Why Does Everyone Seem To Love Wellington?
There’s so many reasons to adore the tiny but mighty NZ capital.
I speak to a lot of people on my trip to Wellington – cab drivers, shop owners, bar workers – and everyone has a few things in common: no one has ended up in Wellington by accident, and no one wants to leave. In fact, not once – in my 28 years of life – have I met someone with something bad to say about the city. Curious, I even searched the depths of the most hateful place in the the world – the Internet – which brought up only slim pickings (and pretty much all of those were by people from Auckland; make of that what you will).
Let’s get some universal truths about the world’s southernmost capital city out of the way: it’s small, it’s windy and often wet, situated on a tiny island in one of the far reaches of the world, notable for its isolation. But the weather, modest size and distance from the rest of the planet seem to have worked wonders for Wellington; it punches well above its weight when it comes to global attention.
As the proud residents will remind you, Wellington was called “the coolest little capital in the world” by Lonely Planet when it was named in its ‘top 10 cities’ list in 2011. It feels like the people who live there have always known this; it’s just now that the rest of the world is finally taking notice. But you don’t need to live in Wellington to get why it’s great – you just need to visit. A short three-hour flight from Australia’s eastern seaboard, the city is the perfect option for an international long weekend getaway without wasting hours on flying time.
Three days in Wellington gives me at least a sliver of insight into why this city is so universally adored.
The pace is perfect
Wellington is blessed with a quiet magic. The city sprawl is limited by the mountains that surround it and with just 496,000 people living in the region, Wellington is compact and perfectly paced. There’s a small town feel, but it’s still full of things to do. You can get around New Zealand’s third biggest city easily on foot, but taxis are cheap, buses are easy to navigate and there’s even a funicular in the city centre if you’re averse to walking uphill.
The CBD is bustling and alive without being busy, the sidewalks are wide and the sun shines so bright that colours seem more vivid, like someone turned up the saturation in Photoshop.
It’s a hub for makers and doers
In a city so small, there seems to be no shortage of people doing cool things, from the many independent shops and art galleries to the Hollywood backlot vibe of Weta Workshop, which produces realistic props for a whole host of blockbuster movies, including heaps for the Lord Of The Rings canon. (You thought you’d read an article on NZ without it mentioning that? C’mon.)
Local maker Roman Jewell was a high-flying Sydney-based lawyer when he decided to return to his home country and start a tiny peanut butter factory in a once-industrial part of Wellington’s CBD. He named it Fix & Fogg, and he approaches me wearing long peanut butter-stained overalls and a welcoming grin.
Roman says that not too long ago, Wellington had a bit of a rough and ready reputation. “It was run down and all of the focus was on commerce, but then that creates opportunity for small business.” Young creative people jumped at the chance to fill the abandoned industrial spaces.
Fix & Fogg’s small factory is wedged below a staircase in Hannah’s Laneway in the city. Here, you can sample and buy the peanut butter flavours right from the shop window. (Try the Smoke & Fire, which is crunchy peanut butter lightly spiced with organic cayenne chillies, natural Manuka smoke from Central Otago and Spanish smoked paprika). Hannah’s Laneway is also home to a shop selling homemade sodas, a chocolate factory, an independent bakery, a killer pizza joint that’s been around for decades, a couple of small bars and a quality cafe. All of the merchants know each other and help each other out.
“We opened at the same time as the bakery and this cafe; you’re like sardines in this big bad ocean and you just have to band together. It’s like, ‘Will you guys put our peanut butter on your toast?’ and they’re like ‘Will you buy our old bread at the end of the day to give to your staff? It’s just very tight knit. Maybe that’s just Wellington though.”
In a city so small, you can build community without the competition that comes with larger cities, particularly those in Australia. People help each other. There is no north side/south side. There is no inner west/eastern beaches split. “Wellington is too small to have divisions,” Roman says.
Want to know something amazing about Wellington? It has more bars and restaurants per capita than New York, so naturally it’s all over the three Cs: its culinary, coffee and craft beer scenes are world-class.
The city looks inwards instead of outwards, and there’s a culture of doing the good stuff when it comes to food: sourcing locally and eating ethically. Jewell says, “We’re lucky that we’re here at a time that people who live in New Zealand care about supporting New Zealand businesses and supporting small scale enterprises that are trying to do the right thing – if it’s ethical, sustainable local produce or using a guy who delivers things on his bicycle. It’s not just bottom-lining it.”
Roman links the idea of Wellingtonians appreciating their local fare to the inherent joy that people get from experiencing good food and noteworthy dining experiences. “There’s no pulse of happiness in things, but experiences become part of your soul. I think that’s why we push hard to have the dialogue with food. Sure there’s the look and the taste, but there’s also the who and why – who is making it and why are they making it?”
This thread runs through Wellington, where good food and drink is sharply in focus and there seems to be a never-ending appetite for new ventures. As a result, a delicious experience will seldom be more than 50 metres away from you at any time. The hardest part is choosing which doors to go through.
It’s embedded in nature
Australians are lucky to be so close to a country that does nature so differently to us, with black sand beaches, glaciers, and steep hills that soar up sharply from the ocean. The colourful timber houses of Wellington seem to unfurl like ivy up the hillside from the shore, nudging into the overhanging green mountains that crown the city.
To feel like you’re in nature, you just need to look up, but to get right in the middle of it, you can just head over the hills. A mere half hour drive from town, in a four wheel drive on the Seal Coast Safari, I am feeding bread to deer at the base of a large empty valley. 20 minutes later, I’m trying to get a selfie with a seal on a deserted beach. I’m just around the bend from the city, but it feels like much further as I watch the boats slowly make their way across from the South Island in the distance.
It’s nice. Really nice.
I’m in Wellington during an unusually warm spell. The sun is out, and the wind is at bay, and it seems to brighten everyone’s moods. Down on the handsome harbour, a large rectangle has been cut into the wharf above the water, towered over by a huge diving board structure. People (mainly teenagers) race to the top and hesitate for just a moment before launching themselves into the water below. (This is no nanny state. The city seems to trust its residents to obey the diving board rules, and they do.) People stop to observe the spectacle. Everyone is smiling and taking photos. Cicadas hum, soundtracking my end-of-summer visit. Everything is nice.
The charm of big cities is often in their anonymity; their ability to make you feel small. There’s something to be said for that – that option to move through the world unseen – but there’s something more to be said about community, and Wellington is glowing with it. In my three days, I witness at least five instances of friends running into each other, and I am merely one stranger.
There’s a lot that’s great about Wellington, but there’s few things better than being in a city that’s full of people who want to be there. By the end of your trip, you’ll be one of them.
The ultimate Wellington hitlist
Eat & drink
Don’t let the many locations around the city fool you; Mojo’s Coffee is no regular chain store. Mojo’s is basically a successful local family business that’s grown outwards from Wellington and now has 35 cafes globally, including shops in Auckland, China and Japan. Coffee aficionados will love the techniques and blends on offer at The Beanary by Mojo, which is a place for coffee innovation and experimentation.
Hannah’s Laneway is free-sample heaven; a former-industrial enclave made over with a few licks of paint, an overhead light show and some wall-hanging plants. You could spend a whole, delicious day here. It’s where you’ll find Fix & Fogg’s peanut butter factory, along with Red Rabbit Coffee Co, who roast beans on-site, Leeds Street Bakery, famous for their salted caramel cookies, Six Barrel Soda, who create boutique soda blends and syrups, Pizza Pomodoro, who make a mean margarita, and the open-plan Wellington Chocolate Factory. It’s also home to refreshingly scrappy craft beer bar Golding’s Free Dive and the new cocktail bar Hanging Ditch, where you can enjoy good cocktails and conversation ‘til late.
A harbour city should have good seafood and you’ll find the best at the moderately fancy and locally beloved Ortega Fish Shack & Bar. The wine list is extensive, the oysters are fresh, and for flavour, you can’t go past the pan-fried prawn tail tagliatelle with garlic butter sauce, lemon and Italian parsley. Plus, the Maitre d’ Davey McDonald is a champion.
Loretta is not only a great place to eat; it’s a beautiful place to be. It’s earthy and airy, an inner-city refuge with pale timber, bespoke tableware and a spare and seasonal menu that will make you feel like the fully-formed adult you’ve always wanted to be.
Garage Project is a brewery housed in an abandoned service station in Aro Valley, and their philosophy has been to take risks and have fun brewing beer. You can visit the brewery’s cellar door to buy some beer, but it’s best sampled at their bar across the street. While the more conventional beers are delicious, I suggest the flavour bomb of Cabbages & Kings, a 12 percent stout brewed with oysters, leaving a savoury and briny aftertaste.
You’d have to know about Hawthorn Lounge to find it. Tucked upstairs behind an unassuming doorway, the cocktail bar resembles a 1920’s lounge and they’re as creative with their menu (think Venn diagrams showing cocktail contents) as they are with their actual drinks.
Weta Workshop offer tours where you can see original props used in a bunch of films, as well as a creepily realistic mannequin of Sam Neill sitting in one of the vehicles from the Halo X-Box game. You can also get a selfie with a replica of the lead Urak-Hai orc Lurtz from The Fellowship of the Ring.
The Seal Coast Safari four wheel drive tour is worth it for the views alone. It takes you up the hills that loom over the city, past Woofingtons, a bizarre luxury dog accommodation in a castle (and maybe my favourite thing about Wellington), and to a collection of lazy sea lions sunning themselves the rocks of a deserted beach. It’s a great detour into the nature that surrounds the city.
Wellington is home to heaps of good shops, and every second one you pass will be worth a crane of the head. Victoria Street is home to some high-end retailers like Lonely Lingerie and Superette. Vintage lovers will be blown away by the choice; hit up Thrift, Tangent Company, Ziggurat, Hunters & Collectors and Recycle Boutique for pre-loved and carefully curated clothes. On the south end of Cuba Street, the shops get smaller and the offerings more independent. Matchbox is an art-gallery-cum-craft-shop selling journals, trinkets, wall hangings and maps, while twenty-seven names is a small-scale label selling well-designed clothes in neutral colours.
Wander the Sunday morning markets at the wharf to see locals snag bargains on every fruit and vegetable imaginable, hastily arranged in coloured plastic carts. Everyone is doing a roaring trade. Food stalls line the strip nearby where offerings are mainly local, some of them Manuka-smoked. I sample the sweetest cherry, some Horn of Africa hotsauce, a piece of haggis and some homemade hummus with rhubarb; you won’t find a better breakfast.
Visit the Te Papa Museum for floor upon floor of science and history, both Maori and European, including the impressive huge-scale Gallipoli exhibition which was worked on by Weta Workshop. The entire six-floor structure is centred around an artwork called Void, a collaboration between notable New Zealand light artist Bill Culbert and the late Māori artist Ralph Hotere, and it’s incredible.
The Intercontinental Wellington has everything a good hotel should – comfy beds, a bathtub, a pillow menu, a warm buffet breakfast, robes, slippers and curtains that open and close with the push of a button. It’s super modern and classy without trying too hard, plus it seems to be only 10 minutes on foot from anywhere in the city.
(The writer was a guest of Wellington Tourism. All images are author’s own.)