The world's most southerly capital city is a shining example of turning weaknesses into strengths. Hemmed in between harbour and hills, Wellington simply doesn't have the space to sprawl. It is not, and never will be, a giant. So it opts for intimacy rather than intimidation. The city centre is easily strolled, but this creates a world where experimental cafes and designers can thrive.
The attitude hits almost as instantly as the good looks. Wellington has a wide-eyed eagerness to soak in new ideas. It wants to roast the very best coffee beans, it wants to turn up to anything that's going on and it wants to try new tastes - whether they come from Chile or Kuala Lumpur. It's a petite city that cherishes engagement - and has gained an unmistakable cachet of cool as a result.
A comfortable bed
The Museum Hotel (www.museumhotel.co.nz; 00 64 4 802 8900) is the most audacious accommodation in Wellington, with the sprawling lobby turned into a daringly flamboyant art gallery. The apartment-style rooms at the back are excellent too, with complimentary bath fizzers adding character among the harbour views and full kitchens. Studio apartments cost from NZ$239 (Dh753).
Opposite the parliament, the businesslike but not cookie-cutter Bolton (www.boltonhotel.co.nz; 00 64 4 472 9966) is the best bet in terms of facilities - including a swimming pool and free Wi-Fi, both of which are rarities in New Zealand. Studio suites start at NZ$189 (Dh595).
On a relative budget, the CQ Comfort Hotel (www.hotelwellington.co.nz; 00 64 4 385 2156) is a solid three-star choice in a brilliant location, right in the thick of the action on Queen Street. Doubles cost from NZ$94 (Dh296).
Find your feet
Partly pedestrianised Cuba Street - named after a ship rather than the country - is the best place to get an instant hit of Wellington's personality. It's lined with independent cafes, record stores, bookshops and vintage fashion boutiques, while bulging crowds swell around street performers.
The street ends at the public art overdose of Civic Square - the metal palm trees and suspended globe of silver ferns are particularly eye-catching. From there, the whale tail sculptures and wooden Maori carvings of the City to Sea Bridge lead to the waterfront. Here old storage sheds have been converted into seafood restaurants, coffee roasteries and theatres. The Writers Walk, a series of carved stone slabs with quotes about the city from various authors throughout the decades, weaves past diving platforms. Children egg each other on to dive into the sea from progressively scarier heights.
Opposite is Ta Papa, New Zealand's national museum, and one that could occupy you for days. The sections on the country's tumultuous geology and Maori history are the most gripping.
Meet the locals
Wellington is a highly caffeinated city, with locals extremely particular about their favoured source. Bad coffee, therefore, doesn't get a look in. But the cafe culture is strong and conversations are often struck up over lazy breakfasts. Perennial favourites include Fidel's (www.fidelscafe.com; 00 64 4 801 6868) on Cuba Street with its knowingly shabby, revolutionary schtick and Caffe L'Affare (www.laffare.co.nz; 00 64 4 385 9748), where the city's coffee obsession first kicked off in 1990.
Book a table
With a gorgeous location inside an old bank, Logan Brown (www.loganbrown.co.nz; 00 64 4 801 5114) is arguably Wellington's best fine-dining restaurant. The emphasis here is on sustainable food and line-caught fish. Locals know to ask for the signature paua - the local name for abalone - ravioli, which is always available, even when not officially on the menu. Mains cost between NZ$45 and NZ$50 (Dh142 to Dh158).
The waterfront Karaka Café (www.wharewakaoponeke.co.nz; 00 64 4 916 4393) adds a cultural twist by incorporating traditional Maori ingredients, such as flax seeds in the burgers and native herbs rubbed into lamb steaks. Mains cost between NZ$15 and NZ$25 (Dh47 to Dh79).
Picking out favourites on Cuba Street almost misses the point - it's far greater than the sum of its parts, but Iko Iko (www.ikoiko.co.nz; 00 64 4 385 0977) offers quirkily beautiful giftware and stationary, while Ziggurat (00 64 4 385 1077) arguably does the retro-chic swap-shop clothing thing best in a crowded field.
If you've more money to burn on something special, then the Kura Gallery (www.kuragallery.co.nz; 00 64 4 802 4934) has the most thoughtfully selected collection of Maori art. The greenstone jewellery and driftwood carvings have a distinctive New Zealand flavour.
What to avoid
While the rest of New Zealand is made for self-driving, Wellington can be a nightmare to drive around, particularly when it comes to finding somewhere to park. Ditch the car - the city is easily navigated on foot, with buses filling the gaps to get up to the hillside lookouts such as the justifiably popular Mount Victoria.
Zealandia (www.visitzealandia.com; 00 64 4 920 9200) has to be one of the most ambitious nature projects anywhere on earth. The aim is to return a valley to how it would have been before humans arrived in New Zealand. It'll take 500 years for the trees to grow back, but the predator-proof fence surrounding the valley has meant that endangered species only previously found on offshore island sanctuaries are thriving just three kilometres away from the New Zealand parliament building. Most, including the little-spotted kiwi, are nocturnal so it's best to book one of the NZ$76.50 (Dh241) night-time guided walks.
A return flights from Abu Dhabi to Wellington via Sydney with Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) costs from Dh6,525, including taxes. The flight takes 20 hours.
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