Trying to explore New Zealand with a limited amount of time is the sweetest form travel torture. With so many mountains, lakes, beaches, and towns to check out it’s almost impossible to see it all. Everything is just so stunningly beautiful that your heart will break knowing you can’t see it all, and knowing that it’s a long haul flight to return.
So unless you have an infinite amount of time in New Zealand, you will be forced to decide what to see and what to save for next time. You might think that fellow traveler friends will help you make these tough decisions but I’ve discovered that people have very strong, and very different, opinions about what the best spots in New Zealand are.
This is especially true when you inquire about whether to visit Queenstown or Wanaka, two popular South Island cities. Hearing Wanaka fans bash Queenstown for it’s busyness and crowds you would think they were describingNew York City.
A few glasses of wine and an overwhelming amount of information later, I decided to squeeze both cities into our South Island itinerary. Not that this took much sacrifice. Let’s be honest, there’s worse hardships than having to visit two gorgeous lakes!
Queenstown and Wanaka Reviewed
Queenstown has a very easy to reach location. The airport is only a few minutes from the downtown area and there are numerous direct flights from Auckland. The flight takes about two hours which means you can leave Auckland in the morning and be riding the luge by lunch time.
From Queenstown it’s easy to take a day trip to Wanaka, Arrowtown, Gibbston Valley or even Milford Sound. Arrowtown, a picture perfect little historic mining town is a quick fifteen minute drive from Queenstown.
Another easy day trip from Queenstown is the Gibbston wine region. A bit further than Arrowtown, this valley has numerous wineries offering tastings of locally grown New Zealand wines. After a few tastings you might just have enough courage to bungee jump off nearby Kawarau bridge, the home of bungee jumping.
Wanaka is about an hour drive away from Queenstown. Without any commercial airport you will need to fly into Queenstown and drive over a steep mountain to get to Wanaka. Not terrible, but if you’re short on time or motivation this will take a little extra energy.
There are some great day trips you can do from Wanaka, such as the Rob Roy Glacier However, the main attraction of these day trips is incredible hiking. So if you’re not a hiker you might not find the day trips from Wanaka as appealing.
Best Location: Queenstown. A stones throw away from the airport, it’s really easy to get to Queenstown. The variety of day trips from Queenstown is also a nice perk.
Queenstown was my first stop on the South Island portion of our trip and I’ll never forget that feeling of walking down the steps of the airplane with the sun setting. I was completely blown away by the magnitude of the surrounding snow-capped mountains, the crisp evening air, and just the shear magic of it all. It really delivered a hefty dose of ” I can’t believe I’m in New Zealand!”
From almost anywhere in Queenstown you’ve either got a view of the lake or the mountains. In the downtown area there are quite a few eateries that are close enough to the lake to listen to the peaceful sound of the water lapping against the shore. From downtown Queenstown you are minutes away from the Queenstown Hill hike, a popular trek that rewards sweaty hikers with incredible views. Or if you’re feeling a little mellower the Queenstown Gardens have a flat walking path along the lake.
Wanaka is not quite as in your face beautiful but offers plenty of natural beauty. If Queenstown is the super model, Wanaka is the cute girl next door. Lake Wanaka is smaller than Lake Wakatipu and the mountains don’t seem quite as dramatic. But there are fewer tour buses and crowds of people blocking your view. So even if the scenery isn’t as spectacular you’ll have more blissful moments to enjoy the splendor of the South Island..
A nearby option for enjoying the natural beauty of the Wanaka area is Iron Mountain. Just outside of town, a trek to the top of Iron Mountain is a relatively easy way to get a New Zealand nature fix.
Best for Natural Beauty: Both. Queenstown has dreamy rugged mountains but Wanaka has a quieter, more understated beauty.
Things To Do
It’s no surprise that the “adrenaline capital of the world” has a lot of things to do. It’s almost ridiculous how saturated Queenstown is with tour operators. Jet boats, bungee jumping, mountain biking, luge tracks, sky diving, anything you ever wanted to try is available in Queenstown.
All this adrenaline seeking fun comes with a high price. Activities aren’t cheap, nor is food or lodging in Queenstown. If you’re coming to Queenstown it’s best to have a Las Vegas type of attitude because it’s virtually impossible not to spend a lot of money here.
Hiking is probably your best bet for budget friendly entertainment. However, if you’re main objective is hiking there are plenty of other places in the South Island with stellar hiking and a fraction of the crowds.
Quaint Wanaka offers up some of the same thrills as Queenstown but instead of a dozen jet boat tour companies there’s only a handful. The tours in Wanaka are more focused on challenging yourself physically while experiencing natural beauty. Canyoning, repelling down a waterfall, horseback riding and mountain biking are a few of the ways to get moving and get outside in Wanaka.
Something that did surprise me is how expensive the tours are in Wanaka. One of the big perks of Wanaka, according to Wanaka advocates, is that it’s cheaper than Queenstown. I found that since there is less competition amongst tour operators in Wanaka there weren’t many deals/discounts. In Queenstown there were so many tour operators I was able to more easily find coupons and negotiate for lower rates.
Rainy weather lured us into “Puzzling World“, a museum that features different optical illusion exhibits and a massive maze. It’s a good option if you want to do something touristy and the weather isn’t conducive to outdoor adventure. But if the sun is shining and your body isn’t totally destroyed from a grueling hike, I would say skip Puzzling World and get outdoors.
*Side note: If you do go to Puzzling World keep an eye on the time. The museum closed while I was still navigating the maze with my five year-old and seven year-old. We got to the exit door and it was locked. The five-year old got teary, the seven-year old found a section of fence to crawl under. We made it out, but the whole getting locked-in aspect definitely added a bit of excitement to the maze experience.
Best for Things to Do: Queentown. If you have plenty of money to spend you’ll never get bored in Queenstown.
Within fifteen minutes of Queenstown there are plenty of places to hike and bike. But with Queenstown being such a large area, you’ll probably want to venture a little further away if you really want to escape the crowds.
There are almost seventy-five miles of bike paths that take riders along the edge of Lake Wakatipu, through Arrowtown and around the surrounding Queenstown area. Just know that since much of the lakefront is developed the ride along the lake can feel a little urban at times. If you’re looking for a moderate scenic ride, I would definitely recommend driving to Arrowtown, renting a bike there, and exploring the bike trail that goes along the river towards Gibbston Valley.
If want to do some mountain biking without as much uphill effort, you can take the gondola from downtown Queenstown up the mountain then ride down. It’s not cheap but for those of us who dislike riding uphill, it’s worth it.
Roy’s Peak is probably one of the most iconic South Island hikes and is just a few minutes outside of Wanaka. This leg burner gives hikers big views but you can also get some really incredible views from other hikes in the area. Diamond Lake/ Rocky Mountain has a fraction of the crowds and is a bit easier on the hamstrings.
The biking/walking path along the lake is a mellow must-do. It’s mostly flat and in the spring it’s lined with endless patches of purple wildflowers. There are plenty of places to rent a bike in Wanaka and you can easily spend half a day riding along the lake and the Hawea River.
Mountain bikers will stay busy with the 750km of mountain biking trails in the Wanaka area.. The Cardrona Bike Park has a chairlift if you’re looking to avoid uphill riding and there are several outfitters that offer shuttle services if you want to do a one-way ride.
Best for Hiking/Biking: Wanaka. Endless miles of trails for biking and hiking with less development and crowds.
If you’re traveling around New Zealand with your friends and want to either a.) experience a hangover, b.) stay up late dancing, c.) kiss a stranger, then Queenstown is your best bet. Everywhere we went we encountered either a bachelor or bachelorette party. Drunken men bungee jumping, tiara clad women tumbling out of limos, we saw a surprising amount of debauchery in Queenstown. And that was just what we spotted during the day while wandering around in parent-mode. I can only imagine what happens after dark…
If your idea of a great night out is dinner followed by a scoop of artisan ice cream, then Wanaka is your place. This nature loving town goes to bed earlier than Queenstown, perhaps because people are saving their energies for hiking Roy’s Peak? Families and couples are what you’re most likely to spot on the streets of Wanaka.
Best for Nightlife: Queenstown. There’s a reason why I didn’t see any bachelorette parties wandering the streets of Wanaka.
Queenstown is known for being one of the most expensive areas in the South Island. Our accommodation was the priciest of everywhere we stayed in New Zealand and offered the least amount of charm. Likewise many of the restaurants seemed like they catered to tourists, serving up lackluster grub for steep prices. We found that the best budget option was to stock up on basic good staples at the grocery store and cook our own food. For about $50 in groceries a day we were able to make three meals for a family of four.
Friends on “Team Wanaka” boasted that it’s cheaper than Queenstown. Unfortunately I found prices to be very comparable to Queenstown. It’s clear from all the development around town that Wanaka has been discovered, and the prices reflect that. Therefore, if you’re trying to decide between the two cities, cost shouldn’t be a factor since there isn’t much of a difference.
Best for Cost: Both. I really didn’t see much of a different in prices in the two cities. Queenstown does have more discounts on attractions though for savvy deal finders.
Eating + Sleeping
There are plenty of places to eat and sleep in Queenstown. Despite having so many different accommodation options, the most popular ones will require reservations months in advance. So if you’re coming to Queenstown during peak season and have your heart set on staying at a particular place, hopefully you’ve reserved your room or site at least six months prior. The good news is that since there are so many places to stay you’ll likely be able to find a bed somewhere.
Fergburger is one of Queenstown most well known restaurants. I was slightly intrigued to try the burger. After all is must be really good if people will wait in line for an hour for their chunk of beef and bun. And then I saw the line and reality set in. Was I going to spend precious moments of my New Zealand vacation waiting in line for a burger? Nope.
Smaller town means fewer places to stay. Good news is that since it is smaller the experience at hotels and restaurants tends to feel more personable. We had a nice lunch after a morning bike ride at Monkeyfarm. The food was flavorful and fresh, and the outside area was perfect for kids. The hand pies from The Doughbin Bakery are a quick, option for travelers looking for a budget bite.
Best for Eating+Sleeping: Both. It really just depends on what you’re looking for.
The Bottom Line: Go to Queenstown if you want motorized thrills or have an endless appetite for adrenaline. If you’re wanting to unwind, slow down and just spend time enjoying the outdoors you’ll appreciate the miles of trails in the Wanaka area.