8 Must-Visit Destinations on New Zealand’s South Island
The South Island of New Zealand is a remarkable place with astonishing mountains, glaciers, lakes, and beaches. The South Island is so diverse that you could spend time relaxing on the beach in Abel Tasman National Park one day and hike on a glacier in Franz Josef the next. There are so many extraordinary destinations on New Zealand’s South Island that it can be hard to decide what to prioritize. To help you decide, below are 8 destinations you cannot miss on New Zealand’s South Island.
1. Fiordland National Park: Milford Sound
Milford Sound, located in Fiordland National Park, is one of the most incredible places in New Zealand. You can get to Milford Sound by flying, driving or taking a bus tour. This Milford Sound Flight and Boat Cruise from Queenstown offers a unique experience to fly over the Southern Alps and see Milford Sound from the air and water. On the flight you will see panoramic views of waterfalls, lakes, valleys, and snow-covered peaks. The scenic return flight is via a different flight path so that you get to see even more astonishing views.
If you plan on driving to Milford Sound you should stay in Te Anau or at the iconic Milford Sound Lodge since Queenstown is a four-hour drive away. One of the must-do activities in Milford Sound is a boat cruise. We booked this Small Boat Cruise which I highly recommend! The boat only has up to 75 people with plenty of space to sit or stand outside. Since the boat is smaller it can get closer to the wildlife and mountains than the bigger boats.
Plan your trip to Milford Sound with our ultimate guide to visiting Milford Sound
2. Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook National Park is a must-visit destination on New Zealand’s South Island that features breathtaking hiking trails, vast glaciers, high mountains, and several adventure activities. The best way to explore Mount Cook National Park is on this 40-minute Mount Cook Mountains High Helicopter Flight with an alpine snow landing. On the helicopter flight you will get to see breathtaking views of Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook, and Tasman Glacier (the longest glacier in New Zealand at 23 km).
Two hikes you need to do in Mount Cook National Park are Hooker Valley Track and Tasman Glacier Lookout. Hooker Valley Track is a 6.5-mile hike that guides you through the valley to Hooker Lake with Mount Cook towering above. Tasman Glacier Lookout is a short trail but you need to go up about 300 steps. The lookout offers unparalleled views of Tasman Lake and the surrounding mountains.
You can visit Mount Cook National Park as a day trip from Wanaka or Queenstown or stay overnight in Mount Cook National Park if you want more time to explore the park. In Mount Cook Village the best places to stay at are Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Lodge and Aoraki Court Motel. If you plan to stay in Mount Cook Village you will want to book a place to stay far in advance because there are limited options.
3. Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are two glaciers located near each other on the west side of the South Island. The best way to see the 7.5-mile-long Franz Josef Glacier is on a helicopter flight with a snow landing. This 25-minute helicopter flight features views of the Southern Alps, Franz Josef Glacier and the lush rainforest. It also includes a 10-minute landing on top of a snowy peak. If you want to spend more time on the glacier, you can book this Franz Josef Heli Hiking Tour.
Another way to see the glaciers is by hiking to viewpoints. The Franz Josef Glacier Walk takes you to a view of Franz Josef Glacier but you won’t get to walk on the glacier. If you want to see a view of Fox Glacier, start at Fox Glacier South Side Walk and take the detour to Moraine walk for a rewarding walk in the rainforest. Another nice walk that you shouldn’t miss in this area is Lake Matheson where you can enjoy a reflection of Mount Cook.
We decided to take advantage of the opportunity to skydive in one of the most beautiful places in the world and did a tandem skydive over Franz Josef Glacier from 16,500 ft. This was the most incredible experience of our trip. We got to see views of glaciers, lakes, rivers, ocean and Mt Cook, New Zealand’s tallest peak. There were breathtaking views from the plane as we were rising to 16,500 ft, but nothing beats the experience of being surrounded by these views. After free falling for 60 seconds the instructor releases the parachute and you get to fall slowly while still enjoying the sensational views.
Wanaka is a beautiful town located in the Otago Region of the South Island of New Zealand. The scenic town is surrounded by the Southern Alps and sits on the south end of Lake Wanaka making it the perfect destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Nearby is Mount Aspiring National Park where Rob Roy Glacier Track is located, a 10-km trail with glaciers, rivers, waterfalls, and mountain landscape.
In Wanaka there are two popular peak hikes you can choose from to see a breathtaking view of the region: Roy’s Peak and Isthmus Peak. One place you can’t miss while visiting Wanaka is a small willow tree known as #ThatWanakaTree that is frequently photographed. While driving around Lake Wanaka, make sure to stop at Beacon Point and Glendhu Bay Lookout for more views of the lake and surrounding mountain landscape.
You can also explore Lake Wanaka by boat, with this 1-hour happy hour cruise which includes wine and a cheese board. If you are looking for a more thrilling way to explore the lake, you should book this Jet Boat Adventure which will take you across the lake and down the Clutha River.
Queenstown is a must-visit destination in New Zealand, known as the adventure capital of the country. Here you can find endless thrilling experiences such as bungee jumping, skydiving, and jet boat rides. It is a top destination for outdoor enthusiasts, with brilliant hiking trails such as Ben Lomond, Queenstown Hill, and Fernhill Loop.
Queenstown is also an ideal destination to visit if you want to relax and enjoy breathtaking views. This 1.5-hour Scenic Cruise on Lake Wakatipu is a must-do to experience the beauty of this area. Queenstown is known its food and wine scene where you can find a range of restaurants and their locally grown Pinot Noir. This Central Otago Wine Tour is the best way to get a taste of the wine region, which includes wine tasting at 4 vineyards and lunch.
There are breathtaking views all around Queenstown, but there are a few spots that shouldn’t be missed. Stop at Lake Hayes Lookout for an unparalleled view of the lake surrounded by mountains. The 45-minute scenic drive to the town of Glenorchy is a must-do for dreamy views of Lake Wakatipu and the mountain landscape.
6. Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand with lush forest, bright blue water, and breathtaking coastline. If you want to visit Abel Tasman National Park but don’t have the time to do the full track, you can choose a section of the track to hike. There are many beautiful sections of the track that can be completed in less than a day.
We hiked from Bark Bay to Anchorage Bay which required us to take a water taxi to Bark Bay and back from Anchorage Bay. We had plenty of time to relax on the beautiful beaches of Bark Bay and Anchorage Bay as well as enjoy our hike through the forest. One of the most unique parts of Abel Tasman National Park is that the tides fall and rise by about 15 feet.
The most convenient way to see more of the park in a short amount of time is on this Abel Tasman Day Trip. The cruise will take you around Split Apple Rock all the way to Tonga Island Marine Reserve. The tour offers kayaks and snorkeling gear for you to use to explore Abel Tasman National Park. You will also have time to hike along Pitt Head Loop with views of Te Pukatea Bay.
Read More: Abel Tasman National Park Day Trip
7. Marlborough Sounds
Marlborough Sounds is a must-visit destination on New Zealand’s South island, located on the north part of the island. A great place to base yourself when exploring this area is in Picton, which is where the ferry from Wellington arrives. Don’t miss the scenic 40 km road between Haverlock and Picton called the Queen Charlotte Drive which has irresistible viewpoints.
If you want to explore this area more, consider hiking a part of the Queen Charlotte Track. The full Queen Charlotte Track from Ship Cove to Anakiwa is 73.5 km and usually takes 3-5 days. If you don’t have time to hike the full track, it is still worth hiking a section of the trail. The most flexible option to hike a section for the Queen Charlotte Track is to drive to the Anakiwa entrance and walk for as much time as you would like. Walk through the lush forest and enjoy views of the bays. Another way to explore Marlborough Sounds is with a half-day sea kayaking guided tour from Picton.
8. Marlborough Wine Region
Marlborough wine region is a must-visit destination in New Zealand’s South Island if you are looking to visit wineries and try local New Zealand wine. Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine region, known for its Sauvignon Blanc. Our favorite wineries that we visited are Framingham Wine, Nautilus Estate, and Forrest Wines. Explore this wine region with a full-day wine tour from Blenheim or Picton.
If you want to spend more time in this area, you can find Airbnbs and guesthouses nestled among the vineyards. We stayed at this incredible Airbnb with vineyard views in Spring Creek which I highly recommend. If you happen to be here on a Sunday, check out the Marlborough Farmers Market in the morning for a local experience.
Tips for Visiting the South Island of New Zealand
- The best way to explore the South Island of New Zealand is to rent a car. Book your rental car ahead of time with Discover Cars to search across rental car companies and find the best price.
- The weather in the South Island can be very different depending on where you are so it is important to bring clothes for a range of weather.
- Expect long driving distances to explore the South Island.
- When in doubt, spend more time somewhere. The South Island of New Zealand is a remarkable destination. If you are not sure how long to spend here or in specific locations, know that the longer you can spend the better.
Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links for products and services I recommend. At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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