The Austin of New Zealand Should Be Your Next Stop

In formerly-under-the-radar Wellington, the art scene is simply, gloriously, unavoidable.

Even though it’s New Zealand’s capital, Wellington has always played the overlooked sibling of bigger, trendier Auckland. Lately, though, it has begun to find its voice as a city where the creative class rules. At night, businesspeople even trade their work shoes for Doc Martens. Artists have established grand permanent spaces for their work, but you’ll also likely wander past a vacant Victorian or two that is hosting, legally or not, a pop-up exhibit or concert.

Align yourself with the city’s funky vibe by staying at the QT Museum Art Hotel, where modern paintings and sculptures mingle with opulent furnishings, as though in an eccentric collector’s home. Or pick Open Exposure in Houghton Bay, one of a number of stylish, beach-view Airbnbs. Both lodgings are a hop, skip, and a jump away from Aro Cafe in the free-spirited enclave of Aro Valley. Craft coffee in Wellington isn’t just a source of pride; it’s a point of honor. And at this spot, the long blacks—their version of the Americano—taste divine. Enjoy one on a sidewalk table and count the groovy VW vans that line the streets.

Nearby, the flashback continues among the Edwardian buildings of Cuba Street, Wellington’s hub for cool kids. Vintage is very much en vogue here, and you’ll see plenty of Lennon shades and ’70s jumpsuits. Clued-in locals get the look from Emporium, a boutique with racks and racks of old-but-fresh throwbacks. Page through a rare find, like a 50-year-old New Zealand field guide, at the used bookstore The Ferret. Then take a detour to Wakefield Street. The Service Depot specializes in experimental independent fashions (denim kimonos, anyone?) from Kiwi and international designers, and at Wellington Apothecary, modern-day mad scientists distill herbal extracts and essential oils for their line of skin care potions. After all that shopping, rest your legs in the garden of Olive, a restaurant with a Mediterranean-influenced menu, where the city’s exceptional farm stand produce steals the show.

 Te Papa Museum, the crown jewel of the city’s waterfront, is a must-hit for an afternoon. It has six rich floors of work focusing on natural history, pop culture, and everything between. Prioritize the Modern Maori art exhibition and the dark, mesmerizing paintings by Ralph Hotere, whose reactions to issues ranging from environmental destruction to apartheid have made him one of the country’s more influential artists.

When hunger builds again, seek out dinner at Matterhorn, where chefs prepare the country’s legendary lamb with rutabaga and edamame. Then pick your poison: a dessert of boozy ice-cream floats at The Library's booklined bar; a rum and sangria “Mid Life Crisis” on the rooftop Arborist bar; hometown and international pours at the Japanese-influenced beer shrine Hashigo Zake; or a late-night jolt of grappa mixed with espresso at Crumpet, where, in yet another nod to days gone by, old-timey local jazz bands play all night.

>>Next: How to Tackle Your First Visit to San Francisco's New MoMA