Queenstown is known to be an expensive place to travel. To some extent this is true, and since moving to Queenstown, I know that all too well.
However, what many people don’t realize is there are a ton of awesome free things to do in Queenstown too. In fact, I’d say many of the best things to do in Queenstown are actually free activities.
That’s right, despite what you may have heard or thought, the best things in life are free (sorry, I had to say it) and in Queenstown, that’s no different. And if you don’t believe me? Well, just continue reading as I tell you about 17 completely free things to do in Queenstown that should be on your bucket list!
Free Things to do in Queenstown
1. Hike Ben Lomond Track
I had to start this list with arguably the best hike in Queenstown. Ben Lomond Track is one of Queenstown’s hardest day hikes but the views both at the summit and along the way, are out of this world, seriously! Along the way, you’ll pass through pine forest, beautiful tussock grass, and panoramic views if you choose to summit New Zealand’s alpine terrain.
To hike the entire Ben Lomond Track you’ll need a full day as this trail takes between 6 to 8 hours (it takes me 8!) At 14 kilometers (9 miles) long with an elevation gain of over 1,400 meters (4,593 feet), it’s no walk in the park. The most common place to start the trail is at the Queenstown Gondola where you can either take the gondola up to the trailhead or walk up the Tiki Trail (more on that below.) I personally like to hike the entire way, but if you think it’s too far, taking the gondola is a great shortcut.
All this can sound confusing so if you want more info check out my guide to hiking Ben Lomond Track. It’s got all the info you need!
2. Drive the scenic road from Queenstown to Glenorchy
Few free activities in Queenstown are as enjoyable as driving the scenic Glenorchy-Queenstown Road to Glenorchy. The 46-kilometer (28.5 miles) journey is all about amazing views, hiking trails, and just feeling free on the windy highway.
Before setting off, be sure to read up on the best places to stop between Queenstown and Glenorchy, that way you won’t miss a thing. For this activity, you’ll need at least half of a day when you combine it with a visit to Glenorchy, but it’s easily one of the best free things to do in Queenstown.
Of course, for this activity, you will need a car so if you don’t have one it won’t be entirely free as you’ll need to rent a car in Queenstown. With that said, most people come to Queenstown with a plan to rent a car or already have their campervan rental.
3. Explore Glenorchy
After enjoying that scenic drive you’ll arrive in one of the smallest, but most beautiful, towns in New Zealand. Glenorchy is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand and everyone who comes to Queenstown needs to check it out. There are a ton of things to do in Glenorchy including skydiving, jetboating, horse riding, and even a farm experience.
Those activities all cost money, but luckily, I have a guide to the best free things to do in Glenorchy that includes the best hikes in Glenorchy like Glenorchy Walkway and day hikes on the Routeburn Track as well as activities such as visiting the Glenorchy Jetty. That’s one thing I also love about Glenorchy, I almost never spend a dime – except at Mrs Wooleys General Store on those delicious pies!
Regardless of what you do in Glenorchy, just exploring the town is well worth the scenic drive to get there!
4. Walk around Lake Hayes
Queenstown is located in the Lakes District so it’s no wonder so many of the best free things to do involve visiting lakes. One of my favorites, especially in fall, is Lake Hayes. Although not the greatest lake for swimming, the Lake Hayes Loop Track follows the perimeter of the lake and is one of the best easy hikes in Queenstown.
The trail is almost completely flat (I was going to say completely flat but I might get a couple of angry messages later) and is 8 kilometers (5 miles) long in total. It takes just over 2 hours to walk the entire trail and along the way the views are gorgeous. If you get a calm day, you’ll enjoy mirror-like reflections, and if you’re visiting in fall, the colors are amazing!
5. Enjoy the sunrise from Queenstown Hill
Queenstown Hill Track is likely the most hiked trail in Queenstown. For one, it’s rather short at only 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) return and two, it starts from right in town on Belfast terrace. Despite this, the trail still isn’t as easy as you think. If you walk from town, it’s a 600-meter (1,969 feet) gain in elevation. However, if you have a car then you can shorten that a lot by driving up to the trailhead.
Once on the trail, the views are pretty average until you reach the Basket of Dreams sculpture. But once at the sculpture, the views over Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown are unreal! You can even continue on further to the Queenstown Hill summit. From the summit, you can see The Remarkables sitting over Frankton and even the Crown Range Road towards Wanaka.
My favorite time to hike Queenstown Hill Track is at sunrise, not only is the trail almost empty, but golden hour provides the most beautiful light!
Related Read: Heading to Wanaka? Find out about all of the best things to do in Wanaka!
6. Wander the Queenstown Gardens
Only a short walk from Queenstown’s downtown area is the Queenstown Gardens. These beautifully manicured gardens are completely free to visit and within them, you can walk a few different footpaths to ponds, flower gardens, and of course the edge of Lake Wakatipu. I love coming down with a packed lunch and enjoying a picnic by the lake.
Another cool attraction in the Queenstown Gardens is the frisbee golf under the huge pine trees. It costs absolutely nothing to play, but if you don’t have your own frisbee you’ll need to rent one from the Queenstown Ice Arena for $5 NZD. Still, for $5 it’s a great way to spend a few hours and frisbee golf is actually so much fun!
7. Visit Arrowtown
Arrowtown is a small gold mining town located only 20 minutes from Queenstown. Although gold mining has finished in the area, the town has kept the old architecture and today it’s as cute as ever. There are a few cool things to do in Arrowtown including Big Hill Track. This half-day trail is one of the best in the area and is completely free to do.
Other than that, I just love wandering the main street, checking out the many boutique shops, and heading to Slow Cuts to try some local craft beer! Be sure to head down to the river that runs through the town and take a stroll, it’s wonderful, and in fall, Arrowtown is the most beautiful place in New Zealand.
You can reach Arrowtown by public bus if you don’t have a car. To do so, simply head to the Stanley Street Bus Hub B and catch bus 2 towards Arrowtown. The bus takes around 30 minutes to reach Arrowtown from Queenstown and after you can catch the same bus back.
8. Take a trip to Moke Lake
The most peaceful place to visit only a short drive from Queenstown is Moke Lake. Despite the many things to do at Moke Lake it’s never overly busy, and at sunset, it’s dead quiet. On calm days the reflections on the lake of the surrounding mountains will take your breath away. I often come here to escape the craziness and sometimes even spend the night at the campsite under the stars.
If you’re feeling more adventurous then consider going on a hike. The Moke Lake Viewpoint is my favorite hike. Although not an official trail, locals love heading up to the viewpoint to watch the sunset or even photograph the stars.
For an easier trail, hike the Moke Lake Loop. The 6-kilometer (3.7 miles) hike is almost completely flat and only takes two hours. The best part about Moke Lake is that everything to do there is completely free! For more info and things to do, check out my guide to visiting Moke Lake!
9. Taste fudge at The Remarkables Sweet Shop
Hungry? But don’t want to spend a dime? Head to The Remarkables Sweet Shop to try some free fudge! That’s right, this small sweet shop offers free tastings to visitors without the pressure to buy anything. Of course, I never leave without buying something, but if you just want to try some then go for it, the fudge is delicious.
The Remarkables Sweet Shop is located on Beach Street in Queenstown town center but there’s also one in Arrowtown and Frankton! This is one of the best indoor activities in Queenstown!
10. Watch the sunset over Lake Wakatipu
The sunsets in Queenstown are beautiful! I’m a sucker for heading down to the lake to catch the last few hours of the day with a drink in hand. My favorite place to go is along the edge of the lake near Queenstown Beach or along the foreshore of St Omar Park.
The best part is you can actually legally drink at St Omar Park and Queenstown Beach. I know, crazy right! Just be sure to stop after 10 pm and don’t start before 11 am as outside those times it’s illegal. And remember to have fun but be responsible, there have been lots of talks on banning alcohol.
If you want an even better place to go, then head up to Lake Wakatipu Lookout. At the lookout, you get even better views and you can sometimes spot the TSS Earnslaw cruise in Queenstown sailing home. From Queenstown, you can either drive up to the viewpoint or walk.
11. Browse the Saturday Markets
Every Saturday in Queenstown, rain, hail, or shine, the Queenstown Craft Markets come to life. There, you’ll find lots of hard-working small businesses trying to get their unique products out to the public and vendors come from all over Otago to be there. This is the place to pick up the perfect souvenir or gift for friends and family back home (you know, instead of those cheap gifts at those souvenir shops that all sell the same stuff!)
The markets run every Saturday in Earnslaw Park but their hours of operation do change depending on the season. From November to April they’re open from 9 am to 4:30 pm, and from May to October from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm.
12. Enjoy Queenstown’s shortest hike on Bob’s Cove Track
Arguable the shortest hike you can do in Queenstown is Bob’s Cove Track. The best part though? The views from Picnic Point on the trail are absolutely stunning. Just check out the photo above and tell me you aren’t already excited.
From the parking lot on Glenorchy-Queenstown Road, it only takes 30 minutes to hike the trail, however, you’ll want to allow more time to spend at the viewpoint. Since it’s a viewpoint trail it isn’t flat, but still rather easy and even kids can do it. Once done, you can even head down to the beach for a swim and sunbathe. It’s a beautiful beach that doesn’t attract large crowds.
To reach Bob’s Cove you will need a car as no buses go that far. Once again, if you don’t have one you will need to rent one in Queenstown. Although a little costly at first, it’ll save you money with all the free activities you can do in Queenstown.
13. Go stargazing
Because Queenstown is so remote, there is very little light pollution especially just outside of town. With the naked eye, you can see the stars and the Milky Way clear as day. And with a camera, you can capture amazing images.
My favorite place to go is on the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy. At a place called Bennetts Bluff Lookout, you can capture amazing pictures over the Humboldt Mountains. Just check out the photo above!
This is a completely free activity in Queenstown that’s actually best done in winter when the core of the Milky Way is visible. Also, during New Zealand’s winter, you can see the Southern Lights if you’re lucky. Of course, you have to be in the right place at the right time, but if you do get to see them, you’ll be blown away!
14. Hike up to Bob’s Peak via the Tiki Trail
The most iconic photo of Queenstown is taken from up at Bob’s Peak (where to gondola leads to.) I personally love the view and head up a lot to catch the sunrise, sunset, or just to admire the view with friends. Of course, I can’t be paying $46 NZD for the gondola every time. So instead, I hike the Tiki Trail to the top.
The Tiki Trail is only a short hike but it does climb 450 meters (1,476 feet) in elevation. It usually takes me 1.5 hours to hike up on a good day even though the trail is only 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) long – it’s actually that steep! However, once at the top, you’ll get to enjoy that iconic view completely free!
If you do have some money to spend, I recommend giving the Luge a go. The gravity-fed go-kart track is so much fun!
15. Visit Sunshine Bay for some sunshine
Queenstown Beach often gets extremely busy. For those looking for a free but relaxing activity, you may not want to head there. Instead, either drive or walk to Sunshine Bay.
Sunshine Bay is a small, local beach only a few kilometers from Queenstown. The beach rarely attracts a large crowd and it gets lots of sunshine. There are two ways to get to Sunshine Beach. The first is to drive to the parking lot at the beach. This is super convenient if you have a car.
Even if you don’t have wheels, you can still easily get there by hiking the Sunshine Bay Track. The trail is only 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) long and starts just past the traffic circle on the Esplanade towards Fernhill. Allow 30 minutes each way and once you get there you’ll be able to cool off in the lake!
16. Take a self-driven Lord of the Rings tour
There are a lot of Lord of the Rings film locations in and around Queenstown and even some from the Hobbit Movies. Unfortunately, they aren’t that easy to find, but with a little preparation, you can see a few of the most famous ones on your own.
Here are a few (some with pins to their locations) around Queenstown and Glenorchy:
Mine of Moria/ Dimrill Dale–Dimrill Dail where Aragon leads the Fellowship away from the Mine of Moria is actually located at Lake Alta. Below I talk about hiking the trail to this famous Lord of the Rings film location.
Ithilien Camp – Next is Ithilien Camp. This one is marked on google maps and there is a small fire pit where Frodo and Sam sat with Gollum and ate the rabbit.
River Anduin – Kawarau Gorge (near where the Kawarau Gorge Bungy is located) was used to film the scene where the Fellowship canoe up to The Pillars of the Kings. You won’t find The Pillars of the Kings here though so you’ll have to use your imagination.
Isengard – From the Isengard lookout in Glenorchy you can stare out, and with a lot of imagination, picture Isengard in the valley. It’s a hard one to see because of all the animation used in the movie.
Forest of Fangorn – While looking at Isengard, look to your right into the forest. Here sits the Forest of Fangorn!
These are just a few, and there are a lot of smaller scenes filmed in the area too. The best part is, you can do a self-driven tour by yourself completely free as opposed to booking a guided tour!
17. Hike Lake Alta Track
Lake Alta is an alpine lake located high up in The Remarkables Mountain Range. Although remote, it’s easy to get to! The Lake Alta Trail Trail is only 1.75 kilometers (1 mile) each way but after you’ll get to enjoy one of the least visited lakes in Queenstown.
From the parking lot of the ski field, the trail involves a short hike before a scramble up the hillside to Lake Alta. After, you can relax by the lake or continue hiking up to the saddle for an epic birds-eye view. This is one of the best hikes on NZ’s entire South Island!
This trail is short but steep and for some strange reason, not many people hike it. This surprises me, not only because it’s such a cool hike, but because it’s another Lord of the Rings film location. The scene where the fellowship escapes the Mines of Moria was filmed here!
Related Read: For more budget-saving activities in the area, check out my blog about the best free and cheap things to do in Wanaka (a cute town only an hour’s drive from Queenstown!) Otherwise, if you have a few dollars to spend, there are lots of cheap things to do in Queenstown too (less than $40 NZD!)
Must-Do Activities While in Queenstown
While in Queenstown there are plenty of other activities that will keep you busy… Honestly, there are so many it’ll be hard to choose which ones to do! Below are some of my favorites.
- Central Otago Wine Tour and Tasting – This is my personal favorite wine tour in Queenstown! It is one of the best values for money, for $215 NZD your tour bus will stop at 4 different boutique wineries in the Otago region that include a wide range of wine samples and a provided gourmet lunch platter. As you hop between wineries you’ll gaze out the window at spectacular views.
- TSS Earnslaw Steamship Cruise – This scenic and relaxing cruise in Queenstown is an activity great for any afternoon. The ship you will be cruising on is the Historic TSS Earnslaw and you will get to watch crew members add coal to the flames that power the vessel. Take in the mountain ranges and lush green valleys of Otago. You can also upgrade this tour here to include dinner at Walter Peak High Country Farm.
- Queenstown Canyoning Adventure – Climb and jump off waterfalls, rappel, swim, and trek your way down a part of a Queenstown canyon with a qualified guide. This thrilling full-day activity is perfect for those who love adventure and exploration! As long as you aren’t afraid of heights and have a basic swimming ability you won’t need any other skills.
- Day Trip to Milford Sound With Picnic Lunch – This tour will give you the ultimate ability to explore the beauty of Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. Not only will your guide stop at several impressive viewpoints on the way from Queenstown but there is also a cruise in Milford Sound included. This small-group tour goes for $249 NZD a person and I think it’s a really great value for a more personalized experience.
- Extreme Jet Boating – Looking for a thrill? Jet Boating is one of New Zealand’s most unique activities. On the tour out of Queenstown, you’ll be able to zoom up the Shotover River through narrow canyons at high speeds and make 360-degree spins. Trust, me it’s epic!
Where to Stay in Queenstown
Finding the right place to stay in Queenstown can be hard. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of awesome choices but things book up fast! For that reason, I highly suggest booking your accommodation well in advance. It’s not that you won’t find something later on, but that all the really good places go first!
To get you started, here are a few places I personally love and that would make an awesome place to stay in Queenstown.
The first is for budget travelers and that’s Absoloot Hostel Queenstown. This small hostel has dorm rooms and budget privates and it’s really clean and comfortable. The location is in the heart of Queenstown – the window from the kitchen looks out over Lake Wakatipu! It is easily one of the top cheap hostels in Queenstown and can be booked on Hostelworld.com or Booking.com.
If you have a little more money to spend then you should seriously consider Chalet Queenstown. I’m a supporter of smaller hotels because I feel you get better service. Based on recommendations, I stayed at Chalet Queenstown when I first arrived. It’s a beautiful hotel in a quiet but close location and the views are amazing (although you won’t find me recommending a place without great views!)
If you’re one of the lucky ones, you know the luxury travelers, then you’re going to be spoiled for choice in Queenstown. I’ve personally stayed at the Hilton Resort and Spa on my anniversary and loved it. If you want an even more luxurious stay, look at Kamana Lakehouse. This hotel has the most beautiful spa overlooking the lake and is definitely one of the best hotels in Queenstown.
There are also lots of amazing Airbnbs in Queenstown as well as bach/holiday homes to rent! You can choose between modern homes, central apartments, cozy cabins, and so much more when staying in an Airbnb.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (QUEEN5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually purchase it as soon as we land in the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
Queenstown can be a really cheap place to visit if you want it to be. The 17 free activities above are some of my favorites in Queenstown and should keep any visitor busy for a while. Of course, if you want more ideas, check out my huge guide to the best things to do in Queenstown. Not everything to do is free in it, but there’s a huge variety.
Thanks so much for reading! I really hope this blog has helped you plan your upcoming trip. If you loved it then be sure to browse around, this blog has lost more detailed guides on Queenstown and New Zealand. Below I’ve listed a few popular reads for you to check out.