Top 50 things to do in the South Island

Kepler Track. Image: Miles Holden

Image: Iswanto Arif

Fiordland. Image: Matt Crawford

Mackenzie Country. Image: Julian Apse

Roundhill Ski Area

That Wānaka Tree. Image: Hamish Clark

Franz Josef Glacier. Image: Jackman Chiu

Teeth Mural by Tilt. Image: ChristchurchNZ

Fresh oysters. Image: Miles Holden

Image: Miles Holden

Arrowtown. Image: David Wall

Top 50 things to do in the South Island

Te Waipounamu, New Zealand’s biggest island, is packed with dramatic landscapes, rugged wilderness, and adventure ranging from the sea to the mountains, caves to the skies. You’ll also find towns and cities rocking speciality foods and drinks unlike anything else, like world-famous Sauvignon Blanc and seafood.

See whales in their element at Kaikōura

Seeing a massive whale in the wild is living the dream, and Kaikōura is one of the best places in the world to do it. Whale Watch Kaikōura guarantees you’ll sight these behemoths on its tours. Make it a compulsory stop – seeing these incredible creatures spouting, fluking, or gliding along beneath the surface is an experience you’ll never forget.

Get inverted at the world’s first bungy jump site in Queenstown

It’s the home of bungy jumping, and the very first commercial bungy site at Kawarau Bridge is still going strong. Dip your hands in the water before you spring back up again and know you’re leaping in the footsteps of many great adventurers before you.

Swim with dolphins at Akaroa

We’re claiming the cutest dolphin in the world: Hector’s dolphins are the world’s smallest and rarest, and they like to hang out in the waters in and around Akaroa Harbour, which shows they have good taste. This picturesque little Banks Peninsula town is famous for being New Zealand’s only French settlement, and you can see the dolphins up close on a Black Cat or Akaroa Dolphins Cruise, or even get in the water to join them.

Do a Great Walk

The South Island is home to six of New Zealand’s ten Great Walks, so tick one of these multi-day hiking experiences off your bucket list and treat your eyeballs to some of the most jaw-dropping scenery you’re ever likely to see. Lace up your tramping boots and prepare yourself for the experience of a lifetime on any of Te Waipounamu’s Great Walks: the Abel Tasman Coast Track, Paparoa Track, Heaphy Track, Routeburn Track, Kepler Track, and possibly the most well-known of them all, the Milford Track.

Go cruising in Fiordland

You know when a place is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site that it’s going to be pretty damn majestic, and Fiordland proves that theory ten times over. Kick back on deck and watch some of the world’s most magnificent scenery glide by on a scenic cruise, ranging from single-day outings to multi-day cruises exploring Doubtful Sound, Milford Sound, and all the more isolated fiords.

Go stargazing in Mackenzie Country

Mackenzie District is officially one of the best places on the planet for stargazing, protected from light pollution to preserve the night-time environment. Stare in wonder at the seemingly endless night sky from any dark spot in the International Dark Sky Reserve, or visit the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory to get a closer look at the universe with a Dark Sky Project stargazing experience.

Go skiing

Satisfy your appetite for long, groomed runs, fresh powder, off-piste adventure and everything in between. Some of the best skiing in the country can be found right here, with more than 20 fields spanning from Nelson to Wānaka and Queenstown. Head to a club field for friendly vibes and uncrowded slopes, or take advantage of the amenities and user-friendly lifts at popular commercial fields like Mount Hutt, Cardrona, or Coronet Peak.

Visit Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd

The icy blue waters of Lake Tekapo (Takapō) and the stunning mountain backdrop are one of the South Island’s scenic must-sees, especially from one particular spot near the lake’s shore – the historic stone Church of the Good Shepherd and nearby border collie statue are crying out for you to flex your photographic muscles.

Find the iconic Wānaka tree

This beautiful and ethereal sight is one of the most famous in New Zealand, popular with budding and professional photographers alike. The bowed bough seems to grow right out of the waters of Lake Wānaka, and with the Southern Alps behind, it makes for an incredible vista. Get to it from the Waterfall Creek Track car park.

Walk on Franz Josef or Fox Glacier

There are only three places in the world where you can walk on an actual glacier without some sort of mountaineering experience, and two of them are right here on the West Coast. Take a guided heli hike to get a scenic flight over glaciers and rainforest before heading down to explore the fascinating landscape of blue-white ice.

Visit New Zealand’s only castle

Feel like a true lord or lady of the manor as you explore the grounds and walk the halls of Larnach Castle and Gardens, only 20 minutes from central Dunedin on the Otago Peninsula. The beautiful gardens are recognised as a Garden of International Significance, and you can immerse yourself in the full castle experience inside with an elegant high tea, guided tour, or even staying overnight.

See the sea get blown sky-high at Pancake Rocks

The unique limestone ridges creating the pancake-like stacks of Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks were formed over 30 million years of erosion and water pressure. Take a 20-minute loop walk around the rocks to take in stunning views up and down the coast, and if the tide is right, you’ll get to see the surging sea explode up through rocky blowholes.

Go wine tasting in Marlborough

The home of New Zealand’s most famous wines, many of which have won awards and feature in top restaurants the world over. The largest wine-making region in New Zealand is simply overflowing with beautiful, world-class wineries. Hiring a bike or joining a winery cycle tour is a great way to get from vineyard to vineyard, most of which are conveniently close together. The Golden Mile is a trail that’s done the planning for you, encompassing nine wineries over six kilometres.

Kayak the Marlborough Sounds

From water level, you can see seals, penguins, stingrays and other local wildlife of the Sounds. Explore the secluded corners and hidden beaches at a leisurely paddling pace in a ‘yak. Take a guided tour to ensure you visit all the best spots, or go self-guided if you’re an independent kayak who don’t need no guide.

Hunt down street art in Christchurch

Creative energy and a lot of exposed walls to choose from turned Christchurch into a street art hotspot after the 2011 earthquakes, and the scene has only continued to grow since then. Explore the central city to see the mind-boggling murals that inspired Lonely Planet to name Christchurch as a global street art capital in 2017.

Feast on Bluff Oysters

Famous around the world, the unique Bluff Oyster is a local delicacy that people flock from all over to get their hands on. They’re arguably best eaten fresh and raw, but the Bluff locals know how to put a delicious spin on them no matter how they’re served, whether it’s battered, served Kilpatrick, or in a seafood chowder.

Go white-water rafting in Murchison

This unassuming Tasman town is known as the white-water capital of New Zealand, with incredible rafting action to be had down the mighty Buller Gorge. The fast-flowing rivers of this area make for some of the best rapids and biggest white water you’ll ever experience.

Rest and relax at Hanmer Springs

Ever sat in a hot tub while it snows? Treat yourself to some soul-rejuvenating bliss at this well-known thermal resort, whether it’s in the yummy mineral waters of pools ranging from 34 to 42 degrees, or at the day spa with a massage, facial or body treatment. There are also cold pools and hydroslides to splash about in during the summer months and give the younger ones hours of entertainment.

Walk or bike in the Port Hills

Christchurch’s Port Hills are home to phenomenal walking and biking tracks, as well as some of the best views in the city. Christchurch Adventure Park boasts an awesome network of mountain biking trails, with lessons and gear hire available so all you need is an adventurous spirit. The park is also home to zipline tours and an excellent café with a large heated deck to enjoy the forest views. Godley Head is a popular walking track with stunning ocean views, while the Bridle Path is a steep track climbing over the hill to Lyttelton.

Visit the Moeraki Boulders

These famous and curiously spherical giant boulders are scattered along a beach about 30 minutes’ drive from Oamaru. According to Māori legend, the boulders are gourds, washed ashore after a great voyaging canoe was wrecked upon landfall, while scientists say the boulders are calcite concretions formed 65 million years ago. Pick your favourite version of the story as you wander among the boulders, some of which are up to two metres high.

Check out the world’s steampunk capital in Oamaru

There you are, taking a genteel wander along the historic streets of Oamaru, when you suddenly come face to face with… is it a train? Is it a fire-spitting drill-slash-rocket-ship? Well, actually, it’s steampunk, and don’t stop there because you’re now at the entrance to Steampunk HQ. This crazy futuristic steam train contraption is just the beginning; once you’re done goggling (and trust us, goggles wouldn’t look out of place here), head inside the museum, which celebrates a Victorian genre of sci-fi in which the future is steam-powered. Oamaru has whole-heartedly embraced this sub-culture, and if playing an out-there tune on the Metagalactic Pipe Organ and checking out all manner of contraptions, skeletal sculptures, robotic creatures and transportation worthy of Ghost Rider doesn’t satisfy you, you’ll definitely want to be in Oamaru for the annual Steampunk Festival in June.

Go penguin spotting in Dunedin

How freaking cute are penguins? Very cute. The world’s smallest penguin, AKA, the cutest of all the penguins can be found right here on the Otago Peninsula. The Royal Albatross Centre’s Blue Penguin Viewing Tours are probably one of the best you’ll find anywhere, with a specially designed viewing platform ideally situated at Pilot’s Beach to see the little guys waddling home for the night. You’ve got knowledgeable guides to give you the lowdown on everything penguins, you’ve got an interactive walkway leading down to the viewing platform, and you’ve got a portion of your ticket price going back into the wildlife reserve. Overall, we call that a wing – we mean, win.

Explore Christchurch from the river

The Ōtākaro Avon River presents many opportunities to explore Christchurch. It runs through the heart of Christchurch’s city centre, culturally and historically significant to Māori and long attracting people to its banks for relaxation, gathering, and play. There are several operators offering kayak tours, paddle board tours, punting, and even waka tours, and all provide a unique insight into the history and culture of Christchurch.

Take the TranzAlpine train journey

Settle in for a spectacular five-hour ride through some of the South Island’s most breathtaking scenery. The TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth is widely known as one of the world’s greatest train journeys. Board at the Christchurch Railway Station in Addington and chug past such scenic winners as the Waimakariri River, Arthur’s Pass National Park, Lake Brunner, and the Southern Alps.

Explore the Catlins

The perfect place to really lose yourself in untamed, raw natural beauty. The giant Cathedral Caves are bound to make you feel tiny – each sea-worn passage is approximately 30 metres high and they reach a combined length of 200 metres. Whatever they might say down in Bluff, Slope Point is actually the southernmost point of the South Island, and it’s also the location of the iconic yellow sign showing the distance to the North and South Poles, which you know you want to snap a picture of. One of the most popular spots in the Catlins is the lighthouse at Nugget Point, and Curio Bay’s double-feature of a Jurassic-era fossilised forest and yellow-eyed penguins is a nature showcase you’ll definitely want to include on your programme. The Catlins hogs some of the prettiest waterfalls around, so if you’re into that sort of thing, get yourself and your camera to Koropuku Falls, Purakaunui Falls, and McLean Falls.

Go sea fishing

It’s hard to beat the fishing action in Kaikōura, famous for its abundant marine wildlife and literally named after the resident crayfish. Spend a rewarding half or full day out on a boat with Kaikōura Fishing & Scenic Charters and enjoy Kaikōura’s beautiful backdrop as you learn how to lift crayfish pots before casting out for species like blue and red cod, terakihi and sea perch. Close to Marlborough, D’Urville Island is perfectly positioned next to productive fishing grounds, and in Bluff, you can take advantage of the local expertise on a charter out to Foveaux Strait.

Drive from Wānaka to the West Coast

One of the country’s best scenic drives, this part of State Highway 6 was previously a traditional pathway for Māori travelling west to search for pounamu, and passes such gorgeous sights as Lake Hawea, Lake Wānaka, the Makarora Blue Pools, the gates of Haast, and Thunder Creek Falls.

See the Blue Pools

No filters needed– the colour of the water at this particular spot on the Makarora River has to be seen to be believed. Take an easy walk through native forest, cross the swing bridge and follow the boardwalk to a viewing platform where you can gaze down and photograph these astonishingly clear, vibrantly turquoise pools.

Jet boat the Dart River

Blow away every last cobweb with a thrilling ride up the beautiful Dart River into the heart of Mount Aspiring National Park. Dart River Adventures is the only operator to take you into the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Te Wāhipounamu, and you’ll get to explore the braided rivers and stunning scenery while getting to learn a bit about the history and Māori legends of the area. For the best of both worlds, combine your jet boat adventure with a Funyak tour, so you get to race upstream at wind-whistling speed and float leisurely downstream on inflatable Funyaks.

Swim with dolphins in Kaikōura

Move over Aquaman – you’re going to be the new dolphin whisperer. In Kaikōura, AKA the marine wildlife capital of New Zealand, you can get up close to everyone’s favourite ocean mammal with Dolphin Encounter Kaikōura. Enjoy a scenic boat ride out along the beautiful coastline and choose to watch curious and playful dusky dolphins from the boat, or get in the water and swim among them.

Take a Haast River Safari

The West Coast’s rainforest-draped cliffs, rushing rivers and lush valleys are those rare kind of landscapes that look incredible no matter the weather, so you shouldn’t let a rainy day dampen your enthusiasm for adventure (especially since the West Coast sees rather a lot of rainy days!). Haast River Safari’s jet boats are fully enclosed, so you stay warm and dry while zooming up the Haast Valley, a stunning sight whether shrouded in mist or under clear blue skies.

Feast your eyes on Abel Tasman National Park

Golden sands: check. Sparkling sky-blue water: check. Emerald forests: present and accounted for. Abel Tasman National Park is a visual treat from any angle, and with options to explore on foot or from the water, your options are unlimited. The Abel Tasman Coast Track has earned a spot on New Zealand’s list of Great Walks for its incredible scenery and diverse terrain, and you can choose to take in parts of the trail in bite-sized chunks if you’re not up for the full three- to five-day hike. Take a guided kayak tour or set out independently to discover some gorgeous secluded beaches, sculpted granite headlands and isolated islands.

Fish the South Island’s rivers

Don’t spare the rod – some of the top fishing rivers in the world are right here in the South Island. Gore is known as the Brown Trout Capital of the World, and the Mataura River boasts nearly 150km of accessible fly-fishing waters. In Otago you can challenge your skills on the fast-flowing Clutha River, while Canterbury’s Rakaia River is so well-known for its salmon fishing that the town welcomes visitors with a giant salmon statue.

Admire the Hokitika Gorge

Catch glimpses of bright turquoise water through the forest of rimu and podocarp in the Hokitika Scenic Reserve, and admire the full visual impact of the gorge from the viewing platform. Just a short walk from the car park, this is a hidden gem absolutely worth taking a little detour to see.

See the sights of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

Ever wanted to ski on a glacier? In the heart of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, the Tasman Glacier is here to make your dreams come true. This is home to the two longest ski runs in the country, and you can carve lines down them both with Ski The Tasman, or take a guided heli hike to enjoy a scenic flight before disembarking to explore on foot. On a Glacier Explorers Boat Trip, you’ll cruise through the terminal lake and even get to touch icebergs. Brush up on your knowledge of New Zealand’s great explorer at The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, where you can also watch some awesome helicopter footage of Mount Cook in the digital dome planetarium. As far as walks go, the Hooker Valley Track is a sure-fire hit: three hours of neat paths and stunning views leading you to Lake Tasman and its mighty mountain backdrop.

Go wildlife spotting on Otago Peninsula

Get to see the mighty albatross on land at Taiaroa Head, home to the world’s only mainland breeding colony of these awe-inspiring seafarers. The Otago Peninsula brings the goods when it comes to stunning coastal views and rare native wildlife; nearby Sandfly Bay is home to seals, sea lions and even yellow-eyed penguins – just be sure to keep a safe distance.

Explore Middle-earth

If you’ve been living under a rock, or possibly in a hobbit hole, there’s a chance you could have missed the memo that New Zealand is the real-life Middle-earth, but if you were aware of a couple of little trilogies called The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, you’ll be familiar with the magical locations that featured in the films. You can even see the place where the One Ring was really created at Jens Hansen in Nelson – thankfully a bit more accessible than the fires of Mount Doom – and you can even purchase your own replica of the famous ring. In Canterbury, the sheer-sided Mount Sunday near Ashburton was the set for Edoras, and from the Southern Lakes village of Glenorchy you can discover the Elven realm of Lothlorien. In the Cardrona Valley, take a drive up to the summit of the Crown Range to see spectacular views of Middle-earth itself, including the River Anduin (Waiau River), the Pillars of Argonath (Kawarau Gorge), and Dimrill Dale (Mount Owen and Mount Olympus). The forest on either side of Takaro Road near Te Anau was the location for Fangorn Forest, where cameras were strung from high wires to film the hobbits making their way through the trees. Marlborough’s Pelorus River was the location for the famous barrel scene in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Wet your whistle on the Tasman Great Taste Trail

In the words of Freddie Mercury, get on your bikes and ride to make the most of the Nelson Tasman region’s scenery, attractions, and gastronomic delights. The Tasman Great Taste Trail is an easy grade ride, taking in some spectacular coastal, river and mountain views and stopping off at some of Nelson’s best foodie destinations, from fruit stalls and cafés to craft beer pubs, restaurants, and wineries. The craft brewing scene here is generally considered to be one of the best in the country, so take to two wheels and try some of the local beer and cider for yourself.

See the famous mirror images in Lake Matheson

This is the very definition of picture-perfect: Lake Matheson’s jetty viewpoint is well-known for its superb reflections of Aoraki Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. The organic matter from the surrounding forest gives this glacial lake its dark brown colour, making it a photographer’s dream for those mirror images, especially at dawn and dusk. The walk is an easy, wheelchair-accessible 40-minute round trip, or you can choose to continue on around the Lake Circuit for an hour and a half’s scenic walk.

Ride the Queenstown Trail

Sublime scenery is the order of the day (or up to three days), on this mountain bike trail network linking popular South Island destinations Queenstown, Arrowtown and Gibbston. Professional tour operators offer outings that range from cruisy lakeside rides and winery tours to cross-country mountain biking adventures.

Walk the length of Wharariki Beach

This dramatic, expansive coastline is a stunning highlight of Golden Bay and also (please hold all applause to the end) of the Windows 10 screensaver. Two towering archway islands are the crowning feature of this sweeping, rugged beach, and the backdrop of sculpted cliffs and towering sand dunes is no slouch, either. It’s not safe to swim here, but you can walk the length of the beach (look for seals hanging out in the rock pools) or explore on horseback with Cape Farewell Horse Treks.

Take a scenic drive though Arthur’s Pass

This scenic road climbs to more than 900m and is punctuated with engineering marvels including viaducts, bridges, and waterfalls redirected into chutes. Besides the man-made wonders, the natural vistas on this route are nothing less than spectacular, and we suggest you take a driving buddy so you can take turns gazing open-mouthed at the rolling plains, sweeping valleys, plunging river gorges, lush rainforest and rugged mountains.

See Mars on Earth at the Omarama Clay Cliffs

It’s the freakiest show! These stark natural rock formations were formed by layers of silt and gravel deposited by rivers and lakes more than a million years ago. The tall, sharp pinnacles are separated by narrow ravines and look positively otherworldly, like the outside-the-space-station bit in The Martian. The cliffs are located on private land and there’s an honesty box at the gate to give a $5 donation per car.

Experience autumn in Arrowtown

This little village near Queenstown becomes the belle of the ball in autumn, when the whole town takes on the magical golden glow of an oil painting. The hills turn gold, the trees brighten from green to yellow, orange, and red, and everywhere you walk, leaves crunch underfoot. Plan your Arrowtown visit for between March and May to take in the full splendour of New Zealand’s most picturesque autumn, and maybe even get to attend the famous Arrowtown Autumn Festival, which takes place every April.

Ride the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail

This world-famous cycle trail is a South Island best-of tour: an epic ride showcasing our highest mountains, great lakes and mighty rivers, right down to the stunning coastline. Starting either at the base of Aoraki Mount Cook or in Tekapo, the whole trail takes four to six days to complete, or you can choose to take in a small section in a single day.

Go native bird spotting on Rakiura Stewart Island

Stewart Island is considered one of the best spots in the country to spot kiwi in the wild. It’s home to an incredible variety of native birds, including our elusive national icon. Take a guided tour to maximise your chances, or try your luck at night on the beaches or forest paths. You’ll also be treated to the sounds and, if you’re keen-eyed, sights of tūī, kākā, kākāriki, kererū, korimako and more.

Visit the Orokonui Ecosanctuary

Get up close with some of Aotearoa’s rarest birds and take a guided tour through reclaimed forest. Headquarters for native flora and fauna, conservation and biodiversity, this 307-hectare wildlife sanctuary is a beautiful place for losing yourself in the peaceful surrounds of nature. Both guided tours and self-guided walks are available, and your guides will share stories of Orokonui’s history and conservation efforts as you explore the home of tuatara, Otago skinks, korimako, tūī, kākā, South Island robin, takahē, tītitipounamu and a great variety of native trees and other flora.

Experience Queen Charlotte Sound

A kayaking tour is the ideal way to explore native bush, secluded beaches, and spy wildlife such as stingrays, seals, penguins and dolphins. If you prefer to make your way on foot or by bike, the spectacular Queen Charlotte Track winds 72km into historic bays, through lush forest and alongside panoramic views, a popular trail for both walkers and mountain bikers. It takes between three and five days to hike, and there is also the option to hop aboard a water taxi if you feel like a break.

Bike the Otago Rail Trail

New Zealand’s original Great Ride, this multi-day adventure winds through incredible scenery, with a bit of history behind it. The trail is completely off-road, so your ride is traffic-free, passing through the ever-changing mountainous landscape and always accompanied by Otago’s expansive skies. It extends 150km along a former railway line, and its gentle gradient makes it suitable for riders of all levels.

Stare wide-eyed at Mt Aspiring National Park

This UNESCO World Heritage Area will knock you flat with views of its remote wilderness, high mountains and beautiful river valleys. Take in the majesty from the air with U-Fly Wanaka, where you can even have a go at flying the plane yourself, or tick off the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a glacier landing with Aspiring Helicopters. The park is also the home of the well-known Routeburn Track, a New Zealand Great Walk, and there are several other fantastic hikes to stretch your legs on as well.

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