The Ultimate Travel Guide to Queenstown, New Zealand

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I always say that Wellington is my favorite New Zealand city. But then I get to Queenstown, and almost start second-guessing myself.

Because Queenstown is pretty awesome.

Sure, it's touristy (it is essentially a resort town, after all), but it’s gained its popularity and notoriety for good reason — it should definitely make it onto your New Zealand travel itinerary.

Queenstown, New Zealand

So what makes Queenstown so great? Is it the scenery? The adrenaline-inducing adventure sports? The party hostels? The mish-mash of accents and nationalities?

I think it’s a mixture of all these things that make Queenstown the vibrant, exciting city that it is.

Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, New Zealand

A quick history of Queenstown

Queenstown was first settled in 1860 by William Gilbert Rees. Rees was looking for a place to establish a high country farm, and picked Queenstown’s current location. He only had peace and quiet for a couple of years, though, because gold was discovered in the nearby Arrow River in 1862, which led to an influx of men who were now suddenly interested in the southern Central Otago region.

Today, Queenstown has grown into one of New Zealand’s most popular towns — with a population growth rate to prove it. The population in Queenstown is booming, with a growth rate of about 30 percent per census (every 5 years). And during peak tourism seasons? The population doubles. (If you want to avoid the crowds, visit during the off-seasons, during the spring or autumn.)

Queenstown, New Zealand

So what exactly do people come to Queenstown for? Well, the question should probably be what DON’T people come to Queenstown for. The city boasts the largest range of adventure sports in the southern hemisphere, has some of the best scenery in New Zealand, and has a young and lively atmosphere that is impossible to ignore.

TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown, New Zealand

It’s easy to fall in love with Queenstown. Which is probably why so many people — expats especially — are now calling the city home. As my friend Matt (who lived Queenstown himself) said, “People come here planning to spend 3 months or a ski season, and end up never going home.”

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, here is just a taste of what this fun city has to offer.

Top things to do in Queenstown

Scenery

While I love other parts of New Zealand to death, there is no denying that Queenstown has some of the best scenery in the entire country. With Lake Wakatipu at its doorstep and the aptly-named Remarkables mountain range towering behind it, Queenstown is set in one of the most spectacular locations a city could hope for.

The Remarkables in Queenstown

If you’re hoping to get a glimpse of this beauty, consider:

  • Skyline Gondola — Buy a return ticket for the Skyline Gondola, which will whisk you away to almost 800 meters above the city. At the top, viewing decks offer an almost-360-degree view over the city, lake and mountains. If you want to splurge, see a cultural haka show, enjoy a sprawling buffet dinner, or try out the Skyline luge. I can highly recommend the luge here, which sends you careening down twisting mountain paths in little sled-like contraptions with wheels.
  • Lake Wakatipu cruises — If walking along the pebbly shore of the lake isn’t quite enough for you, book yourself onto a Lake Wakatipu cruise. Try the TSS Earnslaw, a century-old steamship, or perhaps check out a catamaran cruise.
Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, New Zealand
Lake Wakatipu
  • Queenstown Gardens — If heights and water don’t tempt you, take a stroll through the Queenstown Gardens, which are lush during the spring and summer seasons. There’s also a Frisbee golf course here, so be sure to bring your gear.
  • A helicopter tour — Lastly, if you want views from above, consider booking a helicopter tour that will take you up into the Remarkables mountain range above Queenstown.
Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown
Lake Wakatipu

Adventure Sports

While the scenery in Queenstown is certainly something to talk about, the real reason people come here is for the adventure sports. Often referred to as “the Adventure Capital of the World,” Queenstown certainly packs a punch when it comes to activities that will get your adrenaline pumping.

Some of the most popular activities are:

  • Bungy jumping — Modern bungy jumping, as we know it today, was invented right here in New Zealand by a man named A.J. Hackett. The first commercial bungy jump took place in the 1980s in Queenstown, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Queenstown boasts 3 unique bungy locations: the Kawarau Bridge (the birthplace of bungy), The Ledge (a scenic jump near the Skyline Gondola), and the Nevis Highwire (a 134-meter behemoth in the canyons outside of the city). If you’re planning to bungy jump in New Zealand, do it in Queenstown.
Nevis Bungy in Queenstown
Me doing the Nevis Bungy
  • Jetboating — Another New Zealand original, jetboating is a fun, fast adventure suitable for the whole family. Jetboats are unique in that they have no propellers, and so can operate in the shallow rivers around Queenstown. While there are many options in this area of the country, I recommend the Shotover Jet, where jetboat drivers will zip through the narrow Shotover Canyon, getting within inches of the canyon walls and pulling 360-degree turns that will take your breath away.
  • Skydiving — You can jump out of a plane all over New Zealand, but there’s no arguing that skydiving in Queenstown is pretty damn epic. The only downside is that it is more expensive to jump in Queenstown than almost anywhere else in the country.
  • Skiing/Snowboarding — During the winter months (June-August), Queenstown turns into a ski resort. Popular ski fields at Coronet Peak and on the Remarkables open up in early June, drawing daredevils from all over the world to their slopes.
  • White water rafting — You can go rafting on category II and III rapids on either the Kawarau River or Shotover River from Queenstonw. These are both suitable for first-timers.
  • Canyoning — Another exciting thing to do near Queenstown is canyoning (or canyoneering), which includes zip lining through ancient forest, rappelling down waterfalls, and jumping into natural pools.

You can also do things like flyboarding, river boarding, cycling, ziplining, tandem paragliding, or even hike a portion of the Routeburn Track. There's no shortage of activities to try in Queenstown!

Day Trips

While Queenstown offers plenty to do, many visitors also like to get out and experience the other things the area has to offer. Queenstown makes a great jumping-off point for many half-day, full-day and overnight excursions.

Milford Sound from the air
Flying into Milford Sound

Popular day trips include:

  • Glenorchy — Located on the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy is just as scenically stunning as Queenstown, but much less-visited. If you’re looking for quality horseback riding excursions, head to Glenorchy. Dart River Stables offers a variety of horse treks, all of which offer beautiful alpine views. Or you can book a Lord of the Rings locations tour.
  • Mount Aspiring National Park — The best way to get to Mount Aspiring is by taking a day trip with Dart River Adventures – I highly recommend their Wilderness Safari, which includes a jetboat ride, a short hike, and a bus ride through a place literally named Paradise.
  • Skipper’s Canyon — Take a half-day trip out to Skipper’s Canyon, where gold was discovered back in the 1860s. Getting to this canyon is half the fun — you take a nail-biting ride in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle along a treacherous mountain road. The road is so tricky that you have to have a permit to drive on it. (Book a tour here.)
  • Arrowtown — Rent a car or catch the Connectabus to get to this little gold mining town, about half an hour from Queenstown. Now dotted with art galleries and little cafes, Arrowtown still pays homage to its gold mining roots. You’ll feel a little bit like you’re stepping back in time. If you can catch it in the autumn months, the fall colors here are gorgeous. (Or you can even book an Arrowtown beer tour!)
Arrowtown, New Zealand
Downtown Arrowtown
  • Milford Sound — Known as New Zealand’s top tourist attraction (and referred to at least once as “the eighth wonder of the world), Milford Sound is a must-see for most visitors to New Zealand. This picturesque fjord is lined with towering peaks and filled with deep blue water and plenty of wildlife. It’s reached by the impressive Milford Road, which winds through the mountains and Fiordland National Park. Various day trips can be booked from Queenstown, which include a 5-hour bus ride to Milford Sound, a 1.5-hour cruise through the fjord, and another 5-hour bus ride back to the city. Scenic flights can also be booked between Queenstown and Milford, which I highly recommend on a clear day.
  • Doubtful Sound — Not up for vying with other tourists for that perfect shot of Mitre Peak at Milford Sound? Consider Doubtful Sound, instead, then — Milford’s severely underrated little brother. Doubtful Sound is just as impressive as Milford in any weather, but it’s far less touristed. Day trips from Queenstown can be booked through Real Journeys, and include a 2-hour bus ride to Lake Manapouri, a 1-hour cruise across the lake, a 30-minute bus ride to Doubtful Sound, and then a 3-hour cruise on the fjord. Coming back (the same route, but in reverse order), you’ll also get to stop briefly at the underground Lake Manapouri Power Station. This tour may be a bit more expensive, but it’s worth it for the smaller crowd, and less time spent on a bus.
Waterfalls at Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound

What if I just want to relax?

Queenstown might be the Adventure Capital of New Zealand, but I get it – just because you're there doesn't mean you want your adrenaline to be pumping 24/7! For some more relaxing outings in and around Queenstown, consider:

    • Go on a wine tour — The Central Otago region produces some of the best wine in New Zealand, so maybe a tour of some boutique wineries would be more your speed.
    • A spa with a view — If relaxing in a hot tub with an incredible view sounds like a nice way to spend an hour, head over to the Onsen Hot Pools, and indoor-outdoor location that will make everyone at home jealous.
Onsen Hot Pools in Queenstown
Onsen Hot Pools

Where to stay in Queenstown

Being a resort town, there's no shortage of place to stay in Queenstown. Some options to consider include:

Luxury: Queenstown Park Hotel (rated #1 on TripAdvisor), or the Spire Hotel Queenstown. (There's also a Sofitel Queenstown Hotel & Spa in town.)

Mid-range: Novotel Queenstown Lakeside, or DoubleTree by Hilton.

Budget: Ramada Hotel & Suites Queenstown Remarkables Park or Queenstown Holiday Park & Motel Creeksyde. There's also a Nomads Hostel in Queenstown.

So do I have you convinced to visit Queenstown yet? To head to New Zealand and spend a week or two splurging on all it has to offer? Because, if there's one place in NZ to splurge, this is it.

Have you visited Queenstown before? If so, what were some of your favorite activities there?

 

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Things to do in Queenstown, New Zealand

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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38 Comments on “The Ultimate Travel Guide to Queenstown, New Zealand

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  1. the mountains are stunning, and I want to see mountains again, mountains, Gandalf! but I just came back from a week in Wellington and have fallen in love with it. my heart will not be so quickly lured away by bright and shiny Queenstown! it won’t, it won’t! 😉

      Ah, you and I are kindred spirits then! I’m in love with Wellington, too. But you know what? It’s okay to love more than one city! And, if you visit Queenstown in the off-season, it can definitely give Wellington a run for its money.

      (And yes, the mountains are so stunning! It’s no wonder they did a lot of shooting here for the “Lord of the Rings” movies.)

    I went there twice, and its definitely full of tourists if you go there in the wrong season. But the scenery around it is amazing. Went to deer park height to see some of the lord of the rings movie locations, and visited Arrowtown and some other place, which I think was Glenorchy. Still planning on doing the bungy jumping there one day 🙂

      Yes, the place is mad during the high season. But still definitely worth visiting, regardless.

      Deer Park Heights used to be my favorite “secret” tip to give to people about Queenstown, but sadly the park is now closed to the public. It’s a shame, because it was so beautiful!

    I’ve been to Queenstown a few times, and my favourite things there were the Dart River Safari – more of a wilderness style Jetboating experience up at Glenorchy – absolutely stunning, and a walk around Deer Park Heights – which was used in filming the Lord of the Rings – beautiful spot.

    I also flew back to Christchurch from Queenstown, one of the most scenic flights I’ve ever taken.

      Flying into Queenstown from anywhere on a clear day is almost worth the price of a plane ticket. The Southern Alps are definitely worth seeing from the air!

      And you’re the second person now to mention Deer Park Heights in these comments. I’ve been up there twice myself, and agree that it’s a beautiful spot. Unfortunately, the owners have now closed it off to visitors. Major bummer.

    Love Queenstown, I could spend weeks there. Jet boating through the Shotover Gorge is one of my favourite experiences.

      I could spend weeks there, too! I was tempted to skip out on some of my other NZ plans this last time around to spend a week there. Part of me wishes I had! Next time.

      And yes, the Shotover Jet is SO much fun!

    Absolutely love the views! Love the mountains and the greenery – everything looks so beautiful. Lots of fun activities as well. Is that you doing the bungy jump?

      The scenery in Queenstown is probably second to none. It really is a stunning city, as cliche as that is to say.

      And yes, that’s me bungy jumping! I’ll be writing more about it soon. (And I’m also in that jetboating shot!)

    Queenstown really rocks! We stayed in Queenstown, but also in Te Anau. Loved both! So different. My favorite activity was the kayak trip in the Doubtful Sound, the heli ride & the Routeburn Track.

      All great activities, Melvin! And yes, Queenstown and Te Anau are SO different. But both are great towns for different reasons.

    Queenstown was our absolute favourite! So much to do down there…just an all-around great vibe place =)

      It definitely has its own vibe, and it’s a great one — which is saying something, since all of NZ has a fantastic vibe! And the fact that Queenstown packs a punch with such a variety of things to do makes it so easy to fall in love with. I don’t blame you for naming it your favorite!

    Yeah yeah, the South Island is all pretty and stuff BUT Wellington is still better I reckon.

      Haha. I wish there was a “like” button on my comments. No matter how awesome the South Island is, Windy Welly will always hold the top spot in my heart!

    Great article! I spent a few days with friends in Wellington last October, and I’m looking forward to going back. I’m also looking to spend time in the South Island, and your post and photos of Queenstown definitely hit the mark. While my plan is to visit New Zealand next July, I’m very much open to seeing what’s out there, even if there’s a few more clouds and temps hit the icy mark. Thanks again for your post, Amanda!

      Thanks so much for the kind words! I LOVE Wellington! So glad to hear you got to spend some time there. Definitely get to Queenstown next time, though!

      And, I’ve been to NZ twice in July – it’s a wonderful time to visit the country. Yes, it will get chilly in the South, but that just means snow on the mountains!

    So many things to choose from…. i think a) walking Routburn track or b) bike riding, so many brilliant and different pitched rides available + reasonable bike hire prices at wee place by the lakefront.

      Those are also great Queenstown activities! You’re right — there’s SO much to choose from.

    Thanks, Amanda! This has been a very big help to Rachel and I as we have worked to wrap our arms around all the great things to do in this town (in Queenstown right now)! I’m off on the Milford Sound day trip tomorrow.

    Now to read your opinions in the North vs. South Island smack down… 🙂

      Good to hear this has been helpful! Queenstown definitely has no shortage of amazing activities… and these aren’t even all of them on offer!!

      Enjoy Milford! It’s an awe-inspiring place.

    I’m glad we spent time in Queenstown. It was a neat little town. Not being into the adventure sports and being there at Christmas time, there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to do, but that means it was relaxing as well.

    As much as I hate flying in general, the landing path into Queenstown was amazing. They come in low over hills dotted with sheep. The flight down from Auckland was nice too, seeing the snow capped mountains and the bright blue lakes.

    Definitely Milford Sound was a great reason we went down there. As much as I am sure a day trip is nice, I am so glad we did the overnight.

      I’m really glad to hear you guys had a nice relaxing Christmas in Queenstown. I really feel like it’s a great town any time of year, and that just about everyone can enjoy it. And yes, isn’t flying into the airport there awesome?? I’m assuming you didn’t fly into Wellington… you probably we be scarred by that bumpy ride!

      And I’ll be curious to read yours and Ali’s take on the overnight cruise in Milford Sound! I don’t really know many people who have done it, but I imagine it would be amazing.

    […] 10. Bungy jumping was born here. Even though some Vanuatu tribes have been jumping off high structures with vines tied around their ankles for decades, bungy jumping in its current form began in New Zealand in the 1980s. AJ Hackett designed the elastic bungy cord, and began bungy operations off the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand. […]

    […] 10. Bungy jumping was born here. Even though some Vanuatu tribes have been jumping off high structures with vines tied around their ankles for decades, bungy jumping in its current form began in New Zealand in the 1980s. AJ Hackett designed the elastic bungy cord, and began bungy operations off the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand. […]

    […] limping along after a big earthquake in February, is truly gorgeous. There’s also the popular resort town of Queenstown, which will easily steal your heart if you’re not careful. Then there are surprisingly cool […]

    Any suggestions on places to stay in Queenstown? (Looking for affordable-not opposed to hostels- this will be at the end of May/beginning of June)

      The good news is that you’ll be going in the shoulder season, meaning you should be able to find better deals! The only hostel I’ve stayed at in Queenstown in Nomads (http://www.booking.com/hotel/nz/nomads-queenstown.html?aid=396395), which is fairly decent but if you’re looking for a private room they aren’t really a whole lot cheaper. If you can stay slightly outside of the city, you’ll also find better prices – like at the Holiday Inn (http://www.booking.com/hotel/nz/goldridge-resort.html?aid=396395) or the Mercure (http://www.booking.com/hotel/nz/resort-queenstown.html?aid=396395).

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