When I asked a New Zealander at the beginning of our trip what to do when we reached Wellington, he said, “you’ll spend a lot of money.” Challenge accepted. What can we do in one of New Zealand’s most expensive cities without breaking the bank? We searched websites and social media to find inexpensive, incredible experiences. Make sure to include a trip up Mount Victoria when you have car access and a few hours.
1. Tour The Beehive And New Zealand’s Parliamentary Complex
Wellington is the seat of New Zealand’s government with a distinctively shaped complex that includes a beehive-shaped building. Known locally as “the Beehive,” that section contains the executive branch of government.
Book online via email before your trip or as late as before the building opens at 9 a.m.
The Introduction to Parliament tour lasts an hour, offered on the hour every hour between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. We scored tickets for the 10 a.m. tour and walked over from our apartment. Free and free.
Pro Tip: It is the nicest and shortest to walk along the waterfront. The curve in the bay makes the journey shorter than traveling the outlying city roads.
We arrived at the right side of the “beehive” as you face Parliament, entered the visitor center, walked through metal detectors, and left all our belongings at bag claim. No visitor photography is allowed inside the building.
Pro Tip: Be sure to arrive at least 15 minutes before your scheduled tour for the security screening process.
We watched a short video welcoming us to Parliament and thanking us for our interest in their democracy.
Our tour guide, Janet, walked us past the visitors’ information desk, and into the beehive itself to share the history of this large, semi-circular banquet hall with elevators in the center. The concept of the building may have been drawn on a napkin in the 1960s or built from matchboxes. Both are now Kiwi urban legends, and the origin is no longer known.
Next, we visited Parliament, in the main, sandstone-colored building. Partially demolished in a 1907 fire because it was made of wood, they rebuilt the building using stone. Through the main entrance, up two flights of stairs, we entered the Gallery. New Zealand’s House of Representatives is the sole chamber. They’ve done away with the House of Lords due to redundancy. Parliament is in session Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. 33 weeks a year. It’s free to enter and observe their legislative process.
Continuing down the hall to the library (my favorite place in the building), we admired former librarians’ pictures and an awesome art piece created from book bindings. Whatever can’t be answered online for the members of parliament can be found by the librarian.
From the library, we entered the old House of Lord chambers and were regaled with stories and photos of Queen Elizabeth’s visits to open parliament. In her absence, the Governor General, originally a Brit but a New Zealander since the 1960s, sits in Her Majesty’s stead.
Then, we visited the Great Hall, the original entrance restored after the fire, and an art-filled atrium, before proceeding to the earthquake protection area where we saw a video about how the building was retrofitted with New Zealand-developed earthquake protection.
2. Visit Parliament In Session
Once you’ve toured the building, if Parliament meets that afternoon, you’ll be given the option to return to watch Parliament in action. If you can, please do. Their political parties were forced to make “side deals” to retain the majority. The subject of discussion on our visit was foreign students. That includes Americans. We learned that international student education is a $4 billion endeavor for New Zealand, making it the fourth largest contributor to the economy. Listening to and learning their perspectives was fascinating.
You have the option to choose whether you want to be an AYES or a NOES from the beginning. The signs over the doors typically represent the entry point for the ruling party (AYES) and the opposition (NOES). But, there’s a fast count purpose to the doors as well. The rare time a “conscience vote” is called, the members of Parliament walk through the door that signifies their vote and are so counted. It’s a physical representation of the mental and emotional background for a vote. For visitors, it’s as simple as selecting which side you want to be able to watch.
Be sure to check out the front table. If you see a scepter, you know they’re in a formal session.
The artwork in the room is symbolic. Locations named on these walls represent conflicts. The monogram on the ceiling is that of His Majesty, George V. The greenery isn’t just to beautify the room. It represents the suffragette movement. New Zealand was, after all, the first country to offer women the vote.
3. Visit Any Pop-Up Village
You’ll want to check local city websites or google search what village is open during your trip. For us, the village entailed several 8 by 5 feet cargo containers, outfitted with the sellers’ wares.
Pro Tip: Take an extra suitcase to carry your treasures home. We spotted resin-coated orchids made into jewelry, fur pelts, and knitted products.
4. Stop For Tea Or A Meal
The pop-up village included tents with Schnitzel and Bratwurst, the most common food fare. Individual warehouses on the pier had their own bars and restaurants with the Crab Shack, our first choice. Note that restaurant “chains” here don’t have the same menus at different locations.
5. Stroll Along The Waterfront
The waterfront is beautiful to walk along. There are plenty of businesses and shipping ventures. There’s a nice breeze and beautiful and funny sculptures — from the sails in the center section with several restaurants, to the play area with a slide high enough my 22-year-old had to go on it, to swings and a rugby pitch.
6. Visit Te Papa Museum
Te Papa Museum celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2023. When we visited, the bonus exhibit revolved around Gallipoli, quite meaningful to New Zealanders. Gallipoli, a city in modern-day Turkey, was, in 1914, still part of the Ottoman Empire and the setting for a terrible battle that took 200,000 lives, including 2,779 New Zealanders (about 1/6 of their armed forces) before they retreated.
The installation’s figures were 10 times larger than life-size and quite remarkable, right down to the flies. The saddest part was the recreation of Lieutenant-Colonel William George Malone’s hut, where he’d written letters to his wife, even hours before the battle that would take his life.
They’re open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
7. If You Lodge Near The Water, Head Home For Lunch
When in Wellington, the location of your lodgings matters. While the price of a downtown hotel or Airbnb will be higher, the time, savings, and ability to go home to make yourself a healthy lunch and rest can make the difference between a long, exhausting day, and two (or three) enjoyable sightseeing sessions. Well rested and well fed.
8. Visit The New Zealand Portrait Gallery
The New Zealand Portrait Gallery contains 14 permanent multi-media exhibits and a visiting installation. Their permanent exhibit includes photographs, paintings, and sometimes audio descriptions. Covering jazz singers and fashion designers, each had some influence on New Zealand, and many were internationally renowned.
They’re open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
9. Visit The Wellington Museum
We arrived at the Wellington Museum just an hour before closing time and went right up to the Attic, working our way down to see as much as possible. The Attic contains shipwrecks, aliens, children’s activities, and interactive exhibits whose tiger’s roar may make you jump. The first floor focuses on maritime information and a trip through time exhibit.
They’re open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Pro Tip: The movies close before the museum so attend them early.
10. Visit The Botanic Gardens And Carter Observatory
For free, you can hike up to the Botanic Gardens, but for the time, effort, and experience, I recommend taking the cable car round trip from Lambton Quay Terminal to the Kelburn Terminal. You can hop on and off at the Salamanca, Talavera, or Clifton stations to see the murals or surrounding neighborhoods, but continue to the summit for visits to the rose garden or Tree House Visitor Center. If we’d had more time, we would’ve spent it here. Some of their vegetation is unlike anything I’ve seen in the U.S. You’ll spy both blue and pink flowering bougainvillea at the same time. These are beautiful places for photos and weddings.
The Carter Observatory is open for Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night shows.
11. Take Advantage Of A Pop-Up Shakespeare In The Park
Shakespeare in the Park was performed in a parking lot not far from our apartment. It was hysterical. We were supplied with chairs, blankets, and water as we entered. The actors very much enjoyed all the audience participation during Comedy of Errors. They ran up and down their scaffolding set and found creative ways to indicate the passage of time.
It was a chilly 56 degrees Fahrenheit by the time the performance ended. We were very grateful we lived just a few blocks away and could get home to get warm.
Pro Tip: Check out social media for special events.
Turns out our first day in Wellington, for two, cost us under $50 including groceries. Challenge completed.
For more information on traveling to New Zealand, check out these articles: