There is absolutely no denying that New Zealand is a breathtaking country. Every corner you turn is a new piece of scenery so unlike the last, it feels like you’ve stepped into a whole new world, which would explain why it made the perfect backdrop for Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. New Zealand’s South Island is illustrious and diverse and has everything from mountain peaks to ocean inlets and from sandy beaches to towering fjords. We were lucky enough to spend a total of around 6 months living in a campervan, four of which were spending travelling and exploring New Zealand’s South Island. Overall the main thing we learned was to take your time in New Zealand, breathe it all in and truly enjoy it. With that being said, we spent half a year there and still don’t feel like we did it all!
Being from Canada and being lucky enough to live so close to the majestic Rocky Mountains in Banff, we underestimated just how breathtaking New Zealand actually is. We are so accustomed to seeing towering mountains and bright blue lakes we sort of expected New Zealand and specifically New Zealand’s South Island to be very much like home. We could not have been more wrong.
The South Island of New Zealand tends to be a lot more popular than the North Island, which means if you are visiting you should be at least a little prepared to deal with crowds, booking hotels and people in your epic photos. But don’t let that discourage you from visiting because there are also plenty of places you will visit where you can the entire area all to yourself, especially if you decide to either rent or buy a campervan and live in it. With campsites spread all across the country (some free and some paid) getting a piece of the country to yourself isn’t impossible. The South Island is the larger of the two, but it is also less populated so you are much more likely to get a bit of ‘alone time in New Zealand’ while travelling in those regions.
New Zealand’s South Island is made up of 7 regions: Canterbury, West Coast, Otago, Southland, Tasman, Marlborough, and Nelson. Each of these regions offers something different to its visitors, and of all those things these are the top 14 you absolutely cannot miss!
14 Must-See Places On New Zealand’s South Island
Located in the Southland region of New Zealand’s South Island, Te Anau is known as ‘The Gateway to The Fiords.” And a lot of people who go through this area use it simply as 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. Bring a rain jacket!
Milford Sound is an unforgettable and majestic place on New Zealand’s South Island that is 100% worth the time and effort to travel to. 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. It’s towering mountains meet the jet black open water as waterfalls gently pour down the rock faces, to top it all off seals and penguins swim and rest on the rocks basking in the sun. This is one location on the South Island that is straight out of a dream.
There are two ways to experience this area of New Zealand’s South Island, you can either kayak or cruise the sound. Either one will allow you to get up close and personal with the areas natural beauty and wildlife. Either way, bring a raincoat. Milford Sound 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 extra 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.’ In theory, it is yes, but in practice, it’s not at all. The road to Milford Sound meanders through mountains and because of this it makes the drive almost twice as long. Not to mention you’re probably going to want to stop and take some photos along the way. Of all the places you need to slow down and take your time in New Zealand, this is the one!
New Zealand is well known for its ever meandering roads if you get car sick easily (like me) be prepared! 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’s South Island was this absolute 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 is just as incredible as Queenstown is. 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 (it’s like an added bonus). 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’s South Island would look like and at the same time nothing like you could ever imagine. 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 flipped one of our bikes and happened to lose a tire. 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.
Of all our time in New Zealand, this was one of our favourite places and somewhere we could fully see ourselves living! Despite how difficult it can be to find a place to live and a full-time job.
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 colour comes from light refraction on the clear, icy cold water. Reaching the blue pools 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.
Franz Josef is a small town on New Zealand’s South Island that’s located at the base of the famous glacier of the same name. 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 colour 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!
If you’re looking for a piece of Middle Earth on New Zealand’s South Island, look no further than Lake Pukaki. 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 main lookouts get super packed with tourists. The beautiful blue colour and the towering Mount Cook across the water makes for some very tempting natural eye candy.
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 region of New Zealand’s South Island, after all, it is a mountainous region! So make sure you bring appropriate gear and don’t freeze sleeping in your van like we did on our first night. 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.
Fall in love with the stars in Lake Tekapo – one of the World’s only IDA Internationally certified dark sky reserves. The small town significantly reduces 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 find in a lot of places around the world.
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, we were pretty unprepared and it was an overall bad idea – read about it here.
Located on the North Coast of New Zealand’s 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 centre 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.
Do a little bit of hiking in the area to get some epic views of Kaikoura and New Zealand’s South Island coast. There is a trail that beings from the seal colony and takes you up high along the shoreline and offers amazing views. Make sure to grab some of New Zealand’s best fish and chips at Cooper’s Catch. If you’re looking for more to do in Kaikoura check out our post here. We spent about two weeks of our time in New Zealand here and found that was more than enough!
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 New Zealand’s 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.
Nugget Point Lighthouse
We highly recommend that you spend a good amount of time in New Zealand as a whole, but more specifically plan a little bit of extra time on New Zealand’s South Island. This list only scratches the surface of all the places you should see while travelling the South Island. The North Island has a lot to offer it’s visitors as well, but due to its smaller size, you can travel around it a lot quicker. If you get the chance, rent a campervan and live in it as you travel around the country. It’s an extremely popular activity in the country and potentially a once in a lifetime experience! Spend your time in New Zealand doing the right things that suit what you love to do, and hopefully, our list helps you narrow that down!
Our Recommended Gear For New Zealand’s South Island