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Queenstown has heaps of fun things to do and is a great place to start your New Zealand south island adventures. From the moment you fly in and see Lake Wakatipu glimmering from up high and drift through the ‘Remarkable’ mountain range (even the local names are poetic!), you know you are in for a treat.
From white knuckle epic extreme sports to a glass of perfect Pinot, we are still very much in love with Queenstown and the Otago region after all these years. But what is quintessential Queenstown? It is hard to put your finger on it but these would be our highlights:
Things to do in Queenstown
1. Lake Wakatipu
Queenstown is one our top ten favourite places to visit in the world and this is primarily down to its lush lakeside location nestled amongst the mountains. Even today, ten or so visits and counting, we still get goosebumps the first time we walk out and see the lake – it is simply stunning. From a beach picnic or lakefront walk to a ‘Million Dollar Cruise’ or jet boat ride, there are so many ways to enjoy Lake Wakatipu.
Our tip would be that if you want to get away from the crowds, the shores on the esplanade, next to the YHA Lakefront (about a 10 minute walk out of town) are generally the best place to enjoy a quiet moment, especially at sunset with a picnic blanket and a cheeky sip of Sauvignon Blanc. If you time it right, you’ll also get to see the historic TSS Earnslaw coming back to berth.
2. Jet boating
The welcoming water is put to good use in Queenstown, with jet-boating proving to be a popular adventure for all. Although there are lots of places you can jetboat in the south island, Queenstown is your best bet due to the views of the town from the lake, plus the opportunity to skim along at great speed on just a few inches of water right next to the river banks, on the Shotover River.
We went with KJet, one of the largest and most recognisable operators (well, bright yellow jets are hard to miss!). Starting from the dock immediately next to the main beach, don your life-jackets and then thrash out on the lake at great speed, before heading towards the more rugged Shotover River. The 360 degree turns were so much fun – we laughed and squealed every time.
Surprisingly (especially as we were at the front), you don’t get too wet, so you *should* be OK to take the occasional picture on your phone – and if you don’t want to risk it or want better quality images, a full set of pictures and a video of your ride are available to buy at the end.
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3. Skyline Gondola
Ride the gondola up the mountain and enjoy unobscured views (well, occasional paragliders permitting) of the lake and valley. The viewing platforms at the top offer unparalleled views of Queenstown (and the brave souls willing to undertake the Ledge bungy jump).At the top of the Skyline Gondola, there are also a range of activities to enjoy.
4. The luge at Skyline Gondola
One of the most popular activities at the top of Skyline Gondola are the luge slopes where you can gravity ride downhill on a three-wheel cart! Safety pads are provided and you can attempt the ‘training’ track before going full blast down the main luge. Fun for children plus it also brings out the ‘big kid’ in adults.
We recommend treating yourself to the buffet at the Stratosphere Restaurant at the top of the Skyline. The quality of seafood and New Zealand meat (in fact, the whole buffet shebang) is fantastic, just don’t forget to look out and admire the view between mouthfuls. Nightly buffet and stargazing packages are also available.
6. Onsen Hot Pools
Everything is onsen! Hot pools are always very cool (not literally) and a good cure for soaking aching muscles after days of carrying heavy backpacks or lugging around huge suitcases with dodgy wheels (just us?). However, an onsen with alpine valley views takes some beating.
Overlooking the Shotover River with a high vantage point, Queenstown Onsen Hot Pools is a really nice way to unwind. With your very own private hot-tub for an hour (other spa packages also available), you can watch the world go by as you relax or plan your next Queenstown adventure.
Available all year round (there is a retractable roof for bad weather), this is one of the must do activities (especially if Instagram is anything to go by) that has to be booked well in advance due to it’s extreme popularity. And if you are fan of the other type of ‘bubbles’, you can also purchase wine and beer at the reception.
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7.Queenstown Hill hike
You don’t need to spend lots of money to get active in Queenstown – there are ‘heaps’ (Kiwi lingo eh) of walks around town, from a couple of hours long through to several days. Maps are available from the downtown Tourist Information / Department of Conservation Office.
As we are more day-hikers, our favourite walk is Queenstown Hill which is one of the best hikes in Queenstown. The walk starts in town at Belfast Terrace and finishes at the summit, via a fascinating piece of art called the ‘Basket of Dreams’ (very popular with tourists sitting inside it and taking selfies).
The views of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains are nothing short of breathtaking. This Queenstown Hill walk takes around 2 to 3 hours return (depending on whether you stop to take a break at the summit or not) and is a moderate climb. If anything, the walk up the steps from the town to the start of the trail (if you don’t have access to a vehicle) are probably the most difficult and steepest – the rest is quite easy going.
8.Tiki Trail hike
If you fancy a slightly more challenging way of reaching the top of Bob’s Peak instead of taking the gondola, then theTiki Trail might be for you! This 2km zig-zag walk through pine forest has a bit of a steep incline at the start and requires navigating around roots and rocks, but becomes much easier towards the end. The trail takes about 45 minutes to an hour to make it to the top. Look out for the sculpted chairs along the track that are made out of big trunks!
9. Extreme sports
Much of Queenstown’s appeal lies with the sheer number of extreme sports on offer. Even if these aren’t your thing, you’ll no doubt witness some form of white-knuckle ride, from the paragliders who descend from the top of the Queenstown Gondola, through to the famous Queenstown bungy jump at AJ Hackett, Karawau Gorge.
We’ve ridden the KJet and Shotover Jet before as well as white water rafting, but next on our hitlist when we return to Queenstown is mountain biking down from the gondola summit and paragliding.
For those preferring something a little more sedate, why not try a game of Frisbee Golf in Queenstown Gardens. It is free to play but you may need to buy / hire professional frisbees as the light plastic ones from the Dollar store just won’t cut the mustard – we are talking from experience here…
10. Million Dollar Cruise
Whilst in Queenstown, you’ll find yourself most days gazing longingly at Lake Wakatipu so why not actually head out on the lake. There are several ways to do this, but we opted to do the Millionaire Dollar Cruise (how can you not, with a name like that).
This 90 minute tour departs the main berth in town and provides a running commentary as you sail along the lake, so you can learn more about recent developments and the history of the area (as well as perve at the ‘property porn’ over the far side of the lake). We sailed on the Millionaire Dollar Cruise in March 2019 and took in the views from the outdoor deck upstairs. Note: it can get a little chilly when on the side of the lake that gets no sun in the afternoon so do bring along some warm clothing.
Inside, there is more seating and tables with an honesty bar aboard, stocking an array of Kiwi wines and beers. This cruise is great value for money and an excellent way to see some of the jet boats and other lake sporting adventures up close.
11. Eat at Fergburger
We could give you lots of food and restaurant options, but let’s be honest, all that anyone ever talks about is the Queenstown institution: Fergburger. You’ll know you when you’ve reached their diner as you will bump into hordes of hungry tourists queuing in the street immediately around it. Eating a Fergburger and a side of their special onion rings is a New Zealand travel rite of passage, but does it live up to the hype? Singer Ed Sheeran seems to think so, declaring it the ‘…best burger in NZ’.
We have our own thoughts on all things Fergburger (and their next door offshoot, Ferg Bakery). Read our full blog and review of our latest Fergburger experience >
12. Visit a Queenstown Winery
No trip to Queenstown and the Central Otago region is complete without trying a glass of the local grapes. Indeed, there are lots of acclaimed wineries in the region, nestled in the valleys around town including Gibbston Valley, Amisfield and Chard Farm.
There are a number of hop-on, hop-off winery bus tours that loop around the region so that you do not need to worry about driving home, or you can even cycle around, so ‘wine’ not indulge next time you visit?
We visited Gibbston Valley Winery and took the winery cave tour, before sampling a variety of their tipple, and trying a massive cheese and meat platter sat amongst the vines. Read our Gibbston Valley blog post here >
13. Queenstown gardens
A short stroll past the beach brings you to Queenstown Gardens, a gorgeous walk around the bay with panoramic views of Lake Wakatipu (just watch out for the occasional rogue frisbee, as tourists try their skills at frisbee golf).
Complete the loop and head back past the duckpond and over the ornate white wooden bridge (it almost feels like a scene from Hobbiton) – there is also a ice-rink here which is open all year round plus hosts ice-hockey games in the winter months.
One rather interesting thing we learned on this trip is that Winston Churchill’s former wartime vessel, the Yvalda (likely used to draw up WWII plans) is moored up by Queenstown Gardens, and looks rather wonderful with the mountains as a backdrop.
14. Queenstown bars and happy hours
Queenstown is well known (notorious?) for its nightlife, mainly thanks to the number of backpackers and working holiday visa peeps who work in the skiing / tourism industry here all year round.
As such, competition is rife amongst the bars so there are lots of Queenstown Happy Hours and drink deals, making it a much cheaper place to go out than say Auckland or Wellington. To see a full list of updated deals every week, pick up a copy of the local free publication The Lakes Bulletin which you can find dotted around town including a leaflet box outside Hell’s Pizza, plus in most hostels (YHA Lakefront has copies).
Based on what we saw and the places we visited, one of the most popular (and cheapest) bars to visit was 1876 Bar, situated in the Old Courthouse. They have a nightly $5 happy hour (pints, house wine) running from 4pm to 6pm (and pints are normally only $6 a pop anyway). Their beer garden out the front was always busy so it can be hard to secure an outside table (likely less so in winter!).
If you want to escape the backpacker scene, the two Queenstown casinos (both operated by SKYCITY) offer $5 pots of beers all day, with other nightly meal specials. Another good value (and more picturesque option) is to go aboard Perky’s Floating Bar, a ship bar located immediately next to the harbour where their sister Million Dollar Cruise berth departs. Pints are only $7 and they also allow you to take aboard your own food (a perfect combo with Fergburger perhaps)?
Keep your eyes open as you wander around town, as lots of bars advertise Happy Hour deals. Another worthy mention is Red Rock Cafe bar, across the road from Jucy Snooze hostel for their ‘famous’ $10 fry-up breakfast (this might help with hangovers acquired from visiting the wineries or Happy Hours). Although not gourmet, it is pretty good value and hearty fare compared to most breakfast options in Queenstown.
15. Day trip to Milford Sound
Milford Sound is an ideal excursion and absolute must do when staying in Queenstown. We booked our adventure with AwesomeNZ which included a sightseeing coach journey through Fiordland National Park, plus an amazing 1 hour 45 minute boat trip (with lunch) through the dramatic and lush blue-green fjords. On our particular trip we saw several dolphins and seals which was incredible!
If you do not fancy the long 3 and half hour coach journey back and are feeling flush – you can head back to Queenstown in style by taking a private helicopter – soaring over the spectacular scenery (weather dependant).
16. Visit Arrowtown
Just a 20 minute drive (or short bus ride) away from Queenstown is historic Arrowtown. Step back in time and visit this former gold-mining town that has a beautifully preserved main street (Buckingham Street), some ravishing river walks plus a bakery that sells possibly the best pies in New Zealand.
17. Drive to Glenorchy
The beautiful and charming lakeside town of Glenorchy is just a 40 minute drive away from Queenstown, and is famous for being a filming location for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The drive to Glenorchy itself is also pretty spectacular with stunning scenic landscapes along the way, and is one of the most beautiful drives in New Zealand!
If you do not have a car to visit Glenorchy then no problem! There are many group tours available – some itineraries on offer include Glenorchy & Paradise Scenic Half-Day Tour from Queenstown and Glenorchy Half-Day 4WD Lord Of the Rings Tour.
Booking activities in Queenstown
There are heaps of booking offices all over town for the numerous activities available in Queenstown, but if you are looking for a bargain, check out the website Bookme. They offer really good discounted prices for several Queenstown tours, activities and restaurants, and also all over New Zealand.
Note: do not get your hopes up for ever securing the $1 Shotover Jet that they’ve been advertising for years! I’ve never seen it available for that price ever, and we have spent a considerable amount of time browsing on that website.
When to visit Queenstown
Summer (December to February) is the best time of year to visit Queenstown with long sunny days and most outdoor activities available. However as it is peak season, the town will be at it’s most crowded and accommodation at it’s most expensive.
Autumn (March to May) and Spring (September to November) have much smaller crowds and are a much cheaper time of year to visit Queenstown. The temperatures are mild but still warm enough to do most outdoor activities (the weather can be fairly unpredictable though). The autumnal months of April and May see the foliage change from green to gorgeous shades of red and gold (Arrowtown is a perfect place to see this).
Winter (June to August) is very cold but there are loads of cool things to do in Queenstown in winter – the town gets almost as busy as the summer months! Visitors flock here for skiing/snowboarding in the Remarkables and Coronet Peak mountains, and also for the awesome annual Queenstown Winter Festival. The scenery is very beautiful at this time of year with pretty snow capped mountains.
Where to stay in Queenstown
At JUCY Snooze, we booked a lovely and bright private room with ensuite. The location was excellent – right in the heart of town, and also has a fabulous rooftop bar Miss Lucy’s upstairs (which serves up some very tasty woodfired pizza) and has a lovely view of Lake Wakatipu. JUCY snooze also offer pods (a private space in a shared room) if you are on a tighter budget. Check out prices and availability for JUCY Snooze.
The YHA Lakefront is a 10 minute lakeside walk out of town, located in a lovely and peaceful area if you want to be away from the crowds. The huge communal kitchen/dining space has beautiful views of Lake Wakatipu across the road. The rooms are small and basic but comfy – a handful of slightly more expensive private rooms with a lake view are available (these are popular and need to be booked well in advance!). Check out prices and availability for YHA Lakefront.
Other hostel recommendations include:
Spacious backpacker Lodge with dorms and private rooms located in the heart of Queenstown. Check out prices and availability for Haka Lodge.
Adventure Q2 Hostel
Shared room accommodation with in-house activities most nights a week. Check out prices and availability for Adventure Q2 Hostel.
Mid range Queenstown hotels
If you are looking for something mid range then these hotels have great reviews:
Modern, self-contained accommodation with views of the Remarkables Mountains and Coronet Peak. Check out prices and availability for Ramada Suites.
Heartland Hotel Queenstown
Hotel with traditional alpine architecture located a short walk from town with panoramic views over Lake Wakatipu. Check out prices and availability for Heartland Hotel Queenstown.
Alternatively if you are looking for something more special then treat yourself to a stay at one of these beautiful hotels in Queenstown:
Eichardt’s Private Hotel
Luxury hotel Just 5 minutes’ walk from the waters of Lake Wakatipu. Check out prices and availability for Eichardt’s Private Hotel.
Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel
Luxury boutique hotel with panoramic alpine views, surrounded by parkland – rooms are well-furnished and have kitchenettes. Check out prices and availability for Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel.
The Rees Hotel & Luxury Apartments
Lakefront accommodation with private balconies, with some featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and views of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains. Check out prices and availability for The Rees Hotel & Luxury Apartments.
How to get around Queenstown
Car hire is by far the best option as there are many spectacular places of interest which are just to far away to walk to or not served by public transport. From our own personal experience we would not recommend Omega Rental Cars in Queenstown for car hire at all (dirty car, poor customer service and unauthorised payments coming out of our account 9 months after our trip), try JUCY rentals or Apex rentals instead!
There is a public bus service that will take you to many parts of town, including Frankton, Arthurs Point and Arrowtown.
How to get to Queenstown
If arriving by plane, the airport is 10km from town so the best ways to get to your hostel or hotel is by booking onto the Super Shuttle which will take you straight to your hotel (one-way adult ticket: $25pp, the price goes down if there are 2 or more people on the same booking), or by public bus route 11 to Queenstown town centre (one-way adult ticket: $12). Taxi’s/Ubers are available but they tend to be quite expensive.
Tip – if you are flying in or out of Queenstown from Auckland, pay a little extra to pick a window seat as the views are incredible (I paid $5 extra with Jetstar to pick my seat). Sit on the right if you are flying to Auckland, and on the left for flying into Queenstown.
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Blog post and photography by Caroline Keyzor and Neil Hassall and is copyrighted. Please do not use without permission.