17 awesome places to visit in the South Island
There are many awesome places to visit in the South Island, that listing them all would be almost impossible! The diversity of landscapes that you see travelling around the South Island is one of the reasons for this!
As I spent most of my New Zealand working holiday based in Christchurch, working in the rebuild, I am slightly biased in my love of the South Island. It’s a fantastic destination for backpacking, as everything is easily accessible and the scenery makes it ideal for road trips!
Narrowing down this list to just 17, is difficult because there are many great places to visit in the South Island, but this should give you a taster of what there is to see while travelling in the South Island of New Zealand!
Places to visit in the South Island
Christchurch has had a difficult time of late, with the earthquakes in 2011 reducing the city to rubble. However, progress is being made and the city is slowly rising from the ashes so to speak. I spent 10 months working here on the rebuild in 2014 and when I arrived I couldn’t believe the damage that had been caused, it was incredible.
Despite this, the city is in much better shape now, but the scars are still visible. However, it still remains one of the best places to visit in the South Island! Check out the container mall in the old Cashel Mall site and have a wander around the CBD, to see the contrast between destruction and resurrection!
Read more: Christchurch – The Broken City
2. Milford Sound
Milford Sound is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in the South Island, the drive there alone through Fiordland is amazing. The chances of seeing the Sound on a dry day are slim, as the West Coast of New Zealand receives some of the highest amounts of rainfall anywhere in the world.
However, that doesn’t detract from an amazing experience. We visited in the pouring rain and it was still an incredible sight. Be sure to do a boat tour to see the Sound up close and learn about its formation! For me, Milford Sound is one of the best points of interest in the South Island. Wet or dry, the views are incredible!
Wanaka is a beautiful town nestled next to Lake Wanaka and quite simply one of the most beautiful places I have ever been! A quieter alternative to Queenstown, the view across the lake is simply spectacular and there is a great relaxed vibe to the place, which I loved!
If you come during the winter, you can head to Coronet Peak for some great skiing! Also, don’t leave without checking out the wacky Puzzling World, as someone that loves illusions, mazes and all this stuff it was great fun!
Queenstown is the adrenaline capital of New Zealand and probably the world too. Want to do an activity that will get your heart racing? Chances are you’ll be able to do it in Queenstown. From bungee jumping to jet-riding, there are loads of activities to do here.
The Remarkables ski area is close by and its open during winter. The scenery here is also spectacular and certainly rivals Wanaka. Queenstown is also renowned for its great nightlife and is the perfect place for a backpacker night out, with lots of cheap bars! Queenstown is definitely one of the main points of interest in the South Island for all travellers!
Read more: Ultimate Queenstown Travel Guide
5. Golden Bay
Golden Bay is one of the best spots on the West Coast of the South Island. The landscape is different to the rest of the island and is more tropical. The beaches here are great and it is definitely worth heading to Farewell Spit, the northernmost point of the South Island, to get some great views of the Tasman Sea.
Abel Tasman National Park is not too far away and has a lot of interesting places to explore. Also, check out the closest city, Nelson, while you’re here. It is a charming place that reminded me of some great cities in England like Chester (my hometown!) and York!
6. Franz Josef
Franz Josef is home to the Franz Josef and this should definitely be on your list if you are planning on going to the West Coast, as it is one of the best places to visit in the South Island! The town itself is small with no much to see, but it is a quaint place, and as with anywhere in New Zealand the views are great.
The glacier is the main reason to come here and it is an imposing sight, as it towers above you in the distance. Even in the pouring rain and obscured by grey skies it is still an incredible sight. There is also the Fox Glacier further down the road.
7. Slope Point
Slope Point is the southernmost point of the South Island and is an intriguing place. Unfortunately, this is one place that I didn’t manage to visit, but from the various photos I have seen, it would have been an interesting place to visit.
The ever present force of Southernly winds causes trees here to be bent into some strange shapes! There’s no direct access to Slope Point, so you have to walk to reach there. Despite this, it would be great to get to the cliffs and feel you like you are at the end of the world!
Kaikoura is a beautiful little town on the East Coast, north of Christchurch. It was one of my favourite places that I visited in the South Island! The Seaward Kaikoura Mountains, which are a part of the Southern Alps are clearly visible from the town and provide a spectacular backdrop.
A walk around the peninsula is highly recommended to take in the views and get up close and personal with the numerous seals that line the beach. If you want to see cuter seals, then head to the Ohau Waterfall walk, where you can see seal pups splashing around!
9. Arthur’s Pass
Arthur’s Pass is somewhere you’re going to come across if you plan on doing a road trip in New Zealand. The road cuts through the middle of the South Island, connecting the East and West coasts. As it passes through a mountain range the views are fantastic and it is definitely worth pulling over and soaking it all in.
If you like bridges like me, then you can see the Otira Viaduct which spans an unstable part of the pass. There are also some great hikes to be done in and around the national park.
Dunedin is a city modelled after the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh. In fact, name Dunedin comes from Dùn Èideann, which is the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh! The comparisons with Edinburgh don’t stop there, as the architecture in the city is very similar to that of Edinburgh!
There are lots of interesting sights in Dunedin, such as the beautiful Dunedin Railway station and the Speight’s Brewery. Dunedin is also home to Baldwin Street, which is the world’s steepest residential street at a 35% gradient! Definitely worth a stroll!
11. Moeraki Boulders
The Moeraki Boulders are definitely one of the more unusual places to visit in New Zealand! These circular boulders really do not look like the result of millions of years of erosion! They are located on a beach about an hour or so from Dunedin!
The Moeraki Boulders are on the best places to visit on the South Island, simply because the boulders are so unusual. I can’t recall seeing anything like them anywhere else. Certainly not on a beach! As some of them have begun to deteriorate quite badly, they also offer an opportunity for a great photo. As demonstrated below!
12. Hanmer Springs
Hanmer Springs is one of the best places to visit in the South Island if you want to go somewhere to relax! As the name suggests, the town has a number of hot springs, which are located in a water park. If you fancy a break from somewhere such as Christchurch or Dunedin, this is the place to go!
As with almost everywhere in New Zealand, the scenery in Hanmer Springs is amazing. There’s plenty of hikes that you can do in the area, if you want something a bit more energetic than the springs! Hanmer Springs may only be a small place, but it’s well worth visiting while travelling in the South Island!
I didn’t really now what to expect when I visited Nelson, but I was pleasantly surprised as it’s an interesting and lively city! It’s the oldest city in the South Island and has a thriving cultural scene. Nelson regularly hosts arts and music festivals throughout the year, the Nelson Arts Festival being the most famous!
If you want to explore the top of the West Coast, then Nelson is the place to visit. There’s some of the best things to do in the South Island nearby, such as Abel Tasman National Park. It may not be the most famous place in the South Island, but it’s one of the best to visit!
14. Te Anau
I can safely say that Te Anau is one of the most picturesque places that I have visited. Not just in New Zealand, but the whole world! Te Anau is home to the second largest lake in New Zealand and the views across it are simply spectacular!
Te Anau is the gateway to Fiordland and is the perfect place to base yourself if you’re visiting there. There’s numerous hiking tracks in the area, the most popular of which are the Kepler and Milford tracks. If you like nature and being in and around it, Te Anau is the place for you!
15. Marlborough Sounds
The Marlborough Sounds are without a doubt one of the most beautiful places to visit in the South Island. Which makes it all the more annoying for me, as this is one of the places that I didn’t get around to visiting when I was in New Zealand!
The Sounds are located in the North East of the South Island close to Picton. They are sea-drowned valleys filled with the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Queen Charlotte Sound is perhaps the most popular of the sounds, which offer incredible views of the rising valleys and river valleys!
If you’re looking for one of the quirkier places to visit in the South Island, then you should visit Akaroa! The town used to be a French settlement and their influence is still apparent today! Street names are in French and some places are in French as well!
As well as the French influence, Akaroa also has some incredible scenery! It’s set on a harbour and surrounded by the remnants of an ancient volcano. It’s ideal for kayaking and boat trips, with local wildlife including dolphins! As it’s only 84 km (52 miles) from Christchurch, Akaroa is an ideal place to visit for a weekend away!
The Fiordland National Park is the most uninhabited part of the South Island, but perhaps the most beautiful! Located on the West Coast of the Island, Fiordland is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in all of New Zealand. As well as Milford Sound, there’s also Doubtful Sound and plenty of amazing walking trails!
The name Fiordland comes from the steep peaks and valleys that form much of the landscape. There are many ways to see these landscapes from helicopter rides to boat trips. Whichever one you choose, you will be in some incredible views!
Narrowing this list down to 17 was extremely difficult, as there are lots of great places to visit in the South Island. My advice would be to spend as much time as possible here. The South Island is one of the best places for road trips in New Zealand, which will allow you to see all this great island has to offer!
Have you been travelling in the South Island of New Zealand? Do you agree or disagree with my selections? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!