Free Activities, Attractions, Sights and Tours on the South Island
We get it; we can’t all afford a heli-hike and bungy jump every day of our South Island getaway. Luckily, there are hundreds of free things to do on the South Island; admittedly, most of them are walks. However, we’ve compiled a variety of activities for the South Island that won’t cost you a dime, from winery visits to wildlife encounters. You’re sure to find something to suit your travel style on the South Island of New Zealand.
By the way, you might also like the 10 Unique & Unusual Things to Do on the South Island.
1. Venture to the Bottom of the South to Bluff
To complement our 31 Best Free Things to Do on the North Island where we suggest visiting the top of the North Island, we’ll start off this list by recommending a visit to the bottom of the South. Either find the matching city signpost to the one in Cape Reinga on Stirling Point in Bluff or head to the geographical southernmost point of the South Island at Slope Point in The Catlins!
Location: Bluff or The Catlins, Southland. See more free stuff to do here in the 5 Best Things to Do in Bluff.
2. Marvel at the Clear Pools of Te Waikoropupū Springs
Te Waikoropupū Springs is the largest freshwater spring in New Zealand, which is easy to view from a short walk.
Location: Takaka, Nelson Tasman. For more Takaka attractions, see the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Takaka.
3. Visit a Seal Colony
Seeing these adorable marine mammals is a common occurrence on the South Island. For instance, check out seal colonies from the Cape Foulwind Walkway in Westport or the Point Kean car park in Kaikoura.
Location: See locations all over the South Island in the 14 Best Places to See Seals in New Zealand.
4. Explore Giant Arches and Caves at the Oparara Basin
A real hidden gem, the Oparara Basin in the Kahurangi National Park has a myriad of short walks to caves, lush forest and various arches including one that’s 200m (656ft) long! Plan your visit using the 7 Amazing Oparara Basin Walks.
Location: Karamea, West Coast. For more free activities nearby, see the 7 Best Things to Do in Karamea.
5. Cross the Swingbridge Over Hokitika Gorge
A short walk brings you to this beautiful river gorge on the West Coast. Cross the Hokitika Gorge swingbridge over a milky-blue river. Learn more about the walk in the 23 Best Walks in Hokitika.
Location: Hokitika, West Coast. See more free photo spots like this in the 10 Picture Perfect Bridges in New Zealand.
6. Get a Photo of McLean Falls in The Catlins
You can always rely on waterfalls on the South Island as a free thing to see. Arguably, some of the most beautiful can be found in The Catlins. McLean Falls is a rewarding waterfall to visit with its climbable terraces, while the nearby Purakaunui Falls is super photogenic.
Location: The Catlins, Southland. For more free waterfalls to visit, check out the 12 Most Wonderful Waterfalls in New Zealand.
7. See the South Island’s Giant Sculptures
The South Island has a few towns that are “world-famous in New Zealand” and have a giant sculpture to prove it. For instance, see the giant trout in the “Brown Trout Fishing Capital” of Gore or the giant surfer in the “Surfing Capital” of Colac Bay.
Location: Check out many of New Zealand’s free sculpture locations in the 21 BIG Things in New Zealand.
8. Visit Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach
Get well and truly off the beaten track to the sandy shores of Golden Bay. Not only can you visit Farewell Spit, which is New Zealand’s longest sandspit and one of the most protected places in the country, but nearby is Wharariki Beach looking out to the photo-worthy Archway Islands.
Location: Golden Bay, Nelson Tasman. For more free things to see in the area, see the 19 Epic Natural Attractions in Golden Bay.
9. See the Reflections of Lake Matheson
Enjoy this loop walk around Lake Matheson to various viewpoints overlooking the reflections of the Southern Alps.
Location: Fox Glacier, West Coast. For more free lakes to admire, see the 21 Mind-Blowing Lakes in New Zealand.
10. Discover Mining Tunnels, Coal Bins and More at Charming Creek
Mining is a fundamental part of New Zealand’s pioneering history. Remenants of these days can be seen along the Charming Creek Walkway or the Denniston Plateau near Westport.
Location: Westport, West Coast. See more free things to do in the area in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Westport.
11. Marvel at Mountains and Glacier Lakes on the Hooker Valley Track
More excellent scenery awaits on the Hooker Valley Track in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. Walk from suspension bridge to suspension bridge under the watchful eyes of the surrounding mountains until you reach a glacier lake.
Location: Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, Canterbury. For more free walks, check out the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Mt Cook.
12. Check Out the Bizarre Boulders of Castle Hill
Kura Tawhiti, also known as Castle Hill, is renowned for its usual rocky outcrops scattering the pastures. Similar formations can also be found at the Elephant Rocks in the Waitaki Valley.
Location: Castle Hill, Canterbury. See more free sights nearby in the 10 Underrated Places to Visit in Canterbury.
13. Smell the Flowers and Feed the Ducks at Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Christchurch is dubbed as New Zealand’s “Garden City”, so a wander around the Christchurch Botanic Gardens is mandatory! Find it right in the heart of Christchurch.
Location: Christchurch, Canterbury. Explore more free attractions like this in the 17 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Christchurch.
14. Snap Up a Photo of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
Another West Coast attraction (we know, there’s a lot!), don’t miss the 20-minute walk to see the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. Check out these oddly-shaped rocks stacked like pancakes with powerful blowhole displays at high tide.
Location: Punakaiki, West Coast. There’s more free stuff to do here, which you can find out more about in the 9 Best Things to Do in Punakaiki.
15. Check Out the Perfectly Spherical Moeraki Boulders
These perfectly round boulders on the beach at low tide offers more fun free photo-ops between Oamaru and Dunedin. Plan your visit using The Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Moeraki Boulders.
Location: Hampden, South Island.
16. Walk Up the World’s Steepest Street
That’s right, Baldwin Street in Dunedin holds the Guinness World Record for the steepest residential street. A walk to the top is a must!
Location: Dunedin, Otago. Add a visit to Baldwin Street to your 18 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Dunedin.
17. Admire the Architecture of Dunedin
We’ve talked a lot about New Zealand’s natural attractions, but if you’re more into manmade marvels, then you might like to visit the city of Dunedin. Admire gothic-style architecture and cathedrals unlike anywhere else in the country, such as the Dunedin Railway Station.
Location: Dunedin, Otago. Plan more of your visit using The Travel Guide to Dunedin on a Budget.
18. Experience a Classic New Zealand Farmers’ Market
Weekend mornings are best spent at a farmers’ market on the South Island, whether it’s to sample local food or listen to live entertainment. Popular markets include the Lyttelton Farmers’ Market in Christchurch and the Nelson Farmers’ Market.
Location: Christchurch, Canterbury or Nelson, Nelson Tasman. See more free stuff nearby in the 8 Best Things to Do in Lyttelton and 14 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Nelson.
19. Admire the Views from Queenstown Hill
Queenstown is known for being one of the most expensive destinations on the South Island, but you can save on the cents by enjoying one of the free walks, such as Queenstown Hill.
Location: Queenstown, South Island. Get more ideas in the 16 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Queenstown.
20. Inspire Yourself at the Tauranga Art Gallery
Culture yourself or simply get out of the rain by visiting one of the many art galleries on the South Island. What’s more, most galleries are free, such as the Christchurch Art Gallery, Dunedin Public Art Gallery and, a real hidden gem, the Eastern Southland Gallery in Gore.
Location: Gore, Southland. Check out more free stuff in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Gore.
21. Marvel at Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak
One of the most popular day hikes on the South Island, Roys Peak offers Instagram-worthy photos at its conclusion. Get stunning views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains.
Location: Wanaka, South Island. You can also do these 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Wanaka.
22. Stand in the Centre of New Zealand
If geographical points of interest are your thing, then you’re in for a treat in Nelson. A short uphill climb brings you to the Centre of New Zealand, along with excellent views of the city and coast.
Location: Nelson, South Island. Add this activity and the 14 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Nelson to your itinerary.
23. Visit Free Glowworm Caves
Believe it or not, glowworms are not something you have to pay to see. You’ll sometimes see them on bushwalks after dark, but if you want to see them through the day, you’re best to head to one of the South Island’s free caves. Check out Clifden Caves near Tuatapere or the Hokitika Glow Worm Dell, for example.
Location: For more free glowworm locations in the South Island, see the 10 Free Glowworm Caves in New Zealand.
24. See a Glacier
Forget heli-hiking, you can still see a glacier for free if you take the Franz Josef Glacier/Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere Walk or the Fox Glacier South Side Walkway/Cycleway.
Location: Franz Josef, South Island. See more activities in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Franz Josef.
25. Go Kiwi Spotting on Stewart Island
Admittedly, it is difficult to spot the elusive nocturnal kiwi bird without paying for a kiwi guide or going to a kiwi house. However, you’ll still have better odds on the trails or the parks of Stewart Island. Learn more about spotting kiwis in the 10 Best Places to See a Kiwi Bird in New Zealand.
Location: Stewart Island. Find out more about seeing kiwi birds in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Stewart Island.
26. Take a Photo of #ThatWanakaTree
A lonely tree just off the shores of Lake Wanaka, #ThatWanakaTree has become Insta-famous over the last few years. Snapping a pic of it for your travel photo collection is free!
Location: Wanaka, South Island. See more activities in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Wanaka.
27. Visit the Otago Museum
Each of the South Island regions has its own regional museum, most of which are free. A popular one is the Otago Museum in Dunedin with exhibitions on the local Maori and Pacific cultures, local flora, fauna and even some surprising international artefacts.
Location: Dunedin, Otago. Plan the rest of your visit using The Travel Guide to Dunedin on a Budget.
28. Stargazing in an International Dark Sky Reserve
Stargazing can be pretty sensational anywhere on the South Island on a clear night, but nothing compares to the dark skies of Aoraki Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo where the skies are protected from light pollution as a Dark Sky Reserve. Stewart Island is also classed with a special status as a Dark Sky Sanctuary.
Location: Aoraki Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo, Canterbury or Stewart Island. Find more things to do in the area in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Mt Cook and 10 Best Things to Do in Lake Tekapo.
29. Sample Some Wine in Marlborough
As long as you have a designated driver or your own bikes, sampling wine in Marlborough is free! Wineries that offer free tastings include Brancott, Hunters, No1 Family Estate and Villa Maria. Learn more about them in the 10 Best Wineries in Marlborough.
Location: Blenheim, Marlborough. For more freebies nearby, see 10 Best Things to Do in Blenheim.
30. Go Wildlife Spotting in The Catlins
Visiting some of the top sights on The Catlins Coast comes hand-in-hand with wildlife viewing. Head to Nugget Point to see seals, watch penguins from the hides at Roaring Bay, walk among sea lions on Surat Bay, and the list goes on!
Location: The Catlins, Southland. See more places to watch wildlife in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in The Catlins.
31. See the Cardrona Bra Fence
Finally, one of the quirkier free attractions on the South Island is the Cardrona Bra Fence. What started as a free roadside attraction of bras tied to a fence in the 1990s, now is an official tourist attraction with the option to donate to the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.
Location: Cardrona, Otago.