The Instagram-famous Wanaka tree

Explore Wanaka

Guide by Roxanne de Bruyn

Last Updated 25 January 2024

Just an hour’s drive from Queenstown, you’ll find the beautiful, lakeside town of Wānaka. Quieter than Queenstown, Wānaka is known for its stunning, alpine scenery and pretty town centre. 

Wānaka is a popular day trip from Queenstown, but there is enough to do in the area to warrant spending some time in the town. Mountains ring the large lake, and the town is bustling with people, small shops and several good restaurants and cafes.

In winter, Wānaka is an excellent base for skiing and snowboarding, with four ski fields within a 40-minute drive of the town. In summer, visitors can enjoy getting out on the lake and experiencing some of the walks and hikes in the spectacular Mount Aspiring National Park.

Looking down at the town and the lake

Getting there

The closest airport is Queenstown International Airport. Given Wānaka's location, it is worth hiring a car at the airport and driving yourself, or you can take the intercity bus from central Queenstown.

From Queenstown, it takes about an hour to drive to Wānaka over the Crown Range mountain pass (if clear) or about 90 minutes through Gibbston Valley and Cromwell. The bus ride takes an hour and 45 minutes.

If you're driving yourself, either route is beautiful, with some fun stops along the way. These include the old Cardrona Hotel and bra fence if you're taking the Crown Range Road or the Kawarau Bridge bungy jump, many wineries and Cromwell old town if you're taking the longer route.

The infamous bra fence near the Cardrona ski resort

When to go

Wānaka is a year-round destination. Visit between November and March if you enjoy hiking, cycling and walking and time your visit for the height of summer (Jan-Feb) if you're interested in swimming or water sports. However, the water in the lake can be freezing!

Winter is best for skiing and snowboarding, and the season tends to run from early June to late September. You can expect an average temperature of around 10 degrees C. 

The view of Lake Wanaka from Roy's Peak

Things to do in Wānaka

There is a considerable amount to do in Wānaka. What we mentioned below are only a few of the activities in the area and there are also several excellent tours in Wānaka. So whether you're after an active break or prefer a more relaxing holiday, you'll find something to suit you.

Wānaka also has a large selection of child-friendly activities and is a beautiful destination for the whole family. Here are some of our favourite things to do while you're in town.

Get out on the lake

One of the highlights of visiting Wānaka is the lake, and summer allows you to enjoy it up close. Try boating, paddle-boarding or kayaking on the lake, swimming in a pretty bay or enjoying a picnic on its shores.

For a remarkable experience, take a boat tour to one of the islands in the middle of the lake. Mou Waho is furthest from town and is a wonder to visit as you'll find a small alpine lake with its own tiny island there. It's one of the few places in the world where you can see an island in a lake in an island on a lake. 

Go hiking

The spectacular Mount Aspiring National Park is easily accessible from Wānaka, with many beautiful hikes through mountains and alpine meadows. Wander along streams and find hidden glacial lakes, or hike up mountains and marvel at the views.

There is a range of walks and hikes, ranging from multi-day adventures to short walks suitable for the entire family. Popular hikes near Wānaka include the short but stunning Blue Pool Walks in Mount Aspiring National Park and the full-day hike to the Instagram-famous Roy's Peak.

Beautiful outlook while descending the ski piste with Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps in the distance

Ski or snowboard

Wānaka makes a wonderful base for experiencing skiing and snowboarding in New Zealand. Four snow fields within a 40-minute drive of Wānaka offer diverse terrain.

Head to Cardrona for reliable snow and world-class freestyle facilities,  with ski areas for kids. Treble Cone has deep, natural terrain and Snow Farm offers cross-country skiing, dog sledging, snowshoeing and tubing.

For a private experience skiing without the crowds, you can also opt for the private ski resort, Soho Basin, with cat-skiing and a gourmet lunch.

Have a picnic at nearby Lake Hāwea 

For a tranquil setting away from other tourists, head to Lake Hāwea: a pretty lake right next to Wānaka. It's only a 20-minute drive out, and the views are stunning. There are several lakeside picnic spots where you can relax with a picnic or go for a swim.

Bring your lunch with you as there aren't many shops and cafes in the little settlement. If you enjoy hiking, you can also head up the Isthmus Peak track for views that rival the famous Roy's Peak track, with fewer crowds.

The road over the Crown Range in summer

Go for a bike ride

With over 750km of biking tracks around Wānaka, there is a trail to suit all biking enthusiasts. Take a leisurely ride along Lake Wānaka or the Clutha River and admire your lovely surroundings. Or, for more of a challenge, go mountain biking along the Minaret Burn Track or at the  Cardrona Bike Park.

Cycle along the open road to the Treble Cone and back or ride around Lake Hāwea. For a stunning yet challenging route, head over the Crown Range and stop in Arrowtown for lunch before cycling back.

Try an adventure activity

 Like Queenstown, Wānaka offers a large selection of adventure activities. While you can't try bungy jumping here, you can still experience sky-diving, canyoning, jet boating and paragliding, all with amazing views.

Other adrenalin-inducing options include outdoor adventures like epic 4WD tracks, quad biking and climbing.

Have fun with the kids

If you're travelling with children, there are several family-friendly activities in Wānaka. First, you can spend a morning visiting the lavender farm just 10 minutes out of town. The lavender fields are stunning in the warmer months, and there are friendly farm animals for the little ones to meet. Puzzling World is another favourite with a maze, illusion rooms and an on-site café.

The National Transport and Toy Museum is also well worth visiting. The museum is one of the largest private collections in the world, and you can see vintage and classic cars, construction equipment and a vast collection of toys. Closer to town, the playground at the lake is great for younger visitors, and the dinosaur slide is guaranteed to impress them.

Houses on the hillside with snow-capped mountains in the background

Where to stay in Wānaka

Wānaka has a good selection of high-quality accommodation, from holiday parks to luxury lodges. There is some excellent accommodation in the town centre, and you'll find beautiful lodges and bed and breakfasts just out of town too. Here are some popular places to stay in Wānaka:

  • Limetree Lodge for boutique accommodation with gorgeous alpine views and expansive grounds a 10-minute drive from Wānaka.

  • Archway Motels and Chalets for self-catering units surrounded by beautiful gardens near the lake and the town.

  • Wānaka Top 10 Holiday Park with options to suit every budget, including campsites, camper sites, family units and cabins.

  • Wānaka Stonehouse for comfortable rooms in a quiet bed and breakfast near the famous Wanaka tree.

  • Lakeside Apartments for five-star, modern accommodation with lake and mountain views in the heart of Wānaka.

Hotels and resorts on Lake Wanaka

Where to eat in Wānaka

Wānaka has some excellent restaurants and cafes, so try them out when you visit. There are many to choose from in the town, so take a stroll around and pick one which suits your tastes. Here are a few favourite picks.

  • Francesca's Italian Kitchen: good, hearty Italian food in the centre of town 

  • Tititea Steak House: beautifully cooked and presented dishes, specialising in steak and lamb.

  • Big Fig Wānaka: slow-cooked, homestyle meals with good beer and wine

  •  Kika: high-quality tapas made from local ingredients. Opt for the "feed me" option for a good overview of the menu.

  • Bistro Gentil: a French bistro offering à la carte dishes and a 7-course tasting menu, along with wine and cocktails

Small islands on Lake Wanaka

Where to next

From Wānaka, you are well-positioned to visit Cromwell, Lake Dunstan and the Bannockburn wineries known for their exceptional pinot noir. You can then return to Queenstown or explore the wider Otago region.

Alternatively, you can follow State Highway 6 along the northern border of Mt Aspiring National Park and over the scenic Haast Pass. You can visit Franz Josef and Fox glaciers and the wild West Coast of New Zealand.