The Southern Lakes region in New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most visited areas of the country. Travellers are drawn to the iconic snow-capped mountains, crystal clear lakes, and many exhilarating adventure activities.
While Queenstown is the most popular lakeside town, we prefer smaller, quieter Wanaka. While the pace of life may be more relaxed, there are still plenty of amazing things to do in Wanaka from water sports and hikes to wine tasting and eating at one of the many delicious restaurants.
We’ve visited Wanaka in summer and winter and both have a lot to offer. We loved snowboarding with incredible lake views in the winter and the quirky cinemas are perfect for escaping the cold.
Spending a month in Wanaka during the summer was even better, though. The temperature in January reached 30ºC and we spent blissful days lounging on lakeside beaches, swimming in the cool water, exploring the lake by paddleboard and kayak, strolling through lavender fields, and eating lots of ice-cream.
Here are our favourite Wanaka activities.
- Where is Wanaka in New Zealand
Best Things to Do in Wanaka
- 1) Visit the Lake Within a Lake on Mou Waho Island
- 2) Stroll Along Lake Wanaka
- 3) Hike in Mount Aspiring National Park
- 4) Stand Up Paddleboard on the Lake
- 5) Kayak to Ruby Island
- 6) Wine Taste with a View at Rippon Winery
- 7) Hike the Rocky Mountain Trail
- 8) Walk Up Mount Iron
- 9) Explore Wanaka Lavender Farm
- 10) Visit Lake Hawea
- 11) Fly, Hike and Jetboat on the Siberia Experience
- 12) Watch a Movie at an Independent Cinema
- 13) Ski or Snowboard in the Surrounding Mountains
- 14) Get Adventurous
- The Best Wanaka Restaurants
- Wanaka Accommodation
- How to Get to Wanaka
- Wanaka New Zealand Map
- More New Zealand Posts
Where is Wanaka in New Zealand
The town of Wanaka is on the southern edge of Lake Wanaka in the south of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s in the Otago region an hour’s drive from Queenstown, which has the nearest airport.
See the map at the end of this post with the locations of the best things to see in Wanaka.
Best Things to Do in Wanaka
I’ve included costs for these Wanaka attractions when applicable. All prices are in New Zealand dollars. The current exchange rate is NZD $1 = USD $0.66, GBP £0.51, and EUR €0.56.
1) Visit the Lake Within a Lake on Mou Waho Island
One of our absolute favourite things to do in Wanaka is take a boat trip to Mou Waho Island.
The 45-minute journey to the island is a great way to see the undeveloped side of Lake Wanaka and realise how huge it is (42km long). The views of the surrounding mountains are stunning.
Mou Waho is a 2km-long island that’s the largest of the four significant islands in Lake Wanaka. It’s predator-free and a nature reserve for native birds—we saw a few buff weka pecking around.
On arrival on the island we were free to explore on our own. It’s a 20-minute uphill hike through native bush to see the unique lake within the lake, the Arethusa Pool, which sits 150 metres above the surface of Lake Wanaka.
A further five-minute walk above the pool is an incredible view of the two lakes seeming to merge. We ate our lunch up on the rocks and could have spent all day here, but we couldn’t turn down the opportunity for a swim.
The pool is supposedly a few degrees warmer than Lake Wanaka, but it still felt very cold to us! It was definitely worth it, though.
Details: We visited Mou Waho with Wanaka Water Taxis which costs $125 for a three-hour trip at 10am (which we did) or 1pm. The guide gave us lots of information on the way, but we explored the island on our own.
The 1.5 hours on the island was just enough time to hike to the lake, eat lunch, and swim, but we would have loved to linger longer. If you have the cash, you could hire a boat to get out here and even camp overnight.
2) Stroll Along Lake Wanaka
Likely the first thing you’ll do in Lake Wanaka is take a stroll along the lakefront. From the town centre a trail leads for miles along the waterfront and the further you get from town, the quieter it becomes.
The most famous landmark is That Wanaka Tree, which grows out of the water and has become an Instagram star. It’s a 20-minute walk from the Wanaka i-SITE visitor centre.
The pebble beach along the lakefront is a popular place to relax in the summer. We enjoyed water sports here but preferred to swim at quieter Lake Hawea (see below).
3) Hike in Mount Aspiring National Park
There are many hikes near Wanaka—see the free Wanaka Tracks app for ideas. By far the most popular Wanaka hike is Roy’s Peak, a challenging climb that’s rewarded with incredible lake views. It gets very crowded though, with hikers queuing up to take the perfect Instagram shot.
We decided to hike in nearby Mount Aspiring National Park instead, and it’s definitely one of our top things to do in Wanaka with classic New Zealand mountain and river scenery.
There are plenty of trails in the park and we wanted a half-day walk that wouldn’t be too challenging. We chose a hike in the West Matukituki valley from the Raspberry Flat car park to Aspiring Hut. The return hike was 18.6km (11.5 miles) and took us 3 hours 45 minutes (plus a half-hour lunch break).
The trail was easy—mostly flat with a few gentle hills and shallow creek crossings—and the views were astounding. Most of the way we followed the turquoise Matukituki River past golden meadows with views of snow-topped Mt Aspiring in the distance.
Waterfalls trickled down the forest-covered mountains on either side of the valley (blowing sideways in the strong wind), and we got a glimpse of Rob Roy Glacier (we would have liked to hike up here, but the trail is currently closed).
At Aspiring Hut we ate our picnic lunch and returned the way we came. You could also stay overnight in one of the 29 bunk beds—it’s first come, first served—or continue deeper into the mountains to other huts.
It’s an hour’s drive from Wanaka to the Raspberry Flat car park and the last 30km is on an unsealed road with rivers to ford. We were fine in a small car, but it’s not a good idea to drive it after rain—check conditions before you head out.
It’s well worth the beautiful drive as the park has something to offer everyone from experienced hikers looking for a multi-day tramp to day-trippers wanting a gentle walk, and it’s much less crowded than the trails closer to town. Even if you just walked 30 minutes from the car park and had a picnic, it’d be worth it for the stunning alpine scenery.
4) Stand Up Paddleboard on the Lake
One of these best things to do in Wanaka in summer is hire some water sports gear and get out on the lake to enjoy the clear calm water and mountain views.
We rented stand up paddleboards and managed to get to the Wanaka Tree and back in our hour’s rental without falling off.
Details: Paddle Wanaka on the lakefront rents paddleboards for $20 an hour.
5) Kayak to Ruby Island
We also rented a kayak for two hours, which was enough time to reach Ruby Island. The water is beautifully clear here and you can do a 15-minute loop walk around the island (except if it’s flooded as it was on our visit).
Along the way we enjoyed views of Rippon Winery and the surrounding mountains.
Details: Paddle Wanaka rents double kayaks for $40 an hour. Choose a calm day as they won’t rent them out if it’s too windy.
6) Wine Taste with a View at Rippon Winery
We’ve had many wonderful winery experiences in New Zealand (Marlborough wine region is our favourite), but the views at Rippon Winery beat them all.
Even if you aren’t a drinker, it’s worth visiting for the colourful scene—lavender plants, green vines, and azure lake with views of Ruby Island.
The wine is excellent too, and it’s all biodynamic and organic. Tastings are a group experience and include lots of information on the winery and wines.
On a hot summer’s day, we mostly tried whites and treated ourselves to bottles of the rare Osteiner white (so refreshing) and a rerelease of their 2010 Pinot Noir for our 10th nomadiversary.
Details: Tastings are free but must be booked on the Rippon website. In the summer they take place on the hour from 11am to 4pm and last about 45 minutes. Hours are reduced in winter. You receive the gate code a day before your visit.
7) Hike the Rocky Mountain Trail
The best short hike for a view of Lake Wanaka is at the Diamond Lake Conservation Area, a 20-minute drive from the centre of town near the western shore of the lake.
We walked to the Lake Wanaka Lookout which took us 1 hour 10 minutes return (plus time at the top) for the 4.75km (3 mile) return hike. It is uphill but not too challenging.
At the viewpoint you can sit on a bench or grassy patch and enjoy the panorama of endless lake and mountains.
You could also continue to the Rocky Mountain Summit (7km /4.3 miles return) where you can see Mount Aspiring.
We arrived late morning and the car park was already full (we had to park on the side of the road), so I recommend getting there early.
Rocky Mountain is a great alternative to Roy’s Peak if you want a shorter, easier, and less crowded hike with lake views.
8) Walk Up Mount Iron
If you want an even easier hike close to the centre of Wanaka (it’s a five-minute drive), head up Mount Iron, a popular exercise spot with locals.
The return walk on the loop track took us 1 hour 10 minutes and was fairly easy. From the top there are views of Wanaka township and the lake and peaks beyond. The views are much better at Rocky Mountain, but if you have limited time and energy, it’s worth heading up here. It’s also a good option in winter.
9) Explore Wanaka Lavender Farm
The Wanaka Lavender Farm is one of the top Wanaka tourist attractions and was so much bigger and better than I expected it to be.
You need at least an hour to wander through the many pretty lavender fields, play games like giant jenga and pétanque, take an Instagram shot by the purple door in the middle of a field, see the vegetable garden and beehives, meet the animals (donkeys, alpaca, sheep, goats, ponies), and sample lavender treats and honey in the cafe.
Yes, it’s ideal for kids, but it’s also a beautiful place for anyone to stroll and relax. It does get busy in summer (when the lavender is in bloom), so I recommend arriving at opening time.
Details: Entrance is $10 and it’s open 9am to 5pm every day in summer with shorter hours in winter (and a reduced $5 fee). It’s a five-minute drive from the centre of town.
10) Visit Lake Hawea
We chose to base ourselves at Lake Hawea (see accommodation section below) and fell in love with this peaceful lake a 20-minute drive from Wanaka.
Even in the summer holidays, it’s much quieter than Wanaka and we preferred the pebble beach here and swimming in the wonderfully clear blue water.
A gravel trail skirts the shore (part of the Te Araroa Trail) and you can walk or run for miles.
You could also cycle from Wanaka to Hawea along the turquoise Clutha and Hawea Rivers. If you’d prefer to cycle the 30km (19 mile) trail only one-way, this self-guided cycle tour drops you off in Hawea and you cycle back.
The tiny Hawea township is much less developed than Wanaka, but the few local businesses are excellent. We loved the sweet treats at the Sailz store and having a drink in the beer garden of the Lake Hawea Hotel.
In an unlikely location at the petrol station on the way into town is Mo’s, a caravan where you can pick up excellent coffee, sourdough toasties, cheese scones, and raw vegan treats. I recommend getting a takeaway here to eat on the lakefront.
11) Fly, Hike and Jetboat on the Siberia Experience
If you want to pack three adventures into just half a day, consider doing the Siberia Experience.
The trip starts in Makarora, an hour’s drive from Wanaka with beautiful views of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea on the way.
The first leg is a 20-minute flight on a tiny 6-seater plane that takes off from a grassy field. We flew through the alpine valleys of Mount Aspiring National Park above braided rivers and a turquoise lake surrounded by glaciers before landing in a meadow in a remote valley.
From here we were left to do a self-guided 7km (4.3 mile) hike. It starts with a typical New Zealand backcountry challenge—a river crossing! The river was wide and came up to our knees but wasn’t too ferocious. As is recommended, we kept our hiking shoes on for the crossing which made is pretty easy, if extremely cold, especially on a surprisingly frosty summer morning.
Walking with wet feet wasn’t as bad as we imagined (merino wool socks help), but you could always bring water shoes for the crossing if it bothers you.
Once on the other side we followed the incredibly clear blue Siberia River with spectacular views of a snowy glacier at the end of the valley.
The trail soon enters a forest for a gentle uphill climb. It’s a lovely walk through native bush with no one else around, but we had expected to be surrounded by mountains for longer.
After two hours we reached the meeting point on the Wilkin River where we waited for our pickup on the pebble beach and enjoyed the gorgeous views.
The final adventure is a 20-minute jet boat ride back to the start. The scenery is stunning and the boats are impressively smooth as they speed along, skimming over the shallow water. We did a couple of fast turns and one 360º turn, but it wasn’t as much of a thrill ride as the Shotover Jet Boat trip Simon did in Queenstown.
The Siberia Experience isn’t cheap but it’s a great way to fit a lot into a short amount of time. The hike is easy and the scenery is beautiful. If you are on a limited budget, see above for details of a free hike in Mount Aspiring National Park where the views are just as good.
While you are in Makarora you could also visit the Blue Pools, which are a short drive and 10-minute walk away. Unfortunately, after heavy rain the water was more grey than blue for us.
Details: The Siberia Experience costs $435. It starts from the Wonderland Makarora Lodge and lasts four hours. It’s best to book for early on in your trip as it can often be cancelled due to weather and river conditions (our first trip was cancelled).
We also found the staff rather unreliable—they turned up 30 minutes after our first scheduled flight was due as they had overslept. I recommend taking warm clothes, food, water, and insect repellent (there are sandflies at the river beach).
12) Watch a Movie at an Independent Cinema
If you are looking for things to do in Wanaka on a rainy day, head to one of the two fantastic independent cinemas.
We have fond memories of watching a film at Cinema Paradiso on our first trip to Wanaka 12 years ago. Although it has moved locations since, it was just as we remembered it—the theatre features old couches and a vintage Morris Minor car and during the intermission you can buy warm homemade cookies and ice-cream. You can also get food delivered to your seat.
Another fantastic little cinema in Wanaka is Rubys. It has more of a luxury feel than Cinema Paradiso (and better air conditioning) and you can order unique cocktails (I liked the jaffa martini) and food to your seat.
The theatres are small and intimate with comfortable reclining seats. They also have intermissions.
13) Ski or Snowboard in the Surrounding Mountains
Wanaka is just as popular in the winter as in the summer as it is surrounded by fantastic skiing opportunities. There are three ski fields within a 40-minute drive of central Wanaka—Cardrona, Treble Cone, and Snow Farm.
We loved the astounding lake views at Treble Cone. Cardrona is better for beginners.
The ski season usually runs from late-June to early October and during the school holidays in July is the busiest time. You can rent all the gear you need in town.
14) Get Adventurous
Wanaka rivals Queenstown as the adventure capital of New Zealand.
We took it easy on our latest trip, but there are many thrilling activities you can participate in including skydiving, jet boating, rock climbing, canyoning, paragliding, mountain biking, and horse riding. This waterfall climb by via ferrata looks amazing.
The Best Wanaka Restaurants
Wanaka has a surprisingly excellent restaurant scene for its size. Here are our favourite places to eat.
Quick Eats in Wanaka
Delicious ice-cream close to the waterfront (we preferred it to nearby Black Peak Gelato). I loved the dulce de leche flavour and the cones with chocolate at the bottom.
Slow food, served fast. Big Fig is a convenient place to eat in or get takeaway on the waterfront. Select the size plate you want and choose from the delicious hot and cold dishes at the counter. Food is Mediterranean inspired and there are plenty of vegetarian options. One of the cheapest places for a healthy meal.
This food truck has delicious burritos and tacos with mushroom and jackfruit options for vegetarians. You can choose the spice level—5 was pretty spicy.
The Good Spot
This coffee truck on the outskirts of town near Mount Iron is a local favourite. We loved the coffee, cheese scones, and chocolate pastries. They have a few vegan options too.
The Doughbin Bakery
For a quick, cheap meal to eat on the beach, grab a pie from this takeaway on the waterfront. The veggie pie was tasty.
Wineglass Cafe at Edgewater Hotel
The cafe at the Edgewater Hotel is all about the location—the outdoor seating has lovely views of the lake. Unlike the places in the centre of town which have a road between them and the lake, this is proper waterfront on a quieter section of the lake.
We visited before our wine tasting at nearby Rippon Vineyard and it was so crowded on a hot summer’s day that we didn’t have time to try one of their recommended scones. Instead we ordered drinks from the quieter coffee cart in the garden.
Red Star Burger Bar
A good spot for an easy, filling meal. The lentil burger was pretty good, but sadly the fries are cooked in animal fat.
Restaurants in Wanaka
The best meal we had in Wanaka was at Ode, a fine dining restaurant with a laid-back atmosphere. All the ingredients are organic and from New Zealand. Our three-course vegetarian tasting menu cost $55 and everything was delicious and interesting.
Advance bookings are recommended and essential if you are vegan.
Kika was a close second to Ode for our favourite restaurant in Wanaka. It’s popular and they don’t take bookings, but we managed to get in by arriving at 5.30pm on a Saturday.
The seasonal menu consists of sharing plates, and although there aren’t a ton of veggie options, what they do have is creative and tasty. We especially enjoyed the avocado mousse with pesto and flatbread, Mexican elote with popcorn, and the gnocchi. The cherry chocolate dessert was one of our favourite desserts in New Zealand.
Francesca’s Italian Kitchen
A popular Italian restaurant (bookings for dinner are essential) with delicious pizza, pasta, and risotto.
Kai Whakapai Cafe
This lakefront cafe in the centre of town has outdoor seating and is very popular at any time of day. We enjoyed the Buddha bowl with tofu along with a glass of the local Rippon Sauvignon Blanc.
Amigos Mexican Grill
We appreciated the many vegetarian and vegan options at this Mexican restaurant as well as the good selection of hot sauces.
If you want to be close to restaurants and activities, stay in the Wanaka township.
I’d love to stay at Edgewater Hotel which is the only accommodation directly on the shore of the lake. The views are beautiful and there’s a restaurant, tennis courts, and spa. The lakefront trail is at the end of the garden and it’s a 20-minute walk into the centre of town. Studio rooms and apartments are available.
If you’d prefer to be closer to town, Lakeside Apartments is in the heart of the action and has lovely views and an outdoor pool.
You can also look for rooms and houses in Wanaka on Airbnb.
Wanaka is busy and expensive in January, so we chose to spend our month at Lake Hawea instead. It’s a 20-minute drive from Wanaka and there’s not much there, so it’s not the best base if you want to eat out frequently and take lots of tours.
If you are looking for a tranquil spot, though, it’s worth considering. I think the lake is even more beautiful than Wanaka—the water is bluer and there’s no development on the lakefront.
We rented this two-bedroom house in Hawea on Airbnb. It’s modern and clean with a spacious open plan living area and kitchen with sliding doors that open onto the garden. The house was comfortable and well-equipped and the host was friendly and helpful. It’s a 7-minute walk from the shop (over a small hill) and 12 minutes from the lakefront beach.
Of course, being even closer to the water would be best, but lake houses get booked up far in advance in summer. This one-bedroom lakefront cottage looks perfect for couples.
Search for more Airbnbs in Hawea here.
How to Get to Wanaka
Most people visit Wanaka from Queenstown, which is a one-hour drive away and has the closest airport.
If you are road tripping around the South Island, from Wanaka you could continue to the west coast—Haast is a 2-hour drive and Fox Glacier is about 3.5 hours away.
Alternatively, as we did on our latest trip, you could drive up the centre of the island to Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, both about 2.5 hours away. Beyond is Christchurch, at least a 5-hour drive and the nearest major international airport.
Although it’s best to have a car to explore the area, Ritchies has a twice-daily coach to and from Queenstown. It’s also possible to get an Intercity bus to Dunedin by changing at Cromwell.
Wanaka New Zealand Map
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