New Zealand South Island has been well-known across the globe for its untouched nature wonders and towering snowy peaks. It’s a must-do thing to explore the New Zealand South Island attractions before it’s too late.
Undoubtedly, the best way to explore this wonderful island is on a road trip. Many gems in South Island are remote and difficult to access, so having your own vehicle solves all the problems and brings you wherever you want to go.
I’ll start from the northern tip of South Island and goes counter-clockwise.
Before that, if you are planning for your road trip in South Island, check out my article, Ultimate Guide to Road Trip in New Zealand! This travel guide provides literally everything you need to know for your road trip planning.
Download Campermate if you are unsure of some locations. This mobile app provides all informative locations you need to know for traveling in New Zealand.
Ready For The Best New Zealand South Island Attractions? Let’s dive in!
- 1 Abel Tasman National Park
- 2 Golden Bay
- 3 Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
- 4 Tauranga Bay
- 5 Franz Josef Glacier
- 6 Fox Glacier
- 7 Lake Matheson
- 8 Wanaka
- 9 Arrowtown
- 10 Queenstown
- 11 Glenorchy
- 12 Milford Sound
- 13 Slope Point
- 14 Stewart Island
- 15 Catlins Forest Park
- 16 Tunnel Beach
- 17 Dunedin
- 18 Moeraki Boulders
- 19 Oamaru
- 20 Lake Pukaki
- 21 Lake Tekapo
- 22 Arthur’s Pass
- 23 Mount Cook
- 24 Kaikoura
- 25 Akaroa
Abel Tasman National Park
Home to one of the most spectacular multi-day trails in New Zealand, Abel Tasman Coast Track. Abel Tasman National Park offers everything you desired for a summer vacation, from sunbathing in the golden sand beaches to kayaking in the sea of Golden Bay.
Other than Abel Tasman Coast Track, which might take up 3-5 days of trekking, this wonderful national park also offers a variety of day-trek trails. Definitely pay Abel Tasman National Park a visit if you’re in New Zealand to spend your summer!
There are Skydive Abel Tasman as well, which you can see the North Island on the plane before plunging down to the earth with your instructor.
The northernmost part of South Island. If you are using Windows operating system for your laptop, you might come across a wallpaper which was taken in Wharariki Beach of Golden Bay.
If you are on your road trip in South Island, you should have no difficulty reaching those destinations. Just set your GPS correctly.
However, note that if you want to see the Archway Islands in Wharariki Beach, you have to arrive at the right spot. The beach is wide, check out the map here and you will understand what I’m talking about.
Signboards are available throughout the road so make sure to park your car at the right place.
Farewell Spit holds hundreds of whale carcasses and bones, and a variety of bird species. While you are not able to enter without permission, there are several operators which run tours into Farewell Spit.
Check out this amazing 10 Days New Zealand South Island Itinerary!
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
One of the most well-known New Zealand South Island attractions. No, they are not made of pancakes. The name was originated from the pancake-like limestone formations. While there are not many things to do there, it’s worth to see the limestone up close.
The information boards also provide all you want to know about the rocks. A few minutes away from the pancake rocks, you will arrive at the Blowhole. Seawater is blown up high in the air due to strong water tide underneath the rock.
Wind is usually strong at the West Coast so be careful not to get yourself wet from the sea water thrust out from the blowhole. The visit is free-of-charge.
Wondering what to do during your New Zealand South Island road trip? Check out my 27 Remarkable Things to do in New Zealand South Island! You’ll love it.
If you are into fur seal colonies, look no further. Tauranga Bay probably offers one of the best views on the New Zealand fur seal colony.
The viewing platform is also very well-maintained despite the strong wind. It takes some good eyesight to spot the fur seals on the rocks down there. The fur seals “camouflaged” themselves, having the same color with the rocks. But once you realized that, be prepared for the fur seals exhibition.
Hundreds of them are chilling in the coastal rocks. It’s easy to reach Tauranga Bay, a parking lot is also available there, and it’s free to enter. Definitely consider this if you’re on your New Zealand South Island road trip!
Franz Josef Glacier
Pay a visit to Franz Josef Glacier while you can. The glacier, one of the most popular attractions in New Zealand South Island is retreating by great portions every year. Watch the footage here for the retreat of the glacier from December 2012 to January 2015.
The walk to the viewing platform of Franz Josef Glacier and car park are free but will take up to 30 minutes.
Fox Glacier is similar to Franz Josef Glacier, but there are more things to do.
Hopping on a helicopter and hike on the glacier is possible, with several companies offering these services, including Fox Glacier Guiding and Glacier Helicopters. The latter offers hiking service in Franz Josef Glacier as well.
Skydive Fox Glacier had been voted as the most scenic skydive in the world in 2016. They offer the highest altitude skydive in the country, at 16,500ft above sea level, with 70 seconds free fall.
The other skydive companies in New Zealand offer the highest of 15,000ft above sea level with 60 seconds of free fall. The price increases proportionally to the altitude, so you might want to adjust your budget and see what fits you most.
Check out why I think you should try skydiving at least once in your lifetime- 6 Symptoms You Should Go Skydiving.
Fox Glacier is also home of some of the coolest hotels: Check them out here.
5 minutes drive from Fox Glacier, you will arrive at one of the most touristy lakes in New Zealand, Lake Matheson. What’s amazing about this lake is that it offers a reflective view of two tallest mountains in New Zealand, Mount Cook, and Mount Tasman.
The view is impressive and unobstructed all year round so feel free to go anytime. While a little wind can destroy the reflective view, My suggestion is to go in early morning, when the wind is the calmest.
But be informed that during these hours, the numbers of tourists at viewing platform is the highest. Go earlier, and secure yourself a spot if you want to shoot with a tripod.
They serve decent coffee and snacks in Matheson Cafe at the entrance so give it a try!
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One of the most amazing New Zealand South Island attractions – Wanaka. My all-time favorite town by far! Most of the tourists came for the white powders in nearby ski fields like Treble Cone and Cardrona Alpine Resort.
Even though Wanaka is swarmed by tourists every day especially during the winter, there are plenty of ways to escape from the crowds. Lake Wanaka remained one of the most photographed locations in New Zealand, with a lonely tree standing in the middle of the lake.
Miraculously. It still blooms in the spring, just in case you think it’s dead. If you’re a photographer, you know what to do.
Skydive Wanaka has been well-known throughout the country and among travelers, as it offers one of the best views for skydivers. I had my first skydive in Wanaka and was happy with what they have to offer.
It was so mind-blowing for someone who is afraid of height. Some said you could defeat the acrophobia once you did a skydive, but nope…
I’m still afraid of height now. Maybe I am the exception. But that made skydiving a greater challenge to myself.
You can’t say you visited Wanaka without hiking Roys Peak. It’s around 10 minutes drive from Wanaka town to the foothill parking lot of Roys Peak.
You have to toss a few dollars into the box attached to the entrance to start your hike, though the box is not guarded. But please pay. Starting at the elevation of 400m, the 3-hours ascend will bring you to the 1578m peak, surrounded by green hills and lakes.
The 360-degree panorama view on the peak is just unforgettable. Be sure to bring appropriate gears if you were to hike in winter. Check out the DOC page for more info.
One of the filming locations of Lord of The Ring trilogy. While this lovely town is very welcoming all year-round, it became one of the most cheerful and happening places in New Zealand during the autumn.
Arrowtown Autumn Festival will be held once a year during the autumn season. Kiwis from every corner of the country will attend this festival just to experience the autumn vibe. I once drove all the way south with my colleagues to Arrowtown from Motueka, the northern tip of South Island just to attend this festival.
I wasn’t disappointed. It was a 3-days South Island road trip, we took good advantage of the public holidays.
Arrowtown was a gold mining town centuries ago. When I was there, some kids came to me on their bicycle and tried to sell the gold they picked on the ground. I rejected with a smile but thinking back… Are you kidding me?
Compared to the neighbors Wanaka and Queenstown, Arrowtown is a less popular attraction for tourists. If you don’t like blending in with tourists, Arrowtown should be in your list.
Note that there are not many things to do in Arrowtown, other than immersing yourself into the atmosphere. Take it as an intercity transition point. It’s one of the most scenic places to visit in New Zealand South Island.
It’s time to spend some dollars on food here. Queenstown in Central Otago had been attracting food lovers from all around the world.
(Psst… I prefer Queenstown over Christchurch any time!)
Pay a visit to Fergburger, look at the queue and you will know what I’m talking about. Not into queuing up with a bunch of tourists? Locals recommend Devil Burger. I’ve tasted both and was left satisfied.
I also had the best pork ribs in my entire life in Flame Bar and Grill, it wasn’t awfully expensive and guess what, it’s juicy inside. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.
Queenstown is not all about food anyway. Coronet Peak and The Remarkables are the two ski fields that contributed to most of the tourists in Queenstown. You are more likely to come across a ski equipment rental shops than convenient stores.
Talking about Queenstown, it’s somehow similar to Wanaka in some way. There are a variety of tracks available, most of them are day-tracks and are easily accessible if you have a car.
If you are planning for only one track, do Ben Lomond Track, which is not physically demanding but time-consuming. It takes 3-4 hours to Ben Lomond Saddle and 6-8 hours to Ben Lomond Summit. The latter will reward you with magnificent lake and mountain views.
On a clear day, you can see Mount Aspiring, the tallest mountain outside of Mount Cook National Park.
Gateway to one of the 10 World’s Best Tracks, Routeburn Track. It had been a major filming location for Lord of The Ring trilogy, which convinces you more than anything for a visit.
Unlike Queenstown and Wanaka, Glenorchy is a small rustic settlement, with the smallest library I’ve ever seen.
It’s located 45km northwest of Queenstown at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, with a background of towering snowy mountain ranges. Glenorchy receives the visitation of tourists from Queenstown in the morning, but they don’t stay long after taking a few photos so don’t worry about it.
There are plenty of multi-day tracks and day tracks around Glenorchy too. If you miss out any hiking gears, get them at Queenstown as there are more choices there.
Twenty kilometers away from Glenorchy lies the legendary Paradise. I was expecting a lot when I heard the name so I took that as a must-visit place. In the end, it didn’t amaze me that much, there was lots of mud which nearly made my car wheels stuck.
I guess I’m kind of numb to the majestic landscapes of the Southern Alps region that time. The beauty of Paradise is still breathtaking if you went in the right season (when there’s not so much mud).
Sir Ian McKellen, the actor of Gandalf in Lord of The Ring: “This is the Middle‑earth I had always pictured”.
Surrounded by ultra-steep mountains which shoots up from sea level to above 2000m, believed to be crafted by a goddess in Maori legend, this is a real paradise. Located in Fiordland National Park, a part of Te Wahipounamu (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the beauty of Milford Sound still stuns me to this day. It’s probably the best New Zealand South Island attraction of all-time.
Fun Fact: Te Wahipounamu covers 4 national parks: Aoraki (Mt Cook) National Park, Mt Aspiring National Park, Fiordland National Park and Westland National Park.
Cruising along the mountains, it’s no wonder to feel so small standing beside those mountains, which seems to have endless height. The water in Milford Sound is clean and clear, making it perfect for kayaking and any water activities permitted.
I had my first cruise ride with Jucy Cruise in Milford Sound for an affordable price booked through BookMe. Our cruise set out in the early morning when the wind blow was bone-chilling.
It’s not a rare sight for dolphins to be friendly and swim alongside the cruise as well. Get your camera ready, you will definitely return with tons of photos and videos.
Milford Sound is 2 hours drive away from nearby town Te Anau, which is the home for the largest lake in South Island.
The drive alone was magnificent and offers a lot of stop points to impress your eyes. The road is winding a lot so I do not recommend driving there at night, even though we did, in winter, but with much extra cautious.
Campsites are abundant throughout the entire driveway as well, costing around $6 to $8 per night per person.
Check Campermate for the exact locations. We camped at the parking lot in Milford Sound, but please check whether it is still available or not if you are planning to camp there. We’ve heard people saying that camping was banned in the area in the summer but open in winter.
The southernmost tip of South Island, if you are interested. It’s basically just a signboard, identifying that the location is indeed the southernmost tip. Also showing how far is the Equator and the South Pole.
It’s no harm stopping by for a quick photo. Feel free to have some snacks there, facing the south, imagining that if you swim in that direction you will arrive at the South Pole. Hmm…
If you think you cannot leave New Zealand without seeing a wild kiwi bird, here’s your chance. No, I’m not talking about the zoo. I hate zoos.
The population density of kiwi birds in Stewart Island is the highest among the whole country. Be reminded that both camping and accommodations there might be more pricey.
Kiwi birds usually come out in the night so be prepared to come out from your warm room at night for some “night hunt”. Kiwi birds are shy and afraid of human so make sure to turn on your stealth mode.
There are two ways you can get to Stewart Island, either by flight or by ferry. Ferries depart from Bluff and takes around an hour. The latter departs from Invercargill Airport and takes around 15-20 minutes. You can find the schedule for both options at the official website here.
Catlins Forest Park
Home to numerous scenic waterfalls in New Zealand. Purakaunui Falls remained as the most impressive and most-visited waterfall in Catlins Forest Park.
Signboards are located all along the driveway to tell you how far beyond lies a waterfall. A few minutes of walking from the free parking lot is inevitable to reach the waterfalls.
Most of the cases, there are viewing platforms for you to place your tripod for a long exposure shot. The great thing about doing a road trip in New Zealand is that you can stop anytime you want for these wonderful waterfalls.
The bus driver is never gonna stop for you.
Tunnel Beach is located at a few minutes drive south from Dunedin. This cliff by the coast has a tunnel built to connect the surface to the rocky beach below.
It had been quite a popular spot for summer swimming for both locals and travelers in the summer. A great spot to enjoy the sunrise view if you are camping nearby.
There is a public parking lot in Brighton which you should look up in Campermate if you want a free campsite for the night before driving into Dunedin.
Note that you can only camp with a car or motorhomes, it’s a parking lot anyway.
The journey of my travel life began in New Zealand. Check out my Through My Eyes Series where I talked about my travel stories!
Dunedin is one of the most alive and cheerful cities in New Zealand I came across. Most of the youngsters on the street are university students.
Pay a visit to the Otago Museum, hit the road in Otago Peninsula, have some chocolate with coffee in Cadbury World, stroll around in Dunedin Railway Station, wonder through Larnach Castle and Gardens, learn about the birds with the largest wingspan in The Royal Albatross Centre, there’s plenty to do in Dunedin.
The last thing you do not want to miss is the World’s Steepest Street, Baldwin Street. A lot of travelers love to challenge the steepness with their vehicle while recording themselves driving in the steepest street in the road.
A natural wonder among New Zealand South Island attractions. Moeraki Boulders had been well-known across the globe for its distinctive perfect spherical shape, despite being formed entirely in the ocean by force of nature.
Some of the boulders are cracked open due to erosion but most of them still remain pretty strong and rigid.
The tourist wave usually starts splashing around 10 am, so if you want a perfect sunrise photo, Moeraki Boulders are less competitive than you think.
Some said the chowder served in Moeraki Boulders Cafe upon the cliff is one of the best in New Zealand. Give it a try and tell me how you feel about it!
Oamaru held one of the country’s oldest public garden, renowned Victorian architecture and two penguin colonies. This large town is very comfortable for spending time in the street just strolling around, enjoying the vibe. Thinking of buying souvenirs to bring back home? Oamaru is the town you should visit.
One of my most memorable moments happened in Oamaru, where five blue penguins walked by me.
If you want to share the same moment with me, drive and park your car in Waterfront Road of Oamaru. The end of the road locates Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, where you have to pay to watch the penguins up close.
But you don’t have to do that. Stand quietly at the roadside, blue penguins will cross the street to return to the land for the night. Have patience, and wait, wait, wait…
Blue penguins don’t see things well at night, instead, they navigate by listening to the voices of other penguins on the land. I waited an hour for the penguins to cross the street after hiding under a bush for 45 minutes.
Like I said, patience. Remember to not touch the penguins, it’s illegal and unethical to disturb the wildlife. And please don’t use a flashlight.
Like blue penguins, yellow-eyed penguins return to shore at evening and departs into the ocean in the early morning.
There’s a viewing platform in Katiki Point Lighthouse where you can watch the departure of yellow-eyed penguins start their day and dive into the vast ocean.
Bring your zoom lens, you will be very far away from them as the viewing platform is on the cliff.
The best thing about this lake is the i-Site located by the lake. Weird enough, they actually sell salmon in the store. And it’s the BEST salmon I’ve tasted in my life.
Seriously, give it a try if you’re there. Maybe it’s not the best for you but it will not be a disappointment. Despite the fact that the store is located by Lake Pukaki, the salmons are from the high-altitude lakes in Mount Cook region.
Whenever you see photos of lupins in New Zealand, you think of Lake Tekapo. Arriving at the right season, you got to enjoy the magnificent view of lupin field by the clear blue lake, with snow-capped mountain ranges as a backdrop. Lake Tekapo is one of the most visited New Zealand South Island attractions.
The lupin blooming season peaks at mid-November until early January, take note if you’re planning your itinerary! While Lupin may bloom by the roadside, please do not stop your car in the middle of the highway for a photo. It’s dangerous for yourself and innocent drivers.
Church of the Good Shepherd remains as the hottest bucket-list thing in Lake Tekapo. It somehow seems that the architecture is based on the background, giving it the authentic and country feel.
There is almost no light pollution at the background at night, making it one of the most photographed locations in New Zealand for astrophotography.
The mountain pass connecting the West Coast and the East Coast. The drive along Arthur’s Pass can be scenic at any seasons of the year. As Arthur’s Pass is very vulnerable to snowfall in winter, remember to drive with snow chains if the snowfall is strong.
Castle Hill in Arthur’s Pass is the location where Aslan defeated the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia. The huge limestone rocks will undoubtedly make you feel tiny when standing beside them.
The hike to the Avalanche Peak is very physically demanding, as it is extremely steep all the way to the summit. The path was well-marked so don’t worry about being lost.
Bring a lot of water if you go in summer to avoid dehydration. Be aware that avalanches are very common during winter, hence its name. Avoid Avalanche Peak in winter unless you’re experienced in alpine climbing.
The tallest mountain standing in New Zealand. While it’s very technical to summit Mount Cook (you need to join a professional expedition team for that), there are several tracks around the region which provides great and personal views on the towering white mountains.
The track I recommend the most is Hooker Valley Track. The easy and non-technical track requires 3 hours return via the same track, at distance of 10km.
Hooker Valley Track is one of the best-review tracks in New Zealand so please don’t miss it, for your eyes’ sake.
If you are doing your New Zealand road trip, there are several campsites which you can consider to spend your night. Note that the temperature there can be really cold and chilly in winter. Be prepared for the colder temperature there!
In Maori language, Kai is eat, Koura is crayfish. Now you know what to do here.
Kaikoura has a lot of outdoor activities to suit everyone’s taste.
Have some money to spend? Book a tour with the agencies for an albatross tour or humpback whales tour. Want to swim with seals? You can book for a swim session with the seals here. A hiking fan? Go for Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway to spend your day at a slow pace while immersing yourself into the beauty of nature.
Looking for something to fill your tummy? You got it. There are plenty of stalls and restaurants selling crayfish in various style of cooking. While the price might varies widely, it’s important to know what you’re looking for.
Check online or consult your fellow travelers on making the decision for your crayfish feast. Personally, I recommend Kaikoura Seafood BBQ Kiosk. Enjoy your crayfish in Kaikoura!
Akaroa is truly an underrated gem of paradise-like New Zealand. While the vibe in the French-style town is great, it’s best to spend your days away from the town in the rural area.
The accommodations in Akaroa is well-reviewed and offer you the warm home feeling. Look them up in BBH page. There are plenty of tracks to do in Akaroa, ask your host for a map.
Usually, they drew the map themselves but it’s enough for you not to be lost. The dark sky in Akaroa is perfect for astrophotography since there is no light pollution at all nearby.
Excited For These 25 New Zealand South Island Attractions?
I hope I gave you a hand on planning your dream itinerary in South Island of New Zealand. Feel free to comment below if I missed out any interesting place, I’m looking forward to hearing from you. Enjoy your road trip in New Zealand!
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