Set against the spectacular backdrop of The Remarkables and bright Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a lively, backpacker-filled resort town in the SW of New Zealand’s South Island, best known for its seemingly infinite number of adrenaline-fuelled activities. With alpine peaks perfect for tramping in summer and skiing in winter, beach access onto countless lakes and rivers, endless biking trails, and the world’s first commercial bungy jump, there is truly no shortage of things to do in the kiwi adventure capital.
After travelling through New Zealand a couple times and discovering heaps of awesome things to do on the South Island, Queenstown is still a stand out for me. The incredible landscape and palpable energy of this town are almost magnetic, and it would be pretty hard to find anyone who doesn’t describe Queenstown with the same sense of awe. Whether you’re here to explore the outdoors, get your pulse racing, or just to kick back, here are 15 of my very favourite, can’t-miss, heart-stopping things to do in Queenstown!
Known around the world as the “home of bungy jumping”, no trip to New Zealand is complete without experiencing the thrill (and terror) of throwing yourself head-first off a tall bridge. The adrenaline high is truly unlike anything else. And luckily, Queenstown has some of the country’s very best bungy spots, including beautiful Kawarau Bridge (43m), the world’s first commercial bungy jump; The Ledge above Skyline Queenstown (47m); and Nevis Bungy (134m), NZ’s highest bungy jump.
The two shorter jumps at Kawarau Bridge and The Ledge are $205, while the monstrous Nevis Bungy over the canyon is $275, all with AJ Hackett Bungy in Queenstown. Honestly, though, any height is terrifying when you’re taking a dive into the air, so I’d recommend choosing one of the more scenic and budget-friendly jumps, especially since you’ll see the canyon anyway if you sign up for the Nevis Swing (more details below).
With Queenstown Bike Park accessible from Skyline right in town and Cardrona Alpine Resort or the Remarkables Downhill Track only a short drive away, there are few better places to hop on a mountain bike and hit some really tough trails— and seriously, the tracks around Queenstown are no joke. Even the green runs here are more like a hard blue in Australia or the UK.
The best option for those without a lot of experience on a bike (aka me) or those on a tight budget is to get an e-bike and stick to the Queenstown Bike Park— there are an insane number of trails here and, by using an e-bike, you can ride up the access trail rather than paying for a lift pass. There is enough charge on the bikes to ride up and down about 4-5x depending on your settings, but I found that this was MORE than enough time in the saddle for one day.
There are heaps of companies in Queenstown hiring out quality mountain bikes as full-day (8hrs) or half-day (4hrs) rentals, including Torpedo7 and Outside Sports. We preferred the latter because it was a bit cheaper; we paid $89 for half-day rental of a dual-suspension Specialized e-bike. The staff at the shops are also super knowledgable and can help you organise a shuttle out to one of the other bike parks or recommend trails for your skill level.
Swim in Lake Wakatipu
Although the rocky shores of Lake Wakatipu may leave something to be desired in the way of soft white sand, it’s still a great place to spend a sunny afternoon— plus, the water is absolutely beautiful for swimming!
If you don’t want to brave the icy temps but still want to enjoy the lake, you can also hire “aqua bikes” ($30 for 20min), kayaks ($25 for 45min), or stand-up paddle boards ($25 for 45min) from Paddle Queenstown right at the beach.
Take the plunge on a giant swing
Made famous online as the World’s Biggest Swing, the 300m (!!!) Nevis Swing just outside of Queenstown is hand-down the most terrifying swing you’ve ever been on. Strap in with a mate and then free-fall 60m before swinging in a giant arc over the canyon, screaming your heads off the entire time.
Whether this is as close to bungy as you’re going to get OR the prelude to an epic jump (bundle with a jump from Kawarau Bridge for $330 or with a jump on the 134m Nevis Bungy for $400), the Nevis Swing ($225 on its own) is absolutely amazing and one of my very favourite things I’ve ever done in NZ. For a less intense option, you can also try the new 47m Ledge Swing ($165) above Skyline Queenstown.
Hike up Isthmus Peak
One of my favourite hikes on the South Island, Isthmus Peak is just a 90min drive from Queenstown, making it the perfect day trip for those looking to explore more of the Southern Alps. The climb up to Isthmus Peak is pretty demanding, a never-ending series of steep switch backs winding 1,250m up the mountain and over multiple false summits, but the rewards are spectacular. Practically the entire trail looks out over Lake Hāwea and then, from Isthmus Peak itself, you are surrounded on all sides by snow-capped peaks and blue lakes.
There isn’t a single boring moment on this hike, which really does make me wonder how on earth it isn’t more popular?! While queues of people clog up the Roy’s Peak trail, nearby Isthmus Peak is still amazingly under-rated and uncrowded, leaving you to enjoy all this sensational scenery without feeling like you have to wait your turn.
For sweeping views of The Remarkables, Lake Wakatipu, and Queenstown, either take the gondola ($44) or hike (1hr) up to Skyline Queenstown and spend a few hours enjoying all this awesome spot has to offer.
From mountain biking tracks to hiking trails, there are heaps of places to explore at Skyline, or just relax over lunch and ice cream at the panoramic cafe. You can also bungy jump or swing with AJ Hackett Bungy, soar over the lake on a tandem paraglide, or ride the scenic luge track. The Queenstown Luge in particular ($67 for 5x rides, including gondola tickets) is amazingly fun and not totally budget-busting, so it’s a great way to appreciate the view and still get your adrenaline up while recovering from a long hike or nail-biting bungy.
Scenic drive to Glenorchy
Located on the opposite end of Lake Wakatipu about 45min from Queenstown, Glenorchy is an absolutely beautiful spot and one of the best scenic routes in all of New Zealand. Allow at least half a day to make the drive, stopping on the side of the road to enjoy lookouts like Wilson’s Bay and Pig & Pigeon Island Viewpoint, as well as exploring Glenorchy itself.
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, you’ll definitely notice familiar landscapes in this area, including captivating Mirror Lakes, and it’s actually possible to join a specific LOTR tour to see filming locations in and around Glenorchy.
Skydiving over Queenstown
If you still haven’t gotten your dose of adrenaline from giant swings or bungy jumps, Queenstown is also an incredibly popular place to skydive. On a clear day, the snow-capped Southern Alps stretch as far as you can see, the most incredible backdrop for free falling out of a plane.
NZone in Queenstown offers skydives from 9,000ft (about 35s of free fall), 12,000ft (45s), or 15,000ft (60s), depending on how long you want to spend in the air, and prices range from $299 – $479. If you want pictures of the experience, you’ll need to cough up even more money (you aren’t allowed to bring your own GoPro), but it’s worth it to get proof of your first skydive!
Cruise around Milford Sound
At the chilly, distant tip of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular landscapes, perhaps none more breathtaking or better known than Milford Sound (Piopiotahi in Māori). Considered by many to be the 8th Natural Wonder of the World, sheer, densely-rainforested cliffs rise thousands of metres out of the sea as waterfalls carry icy freshwater back down to the glacier-carved fjord below. It is, simply put, unmissable.
From Queenstown, it takes just under 4hrs to drive to Milford Sound, which makes for a brutally long day trip (it’s definitely better as an overnighter, staying at Cascade Creek campsite). Luckily, there are heaps of tours running out to Milford Sound that will save you all the driving, and these can be a good option if you don’t have heaps of time. Tours typically bundle the coach journey from Queenstown together with a scenic cruise in Milford Sound for around $150; if you can manage the splurge, there’s also the option to get take a scenic flight to Milford Sound before your cruise for $530.
The best way to experience Milford Sound, though? Scuba diving! In a fjord reaching depths of up to 500m, there’s so much happening beneath the surface— this lesser explored, shockingly vibrant protected marine area is home to species of sharks that predate dinosaurs and coral trees typically only found at 1,000m. Descend Dive is the only operator running dive tours in Milford Sound, charging $345 for 2 dives as a qualified diver (or the same price for tuition and a single dive as an unqualified diver), and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Visit Lake Hāwea
If you’ve already explored Lake Wakatipu in town but you’re craving more beautiful lake scenery, drive just over an hour from Queenstown to enjoy Lake Hāwea and nearby Lake Wanaka. There are wonderful viewpoints for both lakes along the same road (State Hwy 6), as well as great spots to jump into the water or just relax along the shoreline.
Hike the Routeburn Track
Only 60km from Queenstown on the southern border of Mt Aspiring National Park, the Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s best tramps and the most popular Great Walk on the South Island. For 3 days, you’ll wind through forests, pass serene alpine lakes, and cross swing-bridges in the stunning Southern Alps and Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area, enjoying an undemanding but overwhelmingly beautiful hike with classic NZ scenery (i.e. Lord of the Rings).
To walk the trail between Routeburn Shelter and Harris Saddle as a return journey (rather than one-way out towards Milford Sound), you’ll enjoy an easy 3hr first day to Routeburn Falls Hut before ascending to Harris Saddle on day 2, the walk’s highpoint, and then returning back to Routeburn Falls Hut about 4hrs later. The final day is just a flat 3hr walk back to the car at Routeburn Shelter, and then a quick drive back to Queenstown!
Try NZ’s best burger at Fergburger
Fergburger, which has become something of a Queenstown icon since its opening in 2001, is widely regarded as the best burger in all of New Zealand— and there’s a line wrapping around the block to prove it. Thankfully, the staff are used to dealing with a hundred customers at any given moment and have got the whole process down to an art, moving everyone along surprisingly swiftly by passing menus down the queue and broadcasting order numbers on a large screen.
So don’t let the crowds put you off, because Fergburger is a requisite Queenstown experience and a bloody good feed! I recommend the Ferburger with blue cheese ($13.50) and one of the new gelato thick shakes.
Day trip to Wanaka
Nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps just an hour’s drive from Queenstown, the little town of Wanaka is emerging as another fantastic adventure destination on the South Island. Like it’s older sister, Wanaka sits on the shores of a large lake (Lake Wanaka) with heaps of paddle sports and boating activities, within a few minutes of popular snow resorts Treble Cone and Cardrona, and is surrounded by great tramping, like Roy’s Peak, Cascade Saddle, and Isthmus Peak.
Wanaka is such a beautiful town, with much of the same charm as Queenstown— it’s a destination in its own right and absolutely deserves a few days in your itinerary, but if you’re tight on time, it’s also easily doable as a day trip from Queenstown.
For a totally different kind of adventure activity, head to nearby Queenstown Canyon or World Heritage-listed Routeburn Canyon for an epic day of canyoning. Spend the day flipping into crystal-clear pools, abseiling down sheer rock faces, swimming under thundering falls, sliding through narrow rock walls, and just generally smiling until your face hurts.
Canyon Explorers offer a full day tour to Routeburn Canyon for $319, including wetsuits, helmets, and all abseiling gear.
Wine tasting in the Gibbston Valley
Only 30min outside of Queenstown, the scenic Gibbston Valley is home to a dozen wineries, all within an incredibly close radius of one another along the flat valley floor. There are tours operating out to Gibbston Valley, and of course you can always drive yourself, but the absolute best way to enjoy an afternoon of wine tasting is to hire an e-bike and cycle between vineyards on your own!
You can rent bikes in Queenstown from Torpedo7 and Outside Sports, but a better option is to get bikes in Arrowtown, a 20min drive from Queenstown. With just half-day hire (4hrs; $75 for hardtail e-bike), there’s plenty of time to cycle out to the Gibbston Valley along a beautiful riverside cycle path, passing bungy jumpers at Kawarau Bridge, and sample wines at 4-5 wineries. And when you’ve had enough, for $10/person, a shuttle can also meet you at any number of wineries along the route and deliver both you and your bike back to the shop, saving you from a return journey and maximising your time on the wine.
Getting to Queenstown
There’s an international airport in Queenstown with flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbine, and Gold Coast, Australia, as well as a number of domestic locations around New Zealand. Still, I prefer to fly into Christchurch Airport, as it’s cheaper and there are heaps more options in terms of airlines and flight times.
From Christchurch, it’s a 5hr drive straight down to Queenstown, which is doable in a long afternoon. If your trip allows, though, I’d definitely recommend stopping off at some other awesome spots along way, like Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park (3hrs from Queenstown), Lake Tekapo (3hrs), or Wanaka (1hr).
Where to stay in Queenstown
- Jucy Snooze Queenstown: Located bang in the centre of town, this is a new hostel chain (owned by the campervan company of the same name) with really awesome pod-style dorm beds that completely seal off from the rest of the room for maximum privacy. I can’t comment on the social aspect of the hostel, as I’ve actually only stayed in the Christchurch location, but I can say that the facilities are top-notch, there are heaps of handy on-site amenities, and the dorm rooms are among the best I’ve seen in either Australia or NZ. Beds from $30/night.
- Queenstown Holiday Park & Motels Creeksyde: Located in downtown Queenstown, this is a well-equipped holiday park with a variety of campervan and tent sites, plus communal kitchen, lounge, and decent WIFI. Powered sites are $65/night for 2 people.
- Top 10 Holiday Park: If you’re happy camping a little outside of Queenstown, this holiday park offers a wide range of accomodation, including non-powered tent sites at $65/night for 2 people.
- Airbnb in Frankton: If you’re ok staying just outside of downtown Queenstown, Frankton is an awesome neighbourhood up on the hill with incredible views of Lake Wakatipu and the Southern Alps. There are several Airbnbs up here— I stayed with friends in Frankton, so I can’t personally recommend any, but I absolutely recommend the area!