Arrowtown is a delightful place to spend the day, whether you’re making a day trip from Queenstown, traveling between Queenstown and Wanaka, or thinking even staying the night. We ventured from Queenstown to Lake Hayes, onward to Arrowtown, and eventually wound up in Wanaka that night. There are so many things to do in Arrowtown for both nature lovers and history buffs. Step back in time by visiting historic Arrowtown, New Zealand.
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Arrowtown is a charming and quirky gold rush village about 20 minutes away from Queenstown. There are heritage buildings dating back to its days as a gold mining town. You’ll also discover nearby nature trails, a sumptuous food and beverage scene, as well as various attractions and shopping opportunities. I’m going to show you the top things to do in Arrowtown from our own experiences after spending a few hours there.
Here’s a short video detailing our travels between Queenstown and Wanaka. We stopped at Lake Hayes for a brief stroll around the lake before continuing on to Arrowtown. Watch my attempts to pan for gold!
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Things to Do in Arrowtown: Stroll Down Buckingham Street
The main street in Arrowtown is called Buckingham Street. You’ll find many historic buildings, restaurants, shops, and cafes along Buckingham Street. Not one shop or restaurant belongs to an international chain as every business is local and independently owned. There’s lots of greenery bursting from beyond the buildings, including lush mountains off in the distance. History aside, Arrowtown is a very beautiful small town.
There are lots of fun and cheesy photo opportunities along Buckingham Street. At the little post office, poke your face through the cutout of a New Zealand stamp, as if you’re queen for the day. There’s a souvenir shop called “The Gold Nugget” where you can stick your face through an old western wanted poster. While taking a stroll down Buckingham Street is one of the best things to do in Arrowtown, having these cute and quirky stops makes the stay even more memorable.
Even though there are many shops and restaurants in old buildings, there are still plenty of green spaces. Relax at Buckingham Green or have a small picnic lunch. Visiting on a Sunday between Labour Weekend and Easter Sunday? Pick up your picnic goodies at the Arrowtown Farmers Market from 10:00am-2:00pm (located on Buckingham Street beside the Arrowtown Library). When seeking what to do in Arrowtown, Buckingham Street is where you’ll find much of the action.
Gold Panning in Arrowtown
The Arrow River was once a rich source of gold and had the gold miners flocking to Arrowtown with the hopes of striking it rich. In 1862, thousands of miners reached Arrowtown with the population eventually topping out at 7000. Arrowtown was once called “Fox’s”, based on the fact that the gold miner, William Fox, was the first to discover gold there.
The Arrow River is a very short walk from Buckingham Street. Why not give gold panning a try while you’re there? You can rent gold pans and the necessary equipment from several places in town. We rented our gold pan from the Lakes District Museum on Buckingham Street. It costs $3 to rent the equipment (with a $10 deposit that you’ll get back when you return it). For those who intend to pan for gold a little more seriously, you can buy your own gold panning kit ahead of time.
Apparently, it’s still possible to find gold in the Arrow River, if you pack your patience. I’m not sure that I had the gold panning technique down properly. The gold pan rental comes with a set of instructions, but it does take some practice. I managed to find a lot of rocks and mud, but didn’t find my riches. Maybe you’ll have more like than I did! Even still, panning for gold is one of the top things to do in Arrowtown, and I highly recommend you give it a try.
X Marks the Spot Plaque
The “X Marks the Spot Plaque” is on the Arrow River in town. It’s a small plaque to commemorate a man named Jack Tewa, otherwise known as Maori Jack. He wasn’t a gold miner, but found gold at that very spot in August 1862. The word got out and led to the Great Wakatipu Gold Rush that attracted miners from around the world and led to the development of Arrowtown.
Visit the Chinese Settlement in Arrowtown
While there are picture perfect buildings along Buckingham Street from the European settlers, there’s an entirely different perspective of the gold rush at the Chinese Settlement. Gold miners from China also rushed to Arrowtown in 1874, and over 3500 Chinese people settled there. They lived separately from the European settlers in their own community by the river. Many of their homes and buildings were cramped huts, where lonely men lived without their families and friends. While the huts were abandoned at the turn of the century and left to decay, some of the buildings have been restored to give us a glimpse into the lives of New Zealand’s first Chinese immigrants.
There were many obstacles facing the Chinese settlers. First, they were not used to the harsh winters in New Zealand. Next, they faced hostility and racism from the locals. In 1881, a series of laws were introduced for Chinese immigrants, including an expensive entry fee. Some residents formed an anti-Chinese European Miners Association. While they didn’t physically abuse the Chinese miners, there was plenty of verbal abuse and racist newspaper articles.
Those living in the Chinese settlement kept mostly to themselves and stayed within the confines of their own community. They had their own stores, cooked traditional foods, and celebrated cultural festivals from back home. It’s fascinating to take a walk back in time through visiting the Chinese Settlement. I could understand their hardships in seeking gold in order to build a better life for themselves and their families back home. I tried to imagine what this bustling community must have been like during the height of the gold rush. A trip to the Chinese Settlement is one of the best things to do in Arrowtown for a window into the past, and not just when it comes to the history of white settlers.
Lakes District Museum & Art Gallery
The Lakes District Museum isn’t just where you’ll pick up your gold pan rental. It’s an information center and museum all in one. You can visit the helpful staff at the Lakes District Museum upon your arrival should you have questions or need assistance during your stay.
The museum itself illustrates an authentic history of the region, from early Maori life to early pioneer days, and the settlement of gold miners. There’s a strong hands-on component, and there’s also a small art gallery. It’s worth taking a look if you’d like to gain some insights about the history of the town. The Lakes District Museum is one of the best things to do in Arrowtown and certainly one of the top Arrowtown attractions. It costs $10 to enter ($3 for children), and it’s open every day of the week except Christmas Day.
Dine at Arrowtown Restaurants
There are many Arrowtown restaurants, especially on Buckingham Street and Ramshaw Lane. Justin and I went to the Postmasters Restaurant for lunch because it looked like a very cute spot in a historic home. We had excellent service at the Postmasters Restaurant, and the food was super delicious.
We went to this restaurant for lunch. Postmasters Restaurant has a separate lunch and dinner menu, so you’ll encounter some different meals depending on the time of day. I loved how they have a special note at the top of the menu: “We have plenty of vegan, gluten free, and dairy options, please just ask your waiter”. Once I mentioned to our server that we were seeking vegan food, she pointed out every menu item that was vegan or could be prepared vegan.
For a light lunch, we decided to get a chickpea burger with fries, the rosemary and orange olives, and the bread and dips. Everything was freshly prepared with local ingredients and seasonal produce. We thoroughly enjoyed every last bite!
Sip Coffee at Cafes in Arrowtown
There are several cafes in Arrowtown for an excellent cup of coffee. I stopped at the Unwind Cafe & Bar for a boost of caffeine. There are coffee, tea, and smoothie beverages for every taste on the menu. I simply ordered a long black and it was super yummy. When planning your trip around what to do in Arrowtown, it’s always good to have some downtime to savor a cup of coffee. Unwind Cafe & Bar is my top recommendation for cafes in Arrowtown, although I’m sure you’ll be able to find delicious coffee all over town.
Scenic Views and Walks Near Arrowtown
The scenic views in the Arrowtown region are simply stunning. One of the top things to do in Arrowtown is admire the natural scenery, both by the river and from up above. There are lots of opportunities for beautiful walks and hikes through nature in Arrowtown. The Queenstown Trail winds through Arrowtown (a 120 km path in total!) by the Arrow River. Once you drive outside of Arrowtown, take Crown Range Road to view Arrowtown and the surrounding region from high up above. There are two amazing scenic lookouts on Crown Range Road between Arrowtown and Wanaka that you need to see.
Arrowtown Junction Lookout Point
Crown Range Road is the highest main road in New Zealand. By driving on this road, you’ll reach a height of 1121 meters. As you drive here, the first stopping point is the Arrowtown Junction Lookout Point. You’ll spot a small parking area off the side of the road. There are a line of painted flags on the side of the road to mark this spot, too. The views are spectacular – it looks like it’s straight from a postcard or a painting.
Crown Range Road Scenic Lookout
Continue your drive on Crown Range Road for the second lookout point, the Crown Range Road Scenic Lookout. This lookout spot allows for impressive views of the mountain ranges and the lush, green hills down below. There’s a larger parking area at this spot, and it was a little more popular than the Arrowtown Junction Lookout Point.
Stay a While: Arrowtown Accommodations
Looking for Arrowtown accommodations? There are great advantages to staying in Arrowtown. It’s less busy and crowded than the nearby towns of Queenstown and Wanaka. You’ll also be able to enjoy the town when all of the day trippers and tourists depart throughout the day and early evening. With lots of things to do in Arrowtown, it makes sense to extend your trip to an overnight stay.
If you’re expecting to find big chain Arrowtown accommodations, you’re out of luck. There are only independently owned hotels and smaller B&Bs here! They have so much unique character for a very memorable stay. I recommend checking out the New Orleans Hotel on Buckingham Street in a building dating to 1866 (great historical building and awesome location!). If you love luxury accommodations, book your stay at the Arrowtown House Boutique Accommodation, just a two minutes’ walk from town. I also recommend browsing hotel reviews from Arrowtown to get a good feel for the best properties.
If Airbnb is more your style, there are tons of Airbnb properties in Arrowtown. I spotted a penthouse apartment, an alpine pod, and a treehouse spa escape. Wow! Be sure to use my signup link if you’ve never used Airbnb before because you’ll save a bunch of money on your first booking.
There are so many wonderful things to do in Arrowtown that will easily fill an afternoon, a day, or even longer. Whether you’re a fan of history, culture, nature, food, or coffee culture, there’s something for everyone in Arrowtown.