There are many and varied attractions in the capital that can transform a family stay into a refreshing adventure, writes Bronwyn Sell

There are few experiences more fun than exploring a familiar city through your children's fresh eyes. For my suburban Auckland family — accustomed to driving fair distances in traffic to get to the zoo or the museum and then competing for parking and navigating crowds — a long weekend in Wellington was a bracing novelty. With accommodation for all budgets in the CBD and everything from wildlife to lunch a short stroll or cheap taxi ride away, it'd be hard to find an easier little-city break.

1. TE PAPA

A must-see for anyone's list, the national museum is cleverly curated to provide layers of experiences for all ages, from toddlers on up. Nature-loving kids are particularly well catered for: Mountains to Sea takes you through a range of natural New Zealand environments, from alpine to deep sea, Awesome Forces puts the "shaky" into the shaky isles (and includes an earthquake simulation), and Blood Earth Fire covers Aotearoa's transition from untouched paradise through human settlement.

Gallipoli: the Scale of our War is captivating for kids (and adults), with Weta Workshop's giant sculptures of real Kiwis who served, miniature dioramas, computer simulations of the timeline of the campaign, helmets to try on ...

Advertisement

Given the harrowing subject matter, you'll want to stick close to the kids and use your judgment — and you may decide to skip the video room that shows bodies being collected from No Man's Land.

There are several hands-on "discovery centres" for kids within Te Papa's exhibits, and many regular and one-off experiences. Check the events schedule before you visit.

Where? 55 Cable St, on the waterfront and impossible to miss

When? 10am-6pm.

Further information: See tepapa.govt.nz

2. WELLINGTON ZOO

My family is pretty much on first-name terms with the animals in Auckland Zoo, so it was refreshing to explore a new zoo. The kids were particularly fascinated with the less-familiar species — sun bears, caracals, capybara, dingoes and a charming family of chimps. Like Wellington itself, the zoo is steep but compact so we could easily double back to see favourites (the chimps) again (and again and again) while getting a good workout for the calf muscles. It also has good playgrounds and sculptures to clamber on — the kids bounced on a trampoline in the Australian closure while an emu peered in at them. Check out the opportunities for behind-the-scenes experiences, toddler playgroups and school holiday programmes.

Where? 200 Daniel St, Newtown. A 10-minute taxi ride from the CBD, or you can catch a bus.

When? Daily 9.30pm-5pm.

Further information: See wellingtonzoo.com

3. ZEALANDIA

A sanctuary for wildlife and humans alike, Zealandia is a valley in the hills behind the city that was roped off with predator-proof fences in 1999 and has since been populated (and self-populated) with native flora and fauna. A great place to spot elusive birds such as kiwi and takahe, and reptiles, frogs and other creatures in their natural habitats.

Experiences range from a self-guided daytime wander to a guided night tour — tell the kids to eat their carrots so they can spot kiwi snuffling through the undergrowth. There are shorter, cheaper night walks for kids on certain days, and school holiday programmes.

Where: 53 Waiapu Rd, Karori. Free shuttle from the city.

When: Open 9am-5pm daily, with twilight and night tours available.

Further information: See visitzealandia.com

4. WETA WORKSHOP

Goblin at Weta Cave.
Goblin at Weta Cave.

The Weta Cave and its nearby Thunderbirds studio are inspiring and immersive places for young and old fans of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings film trilogies and the famous Tracy puppets. A workshop tour takes you up close to props used in Sir Peter Jackson's Tolkien films, King Kong, the Chronicles of Narnia and others, and the fascinating Thunderbirds tour lets you marvel over the intricate and innovative miniature sets of the Weta-designed TV series.
You can also pop into the Weta Cave shop and mini museum and watch a Weta documentary for free.

Where: Cnr Camperdown Rd and Weka St, Miramar. Shuttles available when booked with tours but a taxi may be cheaper, especially if there are a few of you.

When: Open 9am-5.30pm. Forty-five-minute tours depart every half hour.

Further information: See wetanz.com

5. CIRCA THEATRE

If you're visiting in the school holidays or in the lead-up to Christmas, check if there's a family show or pantomime on at this iconic little waterfront theatre, within stepping distance of Te Papa. It's an especially good option if it's too blustery for outdoor activities. They also run occasional theatre workshops for kids.

Where: 1 Taranaki St, along the waterfront.

When: Kids shows during some school holidays and pre-Christmas.

Further information: See circa.co.nz

6. WELLINGTON CABLE CAR

A cable car has been climbing from Lambton Quay to Kelburn for more than 100 years. The five-minute trip is especially worthwhile on a clear day, when you get great views over the city and harbour, or go at night for city lights and light shows in the tunnels. It'll have more appeal for younger kids who still get excited about public transport (my 7- and 9-year-olds were underwhelmed).

Bronwyn Sell's boys in Wellington.
Bronwyn Sell's boys in Wellington.

At the top is a little cable car museum and shop, and it's a short walk to the Space Place and the Botanic Gardens.

Where? Cable Car Lane, 280 Lambton Quay.

When? Every 10 minutes until late evening.

Further information: See wellingtoncablecar.co.nz

7. BOTANIC GARDENS

Burn off some energy by exploring the trails of this 25ha park, which has views across the city. A new children's garden is set to open in mid-spring, with opportunities for kids to learn and play. In the meantime, there's a playground with a flying fox, and from the visitor centre you can borrow a free explorer backpack for the kids, with activities, info and duck food. Kids can build a fairy house at the fairy village near the duck pond. If you're there in school holidays, check if there are extra activities.

Where? Kelburn (a short walk from the top of the cable car).

When? Open daily, dawn to dusk.

Further information: See wellington.govt.nz

8. THE SPACE PLACE AT CARTER OBSERVATORY

The Carter Observatory in Wellington.
The Carter Observatory in Wellington.

Catch a show in the domed planetarium and explore the galleries, where the kids can marvel at a moon rock and hold an asteroid. The rotating schedule of planetarium films caters to a range of ages, from preschoolers on up. Check what's on at museumswellington.org.nz.

Planetarium at Space Place in Wellington.
Planetarium at Space Place in Wellington.

Where?

40 Salamanca Rd, Kelburn, near the Botanic Gardens and top of the cable car.

When? Hours vary, with longer daytime hours in school holidays. Late nights Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Further information: See museumswellington.org.nz

9. STAGLANDS WILDLIFE RESERVE

A little further afield is this down-to-earth wildlife park, with native birds, introduced wildlife, trout and eels, and farm and domestic animals. With opportunities to meet the animals, a ye olde Kiwi bush village and tractor-trailer rides, it caters especially well to younger children.

Where? Akatarawa Valley, less than an hour's drive from the city. You'll need your own transport.

When? Open daily 9.30am-5pm.

Further information: See staglands.co.nz

10. SEAL SAFARI

Get off-road and adventurous on a three-hour Seal Coast Safari 4WD tour, bumping along steep private farm tracks and the stony beaches of Wellington's south coast to a seal colony. When we were there, only the bull seals were in residence and they barely deigned to lift their heads, but the kids loved riding in the back of the 4WD Sealmobile and exploring the wild coastline.

Where? Leaves from the i-Site centre in central Wellington.

When? Tours at 10am and 1.30pm daily.

Further information: See sealcoast.com

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

flies from Auckland to Wellington daily.

Stay: We were in a family room at the Copthorne Hotel on Oriental Parade. The room had a queen bed, a little nook with two single beds, and a bath. With a pool upstairs, face cloths crafted into elephants and rabbits, a free welcome mocktail, friendly staff and a breakfast buffet for all tastes, the kids felt right at home.