10 Top Destinations in New Zealand’s South Island

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New Zealand's South Island – My Top 10 Things to See & Do

New Zealand's South Island is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the world. With miles of coastline, mountains for as far as you can see and of course the snow-capped Southern Alps, the adventures you could have in this magnificent region are endless.

About New Zealand's Adventure Reputation

If you don’t know New Zealand has very unique liability laws. Now I’m far from a lawyer so I took this verbatim from Wilson Harle website and you can find the full article here.

“With some special exceptions and qualifications, the scheme essentially provides a system of state compensation for people who suffer personal injury by accident irrespective of whether the injury was suffered at work, or on the roads, or at home, and irrespective of whether it was the fault of the injured party, or the fault of any other party. The injured party may not initiate litigation but rather must file a claim with the Accident Compensation Corporation. The scheme provides cover for accidents suffered on a “no fault”, “no blame” basis. If there is cover for personal injury or death under the legislation, no civil claim for compensation may be brought in the courts.

The statutory bar to proceedings means that there is no civil liability in New Zealand for most personal injuries.”

Now, because of these laws New Zealand is the adventure capital of the southern hemisphere. Bungy Jumping, Skiing, Heli-Skiing, Downhill Taboggans, Kite Sailing, Paragliding – what you can do in New Zealand is endless.

A lot of the activities I like to do are based around the fact my knee isn’t what it once was, I can’t ski to save myself (I’m an ocean loving Aussie remember) and I love the outdoors. So while you can do almost any adventure activity you would like in New Zealand, this list is going to be based around what I’ve done and have loved.

The sheer number of stunning locations in the South Island makes it difficult to list them all. Here are my top 10 activities and destinations in the area:

1. Hike the Queen Charlotte Track

One of the most popular routes in the country, it follows the bays of the Marlborough Sound. Designed for all levels of difficulty, the trail meanders through lush coastal forests of ferns and Nikau palm trees and offers great views along Frankton Arm and Lake Waikatipu.

The walk is usually done from Ships Cove to Picton and at 70km is usually split into 3 or 4 days of tramping (which is what New Zealanders call hiking). The absolute best ting about the Queen Charlotte Track is that it is a lodge to lodge walk. That means is does cost a little more but you are staying in a bed with a bathroom and access to wine every night! What’s not to love.

The elevation is also very moderate. Now that’s not to say you can’t do it as a camping hike but the lodges are the go if you are prepared to shell out the $$.

Expect to pay around $800 for an organised Independant walk with accommodation or obviously considerably less if you decide to camp

This 4 day independent one includes

  • Transfers to and from the start and end points.
  • Luggage transfers every day
  • Lunch daily
  • Accommodation every night but you will be responsible for your own breakfast and dinner usually.

If you are lacking in time, you can also do day walks of sections of the track. This website will help with day walking the track.

Ruakaka Bay on the Queen Charlotte Track

2. Visit Christchurch

The best thing about Christchurch is that the city is always changing, which makes it an exciting place to be. The middle of the city is home to both some of the oldest buildings in New Zealand and some of the newest with the most cutting edge design.

The Avon river runs right through the city with many parks and recreational area’s lining the rivers edge. Christchurch also has some amazing waterways. There are also a couple of cycling trips that leave Christchurch and follow the rail trails.

The Otago Rail Trail goes 150 km from Christchurch to Dunedin and is only a grade 1 ride. Anything with rail trail usually means not a hill in sight. The Central Otago trail is longer at 192 km but also looks amazing.

If you are feeling lazy, head out to Hammer Springs for a soak in the thermal pools. Only 45 minutes away is the wine region of Waipara Valley. There are more than 50 wineries in thie region with many being well known for Pinot Noir.

Christchurch city centre with the big sculpture that reminds me of an ice cream cone
Christchurch city centre with the big sculpture that reminds me of an ice cream cone

Accommodation In Christchurch

Christchurch has a wide variety of hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Here are some to suit all budgets.

Jailhouse Accommodation

From $27 AUD per night for a bed in a female dorm room, this backpacker hotel manages to maintain a great rating.

Check Prices

Cathedral Junction Apartments

Great value from only $82 per night, these apartments are central to all the main Christchurch activities. Studio or 1 bed apartments are available.

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The Tack Rooms

$230 AUD (aprox) per night will enable you to stay in this unique beautifuly crafted studios in central Christchurch. It looks so nice!

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3. Aoraki / Mount Cook

Mount Cook is certainly one of the must-see places on New Zealand's South Island. This beauty is New Zealand's tallest mountain with the added distinction of being the location where Sir Edmund Hilary trained for his Everest attempt.

With lots of suspension bridges, forested paths and stunning landscapes you're bound to get some pretty cool photos. Be sure to visit the Mount John Observatory during your stay to admire the clear, starlit skies of the world's largest dark sky reserve.

There are also many walks in this area that offer breath-taking views of the mountain ranges or the amazing Tasman Glacier which at over 27 kilometers in length is a huge slice of ice. More about Mt Cook

Mount Cook New Zealand
Mount Cook New Zealand

4. Hang Out In Queenstown

The stunning resort of Queenstown is an absolute mountain paradise. Dubbed the Adventure Capital of New Zealand, it offers a wide range of activities for thrill-seekers, from bungee jumping and jet boating to hiking, skiing, and snowboarding, pedal boating, quad biking, river surfing, skydiving, and canyon swings, the list goes on and further.

Everything about Queenstown is so spectacular and memorable, and it's easy to see why this is one of the top attractions on New Zealand's South Island. Check out Get Your Guide for heaps of Queenstown tours and things to do.

NB: While Queenstown is amazing it can be quite expensive especially in the inner city. Grab a bus or taxi and head out to one of the suburban supermarkets and you will notice the price difference.

Queenstown New Zealands adventure capital
Queenstown New Zealands adventure capital

5. Visit Wanaka

Wanaka is quite close to Queenstown which makes it an easy day trip. With indescribable views, this beautiful little mountain town on the edge of a stunning blue lake offers everything you could imagine and nothing you can imagine at the same time.

Wanaka is known for its fantastic mountain biking and lots of great hour long to days long hikes that are in the area. Roys Peak is probably the most popular. Lake Wanaka offers scenic views with the mountain peaks reflected on the still water of the lake. The famous Wanaka tree is also worth a visit.

The little village is great for a coffee or for shopping for unique gifts.

The Wanaka Tree
The Wanaka Tree

6. Milford Sound

Milford Sound is a very popular place in the southwest of the South Island of New Zealand. It is arguably the most impressive place on New Zealand's South Island. I loved visiting the area and would come back anytime or recommend it to others.

Home to one of New Zealand's greatest hikes is the Milford Sound Great Walk, which was voted one of the “Most Beautiful Walks in the World”. Known for its tall mountains, rainforests, and waterfalls like Stirling and Bowen Falls that tumble-down steep walls and flow gently over rocky surfaces. The Homer Tunnel will leave you in awe and the sight of the seals and penguins swimming on the rocks and resting in the sun is a dream.

Milbord sound is accessible from Queenstown in a day but it is a big day. Its about 290kms and while Google Maps tells you its about 3 and a half hours drive, you should allow at least an extra hour on top of that. You could hire a rental car for a day but you would have to make sure you take it for a full day as you may get in late.

This is one of the must see places in south island.


A waterfall in Milford Sound, New Zealand
A waterfall in Milford Sound, New Zealand

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.

7. Te Anau

Te Anau is located in the southern region of the South Island of New Zealand and is known as the “Gateway to the Fjords”. Te Anau has spectacular views of Milford Sound with great walking trails, incredible fishing spots, and even glow worm caves. It is home to one of New Zealand's most famous walks, The Kepler Track.

8. Hike Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef is a small town on the South Island of New Zealand at the foot of the famous glacier of the same name. Surrounded by high mountains, a lot of the area around the town is a partial rainforest. The glacier is visible from the centre of town and plenty of hikes allow you to get closer to the glacier.

You can choose to take the simple 5.5km walk up the glacier which is a pretty easy hike. You do have to walk up the riverbed so good shoes are essential. The alternative is a heli tour over the glacier which I can highly recommend. It is expensive but it is totally worth it.


9. Fjord land National Park

This UNESCO World Heritage Site primarily known for its majestic glacier-carved fjord made up of Doubtful and Milford Sounds. Fjordland National Park’s glacier can be viewed by plane, boat, or on foot. The sea kayaking is one of the best ways to explore the fjords.

You can also take a scenic flight over the park for a bird's eye view of the breath-taking beauty. The park is a popular hiking spot with the famous Milford Track which is one of New Zealand's most remarkable tramps. After leaving Te Anau you walk for just over 50km through the majestic Fiordland National Park to Milford Sound, one of the natural wonders of the world. The Milford Track has been a popular hiking trail for over a century.

Keep the camera close at hand – there's a magical scene around every corner and you just can’t stop taking photos. This is an NZ south island must see.

Fjordland National Park in New Zealand's South Island
Fjordland National Park New Zealand

10. Marlborough Sound

The picturesque Marlborough Sounds are a collection of ancient sunken river valleys and are home to a secluded bay, historic sites, and marine reserves that nurture kiwi and other native species. There are several activities to do here, walking or biking across the ridges to take in the views from the Queen Charlotte Track, drive down the French Pass, sail through the sounds, or kayak through the sound hoping for dolphins to swim up to you.

10 Best things to do in New Zealands South Island