A simple hop from Australia’s east coast, the New Zealand capital offers a low-key urban escape. Discover all the best things to do, from where to eat and which hotels to stay at to what to do with kids and which bars to check out, with this expert guide from a local.

When I was growing up, my father was fond of saying, “If the weather was good, we couldn’t afford to live in Wellington.” It’s true that New Zealand’s capital is known for the often gale-force winds that blow in from the roaring forties thousands of kilometres to the west but Wellington – on the edge of a harbour and surrounded by native bush – might just be perfect in every other way. I’ve returned regularly in the two decades since I moved away and though the CBD can feel small (the tallest building is only 29 storeys), a lot happens within its margins. Yes, this is a government town but it’s also a brooding, creative place that has produced some of the country’s best musicians, filmmakers and artists – think Oscar-winning directors Taika Waititi and Peter Jackson. It’s no surprise, then, that Wellington’s community of innovative thinkers has trained its focus on eateries, bars and coffee shops to sexy and distinctive effect. 

Best cafe for coffee

Wellingtonians have an almost reverential relationship with coffee. Customs Coffee Supreme is an appropriately minimalist space with lots of blonde wood and a revolving menu of single-origin beans served as espresso or filter. (New Zealand hipsters are reinventing filter coffee but that’s another story.) On visits home I head for Prefab, a café that’s loved by creative types and that you’d never stumble across unless you knew the address. It roasts its own strong-but-smooth coffee, ACME & Co., which is brewed as espresso and bottomless filter from 7am. If you linger long enough forbreakfast, try the brat in a bun with sauerkraut.

Best place for brunch

Nikau Cafe, Wellington

Image credit: Oliver Strewe.

In a town where time moves a bit slower, cafés have finessed the art of brunch. Head to the most interesting andculturally diverse strip – Cuba Street – to eat at elegant Floriditas. There are no tricks; it’s all about great produce in classics such as green eggs with ham (poached eggs, ham off the bone, braised greens and homemade spinach hollandaise). Visit Nikau Café (pictured above), a light-filled space adjoining the centrally located City Gallery, for its famous kedgeree – a house-smoked fish and basmati rice dish with curry flavours – that  has remained on the menu for two decades.

Best thing for families to do with kids

Te Papa, Wellington

A visit to a national museum might sound dull but not at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Inside the big black hulk of a building on the harbour, kids will love the Earthquake House, in which they can experience what it’s like to feel the earth move under their feet (Wellington is on a major fault line), and Bush City, where they can dig for fossils and see a replica glow-worm cave.

Best outdoor activity

Given that Wellington is surrounded by bush, it’s natural that there’s an extraordinary wildlife sanctuary in the suburbs. One of the most ambitious conservation projects of its kind, Zealandia covers 225 hectares, with an 8.6-kilometre fence to keep out predators. Spend a few hours in the verdant valley watching birds such as the ruru (morepork), korimako (bellbird) and, if you’re lucky, a kārearea (New Zealand falcon). Take a night tour for a chance to see a little spotted kiwi as well as tuatara and glow-worms.

SEE ALSO: The Best Places to Stay in Wellington

Best restaurant for dinner

They say good things come in small packages and so it is at Highwater, in intimate place on Cuba Street. Almost everything is made from scratch on site, including the ’nduja butter that accompanies the whole flounder dish that regulars rave about. Meanwhile, at Rita, a tiny cottage (with just 28 seats) in Aro Valley, about five minutes from the CBD, you don’t choose what you eat but you won’t be disappointed. With a three-course set menu that changes daily, chef and co-owner Kelda Hains conjures amazing dishes from the freshest produce. 

Best bar for a cocktail

Courtenay Place is the epicentre of the city’s nightlife and Lulu Bar is one of its most inventive cocktail spots. The island-style décor may remind you of other stylish tiki bars but Lulu’s pays homage to New Zealand’s Māori and Pasifika culture with concoctions such as the Hāngi – a lamb-fat-washed rye whisky-based drink – and a Horopito and Kawakawa Sour made  with native ingredients. Plus, the playlist highlights some of the best local reggae-style dub artists, such as Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Best shopping

Twenty Seven Names, Wellington

Image: Anjali Burnett (left) and Rachel Easting, founders of Twenty-Seven Names.

Wellington is not the place to prance about in high heels and voluminous dresses; it’s all about practical fashion that acknowledges the climate and the cultural aesthetic. The brainchild of two school friends, Twenty-Seven Names (pictured above) has a cult-like following for its sustainable women’s clothing with whimsical prints and bold colours. The Axe offers a collection of beautiful ceramics, candles and homewares, many made in New Zealand. My pick? The Apostle small-batch hot sauces, which are made using local ingredients, including kawakawa leaves, and wrapped in graphic labels designed by a tattoo artist.

Best hotel

Hippopotamus bar, QT Wellington hotel

There’s nothing in the least bit understated about the QT Wellington. Crammed with art from a rotating 200-piece collection, it’s unashamedly over the top. In the middle of one of the CBD’s most vibrant precincts, the property is home to the decadent chandelier-and-mirrorfilled modern French restaurant, Hippopotamus (pictured above), which has views across the road to the national museum and harbour.

SEE ALSO: 7 Kid-Friendly Activities in Wellington (That You'll Love, Too)

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