New Zealand resident Matt Burns shares his favourite things to do in Wanaka. He shares his expertise from living there for two years and gives us his best insider tips of what to see and do!
The little lakefront town of Wanaka has sat sleepily in the shadows of it’s big sister Queenstown for years.
But if you scratch beneath the snow capped mountain scenery and fresh blue waters, you’ll see this place is anything but sleepy.
There’s so much to do here and so much you’ll want to see that even most of the locals would struggle to agree on the best things to see and do while you’re here.
What to do in Wanaka
While it’s managed to retain its small town status and feel, there’s no doubt that Wanaka is a town experiencing some major popularity surges over recent years, as the place continues to find its way onto more and more peoples New Zealand travel bucket lists.
And to be fair…it’s not hard to see why.
If you’re visiting Wanaka and wondering where to start, don’t panic. We’ve got you covered.
So sit back, hit ‘bookmark’ and let’s get into it.
1. Take a stroll (or hike a mountain)
The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive into Wanaka is that it’s almost completely surrounded by mountains.
Since almost 1/3rd of New Zealand is owned and managed by the Department of Conservation, (with a good chunk of the remainder being farmland) pretty much all of what you can see is open to the public.
Hiking in Wanaka
One of the first things you’ll want to do when you arrive in Wanaka is to get up high and get an overview down and out over the stunning blues of the lake and the tiny little township nestled into its southern shore.
As luck would have it…there’s a hike for that.
In fact, there’s a lot of hikes for that.
The most popular by far, and the one you’ve most probably seen in all the photos, is the view from the top of Mt Roy – a hike that starts a short drive out of town around to the west side of the lake.
Insider Tip for Hiking in Wanaka:
For an equally awesome view though – and one you can actually see without having to do battle with 100’s of camera lenses with people attached to them – keep driving a little further on past the start of the Roys Peak track.
Then keep going a little more.
Past Treble Cone ski area.
Eventually you’ll spot a little gravel road off to the right, which will take you to a little car park and the beginning of the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain tracks.
From the top you’ll be able to see the Southern Alps, right out over Lake Wanaka with its many bays and bluffs and out towards the peak of Mt Aspiring.
If you like your hikes a little less intense, there are still heaps of great options to choose from.
Other Hikes Around Wanaka
- A stroll along the river to neighbouring Albert Town
- A walk past the quiet waterfall creek for views of Mt Aspiring
- Or a casual walk around the lakefront will give you a great taste of what Wanaka is all about and why exactly it’s so special.
The serene and completely unspoilt landscape on offer here is the reason that so many people come to visit Wanaka, and why a lucky few choose to call it “home”.
2. Drive to Raspberry Creek
For something really special though…take a drive out to Raspberry Creek in nearby Mt Aspiring National Park.
It is hands down one of my all time favourite little pieces of road. Actually, that’s a lie, because it’s not really a road. It’s more of a gravel/dirt track that someone cut out alongside the river (and occasionally, through it).
Once you get to the car park at the end of the track, you’ll get to make the tough choice.
You can hike a 5km hike to through the forest to check out the awesome Rob Roy Glacier, or take the 9km path along the meandering West branch of the Matukituki River and out to Aspiring Hut and some unmatched views out through the valley beyond.
3. Get on the water
On a sunny day, you can rent kayaks from down on the lakefront or sign up for boat tours with Eco Wanaka or Lake Wanaka Cruises.
As well as being ridiculously beautiful, Lake Wanaka is also huge.
So there’s a LOT to explore.
There are 3 islands on the lake too, with Ruby Island in particular being a popular goal for kayakers with half a day or so to spare.
For the more adventurous or experienced kayakers, an overnight camping trip out on Stevensons Island (highly recommended!) is also an awesome way to spend a weekend.
Watch out for the weather – the wind picks up quickly here and it’s easy to get caught out. Waves can pick up over the wide open water and whitecaps have tipped me over more than once.
Keep an eye on the forecast from the local Met Service and take notice of the wind speeds.
February and March are usually the best and calmest months to get out on the water.
4. Grab a coffee
While the war over who actually invented the flat white rages on, one thing I can tell you is that the Kiwis take their coffee pretty damn seriously.
And Wanaka is no exception.
If you want to load up and get your caffeine fix, there’s certainly no shortage of venues to choose from.
Suggested Cafés in Wanaka
You’ll have no problem finding a comfy seat and burying your head in that awesome new book for a few hours.
5. Get Your Adrenaline Fix
If the scenery and the great coffee doesn’t quite get your heart racing enough, then don’t panic.
Wanaka’s not done yet.
New Zealand = The Adventure Capital of the World
New Zealand is renowned as being a true adrenaline junkie paradise.
It’s the birthplace of the bungy jump, the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world and of course, Sir Edmund Hillary.
Back here in Wanaka, you can grab a slice of the adrenaline pie.
Adrenaline Activities in Wanaka
- Wanaka has some world-class rock climbing terrain housing the most concentrated sport climbing area in New Zealand. There are nearly 1000 routes all located a mere only 15 minutes from town.
- In Aspiring National Park you can throw yourself off waterfalls in a terrifying and exhilarating canyoning experience.
- And you must take one of the most scenic flights of your life in a vintage biplane over the Southern Alps.
Still not enough?
How about having a go at New Zealand's highest tandem paragliding up at Treble Cone ski area? Parasailing while strapped to the back of a speeding boat high above the lake? Or take control of your own 2 man plane for a quick trial flying lesson out of Wanakas tiny regional airport.
Skydiving in Wanaka
Or try out the ultimate adrenaline rush and ”strap yourself to a beautiful stranger and jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane”.
Wanaka is home to one of the highest skydives in New Zealand, and if 15,000ft of free falling madness isn’t enough to get your heart jumping out of your chest then the insane views you’ll be treated to just might do the trick.
A good tip for booking any kind of activities like this is to check out BookMe.co.nz.
It’s New Zealand's biggest deal site and most activity companies will regularly post a limited number of cheap tickets up on there for those who are lucky enough to get in quick.
6. Get some snow
In the winter, perhaps even more so than the summers, this glorious little mountain town really comes alive.
Visitor numbers to the town rocket in the southern hemisphere winter season, although you wouldn’t know it from a midday stroll through town.
Everyone’s too busy enjoying the snow at one of the awesome ski resorts that are just a 20 minute drive from the town center.
For the more experienced and adventurous skiers, there are options aplenty too.
Backcountry Skiing in Wanaka
Remember that awesome backcountry you spent all summer hiking through? Well strap on the skis because, as we all know, everything always looks better when it’s covered in snow.
Backcountry skiing here is not only popular but very accessible.
Both of the ski resorts can be used as a jumping off point into the best unspoilt and completely untouched off piste cross country, and there are multiple alpine huts ready to cater for multi day expeditions if you really want to get stuck in!
If you like the draw of the backcountry without the drag of the uphill then Harris Mountain Heli Ski are based in Wanaka and organise powder sessions all over Mt Aspiring National Park. Alpine Heliski are another option based over the hill in Queenstown.
7. Try the food
You wont find any fast food joints or mass produced nonesense here in Wanaka. This healthy, outdoor town’s having none of that.
It’s real, fresh food only here.
While the little town of Wanaka isn’t crawling with options, there are plenty of great places to grab a bite.
Truth be told, for its size, Wanaka is still packing a pretty good culinary punch.
Grab a fantastic Italian feed at The White House or enjoy unique Asian fusion food sitting on the balcony at Alivate, or a great post-hike gourmet burger at Red Star.
Neighbouring Queenstown, just a 40 minute drive away over the scenic crown range also has a booming foodie scene too.
If you’re heading over the hill, check out Firsttable.co.nz for good earlybird dinner deals.