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Top 12 Things to do in New Zealand – South Island

Top 12 Things to do in New Zealand – South Island

Although small, New Zealand is a country with tons to offer travelers. With its diverse landscapes incredible hikes, and countless adventure activities it is sure to impress all visitors. But with so many things to so in New Zealand, it is hard to know where to go or where to spend most of your time.

New Zealand’s South Island is very different from the North! If you like mountains, small towns, picturesque lakes, and adventure then the South Island is for you! Most people only spend two weeks in the South Island or so, but you could easily spend months and still not run out of things to do!

In this article, we’ve made a list of the best things to do in New Zealand on the South Island. The adventures are literally endless, but I have tried to sum up some of the best things to do here in this blog!

Mueller Hut Hike New Zealand

Hike to New Zealand’s Mueller Hut.

1. Explore Mount Cook National Park

The first thing on my list of things to do on New Zealand’s South Island has to be a visit to Mount Cook National Park! This is my absolute favorite place in all of New Zealand. Mount Cook is actually the tallest mountain in New Zealand and the national park surrounding it offers an array of incredible hikes with views you would think only exist on the pages of magazines.

Within Mount Cook National Park is Mount Cook Village, a small town offering accommodation, camping, scenic flights and helicopters, a couple of small shops, and only select restaurants and bars. The best thing to do is spend a night or two in the village as you are close to all of the different hikes and things to see.

Some of the best things to do in Mount Cook National Park are:

  • Hooker Valley Track – This is an easy 10km return walk through the Hooker Valley. At the end, you are greeted with Hooker Lake with the huge Mount Cook in the background. Although it is a long walk it is flat and the trail is well maintained making it accessible for most fitness levels. If you are going to do one day hike while in New Zealand then the Hooker Valley Track should be it!
  • Mueller Hut – If you are up for a challenge then consider hiking up to the Mueller Hut and spending the night. From the Mueller Hut, you have 360 views of all of the mountains in the park including Mount Cook! During the summer you will need to book this hut in advance through the Department of Conservation (DOC), but in the winter you just book the morning of.
  • Tasman Glacier – The walk to Tasman Lake is beautiful The Tasman Glacier itself is quite small, but the view of the nearby mountains and lake is beautiful, especially at sunrise! The walk is only about 20 minutes and is very easy and accessible.
Nighttime sky & stars at Lake Tekapo in New Zealand

Stargazing in New Zealand at Lake Tekapo.

2. Visit Lake Tekapo

Near Mount Cook National Park is the town of Lake Tekapo. Driving from Mount Cook to Lake Tekapo you will drive by Lake Pukaki, which is a beautiful sight to see all on its own! But once you arrive in Lake Tekapo there are a few other things to do and see.

The Tekapo Hot Springs are in Lake Tekapo and make for a nice place to relax with mountain views. The Tekapo Hot Springs even offer stargazing with telescopes during clear nights! The Church of Good Shepard is probably the most photographed church in all of New Zealand. It is located right next to the lake and is fun to check out.

Another great thing about Lake Tekapo is that it is in a Dark Sky Park. These are considered the best places on the planet to view the stars! From the town and surrounding area you can see the Milky way clearly with just the naked eye, however, if you have a good camera you can capture an even more amazing view!

3. Adventure in Queenstown

Queenstown is the tourist hub of New Zealand! The town itself only has about 30,000 permanent residents but it can get up to 120,000 tourists in town at any given time.

While Queenstown is so beautiful that its name came from the fact that “it was a town fit for the Queens” Queenstown is also known as the adventure capital of New Zealand purely because of all of the different adventurous things to do there!

Nevis Bungy jump in Queenstown New Zealand.

Queenstown, the home of bungy jumping. Are you up for the Nevis Bungy?

These are just a few of the best things to do in Queenstown to get your adrenaline pumping:

  • Jet Boating – you can go on a high-speed boating experience in the main Lake in town or even go onto one of the nearby rivers. On the Jet Boat, you will do 360-degree spins, sharp turn and travel at high speeds as you race around enjoying the views at the same time! You can get on a Jet Boat for less than $70 NZD!
  • Bungy Jumping – AJ Hackett offers several different Bungy Jumping experiences from Queenstown. There is the bungy right overlooking town on the top of Bobs Peak near the Skyline Gondola, one at the Kawarau River, and one at the Nevis Valley. The Nevis Bungy jump is the largest in all of New Zealand at 134m high!
  • Nevis Catapult – This is the newest attraction to Queenstown’s list of thrilling activities. The Nevis Catapult launches you across a river valley at almost 100km/h! It’s the very first in the world of its kind!
  • Paragliding – You can paraglide from up above the mountains surrounding Queenstown and get the best views from up above. Tandem paragliding is available or you can even sign up to do a course and learn how to paraglide on your own as well!
  • Canyoning – Abseil down cliff faces next to waterfalls, swim through the rapids, and jump of cliffs! All of this is part of a canyoning experience from Queenstown! This is a unique activity and is great fun for anybody who likes the water and an adventure!
  • Whitewater rafting – There are several different white-water rafting trips available from Queenstown. Some are just day trips but it is possible to join an overnight trip as well.
  • Skydiving – Last, but certainly not least, is skydiving. If you haven’t skydived before then Queenstown might be the best place to try! The views from above are astounding! I haven’t done this yet in Queenstown (but it is on my list) but many people I’ve met have and they absolutely loved it. A thrill of a lifetime for sure! **Editor Note- Hannah went skydiving in Queenstown
Glenorchy view of mountains

The drive to Glenorchy is one of the best drive in New Zealand.

4. Drive to Glenorchy

From Queenstown, one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand is arguably the road between Queenstown and the small town of Glenorchy. Glenorchy is about 40 minutes away from Queenstown and only has about 300 residents.

Along the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy, there is a ton of beautiful places to stop from hidden bays, trail walks to waterfalls, and lookouts over the lake and mountains.

Some of the best places to stop along the road to Glenorchy are:

  • Wilsons Bay – A beautiful little bay with a rocky beach. A stunning bay with picnic tables and beautiful views.
  • 12 Mile Delta – This campground has incredible views out of the lake. From here there are several walking trails. You can walk all the way to Bobs Cove from here or walk to the Sam Summers Hut where you’ll find the Sam Summers Waterfall!
  • Bobs Cove – Bobs Cove is a gorgeous area full of flora and fauna. There is a short hike here up to the Bobs Cove lookout, one of the best views in Queenstown!
  • Pigeon Island Lookout– You’ll see this lookout as soon as you turn a bend and then the whole lake stands in front of you with mountain views. There is a pull-off bay on the side of the road which always seems to be full of tourists, but for good reason – it is a very scenic lookout! From here you will see views of Pigeon Island, Mount Alaska, Mount Earnslaw and more.

Once in Glenorchy, be sure to visit the jetty on the lakefront. From there, you can enjoy the views from the jetty or go for a short walk around the lake. The Trading Post in town is a small shop that serves incredible coffee or a few minutes outside of Glenorchy there is actually a petting farm so you can meet some local New Zealand farm animals.

5. Skiing and Snowboarding

If you visit New Zealand in the winter then you should allow a couple of days for skiing or snowboarding. There are many different places you can hit the slopes in New Zealand’s South Island. A couple of the most popular are:

  • Mt Hutt – This ski field has incredible views on the drive up. It is located only 1.5 hours from Christchurch but only 30 minutes from the town of Methven. Mt Hutt has several different chairlifts and some good runs for beginners as well. Beware though, it does get quite busy with families visiting on the weekends.
  • The Remarkables – Only a 40-minute drive from Queenstown center it is possible to drive there yourself or take a bus. There are three different chairlifts and a large area for beginners. This is a great place to learn and there is often lots of snow!
  • Coronet Peak – Cornet is the only ski field in New Zealand that has night ski! After dark three times a week, it is possible to ski in the dark, have a few drinks under the moonlight while listening to a DJ. It is a unique experience and the mountain is only 30 minutes from Queenstown.
  • Cardrona – Cardrona is the biggest out of all of the different ski fields. This is where the pros go to practice and for good reason, there are some crazy huge jumps! Because of Cardrona’s high altitude, it is usually the first ski field to open and the last to close each year. Cardrona is about 1 hour from Queenstown or 30 minutes from Wanaka.
Man hiking to Roys Peak in New Zealand

Hiking to Roys Peak will not disappoint.

6. Hike to Roys Peak

Just outside of the town of Wanaka is one of my favorite hikes in New Zealand! Roys Peak is a one day hike up to some spectacular views over Lake Wanaka. If you can muster up the energy to hike up Roys Peak for sunrise then you will be rewarded with a glowing orange sky over the mountains.

The hike to the summit of Roys Peak takes about 3 hours up. Once at the top you will likely want to spend a good hour there exploring and taking photos. The walk down does not take as long and can be done in 1.5 hours.

One thing to keep in mind with Roys Peak is that it isn’t the easiest hike. The 3 hours to the top is all straight uphill. The entire trail is switchbacks and will have you huffing and puffing within minutes. But, believe me; the views are totally worth it!

Thunder Creek Falls in New Zealand

Chasing waterfalls in New Zealand lead us to Thunder Creek Falls.

7. Check out Thunder Creek Falls

Thunder Creek Falls is probably one of my favorite waterfalls! At 45m it’s truly a sight to see!
Thunder Creek Falls are located along Haast Pass between the towns of Haast and Makarora.

It is marked with signs along the road. From the car park on the side of the road, Thunder Creek Falls are only a short 2-minute walk away. This makes for a perfect stop along a road trip or a nice place to have lunch with a view!

8. Swim at the Blue Pools

The Blue Pools are another place to stop along the Haast pass. The pools aren’t actually pools at all, but a river with a nice sandy area for swimming. From the car park along the side of the road, it is about a 20-minute walk to the actual Blue Pools. The walk is very flat and makes for a nice easy stroll.

Once you reach the Blue Pools you can either enjoy the view from up above on the suspension bridge or hang out by the beach. In the summer, you might be brave enough to go for a swim!

Couple at Milford Sound New Zealand

A trip to the South Island wouldn’t be complete without a boat cruise to Milford Sound.

9. Explore Milford Sound

Milford Sound is probably the South Island’s biggest attraction. It is known as the “8th Wonder of the World”, and it is really deserving of that title in my opinion as it is simply gorgeous!

What most people don’t know is that Milford sound is actually not a Sound, but rather a Fiord meaning that it is glacier-carved. The steep towering cliff faces, beautiful waterfalls, and wildlife make this place so special.

There are a few different ways to explore Milford sound, and they are:

  • Take a Milford Sound boat cruise– A boat cruise in Milford Sound is the most popular way to explore. It is quite adorable with most cruises ranging around $60-$80 and departing every hour or so. On the boat, you get to see all of the beauty of Milford from out on the water. If you are lucky you might even see some wildlife!
  • Walk the Milford track– In the summer it is possible to walk the Milford Track and stay overnight in the huts. Keep in mind though, this must be booked in advance and is known to book up for the summer season within hours! The Milford Track is one the 9 Great Walks in New Zealand and some actually claim it is one of the best walks in the world!
  • Take a scenic flight-If your budget allows, a scenic flight or helicopter ride over Milford will be an experience of a lifetime! On a clear day, the views are incredible, and not only that but if you are staying in Queenstown this is the quickest way to get to and from Milford cutting out the 4-hour bus ride.
  • Kayaking– If you want a bit of exercise and to get up close and personal to the waterfalls at Milford then a kayak tour may be your best option. Oftentimes, seals or dolphins come right up to the kayakers to say hello!
Tasman Glacier reflection

Gorgeous reflection at Tasman Glacier.

10. Visit Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers

Along New Zealand’s South Island’s West Coast sits one of the most popular things to do, visit the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers!

Franz Josef Glacier sits about a minute drive outside of Franz Josef town. From the car park, it is about an hour walk to the glacier. The walk is fairly flat and easy and along the way, you’ll see streams and small waterfalls.

Fox Glacier is another 30-minute drive from Franz Josef Glacier. This walk is a little bit more difficult with a steep incline at the end. The walk itself is very scenic though and well worth the effort.

Both Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are receding quite a bit making viewing them from the walking trails less exciting. The glaciers are quite far from where the trails end, so while you will still see the glaciers you won’t get up very close. To really explore the glaciers in New Zealand, the best way is to do a helicopter ride and guided walk on the glaciers!

11. Walk to the Nugget Point Lighthouse

On any South Island road trip, a visit to Nugget Point is a great stopover. At Nugget Point you can walk out to the Nugget Point Lighthouse and take some beautiful photos. Nugget Point Lighthouse is located about 1.5 hours from the town of Dunedin. The lighthouse is especially great to visit at sunset!

At Nugget Point it is also possible to spot some wildlife. Some of the animals you might see are elephant seals, sea lions, dolphins, and yellow-eyed penguins!

New Zealand campervan

The best way to see New Zealand is by renting a campervan and driving around the county.

12. Go on a New Zeland Road Trip

The best way to explore the South Island is on a road trip! Many people get camper vans and freedom camp along the way. The best part of a road trip though is the scenic views from the side of the road. Three popular routes to drive just for the simple reason that they are very scenic are:

  • Haast Pass – This is the road between Wanaka and the West Coast. The Blue Pools and Thunder Creek Falls are both located along the Haast Pass.
  • Arthurs Pass – This stretch of road is between Christchurch and Greymouth.  Along Arthurs Pass, you can do various short walks such as the Millennium Walk or the Devils Punchbowl.
  • Lindis PassLindis Pass stretches about over 60 km and climbs up to almost 1000m above sea level. At the highest point along Lindis Pass, you can go to a viewpoint where you look out over the tussock grass-covered mountains!

New Zealand’s South Island is personally my favorite part of the country. The wide open roads, mountains, lakes and all the other unique and spectacular attractions have left a lasting impression. The list above only scrapes the surface but it’s my personal diary of all the most amazing things I have seen and done. Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it!

Author Bio:

Bailey is a travel blogger from Canada. Along with her partner Daniel they are Destinationless Travel. Between them, they have traveled over 50 countries and have no plans in slowing down. Bailey is currently living in New Zealand and is about to embark on a 4-month road trip around the country. In the near future, they plan to travel to Myanmar while writing about this rather new tourist destination. You can read about all her adventures on her blog, Destinationless Travel!

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The top things to do in New Zealand on the South Island