Things to do on the South Island

Things to do in  South Island

It’s all about the outdoors

Nicknamed “the mainland,” New Zealand’s South Island is the country’s largest island by size but far smaller than the North Island by population. You can arrive by boat to Picton or fly into Christchurch. Towns are few and far between here, but there are a whole lot of geographic marvels squished between: the Southern Alps, lowland glaciers, fjords and sounds, primeval rainforests, dazzling lakes, golden beaches, cliffs, coastlines, and much more. There are seemingly endless things to do in the South Island.

Top 15 attractions in South Island

Lake Wakatipu

Surrounded by mountains and shrouded in legend, the crystal waters of Lake Wakatipu make up the longest lake on New Zealand's South Island. For travelers seeking adventure activities—from fishing to catamaran cruises—a day on Lake Wakatipu is arguably the highlight of any trip to Queenstown and the Otago region.More

Franz Josef Glacier

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 that's ripe for exploration.More

Marlborough Sounds

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.More

Milford Sound

With its soaring cliffs, dramatic glacial valleys, and thundering waterfalls, it's easy to see why the famous 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 that provides a haven for dolphins, seals, and penguins.More

Lake Tekapo

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.More

Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka is one of New Zealand’s largest lakes, surrounded by the mountains of Mt. Aspiring National Park. On the lake's southern shore, the town of Wanaka is a relaxed spot that offers easy access to lake-based activities: in summer, paddleboarding, kayaking, boating, and swimming are popular; in winter, skiing is available nearby. More

Routeburn Track

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.More

Lake Pukaki

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.More

Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, just outside Blenheim, tells the story of New Zealand’s involvement in World War I and II through vintage aircraft. Two permanent exhibits—Knights of the Sky and Dangerous Skies—present aircraft alongside rare memorabilia, recreate battle scenes, and tell the story of the pilots who flew these impressive aircraft in each of the early-20th century wars.More

Larnach Castle

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.More

Kawarau Suspension Bridge

Rising 141 feet (42 meters) above the turquoise waters of dramatic Kawarau Gorge, no attraction is more iconic to Queenstown than the historic Kawarau Suspension Bridge. Most thrill-seekers know that the bridge is the site of the world's first commercial bungee jump. It’s still possible to leap from a platform suspended from the bridge where it all began.More

Kawarau River

Not far from Queenstown, Kawarau River offers a variety of thrill-seeking possibilities including jet boating, whitewater rafting, and riverboarding. Alternatively, visitors can go off-road into the surrounding hills during an all-terrain quad bike tour or try bungee jumping from the Kawarau Suspension Bridge. There’s something for history buffs too, who come to check out the gold-miners’ huts and relics from the river’s gold-rush days.More

Fiordland National Park

Sprawling along New Zealand’s southwest coast, Fiordland National Park represents the country at its most photogenic: jagged mountains, rugged glacial valleys, and glittering fjords. This UNESCO World Heritage Site harbors some of New Zealand’s most impressive natural wonders, including Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Lake Te Anau, as well as rare Fiordland penguins, dolphins, seals, and sea lions.More

TranzAlpine Train

The TranzAlpine Train is New Zealand’s most spectacular train journey, one which 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.More

Central Otago

From Naseby and Ranfurly in the east to Cromwell and Arrowtown in the west, Central Otago is a sprawling alpine landscape known for winemaking and natural beauty. Spanning more than 3,800 miles (9,900 square kilometers) but with only 18,000 residents, this isolated, historical part of New Zealand is a great escape from the urban jungle.More

Top activities in South Island

Premium Milford Sound Small Group Tour from Queenstown
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TSS Earnslaw and BBQ Buffet Lunch in Queenstown
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Franz Josef Heli Hiking Guided Tour
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TranzAlpine Train, Arthur's Pass and Castle Hill Day Trip
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Te Anau Glow Worm Caves Tour

Te Anau Glow Worm Caves Tour

Pilot's Choice - 2 Glaciers with Snow Landing - 35mins
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45-Minute Mount Cook Ski Plane and Helicopter Combo Tour
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Heli Hike Fox Glacier

Heli Hike Fox Glacier

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All about South Island

When to visit

The South Island is a year-round destination, with warm, dry summers and cold winters with snow in certain places. Summer (December–February) is a good time to come for beaches, hiking, mountain biking, and kayaking. The Christmas, New Year, and school holiday period in January can be busy. The ski resorts in the Southern Alps typically operate from June through September.

Getting around

Public transport is limited in the South Island and can only be relied upon within the cities and to link several major cities. A few scenic long-distance train routes traverse the east coast side and connect Christchurch with the West Coast region. Most travelers find it easier to rent a car to travel around the South Island, especially as many attractions are in rural areas.

Traveler tips

Despite being home to New Zealand’s second-largest city, Christchurch, the South Island is predominantly rural and sparsely inhabited. Major roads tend to circle the perimeter of the island as the mountain chain in the middle, the Southern Alps, makes it challenging to get from west to east. Plan any road trips through the South Island carefully to avoid backtracking, as some places that look close on the map can take days to travel between.

Local Currency
New Zealand Dollar (NZ$)
Time Zone
NZST (UTC +12)
Country Code

People Also Ask

What is South Island, New Zealand, known for?

The South Island of New Zealand is known for its Southern Alps mountains, numerous national parks (including popular Fiordland and Abel Tasman), Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, the cities of Christchurch and Dunedin, and more. It’s also known as the filming location of scenes from The Lord of the Rings.

What should I not miss on the South Island of New Zealand?

Don’t miss visiting one or more of the South Island’s national parks. These run the length of the island, from Abel Tasman in the north to Fiordland in the south. Whether you want to hike or take a sightseeing cruise, the South Island’s national parks offer something for every interest.

Which activities can visitors try out on the South Island?

Visitors to the South Island can go hiking, kayaking, jet boating, white-water rafting, canyoning, mountain biking, parasailing, skiing, bungee jumping, skydiving, and more. Queenstown is known as New Zealand’s adventure capital and is a convenient one-stop adventure destination, but many activities can be tried elsewhere on the South Island.

How many days do you need to see the South Island?

You could see several of the South Island’s highlights in seven days, but a more leisurely 10–14 days is preferable. The Southern Alps run through the length of the South Island, meaning roads across the island are limited and often slow. Getting around may take longer than you anticipate.

What are the 5 cities in the South Island?

The five main cities on the South Island are Christchurch, Dunedin, Nelson, Invercargill, and Blenheim. Queenstown is also famous, but it’s small and not really a city. The South Island contains around 25 percent of New Zealand’s total population, so the South Island cities and towns are generally small.

What is the best time to go to the South Island of New Zealand?

Spring, summer, and fall are the best times to visit the South Island for most outdoor and sightseeing activities, while winter is the best time to ski. There are good reasons to visit at any time of year, depending on your preferred sights and activities.

Frequently Asked Questions
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