Today, we’re looking at another New Zealand location comparison: which is the better destination, Queenstown or Wellington? Having lived in New Zealand and travelled extensively around the country, I’ve had the chance to explore both cities in depth.
They are quite different places, and my ultimate recommendation would be to visit both!
For a quick answer about which is better to visit – it depends on what you want. If you are looking for adventure, stunning scenery or wine, pick Queenstown. For culture, shopping and history, head to Wellington.
From a personal perspective, I’m currently planning my next tour of New Zealand. I’ll be visiting both Wellington and Queenstown, but I’ll be spending longer in Queenstown.
To understand why I’m planning it that way, keep reading!
The Overview: Is Queenstown or Wellington Better?
Queenstown is one of my absolute favourite places. It’s not a particularly big place, but it is an incredible place to visit. It’s where I first went jetboating, paragliding, and even skydiving (check out my jump in the video below!)
If any of those things appeal, it might end up being your favourite place in New Zealand as well.
Beyond the thrill-seeking experiences, Queenstown is also a gateway to some of the South Island’s most remarkable destinations. From scenic drives to nearby historic Arrowtown or wine tasting in the Gibbston Valley, there’s plenty to explore.
The town itself is very tourist-friendly, with a wide range of accommodations, eateries, and shops, all designed to enhance your stay.
Wellington, New Zealand’s vibrant capital city, has a cool artsy atmosphere. It’s not a big city, and easily walkable, with lots of restaurants and cafes. It is also the location of the national museum – Te Papa Tongarewa which is well worth visiting.
The Botanic Gardens are lovely, and I visit them every time I’m in Wellington. Another highlight is attractions relating to New Zealand’s film industry, which is centred in the nearby Miramar peninsula.
Wellington’s offering is very different to Queenstown, and you will have a very different experience in each place.
There is simply no comparison regarding this category – Queenstown wins hands down. The town is nicknamed the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’ for good reason.
Queenstown is the birthplace of commercial bungy jumping, pioneered by A J Hackett at Kawarau Bridge just outside the town. The innovation didn’t stop there; the company has expanded and now includes a canyon swing.
If a bungy jump isn’t quite scary enough, up the fear factor by hanging from the platform as the jump staff swipe at a secondary rope with a knife, waiting to see which cut will release you!
It’s also an incredible place for the ultimate adventure activity – skydiving above mountains and the lake. For something a bit milder, you can go jetboating on several different rivers and the lake. Skiing is also popular, with several ski fields within easy driving distance of the town centre.
If these activities fill you with a terror that you don’t feel like facing, don’t be put off. There are lots of hiking trails, a luge ride and gentle boat trips you can do to fill your time without spiking your adrenaline!
Wellington definitely has much less to offer in this department than Queenstown. There are still adventure activities to be found, but the selection isn’t as varied.
For instance, mountain biking is popular in the hills surrounding the city, with trails for all skill levels. The coastline provides opportunities for sea kayaking, where you might even encounter some of the local marine life.
If you’re into hiking, Wellington has several trails, offering stunning views and challenging terrains. The climb to the top of Mount Victoria, for instance, rewards hikers with a panoramic view of the city and harbour.
There is actually a skydiving company in Wellington, but it won’t have the bonus of Queenstown’s local landscape. If you are going to spend the money to do a skydive, there are other places where the view will be better as you glide back to earth.
However, when we compare these activities to what’s available in Queenstown, there’s a clear difference in the level of adrenaline-fueled adventures. Very few places in the world compare to Queenstown’s adventure scene – Wellington just can’t compete in this area.
Nature and Wildlife
Queenstown is in one of the most stunning parts of New Zealand – Central Otago. The town is surrounded by mountains, lakes and rivers. If you want to see New Zealand’s famous landscapes, Queenstown beats Wellington.
Scenic flights, hiking, scenic drives and tours are all great ways to see the best of the region’s scenery.
When it comes to wildlife, the competition isn’t so clear-cut. Kiwi Birdlife Park near the Skyline Gondola gives you the opportunity to see the iconic Kiwi bird as well as other native species, but it is a far smaller space than Wellington’s equivalent.
Wellington is more of a match for Queenstown when it comes to nature and wildlife. It may not have the mountain backdrop, but it still has a lot to offer.
The Botanic Gardens in Wellington are definitely worth visiting – the Rose Garden is beautiful in summer, and the gardens also showcase a range of native plant species. Take the Cable Car up to the top and walk back down to the city through the gardens.
If you are scared of heights and put off by the idea of a cable car, don’t worry. I recently made this recommendation to a friend and didn’t initially understand why she seemed hesitant. It’s not like cable cars at ski resorts hanging from wires but more like a tram going up a slope.
When it comes to wildlife, Wellington has Zealandia to boost its ranking. The world’s first fully-fenced ecosanctuary aims to protect the wildlife species that have been put in danger by humans.
As New Zealand is so remote, much of its native wildlife evolved without predators, which is why birds like the kiwi are flightless. The arrival of humans meant the arrival of predators and pests which have hugely impacted the plant and animal life of New Zealand.
If you want to not just experience but also support New Zealand’s wildlife, Zealandia is a great place to visit. Animals such as the tuatara, cave weta and tui can roam freely, across 500 acres of protected territory.
Culture and Arts
Spoiler alert – Wellington wins this one.
Queenstown does offer some artistic elements, but nowhere near Wellington’s arts scene.
Art enthusiasts will find a few galleries in Queenstown, where both local and international artists’ works are displayed. However, these galleries tend to be more commercial, focusing on the sale of artworks rather than just providing a space for public appreciation.
The primary draws of Queenstown remain its outdoor adventure opportunities, breathtaking scenery, and the thriving food and wine scene.
If I was going to recommend one thing in Wellington, it would be Te Papa Tongarewa. This national museum sits directly on the waterfront and is free to visit.
Te Papa tells New Zealand’s story, from prehistoric events through to the experience of New Zealand soldiers in world wars. You’ll find interactive displays about the geothermal activity around New Zealand, artwork, and even a Maori marae (meeting house). It’s an excellent collection for visitors of all ages.
For theatre enthusiasts, Wellington is a hub of performing arts. The city hosts numerous theatres, including the renowned Wellington Opera House, offering a variety of live performances. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra also calls Wellington home, offering world-class orchestral performances.
The city’s artistic flair extends to its numerous galleries. The City Gallery Wellington, for instance, showcases modern art and installations from New Zealand and international artists, providing a platform for thought-provoking and boundary-pushing works.
Moreover, Wellington’s film industry has earned it the nickname “Wellywood.” The Weta Workshop, famous for its work on blockbuster movies like ‘The Lord of the Rings’, offers tours, giving insights into the world of movie magic.
Book a tour of Wellington film locations here!
There are lots of stunning places in the Otago region around Queenstown – enough that I have a dedicated Queenstown day trip post. The best by far is a trip to Milford Sound, one of the most famous and beautiful places in New Zealand.
It is a long day trip from Queenstown with quite a long drive, so you may find it easier to join an organised day trip so someone else does the driving while you enjoy the scenery.
Other day trip options include Wanaka, Glenorchy, Arrowtown and even Mount Cook. Queenstown is central enough that you can access a lot of amazing places in a day.
Book a tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound here!
There are several good options for day trips from Wellington. As the city sits on the southern coast of the North Island, you could take the Interislander ferry over to visit Picton, Blenheim or Nelson for the day.
Martinborough is just over an hour’s drive north of Wellington, and is a great choice for wine enthusiasts. The town is known for its boutique vineyards, specializing in Pinot Noir. Spend a day here cycling from vineyard to vineyard, enjoying wine tastings and local cuisine in a picturesque setting.
Another choice is to drive up to the Kapiti Coast. The Kapiti Island Nature Reserve is a fantastic spot for bird-watching, hiking, and enjoying coastal views.
Queenstown has a very small central area, so you don’t need a car or public transport to get around the town itself. You can get a bus or taxi from the nearby airport, but once you are in the town it’s best to stick to walking.
Most tour and adventure operators have central meeting points, and some will offer pick-up from your accommodation.
If you are going further afield, renting a car is the easiest option, as public transport outside of the town can be time-consuming and limited. If you aren’t able to drive, then your best option would be to join one of the many tours that explore all the attractions in the region.
Most flights into New Zealand arrive in Auckland, so although Wellington is the capital it probably won’t be your entry point.
One of the most scenic ways to get from Auckland to Wellington is the Northern Explorer train. It takes a full day and has to be planned for, but if you want to see the North Island without spending several days there, it might be a good choice.
Just like Queenstown, the city centre is easy to get around on foot, so you don’t need a car if you are sticking to the centre. Parking in the central areas can also be scarce and relatively expensive.
However, for day trips outside the city, renting a car is a practical choice, giving you the flexibility to explore the region at your own pace.
The city is also served by a bus system which is fairly reliable and a good option for getting to attractions in the suburbs, such as the Weta Cave in Miramar.
Visitors to Queenstown range from budget-minded backpackers through to visitors seeking ultimate luxury. The range of accommodation, therefore, matches the variety of tourists. Just book early, especially if you are visiting in the New Zealand summer (December-February).
Budget – Absoloot is excellent value for money given its central location. The kitchen area has views out over Lake Wakatipu. The only downside is the lack of female-only dorm rooms.
Luxury – QT Queenstown has some of the biggest rooms I’ve stayed in when visiting Queenstown. It’s very central, quirky and has excellent rooms.
For more recommendations and additional details on these three options, I have a full guide to the best places to stay in Queenstown.
Wellington has a similar range of accommodation options. In fact, this is true of most parts of New Zealand – you’ll find great hostels all over the country, as well as more luxurious options.
Budget – The Marion Hostel is in the city centre and has both mixed and female-only dorms for budget-conscious visitors.
Mid-Range – QT Wellington is another one of the cool and quirky QT hotels, and it is right next to Te Papa.
Luxury – InterContinental Wellington has large rooms, a central location and all the amenities you expect from a premium hotel.
Food and Drink
Queenstown might not be big, but its culinary scene is surprisingly diverse and exciting. The town offers an array of dining options, with many establishments serving up traditional New Zealand fare and a variety of seafood dishes.
One notable spot is The Bunker, discreetly tucked away down a side alley. This restaurant is renowned for its intimate, atmospheric setting and a menu that showcases a fusion of local flavours and fine dining.
For those with a sweet tooth, a visit to Patagonia Chocolates is a must. They are celebrated for their exquisite ice cream, which becomes even more delightful when enjoyed by the lakeside, complemented by Queenstown’s stunning natural backdrop.
Wine enthusiasts will find Queenstown to be a gateway to the renowned Central Otago wine region, famous for its world-class Pinot Noir. The options for exploring this wine haven are plentiful.
You can embark on organized wine-tasting tours, hop on a dedicated winery bus that allows you to explore at your own pace, or even stay within the town and sample a wide range of local wines at The Winery in the town centre.
Book your Queenstown wine-tasting tour here!
Wellington also has plenty of dining options. From casual eateries offering traditional Kiwi fare to high-end restaurants serving innovative fusion cuisine, there’s something to suit every palate. Cuba Street, the heart of Wellington’s bohemian side, is a food lover’s haven, lined with eclectic cafes, bistros, and international restaurants.
The city is particularly famed for its coffee culture. There are lots of claims that Wellington has more cafes per capita than New York City – although it’s hard to find proof of those claims, it’s clear that it is a coffee-focused city.
Seafood is a standout in Wellington, thanks to its coastal location. You’ll find fresh, locally sourced seafood dishes in many restaurants, showcasing the best of what the region has to offer.
The city also hosts several food festivals throughout the year, including the famous Wellington On a Plate, which celebrates the region’s culinary creativity.
Additionally, the city’s proximity to the Wairarapa wine region means there’s an excellent selection of local wines to complement your meal.
If you want to explore the local wineries, try this half-day tour from Wellington.
Queenstown is not the cheapest place to visit, particularly if you’re keen on experiencing several of its signature activities. Adrenaline-pumping experiences like jet boating and skydiving, while unforgettable, do come with a higher price tag.
Additionally, accommodation costs tend to rise, especially during the summer peak season when the influx of tourists is at its highest. This surge in visitor numbers often leads to increased rates for hotels and lodges.
Wellington is another expensive city, although there are more free and cheaper activities. Te Papa is free to visit as are the Botanic Gardens (although you have to pay for the Cable Car unless you want to walk both up and down the steep path).
You can still find budget hostels around as well, so you can enjoy the city without paying an exorbitant amount.
Adventure activities cost a lot, so you could easily spend more in Queenstown just to experience the activities and tours that draw visitors to the town.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Queenstown really depends on what you’re into. Skiing? Come in winter. Hiking? Summer’s your season. For most visitors, summer is the better option as many adventure activities are weather-dependent.
Tip: If you are in Queenstown for several days, book your adventure activities for the first few days of your visit. If they are postponed due to weather they will re-book or refund you, but you can obviously only rebook if you don’t have to leave Queenstown the next day!
Wellington’s weather is known for being unpredictable, often changing several times a day. As a tourist, expect a mix of sun, wind, and occasional rain. The city is famously windy, so it’s wise to pack layers and a windproof jacket, regardless of the season, to comfortably enjoy its many attractions.
The Verdict: Queenstown vs Wellington
So, is Queenstown or Wellington better?
If I were forced to pick just one, it would be Queenstown. But that is largely because it has a mix of things I love that I haven’t found anywhere else – adventure, wine tasting, scenery, road trips. If you prefer to keep your adrenaline levels nice and low, and prefer a museum over a mountain then Wellington is the better choice for you.
Queenstown is much more focused on tourism than Wellington. In the peak of summer, tourists outnumber the locals. I don’t say this to put you off, because what makes Queenstown a tourist destination is the huge range of activities specifically for visitors and the beautiful backdrop.
Of course, I think you should visit both. But from a tourist perspective, in the Queenstown Wellington battle, I believe Queenstown has a slight edge.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Destination Is More Family-friendly?
Both places are family-friendly. Queenstown offers a range of outdoor activities that are fun for kids and adults alike, such as the luge ride and boat tours. Wellington has various museums, wildlife attractions, and parks that are great for a family day out.
Is Queenstown Only For Adventure Seekers?
No! While Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world, there are plenty of more gentle activities. Scenic boat rides, vineyard tours, and relaxing spas are all great choices.
Which Is Better For Solo Travellers?
Both are friendly for solo travellers, like pretty much everywhere in New Zealand. Queenstown offers a communal, adventure-focused vibe, while Wellington provides a more urban experience with plenty of opportunities to meet new people.