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WellingtonJanuary 3, 2024

One day, 25 swims: A definitive ranking of Wellington’s best and worst beaches


Sorting the soft sand and secluded bays from the jagged rocks and crashing waves.

On one of Wellington’s famed Good Days, beach aficionado Sara Elgoran set out on a quest to swim at every beach within the Wellington city council boundaries to determine, once and for all, which is best. 

Fourteen beach towels were harmed in the making of this article. 

25. Tarakena Bay

This was easily the worst swimming experience I have had in Wellington, maybe even in all of New Zealand. This is not a beach where any human should swim. It featured both sandy and rocky foreshore, which is the worst type. There were bits of seaweed floating that looked like toilet paper and it felt extremely grimey. I have no plans to return. 

24. Red Rocks/Pariwhero

Red Rocks beach. (Photo: Sara Elgoran)

Red Rocks, as the name suggests, are very rocky. It’s tough to get down to the water and I sustained my first (and only) injury of the day here, a cut to the foot. The magnificent views were overshadowed by my anxiety about swimming next to seals. I love them, but the thought of being near them in the water does not bring me joy. No seals were spotted but the lingering paranoia ruined the experience.

23. Waitaha Cove

Not an accessible beach. It’s a steep and perilous walk down to the thick, grimy water. It is at least more protected than Red Rocks. It would be lovely to lounge here if you don’t like swimming. 

22. Moa Point

My feet took an absolute battering on the rocky beaches, and Moa Point was no different. Even just hobbling to the water’s edge was an ordeal. The howls from the dog shelter over the road were vexatious to the spirit. It’s a great spot for diving, but stay away if you’re after a relaxing afternoon dip.   

21. Bay of Breaker Bay 

This is the bay in “Breaker Bay”, not what is commonly known as Breaker Bay. The beach was fine if you are desperate or have a particular affinity for rocks, which I do not. I can’t reiterate enough how sore my feet were. Taylor Swift came on the radio as I left and that was the only highlight. 

20. Mahanga Bay

Once again, too many rocks. My feet were hurting a lot at this point. There are plenty of nice sandy beaches just a bit further on, so there’s no point stopping here. I did see a tui though. 

19. Kau Bay

Kau Bay was fine but forgettable. Moving on. 

18. Ōwhiro Bay

Ōwhiro Bay (Photo: Sara Elgoran)

The beach was ravaged by seagulls, which are my least favourite part of the beach. Ōwhiro Bay has so much potential which has not been fully realised. The quirky architecture is nice, and you can see the South Island on a good day. On the other hand, there’s poo in the water and plenty of better beaches nearby. Unless you live in Ōwhiro Bay, there’s no point coming here. 

16 and 17. Shark Bay and Shelley Bay

These beaches have one of the most beautiful vistas of Wellington. This part of the coast would be fine if you are desperate for a swim, but as a destination, I would not recommend it at all.

15. Palmer Bay 

Palmer Bay was lovely. A hidden gem. It is stunning, secluded and felt pretty clean. It’s better protected from the wind than most beaches in the city. 

14. Mākara Beach

Mākara Beach. (Photo: Sara Elgoran)

Mākara Beach is ages away. I was cold, sunburnt and hungry. The thought of more rocks was daunting. I stopped in Karori for a kebab and steeled my gaze. I was committed to my mission and determined to enjoy Mākara. It’s one of the few places on earth where you can see ‘caution kiwi’ road signs. 

While I did not see a kiwi, I did spot some escaped chickens eating a dead animal off the road. 

Mākara Beach itself is not a destination swim spot, but it would be nice after a long walk. If you are after a West Coast-esque rugged beach or a great sunset, this is your spot. For a swim, it is functionally sufficient. 

13. Karaka Bays

There many bays in Karaka Bays, but they’re very similar and don’t appear to have separate names. I swam in all of them just to be safe. The best bay is the one with the jetty, phone box and the Lilliput library stand. It was a cute sign of community. Unfortunately, there was also a lot of rubbish floating around, which is probably a more accurate reflection of the locals (rich tossers). I picked up the rubbish and moved on. 

12. Little Scorching Bay

As far as I can tell, this beach doesn’t have an official name, but I’m calling it Little Scorching Bay. It’s the small bay just north of Scorching Bay. It was lovely. There isn’t much sand lounge on but it’s a good back up if you can’t find a car park at the main beach. It would have placed even higher if it was easier to access. 

11. Hataitai Beach 

I was genuinely shocked at how much I enjoyed Hataitai Beach. The beach isn’t much to look at, but it’s shallow, protected, and the water is surprisingly warm. It’s close to town, with a direct connection on the number 24 bus. The boat sheds and public toilets have a charming throwback aesthetic. There’s even a good jetty for jumping off beside the tennis court. The only downside is it gets a bit squidgy underfoot when wading. 

It’s a bit of an ugly duckling, but give it a chance, you’ll come to love it. 

10. Balaena Bay

After being punished by hoardes of rocky beaches, Balaena’s pebbles were a dream. For regular day-to-day beaching, it has everything you need – public transport access, close to the city, and nice water. 

9. Freyberg Beach

Freyberg Beach is the sandy outcrop of Oriental Bay, closest to the playground, where you will see everyone you have ever worked with half-naked on most summer afternoons. Pros: public toilets, a wharf to jump off, and lots of car parking. Cons: Very public, not enough bike parking, and it’s only a few metres away from the much better Oriental Beach. 

8. Breaker Bay

Breaker Bay is not “officially” a nude beach, but the naturalists have run the show here for years. The sand is gentle on the feet and other sensitive bits. I didn’t stay long, but just long enough to receive a knowing smile from an elderly man on his way to the special part of the beach behind the rocks. 

7. Oriental Beach

Oriental Bay beach (Photo: Wellington City Council)

Oriental Beach is the king of city beaches for a reason. It’s only a five-minute walk from Courtenay Place, which makes it the most popular after-work spot in the city on Wellington’s famed ‘Good Days’. It has a great view of the cityscape framed by Mount Kaukau. The abandoned “heritage” rotunda drags it down a bit though. 

The beach is unfortunately artificial and inauthentic. The sand is shipped in from Golden Bay each summer, but when you’re lying down soaking in the rays, you’re not really that worried about where the sand came from. 

6. Scorching Bay

I’ll be honest, I came into the day expecting Scorching Bay to come out on top. I have never had a bad day at Scorching Bay. It is a stunning beach with enough room to spread out and sizeable grass area for those less sand-inclined. Scorch-O-Rama cafe is a highlight. The big downside is accessibility – it does not have any public transport links and parking is difficult on a busy day. 

5. Seatoun Beach

Seatoun Beach is mind-blowingly beautiful. The Māori name is Te Turanga o Kupe, the landing place where Kupe left some of his people to grow food. It’s not hard to see why; it’s gorgeous, surrounded by luscious greenery. 

It is a bit unsettling that the beach is level with the road. The impacts of sea level rise were top of mind as I took a dip. A good friend of mine once described Seatoun as the best beach for skinny dipping if it weren’t so public. I have no idea what that means. 

4. Princess Bay

Princess Bay (Photo: Sara Elgoran)

Houghton Bay’s better little sister. It’s mostly better because it’s not contaminated (hence why Houghton Bay was excluded from this list). Princess Bay also has toilets, changing rooms and a huge drinking fountain. Like any good princess, the bay is calm and inviting (if a bit cold). 

3. Worser Bay

Worser Bay. (Photo: Sara Elgoran)

I had never been to Worser Bay before and I feel like I have been missing a part of my soul. It’s a rich-person beach with rows of sailboats, and the softest sand I have ever experienced in Wellington. It was the best swimming condition of any beach I tried, but it loses points for an elitist vibe and poor public transport connections.  

2. Island Bay

Island Bay beach (Photo: Sara Elgoran)

Island Bay is simply phenomenal. The beach is sheltered by Tapu Te Ranga Motu. The water is healthy due to the marine reserve, views are outstanding, and the vibes are good. The amenities are top-notch; public toilets, a cool playground (with a flying fox), a dairy and a cafe. 

I did slip off the pontoon, which bruised my ego a bit, but Island Bay still has a piece of my heart. 

1. Lyall Bay

Lyall Bay beach (source: Wellington City Council)

Here’s the thing about Lyall Bay: on a bad day, it’s a disaster. The sea is terrifying. The waves attack the rocks with true, heartfelt hatred. Sand whips against any exposed skin like buckshot. But on a good day? As they say about this glorious city, it is simply not possible to beat it. 

Lyall Bay has everything you could ever need. The rolling waves make for great surfing, body-surfing, and kite-surfing. The sandy expanse is comfortable for a lie-down, and long enough for a decent stroll with someone special. 

The public transport links are spectacular (the number 3 and 36 bus). Lyall Bay also has possibly the best fish & chips in Wellington (Fresko), mammoth ice creams (Seaview Takeaways) and three of the top cafes (Spruce Goose, Maranui, and The Botanist). When you’re sick of the beach, pop on over to Parrotdog for some pints, then have a cheeky peruse through the Briscoes sales. Lyall Bay does it all. 

Most importantly: Lyall Bay has lifeguards. We love safety. 

Keep going!