Queenstown is one of the destinations that I’ve been to multiple times, and I would happily continue going back again and again.
There is just something really special about it. The magic starts as early as the flight into Queenstown which has the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen from the window seat. The airport itself is perched between mountains, so pilots must navigate between them on their descent. If you’re arriving in the winter or shoulder seasons, it’s likely that the alps will be sprinkled with pure white snow.
The town itself is touristy, for sure, but that’s not surprising – the lakeside location with a scenic mountain backdrop just makes it the perfect place to be. Queenstown seems to be simultaneously relaxing and exciting… the combination providing a feeling of contentment in every visitor from backpackers to luxe travellers.
After my most recent trip “across the pond” (that’s how us Aussies say “going to New Zealand”) for a family ski trip, I decided to put together a list of all my essential activities for a weekend in Queenstown!
Where to stay in Queenstown:
There are loads of options for places to stay in Queenstown. I’ve stayed in various accommodations ranging from a double room in a basic hotel to a huge vacation home fit for big groups.
This time around, we stayed just outside of town in Dalefield in a truly awesome Airbnb holiday house with my family. The area was a great spot for us as we had a few cars to get around, but if you are travelling to Queenstown for the first time, you might want to stay in town. We did this for the last two visits as it is useful to be close to Queenstown’s town centre.
Getting around Queenstown:
It is possible to get around Queenstown via public transport and shuttle buses, however, some of the following activities will likely require a hire car. We picked one up from Queenstown airport.
The city centre doesn’t have loads of parking, but the streets outside of downtown and the roads around Queenstown are pretty easy to navigate by car. Just remember that in New Zealand you drive on the left side of the road.
Things to do in Queenstown:
1. Get out on the lake
Heading out on Lake Wakatipu is an essential activity for first-time visitors to Queenstown. Wakatipu is New Zealand’s third largest lake and at 80 kms (50 mi) long it’s also the longest. Queenstown sits on the lake’s edge, so boat and water activities are easily accessible from the town centre.
You can take a trip on the historic steamship TSS Earnslaw or do a catamaran sightseeing cruise as I did. If you want something a little more exciting, there are also options to book a jet boat adventure on the lake or a hydro attack experience in a shark machine!
2. Do the Skyline Gondola
It may be the most touristy activity in Queenstown, but the Skyline Gondola is totally worth doing! The view you get from the top allows you to see over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu with the Remarkables mountain range as a picture perfect backdrop.
The cable car isn’t the only attraction in this spot. You can also get a ticket that includes lunch or dinner in the skyline restaurant, or a handful of rides on the Queenstown luge. If you want an adrenaline rush, you could even try a bungee jump from Queenstown Ledge!
3. Walk through the Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens are right next to downtown and are easily walkable. The gardens themselves aren’t all that spectacular, but there is a lovely gazebo and stone bridge that make for some great photos. There’s also a nice waterfront path that provides really nice views of Queenstown. Walk all the way out to the point to watch the action on Lake Wakatipu.
4. Eat a Fergburger
Fergburger is the go-to burger joint for all visitors to Queenstown. This place can get insanely busy so try to plan your visit to avoid popular times. We went over at about 11:30AM and it wasn’t too bad – we only waited around 15 minutes for our order.
I had a deep-fried tofu burger, which was delicious, though to be honest I’ve had burgers elsewhere that were equally as good or maybe even better. Its possible that I’m just spoilt as I’ve lived in areas of NYC and SYD that have amazing burgers! Anyway, Fergburger is worth a try if you have the time.
5. Head up to the ski fields
Queenstown is a popular ski destination due to it’s proximity to gorgeous skiable snow-covered mountains. My favourite ski fields are The Remarkables and Cardrona, though Coronet Peak is often a top pick for tourists as it’s the closest to Queenstown.
Even if you’re visiting Queenstown in the summer or aren’t into skiing, it’s still worth a trip up one of the mountains. Some of the resorts keep one of their chairlifts open for sightseeing rides where you can get amazing views of the surrounding mountains.
If you’re keen for a comprehensive NZ ski/snowboard experience, you could jump on a Snow Odyssey 12-day tour with Haka Tours. This will take you to Queenstown and all over New Zealand’s South Island, stopping in at all the best alpine resorts!
6. Visit a farm
There are a handful of farms near Queenstown where you can see New Zealand’s adorable sheep and other farm animals that dwell on the spectacular landscape.
From Queenstown, there are two options where you can combine a a lake cruise and a farm experience. My family chose to visit Mount Nicholas Farm where we did a tour of the property, saw merino sheep being sheared, and ate tasty cheese sandwiches for lunch. Walter Peak Farm is another popular option where you can eat a fresh BBQ lunch at their restaurant.
7. Take a trip out to Glenorchy
Glenorchy is located at the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu. It’s a bit of a drive from Queenstown (45 minutes) but the scenery on the way is totally incredible! If you don’t want to drive out there on your own, you can hop on a Glenorchy half-day explorer tour.
Tourists head to Glenorchy for the photo ops, pretty hikes, and natural scenery. The area is so photogenic that it was used as a filming location for scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies!
8. Take a trip out to Arrowtown
Arrowtown is a gold rush town which is about a 20 minute drive from Queenstown. The main street is rather adorable and its historic buildings now hold a range of shops selling quality wool products, boutique fashion items, craft supplies, and lollies. If you want to shop for souvenirs, this is a great spot to do it!
9. Go choc-crazy at Patagonia
Patagonia Chocolates is an essential stop if you’re exploring Queenstown town centre or Arrowtown. Their cafes stock some delectable choc treats such as New Zealand fudge, and they have some drool-worthy flavours of ice cream (I picked the dark chocolate & macadamia, yummm). They also make a decent cup of coffee, so grab a latte while you’re there!
10. Drink craft beer
If there’s one activity that we do at nearly every destination, it’s drink craft beer! Microbreweries in Queenstown have really kicked off lately so there’s a few choices for a beverage sesh. You can do some of these breweries on your own or take a hop on beer tour for a half-day beer extravaganza.
Our top pick was Canyon Food & Brew Co. which sold tasty pizzas to go along with their tasting flights. The beer garden was super lovely in the afternoon sunshine with views of the Shotover River.
11. Jet boat through a canyon
Right next to Canyon brewery is Shotover Jet – a company that offers speedy jet boat rides along the Shotover River. I did this activity a few years ago and can attest that the boat ride, while a little scary, is also totally fun and a great choice if you want to do an adventure activity that isn’t as hardcore as bungee jumping or skydiving!
12. Do other extreme activities
Queenstown is known for being an adventure sports playground, so if you’re truly an adrenaline-seeker, you can do any number of extreme activities around Queenstown including bungee jumping, a canyon swing, paragliding, or a skydive.
I personally did a skydive on the North Island for my 23rd birthday, and can confirm that falling from the sky over New Zealand’s incredible scenery is totally worth doing if you have the guts!