To find out whether Wellington lives up to its latest international accolade, Frances Morton goes hunting for the capital's cool spots.
What do Tel Aviv, New York, Newcastle (the Australian one) and Wellington have in common? According to Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011, they are all on the top-10 list of the world's best cities to visit.
The universally loved travel guide called Wellington the "coolest little capital in the world", much to the delight of the local tourism industry, which has already seized on this as the city's new slogan.
Many Wellingtonians I spoke to, although proud, wondered how they managed to nab the fourth spot on the list of top city destinations. As my taxi driver so eloquently put it: "Tourists don't come here for Wellington, they come here to go north and south".
Here are 10 cool reasons to go there right now and stick around.
1. Te Papa has the colossal squid and the biggest exhibitions. A retrospective of work by New Zealand's most renowned photojournalist, Brian Brake (Lens on the World), tracks his impressive career and includes his famous "Monsoon" series for Life magazine (until May 2011). This weekend, paintings by the titans of 20th-century art go on show. European Masters runs until February 27 and features Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Picasso. (tepapa.govt.nz)
2. The "Successful failure" of Nasa's third attempt to land men on the moon has given rise to the resounding success of Apollo 13, Mission Control. This tense and hugely entertaining interactive theatre experience transports audiences to Houston's Mission Control in 1970. When the astronauts "have a problem" 200,000 miles from Earth, all must pitch in to bring them home. Until December 18 at Downstage Theatre (apollo13.co.nz).
3. After embarking on an imaginary space journey, delve into more stories of astronauts and the wonders of the universe at Carter Observatory (Botanic Gardens, carterobservatory.org). The observatory reopened this year after renovations and there's an inspiring exhibition on Peter Read, broadcaster, amateur astronomer and artist, who was a guest at the launch of Apollo 15.
4. The most scenic route to the observatory is up the good old cable car from Lambton Quay (wellingtoncablecar.co.nz). A newer option is to catch the Wellington CitySights bus tour (citysights.co.nz). A $30 ticket will get you a 24-hour pass for this 12-stop city tour, which takes one hour to do a circuit of popular sites in the city, commentary included.
5. The citysights bus will take you back in time to the pre-mammal age at Zealandia (end of Waipu Rd, Karori, visitzealandia.com). This bird sanctuary is protected from predators by an extensive fence. We went at dusk for a kiwi-spotting tour and were lucky enough to get a glimpse of our fluffy national icon foraging among the undergrowth. Sightings are likely but not guaranteed. However, even if you miss out, listening to kiwi call to each other across the bushy valley as you creep along paths lit by glow-worms is a magical way to spend the evening.
6. There are no glow-worms but plenty of other weird and wonderful creatures at the Weta Cave (corner Camperdown and Weka Sts, Miramar, wetanz.com/cave). This retail outlet for the special effects studio sells books, models, figurines and has a mini museum of props, including weapons from District 9, armour from Lord of the Rings and a demonic baby from Peter Jackson's early splatterfest, Braindead.
7. Being the hub of Wellington's film industry has boosted Miramar's culinary scene. Down the road from the Weta Cave are Larder (corner Darlington and Camperdown Rds, thelarder.co.nz) and Cafe Polo (corner Para St and Rotherham Tce, cafepolo.co.nz). Both focus on fresh, seasonal fare. Or jump on the Number 2 bus back into the city centre for huge plates of reasonably priced, hearty Cajun and Creole delights at Sweet Mothers Kitchen (5 Courtenay Place, sweetmotherskitchen.co.nz). It's great fuel for a big night out.
8. When it comes to bars, Wellington does small and perfectly formed. Showcasing boutique beers from around the world, Hashigo Zake (25 Taranaki St, hashigozake.co.nz) changes its tap beer menu daily. Ingeniously combining vintage shopping with quaffing, at Cuckoo Cocktail Emporium (Steamship Building, North Queens Wharf) the furniture is for sale, too. And slip down an alleyway, not rabbit hole, to the trippy Alice, where cocktails are served from teapots (end of Forresters Lane, whiterabbit.co.nz).
9. To be close to the action, the coolest spot to stay is lively Cuba St. Quality Hotel (223 Cuba St, hotelwellington.co.nz) is spacious, comfortable and can't be beat on location.
10. No trip away would be complete without cool souvenirs. Label-hunters will love the new, suave Stable (32 Cuba St) for stocking Marc by Marc Jacobs as well as local designers Kate Sylvester and Cybele. Rex Royale (106 Cuba St, rexroyale.co.nz) is a favourite stop for hipster threads. Madame Fancy Pants has irresistible jewellery such as silver paper-plane earrings and gold feather bracelets (217 Cuba St, madamefancypants.com), and Swonderful (95 Victoria St, swonderful.co.nz) has crafty-chic gear with a satisfying dollop of attitude tempering the cuteness.