15 Top-Rated Things to Do in Queenstown

Written by Jess Lee
Nov 19, 2019

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Welcome to New Zealand's acclaimed adventure capital. Snuggled into the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu and towered over by vast mountain peaks, Queenstown is completely devoted to tourism and offers up a ridiculous amount of ways for travelers to get their adrenaline thrills.

Famous worldwide as the home of bungee jumping, Queenstown also dishes up countless other fun things to do, including jet boating, rafting, ziplining, parachuting, and paragliding opportunities, as well as hot air ballooning, trekking, fishing, climbing, and more.

During winter, the town's attention turns to skiing and snowboarding, and Queenstown becomes the base resort for two of the country's best ski destinations: The Remarkables and Coronet Peak.

Whenever you visit, this little town on the South Island, full of lively entertainment and dining options and surrounded by astonishing mountain vistas, packs plenty of thrills.

To learn more about the many great attractions and unique outdoor experiences available in this lovely corner of New Zealand, be sure to review our list of the top things to do in Queenstown.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu
Lake Wakatipu

Queenstown lies on the shores of this distinctively Z-shaped lake that is hemmed in by high hills and covers an area of 293 square kilometers. According to local Maori legend, Lake Wakatipu came into being when the monster Matau was burnt to death, and his heart is said to still beat at the bottom of the lake, causing the lake water to rise and fall by 10 centimeters every 20 minutes (this is actually due to a tide caused by the lake's odd shape).

Europeans first reached the lake in 1853, and during the Otago gold rush of the 1860s, around 30 passenger ships plied the waters here servicing the thousands of gold prospectors in the district. Today, the lake traffic is much more subdued, used by recreational boating, fishing, and kayak tours.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Queenstown

2. Cruise aboard the TSS Earnslaw

TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu
TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu

One lovely old relic of the gold rush days is still in use: The TSS Earnslaw. Now in service as a cruise ship, this classic old steamer—she was built in 1912 and is the oldest still-operating passenger steamship in the Southern Hemisphere—offers excellent 90-minute scenic cruises on Lake Wakatipu. It's a great experience, with the occasional whiff of coal and the blast of her steam whistle adding a true authenticity to the experience.

A highlight of the journey is heading down to the boiler room area, where you can watch the stoker in action feeding coal into the furnace. Along the way, you'll also be rewarded with spectacular views over the lake toward the surrounding mountains, as well as the attractive shoreline setting around Queenstown.

Those traveling with kids may also wish to add the Walter Peak High Country Farm option to your trip, which includes a stopover and tour of a working farm. Lunch and dinner cruise options are also available.

Address: Steamer Wharf, 88 Beach Street, Central Queenstown, Queenstown

Official site: www.tssearnslaw.co.nz

3. Skippers Canyon

Skippers Canyon
Skippers Canyon

One of the most scenic journeys you can take in the Queenstown area is the drive through Skippers Canyon, about 20 kilometers north of Queenstown. This 22-kilometer-long canyon now leads to Coronet Peak but was once home to thousands of prospectors after gold was discovered in 1892 in the Shotover River, which winds through the gorge.

Today, the winding and narrow road through the canyon—known as Skippers Canyon Road (often shortened to just "Skippers Road")—is bordered by breathtakingly vertical drops on one side and high cliffs on the other.

This dramatic scenery makes for an incredibly beautiful road trip, and traversing the high suspension bridge known as Skipper's Bridge (built in 1901) is a major highlight along the way.

Although private cars are allowed along the road, self-drivers should be aware that rental companies will not give out insurance for traveling this route, and so it is much easier—and more sensible—to take one of the many Skipper's Canyon tours. A great option is the Skippers Canyon 4WD Tour from Queenstown, a half-day adventure including hotel pickup and a stop for a delicious cream tea along the way.

4. Jet Boating on the Shotover River

Jet boat on the Shotover River
Jet boat on the Shotover River

The 75-kilometer Shotover River first found fame during the Otago gold rush. These days, however, it's better known as home to one of Queenstown's most popular tourist attractions: the Shotover Jet, which is the only company allowed to operate amid the narrow canyon section of the waterway.

This thrilling, break-neck-speed journey down the narrow river, hemmed in by dramatic canyon cliffs, is often described as the world's most exciting jet boat ride, and is one of Queenstown's longest running adventure activities, having been in operation since 1965.

Address: Gorge Road, Arthur's Point; 20 kilometers north of Queenstown

Official site: www.shotoverjet.com

5. Skiing in The Remarkables

Skiing in The Remarkables
Skiing in The Remarkables

The ski resort sitting on the north-facing slopes of the mountain range known as The Remarkables, about 28 kilometers from Queenstown, is one of New Zealand's best loved winter-fun destinations. Excellent for learners, as well as experienced skiers, The Remarkables boasts world-class, ultra-modern ski facilities that have made it extremely popular with European skiers during the Northern Hemisphere's summer. Non-skiers are also catered to with a thrilling tobogganing experience.

The ski season usually lasts from June to September, and frequent shuttle bus services run to the slopes from Queenstown throughout the season. (Editor's Note: There is no accommodation on the ski slopes themselves, so be sure to check our list of where to stay in Queenstown, below.)

Official site: www.nzski.com

6. Skyline Queenstown

Skyline Gondola
Skyline Gondola

The countryside surrounding Queenstown is full of magnificent mountain views, but you don't have to travel out of town to take in some of the top sightseeing opportunities and scenic panoramas. The Skyline Queenstown gondola, right in town, offers incredible vistas over the city, Lake Wakatipu, and the jagged peaks of The Remarkables beyond, as it journeys up to the 446-meter-high summit of Bob's Peak.

The cable car is known for being the steepest in the Southern Hemisphere, and at the top, a number of lookout platforms and an excellent restaurant offer more of those views to soak up, an especially fun thing to do at night in Queenstown.

Other fun attractions here include a go-kart-like luge experience, mountain biking trails, stargazing, plus shopping.

Address: Brecon Street, Queenstown

Official site: www.skyline.co.nz

7. Coronet Peak Ski Area

Coronet Peak
Coronet Peak

Queenstown's other major winter ski destination is the 1,649-meter-tall Coronet Peak which, like The Remarkables, offers superlative facilities for skiers.

This ski resort really comes into its own, though, for more experienced ski enthusiasts, offering a variety of excellent trails plus the opportunity to night ski. With the resort's First Tracks pass, early birds have the chance to ski in the morning before the chair lifts are officially open and the crowds arrive.

A word off caution: both night skiing and First Tracks need to be booked in advance. During the ski season, which runs approximately from June to September, regular shuttle bus services run between the resort and Queenstown.

Address: Coronet Peak Ski Area, Queenstown, 9371

Official site: www.coronetpeak.co.nz

8. The Home of Bungee Jumping

AJ Hackett Bungy
AJ Hackett Bungy

If you were to only ever experience a single bungee jump in your life, Queenstown would be the best place to do it. Queenstown's AJ Hackett Bungy is the company that first started this worldwide adrenaline craze, and their Kawarau Bridge bungee jumping experience is the original location where it all began in 1988.

The 43-meter jump is on a platform on the historic suspension bridge itself, which was built over the Kawarau Gorge with the Kawarau River below in 1880.

For further thrills, you can also bungee jump from their Nevis Point location. At 134 meters above the Nevis River, the Queenstown Nevis Highwire Bungy Jump is the highest bungee in New Zealand, and the world's third highest. This tour option includes round-trip transportation, plus a free t-shirt to show your friends you made the jump.

Location: Gibbston Valley, 23 kilometers northeast of Queenstown

Official site: www.bungy.co.nz

9. Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka
Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka is a gorgeous sweep of blue set amid tussock-covered hills and overlooked by the dramatic, craggy peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park. The little town of Wanaka, located on the lakeshore, 67 kilometers northeast of Queenstown, is a quieter tourist destination than Queenstown and is home to many artists who show their work in a range of galleries in town, as well as local retirees, drawn here for the peaceful atmosphere and lovely natural setting.

Fishing, recreational boating, and swimming are the main activities for travelers, although with Mount Aspiring National Park on the doorstep and numerous day walk trails in the area, Wanaka is a major base for trekkers, hikers, and sightseers, too.

10. Queenstown Gardens

Queenstown Gardens
Queenstown Gardens

This large botanic garden area sits right on the shore of Lake Wakatipu and is a great place to stroll and admire the lake views. The gardens were originally laid out in 1867 and now contain a vast array of both native and international plant species, including a large sweep of Douglas fir trees, which provide shady retreats on a scorching hot Otago summer day.

The gardens are most famous for their historic oak and fir trees, which were planted by Queenstown's first mayor in 1866. There is also a lovely rose garden here and a restored band rotunda dating from 1891.

Address: Park Street, Queenstown

11. Mount Crichton Loop Track

Mount Crichton Track
Mount Crichton Track | Tomas Sobek / photo modified

The two- to four-hour Mount Crichton Loop Track is an easy walk and a great way to experience a slice of the Queenstown region's scenery if you're pushed for time. The track traverses Mount Crichton Scenic Reserve (the trailhead from Glenorchy Road is 10 kilometers out of Queenstown), through tall beech tree forests, up to Twelve Mile Creek Gorge, which was a major spot for prospectors during the Otago gold rush.

Some of the ramshackle miners' cottages are still in place, so you can get a good idea of the harsh lifestyles of these intrepid prospectors. There are excellent views out to the mountain ranges beyond, and Lake Wakatipu below, from parts of the trail.

12. Kiwi Birdlife Park

Kiwi Birdlife Park
Kiwi Birdlife Park | Nita / photo modified

New Zealand's flightless kiwi bird may be a national icon, but it's difficult to see due to its nocturnal nature and remote native forest habitat. Queenstown's Kiwi Birdlife Park allows a rare opportunity to view this much loved creature in specially designed nocturnal kiwi houses. There is also a chance to see tuataras, New Zealand's endemic reptile, up close.

If you're traveling with little ones, this park offers some great activities, including daily animal conservation talks and kiwi feeding encounters, plus there's a five-acre forest where plenty of other native birdlife can be spotted. Useful audio guides are provided with admission.

Address: Upper Brecon Street, Queenstown

Official site: www.kiwibird.co.nz

13. Ziptrek Ecotours

View from Ziptrek Zipline
View from Ziptrek Zipline

With all the bungee jumping, boating, trekking, skiing, and jet-boating experiences to be enjoyed in and around Queenstown, you wouldn't think there were any more fun things to do for adventure seekers in this amazingly vibrant community.

But Queenstown's Ziptrek Ecotours offer an alternative adrenaline-fueled sightseeing option in town. The attraction's ziplines—called "flying foxes" in New Zealand—include the steepest tree-to-tree zipline in the world, and plummet at exhilarating speeds for one kilometer downhill.

Zipline tours start from the top of Bob's Peak and offer superb panoramic views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.

Address: 45 Camp Street, Queenstown, 9300

Official site: www.ziptrek.com

14. Ben Lomond Track

Ben Lomond Track
Ben Lomond Track

This uphill hike is rather demanding, but all the sweat is worth it for the magnificent views down to Lake Wakatipu from Ben Lomond summit. The entire trek to the top, and return, takes a full day (six to eight hours), with the path heading up first through native beech and Douglas fir forests and then alpine tussock land.

Be aware that the last portion of the trail before the summit is extremely steep, so a good level of fitness is required. The Ben Lomond Track is easily reached from central Queenstown, with trailheads from both near the top of the gondola terminal and from the access road below.

15. Queenstown Trail

Lake Hayes on the Queenstown Trail
Lake Hayes on the Queenstown Trail

The fantastic Queenstown Trail is a 110-kilometer walking and cycling path that traverses the dramatic countryside surrounding Queenstown. Only fully operational since 2012, this incredible project has opened up vast swaths of private land for cyclists and hikers, creating a route of well-maintained paths that lead you across dizzying suspension bridges and trails across the shores of both Lake Wakatipu and Lake Hayes, leading out to the historic old gold mining settlement of Arrowtown, as well as the vine-draped Gibbston Valley.

The trail contains eight separate tracks, so you can choose a short route or if you've got four or so days up your sleeve, you could cycle or walk the entire trail. Accommodation is available at various points along the way.

Official site: https://queenstowntrail.co.nz

Where to Stay in Queenstown for Sightseeing

Thanks to its popularity as one of New Zealand's top tourist destinations, Queenstown offers a variety of first-rate accommodation options for travelers. Given the often remote location of its attractions, most of the best places to stay are located within the town itself, or on the outskirts. To help you find the best hotels and resorts in Queenstown, we've pulled together the following list of top-rated accommodations:

  • Luxury Hotels: The luxury Sofitel Queenstown Hotel & Spa offers plenty of reasons to book a stay, including chic rooms and suites (some with lake views, balconies, and access to a private lounge), all just minutes' walk away from the city's gondola attraction. Those wanting a little extra space with their luxury accommodations may want to consider The Rees Hotel, Luxury Apartments & Lakeside Residences. The hotel rooms are upscale, brightly decorated with balconies and lake views, while the apartment-style suites feature full kitchens, dining areas, and fireplaces. Another Sofitel luxury hotel worth considering is the lakeside Hotel St. Moritz Queenstown - MGallery Collection, which features modern rooms and suites (some with kitchenettes), plus amenities including a restaurant, live music, and ski storage.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: Offering high-end accommodations yet with mid-range pricing, the Millennium Hotel Queenstown comes with a great central location near the city's best shops and restaurants, comfortable quality rooms and suites, a restaurant, plus a gym. Check for any hotel deals at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Queenstown, which features great lake and mountain views, spacious accommodations with mini kitchens, and bike rentals. The funky Mi-Pad Smart Hotel is a hip alternative that features modern décor, bright rooms, and ski lockers.
  • Budget Hotels: Hostelers should check into YHA Queenstown Lakefront for its great central location; comfortable dorm rooms; and useful features such as lockers, a communal kitchen, and bike storage. Also affordable, Nomads Queenstown Hostel comes with handy amenities, including communal computers, a movie room, plus ski storage. The curiously named Flaming Kiwi Backpackers is another good option and comes with a mix of private rooms and communal dormitories, bike rentals, three kitchens, and laundry facilities.

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imageBig City Fun: New Zealand's capital city of Wellington, though small, serves as a pleasant urban getaway, as well as a great base for biking and hiking adventures. Smaller still is the town of Napier, a must visit for architectural fans due to its remarkable density of Art Deco buildings. The country's largest city, Auckland, could easily occupy a week of your travel time thanks to its numerous museums, art galleries, and attractions, not to mention its two lovely harbor areas.

imageNew Zealand Vacation Ideas: New Zealand's beautiful Bay of Islands area features much to attract travelers, in particular its coastal parks and preserves with their amazing whale watching tours. The town of Taupo is a good choice for history buffs, especially those interested in learning more about the country's rich Maori heritage. If interested in learning more about the nation's colonial past, a visit to Dunedin, known for its many Scottish influences, is well worth visiting.

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