Planning a trip to New Zealand? Keep scrolling to find out all the best things to do in New Zealand South Island for your next trip!
This list of the best things to do in New Zealand South Island was co-written by family travel expert Marcie Cheung and may contain affiliate links, which means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
Guest post by Bailey from My Queenstown Diary
New Zealand is home to two beautiful islands just waiting to be explored.
With that said though, if I had to pick a favorite it would be the South Island!
Don’t get me wrong, the North Island is beautiful but when compared to the majestic Southern Alps, deep fjords, alpine lakes, and cute mountain towns of the South Island, it’s an easy choice.
Of course, an island that is beautiful is filled with so many amazing places to visit. In fact, it can actually get overwhelming!
With most travelers on limited time, you need to pick and choose the most beautiful places when planning your itinerary.
So in this blog post, I’ll share the 15 best things to do in New Zealand South Island.
These include the most iconic spots home to some of the most amazing activities in New Zealand!
15 Amazing Places to Visit on South Island New Zealand
Milford Sound is a fjord located deep in Fiordland National Park and one of the top NZ South Island attractions.
It’s the most popular fjord in New Zealand and one of the most breathtaking places to visit in the entire country.
Although called a “sound,” Milford Sound is actually a fjord meaning it was glacier-carved.
Visiting Milford Sound is most commonly done on a day trip from Queenstown or Te Anau, and tours leave from both towns every day of the year.
The most common way to explore Milford Sound is on a scenic cruise through the fjord.
These cruises depart from the Milford Sound ferry terminal and take visitors to secluded bays and waterfalls to view wildlife and learn about the area.
Without a doubt, Milford Sound should be at the top of every South Island bucket list! It’s one of the most famous things to do in New Zealand South Island.
Te Anau is the closest town to Milford Sound and a popular place to stay before joining a tour or taking a day trip there.
I think Te Anau is a must-visit South Island destination that’s often overlooked by travelers.
The town itself sits on the shores of New Zealand’s second-largest lake, Lake Te Anau, and is surrounded by beauty.
On the lake, you can enjoy jet boating tours or even a scenic cruise.
The glow worm caves are one of the best in New Zealand and remain off the beaten path compared to others.
The Kepler Track, on the other hand, is a super popular hiking trail and one of the best hikes on the South Island of New Zealand.
Although the full trail is 60 kilometers long in total, you can day hike parts of the trail from Te Anau in just one day.
It’s definitely one of the best places for hiking New Zealand South Island
Famous for breathtaking hiking trails, beautiful lakes, adventure sports, and an atmosphere that’s hard to beat, Queenstown is an outdoor lover’s paradise.
It’s also the most visited town on the South Island and a place I’ve called home. Of course, that might make me a little biased, but Queenstown is a must-visit town on the South Island.
Some of the best things to do in Queenstown include hiking the Ben Lomond Track, exploring nearby towns such as Arrowtown and Glenorchy, wandering vineyards in the Gibbston Valley, going on a thrilling jet boat ride, and simply just enjoying the most vibrant town in New Zealand.
Seriously, you won’t get bored in Queenstown!
When it comes to choosing how long to stay in Queenstown be sure to give yourself lots of time.
Unlike other towns on the South Island, Queenstown takes a little more time to explore because there’s just so much to see and things to do in the South Island NZ!
Wanaka is often referred to as Queenstown’s little brother. Located only a short drive away via a very scenic road, Wanaka is a mountain town with so much to offer.
The town sits on the shores of Lake Wanaka and the views over the lake are out of this world.
From the top of the grueling hike, you get unmatched views over the Southern Alps and Lake Wanaka, and from the famous viewpoint, Instagrammers get the perfect shot.
Of course, that’s not all there is do in Wanaka, in fact, there’s so much you just have to stay a few nights.
Some of my favorites include visiting the Wanaka Lavender Farm, trying some craft beer at a brewery, taking a trip to the Wanaka Tree, and even enjoying a sunset cruise on the lake.
Visiting Wanaka is one of the top things to do in the South Island of NZ.
Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef is a small town located on the South Island’s stunning and wild, West Coast.
This area is also known as glacier country and nearby you can explore two very famous glaciers.
The first and closest is Franz Josef Glacier. The second is Fox Glacier located a short drive from Franz Josef near the town of, you guessed it, Fox Glacier.
Both glaciers can be viewed for free by hiking each viewpoint trail. Both trails only take around an hour to complete and are suited to most fitness levels.
The other way to visit the glaciers is on a glacier trek that includes a scenic flight to the glaciers. This is the best way to see the glaciers but also the most expensive.
Another really unique and beautiful place to visit nearby is Lake Matheson. This small calm lake is famous for its views and reflections of Mount Cook.
At sunrise, photographers pack the shoreline hoping to snap that famous shot! It’s a must-see in New Zealand’s South Island.
A few hours north of Franz Josef sits another small town that showcases the change in scenery like no other.
As you say goodbye to the mountains on the West Coast, you’ll welcome lush forest, cliff faces and stunning beaches.
The most famous attraction in the town of Punakaiki is Pancake Rocks. It’s also one of the most popular things to do in New Zealand South Island.
This unique rock formation is thousands of years old and via a short boardwalk, you can stare out and enjoy the magnificent views and rocks that appear like pancakes stacked on a plate.
To stretch your legs some more I recommend hiking short but sweet Truman Track.
This 5-minute-long trail takes you to a secluded beach to see Blue penguins and more rock formations. At low tide, you can even explore a cave and spot starfish in the rocks.
It’s definitely one of the coolest places to visit in NZ South Island.
Most people who plan to visit New Zealand’s South Island have never heard of the Catlins. To me, this is such a shame.
It’s one of my favorite things to do on the South Island of New Zealand.
Not only is this beautiful region located on the very south of the South Island only a short drive from Dunedin, but some of the most epic waterfalls I’ve ever seen are located here.
Some of my favorites include Mclean Falls, Koropuku Falls, Purakaunui Falls, and Waipohatu Falls.
Other than waterfalls, there’s also lots of wildlife to see especially in Catlins with Curio Bay being the best spot.
At Curio Bay, you can see seals, blue penguins, dolphins and one of the world’s rarest penguins – the Yellow Crested penguin! Blue penguins are so common here they frequently wander around the holiday park!
On top of that, you can visit Slope Point, the most southern point of the South Island, explore a petrified forest at Curio Bay, and visit the famous Cathedral Caves.
The Catlins is home to so many attractions and road-tripping through the region is one of my favorite things to do in New Zealand!
The Marlborough Sounds is another best place to visit in South Island New Zealand. These huge sounds were carved by ancient rivers and make for a spectacular sight.
Exploring the Marlborough Sounds on a scenic cruise will have you spotting rare birds, dolphins, whales, penguins, and maybe even a kiwi!
Yep, that’s right, many of the islands in the Marlborough Sounds is predator-free and the DOC (Department of Conservation) use them to raise kiwi birds before releasing them back where they were born.
This increases their survival from 5% to over 80%!
For visitors like yourself, it provides a great chance to spot one in the wild!
If you’re looking for an epic adventure in the Marlborough Sounds then consider hiking the Queen Charlotte Track. The trail takes visitors through the sounds over 3 days and has you camping in remote places under the stars.
The closest town to the Marlborough Sounds is Picton which is also where the ferry to the North Island leaves from.
In fact, the ferry actually travels through the Marlborough Sounds on its way to Wellington!
Home to the bluest lake in New Zealand, Lake Tekapo has become a staple on any New Zealand itinerary.
I myself love visiting Lake Tekapo during the famous Lupin season which runs from mid-November until the New Year.
During this time, colorful Lupin flowers line the edge of the lake and thousands of people come to see them.
Buts that’s not all Lake Tekapo is about, in fact, it’s actually located in a dark sky reserve and is one of the best places in New Zealand to see the stars.
There are even stargazing tours that take visitors to the Mt John Observatory to see planets, stars, and more.
Afterward, you can head to Tekapo Springs to relax under the night sky from the comfort of a hot pool.
But don’t let the adventure stop there. You can also, visit the Church of the Good Shepard, do a wilderness tour, go jet boating, and even enjoy a scenic flight in Lake Tekapo!
Mount Cook National Park
Only a short drive from Lake Tekapo is my favorite national park in New Zealand – Mount Cook National Park.
This remote national park is home to some of the best hikes in New Zealand including the Mueller Hut, Hooker Valley Track, Sealy Tarns Trail, and more.
On top of that, there are lots more to do in Mount Cook National Park including capturing beautiful photos, viewing the stars, enjoying a scenic flight, and even visiting the statue of Sir Edmond Hilary – a kiwi who was the first person to summit Mount Everest.
Staying in Mount Cook National Park is the best way to see everything and you can do so in Mount Cook Village.
There are around 6 hotels in the village and in the summertime, they need to be booked well in advance. From there, you’re only minutes from the hiking trails and lakes!
Fiordland National Park
Fiordland National Park, located in the southwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island, is an unmissable spectacle of natural grandeur.
It’s a part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage site, renowned for its majestic fjords, cascading waterfalls, and towering peaks.
The park is home to the world-famous Milford Sound, where Mitre Peak rises dramatically from the dark waters and waterfalls tumble from the cliffs. Experience unforgettable cruises, kayak adventures, or scenic flights offering unparalleled views of this water-carved landscape.
The park also hosts some of New Zealand’s Great Walks, including the Milford, Kepler, and Routeburn tracks, winding through verdant rainforests, alpine vistas, and along serene lakeshores.
With opportunities to spot unique wildlife like dolphins, seals, and penguins, Fiordland is truly a paradise for nature lovers. Its untamed, dramatic wilderness offers visitors an immersive journey into one of the most awe-inspiring corners of the world.
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park, situated at the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island, is a gem of golden beaches, sculptured granite cliffs, and lush native forest.
It’s the smallest national park in the country, but don’t be deceived by its size. It’s brimming with diverse ecosystems and boasts an abundant array of flora and fauna.
Its turquoise waters and sandy coastlines make it a perfect destination for water sports such as kayaking, boating, and swimming.
Hikers will relish the famous Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, offering picturesque views, suspension bridges, and wildlife encounters. You can also explore the park’s marine reserves, rich in marine life like seals and dolphins.
With its temperate climate, Abel Tasman National Park offers a year-round retreat where visitors can experience tranquility and adventure amidst the natural beauty of New Zealand’s coastline and forest.
Queen Charlotte Sound
Nestled in the heart of New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island, Queen Charlotte Sound is a breathtaking blend of crystal clear waters, lush coastal forest, and secluded coves.
Known for its tranquility and stunning beauty, the Sound offers visitors a wide array of experiences. You can explore its serene waters by kayak or sailboat, or traverse the famous Queen Charlotte Track, a 70-kilometer trek that provides panoramic views of the Sounds and its wildlife.
The area is also rich in marine life, including dolphins, seals, and various bird species, making it a haven for wildlife enthusiasts.
Enjoy world-class seafood, notably green-lipped mussels and salmon, from local establishments, and don’t miss the neighboring wine region, Marlborough, renowned for its exceptional Sauvignon Blanc.
A visit to Queen Charlotte Sound offers a delightful immersion in nature and a peaceful retreat from the bustle of daily life.
Mt Aspiring National Park
Mt. Aspiring National Park, located in the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island, is a place of staggering beauty and grandeur.
Dominated by the towering peak of Mt. Aspiring, New Zealand’s second-highest mountain, the park is a dramatic landscape of glacier-clad mountains, wild river valleys, and alpine meadows. It offers a range of outdoor adventures from canyoning and hiking to fishing and jet-boating.
The park is home to a number of popular trekking routes, including the Routeburn and Rob Roy Glacier tracks, where hikers can witness extraordinary vistas, diverse ecosystems, and captivating wildlife.
The park is also recognized as a World Heritage Area, underlining its global importance for natural and cultural heritage.
Mt. Aspiring National Park offers a profound connection with nature, inviting visitors to engage with its beauty, learn about its ecology, and embark on unforgettable adventures in this slice of New Zealand’s wilderness.
Stewart Island, or Rakiura in Maori, is New Zealand’s third largest island, located at the southernmost point of the country. It’s a haven of untouched beauty, featuring rugged coasts, dense forests, and tranquil bays.
Over 85% of the island is set aside as Rakiura National Park, where visitors can enjoy numerous hiking trails, from short walks to the multi-day Rakiura Track.
Stewart Island is also known for its abundant birdlife, including kiwis, albatrosses, and penguins, making it an ornithologist’s paradise. It offers a rare chance to spot the elusive Kiwi in its natural habitat.
Its dark sky sanctuary status also means stargazers might be treated to a mesmerizing view of the Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis.
Stewart Island’s remote tranquility, coupled with its unique fauna and stunning natural vistas, makes it an enticing destination for those seeking an off-the-beaten-path encounter with New Zealand’s wilderness.
South Island New Zealand FAQs
If you drive without stopping, it will take about 2 days. But, where’s the fun in that? Instead, we suggest at least a week so you have time to get out and enjoy some of the top things to do in the South Island New Zealand.
The best time to visit South Island NZ is during their shoulder seasons (March-May and September-October.) That’s the best way to avoid crowds and temperatures aren’t too hot or cold.
Because of the long flight and distance between cities in New Zealand, most people recommend at least 14 days. But, realistically, you’ll probably want closer to 21 days if you’re trying to explore both North Island and South Island.
South Island, New Zealand, is known for its breathtaking landscapes, including the Southern Alps mountain range, fjords of Milford Sound, and lakes such as Lake Wakatipu and Lake Tekapo. It is also home to some of the country’s famous wine regions, adventurous outdoor activities like bungee jumping, skiing, and trekking, as well as unique wildlife.
Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park, located in the southwest of the South Island, is often considered one of the country’s top attractions due to its dramatic landscapes and wildlife. Other top attractions include the Hobbiton Movie Set, Rotorua’s geothermal sites, and Auckland’s Sky Tower.
Yes, New Zealand’s South Island is home to part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Te Wahipounamu, meaning “the place of greenstone” in Māori, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1990.
Visiting New Zealand’s South Island Conclusion
The South Island of New Zealand is a wild place and with the list above you’ll just about explore every landscape that makes this island so unique.
Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time, you might be surprised at how much there is to see and do!
Bailey is a travel writer from Canada who has spent most of her adult life traveling. Her love for travel has taken her all over the world but the one place she couldn’t forget was Queenstown in New Zealand.
After settling there, she started her blog My Queenstown Diary to help visitors enjoy the area and New Zealand in general. Be sure to follow her along if you plan on traveling New Zealand!