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North Island VS South Island of New Zealand – Which is Better?

North Island VS South Island of New Zealand – Which is Better?

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If you’re planning on traveling to New Zealand anytime soon, there’s probably one question on your mind: North or South?

The country is made up of two beautiful, but very distinct, islands, each with its own unique landscape and climate. Of course, it’s best to visit both the North Island and the South Island if you can! However, there’s not always time for this, especially since there’s so much to see and do on each island. 

I’ve lived in New Zealand since 2018, so I’ve been lucky enough to explore both islands in depth. Of course, I have my personal favorite, but everyone’s different. As such, I’ve written this comparison to help you decide which island is best for your trip. 

North Island VS South Island – Which is my favorite?

Bailey at the summit of Bream Head Scenic Reserve, New Zealand
Bream Head Scenic Reserve near Whangarei, North Island
A lady stands on deck of a Milford Sound cruise and enjoys the view
Milford Sound, South Island

Given the name of my blog, it should probably come as no surprise that the South Island is my favorite! It’s much more mountainous, with dramatic scenery that will take your breath away. Even after living here for so long, the sheer diversity of the South Island continues to blow my mind. You’ve got isolated fjords, huge glaciers, fantastic winelands, and tons of unique wildlife.

The South Island is the perfect place for a New Zealand road trip (see my favorite 10-day South Island road trips here!), because there are so many stunning drives here, and you can visit so many cute towns along the way to experience the slow-paced Kiwi lifestyle. It’s also ideal for skiing, with lots of famous ski resorts to choose from, and, obviously, I’m very devoted to the city of Queenstown

With that being said, if you’ve got a lot of mountain scenery back home, then you might prefer the more unique landscapes of the North Island. It boasts volcanic scenery, as well as gorgeous stretches of coastline with white sand beaches. It’s also warmer, so it’s better for camping – one of my favorite activities in New Zealand.

North Island

Bailey with a red wood at Whakarewarewa Forest in Rotorua
Whakarewarewa Forest in Rotorua, North Island
Close up of the Maori rock carving in Taupo, NZ as seen on a boat cruise
A Maori rock carving in Taupo, North Island

The North Island is a fascinating place to visit, with lots of Maori culture to discover here. In fact, around 85% of New Zealand’s Maori population live on the North Island, so if you want to learn about indigenous traditions and history, this is the place to be. The North Island is also just more populated, so there are more cosmopolitan cities here. 

There are also active volcanoes here, so you can visit hot springs and geysers, and many of the country’s best surf breaks can be found on the North Island, too. And for Lord of the Rings fans, the North Island is a must because it’s home to Hobbiton and the Weta Workshop!

10 best things to do on the North Island

1. Visit Hobbiton

Bailey walks up to the door of a Hobbit Hole at Hobbiton in New Zealand
At Hobbiton!
Bailey sits in the door of a red Hobbit home at Hobbiton, NZ
It’s even too small for me!

“Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit” fans can’t miss this opportunity to visit the Hobbiton Movie Set! Walking past the familiar sights of the Shire, it feels as if a wise wizard might hop around the corner and whisk you off on an adventure at any moment!

When I went, I saw some local spots like the world-famous Hobbit Holes, the Mill, and the iconic Green Dragon Inn. If you’ve always dreamed of seeing this idyllic corner of Middle-earth, the North Island delivers.

And even if you’re not a die-hard fan of the books and movies, it’s still a gorgeous and downright fun place to visit!

Green fields and a beer barrel at Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton is such a beautiful place!

There are some things to know before visiting Hobbiton. It’s located in the Waikato region, which is about a 2.5-hour drive from Auckland or an hour from Rotorua.

The only way to visit this movie set location is on a tour and bookings are required. Luckily, there are plenty of options for tours, including the classic Hobbiton Movie Set Tour and a Second Breakfast Tour (which is awesome for early risers with an appetite – like me!). If you’re more of a night owl, the Evening Banquet Tour begins at dusk with a guided walking tour of the set. You’ll end with a drink in the Green Dragon Inn, but after that, you also get to tuck into an amazing banquet feast, fit for hobbits, humans, dwarves – you name it!

You can check the full list of tours and secure your tickets here. Luckily, Hobbiton is open year-round, with different tours leaving all day long, so you should be able to find one that suits your needs!

If you don’t want to drive, there are Hobbiton tours from Auckland as well as tours from Rotorua. And if you’re visiting the coast, you can also try one of these top Hobbiton tours from Tauranga.

2. Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Bailey looks down at the valley on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
What a view!
Green volcanic lake on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
The volcanic lakes at Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been deemed the best single-day hike in New Zealand and is also one of the top ten day hikes in the world. I love many hikes on the North Island, but this one might be my favorite. It has that other-worldly feel with beautiful blue waters, unique peaks, and volcanic landscapes.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, and it’s no wonder scenes from LOTR were also filmed here – it’s stunning! But although it feels so wild, it’s no stranger to visitors. Visiting this area is a common stop on a North Island road trip and is usually done after exploring Rotorua or, if you’re coming from the south, Wellington.

Bailey walks along a boardwalk with a view of Mount Ruapehu or Mount Doom on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings!

Although I think it’s well worth the effort, I found the hike quite challenging. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19.4 km (12 miles) point-to-point hike. Considering the elevation gains and losses, it’ll take about 6-9 hours total. It’s no joke so come prepared with plenty of layers, water, sturdy boots, hiking poles, and of course, your camera!

It’s worth mentioning that the Mangatepopo Parking Lot, which is the beginning of the trek, has a 4-hour parking limit – and you’re going to need more than that! You’ll also need a ride back to your car from the endpoint of the hike. As such, I recommend booking this shuttle service that includes a free secure parking space and transport back to your car. The shuttle service costs $60 NZD and it’s great because you can book ahead.

Lastly, I recommend only attempting this strenuous day hike under good conditions. Before you head out, check the Tongariro Crossing website for daily updates about weather conditions. But if it’s a nice summer day and you’ve got the energy, you really shouldn’t miss it!

Related Read: For another fun activity, consider ziplining in NZ, too! There are plenty of tours around the country, but my favorite ziplining tours are in Rotorua!

3. See the Waitomo Caves

Glow worms in the Waitomo Glow worm cave in New Zealand
Glow worms in Waitomo Cave
A single glow worm in the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
A single glow worm, so cool!

The Waitomo Caves are not just a simple cave that you can quickly walk through, it is a full-day, adventure-loaded experience. There is SO much to see and do at the Waitomo Caves, it’s the perfect day trip for adrenaline junkies and adventurers. Believe me when I say paddling through underground rivers while you explore the maze of caves in Waitomo is one of the coolest things to do in New Zealand.

The Waitomo Caves are a network of caves, sinkholes, and underground rivers that are ready to be explored. It’s no wonder they’re one of the most popular and best glow worm caves in New Zealand. The name Waitomo comes from the Maori language words water (wai) and hole (tomo).

I heard about the magic of the Waitomo Caves but it wasn’t until I found myself floating down a river in a dark underground cave marveling at the thousands of glow worms hanging above me that I really felt it. But the Waitomo Caves are about so much more than just the glow worms (although trust me, they are amazing!). You will learn about Maori history, see huge stalactite formations, and be awed by the large Cathedral Cave.

The Waitomo Caves are located in King County, about an hour’s drive from Hamilton and a 2.5-hour drive south of Auckland. The drive to the caves is a fantastic day trip from Auckland and gives you that idyllic New Zealand backdrop.

glow worm caves in new zealand
Glow worms look like little stars!

The Waitomo Caves have different costs based on what you’d like from your experience and you MUST go on an organized tour. 

This guided tour to the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves takes you and a small group on a 45-minute tour through the caves. After walking through the giant caves and quickly visiting the impressive Cathedral Cave, we hopped on a boat and floated through the caves, marveling at the impressive light show of the millions of glow worms. This tour costs $75 NZD per person and is the cheapest and shortest one, so it’s easy to fit into your itinerary.

However, if you have more time, I recommend this Black Water Rafting Waitomo Cave Tour. When I took this tour, I floated in an inner tube through the cave systems and jumped off a small waterfall too! This tour is 3 hours long and costs $179 NZD, but can be upgraded to a 5-hour Black Abyss tour which also includes some awesome rappelling.

Both of these excursions include wetsuits, boots, helmets, and all the safety equipment you’ll need to keep you safe with a hot shower at the end.

4. See the gannet colony at Muriwai Beach

Gannet colony at Muriwai Beach NZ
Gannets at Muriwai Beach!

Muriwai Beach is the ideal place to swim, surf, relax on the sand, grab a coffee from a nearby cafe, or have a picnic. But the main reason people flock here (pun intended) is for the birds.

Yes, calling all local wildlife lovers! The volcanic cliffs that line this black-sand beach are home to a massive gannet colony. We’re talking about 2,400 birds, give or take. These large white seabirds call the cliffs home from August to March. I visited in January and saw many baby gannets from the convenient viewing platforms, which was so cool!

If you drive to Muriwai Beach, here’s a hot tip. Head up Waitea Road for a sweeping view of Muriwai Beach and Maori Bay from the top of the hill. 

If an organized tour is more your style, I’ve got you. Check out this private nature tour from Auckland where you get to customize the itinerary as you see the spectacular West Coast. Your guide, Gesa, will take you where the tour buses don’t – including vineyards, black-sand beaches, and some spectacular photo ops. Of course, a stop at the gannet colony is included and you’ll get close enough to see the adorable gannet chicks. Prices depend on group size, costing $315 NZD per person for 2 people or $247 NZD for groups of 3-6.

5. WETA Workshop (Wellington)

Bailey poses with a troll at Weta Cave and Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand
At the WETA Workshop!
A life size orc at Wētā Workshop and Cave in Wellington
A life-sized Orc!

Wellington isn’t just the capital of the country, it’s New Zealand’s film capital as well! There are some world-renowned studios here, but the most famous of them all is Wētā Workshop, the special effects company behind movies like Lord of the RingsKing Kong, and Avatar

Wētā Workshop is a special effects and prop company, and it’s been around since 1987. However, it became super famous for providing sets, costumes, creatures, and more for the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s. 

Superfans of the movies began visiting the workshop each day, hoping to catch a glimpse of the goings on there. As a result, the founders decided to open the Wētā Cave, where fans could go and see costumes, statues, and weapons that were used in the movies, and even buy replicas to take home. 

There are some things to know before visiting the Wētā Workshop and I’ll cover the most important items here. First off, when you take a tour, you can see the working studio, learn all about the creative process behind their world-famous props and effects, and sometimes even see artists at work! You can only visit the workshops as part of a tour, but if you’re on a budget you can still visit the cave for free and see all of the amazing displays there. 

If you’re looking to simply tour the cave and workshop, this guided tour is my favorite option. You’ll have 90 minutes to get an in-depth look at the workshop for just $57 NZD.

However, if you want to make a day of it, go for this Full-Day Lord of the Rings Tour. You’ll visit Hobbiton Woods and the Wētā Workshop, and you’ll travel all over Wellington to check out filming locations from the movies. The guides are fun and friendly, and it’s a small group tour so everyone can bond over their love of Lord of the Rings. It costs $285 NZD, including hotel pickup and drop-off from Wellington CBD, but bring some extra cash for lunch!

Wētā Cave and Workshop is located in the suburb of Miramar, about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from Wellington city center. Some tours, like the full-day LOTR tour, include transport if you don’t have your own wheels. if you prefer public transit, you can also take the Number 2 bus from the CBD to Miramar and then it’s just a short walk to the Cave.

The Wētā Workshop and Cave is open from 8:45 am to 5 pm, 7 days a week, so you really have flexibility on your timing! You can do it year-round, but it also makes for a great winter activity in New Zealand.

6. Chase waterfalls

Bridal Veil Falls, Raglan
Bridal Veil Falls, Raglan

So many of us are drawn to the picturesque, and ethereal atmosphere that waterfalls create. Luckily, there are many epic waterfalls in New Zealand!

Waterfalls can be found throughout the North and South Islands, from hidden gems that will require some hiking to more accessible and well-known spots. And below, I’ll give you the inside scoop on a few of my favorites on the North Island!

Only a short 15-minute drive out of Raglan via Te Mata Road is the start of the bush walk to the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls, also known as Waireinga in Maori. You can view the 55-meter (180-foot) waterfall (pictured above) from four different platforms going from the base of the waterfall to the top, each with different views of the spectacular site. It’s not safe to swim in the water here, but you can get some great photos and videos. 

For a shorter, easier walk, consider just doing the 10-minute walk to the top of the falls, this trail is wheelchair and stroller-friendly, and honestly, the view from the viewpoint here is epic!

The 26-meter (85-foot) high Whangarei Falls is one of the most beautiful curtain waterfalls in the country. Only 10 minutes away from central Whangarei, you can park your car at the Boundary Road Parking Lot to access the two popular walking tracks to Whangarei Falls. The first is the Otuihau Whangarei Falls Loop, which takes you to the base of the waterfall in about 15 minutes. Another great track to take to access Whangarei Falls is the Sands Road Loop which takes 3 hours to walk.

Last but not least, don’t miss seeing the highest waterfall on the North Island of New Zealand! Wairere Falls is 153 meters (502 feet) high and is found in the gorgeous Kaimai Mamaku Conservation Park. The hike to get here is very popular for both locals and visitors because of its breathtaking views of the waterfall, the valley, and Waikato. 

Hiking to the top of Wairere Falls is recommended only for those with a decent level of fitness though and I’d bring good hiking shoes! The track from the parking lot to the lower lookout will take about 25-45 minutes and be prepared for a walk over large boulders, tree roots, and along some wooden bridges that go overtop of streams. Want to continue to the top of the waterfall? That’s another 90 minutes and includes around 100 steps to climb – but it’s worth the effort for those stunning vistas!

7. Go surfing

Bailey walks along the beach with a surfboard in NZ
Fun fact, I surf!

With such an extensive coastline, you better believe New Zealand boasts some awesome surfing destinations! The North Island is warmer year-round and offers better surfing in my opinion, including one of my fave spots, Raglan!

Raglan is known in the surfing world as one of the best places in New Zealand to catch a wave. There are several surf beaches within driving distance of Raglan town, and each one is suitable for different abilities. 

A good beach for beginner surfers is Ngarunui Beach because it has more consistent waves and lifeguards during the summertime. Whale Bay is a must for advanced surfers, provided you’re up for a challenge. Manu Bay is a famous surf beach and was featured in the movie ‘Endless Summer’. It has one of the longest left-hand breaks in the world, and if you’re skilled enough, you could catch a wave here and ride it for up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles)!

If you’re staying in Auckland and looking for a great surf beach close to the city, less than an hour west you’ll find Piha Beach. This black sandy beach is a great place to surf year-round, but you’ll need to be aware of the rough waves and strong currents. It’s best for advanced surfers, but you can always take a surf lesson or catch an incredible sunset here. For an easier surf just 90 minutes from Auckland, head to Te Arai Beach, which tends to be less crowded.

Other popular surfing spots on the North Island include Shipwreck Bay and Muriwai Beach. Or, you could head further south to Surf Highway 45. The highway runs along the coastline from northern New Plymouth to southern Hawera. Surf Highway 45 stretches 105 km (65 miles) along the stunning coastline passing many beautiful beaches, small towns – and yep, you guessed it – surf spots! 

8. Wine tasting on Waiheke Island

Bailey drinks wine at a winery on Waiheke Island from Auckland
Cheers to good wine!
A winery on Waiheke Island in Auckland
So beautiful!

Known as New Zealand’s “Island of Wine”, Waiheke Island has the perfect climate for growing grapes. There are around 30 local wineries here! I didn’t make it to all of them, but I definitely savored the taste of the wines along with enjoying the picturesque views. 

One of my top picks is Man O’War Vineyard – the waterfront location is amazing and they have such unique blends!

Another stop I enjoyed was Mudbrick Vineyard. The wine here is excellent (try the Mudbrick Chardonnay) and there are two restaurants here overlooking the waters of the Hauraki Gulf. They offer tastings daily at their Cellar Door, so you can try a few different wines to find what you like.

One of the best ways to explore New Zealand’s best wine regions is to take a tour. Otherwise, you’re going to need a designated driver who will miss out on some of the tastings – and there are plenty I wouldn’t want to skip!

This Waiheke Boutique Picnic Lunch and Wine Tastings Tour takes you to visit multiple wineries and stop for lunch at one of them. You’ll visit Waiheke Island’s best wineries, including Cable Bay Vineyard’s Cellar Door, Batch Winery, Stonyridge Vineyard, and Mudbrick Vineyard. All wine tastings and your transport on the island are included for $178 NZD, and you can add a set lunch for an additional $50 NZD.

9. Rotorua whitewater rafting

Bailey take a selfie while white water rafting in New Zealand

The whitewater rafting in Rotorua is somewhat famous, and for good reason – here you’ll find the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world! The 7-meter (23-foot) drop of Tutea Falls definitely got my heart racing! It’s easily one of the best whitewater rafting experiences in all of New Zealand.

While there are a few different companies that offer whitewater rafting in Rotorua, this particular tour comes with the best reviews. The 1-hour rafting starts with some easier rapids on the Kaituna River before reaching the famous drop! If that isn’t enough excitement, I also got to try cliff jumping with a leap off of a 3-meter (10-foot) cliff.

I also love that there are photographers on the tour who will capture you in your best wetsuit-wearing pose! You can buy those after the activity, once your heart has stopped racing, and I recommend you do. This way, there’s no need to worry about getting that camera wet, you can sit back and enjoy the ride – and paddle too, of course! The experience costs $115 NZD per person, including hotel pick-up and drop-off, all safety equipment, and your experienced river guides.

Tip: Wear a swimsuit and bring a change of clothes for afterward!

Why I Book Tours on Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book all of my tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:

  • Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
  • Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
  • Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
  • Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.

Check out the Viator website here

10. Visit hot springs and hot pools

Bailey relaxes in the secret hot springs in Rotorua, New Zealand
Bailey relaxing at the Secret Spot Hot Tubs in Rotorua

New Zealand has some of the best hot pools and hot springs in the world. I love a good soak and on the North Island, you’ve got options, from spa experiences to more laid-back, private pools. Relaxing in hot springs is ideal after a long hike or if you’re on a romantic getaway in New Zealand.

For a private oasis in Rotorua, check out the Secret Spot Hot Tubs, which has 12 private hot tubs you can book that fit up to 6 people and are filled with water from a hidden spring in the Whakarewarewa Forest.

At the DeBretts Spa Resort, you can literally soak up the Taupo region’s volcanic past and present in the natural hot springs. This place also boasts a theme park with waterslides, a warm water playground, indoor private pools, and freshwater pools. It’s a place both kids and adults will love! Entrance to the two main pools costs $24 NZD.

You can also enjoy swimming in the natural hot springs at Kerosene Creek! Plus, this activity is totally free. Kerosene Creek is very close to Waiotapu Geothermal Park, located around the halfway point on the drive from Taupo to Rotorua.

If you’re looking for a beachside environment, head to Hot Water Beach where you can dig your own hot pool! It’s quite a phenomenon and is made possible by the thermal water which bubbles below the sand’s surface! All you have to do is dig in the sand in the right spot and the water that comes up is steaming hot – how cool!

Hot tip: From the parking lot, walk onto Hot Water Beach and, turn left, continue walking until the beach narrows – you will notice at this point a large rock in the ocean. Stand facing the rock, and you have found the best spot to start digging. 

Related Read: Check out my full list of the coolest things to do on the North Island – I have 33 ideas there!

Pros of visiting the North Island

Pohutu Geyser shoots up in Rotorua, New Zealand
Pohutu Geyser!

Home to New Zealand’s volcanic zones

One of the top reasons to visit the North Island is that it’s a hub of volcanic activity! You can visit the geothermal parks in Rotorua to take mud baths and marvel at the geysers, and even fly over the offshore White Island volcano from the Bay of Plenty. Meanwhile, there are three active volcanoes in the spectacular Tongariro National Park

Better road conditions

Okay, I know I did say that the South Island makes for an epic road trip (and I stand by that statement), but the roads on the North Island are generally in better condition. There’s more infrastructure, and there’s a well-connected road network here that makes driving around the island a lot more convenient. 

Warmer all year round

If you hate the cold, then you’ll be pleased to know that the North Island stays warm all year round! Temperatures range between 20-25˚C (68-77°F) during the summer, and even in the middle of winter, it rarely drops below 10°C (50°F) during the day. In fact, the northern end of the island is actually considered subtropical. If you want a full breakdown of the seasons, my guide on when to visit the North Island does just that!

A lady relaxes at Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel, New Zealand
Hot Water Beach is amazing

Beautiful beaches

The North Island definitely beats the South Island in terms of beaches. Many of New Zealand’s best beaches can be found here, including the scenic Piha Beach near Auckland. Maunganui Beach is picture-perfect and Hot Water Beach is one of the most unique beaches I’ve ever visited! 

Not as busy

Even though the North Island has a larger population than the South Island, it’s not as busy. The South Island is more popular, whereas many destinations in the North can be considered off the beaten track. This is especially true in Northland, which is the island’s northernmost region. 

More freedom camping options

I spent four months living out of a van in New Zealand, and I can safely say that the North Island has a lot more options for freedom camping. This is fantastic news if you’re considering van life because freedom camping means that you don’t need to pay for campsites, and can roam as you please. In fact, the North Island has lots of specially designated freedom camping locations, many of which are located along the coast and offer amazing views!  

View over the city from the Auckland Sky Tower
Auckland is such a cool place!

More infrastructure (big cities, towns, etc)

The North Island has more large cities than the South Island. You’ve got Wellington, which I consider to be the coolest capital city in the world, and Auckland, which is the biggest city in New Zealand. In fact, there are 12 cities on the North Island, while the South Island only has four. The additional infrastructure means that the North Island is generally an easier and more convenient place to travel. 


The South Island is a cheaper place to live, but for tourists, the North Island is more affordable. Since the South Island is so popular, you’ll end up paying more for tours and adventure activities. Plus, thanks to the aforementioned freedom camping, the North Island can be a lot cheaper if you’re road tripping

Cons of visiting the North Island

A beautiful beach on Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Waiheke Island is magical

Not home to the Southern Alps

The Southern Alps are one of my favorite things about living in New Zealand. They provide a stunning backdrop for so many adventures, from skiing and walking on glaciers to hiking and visiting gorgeous lakes. Exploring the Southern Alps really is a bucket list adventure, and you can’t do that on the North Island. 

Some top attractions are closed due to cyclone damage

In 2023, Cyclone Gabrielle caused a lot of damage to certain parts of the North Island, and over 100 tourist sites were closed as a result. This includes some of the island’s top attractions, like the famous Cathedral Cove, the Te Henga Walkway, and the Kawau Island walking tracks.

Not as safe

The North Island has a higher crime rate than the South Island. It makes sense since there are more people and more cities in this part of the country. The crime rate is still low by global standards and it’s generally pretty safe for tourists. However, being a safe place to travel is a big draw to New Zealand, and the South Island really delivers on that front. 

Fewer bucket list hikes

If you’re looking for epic, bucket-list-worthy hikes, then the South Island is the place to go. The North Island also has some wonderful hikes, but nothing compares to the beauty of the Southern Alps. Plus, as mentioned, a lot of the North Island’s best hikes are currently closed due to cyclone damage. 

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South Island

Stunning views of Abel Tasman National Park, NZ
Abel Tasman!
Bailey hikes up to the Mueller Hut in New Zealand via the Sealy Tarns Track
Mount Cook NP!

New Zealand’s South Island is a wild place filled with magnificent attractions and many amazing things to see and do, from hiking through national parks to scenic helicopter rides. Whatever you’re doing, it’s hard not to enjoy the gorgeous surroundings with a backdrop of the Southern Alps.

I fell in love with the South Island so much that I decided to call it home. And ever since, I’ve fallen in love more and more every day and I’ve been lucky enough to explore all corners of the South Island. If you have the time, I recommend taking a road trip on the South Island so you can hit up several destinations. But regardless of what you do, you’re bound to fall in love with this island just like I have!

10 best things to do on the South Island

1. Visit Milford Sound

Bailey smiles at the Camera on a Milford Sound cruise with a waterfall in the background
On a cruise at Milford Sound!
Bailey stands on the shores of Milford Sound looking out at Mitre Peak in Fiordland National Park
You can’t beat these views

Milford Sound is the most famous fiord in New Zealand. Carved by glaciers thousands of years ago, the fiord’s steep cliffs and unique marine life make it a spectacular place to visit. I myself, have explored Milford Sound countless times, and every time I’m blown away.

There’s certainly no shortage of amazing things to do in Milford Sound regardless of what time of year you visit! However, the quintessential activity is definitely taking a Milford Sound nature cruise. This will get you right on the water so you can see the full beauty of the area. When I went, our boat got close enough to waterfalls so that we could feel the spray. Talk about refreshing!

There are a few different ways to get to Milford Sound. You can drive yourself here – and it’s a spectacular journey! To help you out, I’ve written several road trip guides, including one from Christchurch to Milford Sound and another from Queenstown to Milford Sound. However, the drive is long, so I’d recommend staying overnight in Te Anau, the closest town to the sound.

The Milford Sound Dock with Mitre Peak in the background
Just wow!

If you prefer not to drive, there are many organized tours of Milford Sound. And if you want to stay on the water itself, I recommend taking an overnight cruise. There’s nothing quite as peaceful as waking up and enjoying the calm sound before the other tourists arrive.

If you’re staying in Queenstown, I recommend booking this tour that includes a scenic flight one way from Milford Sound back to Queenstown. This way, the driving time is cut in half but you also get to enjoy the beautiful road to Milford. Not to mention, a scenic flight over Fiordland National Park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience! Of course, it also includes the nature cruise once you arrive. While this tour is a bit pricier ($725 NZD), it really is an incredible experience.

Related Read:  Milford isn’t the only sound on the South Island. Read my comparison guide between Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound here.

2. Explore Mount Cook National Park

Bailey on Lake Pukaki Lookout on Mount Cook road with the famous view of the winding road with Mount Cook in the background
Along the road to Mount Cook!
Bailey in the Muller Hut area stands on a rock with Mount Cook in the background
At the Mueller Hut!

There’s no doubt that Mount Cook National Park is one of the most popular and beautiful places on the South Island – as well as the whole of New Zealand! Not only is it home to the tallest mountain in New Zealand (also named Mount Cook or Aoraki to use its Maori name), but there are also lots of amazing activities on offer in this tiny mountain town. 

From heli-skiing on unspoiled ski runs on the aforementioned tallest mountain in New Zealand to the unique sport of glacier kayaking, which, yep, you guessed it – gets you up close to some pretty impressive glaciers and icebergs, there’s plenty of adventure to be had in Mount Cook! Not to mention some of the best hikes on the South Island are here if you’re looking for a great way to get outside.

If you really want to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, I recommend hiking the Mueller Hut Route. It’s easily one of the best things to do and the most popular hikes in Mount Cook. You might as well turn this hike into an overnight adventure and spend a night at the famous Mueller Hut. When you stay up here, you can also witness sunset and sunrise easily (my favorite part!).

It costs $45 NZD per adult and you must reserve your space in the hut in advance during peak season (November – April). During other months, bookings should be made on the day of your hike at the visitor center.

Bailey poses for a photo along the Sealy Tarn Track
Hiking the Sealy Tarn over Mount Cook National Park!

Another trail I absolutely love is the Sealy Tarns Track because it offers stunning views of the Hooker Valley and Mount Cook. This trail also starts on the Kea Point Track at the White Horse Hill Campground. It takes 2,200 steps to reach the Sealy Tarns Lake at the top, which is why this track is nicknamed locally as the “stairway to heaven”. This is an uphill track with a 600-meter (1,969-foot) elevation gain. Even so, it’s considered an easy-to-moderate track.

If you need a break from all the action, there are more relaxing activities on offer here too, like visiting the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre to learn about the history of the area. When I came here, I made sure to grab a drink and meal at their onsite restaurant with panoramic views – it’s one of the most scenic restaurants in New Zealand!

3. Chase waterfalls

Thunder Creek Falls, NZ
Thunder Creek Falls!
bailey stands on the viewpoint at the Devils Punchbowl Waterfall along Arthurs Pass, NZ
Devils Punchbowl Waterfall

I already mentioned waterfalls on the North Island, but the South Island also has some gems! I’ll cover three of my favorites, but you can check out my full list of the best waterfalls in New Zealand here.

Thunder Creek Falls holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first waterfall I saw on the South Island! It’s a 28-meter (92-foot) high waterfall made up of one single stream of water that bursts out from steep cliffs lining the Haast River.

It’s located about 1.5 hours north of Wanaka inside Mount Aspiring National Park and is one of my favorite stops on the drive from Wanaka to Franz Josef. It’s easy to get to Thunder Creek Falls with a 5-minute accessible walk along the trail from the parking lot – but bring bug repellent because the sandflies can be relentless here!

Part of Thousand Falls on the way to Milford Sound
Part of Hundred Falls on the way to Milford Sound

Hundred Falls is the perfect stop on your way to Milford Sound. It consists of hundreds of tiny waterfalls that pour down an area of rock, especially after heavy rain. As you pass through the Homer Tunnel when driving from Te Anau to Milford Sound, look to your left. There is a small viewing area here and if it has been raining recently you’ll be able to see just how this attraction got its name. 

And if you’re driving Arthur’s Pass (more on this below), hike the Devil’s Punchbowl Walking Track. The name alone should get you excited but if that doesn’t, then the fact it’s a 131-meter (430-foot) waterfall should!

4. Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hike

A helicopter fly's towards the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand
On our way to the glacier

Franz Josef Glacier is one of the most popular tourist attractions in New Zealand, and it’s not difficult to see why. The glacier is an amazing natural wonder, surrounded by breathtaking natural scenery. Visiting the glacier is precisely the kind of awe-inspiring experience that people travel to New Zealand for.

There are lots of hiking routes and tours available – including multi-day guided tours that stop here. It can all feel a little overwhelming! But if you have the budget and a sense of adventure, I highly suggest booking this heli-ice hiking tour from Franz Josef to explore the glacier up close!

This is an epic 4-hour experience because it combines the incredible views of a scenic flight, with the up-close experience of glacier trekking. Hiking on a glacier that is thousands of years old is a bucket-list-worthy experience, and it’s all the better with your expert guide so you learn all about its interesting history. Plus, you’ll stay safe! You can reserve a heli-hike of Franz Josef for $712 NZD, which covers transport from the tour base, the helicopter ride, guided glacier walk, and all the hiking equipment.

5. Hike a Great Walk

Bailey hikes along the Routeburn Track in New Zealand
Routeburn is a Great Walk worth doing!
Bailey on the Kepler Track in new Zealand
On the Kepler Track!

The Great Walks are some of New Zealand’s most amazing multi-day hikes. There are 10 Great Walks and they’re known as some of the most diverse in the country showcasing New Zealand’s unique landscapes, flora, and fauna. They’ve been hand-picked by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and hiking part or all of at least one Great Walk is a must.

The trails are spread over both islands and range in difficulty and length. Personally, though, I love the 6 Great Walks on the South Island the most. My favorites are the Routeburn Track and Kepler Track. Both are alpine hikes on the South Island with some of the most magnificent views in New Zealand!

Views of the mountain from the Routeburn Track
Just another amazing view on the Routeburn Track!

On the Great Walks, you’ll stay in either campsites or New Zealand huts if you plan to hike the entire trail or go overnight. Of course, you can do shorter day hikes on some of the Great Walks completely free, which I do often!

The Great Walks do need to be booked before you go if you plan on spending the night. Trails such as the Milford, Kepler, and Routeburn Track book up months in advance. If you plan on hiking one of the above trails, be sure to do some research before you go and plan ahead to avoid disappointment!

However, if you want to explore one of these routes for just one day you can take a guided hike on the Routeburn Track. This is great for those who are new to hiking or if you simply don’t have hiking gear with you! This half-day tour includes transportation from Queenstown and a naturalist guide so you can learn about the area’s ecosystem and history.

6. Roys Peak Track

The famous Roy's Peak with a person at the end at sunrise in Wanaka
Roys Peak isn’t a bad place to watch the sunrise!

Roy’s Peak is an iconic hike on the South Island of New Zealand. The trail starts just outside of Wanaka and is hiked in one day. Although stunning, the trail is considered hard. In fact, there is over a 1,300-meter (4,265-foot) elevation gain over the 16-kilometer (almost 10-mile) trail. Certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Once at the top though, you’ll get to enjoy one of the best viewpoints in NZ. Stare out over Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps. You can even spot Mt Aspiring.

Roys Peak is easily the best activity you can do in Wanaka and a must-do for hiking enthusiasts! It is perhaps my favorite hike on the South Island, and is even better at sunrise!

7. See the blue Lake Tekapo

View of Lake Tekapo taken from town with views of the church
Lake Tekapo’s blue waters are stunning!

Visiting Lake Tekapo is a must on any visit to the South Island! The lake is absolutely stunning and the color will blow you away. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself to know what you’re seeing is real!

One of the most popular activities in Lake Tekapo is to visit the tiny but stunning Church of the Good Shepherd. This Church is especially popular with photographers as the altar window frames a perfect view of the Southern Alps and the milky blue lake. 

Did you know – Lake Tekapo is a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve meaning it’s one of the best places in the world to go stargazing. You can stargaze from a hot tub here at Tekapo Springs – what a way to enjoy the night sky all lit up with stars! You may be lucky enough to spot the Southern Lights too (the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of the Northern Lights).

If you want to get an even better view of the stars then you should definitely join a stargazing tour where you’ll head to Mt John Observatory to see them through a high-powered telescope. Plus, you’ll have the guidance of an astronomer, so you’ll learn a ton while you gaze at the cosmos. This 2-hour experience is $190 NZD and honestly worth every cent- it’s an incredible experience!

Other activities in Lake Tekapo include going jet boating on the lake, wandering the lupin fields (colorful flowers) between October and January, and going for a coffee in town. There’s also an array of restaurants in Lake Tekapo including Dark Sky Diner for incredible lakefront views and a tasty pub menu.

With so much to do in the area, you might just have to stay overnight in Lake Tekapo to fully enjoy it!

8. Drive Arthur’s Pass

Bailey at the Otira Viaduct Lookout on Arthurs Pass, NZ
Otira Viaduct Lookout on Arthurs Pass

If epic road trips along stunning highways are what you’re looking for, the South Island delivers! And believe me when I say you’ll fall in love with the scenic drive through Arthur’s Pass. This gorgeous drive is one of the only mountain roads that travel over the Southern Alps from east to west. Along the way, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views, explore hidden waterfalls, and even go on epic hikes.

Arthur’s Pass is one of the most famous highways on the South Island and driving it sure is a bucket list experience! But I would definitely also get out and walk around – or better yet, hike (Is it obvious I’m a fan of hiking, yet?).

My favorite of all the hikes on Arthur’s Pass is Avalanche Peak. This grueling day hike takes you high above the pass to summit Avalanche Peak. From the top, the views over the mountains are unmatched. Seriously, it’s as if you’re on top of the world!  

If that trail seems a little hard for you then don’t worry, there’s plenty more. As previously mentioned, the Devil’s Punchball Walking Track is one of them and takes you to one of the most powerful waterfalls in New Zealand.

If Christchurch is the start or end of your South Island adventures and you don’t have your own transportation, you can still enjoy the beauty of Arthur’s Pass. The TranzAlpine Train is known as one of the most scenic train rides in the world, and it happens to depart right from Christchurch!

If you don’t want to worry about coordinating any transportation, this TranzAlpine and Arthur’s Pass tour will pick you up from your hotel in Christchurch, provide your train ticket, and off you go! You’ll take the scenic train ride to Arthur’s Pass National Park, enjoying views of the Canterbury Plains and the Southern Alps. Once you reach Arthur’s Pass, you can explore the Devil’s Punchbowl and the national park, then return to Christchurch in a 2-hour drive. You get all this for $420 NZD and it’s a long 10-hour day, but it’s worth it for the views!

9. Whale watching in Kaikoura

A large humpback whale breaches the water on a tour in Kaikoura
A humpback whale!

Whale watching is a common tour in many coastal areas, but if you want the best, Kaikoura is the place to be! 

Kaikoura is one of the top places in New Zealand for whale watching and happens to be one of the country’s premier coastal destinations for all tourists to visit. 

You’re most likely to see sperm whales, the primary residents of the area, when you go on a whale-watching tour in Kaikoura since they’re present year-round. From December to March, you’ll also see orcas (killer whales), and June through July is a great time to spot humpback whales. And if you’re a fan of dolphins, you can catch a glimpse of several species almost daily, on top of whichever species of whale is around during a given season.   

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can kayak with whales or even take a helicopter whale-watching tour to see them from above!

For the classic whale-watching experience, I recommend this particular tour. It leaves from Kaikoura and operates all year round. This highly-rated tour provides 2.5 of exploration aboard a modern catamaran, led by a local guide who will provide live commentary about the wildlife you are seeing. For $169 NZD, the bus ride to and from the marina is included, and the company guarantees an 80% refund if you don’t see any whales on your trip – that is how confident they are that you will see these creatures! 

Besides whale watching, there are so many fun things to do in Kaikoura that I visit here whenever I get a chance. It is one of my favorite places to stop on a road trip or the perfect romantic getaway with my partner!

Related Read: If you’re planning to drive here, check out the best stops between Kaikoura and Picton. If you’re coming from the other direction, read my road trip guide from Christchurch to Kaikoura instead!

10. See the Catlins

A lady sits at Koropuku Falls in the Catlins region
The Catlins region has so many great waterfalls!

Technically in Southland and Otago, the Catlins is one of my favorite places to road trip. Not only does it remain off the beaten path compared to other regions, but it’s also a wild place with very few people. What it lacks in people though, it makes up with waterfalls, wildlife, and unique attractions. Seriously, it’s my kinda place!

The best way to explore the Catlins is to drive. Start either north from Dunedin or from the South near Invercargill. Head out and explore giving yourself at least two days. I recommend freedom camping along the way or staying in small guest houses either way you’ll fall in love.

I’ve stayed at the Hilltop Accommodation Catlins in Papatowai before and it was perfect! It is only 20 minutes from McLean Falls and decently priced for very comfortable rooms.

There are a lot of waterfalls in the Catlins, some awesome… and some less awesome! You’ll want to check out Curio Bay, Koropuku Falls, McLean Falls, Slope Point, Jack’s Blowhole, Surat Bay, Matai Falls, Cathedral Caves, Lake Wilkie, and many more. Just be sure to skip “Niagara Falls” – trust me!

Pros of visiting the South Island

Bailey looks over the Southern Alps while skiing in New Zealand
The Southern Alps are my favorite!

The Southern Alps

The Southern Alps… need I say more? This mountain range is just breathtaking, and it offers so many opportunities for adventure! From heli-hiking on glaciers to the Great Walks and skiing or skydiving, the Southern Alps are a true outdoor playground. They’re a big part of why I moved to New Zealand in the first place! 

The (unofficial) 8th Wonder of the World

Milford Sound is not technically a wonder of the world, but it definitely should be! It’s one of my favorite places in the entire world and it never fails to blow me away. This isolated fiord is beyond beautiful, and you can spot so much unique wildlife here on a nature cruise. I’ve been here at least ten times, and I still have to pinch myself every time I come back! 

Home to the best road trips

I don’t know about you, but I love road trips, and the South Island is home to so many amazing ones. Nothing beats the freedom of hitting the road and driving through the South Island’s mountains and national parks. I can’t even count the number of epic views and amazing stops I’ve enjoyed on my road trips across the South Island. The journeys here are just as rewarding as the destinations! 

My home

If mountains, natural wonders, and awesome road trips aren’t enough to convince you, maybe the fact that you might run into me will! Queenstown has been my home since 2018, so you may well see me around during your South Island adventures. I’d say that’s a pretty good reason to visit! 

The Anchorage Beach at sunset in Abel Tasman National Park, NZ
The Anchorage Beach at sunset in Abel Tasman National Park

Diverse landscapes

The great thing about visiting the South Island is that you don’t have to choose between beaches, mountains, and fjords, because they’re all here! There are dry tussock areas and lush forests on the east coast, lush forests on the west coast, and a dramatic coastline in Abel Tasman National Park. And of course, the Southern Alps are home to glaciers, lakes, and endless towering peaks. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the South Island has it all! 

Best hikes

In my opinion, the South Island is home to New Zealand’s most beautiful trails. From admiring the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu on the Queenstown Hill Track to hiking along the gorgeous coastline in Abel Tasman National Park, there is no shortage of incredible hikes here. Make sure to pack a good pair of walking boots! 

Home to New Zealand’s most famous Mountain huts

New Zealand is home to 950 backcountry huts, and staying in one is a quintessential Kiwi experience! Some merely provide shelter while others are decked out with kitchens and board games, but all of them offer epic views over the country’s stunning terrain. And since the South Island has the best landscapes, many of the most famous mountain huts are here. I highly recommend a stay in the Mueller Hut in Mount Cook National Park, or the Brewster Hut along the epic Brewster Track. 

Cons of visiting the South Island

A lady stands at the viewpoint at the end of the Sealy Tarn Track in Mount Cook National Park
Views from the Sealy Tarn Track, Mount Cook National Park

More touristic

The South Island attracts a lot more tourists than the North Island, so it is more touristic. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you love getting off the beaten path and exploring lesser-known places, then you’ll probably enjoy the North Island more. 


Since the South Island is more touristy, it’s also more expensive – the two go hand in hand. There are fewer free places to camp, and lots of adventurous activities, like skiing and skydiving, don’t come cheap! 

Colder weather

The South Island is definitely colder than the North. During the summer, temperatures range between 15-20°C (59-68°F) on the warmest days, and it can get really cold during the winter! However, there are some advantages to this, as you won’t overheat while hiking, and you can enjoy some fantastic skiing during the winter

Photo showing the color of the water in the Marlborough Sounds
The color of the water in the Marlborough Sounds!

Larger with more driving

The South Island is bigger than the North Island, so it takes longer to get from one destination to the next, which can be a pain if you’re short on time. There can also be a lot of drive time between places that are fairly close together as the crow flies because the Southern Alps create natural barriers. A prime example of this is the drive between Queenstown and Milford Sound!

High mountain passes

Driving in the Southern Alps means heading along winding roads and over high mountain passes. Some of the roads can be pretty scary to drive for first-timers, whereas a North Island road trip feels much less intimidating.

Advanced bookings required

The popularity of the South Island means that a lot of hotels and activities book up fast. This means you need to be organized and make reservations weeks or even months in advance, especially for in-demand adventures like the Franz Josef heli-hike and the Milford Sound overnight cruise

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!

You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:

  • Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
  • Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your campervan or motorhome through JUCY or Star RV! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey takes a selfie in raglan, NZ
Thanks for reading!

If you’re deciding between the North and South Island of New Zealand, I hope my guide has helped! I am a bit biased as I live on the South Island and absolutely adore it. However, both islands are stunning and come with their own pros and cons. You can’t go wrong and I hope you fall in love with this country just as I did.

Before you set off on your travels, check out my blog all about New Zealand. I love sharing what I’ve learned from living here. To help you out, I’ve linked to some popular articles below.

10 BEST Tours in Auckland, New Zealand +My Personal Top Choice

10 BEST Places to go Bungy Jumping in New Zealand

The BEST 5 Days in Queenstown Itinerary – From a Local!

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