New Zealand’s South Island has to be one of the most spectacular places on Earth. For anyone considering a visit, here's my pick of the 10 ‘must-dos’ for your New Zealand South Island Itinerary.
New Zealand is one of my favourite countries in the world.
It’s a special place, loved worldwide for its immense natural beauty and diversity, proud culture, friendly, hospitable people...and sheep.
Don’t forget the sheep.
Seriously though, New Zealand is a traveller’s dream and absolutely perfect for backpacking as a first time traveller. It’s safe, easy to travel around, and packed full of awe inspiring sights and amazing things to do.
The South Island is particularly special in this regard.
But don't forget to check out my article on the best bits of New Zealand's North Island too! Plus, how to travel New Zealand on a budget!
The sheer scale and variety of the place is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else. It’s honestly no exaggeration to say there’s beauty around every corner, from glacial lakes and snow capped mountains, to golden sands and turquoise bays.
Here’s a great little video showcasing some of the highlights:
Be sure to check out this awesome New Zealand travel playlist from Resfeber Travel Blog too, as the perfect musical accompaniment to your NZ trip!
Essential Suggestions for You New Zealand South Island Trip
As you can see, go to South Island and it’s easy to find something amazing to do.
However, having so much opportunity can make it difficult to prioritise, especially if you have limited time available for travelling around.
There are certain sights and activities there that it would be criminal to miss out on.
So, (in no particular order) here’s my attempt to highlight 10 of the top things on New Zealand’s South Island, which I think should be on everyone’s list of things to do there.
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Top 10 Must-Dos in South Island, New Zealand
1) Go to Golden Bay, Takaka and beyond
The northern part of South Island is a real treasure trove of natural beauty and chilled out backpacker vibes.
Head to Takaka, a small town just beyond Takaka Hill (enjoy the long winding road up and the stunning views at the top!). It was one of the most laid back places I visited in New Zealand, which says a lot, as it’s all pretty laid back.
The atmosphere is beautiful here and it provides great access to some of the attractions nearby.
There are also numerous spots to bathe in and/or jump from rocks of some height (whatever your preference!) into the crystal clear waters of Takaka River. Just ask anyone around to point out the best spot to do so. If the temperature’s right, it’s a beautiful way to spend an afternoon.
Not far from Takaka and with the clearest spring water in the world, The Pupu Springs (Te Waikoropupu Springs, in Maori) are well worth a visit. There’s a short walk around them with information boards offering insight into this enchanting little place.
Take a trip to the northern most point, Farewell Spit, where you can take an eco tour, or just enjoy the unique landscape that surrounds you. There are also plenty of walks to do here too, which provide breathtaking views over the Tasman Sea.
Make sure you visit Wharariki Beach while you’re up this way too. It’s a wild, wind-swept, white sand beach where you can see seals frolicking and admire the rock formations out to sea. It’s one of the most impressive beaches I’ve ever been on.
This neck of the woods is famous for its Golden Bay area, which, as the name suggests, is renowned for its stunning golden sand beaches and bays. You’re spoilt for choice, but I can recommend Tata Beach.
To get there from Farewell Spit follow Route 60, heading south past Takaka, and keep going a short way. Enjoy the chilled out cafes, bars and restaurants that line the sand; and be sure to take a kayak (I can recommend Golden Bay Kayaks) to explore the nearby golden sand covered islands.
2) Visit The Abel Tasman National Park For one of the Best New Zealand South Island Walks.
In the same general vicinity as Takaka, in the North of South Island, the Abel Tasman National Park is a real highlight. It’s just stunning: azure waters, golden bays, lush forest; it’s a walker’s paradise.
I’d encourage anyone to spend some time there and to attempt the famous ‘Great Walk’ too.
There are 9 ‘Great Walks’ on New Zealand and one of the most well known is The Abel Tasman Coastal Track. It's undoubtedly one of the best New Zealand South Island walks.
According to the official website, the walk covers 51km and takes between 3-5 days; you can get there by driving 40 minutes North West from Nelson.
It’s reasonably long but it’s a straight forward walk with a beaten path and signs the entire way- I’d say it’s absolutely possible to complete in 2 days. Don’t rush it though; the benefit of spending 3-5 days on the path would be getting to enjoy the scenery and surroundings that bit longer.
It’s worth noting that it isn’t free.
Indeed, free camping is no longer legal (though still possible- just be respectful) in NZ and it’s forbidden to stay anywhere on the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk other than designated huts and campsites, which all cost money!
For up to date costs, make sure you check with Information Centre wherever you’re staying.
If you want to save money or just don’t fancy walking all 51km, you could do a section of it by getting a water taxi from Marahau to a start point further up the coast.
(Check out my ‘atypical’ experience of walking the Abel Tasman!)
3) Visit The West Coast, Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks
One of the greatest drives I’ve ever done was down the wild, West Coast of South Island.
Heading south from the Abel Tasman, once you hit the coast you essentially stay there down almost the entire length of the country. The route bends, winds, climbs and falls all the way, offering tremendous views over this stretch of coastline known for its wind and wild seas.
If you don’t want to drive the entire way in one go, there are multiple towns to explore and spend the night.
Along the way, between Westport and Greymouth, you’ll reach Punakaiki, famous for its ‘Pancake Rocks’. It’s a popular tourist stop so don’t expect to be alone, but it’s well worth a visit regardless.
Pull up and take a break from the drive, then take the short walk around this incredible geological landmark. They’re called the pancake rocks due to the layered striations on the rock itself, formed over millennia and causing the ‘stacked’ appearance, akin to countless piles of pancakes!
The rock formations are impressive in their own right, but this is matched by the cacophony of noise caused by the blowholes that have been formed over time.
As the wind and waves surge into these huge natural caverns and rock vaults, immense bursts of noise and spray create a truly unique atmosphere.
A highly recommended pit stop!
4) Hokitika & Hokitika Gorge
Hokitika actually sits on the West Coast of the South Island, so if you take that route you’re bound to pass through. It’s well worth stopping for at least a night.
Its main attraction is the Hokitika Gorge. The gorge is breathtaking: misty, milky, azure turquoise blue waters run down through its centre with lush forest skirting its sides; the Hokitika Gorge Track is a short stroll that takes you to its epicentre.
The water is freezing cold, but on a hot day it is fun (if a little scary for us acrophobics!) to jump in from the high rocks that skirt the river. I’ll emphasise just how cold the water is, so be a little careful- it will most definitely cool you down!
If you don’t fancy a swim, why not just spend an afternoon enjoying the peace and quiet? Bring a book and a picnic and admire the natural beauty around you. It’s also a popular spot for kayakers.
While in Hokitika, take the opportunity to carve your own piece of Jade stone (aka Greenstone, or Pounamu in Maori)- a stone with special significance in NZ and Maori culture. Bonz n Stonz are well known in the area if you want to give it a go.
5) Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
Further down the West Coast it’s somewhat obligatory to stop off in Franz Josef, which provides easy access to the glacier that shares its name, as well as the nearby Fox glacier too.
Due to climate change, these countless millennia-old glaciers are receding at a dramatic rate and are now a fraction of the size they once were. Every year the walk up to them gets longer as the big melt continues.
They remain miraculous sights to behold, but go there now. It is becoming ever more likely that in years to come there will be nothing left to see.
For now though, this remains a hugely popular tourist destination. And for good reason.
Some people decide to see either the Fox or the Franz Josef glacier, deciding that one is enough for the day. However, both are well worth witnessing. Take the easy hikes up and admire these natural wonders while you still can.
The walks themselves are a spectacle to behold. You feel like you’re in some Lost World- so dramatic are the surroundings. Boulders the size of houses litter the glacial valley, dropped like pebbles as the glacier retreats; waterfalls course down mountains around you.
It’s otherworldly and magnificent.
If you’ve got a spare few hundred dollars on you, you can also take a helicopter to actually walk on and explore the glaciers, which are off limits (for safety reasons) to anyone just taking the walk up. Drink glacial water fresh from the source, and wander through this alien terrain.
While you’re down this way, go to Lake Matheson (aka “The Mirror Lake”) too. It is 5km from Fox glacier and well worth a visit to see the dominant Mount Cook rise before you, gleaming in the sun and reflected with perfect clarity in the lake at your feet.
Lake Matheson is a photographer’s dream and there’s plenty of opportunity for photos, as you take the short walk around the lake.
Read this great piece about how to make the most of your trip to the Franz Josef Glacier from Backpacking Matt for further info.
6) The Fiordland
The fiords of Milford and Doubtful Sound are further down on the South West Coast of South Island.
Do not go to South Island without going to at least one of them! They’re very wet (think 6412mm of annual rainfall), but unspeakably wonderful.
Milford Sound is the easier to access of the two as you can access it by road (Doubtful has no road access and requires a boat to get you there!). There’s limited accommodation and it’s relatively expensive versus other parts of NZ, but absolutely worth it.
The beauty and scale of these places are indescribable. The atmosphere is otherworldly and sublime; you’re dwarfed by gigantic cliffs rising from the water the surrounds you; waterfalls cascade endlessly from all areas; seals frolic and swim nearby.
Take a kayak out and pay for a boat to take you further into the Sounds themselves. It’s not cheap, but being in a kayak provides a unique and peaceful means of exploring; taking the boat allows you to see even more.
The Milford Track is another of the Great Walks in NZ that is in Milford Sound, which stretches 53.5km and takes 4 days to complete. This is a popular walk, so make sure you book up (sometimes months!) in advance to get a space.
Doubtful Sound is meant to be like the Milford, but more remote and less touristy as a result, which supposedly adds to the general atmosphere of sublimity and awe.
Go, go, go!
If you’re after natural beauty and outdoor pursuits, Wanaka is the place for you.
Situated on the banks of glacial Lake Wanaka, it’s just a dreamy location, filled with fun, happy people enjoying life in a picture perfect landscape.
In summer, think swimming in the lake, water sports, hiking up surrounding mountains, diving into crystal clear plunge pools of water, and exploring glaciers; in Winter, when the snows come, think skiing, snowboarding and après-ski.
The atmosphere is chilled out, with cafes, bars and restaurants lining the shore of the lake; Wanaka is a laidback version of Queenstown (see number 8) and another popular tourist spot. However, despite the number of people who flood its streets, Wanaka has managed to keep its charm.
Highlights include climbing Roy’s Peak and visiting the Rob Roy glacier, but there are simply amazing opportunities everywhere. Wanaka is just a special place that demands a visit!
Check out this awesome piece by Wandering Adventuress, a travel blogger living in Wanaka, who explains exactly why Wanaka stole her heart. It’s hard to read without wanting to go!
No trip to the South Island is complete without a visit to Queenstown: the country’s go-to destination for extreme sports and a good night out.
It’s only an hour’s drive South of Wanaka and feels a bit like its big brother. Queenstown has many of the same attributes as Wanaka (mountains, lakes and such like), but a faster pace to it. It’s Wanaka, but on Steroids.
It really is a beautiful place but not necessarily for the faint hearted: it’s a buzzing atmosphere that drives tourists to it in droves.
Accommodation is everywhere but it gets so busy in peak periods that you should book up at least a few days in advance. But, once you’re there, head out and sample what’s on offer.
Enjoy a big night out and meet the thousands of other travellers there; partake in the extreme sporting opportunities, such as the world’s biggest canyon swing (check it out below!). It’ll be an expensive trip, but one that’s sure to make you some memories!
As a final thing to do it Queenstown, try taking the gondola up the mountain to the luge, restaurant and view point that provides amazing views over the town. It's worth the money and is a nice break from the hustle of the town centre.
9) Mount Cook/ Aoraki (in Maori)
Mount Cook is situated in roughly the centre of South Island and is the highest mountain in New Zealand, at 3724m.
It’s another prime example of just how stunning New Zealand is. Approaching on route 80 and skirting the milky bright turquoise shores of Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook rises magnificently before you.
It’s the quintessential snow capped mountain, standing proudly and dominating your attention, commanding respect with its scale and unmoving agelessness.
Mount Cook Village provides a good array of accommodation and is a good starting point for your activities around the mountain.
Things to do here are perhaps typical of a mountainous region: hiking and walking (as well as more serious mountaineering), visiting glaciers and simply admiring your surroundings. There’s also star gazing to do, which is cheaper than the famed options in Lake Tekapo (see number 10), while still fantastic.
Here’s the great New Zealand website, providing all that’s on offer in this awesome place.
10) Star Gaze at Lake Tekapo
The final ‘must do’ on my list of top things to do on South Island, is a visit to Lake Tekapo.
North East from Mount Cook, Tekapo has another of NZ’s remarkable bright turquoise lakes at its centre, which draws crowds from miles around looking for a day of lakeside gallivanting.
You can do water sports and just generally enjoy the relaxed but lively atmosphere. There’s also an old chapel near the Lake, which is worth going to see too.
However, the main attraction in Tekapo is stargazing, where there’s an observatory fit for purpose.
There are a couple of operators (Tekapo Stargazing and Earth & Sky) who run guided star gazing nights (for a price), where you are taught about the night sky before heading out and gazing up into the Milkyway.
The clarity of the night skies here and lack of light pollution make for an unforgettably magical experience.
Don’t forget to visit the springs and hot pools too!
So there you have it, my top ten things to include on your New Zealand South Island itinerary.
It was ridiculously hard to choose this top 10!
Seriously, there are so many things worth seeing and doing on NZ’s South Island that this post could easily have been twice as long. There must be a hundred other ‘must dos’ that I’ve simply not been able to include.
Indeed, I’ll try and put together a ‘Part 2’ in future, but for now, check out these links to other awesome content about South Island’s main attractions:
- The answers to this Quora question about must dos on NZ SI in a motorhome.
- These 11 must do kiwi experiences by newzealand.com.
- This travel guide for New Zealand’s South island including their must-dos.
- This Trip Advisor thread about top attractions and activities on South Island.
- These top suggestions for things to do by mustdonewzealand.co.nz.
For anyone considering a visit, I hope this post helps you establish the plan you need to hit all of South Island’s best bits! If I missed anything out, please let me know in the comments! Do you know of any other must do’s on NZ’s South Island?