Without a doubt, Wanaka is my favourite place in New Zealand. I love the relaxed, calm vibe that welcomes you – as soon as you arrive you can’t help but feel at ease, as though you’ve stepped through the pages of a book into a beautiful, magical place. The locals of Wanaka are a big part of what makes it so special, most have moved there because they too fell in love with the place, which means you’re constantly surrounded by people who truly appreciate how special it is. If you’re thinking of visiting Wanaka and need some insight on, well, everything, here’s my ultimate guide to everything you need to know about visiting Wanaka…
Watch our Skiing the South Island video!
Must-know tips for visiting New Zealand
If this is your first time visiting New Zealand, there are a couple of things you need to know before you set off:
- Unlike Australia, you won’t find a never-ending roster of deadly predators lurking around the place. NZ is free from snakes, sharks, spiders and all those other deadly creatures that call Australia home
- Kiwis love their burgers! You’ll find plenty of great burger shops dotted all over the South Island, including Devil Burger, Red Star, Burger Fuel and the eternally famous Fergburger. Be sure to try as many burgers as possible – it’s kind of your duty, right?!
- You can buy alcohol at supermarkets in New Zealand but will need your passport with you as ID (a driver’s license won’t cut it)
- The border control/customs team in New Zealand are super strict so be sure to clean any dirt off your shoes and don’t try to bring in any wooden or food items
- Kiwis are environmentally conscious, so keep your eye out for recycling bins and sustainable practices implemented around the place
- When driving from place to place make sure you factor in extra time to stop and photograph because you’ll likely spot some gorgeous spots along the way
- Read my full guide on ‘Things to know before you visit New Zealand‘ here
How to get to Wanaka
Each time we’ve visited Wanaka we’ve found it most affordable for us to fly into Christchurch, hire a car and road trip down. The drive is pretty easy, taking a little over 5 hours to do. If your flight arrives in the morning it’s definitely possible to do the whole drive in one day, breaking it up with rest stops as you go. That said, there’s no need for you to rush things and do it all at once if you don’t want to. We broke our drive up by spending two nights at Lake Tekapo, which was lovely! If you find yourself flying into Queenstown, the drive to Wanaka is really quick, only taking an hour to get there – just be sure to schedule in a little time to stop in at the Cardrona Hotel for a Cardrona Ale and, if you’re hungry, lunch. If you’re visiting in winter, make sure you check the road closures, carry snow chains if needed and watch a video on how to fit snow chains.
Best time to visit Wanaka
I gotta say, you can’t really go wrong when it comes to Wanaka. The area comes alive with wildflowers and long summer days during the warmer months when you can swim in the picture-perfect lake and mingle with holiday-making locals. In winter, the snow-capped mountains provide the perfect backdrop for this winter wonderland, with Wanaka offering a wealth of snow activities for visitors to take part it. Wanaka is one of those rare destinations that is fantastic to visit all year round, the only thing you’ll need to ask yourself is whether you want to go for snow or the sun? One thing I would say is just to keep an eye on school holiday dates as visiting during these times can make it harder to find accommodation, push rates up during those peak demand times and make things a little busier. If you’re keen for a more quiet holiday, try planning your trip around school holiday dates.
Where to stay in Wanaka
We stayed at The Moorings on our most recent visit to Wanaka and absolutely, freakin loved it! Located right on the Lake, we were treated to million-dollar views out our window which made us feel like we were making the most of every moment, even if we were inside relaxing. I loved the location of The Moorings, situated on a part of the Lake I hadn’t stayed at before. The central location made it very easy for us to set out on foot, visit the supermarket and local restaurants, wander along the shore in the afternoon and explore the local area.
Our studio apartment was the perfect size for the two of us and, travelling as a small group, we got a second studio apartment too. Having the two apartment next to each other gave us enough space to spread out and not feel too on top of each other but kept us close enough that we could get organised easily, eat together and still spend time hanging out without overdoing it.
The room included a great-size kitchenette which, while compact, including everything we needed to whip up our breakfast each morning and, have a bite to eat in the evening, once or twice. I especially loved the coffee plunger, which meant I didn’t have to settle for a really crappy coffee – I could get stuck into a proper coffee while eating my eggs. The bathroom was a great size too with under-floor heating to keep your feet nice and warm during winter. The room itself was nice and spacious, especially considering The Moorings offer it as a studio – it was much more spacious and homely than I thought it would be. The bed was lovely and comfortable, with a separate area for lounging and watching movies as well as a desk and chair for catching up on work. The Moorings was the perfect base for us, it offered incredibly comfortable accommodations that included everything we needed for our stay and I would most definitely look to stay here again!
Most importantly – the owners are absolutely lovely and made us feel so welcome! Any question we had they were more than happy to help us with and they were even so kind as to give the three of us a lift up to the local brewery so we could all have a few drinks without worrying about being over the limit. Also, you guys, they have an adorable dog named Kiera who loves to go for walks with guests – what more could you possibly ask for?!
Best things to see and do in Wanaka
Need some inspiration on what to see and do in Wanaka? Here are a few tips…
- We visited as part of a ski holiday to New Zealand’s South Island and had the BEST time! I cannot recommend visiting the two fields closest to Wanaka quite highly enough, those are Cardrona and Treble Cone (you can read more about them in my massive guide to skiing New Zealand’s South Island)
- Take a ride in a vintage tiger moth with Classic Flights
- Or climb aboard a helicopter, take a scenic flight and land atop a glacier with Aspiring Helicopters
- Have an Instagram moment at That Wanaka Tree
- Go cross-country skiing at NZ Snow Farm
- Make the hike up to Roys Peak and capture your very own Instagram-worthy snaps
- Join a guided winery tour (takes the guesswork out of staying under the legal limit!)
- See a movie at Cinema Paradiso where you curl up on couches and stop for intermission (and freshly baked cookies!)
- Read all of my 31 of the BEST things to in Wanaka here….
Where to eat and must-try food
I love food. Like, really really love food! Based on that information, here are my picks on where to find great food in Wanaka…
- I cannot recommend a visit to Rhyme and Reason quite highly enough, this great local brewery offers a truly unique tour as well as the chance to sample really, really good beers. Best of all, you can BYO food or call and order in to the brewery… it’s pretty much the best place on earth.
- Be sure to eat at Red Star at least once, their burgers are divine
- Grab breakfast at Relishes Cafe where the coffee is amazing and the food delish!
- Go for lunch and cold beers at the Cardrona Hotel
- Settle in for an Italian feast at Francesca’s Kitchen
- Get stuck into a great pizza at The Cow
- Take yourself on a DIY food tour of the town’s local food trucks
What to pack for a trip to New Zealand
Packing can be tough and New Zealand is no exception, here are my tips on a few things you definitely need to pack:
- If you’re visiting in winter you’ll definitely need weatherproof gear that keeps the wet and wind out – I’d recommend two snow-friendly jackets, thermal underwear, plenty of warm clothing you can layer, beanies, gloves, neck warmers and lovely thick socks
- If you’re visiting in the warmer months you’ll be looking to pack comfortable, cool clothing but still including a few layering options just in case you catch a chilly afternoon or evening
- Be sure to pack waterproof shoes, hiking shoes and make sure they’re comfortable
- You’ll definitely need sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat to protect you from sunburn (even if you’re visiting in winter!)
- I tend to find my skin dries out in New Zealand so be sure to pack lots of moisturiser, lip balm and any other particularly nourishing products you might have
- Read my full ‘What to pack for a trip to New Zealand‘ guide here
Watch our video from our visit to Lake Tekapo
Phoebe is a travel writer and photographer with a love for storytelling and making people laugh. Matt is a videographer and photographer with a passion for the great outdoors and big adventures. Together we inspire big adventures through our guides, videos, vlogs and photographs. Find out more about us here.