that we encountered birdlife, such as the takahe. Up until 1948, this brightly coloured bird was thought to be extinct until a small group of them was rediscovered in the Fiordland region.
Even though Zealandia states that it’ll take hundreds of years before it will truly resemble the ancient continent it’s named after, we were captivated by what we saw within the park. Zealandia provides a snapshot of what New Zealand once looked like and highlights the importance of protecting the country’s native species.
Explore the magic of movie making at Weta Workshop
This is another one for the Lord of the Rings fans who, more than likely, may have already perked up after reading ‘Weta Workshop’. As they would know, this is the special effects company that helped to bring the famous trilogy to life.
Founded by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger in 1987, the workshop had been involved in a number of films before it got to work on LoTR, but Peter Jackson’s trilogy is what propelled Weta Workshop into stardom.
Most people visit the workshop, located a short drive from central Wellington, to go on the behind-the-scenes workshop tour. This tour allows visitors to not only get a better understanding of how much thought went into the creation of LoTR and The Hobbit, but you also get to see and hold some of the props. Since it’s still a working space, I loved the chance to see crew members at work creating various props for upcoming film projects. The workshop is a reminder of just how much work and detail goes into the art of movie making – and some of the numbers involved in the LoTR trilogy completely astounded us.
But, of course, Weta Workshop has been attached to other filming projects too. Recently, the workshop has been involved in The Thunderbirds are Go reboot of the 1960s television series. Since Chris and I had both seen the original episodes when we were growing up, we were delighted to be able to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of the reboot. We were led by Zoe, one of the artists working on the new series, who showed us the Bigatures (large-scale set models that were also used in the making of LoTR) as well as the process behind how these are made. It was fascinating – and really made me wish I could be employed at Weta Workshop – and I don’t think I’ll be ever able to look at a lemon squeezer the same way again.
If you’re a fan of LoTR – or of films in general – the Weta Workshop is a compulsory stop in Wellington.
Indulge at Sweet Mother’s Kitchen
We were initially given Sweet Mother’s Kitchen as a recommendation for brunch, but we found ourselves here at dinnertime instead. And I’m so glad we made it here!
Drawing upon New Orleans as its main influence, Cajun and Creole dishes are the mainstay of Sweet Mother’s Kitchen. Walking in, I loved its bright and quirky interior (look out for the bobble-head figures above the cash register).
On the drinks side, it’s an opportunity to try out local beers, wines and ciders, but there are other options available too. When it comes to the food, it’s best to leave any tight outfits back at home. The dishes at Sweet Mother’s Kitchen are generous and indulgent. I opted for the buttermilk fried chicken, which was served with coleslaw, curly fries and ‘Mississippi Comeback’ sauce. Chris, who has a higher spice threshold than I do, went for the Jambalaya, a rich, stew-like dish featuring chicken, prawn and Andouille sausage. Both of us adored the food – so much so that we couldn’t pass up the chance to have the restaurant’s legendary desserts.
Sweet Mother’s Kitchen may be famous for its brunches and soul-food mains, but their homemade pies deserve a special mention. Options include key lime, banana cream and apple, with our peanut butter pie providing the ideal conclusion to our meal.
Take a trip on Wellington’s cable car
If you’re planning to stroll around Wellington, there’s something you should know – Wellington is a hilly city. While you will have to simply endure the calf muscle pain in most hilly spots, there is one particular shortcut that we just had to experience.
Wellington’s cable car came into being back at the end of the 19th Century; due to the city’s rapid expansion, a funicular was proposed as a connection between the hilltop Kelburn neighbourhood and the city centre down below.
The result is a 612-metre cable car ride that’s used both by local residents and tourists. There are a few stations along the way, but the line is topped by the Wellington Botanic Garden (more on this shortly) and concludes down near Lambton Quay.
With a cable car running every ten minutes between 7AM and 10PM (weekdays; hours are slightly shorter on Saturdays and Sundays), and with a one-way fare starting at NZ$4, it’s a ride that you simply can’t miss. My suggestion? Get your camera ready! Not only will you be passing through some great views, but, during our visit, the short tunnels we went through were bedecked with rainbow-hued light displays.
Stroll through Wellington Botanic Garden
If you rode up on the cable car, this will be the destination awaiting you at the top.
One of the things I love most about Wellington is the fact that it seems to be home to so many green spaces – and Wellington Botanic Garden is one of the prettiest. As an extra bonus, it’s entirely free to visit!
The garden covers 25 hectares and, like most botanic spaces, there are different themed areas to explore. While there are plenty of examples of native plantlife to see, you’ll also find species from other parts of the world. Created in 1868, you can discover rose gardens, a greenhouse, winding tree-lined paths and outdoor artworks scattered throughout this space; in the summer months, the Botanic Garden even hosts concerts and events.
I love how the stops of the cable car feature such entirely opposite experiences. Lambton Quay is a busy shopping heaven while the Wellington Botanic Garden offers the perfect place to unwind after checking out the sales.
Marvel at Te Papa Museum’s many treasures
This may be the last attraction on my list, but that doesn’t reflect its quality. In fact, Wellington’s Te Papa has to be one of the best museums I’ve visited anywhere in the world.
Occupying an enviable position on Wellington’s waterfront, its official name is The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa – or just Te Papa for short. The phrase ‘Te Papa Tongarewa’ can be translated to mean ‘the place of treasures of this land’ and this is exactly what we found within its walls.
Like the Botanic Garden, Te Papa is free to visit. Upon entering, we were overwhelmed by the number of collections and exhibitions, and, thankfully, someone pointed us in the right direction. Te Papa features some of the most innovative and memorable displays I’ve seen and this was clearly reflected in our first stop at the Gallipoli exhibition.
Joining forces with none other than the above-mentioned Weta Workshop, Te Papa has created a hard-hitting historical narrative of the ill-fated WWII campaign. Sadly, over 2700 New Zealanders lost their lives during this period of history and the exhibition attempts to recreate what they might have gone through at Gallipoli.
Other must-see collections in Te Papa include those on Maori culture as well as the natural history section. In the latter, you can see the preserved remains of a colossal giant squid. I would love to spend another afternoon at this museum, as I feel we barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer during our first visit there.
Enjoy a farewell dinner at Fidel’s Cafe
To end off your time in Wellington, take the time to explore the Cuba Street area in the city. During the day, the street is a hotspot for those on the hunt for boutique stores and vintage fashion. At night, people are drawn to the area thanks to the many hip bars and restaurants present.
I think we spent over an hour just trying to decide which venue to visit for dinner – there are that many good options. In the end, mostly thanks to the fact that every table seemed to be occupied inside, we picked Fidel’s Cafe.
Later, we learned that it’s a popular spot no matter the time of day, but we were intrigued by the menu. Chris immediately gravitated towards the pizza menu, and, for those who want to try various flavours, I’m happy to report that Fidel’s allows you to go half and half if you’re stuck between two options. Based on our waitress’ recommendation, I ordered the kale and mushroom gnocchi. For me, the latter dish was utterly perfect. With a creamy sauce and bits of crispy kale, it was one of the best gnocchi dishes I’ve eaten yet.
After you’ve feasted, stay on at Fidel’s (it’s a good spot for drinks) or venture off to sample Cuba Street’s other late-night venues. If you’re like us, you may face a bit of indecision when trying to pick between all of the options at hand!
Where to stay
I’ll be doing a full review soon, but when it comes to accommodation in Wellington, there’s only one place where I’d want to stay: The Dancing Green Studio Apartment.
Nestled in Wellington’s hilly suburbs, Chris and I fell in love with this little apartment, which became our home away from home in the city. While it may be a little further afield than city centre hotels, public transport connects you to central Wellington in 20 minutes. Clare and Simon are incredible hosts with plenty of information on the city and, whenever we return to Wellington for a holiday, I know I’ll want to be back in this beautiful apartment.
I hope that this 48-hour guide proves useful to you in your travels. As for me, I’m going to continue browsing through Wellington property rentals (#notreallyjoking).
Have I covered YOUR favourite places in Wellington? What would you like to do in New Zealand’s capital city? OR… Have you ever fallen for a city even after a short visit? Let me know in the comments below.
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* Looking for more Lord of the Rings experiences? Read about my day at Hobbiton. *
* Want to find out more about our Big Trip? Check out the details here! *