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Queenstown is in the center of an area of extraordinary natural beauty and is an essential part of every NZ itinerary.

Paradoxically, although the area exudes a peaceful tranquility and gentle beauty, it also offers a wide range of fun filled and action type activities.

Whatever your preferred style of vacation, you're sure to find lots to love in Queenstown.

 
 
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What to See and Do in Queenstown

Key information for the intending visitor
 

Surrounded by water and mountains, the small town of Queenstown is in the heart of some of New Zealand's most beautiful scenery.

Part of a series on travel to and in New Zealand - click the links in the right hand column for more articles.

 

 

Queenstown is a year round wonderland for the visitor.  In summer, you have long warm days and lots of outdoors activities to enjoy; in winter there is excellent skiing on the mountains around the town.

Whenever you visit, you'll quickly understand why Queenstown is perhaps New Zealand's most popular tourist destination.

 

Getting to and from Queenstown

Queenstown is one of New Zealand's more remote towns.  But the good news is that New Zealand is small, so even a remote location like Queenstown is not far from other places.

If you're driving to/from Queenstown, the chances are your next (or previous stop) would be perhaps Dunedin, Te Anau, Greymouth or Christchurch.  The furtherest of these places - Greymouth and Christchurch - are a one day drive away, and somewhere as close as Te Anau is a mere half day away by car.

If you're flying, you'll probably be flying from Christchurch, Wellington, Rotorua or Auckland.  Nonstop service is offered from Christchurch and sometimes from other cities too, otherwise your travels will probably fly you first to Christchurch and then on to Queenstown (airport code ZQN).  It is about a one hour flight between Christchurch and Queenstown - Air New Zealand flies A320s with a total time of 50 minutes scheduled and smaller ATR72 turbo-prop planes with a 70 minute schedule duration.

We generally prefer to fly on the jets - the smaller turbo-props are noisier and slower, and don't fly as high.  When the air is turbulent (which it sometimes is, due to some of NZ's unique weather patterns) the jets can fly above the rough air, while the turbo-props have to slowly fly right through the worst of it.

For travelers with a limited amount of time in New Zealand, it makes good sense to fly at least one way (typically between somewhere in the North Island and Queenstown).  Not only does this save probably two days of solid driving, but it can also give you marvelous views from the plane, across the country from one coast to the other.

If you're driving between Queenstown and Christchurch, we recommend you include a side trip to Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain.  A spur road takes you part of the way up the mountain, ending at a small settlement with a nice hotel (the Hermitage) and a choice of places to eat and drink.

At the nearby airfield there are flight-seeing opportunities, where small planes will fly you up, around the Southern Alps, and even land on a nearby glacier.  These flights are very weather-dependent, so there's little point in booking one prior to your travels, for fear of it being cancelled.

Intercity bus service is also available to/from Queenstown and other places.  Queenstown is not on any rail lines.

Where to Stay in Queenstown

Queenstown exists almost solely for tourists.  There is really no other reason for the town's existence.  However, and unlike many other tourist spots around the world, the necessary focus on tourism has not destroyed the town's charm and attraction - perhaps because in addition to international visitors, local New Zealanders also visit Queenstown in large numbers and seek 'ordinary NZ style' accommodation and shopping and lifestyle choices.

Its tourism economy means that Queenstown has a good selection of places to stay, ranging from backpacker hostels up to luxury resorts.

Please see our separate page for further discussion and recommendations about where to stay in Queenstown.

How Long to Stay in Queenstown

We recommend three nights as the absolute minimum time to stay in Queenstown, and we'd urge you to increase this to four or five nights if at all possible, and/or to add a night (or two) in Te Anau too.

Typically, you'll find you arrive sometime in the afternoon of your first day (and night), and so with a three night stay you have only two full days.  One of these days will most likely be taken up with a full day tour to Milford Sound, unless you're planning to spend time in Te Anau too, and that leaves you with only one day to see and do everything in the Queenstown area.  This is absolutely not enough time.

What to See and Do in Queenstown

Queenstown offers a tremendous range of different activities, from very active and physically challenging to relaxing and sedentary.  No matter what you want to see or do, you'll find plenty to enjoy in the Queenstown area.

The following list represents activities that we have on our own personal 'must do' list, and which other people have generally found to be high quality experiences, too.  Use this as a suggested starting point for planning your own time.

Day Tour to Milford Sound

This is high on everyone's list of 'must do' activities.  You travel, via Te Anau, and along an incredibly beautiful road to Milford Sound where you then go on a cruise out to the Tasman Sea and back in again before returning back to Queenstown.

But, as wonderful as it is, the day tour from Queenstown, when traveling by coach, makes for a long day - as much as 12 - 13 hours from when you start the tour to when you finish the tour.

For that reason, some people choose to fly by small plane one way or both ways between Queenstown and Milford Sound.  We'd recommend you travel by coach to Milford Sound and then fly back by plane after your cruise on Milford Sound.  The coach drive to Milford Sound tends to be well narrated and with several stops along the way; the coach drive back is slightly repetitive and less interesting (although it is true - it looks different when you travel one way than when you travel back again the other way!).

Although the extra cost of the return flight is startlingly high, no-one we know who has chosen to do this has been disappointed.

Several different companies offer tours to Milford Sound.  We believe the best operator to be Real Journeys.

Jetboating

Jetboating is such a core part of a Queenstown stay that we've given this its own separate page to discuss and explain more fully.

This is probably a half day activity, although if you do the Dart River tour that will take up a full day.

Rafting

If you want to get even more intimately acquainted with the rivers around Queenstown, then a rafting experience - either mild or wild - might be of interest.

More Water Sports

In addition to these more active water sports, there are a range of gentler water activities offered right on the lakefront in downtown Queenstown.

Paddle boats, paddle boarding, aqua bikes, and sea kayaking (should really be called lake kayaking!) are all on offer by the Watersports Queenstown company.

If that is too sedate, there are also jet skis and power boats available for hire.

And if you can't quite decide if you want to be on the water or above it, how about going parasailing.

Paragliding and Hang Gliding - and Ballooning Too

Talking about aerial experiences, the sheer slopes of Bob's Peak immediately adjacent to Queenstown are an obvious and ideal spot to paraglide or hang glide from, and several operators offer tandem experiences for everyone to enjoy.

Although a bit heart-stoppingly terrifying when you first launch, the rest of the experience is calm and wonderful, and the landing is gentle, unlike a parachute jump.

Needless to say, like so many other places in the world these days, there are opportunities to go ballooning in the Queenstown area in the mornings, too.  This can sometimes require a distressingly early start to your day (they like to launch shortly after dawn, when the air is at its calmest) and surprisingly, a balloon ride is noisier than you might think.

If you've never been for a balloon ride before, this is certainly a lovely part of the world to do so.  If you have been before, well, you'll know if you want to do it again or not.

TSS Earnslaw Lake Cruise to Walter Peak Station

The Earnslaw is a lovely old coal fired vertical triple expansion steam powered boat that takes passengers on regular and leisurely cruises across Lake Wakatipu (the lake Queenstown is on the shores of).

There are several different cruise options available.  We recommend you don't just do the simple cruise, but choose instead to combine it with a meal or farm tour at Walter Peak Station on the far side of the lake.

The return journey back to Queenstown typically has a singalong where you're given a songbook crammed full of 'good, old fashioned songs' and you can gather around a piano and join in the singing.

An Earnslaw cruise is a lovely relaxing experience.

Gondola Ride to Bob's Peak (and Luge)

A longtime landmark on the hill behind Queenstown is the Skyline Restaurant and the gondola ride that takes people up the side of the hill.

The gondola ride is possibly the steepest in the Southern Hemisphere, and takes you up a 1500 ft rise.  The views as the gondola takes you up the side of the hill are fabulous, as of course they are from the observation decks at the top.

While you're up there, you might want to go for a luge ride.  The luge carts are a bit like trolleys, and you can ride them down a twisty windy route, with your choice of either a scenic or an advanced track.  Happily, a short chairlift returns you back up to the top.

There are several different places to eat in the Skyline complex, plus a bar to enjoy a drink in.  There is also a Maori show called the 'Kiwi Haka' - we've never seen this, and suggest you too avoid it.  If you want to enjoy some Maori culture and entertainment, you're much better advised to do this in Rotorua.

The Kingston Flyer Vintage Steam Train

If - like me - you enjoy traveling on steam powered trains, you'll enjoy the Kingston Flyer, a train that travels on a 9 mile length of track between Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu (about 40 minutes by car from Queenstown) and Fairlight, further south.  The train is powered by a mid 1920s era steam locomotive, and has several wooden carriages, some dating as far back as 1898.

Note that the train is currently out of service but it is hoped it will return to service soon.

Segway Touring

Continuing what seems to be a theme of unusual ways of traveling, Queenstown has both one and two hour Segway tours that leave from downtown several times most days.

Riding a Segway truly requires no skill or training at all, and is fun and novel and safe.  But, having said that, you still get a briefing and some check/training before being allowed to go solo.

Most people will find the one hour tour enough, but if you do the two hour tour there's an opportunity on the return to activate the 'turbo mode' high speed capability and whizz along much faster.  There's only a few dollars in cost difference between the one and two hour tours, so the chance to go faster on the two hour tour might encourage some people onto the longer tour.

High Performance Car Driving

Did someone just say 'go fast'?  The Freeman X Supercar company allows people a chance to either drive around a race track or - get this - on the open road in a supercar such as a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Lotus.

If you choose the open road option, you might get to go alone, but if they don't think you look sensible, you might get a 'chaperone' accompanying you.  So wear conservative clothing and act very diffidently and demurely, at least until you've peeled out of their car park!

Other Sights and Attractions

Queenstown is where modern bungy jumping was developed.  While bungy jumping is now becoming commonplace in many parts of the world, if you want to experience it where it was first commercialized, then the AJ Hackett operation in Queenstown is the place to go.

Several of the activities can be combined by various of the tourist operators, for example, a jet boat ride, a raft ride, and some other thing or things as well.  Often these combination experiences include a helicopter flight, and when there is snow on the nearby mountains (remember that NZ's winter is the northern hemisphere's summer) these flights may include a stop somewhere on a snow covered slope where you get to briefly play in pure fresh snow, untouched by any other living thing.

The Shotover is considered by some to be the richest gold-bearing river in the world, and for sure, it isn't all yet taken.  Some people pan for gold semi-professionally, and you can do it as a brief recreational experience at one of the former goldworking sites (here's one such place).  Typically you'll be given some silt and quick instructions on how to use the pan, and then whatever gold you find is yours to keep.  Chances are you'll find a fleck or two - enough to pay for a cup of coffee, but don't plan on finding enough gold to pay for your entire vacation in New Zealand.

A visit to the lovely historic town of Arrowtown is a nice way to spend half a day.

Another relaxing experience can be to go on a winery tour; there are now some excellent wineries in the Queenstown area.

Another way to sample wine is to go to the Wine Tastes store on Beach St in the heart of Queenstown.  This is a fascinating store; very well laid out and very well presented.  They use special technology to allow you to sample from over 100 different wines, all open and ready for you to sip.

In theory there's absolutely no better or more convenient way to experience such a wealth of different wines in a single location.  But we found the experience disappointing.  Maybe our palate quickly became jaded, but many of the wines tasted the same, or lacked any sparkle.  We suspect something is lost as a result of the storage technology used.  But try it for yourself.

For a very different type of drinking experience, visit the Minus 5 Ice Bar on Steamer Wharf.  No matter what the temperature outside, the temperature in the Minus 5 Ice Bar is, well, -5C (23F) and sometimes a little colder.  You're given warm clothes and boots to wear, and the drinks generally have a vodka theme to them.  The entire bar is made from ice, as are the glasses you drink from.  Few people stay for a second drink, but most enjoy the novelty of a first drink.

For more information

See this website - the official Queenstown Tourism website - for lots more information about Queenstown.

For more information

Click the links in the top right of this page for additional helpful information about travel to and in New Zealand.

In particular please note our pages about Queenstown accommodation and Queenstown jetboating.
 

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 6 Jan 2006, last update 23 Jan 2014

 
 
 
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