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25 Best Places to Visit on the South Island of New Zealand

25 Best Places to Visit on the South Island of New Zealand

The South Island of New Zealand is a magical place. Although I love the North Island, there’s just something about the South that made me fall in love. From huge mountain peaks to deep fiords, there’s so much to see and do! It’s no wonder I decided to call the South Island home.

As a local, I’ve been lucky enough to explore almost every inch of this breathtaking place. I’ve road-tripped the West Coast countless times, gone hiking through the Southern Alps just about every weekend, and visited more towns than I can count. It’s safe to say I’ve just about seen it all.

From all of my adventures, I’ve come across a few places that are not only amazing but showcase a huge variety of landscapes and experiences.

Whether you join a multi-day tour or go on your own, these 25 places to visit on the South Island should be at the top of everyone’s bucket list, and after reading about them below, I’m sure they will be!

1. Queenstown

Views from Skyline in Queenstown on a winter day with views of the Remarkables Mountain Range and Lake Wakatipu
I never get sick of this iconic view!

Without a doubt, one of the most amazing places to visit on the South Island is my hometown of Queenstown, New Zealand. I fell in love with this mountain town the minute I arrived, and every day I fall a little more.

Queenstown sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu surrounded by huge mountain peaks including The Remarkables Mountain Range. Within a short drive or walk you can head out onto amazing hiking trails and explore remote lakes. There are so many things to do in Queenstown that it can actually be quite overwhelming! However, by picking a few hikes, adventure activities (like the Luge), soaking in a hot pool, and trying some local cuisine and craft beer, you’ll be able to get a small taste of it all.

What I love so much about Queenstown is the variety of attractions. These include nearby wineries, epic road trips, free hikes, bike trails, and more. Be sure to jump on a Lake Wakatipu scenic cruise for an enjoyable relaxing activity. Seriously, what’s not to love about a town that offers so much?

Visiting Queenstown can be expensive so I highly recommend checking out my free things to do in Queenstown blog. It’ll save you a ton of money and to be honest, the best things in Queenstown are free!

Related Read: Want more info on things to do in Queenstown? Check out my cheap things to do in Queenstown blog too!

2. Milford Sound

Bailey sits on the Milford Sound Swing in Milford Sound
The Milford Sound Swing!

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 place you must visit on the South Island. I myself, have explored Milford Sound countless times and every time I’m blown away.

Milford Sound is most commonly visited from Queenstown on an organized day trip. These tours include transport to and from Milford Sound as well as a cruise through the fiord (the most common way to see Milford Sound.) Unfortunately, a guided tour like this takes around 13 hours simply because the journey to Milford Sound is almost 4 hours each way from Queenstown. To be honest, I’ve done this once and wouldn’t recommend it as my first choice!

Instead, 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!

Alternatively, spending a night in the closest town of Te Anau (118 kilometers/73 miles away) or even at the Milford Sound Lodge in Milford Sound is a great idea if you have that time. By doing so, you’ll be able to explore the region at your own pace and have a lot more time to do so. Be sure to stop at all of the best attractions on the road from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

In fact, some of the most amazing parts of Milford Sound is actually the journey there from Te Anau. This epic road trip passes so many stunning attractions in Fiordland National Park such as Mirror Lakes, Lake Marian hiking track, Pop’s View Lookout, and The Chasm.

Once in Milford Sound, you can choose to simply jump on a cruise, go kayaking, walk one of the amazing hikes in Milford, or even enjoy a scenic flight. There’s certainly no shortage of amazing things to do in Milford Sound!

3. Te Anau

Bailey stands on a rock overlooking Lake Te Anau on the Kepler Track
Jut one of the epic viewpoints on my favorite Great Walk, the Kepler Track!

Te Anau is a common stop for people on their way to Milford Sound, however, it’s an epic South Island destination all on its own. Te Anau sits on the shores of Lake Te Anau, New Zealand’s second-largest lake. It’s surrounded by unique attractions including a famous glow worm cave which you can tour through, Doubtful Sound (New Zealand’s second most popular fiord), and my personal favorite, the Kepler Track.

The Kepler Track is actually one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks and after completing over half of them, the Kepler Track is my favorite. From Te Anau, you’re only a short drive from the trailhead and you can choose to either hike the entire 60-kilometer loop track (37 miles) or simply enjoy a day hike up to the Luxmore Hut and back down again.  There are small group tours you can join if you don’t feel comfortable tackling it alone.

Te Anau is also the ideal place to explore Milford Sound from. I personally stay a night here before and after a trip to Milford so I can spend lots of time on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. Plus, there are lots of hotels and amazing restaurants in Te Anau that make it a comfortable place to stay.

It’s almost impossible to explore the South Island without visiting Te Anau, so stay a while and explore all the best things to do in Te Anau!

Getting to Te Anau from Queenstown: You can either book a transfer or drive yourself. If you’re driving from Queenstown to Te Anau be sure to read my blog about all the best places to stop to ensure you enjoy this epic road trip!

4. Mount Cook National Park

The Hooker Lake on the Hooker Valley Track
Sunset reflections at Hooker Lake!

There isn’t a national park in New Zealand that I love more than Mount Cook National Park, and to be honest, most would agree with me. Home to New Zealand’s tallest mountain (Mount Cook), this huge outdoor playground is surrounded by the most beautiful mountains, alpine lakes, glaciers, and hiking trails in New Zealand. It’s paradise on earth for any outdoor lover like myself.

There are a ton of amazing things to do in Mount Cook but one of my favorites is the hike to the Mueller Hut. The Mueller Hut is located high above the valley and overlooks Mount Cook, Hooker Lake, Mueller Lake, Mueller Glacier, and more. It’s basically the ultimate viewpoint and one epic place to spend a night in an alpine hut. The hut does have to be booked in advance in summer, so get in early if you want to visit!

Some of the best things to do inside of the park are going stargazing, taking a scenic flight through the mountains, and trying one or more of the popular hikes in Mount Cook including the Hooker Valley Track, Sealy Tarns Trail, and the Tasman Glacier viewpoint. No trip to the South Island of New Zealand can be done without a visit to Mount Cook National Park.

5.  Glenorchy

The Glenorchy Railway Shed in Glenorchy at the trailhead of the Glenorchy Walkway
The famous Glenorchy Railway Shed

Only a short 45-minute drive from Queenstown is the tiny town of Glenorchy. Home to under 250 permanent residents, Glenorchy is a town surrounded by pristine landscapes and untouched wilderness.

There are a ton of amazing things to do in Glenorchy including the Glenorchy Walkway, hiking the Routeburn track, taking a drive through a place called Paradise, and even Jet Boating tours. With that said, half the fun of visiting Glenorchy is to enjoy the scenic drive and all the stops between Queenstown and Glenorchy. This epic road trip travels along the edge of Lake Wakatipu with beautiful stops such as Moke Lake, Bob’s Cove Track, and Bennetts Bluff Lookout. It’s easily one of the best road trips in New Zealand!

If you’re already planning on visiting Queenstown, you should spend at least half a day exploring Glenorchy. You can even join a half-day tour from Queenstown if you don’t have a car! To me, this region is even more beautiful than the Queenstown area and hands-down one of the best places to visit in the South Island!

6. Arrowtown

Bailey walks through Arrowtown, New Zealand
Walking through Arrowtown on a beautiful morning!

Arrowtown was once a gold mining village, which today is super charming. Unlike most towns around New Zealand, Arrowtown has kept much of its old architecture which is not only beautiful but provides lots of great photo opportunities.

Arrowtown is located only a 15-minute drive from Queenstown and can even be accessed by public bus, bike trail, or on a guided tour. If you like wine you can even get on the hop-on hop-off wine tour bus from Queenstown to explore the Arrowtown and surrounding region’s wineries! Once there, be sure to wander the main street to do some shopping and even stop at a well-known restaurant called Slow Cuts for a meal and some craft beer.

After, take a walk down to the Arrow River, visit the Old Chinese Settlement, or even enjoy a short hike. There are a few great hikes in the area including Big Hill, Sawpit Gully Track, and Tobins Track. There are lots of other great things to do in Arrowtown and some visitors even choose to spend a night or two there!

7. Wanaka

A couple sit on the Wanaka Jetty on a summers day
Relaxing on the Wanaka jetty!

When I was thinking of making the move to New Zealand permanently I was stuck between Wanaka and Queenstown. To be honest, I love them both equally, especially as a holiday destination. Queenstown ultimately won but Wanaka still remains one of my favorite towns on the South Island.

Wanaka is located on the shores of Lake Wanaka which is arguably the most beautiful lake in New Zealand. From the main street along the esplanade, you can stare out and enjoy those breathtaking views with only a fraction of the crowds Queenstown attracts. One of my favorite things to do in Wanaka is to simply grab a coffee and take a stroll along the lake – it’s just so beautiful.

Of course, the best free thing to do in Wanaka is to hike Roy’s Peak. This famous day hike is absolutely gorgeous and the views from the famous viewpoint are worth the grueling climb! If you’re looking for a shorter hike then take a drive towards Mt Aspiring National Park and visit Diamond Lake. Here, there are a few short trails that are much easier than Roy’s Peak.

There are also a few popular paid activities that I think are definitely worth considering like going for a thrilling jet boat ride on the Clutha River, a wine and cheese cruise on Lake Wanaka, or you can even experience a traditional Maori welcome and learn about their culture and rituals.

Another unique fact about Wanaka is it’s the craft beer capital of New Zealand. There are more breweries per capita here than anywhere else in NZ. My favorite is Rhyme and Reason Brewery! Of course, if you’re going to do some drinking then you should plan to spend at least one night in Wanaka – read my blog about where to stay in Wanaka to choose the perfect place!

8. Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand on a cruise
The day I went it was sunny but it’s still amazing in the rain!

For those who like to get off the beaten path and explore places most don’t, Doubtful Sound is the perfect alternative to Milford Sound. Doubtful Sound is actually the largest fiord in Fiordland National Park and although not far from Te Anau, accessing Doubtful Sound requires a little more adventure and can only be done on an organized tour from Queenstown or Manapouri (close to Te Anau).

After taking a bus to Te Anau, you’ll head off to take a ferry across Lake Manapouri before then taking another bus into Doubtful Sound. From here you’ll finally board your boat and enjoy a scenic trip through Doubtful Sound. Then on the way back, you’ll do it all again! It’s an adventure, to say the least!

I often get asked which I prefer, Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound, but it’s an impossible question to answer. If you don’t mind the crowds then go to Milford Sound, but if you love more rugged adventures, choose Doubtful Sound. Or, why not just do both!

Tours: you can check out a huge range of tours to Doubtful Sound that includes overnight trips!

9. Gibbston Valley

A lady runs through grape vines in the Gibbston valley between Queenstown and Wanaka
Just checking the grapes!

My favorite wine region in New Zealand is the Gibbston Valley, which is convenient since it’s only 25 minutes from Queenstown! Famous for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Rose, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay there’s no shortage of great wine to try (yes!)

All of the wineries in the Gibbston Valley are boutique and aside from a few of the larger wineries, you won’t find their wine anywhere else! This makes taking home a bottle or three a great idea!

The best way to explore the Gibbston Valley is on a wine tour from Queenstown. You can choose from full or half-day tours and visit a huge variety of wineries and enjoy a nice lunch too. Tours cost around $200 NZD but there are cheaper tours such as hop-on-hop-off tours and self-guided bike and wine tours for budget travelers.

With that said, you can actually spend the night in the Gibbston Valley and a fan favorite is at Kinross Cottages. Here, you can sleep right by the cellar door of five boutique wineries. The location is perfect and the best part is you’ll be able to drink as much wine as you like before stumbling back to your luxury cottage for the night – it makes for the perfect romantic getaway in NZ!

Related Read: Visiting the Gibbston Valley is a romantic activity in Queenstown, but, there’s plenty more!

10. The Blue Pools

A suspension bridge over the Blue Pools on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island
You won’t be able to believe your eyes when you go, it’s that blue!

Traveling down the South Island’s West Coast is a wild adventure filled with amazing stops. One of the best and most famous is the Blue Pools located just north of Wanaka.

This unique attraction takes visitors on a short walk across two suspension bridges to arguably the bluest river in New Zealand. At this river, there is a calm pool that in the summer, is a very popular swimming area. From above, the pools are breathtaking and on the beach, you can soak up the sun in paradise.

Visiting is one of the best things to do on the South Island and something I’ve done on more than one occasion. Just be sure to bring bug spray because the little black flies leave a long-lasting bite!

Getting to the Blue Pools: The Blue Pools are most often visited on a West Coast road trip, driving from Wanaka to Franz Josef.

11. Lake Tekapo

Views of lupins and Lake Tekapo on the south island of New Zealand
When the lupins are around in December it’s even more beautiful!

You’ve now heard of the bluest river, but what about the bluest lake? Well, there are a few contenders but I doubt anyone will protest that Lake Tekapo is one of them. This pristine lake fed by glaciers in Mount Cook National Park is just mind-blowing. On a sunny day the lake sines so blue you have to ask if what you’re seeing is real.

Located on the shores of the lake is the small town of Lake Tekapo. Here, you can spend a night or two and explore this magical area even taking day trips to the nearby Mount Cook National Park. Of course, there’s plenty of things to do in Lake Tekapo and including coffee with views of the lake, jet boat rides on the lake, stargazing tours in the dark sky reserve, and 4wd backcountry experiences. There are also lots of delicious restaurants in Lake Tekapo with stunning lake views.

It’s safe to say everything in Lake Tekapo is about the lake and why wouldn’t it be, it’s just that beautiful!

Related Read: One of the best ways to get to Lake Tekapo is to drive from Queenstown. Read my blog about the road trip from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo for info on the route including the best places to check out along the way.

12. Omarama

Walking amoung the Omarama Clay Cliffs
The cliffs are huge!

Omarama is a little-known town most tourists simply drive past on their way from Queenstown to Mount Cook or from Wanaka to Mount Cook (or vice versa). However, missing out on Omarama and the few cool things to do there is such a shame.

The most famous attraction in Omarama is the Omarama Hot Tubs. These heated private hot tubs sit in the valley with gorgeous views of the mountains. Because they’re private tubs you can sit back with your loved one and enjoy a very romantic activity. A 1.5-hour soak in a hot tub costs only $120 NZD for two people but you can fit up to 8 adults (although it does cost more.)

Another activity you can do in Omarama is to visit the Omarama Clay Cliffs. The cliffs are eroded rock formations made of clay and formed thousands of years ago when huge glaciers in the area began to melt. Visiting costs only $5 NZD per car and exploring the cliffs only takes an hour or so.

Although you can spend the night in Omarama, you can enjoy both of these activities on your way through so it’s not necessary to stay. Instead, save your night for Mount Cook or Lake Tekapo!  

13. Christchurch

Views of the Godley Head Loop Track and the beautiful coastline
Unfortunately, I didn’t see any marine life on the Godley Head Trail…but you might!

As the largest city on the South Island, Christchurch is often where visitors start their journey in New Zealand. With lots of international flights arriving here it just makes sense, but don’t be in such a hurry to leave.

Christchurch is actually my favorite large city in New Zealand not only because the city is fun and vibrant but because there is so much at your doorstep. A quick trip outside the city has you exploring Godley Head and if you’re lucky, spotting marine life such as dolphins, whales, and penguins. The Godley Head Trail is the best route to take and follows the coastline.

In the city, there’s plenty to do too. One of my favorite things is to simply head to Brockworth Street to enjoy lunch and check out the cool street art there. It’s one of the most vibrant parts of the city that I’m sure you’ll love. Other activities you can enjoy in Christchurch include taking the gondola up to the summit of Mount Cavendish, visiting the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial, or even joining a walking tour of the city.

Christchurch isn’t “just another big city” so stay a day or two and enjoy one of the best cities in New Zealand!

Related Read: One of my favorite road trips on the South Island is the drive from Queenstown to Christchurch! Check out all of the best stops on this epic road trip!

14. The Catlins

Koropuku Falls in the Catlins
Just sit back and relax!

On my first ever road trip around the South Island, I visited a place I’d never heard of before, the Catlins. To be honest I had no idea what to expect but grabbed a checklist and began exploring – what an adventure it was!

The Catlins is a beautiful region on the very south of the South Island. It includes places such as Slope Point, the Southernmost tip of New Zealand’s South Island; Curio Bay, home to lots of wildlife and one of the world’s rarest penguins; and breathtaking waterfalls such as Koropuku Falls, Mclean Falls, and Matai Falls. On top of that, you can explore the famous Cathedral Caves and spot sea lions at Surat Bay.

It’s a wild place to visit on the South Island best explored on a 2 to 3-day road trip. Along the way, either freedom camp or spend the night at a remote holiday park!

15. Franz Josef

Bailey poses for a photo on the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk
I was a tad excited! this was one of the first hikes I did on the South Island!

The town of Franz Josef is a staple on any road trip on the South Island. A common route is the drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef. As travelers make their way north or south along the stunning West Coast, Franz Josef is perfectly located for an overnight stay before continuing the adventure. To be honest though, spending two or three nights is worth your while too since there is so much to see and do in Franz Josef.

The most popular and well-known thing to do in Franz Josef is to explore the Franz Josef Glacier. You can do this via the free and short viewpoint trail or take a glacier trekking tour via helicopter. The latter is a better experience but isn’t cheap.

For a harder hike try the Alex Knob Track. It’s one of the best hikes on the South Island and takes you high above the valley to peer down at Franz Josef Glacier! It’s beautiful – but extremely challenging!

Within the town of Franz Josef is the Franz Josef Hot Pools. These beautiful hot pools are tranquil and relaxing and I’ve actually been to them twice ( love them that much!) For only $29 NZD (for adults) you can sit back and relax for as long as you like in the communal pools. There are 3 large communal pools each with a different temperate. Alternatively, pay $100 NZD for this private experience. After a day of hiking or exploring you can’t beat it!

16. Moeraki Boulders

Moeraki Boulders  at sunset on the South Island
Have you ever seen something like that before!

The most unique attraction I’ve seen in New Zealand is the Moeraki Boulders. As you wander Moeraki Beach just north of Dunedin, you’ll come across perfectly round rocks in the sand. Some have cracked open like eggs, others are still intact, but one thing is for sure…they’re weird!

Apparently, the boulders are formed by erosion from the ocean but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Visiting the boulders only takes an hour or so and there is a café nearby with parking and access to the beach. They do require a small fee to use the beach access though.

If you don’t want to pay, you can also access the boulders via the DOC parking lot nearby. Just be sure to look on Google Maps and go to the public parking area, not the café.

As far as interesting places to visit on the South Island go, Moeraki Boulders is a clear winner!

17. Kaikoura

A dolphin in Kaikoura
A dolphin in Kaikoura on a sightseeing tour

If you’re a lover of marine life (just like me) then you won’t want to leave Kaikoura off your New Zealand South Island itinerary. This small coastal town is located in a marine life mecca with regular visits from large pods of dolphins, whales, and even its own seal colony.

In fact, one of the most popular things to do in Kaikoura is going on one of the many whale-watching tours.

What attracts marine life to Kaikoura is a continental shelf around 500 meters (1640 feet) from the shore. This shelf plunges 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) below the surface and provides deep water for marine life to thrive in. Regardless of the reason though, you’re going to see wildlife.

One of the best experiences in Kaikoura is swimming with wild dolphins. On this tour, you’ll gear up for the freezing water before jumping in to swim with dusky dolphins. You can even encounter seals in the water too! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the best part is that it’s heavily controlled to protect the dolphins.

In Kaikoura, you can also join lots of other wildlife tours including whale watching and dolphin watching tours.

18. Marlborough Sounds

A seal in the Marlborough Sounds on the south island
Can you spot the seal?

If you plan on traveling from the South Island to the North Island (or vice versa) by car then you’re going to find yourself visiting the Marlborough Sounds whether you planned on it or not. The Marlborough Sounds appear to be a series of islands and bays off the coast of the South Island, and on the ferry which connects the North and South Islands, you’ll get a beautiful view of the area.

Located at the very north of the South Island, the Marlborough Sounds are another sanctuary where wildlife thrives. The Marlborough Sounds are best explored on a scenic cruise from the town of Picton and on these cruises, you’ll explore the sounds in search of wildlife.

At first, you’ll spot rare birds and maybe even dolphins. After, it’s off to find sea lions on the many islands around the area. And finally, you’ll visit a predator-free island to look for penguins while enjoying a nature walk. You may even see a kiwi (the bird, not the people) as the islands are used by the DOC in conservation efforts to raise kiwis before being released in the wild elsewhere!

Aside from that, you can also explore the town of Picton and enjoy the magical scenery in the area. Take a drive along the coast, I guarantee you’ll be blown away by the region’s beauty!

19. Arthur’s Pass

panoramic view of the mountains from Avalanche Peak, Arthurs Pass
You seriously feel as though you’re on top of the world on Avalanche Peak!

If epic road trips along stunning highways are what you came to New Zealand for then you’ll fall in love with the scenic drive through Arthur’s Pass. This gorgeous drive is one of only three mountain roads that travel through the Southern Alps from east to west. Along the way, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views, explore hidden waterfalls, and even go on epic hikes.

My favorite of all the hikes and things to do 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. The Devils Punchball walking track is one of them and takes you to one of the most powerful waterfalls in New Zealand. It’s 131 meters (430 feet) tall and you can hike to the base of it via a short 20-minute trail.

Of course, there’s lots more to do on Arthur’s Pass, so be sure to get your bucket list ready before you go so you don’t miss a thing!

20. Abel Tasman National Park

Views on the Abel Tasman Coast Track
The beaches in Abel Tasman rival those in Australia, it’s so beautiful!

One of my favorite places to visit on the South Island in the summer is Abel Tasman National Park. Not only does its location in the north provide much-needed warmer weather but the beautiful bays, coves, and beaches are some of the best in New Zealand. Honestly, if you thought the North Island had all the best beaches you were wrong!

Abel Tasman National Park is home to the Abel Tasman Coast Track which is one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks. The trail is often hiked over 4 to 5 days and follows the coastline visiting secluded bays and beaches along the way. Of course, most people don’t hike the full trail since you can explore lots of the park on day trips from Nelson – it’s one of the best things to do in Nelson!

There is also a huge range of tours to the park and one of my favorites is the boat cruise. On it, you’ll explore the calm waters and visit beaches for a picnic lunch and a refreshing swim. It’s good exercise and really fun! Make sure to check out more of our tour recommendations to Abel Tasman leaving from Nelson, Kaiteriteri, and Mārahau!

21. Punakaiki

Pancake rocks in Punakaiki, New Zealand
Pancake Rocks are pretty unique and the boardwalk is beautiful! I love this coastline!

Punakaiki is a small town located along the west coast of New Zealand. The coastline here is rugged and remote but wow, is it beautiful! Due to its location towards the north of the South Island, the landscape changes from subalpine to a thick tropical forest filled with New Zealand ferns.

A quick walk along the Pororari River Track will have you surrounded by nature and even spotting lots of weka birds. Lots of people mistake them for kiwis but they’re much more common and you’ll likely see one!

Pancake Rocks is what people really come to Punakaiki for though, and this old rock formation is really unique. As the name suggests, the rocks appear like pancakes stacked on top of each other and there is a large boardwalk that navigates the rock formation for visitors. Along that boardwalk is also the famous Blow Hole. At high tide, you can see the huge power of water beneath the rock that shoots up the hole – it’s impressive to see!

If you have more time be sure to hike the Truman Track. This short 20-minute hike leads to a secluded beach where you can spot penguins and find starfish in the water. Just be sure to go at low tide as the beach isn’t safe to access at high tide!

Related Read: To get to Punakaiki, consider driving from Franz Josef. The road trip from Franz Josef to Punakaiki is beautiful and exciting!

22. Dunedin

Tunnel Beach in Dunedin, New Zealand
Tunnel Beach in Dunedin!

I must admit, Dunedin isn’t a city I personally love on the South Island. With that said, the surrounding beaches and landscapes are! When I visit Dunedin I often only spend my nights in the city and during the day I’m out exploring places such as Tunnel Beach – there are a few fun and interesting things to do in Dunedin.

Tunnel Beach is the most beautiful place to visit in Dunedin and via a short 20-minute walking trail from the parking lot you can venture down to see the rock formations up close. Low tide is the best time to go and you can access the beach (although I wouldn’t recommend swimming as there are strong currents in the area.)

If you love surfing then I suggest you head to St Clair Beach. It’s one of the best surf spots on the South Island. You can rent a board and a much-needed wetsuit right from the beach so even without your own gear you can give this activity a go.

In the city, I recommend visiting the steepest street in the world. Seriously, Baldwin Street in Dunedin has the title and lots of visitors get some cool photos there. Other than that, ride a V8 trike bike along the coast, see wildlife and visit Larnich Castle, walk the Dunedin Street Art Trail, or even just go out on the town for a brewery tour!

Related Read: For information on an epic road trip, read my blog about the drive from Queenstown to Dunedin.

23. Stewart Island

Views from Stewart Island, New Zealand

Stewart Island isn’t technically on the South Island, however, the only way to get there is to take a ferry from Bluff just outside the city of Invercargill. This small predictor-free island is one of the best places in New Zealand to spot a wild kiwi. Their population numbers on the island outnumber humans, so it’s your best chance of seeing one that isn’t behind a glass panel.

You can join this 2.5-hour Stewart Island Bay tour that will visit Ulva Island, Paterson Inlet, and Prices Inlet by boat and also allows you to visit a native bird sanctuary as you learn about the area from a local.

Another thing to do on Stewart Island that attracts a lot of visitors is the Rakiura Track. This 32-kilometer trail (20 miles) is usually completed over 2 to 3 days. As a Great Walk, you do need to book huts and campsite in advance so be sure to do so!

If you’re visiting New Zealand in winter then be sure to get out at night to view the stars here. Not only is there very little light pollution around but you also have a great chance at spotting the Southern lights (of course, it’s still rare.)

To reach Stewart Island you’ll need to take the ferry with Stewart Island Experience. Also, be sure to book your accommodation in advance and look on Airbnb, there are lots of great options!

24. Hokitika Gorge

Hokitika Gorge New Zealand
Hokitika Gorge, New Zealand.

New Zealand’s rivers on the South Island are stunning. They’re often glacier-fed and rock flour in the glacier melt gives the rivers a bright blue color – especially on a sunny day! A great example of this is the powerful Hokitika River that runs through the Hokitika Gorge.

On any West Coast trip, you simply must make a stop here or join this tour and enjoy the short 2-kilometer (1.24 mile) walk to the gorge and its viewpoints. There’s not much to do there except stare at the powerful river and take photos, but it’s so beautiful it just had to make my list of best places to visit on the South Island.

Related Read: The Hokitika Gorge is one of the top attractions near the town of Hokitika.

25. Lake Matheson

The view from Reflection Island on Lake Matheson
Reflection Island has the best view around the lake!

I’ve saved one of my favorite views/lakes in New Zealand for last. I mean, why end the list with some average South Island destination!?

Lake Matheson is a gorgeous lake located just outside the town of Fox Glacier (not far from Franz Josef.) Via a short walking track, you can visit the lake and on a calm day, it reflects Mount Cook and the surrounding mountains like a mirror. It’s really one of the best viewpoints to capture an amazing photo.

The exact photo spot is called Reflection Island and you can easily find it by walking the loop track around the lake. Go left or right it doesn’t matter. Here at this spot you can capture images like the one above, my only regret is not going at sunrise!

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

A motorhome by the beach
Me and my trusty campervan!

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 is what most budget backpackers get 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! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
  • Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey from My Queenstown Diary at the Blue pools in New Zealand
Thanks for reading!

The South Island of New Zealand is truly a magnificent place to travel. For those planning an adventure here, you’re in for a real treat and I certainly hope you visit at least a few of the places on this list. You never know, I might even bump into you exploring this beautiful country!

Thanks so much for reading! Was this guide helpful? If so, browse around My Queenstown Diary and check out more of my blogs about Queenstown, the South Island, and New Zealand! I’ve left some of my most popular guides here:

Best South Island hikes

Best things to do on the South Island

Things to know before visiting Queenstown

Karen Morris

Tuesday 24th of May 2022

Hi Bailey

Thanks for the information it is brilliant and very informative.

We are based in the UK and are currently planning a fly drive trip next year spending 6 weeks travelling around the North and South Island so this has been very helpful.



Tuesday 24th of May 2022

Hey Karen,

I am so glad you found all the information helpful!

Enjoy your trip!

Thanks Bailey

Kerry Bolton

Thursday 8th of April 2021

Golden Bay. Beautiful beaches. Pupu Springs. Gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. Salmon farm. The old Golden Bay Cement built break-water that has a boat ramp for recreational fishers and commercial fisherman (ie. Mussel farmers) . Any chance that Golden Bay could be included?


Saturday 10th of April 2021

Hey Kerry,

I have never been myself but could update the blog to include 26 places to visit. Do you have a beautiful photo you could provide for me? Golden Bay sure does sound like a fantastic spot!

Thanks Bailey

Paul Lawrence

Sunday 7th of February 2021

Hi Bailey. Just been reading all of your articles, you have put together so much useful information that will help so many people. We have spent a huge amount of time travelling all over the south island and although we live in Auckland, the south island is kind of like our second home, we travel there at least 3-4 times a year and often twice that amount. I have made notes of quite a few things you mention and we will use these during our upcoming trips in April, August & December. Thanks again, you are a pretty cool person to have put all this together. Regards Paul


Saturday 13th of February 2021

Hey Paul!

Thanks so much for the kind words it really means the world! Haha, I actually spend way too much time writing these days but really want to provide great blogs for travelers in New Zealand.

Wow, you guys really get out there and explore a lot! Thats so great to see, New Zealand is seriously the most beautiful place in the world!

I have so much more I'm writing so be sure to check back from time to time!

Thanks Bailey