The first 3 words that come to mind when thinking of Wellington is ‘tidy, safe and underrated’! Recently voted the ‘Coolest Capital’ in the world, it’s hard to not see why. I took an evening flight from Johannesburg and 18 years (ahem I mean hours) later, I landed in the capital of New Zealand, Wellington. Completely lacking in sleep but filled up with the excitement of being in a new country, I set out to explore a lot of what Wellington had to offer, in just 24 hours. This Wellington Travel Guide will help you make the most of discovering the windy capital.
A Day Travel Guide to Wellington New Zealand:
When to go?
Summer (December to February) in Wellington has lots to offer. Warm weather, outdoor festivals and lots of tourists. I arrived mid-February and the temperature was mild even though February is meant to be the hottest month of the year. March to May is Autumn in New Zealand. If you’re looking to visit in Winter where New Zealand is more affordable, then visit in June to August. September to November is Springtime but it can still get chilly and windy in Wellington during those months.
How to get there?
To get the best possible price, I booked my flight almost 7 months in advance. I browsed Skyscanner to find the cheapest ticket and came across a Qantas ticket that cost me R15 000. Generally, ticket prices range from anywhere between R17 000 to R25 000 to get to New Zealand. I booked directly on Qantas’s website as I prefer to cut out the unnecessary ‘middleman’ when booking flights. There are no direct tickets from South Africa to New Zealand and there will always be at least one stopover. My stopover in Sydney was 3 hours long.
If you are travelling from South Africa to New Zealand, consider breaking up the trip by spending a day to recover in Sydney before making your way to Wellington. The trip does become long and tiring.
The flight to Sydney was lovely because I had the middle aisle to myself and extra leg room! I’m choosing to selectively forget that I got no sleep due to the crying baby right next to me, who would only stop crying if I looked at him. Staring match with a baby for 7 hours? Yeah, totally impractical. Either way, I’d be getting no sleep.
How to get to your hotel?
I arrived in Wellington at midnight. Unclear whether I would be able to find a taxi at that time of the night, therefore, I booked a shuttle service in advance. I pre-booked Super Shuttle for $20 and they were super reliable. The driver was outside waiting for me, took my bags and we were off to the hotel. It is a shared service and the driver drops off whoever is closest to the airport first. Super Shuttle also has an app so you can easily make changes to your details if need be. I would highly recommend you use this service as they were cheap and professional. The driver made sure that I entered the hotel safely before he drove off.
Where to stay?
I needed to be in a central location because I had 24 hours to explore the city. I stayed in CQ Hotels, a 3-star hotel, which is based on a very prominent street in Wellington. The room was small and basic and it cost $280 for two nights. This is quite expensive (especially for South Africans and our weak currency) but the hotel is in a central neighbourhood, comes with breakfast and is clean.
I booked in advance and received a 10% non-refundable booking. Make sure to book at least 21 days in advance. Alternatively, AirBnB could be an affordable option.
What to do?
8:30 – Wellington Cable Car
After breakfast at the hotel, start your day by walking to the Wellington Cable Car. It’s roughly an 18-minute stroll from Cuba Street to the Cable Car. On your way, you’ll pass by some very tempting high-end shops on the shopping street. The walk is easy and safe, I used Google Maps on my phone to navigate around. Otherwise, stop by the Wellington i-SITE Visitor Information Centre for free maps, if needed.
The ride on the red cable car is a must-do experience when visiting Wellington. The ride runs every 10 minutes from Lampton Quay and chugs up the hill in 5 minutes to arrive to stunning views of the city. The cost per adult one way is $5 but the views at the top are priceless. Depending on the weather, you will see the city skyline, the harbour and all that Wellington has to offer.
Once you’re at the top, you could also visit the Cable Car Museum to learn a bit more about the history of the cable car. The museum is free to enter but there isn’t a lot to see, besides really scary life-like wax figures. So maybe give that a miss if you’re low on time.
9:30 – Wellington Botanical Gardens
In the midst of this vibrant city, you’ll find the tranquil, hilly and colourful botanic gardens. It’s absolutely free to enter and you will find the gardens at the top of where the cable car left you. The signs will direct you to the entrance and from there you will find many paths to take you to different parts of the gardens.
The award-winning Lady Norwood Rose Garden, colourful flowers, lush exotic forests, a duck pond and sculptures can be found while strolling through the Botanic Gardens. The gardens were relatively quiet in the morning (apart from the occasional jogger) and so I was left to frolic in the gardens all by myself.
The information centre is located in a beautiful-looking tree house where the balcony opens up to 360 degrees of lavish gardens. The bottom of the botanic gardens is where the duck pond is found. Go say hi to the ducklings for a little while before making your way back the steep hill to where the cable car dropped you off.
11:00 – Brunch at Kowhai Café
After the walk to the top of the botanic gardens, you’re going to need something to refresh you. There is a cute café with incredible views situated by the cable car drop off. Kowhai Café is a sunny and welcoming café with decor hanging from the roof.
I had an incredible coffee while sitting back and enjoying the view. Is the café expensive? Yes. But is it worth paying a premium? Definitely! You will obviously pay for the fantastic view, however, the service, food and drinks are impressive too.
12:00 – Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary
Zealandia is the world’s first fenced up urban eco-sanctuary where the aim is to create and restore Wellington’s forest and freshwater ecosystems to a pre-human state. Stepping into Zealandia is like stepping into a wildlife paradise. There is 30km of walking tracks for you to explore. You could easily spend the day at Zealandia, observing the wildlife and lush greenery.
The free shuttle to Zealandia can be found by the bus stop just outside the Kowhai Café. There are specific pick-up times. I recommend getting to the bus stop earlier to make sure you get a spot on the shuttle as there is limited space. Therefore, arrive at 12:00 because the shuttle will pick you up at 12:10. The pick-up times are on the board at the bus stop. Or if you want to plan ahead – all the times are found on Zealandia’s website. The quirky shuttle driver loves a little banter with everyone on the bus and he enjoys pointing out all the pubs on the way to the eco-sanctuary.
The price to get in will cost $19.50 and you’ll be free to wander around the eco-sanctuary for the day. If you’d like to have a two-hour tour, then it’ll set you back $50. The night tours cost $85 and you might see the famous nocturnal kiwi birds and glow worms.
15:00 – Wellington Waterfront
Take a walk from Zealandia to the Wellington harbour. It’s a 40-minute walk although there are buses available too. The harbour is home to many sculptures and lively restaurants. You can explore the harbour by hiring a bike or on foot. You could also kayak along the harbour or join the locals by jumping off a diving platform on Taranaki Wharf.
16:00 – Te Papa Museum
If you’re looking for something free and unmissable then you should visit the Te Papa Museum which is situated on the Wellington Harbour. The museum is interactive in informing you about how New Zealand was formed and its history. There are loads of exhibits that showcase different things. I recommend checking out the Mountains to Sea exhibit which you will find the Colossal Squid! It is the world’s largest complete specimen of a giant squid.
Also, visit the Mana Whenua which showcases the traditional Maori culture. You’ll need to take off your shoes to visit the Marae which is a traditional Maori meeting-house. New Zealand is also known for its destructive earthquakes so visit the Awesome Forces exhibit which has an Earthquake house. Step inside the house and feel the effects of an earthquake.
19:00 – Dinner + Drinks at Cuba Street
Once you’re done exploring the Te Papa museum, take a 14-minute walk back to Cuba Street for some food and drinks. Cuba Street is a famous street in Wellington with lots of cafe’s, shops and has a massive bohemian vibe. Filled with graffiti, cool architecture and quirky cafe’s. The street is lined with highly acclaimed restaurants and lots of avant-garde shops to browse through. I spent hours walking around the stores looking for interesting things to buy.
It’s a creative neighbourhood and a lot of the items for sale are very artsy and unique. You are guaranteed to pick up something you won’t find back home.
In the street, there were live performances and people are walking up and about. It was a really cool place to be if you want to hang out and meet the kiwi locals. Cuba street is sure to keep you entertained for hours but if you’re tired, head back to CQ Hotels which is situated on Cuba Street (or wherever you’re staying) to recharge your batteries.