Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, is one of my favourite getaway cities. The range of Wellington activities makes it a perfect choice for a romantic escape or a sightseeing visit with family and friends. Even more, it’s a charming waterfront city, surrounded by lush green hills. Above all, it is home to culture, history, sport, art, and fun. In addition, located in Middle Earth, activities in Wellington often include an element of Tolkien fantasy from Lord of the Rings.
One of my favourite things about New Zealand’s capital is that, unlike many of the tourist cities in New Zealand, there are plenty of free things to do in Wellington.
- Wellington activities: Lord of the Rings (LOTR)
- Wellington activities: nature and animals
- Wellington activities: museums
- Wellington landmarks
- New Zealand Parliament
- National Library of New Zealand
- Archives New Zealand
- National War Memorial
- St. Paul’s Cathedrals
- Wellington tours
- Wellington activities: living like a local
- People watching from a local cafe
- Walk, jog or cycle along the waterfront
- Riding the cable car
- Enjoy the view from Mount Victoria
- Jumping from the Taranaki Street jump platform
- Unwind with a wine or craft beer
- Wellington activities: fun things to do in Wellington at night
- Carter Observatory and Planetarium
- Friday or Saturday night markets
- Night Tour at Zealandia
- Courtenay Place
- Bars or Street Performers on Cuba Street
- Wellington accommodations
- Three day Wellington itinerary: pulling it all together
- Practical information for visiting the Capital of New Zealand
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Wellington activities: Lord of the Rings (LOTR)
A Middle-earth welcome at the airport
From your first moment in the city, you know you are in Middle-earth as there are multiple LOTR characters on display.
Weta Studios (on the Miramar Peninsula)
The Weta Workshop, the 5-times Oscar-winning special effects and props company, is known worldwide. Most famous is their work with movies and TV shows including Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Avatar, and The Hobbit. The company designs and produces sets, costumes (including armour and weapons), creatures, and miniatures. Weta Workshop offers (paid) guided tours that give you an insight into the creative process. You will see some artists at work as well as props, costumes, and vehicles of various movies.
Pro tip: Although they sell same-day timed tour tickets, these often fill up early and advanced booking is a good idea. On the morning we were there, visitors who hadn’t pre-booked waited several hours for the next available timeslot. Those who arrived later in the day would have missed out.
Click here to book your Weta Workshop tour
Weta Cave is Weta’s free-to-enter shop filled with film paraphernalia, souvenirs, gifts, and a miniature museum. It’s a fun place to visit, even if you are not taking the tour.
Wellington activities: nature and animals
Wellington Botanic Garden
The 26-hectare Wellington Botanic Garden was established in 1868 and features native bush, exotic forests, colourful flowers, and a variety of speciality gardens. It’s one of the many free things to do in Wellington.
One of my favourite activities in Wellington is to ride the Cable Car up and the top and then enjoy the winding downhill walk to the city. While there are many trails, the path with painted purple/pink flowers is a direct route to the city, and takes about 40 minutes to walk. As you pass through the Bolton Street Cemetery, be sure to notice the obelisk that marks the resting grounds for many of the city’s pioneers.
A nature lover’s paradise, Zealandia is an unspoiled eco-reserve that is only 10 minutes from central Wellington. Birds and small reptiles dominate native wildlife. A free shuttle from either downtown or the Cable Car Museum makes Zealandia easily accessible for daytime visits. Zealandia’s optional night tour offers the possibility of seeing many of New Zealand’s endemic, nocturnal birds including the kiwi bird.
Purchase your Zealandia Day Pass or your Zealandia by Night Tour
The Wellington Zoo
The self-proclaimed “best little zoo in the world” is home to 500 animals including some unusual creatures like the kiwi bird, Malayan sun bear, and the caracal. Wellington Zoo’s scheduled keeper talks run throughout the day, many including up close and personal opportunities like hand-feeding a giraffe or an eel.
Wellington activities: museums
National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
No visit to Wellington is complete without a visit to the National Museum, commonly referred to as “Te Papa”. This free-to-enter museum has extensive collections in the areas of art, history, Pacific, Māori, and the natural environment. With several hands-on Discovery Centres for children, Te Papa is an excellent day out for everyone.
Carter Observatory and Planetarium
A two-minute walk from the top of the cable car brings you to the Carter Observatory and Planetarium. It’s a family-friendly destination. A child’s area has a simulation space game, and there are age-appropriate planetarium shows on weekends and during school holidays.
We opted for a planetarium show featuring the sky over the Southern Hemisphere. Comfortable reclining seats allowed us to sit under a simulated night sky.
After the show, we headed New Zealand’s largest refracting telescope, surveying the skies since 1867. Weather permitting the roof opens (on Tuesday and Saturday) allowing visitors to see it in action. Sadly, by the time it was dark enough for our star viewing, a cloud cover enveloped the night sky and the dome stayed closed.
Best seats are towards the back.
If you visit at night, remember the last cable car down leaves at 10 pm.
Cable Car Museum
Complete with old cable cars and equipment, the Cable Car Museum is worth a visit if you are not pressed for time. It is located at the Kelburn Terminal, the upper end of the line for the cable car. It’s one of many things to do in Wellington for free.
New Zealand Parliament
New Zealand’s Parliament is located in Wellington. The central government building is aptly nicknamed “the Beehive.” As you walk around this neighbourhood, notice the pedestrian traffic lights. The silhouette of Kate Sheppard in red or green tells us when it is safe to walk, rather than the traditional male figure.
Note: Katherine Sheppard was significant to the women’s suffrage movement. As a result, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote.
Take a Tour of Parliament
New Zealand gives visitors a chance to get a behind the scenes look inside its central government buildings and to discover some of New Zealand’s colourful political history. The guided tour of Parliament is one of the best free things to do in Wellington.
Parliament tours begin on the hour from 10 am to 4 pm and require booking 24-hours in advance. There is a dress code and adults are not allowed to wear short pants to Parliament. No photos are allowed during the tour. Check their official website for tour options and booking details.
Observe New Zealand Parliament in Session
If Parliament is in session, the chamber viewing galleries allow visitors to quietly observe the Members of Parliament in action. This is independent of the tour, and another free thing to do in Wellington. No cameras are allowed in the viewing galleries.
National Library of New Zealand
The recently refurbished National Library is now home to the original treaty of Waitangi document. It is in a secure climate and lighting controlled space and on display alongside several other historical documents.
Archives New Zealand
If you enjoy old documents and national treasures, visit Archives New Zealand.
National War Memorial
St. Paul’s Cathedrals
Old St Paul’s Cathedral
Built entirely of native timber in 1866, Old St. Paul’s Cathedral is a 19th-century gothic-revival masterpiece. The wooden vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows offer a surprisingly European flare, almost out of place in such a young country.
New St. Paul’s Cathedral
Only a block away sits the new St Paul’s, a modern cathedral built in the 1960s. It serves as the Anglican Diocese of Wellington.
The highly-rated tour options listed here range from a 2-hour Wellington city tour to an all-day LOTR tour. We opted for a Wellington walking tour and loved it. If you prefer to go it on your own, pick up a self-guided walking map from the i-SITE Visitor Centre in Civic Square or download a free Wellington Walks Map here.
Or check out one of these Wellington sightseeing tours
Take a full day Lord of the Rings tour
It’s certainly no surprise to fans that Lord of the Rings locations tours are amongst the most popular of the Wellington tours. If you really want to explore Middle Earth and see famous LOTR movie sites, then this is the tour for you. It’s a full day that also includes a behind-the-scenes tour of Weta Workshop and a LOTR themed lunch.
Check reviews and price
|Central City Walking Tour||Inside tips from a local guide|
Visit Courtenay Place and Cuba Street
See ‘Lord of the Rings’ sites
Finish at the city’s parliament building
|Electric Bike Tour||Guided small group tour|
Pedal past waterfront and Miramar Peninsula
See beaches, landmarks, and residential areas
Battery boost to the Mt. Victoria lookout
|3 to 5 hrs|
|Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour – Use this link for discount options||Informative commentary onboard|
11 stops including major attractions
|City Sightseeing Tour||Luxury mini-coach tour of city |
Art, culture and natural beauty
Visit Thorndon, Mt. Victoria, and Te Papa
See St Paul’s Cathedral and Parliament
|Half or full day|
|Food Tour||Minivan food tastings and ingredients tour|
Learn about the city’s coffee culture
Visit butcher, cheese, and produce vendors
Lunch and ice cream
Wellington activities: living like a local
People watching from a local cafe
Start your day at one of the Cuba Street cafes and soak up the bohemian culture that amplifies the heart of this city. Whether it is an art gallery, boutique shop, second-hand store, off-beat café or top restaurant, Cuba Street has it all.
In a city known for great food and perfect coffee, there are plenty of options on Cuba Street. My other favourite eating area is anywhere along the waterfront. For specific suggestions, check out our favourite Wellington restaurants.
Walk, jog or cycle along the waterfront
For the more athletic, you can people-watch while on the move, while walking, jogging, or cycling along the waterfront.
Riding the cable car
Students take it to Victoria University, locals ride to get up the hill, but the cable car is also one of the popular Wellington tourist attractions. This is New Zealand’s only funicular railway, and it runs from the centre of town uphill for 612m. You will find the entrance and ticket booth on Cable Car Lane, a small alleyway coming off of Lambton Quay. Once the city’s waterfront, today Lambton Quay is the heart of the shopping district.
Enjoy the view from Mount Victoria
The hike to the top of Mount Victoria is popular with locals. It’s an easy hike to the top, although all uphill. The other options are a public bus, Wellington Hop-on Hop-off bus or drive to the lookout. Either way, you will be rewarded with spectacular views.
Check here for discount options on the Wellington Hop-on Hop-off bus
Jumping from the Taranaki Street jump platform
Just outside Te Papa (the national museum) is the Taranaki Street Jump Platform. It was purpose-built by the city for daredevils who want to plunge into the sea as the city was concerned about the safety of the number of people diving off the docks at random locations. In typical New Zealand fashion, the solution accommodated everyone. This is best on warm days when you have both a towel and a change of clothing available.
Unwind with a wine or craft beer
Locals know there are plenty of options for unwinding after a long day. A few unique options:
- The Thistle Inn: New Zealand’s oldest surviving tavern and restaurant operating from its original site. Be sure to look through the area of glass floor to view the original 1840 cellar.
- Hashigo Zake: Where else can you drink in a former police station’s cells?
- The Backbencher Gastropub: This is where you might spot Members of Parliament, either eating or their likeness as large puppets hanging from the walls. It’s a great place for a glass of wine, craft beer, or a meal.
- The Garage Project: a popular Wellington microbrewery.
Wellington activities: fun things to do in Wellington at night
Carter Observatory and Planetarium
A nighttime visit to the observatory offers the possibility of viewing the night sky through New Zealand’s largest refracting telescope. Carter Observatory is open until 11 pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Friday or Saturday night markets
If you arrive on a weekend, enjoy an international banquet of flavours at the Friday Night Market. The aromatic spices along with the crowds will guide you to Left Bank, an alleyway just off of Cuba Street that is host to the market. The seemingly endless food choices intermix with entertainers and craft booths.
The market’s energy is contagious. The one downside is the lack of tables, yet people don’t seem to mind as they sit on benches, kerbside, or eat standing. The market is also open on Saturday nights, although it moves to Lower Cuba Street.
Night Tour at Zealandia
Zealandia is much different by night than it is by day. The optional night tour offers the possibility of seeing many of New Zealand’s endemic, nocturnal creatures including the kiwi bird
After dinner, enjoy the nightlife on Courtenay Place, Wellington’s entertainment and theatre district. The street ends at Kent Terrace. At this corner, you will find the Embassy Theatre, home to the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings.
Bars or Street Performers on Cuba Street
Several of the Cuba Street clubs offer live music, but I like it for people watching. On weekends and during summer, street performers keep the evening interesting.
As one would expect in the capital of New Zealand, the options of Wellington accommodations cover the full gambit from luxury to backpackers. The main tourist hotels are centred around the museum, the government buildings, or in the financial district.
On our most recent visit, we stayed in a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen in the Distinction Wellington Hotel. The super comfortable bed gave me a good start to each day.
Three day Wellington itinerary: pulling it all together
Personally, I could spend weeks in Wellington, but as a tourist to the capital of New Zealand, three days is optimal. This is our favourite flexible 3-day Wellington itinerary, one that we have completed with visitors a few times.
- First day: Cable Car to the top (purchase a one-way ticket) ⇒ Enjoy the view ⇒ Cable Car Museum OR Carter Observatory and Planetarium ⇒ Walk downhill through the Botanic Garden (if you’re hungry, get lunch at the garden’s cafe) ⇒ Parliament tour ⇒ National Library ⇒ Old St Paul’s cathedral ⇒ Thistle Inn ⇒ Friday Night Market ⇒ Cuba Street nightlife
- Second day: Breakfast at a waterfront cafe ⇒ city tour or self-guided waterfront walk ⇒ Zealandia OR Wellington Zoo OR The Great War Museum OR Weta Workshop tour ⇒ dinner ⇒Courtenay Place nightlife
- Third day: Breakfast at a Cuba Street cafe ⇒ Te Papa ⇒ Taranaki Street Jump Platform ⇒ Mount Victoria
Wellington can be part of our larger North Island self-drive tour.
Practical information for visiting the Capital of New Zealand
Wellington sits at the southern end of New Zealand’s North Island, making it the world’s southernmost capital city.
- Wellington is a city made for walking. Nevertheless, the capital of New Zealand has one of the most used public transportation systems in the country. Single ride or day pass bus tickets can be purchased from the driver.
- Tipping is neither customary nor expected in New Zealand.
- Te Whanganui-a-Tara is the Māori name for Wellington Harbour.
- Check out this official Wellington events calendar.
Booking tips for your New Zealand travel planning
First-time visitors start here: New Zealand travel guide or with our favourite New Zealand road trips.
Flights: We use Skyscanner to find all the available flight options at the best prices.
Rental Vehicles: For cars, we always use RentalCars.com, a rental car search engine with no hidden costs. For campervans, note that Spaceships Rentals NZ offers free one-way drop-off between Auckland and Christchurch.
Accommodations: We use Booking.com to find all levels of accommodations in most NZ cities.
Activity Discounts: We use Bookme.co.nz to find discounts on entry tickets and tours in New Zealand.
Travel Insurance: We purchase insurance that covers medical and travel emergencies when we head overseas. We start with World Nomads.
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**Find more money-saving resources on our Travel Resources page.
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Do you still want more? If so, read next: Wellington Photos: 20 Reasons It’s My Favourite New Zealand Getaway
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Disclaimer: We worked with WellingtonNZ, the local tourism board. Also, we were provided with many complimentary entrances, tours, sample items, or media rates to assist in the writing of this review. However, the opinions expressed here are strictly our own.