Last updated 23 January 2021
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 exciting, 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 come back to Queenstown at the end of a long day for the comfort and convenience that you’d expect to find in a much larger city.
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.
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.
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.
If you like delicious food and good wine, Queenstown – and the Central Otago region – is the place for you. There’s everything from fine dining, winery restaurants, celebrity chefs and innovative boutique restaurants to gastropubs, gourmet burgers and family-friendly cafes.
I can make some recommendations, but most places you go will have good food and better wine. Central Otago pinot noir features on every wine list, usually at prices more reasonable than the rest of the country.
While you’ll find some good Chinese or South-East Asian options, the quality and diversity is nowhere near Auckland, but is still edible in a pinch.
Some of our favourites are:
Fergburger – a Queenstown institution, you have to try these burgers despite the line
Fergbakery – even better than the burgers
Joe’s garage – breakfast and good for kids
Eichardts Hotel for view and drinks – and The Grille for food
Farelli’s Trattoria - Italian classics
Amisfield Winery – perfect for a long lunch
Akarua - another winery restaurant with wonderful food
Florences Foodstore and café
Kinross – woodfire pizzas and relaxed vibe
Cargo Brewery at Waitiri Creek – Great place to take kids in the summer with lots of place to play (there’s a smaller version in Arthur’s Point)
The Stoaker Room - where they cook food in old pinot noir barrels.
Mt Difficulty - situated up on the hill, this winery restaurant has delicious food and wine with glorious views
Eriks Wanaka / Queenstown – the go-to for fish and chips on the lake... try the blue cod
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!
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. Consider spreading your vineyard visits over a few days
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.
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.
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.
One of the wonderful things about being based in Queenstown is all the beautiful places that you can get to in an hour or two. Aside from the ski fields and wineries, there are a number of towns that are worth your time. Many people also visit Milford Sound as a day trip from Queenstown, however I think it's a bit far and suggest you consider visiting there for a couple of days instead.
Kingston is a small settlement across the lake from Queenstown. It’s main claim to fame is the old station and train which is parked near the lake. It’s a beautiful spot and worth visiting if you’re in the area for a while, but there’s not a huge amount to see and do there. It’s also a long drive from Queenstown although, of course, that comes with lovely views of the lake and surrounding mountains and you can stop at the Devil’s Staircase lookout point on the way.
The star attraction of this day trip is the journey itself – the route of Queenstown to Glenorchy is a serious contender for one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The road follows the lake with stunning scenery all the way. Once you reach Glenorchy, drive down to the lake for more beautiful views and wander through the old station to learn about the old train that ran there during the gold rush. Then head into town for a coffee or beer. There are horse treks around here and, if you’re a fan, you can see a number of the Lord of the Rings filming locations. If you can, head back down to the lake around sunset for spectacular views of the setting sun shining on the lake and disappearing behind the mountains.
Only about 20 minutes out of Queenstown, Arrowtown is a picture-perfect colonial village, founded during the gold rush. Take a leisurely walk through the historic town, visit the old Chinese settlement down by the river and visit the museum in the old post office in town – it’s really interesting and much larger than it looks from the outside! Arrowtown also has a number of really good pubs and restaurants, so stay for dinner or a long lunch. Slightly out of town, you can also go panning for gold, although that’s really more of a summer activity.
Wanaka is about an hour’s drive from Queenstown – either over the scenic Crown Range or through wine country in Gibbston Valley. Ringed by mountains, Wanaka is a small town with artisan shops, good coffee and delicious food, with the blue lake just across the round. Once again, there’s a large choice of good restaurants and take away options if you want to have a picnic by the lakes. In winter, it’s not far from the ski resorts. In summer, you have the option of all the water sports plus hiking in the nearby Mt Aspiring National Park (to take advantage of the hikes, you’ll probably want to base yourself here for a couple of days). And, just a short walk west of the township, you’ll find the Instagram famous Wanaka tree.
Cromwell is a country town on the route between Queenstown and Wanaka. The town is on the banks of the Clyde River and the beautiful Lake Dunstan. About 30 years ago, the lake was formed when the Clyde River was dammed, flooding the old main street of the town. Many of the old historic buildings from the 1860s were saved or rebuilt on higher ground. These old buildings have been preserved in the historic precinct of the town, which is essentially an open-air museum, showcasing what life was like in Cromwell in the late 1800s. Cromwell is also home to a number of great restaurants and vineyards, so make the time for a leisurely lunch when you visit.
Central Otago is famous for its pinot noir and you’ll find many of its famous wineries in Gibbston Valley. Stretching from Arrowtown to Cromwell, you’ll find a large range of wineries, some of which only have cellar doors, others which offer tastings and a number with full restaurants and function centres. Gibbston Valley winery and Amisfield are firm favourites and many people enjoy cycling their way through the valley, trying the different wines as they go. If wines don’t excite you, there are also a few excellent microbreweries in Gibbston Valley.
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 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. And 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.