New Zealand is one of those countries that will absolutely blow away anyone who visits it but manage to steal a little piece of your soul in the process. Between the North Island and the South Island, there are so many different, amazing places to see, experience and explore. The South Island has everything from mountain peaks to ocean inlets and sandy beaches to towering fjords. It has everything anyone could ever want with amazing scenery around every corner. We were lucky enough to spend 6 months living in a campervan while travelling both the North Island and the South Island.
It was a life-changing experience, one that we will never forget and highly recommend. Being from Canada we thought that we would end up seeing some of the same things over and over, but we were pleasantly surprised to find something so different and unique in each place we visited. It was difficult to create a list of only 14 must-see places on the South Island because everything is worth seeing. While the South Island may be a tad more popular due to some places on this list, the North Island is not something you want to miss as there are plenty of must-see places there too.
Because you may have limited time visiting the South Island it is best to try and prioritize the things you want to see. Which is exactly why we have created this list, to help you plan a memorable vacation that will steal a little piece of you too. These are places that we absolutely loved and felt were truly and uniquely New Zealand, so much so that we felt everyone needed to see them when travelling to the country.
So without further ado, here are the 14 must-see places on the South Island of New Zealand.
1) Te Anau
Te Anau is known as ‘The Gateway to The Fiords’, and a lot of people treat it as simply that, a gateway. But this area shouldn’t be mindlessly glossed over because it has a lot to offer visitors. Te Anau has spectacular Milford Sound like views with 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 Sound). Te Anau is also home to one of New Zealand’s great walks, The Kepler Track. Watch the weather carefully before heading here though as it does tend to rain a lot in this region of the South Island. You may want a rain jacket.
2) Milford Sound
Milford Sound is an unforgettably beautiful place on the South Island that no doubt deserves a visit. It is nothing short of spectacular. We loved visiting the area (read more about it here and wouldn’t ever hesitate in going back again or recommending it to others. There is a reason it is known as one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s towering mountains meet the jet black open water as waterfalls fill every crevice and seals and penguins swim and rest on the rocks. This is one location on the South Island that is straight out of a dream.
There are two ways to experience this area of the South Island, you can either kayak or cruise the sound. Either one will allow you to get up close and personal with this majestic area. Either way, bring a rain coat. The area is well known for its rainfall, not to mention getting up close and personal with a waterfall usually results in drenched clothing.
Getting to Milford Sound is not as easy as it sounds either, so give yourself more than enough time to get there. 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. But, be warned, Milford Sound is home to a ridiculous amount of sand flies. Think of sand flies as mosquitos on steroids. Their bites hurt and are itchy for weeks. So bring really good bug spray!
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 almost a year out. Yes, it’s that popular.
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. This was the first place that I felt like a piece of me was going to be left behind and replaced with amazing memories.
Everything about it is just unforgettable, and that could be why it’s such a popular destination on the South Island. It’s known as the adventure capital of New Zealand and offers a plethora of activities for thrill seekers. From hiking to bungee jumping to skiing and snowboarding, paddle boating and even jet boats. Ths list goes on and on. Be warned, Queenstown will suck your wallet dry, it is a very expensive little town. So keep that in mind!
Wanaka was the second place that stole a little piece of us. Wanaka and Queenstown are usually grouped into one since they are so close to one another, which is why we are classifying Wanaka as 3.1 on our list. Located about an hour from Queenstown, Wanaka is yet another mountain paradise. To reach this small town you must drive through the famous Crown Range.
The Crown Range is unlike any other drive you will take in your life.
The view is…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. Water sports are very popular here because of how perfect the water is and how beautiful the views are. There are plenty of places to rent equipment, give yourself lots of time you’re going to want it!
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 hilarious 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 the famous Wanaka Tree.
4) Blue Pools of Haast Pass
Living in Canada so close to many beautiful glacial lakes in Banff, we have seen our fair share of blue waters. But nothing, and we mean nothing, compares to that of the blue pools on the South Island. The Water is so crystal clear and perfectly blue it’s hard to believe it’s even real. It’s so clear you can’t even tell how deep it is. While it may look only a few feet deep, it’s actually deep enough that people jump off the swing bridge above the water. Not that we recommend it, but it’s quite the optical illusion.
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!
7) Lake Pukaki
If you’re looking for something that is Peter Jackson worthy, you found it. Lake Pukaki was used as Lake Town in The Hobbit trilogy and is among many of the Lord of the Rings filming locations on the South Island. 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. So don’t forget your bathing suit! 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 in Abel Tasman aren’t so bad either.
Kaikoura is home to one of the largest seal colonies on not only the South Island but in the entire country! While seals are all over 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 colony. 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.
Oamaru is home to the world’s smallest penguin, the blue penguin. These cute little creatures are super friendly and come out at night to hide and sleep in the cliffs along the coast. Oamaru is also known as the Steampunk Capital of New Zealand. So needless to say, Oamaru is one of the more unique places on the South Island with a mixture of cute creatures and interesting architecture and features.
Like we mentioned, 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 even if they walk up to you.
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. After you eat stay a bit longer and witness some of the South Islands epic sunsets.
13) Moeraki Boulders
14) Nugget Point Lighthouse
And that completes our list of 14 must-see places on the South Island of New Zealand. These are just a handful of places that are truly incredible or unique on the South Island. There are plenty more to visit if you have the time and plenty to visit on the North Island as well. Doing it all while living in a campervan was a next level experience and one we absolutely recommend doing.