to See and Do in Queenstown
Key information for the intending
Surrounded by water and
mountains, the small town of Queenstown is in the heart of
some of New Zealand's most beautiful scenery.
of a series on travel to and in New Zealand -
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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
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
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
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
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
Several different companies offer tours to Milford Sound.
We believe the best operator to be
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.
If you want to get even more intimately acquainted with the
rivers around Queenstown, then a rafting experience - either
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
Paddle boats, paddle boarding, aqua bikes, and sea kayaking
(should really be called lake kayaking!) are all on offer by the
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
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
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
TSS Earnslaw Lake Cruise to Walter Peak Station
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
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
Restaurant and the gondola ride that takes people up the side of
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
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.
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
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
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, -5°C (23°F) 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.
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6 Jan 2006, last update
23 Jan 2014