The 2016 insider’s guide to Wellington

We’ve walked the streets and laneways of New Zealand’s capital to bring you the ultimate insider’s guide to Wellington.

Just in case you need another reason to visit, we’ve walked Wellington’s streets and laneways to meet ten locals who have agreed to share their top tips and favourite secret spots – consider this a compliment; they don’t do this for everyone.

With its compact size, creative spirit, world-class coffee and progressive craft beer scene, it’s easy to see why Lonely Planet named Wellington the ‘coolest little capital in the world’. These local characters are as cool as the city they call home, so you know their insider tips are worth noting down.

Peter Lowry from Hawthorn Lounge

Originally from Belfast, Peter is well-known in his adopted home as the brains behind the bar at Hawthorn, one of Wellington’s top nightspots. Manager for the last five years, Peter says his team have really made their mark in town achieving a balance of critical praise and happy regulars.

To experience Wellington like a local, visit Moore Wilsons on Tory Street – the world’s best supermarket. I’m there almost every day for fresh, seasonal and exciting dinner inspiration. It’s absolute foodie heaven. They also sell Lego, Hawthorn Edition Lighthouse Gin, cheese and locally-made Gunpowder Rum.

In a city of extraordinarily high standards of food, Ortega Fish Shack remains my favourite place for dinner. If the tables are all booked, sit at the bar with Rory because he’ll make you a great drink and bring the food to you. On the way home, stop by C.G.R. Merchants for a quick gin or rum infusion.

During the weekend my son and I head to Capital E, a free indoor play and education space for kids that’s right on the waterfront. Beforehand I grab a coffee from Cuckoo, a slightly cuckoo café which appeals to me (not just because they use Coffee Supreme beans) then off we troop.

Insider tip for 2016
Visa Wellington on a Plate, held each August, is the most exciting, inventive and accessible food festival around. It’s definitely a must-do – the whole city gets involved, with bars and restaurants across Wellington putting on special menus, events and deals for two weeks.

If you’re looking for something to do until August, I recommend sampling some of Wellington’s craft beers. The Hop Garden in Mount Victoria will be opening their rooftop beer garden soon and Garage Project in Aro Valley has just opened a new taproom across the road from their brewery. 

Travel tip
Tory Street and its alley ways are just around the corner from Courtenay Place, the hub of Wellington nightlife. Venture up a staircase on Tory Street to Hawthorn Lounge, or Motel on Forresters Lane, for a seasonal cocktail or top-shelf liquor.

Anna Guenther from PledgeMe

Anna is CEO, or ‘Chief Bubble Blower’, of crowdfunding website PledgeMe, which she founded while completing her Masters study. With over NZ$8million raised over the last three years, Anna is a firm believer that crowdfunding will change the world. 

This won’t be a secret anymore… but I love the bottomless coffee at Monterey in Newtown on the weekend, with their savoury French toast – haloumi, need I say more? There’s no Wi-Fi, so I can’t really work, and it’s a relaxing place to hang out.

At night, I head to small craft beer bars in Wellington like Golding’s Free Dive, enjoy drinks on the rooftop at Basque, or play a few rounds of cards at Hawthorn Lounge.

I also love taking my friends to Bats Theatre for a live show. You never really know what you’re going to get – apart from the $2 lolly [candy] mixture… that always has to happen.

Insider tip for 2016
Slam poetry! Head along to Poetry in Motion (on the first Wednesday of every month) at Meow on Edward Street to hear up-and-coming Wellington poets. One of the PledgeMe team, Jessie, just won the regional champs, and even our chairman is into the scene now.

Travel tip
Edward Street, an alley behind a row of central Wellington shops, is home to quirky bars Meow and Little Beer Quarter, nearby Good as Gold is a New Zealand streetwear fashion mainstay.

Nic Rapp from Flight Coffee

Nic is a national champion coffee brewer based at Flight Coffee – one of Wellington’s 18 coffee roasting houses. As a student he frequented Flight-owned Memphis Belle Coffee House, and was eventually offered a job. He’s worked at the flagship café Flight Coffee Hangar and the factory as a coffee roaster and trainer.

Leeds Street, an alleyway off Dixon Street, is one of my favourite spots in the city. It has a whole lot going on – great beers and coffee, a fantastic bakery, the best pizza in town (Pizza Pomodoro) and the famous Wellington Chocolate Factory.

If it’s sunny out, I head to the Rogue and Vagabond on Garrett Street. They roll out bean bags on the grass outside the bar making it the perfect spot for local craft beers and burgers in the sun.

Ombra - halfway up Cuba Street - offers Venetian tapas at its best. There’s a great vibe, and the food is off-the-chain too! Perfect for people who like to share – my favourite way of eating.

Insider tip for 2016
Definitely keep an eye out for new establishments and always try new places. Wellington has really upped its game when it comes to dining in recent years – I think we’re going to see some exciting stuff.

Travel tip
During the five minute walk from Leeds Street Bakery to Flight Coffee Hangar on Dixon Street, you’ll pass a collection of Wellington’s coolest small businesses. In addition to the bakery, down Leeds Street and the connecting Hannah’s Factory Laneway, you’ll find Red Rabbit Coffee Co., Wellington Chocolate Factory, peanut butter makers Fix and Fogg, and Six Barrel Soda Co. Talk about spoiled for choice.

Des Smith from Zealandia

Des is both a gay rights activist and a conservationist who’s been a volunteer guide at Zealandia for years. Des was named a ‘Local Hero’ in the 2012 New Zealander of the Year awards recognising his years of advocacy and service, including coordination of native forest restoration on Bell’s Track in Ngaio, Wellington.

There’s something special about seeing native tieke [saddleback] on the Te Mahanga track at Zealandia, an eco-sanctuary in the hills of Wellington suburb Karori. Zealandia is where I spend a lot of my time, so I love to show my visitors around there.

On Friday nights, we stop by the night market in Left Bank [off Cuba Street] for a crepe from Marc at Excuse My French creperie.

On weekends I love to spend the morning in our garden at home before heading to Shelly Bay for lunch at the Chocolate Fish Café – fresh, tasty food and delicious Black Doris plum smoothies.

Insider tip for 2016
The biennial New Zealand Festival, held in February and March, is a celebration of international and local creativity and arts. The 2016 season includes special performances by the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

2016 also marks the 30th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform and Wellington’s first Gay and Lesbian Fair – I definitely won’t be missing out on the events celebrating those milestones.

Travel tip
Zealandia Sanctuary is a 10-minute drive from central Wellington, in the hillside suburb of Karori. As well as being an excellent spot for a daytime bush walk and native birdsong, Zealandia by night offers the opportunity to see New Zealand’s own nocturnal kiwi birds.

Brad Shields from the Wellington Lions and Hurricanes

Brad is a seasoned rugby union footballer, playing as a loose forward for the Hurricanes (Wellington’s team in the international Super Rugby competition) as well as the Wellington Lions in the national ITM Cup. A Wellington boy to the core, Brad also represented New Zealand in 2011 at the IRB Junior Rugby World Championship.

I like to go four-wheel driving around Red Rocks on Wellington’s south coast with my mates – on a sunny day we stop at our secret spot and go for a dive to explore the marine life. Not quite willing to share the exact location just yet.

I also love to go mountain biking with my partner around Pencarrow Point or other mountain biking tracks about the place – there are plenty that cater to a novice like me. After a ride we like to head for lunch at our local café Spruce Goose, which overlooks surf beach Lyall Bay.

Insider tip for 2016
If you’re visiting Wellington in 2016, you have to check out an international rugby test match. Watch the All Blacks (the best team in the world) play Wales or Australia at Westpac Stadium in 2016. If you’re a visitor to New Zealand, you have to experience the culture of at least one live rugby game and make a night of it.

Travel tip 
Wellington's Westpac Stadium hosts some of New Zealand’s top sporting fixtures and is only a short walk from major hotels, public transport, restaurants, and the harbour waterfront walk. As well as rugby, in 2016 Westpac Stadium will host one of two American football games being played in New Zealand by pro athletes from the United States.

Dame Therese Walsh 

Dame Therese is a Wellington local and an influential figure in international business and sporting circles. She recently received the honour of Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in recognition of her work on the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup. Dame Therese currently serves on many boards of directors, including TVNZ and NZX Limited, and chairs the International Development Advisory and Selection Panel for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The top of Mt Kaukau is amazing on a nice day – it is a bit of a climb but the views over the harbour and city make it really worth it. There are usually not many people around so it’s nice and quiet. 

Oriental Bay is the place to go in Wellington on a beautiful day – so picturesque. I also love heading up the coast to Plimmerton Beach which is sheltered and quite private.

If I have visitors, I always take them on a circuit of the waterfront and into Te Papa, our national museum. The newly-opened Pukeahu National War Memorial Park further up the road is also spectacular. A quick look up Mt Victoria and a ride up the Cable Car to the Botanical Gardens would round things out nicely.

Insider tip for 2016
Come when there is a great event on at Westpac Stadium and join in with the locals for a bit of fun.

Travel tip
Wellington city sits on the edge of a harbour, framed by hills and the city’s green belt. On a sunny day, join the locals and walk along the waterfront from one side of the CBD to the other, hire a stand-up paddle board or kayak and venture out onto the water, or pick up a gelato from Kaffee Eis.

Davey McDonald from Ortega

Renowned for his genuine warmth and enthusiasm, Davey is key figure in Wellington’s buzzing hospitality scene. Named New Zealand’s Restaurant Personality of the Year in the 2015 Cuisine Awards, Davey can be found at Ortega Fish Shack and Bar, where he is co-owner, maître d’ and manager.

If I have visitors, I always take them to the eastern bays of the harbour which has beautiful views back towards the city in the south-west. I spent my teenage years in Lowry Bay, and my dad still lives there, so I will always have a fondness for that part of Wellington. Catching the ferry to Days Bay is an awesome day trip, the view from the water is an incredible way to experience the city and surrounds.

If the sun’s out, my family and I can be found on one of the beaches surrounding Paremata where we live. In summer evenings, the Soundshell in the Wellington Botanic Gardens is a unique and beautiful setting to experience live local music. I recommend you take a picnic and a few local beers and sprawl out on the grass – it’s worth going early, as it’s always pumping. 

Insider tip for 2016
As the saying goes, you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, but even in winter this city is vibrant. The events and festivals through the colder months keep the energy of the city alive – Visa Wellington on a Plate, New Zealand International Film Festival, World of WearableArt® are all reasons to visit alone.

Travel tip
Make a day of it and travel with East by West ferries to Days Bay, Matiu / Somes Island, or the seaside suburb of Petone. Days Bay is one of Wellington’s best swimming beaches and surrounded by native bush.

Anjali Stewart from Twenty-seven Names

One half of Wellington-based fashion label Twenty-seven Names, Anjali Stewart could claim at least some credit for Wellington’s cool factor. Influencing the local style of effortlessly cool but practical, Anjali and label co-founder Rachel Easting have accumulated a cult following since 2006.

Six Barrel Soda Co. on Eva Street has to be one of my favourite places in the city. They make all natural soda syrups in creative flavours from scratch, and it’s a great place to sit in the sun and watch the city stroll by below. 

You also can’t really go past Capitol at the end of Courtenay Place for the atmosphere and chocolate pudding. 

On a sunny day, we love to walk up Mount Victoria and run back down – our cheats ‘how to’ on exercising in Wellington.

Insider tip for 2016
For the best coffee in Wellington, head to Customs Brew Bar on Ghuznee Street.

Travel tip
The lookout on top of Mount Victoria is approximately 30 minutes’ walk from Wellington’s CBD or Oriental Bay. With 360-degree views of city, harbour and surrounding hills, it’s well worth the hike. If you’d rather explore with a little more comfort, there are regular buses and car parks available.

Daisy Hall from Weta Workshop

Daisy is a special effects technician and tour guide at Weta Workshop, Wellington’s world renowned special effects company. As well as working in the costume department, Daisy also has experience bossing orcs around as the Orc Army coordinator on the set of The Hobbit.

My favourite spot in Wellington isn’t much of a secret – Cuba Street in Wellington is amazing for people-watching, art and shopping. Eyeball Kicks is a great little art gallery showcasing amazing local artists. Recycle Boutique is a fantastic vintage shop with a huge selection, and there are always buskers and street performers making Cuba Street a lively and vibrant place.

My fiancé and I also love a little Japanese place called Arashi on Courtenay Place. The best thing on the menu are Arashi Rolls, which we order with a little hot sake. If you’re feeling extravagant afterwards, head around the corner to Strawberry Fare for the best desserts in town.

Insider tip for 2016
Every visitor needs to visit the two exhibitions marking the 100th anniversary of World War One; The Scale of our War at Te Papa [New Zealand’s national museum] and The Great War at the Dominion Museum. The exhibitions capture the lives of Kiwis who fought in the First World War in heart-breaking detail – the craftsmanship and attention to detail that has gone into the exhibitions is incredible. They are a must-see.

Travel tip
Cuba Street is at the heart of Wellington’s alternative and edgy ‘coolness’ – it’s just as popular with families playing at the bucket fountain as with students hunting for a cheap and tasty meal. Lined with top restaurants, boutique shops, cheap eats and alleyways, Cuba Street has something cool in store for everyone.

The Concierge – Jason Eade from InterContinental Wellington

Jason (InterContinental Wellington’s chief concierge) was recently named the joint top concierge across Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific at the 2015 Hotel Management Awards. Safe to say, he knows a thing or two about exploring Wellington.

On a sunny Wellington day, I love heading to one of the 20-odd courses within an hour’s drive of central Wellington. We’re blessed with many great courses – from links to beautiful tree-lined fairways. Most clubs welcome visitors at very reasonable rates, so I highly recommend checking them out.

Wellington is known as the walking city, much to the delight of our international visitors. I tell them to load up with an excellent Wellington coffee and take a short walk to the Cable Car, stopping at the top of the Botanic Gardens to look out over the city and harbour. From there it’s a quick trot to Lady Norwood Rose Garden, the Beehive, and Wellington’s waterfront.

Insider tip for 2016
Sports fans should check in for the HSBC Wellington Rugby Sevens weekend, a huge festival of seven-aside rugby at the end of January. All teams will be vying for entry into the 2016 Rio Olympics and all the big names will be in town for fantastic action-packed rugby.

Travel tip
InterContinental Wellington is less than five minutes’ walk from Wellington’s waterfront, Cable Car, key shopping streets, and excellent bars and restaurants.