Wellington for a weekend

Where to go and top things to do in Wellington.

Kia Ora magazine story by India Lopez.

WELLYWOOD. Windy Wellington. The Coolest Little Capital in the World. Politicians, public servants, students, Oscar-winners, bohemians. Wellington wears many hats, which is why it's a fantastic destination for a weekend break.

 

Wellington's best Friday night food

I've been reliably informed by my foodie associates that Mr Go's on Taranaki Street is the place to, er, go. This brightly painted, neon-lit restaurant has been serving "modern Asian hawker food" to rapturous crowds for more than a year now, with no sign of slowing down. Case in point: on this Friday night, the wait time for a party of six is two hours. We give them our phone number and trot around the corner to kill time at one of the best bars in Wellington, The Library: dim lighting, cosy booths and wall-to-wall bookshelves. Because we're there during the Wellington on a Plate food festival, a cost-effective way to explore the best restaurants in Wellington, there is a special cocktail menu, all literary-themed. The Satanic Verjus, anyone?

Our text summons arrives, and we race back to Mr Go's. On our waiter's advice, we order a gua bao (steamed bun) each plus a side to share with the table. Then, an extraordinary spectacle: six adults gasping with pleasure as we take our first bites of… cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. If our four-year-old selves could see us now.

Bars, clubs and late night snacks

After dinner, we head to Swan Lane's Noble Rot wine bar, which is high on the Wellington cool bars index, then on to Leeds Street, which runs alongside the five-storey brick building that once housed the Hannahs shoe factory. This used to be a dingy alleyway. Now, along with neighbouring Eva Street, it has been transformed into a beguiling Wellington nightlife hub. If you ever find yourself wondering what to do in Wellington at night, head for the Hannahs precinct.

Hanging Ditch and Fortune Favours are both worthy contenders, but we opt for craft beer at Golding's Free Dive. With its kitschy, more-is-more fit-out (Christmas lights, fake flowers, stickers, old licence plates, Star Wars toys etc), it seems like a natural successor to Mighty Mighty, which was for so long one of the best night clubs in Wellington. The best thing about the Hannahs Precinct? When you finally emerge back out onto Courtenay Place, the Tommy Millions kiosk is just a block away, serving incredible New York-style pizza by the slice until 4am – just what the doctor ordered.

Saturday market adventures in Wellington

Head north on the motorway and, 25 minutes later, arrive at Lower Hutt's Riverbank Market. We make a beeline for the Mr Circle food cart, which sells delectable jian bing (Chinese crepes), stuffed with pork belly, bacon, egg and veges. Then, breakfast in hand, meander through the crowds. As well as bountiful fruit and veges, you can buy fresh fish, bread, eggs and flowers. There are also crafts, jewellery, cosmetics, used books and tables heaving with bric-a-brac. The coffee is good, but the best hot drinks come from the chaiwalla cart, where Delhi-born Rahul Minhas grinds fresh spices and brews milky concoctions on the stovetop while you wait.

Art and culture before lunch

Since it opened in 1971, the Dowse Art Museum in central Lower Hutt has consistently showcased New Zealand art, never shying away from the provocative and the challenging. There are some familiar names – Shane Cotton, Ralph Hotere – and some new discoveries. Maureen Lander's installation Flat-Pack Whakapapa, which includes giant double helixes, is made of rolled-up leaf strips that spiral all the way to the gallery ceiling.

Lunch is at Zany Zeus in the nearby suburb of Moera. The Zany Zeus factory has been churning out world-class cheese, milk, yoghurt and other dairy products since the early 2000s, but the shop/cafe is relatively new. It received a big boost this year when Scarlett Johansson deemed its chocolate cake the best she'd had "in my entire life". That might be why, when we arrive, there's a line zig-zagging through the cafe and out the door. Still, it's worth the wait to get the most comforting of all comfort foods: the $5 haloumi sandwich, which is nothing but a giant slab of haloumi cheese, sprinkled with lemon juice, herbs and seasoning, encased in a soft bread roll.

Hundreds of fur seals that congregate here before breeding season, forming the largest colony in the Wellington region.

Wellington kiwiana, fur seals and the Roxy

Then we head even further afield, aiming for Turakirae Head on the south coast. This is where to go in Wellington if you want to see quintessential New Zealand packed into this 35-minute drive: the humble suburban streets of Wainuiomata, and then hills, paddocks, cows, sheep, gorse, cabbage trees and a river running through the valley.

Suddenly, the ocean appears in front of us. We park the car and walk along the rocky coastline for a couple of kilometres. Winter is the best time to visit Wellington if you want to meet the sea mammals. Hundreds of fur seals that congregate here before breeding season, forming the largest colony in the Wellington region.

A few hundred seal photos later, we're ready to head back to Wellington. We end the day by catching a movie at the legendary Roxy Cinema in Miramar. This city has a lot to offer movie goers, from the majestic Embassy Theatre to the charming boutique chain of Light House Cinemas, but the Roxy is the most magnificent. It was built in 1928, in the art deco style of the time, and a luxe makeover saw it restored to its former glory in 2011. The only down side? It's all too easy to fall asleep in the cushy Italian leather seats.

Sunday strolls in Welly

Wandering around Moore Wilson's, Wellington's gourmet grocery store, is the closest I'll ever get to being a glamorous French woman at her local market – and I'm okay with that. Even when you're not buying anything, it's a treat looking at the immense wheels of cheese, the hanging salami, the rustic loaves of bread and the exotic produce (what on earth are Buddha's hands?).

Across the road is Ekor Bookshop & Cafe, which now rivals Unity Books as a favourite Wellington bookstore. It's warm, cosy and homely, lined with books and dotted with comfy reading chairs – the living room of my dreams. Soft jazz plays, every bookshelf-free bit of wall space is decorated with art, and vases of bright tulips sit on the cafe tables.

Curiously Cuba

Next, we head to the top of Cuba Street – the city's alternative hub – and work our way down, taking in quirky boutiques (Madame Fancy Pants), stylish vintage/retro clothing stores (Ziggurat, Hunters & Collectors, Emporium) and defiantly un-corporate record stores (Slow Boat Records, Rough Peel Music). At the bottom, we hit the top Kiwi designers: Kate Sylvester and then, a bit further along, Karen Walker and WORLD. Good As Gold on Victoria Street is the best place to find out what the daringly fashion-forward are wearing (lots of pink, apparently).

The finer side of Wellington shopping

New Zealand Wellington David Jones

On the corner of Willis Street and Lambton Quay is the Old Bank Arcade, an ornate Baroque building dating back to the turn of the century. There's plenty of good shopping to be had here (RUBY, I Love Ugly), but the best part is walking through the arcade and marvelling at the elegant architectural details. You can also squeeze in a bonus bit of Wellington sightseeing by going down to the bottom level and seeing Plimmer's Ark, the remains of a sailing ship that ran aground in Wellington in 1851.

Lambton Quay is home to all the usual suspects – the high-street brands that seem to populate most cities in the world. We could happily while away hours here, but our final destination awaits: David Jones, the ritzy Australian department store that took over from Kirkcaldie & Stains when it closed last year after 152 years in business.

Story time at Te Papa

We walk back along the waterfront, all the way to the biggest of all Wellington attractions: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Te Papa does a brilliant job of catering to all visitors: Kiwis and international travellers, adults and kids, history buffs and museum sceptics. The museum will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2018, and it's going to be a particularly good year to visit. As well as Gallipoli and Tangata o le Moana: The Story of Pacific People in New Zealand, there will be Let's Go Build – a festival of LEGO activities. The major new long-term exhibition, Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow, displays more than 150 pieces including work from some of Rongowhakaata's most important tohunga whakairo (master carvers) and an original hoe (paddle) traded during Rongowhakaata's 1769 encounter with Captain James Cook. The exhibition showcases the dramatic stories, histories, treasured taonga and the exceptional artistry of the Gisborne iwi. And in March, the museum will open its new two-level art gallery, Toi Art, along with a slew of world-class exhibitions.

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