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Things to Do in South Island

New Zealand’s South Island is one of the earth’s best outdoor playgrounds—and what it lacks in human population, the island makes up for in pristine forests, fjords, lakes, beaches, and mountains. Guided tours reach nearly every corner of the island, offering expert instruction, informative commentary, and effortless access to these truly great outdoors. A popular base is Christchurch, the island’s biggest city, full of Anglo-influenced architecture and an array of cultural offerings. Visitors enjoy peaceful punt rides down the Avon River, visits to the verdant Christchurch Botanic Gardens, and gondola rides into the Port Hills. Farther south, the Remarkables preside over Queenstown, known as the global adventure capital thanks to its seemingly unlimited menu of extreme tours and activities. Besides being an arts and dining destination in its own right, the town acts the jumping-off point for adventures at nearby Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, Mount Cook, and Milford Sound. Many visitors arrive ready to tackle one of the South Island’s six Great Walks, or a variety of shorter or longer guided forays into the island’s valleys, mountains, and fjords. Dunedin, proud of its Scottish history and full of bustling student life, boasts the scenic Taieri Gorge Railway, and is a departure point for tours to the Otago Peninsula, which teems with wildlife—including whales, dolphins, and sea lions—pristine beaches, and interesting historic sights.
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Franz Josef Glacier
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One of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, the Franz Josef Glacier is a spectacular river of ice. It is one of the world's steepest glaciers descending 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) over its 7.5 mile (12 kilometer) path through the valley, ending in lush temperate rainforest. As it flows it travels over bumpy steps which forces ice upwards to create dramatic ice cliffs and sharp crevasses. Over 2,700 people visit the ice a day during peak season. Some spend their time exploring the terminal face while others take helicopters to take advantage of the views and get access to higher icefalls, so they can clamor over the less-populated ice and carve out an adventure in the stunning and challenging terrain.
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Lake Wakatipu
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Dazzling Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand's longest lake. Shaped like an inverted "n" it is a highlight of a trip to Queenstown, which nestles against a curve near the middle of the lake. During the last ice age a huge glacier carved out the lake, which sinks to a depth of 1,300 feet (400 meters).The surrounding mountains that fed the glacier provide a dramatic backdrop to the crystal waters.

Atmospheric pressures cause the lake to rise and fall about 5 inches (12 centimeters) every 5 minutes. This gave rise to the Maori legend that the rise and fall of the water is the heartbeat of a giant who lies slumbering under the water.

The magnificent lake was the location for the Lothlorein scenes in The Lord of the Rings movie. If you’d like to get out on the water the most genteel way is to climb aboard the refurbished vintage steamship the TSS Earnslaw. Cruises across the lake will take you to Walter Peak where you can see a working high-country farm.

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TranzAlpine Train
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Praised as one of the most incredibly scenic train journeys in the world, the TranzAlpine chugs its way from Christchurch to Greymouth, via Arthur's Pass, daily.

Making its way from one coast of New Zealand to the other, from the Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea, the train crosses the broad expanse of the Canterbury Plains to climb the Alps via a series of four viaducts and 19 tunnels known as the Staircase.

The train journey reveals a stunning sequence of valleys, mountains and Southern Alps, including river valleys covered in beech rainforests, sky-mirrored lakes and snowcapped peaks.

The train carriages include group and individual seating, plus there’s an open-air carriage for top-quality photo opportunities. Food and beverages are available on board.

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Marlborough Sounds
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Set at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, the Marlborough Sounds amazingly comprise one fifth of New Zealand’s coastline. Not because the region is large, however, but simply because the serpentine coast weaves in and out of so many bays it massively adds to the mileage. Here the coastline is so stunningly rugged that mail is still delivered by boat to towns that are cut off from roads, and visitors can actually ride along with the boat that’s delivering mail. It’s a rural time capsule that hearkens back to life in the 1800s, where sheep still roam the forested hills and fishermen ply the waters for mussels and live off the bounty of the sea.

For an authentic experience in Marlborough Sounds, hop aboard a seafood cruise to sample the clams, mussels, and salmon the Marlborough area is known for. Or, to scour the shore on your own two feet, hike the famous Queen Charlotte Track that weaves through Queen Charlotte Sound.

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International Antarctic Centre
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Experience everything you want to know about the icy continent of Antarctica at the International Antarctic Centre, from indoor ice storms to ATV rides and penguins.

Feeding time at the NZ Penguin encounter is hugely popular, as is the Penguin Backstage Pass tour for an up-close view of these cute creatures. Go for a rough and ready ride on the Hagglund all-terrain vehicle, watch snow being made and throw snowballs, chill out in an ice cave and see the aquarium displays of Antarctic wildlife. Don’t worry about keeping warm: chillproof jackets and overshoes are provided.

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Coronet Peak
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Located only 25 minutes from the adventure capital of Queenstown, Coronet Peak is one of the most popular ski resorts on the entire South Island of New Zealand. This historic ski field is officially the nation’s oldest, and when it opened for business in 1947 there was only a single tow rope.

Today, however, Coronet Peak is a modern ski field on par with the best in the country. Aside from being the nation’s oldest, it’s also one of the last resorts in the country to watch its snow melt away. Given its southerly location, colder temperatures make for a longer season and better conditions for snowmaking. On most years, Coronet Peak will open its slopes sometime during the middle of June, and remain open throughout the winter until the mountain thaws in October. In addition to the long season, the resort offers views over Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding Southern Alps.

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The Remarkables
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New Zealand’s outdoor playground, the Remarkables, located high in mountainous country, possesses a great sense of excitement for any visitor looking to rip-up the alpines. With fabulous skiing, hiking, snowboarding and opportunities to just hangout, the entire family will get a kick from these majestic reserves.

Cool jumps, tunnels, trails, and even a bouncy castle at the crèche are available for children of all ages, while snow-sports schools are waiting for adults who have put off the slopes for too long.

You can also have a look at how the pros do it, with international competitions that take place. See boarders go sky-high off the half-pipes, or see renowned skier’s flow between slaloms at immense speeds.

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Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park
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A fabulous UNESCO World Heritage area measuring 700 square kilometers (434 square miles), Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park stretches from Westland to Fiordland in the South Island.

There are 22 of New Zealand’s highest mountains soaring over this park, including mighty 3,755-meter (12,316-foot) Mount Cook itself, the tallest peak in the country. Perhaps the best way to take in the mountains’ grandeur is from the air on a helicopter tour of the park. A mecca for climbers, hikers, skiers and lovers of natural beauty, the park’s attractions include the Tasman Glacier and the warm and welcoming Heritage, New Zealand’s most famous hotel.

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More Things to Do in South Island

Taieri Gorge Railway

Taieri Gorge Railway

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Visitors and locals alike assert that if there's one thing to be sure to do in Dunedin, it's a ride on the Taieri Gorge Railway. Get out of the city, enjoy stunning views, and absorb interesting historical information all in one place by taking a ride.

Providing connections to Pukerangi and Middlemarch, trains leave daily in the mornings and afternoons, and rides are complete with live commentary telling of the history of the area as well as notes about the sights that are passed by.

Be sure to check out the observation platform for the best views of the spectacular gorge, beautiful plains, and tranquil Taieri River while experiencing the work of Dunedin's pioneers, who built the train tunnels by hand over a hundred years ago.

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Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

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Christchurch is known as the garden city, an Anglophile settlement of well-tended gardens and tree-lined streets. Pride of place in this flower-loving town goes to the Botanic Gardens, attractively set within a loop of the winding Avon River. The gardens are planted with thousands of exotic and indigenous plants, with particular note going to its lime tree walkways, inviting lawns and seasonal flowers such as magnolias, azaleas and roses.

A number of conservatories protect a range of species, including desert plants, tropical blooms, begonias, alpine plants and orchids. The gardens are an ideal location for a picnic, or to find a relaxing spot for an hour or two, away from the bustle of the city.

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New Regent Street

New Regent Street

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When first constructed in the 1930s, New Regent Street was famously lauded as “the most beautiful street in New Zealand.” Today, after the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the street has rebuilt its colorful façade—built in a Spanish Mission style—where colorful, two-story buildings host retailers, restaurants, coffee shops, and cafés. When the street was first built in the Great Depression, only 3 of the original 40 buildings were occupied by lease-paying tenants, due to the economic hardships of the time and the tenants’ inability to pay rent. Gradually, an increasing number of businesses were established, and the street was reconstructed as a pedestrian mall in 1994. When the fateful Christchurch earthquakes struck, New Regent Street was one of the first places to rebuild and reopen its doors—though many repairs were only temporary and are in need of a permanent fix.

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Hagley Park

Hagley Park

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Without a doubt, Hagley Park is the greenest, most relaxing, yet also most happening 1 sq. mile in Christchurch. On the relaxing side, this central park offers dozens of opportunities for leisurely moments in the city. Paddle the waters of the Avon River which borders the park on one side, or spend an hour sniffing through the botanical gardens which are completely surrounded by the park. Lay a blanket on the expanse of grass and enjoy a midsummer picnic, or photograph the wildflowers which famously bloom as the park comes alive in the spring.

For as mellow as Hagley Park can be, however, it can rapidly change into a pulsing gathering place during one of the numerous Christchurch festivals. At large events such as the World Buskers Festival or the Great Kiwi Beer Festival, tens of thousands of Christchurch locals can descend on the spacious grounds.

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Christchurch Tram

Christchurch Tram

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Hop aboard a vintage tram for a leisurely tour of central Christchurch. It’s the most relaxing, fun way to get your bearings and see the city's attractions and landmarks.

The trams leave from Cathedral Square in downtown Christchurch. The route then crosses Worcester Bridge over the River Avon, loops past the Botanic Gardens and travels along past the shops of Armagh Street. All trams have an informative on-board commentary. Why not combine sightseeing on wheels with your evening meal, and take an evening ride on the Restaurant Tram? The colonial-style tram has every comfort, and the menu features local lamb and seafood.
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Kawarau Suspension Bridge

Kawarau Suspension Bridge

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Spanning 141 feet above the waters of dramatic Kawarau Gorge, no attraction is more iconic to Queenstown than the historic Kawarau Suspension Bridge. Built in 1880, there was a once a time when this rustic bridge connected Queenstown with the Otago gold fields. With the construction of an asphalt highway, however, traffic moved away from the bridge and it became frequented by bikers and joggers.

Then, in 1988, adventure-seeker A.J. Hackett decided to strap a bungy cord around his ankles and throw himself off of the bridge. When his hands splashed down into the waters below and the cord bounced back towards the bridge, the extreme activity of Queenstown bungy jumping had officially found its start. Today, hundreds of visitors flock to the bridge to watch as thrill-seekers leap into the gorge. Shuffling out onto the wooden planks, the rush of the water cascading through the gorge drowns out whimpers of the timid and scared.

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Baldwin Street

Baldwin Street

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Dunedin Railway Station

Dunedin Railway Station

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Known by locals as “Gingerbread George” because of its ornate architecture, the Dunedin Railway Station in New Zealand’s South Island was designed by George Troup and opened in 1906. In those first few years, the station was one of the country’s busiest, with at least 100 trains passing through its tracks each day.

While the station is still in operation, reduced rail traffic means the iconic building serves several other functions, and a tourist train that traverses the countryside via Middlemarch, Palmerston or Pukerangi departs daily from Dunedin. But there’s still plenty to do here without ever leaving the station; the ground floor houses a popular restaurant, and the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame and the Otago Art Society are located on the upper level.

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Larnach Castle

Larnach Castle

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Built between 1873 and 1887, the Larnach Castle is the only castle in all of New Zealand. Sitting on a beautiful 35 acres, the castle grounds and interior are a wonderful way to spend a day. For an extended stay, you can stay at the 4-star Larnach Lodge, located on the castle grounds.

Constructed for an Australian banker and politician, the castle presents a combination of American, Venetian, and Gothic styles of decor and architecture, making it wholly elaborate and unique. In addition to its ornate interior and beautifully maintained garden, tourists and guests gather at Larnach for a supernatural experience: the castle is said to be haunted by multiple members of the Larnach family.

Be sure to take some tea or a light lunch in the ballroom, one of the most beautiful parts of the castle, as well as visiting the on-grounds plant nursery.

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The Octagon

The Octagon

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Royal Albatross Centre

Royal Albatross Centre

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One of the incredible things about South Island is the unique wildlife opportunities available to visitors, and The Royal Albatross Centre is a perfect example. The center is home to the only mainland breeding colony of these amazing birds in the world, and its dedication to protecting the animals and their habitat is instantly clear to visitors.

Starting with a single albatross chick in 1938, the colony boasts a population of about 140 birds at present. Albatrosses are a sight to behold, with their impressive wingspan and flying speeds, they guarantee an unforgettable experience. Be sure to take advantage of all the information available about the centre, the peninsula, and the birds while you're there. Underneath the nature reserve is historic Fort Taiairoa, built in over 100 years ago to provide protection against Tsarist Russia, which features an amazing collection of armaments, including the world-famous Armstrong Disappearing Gun.

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Dunedin

Dunedin

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Known as the Edinburgh of the south, the charming city of Dunedin is a wonderful vacation spot for visitors of all interests. Known primarily for its incredible wildlife attractions, the city itself is filled with interesting activities.

For food-lovers, take a tour of the Cadbury World, the chocolate factory that produces more than 75% of New Zealand's chocolate. If you don't have too much of a sweet tooth, check out Speights Brewery, a city landmark that offers daily tours and tastings for those over 18. The city center, known as the Octagon, is bustling with shops and restaurants, and is always a lively place to visit.

For nature lovers, the Royal Albatross Centre, Dunedin Botanical Gardens, Orokunui EcoSanctuary, and Penguin Place are must-sees. Also visit the Otago Peninsula for stunning sea views, as well as the beautiful Tunnel Beach.

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Avon River

Avon River

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To the native Maori, the Avon River was an area of swampland which was used as a seasonal fishing spot. The area around the rivermouth was mostly uninhabited, and fresh water which trickled from springs was used for sacred healing purposes.

Today the Avon is a meandering river which weaves its way through Christchurch, its mellow waters bringing a calming presence to the urban bustle of the city. The river bisects the western suburbs such as Riccarton and Fendalhead, and then passes directly through the center of Christchurch and sprawling Hagley Park. To the east of the city, the Avon finally spills into the Pacific not far from the beach town of Sumner.

In downtown Christchurch, punting on the Avon River from Hagley Park is a popular visitor activity. Sit back and relax as expert steersmen push the flat-bottom craft along the river, and watch as peaceful scenes of Christchurch drift along on the banks.

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