A useful travel guide featuring the must-visit places in New Zealand’s South Island for your next trip.
New Zealand’s South Island, Te Waipounamu, is one of the world’s most incredible wild places.
From the adventure capital of Queenstown to the magical waters of Milford Sound, this remote island at the bottom of the Earth offers some of the best outdoor and adventure experiences in the world.
I’ve traveled to the South Island four times and always find myself drawn back to its epic hiking trails, unique adventure towns, and breathtaking natural attractions.
After several trips, I’ve formulated this guide covering only the BEST places to visit in New Zealand’s South Island based on the spots I’ve been to. The result is a comprehensive list covering some must-visit icons, as well as a few hidden gems to help you plan your trip and get inspired for the adventure of a lifetime.
- 1. Queenstown
- 2. Wanaka
- 3. Milford Sound
- 4. Glenorchy
- 5. Te Anau
- 6. Mount Cook National Park
- 7. Hokitika Gorge
- 8. Lake Tekapo
- 9. Lake Pukaki
- 10. Arrowtown
- 11. Doubtful Sound
- 12. The Blue Pools
- 13. Fox Glacier
- 14. Franz Josef Glacier
- 15. Omarama
- 16. Christchurch
- 17. The Catlins
- 18. Arthur’s Pass
- 19. Kaikoura
- 20. Abel Tasman National Park
- 21. Slope Point
- 22. Stewart Island (Rakiura)
- 23. Lake Matheson
- 24. Earnslaw Burn
- 25. Castle Hill
- 26. Clifden
- 27. Tasman Glacier
- 28. Lake Hauroko
- 29. Bob’s Cove
- 30. Lake Alta
- 31. Moke Lake
- 32. Fiordland National Park
- 33. Haast Pass & Mount Aspiring National Park
- 34. Marlborough Sounds
- 35. Lindis Pass
- 36. Lake Wakatipu
- Planning A Trip to the South Island?
- Check Out This Map With All of the saved locations
- Don’t Miss Out on this South Island New Zealand Checklist
- FAQ About Traveling to New Zealand’s South Island
- More South Island Travel & Adventure Inspiration
I'm Olly, a full-time traveler for the past 5 years. I visit every destination I write about & handpick all recommendations.
Queenstown is one of my favorite places in the world. It's the adventure capital of New Zealand and is by far the most exciting and lively place to visit on the South Island.
This town, carved out by glaciers and cradled by the shores of Lake Wakatipu is a launching point for epic adrenaline activities and fun things to do, including bungy jumping, jet boat rides, and epic bus tours to other attractions like Milford Sound.
You'll also find some of the best accommodation options in New Zealand here, making it the perfect place to spend a few days on your South Island itinerary.
Read more: Where to Stay in Queenstown
Wanaka is another small town in the South Island offering a laid-back atmosphere and breathtaking landscapes– a stark contrast to Queenstown's adrenaline rush.
Famous for its "Instagrammable" Wanaka Tree, the town is neatly tucked beneath the Southern Alps reflected in Lake Wanaka, making it one of the most scenic places I've ever visited.
But, if you're up for an adventure, Wanaka is a gateway to several memorable hikes, including the challenging Roy's Peak or the popular Rocky Mountain Summit hike for unique vantage points over both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea.
In the town center, I recommend checking out gems like Big Fig for hearty meals, and the quirky Cinema Paradiso, known for its homemade cookies served at intermission.
The lakeside itself, especially around Waterfall Creek, is perfect for chilling out, offering peaceful walks and picturesque spots to unwind.
3. Milford Sound
Milford Sound, renowned for its towering Mitre Peak and steep, waterfall-flowing cliffs, is an incredible fjord that is perhaps one of the most beautiful places to visit in New Zealand's South Island.
However, while many people focus on the fjord itself, I believe that the journey there is as memorable as the destination itself. It carves through Fiordland National Park along Milford Road, offering glimpses of stunning ancient valleys and epic alpine scenery.
For practical advice on navigating this scenic drive, check out my guide on getting to Milford Sound, where I share essential tips and must-see stops along the way.
Once at Milford Sound, you're greeted with options like boat cruises, which offer up-close views of the fjord's marine life and waterfalls, or an epic helicopter flight for unparalleled views of the remote Southern Alps. Below are my top three recommended tours to Milford Sound worth checking out.
1. Milford Sound by Plane & Boat Top Pick
Take a scenic flight over New Zealand's picturesque Southern Alps. Land in Milford and then embark on a Milford Sound cruise before flying back to Queenstown.
2. Milford Coach & Cruise Tour Best Value
The most popular and best-value day trip to Milford Sound & the Fiordlands from Queenstown by Pure Milford, one of the best tour companies in New Zealand.
3. Milford Luxury Coach & Cruise Luxury
Reach Milford on a full-day trip from Queenstown by luxury coach. See the dramatic Fiordland scenery through the glass roof of the coach, driving past towering waterfalls before embarking on the cruise.
Glenorchy, while once a remote farming town at the end of Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown, has slowly evolved into a must-visit location on the South Island travel route. I always stop here on each visit to New Zealand because it's one of my favorite spots for landscape photography.
Known for its rugged landscapes, chilled-out ambiance, and beautiful foreshore along the Dart River, it's a prime spot for hiking, relaxing, and exploring the raw beauty of the Southern Alps.
In fact, this town serves as the starting point for some of the South Island's most thrilling trails including the popular Routeburn Track. However, if you're chasing more, there are more outdoor activities beyond hiking, with opportunities for mountain biking, horseback riding, and even jet boating on the Dart River.
For film buffs, Glenorchy is also famous for its role in the 'Lord of the Rings' films, so you know there are a few great filming locations to discover.
5. Te Anau
Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park, and is a hub for exploring New Zealand's dramatic fjords like Milford and Doubtful Sound.
Beyond hiking, you can go kayaking and boating on Lake Te Anau, an amazing lake lying beneath the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps.
Tip: Check out the Wapiti Bakery in Te Anau if you're stopping here on the way to Milford Sound. They make some of the best pies I've tried in New Zealand and it's a great pit stop to learn about the history of the South Island Wapiti.
6. Mount Cook National Park
When it comes to amazing alpine and glacial views, Mount Cook National Park is one of the most scenic places in New Zealand, if not the world!
Dominated by the tallest mountain in New Zealand, Aoraki/Mount Cook, the park boasts some epic hikes and trails, including the Hooker Valley Track, which leads to stunning views of Mount Cook and its glaciers. For a more challenging adventure, the trek to Mueller Hut is by far my favorite overnight hike in New Zealand, providing panoramic vistas that are simply unmatched.
Detailed insights and tips on these and other trails can be found in my guide to hikes in Mount Cook.
However, Mount Cook National Park isn't just about hikes. It's a must-visit South Island attraction where you can witness the grandeur of New Zealand's Southern Alps and alpine meadows without stepping outside of the car! I also recommend checking out the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre to learn about mountaineering in New Zealand.
7. Hokitika Gorge
Looking for some of the bluest water you'll find in New Zealand?
Hokitika Gorge is a standout attraction near Hokitika town on New Zealand's rugged West Coast and is known for its amazing turquoise waters.
The gorge is easily accessible, with a walking track leading to two suspension bridges that offer excellent views. It’s a straightforward, short walk, ideal for all ages and fitness levels. The gorge, a highlight of the West Coast, offers an opportunity for stunning photography and a chance to see one of the South Island's natural marvels up close.
8. Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo, known for its remarkable turquoise waters, is a highlight in the Mackenzie Basin. The lake's unique color, created by fine rock flour suspended in the water, is a breathtaking sight, especially under the bright New Zealand sun.
Lake Tekapo is the perfect place to stop on a South Island road trip, since it's conveniently located on State Highway 8 between Queenstown and Christchurch. I first stopped and camped at this foreshore while solo cycling from Christchurch to Queenstown and I'm still in awe today of just how scenic this spot is.
Additionally, the area around Lake Tekapo is renowned for its clear skies, making it an ideal location for stargazing. The Church of the Good Shepard makes for an ideal astrophotography subject. Or, the Mount John Observatory nearby provides an unparalleled view of the night sky!
During the day, the lake's surroundings are perfect for leisurely walks or picnics, with the Southern Alps providing a stunning backdrop. I also had a great time visiting the Tekapo Springs Hot Pools.
9. Lake Pukaki
Heading west from Lake Tekapo you'll arrive at another breathtaking South Island lake; Lake Pukaki.
While there's no dedicated town here like you'll find at Lake Tekapo, the water at Pukaki is bluer and more scenic in my opinion, since with its direct views, offers one of the best places to see Mount Cook in New Zealand.
One of the best ways to experience Lake Pukaki is by driving along its shore. The road offers several spots to pull over and admire the view, making it a highlight on any South Island road trip. If you're traveling in New Zealand in a campervan, then I highly recommend staying at the free Lake Pukaki campground, one of my favorite spots to camp in the world!
Arrowtown is an idyllic little town famous for its historic gold mining history. Located near Queenstown, it makes for a really easy little day trip to slow down the pace and admire the 19th-century buildings. If you're visiting in Autumn (Fall) the vibrant colors of its trees as this time make it one of the best photo spots on the South Island.
Every time I walk through Arrowtown it feels like stepping back in time– especially along Buckingham Street, with its main thoroughfare lined with quaint shops and cafes.
However, there's much more to explore at this South Island attraction. Check out the Arrow River and the gold mining trails, including the Arrowtown Millennium Walkway, or visit the nearby Gibbston Valley, famous for its wineries.
11. Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound, often overshadowed by the more famous Milford Sound, is a hidden gem in the Fiordland National Park.
At three times longer and with a sea surface almost times larger than Milford Sound, this is the deepest of New Zealand's 14 fjords– trust me, it's an absolute marvel!
Reaching Doubtful Sound is an adventure in itself, typically involving a boat ride across Lake Manapouri and a bus journey over Wilmot Pass. This journey, though less straightforward than getting to Milford Sound, adds to the adventure of visiting a place that feels more remote and unspoiled.
Once there, kayaking in Doubtful Sound is an unforgettable experience, offering up-close encounters with its wildlife and waterfalls. Doubtful Sound is also home to an abundance of marine life, including dolphins, seals, and penguins!
From what I've noticed, Doubtful Sound is gaining in popularity quickly, and I recommend visiting this spot before it becomes as crowded as Milford.
12. The Blue Pools
The Blue Pools, located near Wanaka in the Mount Aspiring National Park, are a stunning natural spectacle known for their vivid blue color and crystal-clear waters.
These amazing natural pools make a perfect pit stop to stretch the legs when driving over the Haast Pass from Wanaka to the West Coast. The hike involves an easy and scenic walk through native forests and offers a great place to swim in freezing glacial waters (if you're game!).
Crossing the swing bridge over the Makarora River offers a perfect vantage point to view the pools to get photos like mine below.
13. Fox Glacier
The West Coast of the South Island is famous for its amazing glaciers close to the Tasman Sea. The Fox Glacier, one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, is a must-visit when exploring Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
This mighty river of ice descends from the peaks of the Southern Alps to the temperate rainforest below.
The area around Fox Glacier provides several vantage points and walking trails, allowing visitors to get decently close. However, I've noticed that it is retreating very quickly, even since my first visit in 2018!
These days, the best way to experience Fox Glacier is from a helicopter flight, one of the most epic experiences I've had on the South Island!
14. Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier is another remarkable and accessible ice formation in Westland Tai Poutini National Park along the West Coast.
It's a key highlight in the rugged landscapes of New Zealand's South Island and a spot that you need to visit when traveling along this coast.
The nearby town of Franz Josef is much larger than the one at Fox Glacier. This means it makes for an ideal overnight stop to explore the various adventure activities from guided glacier walks to thrilling helicopter flights with ice landings.
I highly recommend the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk, one of the best places to admire the glacier’s terminal face and the surrounding rainforest.
Omarama, a hidden gem in the South Island of New Zealand is renowned for its clear skies, earning it the nickname "Place of Light" in Māori. Stargazing here offers incredible views of the Milky Way and it's recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association for its amazing conditions (it's part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Reserve).
Additionally, something unique about this South Island destination is that Omarama is world-famous for its gliding. This is thanks to strong thermal winds and stunning landscapes that offer the ideal spot to launch this unique activity. A glider flight provides a breathtaking perspective of the Southern Alps and Mackenzie Basin.
Additionally, you'll find Omarama near the Clay Cliffs, a unique geological formation worth checking out.
To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of Christchurch. That said, it feels wrong to leave it out of the list of places to visit, since it is the capital and a vibrant hub with a rich cultural scene.
Following the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the city has undergone significant revitalization, creating a blend of old and new, and it is quite cool to explore.
Here are some recommendations:
- Botanic Gardens: A serene escape in the heart of the city.
- Canterbury Museum: Discover the region's history and culture.
- Christchurch Art Gallery: Explore contemporary art.
- Banks Peninsula: Visit Akaroa for a French-inspired day trip.
17. The Catlins
The Catlins, a hidden gem on the often-missed East Coast of New Zealand's South Island, is actually full of amazing spots to visit.
With rugged coastlines, dense forests, and pristine beaches, it is an incredibly scenic place full of epic waterfalls.
Nugget Point with its iconic lighthouse is a must-visit here, as well as the unique sea caves at Cathedral Caves during low tide. My favorite places in the Catlins are Purakaunui Falls and McLean Falls nestled in the forest. Additionally, you can see the very rare yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) at Curio Bay during sunset or sunrise as they make their way out and into the sea.
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18. Arthur's Pass
Arthur's Pass, nestled in the heart of the Southern Alps, is a paradise for hikers and all lovers of the outdoors. It's an essential stop on the way up from Christchurch to the West Coast, and I recommend spending at least a night here to explore all of the epic things to do in Arthurs Pass.
You can hike the famous Arthur's Pass tracks like Avalanche Peak or Bealey Spur for panoramic views. Or, explore the subalpine forests below where I always spot kea parrots. The incredible Devil's Punchbowl waterfall hike is also a must-do!
On the way over the pass, dropping down to the West Coast you'll drive over the stunning Otira Viaduct, an engineering marvel, and a good lookout point.
If you're looking to stay in a cozy alpine lodge in New Zealand's South Island, this is a great spot to do it. Here are a few great options to add to your South Island accommodation plan:
1. Arthur's Pass Alpine Motel Motel
The best-reviewed and bang-for-buck motel in the area. These rooms offer kitchen facilities & great views of the valley and surrounding mountains.
2. The Nook Lodge
While I didn't stay here, if you're in a larger group or if you'd prefer an entire apartment, then you can't go wrong with The Nook. This place offers a private bathroom, bedroom, living room, & mountain views.
3. Mountain House Backpacker Lodge
A Great lodge within 1.4 km of Devils Punchbowl Falls & just 600 metres from Arthur's Pass Train Station, this backpacker lodge offers excellent common areas (lounge & kitchen) for socialising with other travelers.
Kaikoura, situated on the northeastern coast of New Zealand's South Island, is a perfect spot to visit if you're driving up to the North on the way to the Picton Ferry.
This scenic coastal town is renowned globally for its amazing marine wildlife, including its famous Kaikoura Seal Colony.
Additionally, this small coastal town offers exceptional opportunities for whale watching, dolphin encounters, and taking scenic walks including the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway.
20. Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park, located at the top of New Zealand's South Island, is a coastal paradise known for its golden beaches, turquoise waters, and lush native forests.
Did you know that it's New Zealand's smallest national park but packs a punch with its beautiful coastal beauty and epic scenic trails?
Whether you're hiking along the Abel Tasman Coast Track, kayaking in pristine bays, or relaxing on secluded beaches, this is definitely a spot you want to visit on your trip to New Zealand's South Island.
21. Slope Point
Okay, to be honest, this place doesn't offer that much to do. However, if you're driving around the South Island, then Slope Point is a cool spot to visit since this tiny outcrop is the southernmost point of New Zealand's mainland. This is the closest you'll likely get to Antarctica without actually going there or Stewart Island!
It's also the finishing point for the famous Te Araroa Track, New Zealand's most famous hike.
22. Stewart Island (Rakiura)
Stewart Island, located just south of Bluff, offers a unique and unspoiled natural experience that is really unique.
It's the third-largest island in the country but has a small population and is an awesome day trip or overnight adventure for travelers looking to get off the beaten path in New Zealand's South Island.
The island is known for its pristine beaches, native birdlife, and rugged wilderness. One of the highlights of Stewart Island is the opportunity to spot the elusive kiwi bird in its natural habitat. In fact, it's one of the best places to see them in New Zealand, since the island has done well to remove predators.
With numerous hiking trails, secluded bays, and a tranquil atmosphere, Stewart Island is a hidden gem and one I personally recommend visiting. Below are three great tours that'll help you plan more things to do on Stewart Island.
23. Lake Matheson
Back along the rugged West Coast, you'll find Lake Matheson, famous for its incredible reflection lakes.
You'll find this lake when cruising by Fox Glacier by taking a short detour of about 5 minutes from the town. If you're a photographer or just a fan of amazing reflection views for sunset, you'll get amazing opportunities to see Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman reflected perfectly against the lake.
The easy walk around the lake takes you through the lush rainforest, and there are viewing platforms strategically placed for the best photo opportunities.
24. Earnslaw Burn
Earnslaw Burn is a true hidden gem in New Zealand and one of my personal favorite overnight hikes.
It's named after the nearby Mount Earnslaw, a majestic peak that towers over the region behind Glenorchy. To reach this remote spot, you'll need to embark on a challenging hike, but the effort is rewarded with breathtaking views of the glacial burn, waterfalls, and glaciers.
25. Castle Hill
Castle Hill, located in New Zealand's Canterbury region on the way to Arthur's Pass is a geological wonder and a paradise for rock climbers.
This unique landscape is known for its massive limestone boulders, which are scattered across the area in a way that looks like an ancient castle ruin. Visiting this spot will allow you to walk through the formations and admire their huge size!
Additionally, what originally drew me to these natural rock formations at Castle Hill is that it's one of the most famous filming locations for Lord of the Rings in New Zealand.
Clifden is a small town you'll probably never find on a list of places for travelers to visit in the South Island. However, I really enjoyed this small town, especially the nearby glowworm cave which is a true hidden gem!
This is a worthwhile stop if you're driving down to the Fiordlands on a South Island road trip.
27. Tasman Glacier
While exploring Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, make sure to visit the Tasman Glacier. This is the longest glacier in New Zealand at over 27 kilometers and truly one of the most beautiful.
I recommend taking the Tasman Glacier walk to the amazing viewpoint along the moraine. Alternatively, you can also walk down to the river or the jetty, where you might be lucky enough to spot a huge iceberg floating in the glacial lagoon.
Unfortunately, the Tasman Glacier is retreating at an alarming rate. I visited this glacier for the first time in 2018 and on my most recent visit in September 2023, it was much, much further back. This is a sad reality but it stresses the importance of conservation. And, if you want to see this glacier in your lifetime, I recommend going now.
28. Lake Hauroko
If you're a regular reader of my blog, then you'll know I love sharing beautiful locations to help you plan a unique trip. One hidden gem you won't want to miss is Lake Hauroko.
This scenic lake in Fiordland National Park is usually only known by boaties and locals. But, it is the deepest lake in New Zealand, reaching depths of over 462 meters (1,516 feet)!
I recommend hiking up to the epic Lake Hauroko viewpoint, especially during sunset like we did for amazing views of the snow-capped mountains and expansive lake below.
29. Bob's Cove
Chasing a chilled-out, local spot near Queenstown? You don't want to miss Bob's Cove. The cove features a serene beach and clear waters that is perfect for swimming and relaxation.
Additionally, there's a walking track that takes you through native bush that leads up to an awesome lookout over the cove and a unique view of Lake Wakatipu.
30. Lake Alta
Lake Alta is a stunning alpine lake nestled in the Remarkables mountain range near Queenstown. You'll find it at the end of a short hike from the Remarkable's Ski Field.
Its crystal-clear waters are a great spot to witness reflections of the surrounding peaks and one of my favorite destinations in the South Island for great travel photos.
Additionally, since the hike isn't that hard, Lake Alta is a fantastic spot for picnics and witnessing the South Island's alpine environment without too much effort. Plus, you'll get amazing views over Shotover and Queenstown on the way!
31. Moke Lake
During my visits to New Zealand, I always opt to rent a campervan. I believe this is the best way to experience the country and provides the most amount of freedom to explore.
Another benefit is that you can truly immerse yourself in New Zealand's amazing wilderness at accessible campsites just like this one.
Moke Lake is an incredible campsite surrounded by mountain peaks and is a great place to go kayaking, hiking, or swimming. The Moke Lake Loop Track is a personal favorite of mine. This is an easy walk around the lake offering great views.
The best part? It's just a short drive from Queenstown!
32. Fiordland National Park
Okay, I've already mentioned quite a few places to visit in the Fiordlands of the South Island. However, the truth is that this national park really does deserve its own mention.
Fiordland National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains some of the most pristine wilderness in New Zealand, complete with dramatic fjords, lush rainforests, and rugged mountain peaks.
It's the largest national park in New Zealand and there are so many great places to go here including:
- Milford Sound: Cruise or kayak on this stunning fiord to see waterfalls and wildlife.
- Doubtful Sound: Explore a less crowded fiord with pristine wilderness.
- Kepler Track: Hike this Great Walk for panoramic views and lush forests.
- Manapouri: Discover the tranquil Lake Manapouri and its scenic beauty.
- Te Anau: Visit the gateway town to Fiordland and explore Te Anau Lake.
- Routeburn Track: Embark on this iconic multi-day trek through alpine landscapes.
- Te Anau Glowworm Caves: Take a guided tour to see enchanting glowworms.
- Milford Road: Drive this scenic route to access Milford Sound and enjoy stunning scenery.
- Lake Manapouri: Enjoy boating and scenic views of this pristine lake.
33. Haast Pass & Mount Aspiring National Park
Driving the road from Wanaka to Haast on the West Coast will allow you to cross the Haast Pass and provide access to one of New Zealand's wildest national parks: Mount Aspiring National Park.
This drive in itself is incredibly stunning. However, I believe it's all about the stops when planning where to visit. Here are my recommendations based on my recent trip:
- Blue Pools: Take a short walk to admire and swim in the crystal-clear Blue Pools.
- Thunder Creek Falls: Stop to see this impressive waterfall along the Haast Highway.
- Fantail Falls: Visit these picturesque falls near Haast Pass.
- Gates of Haast Bridge: Capture scenic views at this iconic bridge.
- Roaring Billy Falls: A short walk takes you to the cascading Roaring Billy Falls.
Travel tip: you arrive in Haast, I recommend checking out the Visitor Centre. This is no regular tourist stop, it's actually a really awesome museum that is completely free!
34. Marlborough Sounds
Marlborough Sounds is located at the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island and is a stunning coastal region worth visiting on your trip to the South Island.
This spot is known for its intricate network of sea-drowned valleys, beautiful secluded bays, and lush native forests that you can explore.
This place is really famous for kayaking and boating, as well as the famous Queen Charlotte Track that you can take on foot or by mountain bike. Additionally, this region is part of the classic New Zealand Wine Trail and is particularly known for its great Sauvignon Blanc wines.
Travel tip: Don't miss the famous Seafood Odyssea cruise through the sound from nearby Picton! This is one of the top-rated tours you'll find online, with an average of 5 stars.
35. Lindis Pass
Lindis Pass is a picturesque mountain pass linking the Mackenzie Basin with Central Otago and is a popular road trip route for those driving from Queenstown to Christchurch.
However, this road is truly more than that. At 971 meters above sea level, the landscape here is a dramatic expanse of tussock-covered hills that makes for a truly raw scene.
There's a pull-over area right near the highest point of the pass, which I always stop at when driving through for great views of the region and to stretch my legs. If you like great views on a road trip, add this one to your South Island NZ travel itinerary!
36. Lake Wakatipu
Lake Wakatipu is one of those places that genuinely takes your breath away. It's over 80 kilometers long, nestled among the Southern Alps of New Zealand's South Island. Famous South Island towns like Glenorchy and Queenstown are nestled on its shores. So, you'll undoubtedly visit this lake if you are planning to travel to different parts of the South Island.
However, this lake is really beautiful, and it deserves its own mention. What's fascinating is its shape, like a lightning bolt, and it's incredibly deep– over 380 meters in some parts.
One of my favorite views along Lake Wakatpu is the drive down to Kingston (usually on the way to Te Anau). There are so many great pull-over areas on this section and they truly offer some of the most spectacular views in the country.
Tip: If you're traveling in a van be sure to check out the FREE campsite Kingston Lake Camp along the road to Kingston from Queenstown. It offers magnificent views over the lake, has access to toilets, and is the perfect place for a relaxing afternoon swim.
Planning A Trip to the South Island?
Still organising your trip to New Zealand? If you prefer independent travel like me, read my guide on how to plan a trip to New Zealand. Alternatively, check out the useful resources below that I use to plan all my trips around the world for the past 5 years of non-stop travel.
Flights: Find & compare flight deals to New Zealand using Skyscanner. Use the "search by month" feature to discover the cheapest day to fly.
Hostels: When it comes to scoring epic deals on hostels and cheap stays your secret weapon is Hostelworld. NZ is a great place for backpackers. Use the “See Who's Going” function to see who's staying in your dorm!
Travel Insurance: HeyMondo is my top recommendation for travel insurance for New Zealand. They've got your back with comprehensive coverage, from unexpected flight hiccups to those "oops" moments. Click the link to get 5% OFF your policy.
Internet & Connectivity: Stay connected as soon as you land in NZ with Airalo's eSIMS. Download their app and grab an eSIM from the comfort of your own home, even before you board the plane. No more frantic searches for local SIM cards when you arrive. They work well on both islands.
To learn more about independent travel to anywhere else in the world, read my ultimate step-by-step guide on how to plan a trip.
Check Out This Map With All of the saved locations
Below I've marked each destination mentioned in this blog post on a map for a quick and easy way to navigate yourself on your trip to the South Island.
Don't Miss Out on this South Island New Zealand Checklist
Be sure to save this checklist below which features all of the best places to visit on the South Island of New Zealand. To make it even easier print this out before your trip and tick them off as you go!
FAQ About Traveling to New Zealand's South Island
The ideal time to visit the South Island is during the summer months, from December to February when the weather is warm. However, this is also a busy period, so the shoulder seasons of March to May and September to November are also great. On the flip side, if you're into skiing or winter sports, June to August is your window. Remember, the weather can be quite variable at all times of the year, so pack for all conditions
In my opinion, the four must-visit places in the South Island are Queenstown for adventure sports, Fiordland National Park, especially Milford Sound for amazing landscapes, the West Coast to see the amazing coastal glaciers, and Mount Cook National Park for truly beautiful alpine views.
Yes, the South Island has a well-connected network of roads, making it ideal for road trips (this is the best way to travel here). Renting a car or a campervan is a popular option and one I recommend. Public transport options, like buses, are available but less frequent in remote areas, so having your own transport is great.
New Zealand's South Island is home to some of the world's most spectacular natural landscapes. It's the place to visit if you love wildlife, glacial valleys, mountains, lakes, star-filled skies, and raw adventure.
The main town is Christchurch in Canterbury. This is the most populous city with over 1.2 million inhabitants. However, far more tourists visit the lake district near Queenstown, which attracts over 2 million tourists annually!
I've visited the South Island four times and spent close to 6 months all up exploring this place and I have yet to even scratch the surface! There are so many great hikes, amazing viewpoints, campsites, and hidden gems that it'd take a lifetime to see it all. That said, a typical South Island itinerary is about 14 days, which is enough to experience the main attractions like Bungy jumping in Queenstown, cruising down Milford Sound, and seeing Aoraki/Mount Cook in person.
After visiting both several times, I would recommend the South Island for those who love nature, wild landscapes, and hiking. The North Island is also beautiful but is more populated and caters to more cultural travel experiences.
More South Island Travel & Adventure Inspiration
I hope that my comprehensive travel guide uncovering all of the best places to visit in South Island New Zealand has been helpful in planning your itinerary.
For further reading and inspiration, check out some of my other New Zealand travel guides below.
- Top Things to Do in Queenstown: Explore Queenstown's top hikes, epic adrenaline activities, and hidden gems.
- South Island's Best Hikes: I hiked over 50 trails in New Zealand. Here's my curated list of the most breathtaking hikes across New Zealand's South Island.
- Arthur's Pass Travel Guide: Dive into the heart of Arthur's Pass with my guide to the best places to visit.
- Best Mount Cook National Park Hikes: A hiking guide to the most scenic trails beneath Mount Cook.
- Best Views of Mount Cook: Discover the top spots to witness New Zealand's Aoraki peak in all its glory.
- Epic Things to do at Milford Sound: Explore 21 unique ideas get get inspired to visit Milford Sound!
- Catlins' Hidden Gems: Uncover the Catlins' best-kept secrets, from waterfalls to wild coastlines.
- How to Get to Milford Sound: My popular guide on the different ways to get to Milford Sound across the South Island.
- Mueller Hut Hike: My personal account of tackling New Zealand's most rewarding hut hike.
- Accommodation Resources: Plan where to stay in Queenstown.