Stunning mountain peaks, alpine lakes, gorgeous beaches and huge glaciers – New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most picturesque and interesting places to travel in the world. The coastlines are filled with an abundance of wildlife, deep fiords and unforgettable experiences. It’s no surprise tourists flock from all over the world to explore our beautiful South Island.
So, where are the must see spots? Stay tuned for our top ten amazing places to visit in the stunning South!
Ways to travel the South Island, New Zealand
When travelling, the biggest frustration is usually the lack of time you have to see everything! New Zealand’s South Island isn’t huge, but you’ll still need to organise some form of transport to get you around.
Some of the most popular ways to travel the South Island are:
Hire a car – with a rental car you’ll be able to explore at your own pace and schedule. Moving from place to place you’ll easily be able to find places to stay, and renting a car in New Zealand is also a budget-friendly option. If you’re new to driving in New Zealand, make sure to check out the NZ Road Code to keep yourself and fellow drivers safe!
Rent a Campervan – road tripping around the South Island in a campervan is arguably the most popular and best way to travel. Around the island, you can find hundreds of holiday parks and campgrounds in beautiful locations. So park up for the night and take in the gorgeous night sky! Make sure you’re a tidy camper though! Tiaki New Zealand has some great tips on being a responsible traveler in New Zealand.
Bus – New Zealand has a large Intercity bus grid that can get you almost anywhere you want to go. This is also a great option if you would prefer to sit back, relax and take in your surroundings rather than focusing on the road. Organised bus tours such as Wild Kiwi and Haka Tours do all the planning for you so you can just enjoy your holiday. It isn’t the cheapest option for groups, but for a solo traveller this would be a great choice.
Fly – Air New Zealand operates flights between all major cities and airports. However, there are very few in New Zealand’s South Island making flying difficult – not to mention you’ll miss those stunning views from the road!
10 Must-See Destinations on the South Island
1. Milford Sound
Milford Sound is often referred to as the 8th Wonder of the World – when you see it for yourself, we guarantee you’ll agree! Milford Sound, although technically a fiord, was carved out by a glacier thousands of years ago and is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the South Island. This ancient valley is a must visit on any trip to New Zealand.
We also own and operate the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory and run kayaking trips in one of the most beautiful parts of Milford, Harrison Cove. On top of that, we can also get you to and from Milford via a comfortable coach ride from either Te Anau or Queenstown or a scenic flight from Queenstown. We’d highly recommend you travel at least one direction via the road – the road to Milford is truly exceptional and just as much part of the experience.
If you want to experience Milford Sound for a longer period of time, then consider spending a night at the Milford Lodge, which actually happens to be the only accommodation available!
Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand and home to so many amazing things to do all year round. In the winter it’s a skier’s paradise, and in the summer, a hiker’s dream. Trust us, there’s no shortage of things to do in Queenstown. From Queenstown, you can explore Lake Wakatipu aboard our Spirit of Queenstown Scenic Cruise, go jet boating, or venture out onto some of the most popular hiking trails like Ben Lomond Summit.
One of the other tours we offer in Queenstown is our Station 2 Station Cycle Trail. This short but stunning bike trail located across Lake Wakatipu is in an area very few get to see or explore. The self-guided tour includes a cruise aboard the Spirit of Queenstown and the TSS Earnslaw.
Another activity you can’t miss in Queenstown is checking out a real working Merino Wool farm. On our Mt Nicholas Farm Experience you’ll get to meet the animals that help out on the farm and do a tour of the farm and its spectacular scenery.
This small town is nestled along the shores of Lake Wanaka, and like Queenstown, has stunning views of the Southern Alps. It’s located only an hour’s drive from Queenstown and in winter is the gateway to the Cardrona Ski Field – one of New Zealand’s best ski fields.
In the summer months, Wanaka is the perfect place to explore Mt Aspiring National Park. Around Lake Wanaka, there are plenty of hiking trails to explore. One of the most popular and a must do is the famous Roy’s Peak. Don’t be fooled, as beautiful as it might be, this 16km round trip hike is also very challenging.
4. Te Anau – Gateway to Milford Sound
Te Anau is the closest town to Milford Sound and for that reason alone it’s worth checking off your South Island bucket list. From Te Anau, we offer transport via coach to and from Milford Sound that also includes a Milford Sound cruise.
Around Te Anau, there are other places to visit other than Milford Sound. In fact, around Lake Te Anau there are plenty of stunning hiking trails including the very popular Kepler Track. The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks. The classic trail is 3-nights and 4-days however you can opt to do a day hike to the Luxmore Hut, which is arguably the most beautiful part of the trail.
5. Mt Cook National Park
There are few national parks in New Zealand as popular as Mt Cook. Out of the 12 largest glaciers in New Zealand, Mt Cook is home to 8 of them and around 40% of the park is made up of glaciers. Mt Cook itself is New Zealand’s tallest mountain at 3,724m and a stunning site to see. It was on this mountain that Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his successful ascent of Mt Everest.
In the park, there are lots of amazing hiking trails, many of which are accessible to almost anyone. One of the best and easiest is the Hooker Valley Track. Although a 10km round trip, the trail is very well maintained and flat. It ends at the Hooker Lake and from here you can see Mt Cook reflect off its surface.
Kaikoura is a beautiful coastal town located just north of Christchurch. It’s known for its abundance of marine wildlife which includes Sperm Whales and Dolphins. Since the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, the landscape has vastly changed, which has made it an even more fascinating place to visit!
Some of the most popular things to do in Kaikoura are Whale and Dolphin watching, or swimming with Hector Dolphins. Hector Dolphins are the world’s smallest dolphin and in Kaikoura, you can jump into the water on a licensed tour and swim with these beautiful creatures. They are known to be very playful and inquisitive.
7. The Catlins
The Catlins is a region on the southern coast between Dunedin and Invercargill. The region is famous for its remote coastline that’s home to the rarest penguin in the world, the Yellow Eyed Penguin. There are only 5000 of these birds left in the world and Curio Bay in the Catlins is one of the best places to see them.
But the Catlins isn’t just about wildlife, you can explore many different waterfalls and also visit the southernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island. The Catlins makes for a great road trip with plenty of stunning places to stop along the side of the road.
8. Abel Tasman National park
Abel Tasman National Park is world renowned for its stunning coastline and beautiful native forests. It’s also home to the famous Abel Tasman Coastal Track. The hiking trail is one of New Zealand’s best hikes and one of the 10 Great Walks. Of course, you don’t have to complete the multi-day trail to visit some of the most beautiful spots as the entire coastline is filled with beautiful bays and lush forest to explore.
A very popular way to explore is by kayak. From a kayak, you can paddle to many secluded bays and maybe even find a small beach all to yourself. Abel Tasman is the perfect place to visit in summer and great for anyone who loves a day at the beach.
9. The West Coast
The West Coast is a unique mix of New Zealand’s alpine and forest environments and Franz Josef is one of the best areas to see this. From Franz Josef town, you can head off to either the Fox or Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint trails and get a close look at two of New Zealand’s most famous glaciers. Both the walking trails are free and take around an hour from start to finish.
Once you’ve explored the glaciers you can then head off and see the famous Blue Pools. The Blue Pools are as the name suggests – and believe us, they are very blue! Around the pools, you can wander a few short hiking trails that lead through the beautiful forest areas or if you’re brave, take a dip in the ice cold glacier water.
Hokitika is another West Coast destination well worth checking out. The Hokitika Gorge Walk is a short walk offering views of the Hokitika River. It’s only 650 meters long making it the perfect short walk for families travelling the West Coast.
Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city. It is an ideal place to start or end your South Island travels with their international airport being your gateway into the south.
But, what many people don’t know is that there is actually a lot to do in Christchurch itself. You can go explore the city’s history checking out the Air Force Museum of New Zealand, the Canterbury Museum, or even Quake City where you can learn about the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 and their aftermath.
You can also go for a stroll through the beautiful Botanic Gardens or along Brockworth Street looking at all of the incredible street art. There are also plenty of hiking trails and nearby beaches to explore!
We would love to show you around our backyard! If you come to Queenstown, Te Anau or Milford, come try one of our amazing South Island experiences.