Surrounded by the Southern Alps and on the shores on the beautiful Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is probably the most popular tourist destination in New Zealand. It’s a small, bustling town with a huge itinerant population. This may sound a bit unpleasant – like an overcrowded beach resort in the middle of summer – but in practice there’s an energetic vibe, beautiful views and all the amenities you’d expect in a much larger city.
While Queenstown is a wonderful destination in its own right, the secret to getting the most out of your time here is to travel slow, using the town as a base for exploring the Central Otago region. Explore the mountains and tranquil lakes, experience the skiing and adventure activities and visit the amazing vineyards and breweries… then relax in Queenstown at the end of a long day.
Queenstown is a year-round destination. Summers are hot and dry with plenty of opportunities for long lunches at vineyards, leisurely picnics at stunning lakes and water sports in the many lakes.
Winter is beautiful with snow on the mountains and clear, cold days, although the roads can get icy. Late July to September is best for skiing and snowboarding, with the snow slowly disappearing from the mountains in October and November (a good time to see Milford Sound).
School holidays can be busy, especially from Christmas through to early February and during the ski season. May and June are the quietest months, with colder weather but still relatively light snow. If you enjoy events, the Queenstown Winter Festival opens the ski season, with the party encompassing the whole town. New Year’s Eve, the New Zealand Winter Games and the Arrowtown Autumn Festival are also big items on the annual calendar.
Queenstown is one of New Zealand's major tourist destinations and getting there is fairly easy. For an especially scenic welcome to this beautiful region, consider driving down from Christchurch, however if you're short on time, the flight over the Southern Alps is also lovely.
Queenstown Airport is situated in Frankton, around a 10-minute drive from central Queenstown. There are also frequent buses connecting the airport and the town centre. You can easily fly to Queenstown from other centres in New Zealand, including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. There are also regular international flights from Australia (if flying from Australia, here are some options for cheap airport parking in Sydney and Melbourne).
If you’re going to be in Queenstown for a while, you’ll probably want to rent a car. While the town is very walkable and you can do tours or make your way around by bike, to get the most out of Central Otago, you’ll probably want to drive. For most of the year, a sedan is fine, in winter, it’s worth considering a 4-wheel drive – this will just give you the freedom to go to some of the more out-of-the-way spots. Driving a 2-wheel drive in winter, there were some places we decided not to go.
You’ll still want to spend a lot of time walking and perhaps cycling. Some good cycling options include the Queenstown Cycle Trail (120km) or, if you’re more of a recreational cyclist, take a winery tour through Gibbston Valley by bike from Arrowtown and get picked up at the end.
Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world and it takes the title very seriously. There’s a range of activities from the relatively mundane – walking, hiking, biking – to skiing and snowboarding to bungy jumping and paragliding.
Here's a few ideas to get you started:
It's worth visiting Kawarau Bridge, the iconic home of bungy jumping in New Zealand, even if you don’t want to jump yourself. Watching the other people jump makes for an entertaining pastime and (as always in Central Otago) the views are beautiful. If you want to attempt New Zealand’s highest bungy, head to Nevis in Gibbston Valley for the 134m jump.
Start with Amisfield and Akarua wineries close to Queenstown for beautiful wine and wonderful food. Then head slightly further to Gibbston Valley to continue tasting some of the best pinot noir in Central Otago. The wine trail continues to Cromwell, where you'll find several world-class wines, including Mt Difficulty and Wild Earth Wines. If you enjoy wine, consider spreading your vineyard visits over a few days. You can also book a tour if you don't want to drive.
You'll find world class skiing and snowboarding in and around Queenstown. Choose between Coronet Peak, Treble Cone and Cardrona for your snow adventure. Just keep in mind that peak ski season runs from late July to September, depending on snowfall.
Do a cruise (or something more energetic) on Lake Wakatipu for a different perspective on Queenstown. As well as the usual options of windsurfing, paddle boarding and kayaking, consider trying jet boating while you're here. Go to Shotover Canyon near Arthurs Point to experience weaving your way between rocky walls with mountains towering above as you power through the river.
Think about doing a scenic flight in a small plane or helicopter. The flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound is absolutely spectacular and makes a very long day trip more accessible. You can also take a helicopter ride over the lakes and stop on a remote peak for a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity. Or, try paragliding and see the gorgeous scenery from the air unobscured by a screen.
After all that exercise, relax in a hot tub with a glass of wine. Special mention goes to Onsen hot pools in Arthur’s Point.
Visit the museum in Arrowtown, along with the historic Chinese settlement by the river. Explore the historical precinct in Cromwell, visiting the Roaring Meg Dam along the way, and try your luck panning for gold.
While downtown Queenstown is very convenient with great restaurants and bars on your doorstep, I prefer staying in one of the suburbs. Fernhill is just outside of town and is slightly quieter as is Sunshine Bay. Arthur’s Point is about halfway between Queenstown and Arrowtown and at the base of Coronet Peak, while Kelvin Heights across the lake offers stunning views but a much further drive.
Frankton is the commercial and retail hub, but wouldn’t be my preferred place to stay. While there’s shops and restaurants, it doesn’t have the same holiday feel as the rest of Queenstown. Lake Hayes is my personal favourite – it’s convenient and peaceful with spectacular views all around.
Central Queenstown: Enjoy the incredible views at Kamana Lakehouse. it is in Fernhill and slightly out of the town centre, but the views, hot tubs and excellent on-site restaurant more than make up for the short drive to town.
Arthurs Point: Stay at the Residence du Parc for self-contained apartments near the ski fields with gorgeous views from the upper floors. We lived in the neighbouring apartments, so I am a bit biased, but the location is convenient and, as a bonus, the Onsen hot pools are right next door.
Arrowtown: Hawkridge Chalet has sweeping views and is a wonderful way to escape everyday life while being close to the amenities in Arrowtown.
For spectacular views of the immediate area, climb to the top of Queenstown Hill. It’s a three-hour loop that starts downtown and offers amazing views of Lake Wakatipu, Cecil Peak, the Remarkables, Frankton Arm and Queenstown Bay. The "Basket of Dreams," a favourite lookout and photo spot is also on this route.
If you want the picture-perfect, postcard view of Queenstown, you need to go up the gondola. Enjoy the ride up the hill, then have a cup of coffee at the top, giving yourself plenty of time to experience your spectacular surroundings and watch the paragliders float past. You may also want to try the luge while you're up here.
Roys Peak in Wanaka is the famous hike with the Instagram views – it can get very crowded though! Avoid the other tourists by doing the the Isthmus Peak Track near Lake Hawea instead – you'll still get wonderful views of both lakes and the Southern Alps.
For the ultimate views, take a helicopter ride or scenic flights over the Southern Alps (and on to Milford Sound if you can). The best way to see the hidden waterfalls and glacial lakes is from the air!
With its relaxed atmosphere and huge range of outdoor activities, Queenstown and Central Otago are very accessible for families. Most of the activities welcome children and there are a few which the kids will almost certainly love – taking a cruise across the lake to the working farm and petting the animals, puzzling world on the way to Wanaka, going up the gondola for panoramic views of Queenstown and many of the adventure activities are very suitable for older kids.
If your children are interested in skiing or snowboarding, many of the ski fields have suitable slopes and lessons for kids. Coronet Peak and Snow Farm in Cardrona are excellent for children and are even suitable for teaching toddlers to ski. If you want to ski or snowboard in peace, Coronet Peak also has a daycare service for younger children.
If your children are younger, Central Otago gets the award for playgrounds with beautiful views. There’s a tiered destination playground in downtown Queenstown just by Lake Wakatipu with areas for different ages – and there’s a café next door if you find yourself in desperate need of a coffee. My little one really enjoyed playing in the playground then walking along the lake back to downtown Queenstown and eating dumplings while watching the ducks and boats on the water (of course, he also loved chasing the ducks that made their way onto the land).
On the other side of the botanical gardens, you’ll find an ice rink. There are numerous smaller playgrounds all around Queenstown, often with lake or mountain views. The playground in Wanaka is similarly impressive with gorgeous views and even a dinosaur slide!
A number of the more casual wineries and microbreweries are also relatively child-friendly with outdoor seating and games or trampolines. Many cafes in town have children’s menus and toys or colouring supplies. And, if all else fails, Queenstown has the full range of activities you’d expect to find in most big cities from indoor playgrounds to movie theatres to ice rinks.
Last Updated 7 August 2022