As part of our South Island New Zealand adventure, we headed onwards into Central Otago for a Wanaka road trip to discover all that the enticing town has to offer. Take a look at my picks for the best things to do in Wanaka!
On our way from Queenstown we were treated to yet more incredible landscape views, it’s hard to keep up with all this beauty! Passing through Roaring Meg and Kawarau Gorge, we stopped by the charming town of Cromwell before driving adjacent to Lake Dunstan and eventually reaching the southern edge of the lake and ready to explore the best things to do in Wanaka.
A road trip in Wanaka is a truly magical experience. The lake and mountain views beckon you to stop, appreciate, and reflect. There’s nothing I love more than being in nature seeing it do its damn finest, and this lakeside town is no exception! We spent two nights enjoying everything this unique spot has to offer, so here are our highlight activities of the best things to do in Wanaka!
Stop off at Cromwell
A quiet, remote town sitting on the edge of yet another lake, surrounded by mountains, (sound familiar?) Cromwell has a unique history and makes for the perfect break to stretch one’s legs on the drive from Queenstown to Wanaka. Like many places in this part of the country, you can bask in the outstanding natural beauty and simply be in the moment. It seems you can’t get too far in Central Otago without encountering new lakes and mountains to explore!
Hike Roy’s Peak
This popular day trip is such a great activity in fact, I wrote a whole post about it over in this guide to hiking Roy’s Peak! The hike takes up to around 6 hours, so it’s a large chunk of the day extremely well spent. The rewarding views at the summit of Roy’s Peak are phenomenal, and entirely worth the gruelling steepness of the track!
Many Wanaka tourists and locals alike flock to tackle the climb to achieve the coveted Roy’s Peak Photo that so often blesses our Instagram feeds. If chasing the most Instagrammable places in New Zealand sounds like your thing then absolutely give Roy’s Peak a go! Once we completed the hike, it was the perfect excuse for us to enjoy a relaxed evening at our beautiful Airbnb!
Visit That Wanaka Tree
One of Wanaka’s most popular attractions comes in the form of a single tree. Known as That Wanaka Tree or #thatwanakatree (it even has a hashtag – what a world we live in!), this feat of nature sits on the edge of Lake Wanaka, emerging from the waters as a lone, unwavering symbol of life.
With the backdrop of sharp mountain peaks and the gentle waves of the lake, it’s a great place to take in the views, snap some photos, and enjoy the outdoors. Bear in mind that the tree has become somewhat of an icon in recent times, so it can be pretty busy with lots of tourists not quite jostling, but certainly lingering for the perfect photo. Luckily, the locals have provided some important signs to ensure the tree remains untouched and protected. Be respectful of other visitors and the landscape, it will make everyone’s experiences better!
Get Lost in Puzzling World
Puzzling World is one of those bizarre, one-off activities that puts a small town on the map. Just like the rest of Wanaka, it exudes quirky charm and is a great way to spend time making memories and goofing around the many interactive exhibits.
Puzzling World in Wanaka is a mix of a museum and art gallery, and takes visitors through a journey of various illusions, tricks of the eye, and outlandish visual experiences. Both digital and physical illusions are scattered throughout Puzzling World, each with a brief explanation and details about how they work – so at least you won’t come away even more confused!
For me, the most baffling area was the Tilted House. Walking through slanted rooms you’ll see water flow upstream, attempt to play pool at an angle, and generally feel like you’ve just had a pretty tipsy night out!
After several more illusions and enjoying the playful atmosphere we made it to the Sculptillusion Gallery. Focussed on creativity and deceptive art, it was a more relaxing way to round off the experience after our minds had well and truly been boggled!
Once we’d thoroughly explored the illusion rooms, it was time to tackle the Great Maze. Visitors are challenged to making their way to each of the four coloured corner towers, either in a pre-selected order for extra difficulty and time, or at random. Meandering through passageways, over bridges, hitting dead-ends, and lots of strategising, I’m proud to say we completed the maze in less time than I expected (it’s estimated to take around 30 – 60 minutes, we took about 40). It’s absolutely a task that requires team work, I heavily relied on Kazimir for assistance as he’s definitely the logician between us! I’d recommend completing the endeavour with others, for the benefit of a fun exercise to do together as well as not getting lost into the abyss alone!
All in all, Puzzling World is a great activity to enjoy come rain or shine, and perfect for people of all ages which makes it one of the best things to do in Wanaka. We visited on a particularly sunny weekend, so might’ve encountered a busier footfall than usual, but there’s still plenty of space for everyone to enjoy and feel like a big, confused kid. And a top tip is that visiting the toilets at Puzzling World is always recommended, there’s even more illusory surprises!
Drive to Lake Hawea
Wanaka is marvellously located on the South Island of New Zealand. Less than 2 hours drive from Queenstown, and equally under 2 hours drive to Haast on the West Coast (a short distance for getting over there by many standards!). To enjoy some of this expansive countryside, I’d recommend taking a casual drive up State Highway 6 along Lake Hawea, further towards The Neck, and if you so fancy, onwards towards Mount Aspiring National Park where the West Coast begins.
We drove up to The Neck and back, enjoying sunny views of the lakes and mountains, stopping at scenic lookouts at every turn, and enjoying being away from everyday life in a new and beautiful place – isn’t that what travel is about?!
Catch a Flick at Cinema Paradiso
After hiking, puzzles, and lakes, we decided the finale to a grand weekend in Wanaka would be to relax with popcorn and a movie at Cinema Paradiso. This adorable little independent establishment has everything you need for cosying up watching some reels. They show new releases as well as classics, cult favourites, and more. We opted to watch Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs to complete the kooky aesthetic, and snuggled up for an almost private viewing in one of the 3 intimate screens.
The unapologetically make-shift atmosphere is so endearing. The seats are actual, real sofas with plenty of space, and a maximum seating arrangement of no more than 50 people – no trouble seeing the screen for me! Each screening has an intermission, a concept which initially seemed bizarre but when you realise they offer freshly baked cookies during the break, who could say that’s a bad idea?! I opted for the bigger-than-my-face triple chocolate cookie, a decision that will never be regretted, like ever. Nibbling away we settled back in for the second half!
The movie was great, as was the theatre and snacks – making for a most pleasant evening for our last night. I’d highly recommend Cinema Paradiso for a rainy afternoon or chilled-out evening, for movie fans and casual visitors alike. It sounds strangely simple, but this unique cinema is definitely one of the best things to do in Wanaka – if I was a local I know it’d be a regular haunt of mine for sure!
Wanaka Road Trip Tips
Make the most of close-by amenities – The town is in a very condensed space, much like Queenstown with a lakefront promenade and shops, bars, restaurants, and hotels sprinkled throughout the nearby streets. If staying centrally in Wanaka, it’s very easy to get around on foot and get everything you need for a pleasant stay. However, if you have a car, it’s probably best to park up and walks
Check the parking restrictions – Like many popular towns in NZ, parking can be expensive or have restricted times particularly along the lakefront. Don’t get caught out or fined and park somewhere safe and appropriate. Parking up at the lakefront offers some incredible views to enjoy from the comfort of your own car, or take a quick dip in the chilly waters if you’re feeling brave enough!
Take advantage of your self-drive transport – If you’re able to access a car, make the most of it! Some of the best things to do in Wanaka such as Roy’s Peak and Puzzling World are a little further out of town, so this will be when having your own transport will be handy. There’s lots of beautiful places around Wanaka, and this will be your chance to explore them.
Be responsible and safe – As ever, ensure best driving etiquette and practices. It goes without saying to be cautious and prepared for the roads, and check ahead of the rules and conditions of the area you’ll be driving in.
And there we have our 2 days discovering the best things to do in Wanaka! There are plenty more activities to suggest for 2 days in Wanaka, however these are definitely my top choice highlights if you’re on a tight schedule! With many other incredible walks and unique spots in town and surrounding areas, you’ll easily find something to suit your interests!
Have you visited the lakeside town before? Are there any best things to do in Wanaka you’d suggest? Share a story in the comments!
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