Living In Wellington As An Expat: Things To Know Before You Go

Discover New Zealand's capital Wellington: the costs, residents, areas, lifestyle and opportunities.

Living in Wellington is for those who love a city buzz, but want community. For those who want sophistication, but not a disconnect with nature. For those who love farm to table cooking, but prefer to be the table part of the equation.  

So, what do you need to know before you go? 

People in Wellington: personality 

With their modesty and manners, there’s a lot to like about the people in Wellington. The fact that the capital is small, makes it feel very friendly.

You should expect to be exchanging pleasantries on your commute and in your local store.

Typically, for Kiwis, Wellington residents are self-deprecating and can cope with a little sarcasm. They will not scrimp on praise for their neighbours or their city though, community pride is common and, usually, justified. 

Expect a typical love of sports, the outdoors and an appreciation for local produce wherever you go in Wellington. People here don’t let being a small city get in the way of anything, and they expect and deserve to be taken seriously on the global stage. 

Wellington is a nice spot for smart cookies, and almost half the population of the city have some university education.

Like any city, income levels vary, but they are above the national average.

Wellington has more colonial-era architecture than big sister Auckland, and a higher proportion of expats here come from the United Kingdom. On the surface, that gives Wellington a more ‘European’ feel, but in reality, this little hotspot is something unique.  

Wellington prides itself on keeping up with the times and with its renewable energy leadership and booming tech sector, it has good reason. Hills around Wellington are dotted with wind farms, putting windy days to good use.

The eye on progress doesn’t stop with energy. Wellington’s tech sector is one of the most profitable in the world, and it has been named a ‘City for the Future’ by respected tech industry reviews.

Wellington's neighbourhoods

Wellington neighbourhoods come in different flavours, but there’s a niche for most everyone in the windy city.

For young professionals looking to eat, drink and socialise the first port of call should be Te Aro. It’s a vibrant inner-city neighbourhood, sitting next to the Te Aro Park and with clusters of new, hyped restaurants around Ghuzmee Street and a short walk into work in the CBD. 

For more creative types or those wanting a more avant-garde feel, head for Newtown. It is slightly less established than Te Aro, but a little more diverse and dynamic. A 2 bedroom apartment here costs 2000- 2500 NZD per month. 

If you are a family looking to put down roots, look a little further out in Mount Cook. The area is still convenient for the CBD, but the sloping streets are much leafier than the town centre. Weatherboard houses are typical, and the area is quiet and safe.

Brooklyn is another great choice for those looking to set up a white picket fence. It’s a half-hour walk from the city centre or around 10-15 minutes on the bus. Brooklyn can boast a local independent cinema but does suffer from the lack of a handy supermarket. Renting a 3 bedroom property in this kind of area runs at 2500- 3700 NZD per month. 

For beach lovers, the competition will be between Miramar and Oriental Bay.

Living In Wellington - Oriental Bay
Wellington’s Oriental Bay and Harbour.

Oriental Bay is upmarket and decidedly suburban. The views over the city are gorgeous, and your belt will groan once you discover the weekend food markets.

Miramar is known for being friendly and packed with people who wish they were born with fins. It is a little further out, but for most residents, the access to the water more than makes up for it.

Rent for a 3-bedroom house starts at around 4,400 NZD per month in Mount Victoria. In exchange for 20 minutes more commuting time, Miramar would offer similar accommodation from around 3500 NZD. 

Kelburn represents a good balance with a short commute, close to the university, a large park and the unmissable Botanic Gardens. A little noise after final University exams is the only trouble the residents expect, but it’s well worth it for a reasonably priced and pretty colonial-style villas.

Rent here is around 3500 NZD for a 3 bedroom with a walkable commute into town. Just make sure not to be house-hunting in February, when student demand drives prices up. 

For family-friendly housing bargains, consider the Hutt Valley. The area boasts good schools, easy access to weekend hikes and a moderate commute into the city for work. At the last major survey in 2020, the median price of a 3-4 bedroom family home in Wellington came in at 719,000 NZD.

If you are coming from the UK or North America, property prices here can seem steep, so there is an incentive to consider more reasonably priced areas. 

Education in Wellington 

As home to Victoria University, the University of Otago Medical School and Massey University, Wellington is known as a University city.

Both Victoria and Massey are ranked in the world's top 500, with a few stand out courses.  There is also a respectable selection of technical institutes, like Weltec, for technical and trade courses. 

For high school level students, most schools are more than satisfactory.

Particular stars are Samuel Marsden Collegiate School and Queen Margaret’s for Girls.

In the state sector, Onslow College and just outside the city, Hutt Valley High School stand out. Both have a strong academic focus, but are coeducational and skip formal uniform requirements. 

With state schools, remember that it’s necessary to be living in the zoned area for admission. This is particularly relevant for primary and intermediate schools, high schools and church schools sometimes have a little discretion.

Wellington primary schools all meet a high standard, only the demographics vary. With schools intake determined entirely by the local population, if you feel at home in the area, then your children should feel at home in the school. 

Getting around

‘It’s only about 20 minutes from here’

This phrase is so common in Wellington that it’s almost an inside joke. It’s for good reason, though. Wellington CBD is compact and easy to get around on foot, so if you live in the centre you could reasonably walk most places.

Living in Wellington - Mount Victoria
Traditional residential houses at Mount Victoria in Wellington

If you opt for one of the green suburbs, there are 5 train lines, several ferry routes and regular local buses. Regular commuters usually opt for monthly passes to save a few dollars. 

More people in Wellington use public transport as their primary means of transport than anywhere else in New Zealand. 

Commuting into the centre can land you in traffic, but there are car parks on the edge of the CBD to help avoid the worst of it. Intercity travel in New Zealand is much easier with a car, but Wellington is often easier on foot. 

The cost of living in Wellington

You don’t move to New Zealand because it’s cheap, you come here because of the value.  In this, Wellington is true to type. There are cities around the world where things will cost less, the question is are there any that can offer the same return? 

Being an island nation comes with its costs. Namely, taxes on imported goods. Clothing will cost you more than you would expect in the United States or the U.K. and overseas branded goods like perfumes and alcohol can be steeper. 

Mercer's cost of living index in 2021 billed Wellington as the world’s 94th most expensive city. That might sound expensive but consider that it’s cheaper than London, Copenhagen, Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, Sydney, Los Angeles, Perth, Melbourne and Auckland. In other words, for what it is, Wellington is a bargain.  

A cup of coffee and a pastry should cost you less than 10 NZD in most cafes. A 2-course dinner at a local restaurant will cost between 100 and 150 NZD before you add wine. Foodie bargains can be found and the delicious kiosks near Eva St are a good place to look. 

Outdoor adventures

Leafy is a good description of most places in Wellington. When the need strikes to dial up the green factor, the city parks are plentiful and lovely.

Central highlights are the giant Botanic Gardens, Kelburn Park, Mount Victoria Town Belt and Wellington Central Park. Central Park has a higher proportion of native plants whereas the Botanic Garden has beautifully maintained sections of roses, deciduous for autumn colour and showcases areas of New Zealand’s own flora. 

Wellington’s windy weather is legendary, and the closer you get to the southern edge of the north island, the more likely you are to be caught in a blustery burst.

The best way to look at this is to recognise that a haircut which needs to lie just so might not be wise, and a good windbreaker jacket is sensible. That said, you famously can’t beat a good day in Wellington. 

Step outside the central districts and your options for outdoor pursuits explode.

Over 225 hectares, the Zealandia reserve is home to dozens of rare bird species and regenerated native forests. The bush is packed with life, and you can even book a twilight visit, to see the glow-worms and go kiwi-spotting. 

Hot on Zealandia’s heels is the Otari-Wilton reserve. A huge restored forest, allows visitors to transport themselves back to what Wellington looked like before human civilisation came calling. The tranquil atmosphere and the tree ferns get under every visitor's skin.

Another gem for hiking is Butterfly Creek, with beautiful views and enough of a challenge to feel like an achievement. 

New Zealand is packed with natural wonders, and perching in the middle, Wellington is central. That means the maximum amount of accessible places with the minimum amount of travel time.

Where the Wellington region itself stands out, is the forests. Tararua forest park is a mountainous, wooded expanse. It’s an easy drive from the city, so weekend trips are within reach.  With trails that range from accessible to adventurous and the chance to immerse yourself completely in the gentle buzz of the bush forest, it’s a must-see. 

Wining and dining 

There is a famous and oft-repeated claim that (per capita) Wellington has more places to eat than New York City. It sounds too good to be true, but luckily for foodies in Wellington, it isn’t.

Wellington actually has more restaurants and cafés per head. The number of places to eat isn’t the exciting part, though, it’s the fabulous variety. 

Whether you’re on the hunt for a perfect sourdough, modern Japanese food or a pizza to transport you to Chicago without the air miles, Wellington has you covered.

Find your nearest branch of Pandoro Panetteria and sink yourself in a paradise of sophisticated carbohydrates, or hit Leeds St Bakery for a slice of sourdough you won’t forget. 

For a more substantial meal, don’t miss Apache, the delicious result of a romance between Vietnamese and French cuisine.

You’ll have to book but make a date with Hiakai, for a unique focus on fine dining Maori food culture.

Anniversaries and birthdays call locals back to the pretty Boulcott Street Bistro regularly, and their modern local lens on classic dishes is a firm favourite. 

Wellington’s café culture doesn’t disappoint, and you can find your cortado or flat white at Milk Crate in Te Aro or Lamazon Brew Bar in Te Aro.

In some places, the hospitality industry can be cut-throat, but Wellington’s cafés love to showcase the work of local bakeries, coffee roasters and artists. You can see the connection and community, even while you get your caffeine hit. 

Living in Wellington – summary 

If Chicago wants to be known as the best windy city in the world, it had better shape up.

For those looking to be surrounded by smart sophistication on a manageable scale, Wellington takes the crown. This city isn’t flashy or giant, but it is vibrant and charming. For forest bathers, bookworms and foodies, Wellington is the best little capital in the world. 

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Hannah Morby

Hannah is a freelance writer based in picturesque Carmarthenshire, the UK. After winding her way around the world, living in New Zealand, Yorkshire and the Home Counties, she is now settled closer to her childhood home in Wales.

Having left a career working in higher education, she now enjoys life as a copywriter, mother and chief zookeeper to a small menagerie of cats, dogs and chickens.

You can contact Hannah on LinkedIn: Hannah Morby

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