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The 10 Best Things to Do in the South Island

milford sound hike
Milford Sound at sunset

The best things to do in the South Island are:

  • #1: Explore the natural wonders
  • #2: Try an adrenaline activity
  • #3: See New Zealand’s unique wildlife
  • #4: Go for a walk
  • #5: Experience a high country station
  • #6: Take a drive on one of New Zealand’s most scenic roads
  • #7: Visit a picturesque stretch of coastline
  • #8: Taste the island’s culinary highlights
  • #9: Immerse yourself in the local history
  • #10: Experience true wilderness

Many travelers refer to the South Island as the “best island.” And it’s hard to argue. The South Island is rich with wilderness treasures. For example, you’ll find fiords, glaciers, braided rivers, turquoise lakes, secluded beaches, and towering mountain peaks.

With so much to see and do, it can be hard to design a South Island itinerary that includes everything. However, this list of the top 10 things to do in the South Island will help you prioritize.

Read on to discover the best things to do on New Zealand’s South Island.

The Best Things to Do in the South Island of New Zealand

1. Explore the natural wonders

Most travelers come to the South Island for its nature. With the Southern Alps running like a spine down the narrow island, mountain wilderness is never far away.

The wilderness highlights of New Zealand’s South Island include glaciers, fiords, turquoise lakes, braided rivers, towering mountains, waterfalls, golden-sand beaches, and lush temperate rainforest.

NZONE Skydive Queenstown New Zealand - things to do in the South Island
Skydiving over Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu

2. Try an adrenaline activity

New Zealand has been a magnet for thrill-seekers ever since the first jet-boat and first bungy jump were pioneered in the humble country. The adventure hub is Queenstown, the most exciting city on the South Island, but there are outdoor sports and adrenaline activities in every corner of the island.

And the options are not limited to serious thrills. Young or timid adventurers can sample jet-boat rides, gravity-powered luging, zipline canopy tours, and 4WD expeditions.

Outdoor enthusiasts will be kept busy with a range of active adventures, including rafting, kayaking, adventure caving, and canyoning, while adrenaline junkies can choose from New Zealand’s best skydiving, bungy jumping, and canyon swings.

akaroa penguins
Penguins in Akaroa

3. See New Zealand’s unique wildlife

With national parks forming a significant portion of its landmass, the South Island is the place to go for unforgettable wildlife experiences.

Spot penguins in Otago and Fiordland National Park, kiwis on nighttime tours from Stewart Island, whales off the coast of Kaikoura, dolphins in sheltered bays around the island, and keas (mountain parrots) in Arthur’s Pass.

Rob Roy Glacier Track in Mt Aspiring National Park, Wanaka, New Zealand - things to do in the South Island
Hiking the Rob Roy Glacier Track in Mt Aspiring National Park (credit: Julian Apse)

4. Go for a walk

New Zealand’s wilderness is home to a vast network of walking trails, most of which are found on the South Island. These range from easy 10-minute strolls to a 3000-kilometer hiking trail running the length of the country.

Most of the South Island’s most dramatic scenery is found off the road, so whether you stop to walk to each viewpoint on the Milford Road or tackle one of New Zealand’s famous multiday Great Walks, you won’t find any better taste of the South Island’s wild side than along its walking trails.

TSS Earnslaw Queenstown cruise to Walter Peak High Country Sheep Station
Walter Peak High Country Farm

5. Experience a high country station

High country stations are an iconic part of the South Island. These vast grazing lands cover mountainsides and valleys in some of New Zealand’s most scenic regions, and the owners have often farmed the station for generations.

Some high country stations offer tours and meals (such as Walter Peak High Country Farm and Mt Nicholas Station in Queenstown), while others open their land to visitors on 4WD tours.

Dart River Drive
Views on the drive between Queenstown and Glenorchy

6. Take a drive on one of New Zealand’s most scenic roads

On the South Island, travel is as much about the journey as it is the destination. Many roads pass through staggering mountain vistas, with the scenery changing around every corner.

Some of the most scenic drives on the South Island include the Milford Road, the Mackenzie Basin, Arthur’s Pass, Haast Pass, the Queenstown-Glenorchy road, and Lewis Pass.

Abel Tasman NZ
Abel Tasman New Zealand

7. Visit a picturesque stretch of coastline

Though the North Island is more famous for its beaches, the South Island has plenty of stunning coastlines, including several idyllic beaches that rival anything on the North Island.

Highlights include golden-sand beaches in the Abel Tasman region, secluded bays in the Marlborough Sounds, and unusual coastal rock formations at Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks and the Moeraki Boulders.

Carrick Winery Central Otago - wine tours are one of the best things to do in the South Island
Tasting the bounty of Central Otago on a wine tour

8. Taste the island’s culinary highlights

From wine to stone fruit, wild game to seafood, the South Island boasts some of the freshest and most exciting culinary delights.

Taste your way around the island with visits to the Marlborough wine region, the stone fruit orchards of Central Otago, the seafood meccas of Kaikoura and the West Coast, and honey farms producing New Zealand’s world-renowned manuka honey.

arrowtown
The historic town center of Arrowtown

9. Immerse yourself in the local history

Remnants of New Zealand’s early settlements are still evident around the South Island. Mining and farming drew settlers to far-flung regions, and traces of this past are easy to find. Arrowtown and the surroundings are steeped in mining history, and mining relics dot the West Coast. Old sheep musterers’ huts remain on tracts of historic high-country farmland, and several colonial farmhouses are still standing.

The South Island’s Maori history is less tangible, though the tradition of collecting pounamu (jade) from the West Coast continues to this day, and visitors can watch master crafters at work in the Hokitika Jade Factory.

Lake Tekapo Stargazing - things to do in the South Island
Lake Tekapo Stargazing

10. Experience true wilderness

The South Island’s wilderness is some of the most rugged, undeveloped land in the world. Extreme weather and steep mountainsides have kept human settlements out; nowhere else can you experience such incredible isolation. And because light pollution is minimal, the stargazing on New Zealand’s South Island is some of the world’s best.

Hikers can immerse themselves in the South Island’s wilderness on an unforgettable multiday hike; if you don’t have the time to lose yourself in nature for days at a time, try a helicopter flight with a remote alpine landing site, an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, or a stay at one of the island’s secluded wilderness lodges.

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