Most people know Lake Wanaka solely for that famous tree but there are so many other things to do in Wanaka that we feel the area warrants longer than a quick day trip.
After living by this beautiful lake for a couple of months now (and counting) we want to show you how much more this lakeside town and its surrounding area has to offer, so here are our favourite things to do in Wanaka.
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Where is Wanaka?
Wanaka is an ever-growing ‘small town’ an hour away from Queenstown. The drive from Queenstown to Wanaka is a very rewarding one, especially if you drive over the crown range road. This road is a hairpin mountain road with spectacular scenery. Most motorhome hire companies will recommend you to avoid it, especially in winter, but if you’re travelling to Wanaka in your own vehicle or small rental this is definitely the road you need to take.
Annoyingly, this is the only route that google will give you, but there are alternatives – see the maps below for full route options
It’s worth noting that during winter, the crown range road will get closed after heavy snow but for the most part, it is well gritted. You will be required to carry or use snow chains though.
Alternatively, you can take the road through to Cromwell, then Wanaka. This avoids the mountain pass but it’s just as beautiful – just less steep and bendy. It does, however, get icier than the crown range during the winter months because it rarely sees the sun to melt it away and isn’t gritted as often, so caution is needed.
Via Crown Range
Where to stay in Wanaka?
There are so many places to stay in Wanaka, from budget hostels and hotels to campsites, cabins and luxury apartments. We always favour campsites and so far, our favourite campsite in Wanaka is the Lake Outlet Holiday Park. This holiday park is a little outside of town but the views you’ll get from your camper or cabin are STU-NING!
If you’re not a camper, below are some of your options for hotels.
Things to do in Wanaka – Hikes
There are endless options when it comes to hikes in and around Wanaka, I’ll be doing a more in-depth post about them in the future but for now, here’s a quick round-up on a few of our favourites!
Roys Peak Track
Ok, so I’m kicking off this list of things to do in Wanaka with the most famous hikes in Wanaka. Roys Peak is a 6-hour return hike to one of the best vantage points of the town. Don’t expect it to be quiet though. This track has become that well known that there are often queues for people to get ‘that’ photo.
Here’s a pro tip though, the famous photo from Roys Peak isn’t actually taken at the summit of Roys. People see the popular lookout and assume that’s as far as you need to go but there’s actually a much better view a little further up. if you head another 30 minutes up the track you’ll reach the summit of Roys and find yourself out of the crowds.
The views from here are spectacular so while it is a little overhyped these days, I still class it as one of the unmissable things to do in Wanaka.
Roys Peak Track closes for lambing season between late September and Mid November. Bear this in mind if you’re planning a trip around these months.
The view from Roys Peak (not the summit!) – One of the most popular things to do in Wanaka
Isthmus Peak Track
Said to be a better view than Roys Peak, this track is often quieter than its famous rival. The 16km walk takes 5-7 hours (return) and rises 1385m to not only a stunning view over Lake Wanaka but Lake Hawea too.
We often hear locals recommended Isthmus peak as one of the ‘lesser-known’ things to do in Wanaka, and while we haven’t been up there ourselves – yet, there’s still time – it’s certainly on the list.
This track has annual closures between November and December, due to the track passing through a private deer farm.
Getting to Isthmus Peak – Stewart Creek carpark is off SH6, north of Lake Hāwea township and 30 minutes drive from Wanaka.
The view from Ithsmus Peak
This is a short walk that can offer some relief after seeing the mammoth task the previous walks require. From the car park, it’s just a short 10-minute walk to Diamond Lake which, on a clear day, has the same mirror effect as the famous Mount Taranaki Lake. You can either stay at the lake edge or continue uphill for another 30 minutes to get a bird’s eye view. The path to Diamond Lake is steep in places but the short distance makes it a lot easier than the likes of Roys Peak or Isthmus.
To get here simply leave Wanaka and head towards Glendhu Bay, it’s only a short drive and you shouldn’t miss it due to the lakeside campsite. From here the track is really easy to navigate and is well signposted.
Extend this walk to a 3 hour hike by doing the Rocky Mountains Summit Track.
Wanaka Outlet Track
This walk/cycle track is a popular one for locals but I think it offers a lot for visitors to Wanaka too! It’s a really adaptable track that can be made to be as long, or short, as you fancy. If you have bikes, we highly recommend cycling so you can make the most of the track and go a bit further in a day.
Starting in Wanaka, this track leaves the Marina to take you around the edge of the lake past several scenic bays before you reach the outlet. From here, you can either head back to Wanaka (via Aubry road, or back the way you came) OR you can continue on to Albert Town.
Albert Town is a cute little town that sits on the edge of the Upper Clutha River. It’s just outside of Wanaka but it has the best bakery when it comes to doughnuts – trying one is a must when doing the outlet track.
Again, from here you have a few more options;
- Head back to Wanaka
- Cross the bridge, turn right and follow the river towards Hawea Swing Bridge (5 minutes)
- Cross the bridge, turn left and do the Deans bank track (3 hours from Albert Town)
All of these routes are really scenic and offer a new glimpse into life around Wanaka. The Upper Clutha River is lined with lupins too, so between November and February, these walks are even prettier!
- Wanaka > Outlet = 1.5 hours walk (one way)
- Outlet > Albert Town = 1.5 hours walk (one way)
- Deans Bank Track = 3 (one way + time back to/from Wanaka)
One of the most beautiful things to do in Wanaka is watch the sunset over the water
Mount Iron Loop
The Mount Iron Loop track gives you the best view over the town of Wanaka and it perhaps the most accessible out of all the hikes to do in Wanaka. It’s a 2-hour loop that’s mostly easy with a couple of steep spots scattered in and dogs are also allowed here – a rarity in this area due to the countless farms.
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Unique things to do in Wanaka
If all you know about Wanaka is that bloody tree, you’re hopefully going to be impressed by its array of unique attractions – I know we were! This town sure knows how to do quirk, that’s for sure;
Ruby’s or Paradiso Cinema – $20pp
If I’m completely honest, every time I see a cinema listed on a town’s ‘must-do’ list I roll my eyes. Surely there are ‘better things to do in Wanaka’ than go to the cinema, right?
Well, yes, there perhaps is, but if you find yourself in Wanaka in winter or the weather isn’t great (like on a windy rainy Spring day, for example) then you’ll be pleased to know that Wanaka has an awesome collection of really unique cinema’s that you just have to visit.
Paradiso is the most central of the two. Located opposite Base Backpackers, I guarantee this quirky cinema is like no other cinema you’ve been to. Its mismatched seating includes a collection of sofas, bus and plane seats and two classic cars! Their collection of local beers and cider paired with a homemade pizza make for the perfect pre-movie meal then, you can pre-order hot homemade – and very yummy – cookies to enjoy during their old-style half-time interval!
Ruby’s cinema is a little further out of town but its become our go-to cinema for date night. Screen two has just 15 mega comfy armchair style seats! The small number of seating means you have to book in advance for the more popular films but when you’re practically getting a private viewing, that’s to be expected. They have a good range of drinks here too, served from their Art-Deco style bar lounge and their organic popcorn comes in ‘to-share’ bowls.
I hope you didn’t eye-roll too hard when you saw the cinema on this list. I promise you, Paradiso and Ruby’s make the best rainy day activities in Wanaka.
Things to do in Wanaka on a rainy day
Puzzling World – $22.50pp
Puzzling World is mind-bending fun for everyone, even if you don’t have kids. It’s bound to bring an afternoon of pure hysterics as you navigate your way through the halls of illusions and mazes. It’s a great chance for you to let your inner child run free and it’s pretty budget-friendly too! For $22.50 you get access to both the great maze and the illusion room, or it’s $18 per activity if you only fancy doing one. Alternatively, you can check out their puzzles and games room for free if you just want a quick visit to kill some time.
Check out our post about New Zealand’s Car Relocation scheme and how it can make your road trips even cheaper!
National Transport & Toy Museum – $19
At first, you probably had a similar reaction to me – *yaaaawwwn*, but then I read about it and saw a few photos from a friend’s visit… and now I really want to go.
The National Transport & Toy Museum in Wanaka is home to over 600 cars and planes plus New Zealand’s biggest collection of Star Wars toys and memorabilia. If that doesn’t make you want to go then I don’t know what will.
You can find the National Transport & Toy Museum a short drive out of town on the Wanaka-Luggate Highway.
Wanaka Lavender Farm – $10
Wanaka’s Lavender and Honey Farm is the place to go if you’re looking for a local trinket and get some insta-worthy lavender snaps. The Wanaka Lavender Farm is open all year round but the best time to see the Lavender in bloom is during the summer months. Outside of the lavender season, the farm has other flowers in bloom as well as farmyard animals and a cute little cafe where you can enjoy local produce. And those local trinkets we mentioned? Well, you can buy homegrown lavender products as well as lavender honey!
Warbirds & Wheels – $20
Just up the road from the National Transport & Toy Museum is the Warbirds & Wheels collection. This small museum houses a collection of wartime planes and classic 1960’s cars & motorcycles that have been completely restored. So if you’re not in Wanaka for the Warbirds air display (Biannually, the next one is in April 2020), this museum is a good alternative and a really unique thing to do in Wanaka… You could even pair it with a trip to Rubys!
Wastebusters – $0
Ok so Wastebusters is the best ‘junkyard’ I’ve ever been to and if you’re thrifty, I think you’ll see it as one of the best things to do in Wanaka!
At Wastebusters, nothing goes to waste. It’s Wanaka’s biggest reuse + recycle store and you’re almost guaranteed to find a bargain. Whether you’re looking for something for your campervan, or a cheap pair of skis to hit the snowfield with, waste busters will have something for you.
The great thing is, it isn’t always used items either! Brand new items are often donated to Wastebusters by the community so every visit is a little different!
Things to do in Wanaka – Tours
We’re usually pretty anti-tours, but there are a couple of tours that are high up on our list of things to do in Wanaka, purely because they’re attractions that can only be seen with a guide and that, to us, is worth spending the money. It’s only a small section of our overall list but I hope you find some inspiration here too!
Visit the island, in a lake, on an island in a lake, on an island in the ocean!
Confused? Haha, me too! Imagine a Russian Doll… but with lakes.
Lake Wanaka has plenty to explore around it, but did you know there’s a whole magical world hiding inside it? Mou Waho Island is one of 5 islands on Lake Wanaka but this one is special in more ways than one.
Not only does it have the glacial Russian Doll lakes, but it’s also one of New Zealand’s many ‘pest-free’ islands. This means it has been cleared of all non-native wildlife such as rabbits, possums, rats etc. which has caused the native wildlife here to thrive. Bird numbers are back up on Mou Waho island purely because there are no threats here now!
This scenic reserve Island can only be accessed by boat with a guided tour to help limit the number of visitors and protect the plants and animals that live here. There are a couple on offer from Wanaka, below are the three that have been most recommended to us by locals.
Perhaps the most unique thing to do in Wanaka – visit the island, in a lake, on an island in a lake, on an island in the ocean!
A lot of the South Island’s glaciers can only be accessed via helicopters now. So if you want to walk amongst the ice caps, a Heli-hike is the only way to do it. There are several different options, from a ww2 bomber plane to even flying the craft yourself! So if you’re looking for a bit of a unique adventure, the Wanaka Heli-hike might just be for you!
As of July 2019 and until ‘early 2020’, this also includes the Rob Roy Glacier hike, due to a landslide. Check the DOC website for the most up to date information.
Things to do in Wanaka – Food!
We’re not foodies, and nor are we pretending to be – that’ll become obvious by how much ‘on the go’ food we include. These are simply some of our favourite places to grab a bite to eat in Wanaka that we hope you’ll love just as much as we do!
Try a pie at the DoughBin
I’ve never really been a lover of pies, or pastry until I came to New Zealand. They became a road trip staple for us and that hasn’t faded since moving to Wanaka, thanks to the DoughBin. They do the best award-winning pies and have such a good selection that I’m sure you’ll find one that tickles your taste buds. Be sure to take advantage of their outdoor seating and enjoy the views over the lake while the local birds clear up your crumbs.
Things to do in Wanaka include grabbing an award-winning pie!
Grab a Burrito at Burrito Craft
I love this place purely for their spice chart. It ranges from mild, all the way through ‘New Zealand spicy’ to blow your head off spicy. My solid favourite is the mild-medium pulled pork, what’s yours?
Grab your burrito from Burrito Craft located on Brownston Street then enjoy it by the water!
Relax at the Monkey Farm
Perfect for the meat-eaters and veggies alike, the Monkey Farm has a great range of homemade food but we really like their pizzas. Located just on the edge of town by the Lake Outlet Holiday Park, the Monkey Farm also has a cute beer garden that’s perfect for enjoying a beer in the sunshine surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
Red Star Burger
Burger lovers rejoice, Wanaka’s gourmet burger joint; Red Star Burger is a must when visiting Wanaka. Not only do they specialise in homemade gourmet burgers, but they also have a great selection of craft beers to help wash it down with. Located on the main high street, you won’t be able to miss this cute little burger hut. Dine-in and takeaway options are available.
Grab a gourmet burger at Wanaka’s Red Star Burger
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Things to do in Wanaka
A quick round up
How many of these things to do in Wanaka had you heard about before? This beautiful little lakeside town has way more to offer than an over-photographed tree, but many tourists miss out on its uniqueness by doing a quick day trip then moving on. Has this post made you want to spend a little longer in Wanaka? Which of these things to do in Wanaka jump out at you the most? Join in the chat over on our Twitter and Facebook!
It’s good to know that there’s so much more to do than see the tree, although it is pretty gorgeous! I’d like to take a couple of those hikes – the views at the top are stunning.
The tree is stunning, especially in winter, and still worth a visit but I wish tourists would hang around a little longer to see what else is here.