This blog may contain affiliate links. Read our disclosure policy for more info.
Wellington is the quirky and bustling capital of the country – and one of my favorite places on the North Island. Meanwhile, Palmerston North is an inland city known for its arts and theater scene. While it’s not on the typical tourist track, that’s often a good thing. Locals are super friendly, and you get a taste of what Kiwi life is really like.
And if you’re driving between these two cities, you’re in for a treat! There are two routes you can take, and both are filled with awesome highlights. I’ve driven them both, and I loved stopping at beautiful outdoor sights, some of the best wineries, and quirky locally-owned cafes.
Having lived in New Zealand for a few years, I can honestly say that road trips are the best way to experience this country. To make the most of your journey from Palmerston North to Wellington, I’ve put together a list of sights to stop and see! My hope is that you’ll fall in love with this stunning country, just as I did.
Don’t have time to read the full article? There are two routes from Palmerston North to Wellington. If you aren’t in a rush, my pick is the scenic route because it stops at Pukaha National Wildlife Centre and Manawatu Gorge. But the direct route means you can fit in a stop at the Adrenalin Forest Obstacle Course!
- About the Drive from Palmerston North to Wellington
- Best Stops between Palmerston North to Wellington (Scenic Route)
- Palmerston North to Wellington (Direct Route)
- Other Activities to do While You’re in Wellington
- Where to Stay in Wellington
- Thanks for reading!
- Why I Book Tours with Viator
- Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
- Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
About the Drive from Palmerston North to Wellington
There are two different routes you can take when driving from Palmerston North to Wellington.
If you have the time, I highly recommend taking the scenic route between Palmerston North and Wellington. This drive is 230 kilometers (143 miles) and takes about 3 hours and 50 minutes without stopping. But with so many beautiful things surrounding this area, I highly recommend you break up the drive!
From Palmerston North, you’ll take a little detour to visit Manawatu Gorge (which I think is well worth it!). From there, you’ll head south along State Highway 2, which is known for its gorgeous landscapes. You’ll go through rolling hills and scenic reserves and even drive by some Lord of the Rings filming sites. Along the way, there are many stops offering unique viewpoints and the opportunity to stretch your legs.
The direct route is 143 kilometers (89 miles) and takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes without stopping. You’ll follow State Hwy 56 and 57 to State Hwy 1. This will take you directly south, passing by smaller towns and a couple of beautiful beaches.
This route is best if you’re short on time. However, don’t forget to budget a few extra hours to enjoy some of the stops along the way! You’ll be able to visit unique museums, see incredible local wildlife, and even get your adrenaline pumping at an adventure park.
Ending this drive in Wellington simply makes sense. This is where you can grab the ferry to the South Island or spend a few days and check out this fun city.
Whichever route you take, know that the roads from Palmerston North to Wellington are in good shape and are well-traveled. The North Island does not receive snow or ice, so the weather conditions make this drive safe year-round. There can be rain in this area, so use caution during heavy downpours. The summer will offer sunny, beautiful days that will make this drive quite a treat!
Need wheels? For rental cars, I always book with Discover Cars since the website is so easy to use with great prices. For motorhomes and campervans, I really like JUCY because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. You can browse JUCY’s availability here. Alternatively, you can see all the different rental companies available on Motorhome Republic.
Best Stops between Palmerston North to Wellington (Scenic Route)
1. Palmerston North
Palmerston North is a bit of a hidden gem in the southern inland portion of the North Island. It’s a university city, but also boasts many museums and beautiful outdoor areas.
This city is a great place to go for long walks and enjoy some fresh air – especially if you’re preparing for a road trip! Bledisloe Park is the perfect area to immerse yourself in nature and enjoy a well-marked trail. The area is full of native trees and wildlife. When I visited, I honestly forgot I was in a city at all.
When I pass through, one place I always stop is the Victoria Esplanade. This park is free to visit and open from 9 am – 9 pm every day. You’ll definitely want to come here to see the gorgeous rose garden in bloom from October to May.
I also recommend checking out the street art on Berrymans Lane and then popping into Brew Union Brewing Co for a pint and wood-fired pizza. This brewery is open Monday to Thursday from 3-10 pm, Friday/Saturday from 11 am – midnight, and Sundays from 11 am – 9 pm.
For a real taste of Kiwi culture, visit the New Zealand Rugby Museum. I wouldn’t call myself a huge rugby fan, but I had a ton of fun here! I saw lots of rugby memorabilia and even tried some of the museum’s interactive challenges. The museum is located in the city center, is open daily from 10 am – 4 pm, and costs $15 NZD for adults and $6 for kids (ages 5-17).
Related Read: If you’re visiting the West Coast, check out the town of Whanganui! It has that classic coastal vibe and is full of creativity and small-town charm.
2. Manawatu Gorge
Here is another accessible scenic reserve that you can explore by car or on foot! The Manawatu Gorge is right off of State Highway 2, about 35 minutes from Palmerston North. The Manawatu River cuts through the gorge creating stunning ranges on both sides. This has now become a popular hiking area on the North Island and is easy to access for all sorts of travelers.
The Manawatu Gorge Track is a hiking trail that takes you up the gorge for incredible views of the river below. There is an initial inclined section, but then it levels out for a nice shady walk through the forest.
The trail will extend about 7.7 kilometers (4.8 miles), but there are several points to stop and take in the views. Since it’s a point-to-point trail, you can make this hike as long as you want and just turn around whenever you please.
If you don’t have as much time, there are shorter walks. Just park at the car park where the trailheads are. From there, there is a bridge that drives right over the river and allows you to take in the beauty from below! There is also a beautiful freedom camping spot just on the other side of the bridge.
If you prefer having facilities like flush toilets, showers, a small kitchen, and a playground, you can head to the nearby Ashhurst Campground. Powered sites cost $10 NZD per person, and unpowered sites are $7 NZD per person.
3. Pukaha National Wildlife Centre
Pukaha National Wildlife Centre is an unfenced sanctuary for native wildlife. They maintain a 942-hectare (2,328-acre) forest of wild birds and an aviary where they hatch kiwis, kakas, and kakariki for release. They also rescue reptiles and various marine animals!
You can visit the Pukaha National Wildlife Centre by exploring the forest where the wild birds live or by taking a guided tour. You can also go into the aviary to see the hatchlings or into the center to see the other types of animals.
The center is located right off the highway, about an hour from the Manawatu Gorge. It’s roughly the midway point on the scenic route – so it’s a great time to stretch those legs and grab a bite to eat. And since it’s open daily from 9 am – 6 pm, it’s easy to fit into your itinerary.
If you want to explore on your own, admission costs $24 NZD per adult, $9 NZD per child (ages 5-14), and $65 NZD per family (up to 6). However, I took a guided tour and absolutely loved it.
On my tour, the guides were able to spot birds in trees that I would have totally missed. They also gave detailed information about the species and pointed out which were endangered. I learned so much, and it made me enjoy this place even more.
A one-hour guided tour costs $50 NZD per adult, $27.50 NZD per child, and $160 NZD per family (up to 6 people). Tours start at 10 am and 2 pm daily, and the price covers admission fees.
If you don’t want to pay for admission into the wildlife center, you can still visit the Kaka Cafe, which is not only relaxing and delicious but also gives you the chance to see wildlife! The Kaka Cafe has locally roasted coffee and a full menu with vegan and gluten-free options. It has a great patio area so you can sit outside and see all the wild birds. People frequently see kaka or takahe birds!
4. Remutaka Crossing
The Remutaka Crossing is a magnificent part of your drive. It’s the portion of the highway that passes over the Remukata Mountains and is one of those areas that leaves you wondering, “How is this place even real?”
When taking the Scenic Route, you’ll hit the Remutaka Crossing about 2 hours and 50 minutes into your drive. What’s awesome is you can capture its beauty as you’re winding around the roads. You can also get out at the Lookout to snap a quick photo.
This is also the spot to find some adventure! The Te Ara Tirohanga (Remutaka Trig) Track is an excellent hiking route that isn’t very long. So even if you don’t have much time, you can still enjoy hiking in New Zealand. It’s the perfect way to get your heart rate up on a long day of driving.
This out-and-back hike is 1.7 km (1.1 miles) but relatively steep. The views at the top make it all worth it as you spot Lake Wairarapa and the Aorangi Mountains in the distance. This area is one of the most beautiful parts of the North Island, in my opinion! You can expect this hike to take about 1 hour.
If hiking isn’t on your bucket list, you can still enjoy the drive as you wind through the mountain pass. However, this is the part of the drive that can get unsafe in bad weather conditions. Be sure to check the road updates before you drive in the winter!
Related Read: If you love trekking to see gorgeous views, read about my favorite hikes on the South Island as well!
5. Rivendell/Kaitoke Regional Park
The great Rivendell is a well-known Lord of the Rings attraction that sits in Kaitoke Regional Park (about 45 minutes from Wellington). Rivendell was built to be part of the movie, but if I’m being honest, seeing Rivendell was a bit underwhelming as it is simply a forest walk with one cool arch. It’s still neat to say that I’ve been there, and it could be significant to die-hard LOTR fans.
What I was more impressed with was Kaitoke Regional Park! That makes this stop totally worth it. The park is beautiful, with a great river to swim in, walking trails, and bridges. You can explore the shaded forest with the extensive hiking trails or sit on the grassy lawn and enjoy a sunny day.
The suspension bridges are impressive, and the forest area is stunning. If you’ve been in the car all day, it will be a breath of fresh air to explore Kaitoke Regional Park!
Related Read: If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan and heading to the South Island, take one of these awesome LOTR tours in Glenorchy!
Finally, you will make it to Wellington! This is actually one of my favorite cities in the entire country and one of the most underrated capital cities in the world. Wellington doesn’t feel like the bustling metropolis that is often associated with the country’s capital. Instead, it is quirky and has a unique culture of craft breweries, colorful buildings, and even more outdoor areas to explore.
Wellington is known as the craft brewery capital of New Zealand, which makes me automatically love this place! There are over 20 breweries within a small radius. But the best way to brewery hop is on this guided beer-tasting tour which takes you to not one, not two, but four Wellington and Hutt Valley breweries.
Tastings are included at Kereru, Boneface Brewery, Baylands Brewery, and The Third Eye. Pick-up and drop-off to CBD hotels are included, which means you can drink as much as you want without having to worry about a designated driver! This 4-hour tour is offered Wednesday to Sunday at 4 pm. It costs $154 NZD, including all tastings and transport. For the best intro to Wellington’s craft beer, secure a spot on this tour today.
After all that driving, you may need a long walk, which is why I love exploring the Wellington Waterfront Walk. This is a 3 km (1.9 mi) stretch full of restaurants, parks, beaches, iconic statues, and the famous Wellington sign to take a photo with!
My favorite museum in all of New Zealand is also located in Wellington! The Te Papa Museum is one of the most visited spots in the whole country. The museum’s full name, Te Papa Tongarewa, is a Maori phrase meaning “container of treasures” – and that’s precisely what this place felt like. It’s full of fascinating artifacts that helped me learn about Kiwi history and Maori culture.
The museum is located in the CBD and is open daily from 10 am – 6 pm. It’s free to enter, although certain exhibits may cost extra. However, one of the best ways to see Te Papa is on this particular tour. You’ll explore the museum 30 minutes before it opens its doors to the public like a true VIP. Trust me, some of the top exhibits are best seen without the crowds. This entry ticket costs only $15 NZD and can be purchased right here!
While in Wellington, visiting the Weta Cave and Workshop is also a must. If you’re a movie buff or simply interested in a really cool experience, this is one of the best special effects and props companies in the entire world. It was founded by none other than the director of Lord of the Rings, Sir Peter Jackson. Taking a tour is a great way to learn about the creation of these props and how the special effects are done; it is seriously impressive!
If all this LOTR talk got you excited, I recommend taking this small group tour! First, you’ll head to Hobbiton Woods, where the Hobbits hid from the Black Riders. You’ll visit five filming sites from the first movie before heading onto Wētā Cave and Workshop for an official guided tour. This is a great look into The Hobbit film creation, even if you don’t have time to make it to Hobbiton!
The tour lasts for about 3.5 hours and includes hotel pickup and dropoff, making it super convenient. It costs $185 NZD for adults or $95 NZD for kids (ages 5-12). However, it does sell out fast, so book it online well in advance!
There are a handful of ferry trips that leave from Wellington, but it is most well-known as the port to access the South Island! The ferry to the South Island is a three-hour journey and takes you through the beautiful Cook Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound. I love seeing both the North and South Islands from the water – it gives you a whole new perspective of the landscape! You can also take the ferry to Matiu, Somes Islands, or Days Bay for a great day trip from Wellington.
There is honestly so much to do in Wellington that my recommendations could go on and on. You’ll definitely want at least a few days to enjoy all this city has to offer.
Related Read: Are you a craft beer fan AND heading to the South Island? Click here to read about the best breweries in Queenstown.
Palmerston North to Wellington (Direct Route)
1. Nga Manu Nature Reserve
The Nga Manu Nature Reserve is a beautiful outdoor area and the perfect place to get some fresh air on this route.
New Zealand is full of one-of-a-kind wildlife, and most of the time, it’s hard to see it out in the wild. Luckily, there are tons of nature reserves around the country, making it easy for you to experience New Zealand’s beauty. These reserves are significant as they work to help endangered species and preserve the native wildlife of the area.
The Nga Manu Nature Reserve is right off SH 1, making it an easy stop on your road trip from Palmerston North to Wellington. It’s also not a super touristy attraction, so you really get to interact with the animals as you wander through the aviary, reptile enclosures, and swamp forest.
Kids love this activity, but I honestly had as much fun as the kids running around! It’s an individual experience, and I love that this nature reserve is small and locally owned, so you really get to interact with the animals and friendly staff! The reserve is open every day from 10 am to 5 pm, so take a quick stop to check it out.
You can purchase tickets upon arrival. Adults cost $15 NZD, Students (with ID) are $12 NZD, kids ages 5-17 are $8 NZD, and anyone under 5 is free. There are also special deals for families. 1 adult + up to 3 kids costs $25 NZD and 2 adults + up to 3 kids costs $35 NZD.
There are also several add-ons you can purchase along with your ticket. Try feeding eels or get up close and personal with a Native Bird Encounter. Many of these extra experiences require advance booking. You can check out the full list along with prices on the reserve’s website.
2. Southward Car Museum
The Southward Car Museum is a fascinating stop, even if you aren’t a car fanatic! Located only about 1 hour north of Wellington, this car museum is an important piece of Kiwi culture and a good glimpse into the history of this area!
The Southward Car Museum originally started as a car collection in 1956. Sir Len Southward had an original Ford Model T and eventually grew his collection to be the largest private car collection in Australasia. He opened it up as a museum in 1977 so everyone could enjoy the vast collection. Today, there are over 450 cars to go check out!
This makes for a fun and unique stop along your drive. Not only are there cars, but historic motorcycles, boats, and airplanes too! You can easily spend an hour or more exploring the expansive collection. There is also a cafe and theater attached, so you might get lucky and catch a show while you’re there!
The museum is open every day from 9 am to 4:30 pm. Just pop in and buy a ticket! Adult entry is $22.50 NZD, children ages 5-15 cost $5 NZD, and families with 2 adults and up to 3 kids cost $50 NZD.
3. Wellington Tramway Museum
For even more history, you can check out the Wellington Tramway Museum. This is only 10 minutes from the Southward Car Museum and could easily be an afternoon stop before you get to Wellington.
These trams are actually pretty cool to see, as they were used on the Wellington Tramway. Some of the trams date back to the 1920s, and the railway system has been in use since 1878!
If you’re a history lover, this museum will be super impressive. But similar to the car museum above, even if you’re not a huge history or train person, I still think it’s a worthwhile stop! Riding in these historic trams really transports you back in time.
I always find it valuable to learn about the unique history of an area and how that’s impacted the city today. This tramway museum goes into a lot about how Wellington has grown and adapted over the years.
The museum is only open on Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 4 pm, and tickets can be purchased upon arrival. It costs $12 NZD per adult, $6 NZD per child (ages 5-14), and is free for those under 5. Families cost $30 NZD for 2 adults and up to 3 kids.
If you happen to hit this area on the weekend, you can easily spend an hour here enjoying old trams!
4. Adrenalin Forest Wellington
Prepare for the adventure of a lifetime, jam-packed full of adrenaline, obstacles, but most importantly, fun! This Adrenalin Forest Obstacle Course is located only 20 minutes from Wellington, so it makes for the perfect last stop before you make it to the city.
Throughout this course, you will cross over 100 bridges that require you to use your strength, dexterity, and quick thinking. They are spread out on seven height levels, ranging from 1.5-meter (5-foot) high bridges to 31-meter (101-foot) ziplines and climbing nets.
Whether it’s crossing logs, swings, or the famous Tarzan jump, you can conquer them all while enjoying spectacular views of the emerald-green treetops.
This is an amazing family activity – although I had a great time with friends as well! There is a minimum age of 11 years, but older kids have an absolute blast here. When you purchase your ticket, you’ll choose a date and entry time between 10 am – 2 pm.
Tickets are $48 NZD for adults and $33 NZD for kids (ages 11-17) and include access to every single one of the courses for 3 hours. You can also rent a GoPro HD to record this adventure and boast to all your friends back home about your experiences.
For a burst of adrenaline, book tickets to this adventure park right here!
Why I Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
Check out the Viator website here!
Other Activities to do While You’re in Wellington
If you’re ending your road trip in Wellington, you’re in luck! There are a ton of other things to do and see in NZ’s capital city (and yes, Wellington is the capital, not Auckland, as many assume). Here are a few more things to add to your to-do list:
- Mount Victoria Lookout – One of the best views of Wellington can be found atop the Mount Victoria Lookout. Here, you will be treated to a 360-degree view of the city’s eastern beaches, Hutt Valley, and the Miramar Peninsula. You can hike here, drive, or take the bus. I recommend visiting for sunset!
- Take an electric bike tour – One of the best ways to see Wellington is by bike! With an electric bike, you cover so much ground (and get fresh air!) without exhausting yourself. This guided e-bike tour takes you down the waterfront, past beaches, and onto the Miramar Peninsula.
- Visit Zealandia – If you’re an animal lover, you must visit Zealandia! This eco-park was created to protect New Zealand’s unique local creatures, but it feels nothing like a zoo! Instead, animals live like they would in nature. It’s located just a 10-minute drive from downtown, and there are many tour options available!
- Explore Cuba Street – Easily the most popular street in Wellington, Cuba Street is known for its quirky and fun atmosphere. Filled with colorful cafes (serving the best coffee in Wellington), vintage clothing stores, and casual restaurants – many with great outdoor seating areas – visiting Cuba Street is a not-to-be-missed experience in Wellington.
Where to Stay in Wellington
Once you arrive in Wellington, you’ll need a place to recoup. Luckily in this city, there are a ton of great places to stay. So if you need help narrowing down your options, keep reading. I’ve highlighted my favorite accommodations for each budget.
Luxury – $$$
If you’re a luxury traveler, then check out the Doubletree By Hilton Wellington. I stayed here once on a business trip/getaway. The location is a little further from the center of the city, but I enjoyed the walk. Plus, the rooms here are so stylish and beautiful, with a super comfy bed and a luxurious rain shower.
You can expect to pay closer to $400 NZD per night, but the best deals I’ve found are on Booking.com.
Mid-range – $$
Those on a medium budget will love Ramada by Wyndham. You get great value for money here since it has a good location, a trusted hotel name, modern rooms, a fitness center, and parking (huge bonus!). The center of town is just a short walk away, and there are laundry services if you’ve been on the road for a while!
Prices per night are roughly $150-$300 NZD. To snag this awesome deal, check availability and book the Ramada by Wyndham online here.
Budget – $
My top choice in the budget category is The Marion Hostel. It’s right in the heart of the city, just steps from Cuba Street, which is full of restaurants and bars and a 5-minute walk to Courtney Place’s nightlife. They provide towels and toiletries and access to a kitchen, lounge, and rooftop terrace. They have big dorm rooms starting at $44 NZD and private accomodations starting around $134 NZD for 2 people.
Another option for budget travelers is The Cambridge Hotel and Backpackers. I sometimes stay here if I’m driving to other North Island destinations since it’s perfect for a stopover. For starters, it’s one of the cheapest places in Wellington and has dorm beds for around $35 NZD and private rooms starting at $113 NZD. It’s also located centrally and easy to book on Booking.com.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
- JUCY – JUCY is one of our favorite rental companies in New Zealand! They have a huge inventory and offer regular cars, small campervans, larger campervans, and even motorhomes! The prices are also super competitive and their multiple offices around NZ make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. You can check availability, prices, and book with JUCY online here.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
This country is the best place for a road trip, and there are so many great stops between Palmerston North and Wellington. Whether you choose to drive the scenic or the direct route, I hope you have an amazing journey! And, of course, I always recommend taking your time to enjoy all the wildlife, museums, and adventure on this drive.
If you found this guide helpful, read my other blogs about New Zealand. I’ve lived here for quite some time and love sharing what I’ve learned with fellow travelers. In fact, I’ve linked to some articles below that might also come in handy!