Wondering where to go on New Zealand’s South Island? Here are 8 must-visit places on the South Island.
New Zealand’s South Island is so full of wonder. I won’t pick favorites between the North and South Islands (they’re both beautiful), but the South Island does have something special. Every single place on the island looks like it’s from another world.
There are so many places you’re going to want to visit on the South Island, so narrowing them down won’t be easy. After a year in New Zealand, I still missed out on a lot, so don’t expect to see everything on a short trip. It’s just not realistic.
However, you can see plenty of South Island highlights on your trip if you plan well. Hopefully my experience traveling in New Zealand can help YOU decide which places to visit and which ones to skip. There is no right or wrong answer, and no matter where you go in New Zealand, you won’t be disappointed.
Including all of these places would make a great South Island Itinerary. But note that these are just the top places based on my own experience. There’s still lots of other places you could visit instead. Most of these places are easily accessible with public transportation and tour operators.
If you need help deciding where to go, these are all the must-visit places on New Zealand’s South Island.
Where to Go on New Zealand’s South Island
Picton is the little town where the ferries connect to the North Island. So while A LOT of people go through Picton, not a lot of people take the time to actually see it. It’s definitely a quiet place—not exactly a lot to do. But it’s another beautiful New Zealand town perfect for relaxation. Plus there’s lots of hiking to do, and you really have to experience the scenic Marlborough Sounds.
What to do in Picton:
- Hike the Snout to get a view of the Marlborough Sounds
- Walk to Bob’s Bay to watch the ferries come & go
- Take a drive along Queen Charlotte Drive
- Walk the Queen Charlotte Track—one of New Zealand’s Great Walks
Read Next: Finding Peace of Mind in Picton
The main draw of Hanmer Springs is the Thermal Hot Pools. You can easily spend a whole day there (and you should), but there’s plenty more to keep you busy. This is a great place to get away for a couple of days. In the winter, you’re close to ski fields. In the summer, there’s lots of places to hike or go mountain biking. And in town you’ll find great restaurants and shops to explore.
What to do in Hanmer Springs:
- Spend a day at the Thermal Pools
- Hike up Conical Hill for a spectacular view
- Go hiking or biking in Hanmer Forest
Read Next: Quick Guide to Hanmer Springs
Christchurch was destroyed after the 2011 earthquake, but it’s been totally revitalized! While it’s still a work in progress, the city is ripe for tourism. There’s no shortage of things to do and you could easily spend days exploring the city. You could also base yourself here for some fun day trips. Don’t skip Christchurch while you’re on the South Island!
What to do in Christchurch:
- Visit the Canterbury Museum and the Botanic Garden
- Take a tour of the city on the Christchurch Tram
- Explore the street art all around the city
- Take a day trip to Akaroa & the Banks Peninsula
Read Next: Christchurch, a City in Progress
The South Island’s east coast isn’t as popular as the west coast, but there’s so much to see here. Visiting Oamaru is like stepping back in time. The Heritage Precinct is full of white-washed Victorian buildings and cobblestone streets. The town is know for its Victorian and Steampunk culture. It’s such a fun place to explore.
What to do in Oamaru:
- Wander through the Victorian Precinct to see the galleries, shops, & cafes
- Watch the Blue Penguins return home every evening
- Get a taste of Steampunk culture at Steampunk HQ
Read Next: Quick Guide to Oamaru
Dunedin is such a cool city. It has a big student population, which keeps it fun and interesting. It’s a sprawling city, making it feel absolutely huge. There’s tons of art, culture, and other attractions to see in Dunedin. I wish I had spent more time there, so this is absolutely a must-visit place on the South Island.
What to do in Dunedin:
- Visit the Otago Museum & The Settler’s Museum
- Walk up the steepest street in the world
- Take a tour of the Cadbury Factory or Speight’s Brewery
- Go on a day trip to the Otago Peninsula
Queenstown is one of the most popular places in all of New Zealand. The scenery is enough reason to visit, but the town is filled with lots of cool stuff too. If you’re into the outdoors and adventure activities, you’re probably going to want to stay here forever. Ski in winter, hike in summer, and enjoy this town all year-round.
What to do in Queenstown:
- Go on one of the many day hikes in the area
- Ride the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak
- Take a scenic cruise around Lake Wakatipu
- Go on a day trip to Wanaka, Arrowtown, or Glenorchy
Read Next: Queenstown Photo Diary
Milford Sound is an absolute MUST-VISIT place on the South Island. Often called the “8th Wonder of the World”, it really is one of the most magical places you’ll ever see. You can drive here on your own, or you can take a day trip from Queenstown or Te Anau. This is one place you don’t want to miss.
What to do in Milford Sound:
- Enjoy the scenic drive to Milford Sound
- Take a cruise through the Sound and back
- Hike the Milford Track, another Great Walk of New Zealand
- Go kayaking in the Sound and see dolphins & seals up close
Read Next: Everything you Need to Know About Cruising Milford Sound
Upper West Coast
The South Island’s West Coast is one of the most popular tourist destinations. Most people stick to the lower region, but I recommend visiting the upper west coast. Access to this part is a little difficult through public transport, but it can still be done. It’s totally worth it to see the caves, limestone arches, and wild landscapes.
What to do on the Upper West Coast:
- Take a tour of the Charleston Caves (Te Ananui)
- Explore the limestone arches at the Oparara Basin
- Drive up to Karamea and stop along the way for these short walks
- Hike the Heaphy Track
Read Next: Exploring Karamea & the Oparara Basin
Of course, your South Island adventures don’t have to end here. There are tons of other places to visit on New Zealand’s South Island, but these are the top places that I recommend visiting. These were definitely my favorite spots on the South Island. Use this is your South Island itinerary, or just use it as a jumping off point. If you have the time, explore more on New Zealand!
Want to visit the North Island? Here are 7 Must-Visit Places on New Zealand’s North Island.
Leave your favorite South Island spots in the comments. I know there’s plenty more to see!
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I love the South Island (and the North Island too). I can’t believe we haven’t been to Picton (except to sleep), Hanmer Springs, or Akaroa yet. In October we drove from Dunedin to Christchurch and loved the entire region.
The east coast is such a fun region to explore. I’m surprised so many people skip it!
I loved Picton, we spent Christmas there a few years back it was a lovely time, hiking on Christmas Day with a BBQ for dinner – such a lovely quiet place once the ferries have quieted!
Sounds like such a nice Christmas. I spent 3 weeks in Picton & really loved how quiet it was most of the time.
Woohoo Courtney! Here right now, in Lyttleton. Also visited Cashmere by Christchurch and we house sat in Timaru. Visited that O town but missed penguins BUT saw huge fur seals chilling where penguins hang. Also saw the Moeraki boulders, fur seals at Shag Point, Mount Cook, Arthur’s Pass and some of the Northeast Coast. Did Opotiki on the North Island for a month and heading to Paekakariki in 2 days. Exciting! Fabulous post.
Oh wow, sounds like you’ve seen a lot! What an exciting trip. Thanks for reading! 🙂