I always say that Wellington is my favorite New Zealand city. But then I get to Queenstown, and almost start second-guessing myself.
Because Queenstown is pretty awesome.
Sure, it's touristy (it is essentially a resort town, after all), but it’s gained its popularity and notoriety for good reason — it should definitely make it onto your New Zealand travel itinerary.
So what makes Queenstown so great? Is it the scenery? The adrenaline-inducing adventure sports? The party hostels? The mish-mash of accents and nationalities?
I think it’s a mixture of all these things that make Queenstown the vibrant, exciting city that it is.
A quick history of Queenstown
Queenstown was first settled in 1860 by William Gilbert Rees. Rees was looking for a place to establish a high country farm, and picked Queenstown’s current location. He only had peace and quiet for a couple of years, though, because gold was discovered in the nearby Arrow River in 1862, which led to an influx of men who were now suddenly interested in the southern Central Otago region.
Today, Queenstown has grown into one of New Zealand’s most popular towns — with a population growth rate to prove it. The population in Queenstown is booming, with a growth rate of about 30 percent per census (every 5 years). And during peak tourism seasons? The population doubles. (If you want to avoid the crowds, visit during the off-seasons, during the spring or autumn.)
So what exactly do people come to Queenstown for? Well, the question should probably be what DON’T people come to Queenstown for. The city boasts the largest range of adventure sports in the southern hemisphere, has some of the best scenery in New Zealand, and has a young and lively atmosphere that is impossible to ignore.
It’s easy to fall in love with Queenstown. Which is probably why so many people — expats especially — are now calling the city home. As my friend Matt (who lived Queenstown himself) said, “People come here planning to spend 3 months or a ski season, and end up never going home.”
If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, here is just a taste of what this fun city has to offer.
Top things to do in Queenstown
While I love other parts of New Zealand to death, there is no denying that Queenstown has some of the best scenery in the entire country. With Lake Wakatipu at its doorstep and the aptly-named Remarkables mountain range towering behind it, Queenstown is set in one of the most spectacular locations a city could hope for.
If you’re hoping to get a glimpse of this beauty, consider:
- Skyline Gondola — Buy a return ticket for the Skyline Gondola, which will whisk you away to almost 800 meters above the city. At the top, viewing decks offer an almost-360-degree view over the city, lake and mountains. If you want to splurge, see a cultural haka show, enjoy a sprawling buffet dinner, or try out the Skyline luge. I can highly recommend the luge here, which sends you careening down twisting mountain paths in little sled-like contraptions with wheels.
- Lake Wakatipu cruises — If walking along the pebbly shore of the lake isn’t quite enough for you, book yourself onto a Lake Wakatipu cruise. Try the TSS Earnslaw, a century-old steamship, or perhaps check out a catamaran cruise.
- Queenstown Gardens — If heights and water don’t tempt you, take a stroll through the Queenstown Gardens, which are lush during the spring and summer seasons. There’s also a Frisbee golf course here, so be sure to bring your gear.
- A helicopter tour — Lastly, if you want views from above, consider booking a helicopter tour that will take you up into the Remarkables mountain range above Queenstown.
While the scenery in Queenstown is certainly something to talk about, the real reason people come here is for the adventure sports. Often referred to as “the Adventure Capital of the World,” Queenstown certainly packs a punch when it comes to activities that will get your adrenaline pumping.
Some of the most popular activities are:
- Bungy jumping — Modern bungy jumping, as we know it today, was invented right here in New Zealand by a man named A.J. Hackett. The first commercial bungy jump took place in the 1980s in Queenstown, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Queenstown boasts 3 unique bungy locations: the Kawarau Bridge (the birthplace of bungy), The Ledge (a scenic jump near the Skyline Gondola), and the Nevis Highwire (a 134-meter behemoth in the canyons outside of the city). If you’re planning to bungy jump in New Zealand, do it in Queenstown.
- Jetboating — Another New Zealand original, jetboating is a fun, fast adventure suitable for the whole family. Jetboats are unique in that they have no propellers, and so can operate in the shallow rivers around Queenstown. While there are many options in this area of the country, I recommend the Shotover Jet, where jetboat drivers will zip through the narrow Shotover Canyon, getting within inches of the canyon walls and pulling 360-degree turns that will take your breath away.
- Skydiving — You can jump out of a plane all over New Zealand, but there’s no arguing that skydiving in Queenstown is pretty damn epic. The only downside is that it is more expensive to jump in Queenstown than almost anywhere else in the country.
- Skiing/Snowboarding — During the winter months (June-August), Queenstown turns into a ski resort. Popular ski fields at Coronet Peak and on the Remarkables open up in early June, drawing daredevils from all over the world to their slopes.
- White water rafting — You can go rafting on category II and III rapids on either the Kawarau River or Shotover River from Queenstonw. These are both suitable for first-timers.
- Canyoning — Another exciting thing to do near Queenstown is canyoning (or canyoneering), which includes zip lining through ancient forest, rappelling down waterfalls, and jumping into natural pools.
While Queenstown offers plenty to do, many visitors also like to get out and experience the other things the area has to offer. Queenstown makes a great jumping-off point for many half-day, full-day and overnight excursions.
Popular day trips include:
- Glenorchy — Located on the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy is just as scenically stunning as Queenstown, but much less-visited. If you’re looking for quality horseback riding excursions, head to Glenorchy. Dart River Stables offers a variety of horse treks, all of which offer beautiful alpine views. Or you can book a Lord of the Rings locations tour.
- Mount Aspiring National Park — The best way to get to Mount Aspiring is by taking a day trip with Dart River Adventures – I highly recommend their Wilderness Safari, which includes a jetboat ride, a short hike, and a bus ride through a place literally named Paradise.
- Skipper’s Canyon — Take a half-day trip out to Skipper’s Canyon, where gold was discovered back in the 1860s. Getting to this canyon is half the fun — you take a nail-biting ride in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle along a treacherous mountain road. The road is so tricky that you have to have a permit to drive on it. (Book a tour here.)
- Arrowtown — Rent a car or catch the Connectabus to get to this little gold mining town, about half an hour from Queenstown. Now dotted with art galleries and little cafes, Arrowtown still pays homage to its gold mining roots. You’ll feel a little bit like you’re stepping back in time. If you can catch it in the autumn months, the fall colors here are gorgeous. (Or you can even book an Arrowtown beer tour!)
- Milford Sound — Known as New Zealand’s top tourist attraction (and referred to at least once as “the eighth wonder of the world), Milford Sound is a must-see for most visitors to New Zealand. This picturesque fjord is lined with towering peaks and filled with deep blue water and plenty of wildlife. It’s reached by the impressive Milford Road, which winds through the mountains and Fiordland National Park. Various day trips can be booked from Queenstown, which include a 5-hour bus ride to Milford Sound, a 1.5-hour cruise through the fjord, and another 5-hour bus ride back to the city. Scenic flights can also be booked between Queenstown and Milford, which I highly recommend on a clear day.
- Doubtful Sound — Not up for vying with other tourists for that perfect shot of Mitre Peak at Milford Sound? Consider Doubtful Sound, instead, then — Milford’s severely underrated little brother. Doubtful Sound is just as impressive as Milford in any weather, but it’s far less touristed. Day trips from Queenstown can be booked through Real Journeys, and include a 2-hour bus ride to Lake Manapouri, a 1-hour cruise across the lake, a 30-minute bus ride to Doubtful Sound, and then a 3-hour cruise on the fjord. Coming back (the same route, but in reverse order), you’ll also get to stop briefly at the underground Lake Manapouri Power Station. This tour may be a bit more expensive, but it’s worth it for the smaller crowd, and less time spent on a bus.
What if I just want to relax?
Queenstown might be the Adventure Capital of New Zealand, but I get it – just because you're there doesn't mean you want your adrenaline to be pumping 24/7! For some more relaxing outings in and around Queenstown, consider:
- Go on a wine tour — The Central Otago region produces some of the best wine in New Zealand, so maybe a tour of some boutique wineries would be more your speed.
- A spa with a view — If relaxing in a hot tub with an incredible view sounds like a nice way to spend an hour, head over to the Onsen Hot Pools, and indoor-outdoor location that will make everyone at home jealous.
Where to stay in Queenstown
Being a resort town, there's no shortage of place to stay in Queenstown. Some options to consider include:
So do I have you convinced to visit Queenstown yet? To head to New Zealand and spend a week or two splurging on all it has to offer? Because, if there's one place in NZ to splurge, this is it.
Have you visited Queenstown before? If so, what were some of your favorite activities there?
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Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!