Te Anau: The gateway to Fiordland & Milford Sound

Te Anau is a gorgeous little town that’s located on the shores of the aptly-named, Lake Te Anau. It’s known as the gateway to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound, but it’s so much more than that.

Boasting breathtaking scenery, fantastic hiking trails, and plenty of incredible attractions, you won’t run out of things to do in Te Anau.

Not only is there plenty to keep you busy here, but Te Anau is a fantastic base for exploring the nearby area – in particular the fjords that New Zealand is so famous for.

This Te Anau guide is going to go through everything you need to know for your trip to this gorgeous destination. With accommodation, eateries, activities, history and geography, get ready to plan a trip to this amazing part of Aotearoa.

There’s a reason that this town is one of the most popular destinations in the country, so, what are you waiting for?

A boat sailing very close to a waterfall.

An Overview of Te Anau

Population~3,000 people
RegionSouthland, South Island
Area 5.5 km2
Elevation210 metres above sea level
Main attractionsLake Te Anau, Te Anau Glowworm Caves, fjords, hiking, outdoor activities and scenic landscapes
Nearby destinationsManapouri, Doubtful Sound, Milford Sound and Invercargill.
Te Anau and Fiordland are both home to a wide range of wildlife, like this rock wren. Photo: Francesco Veronesi.

The History of Te Anau

The predominant Māori iwi in the region was (and still is) Ngāi Tahu (as with the majority of the South Island). Māori in this area didn’t come into contact with European settlers (sealers and whales) until 1795.

During the 1800s, Ngāi Tahu supplied the whaling ships with provisions, creating a thriving local industry.

The first Europeans to visit Lake Te Anau specifically did so in 1852. C.J. Nairn and W.J. Stephen were led by Māori guides, but it would be a long time before European settlement occurred in the area.

The lake was surveyed in 1863, and the township itself was surveyed later in 1893. This wasn’t long after the iconic Milford Track was opened as a tourist attraction. To this day, this Great Walk attracts nature-loving travellers.

However, Te Anau didn’t develop into a town until after the Homer Tunnel was opened in 1954. This created a popular route to the famous Milford Sound, and is a big reason that Te Anau has become what it is today.

Glow worms in Te Anau cave.
Te Anau is home to glow worm caves.

The Geography of Te Anau

As already mentioned, Te Anau is situated on the beautiful Lake Te Anau. It’s one of the largest glacial lakes in the South Island, covering an impressive area of 344 square kilometres.

The majority of the lake is located in Fiordland National Park, which is one of the country’s national icons. There, you’ll find alpine lakes, lush forests and striking mountain ranges, all just a stone’s throw away from the town.

Te Anau is also home to glow worm caves [save using the promo code NZTT]. This fascinating cave system is located on the shores of the lake. It is home to unique rock formations and glittering glow worms, and is just one of many natural wonders found in the area.

Firodland does have seismic activity, but the last somewhat significant earthquake took place in 2009, so they aren’t a common occurrence.

Unlike the North Island, you won’t find any geothermal areas or volcanoes in Southland. Instead, there are plenty of mountain ranges, including the Kelper Mountains.

A boat cruising on the calm waters.
Enjoy Lake Te Anau on board Faith in Fiordland.

Things to Do in Te Anau and Nearby

There are so many fantastic things to do in Te Anau – whether that be hiking, heading out on the lake, or getting involved in some outdoor activities.

Top activities and attractions include:

Te Anau Glowworm Caves

Explore Lake Te Anau on a boat and venture underground into an intriguing cave system to see glow worms.

Book: Te Anau glow worm cave – save 10% using the coupon code NZTT.

Fjords

Two of the country’s most beautiful fjords can be visited on a day trip from Te Anau; these are Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound.

Drive the road to Milford Sound

Though Milford Sound is the most famous attraction in Fiordland, the drive in is every part as magical. Join a tour if you’d like someone else to drive, or drive yourself, allowing plenty of time to enjoy the incredible stop-offs along the way!

Hiking

There are plenty of awesome walks in and around Te Anau including the Lake Marian Track and three Great Walks – the Kelper Track, Routeburn and Milford Track.

Outdoor activities

There are plenty of fantastic outdoor activities to choose from in Te Anau. These include jet boating, flightseeing, mountain biking and quad biking.

Scenic landscapes

There and endless places to visit full of natural beauty including Lake Te Anau, Fiordland National Park and Te Anau Downs. The scenic beauty of this area is what draws most people there in the first place.

Te Anau Bird Sanctuary

You’ll get to see lots of rare birds at the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. It’s also run by donation, making it an affordable thing to do while in town.

Food

Although Te Anau isn’t often thought of as a foodies’ destination, there are plenty of fantastic restaurants to visit – more on this shortly.

Advanced bookings are recommended, particularly during peak season.

Read our Te Anau blogposts

Save Money on Your Visit

As a reader of NZTT, you’re entitled to a range of discounts in the region.

Pick up a bargain through BookMe (no promo code required), or save 10% on anything sold through Backpacker Deals using the coupon code NZTT.

We’ve also arranged the following specials for you too…

Places to Eat in Te Anau

You’ll find plenty of awesome places to eat in Te Anau.

Whether you’re looking for Indian food or you’re craving a delicious pie, there’s something for everyone in this lovely little town.

These are some of the best places to eat in Te Anau…

Redcliff Restaurant & Bar

The Redcliff is thought to be one of the best (if not the best) restaurants in Te Anau and for good reason.

It’s a favourite with locals and tourists alike and is known for its delicious food. They focus on fresh ingredients, great quality meats and excellent wine pairings.

12 Mokonui St,Te Anau Fiordland, 12 Mokonui Street, Te Anau 9600

The Fat Duck

This gastropub is famous for its great atmosphere, tasty food, and extensive beverage options. The Fat Duck also has live music, and you’ll want to visit during ‘Happy Hour’ if you can.

If there’s one spot you want to make a booking for, it’s this one!

124 Town Centre, Te Anau 9600

Sandfly Cafe

This cafe is one of the highest-reviewed dining options in Te Anau and it’s consistently fantastic.

The food is well-priced and the staff there are friendly. They also offer vegan options so there’s something for everyone.

9 The Lane, Te Anau 9600

The Ranch Bar & Grill

This is another popular dining spot in Te Anau. You’ll have plenty of hearty meals to choose from, including the likes of BBQ pork ribs and steak dishes.

You might want to book in advance if you want to dine here, as it can get very busy.

111 Town Centre, Te Anau 9600

Miles Better Pies

Home to some of the best pies in New Zealand, this is the place to go if you want comfort food.

Pies are also the perfect way to fuel a full day of exploring, so get to it!

1 Lakefront Drive, Te Anau 9679

Food, salad, and different cuisine displayed in different bowls on top of a table.
Ditto is another great Te Anau restaurant – pop along for Asian-inspired street food.

The Best Places to Stay in Te Anau

Though many treat Te Anau as a day trip from Queenstown, to see all that Te Anau has to offer, you’ll want to spend at least 2 to 3 days there.

You’ll find plenty of accommodation options in this part Te Anau – particularly luxury lodges, perfect if you want to treat yourself (or you’re travelling on honeymoon).

These are a few of our top picks…

Budget: Lakeside Motel & Apartments

This beautiful property is set right on the shores of Lake Te Anau, and it’s just a short walk from the bird sanctuary.

There are studios and apartments available, and you’ll benefit from BBQ facilities too.

Check rates & availability: Lakeside Motel & Apartments.

Green yard of Lakeside Motel and Apartments.

Mid-range: ASURE Explorer Motel & Apartments

Asure Explorer is just a short drive from the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre.

It offers both studios and apartments, with some of the rooms even offering striking mountain views.

Check rates & availability: ASURE Explorer Motel & Apartments.

Blooming cherry blossoms and the green grass outside ASURE Explorer Motel & Apartments.

Luxury: Loch Vista Bed & Breakfast

Loch Vista offers spacious rooms, many of them featuring lake views.

It’s in a great location to explore the nearby area, and there’s a shared lounge where you can relax too.

Check rates & availability: Loch Vista Bed & Breakfast.

5* Hotel: Fiordland Lodge

This gorgeous lodge overlooks Lake Te Anau and offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains.

Fiordland Lodge is also known for its beautiful rooms, fantastic facilities, and great location – and it’s super luxe if you’re looking to treat yourself.

Check rates & availability: Fiordland Lodge.

A huge living room of Fiordland Lodge with glass windows showing the snowy outside environment.

Self-contained accommodation: Paradise Accommodation

This unit sleeps two people and has an open-plan lounge and kitchen.

Not only is the decor stunning, but it is just a short walk from Lake Te Anau.

Check rates & availability: Paradise Accommodation.

Top Tips for Visiting Te Anau

Here are some tips to help you make the most of your trip to Te Anau:

  • Spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit Te Anau, as the weather is pleasant and there are fewer crowds. Summer and winter each have their own appeals though.
  • Wear comfortable shoes as there are plenty of fantastic hikes to do in the area.
  • Make sure you admire one of Te Anau’s epic sunsets during your stay – you won’t regret it.
  • If you’ve got a car, then there are lots of great places that you can visit on a day trip. That means you won’t have to rely on public transport, which is practically non-existent in the area.
  • Take some time to enjoy some of Te Anau’s restaurants, as there are some delicious options in town.
A wooden pontoon extending to the calm waters of Lake Te Anau.
A peaceful start to the day on Lake Te Anau. Photo: Richard Young.

Nearby Towns and Attractions

Though Te Anau offers visitors plenty of things to do there are plenty of fantastic day trip opportunities nearby if you’re keen to explore.

For the best experience, we’d recommend using a car to get around.

Here are some of the best day trips from Te Anau, or you can head there afterwards as you head off to your next destination.

Manapouri

Manapouri is one of the most beautiful destinations you’ll come across in Southland. It’s located right on the edge of Fiordland National Park, so it’s another great place to explore.

Not only is this where you’ll travel to reach Doubtful Sound, but you’ll also find Lake Manapouri here which is the second-deepest lake in the country.

Manapouri is an 18-minute drive from Te Anau.

A family with their mountain bikes parked on the grass while they play on the shores of Lake Manapouri.
The shores of Lake Manapouri. Photo: Great South.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is one of the most popular fjords in New Zealand. It’s often referred to as the ‘Sound of Silence’ and is an impressive 421 metres deep. Doubtful Sound is also one of the longest fjords in the South Island.

However, it’s important to note that it’s not very easy to get to. For that reason, Milford Sound tends to be the more popular option to visit.

Doubtful Sound is only accessible by tour from Manapouri [save 10% using the coupon code NZTT].

Tourists wearing life jackets paddling on their kayaks while their ship anchors to a yellow buoy.

Milford Sound

The Milford Sound has been described as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ and is famous for its breathtaking beauty. This fjord is one of the most popular natural attractions in NZ and it’s a must-visit.

The best thing to do here is to take a cruise through the fjord where you’ll get to spot wildlife, and witness waterfalls as high as 1,000 metres.

Milford Sound is a 1.5-hour drive from Te Anau.

>>> Explore Milford Sound.

A wing of an aircraft overlooking a lake and mountains.

Queenstown

Queenstown is one of the best places to visit in the South Island. With its spectacular landscapes, incredible wineries, and awesome hiking trails, this beautiful town has a lot to offer.

There are plenty of things to do in Queenstown, with popular options including being Kiwi Park, Shotover Jet, the TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu [coupon code NZTT], Onsen Hot Pools and Skyline Queenstown.

Queenstown is a 2-hour drive from Te Anau.

>>> Explore Queenstown.

Taking a group picture on top of a snow-capped mountain summit with a helicopter and a huge mountain on the background.

Invercargill

Invercargill is the southernmost city in the country, and one of the southernmost cities in the world. It’s the capital of the Southland Region and it’s known for its scenic coastline.

Aside from the spectacular scenery, Invercargill is also famous for its old heritage buildings, unique character, and the fact that you can see the southern lights (aurora Australis). It also serves as the gateway to the Catlins.

Invercargill is a 2-hour drive from Te Anau.

>>> Explore Invercargill.

Vintage cars and motors displayed inside the museum of Bill Richardson Transport World.

You’ll find so many incredible things to do in Te Anau.

Whether you’re a keen hiker, an adrenaline junkie, or you’re looking to relax – this beautiful place has something for everyone.

Not only will you find lots to do here, but Te Anau is the perfect base for exploring more of the South Island.

Not to mention it’s stunning beauty of course.

For all of these reasons, and more, it deserves a spot on your South Island travel itinerary.