Planning a trip to Central Otago?
Central Otago is one of the most underrated places in New Zealand.
It doesn’t make many New Zealand bucket lists, but it’s a beautiful area you should add to you New Zealand itinerary. Think beautiful wineries, a bright blue river that rivals the Blue Pools and Lake Tekapo, and cute historic towns with gourmet food and local boutiques.
I live in Wanaka, which is only half an hour from Central Otago, so I’ve been there a lot and know all the best places to go.
Keep reading for my ultimate guide to Central Otago: the best places you should go, where you should miss, and all my top tips for travelling in Central Otago.
TOP 7 PLACES YOU SHOULDN’T MISS
Looking for the best places to go in Central Otago? These are my favourites:
- Clyde: I love Clyde. It’s one of my favourite places in New Zealand. It had beautiful historic buildings, cute local boutiques, amazing food, and it hasn’t been over-commercialised or ruined by tourism. The drive from Cromwell to Clyde is also one of the most beautiful drives in New Zealand.
- Wineries: One of the best things about Central Otago is the wineries. My favourite winery area is Bannockburn. Read my Guide to the 5 Best Wineries in Bannockburn.
- Cromwell Old Town: I’ve driven past Cromwell a lot and always thought it was a boring ugly town. But when I moved to Wanaka, I discovered it has one of the best hidden gems in New Zealand: the Cromwell Old Town. It’s like Arrowtown but without the tourists and tacky souvenir shops.
- Drive from Cromwell to Queenstown: The drive from Cromwell to Queenstown is absolutely stunning, and it’s a must do if you’re in the area.
- Otago Rail Trail: I’ll be honest, I haven’t actually biked the Otago Rail Trail yet (which is what you’re supposed to do). But I have driven it. There’s lots of cute small towns with historic buildings. If you don’t want to bike the whole trail, you can do a day trip which just sees the highlights.
- Lake Dunstan Trail: A biking trail from Cromwell to Clyde which follows the incredibly beautiful bright blue Clutha River. You can rent a bike here from the Cromwell Heritage Precinct.
- Highlands Motorsport Park: I never in a million years thought I’d even go to a car museum, but I actually really enjoyed it. They have Michael Schumacher’s and Jos Verstappen’s F1 cars, which was very exciting as a F1 fan (I blame Drive to Survive on Netflix). My stepdad did the Supercar Fast Dash where you get to do a lap in a Ferrari, which he loved.
OVERRATED PLACES YOU SHOULD MISS
Central Otago is generally underrated, so I wouldn’t really say there’s anywhere overrated, but if I was forced to choose…
- Alexandra: I wasn’t a fan of Alexandra. It’s too big to be a cute small town, but not big enough to be a cool city break. I wouldn’t bother going here.
- Cromwell: Cromwell gives a bad first impression if you only drive through the main road and stop at the giant fruit. It’s actually an amazing place if you get off the main street. See my suggestions above for the best things to do.
BEST OF CENTRAL OTAGO
Not sure where to start? Read my curated collection of the best things to do in Central Otago.
WANT MORE SUGGESTIONS?
Wondering where else to go? Make sure you do a day trip (or longer) to Wanaka, only half an hour away from Central Otago. Download my Wanaka Bucket List for free – find out my very favourite things to do and places to eat and drink in Wanaka.
TOP TIPS FOR TRAVELLING IN CENTRAL OTAGO
HOW TO GET AROUND CENTRAL OTAGO?
DRIVING: The best way to get around Central Otago is driving. There is very limited public transport, especially if you want to go to the smaller towns. The nearest airport is Queenstown and you can pick up a rental car from here. I recommend booking through rentalcars.com, which I always use. It compares the different rental car companies so you know you’re getting the best deal.
WINERY TOURS: If you’re visiting the Bannockburn wineries, obviously I wouldn’t recommend driving, unless you have a sober driver. You can do a winery tour from Wanaka (book here), Queenstown (book here) or Cromwell (book here).
BIKING: There’s lots of lovely biking tracks around Central Otago. If you’re doing the Lake Dunstan Trail, you can rent bikes from the Cromwell Heritage Precinct which also includes a shuttle back to the start (it’s a one way track). If you’re doing the Otago Rail Trail, there are lots of rental bike companies in Clyde and they will also shuttle you back to the start. You can also just do an Otago Rail Trail day trip which does the best part of the track.
CENTRAL OTAGO ACCOMMODATION
The best town to stay in Central Otago will depend on your plans. Are you doing the Central Otago Rail Trail? Are you passing through on a South Island road trip?
One of my favourite places in New Zealand is Clyde, so I’d try and work that into your itinerary if you can. If you’re doing the Otago Rail Trail, I also recommend staying in Ophir and Naesby.
Looking for the best luxury boutique hotels in Central Otago? Add these to your bucket list:
WHEN TO GO TO CENTRAL OTAGO?
Central Otago is beautiful all year round. It just depends on what you’re planning to do.
- Generally I would recommend February to May. The weather is still warm (but not too hot) and it’s outside the busy school holidays.
- If you’re doing the Central Otago Rail Trail, I recommend March, April or early May for the best weather (not too hot or cold).
- If you’re here for a ski trip (it’s close to the Queenstown and Wanaka ski fields), I recommend August or early September. Read my Ultimate Guide to Skiing in Wanaka and 33 Best Things to Do in Wanaka in Winter.
HOW LONG TO SPEND IN CENTRAL OTAGO?
How long you should spend in Central Otago will depend on what you want to do.
- Allow 1 day if you want to see the Cromwell Old Town and Clyde (but I’d recommend staying longer so you can see more).
- Allow 2-3 days if you want to see more of the area and do some extra activities (like a wine tour, the Highlands Motorsport Park, and the Lake Dunstan Trail).
- Allow 3-5 days if you want to do the Otago Rail Trail.
- Allow 5-7 days if you’re on a ski holiday. The nearest ski fields are Queenstown and Wanaka, but Central Otago is so close you can easily visit it too (you will drive through Cromwell if you’re driving from Queenstown to Wanaka). Read my Ultimate Guide to Skiing in Wanaka and 33 Best Things to Do in Wanaka in Winter.
This is just a rough estimate and will depend on what you want to do and the rest of your itinerary. Are you on a road trip travelling around the South Island? Are you doing the Otago Rail Trail? Are you visiting for a romantic weekend?
VISAS + COVID
New Zealand had very strict covid rules – the border was closed for almost two years, even to New Zealanders. (I was a New Zealander stuck overseas during covid – it was very hard trying to get back). Make sure you check the New Zealand immigration website for the latest covid and border closure rules.
People from most countries can travel to New Zealand for up to 3 months without getting a visa. You just need to get a New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority. Check the New Zealand Immigration website to work out what visa you need.Central-Otago-Travel-Tips
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