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If you are planning a trip to New Zealand but don’t know where to start with your South Island New Zealand itinerary, check out these incredible places to visit – I’m a Kiwi that has traveled all over the South Island and these are the places I recommend.
I just returned from a wonderful road trip around the South Island of New Zealand and it really has made me appreciate even more how beautiful my home country is. The weather was perfect, the scenery was spectacular, and I felt so lucky to be there.
Although New Zealand isn’t a large country, it is packed full of so many wonderful places to see and fun things to do that it can feel overwhelming trying to narrow it down. This is especially true on the South Island where there are fewer people and more untouched nature.
I’ve traveled pretty extensively around the South Island so I have written this highlights guide to all my favorite places to add to your South Island New Zealand Itinerary. This doesn’t cover absolutely everywhere to stop off but it’s going to give you a good idea of the main stops and why you should visit each one.
So here we go!
I highly recommend hiring a car if you can because many of these places would be hard or expensive to get to without one.
Places To Add To Your South Island New Zealand Itinerary – North To South
1) Abel Tasman National Park 1-4 Days
Gorgeous Abel Tasman National Park located near the top of the South Island is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand and is one of the sunniest places in the country. Relax on one of the golden sand beaches, look for seals, dolphins, and penguins, take a boat cruise to secret coves, kayak along the coast, or go for a hike.
If you have the time, I highly recommend hiking the four-day Abel Tasman Great Walk between huts or doing a walking/kayaking combo. You can also take water taxis to various points in the park to do day hikes along the track.
2) Marlborough Sounds 1-3 Days
Marlborough Sounds is a series of sunken ancient river valleys filled with water from the Pacific. It is a scenic wonderland for lovers of the outdoors with forested headlands rising sharply out of the ocean and sheltered coves with sandy beaches and crystal-clear water.
If you are taking the ferry from the North Island you will be cruising through the Sounds but I recommend spending some time hiking the trails, getting out on the water on a kayak, swimming at one of the secluded beaches, and driving the windy and narrow roads to breathtaking viewpoints.
3) Nelson 1-3 Days
Sunny Nelson is a laid-back small beach city with a thriving arts scene, a stunning coastline, and numerous hiking trails in the hills and mountains backing the city. There aren’t a lot of “tourist sites” here as such, but it’s one of New Zealand’s most beautiful cities.
Spend some time at local Tahunanui Beach, hike the mesmerizing but challenging Cable Bay Walkway, explore the historic buildings at Founders Heritage Park, and visit the Centre of New Zealand Monument for views over the coast and city.
Don’t miss the famous Nelson Market held every Saturday if you are visiting over the weekend – it’s one of the best weekly markets in the country.
4) Marlborough Wine Region 1 Day
If you love wine then don’t miss visiting Blenheim, the heart of the world-famous Marlborough Wine Region which is known for its world-class Sauvignon Blanc. The best way to experience the region is to hire a bike and bike around the countryside in the sunshine to different wineries or to join a winery tour.
FROMM Winery, Cloudy Bay Vineyards, Allan Scott Family Winemakers, and Villa Maria Estate were all highlights for me, and I highly recommend visiting Moa Tap Room if you love craft beer too. Grab a cheeseboard (or two) along the way – it’s a staple at most Kiwi wineries.
5) Nelson Lakes National Park 1-2 Days
Nelson Lakes is one of New Zealand’s lesser-known National Parks but it is 100% worth visiting for its rugged mountains, glacial lakes, and enchanting vistas.
Stand on the jetty in St Arnaud looking out at the lake and mountains for one of the best views in New Zealand. There are a number of huge longfin eels (one of the largest eels in the world) that live under the jetty that people feed – it’s a weird Kiwi thing.
There are a number of rewarding hikes you can do in the park from easy to difficult, as well as a number of backcountry huts if you want to undertake a multi-day hiking adventure.
6) Paparoa National Park and the Wild West Coast 1-2 Days
Paparoa National Park on the wild West Coast gives out a primordial vibe and I almost wouldn’t be surprised if a T-Rex sauntered out of the thick native bush and rainforest here. I have only scratched the surface in this rugged and pristine National Park but would love to return to hike the multi-day Paparoa Track, one of the newer Great Walks.
If you don’t have the time to do a multi-day trek, make sure to spend a couple of hours hiking down the Pororua River Valley, the beginning of the Paparoa Track, with spectacular limestone cliffs, thick forest, and subtropical Nikau palms.
The drive along this stretch of the coast between Westport and Greymouth is one of the most scenic drives in the country, and make sure to stop to see the unique rock formations at Punakaiki Pancake Rocks.
7) Kaikoura 1-3 Days
Kaikoura is the best place in the country for three things – crayfish, seals, and whales – and the coastal hiking is great too. This lovely little town is one of the best places in the world to see sperm whales and chances are that on any whale-watching tour, you are also going to be surrounded by adorable Dusky Dolphins.
There are numerous seal colonies around Kaikoura too, making it one of the best places to see seals in New Zealand. If you love seafood, don’t miss eating crayfish – New Zealand’s lobster – in Kaikoura. Double points if you get it at one of the semi-permanent food trucks that line the windswept coastline.
And make sure to do the Kaikoura Peninsula Walk, you will see seals, dramatic coastal scenery, and wildflowers in spring and early summer.
8) Arthur’s Pass 1-2 Days
Arthur’s Pass is the highest pass through the Southern Alps and offers spectacular alpine scenery making it one of the most scenic drives in the country and an excellent place to hike. Stay in tiny Arthur’s Pass Village and get up early for the chance to spot New Zealand’s cheeky alpine parrot – the Kea.
Top hikes include the easy trail to Devils Punchbowl waterfall, the more challenging hike up to the Temple Basin Ski area, and Avalanche Peak for a rock scrambling adventure with epic views. Stop at Castle Hill to hike between large boulders strewn across the hillside.
9) West Coast Glaciers 1-2 Days
Did you know New Zealand has glaciers? The two most famous are Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier on the West Coast of New Zealand. You can no longer hike right up to them as I did back in 2009, but after returning in 2022 I can say they are definitely still worth visiting.
There are easy hikes to view both of the glaciers as well as more strenuous hikes to viewpoints over the glaciers. Alternatively, you could splurge and go on a heli-hike adventure where you land on either glacier in a helicopter and then do a guided glacier hike.
10) Wānaka 2-4 Days
Wānaka is like Queenstown lite – not quite as busy and touristy as Queenstown, but also not quite as beautiful (but it’s still very beautiful). This lively mountain town sits on the shores of Lake Wānaka with inviting blue water perfect for swimming in the summer months.
There are lots of excellent hikes around Wānaka including the famous Roys Peak track and the awe-inspiring Rob Roy Glacier Track in Mount Aspiring National Park, as well as excellent cafes and restaurants, Rippon Winery which has a spectacular view over the lake, and even a few breweries.
Don’t miss catching a movie at the iconic Cinema Paradiso where you can watch from a comfy couch or even an old Morris Minor car!
11) Queenstown 2-5 Days – A MUST on Any South Island New Zealand Itinerary!
Queenstown is like Wānaka on steroids. It is New Zealand’s most popular tourist town… and you can definitely tell. But, it’s popular for a reason. The beautiful setting is unmatched with a prime location on the oh-so-beautiful Lake Wakatipu and surrounded on all sides by the dramatic Southern Alps.
If you love adventure, or luxury, or hitting the town for a big night out – Queenstown has got you covered. It is known as the adventure capital of the world and you can bungy jump, ski, snowboard, luge down a mountain, skydive, jet boat, white water raft, canyon swing, mountain bike, hike, and more here.
Or you can dine at world-class restaurants, stay at luxury hotels, and tour the local wineries. Or do both. It’s absolutely staggering the number of things there are to see and do in Queenstown.
So it may be busy and feel hectic at times, but it wouldn’t be a trip to the South Island without at least a couple of days in Queenstown so it’s a must-add to your South Island New Zealand Itinerary.
12) Glenorchy 1-2 Days
Remote Glenorchy may be only a 40-minute drive from Queenstown but it truly feels like it’s a world away. This sleepy hamlet doesn’t have a lot to it in regards to a town center, but what it lacks in amenities it more than makes up for in jaw-dropping vistas.
Glenorchy is where you come to escape the craziness of Queenstown and realign with nature. It’s a place you can just ‘be’, absorbing the serene environment, or you can go hiking in the surrounding mountains, on a jetboat tour on the Dart River, or drive to Paradise, an adventure on a questionable dirt road to see filming locations from Lord of the Rings.
13) Milford Sound/Piopiotahi 1 Day
Milford Sound/Piopiotahi is probably New Zealand’s most photographed place, and rightly so. Located in pristine Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is a fiord that is home to a number of spectacular waterfalls that cascade down from steep mountain cliffs into the waters of the fiord after it rains.
Rudyard Kipling called it the eighth wonder of the world and you would have to be dead inside to not be impressed by its clear blue-green waters, dramatic mountains, and powerful waterfalls.
The best way to experience Milford Sound/Piopiotahi is by boat on a two-hour cruise or by kayak, and don’t miss the short walks along the foreshore for truly incredible views.
14) Doubtful Sound/Patea 1 Day
Doubtful Sound/Patea is not as dramatic as the much more famous Milford Sound but a trip there is a trip to tranquility, and the adventure involved with getting there is all part of the appeal.
The very remote Doubtful Sound/Patea is only served by one tour company and to get there you first have to get yourself to the small town of Manapouri. From there you will need to join a tour that includes a boat across Lake Manapouri and a bus over a mountain pass to finally reach this pristine fiord which is the deepest and second-longest fiord in the South Island.
While it doesn’t look as dramatic as Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, the fact that you won’t see many, if any, other tourist boats coupled with the high probability of seeing dolphins and fur seals here makes it just as desirable. I highly recommend traveling to both if you have the time.
15) Routeburn Track 2-3 Days
Spend three days hiking the world-renowned Routeburn Track Great Walk through the heart of pristine Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks for some of the best nature porn in New Zealand. Stay in the Great Walks huts for a quintessential Kiwi backcountry experience.
With soaring mountains, crystal clear rivers and lakes, impressive valleys, and beautiful waterfalls – the Routeburn Track is one of the best multiday hikes you can do in the world and a must-add to your South Island New Zealand Itinerary if you love hiking.
TIP: If you don’t have the time or money to do the full three days, I recommend spending a day and a half hiking from the Routeburn Shelter near Glenorchy to the Harris Saddle, hike back down to Routeburn Falls Hut to stay the night (pre-book in advance), then hike back out the next morning.
16) Arrowtown 1-2 Days
Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town with a picturesque main street full of restored historic buildings that are now home to restaurants, boutiques, and gift shops. It is the town in New Zealand that most reminds me of my beloved Colorado mountain towns – not surprisingly because they are mostly historic mining towns too.
Many people only stop in Arrowtown on a day trip or stopover from Queenstown, but this charming town is best enjoyed after the day-trippers have left. Stay for a while and hike or bike some of the many trails around town, and visit the Chinese Miners Settlement to learn about what life was like on the goldfields.
17) Aoraki Mount Cook 1-3 Days
Aoraki Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in the country and a National Park and it is a must-visit if you want to see some of the most incredible alpine scenery that New Zealand has to offer.
You can see milky blue glacial lakes with icebergs floating in them, jagged mountain peaks, calving glaciers that sound like cracking thunder, and one of the most turquoise lakes you will ever see (Lake Pukaki). If you don’t add Aoraki Mount Cook to your South Island New Zealand itinerary I think you will seriously regret it.
Make sure to hike one of the best short hikes in New Zealand – the Hooker Valley Track, do an overnight hiking adventure to Mueller Hut, and find out about early mountaineering at the museum inside the National Park Visitor Centre.
18) Lake Tekapo 1-2 Days
Picturesque Lake Tekapo is a turquoise lake and small township that is known for its gorgeous display of colorful lupines in spring, the photogenic Church of the Good Shepherd perched on the lakeshore, and its incredible night skies – it’s one of New Zealand’s only Dark Sky Preserves and one of the best places in the world for stargazing.
Go for a hike along the lake, soak in the hot waters of Tekapo Springs, and don’t miss a stargazing tour at the top of Mount St John where you can see planets, stars, and galaxies with telescopes.
19) Christchurch 2-3 Days
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and is probably best known for the devastating earthquake that destroyed the downtown in 2011, but this vibrant city has risen from the ashes.
New Zealand’s most English city is home to attractive botanical gardens, the meandering and translucent Avon River, attractive beaches, and hiking trails in the hills surrounding the city. Add to that, the post-earthquake offerings like eclectic breweries, bustling food halls, and colorful street art and you have yourself an exciting city.
And I have a feeling that Christchurch’s renaissance is just getting started.
20) Banks Peninsula – 1-2 Days
The Banks Peninsula is a unique landmass formed by volcanos and home to rolling hills, hidden bays, and impossibly bright turquoise water. It is a quiet escape from Christchurch and I recommend spending at least a night to really soak up the calming environment here.
You can indulge in authentic French cuisine at the adorable French village of Akaroa, hike through native bush or to historic pā sites, and see rare Hector’s dolphins in the wild on a boat cruise.
21) Dunedin 2-3 Days
I haven’t visited Dunedin for many years but I always loved this student city and I am hoping to get back there soon. Dunedin has strong Scottish roots and numerous beautiful historic buildings including Olveston House, which you can tour. It is also home to the steepest street in the world, Baldwin Street.
I’ve heard that these days there is a quirky and arty vibe to the city center and an excellent food and cafe scene that I am dying to check out. One of the best things about Dunedin though is its proximity to nature, with windswept beaches and the stunning Otago Peninsula right on its doorstep.
22) Otago Peninsula 1-2 Days
Like Dunedin, it has been over ten years since I have been to the Otago Peninsula but I still rate it as one of my favorite places in New Zealand for nature lovers, and it is drop-dead gorgeous to boot.
This hilly finger of land is home to rugged cliffs and bays, cute coastal communities, New Zealand’s only castle, wild beaches, and so much marine wildlife.
You can find the endemic and endangered hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin), the world’s only mainland colony of royal albatross, little blue penguins, giant sea lions, fur seals, and other New Zealand native birds. It is a marine wildlife wonderland!
I hope you are able to add at least a few of these incredible places to your South Island New Zealand Itinerary. Let me know if there are any other places you think I should add to the list.
The Best Insurance For Your New Zealand Trip
Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your trip, just to be on the safe side. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with.
Safety Wing also allows you to sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers.
If you liked this post, check out some of my other New Zealand content:
- Why You Should Visit These Beautiful Otago Towns in New Zealand
- Pushing Myself to the Limit on the Kepler Track
- In the Shadow of a Giant: Hiking the Hooker Valley Track to Mount Cook
- Hiking to Rob Roy Glacier in Mount Aspiring National Park
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- 12 Fun Things To Do in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand
- The Ultimate Northland Road Trip: Auckland to Cape Reinga
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- 26 Fun Things To Do in Auckland To Best Experience the City
- Fun Things To Do in Matakana, North Auckland
- Fun Things To Do on Waiheke Island: A Subtropical Island Paradise