New Zealand

The 18 Best Things to Do in New Zealand’s South Island

Milford Sound is one of the most famous destinations on New Zealand's South Island

From moody mountains and crystal-clear alpine lakes to stunning beaches and cool cities, New Zealand’s South Island boasts a long list of locations and natural sights worth exploring. The challenge is to fit them all in just one trip. This list of the best things to see and do on the South Island of New Zealand is here to help you select the most exciting experiences for your own itinerary.  

The Best Things to Do in New Zealand’s South Island  

Cruise Marlborough Sounds

A sunny day in the Marlborough Sounds

At the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island lies a network of ancient sea-drowned valleys called the Marlborough Sounds. This area features an intricate coastline with secluded bays, islets and peninsulas surrounded by forested hills. Marlborough Sounds are breathtakingly picturesque and have many remote corners where you can truly get away from it all. They are also teeming with wildlife including dolphins, seals and native New Zealand birds. 

One of the best ways to experience the beauty of the sounds is by boat. If you are travelling to the South Island on the Interislander ferry from Wellington, you will get to enjoy the incredible views of the sounds as part of your journey. Another option is to jump on a cruise from Picton or Havelock, the two major towns of the area. There are lots of day cruises to choose from, including the ones that specialise in wildlife spotting and seafood tasting. Whatever option you go for, a day of stunning scenery is guaranteed.  

Bike Around Blenheim Vineyards 

Just a 30-minute drive south from Picton in the Marlborough Sounds is the town of Blenheim. It is most famous for its proximity to the world-famous Marlborough wine region. It is New Zealand’s largest wine producing region. Although Sauvignon Blanc is Marlborough’s star export, the area offers more than 25 wine varieties. If you are visiting Blenheim and love wine, a visit to a vineyard or two is a must.  

If you would like to spend a day visiting different wineries, cycling is a great option. You can join a guided tour or hire a bike to explore the region independently. There is an abundance of wineries to choose from, so you probably won’t be able to visit them all in just a day. This Marlborough wine trail map can help you plan your journey.  

Many wineries also have restaurants on the premises which are perfect for a lunch stop. However, I would advise selecting an eatery and booking a table there in advance. In high season, cruise ship groups that stop in Picton often visit the Marlborough region for a day trip. As a result, some wineries can get extremely busy, and you might not be able to get a table on the day.  

Additional wine experiences in the Marlborough Region

Hike the Abel Tasman Coast Track 

A beautiful beach in the Abel Tasman National Park on New Zealand's South Island
A beautiful beach in the Abel Tasman National Park

The Abel Tasman National Park, located at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, is a popular destination for travellers. It is famous for its stunning coastline featuring golden sand beaches, dramatic cliffs and lush woodland. Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest and most accessible national park. It can be explored on foot, by boat, kayak or even helicopter.  

The most popular way to experience the park is by walking the 60 km (37 mile) long Abel Tasman Coast Track. As the name suggests, this hike follows its beautiful coastline. The walk normally takes 3 to 5 days to complete. Along the way, you can spot native birdlife, go snorkelling in the crystal-clear sea or simply relax at one of the park’s many beaches.  

If you prefer to visit Abel Tasman on a day trip, you can walk a section of the track instead. Local tour companies organise drop off and pick up from different spots within the park. No matter how you choose to experience the park, it is worth adding to your New Zealand itinerary.   

Explore Golden Bay 

The remote Wharariki Beach in Golden Bay
The remote Wharariki Beach

If you are looking to experience a more off-the beaten path area as part of your New Zealand trip, make sure to visit Golden Bay. Located on the north-western end of the South Island, this area is famous for its natural beauty and artsy towns. Although you can get there by air, the most scenic option is to drive over the Takaka Hill along State Highway 60 from Nelson. As this is the only road in, Golden Bay is not as busy as other popular South Island spots. 

Golden Bay’s main town is Takaka where artisan stores and independent cafes line the main street. It is a great base for exploring all that the region has to offer. Visit the incredible Te Waikoropupu Springs (also known as the Pupu Springs), just a short drive from Takaka. It is the largest freshwater spring in the country containing some of the clearest water on the planet. It is accessible via an easy walking track.  

Head west to see the remote Farewell Spit, one of the largest sandspits in the world. It is home to a bird sanctuary and a wetland of international importance. You can walk along the first 4 km of the spit. To visit the rest, you will need to join a Department of Conservation-approved guided tour. Experience the rugged and wild Wharariki Beach, just a 10-minute drive from Farewell Spit. You might recognise its unique rock formations from an old Windows screensaver.  

Go Whale-Watching in Kaikoura 

A Kaikoura scenery
Mountains and the sea – a common Kaikoura scenery

Wildlife lovers should not miss Kaikoura, a picturesque town located on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Just a two and a half-hour drive north from Christchurch, it boasts a picture-perfect location between a rugged mountain range and the Pacific Ocean. Although Kaikoura offers plenty of activities for all tastes, it is most famous for its wildlife encounters.  

The sea and land around Kaikoura are teeming with wildlife, from fur seals to native birds. One of the most exciting experiences you can enjoy while visiting this part of the country is whale watching. The waters around Kaikoura see over a dozen whale and dolphin species throughout the year. Amongst them is the Giant Sperm Whale, the largest toothed whale in the world. They can be spotted all year round.  

You can get up close and personal with them either by boat or by air. Whale Watch Kaikoura run the boat tours, while Air Kaikoura offer panoramic whale watching flights. 

Swim with Hector’s Dolphins 

Hector's Dolphins - the smallest and rarest dophin in the world

New Zealand is home to the Hector’s Dolphin, the smallest and rarest dolphin species in the world. They can only be found off the coast of the South Island. Akaroa Harbour and Banks Peninsula, just east of Christchurch, have the largest population of the Hector’s dolphin.  

You can get up close and personal with these charming dolphins on a visit to Akaroa. This historic town is the starting point of guided tours that feature a swimming experience with hector’s dolphins. The dolphins are friendly and curious, so there is a good chance that they will get close to you. It is a unique and special marine encounter that should be on your list of things to do in New Zealand.  

Guided Tours in Akaroa

Stargaze at Lake Tekapo 

The clear night sky at Lake Tekapo in New Zealand's South Island
The Church of the Good Shepherd and the night sky of Lake Tekapo

A popular stop on the route between Christchurch and Queenstown, Lake Tekapo is a picturesque spot featuring a turquoise-coloured lake and surrounded by the Southern Alps. During the day, you can enjoy a hike with great views, check out the iconic Church of the Good Shepherd or simply relax at a café by the lake. However, Lake Tekapo really comes into its own when the sun goes down. 

Lake Tekapo is part of New Zealand’s only dark sky reserve, making it a great destination for stargazing. With its clear sky and lack of light pollution, it is also one of the best places in the country to observe the Southern Lights, the Southern hemisphere’s version of the Northern Lights. The best time to observe this ethereal phenomenon is between April and September. 

The Mt John Observatory offers a guided stargazing experience at the summit of Mt John. With the help of the expert guides and a telescope, you will see a myriad star clusters, planets, far away galaxies and the Milky Way. This tour is weather-dependent, so an alternative indoor experience may be offered if it is not possible to observe the sky.  

For something different, check out Tekapo Star Gazing, a guided stargazing experience in hot pools. Combine relaxation at Tekapo Springs with stories and science of the night sky. You can even take advantage of floating hammocks for that feeling of complete zen.  

Marvel at Mount Cook 

A walking track neat Mount Cook

At 3,754 metres, Aoraki / Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand. It is part of the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park that includes 19 peaks over 3,000 meters. It is possible to climb Mount Cook, but it is a challenging track. Only those who have the right skills and experience should attempt it. However, you don’t have to be a mountaineer to enjoy the incredible beauty of this mountain and its surrounding area. 

At the foot of Mount Cook, you will find a small settlement under the same name. The village is a great base for short walks near the mountain. These are suitable for different fitness level and feature native bush and incredible views. You can also get a scenic flight or helicopter ride to get up close and personal with the more remote parts of the national park. 

Take a Ride on the Queenstown Skyline Gondola 

The gondola experience in Queenstown

Surrounded by magnificent mountains and crystal-clear alpine lakes, Queenstown is New Zealand’s tourist mecca.  A visit to the South Island would not be complete without spending at least a couple of days in this stunning location. From unforgettable hikes and lake cruises to world-class skiing and vibrant nightlife, there is plenty to see and do in Queenstown. 

One of the most popular experiences in this lively town is taking a scenic ride on the Skyline Gondola. The steepest cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, it will take you more than 450 meters above Queenstown to the top of Bob’s Peak. You will then be treated to incredible panoramic views over the town and its majestic surroundings. Extend your experience by having a drink at the bar or enjoying a meal at Stratosfare Restaurant. Thrill-seekers can take a ride or two on the Luge.  

The Skyline Gondola is a touristy experience, so expect it to be busy. However, if you are visiting Queenstown for the first time, the stunning views are worth it.       

Find Your Zen at Onsen Pools in Queenstown 

New Zealand’s South Island and Queenstown specifically offer an abundance of fun activities for active travellers. However, if you are looking to relax and recharge, make sure to check out Onsen Pools. Just a 10-minute drive from Queenstown’s town centre, this spot is popular with locals and visitors alike.  

Inspired by Japanese bathing traditions, Onsen Pools provide a tranquil day spa experience featuring cedar hot tubs and stunning views over the mountains. You can either book a classic soak in a hot tub or a package featuring additional spa treatments like facials or massages. Onsen Pools are on the pricier side of things, but if your budget allows, it is worth adding it to your itinerary. 

Visit Milford Sound 

The stunning Milford Sound

A natural wonder of immense beauty, Milford Sound is one of the most popular experiences on New Zealand’s South Island. Although called a sound, it is actually a fiord. Located within Fiordland National Park, a 4-hour drive from Queenstown, Milford Sound brings together towering cliffs, mountain peaks, native rainforest and spectacular waterfalls. The dark waters of this fiord are home to native wildlife such penguins, seals and dolphins.  

You can choose to do the scenic drive to Milford Sound independently or join a day tour. The latter might be a better option if you have not driven in alpine conditions before. Once you are there, the best way to explore the Sound is by boat. There is a range of different cruises to choose from, including overnight ones. Kayaking trips and scenic flights are also available.  

As Milford Sound is the only fiord in New Zealand accessible by road, it can get a little busy in the summer months. However, a day out in this stunning area is totally worth it. Milford Sound is so spectacular, Rudyard Kipling named it the eighth wonder of the world. 

Guided Tours in Milford Sound

Enjoy the Tranquil Beauty of Lake Wanaka 

A beautiful day at Lake Wanaka

Another stunning South Island location that should be on your list is Lake Wanaka. Surrounded by the Southern Alps, it is an area of immense natural beauty. A great base for exploring the region is Wanaka, a picturesque township named after the lake on the shores of which it is situated. Compared to Queenstown, which is only an hour’s drive away, Wanaka has a more low-key vibe. While there is not much going on in terms of nightlife, the area offers an abundance of great things to see and do. 

Wanaka is a mecca for outdoor activities. From relaxing lakeside strolls and paddleboarding to skydiving and rock climbing, there are options for every taste and fitness level. In the winter months, Wanaka also becomes a pilgrimage spot for skiers and snowboarders. When you need to take a break from all the active pursuits, head to the Wanaka township for a great selection of cafes, restaurants and independent cinemas. The region also boasts several vineyards and craft beer breweries perfect for those looking to discover their favourite local tipple.   

Road Trip the West Coast 

Hokitika Gorge on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island
Hokitika Gorge

The West Coast of the South Island is an area of wilderness and rugged beauty. From glaciers and lush rainforests to remote beaches and mountains, this part of New Zealand is packed to the brim with stunning natural sights. With its diversity of landscape, the West Coast is the perfect area for an epic road trip. 

If you are starting your journey with a scenic drive from Queenstown to Haast, a spectacular area which has been awarded a UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It is perfect for hiking, fishing and wildlife spotting. If you can, it’s worth staying the night there to experience more of its beautiful scenery.  

From Haast, continue your journey along the West Coast onto the Glacier Country. This is where some of the most accessible glaciers in the world, Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers, are located. Both glaciers offer spectacular scenery worth exploring. There is a township near each of them, offering accommodation if you would like to stay the night. The next major stop would be Hokitika, a historic small town which is a great base for visiting the stunning Hokitika Gorge.  

You can then head east towards Christchurch via a town called Kumara and Arthur’s Pass. Alternatively, you can continue your West Coast journey from Hokitika on to Greymouth, another historic town.  Then, keep going towards Westport. Make sure to stop by the famous Punakaiki Rocks before you reach the town. From Westport, you can complete your journey by travelling all the way to Nelson.  

This is just a simple route idea. There are many more exciting places along the way worth a stop. You can also approach the journey from different directions. If you have time, allow at least 4 days to see the highlights of the region.  

Visit Glaciers 

Franz Joseph Glacier on New Zealand's West Coast
Franz Joseph Glacier

New Zealand is home to a myriad of glaciers, so they deserve their own section in this article. Most of these are concentrated in the Southern Alps on the South Island. Unfortunately, due to climate change, many glaciers are losing snow and ice. Although they are becoming smaller every year, many of them are still accessible to visitors. These unique ice formations are often surrounded by emerald rainforests, creating a beautiful contrasting landscape unique to New Zealand. 

As mentioned in the previous section, Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers on the West Coast are easily accessible. They are the largest and most popular on New Zealand’s South Island. The glaciers are a 4-hour drive away from Queenstown and a 2-hour drive from Greymouth. You can access both via a short, easy track. Guided ice walks are available for those who would like to experience their unique beauty up close. Scenic flights are also an option to observe the glaciers from above.  

Hike a ‘Great Walk” 

A view along the Milford Track

The New Zealand Great Walks are multi-day hiking tracks showcasing the best scenery and cultural heritage the country has to offer. Currently, there are 10 walks you can attempt. The North Island is home to three excellent Great Walks, including one which is actually a canoe journey. However, it the South Island where most of them are located.  

Each Great Walk is unique, but the most famous ones are the Routeburn Track and Milford Track. The former connects the Mount Aspiring National Park with the Fiordland National Park. Along the way you can enjoy breath-taking mountain views, gorgeous lakes, waterfalls and an abundance of native birds. The track is 32 kilometres long. It is not a loop, and you can start at either Glenorchy near Queenstown or Te Anu.  

The 53-kilometre Milford Track will take you to the heart of the Fiordland National Park. It begins at Lake Te Anu and completes on a high note at the spectacular Milford Sound. The journey will take you past mountain peaks, tranquil lakes, pristine forests, waterfalls and enormous valleys.   

You can add even more colour to your Great Walk experience by booking a guided tour. There are several tour operators who can organise these. One thing for sure, no matter which walk you choose to do, it is going to be an experience of a lifetime. 

Enjoy the Cool Vibes of Dunedin 

Beautiful architecture in Dunedin
Beautiful architecture in Dunedin

Fascinating history, a vibrant cultural scene and natural beauty come together in the city Dunedin. Located on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, it is enclosed by emerald hills and a picturesque harbour. Dunedin is also one of New Zealand’s first cities where the old and the new combine in a unique way. 

The city started its life during the Gold Rush of the 19th century. As a result, the city boasts beautiful historic architecture including Edwardian mansions, Gothic churches and even a castle. Dunedin also boasts a great selection of museums and art galleries. Explore Otago Museum’s antiquities and natural history collections, learn about the history of the city at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum and enjoy historic and contemporary art at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.  

When you want to escape the city life, Dunedin has got you covered. Stunning beaches, coastal walks, fascinating rock formations and beautiful gardens are in abundance in this region. For instance, Dunedin is home to the Chinese Gardens created in the traditional Chinese Scholar Garden style. These are perfect when you are after a dose of serenity. The city also has a great dining and craft beer scene with cafes, restaurants, markets and breweries for every taste.  

Explore the Catlins 

The Nugget Point Lighthouse in the Catlins
The Nugget Point Lighthouse in the Catlins

The Catlins, located on the south-eastern end of New Zealand’s South Island, is a true hidden gem. Even though it is only an hour and a half long drive from Dunedin, it is one of the least-visited New Zealand destinations. However, that does not mean that this small but perfectly formed region is not worth a visit. On the contrary, the Catlins is brimming with natural beauty, from rugged coastline and stunning waterfalls to ancient forests and enormous sea caves.  

The Catlins are a great destination for hiking, camping and wildlife spotting. It is home to sea lions, seals, numerous species of native birds and even Hector’s dolphins. Head to Curio Bay during outgoing tide and you will get to see 180-million-year-old ancient fossil forest. Visit the picturesque Nugget Point where you can enjoy a stunning coastal panorama from the viewing platform at the Nugget Point lighthouse. Another famous coastal spot with wild views is Slope Point, the most southernmost point on the South Island.   

And the best part? Since the Catlins are sparsely populated and the tourist crowds never really make it there, you will have all those beautiful spots pretty much to yourself. 

Get Away From it all in Stewart Island 

A picturesque Stewart Island scenery
A picturesque Stewart Island beach scenery

Stewart Island, the third largest island in the country, is remote even by New Zealand standards. It is situated 30 kilometres south of the South Island and can be reached either by ferry from Bluff or flight from Invercargill. Since there are no big settlements there, the island has been relatively untouched by humans. As a result, it is a great place to enjoy pristine nature and tranquillity.  

With its Raikura National Park, Stewart Island is a paradise for hikers. From the three-day Raikura Great Walk to day hiking tracks, there are options for different fitness and experience levels. Stewart Island also offers incredible birdwatching opportunities. A multitude of native New Zealand species, including the famous kiwi bird, call Stewart Island home. Due to the lack of light pollution common in urban areas, the island is the perfect spot for stargazing. It has even been awarded the Dark Sky Sanctuary status. 

If you are looking for a feeling of complete remoteness while being surrounded by a stunning scenery, Stewart Island should be on your New Zealand itinerary. 

When is the Best Time to Visit New Zealand’s South Island

The best time to visit New Zealand’s South Island depends on your itinerary and activities that you would like to pursue. The New Zealand summer months (December through February) offer the best weather and the most sunshine. It is the perfect time to head to the beach and make the most of other outdoor activities. However, it is also the high season, so some attractions may feel crowded and the prices for accommodation are high.  

Shoulder seasons (September to November and March to May), although cooler, still offer plenty of good weather with fewer crowds and better prices. If you are looking to hit the slopes or would like to experience the dramatic beauty of the South Island in winter, the best time to visit is between June and September. However, places like Queenstown, where you can find some of the most popular ski fields in the country, are going to be busy in the winter season too.  

How to Get Around New Zealand’s South Island

The best way to get around New Zealand’s South Island is on your own four wheels. You can hire a car and stay over in conventional accommodation along the way. Alternatively, you can hire a campervan or motorhome and stay in camping sites and holiday parks. Having your own transportation will give you the most flexibility and freedom.   

If you are not keen on driving, there are other options. Major cities like Christchurch, Nelson, Queenstown and Dunedin all have airports, so you can travel between different South Island regions by air. There is also the Intercity bus network that has extensive coverage of the island. Tourist bus networks like the Kiwi Experience and Contiki offer tours and hop-on hop-off options that will help you get to all major tourist destinations. 

The South Island does not have a commuter rail network. However, there are two scenic train journeys that are worth a mention. The TranzApline train travels between Christchurch and Greymouth showcasing the beauty of both the East and West coasts of the island. The Coastal Pacific train will take you from Picton to Christchurch via Blenheim and Kaikoura. You will get to enjoy coastal and mountain scenery along the way.  

These routes are not enough for a comprehensive trip around the South Island, but they offer an alternative way to experience the beauty of this part of the world.  

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