Famed for its dramatic mountains, scenic lakes and awe-inspiring glaciers, the sprawling South Island of New Zealand is quite simply one of the world’s most beautiful regions.
Inevitably, the majority of the island’s most popular attractions are of the outdoors variety, with endless opportunities for hiking, wildlife watching, and general mooching around while enjoying the stunning landscapes that present themselves every which way you turn. If you’re planning to visit this part of the world and would like to build an itinerary of unique things to see and do, we’ve selected 20 of the best below.
Marvel at a magical fjord
A truly iconic tourist spot, Milford Sound in the southwest reaches of South Island is an awe-inspiring landmark that captivates all who come here. The vast fjord draws huge numbers of sightseers every year who come to marvel at the huge granite cliffs that rise and plunge under the surface of the Tasman Sea, where the world’s most populous black coral trees live alongside a unique assortment of flora and fauna. Situated a five-hour drive from Queenstown, it is also New Zealand’s only fjord that can be reached by car, helping make it a hugely popular destination for visitors to South Island.
Fiordland National Park
Explore an icy natural wonder
Spread across more than eight miles of ice cave-pitted terrain in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, located on the western coast of South Island, the Fox Glacier is a mesmerising natural wonder, made all the more impressive by its surrounding rainforests and mountains. Happily, it is also one of the world’s most accessible glaciers, with regular guided tours bringing a steady stream of visitors to explore its vast expanse. Nearby, tucked into the forested foothills and surrounded by lush green farmland, the cosy township of Fox Glacier itself is also well worth a stop-off.
Westland Tai Poutini National Park
Navigate one of the world’s steepest streets
There are steep roads and then there is Baldwin Street. Located in the city of Dunedin at the head of Otago Harbour on the South Island’s southeast coast, the street is so precipitous that it looks as if its houses are all set to slide down it. The cause of its unique appearance was some rather slap-dash city planning, but rather than hold its head in shame, the street wears its status as one of the world’s most vertiginous as a badge of honour, hosting multiple charity events along its precarious parameters throughout the year.
Baldin Street, Dunedin
Traverse a boulder-strewn landscape
Perched among the eastern ranges of the Southern Alps, an hour’s drive from Christchurch, is Castle Hill, a large farm area dedicated to the grazing of sheep and cattle. But it is the huge boulders and rock outcrops dotted across the landscape, reminiscent of castle ruins, that make it such a distinctive landmark. So distinctive, in fact, that none other than the Dalai Lama dubbed it the “Spiritual Centre of the Universe” after visiting back in 2002. As well as drawing regular hikers and the occasional global religious leader, the hill is also a popular spot with rock climbing enthusiasts.
Scratch your head at a fence covered in bras
Back in 1999, an assortment of bras appeared on a fence in the hamlet of Cardrona in Central Otago. Initially, no-one knew what this could possibly mean, but it soon led to a flurry of copycats adorning the fence with their own women’s undergarments. Today, the number of bras hanging on what has become known as the Cardrona Bra Fence can be counted in the thousands and – give or take the odd creepy theft – that figure continues to stand strong. And still people are none the wiser about how, or why, the trend began.
Cardrona, Central Otago
Cast your eyes up to the stars
An International Dark Sky Reserve, Lake Tekapo is renowned as one of the world’s best spots for stargazing. A number of companies run stargazing trips here, inviting guests to step away from the artificial lights of Tekapo and venture up to the Mount John University Observatory for the real deal. Here, you’ll be told what to look out for when you gaze through the observatory’s powerful lenses, including pointing out constellations with a green laser pen, before letting you loose to enjoy the magic with your own eyes.
Step into a fantasy world
Anyone with an interest in the quirky branch of science fiction and fantasy known as Steampunk will want to head to the small coastal town of Oamaru during their visit to South Island. Here, remnants of the town’s boom period of the 1800 – the period that inspired the Steampunk movement – are seen all around, and particularly in its buildings and public spaces, gaining Oamaru the nickname of Steampunk HQ. Highlights include a massive warehouse full of exhibits, containing exhibits, a locomotive and an old blimp.
Take to the skies for a whale-watching flight
While most whale-watching tours take place from the vantage point of a boat, this tour offers an alternative perspective, inviting guests to witness these majestic creatures from up high in the sky. After a safety briefing, you’ll board a light propeller aircraft for your 40-minute journey, during which you’ll get to enjoy spectacular aerial views of sperm whales, dusky dolphins, orcas and other exotic marine life in the waters of Kaikoura below, as well as the dramatic surrounding scenery, including snow-clad mountain ranges and turquoise ocean reefs. Every passenger gets a guaranteed window seat to optimise the experience.
Check out a cluster of trees that point sideways
The mangled, surreally shaped trees that occupy Slope Point, the most southerly spot on South Island, are a sight to behold. Perched upon rugged cliffs that dip into the sea, the trees have been so heavily battered by fierce, cold winds down the years that they have been left permanently bent and tangled, meaning they point sideways rather upwards. As a result, the site has become something of a tourist hot spot, with visitors keen to witness one of the most unusual clusters of trees you’ll find anywhere.
Experience the thrill of a human catapult
Tailor-made for adventure sport enthusiasts and assorted adrenaline junkies, Nevis Catapult became the world’s first ever human catapult when it was launched – pun very much intended – back in 20018. Offering a fresh take on a conventional bungee jumping experience, the contraption invites thrill-seekers to get strapped into the catapult’s high-tech winch system before rocketing them some 492 feet out across the Nevis Valley, reaching more than 60 miles per hour along the way.
Traipse through a tunnel with a treat at the end
Located a few miles from the the city of Dunedin at the head of Otago Harbour on the South Island’s southeast coast, Tunnel Beach is part of a large area that comprises rugged sandstone cliffs, rock arches, and caves. Among the area’s main attractions is a tunnel that leads visitors all the way down to the beach’s waterfront, descending from about 500 feet above sea level, down 72 steps to your final destination. The tunnel itself is not one for the feint-hearted, as it’s quite dark and spooky inside, but the pay-back comes when you step out to be greeted by the wide and scenic ocean.
Pay your respects at a chair-themed memorial
Sitting in an empty field near the centre of Christchurch are 185 chairs that were placed there to symbolise, in a unique, powerful and poignant way, the lives of everyone who died tragically during the devastating Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011. The brainchild of local artist Peter Majendie, each white chair comes in a different form – armchairs, dining room chairs, beanbags, wheelchairs, baby capsules – each intended to honour the personality and identity of a victim of the disaster.
236 Cashel Street, Christchurch Central City
Venture into a mysterious underground world
Across Lake Te Anau, in the southwestern corner of South Island, are 12,000-year-old caves inhabited by thousands of illuminous glowworms. This unique site can be visited on a Glowworm Caves guided cruise that takes you deep into a subterranean world of rushing water before drifting in darkness beneath the luminous shimmer of glowworms. During the 2.15-hour excursion, you’ll enjoy a calm cruise across the lake before arriving at the cave entrance. Here, you’ll get to view informative displays and learn about this geological wonder before heading underground to marvel at this silent hidden grotto at close quarters. The tour ends with a scenic cruise back to where you began.
Discover a Victorian-era castle
For all its natural wonders, New Zealand is comparatively short on man-made historic landmarks. Among their limited number is Larnach Castle, which draws large numbers of visitors thanks to its beautiful gardens, grand architecture, and a back-story teeming with family drama. Tucked away in Dunedin, the exterior of the Victorian-era castle features extravagant stones and materials that were imported from all across the world, while its interior is awash with vintage furniture and striking artwork. The pristinely landscaped gardens are also worth taking time to explore.
145 Camp Road, Dunedin / Mon-Sun 9am-5pm
Immerse yourself in Christchurch’s vibrant arts scene
Art-lovers visiting Christchurch won’t want to miss one of South Island’s most popular cultural experiences – the Christchurch Street Art Trail. This colourful trail, which was initiated by local street artists amid the aftermath of the devastating 2011 earthquake, is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the city’s buzzing arts scene, with all kinds of creative endeavours to enjoy along the way, including artwork depicting giant red lips with grills, interactive boxing bags, and a swarm of fake but friendly penguins.
Admire a gorgeous gorge
The vivid turquoise water of Hokitika Gorge, nestled in a reserve amid the stunning West Coast of South Island, are yet another of South Island’s magnificent natural attractions. Surrounded by lush native bush, the gorge is most typically enjoyed from the safety of a small viewing platform that can be reached by walking from the reserve’s car park along a forested track, but more intrepid types can regularly be seen swimming here, too. Whichever you prefer, this is without question one of South Island’s most enchanting spots.
Ride through awe-inspiring canyons
The thundering waters of the Shotover River are a sight to behold even from the sidelines, but those of a more adventurous disposition can get up close and personal with the cascading rapids aboard a Shotover Jet Boat that reaches up to an eye-watering 52 miles per hour. With its adrenaline-thumping spins and spraying water, passengers are propelled past rocky outcrops, skimming around boulders and zipping through dramatic, narrow canyons as its walls tower above.
Join a Central Ortago wine tour
With its deep valleys and river terraces surrounded by snow-covered mountains, Central Otago’s temperate climate lends itself to perfect wine-making conditions. Wine enthusiasts can discover this world-renowned wine scene for themselves by booking onto a small-group Central Otago wine tour from Queenstown. Over 5.5 hours, you’ll visit four vineyards where you’ll get to look around the facilities, meet the wine-makers themselves and learn about the production process, before tasting some of the home-grown wine. Later, you’ll enjoy a light platter lunch accompanied by a glass of wine at a local vineyard restaurant. Queenstown hotel pick-up and drop-off is included in the tour price.
Amble to a historic lighthouse for world-class vistas
Situated on the Catlins Coast in the southeast corner of South Island is the historic Tokata lighthouse, one of New Zealand’s oldest lighthouses dating back to 1869 when it was built to protect the small vessels that moved around the coast. Perched above a set of rocks called Nugget Point, named by Captain Cook owing to their resemblance with pieces of gold, the lighthouse is one of New Zealand’s most famous lookouts, affording stunning views all around, including a colony of fur seals who can often be seen frolicking in the surf below.
Enjoy a foodie tour with the wind in your hair
The Nelson Tasman region of New Zealand is a haven of golden sand beaches, pristine coastline and artistic energy. It is also home to a number of New Zealand’s top artisan producers, with the surrounding sea a source of some of the country’s finest seafood, and the sunny coastal climate producing exceptional grapes. Traversing the self-guided Great Taste Cycle Trail, a network of cycleways threaded inland and along the coast, is a popular way for visitors to explore some of the area’s best culinary flavours and treats, with the chance to take in a number of foodie hot spots along the route.