Got extra time in Queenstown? Explore beyond New Zealand’s adventure capital on one of the best day trips from Queenstown.
Nearly every trip to New Zealand includes a couple days in Queenstown. And while there are plenty of awesome things to see & do in Queenstown itself, don’t stop there. There’s more to Queenstown than first meets the eye.
Exploring the Queenstown area, you’ll encounter a little of everything. You can enjoy wine tastings at South Island’s finest wineries in Central Otago. In winter, you can hit the slopes at Cardrona. During the “great walks” season, you’ll witness New Zealand’s most majestic landscapes at Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound.
Ready to experience South Island to its fullest? Explore Central Otago and beyond on these top-rated Queenstown day trips.
Best Queenstown day trips
Think visiting Queenstown stops at wild adventure? Let historic Arrowtown change your tune. This charming gold mining town dates back to New Zealand’s 1860s gold rush. The town is remarkably well-preserved. The streets of Arrowtown still teem with old miner’s cottages and historical buildings.
On a day trip to Arrowtown, start by exploring its atmospheric streets. As you wander among the heritage buildings, you’ll find a handful of cool boutique shops, cafés, and restaurants.
Also among the top Arrowtown attractions is the Lakes District Museum. The museum is often touted as one of the best small museums in New Zealand. It details life in & the gold mining history of the area from its early Maori settlers to its gold rush boom era.
Besides its historical gems, the Arrowtown area is no slouch for outdoor activities. With several golf courses, Arrowtown is one of the best places to golf around Queenstown. It’s also not far from some of top places to go skiing in Queenstown like Cardrona Alpine Resort. (More on that in a bit.)
Arrowtown is a short 20-minute drive from Queenstown via Lake Hayes.
As interesting as Arrowntown is, no Queenstown day trip competes with Wanaka. Often described as “mini Queenstown,” Wanaka bursts with an adventurous spirit. It’s the perfect embodiment of the wild reputation of New Zealand’s South Island.
The lakeside town sits on the shores of Lake Wanaka. Many of the best things to see & do in Wanaka focus around its lakeshore. At beautiful Lake Wanaka, plenty of activities on the water await. Hop onto a kayaking, boating or fishing adventure to experience the lake at its finest. Feeling brave? Opt for paragliding, skydiving, or abseiling.
Would rather hit the trails? No problem. Wanaka’s full of ’em. For day-trippers, one of the best hiking trails in Wanaka is the Rob Roy Glacier Track. It should take most hikers no more than half a day to complete. The track pushes into the inspiring Mount Aspiring National Park. Before the day’s through, you’ll have marvelled at mountains, rivers, glaciers, and glacial lakes.
Wine lovers will likewise love spending time in the Wanaka area. Topping the list of wine-tasting destinations is Rippon Vineyard. Located on Lake Wanaka, it’s one of Queenstown’s most popular wineries. On top of the Southern Alps views from the cellar door, you’ll enjoy some of the finest wines in Central Otago—and even in New Zealand!
Visiting Wanaka in winter? Take to the slopes. Cardrona Alpine Resort and Treble Cone, two of the top ski resorts in Queenstown, are nearby.
Wanaka is about an hour northeast of Queenstown. The two most common routes are via State Hwy 6 or the Cardrona Valley.
Mt. Aspiring National Park
Need a primer for New Zealand’s awe-inspiring beauty? Set your compass for Mt. Aspiring National Park. The sprawling national park offers some of the most accessible deep wilderness experiences on South Island. You can trek into Mt. Aspiring National Park easily from Wanaka and at various points on State Hwy 6.
For daytrippers, the easiest intro to the park is a hiking adventure. Two of the best day hikes in Mt. Aspiring National Park are the Aspiring Hut Walk and the Rob Roy Track. Both hikes will take about 1.5 hours and are accessible from Wanaka. On each, you’ll dazzle at spectacular landscapes of mountain peaks, valleys, and glaciers.
You’ll also find a few great day walks around Makarora. A favourite locals and tourists alike is the walk to the stunning Blue Pools. On the Blue Pools Walk, you’ll traverse a 1.5-kilometre loop through native beech forest to its shimmering glacier-fed waters.
Seeking more adventure? End your day with an exhilarating jet boat ride on the Dart, Wilkin, or Matukituki River.
Itching to see New Zealand’s natural beauty at its finest? Carve some time to visit Milford Sound. While its better to visit Milford Sound as a multi-day trip, don’t let it stop you. This is one slice of nature you don’t want to miss—even if you’re on a time-crunch.
Milford Sound is a fjord located on the western coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s long been one of the touristic linchpins for Fiordland National Park, the country’s largest national park. In Milford Sound, rugged cliffs sprout up from crystal-clear fjords. The scene is backdroped by snow-capped mountains and the distinctive 1,692-metre-high Mitre Peak. There’s no scene like it in the world.
There are plenty of options for exploring Milford Sound. Unfortunately, on a day trip, your choices are limited. The best way to experience Milford on a time-starved itinerary from Queenstown is on a guided tour. You’ll find several Milford Sound tours departing Queenstown. Most options include coach & boat cruises and scenic flights.
If you’d rather not rush, the more expensive scenic flight tours are worth the extra money. Or, instead, stay near Milford Sound and take in its breathtaking scenery at a more languid pace.
Milford Sound is about 4 hours from Queenstown by road.
Looking for bulcolic peace & quiet? Add the rustic town of Glenorchy to your itinerary. Sitting at the mouth of the Dart River and the head of Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy has an enviable natural setting. It’s within a stone’s throw of both Mt. Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park. The town is also the base for hiking the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
Although multi-day walks are off the table, there’s plenty to do in Glenorchy in a day. The town is a great place to launch one-day outdoor adventures. Around Glenorchy, you’ll find several shorter hiking & mountain biking trails. Hit them up for a boost a fresh air. For a dash of adrenaline, set your sights for jetboating on the Dart River, canyoning, or horseback riding instead.
More recently, Glenorchy has been put on the map as a filming location. The area’s native beech forests forged fantastical backdrops for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia.
Glenorchy is a short 45-minute drive from central Queenstown.
Visiting Queenstown in the winter months? Be sure to set aside time for Cardrona. Like Arrowtown, the village of Cardrona was once at that centre of the gold mining industry in Central Otago. It’s got a different trick up its sleeve now. These days, it’s most famous for being the best places to go skiing in Queenstown.
Cardrona Alpine Resort has a variety of wide open pistes. They’re perfect for both beginner and intermediate skiiers & snowboarders. Also nearby is Snow Farm, the only cross-country skiing area in New Zealand. At Snow Farm, you can explore over 55 kilometres of Nordic ski trails. The ski season in Queenstown runs between June and early October.
If you’re visiting in summer, there’s plenty to do here, too. The lift at the resort will transport you to some excellent hiking and mountain biking trails. Visitors looking to indulged in a harder beverage than wine can visit the Cardrona Distillery. On a tour, you’ll learn all about how all its award-winning spirits are made.
In just 15 to 20 minutes from town, you could be chillin’ on the shores of beautiful Lake Hayes. The tranquil lake is everything you’d imagine in Kiwi lakeside retreat. The calm, shimmering waters take centre stage to a stunning backdrop of dramatic alpine scenery.
Thanks to its proximity to the city, Lake Hayes is the perfect quick escape from the urban bustle. Whether hiking or biking, take to the Lake Hayes Loop. The easy 8-kilometre-long track rings around Lake Hayes. As you make your way around its shore, you’ll be treated to spectacular scenery.
The Lake Hayes area also hosts several top-notch wineries. Check out the Amisfield Restaurant and Cellar Door for a fantastic wine- and food-tasting experience.
One of the area’s easier day trips, Moke Lake is just 20 minutes northwest of central Queenstown. This horseshoe-shaped lake alpine lake unleashes dramatic views of its surrounding mountains.
For most day-trippers, the easiest way to squeeze the most out of your Moke Lake visit is with a hike. Start with the Moke Lake Loop Track. At just 4.5 kilometres long, the loop track should only take about two hours to complete.
As you trek around the lake, you’ll catch stunning views of Mt Hanley, Ben Lomond, and Wedge Peak. On a tranquil day, the reflections in the water of the alpine scenery are magical.
Wine lovers rejoice! It’s well-known that the Central Otago wine region produces some sensational wines. Many of the best come from the Gibbston Valley. Often dubbed the “Queenstown Wine Trail,” this area along the Kawarau River is home to many of Queenstown’s top wineries & vineyards.
Gibbston Valley is tagged as one of the world’s most scenic wine-growing regions. And with good reason. Many of the wineries here are wedged between the Kawarau River gorge and the Remarkables mountain range. Pull up a chair and enjoy a tasting of one of the region’s famous Pinot Noir wines paired with cheese at the vineyards. The views are often nothing short of spectacular!
The most famous winery in the area is the namesake Gibbston Valley Winery. Brennan Wines and Peregrine Winery are also prestigious wineries for wine tours.
Not into wine tastings? Test Gibbston Valley’s most adventurous side with a bungy-jump off the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge. Built in 1880, the 10-storey bridge is often touted as the birthplace of bungy-jumping.
Perched upon the shores of Lake Dunstan, Cromwell is yet another historic gold mining town turned tourist attraction. Its beautiful lakeside location is a bit deceiving. Lake Dunstan only appeared in 1992, when a hydroelectric dam was built and flooded the valley.
Fortunately, the town’s historical buildings were protected from the flood. Engineers moved and reconstructed them from the river’s confluence to higher ground. Today, Cromwell’s “new” old town is in a slightly different location than in its early days. Nonethless, Cromwell maintained its charm.
Start the day wandering through the historical old town. Its heritage buildings whisk you back to the heyday of the NZ gold rush the late-19th century. Close to the town centre, you’ll also find a wharf where you can take cruises on Lake Dunstan.
For more of a taste of the area’s mining history, head to nearby Bannockburn and Bendigo. You’ll uncover several gold mining sites and old miner’s cottages. (Bannockburn and Bendigo are also two of the most popular Central Otago wine regions.)
The journey to Cromwell from Queenstown is just shy of an hour.
Architecture and history buffs will love setting aside time for Invercargill. The capital of Southland, Invercargill is the southernmost city in New Zealand. It was founded in the 1850s—and flaunts its age gracefully.
Invercargill charms travellers with its blissful Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco heritage buildings. Many of the city’s main historic points of interest unfold along Invercargill Heritage Trail. The self-guided tour will take about half a day on its own.
In the city centre, you’ll also enjoy a selection of tasty restaurants, brewpubs, bars, and cafés. A barrage of vintage truck and motorcycle museums also await to keep “gearheads” engaged.
There are also plenty of things to see & do in Invercargill outside the centre. Hit the coast to the west of the city to bliss out in the sun at Oreti Beach. To the south, you can search for native bird species on the boardwalk through the Waituna Wetlands.
Invercargill is 188 kilometres driving distance from Queenstown via State Hwy 6. The journey time is about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Need more Fiordland National Park in your life? Fit in a trip to Doubtful Sound. Although a little tight as a day trip from Queenstown, visiting Doubtful Sound is a must. It’s the deepest and the second-longest fiord on South Island. And its got the beauty to match its title.
The best way to experience the dramatic landscapes of Doubtful Sound is on a sea-kayaking adventure. As you gently paddle on its serene waters, you’ll spot waterfalls and mountain peaks soaring from its depths. You may even catch a glimpse of wildlife like dolphins, fur seals and penguins!
Most Doubtful Sound tours depart from Manapouri, about two hours by road from Queenstown. Most tours include a scenic bus ride and a sea-kayaking excursion or boat cruise.
Perched upon the shores of Lake Te Anau, Te Anau is the main gateway to the rugged Fiordland National Park. Te Anau is most well-known as the launching point for Milford Sound excursions. But the lakeside town is worthy of its own attention for visitors.
You’ll find several excellent hiking trails in Te Anau. Near Te Anau, you’ll stumble upon trailheads for the Milford Track, Routeburn Track, and Kepler Track. All three of these multi-day treks number among the Great Walks of New Zealand.
Of course, on a day trip to Te Anau, these walks are off the table. Instead, stick to the basics. One of the best things to see & do in Te Anau is the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Hop onto a guided boat cruise to the lakes western shores to explore the subterranean caves and its famous glowworms.
Te Anau is about two hours southwest of Queenstown by road.
At three hours driving time, the trip to Tekapo will push the limits of what you can do in a day. As one of the best places to visit on New Zealand South Island though, we’d be remiss to leave it out.
The small town of Tekapo centres around beautiful Lake Tekapo. The lake stuns with shimmering turquoise hues created by the glacial run-off from the Southern Alps. The alpine backdrop along with the Church of the Good Shepherd forms one of the South Island’s most magnificent lake & mountain scenes.
Since you’re tight for time, consider booking yourself on a Lake Tekapo horse riding tour. You’ll cover more ground than you’d otherwise be able to.
If you decide to stay the night in Tekapo, carve out time for a visit to the Aoraki Mackenzine International Dark Sky Reserve. It’s one of the most epic dark sky preserves in the world. The stargazing opportunities from it are out of this world! (Sorry, I had to.)
Aoraki / Mt Cook
Like Tekapo, visit Aoraki / Mt Cook won’t be easy on a day trip. Aoraki/Mt Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand and one of its most recognizable natural landmarks. The 3,600-metre-high mountain forms the heart of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. The park is a favourite for visitors and local travellers. Some would consider it a must-visit for any South Island itinerary!
If you want to fit anything in at Mount Cook, you’ll need to embark early in the morning. The Aoraki/Mt Cook village is three hours north of Queenstown. The drive is a destination unto its own. On the way, you’ll zip past rivers, valleys, gorges, and lakes. Even if you don’t make it all the way, you won’t likely be disappointed!
For a quick visit to Aoraki National Park, set your eyes on the Hooker Valley Track. The trail only gains 100 metres in elevation over 5 kilometres. It’s an easy option for just about everyone. Strolling over boardwalks and bridges, you’ll marvel at glacier, mountain, and lake views.
To experience more of the park, consider staying the night in Aoraki/Mt Cook. It’ll allow more time to tackle longer, more challenging hikes into its mountain passes.
With 3.5 hours driving time ahead, Dunedin isn’t the easy destination to cram into a day trip. Nonetheless, visiting South Island’s second-biggest city will be worth your while.
Like Christchurch further up the east coast, Dunedin shows off its colonial heritage. The only difference is that Scotland, rather than England, takes centre stage here. Dunedin is the most Scottish city in New Zealand. Even Dunedin’s name derives from the Gaelic name for the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, Dùn Èideann.
We’d be remiss not to warn you: It’s gonna be a tight day. A better plan is to stay in Dunedin for a night or two to fit in its charms without the rush. It’d also give you a chance to tackle the spectacular Southern Scenic Route on your way out. The route follows the coast to Invercargill before turning inland towards Manapouri and Te Anau.
Many of the best things to see & do in Dunedin are outside on the city on the Otago Peninsula. If you’re only got one day in Dunedin, focus your attention here.
One of the highlights is Larnach Castle. Perched high on the hills on the Otago Peninsula, Larnach Castle is the only castle in New Zealand. Both its Gothic Revival architectural style and hillside location are striking.
For an active adventure, creep up to Taiaroa Head at the northern tip of the peninsula. The headland is home to several walking trails and plenty of wildlife. Keep on the lookout for penguins, fur seals, whales, and the colony of northern royal albatrosses.