{going solo in NZ} Part 2: Wellington, WETA & windy winter weather

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going solo in NZ: Itinerary | Auckland | Wellington | Picton & Kaikoura | Christchurch | Queenstown | quirks & perks of solo travelling |

After a delayed domestic flight and mediocre airport bagel, I arrived in windy Wellington. They definitely weren’t exaggerating about the windyness, given how wobbly the plane was when we were descending!

Wellie was my favourite city of the trip, filled with museums & unique experiences, a wide variety of cuisines, and beautiful harbourside cityscapes. I decided to spend a whopping 9 days there because I wanted more time to explore Wellie thoroughly and pretend I was actually living there…(a girl can dream)

Chances are, you won’t be spending anywhere close to 9 days in Wellington (most people do 4-5 days), so in this post, I’ll be sharing which places/experiences make up the quintessential Wellie experience, and which can be skipped if you’re short on time!

Wellington Itinerary (19-28 Jul)
Day 1 (Tue)AKL✈️WLG
🏨 Check in @ 101 The Terrace (Airbnb)
Day 2 (Wed)🏛️ Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
🍽️ Mama Brown (American)
Day 3 (Thu)🛍️ Thrift shopping @ Cuba Street
🍽️ Satay Palace (Malaysian)
🏛️ NZ Parliament tour
Day 4 (Fri)🧝🏻‍♂️ WETA Workshop Tour (2-way transport included)
🍽️ Hey Ramen (Japanese)
🛍️ Willis Street
Day 5 (Sat)🚋 Wellington Cable Car
🌳 Wellington Botanic Gardens
🏛️💫🔭 Space Place at Carter Observatory
🍽️ Fisherman’s Plate Seafood (Vietnamese)
Day 6 (Sun)🍫 Wellington Chocolate Factory
🛍️ Cuba Street
Day 7 (Mon)🌳 Wellington Zoo
Day 8 (Tue)🏛️ The New Zealand Portrait Gallery
🏛️ Wellington Museum
🛍️ Courtenay Place, Cuba Street
🍽️ Satay Palace (Malaysian)
⛰️ Mt Victoria
🍵 Evil Twins Coffee
🍽️ SatayMe (Vietnamese)
Day 9 (Wed)🪦 Bolton Street Cemetery
🏛️ City Gallery Wellington
🍰 Sixes And Sevens
Day 10 (Thu)⛴️ Interislander Ferry from Wellington (North Island) to Picton (South Island)
Day 1 – room review + first impressions

Getting to the city from the airport was absolutely seamless and convenient. I simply hopped on the AX (Airport Express) bus outside the terminal, and hopped off at the Lambton Quay stop a mere 20 minutes later.

Conveniently enough, the entrance to my Airbnb at 101 The Terrace (linked here, approx $110-120/night) was just a few metres from the bus stop, and the self check-in was a breeze. The room itself was far larger than depicted in the listing, and really well-maintained; it was formerly Park Hotel, but had since been converted to rental units & Airbnbs.

It had a full kitchenette, a dedicated workspace, lots of cupboard space, and even an iron+ironing board! The laundry & dryer facilities were at the end of the shared corridor, but I didn’t make use of them during my stay.

Lambton Quay and its adjoining streets are pretty much the CBD of Wellington, with lots of offices, shops & cultural/touristy spots in the vicinity, making it a rather convenient and exciting place to stay at. Even if you decide to stay further out, the city has an efficient and reliable public transport system that made venturing out of town so much easier!

First impressions-wise, it was definitely more accessible than Auckland (no ridiculously steep slopes) and felt like a city with more flavour & identity.

Day 2 – Te Papa + Wellie harbour

I started off the day with a nice 15-minute walk along the harbour, from my Airbnb to the museum. The weather was foggy and rainy that morning, so I was greeted with low-hanging clouds and limited views across the bay. Depending on the weather, you’ll get very different views of the surrounding hills and Lower Hutt (the city across the harbour), but it’s best at sunset on a clear day.

If you haven’t visited Te Papa, did you even really visit Wellie? It’s a massive museum born from the fusion of the National Museum of New Zealand and the National Art Gallery, so it contains the usual museum-y areas (natural history, Maori culture, war) and numerous art galleries in its 5-storey building.

As someone who strongly prefers natural history, dinosaurs and war exhibits, I’ll admit that I preferred the variety of exhibits & sheer quantity of artefacts at Auckland War Memorial Museum to Te Papa, but if I had to pick one exhibition that I’ll remember for the rest of my life, it would hands down be Te Papa’s Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War.

source: Te Papa, with Sir Richard Taylor (WETA founder) for scale

It was an immersive, moving and artistically-stunning exhibition, taking you through the 8-month WW1 Gallipoli campaign through the retelling of various soldiers’ stories, accompanied by sculptures of them in x2.4 scale (that’s 4 metre tall-human sculptures, masterfully crafted by the legendary WETA Workshop). If you don’t have a full-day to spend at the museum, definitely prioritise this exhibition!

source: Te Papa

The museum is open from 10am-5pm daily, so naturally, I spent the whole day there (apart from a quick lunch break). I nipped out to a nearby American diner, Mama Brown, ordering bacon & eggs on toast, and was served an absolutely underwhelming and stingy plate – skip this place.

source: Te Papa

After lunch, I spent the rest of the day finishing the rest of the museum, spending a fair amount of time in the natural history section (although they don’t have as many fossils as the Auckland museum) and contemporary art galleries.

Day 3 – thrift-shopping + Parliament tour

To say it was a blustery day would be an understatement. With wind speeds up to 90km/h, thrift shopping became a bit of an extreme sport. I took a bus to an area slightly beyond Cuba Street, to begin shopping at the various second-hand/op stores and thrift shops clustered in that area:

  • Salvation Army Family Store – affordable, wide variety of clothes, home goods & knick knacks
  • Mary Potter Hospice Shop – wide variety of clothes, home/lifestyle goods & art pieces, but more expensive
  • City Mission Store – affordable, but limited variety of items (mostly furniture)
  • Recycle Boutique, Thrift, Paper Bag Princess, Honour – second-hand clothing stores, but all rather pricey, and most didn’t have a selection of clothes that suited my style. Recycle Boutique was the most promising of the lot in terms of brands & variety, but I walked away empty handed because I could easily get similar styles for cheaper back home.

As a newly-converted op shop addict, I highly recommend popping by these stores and trawling through their baskets & racks of items – you never know what you might find!

🏳️‍🌈 Cuba Street 🏳️‍🌈

Since I found myself along Cuba Street at lunch time, a street with endless hipster cafes, fast food joints and Asian restaurants, I naturally decided to get my fix of Asian food. I absolutely lucked out when I walked into Satay Palace – a Malaysian-run eatery with wok-fried dishes. Inside, I had a plate of easily the best seafood char kway teow I’ve had in my life; so good in fact, that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and ate it another time before leaving Wellie.

Source: parliament.nz (because it was too rainy to take a good pic when I was there)

I then headed to the Beehive, one of NZ’s parliament buildings, for a free hour-long parliament group tour (booked here). The tour took us past many artworks/artefacts from the Parliamentary Collection, with our guide explaining the structure of the NZ parliament along the way and the architectural history of the various parliament buildings.

Some fun facts our guide shared is that the public is free to sit in on any parliament debates (perhaps another fun touristy activity?), and even tourists/foreigners are able to meet directly with the local politicians to give feedback or provide suggestions about local policies and issues!

Day 4 – WETA Workshop Tour

Wellington, particularly the Miramar peninsula, is home to Sir Peter Jackson and Sir Richard Taylor, legends in the NZ (and international) film industry and WETA founders. I grew up watching movies which WETA worked on, and deeply admired their craft (props, prosthetics, swordsmithing, VFX, etc.). Making a pilgrimage to the WETA cave/workshop has always been a small dream of mine, and on this trip, the long-awaited day became reality.

*I pre-booked my ticket on Klook [Weta Workshop Tours, Full Experience: There and Back Again (4 Hours), SGD$66.39], since it offered better prices than the official website; remember to use my referral link to sign up for a Klook account for $5 off your first purchase!

I woke up bright and early to begin my journey, heading to the Wellington i-Site (tourist info site) where a dark green Hobbiton van was waiting for our tour group. Our wonderful driver, Grant, drove us to the peak of Mount Victoria, sharing snippets of local history with us and pointing out some Lord of The Rings filming sites along the way. He regaled us with stories about the filming of various films, drove past the massive green screen used in many major films and told us that James Cameron was currently staying in the area (while working on Avatar 2)!

The workshop tour itself was led by our knowledgeable tour guide (and fellow WETA fangirl) Aurora, taking us through a warehouse filled with various movie props, sketches & designs that had been created by the team – Ghost In The Shell & LOTR were heavily featured in this tour, and explaining the process of bringing these ideas to life. The second half of the tour was through the actual set of Thunderbirds Are Go (an animated science-fiction series), featuring scale models of cities, rocket launch bays & islands, on which CGI characters are later superimposed onto.

Our tour concluded outside the merchandise store, in which I gladly parted with my money to buy some LOTR merch. There were also photo opportunities with the infamous LOTR troll and the iconic yellow shire door, and then my tour group hopped back into the van to return to the city.

I had a late lunch of mediocre ramen at Hey Ramen, then spent the rest of the afternoon window-shopping in the CBD (Willis Street & Lambton Quay), which comprised mostly overpriced shops and generic things, so my wallet lived another day.

Day 5 – the iconic Wellie cable car, botanic gardens & planetarium

On an uncharacteristically bright & fogless Saturday morning (Wellie is notoriously foggy), I spontaneously decided it would be a good day to head up to the Kelburn lookout, and quickly bought my tickets online. I purchased the Space Place Combo, which was inclusive of cable car return tickets, entry to the Space Place at Carter Observatory, and a 45-minute planetarium show.

I found the perfect photo spot at the peak!

In the short ride up the hill in the funicular/cable car, I well and truly felt like a tourist, filming the view of the city below as we drew closer to the peak. At the top, there was a cafe (which I didn’t try because it was expensive), the cable car museum (free entry, a quick 20-minute affair), and the Space Place.

Kelburn also happens to contain the sprawling Botanic Gardens, which is situated on one side of the hill and contains various trails (endless slopes) that take you back down into the city. I grabbed a map and set off on a random trail all the way down to the Lady Norwood Rose Garden – spoiler: it was winter, so all the rose bushes were barren – and looped back to the Space Place at the peak.

The Space Place is a small museum about all things cosmic, with planetarium shows starting on the hour (here’s the schedule for the various shows available), and telescope viewings on selected nights. I decided not to stay for the telescope viewing, since the planetarium show already included an interactive portion where the staff shows a live projection of the upcoming night’s sky (since stars move predictably) and points out various constellations/planets.

After spending another hour in the museum, I headed back down via cable car to the CBD, stopping at an excellent Vietnamese hole in the wall (Fisherman’s Plate Seafood) for a satisfying lunch of fried fish noodle soup (way tastier than the fish bee hoon back home).

Overall, I would say half a day is enough to cover all the attractions in Kelburn (cable car museum, Space Place, Botanic Gardens, maybe a meal at the Cable Top Eatery)!

Day 6 – Chocolate factory tour

I’ll admit that I had too many days in Wellie (but I could honestly live there and never get bored), and soon realised I had more days than activities planned. I started googling for interesting experiences on a budget, and stumbled upon an affordable, hour-long tour at the Wellington Chocolate Factory (Discover The Art Of Chocolate Making).

The Wellington Chocolate Factory isn’t really a massive factory a la Willy Wonka, but more of an artisanal chocolate store that makes all its products from scratch. It was a chill session conducted in a backroom, started off with a deliciously gooey chocolate chip cookie & gorgeously smooth hot chocolate. Much like a wine-tasting session (not that I’ve ever attended one of those), we were handed different samples & flavours, and taught how to distinguish different notes within the chocolates.

The tour was definitely enjoyable, and it was cool learning about how cacao beans are processed and tempered into the chocolate bars we know and love. But after an hour and 12 chocolate samples later, my stomach and taste buds were begging for mercy. Conveniently, the factory was near Cuba Street, and I ended up exploring the area yet again, on the hunt for something else to neutralise my taste buds…

Day 7 – Wellington Zoo

On the rainy morning when I hopped onto a bus to the zoo, I had no idea this zoo trip would begin with me watching a penguin autopsy through a glass pane. It gave me flashbacks to my med school days, as I watched the vet dissect the bird in front of our eyes (there were some children who arrived, screamed, and fled), explaining that it was a wild penguin that had been found dead by the seaside. #RIPenguin

The zoo terrain was extremely hilly, and I spent the whole morning scuttling between all the feeding sessions, which was a workout in itself. There were the usual zoo animals (safari, Aussie, farm, monkeys), as well as some fantastic beasts unique to NZ like the kea, weta & kiwi (but the kiwi and snow leopard exhibits were unfortunately under construction).

When lunch time rolled around, dining options were dismal, with only one cafe available. I had a bland meal of pizza and fries, while a gang of sparrows stared me down. For the record, they stole some of my fries right off my plate and made a hasty getaway.

I’d suggest bringing your own food, as there’s plenty of picnic spots throughout the zoo – the ones at the top of the hill have views of the whole city! If you’re staying for all the feeding sessions, you can easily spend half to a full day there.

Day 8 – free museum-hopping, Courtenay Place, Mt Victoria

It was a rainy morning, so I decided to explore two free museums that were just a stone’s throw from my place. First up was a short stop at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, a simple gallery lined with various portraiture by local artists. Then came the considerably larger, 4-storey Wellington Museum, filled with stories and items related to Wellington’s history as a major harbour, as well as more modern milestones in the city’s history. It was rather interesting and took me over an hour to finish.

I then took a long harbourside stroll to Courtenay Place, known for its nightlife & bars, so it was rather quiet in the daytime. I passed by the Embassy Theatre, where the world premieres of two LOTR films had been held, but not much was going on inside. I also passed by Welly Collective, a large store selling various handmade crafts & accessories made by local artists; it may be worth stopping by if you’re into these knick knacks.

After lunch at my favourite Asian restaurant in Wellie (Satay Palace, my second time eating there), the weather had suddenly become gloriously sunny, so I spontaneously hopped on a public bus that took me directly to the peak of Mt Victoria.

I was pleasantly surprised that there was a convenient public bus service plying the mountain’s roads, and even more amazed at the endless streets of houses built directly into the mountainside. Numerous residents even had their own funiculars (small trams) or lifts to get from the road to their houses far above.

At the peak of Mt Victoria, I was rewarded with a clear view of the whole city below. From the lookout point, I spent a while watching boats in the harbour and planes landing at the nearby airport, before taking a bus down the mountain, back into the city.

Day 9 – exploring Bolton Street Cemetery & an art gallery on a rainy day

It was my last full day in Wellie and I was lowkey getting sappy about leaving that beautiful city. Clearly, the sky felt the same way and offered its condolences with a light drizzle and low-hanging clouds. I strolled to the Bolton Street Cemetery, just a 5-minute walk from the CBD, and spent a while reading various epitaphs and roaming the grounds, surrounded by a backdrop of foggy hills.

My feet then took me on yet another stroll down the CBD, to City Gallery Wellington, a modern 2-storey art gallery, which I browsed casually. Heading back to the nearby Cuba Street, I stopped for a lunch of some scrumptious pastries (a lemon boysenberry donut and cherry brownie) at Sixes And Sevens, a chill roadside cafe.

I have to say, Cuba Street was definitely my favourite area in Wellie, and I found myself being drawn back to that area multiple times throughout my stay. Good food, fun experiences, unique/niche stores and cosy secondhand bookshops – what’s not to love? I’d definitely recommend staying in that area if you enjoy more youthful and less commercial vibes, and since the city is rather small, it’s still within walking distance of the actual CBD!

And with that, my last full day in Wellie was over, and I prepared for an early morning ferry ride to the South Islands!

Other places to explore in Wellie

If you’re headed to Wellington in a season with less temperamental weather, here’s some of my recommendations:

  • Mt Kaukau is the less touristy but equally stunning counterpart of Mt Victoria, hugging the Wellington CBD
  • Red Rocks (long coastal hike or drive best in summer, with seal tours available)
  • Watch a movie at The Roxy Cinema, a quaint cinema on Miramar Peninsula where Sir Peter Jackson himself grew up watching movies in

Additionally, if these sound like your kind of thing, there’s plenty of exciting nightlife in the city including craft beer trails and the Cuba Street Friday Night Market (yet to reopen due to COVID).

I’ll definitely be stopping by Wellington again on my next trip; the city and its sights are utterly charming and vibrant, and it’s certainly won a place in my heart.

All the posts in this series

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