10 Incredible things to do on the South Island of New Zealand

things to do in new zealand south island

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When you envisage visiting New Zealand you typically picture postcard-perfect scenery, such as lakes backdropped by mountains, lush green fields and towering glaciers.

New Zealand is certainly home to all of these beautiful sights, but it is the South Island of New Zealand where you will find the most spectacular scenery in the entire country.

We’ve put together a list of some of the best things to do on the South Island of New Zealand.  If you can tick most of these off on your trip, you’ll be able to leave confident you’ve seen some of the most beautiful places in the country – if not the entire world.

Explore the Central Otago Wineries

winery stop on new zealand south island itinerary

No trip to New Zealand would be complete without visiting the Central Otago region of New Zealand.  Aside from the countless adventure activities found here, this region is home to some of the world’s most renowned wineries and vineyards.

Some great grape varietals you’ll find here include Rieslings, Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays, however, it is the highly coveted Central Otago Pinot Noir which really shines.

I would recommend taking a few days to stay in this region, which will give you enough time to explore Queenstown, Wanaka and Glenorchy.  Whilst here, you can make your way through a number of the best vineyards.

Many wineries in the South Island of New Zealand offer free tastings when you purchase a bottle or make a donation to a local charity and you can turn up to most unannounced. Check out this list for our favorite Queenstown wineries to help you plan your trip.

Visit the Fiordland National Park

fiordland - best things to do in the south island new zealand

Fiordland National Park is one of New Zealand’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and for good reason!  Once here, no matter where you look you will see beautiful landscapes. Picture fiords weaving between towering mountains and dense native forests.  This is a must-do in the South Island of New Zealand.

Fiordland National Park is huge – at least by New Zealand standards – and is where you will find both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound.  Most travelers choose to rent a car and drive to Te Anau from Queenstown, however, there are options to fly or bus here as well.

Cruise the Milford Sound

 things to do in new zealand south island - milford sound

I’m kind of doubling-up here, but the Milford Sound truly deserves its own spot on this list.  It is a Fiord found in Fiordland National Park, with dense rainforests, waterfalls and mountains – such as the terrifying Mitre Peak.  It truly is a New Zealand South Island must-see.

Despite its popularity with tourists (with over 2,000 visitors per day during the peak season of November – March), it is still largely untouched.  This means there is enough tourist infrastructure for you to easily explore and enjoy the entire experience without the need for long and difficult hikes.

One of our favorite New Zealand South Island attractions is to jump on a boat that will take you through the Milford Sound to some of the most popular spots.  If you have the funds, a scenic flight will be a memory you will keep for the rest of your life. 

Also, don’t forget insect repellant and a raincoat.  

Explore Hokitika Gorge

 things to do south island new zealand - hokitika gorge

If you’ve chosen to tackle the island via road-trip, then you have to stop at the Hokitika Gorge.  This is a scenic gorge located along the drive from Abel Tasman National Park to Franz Josef Glacier.

If you have the time, you can get out on the milky-blue waters in a kayak or follow a walking track.  There is a large walking-bridge that provides the perfect vantage point for taking photos.

Visit Wanaka

visit wanaka - things to do south island new zealand

Wanaka is a small town found in the Central Otago region one-hour from Queenstown.  It is located right on the waterfront of the beautiful Lake Wanaka and is the perfect place to visit for a day-trip or to stay for a night.

Some of the best views of Lake Wanaka are from Rippon Vineyard.  This makes for a great excuse to enjoy a glass of wine, or three, whilst looking out over the lake.  

If you prefer to be active, there are plenty of hikes in the region, ranging from the difficult but epic Roy’s Peak and Isthmus hikes to shorter tracks such as Diamond Lake.  For Skiing, Cardrona, Snow Farm, Soho Basin and Treble Cone are unique ski areas located within a 40-minute drive.

You will also want to stop off for a photo at the infamous “#ThatWanakaTree”.  If you are into photography, head on down for sunrise or you’ll encounter a large crowd of tourists on the beach.

If you have more than a day here, make sure to check out this post on some of the best things to do in Wanaka.

Spend a Few Days in Queenstown

queenstown - new zealand south island tour

Queenstown is our favorite place to visit in New Zealand’s South Island.  It has a bit of everything, from adventure activities for adrenaline junkies to eateries and vineyards on the lake.

Queenstown makes for the perfect spot to set up base whilst you explore the rest of the Central Otago region via day trips.

You can take some time to visit Glenorchy (great for sunrise) and explore the countless walks around the region.  The Skyline Gondola is awesome if you want to get amazing views without hiking for hours (if you do want to hike for hours, Queenstown Hill is also great).  

One of the best things about staying in Queenstown is how easy it is to walk from your accommodation to restaurants, shops and the beautiful Lake Wakatipu.  One night, consider ordering food (you should try the iconic Ferg Burger) then sitting by the lake with a picnic. Don’t forget the wine you purchased earlier!

Have Brunch in Arrowtown

arrowtown itinerary south island new zealand

Arrowtown is a quaint, little town located right next to Queenstown and Lake Hayes.  In the late 19th century, Arrowtown was popular with miners from all around the world who flocked here to mine for gold.  The gold is more-or-less gone now (you’re more than welcome to try panning for it in the river), but the town has remained a popular destination for visitors.

The main strip has a number of cute little shops and cafes, which we would recommend stopping by for brunch.  

It’s also a great idea to drive down to the old police station for a few photos.  It’s a great spot to explore, you get to see inside an old jail and police office.  You can easily access the river from here as well.

Visit Mount Cook

mount cook - touring the south island of new zealand

Mount Cook (Aoraki) is New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3,724 meters.  You probably won’t be up for the hike (unless you’re a professional mountaineer), but it’s well worth stopping by to enjoy the view and take a few pictures.

The Hooker Valley Track is a stunning hike around the Hooker Valley in New Zealand’s South Island, and is a great opportunity to see Mount Cook, some impressive glaciers and the glacial Hooker Lake.  The entire walk takes 3-hours and is suitable for most fitness levels.

If you’re happy to splurge a little, consider a scenic flight around Mount Cook and the surrounding glaciers.  You won’t find a better view from the ground.

Explore Franz Josef, Tasman & Fox Glaciers

franz josef glacier - new zealand south island must see

New Zealand is well-known for some of it’s beautiful and tall glaciers.  Three of the most popular include the Tasman Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.  Some of these glaciers are huge, with the Tasman stretching over 23km.  

Seriously consider taking a guided walking tour to some of these.  With a guide, you will have the opportunity to explore the best spots including ice caves and deep crevasses.  A lot of these spots would be missed by the casual tourist.

If you really want to make the most of your experience, a number of helicopter operators will take you to the top of these glaciers, where you can hike through terrain that can’t be found anywhere else.  It’s well worth it as the glaciers are amongst the best things to see in the South Island of New Zealand.

Abel Tasman National Park

new zealand south island must do - abel tasman national park

Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand’s smallest national park.  It exists thanks to lobbying in 1942 to prevent the logging industry from destroying it.  Which is lucky, as we now have the opportunity to enjoy its beauty.

Located at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, Abel Tasman National Park is known for its golden beaches, towering cliffs, clear water and rocky outcrops.

You will most likely want to get out onto the water, either on kayaks or a boat.  You can explore the islands, bays and beautiful views. If you prefer to hike, there is a myriad of walks for all fitness levels.

In the end, Abel Tasman National Park is a great place to visit and do nothing.  Stay somewhere nice and just relax on one of the stunning beaches.

Thanks to Delilah for sharing all these incredible things to do on New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a long time between visits for me and I can’t wait to return soon. The nature and environment is stunning! 

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