Queenstown and Wanaka both offer unique experiences for visitors. 

Queenstown, known for its bustling vibe and vibrant nightlife, is a hub for adventure sports and offers a wider range of dining and accommodation options. Its status as a popular tourist destination means it’s often bustling with activity and serves as an excellent base for exploring the region, including attractions like Milford Sound and the beautiful drive to Glenorchy.

In contrast, Wanaka provides a more tranquil escape with its laid-back atmosphere and stunning natural surroundings. Home to the iconic ‘that Wanaka tree’, the town sits on the shores of Lake Wanaka and provides easy access to Mount Aspiring National Park, offering opportunities for serene exploration and photographic endeavours. Although smaller in size, Wanaka is no less charming and caters to those seeking a quieter retreat.

  • Queenstown boasts a dynamic atmosphere and a plethora of adventure activities.
  • Wanaka is admired for its peaceful setting and picturesque landscapes.
  • Both destinations offer unique experiences suitable for varied preferences and activities.

Location and Accessibility

queenstown airport

Located in the stunning South Island of New Zealand, Queenstown and Wanaka are two charming towns within reach of one another, yet each offers distinct accessibility features.

Queenstown, celebrated for its adventure tourism, is notably accessible by air, featuring an international airport that welcomes travellers from around the globe. The town is well-connected by road too, with neighbouring areas such as Arrowtown, only 20 minutes away, and Glenorchy roughly an hour’s drive, providing scenic drives for visitors.

Wanaka, with its serene lakeside appeal, lacks an airport but is interconnected with surrounding regions by well-maintained roads. The town is an hour’s drive from Queenstown via Crown Range road, proffering a convenient route for travellers. Nearby Cromwell is also an accessible destination, a short journey away.

Ease of access between Queenstown and Wanaka is highlighted by the short distance that separates them, just about 67 kilometres (approximately 40 miles). Intercity coaches and local shuttles enhance the convenience, creating a hassle-free way to explore both towns. Despite lacking an international airport, Wanaka’s roads ensure that the town is never isolated, providing straightforward routes to Queenstown and further afield.

Natural Scenery and Views

all the things to do in queenstown from above

The magnetic landscapes of Queenstown and Wanaka are a drawcard for visitors, each offering majestic lakes and dramatic alpine scenery that capture the pure essence of New Zealand’s South Island.

Lakes and Mountains

Queenstown is renowned for the impressive Lake Wakatipu set against a backdrop of mountain ranges, including the iconic The Remarkables. The lake’s crystal-clear waters reflect the surrounding peaks, creating a tranquil yet awe-inspiring atmosphere. Visitors can engage in a variety of lake activities or simply absorb the panoramic views.

Lake Wanaka Tree view

In a similar vein, Wanaka boasts the expansive Lake Wanaka, surrounded by rugged peaks and pristine nature. The area lends itself to a serene experience with idyllic views from anywhere along its shores. It’s the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park, providing a natural playground for adventurers.

Scenic Drives

The journey between Queenstown and Wanaka is embellished with stunning scenery through routes such as the Crown Range. Touted as the highest main road in New Zealand, it gifts drivers with views of rolling hills, rocky outcrops, and vast valley vistas.

For those venturing further, the drive to Milford Sound is regarded as one of the most scenic in the world. The route unveils a dramatic landscape of sheer cliffs, dense rainforests, and towering mountains, culminating in the profound beauty of the fjord itself.

milford sound

Seasonal Activities

In Queenstown and Wanaka, you’ll find a wealth of activities tailored to the seasons, from adrenaline-fuelled winter sports to serene summer adventures, and the natural beauty that comes alive during spring and autumn.

Winter Sports

Queenstown becomes a premier destination for skiers and snowboarders during the winter months, offering a range of slopes for all skill levels at renowned resorts like Coronet Peak and The Remarkables. Wanaka counters with its own snowy charms at Cardrona Alpine Resort and Treble Cone, known for its breathtaking views and wide runs.

Cardrona Ski Lift NZ

Ski Resorts and Facilities

The district is home to some of the most highly regarded ski resorts in New Zealand. Here’s a snapshot:

Resort Location Highlight Feature
Coronet Peak Queenstown Night skiing and varied terrain
The Remarkables Queenstown Family-friendly with dedicated learners’ area
Cardrona Between Queenstown & Wanaka Wide slopes for all levels. Extensive terrain park and halfpipe
Treble Cone Close to Wanaka Longest vertical descents and expansive freeride opportunities
Snow Farm Near Wanaka New Zealand’s only dedicated cross-country ski area

Protip: If you want to stay in both Queenstown and Wanaka during your ski trip then Snopro can deliver and custom fit your ski hire kit to your accommodation Queenstown and collect it from your accommodation in Wanaka (or vice-versa!).

Summer Adventures

Summertime in Queenstown is synonymous with adventure, attracting thrill-seekers to bungee jumping, skydiving, and jet boating. Meanwhile, Wanaka’s calmer Lake Wanaka becomes a haven for kayaking, swimming, and stand-up paddleboarding. Trails around both Queenstown and Wanaka offer fantastic mountain biking experiences. They also boast a network of hiking trails, from the leisurely to the challenging.

skippers canyon jet boat

Queenstown asserts itself as the adventure capital of the world, where thrill-seekers can find an extensive selection of adrenaline activities. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Skydiving: Freefall over breathtaking landscapes at 15,000ft for an unparalleled rush.
  • Bungee Jumping: Leap from iconic platforms like the Kawarau Bridge.
  • Jet Boating: Experience high speeds on the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers.
  • Luge: Take a fun and fast-paced ride down the scenic luge tracks.
  • Mountain Biking: Explore extensive tracks offering challenges for all abilities.
  • Paragliding: Soar like a bird with majestic views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables.

Wanaka provides a more laid-back atmosphere but still caters to adventure lovers with activities such as paragliding and mountain biking across its stunning landscapes. Plus you can still access the activities in and surrounding both towns thanks to their close proximity.

Whether it’s during the snowy winter months for skiing or the warm summer days for adventure sports, travellers will find that both towns offer activities to satisfy their cravings for excitement and adrenaline.

Local Culture and Attractions

Queenstown and Wanaka both offer a tapestry of cultural experiences and attractions that reflect their rich histories and the vibrant contemporary scenes. Visitors can explore historic sites and partake in cultural tours to immerse themselves in the local ethos.

Historic Sites

Arrowtown
Situated a short drive from Queenstown, Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town with a well-preserved main street reminiscent of the 1860s gold rush. Lakes District Museum in Arrowtown gives an insightful look into the town’s gold-mining past.

Gibbston Valley
Known for its wine production, Gibbston Valley near Queenstown is also of historical significance. The valley, which forms part of the larger Otago region, is dotted with heritage sites and offers insights into the winemaking history of Central Otago.

Dining and Nightlife

Queenstown and Wanaka each offer unique dining and nightlife experiences catered to both local preferences and international tastes, from cosy bars to exquisite restaurants that serve a range of local and international cuisines.

Restaurants and Bars

Queenstown is renowned for its vibrant nightlife scene. With an array of bars and restaurants, visitors can enjoy everything from historic venues to modern establishments. The town boasts a bar that operates within a heritage-listed former courthouse, infusing a touch of history into the drinking experience. For those seeking a legendary party hub, venues that have risen from the ashes of past events provide eclectic decor and a lively atmosphere.

Wanaka, on the other hand, has a more laid-back vibe, with its selection of dining spots that range from lakeside eateries to cosy, intimate bars. The town’s offerings may not be as numerous as Queenstown’s, but they imbue a sense of tranquillity and a personal touch that often resonates with visitors.

Accommodation Options

The Rees Queenstown

When one is considering where to stay in Queenstown, they’ll find a diverse array of accommodation choices to match their preferences and budget. Queenstown is renowned for luxurious lakeside apartments, offering majestic views of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains. Those seeking a high-end experience may indulge in five-star hotels that provide exceptional service and amenities.

For a more intimate stay, there are lovely cottages and B&Bs that offer a cosy atmosphere, often paired with local hospitality. Budget travellers have access to a range of backpacker hostels and holiday parks, which present a cost-effective and social option.

In comparison, Wanaka’s accommodation scene is slightly more low-key but no less charming. Travellers can secure their stay at boutique hotels, which are typically smaller and provide a personal touch to their service. Similar to Queenstown, guests may opt for holiday homes and apartments that cater to families and groups seeking comfort and privacy.

Ski Hire Wanaka Delivery

Snopro custom fitting equipment in Wanaka accomodation

Wanaka also presents options for lakeside lodging, where visitors can enjoy the serene views of Lake Wanaka. For those who appreciate the great outdoors, several campgrounds and holiday parks offer amenities such as communal kitchens and lounges, together with the opportunity to engage with fellow travellers.

Shopping and Amenities

Queenstown offers a more robust shopping experience with a variety of retail stores that cater to both travellers and locals. They can stroll through streets lined with high-end boutiques, souvenir shops, and outdoor equipment stores. The town also hosts a number of shopping centres and convenience shops, which are particularly handy for families who may need a variety of items during their stay.

Wanaka provides a quieter shopping atmosphere, emphasising boutique stores that reflect the town’s laid-back personality. Travellers can find unique local crafts, art galleries, and clothing shops that support local artisans. Though smaller in scale, the shopping options in Wanaka are thoughtfully curated, offering quality over quantity.

For everyday necessities, both destinations are equipped with supermarkets, pharmacies, and essential services. This ensures that visitors have easy access to everyday items and amenities.

Both towns offer distinct shopping experiences that are consistent with their overall atmosphere. Queenstown’s extensive amenities make it the go-to for shoppers looking for variety and international brands, while Wanaka’s offerings appeal to those seeking a unique and personalised shopping experience.

Cost of Living and Popularity

When you consider Queenstown and Wanaka, you should also take into account aspects such as the cost of living and visitor numbers, and the general atmosphere each location offers. 

Cost of Living and Visiting

Queenstown is often seen as the more expensive destination in comparison to Wanaka. The cost differences are noticeable in various sectors including accommodation, dining, and recreational activities.

  • Accommodation: Hotels and rentals in Queenstown may charge a premium, especially during the high season, due to its popularity.
  • Dining: Queenstown’s larger number of restaurants include both high-end and casual dining options, which can cater to different budgets, but on average, dining out can be costlier than in Wanaka.
  • Activities: While both towns offer a range of outdoor and adventure activities, the prices in Queenstown are typically higher.

Atmosphere and Crowd

Queenstown is often associated with a vibrant and dynamic atmosphere, drawing in travellers looking for a party scene or high-energy activities. Its urban population exceeds 14,000, helping to create a bustling tourist hotspot that tends to be very lively and crowded, particularly during the peak season. This makes it a popular choice for younger travellers and those seeking an active nightlife.

  • Feel: Queenstown has a busier feel to it, often teeming with tourists.
  • Restaurants: The restaurant scene is robust, with a variety of food options.

Wanaka offers a more tranquil and intimate experience. The smaller town, with fewer than 8,000 residents, attracts both families and individuals looking for a reprieve from the hustle and bustle.

  • Feel: It’s known for its relaxed ambience that appeals to locals and visitors who prefer a quieter holiday.
  • Restaurants: Dining experiences in Wanaka can feel more personal and less crowded.

Both destinations provide unique experiences for travellers. Those looking for a high-energy trip with plenty of amenities may gravitate towards Queenstown, while visitors prioritising natural beauty and a serene environment might find Wanaka more appealing.

[avatar] Author: Eliot Prince