Things to do in Queenstown: Eat, Play, RunHiking . New Zealand . Outdoor Recreation . Running . Travel . Worldwide Travel
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Recommendations for Your South Island New Zealand Itinerary: Things to do in Queenstown
With any road trip around New Zealand, it’s just hard to fit it all in! Between the stunning landscapes, outdoor recreation, city attractions, and miles of scenic highways, you could easily spend months exploring just a section of the islands and still never run out of things to do and places to go. Given that reality, we picked a few of our favorite Queenstown spots for our last few days in country before heading back to San Francisco for an overnight stay and our final flight back to Idaho.
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There are three main routes from Dunedin to Queenstown, each with its own geography and landscape. The center and Northern routes converge on Alexandra and continue along the reservoir above Clyde through Cromwell before approaching Queenstown from the East. The third, southernmost route follows a lower elevation through Balclutha and Gore before approaching Queenstown from the South. We typically take the central route through Roxburgh for beautiful Central Otago scenery, unless we want to stop by Moeraki and some of the coastal towns further North along the coast. The broad, panoramic vistas along the northernmost route are truly hard to beat, and the landscape changes dramatically from coastal farmland to dry, sparsely populated Central Otago mountains before finally giving way to the rugged mountain region near Queenstown and Wanaka.
With either of the two northern routes, be sure to stop along the reservoir between Clyde and Cromwell and the historical markers that point out the Dunstan Gold Fields mined at the start of the Otago gold rush in 1862. The striking turquoise water gets its color from the sediment coming down from the mountains on the West Coast, toward Milford Sound. Right past the bridge into Cromwell (well, new Cromwell; the original town lies beneath the reservoir), you’ll find a large fruit stand and orchards with a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and smoothies for sale. Continuing on to Queenstown, you’ll find the Shotover River and dozens of wineries and other inviting spots to pull over and explore, from local fruit stands to the AJ Hackett Kawaru River bungy jump and Arrowtown.
3 Fun Things to Do on the Way to Queenstown: Clyde, Cromwell, and the Dunstan Gold Fields
We used to stay at our friends’ cabin in Clyde, and it’s a small town with a rich past and some fun historical spots to explore. Check out the dam and waterworks on the way out of town, before you drive up to see beautiful, blue-green and turquoise water in the reservoir between Clyde and Cromwell. The artificial lake actually covers the former town of Cromwell, most of which was moved to higher ground when the dam was built. Toward the end of the drive along the reservoir, there’s a small pull-out on the reservoir side of the road. Two engraved plaques describe the history of the Dunstan Goldfields that miners began to exploit in 1862, during the Otago gold rush.
A little further down the road, once Cromwell is visible across the water but before the bridge, another pullout has photos and information about the construction of the dam and its impact on the city of Cromwell. Be sure to stop at a fruit stand in or around Cromwell; the orchards and store right after the bridge have the widest selection of fresh fruits and other products (like local honey and jams), as well as fresh ciders and juice smoothies. As you continue through town, you’ll see other small fruit stands selling seasonal fruits during the summer and into the fall.
Back in Queenstown, for comfortable, scenic, and affordable accommodations, we recommend the Queenstown Mercure Resort Hotel that sits up along the hills overlooking Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown from the Northwest, looking across to Bayonet Peaks, Walter Peak, and the Remarkables. Our favorite restaurant, though, has to be the Cow, a small, dimly lit “pizza and spaghetti house” tucked away in one of the alleys of central Queenstown. Fresh baked bread, delicious dishes, and a warm and inviting location make this one of Queenstown’s best out-of-the-way restaurants. Feel free to fight the crowds at some of Queenstown’s trendy new food establishments, but check out the Cow while you’re here, too.
Where to Eat in Queenstown: The Cow
Right in the heart of Queenstown, down a winding side alley, sits a small, narrow entryway to the Cow. The Cow is so unique it has its own street name: Cow Lane. If you spend all your time in line at Fergburger (which is also highly recommended, by the way), you’ll miss this hidden gem, a real Queenstown original. The outside seating sits cozily between two tall buildings with stone exteriors, which provide some respite from the hot summer sun. From the outside seats, you can see right up to the gondola and mountaintop recreation area with its bungy jump and boxcar race track. (If you’re feeling super adventurous, sign up to paraglide off the mountain. The views are epic, and Ben spent nearly 20 minutes in the air from liftoff to touchdown).
We’ve come to the Cow every time we’ve visited Queenstown for at least the last 15 years. I would describe the food as comfort food: good-sized portions of pasta and homemade bread and a good selection of beer and wine make this a reliable favorite. Inside, the dark decor reminds us of an old English pub or a converted stable, complete with a large stone fireplace and dark wooden beams.
Things to Do in Queenstown: Explore Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown’s Nature Trails
Just a few blocks from the Cow, you’ll find Queenstown’s waterfront park and esplanade, which wrap around a shallow inlet just before the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu. The esplanade continues from the sandy beach West to the end of town, a meandering greenbelt with benches and other grassy spots for a picnic or a photo of the lake. The tall cement wall separating the beach from the city center is a popular sunning spot if you can find a open section to sit and enjoy the views.
Walking West along the esplanade, you will eventually run out of hotels and shops and buildings before coming to a small roundabout that leads up toward the Queenstown Mercure Resort Hotel and other properties or Northwest to Glenorchy. At that roundabout, a small walking path leads up into the hills from the Northeast. This is a tiny arm of the Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve, a much larger nature preserve and recreational area beyond the city limits. I found this hilly trail while out for an evening run; dirt paths criss-cross the narrow arm of the preserve with the surrounding hillside properties and feels surprisingly secluded for how close to town it really is. There are plenty of hiking, biking, and recreational trails in the area, but for something close and secluded, this section of Ben Lomond is a great find.
Our Last Full Day in New Zealand: Things to Do in Queenstown (and How to Say Goodbye)
For our last night in New Zealand, we put the girls to bed and sat overlooking Lake Wakatipu, the glow of the city visible below our hillside perch. Michelle has always loved Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, ever since our first adventures here. It was winter, but the snow on the mountains made them even more remarkable and spectacular.
It’s always hard to say goodbye, especially to a place where we’ve created so many amazing memories over the years. Sharing this with the girls makes it even more special and difficult to leave. So for our last morning in Queenstown, we had a light breakfast and walked the downtown streets, stopping for some fresh-baked donuts and two flat whites, our coffee staple throughout our New Zealand roadtrip. The sun shone brightly on the water as we walked back to the waterfront for one last frolic on the beach and a few parting shots of Lake Wakatipu and the Queenstown steamboat, the TSS Earnslaw, as it chugged toward the pier.