Things to do in the South Island of New Zealand
Dominated by the Southern Alps which extend along much of its length, the South Island of New Zealand offers up many of the country’s most iconic natural wonders. The larger of New Zealand’s two main islands, the South island attracts adventure seekers from all around the world. Many come to hike the world famous Milford Track while others opt for more adrenaline pumping action that includes exceptionally scenic bungee jumping, skiing, and skydiving.
Of course there is a more tame side to the South Island. Travellers wishing to simply breathe in the fresh air, do a bit of sightseeing, and learn about the island’s history will have plenty to keep themselves amused. Dive into Māori culture and be dazzled by castles and historic colonial buildings, while sampling plenty of delicious seafood, lamb, and local wines.
To help you plan your getaway to New Zealand’s South Island, we’ve compiled a list of our top things to see and do on the island. This sparsely populated island is rich with sights and attractions, making it a truly rewarding travel experience for nearly any traveller.
While it would be impossible to fully explore all of the South Island’s natural treasures, there are a few that you should make every effort to see. At the top of the list is Fiordland National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage site is New Zealand’s largest national park and home to both Doubtful and Milford Sounds, the latter of which has been described by some as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The park abounds with ancient rainforests and towering waterfalls which can be viewed by way of hiking trails or daily scenic flights. The roughly 50-kilmotere Milford Track is a world famous hiking trail that starts in Lake Te Anau and finishes in Milford Sound, usually taking hikers 3 days to complete.
Mountain climbers can attempt to summit the technically challenging Mount Cook (Aoraki), New Zealand’s tallest peak. The mountain is situated within the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park which is also home to the sole International Dark Sky Reserve found in the country.
Seek out rare and endemic birds on Stewart Island, home to various penguins, albatrosses, kaka parrots, and the adorable flightless kiwi birds that have become a national icon of New Zealand. Try a bit of kayaking in New Zealand’s smallest national park, Abel Tasman National Park, or check out the swinging suspension bridge and ultra blue waters of Hokitika Gorge which can be accessed by one of the island’s most scenic drives.
Many early travellers to New Zealand came to the South Island in the hopes of striking it rich during the 19th century Otago Gold Rush. This led to the rapid expansion of Dunedin, which today offers up a casino where modern day travellers can try their luck at winning big. Dunedin Casino offers up plenty of gaming tables and electronic gaming machines including blackjack, roulette, baccarat, and Caribbean stud poker, much like the South Island’s two other casinos which include SkyCity Queenstown Casino and Christchurch Casino. If you want to know more, we recommend you visit this site for reviews and a more extensive overview of each of the three casinos.
New Zealand’s South Island casinos are also a great place to dine on local cuisine like braised lamb shoulder and sample delicious Marlborough wines. Enjoy plenty of free live entertainment, full service TAB, and sports bars with 200” LCD walls to catch all the latest action.
There are a number of fascinating museums to check out on the South Island to gain a better understanding of the local culture, natural history, and colonial history. Dunedin’s Otago Museum abounds with natural curiosities that include skeletons of whales and the now extinct moa bird which was a giant flightless bird endemic to New Zealand. The museum’s more than 1.5 million items also include artefacts relating to Māori culture and the peoples of Polynesia and Melanesia.
Christchurch’s Canterbury Museum embraces the city having been a gateway to Antarctica with its Antarctic Gallery displaying a diverse collection of Antarctic memorabilia that looks at early Antarctic explorers like Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton. You will also want to check out the museum’s eccentric Fred & Myrtle’s Paua Shell House made up of over 1,000 colourful paua shells. Other exhibits celebrate Asian art, early European settlers, and recreations of what the area would have looked like during the 19th century.
Nineteenth century Victorian England combines with futuristic elements at the Steampunk HQ in Oamaru. Visitors will be blown away by this truly unique museum filled with many contraptions and sculptures that relate to steam-powered technology.
Visit the Lawrence Information Centre & Museum to check out their small museum that focuses on New Zealand’s first Gold Rush. Learn about Gabriel’s Gully where the Gold Rush began and the man that caused all the fuss when he first discovered gold in the region back in 1861.
The South Island boasts plenty of beautiful architecture in its various cities and towns. One of the most famous buildings on the island is Dunedin’s Larnach Castle. Australasia’s only castle, Larnach was constructed in the second half of the 19th century. It features glass imported from Venice, a 280-square-metre ballroom, and over three dozen rooms. Other notable buildings worth checking out in Dunedin include St Paul’s Cathedral with its impressive vaulted ceilings, the Otago Boys’ High School, and The Law Courts
Along the shores of Lake Tekapo, you’ll find The Church of the Good Shepherd which has become one of the island’s most photographed structures. Built in 1935, this small but beautiful stone Anglican church commemorate early settlers. The church’s natural setting is what draws in visitors, each season bringing about a new unique landscape.
A visit to the historic Totara Estate in the beautiful North Otago countryside rewards you with the opportunity to wander restored stone farm buildings that date back to the 1800s. See the horse stables, men’s quarters, granary, and meat house which was used to store locally produced meat before it was shipped off to Britain.
Thrill seekers have plenty of outdoor recreation to choose from that is certain to get one’s heart pumping. Canterbury’s Rangitata River offers up adventurous whitewater rafting, especially after recent snowmelt off the Southern Alps.
Bungee jumpers can take a dive at the world’s first permanent commercial bungee site just outside of Queenstown. Try a bit of tandem bungee jumping off the Karawau Bridge or take things to extreme heights with the 134-metre Nevis bungee, the highest in New Zealand.
Put on your crampons and grab some ice picks to experience ice climbing on Franz Josef Glacier. Located on the island’s West Coast in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the glacier is accessed via a short by thrilling helicopter flight from the nearby small village of Franz Josef.
Take in all of the South Island’s majestic scenery from high above by jumping out of a plane in Queenstown. Operators in the region offer up 12,000-foot and 15,000-foot tandem skydives where you will get to enjoy a 5-6 minute relaxing journey back to earth after a short rush of terror.
Other outdoor adventures you may wish to include in your itinerary include quad biking or mountain biking the 150-kilometre Otago Central Rail Trail which showcases plenty of the South Island’s rugged beauty.