The South Island of New Zealand (Te Waipounamu) is a wonderland of glacier-capped mountains, iridescent lakes, rugged coastal scenery, vineyards, and charming towns. Wine tasting, bungy jumping, hiking, trekking, and taking eco cruises to see dolphins and penguins all top the list of the best things to do on the South Island.
Whether you prefer to go on scenic drives and explore the South Island’s long list of charming towns or prefer to add more adventure to your trip with multi-day treks and scenic helicopter flights, there is plenty to keep you busy on the South Island.
In this guide, we list 40 of the best things to do on the South Island…have fun picking out your favorites!
If you also have plans to visit the North Island, don’t miss our article 30 Amazing Things to Do on the North Island of New Zealand.
Interesting Facts about the South Island of New Zealand (Te Waipounamu)
The South Island of New Zealand, which is also called Te Waipounamu, is the larger of the two islands in New Zealand.
Of the two islands, the South Island is our favorite, and from talking to many other travelers, the South Island has the reputation of being the more beautiful and exciting island to visit.
A long mountain range, called the Southern Alps, runs along the west side of the island, and combined with New Zealand’s wet weather and climate, many of these mountains are topped with snow and glaciers. Aoraki / Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in the range and the highest peak in New Zealand.
In the summer, hiking and tramping through the Southern Alps is one of the best things to do on the South Island. Soaring over the mountains in a helicopter is also a very memorable experience. In the winter, the South Island becomes a winter wonderland and a haven for skiers.
Fiordland National Park sits on the southwest corner of the South Island. Mountains and fiords create one of the most beautiful, remote places to visit in New Zealand. Cruising on the Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are two popular things to do here, as is hiking the Milford Track or Routeburn Track and spending some time in Te Anau.
On the South Island, you can visit Christchurch (New Zealand’s second largest city), Queenstown (one of the best places to go bungy jumping, jet boat riding, and paragliding), and smaller towns packed with charm, such as Arrowtown, Cardrona, Wanaka, and Akaroa.
Hiking the Hooker Valley Track
Best Things to Do on the South Island
In no particular order, here are the best things to do on the South Island of New Zealand. At the end of this section, you can see all of them on a map.
1. Cruise the Milford Sound/Piopiotahi
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is often touted as one of the most beautiful places to visit in New Zealand. Located in Fiordland National Park, this fiord is home to dramatic scenery, with steep mountains and waterfalls.
Milford Sound | Best Things to Do on the South Island
How to Visit the Milford Sound/Piopiotahi
The most popular thing to do here is to take a cruise on the fiord, which lasts anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the cruise.
For the best experience, stay in Te Anau. The drive from Te Anau to the Milford Sound is gorgeous and takes about 2 hours. Along the drive, you can also hike to Key Summit, a short hike with stunning views of Fiordland National Park.
The Milford Sound can also be done as a very long day trip from Queenstown.
Learn more in our Guide to the Milford Sound & Key Summit Hike
2. Visit Doubtful Sound/Patea
Doubtful Sound is a nearby neighbor of the Milford Sound. At 40 km long, it is the second largest fiord in New Zealand (the Milford Sound is just 17.5 kilometers long). Doubtful Sound is also the deepest of all of the fiords in New Zealand.
Doubtful Sound is more remote and less touristy than the Milford Sound, so it is a good option for those who prefer to get off the beaten path and want to see one of New Zealand’s more remote places.
Doubtful Sound | Best Things to Do on the South Island
How to Visit Doubtful Sound/Patea
A visit to Doubtful Sound takes one full day from Te Anau. To get here, you first have to cross Lake Manapouri, then take a bus ride over a mountain pass, just to get to the fiord. Then, for several hours, you cruise through Doubtful Sound and several arms that come off of the fiord, before repeating the journey across the mountain pass and Lake Manapouri.
Learn more in our Guide to Doubtful Sound
3. Get Your Adrenaline Fix in Queenstown (Tāhuna)
This lovely town sits on Lake Wakatipu and is known as the Adventure Capital of the World.
Queenstown | Best Things to Do on the South Island
Queenstown is one of the best places to experience New Zealand’s long list of thrilling activities, such as paragliding, bungy jumping, jet boat riding, skydiving, hiking, skiing, and mountain biking. You can also relax in a natural hot pool, go shopping, and try out one of many of Queenstown’s fabulous restaurants and bars.
This is one of the best places to visit on the South Island of New Zealand, since it is a beautiful city with a lot to do for all ages and interests.
Plan on spending at least two to three days here, which gives you enough time to sample the best the Queenstown has to offer. Learn more in our article Best Things to Do in Queenstown and plan your visit with our Queenstown Itinerary.
4. Go Bungy Jumping
One of the best things to do in New Zealand is bungy jumping.
Bungy jumping got its start in Queenstown, at the Kawarau Bridge in 1988. There are now bungy jumping locations throughout New Zealand (and the rest of the world).
Having made this leap ourselves, it is a scary, thrilling, exhilarating experience and one you will be talking about for years after your trip to New Zealand.
Bungy jumping at the Kawarau Bridge
How to Go Bungy Jumping
There are numerous locations on the South Island. In and around Queenstown, you can leap from the Kawarau Bridge, The Ledge (at Skyline Queenstown), and do the Ben Nevis Bungy (the highest jump in New Zealand). You can also go bungy jumping at Hanmer Springs, which is 90 minutes outside of Christchurch.
5. See Aoraki / Mount Cook
At 3,724 meters (12,218 feet), Aoraki / Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand. It is located in the Southern Alps, north of Queenstown.
Aoraki / Mount Cook on the Hooker Valley Track
There are numerous ways to visit Mount Cook. Most people see it from Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, which is a national park laced with hiking trails that lead to alpine lakes and gorgeous views of the mountain. The Hooker Valley Track is an easy hike that leads to stunning views of Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Mount Cook can also be seen on flightseeing tours from Queenstown, Franz Josef, and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
For those who are active and adventurous, you can go heli-hiking near Mount Cook or climb one of its three summits.
6. Visit Akaroa & the Banks Peninsula
Banks Peninsula is a small, volcanic peninsula that sits on the east coast of the South Island. This peninsula is lush and green and its harbors and coves form sanctuaries for animals such as the Hector Dolphin (the smallest dolphin species in the world) and the Pōhatu penguins.
Akaroa is a small town that sits on Akaroa Harbour, the largest body of water on Banks Peninsula. This small town is home to some fantastic restaurants, a museum and memorial, a movie cinema, grocery stores, and restaurants.
Banks Peninsula | Best Things to Do on the South Island
This area is the perfect place to spend a day or two, particularly for those who like scenic drives, wildlife experiences, and the charm of a small, coastal town.
Learn how to plan your visit in our Guide to Akaroa & the Banks Peninsula.
7. See Hector’s Dolphins
Hector’s dolphins are the smallest dolphins in the world and Akaroa is one of the only places you can see them.
On a nature cruise from Akaroa, you’ll get to see the dolphins plus penguins, seals, sea birds, and get unique views of the volcanic crater.
The 2-hour eco tour with Black Cat Cruises leaves from Akaroa and they are so confident that you’ll see Hector’s dolphins that your cruise is free if you don’t see any.
8. Visit Cathedral Caves
On the southern coast of the South Island are two coastal caves that sit side-by-side. This is a beautiful photography spot and one of the most unique places to visit on the South Island, as these caves are only accessible during low tide.
Cathedral Caves | Best Things to Do on the South Island
How to Visit Cathedral Caves
Cathedral Caves is only open a few hours of the day, around low tide, when it is the safest to enter the caves. The timing of low tide changes day to day, so you will have to check the official website for the opening times, and then plan out your schedule for the day.
To get to the caves, it is a 20-minute walk through a forest to get to the beach, followed by a 10-minute walk on the beach. Visit the caves and return to the parking lot on the same trail. A visit here lasts 1 to 2 hours. Get more information in our Guide to the Southern Scenic Route.
9. Go Hiking in Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman is a small national park that is located along the north coast of the South Island. Popular things to do here are kayaking, day hiking, and doing one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
On our first visit to New Zealand, we took a terrific one-day tour of Abel Tasman. Starting at Kaiteriteri, we cruised along the coastline to Medlands Beach and then hiked through the rainforest and along the beaches to Torrent Bay and Anchorage Bay. It’s a great activity for all ages. Learn more in our article One Day in Abel Tasman National Park.
Abel Tasman National Park | Best Things to Do on the South Island
10. Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes
To see some of the most dramatic coastal cliffs in New Zealand, visit the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. On this small peninsula sits stacks of limestone rocks, that with a little imagination, looks like stacks of pancakes. This view of the rocks and the coastline is one of our favorite coastal views on the South Island of New Zealand.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks | Best Things to Do on the South Island
How to Visit the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
These rocks are located on the west coast of the South Island, north of Franz Josef. This is a good place to get out and stretch your legs on the drive to or from Franz Josef. To see the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, there is a 1.1 km walking loop that takes about 20 minutes. It is free to visit.
11. Hoktika Gorge
The Hoktika Gorge is also located on the west coast, about an hour and a half south of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks.
This aquamarine gorge is a fantastic hiking and swimming spot on the South Island. A 2 km walking trail loops around the gorge, crossing several suspension bridges along the way. It takes about 45 minutes to do the walk, longer if you pause for a swim.
Hoktika Gorge | Best Things to Do on the South Island
12. Wine Tasting in the Marlborough Wine Region
The Marlborough wine region is the largest wine region in New Zealand. This region produces some of the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world, along with Riesling, Gewürtztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. For wine aficionados, spending a day or two wine tasting in Marlborough is one of New Zealand’s best experiences.
Marlborough Wine Region | Best Things to Do on the South Island
Lunch at Saint Clair Family Estate
How to Visit the Marlborough Wine Region
For most visitors, one full day is just enough time to visit a few vineyards and have lunch or dinner. If you are a wine aficionado and like white wine, you can easily spend several days in the Marlborough wine region, to visit the subregions and the long list of vineyards. Blenheim is the most convenient place to stay, but there are also accommodations at some vineyards and smaller towns in the region.
Plan your visit with our Guide to the Marlborough Wine Region.
13. Photograph Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is famous for its milky, aquamarine color. It gets this color from the glacial silt that filters down from the Southern Alps. Lake Tekapo is also a popular spot to see lupins blooming from mid-November through December.
Lake Tekapo | Best Things to Do on the South Island
Church of the Good Shepherd
This is a very popular destination on a road trip through New Zealand and most likely you’ll pass Lake Tekapo driving to or from Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
The town of Lake Tekapo sits on the southern shore of the lake. In this area, popular photography spots are in and around the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Maclaren Footbridge. It is also worth the drive up to the Mt. John Observatory for a bird’s eye view of Lake Tekapo.
14. The Dark Sky Project
The area around Lake Tekapo, with its low light pollution, is an accredited International Dark Sky Reserve. The Dark Sky Project is a stargazing experience that is offered at the Mount John Observatory where you can view the Milky Way and distant galaxies from the observatory dome. Learn more here.
Mount John Observatory
Sitting on Lake Wanaka, just a short distance from the shoreline, is a small willow tree. This tree is one of the most photographed spots in New Zealand.
It’s now so famous on Instagram that it is called #ThatWanakaTree.
#ThatWanakaTree | Best Things to Do on the South Island
How to Photograph #ThatWanakaTree
This tree is located in Wanaka. To get to the viewpoint, park at the Wanaka Watersports Facility and it is a short walk along the beach to see the tree.
Seeing this tree is a bit overrated and a very busy spot. But if you want to snap that iconic photo of the lake the tree, this is a quick visit, taking about 20 minutes of your time.
16. Drive the Southern Scenic Route
The Southern Scenic Route is a 600+ kilometer driving route that connects Dunedin, Invercargill, Te Anau, and Queenstown, New Zealand. It is one of New Zealand’s best multi-day road trips.
Nugget Point Lighthouse
On this drive, you will visit quaint coastal towns, deserted beaches, waterfalls, fiords, and a long list of viewpoints that will take your breath away. Cruise the Milford Sound, go hiking, venture into a coastal cave at low tide, and keep a lookout for little blue penguins and yellow eyed penguins.
It takes about 4 days to drive the Southern Scenic Route, with Dunedin and Queenstown being the endpoints. Learn more in our Guide to the Southern Scenic Route.
17. Ride on a Jet Boat
Imagine boarding a speedboat that sends you hurtling through narrow canyons, driven by a crazy man at the wheel that steers the boat within inches of the rock walls. Add in 360° turns and very fast speeds and you have an action-packed adventure on the South Island of New Zealand.
In Queenstown, there are several companies that offer this hair-raising experience. We chose Shotover Jet and loved every minute of it, but KJet, Skippers Canyon Jet, and Dart River Adventures all offer jet boat rides in and around Queenstown.
Shotover Jet Boat Ride | Best Things to Do on the South Island
18. Relax in a Natural Hot Pool
After a day of hiking, bungy jumping, and mountain biking, one of the best ways to relax is by soaking in a natural hot pool.
Our favorite hot pool experience in New Zealand was at Onsen Hot Pools, which is located in Queenstown. In 2021, Onsen was a winner at the World Luxury Spa Awards. They have a day spa facility and cedar-lined hot pools that overlook the Shotover River. The hot pools are filled with water from the nearby mountains and the water is constantly being replaced with fresh water.
Onsen Hot Pools | Best Things to Do on the South Island
Other hot pools on the South Island include Tekapo Springs Hot Pools, Hot Tubs Ōmarama, the Waiho Hot Pools in Franz Josef, and Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa.
19. Visit Christchurch
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand.
A series of earthquakes rocked Christchurch not that long ago. In September 2010, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, followed by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in February 2011. This earthquake was one of the strongest ever recorded in an urban area at that time, causing widespread damage and killing 185 people. Aftershocks continued to rattle the city through September 2014. By this point, more than 1500 buildings needed be demolished.
Since these earthquakes, the city has made an astonishing recovery.
Christchurch | Best Things to Do on the South Island
Things to do in Christchurch include Punting on the Avon, visiting Quake City, touring a few notable museums, visiting the International Antarctic Centre, and dining at its long list of restaurants.
Plan on spending one day in Christchurch. With more time, you can use Christchurch as a home base, day tripping to Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula, Arthur’s Pass, and Lake Tekapo.
20. See a Little Blue Penguin
The little blue penguin, also called the little penguin and the blue penguin, are the smallest penguins in the world. They get their name for the blue coloration on the top of their bodies.
Little Blue Penguin returning from a day at sea at the Royal Albatross Centre
Where to See Little Blue Penguins
We saw little blue penguins at the Royal Albatross Centre on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin and at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch. Little blue penguins can also be spotted on the beaches along the Otago Peninsula and the Catlins, at the Pohatu Marine Reserve on Banks Peninsula, on Munro Beach, Stewart Island, and in Oamaru.
21. See a Yellow-Eyed Penguin
Yellow-eyed penguins are larger than the little blue penguins but can be seen along some of the same beaches and in some of the same nature reserves. The numbers of these penguins are in decline, due to loss of their inland habitat.
Like little blue penguins, yellow-eyed penguins can be spotted on the beaches but the easiest way to see them is in a nature reserve.
At the Penguin Place, you can tour the reserve, spot yellow-eyed penguins on the beaches and nesting on land. There is also a rehabilitation center that helps yellow-eyed penguins recover from injury or starvation. The best time to see penguins here is from October through April.
22. Hike the Roys Peak Track
For one of the most breathtaking views of the South Island of New Zealand, hike the Roys Peak Track.
This hike is located in Wanaka. It’s a steady, uphill walk to a viewpoint where you are rewarded with panoramic views of Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps. It is one of our favorite hikes in New Zealand.
Roys Peak Track | Best Things to Do on the South Island
How to Hike Roys Peak Track
This hike is 16 km (10 miles) with 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) of elevation gain, so it’s classified as a strenuous hike. It takes 5 to 7 hours and best done when skies are clear, so you can have the best view. Learn more in our Guide to the Roys Peak Track.
23. Visit Glacier Country (Franz Josef & Fox Glacier)
New Zealand is filled with beautiful landscapes and this is one of the best.
Glacier Country is an area on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It runs from Ōkārito and Whataroa in the north to Fox Glacier in the south. This is a land of lush rainforests, glacier capped mountains, and rugged coastlines.
Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are two tiny towns that sit in this region. These towns are the gateway for exploring the Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, including day hikes, flightseeing tours, and heli-hiking on the glaciers.
On a helicopter tour with a glacier landing
Fox Glacier Lookout
How to Visit Franz Josef & Fox Glacier
The best things to do in Glacier Country include helicopter flightseeing tours of the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, visiting Lake Matheson, seeing the rarest Kiwi, heli-hiking, skydiving, and day hiking.
At a minimum, plan on spending two days in Glacier Country. This gives you one day for the hikes and viewpoints around the Fox Glacier, one day for the hikes around the Franz Josef glacier, and time for a helicopter flight.
Plan your visit with our Guide to Glacier Country.
24. See the Moeraki Boulders
On the north Otago coast sits a group of massive, spherical boulders, spread out across the beach. These calcite concretions are a popular photography spot on the South Island.
I think the Moeraki Boulders are a bit overrated, but they do attract a lot of visitors. If you are in the area, it’s worth it to see them, but I don’t think it’s worth going out of your way to visit the Moeraki Boulders.
How to See the Moeraki Boulders
The Moeraki Boulders are located on Koekohe Beach (Moeraki Boulders Beach on Google Maps). Park at the Moeraki Boulders Café and it is a short walk out to the beach. At low tide, it is easy to walk right up to and photograph the boulders. At high tide, the bottoms will be covered with water. Our visit was near low tide.
25. Visit Stewart Island/Rakiura
Stewart Island is located off of the southern coast of the South Island. Most of the island is comprised of the Rakiura National Park. It is a haven for a number of endangered native birds, including the yellow-eyed penguin, the kakapo, the Stewart Island kiwi, and a long list of other native birds. Oban is the only town on Stewart Island.
Things to do on Stewart Island include hiking and birdwatching. There are only 28 km of roads but 280 km of hiking trails criss cross over the island.
26. Hike the Routeburn Track
The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s top hiking trails.
This 32 km (20 mile) point-to-point trail connects The Divide (an area located along the drive to the Milford Sound) to Glenorchy. It is typically done as a 2 or 3 day trek but very fit and fast hikers can do it in a day.
Routeburn Track | Best Things to Do on the South Island
Routeburn Track near The Divide
Tim day hiked the Routeburn Track on our most recent trip to New Zealand. It is a gorgeous hike every step of the way, taking hikers through lush rainforests, past a countless number of waterfalls, and high into the mountains for panoramic views of the Southern Alps.
In our Guide to the Routeburn Track, Tim explains the route in detail, with tips on how to do it, both as a day hike and as a multi-day trek.
27. Go Skiing
In the winter months, the Southern Alps become winter wonderland. There are numerous places to go skiing on the South Island.
Wanaka is another town that is surrounded by snow covered mountains in the winter months.
There are four ski resorts in and around Wanaka: Cardona Alpine Resort (longest ski season in the area), Snow Farm (best place to go for cross-country skiing), Treble Cone (largest ski area on the South Island), and Soho Basin (backcountry skiing).
Ski season typically starts in mid to late June and ends in October.
28. Spend Some Time in Wanaka
Wanaka is one of our favorite spots in New Zealand.
This is one of the prettiest towns to visit on the South Island. The town of Wanaka sits on Lake Wanaka and is surrounded by mountains, vineyards, and lavender fields.
There is something here for everyone, whether you want to hike to the tallest peaks, climb a waterfall, go wine tasting, cruise on Lake Wanaka, snap some photos of #ThatWanakaTree, go to the movies, or have dinner at an outdoor café.
Wanaka in April | Best Things to Do on the South Island
Hiking the Rocky Mountain Track
Wanaka is located about one hour north of Queenstown. You can visit Wanaka on a day trip from Queenstown or spend a few nights here. If you are a hiker, we recommend spending a few nights in Wanaka, so you can hike Roys Peak Track, Rocky Mountain Track to Diamond Lake, the Isthmus Peak Track, and climb a waterfall on the Wildwire via ferrata.
In our article Best Things to Do in Wanaka, learn about what there is to do here, how to plan your time, plus where to eat and where to stay.
29. Climb a Waterfall
Advertised as the “world’s highest waterfall cable climb,” Wildwire takes those willing and able on thrilling via ferrata.
The Wildwire via ferrata is located just outside of Wanaka and it is another thrilling activity to add to your New Zealand to do list.
On this journey, you will climb a via ferrata alongside Twin Falls Waterfall. At several points, you will cross over the gorge on suspension bridges and tightropes.
We did this and it is tons of fun from start to finish. It’s the perfect activity for those who want to do something active and adventurous in Wanaka, that’s a bit different from hiking a trail.
Wildwire Via Ferrata | Best Things to Do on the South Island
There are three tour options, ranging from short and easy (great for beginners) to a longer, more challenging route that takes a good chunk of the day.
We did the Level 2 climb (the intermediate climb) which takes 4 to 5 hours. It’s just challenging enough to keep things interesting and you get some amazing views along this climb.
Learn more and get pricing on the official website.
30. Go for a Scenic Drive along Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki is another glacial fed lake, and with its milky blue color, it looks a lot like Lake Tekapo.
Lake Pukaki | Best Things to Do on the South Island
Lake Pukaki and Aoraki / Mount Cook | Best Things to Do on the South Island
If you have plans to visit Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, you will drive along Lake Pukaki to get there. This is a gorgeous drive, with views of the lake, the Southern Alps, and the peak of Mount Cook making an appearance, as long as skies are clear.
From late November through early January, it’s possible to see lupins blooming on the east shore of Lake Pukaki.
31. Swim with Dolphins in Kaikoura
From October to May, eco tours in Kaikoura offer experiences where you can see and swim with dolphins.
Three species of dolphins are found in the water near Kaikoura, including dusky dolphins, Hector’s dolphins, and common dolphins. Orca can make an appearance from September to April, but they are less predictable than the dolphins.
Dolphin Encounter runs tours all year. You can either simply view the dolphins or, for about double the price, swim with dolphins. Make your reservations in advance because they do sell out. If tours are sold out for your dates of travel, you can make a reservation on GetYourGuide.
32. Hike to the Blue Pools
This relatively short, easy hike takes you to vibrantly blue pools located on the Makarora River.
The Blue Pools Track is a 3 km return hike that takes 30 minutes to one hour. It is located inside of Mount Aspiring National Park, about a one-hour drive north of Wanaka.
If you have plans to drive between Wanaka and Franz Josef, this is a great hike to add on to the drive, since you get to stretch your legs and see yet another beautiful sight in New Zealand.
33. Visit Skyline Queenstown
From Skyline Queenstown, you get an awesome aerial view over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. There is a lot to do here, so it’s perfect for families, hikers, and those who simply want to enjoy one of the South Island’s best viewpoints. And there is no hiking required to get this view.
From Queenstown, ride the gondola to Skyline Queenstown. Once at the top station, enjoy the view, ride the luge, have lunch or dinner, do a little shopping, go mountain biking, or hike higher into the mountains. You can even go bungy jumping and ziplining.
Skyline Queenstown Luge Track | Best Things to Do on the South Island
How to Visit Skyline Queenstown
There are a lot of ticket options for Skyline Queenstown. The cheapest ticket option is to purchase the gondola ticket, which just includes your transportation up to Bob’s Peak and back. You also have the option to add on Luge rides, stargazing, a guided walk, and lunch or dinner at the Stratosfare restaurant.
Note: The cheapest way to get to Bob’s Peak is by hiking the Tiki Trail, a 2 km one-way hike with a 450 meters (1,500 feet) climb. It’s a steep, tough hike that takes an hour or longer. Unless you have a lot of time in Queenstown, or just need to save the money, it’s best to ride the gondola.
Get the full price list here.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: We recommend purchasing your tickets online in advance. This will save you a long wait in the ticket line, which can take 30 to 60 minutes on busy days.
34. Take a Scenic Flight
With the stunning geography of the South Island, taking a flightseeing tour to gaze out over the lakes, mountains, and glaciers is one of the best things to do on the South Island.
Flightseeing tours are offered from Queenstown, Wanaka, Aoraki/Mount Cook, and Franz Josef. Depending on the tour, you can take a scenic flight over the Milford Sound, fly from Wanaka on a scenic flight over Mount Aspiring, or soar over the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers from Franz Josef. For those craving a little more adventure, you can also go heli-hiking.
35. See a Kiwi
The kiwi is a flightless, nocturnal bird that is native to New Zealand. There are several different species of this bird and most of them are threatened. Deforestation and the introduction of predators have contributed to the huge decline in the number of kiwis in New Zealand.
Kiwi | Harvepino/shutterstock.com
It’s very rare that you will see a kiwi in the wild, both because their numbers are low and because they are only active at night. But there are a number of animal sanctuaries on the South Island where you can see a kiwi.
Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. Located in Christchurch, this sanctuary has a nocturnal kiwi house and offers a 100% guarantee that you’ll see a kiwi in their nocturnal house. Despite the 100% guarantee, Tim and I did not see a kiwi here, although we could hear them moving around.
West Coast Wildlife Centre. Located in Franz Josef, see the rowi kiwi, the rarest kiwi, in their nocturnal house. We did see several kiwis here.
Queenstown Kiwi Park. This wildlife sanctuary offers daily guided tours of their nocturnal kiwi house.
Steward Island. On a guided tour of the forest, it is possible to see a kiwi in the wild.
36. Visit Arrowtown
Arrowtown is famous for its gold mining history and historic Chinese settlement. In 1862, gold was found in the Arrow River, drawing thousands of people, including a large number of Chinese immigrants.
This historic town looks like it has been plucked out of the American west and set down amongst rolling hills, vineyards, and sheep farms. It’s a wonderful place to spend the afternoon, visiting its historic sites, shops, and restaurants.
Arrowtown | Best Things to Do on the South Island
While in Arrowtown, visit X Marks the Spot, a sign marking the spot where Jack Tewa found gold in 1862. Next to this spot is the historic Chinese settlement.
In town, stroll the streets. You can go wine tasting in the Winery, have a cocktail at Hyde Liquor and Social, and have dinner. We had an amazing dinner at Aosta but La Rumbla, The Fork and Tap, and Postmasters all get good reviews. Make a reservation in advance.
37. Dunedin & the Otago Peninsula
Dunedin is the second largest city on the South Island after Christchurch. Sitting next to Dunedin is the Otago Peninsula, a small peninsula filled with scenic overlooks, deserted beaches, and several places to see little blue penguins and yellow eyed penguins.
Dunedin is one of the end points of the Southern Scenic Route. It’s worth spending at least one day in Dunedin, to visit the sites in town and to go for a scenic drive along the Otago Peninsula.
Dunedin | Best Things to Do on the South Island
For those interested in seeing penguins, the Penguin Place is a great spot to see yellow-eyed penguins. At the Royal Albatross Centre, you can see little blue penguins returning to shore in the evening, depending on the time of the year.
Otago Peninsula | Best Things to Do on the South Island
38. Go for a Stroll around Lake Matheson
This is a beautiful walk in Glacier Country (near Franz Josef). Not only are you treated to views of Mount Tasman and Lake Matheson, but the walk through the temperate rainforest is a wonderful experience.
Lake Matheson | Best Things to Do on the South Island
On the Lake Matheson Trail
This 4.4 km (2.75 mile) loop is easy to do and great for all ages. It takes between 1 to 2 hours and along the way there are several viewpoints where you can capture the reflection of Mount Tasman in Lake Matheson.
Learn more about this hike in our Guide to Glacier Country.
39. Visit Cardrona
Cardrona is a tiny town that sits 20 minutes south of Wanaka. Cardrona is famous for its historic hotel and Bra Fence. If you are driving to Wanaka from Queenstown, drive Crown Range Road to Cardrona, and then make a quick stop here for photos.
Inside of the Cardrona hotel is a gastropub that is one of the highest rated restaurants in the area.
40. Go Wine Tasting in Cromwell & Central Otago
Central Otago is one of New Zealand’s popular wine regions to visit. From Queenstown, it is an easy day trip to Cromwell, Gibbston Valley, and the surrounding vineyards.
Te Kano Estate
Go wine tasting at the Cloudy Bay Shed, Te Kano Estate, Domaine-Thomson Wines Cellar Door, Felton Road Wines, and Mt. Difficulty Wines.
One of the best ways to visit the nearby wineries is on a tour. Your transportation is included so you can sip on as much wine as you like. This tour takes you to three wineries in Gibbston Valley and this tour includes four wineries plus a platter style lunch.
Best Things to Do on the South Island of New Zealand: On a Map
How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
Best Things to Do on the South Island of New Zealand: Our Recommendations
Top 10 Things to Do on the South Island of New Zealand
To narrow down the list, here are the must-have experiences on the South Island.
- Spend some time in Queenstown
- Visit Wanaka
- Go on a hike (Roys Peak Track and the Hooker Valley Track are two great options)
- Go on a Milford Sound cruise
- Visit Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
- Visit Glacier Country (Franz Josef and Fox Glacier); if it works with your budget, this is an awesome place to go on a flightseeing tour with a glacier landing
- Visit Akaroa & the Banks Peninsula
- Go hiking or kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park
- Go wine tasting
- Drive the Southern Scenic Route
Best Things to Do on the South Island with Kids
- Visit Skyline Queenstown
- Swim with dolphins
- Go on a jet boat ride
- Cruise the Milford Sound
- Hike the Hooker Valley Track
- Visit a reserve to see penguins and kiwis
- Spend some time in Queenstown
- Do the Wildwire via ferrata (older kids)
- Go hiking in Abel Tasman National Park
- Watch a movie and eat warm chocolate chip cookies at Cinema Paradiso in Wanaka
Best Adventurous Things to Do on the South Island
- Go bungy jumping
- Hike the Routeburn Track
- Go heli-hiking
- Visit Cathedral Caves
- Do the Wildwire via ferrata
- Go on a flightseeing tour with a glacier landing
- Hike Roys Peak Track
- Do a multi-day trek
- Go skiing
On the drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is the South Island of New Zealand so popular?
With its mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, and rugged coastal scenery, the South Island is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the world. These dramatic landscapes were used as filming locations for a long list of movies, include the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Bungy jumping and jet boat riding also got their start on the South Island.
Is the South Island of New Zealand worth it?
The South Island of New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places we have visited in the world. It is a wonderland of mountain ranges, gorgeous beaches and coastal scenery, vineyards, and small towns. From our experiences and talking to other travelers, the South Island is the highlight on a visit to New Zealand, and well worth spending most or all of your time in New Zealand on this island.
How many days do you need on the South Island of New Zealand?
At a bare minimum, plan on spending one week on the South Island. This gives you just enough time to spend a few days in Queenstown, a few days in Wanaka, and a day trip to the Milford Sound.
With more time, you can add on Franz Josef and Glacier Country, Christchurch, Banks Peninsula, the Marlborough Wine Region, and Abel Tasman National Park. Those with 10 days can also add in the Southern Scenic Route.
When is the best time to visit the South Island?
The South Island can be visited all year.
Summer (December through February) is generally the best time to be here, with warmer, drier weather. However, it is also the busiest time of year to be here.
In autumn (March through May), temperatures cool off, as do the crowds, but rain chances increase. Fall colors make an appearance.
In the winter (June, July and August), many alpine trails close once the snow begins to fall. This is the best time to visit the South Island if you plan to go skiing.
And finally, in the spring (September through November), temperatures warm up and flowers begin to bloom. In late spring, rainfall goes down but crowds start to rise.
If you have any questions about the best things to do on the South Island of New Zealand, or if you want to share your favorite experiences, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information for Your Trip to New Zealand
SOUTH ISLAND ITINERARY: If you have only a week, here are four different ways to spend one week on the South Island.
NORTH ISLAND: Top experiences on the North Island include spending a day or two in Auckland, hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, visiting Cathedral Cove, touring Hobbiton, cruising the Bay of Islands, and seeing glowworms and blackwater rafting in the Waitomo Caves. For the full list, read our article about the Best Things to Do on the North Island.
NEW ZEALAND ROAD TRIP: With 3 weeks in New Zealand, visit the highlights on a road trip to the North Island and South Island. If you have less time, you can shorten this itinerary by spending 2 weeks on the South Island.
We have TONS more information about New Zealand in our New Zealand Travel Guide, including Auckland, Queenstown, Wanaka, Aoraki/Mount Cook, Franz Josef, Christchurch, Wellington, Taupō, and the Milford Sound.
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