10 Must-see must-do on the South Island of New Zealand

Learn what are 10 of the not to be missed places on the South Island of New Zealand.

The following must-see locations are not based on popularity with tourists – although many of the locations are popular tourist spots – but rather on the potential, emotional impact you may experience when seeing the scenery.


Starting from the top of the South Island of New Zealand and going in a counterclockwise direction, here are my top 10 places not to miss on the South Island of New Zealand...

1. Marlborough Sounds

If you take the ferry from Wellington to Picton, you will already experience part of the grandeur of the Marlborough Sounds.

However, you can also go for a hike to see one or more of the sounds.

The Marlborough Sounds is all about bush-clad mountains jotting out into the sea, where the color of the water enclosed by the sounds will mesmerize you.

2. Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay

When you get off the ferry in Picton, Motueka is a 2-hour drive to the west. Motueka is a good town to stay in close to Abel Tasman National Park, since it provides all of the basic amenities and more – including fast food restaurants. Golden Bay is located a bit further away, up over Takaka Hill.

When I think of Abel Tasman and Golden Bay, beaches, beaches, and more beaches with gorgeous golden sand and water come to mind, in combination with bush that refreshes the mind and soul, especially if you go for a long hike along the coast.

Frenchman Bay inlet, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island, New Zealand

3. Punakaiki pancake rocks and the rugged West Coast

While the rocks at Punakaiki are something special to see if you are a Geologist or Geophysicist like myself, the blowholes make them extra special for normal tourists.

And why not make a short stop there to stretch your legs as you drive down the West Coast? It takes about 3 hours to drive from Motueka to Punakaiki so a short break from driving would be good. You can find more driving times between cities on the South Island on the South Island driving distances & times page.

The rugged coastline of the West Coast, especially the top half of the western side of the South Island, will surely impress you.

Also visit: The seal colony near Westport and Mangatini Falls if you are into a little bit of (coal mining) history with a huge waterfall as the climax.

4. The glaciers: Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier

If you can book a glacier hike, do it. The glaciers are slowly melting away as Earth gets warmer. To be able to get close to all of that ice – sometimes with a nice light blue color – is an experience of a lifetime.

Also visit: Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier. Lake Matheson is best viewed on a windless day to increase your chances of getting an iconic photo of the reflection of the mountains in the lake.

Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

5. Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook

The first time I saw Lake Pukaki “live” I literally screamed in my rental car. I had seen it many times in photographs, but to see the real thing was incredible. Combine this with a view of Mount Cook on a perfectly cloudless day, and you’ve got yourself a view that everyone should see before they die.

After you stop at the Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook lookout on State Highway 8, hook onto State Highway 80 and drive toward Mount Cook National Park. If the weather is fine, you should be able to enjoy views of Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook along this scenic route.

There are also several short walks you can do in Mount Cook National Park to see more of Mount Cook and other mountains in the area.

6. Scenic flight over Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook

The South Island always looks gorgeous from above, especially during winter in New Zealand. The mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers are guaranteed to impress you, especially if you view them from above.

Pick a nice day, book a scenic flight that has a route that passes above Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook, and you’ve got yourself a winner. Try a scenic flight with Air Safaris in Tekapo.

While tour operators tend to require at least two people for a scenic flight, if you are traveling alone in New Zealand like I always do, you can sometimes join a party of two without having to pay a single supplement or for an invisible second person. Just make sure that you pick the best time to visit New Zealand as a solo traveler.

Scenic flight over Mount Cook and Tasman Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

Also visit: Mount John Observatory or do the Mount John walk.

7. Milford Sound

Milford Sound is known for its mountain peaks jutting out of the sea like towers in combination with huge waterfalls. Therefore, I highly recommend doing a Milford Sound boat tour.

The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound can take up to 4 hours, but you can cut down on that time by doing, for example, a Fly-Cruise-Fly tour starting in Queenstown.

This means that you would first catch a scenic flight to Milford Sound, do the Milford Sound cruise, and then fly back to Queenstown. Such a tour would not only allow you to see the mountains around Queenstown from above but also allow you to enjoy the mountain peaks and waterfalls of Milford Sound on a boat.

Milford Sound boat tour, South Island, New Zealand

8. The Catlins

When I think of the Catlins, the color green comes to mind: green rolling hills, green bush, and mossy green rocks around waterfalls. The Catlins also has beaches and wildlife such as seals, penguins, and birds.

Roaring Bay, Catlins, South Island, New Zealand

Also visit: Nugget Point.

9. Otago Peninsula beaches and coastline

While I’m not a big fan of Dunedin – or any of the larger cities in New Zealand – I am a big fan of the coastal scenery around Dunedin and especially the Otago Peninsula. Therefore, if you visit Dunedin, I highly recommend you take a scenic drive on Portobello Road and Harington Point Road on the Otago Peninsula.

Also in the neighborhood: Larnach Castle.

10. Kaikoura Coast

Most of the coast along the eastern side of the South Island is littered by water running off mountains into rivers and eventually into the sea. This water takes rock particles along with it and eventually mixes with the seawater. This gives the water along the coast a weird but very beautiful light green color.

You can see this light green water when driving along the east coast from Picton to Kaikoura or lower down the South Island between Christchurch and Dunedin after you get off the Canterbury Pacific Highway on your way to Dunedin.

East coast near Hinds, South Island, New Zealand

Also visit: Moeraki Boulders when driving between Christchurch and Dunedin.


Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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