It’s no secret that New Zealand is a beautiful country. Tucked away in the Pacific Ocean in Australasia, the country has become a tourist hotspot and the middle of the south island offers plenty of lovely places to see. Among the variety of options there, there are a ton of day trips from Queenstown to enjoy.
Queenstown is Central Otago’s beauty at its finest. Backdrops of the snow-capped Southern Alps, azure waters and lush greenery as far as the eye can see. There are plenty of things to do in Queenstown, but for now let’s focus more on what is closeby than what is in town.
However, there is more to the South Island of New Zealand than just Queenstown. There are countless Queenstown day trips to go on. Use Queenstown as your base and plan day trips in and out of the town. Read on to discover the nine best day trips from Queenstown, written by a born and bred New Zealander.
Just years ago, Glenorchy was a little-known, small township just north of Queenstown. Glenorchy has now expanded its restaurant and cafe scene to accommodate the influx of tourists from Queenstown.
This one-hour day trip from Queenstown is beautiful. On the left, you’ll be greeted by views of Lake Wakatipu and Dart River. Take advantage of the photo opportunities along the way such as Bennett’s Bluff. It’s easy to recognise – you’ll likely see a few cars pulled over at the top of a cliff face.
The wharf and Glenorchy Boardwalk are the main attractions of Glenorchy. It will get incredibly busy throughout the day, so it’s best to do this early. If you come for sunrise, you may find you have the whole wharf to yourself which is an immense contrast to later in the day.
Head north 20-30 minutes for the picturesque walks. The treks vary in length, and a great choice is the Lake Sylvan Trek. The short (40 minutes), flat walk makes it great for all ages. The viewpoint looks out to an amazing mountain view and the suspension bridge is a lot of fun to cross – maybe not so much if you’re afraid of heights!
Glenorchy is a lot less busy than Queenstown, so if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, set up camp here for a night or two.
Arrowtown is one of the short day trips from Queenstown, so there’s no excuse not to visit! Twenty minutes of driving will get you to this whimsical, little town.
Arrowtown was a thriving gold mining town in the mid-1800s. The gold rush brought such history and charm to the town.
You could easily spend a half to a full-day here – there’s plenty of things to do and see in Arrowtown. Stroll through the town and take your pick from the many brunch joints in the township. Carry on with your stroll down to the Arrow River, Chinese settlement and old police camp.
The Lakes District Museum showcases the town’s gold mining history perfectly. You can even pan for gold here, although chances are pretty slim for hitting the jackpot!
Avid golfers can enjoy the golf courses surrounding the Arrowtown area.
Milford Sound will leave you in awe. This fiord is considered a must-see for tourists visiting New Zealand and is not a bad day trip from Queenstown. Witness the glassy lakes, towering peaks and plummeting waterfalls surrounded by rich rainforests flourishing with New Zealand’s native flora.
This day trip to Fiordland National Park is the longest on the list at almost four hours one-way. Regardless, Milford Sound truly is an enchanting place to visit and one of the tours from Queenstown that you should really consider if you have the time. The vast majority of tourists prefer to do a day trip rather than a self-drive. This is of course due to the driving distance, as well as having an educational guide to point out and explain the sights along the way.
Most tours will include a river cruise. This is the best way to experience the magnificence that is Milford Sound. Although tours are on the steep side at $150 to $200 NZD per person, they last a full day.
Apart from a boat cruise, Milford Sound has other activities on offer, including some great New Zealand cuisine in the area. Scenic flights are available but they are on the pricier side at around $500 NZD per person. If you did have taking a scenic flight in mind, Milford Sound is the place to do it. You can also book guided hiking tours and kayaking tours.
If you keep a close eye out, you might even be able to meet fur seals, penguins and dolphins who reside in the fiord.
Wanaka has swiftly become a recognised tourist destination and is my personal favorite of the day trips from Queenstown. The drive is a little precarious via the Crown Range Road, but you can’t beat the views. In fact, many people do the opposite of what we are talking about here — they do Queenstown on a day trip from Wanaka!
Many visitors choose to stay a night or two in Wanaka. Sure, Wanaka can easily be done in a day trip if you pick and choose a few activities to fill the day. However, you may want to consider staying for a night or two to ensure you get as much as you can out of this delightful town.
The town centres Lake Wanaka, where you can partake in many beach-related ventures. Paddleboarding, kayaking, swimming and relaxing on the beach are all very popular activities. You can even book jet boat tours if you missed out in Queenstown. Get the real Kiwi experience by grabbing some fish and chips and watching the sunset as you devour them waterside.
At one end of Lake Wanaka lies #thatwanakatree. The lone willow tree perched in the water makes for a great photo opportunity. Head there early in the morning to avoid the crowds of photographers.
Roy’s Peak is an iconic trek located in Mount Aspiring National Park, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’ll take 6 hours to get to the top and back, with a pretty steep trek upwards. To beat the crowds, start the trek before sunrise. Even by 9 am or 10 am, the summit is packed with climbers trying to get the perfect Instagram pic.
Wine lovers, rejoice! Central Otago wine is cherished worldwide. Rippon Vineyard in Wanaka has the most beautiful views compared to other vineyards in Central Otago, the country, or even the world. Besides the views, their tours are incredibly informative. Be sure to take a bottle of wine home with you!
The ski capital of Otago is just 45 minutes away from Queenstown, and on the way to Wanaka.
Ski season is from June to October, but outside of those months, Cardrona is still alive with summer activities. There is a bike park, hiking trails and mountain carting. Cardrona is also one of the best places to stargaze on a clear night. They run great tours to inform you of the star clusters, moons of Jupiter, rings of Saturn and more.
During the winter months, both group and private ski and snowboarding lessons are available for the newbies so you don’t have to be an expert to visit.
Not quite into skiing or snowboarding? There’s also snow tubing, a gondola ride and a bar/restaurant for when you’re peckish. Drop by at the local single malt distillery to sample some palatable whiskeys.
Aoraki Mt Cook
If you haven’t heard of Aoraki Mt Cook, you’ll recognise it when you see it. The mountain is used in so many promotional videos for New Zealand travel and tourism sites. Being the tallest mountain in New Zealand standing at over 3700 metres, the view sure is impressive.
The drive is three hours north, so it is one of the day trips from Queenstown that requires a bit of planning.
You can’t visit Mt Cook without walking the Hooker Valley Track. The walk will take three hours from start to finish. Being a flat walk, it’s suitable for all age and fitness levels. The Hooker Valley Track will give you the best views of Mt Cook – it’s where visitors take their Instagram-worthy photos. Stroll through boardwalks and suspension bridges to see the awe-inspiring glaciers and lakes.
The Tasman Lake and Mueller Lake Viewpoints also give impressive views. The Tasman Lake Viewpoint is only 20 minutes from Tasman Glacier Carpark. The most impressive views come at sunrise and sunset. Access the Mueller Lake Viewpoint from White Hill Horse Campground, which is one of the great places to camp in New Zealand. It’ll also only take 20 minutes to reach the viewpoint.
If you’re looking for a challenge, hike to the Mueller Hut. This is also accessed from White Hill Horse Campground. The hike to the hut itself is four hours and ascends over 1800m above sea level. It’s definitely a huge feat, but the 360-degree view of the surrounding glaciers will leave you speechless.
Aoraki Mt Cook is another great area to take a scenic flight or helicopter ride. Get a remarkable view from up high, if your budget allows for it.
Tekapo is only an hour’s drive away, so combining the two towns is a great option for a day trip from Queenstown.
Take a 3-hour drive to the small town of Tekapo. The main attraction of the town is Lake Tekapo. The waters are the bluest of blue with a stunning mountainous backdrop and lavender bushes as far as the eye can see.
The Church of the Good Shepherd is perched on the edge of Lake Tekapo. The brick church is an iconic landmark for the town and makes for excellent photography opportunity.
Horse riding tours are commonly run around Lake Tekapo. They’re a great way to experience the raw beauty of New Zealand and you’ll be able to cover more ground than by foot.
The Dark Sky Project allows for stargazing at its finest. Tekapo and the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve are one of the darkest areas of the world, making it a great spot for stargazing. Their mission is to preserve the night sky and reduce the Earth’s light pollution. They run incredible experiences such as guided stargazing tours and telescope viewings, at nighttime of course.
Te Anau is just two hours from Queenstown via the excellent state highway and accessible by a Milford Sound coach ride. This area is essential for nature enthusiasts and passionate hikers. Being at the edge of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, many hiking trails start from here.
Te Anau is one of the places you can start the Routeburn Track. This hike is 33 km one-way and spans through the picturesque Fiordland National Park and Mount Aspiring National Park. The 33 km walk takes three days to complete. Being one of, if not the most popular long hike in the country, huts and campsites will need to be booked in advance.
If 33 km isn’t quite long enough for you, the Kepler Track is an ever-popular hike. The 60 km loop takes four days to complete. Experience the enthralling Luxmore Caves, snow-capped peaks, Iris Burn Falls and the iridescent, blue waters of Lake Te Anau.
Another fiord, Doubtful Sound, lies quite close to Te Anau and Dusky Sound is also close. Day tours are available to both Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound. You can take a day tour from Queenstown, but it’s much closer from Te Anau.
Costs are around the same as it would be to visit Milford Sound, with the added advantage of being a lot less heavily touristed. Take in the untouched beauty without feeling swamped by tourists, although it can still be quite busy during peak season. The time I visited Doubtful Sound, I did an overnight guided trip, which was fabulous, but watch out for the sand flies — they are brutal!
Te Anau is also known for its limestone caves. Take a tour through the caves in search of glow-worms.
Bluff is the southernmost point of the South Island. It’ll take you less than 3 hours to get here, and you’ll drive through the main neighbouring town of Invercargill on the way in. Stop by here for a selection of cafes to brunch at.
Make your way to Stirling Point in the Foveaux Walkway where you’ll find the famous signpost pointing out to London, New York, Sydney and more.
Other important landmarks to visit include the Bluff Hill Walkway, Greenpoint Ship Graveyard and the Bluff Maritime Museum.
Got swimming with sharks on your bucket list? Bluff is well-known for its shark cage diving, so you can tick it off your list. They run the experiences during the summertime and will get you up and personal with some of the biggest Great Whites! The experience includes a sightseeing tour of the Foveaux strait, the waters in between the South Island and Stewart Island.
So what are you waiting for? It’s time to explore all the wonderful sights New Zealand’s South Island has to offer!
Delilah is a traveler, photographer, and writer from Auckland, New Zealand. She left New Zealand and is travelling her way around the world one country at a time. Along the way, she founded Our Travel Mix, where she creates content aiming to help people travel the world smarter.