Winter in Queenstown: Activites to Do and Things to Know

Winter in Queenstown: Activites to Do and Things to Know

If you’re spending a winter in New Zealand, chances are, one or 500 people have already told you to head to Queenstown and the Southern Lakes.

Located in the Otago region of the South Island, this area is incredibly popular during both summer and winter; but as much as I prefer summer in almost every place on earth, there’s something downright magical about Queenstown during the months of June, July, and August.

It’s difficult to explain properly, but there’s an atmopshere this time of year that just can’t be beat. I anticipated each winter in Queenstown with the same impatience and excitement with which I anticipated breaks from school as a kid. Somehow, it’s a place that manages to feel small, isolated, surprising, and ever-changing, all at once. And though I spent multiple years in QT, renting multiple houses and holding multiple jobs, it feels a bit misleading to say I “lived” there — because, by so many accounts, it isn’t what “real life” is meant to feel like.

So if you’re wondering whether you should do a summer or winter season in Queenstown, the answer is yes. Both. You should do both. But if you’re forced to pick just one (#firstworldproblems and all, but still: my condolences), then I would actually say winter. And trust me, I’m just as weirded out by that as you are.

Read on for my tips, suggestions, and ideas for what to do in Queenstown, New Zealand during the winter. TL;DR: Bring a hot water bottle. (You’ll see why soon enough.)

Snowy mountaintops in Queenstown, New Zealand | Photo by Max Lawton
Photo by Max Lawton

Some tips for spending the winter in Queenstown

Show up early if you want a job

Are you on a working-holiday visa and/or looking for work during QT ski season? Whether you want a job on the slopes or in a bar, get to town before things really kick into gear. The end of the autumn shoulder season (i.e., mid to late May) is often a great time to line something up, for obvious reasons: places are starting to take on extra staff for the high time, and you might be one of the first to apply.

Don’t get your hopes up about snow (at least, not too high)

I spent three winters in Queenstown and only saw snow on the ground (in town) a couple of times — and to be honest, it’s not always a whole lot better on the mountain.

Lots of people come to Queenstown to ski or board, but it’s not necessarily because of great powder or the challenging ski fields. (Or so I’ve heard. I spent the better part of my first only ski day just learning how to stand back up after wiping out, so I’m not exactly an authority.) The more advanced skiiers and boarders spend half the winter complaining that the Remarkables and Coronet Peak are “nothing like the Alps” — and yet, they continue to stick around.

That’s because people really come to Queenstown to ski and board for the atmosphere, the beauty, and the party. If you’re looking for a great mix of all of the above, you won’t be disappointed; but if you’re looking for a snowy wonderland or the best run of your life, you might be.

The TSS Earnslaw -- Queenstown's iconic old steamship -- anchored on the shore of Lake Wakatipu

Be prepared for an uneven ratio of men to women

I don’t know if there are official stats on this, but as a woman who spent three winters in Queenstown, you definitely start to feel like guys are everywhere this time of year — especially if you’re staying in a hostel, going to the ski fields, or regularly going out to the bars. Make of that what you will and proceed accordingly.

The heating (if you can call it that) sucks

This is where that hot water bottle comes in handy.

Look, I could talk for hours about heating in houses and apartments in Queenstown (I probably have, actually), but here’s the gist: it’s expensive, and it’s awful. The complete and absolute worst. The inside of your house will pretty much always feel colder than it does outside, a privilege for which you’ll pay a zillion dollars a month, and you’ll probably wake up every morning in the dark with icicles hanging from your nose and curse the day you ever decided to come to this godforsaken place.

In fact, this was a big reason I wound up spending my first nine months in QT in a hostel: actual heating was provided at no extra cost. Lots of people were aghast that I spent several months of my life shacked up in a dorm room with three other chicks, but guess what? I slept like a hibernating bear in my toasty warm bed, while those people had to crack ice off their socks every day. I’m just saying.

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Psst: You can find some more “year-round” Queenstown tips in this post.

Things to do in Queenstown during winter

Queenstown Winter Festival

Commonly referred to as “Winter Fest,” this festival comprises several days of wintry-themed activities and is typically held in late June. It’s one of the country’s biggest winter celebrations and has been taking place for over 40 years.

Highlights include the opening night (with live music, fireworks, and plenty of mulled wine), people dressing up in silly costumes and jumping into Lake Wakatipu, and dogs on skis — among other weird and wacky things.

Basically, Winter Fest is a great way to get yourself into the ” spirit” of QT’s winter season, and/or freeze your tail off. (Same difference, really.)

For more info and the entire program of events, see the official website here.

Skiing and snowboarding

Looking to hit the slopes? You’ve got a few different options.

The two main ski fields in Queenstown are located at the Remarkables (“the Remarks”) and Coronet Peak. You can buy lift passes and find the most up-to-date info on NZSki’s website here. Coronet Peak also offers night skiing on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can catch the bus from Queenstown’s center to the both peaks daily. The first bus departs at 8am and the last departs at 11:30am (to the Remarks) or 12:00pm (to Coronet). The return fare is $20. (These buses leave from a single location and operate on a first-come first-served basis; for a higher fare, there are other buses available, which will pick you up at/closer to your accommodation and let you reserve seats.)

There are also two other ski fields in Queenstown’s general vicinity: Cardrona Alpine Resort, and Treble Cone, near Wanaka.

Winter in Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand | Photo by Scott Greer
Photo by Scott Greer

Après-ski

While I strongly believe that Queenstown has something for almost everyone, it is definitely a party town. If you like to indulge in drinking and dancing, you’ll fit right in. And don’t worry: as someone who only went up the mountain a couple of times, I can confirm: the “ski” part of “après-ski” is totally optional.

There’s certainly no shortage of bars and pubs to choose from; QT actually has the highest amount of alcohol licenses per capita in New Zealand. (I’m not sure if that’s something to brag about, but: there it is.) To help narrow things down, check the Lakes Weekly Bulletin for a spread of “what’s on” in the current week — like live music, pub quizzes, drink and meal specials, and more.

Also, be aware: Queenstown’s bouncers have an almost legendary low tolerance for drunken behavior. It’s pretty easy to get kicked out of a bar, and pretty pointless to argue about it. At best, you’ll still have to leave; at worst, you’ll get yourself banned or blacklisted. Just go.

Things that will probably get you kicked out of bars in Queenstown include: shouting or throwing things at the bar staff; fighting with the staff or other patrons; falling asleep; appearing too drunk to stand or speak properly; and drinking directly from the water pitcher instead of pouring it into a glass. (That last one is totally hypothetical and totally didn’t happen to my roommate.)

Take a hike

So let’s say you’re not much for skiing or boarding, but you still want to get outside and be active. Considering how cold it probably is in your house, I can’t say I blame you. (I swear that’s the last time I’ll mention the heating. In this post.)

With average temperatures around 5 to 10 C (40 to 50 F) during the day, winter is a great time to hit the trails in and around Queenstown. Popular hikes include Queenstown Hill, Bob’s Peak (“the gondola”), and Ben Lomond — but there are plenty of other options, ranging from an hour or two to full-day walks. And pretty much any direction you go, you’ll find majestic mountains, grassy meadows, and sparkling lakes a-plenty.

Of course, mild or no, it’s still winter. Make sure to dress appropriately and be aware of impending weather conditions.

View from the Crown Range Road between Queenstown and Wanaka, New Zealand

Everything else

Do a bungy jump at the world’s first commercial site; skydive over Paradise; take a wine tour in the Gibbston valley; ride the Skyline Gondola up the mountain and go luging; zoom over the Shotover River in a jet boat. Queenstown is bursting with activities, and most of them are just as good in the winter as they are in the summer. (I’d maybe re-consider jumping in Lake Wakatipu, though.)

If you’re hanging around for awhile, make sure to rent a car (or find someone willing to carpool) and check out more of the Southern Lakes region. You can find some of my favorite road trips from Queenstown here.

If you ever make it to Queenstown — winter or no — I hope you love it as much as I did. If you already have, feel free to share your tips or experiences in the comments below. (It might help fill the QT-shaped hole in my heart. A little bit.)

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Any photos not otherwise credited are my own.

There's something magical about 
a ski season in Queenstown, New Zealand. Click through for a former resident's tips and suggestions for the best Queenstown winter activities. | #Queenstown #NewZealand | Photo by Scott Greer

Tips and suggestions for staying in Queenstown, New Zealand during the winter season -- whether you ski or not. | #Queenstown #NewZealand

There's something magical about 
a ski season in Queenstown, New Zealand. Click through for a former resident's tips and suggestions for the best Queenstown winter activities. | #Queenstown #NewZealand | Photo by Max Lawton

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