New Zealand is known to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Especially the south island of New Zealand is a dream destination for every traveller. From turquoise lakes to snowcapped mountains, glaciers, rainforests and tropical beaches. Within a small area, you will discover the most beautiful landscapes New Zealand has to offer. And because of its isolation, New Zealand has developed distinct biodiversity that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
And because of its remoteness, New Zealand was one of the last lands in the world to be settled by humans. Over 1000 years ago a Polynesian indigenous tribe, the Māoris, arrived on the north island of New Zealand. They were the first people to call New Zealand their home.
Did you know we made a documentary about the Māori culture? Take a look at our New Zealand travel guide to watch it and let us know what you think!
The south island of New Zealand is known for its unique rugged, beautiful and most special landscapes you’ll ever see. And everyone who has been to the south island and north island of New Zealand can agree. It is a curse and a blessing to have travelled through New Zealand. Nothing can compare to the beauty you find here.
We have travelled through New Zealand for six weeks and would love to go back anytime to see more of this amazing country. Here are the 20 places on the south island of New Zealand every traveller should see.
Queenstown is the most popular city on the south island of New Zealand. It’s small and beautifully situated on the longest lake in New Zealand; Lake Wakatipu. Mountains surround it with snowy peaks, and it’s an absolute must, to visit Queenstown when you’re on the south island of New Zealand. We enjoyed our time in Queenstown very much. It was one of our favourite places in New Zealand. Also, the activities in and around Queenstown are endless.
So what can you do in Queenstown? Anything you can imagine! Queenstown is known worldwide for its many adrenaline activities. The first bungee jump was invented in Queenstown. Yes, you can jump from the original bungee jump. So adrenaline junkies eat-your-heart-out! A small portion of all the activities in Queenstown: paragliding, bungee jumping, skydiving, world’s biggest swing, jet boats, ziplining, rafting, flyboarding, skiing, snowboarding. Find out more about all the activities in Queenstown.
Not exactly a thrill seeker? Queenstown also has low-key and relaxing activities and great festivals in spring and summer time. It’s a culinary city with incredible restaurants, beer and wine bars, coffee places, takeaway restaurants and clubs. There is something for every budget. There are several vineyards along the road to Queenstown and around the city so you can enjoy a day of wine tasting as well. You will find vineyards everywhere on the south island of New Zealand.
The vibe in Queenstown is laid-back, and it’s no surprise that this place is heaven for backpackers from all over the world who like to stay or work for a couple of months on the south island of New Zealand.
Hiking up Queenstown Hill is a must-do activity. The hike is about 45 – 60 minutes and starts near the bottom station of the gondola. You don’t want to miss the beautiful view from the top overlooking Queenstown and all the gorgeous mountains of the south island of New Zealand. At the top, there are multiple activities to do or other hiking tracks you can explore. Don’t feel like walking? Book the Queenstown Gondola here!
Useful links Queenstown
- Tourist information Queenstown
- Best places to stay in Queenstown
- Book your activities for Queenstown
#2 Milford Sound
Milford Sound is the most famous fjord of the Fiordland National Park located on the south west of the south island of New Zealand. Some people call it the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ that’s how beautiful it is. Glaciers sculpted it during the ice ages. Doubtful Sound is the lesser known sister of Milford Sound, but evenly beautiful.
This part of the south island of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on earth. You’re lucky if you have a clear blue sky in Milford Sound. But Milford Sound is breathtakingly beautiful in any weather. With rain, the waterfalls are more dramatic than on sunny days, so it has its perks as well. Some waterfalls in Milford Sound can even reach an altitude of 1000 meters. You can hop on a cruise, see dolphins, go diving or kayaking. Book your Milford Sound activities here!
Getting to Milford Sound will take a bit of time. It’s not a destination like any other place on the south island of New Zealand where you will pass by along the road. You can either stay in Queenstown and hop on a day tour to Milford Sound (12 – 15 hours) or drive to Te Anau to stay a couple of days to enjoy Milford Sound. The day tours are incredibly long so we advise you to book a night or two in Te Anau to get the most out of your visit to Milford Sound.
#3 Stewart Island
Stewart Island is a small island 30 kilometres south of the south island of New Zealand. This island is a paradise for hikers and bird lovers. A lot of protected birds live here, and it’s the only place in New Zealand where you can view kiwis in their natural habitat at night. The best spot for ‘kiwi spotting’ is on Ocean Beach.
Not a lot of travellers visit Stewart Island. If you have plenty of time, we advise you to explore this island in the south of New Zealand. The shortest and also the most expensive option to get to Stewart Island is with a 20-minute flight from Invercargill. The most southern city on the south island of New Zealand. You can also book the ferry, which is much cheaper.
Useful links Stewart Island
- Tourist information Stewart Island
- Best places to stay in Stewart Island
- Book your activities for Stewart Island
#4 The Catlins
The Catlins, Catlins Forest Park and Catlins Conservation Park, are in the south-eastern part of the south island of New Zealand. It’s a beautiful and remote area with varied scenery. From lush green forests, rugged cliffs to white sandy beaches with nobody else there. Only some sea lions are bathing in the sun.
Oh, and did I mention waterfalls? In the Caitlins, you’ll find so many stunning waterfalls with the Matai falls, Mclean Falls and Purakaunui Falls as a couple of favourites.
#5 Lake Wanaka
The town Wanaka is the light version of Queenstown. It’s much smaller but also has a laid-back vibe with plenty of activities to do. Lake Wanaka is becoming the most popular place on the south island of New Zealand. And we understand why.
The surroundings of Wanaka are incredibly beautiful. The lake is clear and surrounded by green trees and snowy mountains in the background. It’s the postcard spot on the south island of New Zealand. The one tree Wanaka Tree in the lake is the most photographed tree in the world. And attract a lot of Instagrammers who want to snap the perfect picture of New Zealand.
In the summer Wanaka is hot and dry – perfect for water sports, hiking and cycling. And in the winter you can go skiing at four different ski areas close by Wanaka.
Do you want to grab a movie? Go to Cinema Paradiso. It is a small and cute cinema with comfy couches and chairs. They bake fresh cookies just before intermission, and you can even order takeaway food that is brought to your seat before the movie starts. I want every cinema to be like this!
The most famous hike on the south island of New Zealand is to Roys Peak Track and has the most amazing views you’ll ever experience! Get all the information about this track here.
Useful links Lake Wanaka
- Tourist information Stewart Island
- Best places to stay around Lake Wanaka
- Book your activities for Lake Wanaka
#6 Lake Pukaki
You’ll find the most iconic New Zealand landscape at Lake Pukaki on the south island. With high mountain peaks and Mt Cook in the background is Lake Pukaki a place you don’t want to skip while you’re travelling over the south island of New Zealand. Unfortunately, we were there when the weather was terrible, so the turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki weren’t as blue as we would expect to be. And the wind was extreme so we only stayed one night. We can see why you want to spend a couple of nights at this place when the weather is nice. Just because the surroundings are breathtaking. And you can do a lot of hiking.
The area of Lake Pukaki is a perfect place for stargazing as it gets dark. I mean, totally black. There are no big cities in the neighbourhood, so you see the stars shining very brightly.
The irresistible beauty of this area has used as a decor for famous movies like Lord of the rings and the Hobbit. These films contributed to the popularity of the south island of New Zealand for many travellers.
#7 Aoraki Mt Cook
In the backdrop of Lake Pukaki, you’ll find the highest peak of New Zealand; Mt Cook. The Māori name for the mountain is Aoraki, meaning cloud piercer. Mt Cook is one of the many mountains with 19 peaks over 3,000 meters that belong to the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
Many serious alpinists and mountaineers from around the world travel to this part on the south island of New Zealand. Since Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mt Cook successfully in 1948 as the first man, many alpinists have followed his lead. There is a Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center in the Hermitage Hotel where you can learn more about his adventures.
You don’t have to be professional to hike in Mt Cook National Park on the south island of New Zealand. As I mentioned Mt Cook and Lake Pukaki area are ideal for hiking, and that’s why many travellers stay a couple of nights to enjoy the raw nature of this place. You can spot glaciers and glacier lakes that are so blue you don’t need a filter for your photos. Download the hiking & cycling tracks Mt Cook here.
Land on a glacier!
A lot of travellers come to Mt Cook National Park to do star gazing as well. And the most expensive but probably the most adventurous activity to do is to go on a scenic flight with a ski plane or helicopter. If it’s within your budget or if you don’t care about your travel budget for one day: spend it at Mt Cook with a scenic flight. It’s expensive but also an experience you don’t often do in your life. So just do it! Tour operators offer different packages and tours; flying over Mt Cook National Park with snow landings on either the Fox, Franz Josef or Tasman Glaciers. This is the ultimate south island New Zealand experience.
I was fortunate to travel twice to New Zealand. In 2008 with my father and 2018 with Léon. My father and I did a scenic flight with a snow landing on a glacier as well, and It was so awesome. Are you also excited?
The Aoraki/Mount Cook is a national park, so there is no real town. There is a tiny village called Mt. Cook Village providing park visitors with needed services. There are a couple of hotels, lodges and campsites in the national park.
Useful links Mount Cook
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#8 Lake Tekapo
All the 3 big lakes on the south island of New Zealand are perfect for stargazing. But Lake Tekapo is part of the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve.
The 4300-kilometre area was declared the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, which makes it the only one in its kind on the Southern Hemisphere. There are only eight in the world, so Lake Tekapo is a special place to visit. Make sure you plan your trip to Lake Tekapo when the weather forecast predicts clear skies. There isn’t much about stargazing with a cloudy sky.
At the Mount John Observatory, you can learn more about the beautiful stars in the universe.
If you travel to the south island of New Zealand in March or September, you have a good chance of catching the Aurora Australis. Also known as the Southern Lights.
Don’t forget to visit one of the most iconic photo locations on the south island of New Zealand: Church of the Good Shephard. You can’t miss it because the town of Lake Tekapo isn’t very big.
Useful links Lake Tekapo
- Tourist information Lake Tekapo
- Best places to stay Lake Tekapo
- Book your activities for Lake Tekapo
#9 Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier is one of the biggest glaciers in New Zealand. It’s a perfect place for hiking. Sorry, the whole south island of New Zealand is perfect for hiking. I feel as if I am repeating myself, but it’s weird not to mention it again.
You can explore more of the glacier, discover secret waterfalls and explore Lake Mapourika. There’s a little town with excellent restaurants and exciting adventures and activities just waiting to be discovered.
You can explore ice caves with a guide if the weather permits. It’s also possible to do ice climbs, visiting hot-pools and the famous glacier helicopter hikes. The glacier is easily accessible due to footpaths that go through ancient river valleys which leads to the ice.
Visiting Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand is either flying from Lake Takepo/ Mt Cook area or driving the one road on the west side of the south island. It’s highway 6 that leads to Franz Josef Glacier. Via Wanaka in the south or via Greymouth/ Arthur’s Pass much further up north is the only way to get to Franz Josef Glacier. So you have to decide if you want to travel to this side of New Zealand. If you have time, no worries. But if you have little time, it’s a decision to make.
#10 The Great Coast Road
Highway 6 is the 600 kilometres Great Coast Road that runs down the west coast of the south island. It’s a great coastal road overlooking the Tasman Sea with high cliffs, rocky beaches and gold-rush towns.
The biggest pit-stops along the way are the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, Franz Josef Glacier, Hokitika Gorge and Fox Glacier. The Fox Glacier is just one hour away from Franz Josef Glacier and is also easily accessible by foot.
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#11 Arthur’s Pass
Arthur’s Pass is situated between Christchurch and the West Coast in the south island of New Zealand. It’s the highest pass (900 meters) through the Southern Alps and the landscape is very different on both sides. On the east side of Arthur’s Pass, you will see beech forests and on the west side, you will see rainforests. It’s one of the most scenic routes on the south island of New Zealand. And because of its mountainous landscape, the weather can change rapidly.
Grab lunch at Arthur’s Pass Village and take a small walk to the Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall or do the Dobson Nature Walk.
Useful links Arthurs Pass
- Tourist information Arthur’s Pass
- Best places to stay Arthur’s Pass
- Book your activities for Arthur’s Pass
You will be surprised about the historic town Oamaru if your travelling to or from Christchurch. You can stroll through town to see beautiful Victorian architecture and learn a bit more about New Zealand history.
My favourite part of Oamaru is penguins. It’s the penguin village of New Zealand, so if you want to spot wild penguins on the south island, you’ll have to travel to Oamaru. And make sure you arrive before sunset because at sunset the penguins come out of the water. Super cute to see.
These penguins belong to the blue penguin and yellow-eyed penguin colony. You can also spot these penguins in Dunedin, Marlborough Sounds, The Caitlins and Stewart Island, but you’ll have more chances in Oamaru.
You can see the penguins coming out of the water at the visitor centre in the harbour of Oamaru. A ticket is $ 20 per person. A bit expensive because you can also see them for free just in the same harbour. Maybe not as many, but still. The big reason to buy tickets is that they use the money for long-term conservation and research programmes.
If you travel with a camper you can spend the night at the Harbor Tourist Park . The penguins stay the night at this campsite. Their hideout is under the kitchen, so no need to pay expensive tickets to see wild penguins. You can spot the penguins during sunset or between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. in the morning.
These penguins are very easily disturbed so don’t use your flashlight while making pictures or put on your car lights just to see them more clearly.
Useful links Oamaru
Okay. Christchurch isn’t on many lists of must-see places on the south island of New Zealand, but it is on ours.
Christchurch was largely destroyed in 2010 and 2011 by several earthquakes. The city centre, in particular, had to suffer. These earthquakes destroyed almost 80% of the buildings in the city centre. I visited Christchurch in 2009 before the earthquakes, so I have seen the before and after and it’s shocking!
Christchurch used to be a historic, cute and cosy city. With beautiful historic building and churches. Now the city centre looks empty. Churches are still under construction. Buildings are gone, empty spaces which now used for public parking. Christchurch has a different vibe and is very busy to recover from these terrible events.
So why is Christchurch on this list?
So am I a disaster tourist? Maybe? Is that even English? We know it in Dutch, and it means that you like to see how something has turned out after a big disaster. So because I’ve visited Christchurch in 2009 and was horrified by the news of the earthquakes. I wanted to see the city again, and it shocked me how much of the city is destroyed. You know how destroying earthquakes are. Everyone sees the images on the news, but its something different to witness afterwards.
Léon had never been to New Zealand before and even he was impressed and interested. In Quak city you really only get a good impression of what an earthquake can do to a city. This museum is specially made to inform people about what happened with videos, pictures and stories of survivors. The community of Christchurch became very close because they only had each other to bounce back on. And all the profits of this museum goes back to the city.
The new library in the centre gives a nice view from the 4th floor over the church where Christchurch is named after. New Regent Street is now the place to be for drinks. This authentic street is fortunately not destroyed and gives you an impression of what the vibe and appearance of Christchurch were, before the earthquakes.
Are you travelling to the south island of New Zealand in November? Make sure to be in Christchurch during the Christchurch Cup and Show week. This is one of New Zealand south island most exciting social event which attracts over 20,000 people a year. It’s the week where Christchurch comes alive, and it’s the annual event in New Zealand that everyone is looking forward to. It mainly revolves around horse racing but also about fashion, food and music.
Car/ Camper Rental Budget Tip!
A big reason why Christchurch is on the list of must-see places on the south island of New Zealand is that rental cars and campers are much cheaper in Christchurch. The government intentionally made rental cheaper in Christchurch to attract more tourists. Due to the earthquakes, Christchurch didn’t become very popular among travellers. And by making things cheaper, Christchurch becomes more attractive for travellers to start their journey on the south island of New Zealand. They need all the money to rebuild the city.
So make sure you start your trip to New Zealand in Christchurch. It can save you hundreds of dollars on your rental car or camper.
Useful links Christchurch
- Cheapest rentalcars in Christchurch
- Tourist information Christchurch
- Best places to stay Christchurch
- Book your activities for Christchurch
If you start your travel to New Zealand in Christchurch or pass by Christchurch. You cannot travel anywhere else on the south island of New Zealand before driving to Akaroa. It’s the most French town in New Zealand, and it’s a scenic 1,5-hour drive away from Christchurch. It’s the furthest town on the Banks Peninsula of the south island of New Zealand. And is known for the historic buildings, a beautiful harbour and great food.
Don’t forget to stop at The Hill Top Tavern for a cup of coffee and amazing view. You can continue the main road to Akaroa or take the scenic route; 100 meters before Hilltop Tavern you can turn left to the Summit Road which leads you to Akaroa as well.
In Akaroa, you can enjoy great food, take a cruise, rent bicycles and you can also swim with wild dolphins. In the harbour of Akaroa, is the only place on earth where you can get close to the world’s smallest, rarest and most playful Hector’s dolphin. I did this as well, and it was so awesome. You’re lying in the ocean, and one person attracts the dolphins by hitting two small rocks. You don’t know where the dolphins are coming from, so it’s a total surprise when they jump out of the water right next to you.
This tour can be booked all year round.
Useful links Akaroa
This beautiful bay is your wildlife destination on the south island of New Zealand. Kaikoura is a coastal town with beautiful green mountains and snowy peaks in the background and an ocean filled with exciting marine life like dolphins, seals and whales. There are also many cafés, restaurants and shops to explore in Kaikoura.
The best place to spot the seal colony of Kaikoura is at Point Kean Viewpoint. You can either drive to this point or book a kayak tour.
All-year-round you can go on a whale watching tour that leaves Kaikoura multiple times a day. The sperm whale can be spotted all-year-round because they love the nutrient-rich waters of Kaikoura. You can also spot other whales in Kaikoura at different times in the year.
Best Whale Watching Time Kaikoura
Sperm Whale: All Year round
Orca: October – March (summer in New Zealand)
Humpback whales: June – August (winter in New Zealand)
The humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to the warmer water of Tonga and Australia each year. They stop off in Kaikoura on their way for a must needed rest before they continue their huge journey up north.
Useful links Kaikoura
#16 Hammer Springs
Hammer Springs is best known for its natural hot pools and its the wellness destination of the south island of New Zealand. Hammer Springs is a beautiful alpine town is just 1,5hour away from Christchurch. There are multiple restaurants and shops in town to explore. And different hot pools to relax in. Hammer Springs is the ideal place to unwind after travelling through the south island of New Zealand.
#17 Nelson Lakes National Park
Nelson Lakes National Park is in the north of the south island of New Zealand. You can get here with a 2-hour drive from Nelson or Blenheim to the gateway of this park: St Arnaud.
The Nelson Lakes is the beginning of the Southern Alps so expect beautiful mountains with many alpine activities to do.
The Nelson biggest lakes are Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa, not to be mistaken by the town Rotorua on the north island of New Zealand. There are also other lakes to discover in this National Park like the beautiful but not comfortable accessible Lake Blue. This Lake is only reachable by a 4-7 day intense hike, or you can see the lake by helicopter. The Blue Lake transparency reaches 80 meters, and it appears to have different colours of blue and green.
The best activities in the Nelson Lakes National Park are skiing/ snowboarding in winter and hiking, kayaking, fishing, going on a cruise, swimming in the lakes during summer time.
Useful links Nelson National Park
#18 Marlborough Sounds
When you are travelling between the north island and the south island of New Zealand you will go through the Marlborough Sounds with the ferry that sails between Picton and Wellington.
Travelling from the north to the south island of New Zealand is leaving a busy harbour and entering a different world with beautiful green mountains that roll into the ocean. The Malborough Sounds take up one-fifth of the entire coastline of New Zealand and have so many secluded bays, wildlife reserves and great hiking tracks to explore. With the Queen Charlotte’s Track as one of New Zealand’s south island the favourite hiking track.
Another great thing about Marlborough Sounds is the wine. The Marlborough Sounds region is New Zealand’s most famous wines region. This place is New Zealand’s most sunny and dry region which is excellent for great wine. Driving around and hopping into vineyards is very easy to do. You can even hop on a cruise from the north island to do some wine-tasting for a day in Malborough Sounds.
Useful links Marlborough Sounds
- Tourist information Marlborough Sounds
- Best places to stay Marlborough Sounds
- Book your activities for Marlborough Sounds
#19 Abel Tasman National Park
The first time I travelled to New Zealand, we skipped Abel Tasman National Park, and that was the one place I regretted most not visiting. With only a couple of weeks and so many beautiful places on the south island of New Zealand, you have to make some sacrifices. So don’t make the same mistake as I did, go to Abel Tasman National Park. Fortunately, I had the chance to travel to New Zealand’s south island for a second time and visited Abel Tasman National Park. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Abel Tasman National Park is at the north end of New Zealand’s south island. It has golden beaches, forests, gorges, waterfalls, caves surrounded by an azure blue sea with islands and reefs. It’s spectacular and a paradise for kayakers and hikers. The name refers to the Dutchmen Abel Tasman who in 1642 became the first European explorer to discover New Zealand. He anchored his boat in Golden Bay.
Abel Tasman Track
The Abel Tasman Coast Track is one of New Zealand’s south island great walks. The track is easily accessible for boats, so you have the option to walk a part of the trail for a day or the entire track over 3-5 days. You need some form of transport to or from the track because it isn’t a circuit track. Shuttles and water taxis into the Abel Tasman National Park are easy to book. Do you want to hike the Abel Tasman Track and stay the night at one of the huts or campsites? Make sure to book in advance, because of the popularity of this track it can be hectic. Download the Abel Tasman Guide here!
Take a kayak tour if you would rather explore the Abel Tasman National Park from the water. You can book a half day kayak tour or spend multiple days kayaking trough Abel Tasman National Park. If you have time, definitely consider this option.
You can also hop on a cruise or witness the beauty from above in a helicopter. You can start your trips in Kaiteriteri. This sunny town has one of the most beautiful beaches of New Zealand and the gateway for trips into the Abel Tasman National Park.
Useful links Abel Tasman National Park
- Tourist information Abel Tasman National Park
- Best places to stay Abel Tasman National Park
- Book your activities for Abel Tasman National Park
#20 National Park Kahurangi
This park is the second largest park in New Zealand and located at the north-west of New Zealand’s south island. Kahurangi means ‘valuable possession’ in the Maori language and it’s known to be an untracked wilderness.
50% of all plant species in New Zealand are present in Kahurangi National Park. There are many tree ferns and nikau palms and an incredible number of different birds, such as the rare blue duck and the kiwi.
This national park is perfect for great hiking tours, like almost every park on the south island of New Zealand. The highlight is the multi-day Heaphy Track. This track leads you straight through the park and connects with the Golden Bay on the west coast of New Zealand’s south island. The track is 77 kilometres long and takes between four and six days to walk, which is easy to do.
Most people walk this track from the north in Brown Hut, 35 kilometres south of Collingwood to the south to Kohaihai Shelter, 15 kilometres north of Karamea. You will cross rivers on spectacular suspension bridges, and you’ll have a magnificent view of Mount Perry and the coast, especially at Heaphy Hut.
Are you travelling to New Zealand’s south island soon? We would like to know what place you don’t want to miss. Let us know in the comments!
Useful links South Island New Zealand
- Cheap car rental New Zealand
- Best places to stay South Island New Zealand
- Book your activities for South Island New Zealand