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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 on yours, too!
- 1. Queenstown
- 2. Milford Sound
- 3. Te Anau
- 4. Mount Cook National Park
- 5. Glenorchy
- 6. Arrowtown
- 7. Wanaka
- 8. Doubtful Sound
- 9. Gibbston Valley
- 10. The Blue Pools
- 11. Lake Tekapo
- 12. Omarama
- 13. Christchurch
- 14. The Catlins
- 15. Franz Josef
- 16. Moeraki Boulders
- 17. Kaikoura
- 18. Marlborough Sounds
- 19. Arthur's Pass
- 20. Abel Tasman National Park
- 21. Punakaiki
- 22. Dunedin
- 23. Stewart Island
- 24. Hokitika Gorge
- 25. Lake Matheson
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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. Oh, and if you’re into high-action adventure, then there are some amazing jet boating activities nearby, as well as this half-day skydiving experience, which has received over 1,000 glowing 5-star reviews!
If you’re traveling with the family, then I highly recommend a Lake Wakatipu scenic cruise for an enjoyable and relaxing activity. Speaking of scenic cruises, this evening dinner and cruise experience aboard a vintage steamship is a smash hit among travelers. After a scenic trip cruising Lake Wakatipu on the historic TSS Earnslaw, you’ll arrive at Walter Peak High Country Farm, where you’ll then enjoy a gorgeous BBQ feast!
Tickets for this experience cost $189 NZD per person, but this is a popular experience that sells out quickly, so don’t forget to check your dates and book online in advance.
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!
One final thing I also love about Queenstown is that it’s the perfect launchpad to visit pretty much anywhere on the South Island – I guess there was some method to the madness when I decided to live here, after all! One of the places I recommend anyone visit is Milford Sound, but more on that up next.
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
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’ve explored Milford Sound countless times, and every time I’m blown away.
The most popular way to visit from Queenstown is as part of an organized Milford Sound day tour. This full-day tour to Milford Sound with lunch includes transport, like most organized tours, but the reason I like this particular tour so much is that the drivers and guides couldn’t do more for you. They’re so friendly and ready to answer any questions you have – and boy did I have a few.
Full-day tours to Milford Sound from Queenstown typically cost at least $200 NZD, although the sky is the limit. I think this tour is pretty reasonably priced at $274 NZD per person, which includes the sightseeing cruise, lunch, and return transport. You can check out availability and book your space on this tour here.
A guided tour like this takes around 13 hours, simply because the journey to Milford Sound is almost 4 hours each way from Queenstown. It’s a long day, but definitely doable, it all comes down to your preference at the end of the day.
If you want to cut down on traveling time, I recommend booking this bus, cruise, and fly 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 on the way there. 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, while you’re at it!
In fact, one 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!
Hot Tip: If you can snag a booking (it’s normally sold out) and have the budget, this overnight cruise in Milford Sound is honestly the absolute best experience you can have. I recently did it, and I have to admit, it truly was one of the very best things I’ve ever done in New Zealand. You get to spend so much time in Milford Sound, including sunset and sunrise, as well as enjoy incredible food. Oh, and don’t forget, there’s a hot tub on board, too! You can check availability and book online here.
3. Te Anau
Perched on the shores of Lake Te Anau, New Zealand’s second-largest lake, Te Anau is a common stop for people on their way to Milford Sound. However, many people don’t realize that it’s an epic South Island destination all on its own!
Te Anau is surrounded by unique attractions, including one of the best places to see glow-worms in New Zealand, Doubtful Sound (New Zealand’s second most popular fiord), and my personal favorite, the Kepler Track.
One relatively short but unforgettable experience is visiting the Te Anau glow-worm cave. This glow-worm cave tour lasts just over 2 hours and is a great option for pretty much any crowd! On this tour, you’ll be joined by a local guide to see thousands upon thousands of glow-worms lighting up a magical underground world. It’s a memory to treasure! Plus, it includes a cruise across Lake Te Anau which is so scenic.
If you’re up for some hiking, The Kepler Track is actually one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks and after completing over half of them, the Kepler Track is by far 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 (37-mile) loop track or simply enjoy a day hike up to the Luxmore Hut and back down again.
There are lots of fantastic small group tours you can join if you don’t feel comfortable tackling it alone. I’ve heard fantastic things about this half-day heli hike, which combines three amazing adventures all into one complete package! It’s easy to see why so many people have said that this experience was the highlight of their New Zealand trip, so why not check it out?
Te Anau is also the ideal place to explore Milford Sound from. I personally like to 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. This full-day tour will take you on a guided tour from Te Anau to Milford Sound and includes a boat cruise, too.
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
There isn’t a national park in New Zealand that I love more than Mount Cook National Park, and to be honest, I think most people would agree with me! Home to New Zealand’s tallest mountain (Aoraki/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. It costs $45 NZD per adult and $22.50 NZD per night for kids (5-17) to stay here. The hut does have to be booked in advance in summer, so get in early if you want to visit!
Mount Cook is also one of the best places in New Zealand to enjoy a scenic helicopter tour. I mean, if you thought these views are epic from the ground, imagine what they’re like from above! If you’re looking to try a scenic flight but want to keep costs down, then this 20-minute scenic flight over Mount Cook is an awesome choice.
Not only does it include an alpine landing on a mount (how cool is that?!), but the tour also includes hotel pick-up and drop-off from Mount Cook, so if you’re already staying in Mount Cook Village, this makes the entire experience such a breeze. You can check availability and book your spot on this tour online here.
Want to take the thrills up the notch? My partner Dan loves skydiving, and you can bet he found out about this Mount Cook skydiving experience before we got in the car! It’s one thing to jump out at 13,000 ft (3,962 m) above the ground, but with views as epic as these, this is one adrenaline-pumping activity you’ll remember forever.
With so many fun activities to try, and tons of amazing natural scenery to try, it’s no wonder why Mount Cook National Park is one of the most popular places to visit in New Zealand. No trip to the South Island of New Zealand would be complete without a visit here!
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.
Glenorchy may be a small town, but this scenic spot sure packs a punch when it comes to gorgeous views and outdoor adventures! Some of the best things to do in Glenorchy include the Glenorchy Walkway, hiking the Routeburn track, taking a drive through a place called Paradise, and even Jet Boating tours.
For my fellow adventure lovers, if you’ve never tried a jet boating tour, you’ve got to give it a go! This half-day dart river jet boating experience offers such a fun way to explore the stunning natural scenery of Glenorchy and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Mt Aspiring National Park. You can choose to meet them at the meeting point in Glenorchy or get picked up from Queenstown.
With that said, half the fun of visiting Glenorchy is enjoying 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, I’d allow at least half a day to properly explore Glenorchy. You can even join one of the top-rated tours from Queenstown to Glenorchy if you don’t have a car.
I personally really enjoyed this half-day tour from Queenstown that’s full of incredible viewpoints, Lord of the Rings filming locations, and a lakeside picnic. 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! With tickets at just $179 NZD per person, I’d say it’s also pretty great value too.
Arrowtown was once a gold mining village, and though the mining may have stopped, the town still has its shine. 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.
You’ll find Arrowtown just a 15-minute drive northeast from Queenstown and you can get there by public bus, bike trail, or as part of a guided tour! For the most seamless experience with lots of fun activities included, I recommend this 6-hour guided tour, which visits iconic spots in both Arrowtown and Wanaka.
With all transport included and limited to a maximum of 11 people per tour, this experience feels super personalized, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and get to know the other people on the tour while you’re here! Tickets start at $209 NZD per person, and this is a pretty popular tour, so don’t forget to check ahead and book your spot in advance!
If you’re a wine lover like me, you can even get on this hop-on hop-off wine tour bus from Queenstown to explore Arrowtown and the surrounding region’s top wineries! You have the option of choosing between a half-day tour or a full-day tour, and with a maximum of 8 people per trip, it’s the perfect way to meet new friends or take a big group out with you.
Tickets for this tour cost $65.50 NZD for the half-day (4-hour) tour, and $89.50 NZD for the full-day (8-hour) tour. With all transport included, everyone can get involved and sample some seriously good wines! You can check availability and book your spot on this tour here.
Once you’ve got some time to explore Arrowtown, 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.
If you have the time, taking a walk down to the Arrow River is so relaxing, and you can even visit the Old Chinese Settlement, or simply 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, so it’s no wonder why some visitors even choose to spend a night or two there!
When I was thinking of making the move to New Zealand permanently, I was honestly stuck between Wanaka and Queenstown. I love them both equally, especially as a holiday destination, so the decision didn’t come easy! 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, the first being this thrilling jet boat ride on the Clutha River! If you’re an adrenaline junkie, or simply fancy a change from enjoying a scenic hike, then this is definitely worth considering.
Although I’ve only ever been on a handful of jet boat rides, I can easily say that it’s one of the most thrilling (although maybe a little scary) experiences of my life! Lasting around an hour and a half, this experience is the perfect midday addition to any itinerary, although you might need a little break afterwards! You can check out dates and book your spot on this experience here.
Fancy something a little more relaxed? This wine and cheese cruise on Lake Wanaka might be just what you’re looking for. Not only is it a fantastic way to see Lake Wanaka, but the meeting point is right in town, and you can also enjoy a complimentary cheese board – yum!
Last up, Another unique fact about Wanaka for you! Did you know that Wanaka is the craft beer capital of New Zealand? There are actually more breweries per capita here than anywhere else in NZ. My favorite is Rhyme and Reason Brewery, who craft the most fantastic IPAs, pale ales, and more!
Of course, if you’re going to do some drinking, then you should plan to spend at least one night in Wanaka – don’t forget to check out my blog about where to stay in Wanaka to choose the perfect place!
8. Doubtful Sound
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 it definitely gives Milford Sound a run for its money when it comes to epic scenery.
After taking a bus to Te Anau, you’ll head off to take a ferry across Lake Manapouri before taking another bus into Doubtful Sound. From here, you’ll board your boat and enjoy an incredibly scenic trip through Doubtful Sound. Then on the way back, you’ll do it all again! It’s an adventure, to say the least!
If you travel on the tour from Manapouri, the entire tour takes around 7 hours in total, however if you do travel from Queenstown, you’re in for a bit of a longer day, with the tour taking around 12 hours. For a less full-on day, I’d suggest opting for the Manapouri tour, however if you’re staying in Queenstown and don’t mind dedicating an entire day to Doubtful Sound, then that tour is also a great choice.
Also worth noting is that there are no places to stay in Doubtful Sound itself … unless you stay on a boat! Taking an overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound is pretty special. You get to wake up to amazing views and see this place with almost no one around. You can actually do a 3-day tour with an overnight cruise that includes a visit to the Te Anau Glow Worm Caves and a second night in a nearby hotel or you can opt for one night with this overnight tour that is a bit cheaper but still offers those spectacular sunrise views.
I often get asked which I prefer, Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound, but for me, it really is an impossible question to answer. If you don’t mind the crowds, then I’d say Milford Sound is the better choice, but if you love more rugged adventures, choose Doubtful Sound. Or, why not just do both?!
Tours: You can check out a the range of tours to Doubtful Sound here that includes overnight trips!
9. Gibbston Valley
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 the perfect souvenir.
The best way to explore everything that the Gibbston Valley has to offer is on a wine tour from Queenstown. You can choose from full or half-day tours and visit a huge variety of wineries, as well as enjoy a nice lunch too.
For the ultimate wine-tasting experience, I highly recommend this full-day gourmet food and wine experience, which I went on with some friends and loved! With a maximum of 12 people per tour (there were 9 when I went!), I felt I could get to know everyone while also getting to know the guides well. It’s just what you want on a sociable day out.
The included lunch really was the icing on the cake, we were able to pair multiple wines with our dishes for the ultimate foodie experience (and if you know me, you know I’m ALL about that)! Tickets for this experience cost $289 NZD per person, which I thought was pretty fair considering I visited four vineyards and was comfortably transported from place to place! You can check it out and book online here.
Most tours cost around $200+ NZD, but if you’re traveling on a budget, there are cheaper tour options to choose from, including this hop-on-hop-off wine tour which is only $65.50 NZD per person. Of course, this doesn’t include tasting fees, but all of the wineries waive these tasting fees if you purchase a bottle from them!
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
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, transforms into a very popular swimming area. From above, the pools are breathtaking, and on the beach, you can soak up the sun in paradise.
The closest town to the Blue Pools is Makarora. It’s about a 6-minute drive from the Blue Pools parking lot to Makarora which makes it super convenient. It is by far the best place to stay if you want to visit the Blue Pools without the crowds.
Makarora is a very small town and accommodation is limited with only two places to stay, the Makarora Mountain View and the Wonderland Makarora Lodge. Both places have cabins and chalets, with the Makarora Mountain View being the more luxurious hotel of the two.
A visit to the Blue Pools is easily 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 plenty of 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
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 shines so blue you have to ask if 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.
My advice is to get here early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the crowds. Even better if you can manage to get here for sunrise or sunset or after dark for the best photo opp. Visiting in the Spring also means there will be tons of lupins, which are the colorful flowers pictured above.
Lake Tekapo is also 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 here (the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of the Northern Lights). The best way to enjoy the stars is on a guided tour either to Mt John Observatory or at Tekapo Springs.
In my opinion, nothing really beats learning from an expert on a guided tour, using state-of-the-art technology to get the best views of the night sky! This magical experience lasts around 2 hours and can be booked online here.
There’s also an array of restaurants in Lake Tekapo including TLV Restaurant & Bar on Motuariki Lane for excellent burgers (open from 12 pm to 8:30 pm). Or for amazing views, a visit to the Dark Sky Diner is a must. I love going at sunset!
There are a lot more things to do here, so be sure to read my guide on the best things to do in Lake Tekapo. It includes hikes, tours, and tons of free activities to get stuck into.
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.
Omarama is a little-known town that 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 in a tub (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!
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 or tour outside Christchurch 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.
Traveling is also thirsty work, so going on a wine-tasting tour like this Waipara wine trail tour from Christchurch might be just what you need. As part of this half-day tour, you’ll visit three boutique vineyards and sample some of the tastiest local wines. What better way to celebrate at the end of a road trip than by raising a glass or two (or three!).
A stroll through Christchurch Botanic Gardens with a coffee is a great way to spend an hour or two. And no visit to Christchurch is complete without visiting Quake City, which tells the story of the devastating 2011 earthquake.
Among the list of awesome things to do in Christchurch, another one of my favorite things to do is riding the Christchurch Gondola. From the top, you’ll get great views of the city, the Southern Alps as well as the Pacific Ocean.
The gondola ride to the summit is 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) and at the top, there are various walking tracks as well as a gift shop, café, and the Time Tunnel ride where you can learn all about the history of Christchurch. A ticket for the gondola is $40 NZD per person, although you can also upgrade this to include a punt ride on the Avon River for an extra $35 NZD! You can book your ticket online here.
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
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.
That said, Nugget Point Lighthouse has to be one of my all-time favorite stops here in the Catlins. This gorgeous lighthouse is so photogenic, especially at sunrise or sunset. In fact, it’s one of the most recognizable lighthouses in New Zealand.
Just 800 meters (2,625 feet) before the Nugget Point Lighthouse parking lot, be sure to visit Roaring Bay Penguins & Seals Observatory for the chance to see some rare yellow-eyed penguins (also known as Hoiho). It’s a 10-minute walk from the parking lot to the small observatory, but be aware that seeing the penguins is quite rare!
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
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.
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 go as part of an organized tour, like this glacier trekking tour via helicopter. This tour is widely considered one of the best helicopter flights in the country, and I can easily see why!
Joined by your professional guide, you’ll be provided with all the equipment you need to have a safe and enjoyable time. After that, you’ll hop on the heli (AKA the “Squirrel”, what a cute name!), where you’ll soar over the pristine peaks and crevasses to your landing point.
After spending plenty of quality time enjoying ice hiking, you’ll then hop back on the heli for a ride back to town. Now that’s what I call efficient adventuring! It’s not exactly a cheap tour, at $709 NZD per person, but it’s definitely one of those “trip-defining” experiences that I’m sure you’ll remember for a long time to come! You can check availability and book your spot on this tour online here.
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, with the return hike being 17.2 kilometers (10.7 miles) long!
Within the town of Franz Josef, you’ll find the Franz Josef Hot Pools. These beautiful hot pools are tranquil and relaxing, and I’ve actually been to them twice (I 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. After a day of hiking or exploring, you can’t beat it! The Franz Josef Hot Pools do open and close seasonally, so don’t forget to check their website for the latest updates and opening times.
16. Moeraki Boulders
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 definitely 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 of $2 NZD 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.
This beach is also a popular spot for swimming, as the water is clean and refreshing. The waves are also gentle, making it perfect for children to play in. However, do take note that there are no lifeguards on duty, so please be cautious when swimming.
The best time to visit Moeraki Beach is during the summer months, as the weather is warm and sunny. However, even in winter, the beach is still beautiful, with the boulders providing a stunning contrast against the gray skies.
If you’re looking for where to stay near Moeraki Beach, you do have a few options available. Noah’s Boutique Accommodation is located opposite the beach and around 20 minutes from the Moeraki Boulders. Another great budget-friendly accommodation choice is Moeraki Beach Motels, which is located just 100 m (328 ft) from the beach!
As far as interesting places to visit on the South Island go, Moeraki Boulders is a clear winner!
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!
Kaikoura has unusual marine landscapes which cause whales to gravitate toward the area. There are several very deep underwater canyons nearby, where the continental shelf around 500 meters (1,640 ft) from the shore drops off, and this causes currents to be a bit different in this part of the ocean.
In fact, one of the most popular things to do in Kaikoura is going on one of the many whale-watching tours. If I had to pick one special tour, it’d be this 30-minute whale watching flight, where you’ll see the water from a whole new angle!
You can actually see sperm whales year-round here in Kaikoura, and gazing from above means you’ll have the best chances of spotting some as they surface. You’ll also be equipped with a headset and a microphone which you can use to talk to your pilot – so cool!
Tickets for this experience cost $330 NZD per person, and I’m sure you’ll come out with some seriously cool photos to show your family and friends later on. You can check availability and book your tour online here.
Fancy getting in the water for yourself? Another one of the best experiences in Kaikoura is swimming with wild dolphins. On this tour, you’ll gear up for the (pretty cold!) 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.
Going wildlife spotting is one of the coolest things I’ve done here in Kaikoura, and I’m sure you’ll fall in love with it too!
18. Marlborough Sounds
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 gorgeous mini sanctuaries where wildlife thrives. They’re best explored on a scenic cruise from the town of Picton and on these cruises, you’ll explore the sounds in search of the wildlife that calls them home.
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!
I could instantly tell that the guides who run this tour are all super passionate about the work they do, helping spread the message of just how incredible these animals are. Tickets for this experience cost $96 NZD per person, and if a tour like this sounds like something you’d be interested in, then don’t hesitate to check out dates and book your spot online here!
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!
Tip: If you still want great weather but want to avoid the crowds, you can also visit in March or April. This is autumn here, so expect nights to be a bit cooler and days a bit shorter, but you’ll still get lots of sunshine.
19. Arthur’s Pass
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 Devil’s 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.
One of the best places to photograph on Arthur’s Pass is the Otira Viaduct, an impressive 440-meter (1,444-feet) long bridge. You can stop at the car park just off Highway 73 for the best shot of the bridge.
Another way to experience Arthur’s Pass incredible beauty is by taking the TranzAlpine train journey from Christchurch to Greymouth! Known as “New Zealand’s most scenic rail journey,” It departs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from Christchurch and takes in stunning landscapes like Arthur’s Pass and the Southern Alps.
The one-way journey will take 4.5 hours (it covers a distance of 223 km/139 mi), and you can return the same day, but I highly recommend spending the night in Greymouth.
Tickets for the TranzAlpine train journey cost $265 NZD for a one-way journey, and you can check availability and book your tickets online here.
20. Abel Tasman National Park
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 that 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 this 6-hour boat cruise. On it, you’ll spot local wildlife, visit beaches for a picnic lunch, and enjoy a refreshing swim. And that’s just the beginning of all the activities you can try on this tour. In a nutshell, this tour is good exercise and really fun!
Kayaking is super popular in Abel Tasman National Park. It’s a great way to get out on the water and see the beauty of the coastline, and there are lots of different tours that take you to different points of interest inside the park. Kayaking also helps you see a lot of the park in a relatively short space of time, so it’s ideal if you don’t have long to spend here.
You can rent kayaks in Marahau for $220 NZD per day for a 2-person kayak. Some single kayaks are also available for $110 NZD each if you’re traveling solo or are in a group with an odd number of people.
Make sure to check out more of my favorite Abel Tasman tours from Nelson here!
Punakaiki is a small town located along the west coast of New Zealand. The coastline here is rugged and remote, but wow, it is 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!
Originally when I first Punakaiki, I took a horseback riding tour but unfortunately, they have recently closed! Instead, you can opt for a really unique alternative, a horse and wagon tour (which will take you around stunning landscapes via the beach, plus you’ll also go jade hunting and enjoy tea around a campfire!
These horse and wagon tours can be taken from Golden Sands Horse and Wagon Tours, just 10 minutes south of Punakaiki. Tours typically last for 2.5 hours and cost $70 NZD per adult, $40 NZD for children under 13, and free for under 3s. It’s a super deal for the price!
Related Read: To get to Punakaiki, consider driving from Franz Josef. The road trip from Franz Josef to Punakaiki is beautiful and exciting!
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 around 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.
For a really unique experience, this V8 trike shore excursion definitely gives cool-kid vibes. You’ll pass by some of the best spots in the city, like the iconic Speight’s Brewery, Otago Harbour, and the hillside suburb of St Clair. Lasting around an hour, this is also a fantastic activity to fit into any busy schedule, and it has a maximum of 4 people per trike, so you can fit the whole family onboard!
Remember Speight’s Brewery, which I mentioned a moment ago? Well, they also do brewery tours! With over a century of beer-brewing history, this iconic brewery tour is a must for all my fellow beer lovers, and with a maximum of 15 people per group, it’s also quite an intimate and personalized tour experience.
At the end of the tour, you’ll also receive 10% off all shop purchases, so now’s the time to stock up on craft beer while you’re at it! Tickets for this experience cost just $30 NZD per person and can be booked online here.
Related Read: For information on an epic road trip, read my blog about the drive from Queenstown to Dunedin.
23. Stewart Island
Stewart Island isn’t technically on the South Island, however, the only way to get there is via the South Island – most commonly to take a ferry from Bluff just outside the city of Invercargill.
This small predator-free island is one of the best places in New Zealand to spot a wild kiwi. Their population numbers on the island actually outnumber humans, so it’s your best chance of seeing one that isn’t behind a glass panel.
For a seamless experience with transport included, you can hop aboard a catamaran cruise on this 2.5-hour Stewart Island Bay tour that will visit Ulva Island, Paterson Inlet, and Prices Inlet by boat and also includes a visit to a native bird sanctuary as you learn about the area from a local. If you love all things wildlife, then this tour is a must!
Another thing to do on Stewart Island that attracts a lot of visitors is to walk the Rakiura Track. This 32-kilometer trail (20 miles) is usually completed over 2 to 3 days. Of course, you can choose to just walk a section of it, but if you’ve got time to do the entire thing, I say go for it! As a Great Walk, you do need to book huts and campsites 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. Alternatively, you can book this full-day tour from Queenstown that is pricey, but it does include a flight there and back and saves you several days of travel.
24. Hokitika Gorge
New Zealand’s rivers on the South Island are stunning. They’re often glacier-fed and the 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.
The Hokitika Gorge access point is about a 30-minute drive from Hokitika town center. You can park at the Hokitika Gorge Parking area for free.
On any West Coast trip, you simply must make a stop here 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!
Just a half an hour drive north from Hokitika Gorge, you’ll find the West Coast Tree Top Walk, which as you might guess, offers a whole new way to view the beautiful forests, from up above in the trees! A steel platform stretches more than 1,475 feet (450 m) through the trees, and I was truly stunned by just how amazing the views are from up there.
The best part? The West Coast Tree Top Walk costs just $30 NZD per person! You can check your dates and book in advance online here.
Related Read: The Hokitika Gorge is one of the top attractions near the town of Hokitika.
25. Lake Matheson
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.
The walk from the car park takes around 40 minutes to the pontoon, or 1.5 hours on the loop track around the lake. If you fancy teaming up with an expert local guide, then this guided nature walk to Lake Matheson might be right for you! With the tour lasting around 3 to 4 hours, you’ll enjoy an intimate look into what makes Lake Matheson so special, seen through the eyes of a local.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
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!
- JUCY – JUCY is one of our favorite rental companies in New Zealand! They have a huge inventory and offer regular cars, small campervans, larger campervans, and even motorhomes! The prices are also super competitive and their multiple offices around NZ make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. You can check availability, prices, and book with JUCY online here.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
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: