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5 Best Places to Visit in New Zealand's South Island

Updated on July 5, 2016
Jean Greer profile image

Jean is a 27 year old living and writing in Auckland, New Zealand. She's passionate about acting, travel, wellness, and filmmaking.

Road Tripping in New Zealand's South Island

Road Tripping in New Zealand's South Island
Road Tripping in New Zealand's South Island | Source

So you're heading to (or dreaming of) New Zealand? You simply CANNOT pass up the opportunity to visit the South Island. If you hadn't planned on visiting the nations southern island - then add it to your bucket list right now!

Famous for Lord of the Rings and its' mountainous beauty - the South Island of New Zealand is one of the most magical places you'll visit in your lifetime. Whether you arrive in the island's biggest city Christchurch by plane, or arrive in the harbour town of Picton via the Cook Strait ferry, you'll be met with incredible sights ranging from golden beaches, glaciers, moody coasts, fiords, dark sky reserves, spectacular sealife, incredible outdoor activities, and winding roads.

Most travel guides and experienced visitors will tell anyone planning to visit New Zealand to spend most of their time in the South Island, and its' for very good reason! As a North Island resident, born and bred, I've always been proud of the incredible landscapes I call home - that was until I explored the South Island! Boasting 56% of NZ's total landmass, but only around 25% of the nation's population, the South Island is one place in this world where you can feel like the first person to discover its' sights.

But how to navigate all of its' incredible beauty? If you're planning your trip, or simply adding to your travel bucket list, from my own personal experiences exploring this stunning landscape - here are some of the sights you simply cannot afford to miss.

1. South Island's 'Dark Sky Reserve' and Lake Tekapo

Night Sky - Lake Tekapo
Night Sky - Lake Tekapo | Source

The South Island boasts the world's biggest Dark Sky Reserve - meaning that is one of the world's best places for stargazing.

A Dark Sky Reserve is a place that suffers minimal light pollution and enjoys a community effort to maintain its' natural beauty. Lake Tekapo and its' surrounding lakes make up the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, and the skies above this area truly are awe inspiring.

Tourism in the area is largely geared towards the activity of stargazing and you'll find many guides and trips in the area. Most tourism activities and accommodation are centered in Lake Tekapo which hosts the Mt John Observatory. But you don't have to join the experts or spend any money to enjoy the sights here.

I spent an incredible New Year's Eve camping in this area and, without any stargazing equipment, witnessed a completely clear sky, a meteor shower, and more than 20 shooting stars.

PRO TIP: For campers and campervans - Lake Tekapo is the centre of activity in the area and can get very busy especially over summer (December to February). If you're stuck or fancy a little more solitude, you can find campsites in the surrounding area and enjoy the stars without the crowd. Upon finding Lake Tekapo campsites fully booked out one New Years Eve, I found a mostly deserted FREE campsite on the shores of Lake Pukaki just north of Tekapo. (see image)

Lake Tekapo and Surrounds

Lake Pukaki - In the South Island's Dark Sky Reserve
Lake Pukaki - In the South Island's Dark Sky Reserve | Source

BONUS: What's even better is that this area isn't just gorgeous by starlight! It is equally beautiful by day when its' lakes boast crystal clear turquoise blue waters, which reflect the snowy caps of the nearby Southern Alps.

Seriously, what's not to love.

2. Whales and Marine Mammals in Kaikoura

Humpback Whale Breaching
Humpback Whale Breaching | Source

Kaikoura is one of the friendliest towns I've ever visited. Its' locals are so incredibly proud of their little town and love the tourists who visit it. But the best part is of course the ridiculous amount of sealife which resides in and passes through the area.


Most of the tourism in the area caters to whale watching. Seriously, you can see the enormous number of resident and migrating whales (mostly sperm whales, orca, and humpbacks) by almost any mode of transport; by boat; by plane; by kayak; by helicoptor, by pogo stick....(OK not that last one).

This can be pricey, but you are almost guaranteed to spot a whale on your trip and the guides are friendly, passionate, and very well educated. I would personally recommend Whale Watch Kaikoura for their whale watching cruises. (I saw two sperm whales and a baby humpback up close on one short trip!)

Fur Seals

Baby Seals play in the Ohau Waterfall
Baby Seals play in the Ohau Waterfall | Source

If whale watching is too pricey for you, Kaikoura is still very much worth the visit. It is home to a very large Fur Seal Colony which you can visit about five minutes north of the town centre. Park in the carpark and take the walk around the coast for an up close view of seals and seal pups, quite literally, as far as the eye can see. Be careful - always stay at least 1m away from seals at all times and never get between a seal and the sea. Also, watch your step when climbing over rocks or you may come dangerously close to actually standing on the fur seals!

BONUS: The largest seal colony in Kaikoura is the aforementioned one just north of the town centre. But Kaikoura also boasts the Ohau Waterfall Walk where, after a short 10 minute walk, you can see seal pups PLAYING IN A WATERFALL. Stop it, New Zealand.

3. Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park | Source
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park | Source

That looks fake right? It's not - on a sunny day, that is how bright the sky is, how blue the water is, and how golden the sands are in Abel Tasman Park. New Zealand enjoys an incredibly diverse array of micro-climates meaning this tropical looking Park is only a few hours North of snowy capped mountains.

Golden Beaches. MORE sealife. Crystal clear waters. And days worth of incredible walks. I can honestly say that Abel Tasman National Park is the most beautiful place I've been in my life.

The park features one of New Zealand's great walks, and offers the opportunity for hikers/trampers to guide themselves on an incredible multi-day trek. There are DOC huts and campsites along the way. But for those with only a day or two to visit, you can still access the park and its' incredible beaches by a few hour walk into the start of the track, or head further up the coast via water taxi from the nearby town of Marahau at the park's entrance.

4. Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka, South Island NZ
Lake Wanaka, South Island NZ | Source

For the thrillseekers looking for New Zealand's adventure activities like bungy jumping and sky-diving, most guides will send you to Queenstown - a beautiful adventure-filled town.

I would, however, recommend you head slightly north of Queenstown, and instead visit Lake Wanaka. It's just like Queenstown, but without the crowds and pitfalls of a tourist town!

Its' main feature is of course the alpine lake it takes its' name from, and its' backdrop of the Southern Alps. But in the township and surrounding areas you'll find adventure activities, luxury accommodation, award winning food and wine, and spectacular photo opportunities.

While most of the South Island can be best explored by backpackers, trampers, road trippers, or campervan users, Wanaka, like its' sister Queenstown, can offer travellers a little more luxury.

5. Glacier Country - Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers

Franz Josef Glacier, South Island NZ
Franz Josef Glacier, South Island NZ | Source

In the heart of this area are Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. They are the world's most accessible rivers of ice, and both cut through rainforest down to sea-level.

Just to yet again exemplify the diverse climates of NZ - in these areas you can take an easy walk through tropical rainforests, past alpine waterfalls, and end up at viewing platforms to view these enormous bodies of ice! You can also view the glaciers up close and actually get up onto the ice by foot (on a guided tour), by helicopter, by plane, or even skydive above them.

Visit New Zealand

Camping in the South Island, NZ
Camping in the South Island, NZ | Source

There you have it. Those are my personal top 5 spots in the South Island of New Zealand.

But, truthfully, you can go just about anywhere here and discover incredible views around every bend.

Come, hire a car or campervan, and hit the road...


Been to the South Island? Let me know if you agree or disagree with my top 5 places to visit in the comments below!


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    • Jean Greer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jean Greer 

      2 years ago from Auckland, NZ

      Me too Sallybea! I really want to take 4-6 weeks to really explore the South Island and do some of the Great Walks, especially in the Abel Tasman. I hope you get to come back to NZ soon!

    • Jean Greer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jean Greer 

      2 years ago from Auckland, NZ

      Thanks Jodah - it's an incredibly beautiful place! I'd definitely recommend hiring a car or campervan and getting there! Public transport is a little lacking in NZ in general!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      2 years ago from Norfolk

      I love the South Island and this hub would definitely encourage me to go back to take another look at some of the things I missed the first time. I am fortunate to have several family members living there so definitely a possibility that I might return one day. Beautiful hub with some wonderful images.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      What a great and informative hub with beautiful images. My wife and I have been considering visiting New Zealand and probably will within the next two years. You have convinced me to choose the South Island as the major destination.


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