I love Wellington. When people ask me where I’m from in New Zealand it’s often the place I end up saying, since no one knows where my smaller hometown and city are anyway (off the beaten tourist track!) and I spent my university and early working years in the capital. I miss living in Wellington a lot and urge people who visit New Zealand to add it to their itinerary, even if it’s only for a couple of days. But I’m often asked, what is there to do in Wellington? And the answer is, a lot if you know where to look!
New Zealand isn’t exactly a budget destination, but there are a lot of things you can do to save money while you’re travelling around the country. One of those is to find free and cheap things to do in different cities and areas so that you can save your money for big-ticket activities like white water rafting, skydiving, or hiking on glaciers!
Wellington is one of those places where you can find a lot of things to do that won’t hit your budget hard. Here are the best cheap and free things to do in Wellington, for any season or any kind of weather, you decide!
Visit Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand
Although this list isn’t in any particular order, I would count this as one of the must-do things in Wellington. Te Papa has a wide range of exhibitions, most of them for free although they do have specialist exhibits sometimes that you can pay for. The areas about science and geology were always favourites of mine as a child, and there is a lot about New Zealand history for those wanting to learn more.
If you go before April 2019 you’ll be able to visit the Gallipoli exhibition. Honestly, it’s one of the best museum exhibitions I’ve ever been to. Te Papa worked with Weta Workshop to create larger than life models to help tell the story of Gallipoli and how it affected New Zealand.
Browse the Sunday Markets
Wellington has several weekend markets, but my favourite is what is now known as the Harbourside Market. It’s located just down from Te Papa across from the Museum Hotel. Local farmers bring in produce to sell and I used to buy all my fruit and vegetables there on a Sunday morning as it was cheaper than the local supermarkets! The market has now expanded to other items like cheese, meats, and bread and food trucks so you can grab something ready to eat after all your shopping.
Step inside Weta Cave in Miramar
If you’re any kind of Lord of the Rings or Hobbit fan then you really need to visit the Weta Cave in Miramar. Outside you’ll see the statues of some of the trolls used in The Hobbit films, and inside you can see many replicas of props used in these and other Peter Jackson movies. Miramar is also known as “Wellywood” thanks to Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop and the films or produced here.
The shop and outside of the Weta Cave are free to enter, but you can also book a tour to go inside Weta Workshop itself. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in learning more about the role Weta have played in filmmaking and seeing some awesome movie props up close! The tour is led by people who work for Weta so you can also ask any questions you want and they’ll do their best to answer!
Take a ferry to Matiu/Somes Island
Matiu/Somes Island is the located in Wellington harbour and you can take a ferry there to explore for the day or even stay overnight. It is owned by local Maori and managed by the Department of Conservation, and a lot of care is taken to see that no pests get onto the island, including checking your bags before you go! It has been an internment camp and military defense post as well as a quarantine station, but it is a now a nature reserve where you can go walking or look out for bird and native animals.
Visit the Katherine Mansfield House & Garden
Katherine Mansfield is one of New Zealand’s most famous authors who was brought up in Wellington. She wrote short stories and poems, and I used to have a book with her early collection that I loved reading before bed. Her childhood home in Thorndon, which was built by her father and featured in her work, has been restored to its original layout and design and transformed into a museum where you can learn more about Katherine and her life.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t as enamoured of Wellington as I am, feeling constrained by the emerging colonial society, and moved to Europe as a teenager to attend school in England before travelling and ending up in France, where she sadly died of tuberculosis aged just 34.
Take a tour of Parliament and the iconic Beehive building
The Beehive is New Zealand’s most recognisable parliamentary building. It houses the Executive wing of Parliament inside a round building shaped just like a beehive. Free tours run daily on the hour between 10 am and 4 pm, and you can check their website for more details.
See the original Treaty of Waitangi at the National Library
The Treaty of Waitangi is an important founding document of New Zealand and it’s likely you’ll hear and learn a bit about it as you travel around the country. When you’re in Wellington, you can actually go to the National Library and see it in person, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Women’s Suffrage Petition (New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote!). I visited Archives NZ when the Treaty was stored there and seeing the real thing in person was very surreal and powerful!
Wander through Old Government Buildings
Across the road from Parliament are the Old Government Buildings. Despite what it may look like the building is actually made from wood due to the cost of concrete at the time. It was completed in 1876 and until 1998 was the second largest wooden building in the world.
And it’s where I went to Law School! I actually used to have an office in the building and spent a lot of my last years at university studying there well into the night. The outside grounds, and the ground and some of the first floor, including the amazing wooden staircases in between, are open to the public but the rest is used by the Law School.
Pay your respects at the National War Memorial
The National War Memorial includes a large area next to the Dominion Museum Building on Buckle Street, including the War Memorial Carillon, the Hall of Memories, and the tomb of the unknown warrior, representing all New Zealanders who were lost in war. Opened in 2015 to commemorate the First World War, the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park stretches down from the National War Memorial and pays tribute to New Zealand’s Allies in war.
Walk along Oriental Parade
They say you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, and when it’s a good day you’ll know it because everyone goes walking along Oriental Parade! I used to run along here, even in the wind and rain, and love feeling like I’ve escaped the city just because I’m near the sea. The beaches along the parade are a manmade addition but greatly appreciated by those living in the central city. Wander along, grab some gelato or stop in one of the cafes (the Boat Cafe and Beach Baylon are both good!) and check out the views looking back to the city.
Look at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts & Academy Galleries
Located in the historic Queens Wharf Offices Building, the Academy Galleries are dedicated to the visual arts. You can view exhibitions between 10 am and 5 pm daily, and many of the works of art are even for sale at a low rate of commission.
Explore the Botanic Gardens
Located between the suburbs of Thorndon and Kelburn and close to the central city, the Wellington Botanic Gardens are a mixture of cultivated gardens, native bush, and beautiful views. You can access the Gardens from a variety of entrances, with the most popular probably being off Tinakori Road and from the top of the Wellington Cable Car.
In the summer take advantage of Gardens Magic, where you can enjoy free light shows or concerts held just off the Tinakori Road side. Bring a picnic!
Take in the view at Mount Victoria Lookout
Heading up Mount Victoria is another rite of passage for anyone new to Wellington. The 360-degree view gives you more of an idea of how compact Wellington is, and how it’s defined by the hills. You can walk up from the central city, following the road or paths through the bush, or there is a carpark at the top as well. Just don’t get blown away if it’s a windy day in Welly!
Visit Bolton Street Memorial Park
Bolton Street Memorial Park is formerly known as Bolton Street Cemetary, and that’s mostly what it is. It’s the oldest cemetery in Wellington and many early settlers and people of note were buried here from 1840 until 1892 when it was closed except for new burials of family members. In the late 1960s and early 70s a motorway was built through the centre of the cemetery, not without controversy, but it has since been given heritage status. You can check out the Friends of Bolton Street Cemetery for more info and tours and maps.
Visit historical churches
Although New Zealand is considered to be a relatively young country and we certainly don’t have the long history and number of historic buildings that Europe has, we do still have some beautiful buildings. Churches like Old Saint Paul’s in Thorndon finished in 1866, and Saint Mary of the Angels in Boulcott Street finished in 1922, are both unique. Old Saint Paul’s is made in a Gothic style but with the colonial material of wood, and Saint Mary of the Angels was also constructed in different materials like concrete, the first time it was used in a Gothic style church.
Wander along the Wellington Waterfront
I love walking along the Wellington waterfront, all the way from the Railway Station to Oriental Parade. It’s one of the best free things to do in Wellington! Along the way there are plenty of views, sculptures and art installations, cafes, restaurants, and parks, as well as museums. You could spend a whole day wandering along!
Step into the City Gallery
The City Gallery is located in Civic Square close to the Wellington Waterfront and between Lambton Quay and Courtenay Place. They host ever-changing exhibitions of modern arts, design, and architecture.
Watch a film at Nga Taonga Sound and Vision
If it’s a rainy day in Wellington (it happens…) you could consider visiting Nga Taonga Sound and Vision, New Zealand’s audiovisual archive. They run events where they show films, both old and new. Check out the schedule here.
Ride the Cable Car
The iconic bright red Wellington Cable Car rises up a steep slope between Lambton Quay in the city centre to Kelburn and the Botanic Gardens. It only takes about 5 minutes to ride either way and it’s used by commuters in the morning and evenings, as well as other local residents, plus lots of tourists throughout the summer! It’s a great way to get from the central city to the Botanic Gardens.
Check out the view from the Brooklyn Wind Turbine
You can either walk up here or catch a ride but either way, the views on a calm Wellington evening are beautiful. The lonely Brooklyn Wind Turbine is the oldest operating in New Zealand and was installed as an experiment to see how wind turbines would cope in New Zealand weather conditions. Thanks to the strong winds often present in Wellington (it’s not known as Windy Welly for no reason after all) it has set international records for turbines of its size.
Drive through Victoria Tunnel (and beep your horn)
I wouldn’t go out of your way to seek out this free thing to do in Wellington, but if you’re driving from the central city to the airport then it’s likely you might pass through Victoria Tunnel. It’s a Wellington tradition that when you do so, you beep your car horn! I’ve never once passed through the tunnel without anyone beeping their horn. As Jane Bowron wrote – “Me, I’ve just tooted all these years because it was such an asinine act of sheer joy and how friendly to get a reply back from another Mr. Toad in his cart hitting the horn for the sheer hell of it.”
Take the Wellington Writers Walk
I mentioned that while you walk along the Wellington waterfront you’ll spot lots of sculptures. Many of these make up the Wellington Writers Walk. There are 23 in total, made up of quotes on concrete and wooden benchmarks along the whole waterfront. Check out the Wellington Writers Walk website for more info on how to find them and what they mean.
Visit the Petone Settler Museum
Petone is a suburb direct across the harbour from central Wellington and where many early settlers first stepped ashore in New Zealand (including my ancestors from England!). Taking a drive to Petone to walk along the waterfront and visit the free Petone Settler Museum is a lovely activity if you have the time while you’re in Wellington. There are exhibits of Petone through the ages and even a replica steerage cabin to show you what it would have been like for settlers arriving in 1840.
People watch on Cuba Street
Cuba Street is one of my favourite places in Wellington. It’s home to quirky shops, cafes, restaurants, and the iconic Bucket Fountain. The brightly coloured fountain funnels water to the top of a series of buckets which tip as they fill up, until the last large bucket which sometimes makes a big enough splash to hit passers-by. It was completed in 1969 and has grown to become a true symbol of the city.
Cuba Street, and particularly the pedestrianised Cuba Mall, is a great place to people watch!
Visit the Wellington Museum
If you’re not museumed out after Te Papa, then the Wellington Museum located in a 1892 heritage building focuses on the Wellington region throughout the ages.
Go to the New Zealand Portrait Gallery
Located in Waterfront Shed 11, another historic building, is the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. It contains paintings, photography, sculpture, and caricature. It showcases New Zealanders and is meant to challenge our thinking on what it means to be a New Zealander.
Go on one (or more) of Wellington’s walks
Wellington may be our capital city, but it also has an extensive green belt and lots of beautiful walks both within the city and just outside. So get your walking shoes on and explore Wellington on foot!
Some of my favourites include:
- Tinakori Hill
- City to Sea Walkway from the central city to Island Bay
- Red Rocks Reserve
Step onto Wellington’s beaches
Wellington has some beautiful beaches. Although the previously mentioned Oriental Bay is a manmade beach, the gorgeous sands of Scorching Bay are real. On a good day, Wellingtonians flock to the beaches to make the most of the nice weather, although the water isn’t always the warmest!
Some favourite are:
- Scorching Bay
- Island Bay
- Lyall Bay (also a dog-friendly beach)
Take a day trip to Day’s Bay and Eastbourne
Catch a 20-minute ferry from central Wellington over to Day’s Bay where you can wander along the beach, explore cafes and galleries, and hire bikes to cycle along the Pencarrow track to the first lighthouse built in New Zealand. There’s also kayaking, paddle boarding, and swimming when you want to cool down on a sunny day.
Get your caffeine fix at the cafes
Wellington has a strong cafe culture dating back to the 1950s when milk bars which soon turned into coffee houses were prevalent throughout the city. There are now more cafes, bars, and restaurants in Wellington per capita than in New York City. So make sure you visit (at the very least!) one of them while you’re in the city since it’s one of the best things to do in Wellington. A couple of my favourites in the very central city include Memphis Belle and Fidel’s.
Relax with a drink outside
Although the weather in Wellington is far from the best in New Zealand, when it is good everyone wants to take advantage of it! There are lots of cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating, particuarly along the waterfront, so find somewhere sunny and grab a drink outside. Try Mac’s Brewbar or The Arborist Rooftop Bar.
Zealandia is a protected natural area in Karori surrounded by a pest-resistant fence. Unfortunately, the introduction of land mammals including possums, rats, and deer by settlers had a devastating effect on native plants and particularly birds.
At $17.50 entry, it’s not the cheapest thing to do in Wellington but it’s well worth the price to see a slice of Wellington as it would have been. Expect to see many native species of bird flying around free in the sanctuary, and keep an eye our for tuataras, which are like a lizard but they are the only reptile that has been around since the dinosaurs.
Grab some cheap eats
One thing I miss about Wellington is the diversity of the food available and it’s only got better in recent years. As a student, eating an affordable but delicious meal out with friends was one of our favourite and regular past time, especially if the restaurant was BYO (Bring Your Own – alcohol or beer from outside can be brought in for a small corkage charge).
Some ideas for places to grab a great but affordable meal include:
- Wellington Night Markets – Left Bank off Cuba Street on Fridays, and lower Cuba Street on Saturdays.
- Grab takeaway Hells Pizza and eat it along the waterfront.
- Affordable Asian Food (and BYO!) like Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese. Some of my favourites when I lived there were Satay Mayalsia and Hede.
And there you have over 35 ideas for what to do in Wellington to help your budget during your New Zealand trip! If you’re planning more travels around the North Island be sure to check out my North Island itinerary ideas and best spots!
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