The Ultimate Guide to Lyall Bay Surf

by Rich Francis

Check out the Lyall Bay surf if you’re looking to get on the NZ waves near Wellington. Yea, it gets busy, but it’s a fun beach break with loads of peaks to go around.

Lyall Bay surf

Lyall Bay surf at a glance

We might use affiliate links in this post. Basically, you click em’ and we get a little something from your booking or purchase. They help us keep offering more and more in-depth surf guides to awesome places all around the globe. So, thanks for that!

The good

  • Loads of different peaks
  • Close to Wellington
  • Different levels can enjoy the beach at the same time

The bad

  • Always busy when it’s working – and sometimes when it’s not
  • Suffers from strong winds
  • Hard to park

What’s in this guide to the Lyall Bay surf?

An introduction to Lyall Bay

Lyall Bay is just over the hillsides from the heart of downtown Wellington. It’s considered the city slicker’s break because of its proximity to the NZ capital and has the huge (HUGE!) line ups to prove it. The spot is a classic sort of urban beach break, with a sand bottom and multiple peaks along its length. However, there’s a little difference as you move from east to west, from the faster wedges close to the airport to the protected waves nearer the headland.

Facing south-east across the edge of the Cook Strait, the spot actually gets its dominant groundswells from the South Pacific. That means southerlies work best, with a NW offshore wind to help keep the shape. To be frank, it’s rare that both those things align. For much of the time, it’s all Lyall Bay surf lessons enjoying whitewash and beginners with their foamies.

When that perfect eight feet and the proper swell directions do come, you’ll see the cream of the Wellington surf crowd emerge down onto Lyall Bay. It’s a chilled bunch, and the closeness of the town’s buzzy cafes, green hills and fantastic hotels only help to make this a New Zealand surfing spot worth having on the radar.

Where is Lyall Bay?

Look at the map of Wellington. Lyall Bay is the big opening in the coast to the south of the centre. It faces the Cook Strait and runs between two large headlands. More generally, that places Lyall Bay on the very southern tip of North Island. The good news is that Wellington International Airport is right next door – the runway actually forms one of the points that give the best Lyall Bay surf breaks at the west end of the beach!

A guide to Lyall Bay surf spots

Surprise surprise – Lyall Bay surf is centres on Lyall Bay itself. You can pretty much paddle out anywhere there to find a peak. However, we’ve split the bay into a few sections to help show what the various parts of the beach are like as a wave. And we’ve dropped in a few alternative surf spots in the nearby region – worth knowing about for when the crowds pick up.

Cape Palliser light

Lyall Bay airport peaks

There’s a good and sold left hander at the airport point out on the far eastern end of Lyall Bay. It’s where the better surfers often go to chase the higher, more wally breaks. The spot here can get hollow, but that needs at least 8 foot in swell and, usually, a decent N offshore wind to help hold up. Might be a spot of localism if you paddle out on a really good day – remember everyone’s been waiting for the airport to get firing!


Named for the retro surf cafe that stands on the western end of Lyall Bay, the Maranui spot is a long run of sand-bottomed peaks. Depending on the swell angle (S-SW is prime), the waves here can either be nice wedgy A-frames or mushy chest highs that fall to nothing. It’s one of the favourite spots of the local Lyall Bay surf school, mainly because it’s easy to find whitewash and crumbly conditions that are great for practicing.

Reef at Arthur’s Nose

Rarely working but sometimes decent, the break at Arthur’s Nose is even further out along the headland to the west of Lyall Bay. It’s best on direct SW swells and is great in terms of wind protection thanks to the hills rising overhead. Watch out for rocks and rips.

Houghton Bay 

Head around the coast from Lyall Bay and you have a whole different prospect to get stuck into: Houghton Bay surf. Facing directly west, it fires best on high south swells that wrap around into the bay. There are actually two spots. The first is a beach break that’s fat and crumbly most of the time but does give lefts and rights. The second is a right-hander reef with a shallow bottom and rock hazards. Houghton Bay still gets crowded on good days and in the summer, but not as much as Lyall Bay proper.

Titahi Bay

Titahi Bay surf is probably among the better-quality surf in the Wellington region. It’s an exposed beachie that faces west from the edge of North Island. That means totally different swell directions to the rest of the Lyall Bay surf, with Tasman Sea NWerlies offering the creme-de-la-creme. It’s a beginner spot at heart, with mellow, cruisy waves that excel at 3-5 foot in the middle of the beach. There are some other Titahi Bay surf spots for intermediates when things get high. Look for them at the points on either end, where wally lefts and rights over the rocks can peak with 8-10 swells.

Cape Palliser

If you’re willing to travel a little bit out of Wellington centre then you can also open up the surf spots of Cape Palliser. It’s about two hours in the car in total, but you do get a whole medley of breaks to pick from. Lefts and rights crash into Dolphin Bay. Then comes The Spit, a point break over rocks that offers sectiony rips in either direction. Short boarders will like the fast drop ins at Dee Dees too. There’s loads in these parts, so best to ask at a local surf shop for what’s working.

Where to stay when surfing in Lyall Bay

There’s actually not too many places to stay right by Lyall Bay. Surf hotels aren’t a huge thing in the NZ capital just yet and most of the traveler accommodation is centred over by Wellington Harbour. Still, you can find some pretty sweet digs in the nearby district of Melrose(a welcoming, leafy part of town) and beyond.

Melrose Haven B&B ($$)

Superbly-rated Melrose Haven B&B has just a few rooms perched on the green hills north of the Lyall Bay surf spots. We love it for the homey character and contemporary interiors. Oh yea, and for that outdoor Jacuzzi bath. It’s simply a pleasure to return to after being in the Pacific all day!

Oceanfront Escape ($$-$$$)

Fling open the curtains in the morning and you could be gazing out at the lashing waves of the Cook Strait – that’s what’s on offer at the appropriately named Oceanfront Escape. It’s really all about the view, which is second to none, but the proximity to Houghton Bay is also pretty nice for those coming with the board in tow.

YHA Wellington ($)

Opting to stay in the heart of Wellington is good for a few reasons. Mainly, though, it’s cheaper and it puts you near all the other attractions in the NZ capital. The YHA Wellington is a good choice for backpackers watching the dollars. For directions to the surf on Lyall Bay or surf lessons, you can usually just ask at reception. Shared kitchens, on-site bike hire and laundry facilities are also available.

When to surf in Lyall Bay

Lyall Bay is subject to the same unpredictable seasons as the rest of New Zealand. The truth is that there’s usually something to ride most days, mainly because Wellington offers access to both west, east and south coast breaks. We’ve got this more in-depth look at the seasons…

Lyall Bay surf spots

Winter (June-August)

Stats can be a little misleading for the NZ summertime. Yes, there are more surfable days overall – around 67% of the time the waves in Wellington will be working. However, they are far more vulnerable to onshore winds and OTT swells. That said, you can usually enjoy riding something in Lyall Bay thanks to the cover from the headlands. The Titahi Bay surf will suffer more with direct westerly swells off the stormy Tasman Sea.

  • Wear: At least 4/3 + boots and hood and gloves!

Spring (September-November)

A lovely time in New Zealand, although rain is common around the Cook Strait. For the Lyall Bay surf crowd, this is also the time for infamous onshore winds. However, you can look to the Titahi Bay surf or other nearby spots, because when its onshore in Lyall it will be offshore there. Consistency is decent but not excellent – expect around a third of the days to be groundswell and around half to be surfable.

  • Wear: 4/3 and bring a hood for windy days

Summer (November-February)

The New Zealand summer is way more predictable on the weather front. This part of North Island enjoys the bulk of its sun and even the infamous winds will dip away. The only downside is flat days, and they will happen quite a lot if those southerly swells aren’t kicking.

  • Wear: 2mm or 3/2

Autumn (March-May)

It’s lush on North Island in the autumn. A lingering warmth from the summer and plenty of dry days combine with a drop in tourist numbers. It’s less common to have to share the peaks with the Lyall Bay surf school if you come in March or April! Oh, and the swells are a mix of tame summer and wilder winter, which means regular chest-high peaks to ride. Just watch those southerly onshores, which can blow the lot out.

  • Wear: 3/2

Surf shops in Lyall Bay

Lyall Bay has some lovely homegrown surf shops. We’ve dropped just a few of the ones we totally love below…

Organic Dynamic

Ah, man, we can’t recommend Organic Dynamic enough! The owner, Jack, is a mainstay on the local Lyall Bay surf scene and makes some seriously creative board shapes at this studio. On top of that, there’s a focus on sustainability throughout. If you’re thinking of getting something shaped in NZ, this should definitely be on your list of potential workshops!

Real Surf

Real Surf is much more the full-on surf emporium. It’s bursting with all the hardware you could need, from tail pads to leashes to board bags. The racks offer some decently priced pop outs but also some gorgeous shaped boards from local NZ workshops. Location is just one block away from the beach.

Best places to eat in Lyall Bay

Being close to Wellington, Lyall Bay gets just a dash of that energy courtesy of the NZ capital. Roaster coffee, sourdough breads with avo, and even retro surf shacks – it’s all here:

Maranui Cafe ($-$$)

Everyone who hits the Lyall Bay surf should check out Maranui Cafe. It’s a staple of the beachfront and is even attached at the hip to the local surf club. The vibe is very much the retro 1960s shack. The menu follows suit – expect filling plates of bangers and mash, toasted bagels for breakfast, and craft beer from the Kiwi isles.

The Botanist ($$)

Just as the name implies, The Botanist is all about plant-based food. There are some serious delights for the non-carnivore, including vegan pastrami sarnies fake chicken and kimchi burgers. The setting is modern, quirky and fun, and the beer list is a ever-changing range of local crafts. An all-round belter if you ask us!

Spruce Goose

Spruce Goose buts right up the runways of Wellington Airport, and was originally a part of the terminal cafe selection. These days it draws a crowd of plane spotters and surfers, thanks to the waves being right on the doorstep in the other direction. It’s an off-beat spot that we love for the smoked market fish fishes, the veggie burger and the creative toast snacks.

Things to do when you’re not surfing in Lyall Bay

Lyall Bay is just one part of the big (read: actually rather small) city of Wellington. When the waves aren’t pumping (or are pumping too much) there’s loads more to get stuck into. We’d recommend…

Wellington trams

Climb to Mount Victoria

Probably the best panorama of the whole city awaits at the top of Mount Victoria. It rises 196 metres above the marina and includes loads of leafy parks and gardens (an area known as the Town Belt). It won’t take long to hike up from Courtenay Place. Alternatively, lazy folk can grab the bus. Sunsets are particularly spectacular.

Te Papa

It’s not often that we recommend a museum on The Surf Atlas, but this one’s a true joy. Showcasing the rich natural history of the islands with its medley of fossils and rocks and dig finds, you’re bound to be enthralled. On top of that, there are amazing works of European and NZ art alike.

We might use affiliate links in this post. Basically, you click em’ and we get a little something from your booking or purchase. They help us keep offering more and more in-depth surf guides to awesome places all around the globe. So, thanks for that!

This is just one part of our full guide to the surf in New Zealand. Be sure to check that out for more information on the country’s other legendary surf towns, from Raglan to Kaikoura.

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