As far as capital cities go, Wellington is up there with the coolest. Jaw-dropping scenery? Tick. World-class museums and galleries? Tick. Natural attractions, a captivating history and trendy spots to eat and drink? Tick, tick and tick.
The best bit though? Enjoying the charms of Wellington doesn’t mean having to splash a whole heap of cash. In fact, you can still discover all the city has to offer without spending a cent – you’ve just got to know where to look.
Here, find out exactly what the top free things to do are, and prepare to bookmark one or two for the next time you’re in Wellington.
Te Papa Museum
Museums don’t come much more highly recommended than the Te Papa Museum. Consistently rated one of the best free things to do in Wellington, it welcomes more than 1.5 million visitors annually and offers an interactive and in-depth insight into the culture, history and traditions of New Zealand. Allow yourself a good couple of hours to explore Te Papa – it is enormous, and the exhibitions are jam-packed with incredible material. Permanent highlights include a full-size Maori meeting house, known as a mara; a terrifying giant squid (the world’s only complete specimen); and the famous quake house, which simulates a real earthquake. But perhaps the most eye-opening display is the Blood Earth Fire exhibition, which showcases the country’s dramatic transformation over the last 1,000 years, and the effects of human habitation.
For postcard-perfect views of Wellington – and a good workout – take a walk up Mount Victoria. Rising 196 metres above the city, there are multiple routes you can take to reach the summit, with the most popular being the Southern Walkway. Beginning at Oriental Place in the CBD, it winds past the waterfront and St Gerard’s Church and Monastery, before entering thick, dense forest. At the top you’ll be rewarded with incredible 360-degree panoramic views across the harbour and the city, plus Matiu and Somes Islands and the Miramar Peninsula. Got a couple of energetic young ones on your hands? It’s also one of the best walks with kids in Wellington – if you can keep them out of the mud, that is!
Are you a Lord of the Rings fan? If that’s a yes you’ll be thrilled to hear about Weta Cave, where the incredible props and costumes for the award-winning trilogy (not to mention a few others, like The Hobbit and King Kong) were carefully crafted. It’s part of the Weta Workshop, a world-class design and special effects company long favoured by director Peter Jackson. While full studio tours do come at a cost, it’s completely free to enter the Weta Cave mini-museum, which houses life-size character sculptures, prop replicas and apparel. It’s the perfect place for a photo op (who doesn’t want a selfie with Gandalf, after all?) and visitors can also watch the exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary, which runs every 30 minutes. If you’re looking for fun things to do in Wellington, Weta Cave is a guaranteed good time.
New Zealand Parliament Buildings
If politics is more your thing, some of the most interesting places to visit in Wellington are the Parliamentary buildings. Located in the historic inner suburb of Thorndon, free guided tours run seven days a week, and it’s a great opportunity to learn about the parliamentary process, admire artwork and objects that belong to the Parliamentary Collection, and get a better understanding of one of the world’s most progressive democracies. It’s also a fascinating spot to explore if you’re interested in architecture. The Beehive, an affectionate nickname for the Executive Wing, is a quirky example of 1970s design, while the Victorian Gothic Parliamentary Library and Old Government Building (the largest wooden building in the southern hemisphere) are also worth checking out. And if you’re lucky, you might just spot the Prime Minister herself, Jacinda Ardern.
Wellington Botanic Gardens
Swap the hustle and bustle of the city for a quiet, lush oasis with a visit to the Wellington Botanic Gardens. Spread out over 26 bloom-filled hectares, and just a 20-minute walk from the CBD, it absolutely deserves a place on any good ‘what to see in Wellington’ list. Native New Zealand plants and flowers feature heavily within the grounds, and there’s also exotic forests, the award-winning Lady Norwood Rose Garden, a duck pond, sculpture trail, walking tracks and plenty of green lawn for picnics. During summer, the botanic gardens host outdoor concerts and open-air cinema sessions, which have proven to be extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. Open daily, it’s also one of the top things to do in Wellington with kids, thanks to the epic playground that features a flying fox, swings and tunnel slide.
New York has Greenwich Village, London has Soho and Melbourne has Brunswick, but where do the cool kids of Wellington hang? Cuba Street, of course. This trendy area is the epicentre of Wellington’s bohemia scene, and is where you’ll find everything from vintage stores and tattoo parlours to cocktail bars and top-notch coffee roasters. This pedestrianised walkway is also the perfect place to watch buskers or let the kids play in the famous bucket fountain. And every weekend Cuba Street plays host to the Wellington Night Market. Located in Left Bank on Fridays and Lower Cuba Street on Saturdays, the neighbourhood comes alive in a feast for the senses with Mexican, Moroccan and Indonesian just a sample of the cuisine available. While it’s easy to spend up big on Cuba Street, it costs nothing to soak up the atmosphere.
Seals at Red Rocks
Combining breathtaking scenery, Maori history and animal encounters is one of the coolest things to do in Wellington for free. A trip to Red Rocks, just an hour’s walk from the city centre, offers visitors the chance to explore a landscape formed more than 200 years ago as a result of undersea volcanic eruptions. While the striking colour of the rocks comes from small amounts of iron oxides, according to Maori folklore it’s the blood of Kupe, a Polynesian explorer who cut his hand when gathering shellfish, thus staining the rocks red. What makes Red Rocks an extra special place to visit though, is a colony of fur seals that frequent the area from May to October. Made up of non-breeding males, the population has grown to more than 300 seals in recent years and it’s not hard to spot them catching some rays on the rocks.
Te Papa isn’t the only internationally-renowned museum in the New Zealand capital, as the city also boasts the exceptional Wellington Museum. Housed in the Bond Store, a heritage building on the waterfront, the museum focuses on sharing the local stories, culture and history of Wellington via a stunning array of immersive and engaging experiences. If we were to pick our favourite exhibitions, it would have to be A Millennium Ago, which shares Maori creation stories; The Attic, which delves into Wellington’s most weird and wacky urban legends; and the magnificent Von Kohorn Room, once the boardroom for the Wellington Harbour Board. It makes for a wonderful option if you’re searching for free things to do in Wellington on a rainy day.
This round-up of free things to do in Wellington isn’t the only way you can save money next time you’re planning a trip to the NZ capital. The best way to keep to your budget is by booking cheap flights to Wellington with Webjet. Plus, you can bank even more savings by booking a Wellington holiday package!