Looking for the best things to do in South Island New Zealand? Well here are 25 epic experiences that should be part of your trip!
South Island New Zealand is truly stunning and personally my favourite out of the hot North v South debate!
There are just so many awesome places to explore and incredible activities to enjoy.
From the adrenaline filled chaos of Queenstown to stunning Glacier hikes on Franz Josef Glacier – no matter what you love to do, the South Island has more than a few options to keep you happy and pack out your itinerary!
So to help you make the most of your trip to the land of the long white cloud, here are 25 of my favourite things to do on South Island New Zealand…
Swim with wild dolphins
Easily my favourite experience of all my travels around South Island New Zealand – swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura is something I’ll never forget.
It’s a half day trip which heads out along the awesome coastline that surrounds Kaikoura and is home to huge numbers of dolphins as well as the odd sperm whale and even orcas!
We got dropped off into a super pod of over 300 wild dolphins who were super inquisitive and playful and most importantly 100% wild, so all interactions were totally on their terms.
Even if you dont fancy jumping in for a swim alongside them (it is pretty chilly!) doing it as a dolphin watching trip is also well worth it and you’ll get to see them cruising either side of the boats bow and doing flips around the bay too!
Meet the local seals
Alongside the dolphins, the other awesome wildlife encounter that Kaikoura has to offer are their resident seals.
An epic option for a cheap half day experience this is totally free and the perfect idea for any self drive or Campervan trip around the South Island.
In seal breeding season you can also visit the waterfall nursery – where heaps of lively seal pups frolic in the shallow waters before heading downstream and into the ocean for their adult lives.
One of the craziest and most amazing wildlife encounters I’ve had anywhere in the world!
Kayak Abel Tasman National Park
One of the items at the top of my New Zealand bucket list when I was first planning to head out there was kayaking Abel Tasman National Park, one of the countries most scenic outdoor experiences.
Departing from Abel Tasman (who would’ve guessed!) there are a range of option to choose from – from half day to 5 days guided camping experiences – so whether you just want a quick taster or a full on adventure experience there’s something for everyone.
With heaps of amazing wildlife to see and absolutely stunning views wherever you look this is one kayaking experience you have to take the plunge on.
Glacier Hike (and take a helicopter)
Another of my absolute favourite experiences on the South Island as well as New Zealand as a whole was glacier hiking on Franz Josef Glacier!
Strap on some crampons, crawl through ice caves and check out this amazing frozen wonderland. I actually took my parents along for this trip and they had as much fun as I did, which is amazing!
I ended up splashing a bit on the Heli Hike as it ticked off two bucket list items in one and it was well worth it – although there are a range of option for exploring the glacier, including a new overnight camping tour.
You can also do a range of trips on Fox Glacier as well, although personally I haven’t hit that up yet.
Relax in the nature of Milford Sound
When it comes to experience the natural beauty of New Zealand, a trip to Milford Sound is one of the most popular ways to soak up the incredible scenery and explore more of what South Island New Zealand has to offer.
For those renting a campervan in NZ you can self drive down to Te Anau and hop on a day trip, those on Stray New Zealand and Kiwi Experience Passes have the opportunity to add it onto their pass, or you could just jump on one of the day trips departing from Queenstown.
The journey down to Milford Sound offers heaps of spectacular photo stops – including the Mirror Lakes, Knobs Flat and Monkey Creek.
Depending on what tour you choose to do you’ll explore this incredible Fiordland, get the chance to see some of New Zealands most unique flora and fauna. Wildlife including seal and penguins and of course the famous waterfalls that cascade out of the lush rainforest into the fjords.
Or Doubtful Sound
Whilst not as popular as Milford Sound – due to the limited number of tours running there – Doubtful Sound is the other option for exploring more of the South Island New Zealand Fjordland and is arguably even better than Milford Sound.
Sure it’s a bit more of a trek to get there, and as a result slightly more expensive, but the rewards are vast and beautiful landscapes with very few other people around.
Get your camera ready for the resident fur seal colony and even keep an eye out for penguins and whales too!
So if you’re looking for something a bit more tranquil, majestic and unique then Doubtful Sound is the way to go.
Get your adrenaline going with AJ Hackett
Prefer a bit more excitement and adrenaline with your South Island New Zealand adventure? Well the crew at AJ Hackett have you covered.
Their range of Bungy jumps and swings around the Queenstown are world famous – with the Nevis Bungy being the pinnacle of these adrenaline fuelled days out.
At 134m high it’s time to face your fears on New Zealands highest bungy – offering 8.5 seconds of freewill and some hilarious photos to go alongside it!
Or for those who don’t fancy that the Nevis Swing boasts the title of worlds largest swing and is certainly easier to defeat!
Are you brave enough?
Or how about a skydive?
Bungys and swings not quite extreme enough for you? Well how about jumping out of a perfectly good plane from 15,000 feet?
There are a few options for skydiving in South Island New Zealand – with the two most popular options being Queenstown (the adrenaline capital) and Franz Josef Glacier.
The Queenstown drop zone offer epic views across the lakes and mountain range of the South Island, but a skydive at Franz Josef Glacier boasts being the highest commercial skydive in the Southern Hemisphere at a huge 20,000 feet and offering 85 seconds of free fall.
Plus epic views across the entire coastline and of course the glaciers themselves!
Have the ultimate Campervan roadtrip
When it comes to the best ways to travel around New Zealand, Kiwi Experience and Stray New Zealand might be the most popular backpacker methods but personally I’d always recommend hiring a Campervan in New Zealand to really make the most of everything it has to offer.
The freedom and adventure of a Campervan road trip in NZ is something you should highly consider doing and you can then piece together all the other epic items on this list as part of it!
Waking up with mirror like lakes on your doorstep or the sound of the ocean breeze is incredible, and sure it’s not the cheapest travel option, but it’s well worth the price tag!
For photographers it’s a must too as there are endless landscapes and hidden locations to explore all along the main tourist routes – so go get your #vanlife on the go.
Chill in the ice bar
Everything likes a cold beer or a cocktail, especially when they’re winding down on holiday, but its going to be hard to beat how cold your drink is at Minus 5 Ice Bar is!
The unique Queenstown bar is geared up with and ice bar, stools, ice sculptures and even your glasses are made of ice!
Dont worry if you’re travelling in summer and dont have any cold weather gear to bring with you, the bar provides coats, hats and gloves for everyone.
It can get a bit busy so pre booking is essentials, especially over peaks season – so give them a shout so you dont miss out!
Grab a picture of “That Wanaka Tree”
If you’re heading to New Zealand with a camera in tow “that Wanaka tree” is a must do photo stop – especially if you’re doing it for the ‘Gram.
This famous tree sits half submerged in Lake Wanaka and has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
If you’re not bothered about it Wanaka itself is still well worth checking out and a stroll around the lakes edge is the perfect way to soak up the nature of this area.
Hike the Milford track
For those who want even more outdoor adventure than simply jumping on a day tour to Milford Sound, the Milford Track is one of the 9 great walks in New Zealand.
Running from Glade Wharf (near Te Anau) all the way to Dumpling Hut – a 53.5km one way hike that takes in heaps of spectacular beauty, waterfalls and viewpoints. Usually done over a 3 day period, there are 3 hut accommodations on route for you to stay at, but be aware in peak hiking season (which runs late October to late April) bookings are essential.
If you do decide to tackle the Milford Track (or any of the Great Walks) make sure you go prepared and check out the official Department of Conservation site for the most up to date info, weather and restrictions.
Marvel at Lake Tekapo
Out of all the photos you’ll see of South Island New Zealand the ones of Lake Tekapo are some of the most iconic.
With sprawling, snow capped mountains in the background and a turquoise blue lake you might think the whole scene is photoshopped – but trust me it’s even more awe inspiring in real life!
Head to the Church Of The Good Shepherd for some great photo opportunities (including some awesome night photography tours) and bonus points if you hit it up in lupen season (which peaks in late November) to include some of the vivid purple flowers this area is famous for.
Be in awe of Mount Cook National Park
Another one of those iconic New Zealand photos – the view across the snow capped mountains of Mount Cook National Park are simply stunning!
The highest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook was also the training ground for Sir Edmun Hillarys Everest mission.
The State 80 highway drive into the national park is a must do photo stop – with the long winding country road against a backdrop of mountains, lakes and superb nature.
For hikers Mount Cook National Park offers a wide range of treks and there 17 overnight huts throughout the park to link all your walk together. With stand out walks like Hooker Valley, Tasman Glacier Lookout and Mueller Hut there’s plenty to keep you busy!
As with all the hikes on this list make sure you’re prepared before you go!
And if you want to get in on all the action without working up a sweat you could always check out the stunning views from a scenic helicopter flight, go star gazing at the Dark Sky Reserve or perhaps a bit of glacier kayaking?
Relax in the natural spas
All the adrenaline, adventure and road tripping a bit too much?
No worries – South Island New Zealand has heaps of natural spas for you to indulge yourself at, unwind and soak in the thermal pools with some truly mind blowing views.
Queenstown boasts some of the most accessible and scenic options – with the Onsen Hot Pools near Arthurs Point being the famous ones you’ll see photos of everywhere.
If you’re keen to try them out but dont fancy the splurge most of the Franz Josef Glacier tours also include free entry to the thermal pools in that area too…cheeky insider tip there!
Feel the speed with some jetboating
And we’re back on the adrenaline track again!
Yup you’re never too far from an adrenaline fix in New Zealand and the Queenstown Shotover Jet is one of those must do activities on the South Island – with no trip to Q’Town complete without it.
Tear through the canyons at 87kmph in inches of water for the perfect mix for excitement and beautiful scenery as you wind through the gorges and rivers as well as performing their trademark 360 spins along the way.
…and yes you will get wet!
Cycle the famous tracks
There’s a couple of awesome hiking areas I’ve included in the list – but if you fancy your nature and exercise with a bit more adrenaline and speed why not tackle some of the extraordinary South Island New Zealand cycle tracks?
Trails like West Coast Wilderness trail and The Old Ghost Road will keep even the most experiences of mountain bikers on their toes whereas the more family friendly Great Taste Trail and Otago Central Rail Trail offer much more laid back options.
Experience cyclists can go solo, but for those wanting to meet other travellers or be shown the ropes there are plenty tour companies offering a range of cycling tours.
Do a ski season (or snowboard!)
Love a good bit of pow pow? Well South Island New Zealand offers up an epic snow season where you can ski or snowboard to your hearts content!
The South Island itself has over 20 ski fields to choose from but Queenstown and Wanaka are the best bases if you want to make the most of the snow season both on and off the piste.
Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Treble Cone offer up a whole range of runs for all levels and there are also a range of ski and snowboard schools for those looking to learn or step up their skills.
The season runs from June to October, but I’d recommend advising a month before hadn’t if you’re looking to get a job and rent a place before everything kicks off.
Chow down on a Fergburger
New Zealand does have a few culinary treats that it’s famous for – including L&P, pineapple lumps Whittakers chocolate and of course the traditional Maori Hangi.
But there’s also another famous feed that you’ll have to add to your to do list on the South Island – Fergburger.
This little family run Burge joint has blown up in popularity over the last few years – serving up some unique and incredible burger options.
When I visited Fergburger (pre vegetarian!) and had the Southern Swine – an absolute beast of a burger combining prime New Zealand beef, American streaky bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onion, avocado, aioli and relish all sandwhiched nicely between a toasted bun.
Be warned – there’s always a que to order at Fergburger so don’t turn up hangry!
Meet the local wildlife
I’ve already mentioned the awesome dolphins and seals you can meet, but South Island New Zealand is home to a whole range of amazing wildlife, many of which are unique to New Zealand.
Admittedly most of them are birds – many of which are flightless – from the curious and rather cheeky Kea to the adorable yellow eyes penguin and robotic sounding Tui.
There are also non bird related species too and you might be lucky enough to see a Sperm Whale or even Orcas during your time by the coast.
And then of course there’s the iconic Kiwi bird – a pretty weird looking, nocturnal, flightless bird that you can’t really leave NZ without finding a bit more about it!
Get acquainted with Maori culture
No trip to New Zealand is complete without learning more about the traditional Maori culture and the history of this beautiful country.
There are plenty of Moari cultural events and tours all across the South Island – including the popular Queenstown ones which offer you the chance to learn from the locals about the legends of how New Zealand was created and of course witness the world famous Haka.
And of course you have to make sure you get the chance to tuck into a traditional Hangi feast at least once during your time in NZ – this earth oven cooked meals are insanely good!
Click here for more info and to book
Explore real Middle Earth
New Zealand is famed as being the backdrop to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films – the Real Middle Earth as it were.
And even though the famous Hobbiton Movie set and Weta Caves are on the North Island, there are still plenty of Middle Earth locations to explore on the South Island too.
Nelson offers up some incredible scenic helicopter flights which take in locations like Chetwood Forest and Dimrill Dale, Wanaka offers access to the backdrop for the Misty Mountains and Glenorchy and Paradise Scenic Tours gives you the chance to check out Isengard, Ithilien and Lothlorien forest – they even have a heap of swords and capes on board so you can take some awesome photos too!
So there you have it – 25 epic things to do on the South Island of New Zealand! Hopefully it’ll jam pack your itinerary full of travel goodness!
Also if you’re exploring the whole country check out my top things to do in New Zealands North Island too!
What’s top of your things to do on South Island New Zealand?