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Best Places to Visit in New Zealand: South Island

The New Zealand South Island is an absolutely breathtaking place. If you are planning a visit to New Zealand I highly recommend spending a good portion of your time touring around the South Island. It is one of the most beautiful places and offers a lot of a things to see in New Zealand.

And while there are a lot of south island points of interest and New Zealand attractions, if you only have a short time you want to see the best places in New Zealand.

These are my top 5 New Zealand South Island must see locations along with the best things to do in New Zealand for each location. I absolutely loved my 10 months living in this country and I hope you enjoy your visit to the “land of the long white cloud.”

Where to Visit in New Zealand: South Island Itinerary 10 days

The minimum amount of time I recommend spending in New Zealand is 10 days. Ideally you would be able to visit for at least 2-3 weeks, but I know that’s not always possible.

As the South Island is my favorite here is my best 10 day itinerary that will take you through most of the locations I list below. Note that this itinerary is only one version of a possible new zealand south island road trip!

Day 1: Start in Christchurch
Day 2: Drive to Mount Cook National Park (about 4 hours) with a stop at Lake Tekapo along the way
Day 3: Hang out in Mount Cook New Zealand hiking and exploring
Day 4: Drive to Wanaka (about 2 hours)
Day 5: Hang out in Wanaka hiking and relaxing
Day 6: Drive to Queenstown (about 1 hour) and hang out there for the day or take stops along the way at the many wineries in the area
Day 7: Drive to Fiordland National Park (about 2.5 hours) (*Alternatively you can take a day trip tour from Queenstown down to Fiordland if you don’t wish to do an overnight trip)
Day 8: Visit Milford Sound & drive back to Queenstown
Day 9: Enjoy another day in Queenstown
Day 10: Fly back to Christchurch (or wherever your outbound flight is from)

New Zealand South Island Map

WHAT TO SEE IN NEW ZEALAND

1. Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

I’m a sucker for mountain landscapes and of the best places to go in New Zealand, Mt Cook was my favorite! In fact, I enjoyed it so much I extended my stay here by an extra day plus returned when my mom came to visit.

You will need a car to get here, but its remote location only adds to the magic and charm of this place.

Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand and the name given by the Maori is ‘Aorangi’ or ‘Aoraki’ meaning cloud piercer.  The peak is often covered by clouds but once they move away the view of the mountain is breathtaking.

I was fortunate enough to visit the park towards the end of winter after a snowfall and during the summer with the golden plants in bloom. Honestly, both were pretty magical and I count Mount Cook as my top New Zealand must see destination.

Hotels in Mount Cook

What to do in Mount Cook

1. Walk the Hooker Valley Track – It’s roughly a 3-hour return easy walk with spectacular mountain and river views. It’s a popular walk so be prepared for some crowds.

The views along the way and Hooker Glacier at the end are well worth the hike. It’s no wonder it’s considered one of the best day walks in New Zealand.

2. Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center at the Hermitage Hotel – It’s a small museum, but packed full of information. It’s a great way to learn a lot of about the early explorers of the area including Sir Edmund Hillary.

It also covers the history of the Hermitage and the ups and downs this region experienced. There is a movie theatre showing rotating videos throughout the day complimentary to the location. I only spent about an hour here, but I walked away with a larger appreciation for the park.

3. Experience the Stars– Mount Cook is part of the National Sky Reserve which means limited light pollution and a full on experience of the starry galaxy at night. If you want more of an experience, the Hermitage Hotel offers a Big Sky Stargazing guided tour.

4. Visit the Glaciers & Icebergs– Along with the Hooker Glacier at the end of the Hooker Valley Track Walk, you can visit the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier. For the latter, you take a short (but quickly elevated) walk up some steps to the top viewpoint.

Tasman Glacier is the longest glacier in New Zealand and if you are short on time, it’s a perfect option. You also have the option to get up close and personal with glaciers on the Glacier Explorers Tour offered outside of the winter months.

5. Visit a Lavender Farm – During the summer months the Lavender Farm is is open for visitors located along the long drive into Mount Cook. Entry into the farm is a small fee, or you can stand outside the short fence to get pictures. Gifts of Lavender are also available for purchase. Just look for all of the purple signs- you can’t miss it!

2. Wanaka and Queenstown

Wanaka and Queenstown are both small mountain towns located within the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Queenstown reminded me of Aspen, Colorado due to it’s small size, amount of tourists and absolutely gorgeous scenery.

Wanaka is less known by tourists and more of a locals holiday location but just as interesting and beautiful as Queenstown.

It’s worth visiting both locations if time permits. And if you are into extreme sports this is where you want to be! If not, no worries there are still plenty of activities for you, too.

Things to do in Queenstown & Wanaka

1. Take a Yoga Class – Traveling and finding time to work out can be a challenge which is why I was so grateful to find The Nadi Wellness Yoga Studio in Queenstown. The studio provided a drop in rate and free mats for each class. The unexpected bonus was that the studio overlooks the lake and mountains. Catch a class at sunset for an even more zen like experience.

2. Hike Roys Peak in Wanaka – This is hands down one of the best hikes south island new zealand. This was a recommended hike and for good reason!

Roy’s Peak is a medium to hard hike that takes about 4.5 hours return with no cover along the way. In fact, about ¾ of the way up I contemplated if I wanted to keep going or just turn around because I was kind of done.

But I’m SO GLAD I KEPT GOING! Because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten to see the amazing view at the top and taken pictures that look like something out of a magazine.

This is actually not the end of the hike, only a look out spot. The official top was about another 30 mins, but most people I talked to were headed back down from here as was yours truly. Either way you’ll have some amazing views!

3. Visit the Wanaka Tree – It’s arguably the most photographed tree in the world. It’s a lone tree near Lake Wanaka that is famous for its remote location. It’s pretty easy to find, and won’t cost you a penny and will pose for you.

The Wanaka Tree with snow capped mountains in the background
The Wanaka Tree

4. Tour the Central Otago Vineyards – A popular New Zealand points of interest are the many vineyards throughout the country. Most of them are further north, where the climate is warmer and sunnier. But you may be pleasantly surprised by your vineyard options in Central Otago. The mountainous region is home to different grapes so a few vineyards, such as Cloudy Bay (pictured below), have a location in Marlborough and in Otago.

Many of the vineyards can be found on hwy 8 as you begin to approach Cromwell and then along hwy 6 on your way to Queenstown. I personally visited:

  • The Cloudy Bay Shed Vineyard which was the most gorgeous.
  • Misha’s Vineyard store in Cromwell where I had a wonderfully engaging host.
  • Wet Jacket which was my overall favorite wine and had a great outdoor seating area. Wet Jacket also served beer on tap and had a cheese tasting room.

You could easily make a week out of just visiting the vineyards in the area. You can learn more about New Zealand wine and download a map of the region here.

5. Go Skiing – If you happen to visit during the winter season (Jun – Sep) than you may want to hit up the ski fields. You have quite a few choices in the area, so you could even visit multiple ski areas over the course of your stay. Ski rentals and frequent buses to and from ski fields can be found in both Queenstown and Wanaka.

3. Te Anau and Fiordland

New Zealand is host to many national parks and one of my favorites was Fiordland. For such a small area, it is full of New Zealand tourist attractions and New Zealand landmarks. This southern national park is home to Milford Sound, a Glow Worm cave, and some of the prettiest places in New Zealand.

Things to do in Te Anau and Fiordland

1. Milford Sound – Easily one of the top things you can do in New Zealand and a top south island points of interest. Day trips via a guided tour bus from Queenstown or Te Anau are available or you can take yourself down there by car.

The actual visit through Milford Sound will include a 3 hour boat ride through the New Zealand Fjords. There are numerous tour operators and multiple tours leaving the dock all day so you can find a time that fits into your itinerary.

Overall, this was a really unique activity and if you can make it this far south a must do in New Zealand.

2. Hang out in Te Anau- Right at the entrance of Fiordland is the town of Te Anau. It has a cute downtown center and plenty of places to hang your hat for a night or two whether in a hostel, one of the lodges overlooking the lake or an AirBnb. Find hotels in Te Anau here.

As for activities, you can kayak on the lake, walk along the trails or spend your day sunbathing. Visit the local i-site center in town for maps of great hikes nearby. It’s a great spot to enjoy the views and spend some time relaxing before your next adventure.

3. Fiordland National Park – If you don’t have the time (or sea legs) for Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park has a lot to offer. Around every bend is a new view or landscape to take in. There are plenty of hikes and places to stop along the way as well as camping and campervan spots to spend the night. Fiordland is magical year round.

4. Visit the Glow worm Caves – Tours leave from the Real Journeys building located at the bottom of town on the waterfront. To begin, you take a short boat journey through Lake Te Anau to the entrance of the Glow Worm caves.

Then your guide will take you through the cave onto a small boat to view the glow worms. You’ll also receive a short presentation on the life of glow worms and learn more about these magnificent creatures before returning by boat to the start of your journey.

I don’t have any pictures of the actual glow worms as you can’t take photos inside the cave, but here is my mom and I right before entering. Other than the sand flies at the beach we had a really good time.

Mom and daughter standing at the entrance to the Glow Worm Caves in Te Anau, New Zealand
My mom and I at the Glow Worm cave entrance

4. West Coast

I was surprised how much I enjoyed the West Coast. I ended up not having as much time to explore as originally intended, but what I did see, I loved! The sheer amount of things to do in New Zealand south island continued to surprise me.

If you are taking a road trip through the South Island you’ll enjoy hitting this on your travels.

Things to do on the West Coast New Zealand

1. Walk around the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes – Located in Punakaiki in the Paparoa National Park the Pancake Rocks and BlowHoles are situated right on the coast and offer a quaint atmosphere.

The pancake rocks are so named because of their shape after being formed over 30 million years ago. They are a really unique geological spectacle withing beautiful new zealand. 

The path is a 1.1km loop and very family friendly. You’ll need a car to get here, but it’s worth the short journey from Greymouth, New Zealand.

And after you visit the rocks you can order some pancakes (what else!) from the nearby café along with a flat white. Or if you are in the need of a new book, grab one from the community book exchange fridge.

2. Visit the Hokitika Gorge – Do you want to see the most clear and vivid turquoise water you’ve ever seen in your life? Then I recommend this stop along your drive through the West Coast. There will be signs along the way and a car park near the entrance. It’s a short walk through native bush to the Gorge itself but the views are worth the visit.

3. Walk along the Tree Tops – Ok so I didn’t actually do this, but I wanted to! The west coast is unlike any other area in New Zealand and for that it offers its own unique activities. One of which being a walkway among the tall trees for a true bird’s eye view. It is located about 30-45 mins south of Greymouth and had I known about it beforehand I definitely would’ve stopped.

4. Stay in a fun AirbnbBe it a treehouse or retro camper turned home this unique area can offer you unique accommodations. I found a cute “glamper” van that the homeowners fixed up and made super comfy. I sadly can’t locate the pictures of it, but after the amount of driving I had done, I was so grateful for a nice comfy bed to get some sleep.

When I’m not house sitting or bouncing between hostels, I frequently check out AirBnb. Most hosts are locals who love meeting fellow travelers, have extra space and sometimes act as guides. It’s also a great way for solo travelers to get some social time. It’s usually a much more affordable option than hotels so if you’re on a budget, check out a local AirBnbs.

5. Tour Monteith’s Brewery–  While NZ may be better known for its coffee beans and wine, beer is not far behind with more and more breweries popping up every year. One of the oldest and most established breweries you’ll find is Monteith’s.

Their history dates back to the mid-1800’s and their beer is still served in almost every bar in the country. The heritage brewing continues today in Greymouth and is open for daily tours.

Find hotels in Kaikoura

5. Kaikoura

Kaikoura was the biggest surprise to me on the South Island. My first time here, I mainly stopped through because it was a convenient place to spend the night between Christchurch and Picton where I was catching the ferry. I wasn’t able to get much information from my Kiwi friends on activities in Kaikoura so was pleasantly surprised!

Kaikoura, New Zealand has a cool, chill coastal town feel with some of the most beautiful scenery in all of NZ (which is saying a lot!). And the bay, in it’s unique location, makes it perfect for all types of sea life adventures almost year around. Making it a desirable top New Zealand places to visit.

Things to do in Kaikoura

1. Kaikoura Whale Watching- This is one of the biggest draws to the area. All visitors hoping to spot a whale, can choose to view whales from the sea or sky. There are multiple companies to choose from offering a variety of options and prices.*

It was recommended to me if I did choose whale watching to do it via helicopter in order to see more of the whale than if on a boat. But if you like being on the sea and are looking for more of a ½ day activity and ability to do some bird watching along the way, then the boat tour might be a better preference. It’s a choose your own adventure activity!

*All tours are weather dependent, and you are not guaranteed to see a whale. I recommend doing some research and reading the refund policy before making a purchase.

2. Swim with Dolphins– Because of my limited time, I chose to forgo whale watching and instead picked the Kaikoura dolphin swim! If you aren’t keen to swim in the ocean, there is also spectator only ticket option.

As with any tour that that is dependent on weather* and animal cooperation it’s always a possibility it won’t work out. And due to weather, my first attempt to swim with dolphins was in fact cancelled. It was my birthday so I was hugely disappointed, but they fully refunded every person for the cancellation.

My second attempt was much more successful! I returned about 4 months later with perfect weather. We ended up finding a pod of about 200 dolphins who were very active. The staff were very knowledgeable and concerned with not only the well being of the human guests, but also of the dolphins.

And if possible (based on weather and dolphin behavior), they allow you two swims with the dolphins! If you have an underwater camera or GoPro this is the time to bring it along. There is also some time at the end for all swimmers to do some spectating so you can take some photos and enjoy these wonderful animals.

Swimming with dolphins was a bucket list item of mine for a really long time and I’m so happy I went back to try again.

*All tours are weather dependent, and you are not guaranteed to see or be able to swim with a dolphin. I recommend reading the refund policy before making a purchase.

3. Visit the Seal Colony- There are a couple of large seal colonies right near the town center. You can either drive or take a long walk to the colony car park, then walk a short distance over the rocks to where the seals bathe in the sun.

There are so many seals hanging around and since it is an observation area they are used to having humans around. They are of course, still wild animals, so you want to keep your distance! But you are able to get fairly close and watch them interact without them caring too much about you.

This area was closed off for a bit after the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, but as of 2018 it was back open. And I loved it so much I even visited the colony twice in my short 24 hours in town.

Honorable Mentions:

Lake Matheson, Fox Glacier  

Another local recommendation that I’m happy I made the effort to get to. Lake Matheson is about 30 minutes driving, south of the main Franz Josef center. The Mirror Lake looped path around Lake Matheson is flat and an easy walk most of the way. It takes about 1 hour to walk the complete loop.

Pro Tip: Get here at sunrise to see a clear and perfect reflection of the mountains in the lake. My picture is from late morning/early afternoon and while still a beautiful reflection, a crisp and clear reflection is possible!

Castle Hill, New Zealand (between Arthur’s Pass and Christchurch)

The Dalai Lama once called Castle Hill the “Spiritual Center of the Universe”. It also has a significant cultural and spiritual history among the native Maori. If you happen to be traveling through Arthur’s Pass, this is a great stop to stretch your legs and walk among the boulders. It’s completely free and there is plenty of area to explore.

Sumner Beach (just outside Christchurch)

If you’re hanging out in nearby Christchurch but looking to ditch the city for a beach atmosphere, then hop on over to Sumner. It’s a short 20 minute journey by bus and a completely different feel from the busyness of Christchurch city. Learn to surf, hike among the hills, build sand castles or have a beer at a seaside cafe. Whatever you’re after, Sumner is the perfect getaway.

Those are my top places to visit in New Zealand South Island. If you have any questions or experiences to share about New Zealand leave a comment below!

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