Wellington was one of my favourite cities in New Zealand and would probably be the top city I would choose to live in if I moved there! Wellington is the capital of New Zealand (not Auckland!) and the second most populous city in the country. Located in the south of the North Island, Wellington connects the North Island with the South Island across the Cook Strait and Marlborough Sounds by way of the Interislander Ferry to Picton.
Wellington became the capital in 1865, replacing Auckland which had been the capital since 1841 since members of parliament wanted a more central capital city to both islands. There is so much to do in the city, from museums to gardens and cafes to beaches, and there are lots of totally free things to do in Wellington as well!
Free Things To Do in New Zealand
Visit the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa)
I’m not usually much of a museum person myself but I really enjoyed visiting Te Papa, or the Museum of New Zealand. The full name of the museum is ‘Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa’, with the Māori part meaning ‘container of treasures’. The museum is generally referred to just as ‘Te Papa’, which can also be interpreted as ‘Our Place’.
Entry to the museum is completely free – you can just walk in and go to any part of the museum you wish. There are five different levels of the museum with different exhibitions, including:
- Level 5: Toi Art (National art collection) and Papa Toi: Kōpere (Art Studio: Colour)
- Level 4: Toi Art: Terracotta Warriors (entry fee applies for the temporary exhibition), The World of Maori, The Story of Light and Shadow (Iwi/tribal gallery), Pacific Peoples of New Zealand, Passports (Immigrants Stories), Treaty of Waitangi: Signs of a Nation (New Zealand’s founding document), The Mixing Room (Stories from young refugees in New Zealand), Te Marae (meeting place)
- Level 3: Blood Earth Fire (The transformation of Aotearoa New Zealand), Doing It For Themselves (Suffrage 125 exhibition)
- Level 2: Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War (New Zealand in World War I), Te Papa Store, Level 2 Cafe, StoryPlace (for children 5 and under)
- Level 1: Bush City (native bush walk outdoors), Te Papa Cafe, Te Papa Store
There is also the 6th level with a terrace with beautiful views over Wellington Harbour. I recommend starting at the top and working your way down as that means you will visit the museum in chronological order.
My favourite exhibition was the Gallipoli exhibit – it’s a seriously spectacular exhibit with larger than life sculptures created by Weta Workshop, the same people who did special effects, props and costumes for Lord of the Rings, Thunderbirds, Avatar and King Kong. The exhibit follows the stories of eight ordinary New Zealanders during the war – from a military doctor to a corporal, an army nurse to a lieutenant. If you only have time for an hour in the museum, make sure you walk through the Gallipoli exhibit!
The top two levels are great if you have an interest in art, especially Māori art. If you find geography interesting then the Blood Earth Fire is an excellent exhibition about the creation of the country in geographical terms. For those wanting to learn more about Māori culture then a visit to the traditional Marae on Level 4 is a must, as well as the Treaty of Waitangi exhibition.
If you only have one hour, you should visit: Gallipoli and a quick walkthrough of Blood Earth Fire
If you have two hours, you should visit: Treaty of Waitangi, Gallipoli, Blood Earth Fire
If you have four hours: start at Level 6 and then work your way down to Level 1.
If you are going with older children: make sure to visit the Kōpere (Colour) interactive exhibition on Level 5 and the Te Marae (full-size traditional Māori meeting place you can look around). Depending on their age, the Gallipoli exhibit may be of interest but the graphic nature of the exhibits may not be suitable for young children.
If you are going with children aged 5 and under: visit the Kõpere interactive exhibition and StoryPlace
See the city from Mount Victoria
Another free thing to do in Wellington is to walk up to Mount Victoria and get a spectacular panoramic view over the city. The Mount Victoria Lookout is located 196m above the city and offers views over both the city of Wellington and the harbour. This is an amazing spot to watch the sunset from!
The walk takes about 30-45 minutes, depending on where in the city you start from and how fast you walk. There are a fair few hills to walk up (obviously) and then steps from the summit car park to the lookout itself (unfortunately the lookout proper is not wheelchair friendly). If you have a car you can also drive up there, which takes about 10 minutes and then you just need to climb the steps up to the lookout.
If you’re not feeling like walking then there is a bus up to the lookout (number 20) which will cost you NZ$2.50 for a single ticket ($1.28 on a Snapper card).
Relax at Oriental Bay
How many cities do you know that have a beach? Well, Wellington does! Located only a 15-minute walk from the centre of Wellington CBD (Central Business District), this relaxing beach and pier is a perfect spot to lounge in the sun or enjoy an ice cream in summer.
The beach is around half a kilometre of yellow sand and blue waters that stretches from Freyburg Beach to Oriental Parade/Grass Street. You can walk the promenade in around 10 minutes and find your perfect spot of beach to lounge at.
Since we hadn’t brought any swimming-appropriate clothing, we opted to relax in the sun at Freyburg Beach on the pier – there are benches along the length of the pier and also a ‘Boat Cafe’, a 60-year-old refurbished tugboat that is permanently moored at Freyburg Lagoon and is home to a cafe and restaurant.
Prior to 2004, the bay was mostly a stony beach leading down to the water until the council shipped in 22,000 tonnes of sand from Golden Bay to enlarge the beach areas and also created the grassy area and playground in the Freyburg Beach area. Now Oriental Bay is a popular area to go swimming, diving from the pier, sunbathing and is also one of the main spots to watch the Wellington Sky Show (fireworks display, part of the Matariki, or Maori New Year, celebrations) from.
The star cluster Matariki (also known as the Pleiades) reappears in the dawn sky above Aotearoa New Zealand in late May or early June. The new moon following the rising of Matariki signals the Māori New Year.
Take the plunge at Taranaki Wharf
Located just outside Te Papa, Taranaki Wharf (also called Taranaki Street Wharf) is home to swimming areas and jump platforms. Apparently, these were built due to people diving off rocks into the sea and the city was concerned about the safety of this – instead of banning jumping and diving, they simply built a special area for people to jump into the sea safely.
The Taranaki Wharf Jump Platform does have a list of rules – they do actually prohibit diving, as well as running jumps (the platform is built in a way that actually prevents this) and multiple people jumping together.
When we visited after exploring Te Papa, there were some people slacklining as well (slacklining: walking/balancing on a length of flat webbing that is tensioned between two anchors) and it was seriously impressive to watch.
Particularly during spring and summer, you will also find a whole host of street vendors as well as buskers. If you’re not feeling like taking the plunge, you can always watch others do so with a cold drink or while enjoying a delicious slice of pizza!
Take a tour of Parliament
New Zealand’s parliament building, affectionately known as ‘The Beehive’, offers free tours to learn about the democratic processes in New Zealand and to see the variety of rooms in parliament.
Tours run every day from 10am-4pm. While usually you can turn up and join a tour (find the tour schedule on the parliament website), you are recommended to email them at least 24 hours in advance to book a place during peak times such as school holidays and public holidays.
They offer a variety of tours including:
- Introducing Parliament (60-minute tour, the regular daily tour)
- Highlights of Parliament (30-minute tour, runs during school and public holidays)
- Kids in the House (45-minute tour for children aged 5-12, runs during school holidays)
- Self-guided Outdoor Tour (collect your map from the Visitor Centre and explore the ground, takes approximately 40-minutes)
Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to take any photos inside (which really sucks, in my opinion) but you can take photos of the exterior of the buildings. You’re not even allowed to take your phone or camera inside with you and instead have to leave them in secure storage at the start of the tour. Hopefully one day this will change and people can share how beautiful some of the rooms are!
Explore the Botanic Garden
The Wellington Botanic Garden is located at the top of the Wellington Cable Car in the suburb of Kelburn. If you’re looking for free things to do in Wellington then you can walk to the Botanic Garden, which is around a 20-30 minute walk from downtown Wellington.
The Botanic Garden is 64 acres of protected native forest, a duck pond, begonia house, rose garden, exotic trees and more. One of the oldest botanic gardens in New Zealand, the land for the Wellington Botanic Garden was set aside in 1844 and the garden itself was established in 1868.
The garden is open from sunrise until sunset and is the perfect place to get a beautiful sunset photo over the city or to photograph the iconic red cable car. One of my favourite parts of the garden was the human sundial next to the Carter Observatory – just stand where it tells you and your shadow will show the correct time!
There is also the historic Dominion Observatory and the benches nearby offer a beautiful view over the city. The Botanic Garden is a great way to spend an afternoon, especially if the weather is good!
Cable Car Museum
Another free thing to do near the Botanic Garden is the Wellington Cable Car Museum. While the cable car itself requires a ticket, the museum is completely free. The museum is located in the original winding house for the cable car system and you can see two of the original grip cars that operated on the line.
Kids (or adults!) can try on 20th-century costumes and take photos on and in front of the restored ‘Relentless Red Rattler’ cable car. There are also short films on the history of the cable car and information boards describing the history and engineering.
Visit Weta Cave
Weta Cave is where the Weta Studio Tours depart from and, although the tours have a fee, the Weta Cave doesn’t cost a thing and you can see an exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary, see life-sized sculptures from a variety of movies and check out a showcase featuring different props from films they’ve worked on.
There are also prints, apparel and souvenirs designed by Weta artists for sale, perfect for any movie buff. The Weta Cave is open every day of the week from 9am-6pm.
Want to see more of Weta Workshop? The Weta Studio Tours Combo includes a 45-minute guided tour of the Weta Cave Workshop, where you will be shown how the artists create the masterpieces and learn how the special effects were done for films like Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and a 45-minute ‘Miniatures Stage Tour’, a guided tour of a real shooting stage where you will learn how the popular television show Thunderbirds was made and filmed. The tour costs NZ$50 and is available at over 10 starting times during the day.
Do the Wellington Writers Walk
One thing that I (unfortunately) didn’t have time to do was the Wellington Writers Walk. I had planned on doing it the second time I was in Wellington, on the way back to Auckland, but the weather was absolutely terrible and I didn’t really fancy doing a walk in the rain. It’s definitely on my list for the next time I’m in the city though!
The Wellington Writers Walk consists of 23 sculptures along the waterfront, each with a quotation from some of New Zealand’s best-known writers, including playwrights, novelists and poets.
If you want to do the walk from one end to the other, you either start at plaque 1 or plaque 23. Plaque 1 has a quote from poet Elizabeth Knox and is located at 33 Customhouse Quay and then you just need to walk towards the city centre on the waterfront.
Plaque 23 – if you want to do it the other direction – has a quotation from the late Barbara Anderson and can be found at Oriental Parade/Carlton Gore Road. If walking in this direction then you just need to follow Oriental Parade to Freyberg Beach (plaque 22) and then onwards to the centre.
Overall, the walk would take you around 40 minutes if you just walked straight from the first plaque to the last one. Obviously, it’ll take slightly longer since (I would assume) you will be stopping to read them on the way so I would say that the walk would take around 1-2 hours, depending on how leisurely you do the walk.
It can also be combined with some relaxing at Oriental Bay, visiting Te Papa (7 of the plaques are located around the exterior of the museum) or heading towards Parliament (a 10-minute walk from plaque 1).
Where to stay in Wellington
Since this article was on things to do in Wellington for free then I’m not going to go super in-depth on where to stay (sadly usually not free). If you do want a free option then you could try:
- Base Wellington (from NZ$21)
- YHA Wellington (from NZ$34)
- The Marion Hostel (from NZ$34)
- The Dwellington (from NZ$35)
Top-rated budget hotels:
- Shepherds Arms Hotel (from NZ$99 for 2 people)
- The Setup on Manners Aparthotel (from NZ$109 for two people)
- Trinity Hotel (from NZ$119 for 2 people)
- U Boutique Hotel (from NZ$125 for 2 people)
- Travelodge Hotel Wellington (4* – from NZ$142)
- Astelia Apartment Hotel (4* – from NZ$155)
- Grand Mercure Wellington (5* – from NZ$159)
- Distinction Wellington, Century City Hotel (4* – from NZ$179)
- InterContinental Wellington (5* – from NZ$236)
BONUS: here for a €15 discount off your next stay on Booking.com – valid for the first 5 people only!
Whatever you decide to do in the city, there are so many options for free things to do in Wellington! The city is incredibly walkable and has a whole host of excellent coffee shops dotted around the city if you need a caffeine fix during the day.
Have you visited Wellington? Are there any other free activities you would recommend in the city?
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