Top 25 Places to Visit on the South Island of New Zealand
New Zealand's South Island is one of the most beautiful locations in the entire world. It's no wonder why millions of visitors travel here every single year.
Want to see what all the fuss is about, but don’t have a clue where to start when it comes to planning your travel itinerary? To help out, we've compiled 25 of the very best locations to visit on the entire South Island.
It's the perfect way to get your mind racing with ideas for your holiday. We've put our list in a rough geographical order starting in Dunedin and gradually zig-zagging up the island.
All you need to do is book a car from our Dunedin Airport branch and you'll be all set for an unforgettable journey! If you don’t feel like following our list to a tee, you can also pick up a vehicle from Queenstown, Christchurch, or Nelson.
We even offer one-way car rentals so you don’t need to head all the way back to your starting point. Book your vehicle today and begin the journey of your dreams.
Top 25 places to visit South Island New Zealand
Dunedin is known as the Wildlife Capital of New Zealand, with an incredible array of endangered species to be found in the area. Some of the best animals you can spy in Dunedin and its surrounding region include:
- Toroa (Northern Royal Albatross)
- Hoiho (Yellow-Eyed Penguin)
- Kororā (Little Blue Penguin)
- Kekeno (New Zealand Fur Seal)
- Southern Right Whale
Other attractions in the city include the stunning Toitū Otago Settlers Museum and the Dunedin Botanic Garden. If you'd like to work Dunedin into a road trip, check out our complete itineraries for a Christchurch to Dunedin Drive or a Dunedin to Queenstown Drive.
2. Lanarch Castle
Located on the Otago peninsula, Lanarch Castle is one of the only two castles in the country. Its remarkable Gothic construction makes it a remarkable stopover on your New Zealand holiday.
Visitor tours of the grounds are available, and you can even lodge there. Be warned, the Castle is considered one of New Zealand's most haunted locations, with ghost sightings and other unexplained phenomena associated with the location.
3. The Catlins
Around 1.5 hours south of Dunedin is the Catlins region. One of New Zealand's hidden gems, the Catlins is packed with exceptionally entertaining activities and natural beauty all travellers can enjoy.
Here are a few top highlights in the area:
- Nugget Point: Nugget Point offers incredible sea views and a famous lighthouse. It's also home to a fur seal colony for wildlife enthusiasts to check out.
- McLean Falls: These remarkable falls stretch for over 22 metres, offering one of the most jaw-dropping sights in the entire Catlins.
- The Lost Gypsy Gallery: This unique location is chock-a-block with weird and wonderful artworks, trinkets, and more.
- Petrified Forest: Budding archaeologists shouldn't miss out on one of the most unique sites in New Zealand. This petrified forest is 170 million years old, offering a remarkable insight into the ancient history of our planet.
New Zealand's southernmost city is a short drive from the western end of the Catlins. This beautiful city includes must-see sights like the South African Memorial Clock Tower and Queens Park.
Invercargill is also one of the finest places to observe the Aurora Australis. In summer, days are very long in Invercargill, giving you plenty of time to soak up everything that makes this city amazing.
5. Stewart Island
Accessible by either ferry or flight, Stewart Island is one of the most untouched and beautiful areas of the country. Outdoor enthusiasts will never want to leave, with stunning areas available for hiking, kayaking, fishing, and birdwatching.
Stewart Island is also recognised as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, making it a perfect stop for star watchers and other lovers of the night sky. Helicopter and airplane rides are also available for those wanting to see the best of the island in a shorter time.
6. Milford Sound
Milford Sound was described by author Rudyard Kipling as the "eighth wonder of the world", and it's easy to see why.
The location is packed with jaw-dropping highlights including enormous peaks and stunning waterfalls. It can be enjoyed via scenic cruises, and flights or you can even take on trekking Milford Track on your own two legs.
No matter what method you choose, Milford Sound and the wider Fiordland National Park cannot be excluded from your New Zealand bucket list.
7. Doubtful Sound
Sometimes overshadowed by the nearby Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is another stunning fiord you can discover on the South Island. It's packed with wildlife including bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, penguins, whales and more.
Just like Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is perhaps best enjoyed on a scenic flight or cruise. You can even rent a kayak and travel the region at your own pace.
8. Te Anau
This small town is known as the "Gateway to Milford Sound", but there's much more to it than that. It has attractions including the Te Anau bird sanctuary, which shows off birds like the rare flightless takahē and the kākā.
You can also take a cruise on Lake Te Anau before heading into the geological wonderland of the glowworm caves. Te Anau offers unique natural experiences for all travellers to revel in.
Queenstown is one of New Zealand's most popular destinations for good reason. Known as the Adventure Capital of New Zealand, it's the perfect place to participate in activities from bungee jumping to skiing to mountain biking.
It's also jam-packed with culture, boasting plenty of entries on our list of the best restaurants in New Zealand, including Rata, Amisfield Winery and Tatsumi.
For more information on making the most of your Queenstown adventure, check out our Christchurch to Queenstown road trip guide.
Lord of the Rings fans, this one's for you. The surrounding region of Glenorchy stood in for Middle Earth locations such as Isengard, Lothlorien and the Forest of Fangorn. Why not head over there and recreate all your favourite scenes?
Just a 45-minute drive from Queenstown, be transported to Middle Earth as you take on this amazing drive. When you arrive, be sure to take on the Routeburn Track and check out the famous Wharf Shed.
Thanks to its remarkable beauty and convenient location, Glenorchy is the perfect day trip for any visit to Queenstown.
Wanaka is a versatile location you'll love to visit no matter the time of year. In winter, it's an amazing ski resort town, with access to the nearby Cardrona Alpine Resort and Treble Cone Ski Area. These are some of the top skiing destinations in the entire country.
In the summertime, you'll spend long days enjoying the famous Wanaka Lake, as well as admiring the world-famous #ThatWanakaTree.
12. Mount Aspiring National Park
The staggering Mount Aspiring National Park covers an astonishing 3,562 square kilometres, beginning on the western edge of Lake Wanaka. It's jam-packed with stunning landscapes boasting attractions like glaciers, rivers, and lakes.
Mount Aspiring National Park is also one of the top hiking destinations in all of New Zealand. Put on your shoes and traverse your way to destinations like the Blue Pools, Brewster Hut, and Thunder Creek Falls.
13. Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook National Park is home to New Zealand's tallest mountain. It is packed with jaw-dropping attractions, including amazing walks like the Hooker Valley Track, Sealy Tarns Track and Kea Point.
Whether you want a brief day trip or an overnight hiking extravaganza, Mount Cook National Park is an unmissable stop on your South Island holiday.
14. Lake Tekapo
Around 1 hour and 15 minutes away from Mount Cook National Park is the stunning town of Lake Tekapo. The lake which gives its name to the area is one of the most beautiful in all of New Zealand. It has stunning turquoise water and is surrounded by gorgeous lupin flowers in mid-spring to early summer.
Whether you want to rent a paddleboard or just spend a day relaxing in the sunshine, Lake Tekapo is a site you won't soon forget.
15. Franz Josef Glacier
One of the most unique attributes of New Zealand's South Island is the presence of wondrous glaciers. Perhaps the most famous is the Franz Josef Glacier. This 12-kilometre beauty can be viewed via a 1.5-hour walk or a range of scenic tours.
Nearby to the glacier are attractions such as a wildlife centre and Lake Mapourika. This astonishing natural wonder and its nearby highlights cannot be missed on your South Island adventure.
16. Fox Glacier
Just a half-hour drive from Franz Josef Glacier is the Fox Glacier. Hailed as one of the most accessible in the world, the terminal face of the glacier is just 300 metres above sea level. You might never get a chance to admire the natural beauty of a glacier.
You can even hike on the face of Fox Glacier after being dropped off on a helicopter tour. It is juxtaposed beautifully with nearby natural attractions including rainforests, waterfalls, lakes, and more.
17. Lake Matheson
Located near Fox Glacier is this remarkable 30-hectare glacial lake. The lake is dark brown as a result of leaching from the surrounding forest floor. Thanks to its colour, It reflects nearby mountains and trees perfectly, creating one of the premier photography destinations in New Zealand.
Lake Matheson is easily enjoyed via an unchallenging walking track packed with perfect spots to stop and take a snap. Be sure to stop in at the local cafe and cafe shop.
18. Hokitika Gorge
Hokitika Gorge is a must-stop destination on your stunning west coast road trip. A combination of pure-white limestone cliffs and turquoise waters creates an incredible sight all travellers with love soaking up.
The Hokitika Gorge forest trail is ideal for all skill levels and takes you through the highlights of this area. 2 suspension bridges over the Hokitika River make a round-trip possible.
This makes it easy to take in everything Hokitika Gorge and the surrounding podocarp forest have to offer.
This small town might be easy to miss on your drive. But just passing through means you won't get to see highlights like:
- Omarama Clay Cliffs: These incredible clay cliffs were cinematic enough to be seen in 2020's Mulan. A 30-minute walk takes you all the way around, giving you a full view of their majesty.
- Gliding: Omarama is considered the gliding capital of New Zealand. Tourists can make use of a number of local providers to enjoy this region from the sky.
- Hot Tubs: Omarama's private hot tubs use mountain water for a remarkably relaxing experience. Make a nighttime visit for an unparalleled experience of the night sky.
No South Island visit is complete without a trip to its largest city. With attractions like the panoramic Christchurch Gondola, Botanic Gardens, and the International Antarctic Centre, there's endless fun to be had for all ages.
Christchurch is another New Zealand location that will get any foodie's mouth watering. Check out the fine dining stylings of Inati, brilliant seafood from Cook 'n' with Gas, and local ingredients from Twenty-Seven Steps.
21. Arthur's Pass
The highest pass of New Zealand's southern alps, any mountaineering enthusiast must take the time to stop off here. The stunning scenery on offer makes it one of the most uniquely beautiful areas in the country.
You can also check out Arthur Pass Village, one of the highest settlements in New Zealand. It's full of accommodations and cafes, allowing you to recline and relax in one of the most remarkable backdrops New Zealand has to offer.
Kaikōura is one of the best whale-watching locations in all of New Zealand. The town is also teeming with history, as showcased in local museums such as the Kaikōura Museum and Fyffe House.
Not enough sea life for you? Near the famous Peninsula Walkway, you'll find a stunning fur seal colony. This is why Kaikōura is considered one of the best locations to spy fur seals in New Zealand.
23. Queen Charlotte Sound
New Zealand's sounds are not localised entirely to the lower end of the island. The Marlborough Sounds offer a similarly magical experience on its northern end.
Queen Charlotte Sound is particularly noteworthy for the Queen Charlotte Track. This 4-5 day track is perhaps the most accessible way to soak up the sounds of New Zealand.
Of course, you can also enjoy a serene boat ride in the sounds, as well as a scenic flight experience.
This city on the northern tip of the South Island has an array of attractions to lure in visitors. Some of the top highlights include:
- Founders Heritage Park: This unique open-air museum is the perfect way to learn more about the history of Nelson. It even includes a short heritage railway line.
- Tahunanui Beach: Conveniently located near the city centre, the postcard-worthy beach offers inviting waters and picturesque shores of sand.
- Queen's Gardens: It wouldn't be a New Zealand city without an exceptional botanic garden. Queen's Gardens includes a war memorial and a series of impressive sculptures.
25. Abel Tasman National Park
It could be easily argued that we've saved the very best for last. This remarkable national park near Nelson is one of the most beautiful in the entire country. Dense forests meet sprawling coastlines to create a uniquely New Zealand experience.
Here are a few of the top attractions of the National Park:
- Coast Track: There's no better way to get the full Abel Tasman National Park experience than on the Coast Track. This 60-kilometre track is worth taking on either in a small section or for a full 4-day experience.
- Ngarua Caves: Take advantage of the 300-metre walkway inside these caves to admire the stunning formations they hold inside. They also display remarkable extinct Moa bones.
- Tonga Island Marine Reserve: A snorkelling expedition into these crystal-clear waters shows off an array of remarkable marine life and incredible underwater scenery.
Accelerate your South Island road trip with Enterprise Rent-A-Car
The South Island is full of unmissable locations. The only way to ensure you get to see every nook and cranny you desire is by hiring a rental car and taking on a self-driving holiday.
If you'd like more of a structured itinerary, we have a range of road trips and other travel inspiration for you to browse. You can also check out our guide for the top places to visit on the North Island.
The good news is that no matter what part of the South Island you want to explore, we have a pick-up location for you. Book in your vehicle from Dunedin, Queenstown, Christchurch, or Nelson, and begin planning your bucket list adventure today.
Frequently asked questions
How long does it take to drive around the South Island?
The distance between the South Island's northernmost settlement, Pūponga, and its southernmost settlement, Bluff, is 1,107 km via State Highway 1. A straight-line drive would take 14 hours, 37 minutes non-stop.
Let's imagine a light-speed round trip that travels from Pūponga, Haast Pass on the west coast, Bluff, Christchurch on the east coast, and back to Pūponga. This 2,231 km round trip would include 29 hours of driving. With proper breaks for safety, this drive would take a minimum of 4 days, if not longer.
But where's the fun in that? We have a full, 14-day South Island itinerary, which will take you through all the highlights of this beautiful region.
When is the best time to visit the South Island?
The South Island is stunning no matter the time of year.
However, if you're determined to find a definitive answer, we might lean toward the winter months. The South Island is known as a winter wonderland, with outstanding skiing destinations including Cardrona Alpine Resort, Coronet Peak, and Mount Hutt. A summertime New Zealand getaway is arguably better suited to the warmer weather of the North Island.
If you decide on a winter trip to the South Island, just make sure you hire some snow chains with your rental car, available from Enterprise.
Which is better: The North Island or the South Island?
This is like asking us to pick our favourite child! Truly, it comes down to personal taste.
One way to split the appeal of the North and South Island is culture vs nature. The North Island has New Zealand's 2 largest cities. In addition, the pre-colonisation Maori population was highly concentrated in the North Island, making it an ideal location to steep yourself in cultural experiences such as the world-famous Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Meanwhile, the South Island is known for its world-famous natural experiences. This includes everything from Milford Sound to Mount Cook National Park to the Franz Josef Glacier.
If you can't find a way to squeeze both islands into your New Zealand journey, this might be the best way to choose between them.