Having a hard time deciding whether to visit Wanaka or Arrowtown? Learn how these two South Island cities differ and which one is best for you.
Wanaka and Arrowtown are located on the South Island of New Zealand about 54 km (34 mi) or about a 50-minute drive from each other.
Both Wanaka and Arrowtown are located in the Queenstown Lakes District so are in a way related to Queenstown in proximity and also the district in which all of these towns are located.
Arrowtown and Wanaka are best known for their impressive display of fall foliage, so it should not be a surprise to hear that they are popular with tourists.
Look and feel of Arrowtown and Wanaka
Arrowtown is quite small compared to Wanaka in population and size.
There are almost three times more people living in Wanaka than in Arrowtown. Therefore, Arrowtown feels cramped and crowded, while Wanaka feels spacious and expansive.
The town center of Arrowtown still has some historic buildings standing, which adds to the charm of the town and makes you feel like you are going back in time. Wanaka is a bit more modern in that respect.
There are also more homes being built in Wanaka than in Arrowtown, so as that continues to evolve, Wanaka should take on a more modern look.
Similarities between Wanaka and Arrowtown
Both Arrowtown and Wanaka can be seen as small towns although Wanaka is larger than Arrowtown.
They both have rivers and lakes near their town centers. The Arrow River is directly accessible from Arrowtown, while you can drive to get to the Matukutuki River, not far from Wanaka town center.
Lake Wanaka is directly accessible from Wanaka town center, while you can drive to get to Lake Hayes, not far from Arrowtown.
Both rivers and lakes tend to have fall foliage around them so are scenic in their own way.
Both Wanaka and Arrowtown look lovely in autumn. In autumn, the hills and river in Arrowtown are lit up with yellow, orange, and red trees, and in spring, you can drive around to see spring blossoms on trees in people’s yards and on trees lining the streets.
The Arrowtown Autumn Festival [arrowtownautumnfestival.co.nz] is held every year in Arrowtown at the end of April.
Wanaka looks good in autumn with mostly yellow trees lining the lake and the streets. You might see occasional oranges and reds, but that is rare.
Wanaka is mostly yellow in autumn, but the concentration of fall foliage is higher in Arrowtown and more spread out in Wanaka due to the size of the town.
Nonetheless, it is really a joy to drive around Wanaka down to Glendhu Bay and further down along the Matukituki River to enjoy seeing the yellow trees everywhere. You could also drive to Cardrona from Wanaka to see more fall foliage.
If you are in Arrowtown, you can drive to Queenstown and from Queenstown to Kingston to see more fall foliage.
If you are doing the latter, do not skip driving up the road to the Remarkables ski field to get a nice view of Queenstown and all of the fall foliage around Queenstown from above. It is one of 5 must-do scenic lookouts in Queenstown.
In winter, you can stay in Wanaka and ski at two ski fields (Treble Cone and Cardrona) that are located nearby or snowshoe at a ski area (Snow Farm).
While Arrowtown itself does not have a ski field, Coronet Peak ski field is not far away, and you could travel to Queenstown to ski at the Remarkables ski field.
Both Wanaka and Arrowtown have golf courses that have mountains as their backdrops, so you can play golf and enjoy the scenery at the same time.
Differences between Wanaka and Arrowtown
It is quite easy to walk around Arrowtown because it is so small. It is a bit more challenging to walk around Wanaka because things are spread out a bit more than they are in Arrowtown. The town center and lakefront of Wanaka are quite walkable, though.
Unlike Arrowtown, Wanaka has an airport although it is not an international airport and serves more as a base for flightseeing and private flights.
Air shows [warbirdsoverwanaka.com] are held there every two years and there is a museum you can visit.
While Arrowtown does not have an airport, you can still access it by air by flying to Queenstown airport and then either renting a car or catching a bus in Queenstown to get to Arrowtown.
Because Wanaka is the largest town of the two, it also has many more services like motels, gas stations, supermarkets, etc., than Arrowtown does.
Wanaka offers more locations to get a view from above than Arrowtown, a few of which include Mount Roy, Mount Iron, and the hills above Diamond Lake.
Arrowtown lies in a valley, and while it is surrounded by mountains, they are not as accessible as those in Wanaka, despite the fact that there are several accessible backcountry trails around Arrowtown that offer nice views from above.
A relatively easy way to get a nice view of the valley from above is to drive up the Crown Range. Just pick a safe location to stop and enjoy the view.
In autumn you will see the trees in the valley and on the hills lit up in yellow, orange, and red colors, while in winter, you can enjoy seeing snow on the mountains.
Wanaka or Arrowtown?
I don’t think that it is a fair competition when choosing between Arrowtown or Wanaka.
Both towns have their own unique character that is worth seeing and experiencing.
If you are looking for a well-serviced city to stay in, Wanaka would probably be the better option.
For seeing autumn colors, I would recommend visiting both towns, and for getting majestic views, Wanaka would be the one I would choose if I could only choose one place to visit.
This article falls under Travel Guide.
Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.