Wellington: An introduction

Wellington – New Zealand’s capital – is a lively city, proud of its arts and culture, craft beer and café scene, and its dramatic harbour setting.

Travel guide publisher Lonely Planet has named Wellington the "coolest little capital in the world". Although it’s not New Zealand's largest city, it promotes itself as the national centre of arts, coffee, craft beer, film and politics, and there's an undeniable energy pulsing through the town. 

Wellington is home to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Royal New Zealand Ballet, as well as national treasures such as the original Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document. The city is also a creative hub for New Zealand’s booming film industry.

Central Wellington is spread across the foreshores of a wide harbour and steep surrounding hills. Visitors don't have to venture far for nature and wildlife experiences, including Zealandia, an amazing suburban sanctuary, and Kapiti Island, an offshore reserve for endangered bird and marine species.

Māori culture

Wellington’s earliest name was Te Upoko o te Ika a Maui or "the head of Maui's fish", which refers to the story of how Aotearoa New Zealand was created. According to Māori legend, the Polynesian navigator Maui hooked a giant fish that, when pulled to the surface, turned into the landform now known as the North Island. Wellington was originally named Te Whanganui a Tara, meaning "great harbour of Tara". 

European settlers arrived in the early 1840s, originally settling in Petone on the northern end of the harbour. Due to the swampy land beneath the settlement, the settlement was relocated across the harbour to where the city now stands. In 1865, Wellington became the capital of New Zealand and has been the centre of New Zealand government since then.

Middle of Middle Earth

From the moment a giant Gollum greets you at Wellington International Airport, you know you have arrived at the "Middle of Middle Earth". The city, often referred to as "Wellywood", is the centre of New Zealand’s film industry and home to film director Peter Jackson and his production facility.

A filming location for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies and many other international blockbusters, Wellington was described by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro as "Hollywood the way God intended it". 

Food, wine and coffee

Wellington is renowned for its sophisticated food scene and claims to have more places to eat and drink per capita than New York City. Home to some of New Zealand's finest dining establishments, the city also boasts a vibrant nightlife with some acclaimed bars. 

In mid-August, the city hosts the country's biggest food festival, Visa Wellington On a Plate, where producers, suppliers, eateries and diners from across the greater Wellington region come together over 17 days for hundreds of culinary events and dining offers. During the festival, more than 100 establishments also compete for the coveted title of Wellington's best burger. 

Wellington is also celebrated for its craft beer scene. Boutique beer enthusiasts flock to the capital for the annual Beervana festival, where more than 200 different craft brews are poured and sampled over two days in August.

Art and culture

New Zealand’s arts and culture capital has many museums and art galleries, as well as a thriving theatre and film scene. Wellington hosts many large-scale international events annually, including the New Zealand Festival, HSBC Wellington Sevens Rugby tournament, and jaw-dropping World of WearableArt™ Awards Show. 

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa showcases New Zealand’s diverse art and visual culture in innovative and interactive displays featuring wildlife, history, Māori culture and contemporary art. A must-see at the museum is the incredible Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition. Created in partnership with the special effects company Weta Workshop, the exhibition features models almost two and a half times the size of real people who were involved in World War I, and commemorates the war in a gripping yet solemn way.

The Museum of Wellington City and Sea, housed in a significant heritage building on the waterfront, offers an insight into the city’s social and cultural history.

Nature and sustainability

Wellington is known as a socially and environmentally conscious city. Declared nuclear weapon-free in 1982, it was also the first capital  in the southern hemisphere to gain Fair Trade status.

In the hills of suburban Karori is Zealandia, a unique eco-attraction and haven for some of New Zealand’s rarest native animals, including  New Zealand birds such as saddleback, hihi, and little spotted kiwi, and the giant weta insect and curious tuatara reptile. 

Kapiti Island, 45 minutes from the city, is another example of the capital’s sustainability efforts. New Zealand’s oldest nature reserve, Kapiti Island has untouched New Zealand bush forest that is the natural habitat of many species of native wildlife. 

And by the way...

  • Wellington is said to have more cafés, bars and restaurants per capita than New York City, and more coffee roasters per capita than anywhere in the world.
  • The city's compact geography isn’t just handy for visitors; more than 18,000 of the city’s residents walk or jog to work.
  • Wellington is home to New Zealand’s oldest public bar, the Thistle Inn, where it’s said that the Māori chief Te Rauparaha used to pull up his canoe and stop for a drink. 
  • Some residents around Wellington’s scenic bays have personal cable cars to reach their hilltop homes.