South Island Destinations: Best Things to do on the South Island of New Zealand
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There are a ton of awesome things to do on New Zealand’s South Island that tourists should see when they visit New Zealand. This blog is all about the best places to go on the South Island and the things to do when you’re there!
New Zealand stole my heart and has become the best country I have ever traveled! So much so that I actually moved here! What I loved so much and the reason I couldn’t leave in a hurry was just how many amazing things there are to do in New Zealand.
But, both the North and South Island are so different! If I’m being honest though, the South Island, in my opinion, is New Zealand’s best island!
Well for starters I love the mountains, the beautiful untouched scenery, the turquoise lakes, and wildlife. To me, New Zealand’s south island is everything you could want in an adventure!
On the South Island of New Zealand, there are endless amounts of things to do and destinations to visit! In fact, it can be very overwhelming. Those endless choices make it hard to know just where to spend your time!
I spent 8 months traveling fulltime in my van on an epic road trip of New Zealand’s South Island and in that time, I did some pretty amazing things. So much so that I have written the ultimate New Zealand bucket list of places to visit on the South Island of NZ!
I’m talking about the most breathtaking views, stunning hiking trails and those small towns that simply took my breath away! Here’s my list of the most beautiful places to visit and things to do on the South Island of New Zealand!
1. Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook National Park is the first destination on my list of the best places to visit on the South Island. Why?
Because it is my favorite place in all of New Zealand!
To me, it’s not only the most beautiful place on the South Island, but there are so many amazing things to see and do in Mount Cook National Park. Within the national park, you can find so many stunning hiking trails, viewpoints, and adventure activities such as kayaking or even a scenic flight!
Here are a few of the best things to do in Mount Cook National Park – my favorite place to visit on the South Island!
Walk the Hooker Valley Track
If you only have time for one hike while in Mount Cook National Park then the Hooker Valley Track should be it! The trail is 10 km return trip. It’s very well maintained and is an easy hike that is relatively flat.
Along the hike, you cross several suspension bridges and have views of surrounding mountains, but the main attraction is at the end of the trail. Once you reach Hooker Lake at the base of Mount Cook you’ll see why I love this place!
For more information on the hike, check out our guide to hiking the Hooker Valley Track!
Tackle the 2,000+ stairs on the Sealy Tarns Track
The Sealy Tarns Track is a longer hike and more difficult with 2,000 stairs taking you to an incredible lookout. If you are up for the challenge, the view from the top is astounding!
I love this trail and its really great for those not wanting to attempt the longer, and harder Mueller Hut (read below)! Both the Mueller Hut and Sealy Tarns Trail are the same trail with the Mueller hut being another 2 hours further.
Take in stunning views at the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint
Ahh, the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint! I’ve spent many early mornings here watching the sunrise behind the mountains. Its still one of the best hikes on the South Island, and the best part? It’s only a 20-minute walk!
You really can’t leave the park without visiting at least once, and my top recommendation? Get yourself out of bed before sunrise and be at the lake’s edge for that best light show you’ll see in NZ!
Be sure to read out Tasman Glacier viewpoint guide so you don’t end up in the wrong place like we did!
Spend the night at the Mueller Hut
Ok ok, I really have to stop, but I’m telling the truth this time – this is my favorite hike in New Zealand! The hike to the Mueller Hut isn’t easy (especially in winter when we did it) but the views are mind-blowing!
In winter, hiking to the Mueller Hut can be challenging (and dangerous) but it is a real adventure worth every breath!
In the summer, the hike is completely safe but be sure to book the hut in advance if you want to stay the night as it books up fast! If you have time to hike to the Mueller Hut and spend the night, I highly recommend it! The Mueller Hut is easily one of the top things to do on the South Island!
Here are some more photos just in case you’re not sold already!
Where to stay in Mount Cook National Park
I personally hate booking things in advance but I also hate missing out! Mount Cook is one of those places that is so beautiful and popular (the reason it made the list of best places to visit on the south island) that if you want to stay in the Mount Cook Village you need to book asap!
There are only 6 places to stay in Mount Cook and here you can view 5 of the hotels in the village ! The 6th is the White Horse Hill Campground. The campground is run by the DOC (Department of Conservation) and can’t be booked in advance (first come, first serve).
2. Fiordland National Park & Milford Sound
No trip to New Zealand is complete without a visit to the (unofficial) “8th Wonder of the World” – Milford Sound! Milford Sound is an incredible fiord offering scenery as I have never seen elsewhere in the world.
To me, visiting Milford Sound shouldn’t be a few-hour activity, in fact, if you truly want to experience Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park you’re going to need a little more time! The reason?
Well, the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau has some pretty amazing places to visit! To see the highlights you’ll need at least a full day! Don’t worry, I have the perfect way to see it all below, but first, here are the best things to do in Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound!
Go on a Milford Sound Cruise
Without a doubt, the best thing to do in Milford Sound is going on a Milford Sound boat cruise! From the water, you can sail through the fiord and take in the amazing views from every angle.
But there’s more to a cruise than the views and that’s the wildlife! Milford Sound is home to a very impressive list of animals including seals, dolphins, whales (on occasion) and two types of penguins (including one of the rarest in the world).
The best cruise to see these animals on is the Encounter Nature Cruise (my favorite) and the Nature Cruise (a close second!) Both cruises have onboard wildlife experts not only teaching you about the animals while using there keen eye and knowledge of Milford Sound to find them!
If you have the time you can’t miss an overnight cruise! You’ll get to see Milford Sound when it’s completely empty – a memory I’ll never forget!
My Favorite Milford Tours…
Go Kayaking in Milford Sound
If you thought Milford Sound was big from a boat just image how big it feels from a kayak! Kayaking through Milford Sound was an adventure on its own and something I’ll never forget!
In Milford, there are lots of different kayaking tours. If you’re a keen kayaker then a half-day kayaking tour could be the best for you. However, if your like me and just wanted to experience it then this cruise and kayaking tour with one hour of kayaking is perfect!
Hike the Lake Marian Track
What’s my favorite hike in Fiordland National park? The Lake Marian track hands down! This short 3-hour return trail leads you to the most breathtaking alpine lake!
Apart from actually shining green and blue (depending on the weather) the surrounding mountains really make this hike worth doing!
The trail starts on the road to Milford Sound between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Although only 3 hours return, it’s still a fair climb to the lake!
Hike one of the Great Walks
I couldn’t have a real list without mentioning the Great Walks in Fiordland National park! There’s not one, not two, but three Great Walks in the park! They are the Kepler Track, Routeburn Track, and Milford Track.
The Great Walks are open from late October till May and must be booked in advance on the DOC website. These days they aren’t that cheap to do, but wow, are they worth it!
Experience the ultimate road trip to Milford Sound
Above I mentioned seeing all the road to Milford Sound has to offer in a day (or two). Well, that brings me to my next thing to do and that’s to roll it all into one epic road trip!
The way to do it is simple but it does need some explaining. So if you’re interested, read this blog on the stops between Queenstown and Milford Sound (the stops are all from Te Anau onwards) and this blog on the Ideal Milford Sound Itinerary.
From both blogs, you’ll get the stops I recommend (Queenstown to Milford Sound blog) and where to stay in order to leave yourself enough time to do them all!
Confusing I know, but it took many visits to come up with the list but it’s so worth it! If you’re confused go to our contact us page and I’ll be more than happy to help you!
Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand and many of the best things to do on the South Island of New Zealand can be found here! It’s no secret Bailey and I love Queenstown. I mean we even lived here for 6 months during the Queenstown ski season, what a time that was!
However, for the average visitor in any season, there’s so much on offer in this small but vibrant town! Before you read this blog you were likely already going, and if you weren’t, you will be after reading this! Here are the best things to do in Queenstown!
Go Hiking through the mountains
There are far too many amazing hikes around Queenstown to just single out one! In fact, this blog on the 8 must-do hikes in Queenstown only scrapes the surface of the most popular hiking trails!
One thing is for sure, hiking in Queenstown is one of the most popular activities to do! My recommendation is to either hike the Ben Lomond Summit (for experienced hikers) or the Queenstown Hill Walk (for beginners).
Try an adventure sport
Queenstown is the home of adventure sports in New Zealand and there are tons to try! Some of the best include Skydiving (it’s arguably the most beautiful place to do it), Jet Boating (absolutely loved this) and of course bungy jumping!
Queenstown is actually home to the highest bungee jump in the southern hemisphere at 134m high! Its called Nevis Bungee and if you’ve got what it takes, book your jump today!
Of course, there’s much more including canyon swings, canyoning (one of my favorite tours in Queenstown), Via Ferrata and paragliding! If you’re into extreme sports or just want to test yourself, Queenstown is the place to do it!
Cruise the scenic road from Queenstown to Glenorchy
There are a few scenic drives in New Zealand that should be on everyone’s bucket list. The drive to Mount Cook, Milford Sound, the stunning west coast (more on that below) and the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy!
This short stretch of road is only 45km long but along the way you’re likely to stop about a hundred times! The road follows the edge of Lake Wakatipu and ends in the small town of Glenorchy.
Glenorchy itself is well-worth a visit and for many, the views of the mountains are just as, if not even more beautiful than Queenstown!
Get tipsy on a Gibbston Valley wine tour
If you didn’t already know, Queenstown is one of the best places in the world for Pinot Noir! In fact, they even beat the french for best Pinot Noir at some of the most prestigious wine tasting competitions around the world! It’s a title they’re proud of and rightly so!
To me, a wine tour through the Gibbston Valley is easily one of the best things to do in Queenstown. I love them so much I’ve actually done two!
There are a few options for wine tours including some self- bike ride ones, however, the wineries aren’t that close together and if you want to drink a lot then a tour is the best way to go! You can do half-day tours for around $180 NZD. They’re super fun and come highly recommended by me!
Where to stay in Queenstown
Queenstown is another place that has limited accommodation for the number of visitors it sees. Often 6 months in advance the town is 80% booked! Pretty crazy for a small town with over 700 hotels!
This means you really need to book in advance. If you’re unsure exactly what area to stay in then check out our where to stay in Queenstown blog. Its lays out every area with their pros and cons.
You can view and book all the hotels in Queenstown here!
The South Island of New Zealand is home to many lakeside towns but few are as beautiful as Wanaka. What I love so much about Wanaka is that it is more relaxed and less busy in comparison to Queenstown.
This stunning town sits on the shores of Lake Wanaka surrounded by mountain peaks. Although less busy than Queenstown, it’s home to some pretty spectacular things to do!
For one, it sits on the boundary of Mt Aspiring National Park, one of New Zealand’s most beautiful national parks. This national park is home to many famous hikes including our first thing to do in Wanaka…
Hike the famous Roy’s Peak
Roys Peak was one of the first hikes I did in New Zealand. It involved a 3 am drive from Queenstown to Wanaka to start the trail in the dead of the night. Our goal was to see this stunning viewpoint without the crowds and with a breathtaking morning glow – and that’s just what we got!
Although my recommendation is to hike Roy’s Peak for the sunrise I understand that it’s not for everyone. So regardless of when you decide to hike Roy’s Peak, just be sure to do it! It’s really that beautiful and worth the hype!
The trail to the top isn’t easy and the elevation climb is over 1200m over 8km (16km round trip) of switchbacks. If you consider yourself fit you can make the climb in under 2 hours (especially if you’re running up for sunrise) however for most, allow 3 hours.
Explore Lake Wanaka
Lake Wanaka is the highlight of Wanaka and the reason I fell in love with this place! For that reason, it’s no surprise some of my best times here were spent either by or on the lake.
If you happen to be visiting Wanaka in summer then you really should take advantage of the warm weather and cool water by taking a dip. From town, you can walk to the beach and relax in the sun and cool off in the water. I could honestly sit there for hours just taking in the views!
If you’ve spent enough time relaxing on your holiday then why not head out onto the lake. There’s plenty to do such as joining a cruise, kayaking tours, paddle boarding and even a scenic jet ski tour (one of my all-time favorites!)
Regardless of what you choose, Lake Wanaka is sure to keep you busy and impress you!
Hit the Slopes in Winter
I couldn’t have a list of best things to do and places to visit on the South Island without including the most popular winter sport…skiing (and snowboarding).
To be honest, you can ski or snowboard throughout the South Island including in Queenstown. However, Wanaka is near arguably the best ski field in New Zealand and that’s Cardrona Skifield! I loved Cardrona and despite skiing at 3 other ski fields, it’s by far my favorite!
Some other ski fields in the area are Treble Cone (the closest to Wanaka) and both the Remarkables ski field and Coronet Peak (both closer to Queenstown)
If you’re here in winter you simply must go skiing or snowboarding in Wanaka or Queenstown!
You can pre-book your Cardrona Ski pass here
5. The Catlins
The Catlins is a region in the very south of the South Island between the cities of Dunedin and Invercargill. The sad part is that many people haven’t even heard of it! Without a doubt it’s the least visited area on the South Island and after visiting I’m really not sure why?!
The region is filled with stunning waterfalls, unique and extremely rare wildlife, and empty roads just waiting to be explored. The region is best explored on a road trip either heading from Christchurch south or from Invercargill north along the coast. To see the most I suggest staying at least one night in the region.
Thinking back my time in the Catlins is one of my most memorable! Here are some of the best things I did there!
McLean falls is the most famous waterfall in the Catlins region. It is just huge! The setting of the falls is stunning and Bailey and I spent a good hour just wandering around taking in the views.
The falls are accessed by a 15-minute walk on a well-maintained path. The downside to McLean Falls is that it is very popular so during peak season there will be lots of tourists around.
Regardless, it’s well worth a visit!
Koropuku waterfall is my favorite waterfall in the Catlins! The falls are not very well known which makes visiting it very peaceful. The trail isn’t very well maintained and it only takes about 20 minutes to get to the falls from the parking spot just off the main highway.
When Dan and I went there, we were the only people there and could enjoy the waterfall all to ourselves! To me, Koropuku Falls is the best waterfall in the Catlins, and one of the best places to go in South Island, New Zealand. It can be hard to find the falls so check out the blog link below for more info!
Curio Bay is a beautiful bay in the Catlins that’s a very popular place to visit. Although the bay is nice, what brings people from all over is the unique and extremely rare wildlife.
One of the most impressive animals you can see here is the Yellow Crested Penguin! These little guys are the rarest penguin in the world and during my stay, only two were living in the bay. If you do get a chance to see them it’s sure to be a magical moment!
Other than the penguins you can also see seals, dolphins, blue penguins and whales! To get the most out of the bay be sure to book a night in Curio Bay. We stayed at the Curio Bay Camping Ground (it’s not on booking.com) and here you can actually see blue penguins walk around the campground at night! It’s also the perfect place to stay during your road trip and where we stayed!
Slope Point is the southernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island. In all honesty, it’s not the most amazing experience but the short 5-minute walk is so worth it! It’s a fun little adventure and, hey, you get to say you went to the southernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island!
6. The West Coast
The West Coast along the South Island offers a ton of unique and beautiful things to do and see. The most common West Coast road trip starts just after Wanaka and ends just after Punakaiki. Its best traveled on an epic road trip and there’s plenty of places to stop along the way!
Some of my favorite places along the West Coast and things to do include:
Explore the Blue Pools
The Blue Pools is easily the most famous attraction on the West Coast of the South Island. In winter people come for the views and in summer many come for a dip. To be honest it’s so cold it actually hurts to swim!
The pools are colored by the water from melting glaciers in the mountains nearby! Its something to do with particles in the ice and the light from the sun that creates the stunning color.
Regardless of what creates the color, in the three times I’ve been here I still haven’t got sick of visiting!
Visit Thunder Creek Falls
Along Haast Pass, you’ll see a sign for Thunder Creek Falls. This waterfall towers 96m high and is only a two-minute walk to access from the main highway. There’s not much to do at the falls but with its easy access, it’s a great place to stretch your legs and check out one breathtaking waterfall!
Go on a scenic flight or glacier landing
Judging by this list, what I’m about to say has little to no credibility! But few experiences in New Zealand were as amazing as this one! Flying high above the mountains over the west coast and Mount Cook was one of the best experiences of my life.
I really couldn’t believe how beautiful the scenic flight was there and being in a helicopter for the first time blew my mind. Writing about this actually gets me emotional so I’ll leave it with this – if you can afford it, do it, you really won’t regret or forget it!
Explore Franz Josef and Fox Glacier
The two most popular attractions of the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island are of course the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Both glaciers can be explored from the sky (as mentioned above) but alternatively via a FREE walking track.
Both glaciers have their own track about a 20-minute drive apart and the hike takes around 1 hour for the return trip. The views of the glaciers aren’t that good but you can still get pretty close and with New Zealand being such an expensive place you should experience every free activity available!
Punakaiki is the last stop on our west coast road trip in NZ. This area is all about taking in stunning views from a coastline like no other (literally).
In fact, the main attraction in Punakaiki is the Pancake Rocks. This very unique rock formation took millions of years to form and they now appear like pancakes stacked on top of each other! It’s really a unique sight to see and well worth a visit!
Of course, there’s plenty more to do in Punakaiki and our blog on all the best things to do in Punakaiki is sure to keep you busy!
7. The Marlborough Sounds
Last but certainly not least is the Marlborough Sounds. This region was actually named correctly (unlike Milford Sound) and was carved by ancient rivers.
If you’re on a road trip to the North Island then Picton (the closest town to the Marlborough Sounds) is where you’ll need to catch the ferry from! This makes it a must-visit (literally) and in all honesty, out of all the stuff to do in the Sounds a nature cruise is the best thing to do!
On a cruise through the Marlborough Sounds your almost guaranteed to see some awesome New Zealand wildlife! We saw plenty of seals, rare birds, penguins and even a Kiwi (although it was a baby being released by the DOC)!
Getting Around the South Island
The best way to get around the South Island of New Zealand is in a campervan. Campervans and motorhomes range in price in new Zealand from as little as $40 USD a day to $300 USD.
Before renting a campervan be sure to check out our guide to renting a campervan in New Zealand. It includes info on what to look out for, some great companies, and discount codes to make your trip that little bit cheaper!
There are lots of amazing multi-day tours around New Zealand that aren’t that badly priced considering what’s included! Like this 12-Day South Island adventure tour that visits almost every place above or this 14-day tour of the South Island.
Another company that’s great is Stray. They offer lots of hop-on hop-off tours that you can do for over 12 months. You can view some of their most popular tours here!
Before you go
And there you have it, the best South Island destinations and the things to do once you’re there! These places to go and things to do in the South Island are sure not to disappoint and are guaranteed to make your travels very memorable.
While you could spend months exploring the South Island, if you focus on these places then you will see the highlights for sure!
If you need help planning your trip to New Zealand please reach out to us. Bailey and I have started a trip planning service that for a small fee will take the hard work out of planning your trip! Alternitivly we have so many New Zealand blogs for you to go through that are completly free!
February 21, 2020