The number of awesome places to visit on the South Island of New Zealand makes it difficult to list all of them!
It’s nigh on 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 working holiday based in Christchurch, working in the rebuild, I’m slightly biased in my love of the South Island compared to the North Island.
It’s a fantastic destination for backpacking, as everything is easily accessible and the scenery in this beautiful country makes it ideal for road trips!
Places such as Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, Mount Cook and Queenstown are some of the best tourist attractions in New Zealand. You won’t find such a range of locations in many countries never mind on one island!
Narrowing down this list to just 20 is difficult because there are many places to go on the South Island.
However, this post should give you a taster of the best places to visit on New Zealand’s South Island!
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Table of Contents
Best Places to Visit on 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.
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 remains one of the best places to visit on the South Island!
There are plenty of great things to do in Christchurch. 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
As far as I’m concerned:
Milford Sound is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit on 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, which is easily one of the top 10 New Zealand tourist attractions. We visited Milford Sound in the pouring rain and it was still an incredible sight. It’s why it’s one of the New Zealand South Island attractions you have to see!
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 places to go on the South Island. Wet or dry, the views are incredible!
If you want to experience Milford Sound yourself, check out this amazing full-day tour!
Wanaka is a small town nestled next to Lake Wanaka and quite simply one of the highlights of South Island New Zealand!
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! It’s definitely one of the best destinations on the South Island!
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 who loves illusions, mazes and all this stuff it was great fun!
You can also hike nearby Roy’s Peak, which is a challenge but rewards you with some incredible views of the surrounding mountains!
You might also like:
- Places to visit on North Island
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- Places to visit in Queensland
- Places to visit in Northern Territory
Queenstown is the adventure 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 boating, there are loads of activities to do here in the adventure capital of not just New Zealand but the Southern Hemisphere!
I loved visiting here during my New Zealand working holiday because there was always loads to do!
The Remarkables ski area is close by and it’s 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! 3 days in Queenstown is a good amount of time to see everything in this incredible destination!
Queenstown is definitely one place that should be included on your South Island of New Zealand itinerary!
Read more: Queenstown Travel Guide
5. Golden Bay
Golden Bay is one of the best spots on the stunning West Coast of the South Island. The landscape is different from the rest of the island and is more tropical.
There are some of the best beaches in New Zealand here 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.
You can also go hiking in Abel Tasman National Park, which is not too far away. There are also a lot of other 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 a glacier that bears its name and this should definitely be on your list if you are planning on doing a West Coast road trip, as it is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand’s South Island!
The mountain town itself is small with not 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, the vast undulating landscapes are still an incredible sight.
There is also the Fox Glacier further down the road. Franz Josef Glacier is incredible, there’s no other word to describe it.
If you’ve never seen a glacier, I recommend you check out either the Fox Glacier or Franz Josef! Without a doubt, it’s one of the best things to do on the South Island!
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.
However, from the various photos I have seen, it would have been an interesting place to visit. If I was backpacking New Zealand again, this would be one of the first places I’d go to!
The ever-present force of Southernly winds causes trees here to be bent into some strange shapes! There’s no direct access to the point, so you have to walk to get there.
Despite this, it would be great to get to the cliffs and feel like you’re at the end of the world!
Due to its quirkiness, it’s one of the most interesting parts of New Zealand’s South Island you should check out!
Kaikoura is a beautiful little town on the East Coast, north of Christchurch. It was one of my favourite places that I visited on 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 more marine life, head to the Ohau Waterfall walk, where you can see seal pups splashing around!
9. Arthur’s Pass
Where to stay: Mountain House YHA | Best activity: Hike Around 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, the 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 Speight’s Brewery.
Dunedin is also home to Baldwin Street, which is the world’s steepest residential street at a 35% gradient!
It’s 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 and you will almost certainly need your own vehicle to get to them!
The Moeraki Boulders are one of 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, which makes them one of the most unique experiences on the South Island.
Certainly not on a beach! As some of them have begun to deteriorate quite badly, they also offer an opportunity for a great photo.
12. Hanmer Springs
Hanmer Springs is one of the best places to visit on New Zealand’s South Island if you want to go somewhere to relax! As the name suggests, the town has several 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 are 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 on the South Island!
I didn’t really know 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 on 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 go on a West Coast road trip, Nelson is a good place to start. There are some of the best things to do on the South Island nearby, such as Abel Tasman National Park.
It may not be the most famous place on New Zealand’s 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 are 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 see on New Zealand’s South Island.
This 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 offers incredible views of the rising valleys and river valleys!
If you’re looking for one of the quirkier places in New Zealand’s 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!
17. Fiordland National Park
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, up there with Tongariro National Park on New Zealand’s North Island.
As well as Milford Sound, there’s also Doubtful Sound and plenty of amazing walking trails such as the Milford track!
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 have some incredible views! This was one of the places to visit on New Zealand’s South Island I enjoyed the most. Words cannot describe how beautiful it is.
Come rain or shine, it’s a place you have to check out!
18. Mount Cook National Park
The main reason to visit Mount Cook National Park is to see New Zealand’s highest mountain and arguably the most famous attraction in the country.
You can’t miss it due to its size, and the rugged snow capped mountains around it make for an incredible sight.
Climbing New Zealand’s tallest mountain will be what draws many to Mount Cook National Park, but I would only attempt this if you’re an experienced climber.
It’s a serious hike and you will need experience of climbing mountains over 4,000 metres and hiking in the snow to be able to do it safely.
You can still visit Mount Cook village and admire the mountain peaks of the Southern Alps or go for a hike on the numerous trails in the area such as the Hooker Valley track.
19. Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is a stunning blue lake almost perfectly located in the centre of the South Island of New Zealand.
It’s one of the best places to visit on the island due to the beauty of the lake and the surrounding mountains.
If you visit on a clear day, you can see Mount Cook in the distance, which is one of the most stunning on the North and South Island.
Lake Tekapo is part of the Mackenzie Basin, which means you have two other turquoise lakes nearby, Lake Pukaki and Lake Ohau.
New Zealand is renowned for its beauty and a visit here is a must. Whether it’s part of an epic road trip of the South Island or as a standalone visit, Lake Tekapo’s beauty will blow you away!
20. Stewart Island
Stewart Island isn’t technically on the South Island but as it’s the smallest island in New Zealand, I thought I’d include it on this list.
To get to Stewart Island, you’ll need to take a ferry and while the island isn’t the biggest, it’s still an interesting place to visit given it’s right a the very south of New Zealand.
The island is home to rare birds such as the South Island Saddleback, while there are numerous secluded bays for you to explore, with lots of marine life to spot too.
Perhaps the main reason to visit is that the island isn’t as well-visited as the rest of New Zealand and has its own pace of life and beauty.
Where to Stay on New Zealand’s South Island
If you’re wondering where to stay on the South Island, then you’ll be glad to know that there is plenty of accommodation available! Virtually, everywhere you go you’ll be able to find decent-priced places to stay!
Obviously, you’re more likely to find cheap hostels in the South Island outside of the main tourist area. although, you can find cheap places to stay in Queenstown for example, despite it being full of backpackers!
Below are just a few of my recommendations for hostels in the South Island, that I suggest you check out!
|YHA Christchurch||Christchurch||A newly renovated hostel near the centre of Christchurch. Great facilities and spacious rooms!||Book Now|
|Noah’s Ark Backpackers||Greymouth||This is more like a big house than a backpackers! Brilliant facilities and a cosy environment at this hostel in Greymouth.||Book Now|
|YHA Nelson||Nelson||Centrally located hostel close to all the main sights and even has a free sauna!||Book Now|
|Nomads Queenstown||Queenstown||A great hostel in the centre of Queenstown. facilities were good and the staff were very friendly and helpful.||Book Now|
|YHA Wanaka||Wanaka||A nice hostel near the centre of Wanaka. Good facilities and a nice atmosphere about the place too.||Book Now|
|YHA Trip Inn Hostel||Westport||Beautiful hostel in Westport, that is more like a home! The facilities here were great and the downstairs social area is fantastic!||Book Now|
Best Time to Visit New Zealand’s South Island
The best time to visit New Zealand is an important thing to consider when visiting the country. This is because the weather can be very different depending on when you visit!
I would only advise visiting the South Island during the winter months if you want to go skiing or snowboarding. There are a lot of ski fields such as the Remarkables and Coronet Peak on the south Island and they are great if you love skiing.
Otherwise, I would avoid visiting from May to September and visit during the remainder of the year. Summer in the South Island is normally quite hot, although the weather can change in an instant.
Most days you would be looking at temperatures over 20 degrees, although this will decrease the further south you go!
It really depends on what you want to do, but I would advise going to the South Island during the summer!
Narrowing this list down to 20 was extremely difficult, as there are lots of great places on New Zealand’s 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 to 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!
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Tom is a travel addict who first left England to spend a year Down Under. Not satisfied with this, he then went to New Zealand, about as far away from home as he could get. He is now planning his next adventures in Europe and Canada while maintaining this blog. Check out the about me page to learn more!