From cultural gems to foodie haunts and the chance to spot New Zealand’s most famous bird, five locals reveal why Wellington should be your next holiday destination.
The otherworldly wildlife
“There’s a whole world that only opens up after dark,” says Manaaki Barrett, environmental manager and guide from Kapiti Island Nature Tours.
“The kiwi is really not at all like a bird. It has this stealthy and elusive existence – often it looks like nothing more than a fuzzy little shadow on the forest floor. But our guides are attuned to every little sound they make. Sometimes we find them just from a little sniff or snuffle, almost like a hedgehog. Although we’re there to find kiwi, people also really enjoy the chance to be quiet and conscious of the world going on around them.
“It’s quite humbling to place yourself in a night-time forest environment as an almost invisible observer. It’s a true sensory experience – especially if you spend the night in our luxury glamping tents, where you’ll fall asleep to the sounds of the kiwi, kākā and ruru birds.”
The thriving craft beer scene
“Wellington has some of the best beer in the country,” says Mike Henderson from Craft Beer Tours NZ.
“My top three? Pernicious Weed, a double IPA by Garage Project. It has a tropicality, a rich malt base and it contains two flavourful New Zealand hops – Rakau and Nelson Sauvin. We visit their workshop in the centre of Wellington on our tours – they give us exclusive access to their crazy open fermentation and barrelling areas. Then there’s the Mā Is White by Fork & Brewer, which has two native spices – horopito and kawakawa, as well as fresh New Zealand navel orange. And, finally, Van Da Tsar from Baylands Brewery, which is like Tia Maria meets beer – it’s so sweet and creamy.
“You won’t get better beer snacks than the barbecue brisket burger from Boneface Brewing or the T-rex toastie from Heyday Beer Co. And the waffle chips at Fork & Brewer are absolutely delicious. Buy a bowl for the table and they’ll be gone in about six seconds.”
The awe-inspiring dining
“Hiakai isn’t like simply going somewhere for dinner,” says Katie Monteith, general manager of three-hatted restaurant Hiakai.
“First, you enter this old building that many people don’t even know is a restaurant. We have no signs, just a light at night. Then they have no idea what they’re going to eat. We specialise in Māori and Pasifika cuisine but our menu is not available anywhere, which is so different to how most of us live day-to-day with every bit of information at our fingertips.
“Our food follows a story, a Māori myth, legend or even a contemporary tale. One of our menus was based on a famous children’s book by the incredible Māori writer Patricia Grace. There was a dessert called Wāhine Toa, which means ‘warrior woman’, made from rhubarb, hibiscus, apple and kawakawa in the shape of a flower. People gasped when they saw it.
“For some, Hiakai is a journey of nostalgia. For others it’s about firsts, things they’ve never tried before. But for everyone, we want it to be a playful experience, not overly earnest. We want to take people out of their ordinary world and look after them. In Māori culture that’s called manaakitanga and it’s the heartbeat of what we do.”
The hyper-local shopping
“Wellington is home to a wonderfully eclectic array of independent stores,” says Rose Bollinger, co-owner of gift emporium Iko Iko.
“It’s a truly walkable city; you can easily stroll from vintage institutions like Ziggurat on Cuba Street to ceramics haven Vessel down by the water, to the Old Bank Arcade at Lambton Quay without breaking a sweat.
“We love to support small New Zealand makers at Iko Iko, especially brands made right here in Pōneke. Wellington legend Penny Foggo’s bright, bold jewellery is always a hit, as are our mineral bath soaks handmade by Wiki Skincare. Another Wellington-based favourite is Haly Design. Her gorgeous moon-shaped candles are hot to trot – we cannot keep them on shelves!
“It’s so special to share some of what our compact, creative city has to offer. At the end of the day, Iko Iko is all about joy; our aim is to create a fun and inclusive space that hopefully makes you smile.”
The immersive history
“Te Papa is all about fun, hands-on experiences that make you think,” says Kate Camp, head of marketing and communications at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
“It’s a bicultural museum, meaning the Māori worldview is woven into all aspects of our work. Our collections cover many areas – history, science, art, Māori, Pacific – so it’s like five museums rolled into one.
“Starting with a guided tour is a great way to orient yourself and each Te Papa host creates their own tour so you get lots of personal insights. Some highlights? The fascinating and freaky colossal squid is the only one on display in the world. For emotional impact, it’s hard to beat Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War – it’s the most visited exhibition in New Zealand’s history. And you have to see Te Papa’s marae, Rongomaraeroa, a modern take on the traditional Māori meeting house. It’s the absolute heart of the museum.
“Make sure you grab a cheese scone – the iconic food of Wellington – on the ground floor café. Preferably toasted, with lots of butter!”
Image credit: Johnny Hendrikus (Mount Victoria); Capture Studios (Kapiti Island); Hiakai; Iko Iko; Te Papa.