Just over an hour’s drive from the tourist haven that is Queenstown is the smaller quirkier lakeside town of Wanaka. Wanaka, I guess you could say is Queenstown’s less flashy, equally beautiful younger sister. It has the ‘cool factor’ with lots of trendy coffee shops, boutiques, and brunch spots. And if you’re the outdoorsy type then there are numerous stunning hikes on your doorstep.
Wanaka is filled with lots of free and cheap things to do. In fact, some of the best things to do here are indeed free – my personal favorites are Roy’s Peak hike and the Blue Pools Track.
So, without further ado here is my detailed list of the 22 best free and cheap things to do in Wanaka.
Free Things to do in Wanaka
1. Hike Roy’s Peak
Easily the most photogenic place on the South Island, you may be familiar with the amazing view from Roy’s Peak from your Instagram feed. It’s an 8km hike each way, which should take you approximately 7 hours total. I completed the hike in 6 hours but only because I was in such a rush to get to the top for that all-important photo. From the lookout point, you will have a 180-degree view of Lake Wanaka, the snowy Southern Alps, and even Mount Aspiring.
The hike in itself is steep with not a whole lot to see en-route, but the track is wide and well-worn, so it’s not too difficult. Be sure to bring some snacks and water with you, and clothing-wise, be certain to layer up. You will be chilly in the beginning but after an hour or so, you will be sweating (I certainly was!)
In the busy summer months, expect to queue for ‘the photo’ at the lookout point- nope, I’m not joking. Equally, be sure to get to the parking lot either early in the morning or early evening to get a spot as this too can get very busy. Since Roy’s Peak is considered one of the best hikes in the Queenstown area, people often travel from Queenstown on a day trip just to tackle this trail!
A good tip to beat the crowds is to continue on from the lookout point another 30 minutes uphill for an equally awesome view from the summit.
If you plan to hike Roy’s Peak in the winter months be sure to bring crampons and even an ice ax. Also worth noting is that this hike is closed every year from October 1st – November 10th for lambing season.
Roy’s Peak Track starts from the car park on Mount Aspiring Road, under a 5-minute drive from Wanaka town center.
2. Swim at the beach
There’s nothing more refreshing than taking a dip in Lake Wanaka, especially on a hot summer’s day. With average water temperatures of 12.7°C (55°F,) it sure feels cold, so if you’re planning on going for a longer swim a wetsuit is definitely recommended. I’ve been told by the locals to never use the dreaded ‘cold’ word when swimming here. You’ve been warned.
Why not swim out to the pontoon, a short swim from the shore and join the locals in taking the plunge.
Some other great swimming spots along the lake include Glendhu Bay – a 10-minute drive from Wanaka, or slightly further afield to Lake Hawea, a 15-minute drive away (more on that further on in this blog.)
In my opinion, no matter the weather – a swim in Lake Wanaka is good for the soul.
3. Visit the Wanaka Tree
Easily the most famous tree in New Zealand, if not, the Southern Hemisphere. The Wanaka Tree tells a story of resilience, it has stood the test of time despite flooding and storms in the area. The ‘Tree’ as it is known locally, is extremely photogenic – with the Southern Alps standing proudly in the background.
Aim to get to the Tree for sunrise or sunset for the best photo opp. The Wanaka Tree is a short walk from the town center, it is located along the Lakefront at Roy’s Bay – look for the crowds gathered at the far end of the lake and you’ve found it.
This tree even has its own hashtag #thatwanakatree.
4. Drive the Crown Range
Surely one of the most scenic drives in the world, the Crown Range is stunning and located just outside of Wanaka. This road is iconic and connects Queenstown with Wanaka.
Drivers beware, this road is full of narrow twists and turns so it’s best to be an experienced driver. In the winter months, be sure to check out the road conditions before departing, and always carry snow chains from May through to September as a precaution.
Did you know that the Crown Range is actually the highest main road in all of New Zealand?! This makes the views from the road amazing!
One of the best viewpoints on the Crown Range is a little after you turn off the main road from Queenstown. You will notice the road zig-zag uphill, and halfway up this hill, you will find an awesome lookout point over Arrowtown and The Remarkables. Continue along the road a few minutes and stop next at the summit. If you fancy it – leave your car in the car park here and walk the narrow track for another impressive view of Frankton.
A little over halfway on the Crown Range is the world-famous Cardrona Hotel and Cardrona Bras, well-worth a stop (more on those below).
Related read: Another scenic drive nearby is Glenorchy-Queenstown Road! There are tons of amazing stops on the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy which makes for a fun little road trip!
5.Visit the Cardrona Bras
Yup, you heard that correctly – the Cardrona Bras is a very popular stop off along the Crown Range, about half-way between Queenstown and Wanaka. Basically, what you’ll find is a fence covered in thousands of bras, it’s an odd but interesting free attraction! The bras are located a short drive from the Cardrona Hotel, next to the Cardrona Distillery.
The story as to why the bras first appeared here is unknown, but the first few bras were placed here at the end of 1998, and Cardrona’s bra population has grown steadily since to the thousands there today.
Fun fact – this fence was renamed ‘Bradrona’ in 2005 after a donation box left at the site raised over $30,000 for Breast Cancer Awareness! The donation box is still there today and if you some change to spare, be sure to leave it.
6. Drink at the historic Cardrona Hotel
The Cardrona Hotel is the most photographed pub in New Zealand and the oldest. The Cardrona Hotel was established in 1863 and is a must-stop on the Crown Range route connecting Queenstown to Wanaka.
Be sure to get a photo out front, stand at the entrance to the parking lot with the hotel in the background for the best photo. Even if you don’t have time to grab some food from their yummy menu, be sure to stop in for a quick coffee as it’s well worth a look around.
The inside of the Cardrona Hotel is cozy and well-spaced out, but, wait until you see their beer garden – easily one of the best in New Zealand! From their award-winning food menu, I recommend the Brisket Beef Burger or the Cardrona Ale Battered Blue Cod.
There are also a selection of boutique rooms on site if you fancy spending the night.
7. Walk the Blue Pools Track
The Blue Pools Track is an easy hour walk from the parking lot, through native forest, and along two swing bridges. The second swing bridge offers the best vantage point to admire the Gatorade blue waters of the Blue Pools.
But beware of the sandflies here. Within the short two hours I was here I received bites all over my legs and arms (bad idea wearing shorts and a tee on my part). Make sure you spray insect repellent before walking to the pools.
If you’re feeling brave, why not take a dip in the bright blue waters here, it is sure to have you feeling refreshed! For the more adventurous among you, you may chance jumping from the second swing bridge into the freezing water below, but take extreme caution if you do.
To get to the Blue Pools follow the SH6 North towards Makarora. After Makarora, continue for about 12km until you see signs for the Blue Pools. This road goes all the way to Franz Josef and there are lots of other epic stops on this road trip. If there are no parking spaces available in the parking lot at the Blue Pools you can park along the side of the road (just do so carefully!)
8. Check out Thunder Creek Falls
Standing tall at just over 96 feet (28 meters) and with the very blue Haast River running into it, Thunder Creek Falls is one of New Zealand’s must-visit waterfalls. It is easily accessible from the parking lot – at a short 10 minute walk in and out.
The viewpoint of the falls is located at the end of the track and there’s a few steps down to the river if you fancy a closer look.
Thunder Creek Falls is a 90 minute drive from Wanaka, along the Haast Pass. It is a popular stop-off on any road trip from Wanaka to Franz Josef.
9. Go mountain biking
Whether you’re a beginner or an expert mountain biker, in Wanaka there’s a heap of trails to get those legs working.
I brought my bikes with me from my home in Queenstown and tackled Dean’s Bank a few times. Deans Bank is an 11km loop track beginning at the Albert Town Campground, it took me about an hour to complete. The track has lots of beams and tight corners, so I recommend it for intermediate or advanced bikers. Most of the track has lovely views of the Southern Alps and Clutha River.
Some other popular mountain biking trails in Wanaka including Minaret Burn and Lindis Peak among others. If you fancy stopping off for a swim on your bike ride then Minaret Burn is for you – this track is home to lots of beautiful beaches along the western shore of Lake Wanaka. A popular route on this track is to go as far as Colquhons Beach, this took me about 2.5 hours. To access the start of Minaret Burn, head to West Wanaka Road.
Do the Lindis Peak Track for the views, the scenery from the top of the 1,226-metre summit is truly gorgeous. Spot St Bathans Range and Mount Aspiring from the summit. This track is nearly all uphill, so you’re legs will certainly be sore the next day. The track took me 3 hours to complete. You can access the trail by following the signposts from the start of Old Faithful Road.
Related read: If you like mountain biking and you’re heading to Queenstown, be sure to check out some of the best bike trails in the Queenstown area!
10. Play disc golf
A popular sport in New Zealand – disc golf, is a flying disc sport in which players throw a disc (frisbee) at a target. It is usually played on a course with 9 or 18 holes, similar to golf. Disc golf is extremely popular in both Wanaka and neighboring Queenstown. In fact, the disc golf course there is one of the best free things to do in Queenstown.
There are two disc golf courses in Wanaka – Lismore Park and Eely Point. Lismore Park is 18 baskets and has lovely views of Roy’s Peak, Mount Aspiring, and the lake. It is a short 5-minute walk from the town center, accessible from Lismore Street.
Eely Point is just a few minutes’ drive away from Lismore Park. This is a wooded course, meaning it’s more difficult than the open fields of Lismore. Eely is all about accuracy so, if you’re just starting out perhaps try Lismore first. If you’ve played disc golf at the popular Queenstown Garden course, Eely Point is very similar to this.
You can rent your discs at a few retailers in Wanaka – Outside Sports on Dunmore St and Racers Edge on Ardmore St to name a couple.
11. Wander the Wanaka Artisan Market
Held every Thursday from 12 – 4 pm, the Wanaka Artisan Market runs year-round although the location changes depending on the season. In summer you will find the Wanaka Artisan Market along the Lakefront (next to the children’s playground there). In winter, the market is held between the Wanaka Speights Ale House and Bullock Creek.
You will find the best of Wanaka here from yummy pastries to unique handmade gifts. The market is also a great spot to mingle with the locals.
12. Diamond Lake Walk
Truly a diamond of a lake (excuse the pun,) but seriously, Diamond Lake is stunning! Depending on how long you want to walk, there are a variety of walks you can undertake here. The shortest being the Diamond Lake Circuit track at 45 minutes in total to the 3 hour Rocky Mountain Summit Track. The other two walking tracks include Lake Wanaka Lookout and Diamond Lake Lookout.
My personal favorite (for the views alone) is The Lake Wanaka lookout track. This track is sometimes steep and can be very slippery even during the summer months. It’s worth it for the views of Lake Wanaka though. It is not recommended to walk this track during the winter months because it gets very ice on the trail.
Diamond Lake is about an 18km drive west of Wanaka on Wanaka-Mount Aspiring Road.
Cheap Things to do in Wanaka
13. Visit the Wanaka Lavender Farm
The lavender is in full bloom at Wanaka Lavender Farm during the summer months. From late October, you can see the beginning of the lavender starting to bloom. And most of the fields here will continue to be in bloom until March.
Set on 20 acres about a 6-minute drive from Wanaka, Wanaka Lavender Farm was set up by brothers Stef and Tim Zeestraten. There’s even an animal experience here, perfect to occupy the kids. The animal experience costs from $2 per child over 5 and $5 per adult during the winter months and in the summer, the price changes to $5 per child and $10 per adult. Children under 5 are free.
For those with a sweet tooth, the lavender ice cream is to-die-for! You can also purchase Lakes Honey and lots of other Lavender products on site too.
Wanaka Lavender Farm is open from September – May from 9 am – 5 pm, 7 Days a week (closed Christmas Day). From June – August, they’re open 10 am – 5 pm, Wednesday – Sunday.
Related read: The Wanaka Lavender Farm is the first stop I recommend on the scenic drive from Wanaka to Mount Cook as well as the drive to Christchurch from Queenstown or Wanaka. Read my blog to find out other stops along this popular route.
14. Test your skills at Puzzling World
For little kids and big kids alike, Puzzling World is known as Wanaka’s own little world of weirdness. With a mix of bizarre buildings, illusion rooms, and the very hard-to-get-out-of Great Maze (trust me on this), Puzzling World is the perfect place to spend a rainy day in Wanaka. And I will admit, this is one of my favorite cheap things to do in Wanaka.
40 years in business, with the much-photographed Leaning & Tumbling Towers standing proudly out front, Puzzling World is home to the world’s first 3D maze!
The surprisingly difficult Great Maze is 1.5km of passages and should take you 30 minutes to an hour to complete. The Ames Room is a mind-bender, on one side of the room you appear tall, but, when you move to the other side of the room you appear teeny-tiny. This is known as forced-perspective and this technique was used in the Lord of the Rings movies.
The Tilted House is another favorite room of mine at Puzzling World. And before you leave, be certain to visit the Roman-Style Public Toilets.
Puzzling World is open every day from 9 am to 4:30 pm (open until 5:30 from December 26 – January 31 & closed on Christmas Day.) Expect to pay $25 NZD for the Adult Combo Deal (Great Maze & all Illusion Rooms) and $18 for the same for children over aged 5. Note that children under 5 are free.
Related read: If you’re looking for more family-friendly activities and you’re heading to Queenstown, check out our blog about the best things to do in Queenstown with kids!
15. Drink local craft beer at Rhyme and Reason Brewery
Opening their doors in June of 2017, Rhyme and Reason is the brainchild of beer-lovers Jess Wolfgang and Simon Ross. They offer ten taps of their own beers, and sometimes a guest beer may appear behind the bar. If you’re not a beer fan they also have a wine list as well as some snacks on offer.
Happy Hour is from 4-6 pm daily with $1 off all beers. Rhyme and Reason sometimes host local food trucks and perhaps best of all, it’s dog-friendly! Their beer garden is pretty awesome too and you can even book a brewery tour in advance if you want!
Rhyme and Reason Brewery is conveniently located at 17 Gordon Road in Wanaka. Of course, there are a few other breweries in Wanaka to check out too, and having a pint makes for a cheap activity (as long as you limit yourself to just one or two!)
Fun Fact: Wanaka has the most breweries per capita of anywhere in New Zealand. Besides Rhyme and Reason, you can check out Ground Up Brewing, b.effect Brewing, and Wanaka Beerworks. Also, there are some great breweries in Queenstown if you’re headed that way – find out where you can drink craft beer in Queenstown!
16. Drink coffee at a local café
There’s not much New Zealand does better than a good coffee, in fact, the flat white (my favorite) was invented in Wellington. I mean, you can even grab an excellent barista-made coffee in most gas stations across New Zealand. Kiwi’s are indeed very fussy about their coffee.
In saying that, Wanaka is no stranger to excellent coffee. My favorite cafes are The Coffee Shack on Brownston Street, Ritual Espresso on Helwick Street, and Soul Food on Ardmore Street.
The Coffee Shack’s focus is on the various different roasts and brews all prepared expertly by their friendly staff. I seem to visit Ritual Espresso most frequently whilst in Wanaka – it has a lovely outdoor seating area, perfect for people-watching. And lastly, Soul Food focuses on organic food and snacks, and plunger coffee is their strong point.
17. Tour a local winery
Rippon is a winery near Wanaka that has a stunning vantage point to enjoy the views with a glass of their famed Pinot Noir. Personally, I love their Gewurztraminer.
Rippon has been in the same family for generations and was originally a simple farm. But in 1975, Rolfe Mills began experimenting with vines and together with his wife Lois, has grown Rippon to the wonderfully successful winery it is today.
Tastings at the winery remain complementary and are limited to 4 guests per tasting. At the tasting, you will hear the history of Rippon and their commitment to biodynamic wine growing and sample 4-6 of their wines. You must book your visit on their website in advance.
Rippon is located at 246 Wanaka-Mt Aspiring Rd and is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm (by appointment only.)
18. Go paddleboarding or kayaking
Go paddleboarding or kayaking with an incredible view on Lake Wanaka. These can be hired at the lakefront and cater to all ages and experience levels. It’s a great experience for the whole family. Within an hour you can venture as far as Eely Point or Waterfall Creek.
I loved visiting Ruby Island on my most recent kayaking excursion. If you also want to go there, allow 2 hours and be sure to bring a picnic or some snacks to enjoy on the island too!
Kayak and paddleboard rentals start at $20 NZD per hour. Alternatively, you can always book a half or full-day guided tour.
19. Explore the National Transport and Toy Museum
The National Transport and toy Museum in Wanaka boasts one of the biggest collections of aircraft, vehicles, and toys in the world. 50 years’ worth of collecting means the National Transport and Toy Museum is home to over 600 vehicles, 20 civilian and military aircraft, and a whopping 60,000 toys!
Gerald Rhodes is the proud owner of this very impressive personal collection. He passed away in 2015, but his family continues to run the museum in his memory. Almost all of the toys here were purchased in New Zealand.
A little known fact is that Gerald Rhodes lived in Christchurch but specifically chose Wanaka as the home for his impressive collection due to the favorable weather there. Low humidity and no sea salt air means his machinery is kept in mint condition in Wanaka.
You can find this impressive museum at 891 Wanaka – Luggate Highway (next to the airport.) It’s open from 8:30 – 5 pm daily (closed Christmas Day). Adult tickets are priced at $18 NZD, Seniors at $16, Children 5+ $5, and under 5’s are free.
20. Day Trip to Lake Hawea
Lake Hawea is New Zealand’s ninth largest lake popular for both fishing and swimming amongst locals. It is only a short 15-minute drive from Wanaka town center.
From the residential area here, you can walk along Timaru River Road to Timaru Creek. Pack a picnic or some beers and enjoy at the picnic area at the end of the trail.
If you want to swim in Lake Hawea, I recommend doing so from The Camp (formerly Lake Hawea Holiday Park). And if you’ve forgotten to bring a picnic, why not sample the yummy food at The Camp Food Truck ( open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for breakfast, lunch and dinner).
For the fisherman (or woman) Lake Hawea is an ideal fishing spot with both salmon and trout to be caught. You can rent a fishing rod from The Camp (note – you will need to pay for a fishing license). The guys at The Camp can give you all the insider info on where to fish, and if you require a fishing guide, you can hire one here too.
21. Try archery at Crossfire Wanaka
Have you ever tried archery before? Neither had I before visiting Crossfire Wanaka. Here, you can attempt to hit the bullseye using a traditional bow and arrow. The staff will show you exactly what to do before you get started and help you choose the right bow for you.
Having a go at archery is one of the best cheap things to do in Wanaka as it costs less than $25 NZD per adult. But because of this, Crossfire Wanaka is often busy and they only have limited lanes for archery. Be sure to book your spot in advance to avoid missing out!
Crossfire Wanaka is located near the airport about an 8-minute drive from town center.
22. Day trip to Queenstown
If you’re visiting Wanaka and not taking the time to spend at least a couple of nights in Queenstown, then it’s worth it to visit on a day trip. Sure, Queenstown might be overly touristic, somewhat expensive, and a busy little town, but there are actually lots of free things to do in Queenstown too! Some of the best hikes on New Zealand’s South Island are located in Queenstown including Ben Lomond Track, Queenstown Hill, and Lake Hayes Track.
But besides hiking, the drive from Wanaka to Queenstown and back again is a fun road trip in itself. You can stop and try wines in the Gibbston Valley if you take Highway 6, or if you drive the Crown Range, be sure to enjoy the views and visit the Cardrona Hotel (mentioned above.) Then in Queenstown you can enjoy some cheap activities too!
Related read: Heading to Glenorchy? Check out all of the free things you can do in Glenorchy!
Where to Stay in Wanaka
There are tons of places to stay in Wanaka. Seriously, you’ll have so many options that it can be overwhelming. Luckily, I’ve stayed in Wanaka countless times and can recommend the below accommodation options:
Hawea Hotel – This is the perfect budget option for anybody looking to save a few dollars. Although really comfortable, clean, and offering incredible views, Hawea Hotel is super affordable with budget dorms rooms as well as double rooms and family rooms. It is likely the best value for money hotel in Wanaka!
Manuka Crescent Motel – When I travel, I often like to stay in apartment-style hotels so that I can cook my own meals. Manuka Crescent Motel offers studio apartments, one-bedroom apartments, as well as two-bedroom apartments for really reasonable prices. These are great for families or people traveling in groups (I stayed here last time I traveled with friends.) The motel is located a only short drive from town in a peaceful area.
Ramada Resort by Wyndham – If you’re visiting Wanaka to relax and spoil yourself, then there’s no question that you should stay at the Ramada Resort! This hotel is located right in town only minutes from Lake Wanaka and features an outdoor heat pool, waterslide, hot tub, sauna, and an onsite bar and restaurant! All rooms come with a kitchenette or full kitchen, and many offer lake views!
You can also choose from a huge selection of Airbnbs and bach holiday home rentals in Wanaka. These are typically better for groups or a family traveling together. Or, simply anybody who wants to have their own kitchen!
For more detailed information, check out my blog all about where to stay in Wanaka! It includes different areas to stay and the best hotels for all budgets!
Related read: Looking for more ideas? Check out my massive blog about the 31 best things to do in Wanaka!
Thanks for reading!
I hope this blog has shown you that you can actually enjoy Wanaka without breaking the bank! With so many free and cheap things to do in Wanaka, I’m sure you’ll be able to keep busy and not spend much either!