New Zealand's capital is, arguably, the country's most cosmopolitan metropolis. It's world-class Te Papa Tongarewa-Museum of New Zealand is a don't-miss attraction, and the burgeoning film industry—led, of course, by the Lord of the Rings extravaganzas—has injected new life into the local arts scene. Attractive and compact enough to be explored easily on foot, Wellington is a booming destination. Modern high-rise buildings gaze over Port Nicholson, surely one of the finest natural anchorages in the world. Known to local Māori as The Great Harbor of Tara, its two massive arms form the jaws of the fish of Maui from Māori legend. Sometimes referred to as the windy city, Wellington has been the seat of New Zealand's government since 1865.
Wellington is only a small city, but a taxi ride can save your legs on the long haul around the harbor or up the steep hills to Kelburn and the Botanic Gardens. Taxi rates are NZ$2.80 on entry, then NZ$2.05 per km. There are taxis outside the railway station, as well as on Dixon Street and along Courtenay Place and Lambton Quay.
Ascot Street. The tiny, doll-like cottages along Ascot were built in the 1870s, and this remains the finest example of a 19th-century streetscape in Wellington. Off Glenmore St. and Tinakori Rd. northeast of Wellington Botanic Garden.
City Gallery. Whether it's showing the latest exhibition of New Zealand artists or an international collection on tour, City Gallery in Wellington is an excellent representation of New Zealand's dynamic modern culture. The gallery has no permanent collection, so exhibits change constantly; you might be in town during a show by a major New Zealand artist such as photographer Laurence Aberhart or Sam Taylor-Wood. Other attractions include the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery, dedicated to showing Wellington artists, and the popular Nikau Café, which serves some of the city's best coffee. In addition to free tours every weekend, City Gallery runs an extensive events program, including talks by local and international artists, films, and dance performances. Civic Sq., at Wakefield St.
Civic Square. Wellington's Civic Square is reminiscent of an Italian piazza, its outdoor cafés, benches, lawns, and harbor viewpoints make both a social hub and a delightful sanctuary from the traffic. The City Gallery (see above), perhaps the nation's finest art space, the library, and the Town Hall concert venue are just steps apart. Architect Ian Athfield's steel sculptures of nikau palms are a marvel, and Māori artist Para Matchitt contributed the impressionistic sculptures flanking the wide wooden bridge that connects the square to the harbor. With its sweeping water views, this bridge is a popular spot for picnics or as a place to sit and dream. Wakefield, Victoria, and Harris Sts.
Kelburn Cable Car. The Swiss-built funicular railway makes a short but sharp climb to Kelburn Terminal, from which there are great views across parks and city buildings to Port Nicholson. Sit on the left side during the six-minute journey for the best scenery. 280 Lambton Quay, at Grey St. and Upland Rd. Admission charged.
Museum of Wellington, City and Sea. You can smell the hessian sacks, hear the gulls, and see the (mechanical) rats scuttling around in this refurbished 1892 bond store, now a museum that vividly portrays the history of the original Māori tribes and of the European settlers who came here around 1840. Spread over three floors, the displays cover work, leisure, crime, and education in 19th-century Wellington. The Bond Store, Queens Wharf.
National Tattoo Museum of New Zealand. This small museum gives a fascinating glimpse of body art. Tattooing is an important part of Maori culture; like a coat of arms, a traditional moko (tattoo) demonstrates a person's heritage. The volunteer-run collection introduces the art with carvings, pictures, and plenty of literature. If you're inspired, you can get tattooed. 3rd fl., Wellington Markets, bottom of Taranaki St. Admission charged.
Old St. Paul's Cathedral. Consecrated in 1866, the church is a splendid example of the English Gothic Revival style executed in native timbers. Even the trusses supporting the roof transcend their mundane function with splendid craftsmanship. Mulgrave St.
Parliament Buildings. The eye-catching pink Gothic Revival structure is the Parliamentary Library, a soaring, graceful building compared with the ponderous gray bulk of the Parliament House next door. The Debating Chamber, where legislation is presented, debated, and voted on, copies the one in the British Houses of Parliament at Westminster, right down to the Speaker's mace and the dispatch boxes. There's fine Māori artwork in the Māori Affairs Select Committee Room, at the front of Parliament House; and your tour may even step into the Executive Office Building, popularly known as the Beehive. Molesworth St.
Te Papa Tongarewa-Museum of New Zealand. This museum remains one of New Zealand's major attractions. It provides an essential introduction to the country's people, cultures, landforms, flora, and fauna. Unusual exhibits include a simulated earthquake and a visit to a marae (Māori meetinghouse), where a powhiri (Māori greeting involving song and speeches) welcomes you. You can explore an outdoor forest area with moa (the extinct, ostrichlike native bird) bones and glowworms or delve into the stories of New Zealand's early European migrants. In the Time Warp area, a sort of theme park where most activities have additional fees, you can simulate a bungy jump or leap three generations ahead to Wellington, 2055. Cable St.
Wellington Botanic Garden. In the hills overlooking downtown is a concentration of beautifully varied terrain. Woodland gardens under native and exotic trees fill the valleys, water-loving plants line a pond and mountain streams, and lawns spread over flatter sections with beds of bright seasonal bulbs and annuals. The lovely Lady Norwood Rose Garden is in the northeast part of the garden. The Carter Observatory and Planetarium, the only one of its kind in New Zealand, has public displays and programs. Tinakori Rd. for parking lot; main entrances on Upland Rd. (for cable car) and Glenmore St. Admission charged.
The main downtown shopping area, for department stores, clothes, shoes, books, outdoor gear, and souvenirs, is the so-called Golden Mile—from Lambton Quay, up Willis, Victoria, and Manners streets. For smaller, funkier boutiques, visit the more alternative Cuba Street. The nifty (and free) Wellington Fashion Map, which you can pick up at the Visitor Information Centre or any number of stores, divides the city into easily navigable shopping quarters and lists a good cross-section of women's and men's designer boutiques throughout the central city.
For more than a century, the department store Kirkcaldie & Stains (165-177 Lambton Quay) has maintained an impeccable standard of customer service. While it's not known for the latest or trendiest streetwear, its lovely 19th-century facade, traditional café (tea and an old-school sweet, anyone?), and posh selection of international and New Zealand designer clothing and products render it Wellington's answer to Harrod's.
The best mall is the Old Bank Arcade (233-237 Lambton Quay, at Customhouse Quay and Willis St.) in the charming historic former Bank of New Zealand building. The Arcade gathers up a slew of well-known designer boutiques, including those of New Zealand designers Andrea Moore and Stella Gregg, as well as the tempting Minnie Cooper shoe store.
James Smiths Corner (55 Cuba St.) has a second-floor market area offering fortune-telling and selling Māori art and crafts, jewelry, cheap Asian knickknacks, and gifts; the main floor houses more mainstream stores and a food court.
Port Photo: Laura Young/iStockphoto