Wellington’s Hidden Wonders

Longtime local Lucy Corry shares some insider knowledge about cool spots in the capital.

Been to Wellington? Of course you have. You’ve ridden the iconic cable car, taken photos of The Beehive, meandered around Te Papa and strolled the ‘golden mile’ of Lambton Quay. You might even have wandered along the waterfront or visited the bird and bush haven that is Zealandia. There’s nothing wrong with any of those activities; indeed, they’re an integral part of the Wellington tourism experience (and people who live here do them quite often too). But they’re just a small part of what the capital has to offer visitors. Here’s a guide to some secret spots that locals love.

HOW TO LOOK DOWN ON WELLINGTON

Wellington’s famously hilly topography means the city itself is perched between bush-clad ridges and the water. The obvious place to get your bearings and enjoy 360 degree views is the top of Matairangi (Mount Victoria), the hill rising above the eastern end of the CBD. If you’ve got the legs for it, the summit of Matairangi is a pleasant 30-minute walk up from the entertainment precinct of Courtenay Place. Make sure to stop for supplies at Tomboy, a tiny café/bakery that’s renowned for its ‘pillow’ doughnuts, next-level sandwiches and giant peanut butter cookie sandwiches. Go early; Tomboy’s wares are often sold out by 1.30pm. 

Matairangi’s trails are hugely popular with both mountain bikers and Lord Of The Rings fans (scenes from The Fellowship Of The Ring were filmed here) which means you might stumble upon lycra-clad speed demons and cloak-wearing Tolkien fans happily doing their thing. The Wellington SPCA is also located on Matairangi – if you’re lucky you might come across volunteer puppy walkers on their daily constitutionals. If the thought of climbing up a hill doesn’t thrill you but you like the sound of the views, rest assured you can also drive up to the summit. The easiest route when in a large vehicle is to drive around the Basin Reserve and through Newtown, then up Alexandra Road. 

Lurex evening gown by Vinka Lucas photographed at the Poolburn Dam.
Lurex evening gown by Vinka Lucas photographed at the Poolburn Dam

MAGICAL MIRAMAR

This sleepy eastern suburb is best known for being home to Peter Jackson’s movie-making empire, but there’s lots more to experience out here. For a completely different perspective on the city, head to the Miramar Peninsula and take the road through Shelly Bay to find the Massey Memorial, perched above Point Halswell. This imposing marble edifice, a five-minute walk from the road, is the last resting place of William Ferguson Massey (Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1912-1925) and his wife Christina. It’s built over bunkers that were created in 1885, as fears grew about the Russian Pacific fleet increasing during the Crimean War. It’s a gorgeous and peaceful spot, with views back to the city, out to the Hutt Valley and Eastbourne, where you can watch the ferries make their stately progress into and out of the harbour. Walk up the hill a little further and you’ll reach more bunkers, all now impressively graffiti’d. Walk a little further upwards and onwards and you’ll eventually reach the now-shuttered and rather eerie Mount Crawford Prison.

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All that walking is a great way to develop an appetite (and a thirst) – and there are lots of delicious options nearby. If you continue around the coast to the golden sands of Scorching Bay, it’s obligatory to stop for a classic scooped ice cream or milkshake at Scorch-O-Rama even if it’s not warm enough to swim. Alternatively, drive back to Shelly Bay to the quirky and fun Chocolate Fish Café, a local institution that’s open every day except December 25. Back in central Miramar, make sure to check out Shelly Bay Baker for their much-sought-after sourdough breads, bagels and pastries. 

One to have now or take back to the RV for later (or both!) is at Bongusto, where Roberto Giorgioni turns out exquisite handmade pasta that you can eat in or reheat later. And if being in Wellywood has given you a taste for cinematic excellence, stop in to the magnificently restored Roxy Cinema, which was founded by a group of local film industry movie-lovers. The Roxy is also home to Coco’s Café, and one of the city’s most famous mixologists, Ray Leota, who creates wonders from a very well-stocked bar.

Roxy Cinema Wellington
Miramar, home to Wellington’s film industry, boasts The Roxy, a stunning restored cinema
Chocolate Fish Cafe
The Chocolate Fish Cafe, tucked away on the Miramar Peninsula, is the perfect spot to soak up the sun

GET CRAFTY

In the 1990s, one of Wellington’s key claims to fame was that it had more cafés per capita than New York. While there’s no denying that the city still runs on coffee, it’s now developing a solid reputation as New Zealand’s craft beer capital. There are plenty of microbreweries scattered around the city and suburbs, but the best place to experience them all is Brewtown in Upper Hutt. 

Opened in 2017 in a former Dunlop Tyre Factory, Brewtown is a craft beer-lovers’ dream that brings together three of the region’s top breweries, including Panhead, Boneface, and Te Aro. There’s also a distillery, great food and plenty of activities, including paintball, ten-pin bowling, ice skating, a Daytona Raceway track, a trampoline park and axe throwing. Even better, you can stay there! Brewtown has two powered sites and spaces for several more self-contained campers or mobile homes. Brewtown will also be hosting ‘Brew Year’s Eve’ on December 31, with live music and other entertainment.


Want to get a taste of some local brews without going out to Upper Hutt? Check out ground-breaking Garage Project on Aro Street, seaside-based Parrotdog on Kingsford Smith Street in Lyall Bay and suburban nano-brewery Waitoa Social Club in Hataitai. For a seaside beer and something to eat at any hour of the day, check out Maranui Cafe in the former Lyall Bay Surf Club on Lyall Bay Parade.

Brewtown Upper Hutt
Brewtown, located in a former tyre factory, is every craft beer drinker’s dream
Cafe
Wellington is a cafe lover’s paradise

 

EXPAND YOUR MIND

While Te Papa Tongarewa gets all the attention, the Wellington region is spoiled for choice when it comes to places to experience Aotearoa’s art and culture. It’s well worth making the short drive to The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, which was founded in 1971 and boasts one of New Zealand’s largest and most significant public art collections. 

This summer, you can escape into the unexpectedly glamourous world of Eden Hore, a visionary farmer who collected over two hundred couture gowns in 1970s Aotearoa. Eden Hore: High Fashion/High Country is on from 4 Dec-20 Mar, alongside a range of other exhibitions. The Dowse also has a great café, Bellbird Eatery, where you can feed your body after feeding your mind. If you’re in Lower Hutt on a Saturday morning, don’t miss the epic Riverbank Markets (50-56 Rutherford St) – all the fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and bread your heart could desire, plus food trucks and stalls. 

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If history is more your thing, don’t miss the Petone Settlers Museum, on the Petone foreshore. This museum, a world heritage site, tells the stories of the people who have made Petone their home, focusing on different historical and cultural aspects of settlement in the area. It’s usefully and tantalisingly close to Seashore Cabaret, a local institution with exceptional food and great coffee. Petone is also home to Te Puna Wai Ora Buick St, where you can join people from all over Wellington filling up bottles with pure artesian water from the Hutt Valley aquifer. Look for the distinctive tall sculpture by New Zealand artist Louise Purvis.

Petone waterfront
Petone’s Settler’s Museum is a world heritage site on the outside, and full of treasures inside

WHEN TO GO

Wellington’s much maligned weather is generally fairly settled over the Christmas-New Year period. It might not necessarily be hot enough to lie on the beach at Oriental Bay (though hardy locals do swim here year-round), but with any luck you’ll encounter dialled-down versions of the city’s famous wild winds. Bring a windproof jacket just in case though! Generally speaking, December and January are great months to visit because the city empties out and you can have it mostly to yourself.

INNER CITY CAMPING

Wellington’s green spaces and many coastal reserves are lovely, but don’t be tempted to park up overnight because camping is not permitted in these areas. There are several freedom camping spots: the southern end of the Marina car park at Evans Bay (near the Wind Wand) and the Te Kopahou Reserve entrance car park at Te Kopahou Reserve. Barnett Street Car Park on the Wellington Waterfront is also available 24/7 to freedom campers.

There is one serviced motorhome park – the Cuba St Motorhome Park – which is just off Cuba St in the inner city. This is pretty small – you might have better luck just outside the city at Capital Gateway Motorhome Park, which is 10 minutes’ drive away. 

Further afield, there are plenty of camping grounds in the Hutt Valley, including Kaitoke Regional Park, Battle Hill and Belmont Park.

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