A Travel Guide to Franz Josef Glacier
A compact offering of almost all of New Zealand’s most extreme sceneries, Franz Josef is a small town with some of the biggest landscapes. The icon along the wild West Coast is the Franz Josef Glacier, a gigantic river of ice slowly forming and changing the landscape around it. In its wake, milky-coloured braided rivers, towering valleys, vividly reflective lakes and lush rainforest have taken over. In between it all, the tiny town of Franz Josef is the base for all sorts of adventures to experience this must-see natural attraction.
Whether you’re a family or a couple; a backpacker or a luxury-seeker, this complete travel guide to Franz Josef will help you make the most of a visit to the Franz Josef Glacier and its town.
Frequently Asked Questions About Franz Josef Glacier
We’re not here to mess around; let’s get started with the most common questions travellers have about visiting Franz Josef.
Is Franz Josef Glacier Worth Visiting?
Yes! Franz Josef Glacier is the most popular glacier to visit in New Zealand. However, it’s worth considering Fox Glacier or the Tasman Glacier (Mt Cook) instead if you want a more intimate glacier experience with smaller tour groups.
Can You Walk on the Franz Josef Glacier?
You can only walk on the Franz Josef Glacier with helicopter tours (more on that in the guide below). You used to be able to walk onto the glacier from the valley floor, however, this is no longer possible due to the glacier’s retreat. Find out more about how to walk on Franz Josef Glacier in the 7 Ways to Take on New Zealand’s Glaciers.
Which Glacier is Better, Fox or Franz Josef?
Franz Josef Glacier is better for cheaper heli-hiking and helicopter tours. Fox Glacier is better for smaller tour groups, has less helicopter traffic, and tends to have more opportunities to explore ice caves due to its curved valley.
How Many Days Do You Need in Franz Josef?
Generally, one day is enough. However, we recommend at least two or three days in Franz Josef to allow an extra day in case your helicopter tour is cancelled due to bad weather (which happens frequently).
Where is Franz Josef Located?
Franz Josef is located midway down the west coast of the South Island in the West Coast region of New Zealand.
How Do You Get to Franz Josef?
Franz Josef is connected to the rest of the South Island via State Highway 6. The closest international airport is Christchurch Airport (4h40mins drive), but domestic flights to Hokitika Airport (1h40mins drive) are available from Christchurch and Queenstown, while trains run between Christchurch and Greymouth (2h15mins drive). Franz Josef is on the main national bus route, which you can find more information about in Bus Networks in New Zealand.
What is the Weather Like in Franz Josef?
The daily average temperature is 11.5°C (52.8°F), while the yearly average rainfall is 3,987 mm (157 in) – one of the wettest climates in New Zealand. Find out more in What is the Weather Like in New Zealand?
What is Special About Franz Josef Glacier?
Franz Josef Glacier is the steepest and fastest-moving glacier in New Zealand, having been recorded to move up to 4 m (13 ft) per day. It’s also one of the most-visited glaciers in New Zealand with heli-hiking, ice-climbing and névé landings taking place on the glacier.
Can You Touch Franz Josef Glacier?
You can touch Franz Josef Glacier but only on helicopter tours, such as heli-hiking. You cannot walk up to the glacier from ground level and touch it.
What to Do in Franz Josef
Franz Josef isn’t just about the glacier itself, but the breathtaking landscape that has been created in its path. Explore the glacier valley on foot or by quad bike, kayak on the reflective waters, or don’t do much at all by relaxing at the local hot pools.
The Top Experiences in Franz Josef
What are the must-dos? Here are some Franz Josef highlights:
- Do a free or guided walk to the Franz Josef Glacier Terminal Face
- Heli-hike onto the Franz Josef Glacier (more info on Viator and KKday)
- See rare birds and a stunning wetland environment at the Okarito Lagoon
- Do a helicopter flight over the Southern Alps with Glacier Helicopters
- See a kiwi bird at the West Coast Wildlife Centre
- Kayak on Lake Mapourika with Franz Josef Wilderness Tours…
… And the list continues over in our 25 Best Things to Do in Franz Josef.
Rainy Day Activities
Franz Josef is located in one of the wettest regions of New Zealand, so we wouldn’t let you visit without having a few rainy-day backups in your pocket:
- Relax at the Waiho Hot Tubs
- Carve your own greenstone at Te Koha Gallery
- Blast through river valleys on a quad bike tour with Franz Josef Wilderness Tours…
… And get more rainy day alternatives in our 10 Things to Do in Franz Josef on a Rainy Day.
Things to Do: Franz Josef Wilderness Tours
While the glacier tends to steal all the limelight in Franz Josef, it’s often the dramatic landscapes left in its wake that provide the most memorable adventures. Franz Josef Wilderness Tours has a number of activities to experience these landscapes for all ages and abilities: kayaking, cruising, fishing, quad biking, mountain biking and more.
Join their acclaimed kayak and paddleboard tours on the glassy waters of Lake Mapourika and Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary or opt for complete comfort on their scenic lake cruise. Perhaps you’d like a fishing cruise with a rod in hand and a fair chance of a healthy salmon on the hook?
Meanwhile, on “dry land”, join the crew for an exciting off-road tour through the bush and braided rivers on a quad bike or buggy. Alternatively, make the most of Franz Josef’s stunning bike trails with FJWT’s mountain bike hire!
Intrigued? Check out Franz Josef Wilderness Tours to choose your next adventure.
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
Other than the accommodations we recommend on the righthand side of this complete travel guide to Franz Josef (or at the bottom if you’re on mobile view), we have compiled entire lists of places to stay based on price, what’s best for families or a couples’ getaway, premium stays and more. As an added bonus, each list is curated by real writers who have been to Franz Josef; not some AI!
Franz Josef for Budget Travellers
Before you get bombarded with heli-hiking, scenic flights, kayaking and boat tours that might crush your New Zealand travel budget, just know that you can see some pretty incredible landscapes just on your own two feet. Even from Franz Josef town itself, there are a ton of amazing walks incorporating rainforests, glacier valleys, waterfalls, lakes and mountains left behind by the Franz Josef Glacier.
Admittedly, all of Franz Josef’s free things to do are walks and there are not that many “cheap” activities other than a kiwi hatchery and hot pools. Nevertheless, budget accommodation is abundant as long as you make your bookings early if travelling in the high season (December to March). Check out more tips in The Guide to Franz Josef on a Budget.
Things to Do on a Budget
- See the glacier on the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk
- Watch rare birds at the Okarito Lagoon
- Check out the glowworms on the Terrace Walk
- See kiwi birds at the West Coast Wildlife Centre
- Hike the challenging but remarkable Roberts Point Track.
For more free and cheap activities, head over to the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Franz Josef.
Despite being a small town – more like a village – Franz Josef has a good choice of hostels and motels, as well as a holiday park. Find out more about them in the 10 Best Budget Accommodations in Franz Josef.
Franz Josef for Luxury Travellers
With some of the most commanding scenery in New Zealand, it’s no wonder that there are some of the most premium ways to experience it. Luxury travellers have a menu of helicopter excursions and heli-hikes to choose from, while lake and fishing tours create interesting ways to harness the nature left in the wake of the glacier. It’s not all go, go, go, however, as Franz Josef’s five-star hotel and luxury hot pools also offer visitors lavish ways to relax. Find out more in The Luxury Guide to Franz Josef.
Premium Tours and Experiences
- Hike on the ice of the Franz Josef Glacier with Franz Josef Glacier Guides/The Helicopter Line (more info on Viator and KKday)
- Catch salmon or brown trout at Lake Mapourika with Franz Josef Wilderness Tours
- Do one of New Zealand’s most scenic skydives with Skydive Franz Josef (on Viator and Klook)
- Indulge in a spa treatment at Amaia Luxury Spa
- Be treated to degustation dining amidst the rainforest at Te Waonui Forest Retreat.
For more details on each experience and more, see our 9 Luxury Experiences in Franz Josef.
Franz Josef is home to the only five-star hotel on the West Coast, as well as a small selection of four-star hotels and motels with upscale room options. Take your picks from the 5 Best Luxury Accommodations in Franz Josef.
Franz Josef for Families
While heli-hiking might steal a lot of the limelight in Franz Josef, there are more suitable glacier activities in Franz Josef to suit all ages. From helicopter flights to short walks, families can experience the amazing landscapes of the glacier no matter their budget or age. Plus, with additional attractions like lake cruises and the West Coast Wildlife Centre, there’s even something to do if the weather cancels your flight. In between adventures, stay in the town’s array of holiday parks, motels, hotels and hostels – all offering rooms for families. Find out more in The Guide to Franz Josef for Families.
- Cruise Lake Mapourika with Franz Josef Wilderness Tours
- Explore and learn about the Franz Josef Glacier with Glacier Valley Eco Tours
- Take a helicopter flight with a snow landing on the Franz Josef Glacier with The Helicopter Line (on Viator or KKday) or HeliServices.NZ (on Viator and Klook)
- See amazing rainforest and a glacier-formed lake on the Peters Pool Walk
- Explore the mining tunnels on the Tatare Tunnels Walk.
For more details on each experience and others, take a look at the 10 Things to Do in Franz Josef with Kids.
Families are spoiled for choice when it comes to accommodation in Franz Josef. There’s a holiday park in the village and one accommodation empire (Rainforest Retreat) which is all types of accommodations wrapped up into one. Otherwise, families will find convenience in the motels and even some of the family rooms found in the hostels. The Scenic Hotel Franz Josef Glacier also provides a more luxurious option for families. Check out our recommendations in the 10 Best Family Accommodations in Franz Josef.
Franz Josef for Couples
A highlight for many couples travelling New Zealand is the majestic alps-to-sea scenery of Franz Josef. While taking an intimate helicopter flight onto the glacier is an obvious option to add to the itinerary, there are a few surprises that are ideal for couples between double kayaking on the glassy Lake Mapourika to blasting over glacial terrain together on a double-seater ATV. Of course, there are ways to relax too with private rainforest dining experiences and private hot pools. Plan your perfect getaway with that special someone using The Honeymoon & Romantic Getaway Guide to Franz Josef.
Romantic Things to Do
- Paddle in a kayak together on the beautiful Lake Mapourika
- Do one of Franz Josef‘s romantic walks
- Tackle the rugged glacial terrain on an ATV together
- Soak in soothing private hot pools in the rainforest
- Carve each other a greenstone pendant.
For more details on each experience, take a look at the 10 Romantic Things to Do in Franz Josef for Couples.
Couples looking to celebrate something special will find some of the most lavish offerings on the West Coast with four- and five-star hotels. But if you prefer a more down-to-earth experience, like B&Bs or cosy rainforest cottages, there’s that too as listed in the 10 Best Romantic Accommodations in Franz Josef.
Food in Franz Josef
Sure enough, most of the attention in Franz Josef is on the glacial landscapes. With that, there’s little room for foodie tours and activities as we feature in other New Zealand destination guides. Nevertheless, this is a good opportunity to tell you more about Franz Josef’s vibrant dining scene.
The Best Restaurants in Franz Josef
Franz Josef is home to some fabulous dining experiences and even fine dining in the case of The Canopy Restaurant (3 Wallace Street). Lap up the views of the natural rainforest as you dine on local cuisine served in a five-course degustation dinner.
Keep things casual yet sophisticated with some classic New Zealand homemade cuisine at the historic Alice May (30 Cron Street). Learn about the fascinating story of Alice May written on the table placemats while you wait for your New Zealand beer or regional wine.
Blue Ice Restaurant & Bar (12 Main Road) serves well-presented plates of international crowd-pleasers in a casual setting. For Southeast Asian street food combined with New Zealand craft beer, head to the Snake Bite Brewery (28 Main Road) – no, it’s not actually a brewery itself but pours a range of NZ’s finest.
While we touched on the all-you-can-eat-pizza nights of the Monsoon Restaurant (46 Cron Street) in The Guide to Franz Josef on a Budget, it’s worth popping in, whatever type of traveller you are, to enjoy the warm ambience with hearty European cuisine, gourmet pizzas and burgers.
More About Franz Josef
That’s it for our complete travel guide to Franz Josef. For more Franz Josef advice, check out the following guides:
- 25 Best Things to Do in Franz Josef
- 10 Best Walks in Franz Josef
- 10 Things to Do in Franz Josef on a Rainy Day
- 10 Best Things to Do in Fox Glacier
- 10 Facts You Did Not Know About New Zealand’s Glaciers
- 10 Ways to Take on New Zealand’s Glaciers
Finally, discover even more destinations and experiences on the South Island in the 51 Best Things to Do on the South Island and 10 Unique & Unusual Things to Do on the South Island.