Wellington - it was once the forgotten capital city, overlooked for other New Zealand destinations promising untouched landscapes, ski slopes and rich history. These days, the compact city is brimming with creativity and culture, and is said to have more bars and restaurants per capita than New York City.
Just a three hour flight from the east coast of Australia, the cool little capital makes for a delicious long weekend, passport required. There's a whole lot to eat and drink, in only a little time, but it's nothing a good pair of stretchy pants and travelling everywhere on foot can't fix.
For brunch, head to Olive (170 Cuba Street, Te Aro. oliverestaurant.co.nz). The Wellington institution has been around for two decades, serving up breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sit inside for a cosy catch up, or head out the back and sit amongst the plants in the surprisingly tropical outdoor courtyard. With a focus on local produce, dishes are creative, with a range of vegetarian and vegan options that could impress even the most ardent meat eater. Settle in with a coffee, or a bloody mary - you're on holidays after all.
Once an industrial carpark, Egmont St Eatery (11 Egmont Street, Wellington. egmontstreet.co.nz) is now a light-filled restaurant, popular with locals for weekend brunch. The menu changes weekly, with a modern spin on classic dishes, plated beautifully. Pair brunch with a cold brew coffee (available black, white or hopped) or a Yuzu Aperol Spritz.
It's worth a trip out to the suburbs for The Larder (Cnr of Darlington and Camperdown Road, Miramar. thelarder.co.nz). The casual, suburban eatery works closely with their suppliers to serve up a produce-driven menu of innovative dishes. Chef Jacob Brown has a particular interest in nose to tail cooking, honouring every part of the animal, so don't be surprised to to find unusual cuts of meat and offal on the menu.
Back in town, take a walk down the trendy Hannah's Laneway. Dubbed Wellington's 'Little Portland', it's a mural-filled, cosy alley home to bakers, roasters, grinders, brewers, chocolatiers, pizza slingers and soda crafters.
Get the full bean to bar experience at Wellington Chocolate Factory (5 Eva Street, Wellington. wcf.co.nz). Their organic, ethically sourced and traded chocolate is made on-site, with bars sold in pretty packaging designed by local artists. Try their chilli lime nut, craft beer, or ANZAC chocolate bars, or choose from four different kinds of hot chocolate.
A tasting board and a spider at Six Barrel Soda. Photo: Jil Hogan
A few steps down the alley and up a narrow staircase is Six Barrel Soda (1 Eva Street, Wellington. sixbarrelsoda.co.nz). The company hand-makes classic, fountain-style sodas in forgotten and seasonal flavours using all natural ingredients - everything from sarsaparilla and ginger ale, to chilli cucumber tonic, New York egg cream, and orange and dandelion. Syrups are available for sale by the bottle, or pull up a bench seat overlooking the street below and try a beautifully garnished tasting board (three sodas for $5) or settle in with a spider in your flavour of choice and a basket of fries.
For dinner Dragonfly (70 Courtenay Place, Wellington. dragon-fly.co.nz) has some of the best modern Asian cuisine in the city. The dimly-lit venue serves up a range of Southeast Asian share plates, with inventive Asian cocktails, New Zealand wines, and rotating boutique beers to match.
For lovers of meat and seafood, head through a marble lobby to Charley Noble (Ground Floor, Huddart Parker Building, No 1 Post Office Square, Wellington. charleynoble.co.nz). Sitting in former shipping offices, the restaurant has plenty of nods to its nautical past amongst its Chicago-style fitout. The focus here is the wood fired char grill and rotisserie, with a wide selection of organic cuts of aged, pasture fed and grain fed meat. At the other end of the spectrum, there is also freshly shucked oysters, and house gin-cured salmon.
On level three of the QT Museum Wellington, Hippopotamus (90 Cable St, Te Aro) is a glamorous French restaurant and bar with impressive harbour views. The menu is a mix of modernised French classics with a New Zealand twist - for example the La Soupe À L'oignon Néo-Zélandaise or French onion soup with Marmite. Try a five, six or eight course degustation with matching wines, or just visit for the popular high tea.
For the ultimate foodie experience, head to Wellington in August each year during Visa Wellington on a Plate (visawoap.com). Over 17 days, it's a region-wide culinary takeover with more than 100 events and set menus - or just go for the burgers. All participating venues create their own inventive burger for the duration of the event - in 2017, there were 132 burgers on the burger trail.
If you're no good before your morning brew, you're in luck - Wellington takes its coffee very seriously.
Prefab (14 Jessie Street, Wellington. pre-fab.co.nz) is a coffee roastery, eatery and trendy function venue all in one. Go for their bottomless single origin filter coffee, and stay for the ACME & CO breads and baked goods served warm from the oven all day.
Flight Coffee Hangar (119 Dixon St, Wellington flightcoffee.co.nz/hangar) is a specialty roaster and café serving ethically-traded single-origin coffee. Each coffee comes with tasting notes, because why not, and fittingly with their name, they offers tasting flights - coffee three ways, a flight of the flat whites, or the fight of filter.
When it comes to other kind of brew, Wellington's craft beer game is strong, with breweries and taprooms scattered throughout town.
Garage Project (68 Aro Street, Aro Valley. garageproject.co.nz) started brewing out of a derelict, disused service station on the outskirts of town, where it still stands today. They brew in small batches so they can experiment with unique flavours, and are well known for pushing the envelope. Visit the brewery, or the taproom is across the road for tastings.
Black Dog Brewery (19 Blair St, Te Aro, Wellington. blackdogbrewery.co.nz) makes small batch beers, with lots of experimental brews and a few German varieties. All beer is brewed on site, and they offer a rotating selection on tap which you can try in a tasting paddle (six for $22, eight for $28). You can order food in from some of the surrounding food venues - it will be delivered to you in the taproom - and there's a decent selection of board games to play. Sundays are brewing days, so head there then to chat to the brewer.
Try a tasting paddle at Black Dog Brewery. Photo: Jil Hogan
To taste a lot of Wellington beers in the one place, head to Malthouse (48 Courtenay Pl, Te Aro. themalthouse.co.nz). The pub's giant fridges are crammed with beers from near and far - there are more than 150 of them - plus 29 rotating taps and regular of tap takeovers.
If cocktails are more your thing, search for the hidden stairwells. Hawthorn Lounge (82 Tory St, Te Aro. hawthornlounge.co.nz) is a quiet, upstairs oasis, styled like a cosy 1920s gentleman's retreat. The dimly-lit speakeasy has a bar stocked with some more obscure spirits, and snappily dressed bartenders at the ready to whip you something up.
Head up a staircase through an innocuous doorway between Burger King and a waffle shop to find Library (Level 1, 53 Courtenay Place. thelibrary.co.nz), a vintage-style lounge bar. A fun cocktail list is complemented by a snack and dessert menu. Try their 'rather boozy tiramisu'.
Across the road, CGR Merchant & Co (44 Courtenay Pl, Te Aro. cgrmerchant.co.nz) is a more relaxed rum bar - up yet another set of stairs. Try their coco-fashion, a short and boozy version of the classic to warm you from the inside, with toasted coconut and chocolate infused Havana Club Especial rum. Snack on a bucket of cocktail sausages and sauce, or an ice cream sandwich.
Wellington is notorious for its weather - think knock-you-off-your-feet winds and sideways rain. But when the sun does come out, Wellington really turns it on. Head up Mount Victoria Lookout for a 360 degree view over the city's breathtaking natural landscape and back across Cook Strait (catch a cab or it's a 30 minute walk on unpaved paths). For a different view, the Wellington Cable Car runs straight from Lambton Quay in the city, up to the top of the Wellington Botanic Garden.
The sun does in fact come out in Wellington. Photo: Jil Hogan
Squeeze in a visit to Te Papa Tongarewa, the harbourside museum and art gallery. You could easily lose hours in here, but if you want to keep the visit brief, don't miss the the confrontingly beautiful Gallipoli: The scale of our war exhibition, which tells the story of the Gallipoli campaign through the eyes of eight New Zealanders (free entry, running until April 2019).
Wellington has also become a filmmaking and special effects hub - and it's not just about Lord of the Rings. The humble-looking seaside suburb of Miramar is now home to a whole neighbourhood of world-class movie-making facilities. The Weta Studio tours (Cnr Weka Street and Park Road, Miramar. wetanz.com/cave) offer a behind-the-scenes look at props and artefacts from the big screen (films they've worked on include Avatar, Ghost in the Shell, Mad Max: Fury Road and King Kong.)
Across the road from Te Papa, QT Museum Wellington (90 Cable Street, Wellington. qthotelsandresorts.com/wellington) is a top spot to stay, in the middle of all the action, plus a destination in its own right. The avant-garde hotel boasts a huge collection of high and low-brow contemporary art scattered throughout the hotel. Rooms are luxe with comfortable furnishings and quirky touches. There are dressing gowns, a Nespresso coffee machine, and lavishly stocked minibar. The hotel also boasts two bars, a restaurant, pool and gym.
QT Museum Wellington boasts a huge collection of high and low-brow contemporary art scattered throughout the hotel Photo: Supplied
Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne daily, and Singapore Airlines flies direct from Canberra four times a week.
The writer was a guest of Visa Wellington On A Plate and WellingtonNZ.com.