7 Days Exploring the Queenstown Area
Queenstown is an ideal base from which to explore the stunning scenery on New Zealand’s south island, but it also offers an array of excellent eating and drinking options. I explored New Zealand for a month in 2020 and curated a weeklong itinerary based in Queenstown that focuses on hiking, sampling local wines, and of course, exploring the local cuisine!
Jump ahead to a section below:
Day Two: Day Trip to Glenorchy
Day Three: Arrowtown and Gibbston: Central Otago Vineyards
Day Four: Queenstown: Gondola and Ben Lomond
Day Seven: Mt. Aspiring National Park
Day One: Queenstown
Start your first day with a shorter hike to views of Queenstown and the lakes surrounding it. The round-trip Queenstown Hill hike is 1.5 miles long and takes 2 to 2.5 hours. The trail is an uphill climb the whole way to the top, but the views are worth it. The trailhead is in the center of town and is walkable from many housing options; we were able to walk to it from our Airbnb.
After the hike, have lunch in Queenstown (check out my favorite lunch spots listed in Where to Eat) and then explore the city. Walk through the Queenstown Gardens and view the rose garden and the Bowling Club in the gardens.
Walk along the waterfront and shop. If your timing works out, on Saturdays the Queenstown Arts and Crafts Market sets up by the waterfront.
The waterfront area is worth visiting in the evening, too. You’ll often see musicians and street performers there, especially on the weekends.
Day Two: Glenorchy Day Trip
To reach this small mountain town, you’ll need to drive for 45 minutes along a cliff edge, but you’ll have stunning views of the turquoise lake much of the way.
If you arrive in Glenorchy early enough, there are a couple options of varying lengths for a morning hike:
Routeburn Day Hike -- Routeburn Road Trailhead to Routeburn Flats Hut: This is a three- to four-hour hike that is 9.3 miles out and back. You’ll see views of the Routeburn River’s turquoise water, the Bridal Veil Falls, and the Southern Alps. If you want an even longer hike, you can continue on to the Routeburn Falls Hut for a 5-6 hour total round-trip hike of 12.1 miles.
Invincible Gold Mine Trail --This trail, originally cleared for gold miners, is a 30-minute drive past Glenorchy – at the top you can explore the gold mine itself! Note that you do have to drive on gravel road and cross a couple fords to drive to the trailhead. Only choose this trail option if you have an SUV. As you climb up on the trail, you’ll have panoramic views of the Rees Valley and Mt. Earnslaw. It is a 3.4 mile out and back trail that takes 2-3 hours to hike. It is straight uphill to the top for the first hour to hour and a half. The difficulty of the drive, though, makes it a less crowded trail option than the famous Routeburn Trail. Be aware that there are no toilets at the trailhead or anywhere on the trail.
After your morning hike, eat lunch at the Glenorchy Cafe and explore quaint Glenorchy. Stop to take a picture at the famous Glenorchy Red Barn by the water! In the afternoon, walk the Glenorchy Walkway, a 2.1 mile, hour-long walk that starts from in town. It is flat and parts of it have boardwalks, so it's a smooth and easy walk. If you go on a day without much wind when the lake is calm, you’ll see picturesque views of the mountains reflecting from the water.
To end your Glenorchy visit, enjoy a leisurely stop at the Glenorchy Animal Experience, where for $20NZ you can feed sheep, llama, goats and more. You can feed the animals and take Instagram-worthy photos with them in front of gorgeous mountain scenery. They also do a daily sheep-shearing demonstration each afternoon.
Day Three: Arrowtown and Gibbston: Central Otago Vineyards
Central Otago is a vineyard area close to Queenstown known for its pinot noirs. There are a few ways to spend a day visiting vineyards in Central Otago:
Drive 20 minutes from Queenstown to Arrowtown, and then bike 1.5-2 hours from Arrowtown to Gibbston on the Arrow River Trail. This is the option we chose, and I will outline the details of the day below.
Drive straight to Gibbston, 30 minutes from Queenstown, then rent bikes at the Gibbston Valley Winery and choose from a number of short (10-minute) rides to other vineyards in the area.
Drive straight to each vineyard and skip any biking.
Hire a driver, join a tour group, or use a WineHopper bus to drive you around the vineyards.
Once we arrived in Arrowtown, we stopped for pastries and coffee. (You can read about dining options in Arrowtown here.) After eating, we rented bikes for the day at Arrowtown Bike Hire for $55NZ per person. Better by Bike is the other option for rentals in Arrowtown, and they seem comparable in pricing and services. Both offer regular bikes and electric bikes; if you choose regular bikes you should be prepared to sweat. The Arrow River Trail from Arrowtown to Gibbston is not quite mountain biking, but it’s not a flat, paved trail either. However, the trail is well maintained and crosses multiple picturesque swing bridges. You ride parallel to the turquoise water of the Arrow River for much of the path, and also bike over the original bungee jumping bridge (the world’s first commercial jumping site) and the Kawarau Gorge.
Our first stop was Gibbston Valley Winery. Their wines were our least favorite of the day, but they have a lovely shop with a variety of honeys and cheese, so make sure to stop in if you make it here. Next, we biked another 10 minutes to the Peregrine Winery, which has a modern, no-frills tasting room that serves award-winning pinot noirs and chardonnays. Another 5-minute bike ride away was Hawkshead Vineyard, which represents vineyards too small to host their own tasting rooms and offers tastings of wines from all over the region. We found our favorite wines of the day here, and everyone bought bottles to bring home. We especially loved the Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris varieties.
Finally, we biked a few more minutes down the road and ended at Cargo Brewery, which is set in a remodeled church built in 1894. It is surrounded by a large outdoor area set up for outdoor games like beach volleyball and badminton. You can order beer or wine flights, as well as other snacks like cheese boards.
We had arranged for the bike rental company to pick us and our bikes up from Cargo Brewery at the end of the day and take us back to Arrowtown, where our car was parked. We also wanted to explore Arrowtown, so we walked around their historic downtown and had snacks and drinks at The Fork and Tap.
Day Four: Queenstown: Gondola and Ben Lomond
Start the day by taking the Skyline Queenstown Gondola for a perfect view of the city. Round-trip tickets cost $44NZ.
At the top you have a few options:
Hang out at Skyline Queenstown -- Eat at the restaurant, run the luge course, and/or bungee jump.
Hike to the Ben Lomond Saddle -- This is a 3- to 4-hour, 4.9-mile hike round trip. To find the trailhead, walk towards the luge course and then towards the forest area behind it. This is a tough hike, directly uphill to the top, but it is on a relatively protected trail and still manageable for a less experienced hiker. The “saddle” is the low point (at 4,265 feet) on a mountain ridge between two peaks. From the saddle, you’ll be able to look up at the Ben Lomond peak and look down at the brilliant blue lakes surrounding Queenstown.
Hike to the Ben Lomond Peak – If you want to keep hiking after you reach the Saddle, this is your best option, but it is not for inexperienced hikers. This hike is 6.9 miles out and back – straight uphill on exposed, rocky trails all the way to the peak at 5,735 feet – and takes 4 to 6 hours from the top of the gondola. Some sections have drop offs on both sides of the trail, and at times you’ll need to use your hands to scramble up a rock. The effort was worth it for me, though – this hike was my favorite of the trip, and the views of Queenstown and the Remarkables Mountain Range are some of the most rewarding I’ve ever encountered on a hike. The only toilets for this hike are at the gondola starting point.
Day Five: Queenstown
There are many options to fill another day in the immediate Queenstown area. We chose to add a day with yoga and easier hiking around Moke Lake, but there are a number of other possibilities, listed below.
Hike the Moke Lake Loop – Just a 15-minute drive outside Queenstown, this is a gentle, ~90-minute walk on a mostly flat 3.8-mile loop. On a clear day with no wind, you’ll be able to see the mountains’ reflections in the lake. There are restrooms by the parking lot and campsite area.
Hike the Bob’s Cove Track -- This hourlong (2.5 miles round trip) hike is also a 15-minute drive outside of Queenstown. It offers rewarding blue-water cove views at the top, where you can also linger at the beaches to picnic or swim in the clam waters.
Jetboat -- A popular way to experience the Shotover River Canyon is to take a thrilling jet boat ride that winds through the shallow waters.
Take a mountain-view yoga class -- I took a yoga class at Nadi Wellness to stay loose between long days of hiking. Their studio in Queenstown offers panoramic views of the mountains from the second floor of the building.
Do a canyoning excursion -- Spend a day abseiling down waterfalls and crawling through caves and canyons. You will need to book this with a tour group. Multiple local companies offer a variety of canyoning tours.
Visit hot pools- Visit the Onsen Hot Pools and relax in cedar hot tubs with views of the Shotover River Canyon. They have a full service spa as well.
Day Six: Day Trip to Wanaka
Wanaka is a small town about an hour’s drive from Queenstown, but similar to the larger city, it is located along a stunning lakefront with great hiking options. There are a few options for a morning hike with views in the area:
Diamond Lake Trail to Lake Wanaka Lookout -- This hike is 3.1 miles round trip, about 2 hours total. The well-maintained trail runs straight uphill for the first half, but parts of the trail have wooden steps that make it easier than a rocky climb. Since it is relatively accessible to less experienced hikers, this is a very popular hike -- be prepared for crowds. There are toilets in the parking lot for this trailhead.
Rocky Mountain Peak -- This is an add to hike number 1 above. Starting from the Lake Wanaka lookout where the hike above ends, it adds on another hour and an additional 4.3 miles round trip. Option #1 and #2 combined are 3 hours total. The terrain is loose and the path to the summit rather narrow, but even for less experienced hikers it is reasonable.
Roy’s Peak Track -- This is a longer option for a full day hike in the area. The trail is 9.9 miles out and back and will take 5-6 hours. It is one of New Zealand’s best-known and popular day hikes, so expect crowds in the summer. The summit is at 5,177 feet, so you gain 4,921 in elevation during this hike. At the top you will have views of Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps, including Mt. Aspiring. There are bathrooms at both the start of the hike and the top.
After the hike we ate lunch at the food trucks in Wanaka and walked around. Then we went to see “That Wanaka Tree” that grows out of Lake Wanaka and makes for magical photos. To find it, search for “That Wanaka Tree” in Google and you’ll see a pin marking the best place to view it. There are public restrooms there, as well.
Day Seven: Mt. Aspiring National Park
If you have an extra day in the Queenstown area, take a day to drive to this national park. It is a 2 hour drive from Queenstown each way. Hike the Rob Roy Glacier Trail and visit the Blue Pools. We unfortunately did not manage to fit this stop in, but it’s on my list for my next trip!
Most activities and excursions in New Zealand can easily be booked online. Even during high season, we were able to secure spots with only a couple days’ notice – helpful for activities that depend on the weather. However, if you are planning to do one of the multiple-day treks near Queenstown like the Milford, Routeburn, or Kepler Tracks (not included in this itinerary), the huts for those need to be reserved months in advance.
My friends and I stayed in an Airbnb home in Queenstown. Queenstown sits on a hillside above Lake Wakatipu, so many of the home rentals available through AirBnB will offer stunning views. Staying in a home rather than a hotel was the best choice for us because we could make our own breakfast, easily pack hiking lunches and do laundry regularly for our hiking clothes. It was fun to meet our friendly Kiwi neighbors too.
What to Wear and Pack
Read my Packing List for specific gear recommendations.
Comfortable hiking clothes that you can easily layer.
A waterproof outer layer.
Wool hiking socks and waterproof hiking shoes or boots. I would not recommend regular sneakers for most of the hikes mentioned.
A hat for hiking. You can sunburn easily in New Zealand.
A lightweight daypack and a water bladder.
A small drybag for your wallet and phone in case you get caught in the rain.
(If you are susceptible to car sickness): motion sickness remedies. Many of the drives in this itinerary are on windy roads and can trigger car sickness.
What to Eat
Salmon -- New Zealand’s mountain streams host alpine salmon, and it is some of the best I have ever had.
Lamb -- There is a reason you’ll see so many sheep during your drives: New Zealand is known for its lamb!
Roadside fruit -- If you travel during New Zealand’s summer, make sure to stop at one of the fruit stands that you’ll see by the road. Berries, peaches, and cherries fresh from the farm will Their produce straight from the farm will make it hard to go back to grocery store fruit at home.
Ice Cream -- New Zealand dairy products use milk from grass-fed cows that can graze year round, which makes for creamy, fresh ice cream.
Cheese – New Zealand also produces a variety of cheeses locally. I routinely saw gouda, cheddar, brie, goat, and blue cheeses in restaurants. The blue cheese is uniquely mild – I had never had anything like it -- so be sure to try it.
Honey- New Zealand is known for producing a wide variety of delicious honeys. Check out the Manuka honey, which is reputed to have healing properties.
Craft Peanut Butters – New Zealand also produces a variety of artisan peanut butters with flavors like “smoke and fire.” Pic’s Peanut Butter was my favorite brand!
Snack Balls – At grocery stores you can find date-based snack balls with additions like mango, salted caramel, chocolate, and peanut butter. These are great as healthy hiking snacks.
Passionfruit YoYos – Widely available cookies that consist of passion fruit frosting between two butter biscuits.
Afghan cookies – A local favorite and available in most grocery stores, these are made with chocolate and cornflakes.
Where to Eat
Bespoke Kitchen -- A casual cafe with a chill mountain vibe. It offers healthy breakfast and lunch dishes as well as perfectly executed, photo-worthy pastries.
Fergburger- A Queenstown staple since 2001, Fergburger is regularly ranked as the best burger in the country. They make their own buns daily at their bakery next door, and source high-quality New Zealand beef to create a giant, mouth-watering burger. (The chicken burgers are also excellent, though!) There is a line at all hours of the day, but once you order your food comes quickly; we got our food in around half an hour.
The Ferg Bakery -- Same owners as Fergburger, with the same high standards for their baked goods. Try the Boston cream donut!
Patagonia’s Ice Creamery and Chocolatier -- Known for having New Zealand’s best ice cream, with a perfectly creamy texture and bold flavor offerings.
Cookie Time -- They sell packaged cookies all over New Zealand, but the warm, freshly baked offerings at their store in Queenstown shouldn’t be missed! You can try them in ice cream sandwiches, warm with locally-produced milk, or in any number of other combinations. The chocolate salted caramel cookies were my favorite.
Taco Medic -- An easy option for a quick, casual meal. It is a quasi food truck that offers tacos and nachos.
Big Fig -- A deli/cafe with a Middle Eastern flair that offers pre-made salads and sandwiches.
Queenstown Fine Dining
Ivy and Lola’s -- Located in the heart of the waterfront dining area with outdoor seating, their menu is full of modern dishes incorporating locally sourced fish and produce.
Botswana Butchery -- Set in a historic cottage with views of the lake, this spot offers a meat-centric menu with a variety of international dishes.
Rata -- Located in one of Queenstown’s historic buildings, this restaurant has won numerous local awards under the direction of Michelin Star chef Josh Emett. The menu is diverse, but focuses on upscale versions of classic New Zealand dishes. You will need advance reservations, so I recommend booking before you leave for your trip.
Nest Kitchen and Bar -- A higher-end dinner option, set on a hill a bit outside of the city center with panoramic views of Queenstown. The cheese board, salmon, and wines were all memorable here.
Glenorchy Cafe, The GYC -- Set in an old cottage in the mountains, this restaurant’s interior has a historic feel, like stepping back in time. The food, though, is modern and fresh, with a selection of house-made pastries – they are known for their carrot cake!
Kinloch Lodge Restaurant -- This is a more expensive lunch option, 30 minutes outside of Glenorchy. It has outdoor seating with lake views and a local menu.
Food Trucks: Firebird, Burrito Craft, and Dripping Bowl – This area has picnic tables near all of the food trucks, so everyone in your group can pick what they want for lunch and then sit together to eat. Our favorites were Firebird (chicken and BBQ) and Dripping Bowl (healthy bowls).
Kota Restaurant and Bar -- This trendy spot isn’t open for lunch, but offers an excellent dinner menu.
The Fork and Tap -- A historic pub and restaurant that has a large outdoor seating area, an energetic crowd and a variety of live music shows depending on the night.
Arrowtown Bakery and Café -- A quaint bakery that makes a perfect stop for grabbing a pastry or quiche in the morning.
Provisions -- A cute, sit-down option for breakfast or lunch with outdoor seating. They serve pastries, healthy bowls, and hot items.
Cargo Brewery -- Set in a remodeled church built in 1894, it is surrounded by a large outdoor area set up for games like beach volleyball and badminton. You can order beer flights or wine flights, as well as cheese boards and other light lunch options.
New Zealand is known for its wool products, which are easy to find in Queenstown. You can also find many local artists selling their work. My favorite stores are below.
Vesta Design Boutique -- Located in a historic cottage, they sell local artists' work, including prints, jewelry, home decor, and children’s gifts.
Frank’s Corner – This store sells local artists’ work, wool gifts, prints, soaps, and pottery.
The Remarkable Sweet Shop -- An old-fashioned candy and fudge store with a British vibe.
The Trading Post – A historic feeling store that offers locally-sourced products and gifts.
The itinerary below requires a rental car. Reserve a four-wheel-drive SUV so you can handle any gravel roads, stream crossings, or wet conditions. The roads in New Zealand are well maintained and are well marked, but I still recommend you download or print maps. We tried a GPS unit when we rented our car, but it often did not recognize trailheads as destinations – we often had to use Google on our phones to find them. I recommend you either set up a data plan for yourself or download offline maps ahead of each drive.
In New Zealand they drive on the left side of the road, and many of the roads are carved into mountain sides, so it's not easy driving. Add a buffer to the duration your GPS or Google predicts for the drive. Construction and animal crossings will frequently slow you down without warning.
As an alternative to driving, you could also stay in Queenstown and book with a tour group for each day trip outside of the city. This option will be more expensive, though, and provides less flexibility.
When to Go
December, January, and February are New Zealand’s summer high season. Summer wildflowers make hikes and drives are even more colorful, and you don’t have to worry about coming across snow on hiking trails. Temperatures are in the 70s and 80s (Fahrenheit) during the day. However, summer also means crowded trails, overfull parking lots, and pricier lodging. The New Zealand summer holiday runs from late December til late January, so you will fight local tourism during those months as well. In spring and fall, the weather will be much more unpredictable; some trails could be snow covered and you may encounter freezing temperatures.
Build an Itinerary
My suggested itinerary is designed for travelers to maximize sightseeing while maintaining a home base in Queenstown, but the trip could easily be extended by adding more time at any of the stops. Auckland, too, would be an easy addition given that most travelers will arrive there first. If you’re interested in further exploring the South Island, I recommend two (or more!) nights in Te Anau to see Milford Sound.
Be ready to adjust your itinerary based on weather. One advantage of road tripping is that the weather may vary in each location you are going. This allows you some flexibility to change your schedule at a moment’s notice to avoid hiking in the rain.
Credit cards are widely accepted in New Zealand. We only needed cash for farmer’s markets and roadside stands.
Entrance to New Zealand’s national parks for day hikes is free.
Parking at trailheads and parks is free.
Tipping at restaurants is not customary in New Zealand.
Clean and modern public restrooms – occasionally even with music playing! – are easy to find in New Zealand.