Queenstown is one of New Zealand’s most popular destinations, famous for its spectacular location on Lake Wakatipu surrounded by mountains. I’ve visited Queenstown several times over the past 10 years to enjoy the scenery and sights. There are some exciting scenic tours from Queenstown such as jet boating or helicopter flights and adventure activities such as bungee jumping and paragliding. The cost of all these activities can add up, leading to the perception that it’s an expensive place to visit.
Visitors have been coming to Queenstown for years to enjoy the scenery and outdoor activities, long before jet boats and helicopters, so it is possible to enjoy this beautiful area on a budget. Here are some experiences that are easier on the wallet and that will help you explore Queenstown.
1. Queenstown Gardens
Queenstown Gardens is a landscaped park that is an easy walk from the center of town, making it an ideal escape from the busy commercial area. The location on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Wakatipu provides great views looking back towards the town and across to the far shore. The lakeside path is a popular walking route that only takes about an hour.
Heading into the park, the paths lead through a rose garden, ornamental shrubs, and mature trees. These make the gardens beautiful in all seasons. Here and there, you may spot a sculpture or a memorial plaque.
Queenstown Gardens also has several sporting facilities. One that’s worth knowing about is the ice rink. As well as ice skating, the rink hires (rents) discs for the quirky but fun sport of frisbee golf. Disk hire is NZ$6 while the use of the frisbee golf course in the gardens is free.
2. Scenic Walks
There are many walking tracks around Queenstown, catering to all levels of fitness. Some of the easiest are around the lake shore, while those heading up into the hills tend to be more challenging. The views are often spectacular but walkers also get to see forests and reminders of Queenstown’s history.
Some of the best walks are:
- Queenstown Hill — walking up this steep track is excellent aerobic exercise but the views from the summit are a great reward. Depending on your pace, it may take 2-3 hours there and back.
- Frankton Arm Walkway — a relaxing walk along the lakeside, this walk has lovely views of the mountains. If your hotel is along the road between Queenstown and Frankton, this can be a great way to get into town on a fine day.
- Tiki Trail — while many visitors take the Skyline Gondola, the more adventurous hike this trail to get the same views. The trail starts by the gondola base station and winds uphill through the forest, taking up to an hour to reach the top.
- Arrowtown Millennium Walk — this easy hour-long walk under overhanging trees follows the Arrow River and passes old gold mining sites along the way.
- Kelvin Peninsula Walkway — another easy walk, this goes from the Kawarau Bridge near the Hilton along the lakeside to Bayview.
Pro Tip: To find out more about walking tracks, the Department of Conservation and Queenstown Lakes District Council are good sources of information.
3. Catch The Ferry Across Lake Wakatipu
Getting out on Lake Wakatipu means you get to view the scenery from a different perspective. While there are lake cruises and jet boat rides, taking the ferry across Frankton Arm costs only NZ$5. The small boat takes 20 minutes from Queenstown to the Hilton with a couple of stops along the way at Frankton marina and Bayview.
A ferry trip could be combined with walking the Frankton Arm Walkway by walking from Queenstown to Frankton marina and catching the ferry back. Kelvin Peninsula Walkway is also accessible by ferry, getting off at Bayview or the Hilton.
4. Historic Arrowtown
Arrowtown sprang up during the Otago gold rush in the 1860s. Relics of its gold mining past are everywhere from the Victorian-era shops and miners’ cottages along Buckingham Street to the Chinese settlement down by the Arrow River. It’s worth spending a few hours exploring this quaint town.
A stroll along Buckingham Street is always enjoyable, browsing shops that have everything from practical everyday items to unique artistic creations. At the Remarkable Sweet Shop, you can sample their famous fudge while further down the street, the historic post office still sells stamps and postcards that you can post in the old-style pillar box outside. The New Orleans Hotel started serving thirsty gold miners in 1866 and is still welcoming customers today.
Beyond the shops, Buckingham Street is lined with tall trees which dwarf the small miners’ cottages. It’s a picturesque scene when the leaves turn gold in autumn.
The Chinese Settlement
Downhill from Buckingham Street, little remains of the Chinese settlement on the flat ground by the Arrow River. One of the few original buildings is Ah Lum’s store, a solid stone building that was a social center for the Chinese miners as well as a shop. A short walk through the reserve leads past replicas of the small miners’ huts. Although it’s a lovely setting by the river, it was a cold, damp place to live in comparison to the cozy cottages up the hill. Today it’s a pleasant walk under the shade of the trees.
Pro Tip: Arrowtown is charming all year round, but in autumn it is stunning. The large deciduous trees lining Buckingham street and along the river turn gold, one of the best fall foliage displays in New Zealand. The town celebrates the season with an autumn festival each year at the end of April.
5. Lakes District Museum
Arrowtown’s old Bank of New Zealand where miners once deposited their gold now houses the Lakes District Museum. The exhibits tell the story of the area from the original Māori inhabitants through to the arrival of European settlers, first for farming and then gold mining. Old farming implements and gold mining tools feature in the displays, some of which recreate scenes from the past. The Queenstown area has long been a tourist destination and the development of tourism also features in the museum’s collection. A lifebelt and polished brass gauges are among the artifacts from the steamships which used to ply Lake Wakatipu, while vintage wooden skis show how long ago skiing started in this area.
If you want to try panning for gold just like the old gold miners, the museum hires gold pans for NZ$5. It’s only a couple of minute’s walk downhill to the Arrow River where you can wander along the river until you find a good spot to try your luck.
6. Food And Craft Markets
Markets are fun to browse and great spots for people-watching. Queenstown has excellent markets where you can meet locals selling their produce and crafts.
If you’re looking for an authentic local souvenir, the Queenstown Market is worth browsing. Here you’ll find local artisans selling diverse wares including photography, clothing, woodcarving, jewelry, leather, pottery, soap, and more. There’s often a musician entertaining the crowds. The market is held in Earnslaw Park in central Queenstown, a picturesque lakeside location. Market days are Saturdays all year round and some Fridays.
The Remarkables Market is a great place to shop for local produce for a picnic or if you’re self-catering. The stalls vary from week to week and produce may include fruit, honey, eggs, and vegetables. Treats such as chocolate and pastries are also available. As well as food items, local artisans sell paintings, jewelry, bags, and other handcrafted items.
The market is held Saturdays in summer at Remarkables Park near the airport. There are also some special market days, a Christmas market, and a twilight food market with food trucks.
7. Dining With A View
Queenstown is known for its excellent dining scene with some renowned restaurants but there are also more modest establishments where you can dine or simply have a coffee and enjoy a lake view.
Patagonia has something for every season with ice cream for a hot summer day and rich hot chocolate for winter. You could enjoy these in their upstairs café overlooking the lake or get take-out and find a spot on the nearby beach.
Next door, Vudu Café is famous for its decadent cakes, although it does breakfast and lunch as well. The outside tables overlooking the lake are quite popular.
The distinctive building on Queenstown beach with a crown on its roof was originally built to celebrate the coronation of King George V. Now it’s home to The Bathhouse restaurant. The indoor and outdoor seating has great views of Lake Wakatipu.
Pro Tip: While hiring a car can be useful for day trips outside of town, it’s not necessary for sightseeing within the town. Queenstown has a good public bus service with buses running to Arrowtown, Frankton, the airport, and other suburbs. If you’re going to use the bus regularly, it’s worth getting a Bee Card so that each trip only costs NZ$2.
For more information on visiting New Zealand, check out these articles: