Luxury Escapes Guide to Wellington
Wellington's sophisticated but relaxed urban vibe combines brilliant eating and drinking with some of New Zealand's best art galleries and museums.
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Things to see and do
Discover Wellington's natural side at Zealandia
Located 4km from central Wellington, this innovative 225-hectare eco-sanctuary is dedicated to returning the area's natural ecosystems to their pre-human state. Book a guided tour – options include twilight and after-dark excursions by torchlight – to best discover the reintroduced native species living in Zealandia. Birdlife includes the little spotted kiwi, takahe, saddleback, hihi (stitchbird) and kaka, while New Zealand's living dinosaurs, the lizard-like tuatara, are also sometimes seen. Catch Zealandia's free electric shuttle from the top of the Wellington Cable Car or form outside the city's i-SITE information centre.
Search for musical riches at Slow Boat Records
An institution along bohemian Cuba St, Slow Boat Records is the kind of sprawling music emporium that's hard to find in the 21st century. Regular imports of new and vintage vinyl from the US mean there's always something new to discover, and there's a diverse selection of sounds from up-and-coming Kiwi musicians. Welcome to New Zealand's longest-running independent music store, and still an essential destination in these days of Spotify and streaming. It's even been visited by members of Radiohead and actors from The Hobbit. Little wonder Slow Boat's been judged one of the world's best record shops.
Explore the country's leading museum
Spectacularly located on the Wellington waterfront, New Zealand's national museum is a brilliant place to learn about the country's history and culture. Highlights include a superb collection of more than 3,000 Māori artefacts, the museums own marae (Māori meeting place), and items collected by British explorer James Cook on his Pacific voyages. Of particular interest to New Zealand and Australian visitors is the Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition, an immersive and ground-breaking experience crafted by Wellington film director Sir Peter Jackson and his team at Weta Workshop.
Negotiate Wellington's coastline at Red Rocks
Ensconced amid the cosy cafés and cool bars of the capital, Wellington's spectacular coastal scenery is often overlooked. The Red Rocks Coastal Walk along Wellington's rugged southern coast is definitely worth around half a day. Beginning at Owhiro Bay's Te Kopahou Visitor Centre, it's an easy return stroll of around 8km. The eponymous red rocks are best seen at Pariwhero, while New Zealand fur seals drop by from May to August at nearby Sinclair Head. The best time to visit is on a Sunday, when the trail is restricted to walkers and mountain bikers.
Uncover cinematic secrets at the Weta Cave
Moviemaking is big business in Wellington – the city has been given the playful moniker, 'Wellywood' – and cinema fans should make the journey 8km east from the central city for the opportunity to learn about the Academy Award-winning special effects magic created by local company Weta Workshop. Films including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Thor: Ragnarok are all on Weta's Oscar-studded showreel, and behind the scenes tours provide insights into Weta's pioneering cinematic magic, including props from Avatar, King Kong and The Hobbit. Exit through the gift shop for a superior range of gifts and souvenirs.
Spot native birdlife on Kapiti's island sanctuary
Dominating the western horizon north of Wellington, Kapiti Island has been a protected wildlife reserve since 1987. Seeing native New Zealand birdlife is the key reason to visit, and the island haven is home to several species now extinct on the mainland. Excursions with Kapiti Island Nature Tours include immersion in the country's Māori traditions and up and close personal encounters with Kapiti's avian residents. Lunch is provided and transfers from central Wellington are available.
Take in brilliant views from the Wellington Cable Car
Proud locals love to boast 'you can't beat Wellington on a good day', and if the sun's shining the best place to take in views of the city's compact downtown and Wellington harbour is from atop the Wellington Cable Car. Since 1902 the iconic red cable car has been trundling up a steep slope from Lambton Quay to Kelburn, from where it's a short stroll to the Wellington Botanic Garden. Check out the compact but interesting Cable Car Museum at the top, before exploring the outdoor sculptures and skyline views of the gardens.
Taste Wellington's culinary culture with Zest
Reinforcing Wellington's focus on culinary smarts, the capital has many gourmet food producers. Join a tour with Zest to eat and drink your way around the city, with tasty diversions potentially including coffee, craft beer, chocolate, gelato and cheese. Stopping to try dishes at some of Wellington's most popular cafés and restaurants could include visits to the Egmont Street Eatery or Field & Green. To incorporate visiting fashion boutiques and stylish homeware stores, sign up for the Wellington Shopping, Art and Tastes Tour.
Top places to eat and drink
Denzien Urban Distillery
Located in one of Wellington's repurposed laneways, Denzien Urban Distillery opened in 2018 to complete the inner city's artisan trifecta of craft beer, coffee and spirits. Rainwater and native New Zealand botanicals are used in the distillation process, and Denzien's flagship gin brand Te Aro Dry is stocked at the best of the city's restaurants, brewpubs and cocktail bars. Drop by the distillery for craft cocktails on Friday nights from 4pm to 8pm. The friendly crew are usually up for a good chat.
Garage Project Taproom
Founded in 2011, Garage Project are one of New Zealand's most innovative craft breweries. They're regular collaborators with breweries around the world, and their Wild Workshop project is dedicated to crafting beers by harnessing wild yeasts occurring naturally in the local environment. Visit GP's Aro Valley taproom for 18 taps of deliciousness and plenty more canned and bottled surprises. A good place to start is Hapi Daze – Hāpi is the Māori word for hops – a Pacific pale ale crammed with zesty New Zealand hops. Beer fans should time a Wellington visit for the annual Beervana festival.
Hillside Kitchen & Cellar
Located in the leafy suburb of Thorndon – across the road from the official residence of New Zealand's Prime Minister – Hillside Kitchen & Cellar is the city's pioneer in plant-based eating. Hillside's relaxed neighbourhood bistro ambience is a fine place to experience the restaurant's sustainable and locavore ethos, with four to seven-course tasting menus harnessing ingredients as diverse as locally foraged slippery jack mushrooms and magnolia flowers. Brunch of sweet potato cakes and halloumi cheese is another more accessible option for the Hillside experience. You never know who you'll see nursing a coffee at another table.
Highwater may be the quintessential Wellington restaurant. A location along raffish Cuba St ensures it’s packed from morning to night with IT startup workers enjoying brunch of Middle Eastern-style poached eggs with smokey baba ghanoush, or evening assignations between politicians over shared plates of kingfish crudo and Persian-spiced slow-cooked lamb. Very versatile and very good, with the added attraction of a brilliant drinks list with plenty of natural wines and beers from local brewers, Parrotdog. The multi-course Chef's Menu is a fine way to sample the high points of Highwater.
Quite probably the most flavour-packed thoroughfare in the city, Hannah's Laneway and adjacent Leeds Street and Eva Street are the ultimate hunting ground for travelling foodies. There's gourmet peanut butter at Fix & Fogg, the dive bar ambience of Golding’s, and stellar cookies at the Leeds Street Bakery. Factor in organic, small-batch treats at the Wellington Chocolate Factory and authentic Neapolitan pizza at Pizza Pomodoro, and you'll have definitely earned a cocktail at the Hanging Ditch or a hoppy Wellingtonian IPA at Fortune Favours.
Ortega Fish Shack
Far more stylish than your average beach shack, Ortega is where to go for Wellington's best seafood. Highlights from the briny-fresh menu include seared octopus with preserved fennel and spicy nduja, and delicate trevally ceviche with avocado, Vietnamese mint and lemongrass. Vegetarian and meat dishes are also available and, reflecting Wellington's profile as New Zealand's leading craft beer city, there's a brilliant drinks list including brews from local players Kereru, Tuatara and Double Vision. Kick the night off with Wellington's best Negroni cocktails. There's a choice of four, so good luck deciding.
Judged by Cuisine magazine as one of New Zealand's best restaurants just three months after opening in 2019, Atlas brings a fine-dining focus to Wellington's Customhouse Quay. Seasonal multi-course tasting menus could include the innovation of wild snapper with preserved gooseberry, and the locavore menu lists distance travelled for key ingredients eg. 'native herbs – within 10km' and 'wild shot venison – 20km'. A contemporary dining room is the ideal space to combine pinot noir from boutique vineyards in nearby Martinborough with 150-day aged Wagyu beef, and more than 80 wines are available by the glass.
Wellingtonians take their coffee very seriously and Flight Coffee's inner-city base is one the best places to find out what the java-fuelled fuss is all about. Ethically traded beans are sourced from Flight's fair-trade farmers in Colombia, Rwanda and Myanmar, roasted in Wellington, and then served as single origin filter and espresso coffee at The Hangar and around NZ and Australia. There's a strong local focus with the food menu too. The kumara (sweet potato) pancake with coconut yoghurt, seasonal fruit and toasted walnuts is a great way to start the day.
With two of New Zealand's best vineyard areas easily reached by ferry (Marlborough) or car (Martinborough), most of Wellington's restaurants and bars offer a good wine selection – but Noble Rot's list of more than 500 wines is the city's best. Around 80 wines are available by the glass, and courtesy of head sommelier Maciej Zimny's relationships with winemakers around the country, there is a good range of smaller, boutique labels. Eating options transition from canapé platters to five and six-course degustation menus with recommended wine matches.
A standout dining option in the eating and drinking labyrinth that is Hannah's Laneway, Shepherd's inspired menu of shared plates is best enjoyed while seated at the bar with views of the open kitchen. It's the kind of spot Wellington does so well, segueing seamlessly from restaurant to bar and back to restaurant again as diners enjoy venison tataki with walnut, fig and honey, or Japanese chawanmushi custard with Cloudy Bay clams. Look forward to an energetic vibe, a well-curated wine list and a rotating selection of local craft beers. Ask if any wild-fermented beers from Wilderness Brewing are available.
Fly by helicopter to exclusive Wharekauhau Country Estate
One of New Zealand's most luxurious lodges, and a private bolt-hole for Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George during their 2014 New Zealand visit, Wharekauhau Country Estate is also a brilliant location for a special lunch. Private helicopter transfers take in views of Cook Strait, the South Island and downtown Wellington, before flying over the Rimutaka Range to Wharekauhau's remote location on Palliser Bay. Lunch is a relaxed exploration of five courses paired with a stellar wine list.
Explore pinot noir country in the Wairarapa
Based around the genteel rural towns of Martinborough, Featherston and Greytown, the Wairarapa wine-growing region north of Wellington is world-renowned for excellent pinot noir. Private tours in a luxury SUV explore the region's viticultural bounty, stopping for tastings at vineyards including Te Kairanga Wines and Palliser Estate, and also include visits to local artisan producers, Schoc Chocolates and C'est Cheese. The region's dining scene is touched upon with the opportunity to enjoy dishes at Everest Bistro & Cafe and the Union Square Bistro & Bar at the historic Martinborough Hotel.
Innovative degustation dining at Hiakai
After a successful career in New York, chef Monique Fiso returned to New Zealand to open Hiakai in 2019. With a focus on harnessing indigenous forest herbs like kawakawa and horopito, the restaurant's ethos of 'inspired by the land, sea, and people of Aotearoa' is a unique reflection of New Zealand cuisine. Fiso's family background is Māori-Samoan, and her degustation menus showcase Māori and Polynesian flavours in innovative dishes. Ingredients could include kina (sea urchin) or titi (muttonbird), and optional drinks menus are equally surprising. Booking well ahead is essential at this intimate 30-seat restaurant.