Hi friends, Mikaela here. While meandering around the South Island of New Zealand, Wanaka was perhaps my favourite town I explored. I routinely day dream about buying a one way ticket and making this charming mountain town my permanent home (I scroll through farms for sale around Wanaka on the regular). Surprisingly, many visitors to New Zealand skip Wanaka entirely. Or they come to hike Roys Peak, snap a picture of the Wanaka tree and are quickly on their way. I’m here to show you there are plenty of wonderful things to do in Wanaka – enough to stay here for at least a weekend, if not longer. (At the bottom you’ll also find some recommendations for food joints and accommodations).
Map of all the things to do in Wanaka
Before we dive, I thought it would be helpful to provide you with a map of all the activities and destinations I’m going to mention. Not everything is in the town of Wanaka itself (in fact, a few of the hikes are a full hour away). When you’re planning your itinerary, keep this map in mind. This will help you avoid doubling back unnecessarily.
Let’s start off with one of the activities New Zealand is most famous for – hiking (or tramping, as the Kiwis call it). Here are five excellent hikes of varying length and difficulty for you to consider.
Hike Roys Peak for Sunrise
Roys Peak is one of the most iconic things to do in Wanaka and easily the most popular hike. Although the climb up is rather monotonous, the views from the top will take your breath away (and make every step up the peak worth it). In my opinion, the best time to hike Roys Peak is for sunrise. Watch the sun illuminate the sky in pinks and purples, casting the land golden and soft green (just remember to bring a headlamp and a pair of gloves – the hike up is dark and cold).
Read more: Roys Peak Track – Department of Conservation
Or head to Isthmus Peak
Isthmus Peak offers a similar hiking experience and comparable views to Roys Peak – with significantly fewer people. My preference would be Roys Peak, unless you have enough time to do them both (or really want to avoid other people).
Hike to Rob Roy Glacier
The hike to Rob Roy Glacier is 4-5 hours long and located in Mount Aspiring National Park, about an hour’s drive northwest from Wanaka. Despite being long, the hike itself is fairly flat, easy and offers spectacular views of a 600 m waterfall and, of course, Rob Roy Glacier. I wouldn’t recommend doing this hike alone, as cell phone service in the area tends to be spotty.
Swim at Blue Pools Track
Blue Pools Track is a great, easy hike one hour north of Wanaka. Swing bridges will take you over the sparkling blue glacial water of Makarora River and in through beautiful beech forest. Near the end of the track there is a path down to the river and this is a great spot for swimming. It’s incredibly cold water, but definitely refreshing!
Spend the night at Aspiring Hut
I haven’t visited Aspiring Hut myself, but I’ve included it in this list because I’d really like to do it. The hut is nestled among the mountains of the Southern Alps and can be accessed in 2.5 hours from the Raspberry Creek car park (the car park itself is located in a beautiful place with some good photo opportunities). Bring a sleeping bag and cookware, and get ready for a night beneath the stars!
Read more: Aspiring Hut – Department of Conservation
Explore the Town
Shop at the Wanaka Artisan & Craft markets
Downtown Wanaka hosts a cute Artisan Market on Thursday afternoons and the Craft Market on Sundays (from spring to autumn). At the markets you can find things like handmade mugs; fresh breads, jams and chutneys; locally made jewelry and organic skin care products; prints and more. I bought some really nice prints by a local photographer and a ton of chutney for cooking!
Kayak or Paddleboard on Lake Wanaka
On a warm and sunny day, take a kayak or paddle board out for a few hours on Lake Wanaka (just ensure it isn’t too windy!). There are a couple places to rent boats and paddles. We went with Paddle Wanaka – we didn’t book a reservation ahead of time and instead just walked up to their booth on the shores of Lake Wanaka. They quickly got us set up with everything we needed and we were back within in a few hours.
Wanaka Lavender Farm
The Wanaka Lavender Farm is a picture-perfect destination offering fields and fields of beautiful purple lavender (an ideal backdrop for the ‘gram). Besides lavender, they are also farm animals, a quaint tea and ice cream shop, and a myriad of products infused with lavender for purchase. Admission is between $5 or $10 for an adult depending on the time of year (it’s more expensive in the busy peak summer season).
Some will call it touristy and others will say it’s cliche, but how can you visit Wanaka without checking out this iconic tree? It can get busy, especially at sunset when all the professional photographers are out. I found early morning to be the best time for avoiding crowds while still getting beautiful lighting. That said, the crowds tend to be very respectful so it’s fairly easy to get some nice photos without people in the way at any time of day.
If you want to get your heart rate up and the adrenaline pumping, consider trying one of these exciting experiences:
- Tandem Skydiving – Choose from a starting height of either 9,000, 12,000 and 15,000 ft. That’s between 25 and 60 seconds of free fall at speeds over 200 kph. You’ll be able to see views of the Southern Alps (including Mount Cook) and six glacial lakes.
- Canyoning in Mt Aspiring National Park – Have a professional guide take you down a canyon in a remote area of the park where you’ll abseil beside roaring waterfalls and have a roaring time.
- Scenic flight over the Southern Alps – If you’re looking to splurge, consider taking a scenic flight over the Southern Alps (complete with two alpine landings).
Food & Drink in Wanaka
Cafes: Kai Whakapai and Florence’s Food Store and Cafe
While strolling along the shores of Lake Wanaka, make a quick detour to Kai Whakapai for a hot or iced latte. Feeling a little tired from all the exploring? They have a great patio (and turn into a chill bar at night too).
If you want to get tourist track, head to Florence’s Food Store and Cafe. Located on the edge of town (and off the tourist radar), Florence offers artisan bread, free range eggs cooked to perfection and, most importantly, beautifully delicious handcrafted espresso drinks. They also have the best butter croissants I had during my six months in New Zealand.
Drinks: Cork Bar
This was such a fun bar to come to for drinks. If you like gin & tonic, they have an extensive G&T menu – it’s almost overwhelming how many options there are. (The bartender asked me a few questions about flavours I like and then made three drinks for me to try over the course of the evening.) The cheese platter is also delicious. The dark lighting and individual tables don’t make it too conducive to meeting other people, so I’d recommend bringing a friend or two you’ve met at your hostel or on an activity.
Meal: The Big Fig
Now, I don’t usually eat out when I’m traveling, but I did try The Big Fig and would totally recommend it for a quick lunch while you’re exploring Wanaka. It’s located on the main road (across from Lake Wanaka) and very close to Paddle Wanaka (where you can rent kayaks and paddle boards) so perfect for a post-paddle meal! The food is relatively healthy and the lattes are tasty and beautifully decorated.
Dessert: Ice Cream at Patagonia Chocolates
Patagonia Chocolates has the best ice cream – I went here almost every day I was in Wanaka (and sometimes twice per day). Mint chocolate is my favourite flavour and this place did not disappoint. I was also a big fan of the Dulce de Leche and even tried out the fruity flavours (the raspberry and lemon flavours were excellent and refreshing). If ice cream isn’t your jam, they also have fancy chocolates and really good ice cream.
Where to Stay around Wanaka
My goodness, there are an overwhelming number of places to stay in Wanaka! With so much competition, the vast majority of options are all decent. I’ve outlined below ones either I have stayed at or ones that have been recommended to me by my friends who stayed there.
Glendhu Bay Motor Camp – If you will be car camping, this is the motor camp to stay at 100%. It’s a ten minute drive outside of Wanaka, but located right on the lake and offers beautiful views to wake up to.
YHA Wanaka – YHA is a hostel chain with locations across New Zealand. It’s a standard hostel – decent common areas and a large kitchen, but no distinct character to the place.
Wanaka Bakpaka – This hostel is a little nicer than YHA in my opinion, although everything is cozier (i.e. smaller kitchen). The hostel does have a decent patio from which you can see Lake Wanaka, so that’s a huge plus.
Wanaka Haven – This recommendation comes from my Airbnb host and is top of my list for next time I’m in town. Located just outside the city, Wanaka Haven offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and the large windows fill the dining room with warm light. There’s even a swimming pool and outdoor patio.
Mahu Whenua Ridgeline Homestead & Eco Sanctuary – If you want to seriously splurge, this homestead looks ~insanely~ amazing (and insanely expensive). Situated on 550 sq kilometres of rolling hills nestled among the Southern Alps, this luxury lodge is both expansive and cozy and comes complete with a private chef. If I ever win the lottery, this is where I’m going!
Airbnb became my favourite accommodation option throughout my time in New Zealand. I really enjoyed the opportunity to stay in a Kiwi’s home, ask them questions and get recommendations. The family I stayed with in Wanaka is unfortunately no longer on Airbnb, but there are tons of other awesome options (Kiwis in this area all seem to have gorgeous homes). If you have a car, consider staying a little outside the town.
I hope this guide to Wanaka has been helpful! As always, comment below if you have questions or have tried something on the list. Anything great things you think I’ve missed?