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23 Best Places To Visit In New Zealand’s South Island (2024 Guide)

Welcome to the stunning South Island of New Zealand!

Known for its breathtaking landscapes, pristine lakes, and majestic mountains, the South Island is a true paradise for nature lovers and adventure seekers alike. It’s the place where I went skydiving, paragliding, jetboating, wine tasting and more!

From the streets of Christchurch and Queenstown to a special animal encounter in Oamaru, the South Island has an incredible variety of activities to delight all its visitors. 

So, great ready to start planning your next adventure and make your way to the land of kiwis (both the human and bird varieties!)

Here are 23 of the best places to visit in New Zealand’s South Island. 

Queenstown at sunrise, with Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkable Mountains in the background

Queenstown

Queenstown is one of my favourite destinations in New Zealand – I don’t know that there are many places where I would feel compelled to skydive, paraglide and jetboat, but something about the town’s atmosphere and location has turned me into a beginner adrenaline junkie. 

Whether you want to relax on the beach at the shore of Lake Wakatipu (preferably with ice cream from Patagonia Chocolates) or partake in one of the many adventure activities,

Queenstown is a real highlight of any trip to New Zealand and is perhaps the best place to visit in the South Island. It also makes a perfect base for several day trips to other South Island gems. 

If you are a fan of nature and hiking, there are several trails in the area of varying difficulty from the fairly easy Moke Lake track to the more challenging hike from Bob’s Peak to Ben Lomond.

And just so you get an idea of what it’s like to do a skydive from 15,000ft – here is the video of my jump with NZONE.

 

Christchurch

Christchurch is the biggest city in the South Island and so it is highly likely that any South Island visit will include a stop here. As a Brit, Christchurch feels surprisingly like an English city to me.

Something about the river and gardens reminds me of cities like Cambridge and Stratford-upon-Avon (even though Christchurch‘s River Avon is named after a Scottish one and not Stratford’s Avon.)

Aside from that, Christchurch benefits from some far more dramatic scenery than most British cities. Head over to the Christchurch Gondola for views over the Southern Alps and Canterbury Plains.

There are plenty of things to do In Christchurch. The International Antarctic Centre is well worth a visit to experience aspects of the exploration of the final continent.

Hagley Park is a beautiful place to wander around, perhaps with a picnic in the sunshine. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens are lovely to visit, especially the rose garden.

Quake City teaches visitors more about the 2011 earthquake that devastated the region, as well as more widely explaining New Zealand’s vulnerability to and history of earthquakes given its location. All in all, Christchurch is well worth visiting as part of your journey around the South Island.

Kaikōura

Kaikōura is most famous for whale and dolphin watching. If you want to include animal encounters in your trip around New Zealand, then this is a must-visit location.

Located about 2 1/2 hours north of Christchurch, it’s a popular place to join either a kayak or boat tour to try and spot the resident sperm whales, migrating humpback whales, orcas, dolphins, and even on the rare occasion blue whales. 

You can also visit a lavender farm and join the Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway to spot seals on the beach. If you are taking a road trip from Christchurch then make sure to include Kaikōura on the route.

Dolphins in the sea near Kaikoura

Milford Sound

Embarking on a journey to Milford Sound is like stepping into a real-life postcard of New Zealand’s natural beauty. Located within the Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is a must-visit destination for any traveller seeking to be immersed in breathtaking landscapes.

Its iconic fiords, towering granite cliffs and cascading waterfalls, create a truly stunning experience and make it a South Island must see destination. The pristine waters of the sound reflect the surrounding scenery, offering a mirror-like effect. 

Milford Sound water with mountains in the background on a cloudy day

Cruising through the tranquil waters allows visitors to get up close to fur seals, dolphins, and sometimes even penguins, making it a wildlife enthusiast’s dream come true. 

The ever-changing weather adds a touch of mystery and drama to the experience, with frequent rain showers resulting in numerous temporary waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. 

Whether it’s a sunny day or a moody, misty one, Milford Sound is always beautiful. Unlike other destinations, Milford Sound is perhaps best viewed on what might be considered a gloomy day anywhere else. Mist and rain drifting across the water just add to the stunning views of the sound.

It is an iconic New Zealand location and one of the best places to visit in the South Island. 

To get the best out of Milford Sound, book a tour from Queenstown here.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is also located in Fiordland. It is larger than Milford Sound, but also harder to get to and so much quieter. The route to Doubtful Sound includes a ferry ride and the best way to get there is on a day tour.

Join a boat cruise or kayak tour to explore the area, which is more tranquil and untouched than its more popular neighbour. 

You may also be able to spot seals, dolphins and native birds here, without so much distraction from other tourists. If you prefer off-the-beaten-track, then you might consider Doubtful Sound either instead of, or in addition to Milford Sound.  

Blue waters in Doubtful Sound with tree covered peaks around

Oamaru

I rarely see Oamaru mentioned as a place to visit, but one particular experience brings me back time and again to this small town. Oamaru is home to a colony of Little Blue Penguins. The world’s smallest penguin species stand at about 30cm tall.

The Blue Penguin Colony provides a predator-free sanctuary to these small birds, allowing experts to both research and protect them. 

During the day the penguins either remain in their nest boxes in the colony or head to the ocean to fish, but just after sunset, you can watch them return to their homes.

Between September and February, you can usually see between 50 and 200 penguins waddling back up to their boxes. There is something very special about watching them make their way home each night.

It is a ticketed venue and you do need to book in advance. The start time will depend on the time of year as it is based on sunset. Also, as the focus is on the welfare of the penguins you won’t be able to take photos or videos to ensure the birds aren’t frightened. 

Although Oamaru isn’t a destination particularly known for tourism, if you are looking for experiences with New Zealand’s wildlife then do consider the Blue Penguin Colony.

Wanaka

Wanaka is about an hour’s drive from Queenstown. It is in some ways similar to Queenstown but much more tranquil. Like Queenstown, it sits on a lake, in this case Lake Wanaka, surrounded by mountains. You can enjoy similarly spectacular views but in a less crowded place. 

That isn’t to say Wanaka is devoid of other attractions. It is also a popular location for skydiving, hiking and skiing. You can also visit a lavender farm and explore Puzzling World which is especially good for kids.

Wanaka is also a haven for water sports enthusiasts, with opportunities for kayaking, paddle boarding, and even kitesurfing on the glistening lake.

For a more laid-back experience, the charming town centre offers an array of boutique shops, art galleries, and cafes where you can unwind and soak up the friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

Don’t miss the chance to sample the local cuisine, accompanied by world-class wines produced in the nearby Central Otago region. As the sun sets behind the Southern Alps, the town comes alive with live music venues and cosy bars.

The lonely Wanaka willow tree growing out from the lake waters by the shore of Lake Wanaka

Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman National Park is a coastal gem at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. With its golden sandy beaches, turquoise waters, and lush native forests, this breathtaking park offers a retreat for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

The park is known for its trails, which wind their way through verdant forests and along the stunning coastline. Hiking, kayaking, and even sailing are popular activities that allow you to fully immerse yourself in the park’s natural splendour.

The coastal track is especially popular, offering breathtaking views and opportunities to explore secluded coves and bays. The park is also a fantastic place for spotting wildlife including seals and dolphins. 

Lake Pukaki

The first time I drove past Lake Pukaki immediately started looking for a place to park. I’ve never seen water in such a bright shade of turquoise.

Lake Pukaki is in the middle of the South Island next to glaciers and mountains, and it is thanks to this location that the water turns this improbable shade. 

As the glaciers move they create rock particles so fine that instead of sinking to the bottom of the lake they stay suspended in water, creating bright blue, opaque water.

There are several campsites near the lake, and it is also a great place to stop for a few hours for a picnic. You can also see Aoraki Mount Cook for several points by the lake, creating some particularly impressive views. 

Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

The official name for New Zealand’s highest mountain now includes both the Maori and European names. Standing at 12,218ft, the peak is the focus of several hikes in the area, such as the Hooker Valley track.

Mt Cook Village visitor centre acts as both an information point and a small museum about the history and cultural importance of Aoraki Mount Cook. 

As night falls, Mount Cook National Park reveals its stunning night sky, boasting some of the world’s darkest and clearest skies. Gazing up at the countless stars and the Milky Way is an unforgettable experience that will leave you in awe.

Aoraki Mount Cook with patches of snow on the peak with clear blue sky.

Marlborough Sounds

If your journey to the South Island begins by taking the Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton then you will already have experienced something of the Marlborough Sounds, especially Queen Charlotte Sound. 

If you prefer to remain land-based, then spend a few days walking the Queen Charlotte Track. This route does require pre-booking as accommodation is limited and you will need to arrange luggage transfers. 

For a water-based adventure, join a boat cruise or kayak tour around the sounds. You can either hire kayaks for the time that you require or join a guided kayak tour. However you choose to explore the area, it is a beautiful part of the country. 

Blenheim

Blenheim is located in the Marlborough region at the northern end of the South Island – the heart of New Zealand’s wine industry. Blenheim boasts a sunny climate, making it the perfect destination for wine enthusiasts and outdoor lovers.

The town is surrounded by rolling vineyards, where world-class wineries produce renowned Sauvignon Blanc and other varietals. Wine-tasting tours offer a chance to indulge in the region’s exquisite wines while soaking in the picturesque scenery. Pair your wine with delicious local cuisine at the region’s numerous award-winning restaurants and cafes.

If you are a wine drinker then Blenheim is one of the best places to visit and enjoy some of New Zealand’s finest wines. What could be better than sitting in the sun, enjoying a glass in the place where it was made? 

Gibbston Valley

Speaking of wine, Gibbston Valley is near Queenstown in the Central Otago region, another important area for New Zealand wine.

This area is especially known for Pinot Noir, and there are several tours in the area that will showcase some of the best local wineries. The most well-known is Gibbston Valley Winery which has an excellent restaurant as well as a wine tasting room. 

If you do take a tour, then a common stopping point is Kawarau Bridge where you can watch people bungy jumping at the AJ Hackett site – the world’s first commercial bungy jump.

Overall, a visit to Gibbston Valley is a great way to spend a relaxing day, especially if you’ve been indulging in adrenaline-pumping activities in Queenstown. 

Book a wine-tasting tour from Queenstown here.

Mount Aspiring National Park

This National Park is located in the centre of the South Island, and many of the Southern Alps peaks are within the borders of the park. At the centre of the park is Mount Aspiring, at 9,951ft. 

Hiking trails crisscross through the park, catering to all levels of fitness and experience. The most famous hike is the Routeburn Track which typically takes between 2 and 4 days. There are other multiday hikes in the park, all of which should only be undertaken by experienced hikers. 

For those who want an easier option, there are several available such as the Makarora Bush Walk and the Blue Pools Track.

Whichever route you choose, make sure to check the weather and Department of Conservation website before setting out to check for any alerts. 

Mount Aspiring National Park with lakes and mountains

Tekapo

The town of Tekapo, sitting on Lake Tekapo, is known for a few things. The nearby lupin field, the small Church of the Good Shepherd, and most famously, stargazing.

Tekapo is one of the world’s Dark Sky Reserves, very few of which are in the Southern Hemisphere. It is one of the best places to view the Southern Cross and the Milky Way.

On a clear night, you will be able to see a lot of stars simply by being outside, but for the best views you can take a trip to the University of Canterbury Mount John observatory with the Dark Sky project. 

If you are looking for something to do during the day before the stars appear, then check out Tekapo Springs with hot pools, a sauna, play pools and a spa. 

Glenorchy

Glenorchy is a small town, accessed by driving along the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown. It is a truly beautiful drive, with stunning views of the Remarkable Mountains behind the lake.

Once you arrive there are various cafes and restaurants to enjoy, along with an 8-track zipline course and nature walk.

For a different experience, there is a tour around the Glenorchy area operating out of Queenstown which takes movie fans to various locations used in the filming of The Hobbit, The Lord Of The Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. 

Arrowtown

Arrowtown is a historic mining village, close to Queenstown. Several mining cottages have been preserved and are now used as independent shops and cafes.

The Chinese Settlement has also been maintained to showcase the history of miners who came from China, and the difficulties they endured while trying to earn their fortune and send money back home to their families. 

The Otago region was the centre of New Zealand’s gold rush, and you can visit the Lakes District Museum and Gallery to learn more. You can even hire gold pans from the museum and try your own luck panning for gold in the Arrow River. 

Moeraki

On the East Coast of the South Island, you can find the Moeraki Boulders. There are many images of these spherical boulders online, but in person, they are surprisingly large. There are many boulders which are less than a meter in diameter, but there are others that reach up to 2.2 metres in diameter. 

Stop off at the Moeraki Boulders Cafe for breakfast or lunch and head down to the beach to see this iconic Kiwi scene. Although Moeraki isn’t the only place where boulders like these can be found, they are perhaps the most famous. 

Bluff

If you are a seafood fan then perhaps head towards the southern tip of the South Island to go in search of some of the world’s best oysters.

Every May, Bluff hosts an oyster festival to celebrate this particular delicacy. There are also several restaurants serving oysters during the appropriate season. 

Stroll over to Stirling Point to see the signs identifying your distance from major cities around the world. Bluff is also the departure point for the ferry to Stewart Island if you want to venture beyond the South Island.

Bluff sign at beach

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers

The West Coast is often overlooked on New Zealand road trips around the South Island. For visitors with a limited amount of time it is common to take a more central route through the South Island past Tekapo and Lake Pukaki which may mean skipping the glaciers altogether. 

The town of Franz Josef is relatively small and primarily acts as the gateway to the glaciers. Guide hikes and helicopter tours are popular ways to explore both Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. 

Franz Josef Glacier is the more accessible of the two in its proximity to the town, and also generally the more crowded glacier.

There are easy walking tracks near both glaciers, but for a real close-up experience of the famously blue ice and a more challenging hike, you might want to consider a heli hike which can take you on to the main ice fall of Franz Josef Glacier. 

The Catlins

The Catlins is an area located on the southeastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island. This region is something of a hidden gem that offers a diverse range of landscapes, from rugged coastlines to ancient forests, pristine beaches, and cascading waterfalls.

Start at Nugget Point, where a lighthouse perched atop dramatic cliffs provides panoramic views of the sparkling ocean and unique rock formations known as “nuggets.”

Continue on to the picturesque Purakaunui Falls, a multi-tiered waterfall surrounded by native forest and then to  Curio Bay, a haven for wildlife lovers.

Here, you can spot endangered yellow-eyed penguins as they waddle ashore or witness the ancient spectacle of the fossilized forest, where the remains of 180-million-year-old trees lie exposed at low tide.

There is a lot to see along this stretch of New Zealand’s coast, but it is an especially good choice for nature lovers and hiking enthusiasts. 

Waterfalls running in a forest in The Catlins

Arthur’s Pass

Arthur’s Pass is part of the route that crosses the South Island between Christchurch and Greymouth.

Parts of the road are very steep as you travel across the Southern Alps, and may not be accessible in Winter, but if you are able to do this crossing then you are in for some spectacular views.

It’s one of the best places to spot Kea, a native parrot species known for its olive green feathers with bright orange under its wings. 

There are many great hiking trails starting near Arthur’s Pass, and you will also want to pause and enjoy the view of the Otira Viaduct. Even if you are just driving through, leave enough time to stop for photos as there are several lookout points that you will want to make time for. 

Punakaiki

If you are specifically planning a West Coast road trip, then plan for a stop to see the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes.

Punakaiki is a small town that may not make the itinerary for most travellers as it is slightly out of the way of routes that would incorporate the South Island’s most popular destinations within 1-2 weeks.

If you have a longer amount of time consider further exploration of the West Coast, including the Pancake Rocks, a series of limestone rock formations that resemble stacks of pancakes, carved over centuries by the powerful forces of wind and water.

Take a leisurely stroll along the well-maintained walking tracks that wind through the rainforest, leading you to the Pancake Rocks.

Witness the dramatic blowholes in action as seawater is forced through narrow passages, creating impressive spouts of water and mist. It’s a great place to stop if you are on the road between Westport and Greymouth.

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki

Getting Around

Although you can visit many of these places using tours and buses, the best way to get around the South Island is by car.

Check out Discover Cars to find the best deals. 

FAQs

What Time Of Year Is Best To Visit?

The New Zealand summer (December to February) is peak tourist season, so it may be best to visit in late Spring to avoid some of the crowds. Winter can restrict access to some locations so stick to warmer seasons to avoid road and park closures, especially in mountain areas. 

How Many Days Do I Need In The South Island?

If you are trying to visit both the North and South Islands then I would recommend at least 2 weeks in New Zealand. If you are just focusing on the South Island then you can see many of the highlights in a fast-paced one-week trip but to hit all the destinations on this list you would need at least 2. 

Can You Drive From The North Island To The South Island?

There isn’t a road between the islands, but if you are driving around the country you can take your vehicle on the Interislander Ferry. The journey takes about 3 ½ hours across the Cook Strait and through Queen Charlotte Sound.

Final Thoughts

New Zealand’s South Island is full of wonderful places to visit, and I hope I’ve convinced you it’s worth spending some time there. If you also want to know about the highlights of the North Island, I have a dedicated post!

If you still need help working out which of these New Zealand highlights you can visit, then have a look at this South Island Road Trip route. This itinerary hits many of the major highlights in a 7-day trip, with additional information on what to do if you have extra time. 

Is New Zealand Worth Visiting

Picton to Queenstown Road Trip

Best Day Trips From Queenstown

14 Day New Zealand Itinerary

Best Places To Visit In The North Island

Person paragliding with a yellow parachute, over Queenstown and a lake with mountains in the background.

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