The Best Activities, Attractions, Sights and Tours on the South Island
When planning a trip to the South Island, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Well, how about you begin with this list of the 51 best things to do on the South Island? It covers a range of experiences; from the must-dos to the surprising finds, from the freebies to the luxurious treats, from the adventurous to the relaxing, and so on. You’re sure to find the South Island must-dos that suit your travel style.
Before we get into the best things to do on the South Island, open up The Best Travel Guide to New Zealand in a new tab to plan the rest of your trip.
1. Experience a Heli-Hike on the Tasman Glacier
You can do a few pretty epic things on the South Island, so let’s start with arguably one of the most epic! In Aoraki Mt Cook, you can land on New Zealand’s largest glacier in a helicopter and explore its ice caves (more info, read reviews and book tickets on Viator and KKday). As you may well know, glacier heli-hiking is also available in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier.
Location: Mt Cook, Canterbury. Learn more in the 7 Ways to Take on New Zealand’s Glaciers.
2. Meet an Adorable Kiwi Bird
Location: Queenstown, Otago. Check out all of the locations across the South Island in Where to See Kiwi Birds in New Zealand.
3. Wander or Fly Through the Forest Canopy on the West Coast Zipline & Tree Top Walk
The unique elevated walk of the West Coast Zipline & Tree Top Walk is just the beginning. Climb to the top of Tower Zipline not only for breathtaking views of the surrounding coast and lake but to swoosh through the forest on a 425 m (1,394 ft) double zipline! For more information, head to treetopsnz.com/zipline.
Location: Hokitika, West Coast. Plan more of your visit in the 10 Best Things to Do in Hokitika.
4. Tour and Taste in New Zealand’s Largest Wine Region
Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine-producing region, renowned for its sauvignon blanc. Either visit wineries independently for tastings by hiring some bikes with Explore Marlborough or be chauffeured around on a driving tour with the Marlborough Tour Company (on Viator or Klook).
5. Skydive Over Glaciers and the Tasman Sea at Franz Josef
Skydiving is huge in New Zealand; not only because of the country’s adventurous spirit but because of the stunning views seen during the freefall. We like Skydive Franz Josef for its mountains-to-sea views and tight operation (more info on Viator and Klook).
6. Witness Crystal Clear Pools at Te Waikoropupū Springs
Te Waikoropupū Springs is the largest freshwater spring in New Zealand, releasing unbelievably clear water. Enjoy a short walk around the springs to see this natural wonder.
7. Do Some Whale Watching in Kaikoura
Location: Kaikoura, Canterbury. See more locations for whale watching, particularly on the South Island, in the 5 Best Places to Spot Whales in New Zealand.
8. Enjoy a Cruise in the Famous Fiord of Milford Sound
If you know anything about the South Island, it’s probably something to do with Milford Sound. This majestic fiord has been dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, most commonly seen on cruises, which we list and compare in the 6 Best Cruises in Milford Sound.
9. Visit Some Seal Colonies
Seeing these adorable marine mammals is a common occurrence on the South Island. See seal colonies from the Cape Foulwind Walkway in Westport or simply take up parking spots at the Point Kean car park in Kaikoura.
Location: Westport, West Coast or Kaikoura, Canterbury. See locations all over the South Island in the 14 Best Places to See Seals in New Zealand.
10. Experience Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park
With more than 5,800 km (3,630 mi) of coastline, the South Island is an awesome place for kayaking. A hotspot for the watersport is the bush-clad and golden-sand shores of the Abel Tasman National Park on tours with Abel Tasman Kayaks.
Location: Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson Tasman. Hit more kayaking spots using the 10 Best Kayak Tours in New Zealand.
11. Take a Scenic Train Journey on the TranzAlpine
The South Island is home to one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys, as appeared on countless rankings, the TranzAlpine train (more info on Viator and Klook). This is mainly due to the gorgeous mountain scenery of the Arthur’s Pass National Park, which you can also drive through.
12. Have Way Too Much Fun on the Downhill Go-Karts of The Luge
It might seem daft, but don’t underestimate the fun factor of The Luge. These downhill tracks in Queenstown are made for gravity-powered go-karts providing heaps of fun for all ages.
Location: Queenstown, Otago. See more wacky activities like this in the 9 Newest & Weirdest Extreme Activities in New Zealand.
13. Carve Your Own Maori Greenstone Pendant in Hokitika
Greenstone, also known as jade or pounamu, is a precious stone, particularly for the local Maori people. The shores of Hokitika and the West Coast have an abundance of the stone, making it a worthy place to try carving your own greenstone pendant.
Location: Hokitika, West Coast. See more Hokitika attractions in the 10 Best Things to Do in Hokitika.
14. Watch Penguins, Sea Lions, Albatross and More Wildlife on the Otago Peninsula
The Otago Peninsula is a mecca for some of the world’s rarest species of penguins and sea lions, as well as the largest seabird, the royal albatross. Join one of the guided tours on the peninsula to pretty much guarantee good viewings, such as with Back to Nature Tours.
15. Explore Caves and Giant Arches in the Oparara Basin
A real hidden gem, the Oparara Basin has short walks to multiple caves and arches, including a 200 m (656 ft)-long arch! Plan your visit using the 7 Amazing Oparara Basin Walks.
Location: Karamea, West Coast. For more activities nearby, see the 7 Best Things to Do in Karamea.
16. Take the Leap with a Bungy Jump in Queenstown
Do this iconic adrenaline activity in the place where it was invented, Queenstown. There’s the original bungy jump from the Kawarau Bridge, the highest jump from the Nevis Bungy, and one that allows you to do a freestyle jump, The Ledge. Learn more about these jumps in the 7 Best Places to Bungy Jump in New Zealand.
Location: Queenstown, South Island. See more adrenaline activities in the 10 Epic Adventure Activities in Queenstown.
17. Step Back in Time on Ulva Island
Experience what New Zealand used to be like before human migration on Ulva Island (more info on Viator and Klook). Native parrots cackling in the trees and kiwi birds running across your path are not uncommon on this island which is just a short boat trip from Stewart Island.
Location: Stewart Island, Southland. See more Stewart Island experiences in the 10 Best Things to Do on Stewart Island.
18. Soak in the Spring Water of Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools
While the North Island might steal all the limelight for geothermal experiences like hot pools, there are still some noteworthy hot pool experiences on the South Island. One of the most famous is the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools, the largest in the country.
19. Tackle a “Great Walk”
Backpacking/tramping/multi-day hiking is a classic way to connect with nature and see the South Island’s breathtaking scenery. While there are hundreds of multi-day hikes in New Zealand, the ones with the best facilities are known as the New Zealand Great Walks. Add the Kepler Track or Abel Tasman Coast Track to your itinerary for a real adventure.
Location: See the locations of all of the Great Walks in The 10 Great Walks of New Zealand. For cheaper options, see the 12 Awesome Alternatives to the New Zealand Great Walks.
20. Experience a South Island Ski Season
In winter, the mountain comes alive with skiers and snowboarders carving the slopes. Skiing hotspots include Queenstown, Wanaka and Methven but you’ll find all sorts of small towns and old-school ski areas too.
Location: See all the locations in the Top 24 Ski Fields in New Zealand.
21. Swim with Dolphins
Nothing compares to encountering these intelligent creatures in their natural environment! Swim with acrobatic dusky dolphins in Kaikoura with Dolphin Encounter or playful bottlenose dolphins in Marlborough with E-Ko Tours.
22. Ride the Rapids in White Water Rafting
Along with the dramatic landscapes on the South Island are dramatic rivers for white water rafting! Rafting in Queenstown is a worthy option, taking you through old mining tunnels (more info on Viator, Klook and KKday).
Location: Queenstown, Otago. For more South Island rafting locations, check out the 7 Best Places to Go White Water Rafting in New Zealand.
23. Admire the Vibrant Blue Pools of Hokitika Gorge
As if painted in a picture, Hokitika Gorge boasts vividly blue pools. Enjoy a short walk to this beautiful river gorge on the West Coast, which you can learn more about in the 23 Best Walks in Hokitika.
24. See Glowworms in Te Anau
As vivid as the stars in the sky are the glowworms in the caves of Te Anau. Located across an expansive lake, the Te Anau Glowworm Caves has underground waterfalls and glowworm colonies (more info on Viator, Klook or KKday).
Location: Te Anau, Southland. Check out more locations with glowworms in the 7 Best Places to See the Famous Glowworms in New Zealand.
25. Check Out McLean Falls in The Catlins
A road trip around the South Island is typically full of waterfalls. Arguably, some of the most beautiful can be found in The Catlins. McLean Falls is a rewarding waterfall to visit with climbable terraces. Also, add the nearby Purakaunui Falls to the list.
Location: The Catlins, Southland-Otago. For more South Island waterfalls to visit, check out the 12 Most Wonderful Waterfalls in New Zealand.
26. Explore the Shores of Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach
Get off the beaten track to the sandy shores of Golden Bay where two ruggedly beautiful coastal sights await. Farewell Spit is New Zealand’s longest sandspit and one of the most protected places in the country. Nearby, Wharariki Beach looks out to the photogenic Archway Islands.
Location: Golden Bay, Nelson Tasman. For more things to see in the area, see the 19 Epic Natural Attractions in Golden Bay.
27. Stargaze in an International Dark Sky Reserve
New Zealand is not only home to a Dark Sky Reserve in Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo but a Dark Sky Sanctuary on Stewart Island. This basically means that these South Island locations are among some of the best places in the world to stargaze.
Location: Aoraki Mt Cook/Lake Tekapo – Stewart Island. See more locations in the 5 Best Stargazing Sites in New Zealand.
28. Do Horse Riding in the Cardrona Valley
Gallop across the plains or beaches, climb the hills and navigate the forests on a horse trekking tour on the South Island. An excellent choice is The Cardrona between Wanaka and Queenstown, but you can take your pick from the 10 Best Horse Treks in New Zealand.
Location: Cardrona Valley, Otago. For more activities nearby, see the 10 Best Things to Do in Geraldine.
29. Experience New Zealand’s Farming Culture at Walter Peak
Farming has been a way of life in New Zealand for more than a century and tours like those at Walter Peak give visitors a fun insight into sheep shearing, cattle rearing and more (more info on Viator, Klook and KKday).
30. Gaze Upon the Reflections of Lake Matheson
It doesn’t get more postcard-perfect than Lake Matheson. The loop walk around the lake takes you to various viewpoints with reflections of the Southern Alps in the inky black water.
31. Go On a Jet Boat Excursion in Haast
Jet boating on the South island comes in two forms: a thrill ride or an excursion. Waiatoto River Safari offers the latter, taking you on a scenic journey from the Tasman Sea to the valleys of the Mt Aspiring National Park.
32. Experience Off-Roading in Greymouth
Location: Greymouth, West Coast. For more South Island off-roading locations, check out the 10 Best Places for Quad Biking in New Zealand.
33. Zipline Through the Forest in Queenstown
Soar through the forest on an exciting ziplining tour with Ziptrek Eco Tours in Queenstown (more info on Viator, Klook and KKday). There are multiple giant ziplines through the forest which you can even ride upside down.
Location: Queenstown, Otago. For more zipline locations, check out the 10 Best Places to Zipline in New Zealand.
34. Ride the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
Just like the multi-day tramping trails, New Zealand is also home to some breathtaking multi-day cycle journeys. Cycle from Aoraki Mt Cook to the Pacific Ocean on the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail or one of the 10 Best Bike Trails on the South Island.
35. Walk to Devil’s Punchbowl Falls
36. See Mountains, Glacier Lakes and More on the Hooker Valley Track
More stellar scenery awaits on the Hooker Valley Track of the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. Walk from suspension bridge to suspension bridge under the gaze of towering mountains until you reach a glacier lake with Aoraki Mt Cook piercing the sky in the distance.
Location: Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, Canterbury. For more unmissable walks, check out the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Mt Cook.
37. Wander Among the Boulders of Castle Hill
If you hadn’t had enough of the South Island’s spectacular natural formations then head to Kura Tawhiti, also known as Castle Hill. Here, you’ll find majestic limestone formations on the access track.
Location: Castle Hill, Canterbury. See more sights nearby in the 10 Underrated Places to Visit in Canterbury.
38. Stretch Your Legs at Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Another reason to stretch your legs on the South Island is for its spectacular gardens, especially those in Christchurch. Check out the duck ponds, rose gardens, native gardens and water features at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.
Location: Christchurch, Canterbury. Explore more attractions like this in the 20 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Christchurch.
39. Tour the Shamarra Alpaca Farm in Akaroa
Location: Akaroa, Canterbury. Plan more of your trip to Akaroa using the 10 Akaroa Must-Dos.
40. Try Via Ferrata Climbing with Wildwire Wanaka
You don’t need to be a pro climber to experience the sensation of scouring cliff faces and waterfalls. Wildwire Wanaka has set up a fun via ferrata climbing course with steel ladders and bridges.
Location: Wanaka, Otago. Check out The Complete Travel Guide to Wanaka to plan more of your trip.
41. See How Beer is Made on the Monteith’s Brewery Tour
Location: Greymouth, West Coast. More brewery tour locations can be found in the 10 Best New Zealand Beer Tours.
42. Check Out the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
For more reasons to travel to the West Coast, the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks are a must-see. Feast your eyes on these oddly-shaped rocks stacked like pancakes with powerful blowhole displays at high tide.
Location: Punakaiki, West Coast. There’s more stuff to do here, which you can find out about in the 9 Best Things to Do in Punakaiki.
43. Enter the Alternative World of Steampunk HQ
One of the quirkier attractions on the South Island, Steampunk HQ is a sci-fi museum and art gallery with all sorts of wacky inventions. What’s more, it’s an excellent rainy day activity.
44. Visit Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s Only Castle
That’s right, Larnach Castle is New Zealand’s only castle and boasts a position fit for a king on a hilltop of the Otago Peninsula. Visit the castle for high tea, tours and accommodation.
Location: Dunedin, Otago. Check out The Complete Travel Guide to Dunedin to plan your trip.
45. See Realistic World War Scenes at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
Location: Blenheim, Marlborough. Explore more of Blenheim using the 10 Best Things to Do in Blenheim.
46. Get a Photo of the Moeraki Boulders
A popular stop between Dunedin and Oamaru, these perfectly spherical boulders are a cool feature to see at low tide. Plan your visit using The Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Moeraki Boulders.
Location: Hampden, South Island. See more attractions nearby in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Oamaru.
47. Stand on the World’s Steepest Street
That’s right, Baldwin Street in Dunedin holds the Guinness World Record for the steepest street! Need we say more?
Location: Dunedin, Otago. Add a visit to Baldwin Street to your 20 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Dunedin.
48. Find the Hidden Gem of Washpen Falls
You wouldn’t think there’s much to see among the endless fields of the Canterbury Plains, but that’s what makes Washpen Falls such a hidden gem. More than just a waterfall walk, Washpen Falls features volcanic remnants, Maori archaeological sites, stunning viewpoints and a lagoon with a cute rowing boat.
Location: Methven, Canterbury. Plan more items for the itinerary in the 10 Best Things to Do in Methven.
49. Race a Go-Kart or Ride in a Supercar at Highlands Motorsport Park
Location: Cromwell, Otago. You can do all of these 10 Best Things to Do in Cromwell too.
50. Walk Among the Otherworldly Landscape of the Clay Cliffs
Location: Omarama, Otago. Find more activities in the 5 Best Things to Do in Omarama.
51. Cycle the Roxburgh Gorge Trail
There’s no real reason that we’ve left a day-long mountain biking trail until point #51; there’s just too much to do on the South Island! Regardless, an awesome day trail is the Roxburgh Gorge Trail near Alexandra.
Location: Alexandra, Otago. See more top trails in the 10 Best Bike Trails on the South Island.
More Things to Do on the South Island and New Zealand
That’s it for the best things to do on the South Island. Now discover more activities to do around New Zealand:
- 51 Best Things to Do on the North Island
- 101 Things to Do in New Zealand: The Ultimate List
- 10 Unique & Unusual Things to Do on the South Island
Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in The Complete Travel Guide to New Zealand.