Wanaka is a ski and summer resort town on New Zealand’s South Island, set on Wanaka Lake, and framed by snowcapped mountains.
From here you can explore the Southern Alps’ Mount Aspiring National Park, hike Rob Roy Glacier, go skiing, boat or kayak on the lake, hike one of the many trails around town, or just chill out.
You’ll also find vineyards and wineries in the famed Otago valley, home to mountains, dramatic skies, and picturesque lakes.
As nearby Queenstown has become overcrowded in recent years, travel to Wanaka has exploded and this sleepy little town has become very popular with backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts.
It’s a really cool little town but there’s not a ton to do here. You can easily see everything in a day or two.
Most people come here for a few nights to hike, relax, and move on.
I’d say you could spend a few days lounging about and be perfectly content.
Or fall in love with the relaxed environment and beautiful scenery so much you never leave. Both happen frequently.
Either way, this Wanaka travel guide can help you plan the ultimate trip there.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Wanaka
1. Go skiing
2. Trek Around Diamond Lake
3. Explore Mount Aspiring National Park
4. Visit wineries
5. Go to Roy’s Peak
Other Things to See and Do in Wanaka
1. Visit Puzzle World
For some quirky fun, visit Puzzling World just outside town. It’s an outdoor maze and sculpture gallery that’s a quick and entertaining visit, especially if you have kids! It’s probably the best family activity in town. Admission to the maze is $18 NZD ($13 USD) for adults ($14 NZD/$10 USD for children).
2. Go horseback riding
Wanaka offers some of the best horse trekking in New Zealand. You can ride with cowboys in the high country and get an idea of what farm life is all about, or you can just enjoy a nice easy jaunt around Lake Wanaka. A ride along the Gold Discovery Trail in the Cardrona Valley is a great way to learn about the gold rush in the area as well, and you don’t need horseback riding experience to do it. Most two-hour treks are around $109 NZD ($75 USD).
4. Cruise Wanaka Lake
Take a boat cruise with Eco Wanaka to the remote and magical Mou Waho Island nature reserve, which is home to the rare flightless Buff Weka (extinct on the mainland since 1920). A one hour return guided bush walk is included, which takes you up to a lake right on top of the island! Tours are $245 NZD ($167 USD).
5. Go jet boating on the Matukituki River
The glacial Matukituki River is the best place for experiencing river jet boating in New Zealand. Enjoy a 50-minute remote walk through moss covered forest, waterfalls, and glacier-fed streams. Walk in awe beneath Avalanche Glacier when conditions permit or into McGills Creek to explore one of the most beautiful and serene forest walks. This tour costs $239 NZD ($163 USD).
6. Bike the Glendhu Bay track
From Waterfall Creek the Glendhu Bay track follows the terraces above Lake Wanaka with spectacular views, eventually leading to a small north-facing beach – Damper Bay – ideal for swimming in the summer. This first section of the track is hilly with some short, steep sections, so you’ll want a reasonable level of fitness to do this. There are some really spectacular views of Mount Aspiring from Glendhu Bay. You can rent mountain bikes in the area for about $50 NZD ($35 USD) a day.
7. The Tuki Festival
If you happen to be in Wanaka in February, attend the Tuki Festival (formerly the Rippon Festival). TUKI showcases some of the best New Zealand musical talent in a beautiful setting at Glendhu Bay. The stage is literally just 50 meters from the lake. A lot of people camp out at Glendhu Bay Motor Camp across the road, but you’ll have to book super quick because all the spots sell out fast. Tickets start from around $109 NZD ($75 USD).
8. Hike Rob Roy Glacier
Take the Rob Roy Glacier Track into Mount Aspiring National Park, where you’ll get to experience the stunning mountains, glaciers, alpine lakes, and river valleys of the area. This route is an easy 6-mile (10-kilometer) trek, suitable even for children, and it’s doable in just a few hours. You should check ahead on the national park’s website to make sure there are no avalanche warnings or road closures. The hike starts at the Raspberry Creek car park which is about 34 miles (54 kilometers) west of Wanaka.
9. See Bremner Bay
Bremner Bay is where the locals like to hang out, especially for families who like to take advantage of the bay’s sheltered and shallow waters for swimming and picnicking in the warmer months. There’s a long, peaceful stretch of sandy white beach, and the water is clear and perfect for fishing and water sports. There isn’t a whole lot going on here; it’s definitely a place to relax!
10. Trek Mount Iron
This trek is just slightly more difficult than the Rob Roy Glacier Track, but it’s still an easy track! The hike itself is only 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) and shouldn’t take you longer than 90 minutes to do the whole loop. Mount Iron is a glacier-carved mountain rising 250 meters above the countryside, so when you summit you’ll get panoramic views over the Pisa Range.
11. Take the Outlet Track
The Outlet Track is an easy 1.8-mile (3-kilometer) walk following the clear waters of the Clutha River, from the Lake Wanaka Outlet to Albert Town. It’s an easy route for families (even those with strollers), as well as cyclists and runners. It takes about an hour to do each way.
13. See the Famous Wanaka Tree
The Wanaka Willow is all that is left from a fence that is now on the shore of Lake Wanaka. It’s pretty overrated. It’s literally a tree. Talk about good marketing, right? But if you’re doing the lake walk, you’ll pass it so you might as well stop!
For more information about other destinations in New Zealand, check out these guides!
Wanaka Travel Costs
Accommodation – Hostel dorms will cost between $25-$40 NZD ($15-$30 USD) per night, while a private double room will start from around $70 NZD ($50 USD). Only a few hotels offer free breakfast and self-catering facilities.
Budget hotels begin around $70 NZD ($50 USD) per night for a twin or double room, though $100-$150 NZD ($68-$102 USD) per night is more typical. There are only a handful of Airbnb properties to rent, but you can find private rooms starting from about $40 NZD ($28 USD) per night or an entire home or apartment (or often a cottage) for approximately $100 NZD ($68 USD) per night.
Camping in Wanaka is affordable with tent sites starting from $8 NZD ($6 USD) per night. Glendhu Bay Lakeside Holiday Park is a magnificent camp setting right on the shores of Lake Wanaka. Tent sites at this specific campground are $34 NZD ($24 USD).
Food – A typical restaurant main dish at a restaurant will cost around $16 NZD ($11 USD), though at nicer restaurants you’re looking around $25 NZD. If you choose to cook your food, there’s one grocery store in town, plan to spend between $90-$100 NZD ($60-$70 USD) per week. There are a few fast food options around, which will cost you about $12 NZD ($8 USD) per meal. The average price of a beer at a restaurant is $7.25 NZD ($5 USD). If you go out to eat, get a main, a drink or two, expect to spend $30-50 NZD per meal. Some of my favorite places to eat here are Federal Diner, WGK, Spice Room, and Water Bar.
Backpacking Wanaka Suggested Budgets
How much does it cost to visit Wanaka?
On a backpacker budget, prepare to spend $70-$120 NZD ($50-$80 USD) per day. That will get you a hostel dorm room, bus transportation, happy hour drinks, plenty of free nature (but one or two expensive activities like paragliding or a scenic flight), and mostly self-cooked meals (around 70-80% of your meals).
For a more mid-range budget, expect to spend between $290-$330 NZD ($195-$220 USD) a day. This will let you travel carefree and basically do anything you want (within reason). This will allow you to stay in a private room or budget hotel, eat out when you want, take a few paid tours, and not worry about your spending.
A luxury budget of around $580+ NZD ($400+ USD) a day will get you four-star hotels, take any activities you want, wine tours, private guides, eat at all five-star meals, and live it up! The sky is the limit!
This chart can give you a rough idea of day to day costs (prices are in USD):
Wanaka Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
In Wanaka, it’s not too hard to stay on a budget. All that surrounding nature is free. You’ll end up spending most of your money on any adventure sports, wine tours, meals, or nights out! But you can save money here and reduce your costs! Here are all the high impact ways you can save money in Wanaka:
- Learn to cook – Wanaka receives a lot of tourist traffic, you can expect to find high prices. You’re better off preparing your own meals to save yourself some money.
- Take a hike – There are tons of free hiking trails around the area. Rob Roy Glacier and Diamond Lake are two popular trails to try.
- WWOOF it – WWOOFing is a great way to work for your accommodation and food. In return for working on a farm or B&B, you get free food and board. It’s a popular activity with travelers because it lets you stay in a place cheaper and longer. You can do it for a few days or a few months. Keep in mind, most farms will require you to have some experience, as too many inexperienced workers have caused trouble in the past.
- Clean in exchange for your room – Many hostels let you trade a few hours of cleaning and making beds for free accommodation. Ask when you check in if this is possible — it might just save you some money!
- Couchsurf – Couchsurfing is pretty popular in Wanaka. If you don’t mind sleeping on a couch or floor, this is a great way to save some money and meet locals.
- Find cheap activities – The book.me.nz website provides last minute discounts on activities (and pub crawls) throughout the country. Most of the activities are last minute, but if you’re flexible in when you want to do things, you can save up to 60% off attractions! I can’t recommend it enough. You can also check out backpackerguide.nz/deals for great deals.
- Visit off-season – Wanaka is at its busiest in the months of March, June, and July. The area receives the least amount of tourism traffic in November, meaning you’ll find much cheaper prices!
- Have an ISIC Card – To save 20-50% on the cost of admission to museums and other tourist attractions, be sure to present a valid student card. The ISIC is typically accepted in places where a foreign student ID is not.
- Walk everywhere – Wanaka is a small pedestrian friendly town so you will be able to walk everywhere within the town.
- Get the multi-day ski pass – If skiing or snowboarding is your main priority, go for the multi-day passes rather than single passes. You’ll save $5 NZD/$3.50 USD per day (or more), and the passes are good for the season. You can always come back later to ski.
Where To Stay in Wanaka
Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Wanaka for your visit:
How to Get Around Wanaka
Wanaka is a small pedestrian friendly town so you will be able to walk everywhere within the town.
Buses – Intercity buses depart from outside the Log Cabin on the lakefront, with daily services to Cromwell (from $24 NZD ($17 USD), 35 minutes), Queenstown (from $24 NZD/$17 USD, two hours), Lake Hawea (from $29 NZD/$20 USD, 10 minutes), Makarora (from $29 NZD ($20 USD), 1½ hours) and Franz Josef (from $43 NZD/$30 USD, six hours). NakedBus has services to Queenstown (from $29 NZD/$20 USD), two hours), Cromwell (from $29 NZD ($20 USD), 35 minutes) and Franz Josef (from $43 NZD ($30 USD), six hours).
Flying – The closest airport to Wanaka is Queenstown. Flying in New Zealand isn’t that cheap, as there are only two companies that dominate the entire market: Air New Zealand and Jetstar — and on most routes, it’s just Air New Zealand. While you can find some cheap fares on shorter routes or by booking a few months in advance, unless you are really pressed for time or traveling from island to island, I’d skip flying.
One-way routes from Auckland to Queenstown start at $250 NZD ($170 USD), Queenstown to Church from $110 NZD ($75 USD), and Auckland to Christchurch from $120 NZD ($80 USD).
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking is easy in Wanaka, and it’s one of the main ways to get around. There are plenty of people who will pick you up. Additionally, you can just ask around any hostel for a ride — everyone is doing the same circuit. Check out these apps:
When to Go to Wanaka
New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning when most North Americans are dealing with snow and freezing temperatures, Kiwis are enjoying their beaches. The climate is temperate. Summer is from December-February, and it’s the most popular time to visit the country. (Kiwis also take their holidays during this time, so things get busy!) Days are long and sunny, nights are mild. The average daytime temperatuer is 68-77°F (20-25°C).
Fall is from March-May, and it’s one of the best times to visit. The crowds have dispersed, prices are lower, and the weather is pleasant.
Winter is from June-August, and it’s a great time to visit if you’re into snow sports. Temperatures in Wanaka can drop as low as 50°F (-10°C). Spring (September-November) is also a nice time to visit as the weather is getting warmer but you still have a good chance of snow. It is also very quiet at this time of year.
There’s really no bad time to visit Wanaka, depending on the sort of things you’d like to do. Since New Zealand is so expensive, shoulder season is one of the best times to visit.
How to Stay Safe in Wanaka
Wanaka is super safe. It’s doubtful anything bad is going to happen to you. Make copies of your important documents, like your passport. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
The emergency number is 111.
Overall, you’re unlikely to encounter anything problematic here.
Always trust your gut instinct though. If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in Wanaka. Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Wanaka Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Wanaka. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Momondo – This is my favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. The big cities have tons of listings! (If you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay!)
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around New Zealand, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts when you click the link!
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- bookme.co.nz – You’ll get some really good last minute deals and discounts on this website! Just select what area you’re traveling in, and see what activities are on sale.
- treatme.co.nz – The locals use this website to find discount hotels, restaurants, and tours. You can save up to 50% off things like catamaran sailing lessons or three-course dinners.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Wanaka Gear and Packing Guide
In this section, I’ll give you my suggestion for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack for your trip to Wanaka.
The Best Backpack for Wanaka
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something smaller or different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for more tips and tricks on how to pick a backpack – as well as more pack suggestions!
What to Pack for Wanaka
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 6 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (a water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Wanaka Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, by Joan Druett
Auckland Island, located 285 miles south of New Zealand, is a place with year-round freezing rain, wind, and little food (but apparently a lot of seals). Simply put, it’s not a place you want to get shipwrecked on. Yet in 1864, Captain Thomas Musgrave and his crew did just that — and a few months later, on the opposite side of the island, so did the crew of the Scottish ship Invercauld. This well-written account of the how the two crews survived (and didn’t survive) was a wonderful juxtaposition on leadership, camaraderie, and coming together in crisis.
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning book is a parody of the 19th-century novel is considered a modern classic. The year is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to New Zealand to get involved in the gold rush. When he arrives, he happens upon 12 men who have met in secret to talk about several mysterious events, including the disappearance of a wealthy man and a prostitute’s attempt to end her life. Moody is drawn into the circle, and the book soon turns into a thrilling page-turner that will keep you hooked the whole way through.
Squashed Possums: Off the Beaten Track in New Zealand, by Jonathan Tindale
This one is a fun, humorous travelogue that will get you super excited about your trip. In Squashed Possoms, Tindale talks about his adventures (and misadventures) from a year spent exploring the lesser-explored areas of New Zealand. He makes himself a home in an abandoned caravan, and then lives out four seasons getting acquainted with the terrain – including the coldest winter in decades.
A Land of Two Halves, by Joe Bennett
After having spent ten years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett decides to figure out why he’s still living there. A notorious restless traveler, Bennett finds himself examining all the reasons why these two islands have captivated him for a decade – so he packs his bags and heads out on a hitchhiking adventure around the North and South Islands. His encounters along the way are an enlightening look at life in New Zealand!
My Must Have Guides for Traveling to Wanaka
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Kristin Addis writes our solo female travel column and her detailed guide gives specific advice and tips for women travelers.
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Wanaka Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on New Zealand travel and continue planning your trip:
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