Because we decided to spend our daily budget entirely on food and drink while in Wellington, it was important to find free things to do. We were in luck; there were enough activities and sights to keep us occupied for four days of sightseeing. All of the following are completely free–and more importantly, really fun!
Just uphill from Oriental Bay, a public beach on the fringes of Wellington’s CBD, we stepped off the sidewalk and into a forest. Really, the transition was that dramatic. From the beginning, Wellington’s town planners set aside green spaces all over town, and Mount Victoria is one of those areas. Paths crisscross the whole hill and lead through verdant woods; with the wind in the treetops and the scent of pine on the breeze, you’d never know you were right on the edge of downtown. It’s a beautiful area to stretch your legs, breathe clean air, and enjoy beautiful views of the harbor and city skyline (seen above). Mount Victoria’s trails even make an appearance in Lord of the Rings:
Parliament House and the Beehive
If you’re a history and politics buff like me (or just curious how the NZ government works), the free tour of Parliament House, the Beehive and Parliamentary Library is a must-do. It lasts about an hour and gives a great, short overview of New Zealand’s governance system.
Wellington Museum of City and Sea
Apparently voted one of the world’s top fifty museums, this spot is an excellent place to spend a couple hours (or more) on a rainy day. You’ll get a very thorough tour through Wellington’s history, can watch a short film about the Wahine disaster (when one of the Cook Strait ferries sank in the harbor; 53 people died), and see Maori legends come to life via special effects.
Wellington’s City Gallery plays home to expertly curated exhibitions by world class artists from New Zealand and beyond. We saw an excellent collection of photography by Yvonne Todd; the exhibition also included the dresses she used in some of the portraits as well as a gallery of art, films, magazines and other things that inspired her work. Free wifi is just a bonus.
Te Papa is New Zealand’s national museum, and it’s honestly unbelievable that such an amazing place is free. In this one building, there is enough to fill an entire week of learning. Some of my favorite exhibits were the modern art on the top floor, Maori history, and the Earthquake House. I was pretty overwhelmed after four hours of exploring, so I would recommend making a list of the exhibits you want to see, planning for an hour in each one, and then splitting your time into several visits over a couple days. And again, free wifi is available for all visitors.
Wellington Botanic Gardens
Okay, so we might have been the youngest people there by three or four decades, but I absolutely love gardens and this one was stunning. I recommend an afternoon visit, which will hopefully help you avoid the cruisers who show up in the late morning (exactly when we were there). You can wander through original native forest, an enchanting rose garden, and a greenhouse with orchids, begonias and air plants. If you’re camping near town and can’t stand the thought of a cold shower, the cricket grounds here have free hot showers open to the public when there are no cricket matches.
On a beautiful day, there’s nothing better than walking along the waterfront (although even on the nicest Wellington day, you’re still going to be buffeted by wind). You can read your way along the Writers Walk, twenty-three quotes about Wellington set in typographical sculpture along the water. There is a diving platform in front of Te Papa, if you’re feeling bold enough to jump into the chilly harbor in front of an audience. And further along is Oriental Bay, a beach with two diving platforms and a long stretch of sand.
If you’ve got a van that you can sleep in, even if it’s not self-contained (no toilet onboard), you have two choices on the outskirts of Wellington–and they are both beautiful spots. South of town is the View Road South Headland Reserve, where you’ll be whipped by the wind every second of your stay. The views make it worthwhile, though; you can watch the ferries come and go from the harbor and you’ve got a perfect view of planes landing and taking off from the airport. The bathrooms, complete with cold shower, close at 9pm.
Northeast of town is the Petone Esplanade. It’s a little less windy and you have a view of the entire harbor. The bathrooms are open 24/7 but have no shower. This is where we stayed for most of our week in Wellington.
For our money (or lack thereof), Wellington is one of New Zealand’s most budget-friendly destinations. We easily stayed under budget during our five days in the city, even while treating ourselves to brunch and afternoon cocktails. Having free campsites within a ten or fifteen minute drive of the action certainly helped. But more importantly, we got to enjoy the city’s beauty, history and culture without spending a dime.