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Franz Josef has everything you need for an adventure you won’t forget – unique places to stay, awe-inspiring scenery, great hikes and with so many awesome things to do in Franz Josef you’ll never be bored. Plus, it’s glacier country – it truly is one of the prettiest small towns in New Zealand.
The small town of Franz Josef is easily one of the most popular destinations on the West Coast of New Zealand and a must-visit on the South Island. Would you believe the town has a population of just under 500 permanent residents yet it hosts thousands of visitors a day during the busy months?
As you can imagine given its popularity, there are so many awesome activities in Franz Josef. Some of my personal favorite things to do in Franz Josef include a glacier helicopter flight and a visit to see the rare Rowi kiwi at the West Coast Wildlife Center. Plus, there are plenty of stunning walks, relaxing activities, and yummy restaurants in town to discover.
Seriously, Franz Josef has everything epic adventures are made of and after countless visits from my hometown of Queenstown, it’s one of my favorite places to explore in NZ!
In this blog, I list 22 of the very best things to do in Franz Josef so you too can fall in love with this small town!
About Franz Josef Town
Franz Josef is located along New Zealand’s stunning West Coast in a place known as “glacier country”! On a road trip along the West Coast, Franz Josef is the most popular place to stop for a night or two to fuel up, get some rest, and explore before continuing on further north or south.
Franz Josef is around 3.5 hours from Wanaka to the south and around 3 hours from Punakaiki to the north. The road trip from Wanaka to Franz Josef is one of the most popular drives on the South Island.
The town of Franz Josef sits on the western side of the Southern Alps and is surrounded by glaciers. The two most popular in the area are the Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Both can be viewed for free via short walking tracks in the area.
In town, you’ll find a small grocery store, lots of restaurants and cafes as well as a fuel station and DOC visitor center. Franz Josef has everything visitors require on a road trip around NZ.
Franz Josef is a great place to visit all year round, however, summer is easily the most popular season. During the winter Franz Josef is very quiet which adds a beautiful feel to the town. Not to mention the hot springs are the perfect place to visit in winter! In summer, expect most accommodation options to be booked up, and be sure to plan ahead by booking your hotel well in advance!
I personally love Franz Josef. It’s a quiet town surrounded by the epic scenery you’ll only see on the west coast of the South Island. Not to mention every time I visit I find more new and exciting things to do. Seriously, this list of things to do in Franz Josef will only continue to grow!
Related read: Driving to Franz Josef from Queenstown? Check out my road trip guide from Queenstown to Franz Josef!
Franz Josef FAQs
Things to do in Franz Josef
1. Hike the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk
The most popular hiking trail in Franz Josef and one of the best hikes on the South Island is without a doubt the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk. The 5.4-kilometer (3.4-mile) return track is considered easy to moderate and should take most people 1 hour and 30 minutes to complete.
The first section of the track is easy and leads to an excellent view of the glacier. It then continues along the riverbed to Trident Falls – this part of the trail is shingle and rock-covered track so appropriate footwear is recommended. The last part of the hike is an uphill climb to the glacier viewpoint.
The scenery is truly stunning! But, exercise caution and stay behind the barrier at all times. Being too close to an actively moving glacier is dangerous as ice and rockfall from the terminal face without warning.
From the end of the trail, you can see the glacier clearly, however, it does sit somewhat in the distance. Unfortunately, Franz Josef Glacier is retreating so the viewpoint is no longer as close as it once was. With that said, this is the best free way to get close to Franz Josef Glacier.
2. Take a helicopter flight over the Glacier
If you’re traveling to New Zealand to tick off those epic bucket list experiences then this next activity is a must. A scenic flight from Franz Josef will have you flying over the Southern Alps, Franz Josef Glacier, and Fox Glacier as well as landing high up in the mountains to get out and explore.
The 20-minute flight tour is the most budget-friendly option, but, you can choose to upgrade your flight to this epic 30-minute tour for a truly bucket-list-worthy experience. I myself did a 30-minute tour and loved it. Any shorter and the experience would’ve been over so quickly. Although more expensive, the 30-minute option is the way to go in my opinion.
If you can, go around an hour before sunset for the best views. This is what I did and that golden hour light reflecting off the mountain peaks and snow was out of this world! This is one experience I’ll certainly never forget and one of the best things to do in all of New Zealand!
Did you know – following a spectacular collapse of the glacier’s terminal face in 2012, it is now only accessible by helicopter.
3. Glacier walking tour
Walking on a glacier was like walking on another planet for me. The tour was unworldly and had me staring into deep crevasses and listening to the sounds of flowing water beneath my feet. Crazy to say the least.
In Franz Josef, the best way to access remote glacier terrain without any prior experience is on a guided heli-hike. This is a guided tour of the most stunning ‘ice architecture’ of any glacier in New Zealand.
You will be helicoptered from Franz Josef over the Southern Alps and onto the glacier where you will begin your 2-hour guided hike through spectacular ice formations and seriously incredible scenery. On your hike, you are likely to come across towering walls of ice, blue ice tunnels, and ice caves. And because the glacier is constantly changing, no two hikes are ever the same.
Each trip is tailored to your abilities as well as the conditions of the ice that day. These tours start at around $500 NZD and although not cheap, include a scenic flight as well as a glacier trek.
Related Read: Heading to Franz Josef from Christchurch? Check out my road trip guide to driving from Christchurch to Franz Josef for all of the best stops along the way.
4. Glacier heli-ice climb
Feeling brave? Why not undertake an introductory course in the adrenaline-pumping sport of ice-climbing whilst still enjoying the spectacular scenery of Franz Josef Glacier. This tour allows up to 6 hours on the ice. Your guide will provide you with all technical knowledge and climbing equipment so no prior experience is necessary. On the tour, you’ll be taught the skills needed to safely climb the glacier by an experienced guide.
The best part about this tour is, when compared to the Franz Josef Glacier trek, it’s cheap! In fact, the tours start at $620 NZD for an 8-hour tour! So for the price, you’ll get much more ice time and the tour groups are much smaller!
5. Visit the Glacier Hot Pools
Nestled in lush green rainforest, the Glacier Hot Pools is home to three main pools that are hidden among the gorgeous scenery. No need to worry about the rainy west coast weather here – the pools range from 36 to 40 degrees Celsius and are covered by giant sails offering protection from the wind and rain.
Visiting the Glacier Hot Pools is easily the most relaxing thing to do in Franz Josef and after lots of long hikes and days exploring, what could be better to soothe your sore muscles!?
Entry to the public pools costs $29 NZD for adults, $25 for children, and kids under 5 are free. You can also book a private pool for 45 minutes- the perfect experience to relax with a loved one. The pools are located in the center of Franz Josef town on Cron Street. From most hotels, you can easily walk there.
6. See a Kiwi at the West Coast Wildlife Center
The West Coast Wildlife Center is the largest kiwi hatching facility on the South Island. Visiting is a great family-friendly activity in Franz Josef as you can spot young Rowi Kiwi in the natural bush walkthrough as well as the highly endangered Tuatara.
The kiwis raised here are taken to islands around New Zealand that are predator-free so they can grow before being returned to the area. This drastically increases the rate of survival from as little as 5% up to 80%! Projects like these are ensuring the survival of these endangered birds that are unique to New Zealand.
A VIP ticket includes an exclusive look at the hatching and incubation program for kiwis. There’s also a gift store and excellent café on-site. Allow anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours here. There is also a general pass that’s valid for 24 hours so you can go back for a second look if you want to. If you want to skip the line you can book this ticket in advance.
Did you know – there’s less than 600 Rowi Kiwi remaining in the wild and hence they are classed as a ‘vulnerable threatened species’
7. Quad biking tour
Want to get that adrenalin pumping? Why not jump on a quad biking tour and take in the incredible Franz Josef scenery in a unique way. Each tour is 2 hours long and you can choose from a single person to up to three people on a quad bike or buggy. You will follow your experienced guide across bright blue rivers, through stunning rainforests, and even speed over ancient glacial riverbeds.
Interestingly, the wet West Coast weather makes quad biking all the more fun – as your guide will tell you the more mud the better for this experience! Not sure there could be a more beautiful place to go quad biking in NZ and this is one tour that’s high on my bucket list.
Across Country Quad Bikes is the company that runs tours in Franz Josef and their tours cost $180 NZD for one person, $230 for two (on one buggy or quad bike), and $280 for three. Tours start at 10 am and 2 pm daily and you should book it online in advance.
8. Go skydiving
This is definitely an activity for the bravest travelers. A skydive over the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers has to be one of the most scenic skydives in the world. You can choose from a 16,500ft skydive with 65+ seconds freefall (the most popular option), 9,000ft, 13,000ft, or the huge 20,000ft! On your skydive you will also take in the sights of Westland and Mount Cook National Parks – this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for thrill-seekers.
I will warn you though, when you go skydiving you get a thing called sensory overload which makes it hard to remember the views and the skydive. The best way to help is to get yourself the video and photos after the jump. Trust me, I’ve been skydiving twice, and without the photos it’s a bit of a blur!
All in, this experience should take 2 – 3 hours. As for the skydive, depending on the dive you choose you will be freefalling for anywhere between 20 – 90 seconds! The higher you go the more your skydive will cost and you can check up-to-date prices here.
Related read: Skydiving is also one of the best adventure activities in Queenstown! Read about all the different adrenaline-filled experiences you can have.
9. Eat at Alice May Restaurant and Bar
This cozy New Zealand eatery on Cron Street in Franz Josef is dedicated to Alice May Parkinson, an interesting figure in New Zealand history. Alice was a New Zealand murderer who became an icon for socialist and feminist campaigners in her era, due to her sentence being much harsher than male criminals who committed the same crime.
At Alice May Restaurant, there are stunning mountain views from the courtyard so be sure to grab a seat outside (if the weather allows). You will find local produce and great New Zealand dishes the highlights of the menu. Personally, I loved the pork spare ribs!
10. Fox Glacier
Just over 25 minutes drive from Franz Josef is the popular Fox Glacier – known to be one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. A whopping 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) in length, Fox Glacier is the West Coast’s longest glacier. You can arrange a heli ice-trekking adventure or book a scenic helicopter flight to see the stunning glacier from above.
If you wish to undertake your ice-hike here it’s said to be an easier option than neighboring Franz Josef glacier since it’s not as steep.
You can also book a guided overnight heli-trek to Browne Fox with Fox Guides. This trip takes in stunning mountain and glacier views and gives you the chance to sleep in a historic alpine hut.
A fantastic walk and bike track in the area and just 2 minutes from town is the Fox Glacier South Side Walkway which follows the Fox River through ancient rainforest. About 40 minutes of walking will take you to a stunning viewpoint of Fox Glacier. After this, you will come to an old car park, which if you’ve cycled is where you’ll have to leave your bike and continue the rest of the track on foot. It’s a gentle downhill hike to the best view of the glacier in my opinion.
11. South Westland Salmon Farm
South Westland Salmon Farm is a popular salmon farm and cafe about an hour and 10-minute drive from Franz Josef on SH6. South Westland is a pond rearing farm and they farm Chinook, King, Spring, and Quinnat salmon here. At the on-site café, salmon is highly recommended but, they also have a host of counter foods like cakes and sandwiches if you’re after something else.
If it’s nice out, be sure to take your food and drink to the outdoor seating area and enjoy those west coast views. There’s also an on-site gift shop that sells both fresh and smoked salmon as well as souvenirs.
12. Lake Matheson
Just a 30-minute drive from Franz Josef town is the gorgeous Lake Matheson. It’s said to be one of the most photographed lakes in New Zealand. On a clear day, be sure to have your camera handy as you will see both Mount Cook and Mount Tasman reflected on the surface of the lake.
To get the famous view of the lake you need to walk a 40-minute trail from the parking lot to the viewpoint called “reflection island” or undertake a slightly longer walk at 1.5 hours round-trip which takes you all the way around the lake. On your walk, you will see the Clearwater River suspension bridge as well as tall rimu and kahikatea trees. If you look closely you may spy long-finned eels in the dark water of the lake. If you want, you can even join a guided nature walk to Lake Matheson.
Did you know – Lake Matheson is a traditional mahinga kai (food gathering place) for the native Maoris.
13. Drink coffee at Full of Beans
For your caffeine fix, you can’t go wrong with the aptly named Full of Beans on Main Road. The interior is warm and cozy and serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner with rave reviews. It is particularly popular with locals and larger groups.
I loved their all-day breakfast and the fish and chips. Of course, their coffee is excellent too and there’s a small selection of counter goods if you need food in a hurry.
14. Spend the night at Rainforest Retreat
One of the most luxurious accommodation options in Franz Josef is the surprisingly budget-friendly Rainforest Retreat on Cron Street. This scenic hotel is surrounded by native forest and features a fantastic onsite restaurant and modern and luxurious accommodation. You can choose to splurge on a family treehouse or deluxe cabin or simply save some money and stay at their holiday park.
Regardless, this place gives visitors the true West Coast feel which includes wildlife, lush rainforest, and the sound of nature.
15. Visit the white heron colony at Waitangi Roto Nature Reserve
This is a truly unique tour – a chance to see white herons in their natural breeding colony! It is the only white heron nesting site in New Zealand, so bird lovers listen up. This tour operates from the small town of Whataroa, about a 25-minute drive from Franz Josef. The tour takes 2-3 hours all in and is operated by a small family-owned business. In fact, you can only get to see these beautiful winged birds by taking a guided tour.
White Heron Tours is the company that operates the only tour through the nature reserve at a cost of $150 NZD for adults and $75 for children. Although expensive, the guided tour lasts 2.5 hours and includes your DOC entry permit to the nature reserve.
16. Explore Lake Mapourika
Just a 5-minute drive from Franz Josef via the SH6 lies the largest lake on the West Coast. Lake Mapourika is a popular spot for fishing, bird watching, and kayaking. In fact, it’s a water lovers’ paradise and a guided kayak tour across the Lake is a very popular activity!
The abundant trout and salmon fishing here attracts many locals and tourists daily because the fish are huge. I mean, most trout caught in Lake Mapourika tend to be between 3 – 5 pounds, and the salmon are even bigger! The annual fishing competition (held in February) has proven very popular over the years too. If you love to fish then book this 3-hour fishing tour and see if you can catch a record breaker!
If you don’t fancy getting in the water you can book a 2-hour scenic cruise around the Lake. There’s abundant birdlife so keep an eye out and you may spot birds like the rare crested grebe, white-throated shag, white-faced heron, and kingfisher to name only a few.
17. Enjoy Peters Pool Walk
Peters Pool Walk is a 25-minute loop track that’s easy and flat making it an ideal walk for all ages. The path takes you through native rainforest to a small kettle lake – created by melting ice from a glacial moraine a little over 200 years ago. If you get here early in the morning or before sunset you will see stunning reflections on the surface of the lake of the surrounding mountains.
You can walk here from Franz Josef town if you wish. Simply head South and cross the Waiho River bridge then turn left onto the Glacier Access Road, it’s 4 km down this road to the parking lot which is the starting point of the track.
18. Explore mining tunnels on the Tatare Tunnels Walk
Now, this is certainly one of the most interesting things to do in Franz Josef – walk (or wade) through water tunnels, carved by miners in the early 1900s. Make sure to bring a torch (flashlight) as it is very dark as well as appropriate footwear (ideally gumboots) as otherwise, you are likely to get very wet feet. Some people choose to go barefoot too. The walk is 1 hour 20 minutes return.
Walking through the 500-meter tunnel itself can be a pretty spooky experience as it’s very dark and the water can get to 100 mm deep depending on the weather conditions. In summer though, there’s much less water.
The Tatare Tunnels Walk isn’t the mort beautiful hike in Franz Josef but it sure is the most unique!
19. See some glowworms
This is a great activity if you have kids – the unique opportunity to see glowworms on a gorgeous walk completely free. Access to the glowworms is via the Terrace Walk at the southern end of town. It’s a 1.8 kilometer-long track (1.1 miles) and should take 30 minutes to complete.
Top tip – under the fallen trees near the beginning is the best place to spot the shimmering glow worms. Even in daylight, this walk is still a gorgeous walk as it winds through lush rainforest.
Related read: Seeing glow worms is one of the best things to do in Te Anau. If you’re heading there, check out my blog!
20. Visit Te Koha Gallery
Te Koha Gallery on Main Road in Franz Josef town is a jade carving studio where you can carve your own pounamu jewelry. Pick your own stone (most popular is the 100% NZ Nephrite Jade), as well as the shape and design of your necklace, and create a lovely souvenir to take home from your vacation.
This is seriously the best souvenir especially if your good with your hands. I’m embarrassed by the one I carved so I refuse to show anyone but that doesn’t mean yours won’t look better!
The Gallery itself is a relaxing space to enjoy a cup of tea and music to encourage your artistic side. Allow up to 2.5 hours for this experience. It only costs $75 NZD per person which includes your jade – a good deal if you ask me.
21. Roberts Point Track
The Roberts Point Track is my favorite hike in Franz Josef. This 12-kilometer return track (7.5 miles) requires a good level of fitness due to the steep uphill climb towards the end. It should take about 5-6 hours to complete at a steady pace. You can walk to the starting point of the track from Franz Josef town, cross the Waiho River Bridge and then follow Glacier Access Road.
One hour into the walk you will reach the photogenic Hende’s Hut (FYI – a great place to have a picnic). From the hut, the track continues to climb up to Roberts Point where the glacier views are spectacular. Being this high above the glacial ice gives you a true sense of the sheer size of the glacier.
It’s definitely worth the steep uphill climb once you get to the top as you will see waterfalls and the surrounding mountains in the distance.
22. Have drinks at Snakebite Brewery
This unique restaurant on Main Road opened in 2015 and has proven to be one of the most popular restaurants on the West Coast since. Foodwise, Snakebite Brewery serves up authentic Southeast Asian dishes such as dim sum, dumplings, and tempura. They also serve beers from some of the best craft breweries in the country including Sprig and Fern Brewery in Nelson and Renaissance Brewery in Marlborough. It’s the perfect place to quench your thirst after a day exploring Franz Josef!
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
The small town of Franz Josef is a really beautiful place to stay. Despite being small, there are lots of lively restaurants, bars and other attractions in town along with a huge range of accommodation to choose from.
For budget travelers, Glow Worm Accommodation is a great choice. Its located within walking distance of everything and offers dorm and private rooms at really affordable prices. I actually stayed here on my first ever trip down the west coast and had a social night with other travelers.
For those with a slightly larger budget, the Aspen Court Franz Josef is a good mid-range option with outstanding reviews. The hotel is located on the outskirts of town but is only a short walk from the best restaurants and bars. They also have apartments and studios so its perfect for those who like to prepare their own meals or those traveling in a group/family.
If you’re a luxury traveler the Te Waonui Forest Retreat is pure happiness. The entire retreat is surrounded by lush forest and from your balcony, you’ll be able to hear the sound of nature. Rooms are also large and well decorated. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the beautiful west coast – if you can afford the hefty price tag that is!
There are also a few great holiday home rentals and Airbnbs to choose from in Franz Josef town.
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 book 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.
- 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! For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
As you can see there’s no shortage of amazing things to do in Franz Josef. Those were 22 of the best activities in Franz Josef and I’m sure you’ll agree there’s something for everyone here.
Thanks so much for reading my blog! I really hope you found enough fun activities to make your trip to Franz Josef unforgettable! If you did, stay and browse around some more, I have so many more detailed blogs about Queenstown and New Zealand including guides on Wanaka, Queenstown, road trips, and more!