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Wānaka Travel Guide: How to Plan a Trip to Wānaka

Wānaka Travel Guide: How to Plan a Trip to Wānaka

A trip to Wānaka is all about the scenery. The lake is the focal point of town, and the hills and mountains that surround it are ripe for exploring. In our Wānaka travel guide you’ll find heaps of tips and ideas to make your trip a success.

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Getting to Wānaka

The closest airport to Wānaka is Queenstown Airport, an hour’s drive away. Flights in and out of Queenstown are very scenic — definitely worth doing at least once!

Wānaka is well connected to some of the South Island’s most iconic tourist spots. Dunedin, Te Anau (gateway to Milford Sound) and Haast (West Coast) are all within 4 hours drive, and Central Otago is less than an hour away.

READ MORE: Wanaka to Haast: The Best Places to Stop

Wānaka History

The site of modern-day Wānaka was once a Kāti Māmoe settlement called Para karehu. By the 18th Century Ngāi Tahu had taken over and mostly visited the area in the warmer months to collect Pounamu (greenstone) and food before returning to the coast.

Stunning view of Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak, New Zealand

The first European (Nathanial Charmers) visited the area in 1853. It was quickly settled, first by farmers then by men looking to strike it rich in the goldrush (and people looking to profit off them). Ever since it’s been a popular tourist spot — it’s not hard to see why. It’s also getting recognition as a nursery for some of the best skiers and snowboarders in the world.

The Town

Wānaka is home to around 9,000 people — it’s small but due to its popularity with travellers there’s a lot going on. The main beach in town is stone’s throw from several popular bars and restaurants and there are boutique shops and places to buy outdoor gear on the streets further back from the beach.

One of our favourite things to do in town is watch the sunset at the beach. If you’re there on a clear night grab some takeaways and head down!

Walks

Wānaka is one of the best hiking destinations in New Zealand, with walks to suit every kind of traveller. There are short walks to viewpoints, including Mount Iron and Diamond Lake, easy walks around beaches and lakefront areas and more challenging day walks to the tops of mountains.

Two of the best day walks in New Zealand are found in Wānaka — Roys Peak and Isthmus Peak. We walked both in time for sunrise — such early starts!

READ MORE: 10 of the Best Walks in Wānaka

Beaches and Viewpoints

A long stretch of beach sits in front of town and it’s a great place to grab some takeaways and enjoy the scenery.

There are several other beach areas, including the one where That Wānaka Tree sits. Glendhu Bay is also worth visiting.

READ MORE: Where Are the Best Beaches in Wānaka?

That Wanaka Tree, New Zealand

There are lots of viewpoints in Wānaka, some of which don’t require much effort. Easy places to see good views included Rippon Vineyard, the road to Cardrona Ski Field, the road to Rob Roy Glacier and Lake Hāwea (and the road to the West Coast).

Other Things to Do

There are several islands in Lake Wānaka and taking a boat tour to one is a lot of fun. The boat trip to Mou Waho Island will see you surrounded by awesome scenery, and the island itself is home to a short track to one of the best viewpoints in the region. You can also visit Stevenson Island and Ruby Island.

There are activities in Wānaka to suit most travellers, including kids. Puzzling World is a unique attraction, with its off kilter “house” featuring lots of illusions and other creative contraptions. There’s also a maze — kids will love visiting Puzzling World, assuming you don’t get lost in the maze in the blazing summer heat.

There’s also skiing (Cardrona / Treble Cone) in winter, and in summer you can drive up to Cardrona and do some mountain biking or carting. There are heaps of other mountain bike tracks around Wānaka too.

You’ve also got vineyards, a lavender farm and scenic drives. The roads to Queenstown, Haast and Central Otago are all full of things to see and do.

READ MORE: The Scenic Drive from Queenstown to Wānaka

The Blue Pools, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

Wānaka Weather

The weather in Wānaka can be a bit hit or miss. The forecasts are usually accurate though, meaning you can plan around inclement weather. Be flexible with your time, especially if you’re doing the long hikes, and you should be alright. Check out the Wānaka weather forecast here. It’s obviously cold in winter but if you get a sunny day there’s no better time to be out exploring!

Nearby Towns

Lake Hāwea the best option if you’re looking for a town to visit near Wānaka. It’s only 15 minutes away and is much quieter. It also has its own lake, and it’s just as pretty as Lake Wānaka.

Other towns nearby include Albertown (small town by the river) and Luggate, where you’ll find the famous (D grade celebrity at best) Red Bridge.

Wānaka Itinerary

There’s so much to do in Wānaka that you might be wondering how to plan your days. You’re in luck — I recently wrote a post about that! Our Wānaka itinerary covers all kinds of trips — check it out.

Where to Stay in Wānaka

There are many great places to stay in Wanaka. We recommend choosing a hotel with a view of Lake Wānaka or the surrounding mountains. Some great options with great views and within walking distance from the Wānaka lakefront include Edgewater Hotel Lake Wanaka | Altamont Lodge  | Lakeside Apartments | Clearbrook Motel & Serviced ApartmentsWanaka Heights Motel. If you’re travelling in a campervan or looking for a place to camp, these holiday parks are situated close to town Mt Aspiring Holiday Park  | Wanaka Top 10 Holiday Park. Another cool hotel to consider is the historic Cardrona Hotel.

Edgewater Hotel Lake Wanaka

Where to Eat

Wānaka is packed with lots of nice places to eat. We usually try and find food like burgers and street food (aka cheap stuff) when we travel around New Zealand, and Wānaka is perfect for that kind of eating.

We love going to the eating area at Brownston Road (just down the road from the supermarket) where there are a few different stalls / food trucks selling things like fried chicken, burritos and Southeast Asian street food. It’s a pleasant place to eat, but you could also take your haul down to the beach and eat it there.

Shopping

There are shops scattered throughout the Wānaka town centre — lots of outdoor gear stores and boutique shops. There’s also a craft market on Sundays in the middle of town. There’s a new shopping complex just outside of town (Three Parks) — it’s probably more aimed at locals but could be a good place to go if you’re after a small-town mall experience.

Wānaka Events

Snow sports are huge in Wānaka and there are often events in winter. The Winter Games seems like a good one to go to (it was in August 2022, 2023 dates aren’t out yet). There’s also Rhythm and Alps, a New Year’s music festival held in Cardrona 29 – 31 December 2023.

That brings our Wānaka travel guide to a close. If you’re read this far you’ll have a good idea of what Wānaka can offer, and if you click on some of the links throughout this post you’ll find more specific information on that particular place or attraction.  I’ve written over 20 posts about Wanaka! If you’re still confused about something or need some extra information, send an email or ask a question in the comments below!

Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out our South Island travel guide!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who has just returned home after 6 years abroad. Join me as I see as much of the South Island as I can.