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An assortment of Wellington’s laneways
An assortment of Wellington’s laneways

SocietyNovember 17, 2023

Life in the slow lane: Wellington’s laneways, ranked from worst to best

An assortment of Wellington’s laneways
An assortment of Wellington’s laneways

The capital loves to trumpet its laneways, but it takes more than a pretty mural and some festoon lights to make one truly great. Joel MacManus sorts the duds from the delights.

In its eternal and slightly desperate attempt to compare itself to Melbourne, Wellington loves to boast about its laneways. The council constantly refers to an amorphous “laneways strategy”, which has turned some of Wellington’s lanes into stunning spaces, while others remain weird and dusty concrete canyons. I set out on one of Wellington’s famous Good Days to inspect the city’s laneways and answer the all-important question: which is best?

What makes a good laneway?

Laneways have been part of cities for as long as humans have lived in them, and they are awesome. Even in ancient times, cities were lined with large arterial roads for large traffic, criss-crossed by smaller, human-scale pathways for foot traffic. 

First and foremost, a laneway is defined by its vibe: is it a fun and pleasant space to be? It has to feel safe and inviting, but not too safe and inviting – a bit of grunge is part of a laneway’s charm. High foot traffic is important; it helps if the laneway is a useful pedestrian shortcut. There should be greenery, street art, and ideally mixed-use development with a range of hospitality and retail, offices and apartments. Laneways lose points for being creepy or gross, or for letting too many cars in. 

A couple of quick notes: this ranking only includes the city centre. I’ll be deep in the cold, cold ground before I recognise the Hutt. Also, just because a street is called something Lane doesn’t make it a laneway – most of them are glorified driveways. Don’t be fooled by Willis Lane either, it’s an underground food court, not a laneway. 

So let us begin, starting with the worst.

13. Mermaids Laneway

As far as I can tell this alley doesn’t have a name or any kind of identity whatsoever, so I’m calling it Mermaids Laneway because it’s next to the strip club. It’s perfectly located in the middle of Courtenay Place and has a nice mural, so it feels like it should be cool, but it’s a complete dud. Its greatest amenity value is a discreet side entrance to a brothel. 

12. Lukes Lane

People’s Coffee is doing its very best to drag Luke’s Lane into relevancy, like Lebron James on his early Cavs teams. It’s a great cafe that has managed to create a nice, activated outside area in what would otherwise be a dump. Six Barrell Soda’s cellar door and the Bicycle Junction workshop are nice additions.

Unfortunately, once you turn the corner from its Taranaki Street entrance towards Manners Street, it all falls apart. It faces directly onto Te Aro Park and could be a lovely space, but it’s all concrete and car parks and tradies smoking. There’s potential here, but it is being squandered by neglect. 

11. Forresters Lane

Forresters Lane is like a toddler playing dress-up in their mum’s heels, who keeps falling flat on her face. It kind of understands what it means to be a proper grown-up laneway, but it just isn’t ready yet. There are some green planter boxes at the start and a little bit of art, but it’s all undermined by weird dark back entrances, dumpsters and cars. Witching Hour mini golf is situated right at the very back but unfortunately, the spookiest part of the experience is walking through the laneway itself.

10. Opera House Lane

Opera House Lane is the great white whale of the Wellington laneways strategy. There have been plenty of mock-ups and artist’s renderings of how it could be better, but it might just be destined to remain a creepy concrete wind tunnel. It is useful as a pedestrian shortcut, so it gets some points for that.

9. Masons Lane

There are two things in Masons Lane: Persian Cafe (delicious) and NZ Post (bland). It’s fine. Inoffensive and unexceptional.

8. Egmont Street

Egmont Street is really onto something. The Dixon Street entrance greets you with hanging lights and planter boxes, whispering: “Come have a stroll down me, baby, you’ll have a great time.” As you take your first tentative steps, you come across the delicious Egmont St Eatery to your left (fun fact: Sharesies was founded there). On your right, there are apartments in a converted brick factory. There’s a candle shop and a few offices, but nothing that invites you to stick around. At the Ghuznee Street end it transitions into a disappointing car park. Egmont Street has the beginnings of greatness, but it needs more.

7. Cable Car Lane

Transit-oriented development! We love to see it. Cable Car Lane, as the name might suggest, has the cable car, which immediately makes it one of the best spots in Wellington. There’s also a very handy and under-utilised elevator to The Terrace, a great banh mi place, a side entrance to a food court, and a supermarket. 

Unfortunately, Cable Car Lane gets dragged down because it’s a bit dark and there’s always a bunch of gormless American tourists getting in the way, especially in cruise ship season. 

6. Swan Lane

Swan Lane is the perfect spot for a suburbanite who wants to visit Cuba Street without actually going to Cuba Street.

You can start your day by driving an SUV down upper Cuba Street, loudly honking at anyone who dares walk in front of you, before stopping in at the surface-level Wilson’s car park. Then, a quick shopping trip to Wellington’s Arc de Triomphe: a glittering glass archway made up of a Big Save Furniture on one side and a Nood on the other. 

After that, it’s time to explore the wonderful exotic eateries. Grab a bite from a chain bagel shop and eat it while sitting on the anti-homeless benches. Then sip a $8 flat white at Floriditas while you moan about how nothing good has happened in this city since Kerry Prendergast was mayor. Lastly, settle in for a cheeky sav at Noble Rot and scoff at anything unfamiliar on the menu. 

It’s a perfect afternoon. You never have to walk more than 40 metres from your car or interact with any young, poor or otherwise dirty people, and you can return to tell all your friends back in North-Eastern Johnsonville West about your bougie urbane trip to town.

5. Lombard Lane

Lombard Lane gets the Most Improved Award. In just a few years it went from a boring service alley to a quite nice spot. There’s a bakery, a bubble tea place, a gin distillery, and two cafes. Go to Swimsuit if you want a casual coffee chat, opt for Pickle & Pie if it’s a networking lunch on the work account.

Where Lombard fails is its lack of personality. It has nice pavement tiles and a half-hearted attempt at some hanging lights, but there’s no edge to any of it. It’s a business consultant’s idea of a hipster hotspot (which, to be fair, could also apply to Wellington as a whole).

4. Chews Lane

Chews Lane sits just off the middle of Willis Street, in the fastest-growing area of the CBD. The real star of the situation is the Chews Lane Apartments, a block of 97 homes perched high above the rooftops. On the ground, there’s a good mix of lunch options, some nice shrubbery and a couple of overly expensive bars. Chews Lane hits all the notes. It’s mixed-use, with high foot traffic and great hospo options. It’s in Tory Whanau’s DP, which has to be a good sign. It meets every criterion, but doesn’t go above and beyond the way the top laneways do.

3. Hannah’s Laneway (Eva Street)

As The Streets once said: “You’re fit, but my gosh, don’t you know it?” Hannah’s Laneway is genuinely cool but sheesh it could shut up about itself. WellingtonNZ pumps out listicle after listicle boasting about Hannah’s and pushes it on every visiting travel reporter.

There is lots of good stuff. Wellington Chocolate Factory, Goldings Free Dive, Pizza Pomodoro (Wellington’s best pizza, bar none), Shelly Bay Bakery (conspicuously not located in Shelly Bay), and a food truck called Donnie Taco that I’ve never seen open but is still great for its name alone.

Hannah’s Laneway got cocky and fell victim to its hubris. The central courtyard could be an inviting public space surrounded by cool eateries but instead, the businesses tried to cram in eight car parks and ruined most of its pedestrian amenity. 

Like Egmont Street, Hannah’s Laneway has benefited greatly from the upgrade on Dixon Street but would be way better if the council just pedestrianised the rest of Dixon and connected it to Te Aro Park.

2. Woodward Street

Woodward Street, opposite Midland Park on Lambton Quay, is an underrated delight. 

Let’s start with pedestrian access: it has two sets of stairs connecting Lambton Quay to The Terrace, and a pedestrian subway that takes you under The Terrace. The subway plays a soundscape of birdsong and running water as a memorial to Kumutoto Stream, which is piped underneath. Charming. 

There’s a giant sculpture of a spinning top for some reason. I love it. Red bollards line the sides to stop cars from ruining the vibe. It smells of freshly baked cookies from the shop around the corner. There’s coffee, sushi, more coffee, a bakery, a  homeware store, clothes shops, and possibly Wellington’s greatest contribution to cuisine and culture: Noodle Plus.

Most importantly, there always seems to be high foot traffic, which is the magic that makes Woodward Street feel truly alive.

1. Left Bank Arcade

The classics are classics for a reason. Left Bank Arcade is the old man of the Wellington laneway scene, but it is still the king. 

Right off the bat, Left Bank gets a huge advantage because it’s part of Cuba Mall. It’s the Cuba-iest part of Cuba Mall, with all the joy and weirdness of Wellington distilled into one little courtyard, topped with (relatively) affordable apartments. There’s an apothecary, a garden centre, a cafe that only sells dessert, and another that only sells granola. Pegasus Books is a delightful maze of wonders. Mother of Coffee is incredible. Oriental Kingdom makes the worst roti canai in Wellington but will let you have giant BYOs with basically no rules. 

Left Bank has trees and seating and a public stage for buskers and performances. It’s not just a place to pass through, it is a place you can just sit and be; read a book, or observe the world around you. 

If you don’t love Left Bank Arcade, you don’t love Wellington. 

Keep going!