Home » New Zealand Travel Guide: Best Places to Visit on South Island

New Zealand Travel Guide: Best Places to Visit on South Island

South Island is home to some of the most thrill seeking activities on the planet – in fact, New Zealand is the best place in the world for adventure seekers. There are literally hundreds of different things to do in New Zealand, ranging from the pleasant and scenic to the ultimate in intrepid adventures and daredevil activities. The country is split into two distinct geographical areas. These are South Island, known as Te Waipounamu and then North Island, also known as Te Ika-a-Māui. Each island offers distinctly different landscapes, experiences and adventures, although there are around another 600 smaller islands too. This guide aims to cover all of the very best places to visit on South Island in New Zealand.

South Island is the larger of the two, but is home to just one quarter of the New Zealand population. As such, you’ll find huge mountain ranges, glaciers and vast lakes. On the other hand, North Island’s landscape is famous for its lively volcanic activity, scenic national parks and vibrant, bustling cities such as Auckland and Wellington.

Experiences on the South Island are endless. In fact, you could easily spend a couple of months on South Island alone, or even a year as it’s the ultimate year round destination. From the Franz Josef Glacier to the magic of Kaikoura, on the island’s east side, and the summer and winter appeal of Queenstown, in the very south of the island.

I’ve spent an amazing month exploring the South Island – and like with my time on the North Island, I still had so many things left to do! So in order to make this guide as thorough as possible, I’ve enlisted the help of some fellow travel bloggers to share their most loved places to visit on South Island too.

The stunning Kaiteriteri Beach on South Island
The stunning Kaiteriteri Beach on South Island

History of New Zealand

As always, I believe that before planning a visit to any country, it’s always wise to have some understanding of the country’s history. I’ve written about this in more detail in my guide to the North Island, but I’ve provided a quick overview here too.

Ancestors of the Māori were the first people arrive and settle in New Zealand in around 1200-1300 AD. But it wasn’t until the mid 1600s that Europeans arrived. The Dutch were the first to arrive, which is where the name New Zealand comes from – as the Dutch named the island nation ‘ Nieuw Zeeland’. The British came in the late 1700s, with Captain James Cook leading the exploration.

In 1840, The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by William Hobson, New Zealand’s first governor, together with 500 Māori chiefs across the country. This signified the British claiming New Zealand as a colony, but thankfully, the treaty was established to govern the relationship between the Māori and non-Māori (known as Pakeha).

The principles of the Treaty have an important role in New Zealand still today. Most crucially, it ensures that the Māori iwi (tribes) keep their right to protect their way of life and to control the resources they own. Another principle of the Treaty is that the government is also required to act fairly and in good faith towards the Māori iwi.

Although New Zealand hasn’t done everything perfectly in regards to its political actions, the nation is often considered to be one of the best governed countries in the world. Jacinda Ahern, the nation’s current prime minister, often finds herself in the news across the world for simply doing things well.

You can read more about the history of New Zealand here and more about Jacinda Ahern here.

Best Places to Visit on South Island in New Zealand
One of dozens of scenic drives in South Island

South Island, New Zealand: Useful Information

How to get to the South Island, New Zealand?

Christchurch is the largest airport on South Island. However, most airlines arrive here via Auckland or Sydney. You can also fly into Queenstown and Dunedin, but again, most flights will stop at Auckland first.

Because of the country’s remote location, the main way to arrive is by flying. If you’re coming from the North Island first, you can either fly or take the ferry from Wellington to Picton.

Mountain vistas in Queenstown
Mountain vistas in Queenstown

New Zealand Visas

New Zealand has an excellent reciprocal visa waiving agreement, meaning plenty of countries can enjoy visa-free visits to New Zealand. These include the USA, the UK, the UAE, dozens of countries in the EU. You can see the full list here.

However, despite not needing a visa, you must still hold an NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority). You can get this online for NZD$12 (or NZD$9 on the app).

Other countries not on the list above will need need a visitor visa.

The peaceful surrounds of Akaroa
The peaceful surrounds of Akaroa

How to get around New Zealand?

As mentioned, the main way to travel between North and South Island is either a domestic flight, or to take a ferry between the two islands.

The main route is from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island. This route crosses the Cook Strait – a journey which is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful sailings in the world.

There are a couple of different options in terms of ferry ports and ferry companies, with the sailing taking around 3.5hours each way. Please check here to find out everything you need to know about the ferry between North Island and South Island. Typically, the cheapest fare is around NZD$65 each way for an adult foot passenger.

As with the North Island, the best way to get around the South Island is by hire car, or campervan if you prefer. Not only does it offer the most freedom possible as you can stop wherever you wish, but also it’s a great way to save money. As there are less urban areas in South Island, it is definitely recommended to hire your own vehicle. This also means you can enjoy some of the most scenic drives in the world at your own pace.

Trains are another way to explore the South Island, with the stunning Coastal Pacific train stretching from Picton to Christchurch via Blenheim and Kaikoura. This journey can even start in Wellington on the North Island too, with an inclusive ticket costing just NZD$ 139 for the train and ferry fares.

There’s also the Christchurch to Greymouth journey on the Tranz-Alpine train, which traverses the stunning Southern Alps.

There are no suburban trains in Christchurch, so if you’re relying on public transport, you’ll need to get familiar with the bus service.

Another option is to join one of the backpacker buses, such as the Kiwi Experience.

One of the epic drives in Mount Cook National Park on South Island
One of the epic drives in Mount Cook National Park on South Island

When is the best time to go to New Zealand?

The South Island has very distinctive seasons, far more so than North Island. Its landscape means that when the cooler winter months come (May – September), the Alps become ski resorts. In fact, the South Island is renowned as one of the best places to ski in the Southern Hemisphere, if not the world.

For the summer months, the best time to visit is from December to March for the longest, sunniest days and for a better chance to do a greater range of activities. From May to September, expect far chillier temperatures across the whole of South Island.

Gorgeous weather at Kaikoura
Gorgeous weather at Kaikoura

Currency and Budget

As noted in my North Island guide, this section needs to be pre-faced with information that New Zealand is one of the most expensive places in the world to travel.

That being said, you can definitely course keep costs down by camping or driving in your own car/van and going self-catering, as opposed to eating out and staying in hotels every day.

South Island is on the whole less expensive than North Island, and its urban areas (Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown) are cheaper for eating, drinking and accommodation. Although the sheer number of activities and experiences on offer on South Island will quickly balance out costs.

But of course, plenty of the natural wonders and best places to visit in New Zealand are free.

New Zealand uses the NZD$, which is roughly 1 NZD$ to 1 AUD$.

The exchange rate is approximately 1 NZD$ = 0.75c USD$ and 1 NZD$ = 50p GBP.

Accommodation

Dorm rooms in hostels add up whilst travelling in New Zealand quickly, with the average cost on the South Island being around NZD$25-30 per night. A private room in a hostel or budget hotel is going to be around NZD$60-70 too, so you can see how travels around the two islands will quickly add up.

Camping spots are far cheaper, often around NZD$10 per night will save a lot of cash.

Enjoying the beach in Queenstown
Enjoying the beach in Queenstown – a great free activity!

Food

I recommend checking out my section on eating out or cooking in New Zealand here. Generally, cooking at home yourself is cheaper but especially so if you can store/transport your food on the go easily in your camper van or hire car. Taking ingredients onto public transport is not ideal.

Activities

On the South Island, these will easily be your greatest expense. Although hiking is free (except perhaps an entry fee), most other activities have fairly expensive costs. For example, the famous Nevis Bungy in Queenstown will set you back NZD$275 or doing the Franz Josef Glacier heli-hike experience will cost around NZD$485 per person.

Other less thrilling activities are more affordable, such as the Queenstown Skyline Luge which includes a chairlift ride and 2 luge rides, involving 800m of speeding down the incredible panoramic track. This will set back an adult NZD$61, so far more reasonable – and only slightly less thrilling!

Taking the Skyline Luge in Queenstown
Taking the gondola to the Skyline Luge in Queenstown

Transport

As domestic flights within the South Island are less common, it is likely you’ll be taking buses or renting your own vehicle. This will generally making travelling around the South Island quite affordable. InterCity buses range from around NZD$30-70 depending on the distance and how far in advance the bus was booked.

Best Places to Visit on South Island in New Zealand
Hiring your own car means stopping as you please at gorgeous spots like this!

Best Places to Visit on South Island in New Zealand:

So now we’ve got the basics covered, let’s jump into the very best places to visit on South Island in New Zealand.

Larger Cities and Towns

Christchurch

As the largest city in the South Island, there’s plenty on offer in this lively, cosmopolitan destination. Having been destroyed by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, this city has had to rebuild itself. It was truly flattened and only half rebuilt when I first visited in 2013. I walked past plenty of stores that lay still destroyed with the shop’s contents strewn across the floor.

But I also found some amazing new buildings constructed in the wake of the earthquake, plenty of which re-used materials or existing structures, such as old containers. One of the most impressive with a huge, full size church built entirely of cardboard, dubbed the ”Cardboard Cathedral‘, and another was the ‘Re:START’ shopping precinct, built entirely of shipping containers piled on one another. Sadly this has now closed down, and a new mall occupies this city centre area. There’s also the amazing ‘Pallet Pavillion‘ open air performance made up of blue pallets, as well as a nine hole mini golf course spread across vacant building plots.

Make sure to also visit Quake City, a multimedia attraction that displays and tells the human stories behind the Christchurch earthquakes which killed over 180 people. There’s also the moving white chairs tribute, which remembers each of the 185 lives lost in the Christchurch, with each chair representing a different person. There are teeny shoes and baby seats, as well as older leather shoes – so it really hits home and is a definite must-see.

There are also some beautiful outdoor spaces in Christchurch. Make sure to visit the Botanical Gardens as well as Avon River where you can go punting, just like in Oxford, England!

Queenstown

Contributed by Daria from thediscoverynut.com

Queenstown is considered New Zealand’s adventure capital and it’s not hard to see why: whether you want to hike, bungee jump, ski or simply enjoy the breathtaking nature, this town has it all. 

To see the breathtaking Queenstown skyline, take the Queenstown Gondola that will take you to Bob’s Peak. From here, you can take the thrilling Skyline Luge back to ground level, descending over 800m in the process.

Or if you are up for a challenge, from Bob’s Peak you can take the strenuous Ben Lomond trail. It leads you to a incredible panoramic view of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding Remarkables Mountain Range.

The city’s quaint downtown is also home to many local shops and restaurants and is a perfect place to grab a bite after a day of adventure. You must try a famous Fergberger!

Queenstown is also a popular destination for mountain bikers because of its network of trails covering over 130km that take you to scenic mountain overviews and parks. Queenstown is also the best place to stay for visiting Milford Sound and its towering Mitre Peak. The fiord is also home to a wide array of biodiversity such as penguins, dolphins and sea lions.

The view from Bob's Peak in Queenstown
The view from Bob’s Peak in Queenstown

Wanaka

Contributed by Bailey from myqueenstowndiary.com

Wanaka is one of the most beautiful and exciting small towns on the South Island of New Zealand. Located only an hour’s drive from Queenstown, Wanaka is often referred to as Queenstown’s little sister – a smaller more relaxed tourist town that is equally as scenic.

Although small, there are tons of fun things to do in and around Wanaka. You can go hiking (Roy’s Peak is just around the corner), adventure out on the lake in a boat or kayak, visit the Wanaka Lavender Farm, try rock climbing, whitewater rafting, skiing, or any other adventure activity for that matter. Mount Aspiring National Park is also very close to Wanaka and making a day trip to the Blue Pools and Thunder Creek Falls is a great idea.

The town of Wanaka sits right on the edge of Lake Wanaka. In town, you can visit plenty of bars and restaurants along the lakefront and enjoy a drink at sunset. Be sure to also wander further down the lakefront to see the Wanaka Tree. This lone willow tree sits out in the water with mountains as her backdrop. It’s easily one of the most photographed places in all of New Zealand.

The Wanaka Tree
The Wanaka Tree

Dunedin

Contributed by Alyse from the invisibletourist.com

Despite being the second largest city on the South Island after Christchurch, Dunedin doesn’t appear on the itineraries of many first-time visitors to New Zealand. This is quite a shame, as the area has much more to offer than first meets the eye.

Dunedin is home to many unique attractions and it’s possible to visit as a day trip from Queenstown, however it would be advisable to stay a few days to cover them all. Larnach Castle –  the country’s only castle perched high on a hillside – features impressive grounds with sweeping views over the city below.

Make sure to visit the Guinness World-Record holder Baldwin Street. Lined with residential properties along a daunting 35% incline, it boasts the title of ‘World’s Steepest Street’. The gothic-style Dunedin Railway Station is also sight to behold and is the most photographed building in the nation.

Spend some time exploring Otago Museum, featuring many exhibitions about local history, culture and a stunning butterfly enclosure. Wildlife is also abundant in Dunedin where it’s possible to see albatrosses, fur seals and penguins in their natural habitat.

If the weather is on your side, head to charming St Clair Beach to enjoy salt in your hair, iconic ruins of the old pier and a lovely seaside lunch at a nearby cafe. Those who are extremely fortunate may have the incredible opportunity to witness Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) dancing overhead at night.

Kaikoura

Contributed by Trisha and Modi from trywanderingmore.com

On any New Zealand South Island route, visiting Kaikoura is unmissable. This picturesque ocean-side town is known for its beautiful vistas, its abundance of marine life and awesome seafood. It is perfectly located too, as it is just a 2hr30 drive north from Christchurch and a 2hr drive south from Picton.

Firstly, one thing you must do in the town is to sample crayfish. Kaikoura is undoubtedly the best place in New Zealand for this, as the name ‘Kaikoura’ means ‘to eat crayfish’ in the Maori language.

The top thing to do in Kaikoura is to get up close to marine life. If you go for a 2-3hr whale watching tour, then there is an incredible 95% chance of spotting sperm whales throughout the year. You can also get a bird’s eye view of these majestic creatures on a scenic helicopter or flight. Other excellent things to include kayaking adventures or boat rides to glimpse seals, dolphins and albatrosses in their natural environment. You can even go swimming with dolphins in the wild for the ultimate adventure.

The splendid Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is a must-do. You can either walk the clifftop route through grass fields for a panoramic view of the ocean and the mountains, or take the coastal walk to watch colonies of seals and shearwater birds. If you have time, do both routes.

Kaikoura experiences rainfall year-round, so tour cancellations may happen in any season. It is best not to visit Kaikoura from March to August as these are the wettest months.

The stunning scenery of Kaikoura
The stunning scenery of Kaikoura

Akaroa

Contributed by Nadine from lelongweekend.com

Located on the Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch, Akaroa is a charming town with an interesting history.

It was first discovered by French sailor, Jean François-Langlois. He then intended to claim the village as a French settlement. However, upon his return, Akaroa had already been settled by the English. Not to be deterred, many of these original French settlers stayed on and their gallic influence can still be seen in the town in the form of street names and architecture.

In a geographically privileged spot, Akaroa is at the base of a sheltered harbour, and many of the activities on offer centre around the water. You can take the kids pedal boating around the shoreline, hire a kayak and venture out further, or take a boat trip around the marine sanctuary at the entrance to the Akaroa Harbour. This area is home to pods of Hector’s Dolphins, and it’s the only place in New Zealand where you can get up close to these special marine mammals. Book a tour with Black Cat Cruises and you can even swim with the dolphins in their natural habitat while being assured that you’re helping with dolphin conservation in the area. Those wanting to stay dry can amble through the pretty streets, visit the waterfront cafes, or take a walk up to the sculpture garden at the Giant’s House.

Renwick & the Marlborough Wine Region

Contributed by Cecily from groovymashedpotatoes.com

The Marlborough Wine Region is New Zealand’s largest wine region and is famous for its production of Sauvignon Blanc. Its sunny and dry landscape makes for excellent wine tasting tours that you can do by biking or walking. It’s a great place to start your South Island itinerary, since it’s located on the northeastern tip of the island and close to the ferry that separates the North Island from the South.

The best place to stay is in the cute town of Renwick. Renwick is the hub for vineyard hopping and is known for its Golden Mile, which takes you to nine wineries over 6 km. Rent your bikes from Bike2Wine for NZD$30 per day or stay at their bed & breakfast, Olde Mille House, to get them for free.

One of the best parts about wine hopping in this region is that you don’t need to make wine tasting reservations and many of them are free. Don’t miss Giesen Wines for lunch – the winery is owned by three German brothers and its restaurant serves delicious charcuterie boards. Forrest Wines is also an amazing spot for its setting. Sit on their bean bag chairs outside as you try each of their wines.

Sampling wines in the Marlborough Wine Region
Sampling wines in the Marlborough Wine Region

Glenorchy

Contributed by Daniel from destinationlesstravel.com

Glenorchy is one special place that you simply must visit in New Zealand!

Known for being on the doorstep to both Fiordland National Park and the Mount Aspiring National Park, Glenorchy is an outdoor lovers’ dream. There are a seemingly endless number of hikes you can start in Glenorchy including one of the Great Walks, the Routeburn Track. But for something a little easier, venture to the Glenorchy Lagoon on the Glenorchy Walkways and enjoy mirror-like reflections of the surrounding mountains.

Glenorchy is a tiny town – when I say tiny, I mean it! Home to no more than 200 permanent residents, Glenorchy is simply a couple of streets with a handful of locally-owned shops and restaurants. For this reason, most people choose to stay in nearby Queenstown and venture to Glenorchy on a day trip. 

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is known as one of the most scenic stretches of road as it winds its way along the edge of Lake Wakatipu. This drive only takes about 45-minutes, but if you want to stop at some of the attractions along the way, be sure to allow a little more time.

In Glenorchy, some of the top attractions include visiting the Glenorchy Shed at the waterfront, going to the Glenorchy Animal Farm, and simply wandering around town visiting shops and cafes. Visiting Glenorchy is a relaxing way to spend a day on the South Island in North Zealand, that much is for sure.

National Parks

Nelson Lakes National Park

In the northwest corner of South Island lies this mesmerising alpine landscape, peppered with stunning lakes, and lined with rugged, forested peaks. This park offers excellent hiking, from easy lakeside walking tracks, to challenging treks up into the alpine forest, as well as thrilling mountain biking on dedicated tracks. Its lakes are particularly popular for swimming, especially from the pretty jetty in Lake Rotoiti (meaning small waters) as well as fly fishing for salmon and trout.

For those looking for a challenge, consider the Lewis Pass/Blue Lake Route, an expert trek taking 10 days!

Beautiful Lake Rotoiti
Beautiful Lake Rotoiti

Mount Cook National Park

Contributed by Caroline from cktravels.com

Mount Cook National Park is one of the most stunning spots in the south island and also home to New Zealand’s highest mountain. It has some incredible landscapes, from the snow-capped mountains by day to the twinkling stars at night, Mount Cook should be part of every south island road trip.

To explore the region you will need to base yourself in Mount Cook Village which is located approximately halfway between Queenstown and Christchurch. There are only a handful of hotels and hostels so you will need to book your accommodation well in advance during the busy peak season.

From the village you can then take a short drive to the start of some epic walks. The most famous and popular is the Hooker Valley Track due to its easy access along the Hooker River and its incredible mountain and lake scenery. The trail is 5km long and around 3-4 hours return, plus is suitable for all levels of fitness.

Other fun activities you can do in Mount Cook include a heli hike where you can fly in a helicopter for views of the national park and mountains, then land on the Tasman glacier for the ultimate ice hiking experience. Alternatively, you can take a Tasman Glacier lake boat trip, which takes you up close and personal to some large icebergs in the Tasman lake.

Epic scenery at Mount Cook, New Zealand
Epic scenery at Mount Cook, New Zealand

Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park

Contributed by Rachel from averagelives.com

Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park is one of the top attractions on the South Island. It is known as the eighth Wonder of the World and for its insanely beautiful waterfalls.

The drive to reach Milford Sound is easy and straightforward because there is only one road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. The journey is spectacular, and you should stop at the lookouts on the way to make the most of it.

There are different ways you can experience Milford Sound, and the main attraction is the thundering 151m high waterfall, which starred in the movie Wolverine. If you opt to go on a kayak tour, you will be able to paddle through the dark glacial waters and spot wildlife such as seals and penguins whilst learning about the geography from a knowledgeable guide.

Alternatively, you can choose to go on a cruise through the fiords, and there are many operators you can book. To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the options on BookMe, you can choose the one for your budget and preferences. Some cruises include food, and a visit to the Underwater Observatory, so choose the one that suits you.

It is known to be one of the wettest places in New Zealand, so before you go, make sure you pack appropriate clothing and footwear because the weather is known to change suddenly. Another top tip for visiting is to go early in the morning to avoid the crowds and tour buses along Milford Road.

The stunning scenery of the Milford Sound
The stunning scenery of the Milford Sound

Abel Tasman National Park

Contributed by Kati from queenslandandbeyond.com

Whether you want to do the entire multi-day hike or just visit for the day, Abel Tasman National Park is a gorgeous tropical paradise in the northwest corner of the South Island.

One of the best ways to experience the golden beaches and turquoise water that characterise this region is to hike the 5-day Abel Tasman Coast Track. It’s one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and comparatively flat. Which is why it’s a good option if you’re not super hiking fit.

Starting just north of Marahau, the track hugs the coastline and meanders past beautiful coves and beaches, through rainforest and fern gullies, along tidal inlets, across swing bridges and boardwalks.

There are lookouts aplenty along the hike as well as various short side trips, from cascades, secluded pools to spotting fur seals.

You could either bring your own tent and camp at one of the many camping spots, or book yourself into the huts provided by the Department of Conservation. The huts are beautifully situated and offer wood stoves to warm your hiking weary bones at the end of the day.

Most people get picked up by boat at the end or arrange a shuttle bus.

If a 5-day hike seems too much for you, there are plenty of options for day trips or shorter overnight hikes. You could simply not hike as far and just do one or two nights. Or take the boat from Marahau and then hike back to the start. That would make for a great day trip!

Dazzling vistas on the Abel Tasman Coast Track
Dazzling vistas on the Abel Tasman Coast Track

Epic Hikes in South Island, New Zealand

Banks Track

Contributed by Anne from packinglighttravel.com

Take a hike on the Banks Track. Open from October 1 to April 30, the 31km self-guided, self-paced, and self-catered walk can be completed in two or three days.

The track crosses the rim of an extinct volcano above Akaroa Harbour, not once but twice, revealing some impressive scenery on the route. In between, the trail passes through a variety of forested and coastal landscapes. A unique feature of the Banks Track is that it is managed by several property owners, many of whom are committed to wildlife research and conservation. Three families maintain overnight accommodation and associated facilities. From the purpose-built lodge at Ōnuku to the old farm cottage at Flea Bay and colonial cottages at Stony Bay, each offers rustic comfort, history, warmth, and character.

Numbers are capped to reduce the environmental impact on the land and ensure space in overnight accommodation.

The best time to do the Banks Track is between October and February, during the breeding and moulting seasons of the white-flippered penguins. The overnight stay at Flea Bay includes a penguin tour, one of the highlights of the hike. Cartage, shuttle, sleeping bag rental, and other services are offered by the Banks Track organization. For more details of this three day hike, make sure to check out Anne’s detailed post on the Banks Track here.

The stunning Banks Track above the Akaroa Harbour
The stunning Banks Track above the Akaroa Harbour

Key Summit Track

Contributed by Sonja from migratingmiss.com

As mentioned, Milford Sound is one of the most popular destinations in the South Island. But many people make the drive straight there from Te Anau and don’t stop along the way, meaning many people miss one of the best day walks in the South Island

Key Summit Track only takes around 3 hours return to complete, and although it’s an uphill slog to get to the top, the views are certainly worth it. The walk begins at The Divide, about 85km along the road from Te Anau, and is part of the Routeburn Great Walk. You’ll walk through beautiful bushland to begin with, but before long the route crosses over into alpine territory made of up tussocks and small shrubs, before turning off to the final steep ascent to Key Summit. 

From the top there are views across Fiordland National Park, stretching from the Hollyford Valley in the north to the surrounding Alisa and Darren mountains and the Greenstone Valley. It’s a wonderful way to welcome or farewell the mountains on the way to or from Milford Sound itself. 

We recommend going early or late (11am-2pm is the most popular time) and wearing sunscreen for when there is no cover at the top of the track. 

Beautiful scenery on the Key Summit Track
Beautiful scenery on the Key Summit Track

Routeburn Track

Contributed by Adriana from czechtheworld.com

The Routeburn Track belongs among the most famous “Great Walks” in New Zealand. It’s a 32km point-to-point hiking trail located in both Mt Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park. The one end of the Routeburn Track is located only about an hour from Queenstown.

From start to finish you’ll get to experience the Southern Alps in all their glory crossing rivers, mountain passes, valleys, and lakes. It usually takes 2-3 days to walk the whole trail. If you want to stay in huts in the main season, you need to book them well in advance at the DOC website.

But if you don’t have time to walk the whole track, you can walk at least a part of it. From the side of Glenorchy, you can walk to Routeburn Falls or even to beautiful Lake Harris and back to the beginning of the trail at Routeburn Shelter, which is a whole day trip.
From the other side, you can do 2-3 hour walk to the Key Summit and enjoy panoramic views over mountains and alpine lakes.
Important things to know:
–      Most of the Routeburn Track has no cell phone reception.
–      Before you head off for the trail, check-in at the DOC office.
–      Parking at each trailhead is free.
You can find more practical tips in this Routeburn Track hiking guide.

Roy’s Peak

Contributed by Cecilie from wowiwalkers.com

Hiking to the incredible viewpoint at Roy’s Peak is a must on any visit to New Zealand’s South Island. Roy’s Peak offers 360 views over Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring National Park, and the surrounding hills. It’s definitely one of New Zealand’s best viewpoints!

Getting to Roy’s Peak is not an easy task. It’s a 16km hike, and the first 8km is a steep 1228m incline. Once you reach the peak at 1578m height, you have to hike down that same steep trail again for the remaining 8km. Therefore, you should only do this trail if you think you’re fit enough.

But if you’re a keen hiker, then this trail is an absolute must! It’s a tough challenge, with the amazing viewpoint as the best reward you can get. When the hike is over, you can even jump into the beautiful Lake Wanaka and cool down your tired legs.

You can expect to spend around 6 hours on the trail, but it’s recommended to set aside the whole day, so you have time to rest afterwards. If you’re an early bird, then you can also do the hike in the dark and watch a beautiful sunrise from the peak.

Hiking Roy’s Peak is without a doubt one of New Zealand’s toughest day hikes, but the viewpoint you get still makes it one of the best places to visit on the South Island.

Taking in the view at Roy's Peak
Taking in the view at Roy’s Peak

Scenic landmarks

Franz Josef Glacier

This incredible destination is a must visit place on the South Island. Its Māori name is Ka Rouimata o Hine Hinehukatere, meaning the Tears of Hinehukatere. It is the only glacier in the world to descend to less than 300m above sea level, meaning this incredible frozen mass is often surrounded by thick, lush rainforest. Its a sight to behold! Additionally, this area of Southwest New Zealand is a World Heritage as so little of this true wilderness has been impacted by humans.

This glacial area is home to one of New Zealand’s best adventures: an epic guided heli tour and trekking experience. You can even add on a full challenging ice climb, if you wish – you’ll be given all the gear and ice picks.

Although these two activities are pretty expensive (NZD$ 485+), there are some great low cost experiences too, including kayaking through the lush rainforest, or hiking in the Franz Josef Valley.

Trekking in the Franz Josef Glacier
Trekking in the Franz Josef Glacier

Coronet Peak

Contributed by Maureen from somanyplacessolittletime.com

A great place to visit on a South Island road trip is Coronet Peak near Queenstown.

It is world-famous as a stunning winter skifield but many visitors are not aware that it is also a very interesting summer destination!  It’s 16km from Queenstown and an easy 20-minute drive.

From Thursdays to Sundays throughout the summer, the new Coronet Express Chairlift, with its 8 seater gondola cabins, operates from 10am to 4.30pm and whisks you up to 1649m.  The viewing platform from the top of the chairlift provides breathtaking alpine views over the Wakatipu Basin and back to the divide of the Southern Alps.  A five-minute rocky path will then take you to the summit and give 360 views over the backcountry of the Southern Alps and is well worth the walk!

If you’re a mountain biker there is the world-famous Downhill Mountain Bike Track and several other tracks that will take you on an adrenalin ride from the top of the gondola ride, right to the bottom of the mountain. There are a variety of passes available depending on the number of rides, or time you want to spend on the mountain.

Cafe 1200 at Coronet Peak has all-day dining and more of those stunning views! For something really different, hire a Frisbee for NZD $5 and try a round of Disc Golf, playing your way down the mountain on the 9 hole course!

Coronet Peak views during the summer months on South Island
Coronet Peak views during the summer months on South Island

Lake Tekapo

Contributed by Holly from fouraroundtheworld.com

Lake Tekapo is located inland on New Zealand’s South Island in the Mackenzie Basin. The township of Lake Tekapo sits at the southern end of the lake of the same name.

This small town is often a highlight on trips to New Zealand. The lake is the most incredible turquoise blue, surrounded by mountains and natural bushland. It is easy to feel like you are one of the only people around if you get off the beaten track a little.

The area is famous not just for the stunning lake and views, but also for the stargazing opportunities. Lake Tekapo has minimal light pollution, making it one of the best places in New Zealand to stargaze or enjoy an astronomy tour from nearby Mount John Observatory.

The town itself is small, with a few restaurants, stores and hotels. There is a playground with a flying fox that overlooks the lake and there are also several walking tracks in the area.

The Church of the Good Shepherd is iconic, sitting a short distance from the lake. The church was built in 1935 as a memorial church to commemorate early settlers and is one of the most photographed places in New Zealand.

While in Lake Tekapo, don’t miss the chance to visit Tekapo Springs, where you can enjoy hot springs, the Dark Skies night tour and during the winter months, there is ice skating and tubing for the whole family.

Beautiful Lake Tekapo
Beautiful Lake Tekapo

The Catlins

Contributed by Jennifer from backyardtravelfamily.com

If you are wanting to get off the beaten track and get back to a little old school New Zealand, then head to The Catlins on South Island.

The Catlins is full of natural beauty including many incredible waterfalls, beaches and wildlife, making it the perfect combination of everything pure New Zealand has to offer. The Catlins can be found in the very south western corner of the South Island of New Zealand and actually holds the southernmost point of the South Island (commonly but incorrectly thought to be bluff).

Exploring The Catlins waterfalls are absolute must do’s while you are visiting this southern region. Purakaunui Falls are perhaps the most famous, even adorning the New Zealand stamp and are easily accessible. A 10 minute walk will take you to these beautiful cascade falls which are even more alluring in the rain. McLean Falls and Matai Falls are also popular waterfalls.

Wildlife is abundant in the Catlins. Head to Roaring Bay to see penguins swimming ashore and playing on the beach. Surat Bay is well known for its resident seals or if dolphins are more to your taste, pop down to Curio Bay. Curio Bay is also home to an incredible ancient petrified forest, so make sure you spend some time there too.

Purakaunui Falls in The Catlins
Purakaunui Falls in The Catlins

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki

Continued by Delphine from lesterlost.com

On the South Island of New Zealand, the West Coast is popular with road trippers and campervan travellers, and for good reason.

This side of the coast is incredibly dramatic and receives a huge amount of rainfall. On any given day, you can admire the waves crashing into the coast on your drive from Greymouth to Cape Foulwind. In places, the road meanders through a thin stretch of coast, against a wall of thick rainforest. There are rocky beaches along the way, where the pebbles are mixed with black volcanic sand, making some dramatic scenery.

At Punakaiki, Pancake Rocks is a photogenic and popular attraction. The name is perfect to describe the even layers of sediment, forming unique rock formations that fall into the ocean.

You can comfortably tour the site in 20 minutes along the dedicated path, but make sure to leave some extra time for photographs. Most of the pathway is level, however one section has a few stairs.

The place can get quite busy with tour buses so it’s a good idea to get there early.

The unusual rock formations at Pancake Rocks
The unusual rock formations at Pancake Rocks

South Island, New Zealand Guide

So there’s my guide to the best things to do and see on the South Island of New Zealand. As you can see, there’s a near endless number of activities to do and places to see! But naturally, the longer you have, the more you can see.

If I had to pick just a handful of highlights for a two week trip to New Zealand, with just one week on the South Island, then I’d split my time between Queenstown, Franz Josef and Christchurch – but I’d definitely get planning my return trip to see the rest!

Appreciating the views at Kaiteriteri Beach
Appreciating the views at Kaiteriteri Beach

I do hope this guide to the best places to visit on South Island in New Zealand is helpful and inspires you visit beautiful New Zealand. Please, as always, do let me know if you have any questions!

Please make sure to check out my detailed guide to the North Island here.

If you’re planning a longer trip around Australia and/or South East Asia, then make sure to check out my other South East Asia and Australia blog posts here:

Disclaimer: This guide has no involvement from the local tourism board or a hotel.

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