Home to about a quarter of New Zealand’s already teeny population (just over 4 million in total), New Zealand’s South Island boasts some of the world’s purest landscapes. Snow-capped mountains, fjords, and wild coastlines dominate the landscape and feed the soul.
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If you are looking for a bit of adventure and a lot of spectacular landscapes, don’t miss our recommendations for the best things to do in New Zealand, South Island.
Best Things to Do in New Zealand South Island
Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound
Tucked away on the southwest coast, Fiordland National Park offers one of the most iconic landscapes of New Zealand’s South Island. The park is made up of waterfalls, sharp peaks, and ancient rainforests. It’s an absolutely breathtaking area which was crafted by glaciers over 100,000 years ago and which visitors have to see to believe!
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There are lots of ways to see Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is the most accessible and iconic waterway within the park. To experience it, take a boat cruise of Milford Sound or go kayaking. You might even spot a dolphin or seal.
To explore on foot, follow the Milford Track, a multi-day hike that traverses 50+ kilometres of the park.
Located on the East Coast of the South Island, Christchurch is the island’s largest city. It’s colonial heritage and resilience can be felt in the city center where historic buildings and urban regeneration projects come together to form present-day Christchurch.
To pay respect to the people who lost their lives in the devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, visit the 185 Empty White Chairs Monument. Then, explore Quake City to gain further perspective. Christchurch is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand, South Island, for a dose of culture. Visit the Canterbury Museum and the Christchurch Art Gallery. Then on the weekends check out the city’s Farmers Markets or head to the outer city beaches.
Queenstown is often thought of as one of the top South Island destinations. Explore all the Queenstown New Zealand activities in the village and around the lake. Then hit the nearby hiking trails or the slopes at the Remarkables and Coronet Peak. Both ski resorts have long seasons, great facilities, and cater to all abilities.
If you are an adrenaline junkie, asking yourself what to do in South Island New Zealand then look no further than Queenstown. Bungy jumping, hand gliding, and white water rafting are just some of the activities at your fingertips.
The village at Queenstown has big-name and boutique shopping and countless restaurants and cafes to explore, although if you’re one of this people who like to buy online, there are also resources like www.forsale.plus which offer a great variety of products for this. Plus, with its constant flux of tourists and backpackers, looking to blow off some steam, the nightlife in Queenstown is second to none.
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is another one of the best New Zealand South Island attractions. The park is known for its shimmering blue bays, sandy beaches, and green rainforest.
Boat trips are a popular way to see the coastline and learn about the history of the area but if you would rather explore on foot then take the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. It traverses the stunning coastline and weaves its way through native forests. It’s 60 kilometres in length and can be completed in 3-5 days but day-trippers often take it in short sections.
The small town of Wanaka can be equated to Queenstown’s younger, more laid back brother. But it still deserves a spot on your list of places to visit in New Zealand South Island. Wanaka has great skiing, excellent hiking trails, and a town center with shopping and dining options that will appease even the fussiest travelers.
In the winter months, you can experience some of the best ski hills in the Southern Hemisphere. Cardona, Tremble Cone, and Snow Farm are all within close proximity to the town center and have ski trails for every ability.
In the warmer months, hiking is a big draw to the area. There are lots of hiking trails around Wanaka but Roys Peak is one of the most accessible and most rewarding. The views from the top will have you thinking that Wanaka is one of the most beautiful places New Zealand has to offer.
READ NEXT: 5 BEST HIKES IN NEW ZEALAND’S SOUTH ISLAND
Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier
There are thousands of glaciers scattered around the South Island but Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are two of the most impressive. If you are wondering what to see in South Island New Zealand, these glaciers should be on your list, as they can be accessed relatively easily.
You can reach the Fox Glacier viewpoint via a 30-minute walk from the carpark and the Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint can be reached via a 45-minute walk. However, if you want to get on top of the glacier you’ll have to take a tour. By joining a heli-hiking or ice-climbing tour, you’ll be guaranteed a really unique Glacier County experience at these South Island points of interest.
Mount Cook National Park
The rugged scenery within Mount Cook National Park is some of the best in the world – making it a New Zealand South Island must-see. The national park has 40% of the country’s glaciers and is home to the tallest mountain in the nation, which is a sacred place for the Maori people.
Visits to Mount Cook National Park are all about hiking. The Hooker Valley Track, Mueller Lake Viewpoint hike, and Sealy Tarns Track are some of the best. However, for a less strenuous way to see the park consider a scenic flight. Mount Cook National Park is just as beautiful from above.
The fun doesn’t end when night falls. Mount Cook National Park is a Dark Sky Reserve so sky gazing is a popular activity. Visit Mount John Observatory, near Lake Tekapo, to use their telescope and be an astronomer for the day.
The small city of Dunedin feels more like a university town than the second largest of cities in South Island, New Zealand. The people are friendly and the downtown is very walkable with lots of parks and places to eat and drink. It was New Zealand’s “first city” and has some of the world’s rarest wildlife at its doorstep.
Visit Larnach Castle, the only castle in New Zealand, the Dunedin railway station and Olveston Home for a dose of history. Then, visit the quirkiest attraction amongst New Zealand South Island cities – Baldwin Street. Otherwise known as the “steepest street in the world”.
For wildlife, head outside the city limits to the Royal Albatross Center. It is a breeding colony of royal albatross birds whose wingspans can reach an impressive 11 feet! The nearby Orokonui Ecosanctuary is home to tuatara and nearly 20 species of native birds which include the kiwi bird and yellow-eyed penguins.
Wineries in Central Otago
Wine lovers will love Central Otago. The region produces world-class Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay and offers great wine tasting tours. You’ll learn about the winemaking process, get a chance to tour the vineyards and then taste the local varieties.
Many of the region’s vineyards are accompanied by restaurants with great views and food to match. For a chance to wine and dine visit Gibbston Valley Wines. Their cellar door offers tastings and their restaurant prepares beautiful dishes with fresh produce. Otherwise, visit Blackridge Vineyard. It is the world’s southernmost vineyard and was one of the first wineries established in the Central Otago area.
Some of the best places in New Zealand are in the South Island and most travelers can easily explore the region on their own. If you are planning a trip to New Zealand and if you like outdoor adventures – you can’t go wrong with visiting South Island NZ!
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