Capital of cool
Think New Zealand destinations and Wellington may not spring immediately to mind – but it should.
Once New Zealand’s overlooked city, Wellington has garnered significant cultural and culinary kudos over the last decade, and has emerged as the capital of cool.
23 June, 2022
This compact capital is sassy and modern, buzzing with up-to-date restaurants, gleaming micro-breweries and festivals
There was a time when even New Zealanders shunned Wellington. How times have changed. Now they nominate it as the city they would most like to live in and come for long weekends to enjoy its arts and entertainment scene. This compact capital is sassy and modern, buzzing with up-to-date restaurants, gleaming micro-breweries and festivals such as the biennial, multidisciplinary New Zealand Festival of the Arts and the mind-bending World of Wearable Art, one of the planet’s most outrageous fashion events.
These days, Wellington surprises on every street corner. Trendy bars hunker behind revitalised Victorian-era facades. An ageing cinema has returned to opulent life and incorporates an upmarket eatery. An old theatre taken over by a workers’ cooperative now provides a roster of post-modern plays.
Some of the city’s restaurants are world class, such as Hiakai, which creates innovative contemporary dishes using Maori and Polynesian ingredients, and Ortega Fish Shack, which presents inventive, catch-of-the-day seafood such as yellowtail ceviche with avocado, and brined octopus with almond cream and crispy rice.
Logan Brown, doyenne of Wellington’s fine-dining scene, is lodged in a former bank building and serves dishes such as paua ravioli with lime beurre blanc and wood-roasted king salmon with popcorn shrimp. You’ll find it – improbably – on lively Cuba Street, whose eclectic variety of bars and down-to-earth eateries generally lean towards the bohemian.
More recently, Hannahs Laneway has seen the transformation of a sprawling former shoe factory into a gourmet destination on which to take your taste buds on a tingle to an artisan baker, chocolatier and purveyors of upscale peanut butter or brownies in flavours such as salted popcorn and Vegemite. You’ll also find Shepherd, one of New Zealand’s top restaurants for its casual fine-dining dishes that highlight local produce. In the evenings, bright young things hit Hannahs Laneway for its cocktail lounges and brew bars.
Wellington has for a while been renowned for its coffee scene, which is one of the best in the world – the city has two-dozen coffee roasters and top-class cafés such as Memphis Belle, Fidel’s Café and Caffe L’affare. More recently though, the city has become the beer capital of New Zealand. An entire beer trail leads you around craft breweries and beer bars such as Garage Project, which has 18 beers on tap, and Whistling Sisters, whose range includes a Russian imperial stout, English bitter and rich peated Celtic red ale.
All this vibrancy and innovation shows that Wellington refuses to be a small city in nature, even though it remains one in fact. The combination couldn’t be better for visitors. The central city is barely two kilometres across, making it easy to find your way around on foot. Parts of it retain their retro style, as if you’ve stepped back into the 1960s. And despite their avant-garde flair, Wellingtonians can be agreeably old-fashioned in their good manners, chattiness with strangers, and lingering habit of playing comforting, decades-old background music in lifts and lobbies.
When it comes to sightseeing, the incomparable Te Papa Museum is the premier attraction. For some, it was the opening of this museum two decades ago that was the first indication Wellington had decided to think big. Te Papa covers museum staples such as geology, natural history and human history, but in unconventional ways, with a full gamut of high-tech gadgetry and innovative, interactive display techniques.
Simulators allow you to experience an earthquake, launch yourself into a virtual-reality bungy-jump, and ride on the back of a whale. The Golden Days exhibit, ostensibly a recreated junk shop, becomes a witty, animated review of key moments in New Zealand’s social history.
All this vibrancy and innovation shows that Wellington refuses to be a small city in nature, even though it remains one in fact
Beyond the city centre, plunging streets and gabled weatherboard houses invite comparison to San Francisco, although the giant ferns and melodious birdsong are pure New Zealand
Don’t miss the innovative Gallipoli exhibition, told through the eyes of eight ordinary New Zealanders. The Gallipoli exhibition was created in collaboration with Weta Workshop, which rose to prominence when Wellington-born filmmaker Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings franchise came to town – another early influence in Wellington’s cultural flourishing. Trek out to the peninsular suburb of Miramar and you can tour the Weta Workshop for a fascinating inside look at how movie models, effects, costumes and props are created.
When it’s time for fresh air, you’re well supplied in this notoriously windy city. On sunny days, half the city seems to descend on waterfront promenades to walk, jog, rollerblade or flop in the winsome beach flanking posh Oriental Bay. Yet despite its location on a vast harbour, Wellington takes better advantage of its precipitous hillsides than waterfront. Beyond the city centre, plunging streets and gabled weatherboard houses invite comparison to San Francisco, although the giant ferns and melodious birdsong are pure New Zealand.
The easiest way to enjoy the views is to ride the iconic red cable car from downtown, then walk back through the botanic gardens, passing a nineteenth-century cemetery dotted with the tombstones of early European pioneers. Back down on flat land, you’ll end up near the Beehive, as New Zealand’s curiously shaped parliament building is known. It looks as if an alien spaceship has landed. Nearby is Old St Paul’s Cathedral, whose interior ceiling looks like an upturned, pagan Viking ship. Keep on the lookout in Wellington, and the unexpected is everywhere, and so is newfound confidence in this city turned capital of cool.
Want to ensure you always receive the latest news and features from Audi? Subscribe now to the Audi Magazine newsletter.