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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! It includes the best 7 South Island destinations that every tourist needs to visit!
New Zealand stole my heart and has become the best country I have ever traveled to! 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 the 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 full-time 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! For example, this highly-rated scenic flight includes a ride on both a ski plane and helicopter, as well as a chance to walk on a glacier – how cool!
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 a 10 km/6.2 mile 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!
Tackle the 2,000+ stairs on the Sealy Tarns Track
The Sealy Tarns Track is a shorter hike but it is more difficult because of the 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 it’s 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.
Related Read: While in Mount Cook, be sure to take some time to take the iconic Mount Cook Road photo – learn about it here!
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. It’s 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!
If you want to see the glacier from another angle I would suggest the Mt Cook 360 flight tour that covers all the main parts of Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. One of the reasons it’s fantastic is that it departs right from Mount Cook Village and only takes 35 minutes so it would be easy to combine this activity with other on-land experiences.
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!
The hut itself is actually really nice and one of the best huts in New Zealand. It has gas stovetops, lots of beds, and running water (in the summer.)
Here are some more photos just in case you’re not sold already!
Related Read: Find out where to take the best photos in Mount Cook National Park!
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).
My personal favorite hotel in Mount Cook is Aoraki Court Motel because it is located right in the heart of the village while being super affordable. They even offer 2-bedroom apartments, which are perfect for families or groups!
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 on this nature cruise. This cruise is great because onboard there will be wildlife experts to find animals and teach you about them. It is also on a smaller boat, so you can get closer to the wildlife as well!
Go Kayaking in Milford Sound
If you thought Milford Sound was big from a boat just imagine 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 you’re like me and just wanted to experience it all then this cruise and kayaking tour with one hour of kayaking is perfect! Besides cruising through the impressive scenery and passing by waterfalls this tour also stops at the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory where you’ll get up close with wildlife, and don’t worry about bringing food, a picnic lunch is provided!
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 Lake Marian 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 until May and must be booked in advance on the DOC website. If you don’t book far enough in advance the huts and campsites may be fully booked.
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!
Where to stay in Fiordland National Park
If you’re expecting to be able to stay right inside of Fiordland National Park unfortunately there is only one place you can stay at, Milford Lodge. For the most part, Milford lodge is a premium place to stay but I will mention they offer powered lots if you have a camper van.
The most popular town to go for accommodations is in Te Anau which is right outside of the park. You can sift through the different Te Auau hotels or pick from my personal recommendations. Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers isn’t only for solo travelers and backpackers. Apart from the shared dorms they also have affordable private rooms. This is a prime location for views of Fiordland, the lake, and being as close as you can get to town.
Something a bit more modern is the Amber Court Motel, it is nothing flashy but will provide everything you need in a clean and spacious studio or one-bedroom apartment. It’s also close to all the best activities in Fiordland National Park.
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 (a 13.4km/8.3mi experienced hike) or the Queenstown Hill Walk (a 4.8km/3mi beginner hike). You can add a fun twist to the Ben Lomond Summit hike by taking a gondola ride up to the saddle summit and beginning your trek from there.
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 Bungy 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), and paragliding! If you’re into extreme sports or just want to test yourself, Queenstown is the place to do it!
Related Read: Read our complete review and guide about canyoning in Queenstown!
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/28mi 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!
Related Read: Before your bank account runs dry have a look at 33 free and cheap things to do while in 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 this Hop-on Hop-off tour is the best way to go! This style of tour allows you to go at your own pace and enjoy each spot as long as desired because the bus circles back every 45mins. This $59 cost gives you access to tasting discounts and the sample fee is waived whenever you make a purchase.
A more exquisite wine tour option is a half-day tour from Queenstown that includes a lunch platter and tastings for around $200 NZD. It’s super fun because the bus takes you through valleys and foothills and stops at 4 boutique wineries throughout the Central Otago region.
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. It lays out every area with their pros and cons.
For those of you who are looking for the best value for money, I would recommend staying at the Millennium Hotel Queenstown for $140 NZD/night. It’s a 6 min walk to the beach and is perfectly located to walk to all of the shops and restaurants.
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, there are tons of spectacular things to do in Wanaka.
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 middle 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/mi (16km/10mi 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, mountain quad experience, 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!
Related Read: Make sure to uncover the hidden Diamond Lake Walk in Wanaka
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, snowboarding, or snowshoeing in Wanaka or Queenstown!
You can pre-book your Cardrona Ski pass here that includes gear rentals and lift pass. The great thing about this bundle is that you can pick out your rentals at several locations including Cardrona x Treble Cone, the Wanaka and Queenstown ticket office, and directly on the Cardrona mountain!
Where to stay in Wanaka
Staying in Wanaka will be sure to fulfill your wishes for calm and relaxation. There is beauty to be found in every corner of this town, especially during the summer when the flowers are in bloom and the tourists being to make their way in. When planning where to stay in Wanaka you can choose to be on the water’s edge near town or tucked away on a more laid-back property.
The Luxury Lakeview Vista Apartments will provide that water view you’ve been dreaming of and can comfortably accommodate 8 adults across three bedrooms. Enjoy a soak in the private hot tub off the bedroom while looking out at the stunning landscapes.
For more privacy during your holiday in Wanaka, I think booking at Lime Tree Lodge will be the perfect match! With 10 acres of land and a view of the gardens and alpines from each room, you won’t mind the 10-minute drive into town center. The $200 NZD/night will give you more than you bargained for.
5. The Catlins
If you look at a map of the South Island, you’ll be able to find the Catlins region at 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 out of all of the waterfalls 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!
Where to stay in the Catlins
The coastal area of the Catlins between Dunedin and Invercargill while stunning can be a bit slim for hotels and apartments. Here are some of my personal suggestions below or have a look for yourself if you know exactly which part of the Catlins you want to stay in!
- Kowhai Flat – Located in Pounawea, it’s a great base for exporing the Catlins and Nugget Point. These flats are cute, functional, and spacious! With a well stocked kitchen and private bathroom.
- Catlins Mohua Park– The individual chalets on the hillside in Owaka are pricey in but have the most phenomenal views. Each one comes with two twin beds and one king size. There are no TV’s so take this as a sign be present with your surroudings, change into your robe, and enjoy the beauty of this property. Option to add in breakfast for $20 NZD
- The Whistling Frog Resort– If you stay here there will be no need to sacrifice quality to stay in budget. At a minimum of $124 NZD/night for two adults these cozy cabins in Chasland are short distance to the beautiful McLean falls.
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. It’s best traveled on an epic road trip and there are 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!
Where to stay in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier
In my opinion, Scenic Hotel Franz Josef Glacier will take your breath away. Imagine sipping wine from your balcony while watching the sun set over the mountains. The hotel also has a restaurant where you’ll dine in a room with wall-to-wall windows. Over in Fox Glacier is the updated Lake Matheson Motel with thoughtful touches like an electric blanket and dining equipment in each room.
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. The best place to explore this region is from Picton because it is the most centrally located town that can get you going to any one of the different islands. I’ve found that The Villa is one of the best deals for a room in Picton and it’s right across the street from the beach.
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 this cruise through the Marlborough Sounds from Picton you’re 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)! There’s also a cruise for seafood lovers, The Seafood Odyssea Marlborough Sounds Cruise from Picton is 3.5 hours of sightseeing and trying fresh seafood from local sources paired with wine. Sounds like the perfect day to me!
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 10-Day South Island adventure tour that visits almost every place above, or this 14-day tour of the South Island.
There are so many different lengths and styles of tours offered for the South Island. You can view some of the most popular tours here!
Thanks for reading!
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 found this blog helpful, be sure to check out some of these related blogs we’ve written: