The main focal point of the inner city is the harbor. The new Te Papa national museum fronts this water, as does the Queen?s Wharf dining and shopping complex. Unlike the rest of the city, the central business district (CBD) is generally flat and easily negotiable. The best shopping is along Lambton Quay and Willis Street; Manners Street and Cuba Mall also have plenty of stores. They are less upmarket, but Cuba Mall especially is one of the hippest areas, known for its edgy boutiques, design stores, and excellent eateries. This is my favorite part of Wellington because it's always busy and interesting. The inner area of Lambton Quay, Willis Street, and The Terrace is home to many of the nation's corporate headquarters and thus is second home to "the suits." Several leading hotels and apartment complexes are also in this area, so if you base yourself here, you won't need a car to see most of the major attractions and shops - but you will need earplugs for a sound sleep.
The heaviest concentration of bars and eateries is between Courtenay Place and Wakefield Street and the lanes running between them, especially Blair and Allen streets. Most of the inner city is safe, but I wouldn't go lurking around Cuba Mall after closing time, especially the top end, which has always been seen as the heart of the seedier side of the sex industry. Manners Mall is no more appealing late at night. Courtenay Place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights is the center of nightlife, but there are often numerous people about who have consumed more than their fair share of alcohol and who may not be entirely open to reason. Generally, though, personal safety rules are the same as in any other international city - use common sense and don't wander about dark places alone in the middle of the night. Many inner city areas are now under security camera surveillance.
The Neighborhoods in Brief
Thorndon --This neighborhood sits right on the fault line, but that hasn't detracted from real estate values here. It's seen as one of the premier suburbs in Wellington because of its beautiful historic buildings, its views, and its proximity to the inner city. There are some excellent bed-and-breakfasts within walking distance of Parliament Buildings, the city, the Botanic Garden, and Tinakori Village, a fashionable little spot for shopping and eating. The area's only downsides are the noise from the motorway, the heavy traffic on Tinakori Road, and the lack of both off-and on-street parking.
Mount Victoria -- This is where I would live if I thought I could afford anything bigger than a letter box. It's very close to the Courtenay Place end of town, everything is within walking distance, and it's filled with gorgeous (slightly less perfect) wooden houses. It's also quieter. Parking is generally earmarked for residents only during business hours, but you'll be fine after 6pm.
Kelburn -- Kelburn is easily accessed via the cable car from Lambton Quay, which runs up to the Botanic Garden and Victoria University. Homes in this area are sought after for their especially good harbor and city views.
Oriental Bay -- This part of town offers prime real estate just 800m (about 1/2 mile) around the water's edge from the inner city and Mount Victoria. Again, it's a great place to stay, with several hotels and private high-rise apartments stretched out along Oriental Parade, which is a favorite playground for in-line skaters, walkers, and runners. There are hints of San Francisco here, I'm told, plus a few excellent cafes and restaurants and beautiful city and harbor views.
Evans Bay -- This area is far less inspiring. It's farther out, around the point, and its prime attraction is its proximity to the airport.
Lower Hutt -- A city within a city-Lower Hutt is the ninth largest in New Zealand. It's across the harbor from Wellington proper and accessed via a short motorway drive, usually about 15 minutes in good traffic. This is where you'll find the fabulous New Dowse Art Museum.