If you have never been to New Zealand you can expect to be blown away.
Especially by the South Island.
Honestly, it’s so bumpin’ everyone wants to be there. There’s a good reason though. It has something for everyone, from beautiful sandy beaches to snowy mountain peaks. From epic surfing to snowboarding, from mountain biking to bungy jumping, from…you get the idea here, this list continues.
The problem is how do you decide which area of the South Islands are worth visiting and which you should skip over? We were lucky enough to have spent around 6 months in New Zealand so we had a lot of time to see everything. But if you only have a two-week vacation you need to prioritize, and prioritize well! We have made it a lot easier for you with this list of 14 places you can’t miss on New Zealand’s South Island. If you are lucky enough to go to the North Island of New Zealand too, you can read about places you can’t miss here.
On The West Side
1. Te Anau
Te Anau is known as ‘The Gateway to The Fiords’, but it shouldn’t just be glazed over mindlessly. This area has spectacular Milford Sound like views, great hiking trails, amazing fishing spots, and even glow worm caves. It offers visitors a very pleasant short stay before heading off to Milford Sound or even Doubtful Sound (the lesser known and harder to reach beauty). Te Anau is also home to one of New Zealand’s great walks, The Kepler Track. Watch the weather carefully before heading here though. You will want to bring some sort of rain gear as the Fiordland area is very well known for its rainfall.
2. Milford Sound
Milford Sound is nothing short of SPECTACULAR. We absolutely loved visiting this area (read more about it here). It is known as one of the most beautiful places in the world and really lives up to that name. Its towering mountains meet the open water, water that is so black from the unique coral underneath of it that it looks like it’s straight from a dream.
There are two ways to experience this area of New Zealand. You can either kayak or cruise the sound, which will get you up close and personal in very different ways. Either way, buy or bring a raincoat. You are going to need it, especially if you opt for the cruise. We have some apparel recommendations for New Zealand at the bottom of this post!
Getting to Milford sound isn’t overly easy and takes way more time than you think.
The road from Te Anau (which is where we recommend starting from) is around 120km while from Queenstown it’s 300km. You may be thinking, ‘Oh that’s only between an hour and a half to three hours.’ Ya, if the road was straight. But it’s not. You’re going to want to double maybe even triple the time it takes you to reach the Sound itself. New Zealand is well known for its ever meandering roads. But there are also loads of beautiful stops along the way to Milford, trust us, you’ll want to stop at these spots. There are even some campgrounds (they book up really fast) you can stay at if you’d like to. Be careful of nasty sand flies though!
Milford Sound is also home to New Zealand’s greatest hike, the Milford Sound Great Walk. This walk has been voted one of the ‘most beautiful walks in the world.’ If you want to put this under your belt you need to book WELL in advance. We’re talking like almost a year out. Yes, it’s that popular. Lastly, if possible visit the Sound after a few days of rainfall so you can experience all of its magnificent waterfalls. Keep an eye out for the Kea bird too! They like to eat rubber so keep an eye on your car parts. If visiting in the winter beware that the road has extreme winter conditions.
I’ll never forget the moment Andrew and I flew into Queenstown. Our plane casually cruised across these sharp peaks that were covered in untouched, perfect snow. Our plane circled around a few times and we landed right in the middle of them all. It was such a breathtakingly exciting moment. Our first impression of New Zealand was this paradise tucked away in the mountains. Our hearts yearn to go back to this place every day. As dramatic as this sounds…
Queenstown stole a little piece of us.
It seems to steal a little piece of everyone who visits it. It’s just that amazing. From the food to the activities to the landscape. Everything about it is just unforgettable. This area of New Zealand is known as the adventure capital of the world. So, if you want to get your adrenaline flowing this is the place to go. There are a plethora of activities for thrill seekers, bungee jumping, rope swings, skiing and snowboarding, jet boating, paddle boarding, kayaking, should we keep going? Queenstown will suck your wallet dry though. So keep that in mind! It’s expensive to participate in those types of activities. Just know that it is going to be hard to leave.
3.1. Lake Wanaka
How can anyone not love Wanaka? We are saying this is a 3.1 because Queenstown and Wanaka are so close together. A lot of people associate them as ‘one’ in a way. Located about an hour from Queenstown, Wanaka is another mountain paradise.
We hopped on a bus from Queenstown that took us to Wanaka. On the way, our driver actually hit a bird and literally just wiped it off with the windshield wipers extremely casually. The road winds up a mountainside and then continues on through the famous Crown Range.
The Crown Range is unlike any other drive you will take in your life.
The view is just so…undescribable. It’s everything you imagine New Zealand would look like and more. When you arrive in Wanaka the amazement continues. Lake Wanaka stretches on into the distance as the mountain tops reflect on the beautiful water. It’s such an incredible sight. The lake is also perfect for kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding on. With the mountain view across the lake, you’re going to want to take some extra time on the water to take it all in.
Wanaka is also known for its awesome mountain biking, even though we had a pretty rough time with our mountain biking adventure. It was still a pretty awesome experience and made for a decent story when we got home. On top of that, there are a ton of great hikes in the area, Roys Peak is probably the most popular one. Don’t forget to visit possibly the most photographed tree in shall we say the world? That Wanaka Tree.
4. The Blue Pools of Haast Pass
Even living in Canada we can honestly say we have never seen such clear blue water before. With some of the lakes we have in Banf National Park we have definitely seen blue lakes, but nothing like this. The water is not only super blue but is incredibly clear too. So clear…it’s hard to tell how deep it actually is. Apparently, you can jump off the bridge above the cold water but look down from the bridge you definitely wouldn’t think so. That’s how clear it is!
The Blue Pools are deep river pools that get their name from the amazing blue color of the water itself (is that obvious?). The color comes from light refraction on the clear, icy cold water. It is a short walk through beech forests from the parking lot along the Haast Pass highway. The walk will eventually lead you to a swing bridge with amazing views of the blue pools, you can also walk down to the edge of the water and dip your toes in to get a feel of how cold this beautiful water actually is. Located in Mount Aspiring National Park, this place is worth the stop off the highway.
5. Franz Josef
Franz Josef is a town at the base of New Zealand’s famous Franz Josef glacier. This small town is surrounded by towering mountains and is actually a partial rainforest. The accommodation in this town is typically very unique and the campground is its own rain-forest! The glacier can be seen from the middle of town and there are multiple hikes that allow you to get close to the glacier. If you want to walk through the glacier and see the magnificent blue color you can book guided helicopter tours that take you to the top of the glacier and then walk you through the icy canals. (Beware these can cost upwards of $400).
The town of Punakaiki is home to the countries coolest rocks and blowholes. Known simply as the Pancake Rocks, these limestone formations and blow holes are especially magnificent during high tides. Formed 30 million years ago from dead marine creatures and plants these rocks were once over 2km under water and were slowly raised through seismic activity. Over time wind, rain and seawater have turned these rocks into odd and interesting shapes. The blowholes can only be described as intense and are extremely powerful. Be careful in the area though, it’s not a playground!
In The Middle
7. Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki was actually used as the filming location for Lake Town in The Hobbit trilogy! So if you’re looking for something that is Peter Jackson worthy, you found it. The glacial-fed lake has a unique blue colour due to the Glacial Flour that runs off the mountains. Some of the best views of the lake are from the nearby town of Twizel. If viewed from the Twizel side of the lake you can get a great view of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook. There are also plenty of stops along the highway you can pull over and take it all in. If you want to avoid some crowds we recommend stopping safely on the highway as a few of the lookouts get super packed with tourists. The beautiful blue color and the towering Mount Cook across the water makes for some very tempting natural eye candy.
8. Mount Cook
New Zealand’s tallest mountain is also a must see. There are plenty of campgrounds close to the mountain but beware that it can get very cold in this area so bring appropriate gear. There are also plenty of hikes in this area which give you amazing views of the mountain ranges. Make sure to bring a camera to capture the beauty of this region and perhaps some great reflections of the mountain on some of the glacial lakes at its base. With plenty of suspension bridges, you’re bound to get some pretty cool photos to take home with you.
9. Lake Tekapo
Follow the stars to Lake Tekapo. It’s one of the World’s only IDA Internationally certified dark sky reserves. They significantly reduce their light pollution by using special bulbs in their street lamps. This lets the stars shine the way they should. Seeing the milky way take over the sky from within a town’s limits is amazing and not something you get in a lot of places.
You can choose to take a closer look at the stars by visiting their Observatory or you can simply head down to one of the most photographed Churches in the country, Church of the Good Shepard. You can sit and enjoy the view, or set up your camera and capture some of the spectacular night skies. This was the first place we ever slept in our van, it was winter, and a pretty bad idea read about it here.
10. Abel Tasman
A little more central but located on the North Coast of the South Island, Abel Tasman is known for its wicked beaches. There are plenty of water activities and hikes in the area too. Bring a canoe or kayak or rent one to paddle around the shorelines and discover some amazing natural rocks and flora. Don’t forget a bathing suit! That would suck. There is a great walkthrough Abel Tasman you can do as well that is a few days long. You do have to book accommodation for this as well as a boat shuttle for the end of the track. The track takes you along the coast and through subtropical rain-forests.
The sunsets aren’t so bad either.
On The East Side
Kaikoura is home to one of the largest seal colonies in the country! While seals are EVERYWHERE in New Zealand you don’t usually see such a large amount in one spot. Just a short drive from the town’s center will take you to the large. There are sleeping seals (and yes babies) all along the shore and some playing in the water.
Seals are aggressive and territorial. So keep your distance! Respect their space and they will respect yours.There is also a great coastal hike begins from the seal colony and offers amazing views of the sea and mountains that touch them. Make sure to grab some of New Zealand’s best fish and chips at Cooper’s Catch.
Do a little bit of hiking in the area to get some epic views of Kaikoura and the New Zealand coast. There is a trail that beings from the seal colony and takes you up high along the shoreline and offers amazing views. You can read about more to do in Kaikoura here.
BLUE PENGUINS! AKA the World’s smallest penguin. They’re so cute and friendly and live in Oamaru. Also known as the ‘steampunk capital of New Zealand’ this town can only be described as Unique.
The penguins come ashore at night to sleep and hang out in the bushes along the shore. You can pay to view them at the Penguin Centre; however, this is not necessary because they can be viewed just by walking around the area after sunset. Their populations have been decreasing in New Zealand so respect their space, keep your distance and do not disturb them.
There is a pretty cool steampunk museum you can visit too that has some interesting art installations. Along the shore where the penguins are there is also a great little restaurant called The Galley. They have the best sandwiches.
13. Moeraki Boulders
These unique round boulders on the beach are extremely popular to photograph and extremely interesting to visit. Created through sediment over thousands of years and then encased in the nearby cliff slowly the sea eroded the cliff exposing these unique rocks. They are free so don’t be fooled by the nearby shops trying to sell access to the boulders. Park at a small parking lot down the road and walk along the beach until you find them! Skip the scam of paying for them.
Try to visit at sunset to get some of the best pictures. Don’t forget they can be slippery so don’t fall like Andy did!
14. Nugget Point Light House
Nugget Point Light House is another major tourist attraction and another place that is highly photographed. The walk to the lighthouse offers great views of the coast and the ocean. The lighthouse itself sits atop a small hill with a perfect ocean background and has a very picturesque pathway leading to it. Could be the reason behind why it’s so heavily photographed. On the other side of the lighthouse, there are rocks protruding from the sea giving the area its name.
You can climb up (more like scramble) to get a better view like we did. Just be careful because if you slip and fall something tells us you’re not going to have a second chance….
There you have it! 14 places you absolutely have to visit when exploring New Zealand’s South Island! Lord of the Rings fan? Make sure you visit some of the Lord of the Rings filming locations too! Here’s a list of where to find them to make it easier for you! Finding them is an adventure all in itself.