Wellington's inner heart beats with an amazing cultural offering all of its own. As New Zealand's capital, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the city is all political banter and suits. However, this microcosm of creatives is actually a place where artistry, quirkiness and creative risk taking are celebrated within one of the richest arts environs in the southern hemisphere. Best of all, you can walk anywhere in the inner city in around twenty minutes, tops. On any given night, you'll find something happening, whether it's a poetry reading, a new art showing, book launch, gig or interpretive theatre piece.
If you're looking for entertaining sights during the day, you'll find Wellington's cultural identity woven along its beautiful waterfront, and tucked into its streets and laneways. Depending on the time of year, one of Wellington's many epic, internationally acclaimed arts festivals and shows might be lighting up its spaces — among them the Lit Crawl, Jazz Festival,Cubadupa, World of Wearable Arts or the New Zealand Festival (held in even years). The creatives of Wellington are wild, rigorous, obscure and genius all at once. They know how to make their own fun, and then take it to the world. Step into their home.
CATCH A FLICK AT THE ICONIC EMBASSY THEATRE
Wellington's Embassy Theatre is a jewel in the city's film history. The old bird has perched at the end of Courtenay Place, at the base of Mt Vic since 1924. And there's no better place to view a film in the city, whether it's a blockbuster or an arthouse piece. Maintained to the grandeur of old film theatres of yesteryear, the Embassy has hosted each world premier of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Each year, the picture palace also hosts the New Zealand International Film Festival.
Before or after your film, pay a visit to the old orchestra pit, which is now home to the Shelley Indyk-designed cocktail bar, The Black Sparrow. With its cocktail menu full of litterati and film references, the bar is the perfect spot for a tipple while you wait for your film upstairs to start, or a post-picture nightcap.
Should you run into inclement weather during your Wellington stay, look to Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum of New Zealand. An excellent spot to sink a few hours, its floors of world-standard exhibitions and history are truly fascinating. Learn a bit about New Zealand itself in the permanent exhibitions, and venture to Nga Toi on level five for a revolving glimpse into Te Papa's extensive art collections — you could see anything from an early Picasso sketch to a Venice Biennale entrant. When it comes to exhibitions, the large spaces in the museum have hosted everything from gargantuan bugs to Monets and Warhols, making it a true lucky dip experience.
If ever there was a place where you can find consistently good acts from Wellington and beyond, it's in the underground gig venues of the city — well not really underground, they're pretty well signposted. They're the home turf of a whole heap of great local bands — Fazerdaze, Mermaidens and Flight of the Conchords, for example — and they've all started out with Friday and Saturday gigs at either Meow, San Fran or MOON. This is where set lists are refined, live performances honed and fans made, all in intimate settings, and all with beers in hand and forgiving audiences who come out looking for a musical treat. Join them in the search for sonic gold, and you'll be rewarded.
Wellington's Cuba Street is known far and wide for its offbeat inhabitants and kooky spirit. A street that was once considered shady in the '80s has come into its own with an eclectic blend of art, vintage and antiques. The best street style can be found here, while the block around Cuba and Ghuznee has some of the best art and dealers in the country. The iconic Peter McLeavey Gallery has been selling art from Cuba Street since 1968, and its neighbour, the kookier Enjoy Gallery, is famed for its non-commercial artist-run initiative MO (as well as its annual art sale). Hamish McKay, Bartley & Company and Suite Gallery up the street round out a robust, artful offering in the heart of the city.
Opened in 2002 during the NZ International Festival of the Arts (New Zealand Festival's previous moniker), the Wellington Writers Walk is a project of the New Zealand Society of Authors. It's a beautiful route, mapped along the waters of the Wellington Harbour, that consists of 19 text sculptures. Each work features a quotation about the city from a piece of prose or poetry, penned not only by some of the world's best writers, but by scribes who made Wellington their home at some point in their lives. Writers featured on the walk include luminaries such as Katherine Mansfield, James K. Baxter, Lauris Edmond, Fiona Kidman, Patricia Grace and Maurice Gee. Art, literature and bracing beautiful sea air — it doesn't get much more Wellington than that. You can pick up a map of the walk from the Wellington i-SITE.
Maybe you've been to Auckland, maybe you've gone to the snow in Queensland, but now it's time to set your sights on Wellington. The harbourside city may be compact, but that only makes for excellent walkability from its excellent restaurants, cafes and bars to its cultural hot spots and around the great outdoors. Use our planning guide to book your trip, then sort out your Wellington hit list with our food and drink, culture and outdoor guides.