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There are many wonderful places to visit in New Zealand’s south island and you will be spoilt for choice trying to pick the best destinations for the perfect road trip holiday. We spent a year living in New Zealand and travelled around the south island several times. We have picked out our 20 favourite spots to help inspire you to put together your own ultimate itinerary. Here is our guide to the best places to visit in New Zealand’s south island:
Watch our New Zealand south island video
Best places to visit in New Zealand’s south island
1. Mount Cook National Park
We think this might be our favourite place to visit in New Zealand’s south island and it should definitely be high on your bucket list. Mount Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain and the walking tracks in the surrounding national park are simply stunning with gorgeous views of lakes and glaciers.
The downside is that affordable accommodation in Mount Cook Village is quite scarce during the summer months so do plan your trip in advance.
Best things to do in Mount Cook
- Walk the Hooker Valley Track or the Blue Lakes and Glacier View track.
- Walk, hike or snowshoe at the top of the Tasman Glacier
- Soar over the Southern Alps on a stunning scenic helicopter flight
- Get up close and personal to the gigantic Tasman Glacier Ice wall and icebergs on a boat tour with Glacier Explorers
READ MORE – Things to do in Mount Cook National Park >
Where to stay in Mount Cook National Park
2. Lake Tekapo
Surely one of the most beautiful small towns in New Zealand, Tekapo is primarily known for its tranquil and bright turquoise blue lake.
By night, Tekapo comes alive with stars, as it is one of only two UNESCO Dark Sky Reserves in the southern hemisphere, meaning there is very little light pollution so the night sky is perfectly clear. Combine stargazing with a night-time hot pool dip at Tekapo Springs for one of the most unique New Zealand experiences we ever encountered.
Things to do in Lake Tekapo
- Enjoy a dip in Tekapo Springs hot pools
- Go stargazing at Mt John Observatory
- Photograph the colourful lupin flowers from mid-November until end of December
- Enjoy a horse trek with views of the Southern Alps and the lakes
READ MORE – Things to do in Lake Tekapo >
Where to stay in Lake Tekapo
3. Franz Josef
The south island’s stunning and rugged west coast is famous for its two glaciers – the most popular being Franz Josef. This glacier is sadly receding and can be admired from afar, but if you have the time and the money, you can book a tour where you can take a helicopter to the top and do some hiking (possibly one of the best things we did in New Zealand’s south island).
Located at the base of the glacier and surrounded by lush rainforest, Franz Josef town itself is fairly small but has plenty of accommodation and bars/restaurants,
Things to do in Franz Josef
- Enjoy an amazing hike on the glacier by helicopter
- Take a dip and relax in Franz Josef Glacier hot pools
- Go kayaking on Lake Mapourika
- Take a helicopter flight with Snow Landing on Franz Josef Glacier
- Skydive with views of mountains, glaciers, lakes, rivers and ocean
Where to stay in Franz Josef
The most popular place to visit in New Zealand’s south island
Nestled on the shores of the beautiful Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is by far the most popular place to visit in New Zealand’s south island and famously known as the adrenaline capital of New Zealand! Activities on offer for thrill seekers include hiking, bungy jumping, skiing and snowboarding, whilst more sedate offerings include wine tasting and luxury onsen spas. There is so much to do in this small alpine town that we have put together the perfect 5 day Queenstown itinerary!
It is also the perfect place for backpackers to visit, with lots of nightlife, cheap food and drink offers, and plenty of affordable hostels. The winter months are almost as busy as summer, with visitors flying over for the famous Queenstown Winter Festival and for the winter ski season.
Things to do in Queenstown
- Experience the thrill of the iconic Shotover Jet
- Relax in the Onsen hot pools with stunning alpine views
- Go wine tasting at one of the many wineries in the region
- Enjoy extreme sports such as bungy jumping, skydiving or paragliding
- Take a cable car up a mountain for panoramic views of Queenstown and enjoy a luge ride
- Book a lake cruise on the historic TSS Earnslaw Steamship
- Go skiing at the Remarkables in winter
- Enjoy a Fergburger – voted New Zealand’s best burger
READ MORE – things to do in Queenstown blog post >
Where to stay in Queenstown
This laid back and picturesque lakeside town is a bit quieter than Queenstown but still has heaps of awesome activities and nightlife. During the summer the area is full of people enjoying local hikes and lake activities, and in the winter months the population doubles as the ski resorts in the nearby mountains open.
Things to do in Wanaka
- Hike the famous 16km long Roys Peak track to get the classic Roy’s Peak Instagram photo
- Jump out of a plane on a tandem skydive with stunning scenery of the Southern Alps below
- Take a scenic 1 hour luxury catamaran cruise along Lake Wanaka with cheese, wine and beer!
- Visit the illusions and mazes at the tacky but iconic Puzzling World attraction
- Go skiing and snowboarding at Coronet Peak and Treble Cone in winter
Where to stay in Wanaka
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6. Milford Sound
Milford Sound is one of the most amazing places to visit in the South Island! Once called “the eighth wonder of the world”, Milford Sound is thousands of years in the making and is one of the most popular day trips from Queenstown. The journey to the sounds takes you through lush scenery and the cruise ships sail through the fjords taking you up close to the waterfalls.
Milford Sound is also well known for its rainfall and receives some of the highest amounts of rainfall anywhere in the world -so bring a waterproof jacket!
Things to do in Milford Sound
- Take a 40 minute scenic flight and enjoy spectacular views of the mountains and waterfalls of Fiordland National Park
- Sail through Milford Sound on a cruise
- Kayak through Milford Sound at sunrise and get up close and personal to waterfalls
- Hike the Milford Track – one of New Zealand’s 9 great walks (you need to book well in advance!).
READ MORE – A day trip to Milford Sound >
Where to stay in Milford Sound
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7. Te Anau
Te Anau is a small town that is home to the second largest lake in New Zealand and is also the gateway to Fiordland. It is a great spot to visit for peace and relaxation, but there are also numerous hiking tracks in the area and other outdoor adventures.
Things to do in Te Anau
- Take a day trip to Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound
- Hike the 4 day 60km Kepler Track through Fiordland
- View thousands of glow worms on a Glowworm Caves guided tour
- Enjoy a scenic flight over Fiordland National Park
- Take a cruise on Lake Te Anau aboard a historic motor yacht
- Visit nearby Lake Manapouri
Where to stay in Te Anau
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This charming coastal town surrounded by snow capped mountains is famously known for its whale-watching tours and wildlife. The ocean walks and viewpoints here are also outstanding, and Kaikoura is home to one of the largest seal colonies where you can get up close and personal with these massive creatures lazing and swimming around.
It is also one of the best places to visit in the South Island to eat fresh seafood and no trip to Kaikoura is complete without savouring freshly cooked crayfish at the legendary Kaikoura BBQ Seafood Kiosk.
Things to do in Kaikoura
- Go whale watching from a boat or on a helicopter tour
- Swim with dolphins or watch them from the comfort of a boat
- Go Kayaking with fur seals ducking, weaving and diving around your kayak
- Eat fresh crayfish from local BBQ seafood shacks
READ MORE – Things to do in Kaikoura >
Where to stay in Kaikoura
Picton is located on the north coast and is the gateway to the south island if you are arriving on the Interislander ferry from Wellington in the north island. This small picturesque port town is located in the Marlborough Sounds and there are plenty of stunning walking tracks, boat cruises and an attractive seafront with cafes, restaurants and galleries.
Things to do in Picton
- Sail through the Queen Charlotte Sound on a Mail Boat Cruise
- Go dolphin Watching on an Island Wildlife Sanctuary Cruise
- Hike the 1 to 5 Day 71km Queen Charlotte Track
- Go kayaking along the tranquil waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound
- Taste local delicacies on a Seafood Odyssea Cruise
Where to stay in Picton
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This wine region is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand’s south island if you want to go wine tasting in the Marlborough wine region. This is one of the sunniest towns in New Zealand and 75% of the country’s wine is produced here!
Things to do in Blenheim
- Go wine tasting at some of the many wineries in Marlborough
- Go on a cycling tour of the region, stopping for wine tasting sessions
- Enjoy a Wine and Gourmet tour of Marlborough
Where to stay in Blenheim
11. Abel Tasman
Abel Tasman is the most tropical paradise like of all the places to visit in New Zealand’s south island, awash with turquoise blue seas, white sandy beaches and coastal tracks with stunning views. Partially accessible by car, many of the prettiest beaches are quite secluded as they are accessible only by water taxi, canoe or kayak.
Things to do in Abel Tasman
- Take a boat trip to Anchorage Bay and explore the short walks or relax on the beach
- Enjoy a full day scenic sailing adventure
- Jump into crystal clear pools, zip line over rocks and abseil through showering waterfalls on a guided canyoning tour
- Hike the 3-5 day 60km Abel Tasman Coastal Track – one of New Zealand’s Great Walks
- Explore hidden islands along the coast on a Kayaking tour
- Skydive 16,500ft over Abel Tasman National Park
Where to stay in Abel Tasman
This small city is known for its Scottish and Maori heritage, and has some amazing Victorian and Edwardian architecture. Close to the city is Otago Peninsula, where you can see rare and wonderful wildlife species’ in their natural habitat and view some stunning rugged beaches. The city is also a university town and home to a large student population, so there are plenty of great bars, cheap eats, street art and live music.
Things to do in Dunedin
- Go on a brewery tour at Speight’s or Emerson’s
- Visit New Zealand’s only castle – Larnach Castle and gardens, built in 1871.
- Explore the stunning natural scenery of the Otago Peninsula and its native wildlife
- Visit Baldwin Street – the steepest street in the world
READ MORE – Things to do in Dunedin >
Where to stay in Dunedin
Like stepping back in time, Arrowtown is a former gold mining town with a small, quaint and with an incredibly well preserved and historic looking main street. Located just 20 minutes from Queenstown, this is a great place to visit as a day trip or overnight stay, especially in the fall (April and May) with hues of gold and orange on the hillsides.
Things to do in Arrowtown
- Enjoy a delicious pie from the famous Arrowtown Bakery
- Take a stroll along Arrowtown Village and visit the gift shops and restaurants
- Visit the Chinese settlement – a partially restored 1880s village of Chinese gold miners
- Visit the Chard Farm Winery to try their exquisite Pinot Noir
- Pan for gold in the Arrow River
- Visit the The Lakes District Museum to learn about the history of Arrowtown
READ MORE – Guide to visiting Arrowtown >
Where to stay in Arrowtown
Glenorchy is a true slice of New Zealand paradise and one of the best places to visit in the South Island if you are looking for Lord of the Rings filming locations. There are many guided tours that will take you through the Middle Earth landscape, and the scenic drive to Glenorchy will be one of the best rides of your life as the views are just breathtaking.
Things to do in Glenorchy
- Go jet boating or kayaking along the Dart River
- Hike the Routeburn Track – one of New Zealand’s greatest walks
- Visit Lord of the Rings filming locations on a guided tour
- Go horse riding or ride in an electric 4WD through the Glenorchy landscapes
Where to stay in Glenorchy
15. Hanmer Springs
This sublime spa resort town is located a 90 minute drive from Christchurch and is set amongst the mountains – almost reminiscent of the Canadian alpine towns like Banff and Jasper.
The town is best known for its thermal hot pools which are super relaxing and without a doubt, one of the best things to do in the South Island! There are also plenty of short walks, outdoor activities such as jet boating, and some nice bars and restaurants to recover in at night.
Things to do in Hanmer Springs
- Take a soak in Hanmer Springs thermal hot pools
- Navigate the Waiau Gorge by jet boat
- Enjoy white water rapids on an inflatable canoe tour
- Drive through streams, mud, forest and over rocks on a thrilling quad biking trip
READ MORE – Things to do in Hanmer Springs >
Where to stay in Hanmer Springs
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Christchurch is the south island’s biggest urban city and well known for its English heritage and some of the oldest buildings in New Zealand. Strolling around the city feels a little like being back in England, and the Botanical Gardens are well worth your time.
In 2011 a huge earthquake destroyed many of the historic buildings in the city centre. The damage is still visible today with the Cathedral still in ruins, but the city has slowly been re-inventing itself. Post earthquake Christchurch is a hub of urban creativity, with lots of pop-up installations and sculptures, vibrant street art, as well as shipping container malls and bars.
Things to do in Christchurch
- Board a cable car and enjoy spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and Alpine scenery
- Go wine tasting and have lunch in the Waipara region
- Take a ride on Christchurch’s Historic Tram
- Go punting on the River Avon
Where to stay in Christchurch
Famed for its perfectly preserved Victorian Precinct (starring in many movies and still free to visit), a trip to Oamaru is like stepping into a time-warp. The largest town in North Otago, Oamaru has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, reinventing itself as the steampunk capital of New Zealand.
Things to do in Oamaru
- Check out New Zealand’s best preserved Victorian commercial streetscape – Harbour Street
- Visit Steampunk HQ – a museum featuring a collection of retro-futuristic sci-fi art, movies, sculpture and sound
- Observe the world’s smallest penguins at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
- Take a tour of the Whitestone Cheese Factory
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One of the sunniest places to visit in New Zealand’s south island (and it’s geographical centre), Nelson is a pretty city with a vibrant arts scene which regularly hosts arts and music festivals throughout the year. It also has a great craft beer and wine scene with more than 20 wineries in the region. Nearby Nelson Lakes National Park has 16 picturesque glacial lakes and an alpine landscape of rugged peaks and forests.
Things to do in Nelson
- Enjoy a thrilling ride on the world’s longest Skywire with incredible views of Cable and Delaware Bay
- Take a guided Quad Biking Tour through forest and farmland on the coast of Cable Bay
- Visit the WOW museum – Nelson is the birthplace of New Zealand’s most eccentric fashion show – the annual World of WearableArt Awards
- Follow the Nelson Art Trail – a series of small galleries which showcases paintings, ceramics, jewellery, glass blowing and more
Where to stay in Nelson
A little bit of France in New Zealand, this former French settlement town is set on a harbour and surrounded by the remnants of an ancient volcano on the Banks Peninsula. There are many historic buildings, cafes, restaurants and shops here with architecture reminiscent of a French countryside town. In the scenic harbour you can swim with the world’s rarest and smallest dolphin.
Things to do in Akaroa
- Swim with one of the world’s rarest and smallest dolphins, the Hector’s dolphin
- Enjoy a nature cruise and spot penguins, seals and birds
- Go kayaking in an extinct volcanic harbour basin and see wildlife and sea creatures around your sea kayak
Where to stay in Akaroa
20. Moeraki Boulders
The final entry on our best places to visit in New Zealand’s south island list is Moeraki Boulders – located on the North Otago coastline, an hour north of Dunedin. These boulders are dotted along Koekohe beach, each weighing several tonnes and some as tall as 2 metres high. There are lots of theories about how they came to be here but the scientific explanation is that they are calcium concretions formed 60 million years ago!
These days they are a popular tourist attraction and a great stopping off point on a Christchurch to Dunedin road trip.
READ MORE – Moeraki Boulders blog post >
Where to stay in Moeraki
Best places to visit in New Zealand’s south island – blog posts you might like:
New Zealand itineraries:
- Auckland to Wellington road trip – 7 day itinerary
- Wellington to Christchurch road trip – 7 day itinerary
- Christchurch to Queenstown road trip – 7 day itinerary
- Auckland itinerary – perfect 1, 2 or 3 days in Auckland
- Queenstown itinerary – the perfect 5 day itinerary
- Christchurch to Dunedin road trip – a 5 day itinerary
Check out our other New Zealand blog posts:
- The 10 best day trips from Auckland, New Zealand
- 20 New Zealand food and drinks items you need to try
- The best things to do in Rotorua, New Zealand
- The best day trips from Queenstown, New Zealand
- Things to do on Waiheke Island: the ultimate guide
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