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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in South Island

New Zealand’s South Island is one of the earth’s best outdoor playgrounds—and what it lacks in human population, the island makes up for in pristine forests, fjords, lakes, beaches, and mountains. Guided tours reach nearly every corner of the island, offering expert instruction, informative commentary, and effortless access to these truly great outdoors. A popular base is Christchurch, the island’s biggest city, full of Anglo-influenced architecture and an array of cultural offerings. Visitors enjoy peaceful punt rides down the Avon River, visits to the verdant Christchurch Botanic Gardens, and gondola rides into the Port Hills. Farther south, the Remarkables preside over Queenstown, known as the global adventure capital thanks to its seemingly unlimited menu of extreme tours and activities. Besides being an arts and dining destination in its own right, the town acts the jumping-off point for adventures at nearby Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, Mount Cook, and Milford Sound. Many visitors arrive ready to tackle one of the South Island’s six Great Walks, or a variety of shorter or longer guided forays into the island’s valleys, mountains, and fjords. Dunedin, proud of its Scottish history and full of bustling student life, boasts the scenic Taieri Gorge Railway, and is a departure point for tours to the Otago Peninsula, which teems with wildlife—including whales, dolphins, and sea lions—pristine beaches, and interesting historic sights.
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Marlborough Sounds
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A series of sunken river valleys at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, the Marlborough Sounds offer a range of sights and adventures—hiking, biking, camping, and wildlife watching, to name but a few. Many travelers pass through Queen Charlotte Sound and the town of Picton on the ferry between the North and South islands.

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Lake Wanaka
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The town of Wanaka is a lakeside escape that drifts by under the radar—nowhere as busy as neighboring Queenstown, but arguably even more scenic. Rung by the mountains of Mt. Aspiring National Park, Wanaka also cradles Lake Wanaka inside of its river valley, where boating, kayaking, and standup paddling are popular summer activities. Imagine casually paddling a kayak beneath the Southern Alps, or parasailing in a canopy of silence while gazing toward hanging glaciers.

Of all the adventures you’ll find on Lake Wanaka, perhaps the quirkiest is a half-day tour to explore Mou Wahou Island. This offshore bird sanctuary is not only known for its wealth and diversity of bird life, but also the fact that it’s small lake, known as Arethusa Pool, is a lake on an island in a lake on an island that’s surrounded by the Pacific. Activities and offshore islands aside, Lake Wanaka is also popular for just swimming, since the shallow areas at the shore of the lake can reach as high as 65°F on the warmest days of summer.

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Lake Wakatipu
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Surrounded by mountains and shrouded in legend, Lake Wakatipu and its crystal waters draw visitors as the longest lake on New Zealand's South Island. A day on Lake Wakatipu is arguably the highlight of any trip to Queenstown and the Otago region.

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Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
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New Zealand took a heavy toll in the fighting of World War I. By most estimates, the young nation lost 5% of its men of military age—a proportion that far outnumbered any of the other nations at war. Despite New Zealand’s heavy losses, the nation still commemorates the event and is proud of its military involvement, and the Omaka Aviation Heritage Center nearly brings the war back to life.

Through the use of historic World War I aircraft and the help of Peter Jackson—who created Hollywood-quality exhibits to show the atrocities of war—the center has become one of the world’s foremost exhibits on early aviation. While strolling the exhibit calledKnights of the Sky, admire the impeccable dioramas that detail the tragedy of war—all of them featuring historic aircraft that served in World War I. There are scenes of pilots being shot down and artifacts belonging to The Red Baron, and by the time you finish wandering the halls of the shockingly real exhibits, you might swear you were actually on the Western Front in the summer of 1918. There’s also a museum with general info on World War I aviation, and even if you aren’t an aficionado of military biplanes or aircraft, the special effects and professional lighting combine to create a museum experience that's impressively entertaining.

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Franz Josef Glacier
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One of New Zealand’s most photographed natural wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Franz Josef Glacier serves up a dazzling landscape of snow-smothered peaks, rocky gorges, and icy waterfalls, feeding into the Waiho River.

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Larnach Castle
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Built in the late-19th century by William Larnach, Larnach Castle is New Zealand’s only castle. It’s been beautifully refurbished and the grounds are carefully tended. The views across the hills and water of the Otago Peninsula are some of the best in the area. A trip to Larnach Castle is a great way to spend a day while visiting Dunedin.

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Taieri Gorge Railway
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Taieri Gorge Railway isn't just a way of getting from Dunedin to Pukerangi. It’s an experience in itself. The train travels through the Central Otago landscape of hills and gorges, pastureland and forests. It follows part of the route of the historic Otago Central Railway, constructed in the late 19th century during Otago’s Gold Rush.

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Dunedin Railway Station
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Made of bluestone with marble floors and stained glass windows, the Dunedin Railway Station is one of Dunedin’s most impressive buildings and purportedly the most photographed in New Zealand. Far more than a railway station, here you can also grab something to eat, visit a sports museum, or photograph the attractive building.

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Milford Sound
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With its soaring cliffs, dramatic glacial valleys, and thundering waterfalls, it’s easy to see why Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most visited sights. This natural wonder is the star attraction of Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and wildlife haven for dolphins, seals, and penguins.

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Westcoast Treetop Walk & Cafe
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Just south of the town of Hokitika, the West Coast Treetop Walk & Café offers a fun natural experience for adults and kids. A steel platform allows visitors to walk through the canopy of native rimu and kamahi trees, 65 feet (20 meters) above the ground. A 131-foot-high (40-meter-high) lookout tower offers views of the forest and the surrounding areas.

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More Things to Do in South Island

The Chasm

The Chasm

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When visiting New Zealand’s Milford Sound, you’d be forgiven for driving straight through from Te Anau and simply just wanting to get there. After all—Milford Sound is one of the world’s most stunningly scenic areas, and it’s hard to bottle the excitable urge to get there as fast as you can. As it turns out, however, the journey to famous Milford Sound is all a part of the experience, and the Milford Road is lined with hikes, viewpoints, and scenic adventures. One of these stops is known as “The Chasm,” where wooden boardwalks weave through the rain forest amidst a canopy of ferns. After only a couple of minutes on the trail, the sound of waterfalls thundering in the distance gradually begins to get louder, until the Cleddau River is powerfully splashing beneath your feet. From the bridge overlooking The Chasm, you’ll notice a series of massive rocks that are riddled with oversized potholes, which have been naturally formed by water swirling in circles within the canyon. Over the course of thousands of years, the swirling water has created these smooth depressions and holes in the rocks, which only add to the impressive nature of this short, but worthwhile hike.

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Tasman Glacier (Haupapa)

Tasman Glacier (Haupapa)

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Carving its way through the Southern Alps, the Tasman Glacier (Haupapa) is the largest glacier in New Zealand and a highlight of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. It’s also stunning—pristine white snow and ice at the glacier’s peak give way to craggy rocks and debris at the bottom, where glacier melt meets the silver waters of Lake Tasman.

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Mirror Lakes

Mirror Lakes

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Though Milford Sound is inarguably one of New Zealand’s most popular attractions, the Road to Milford is as much of a sight as the actual Sound itself. Lined with waterfalls, vistas, and trails, the road to Milford is a weaving journey that’s best when traveled slowly—taking time to enjoy the sights and break up the lengthy drive. One of those sights is Mirror Lakes, where small lakes often bear the reflection of the snowcapped Earl Mountains. It’s only a short walk on a wooden boardwalk to reach the popular lakes, and aside from it being a nice place to stretch and shake out your legs from the sitting, there’s an alpine serenity and sense of calm that accompanies the lakeshore scene. Oftentimes, mornings will have the calmest conditions and the least amount of wind, which reduces the ripples and increases the chance of a classic mountain reflection. This is the perfect spot for landscape photographers to capture the beauty of Milford, and perhaps go home with a shot that captures a different side of the journey.

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TranzAlpine Train

TranzAlpine Train

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The TranzAlpine Train is New Zealand’s most spectacular train journey. It winds its way through the dramatic gorges and alpine forests of the Southern Alps, over staggering viaducts and dizzying mountain passes. From Christchurch on the East Coast to Greymouth on the West Coast, this almost 5-hour trip serves up endless photo opportunities as it runs through the heart of the South Island.

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Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park

Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park

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Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park stretches from Westland to Fiordland on New Zealand's South Island, comprising a 434-square-mile (700-square-kilometer) UNESCO World Heritage Area. Star attractions include Tasman Glacier and the Hooker Valley wilderness—a mecca for climbers, hikers, skiers, and lovers of natural beauty.

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Routeburn Track

Routeburn Track

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The Routeburn Track, with its hidden lakes, dramatic waterfalls, and rugged alpine scenery, has been heralded as one of the world's best hikes in one of the world's best settings. The 20-mile (33-kilometer) trail is fittingly listed as a New Zealand Great Walk; it is truly something special.

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Royal Albatross Centre

Royal Albatross Centre

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The Royal Albatross Centre, within Dunedin city limits on the Otago Peninsula, is an ideal spot for nature viewing. The center is home to the only mainland breeding colony of these large birds in the world. Add a tour of the center to a day trip out to the peninsula—a must-do activity while in Dunedin.

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Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

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Bright turquoise Lake Pukaki is one of the most beautiful—and most photographed—bodies of water in New Zealand. Many travelers make a quick stop by the lake en route to Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, but it’s worth spending a bit more time there to hike, bike, or just savor the views.

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Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

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Christchurch, coined the Garden City, is an Anglophile settlement of well-tended gardens and tree-lined streets. Its crowning jewel is the 52-acre (21-hectare) Christchurch Botanic Gardens, attractively set within Hagley Park alongside the winding Avon River. The gardens are planted with thousands of exotic and indigenous plants and trees including seasonal blooms such as magnolias, azaleas, and 250 varieties of roses.

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The Octagon

The Octagon

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Right in the center of Dunedin city is the Octagon, an 8-sided plaza lined with cafés, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs—and bustling with locals and visitors alike at all times of day. Enjoy a meal or a beer in the sunshine before taking in an exhibition at the Dunedin Art Gallery or heading to the Regent Theatre for a show.

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Baldwin Street

Baldwin Street

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When walking up Dunedin’s Baldwin Street, don’t be ashamed if you need to stop and catch your breath for a while. After all, this short, steep, concrete street is famously known as the steepest street in the world, and thousands of visitors annually make the leg-straining climb to the top. With grades that reach up to 35 percent, the street astoundingly climbs 232 vertical feet over the course of only 0.2 miles. In fact, the street is so remarkably steep, that when it was first constructed in the mid-19th century, concrete was used in lieu of asphalt so that the tar wouldn’t melt and roll towards the bottom on the hottest days of summer.

Thanks to its superlative steepness and fame, Baldwin Street hosts a number of events that take place throughout the year. Each July, thousands of revelers gather at the bottom during the popular Cadbury Chocolate Festival, and thousands of chocolate candies are rolled down the entire length of the hill. In summer, committed runners sprint up the street during the torturous “Baldwin Street Gutbuster,” where endurance is required to run up the street, and balance for running back down.

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Arthur's Pass National Park

Arthur's Pass National Park

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In the heart of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, Arthur’s Pass National Park is a sprawling landscape marked by soaring mountains, lush valleys, and powerful rivers. It offers adventurous visitors of all levels varied hiking tracks, open ski fields, and remarkable natural wonders such as forests, caves, waterfalls, glaciers, and more.

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Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo

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A glacial lake on New Zealand’s South Island, Lake Tekapo is an adventurer’s playground by day—and a stargazer’s heaven at night. On a clear night, southern hemisphere constellations, plus the Milky Way and the southern lights, shine spectacularly in the UNESCO-listed Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve.

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Ulva Island (Te Wharawhara)

Ulva Island (Te Wharawhara)

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This isolated island off the coast of New Zealand is a Mecca for birders thanks a predator-free environment that supports dozens of species of winged creatures that can no longer thrive on the mainland. Visitors will find South Island saddlebacks, yellowhead and Steward Island robins, southern brown kiwis, red-fronted parakeets and even the South Island kaka forest parrot. Travelers can explore the breathtaking landscapes that include unique plant species and beautiful flowers and get an up close look at portions of the island that endangered yellow-eyed penguins use as their breeding grounds. Guided island walking tours are available with expert naturalists who can point out rare birds and unique plants on a stroll through the lush landscapes of Ulva Island (Te Wharawhara).

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