Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in South Island
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What was once gold-miners territory is now one of New Zealand’s most scenic tour destinations--with breathtaking mountain views and the always beautiful Shotover River, Skipper’s Canyon presents a great opportunity to splurge in fantastic sites of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Hop into a 4WD off-road vehicle available via one of the many guided tours and shoot photos to your hearts delight, while you are navigated through Skipper’s Road, being recited the canyons plentiful and rural history.
For a more romantic experience, Skipper’s wine tours are also a popular and fulfilling way to spend your time here. What could be better than enjoying Queenstown’s mouth-watering venison over a glass of locally made wine in the breadth of New Zealand?
The Banks Peninsula is a side of Christchurch that too many visitors miss out on. This mostly-undeveloped, circular peninsula juts out from Christchurch like a swollen thumb, yet despite its obvious prominence on a map, a large majority of Christchurch visitors make the mistake of never exploring the area.
The lone exception is the town of Akaroa which is one of the most popular day trips from Christchurch. This charming outpost of French heritage is located a 90-minute drive from Christchurch, and the boutique shops and rose-lined cottages gaze out towards a protected harbor. The harbor itself is the flooded caldera of the volcano which formed the peninsula, and the calm waters are a popular place for boating and swimming with dolphins. Along the drive to Akaroa you weave through pastures and farmlands, and a handful of wineries and gourmet food stops are sprinkled along the highway.
More Things to Do in South Island
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.
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.
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.
Enjoy a bird’s-eye view from more than 1,640 feet (500 meters) above sea level on the Christchurch Gondola. Take in 360-degree views as the Christchurch cityscape competes for your attention with views of the Canterbury Plains, the Southern Alps and the Banks Peninsula. The trip takes 10 minutes each way.
The Gondola Base Station is located in Heathcote Valley. Parking is available if you’re coming by car, and the summit Station is at the top of Mt Cavendish. There’s a café and shop in case you need some souvenirs. There are also walking and biking tracks nearby, so come prepared to spend time outside.
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.
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.
Penguin Place is the incredible feat of Howard McGrouther, who began the reserve in 1985 in order to protect the endangered yellow-eyed penguin. Funded completely by daily guided tours, the conversation is dedicated to the stabilization of the yellow-eyed penguin population, and the 90-minute tour begins with a brief overview of the biological situation in which the penguins find themselves, as well as an explanation of what the project is doing on the reserve.
Prepare yourself for incredible coastal views and glimpses of all kinds of animals as well as the impressive and thoughtfully constructed grounds on which they live that took over eight years to build. Learn about these amazing animals and the struggle to help them breed and survive in a breathtaking setting. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes, as you will be trekking over the reserve.
Pegasus Bay Winery is a family-owned and run winery and restaurant located in the Waipara Valley, north of Christchurch. Pegasus Bay wines are made with estate-grown fruit from the Donaldson family’s vineyards.
The Donaldsons have been growing grapes and making wine since the early 1970s. A husband, wife and three sons team, the family uses natural methods, and the winery produces a sauvignon, Reisling, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet. The winery is also known for half a dozen reserve wines.
The Olveston House is a must-see sight in Dunedin, and the 1-hour tours are an incredible walk through this decadent, ornate, and elegant mansion. Built in the Jacobian tradition between 1904 and 1906, the 35-room house sits on an acre of beautiful gardens.
The house is maintained as it was originally decorated, with a unique and timeless beauty. The original owner, David Theomin, was a prolific traveler, and collected items from all over the world to decorate his house with, including French, Chinese, and Japanese treasures.
On your stroll through the house, pay close attention the the plethora of paintings displaying various pictures of contemporary colonial life in New Zealand, and when outside in the gardens, be sure to get a look at the automobile used by the Theomin family at the time of construction. At the end of your tour, stop by the gift shop and peruse the various souvenirs to remember your time at Olveston.
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.
Things to do near South Island
- Things to do in Christchurch
- Things to do in Mount Cook
- Things to do in Dunedin & The Otago Peninsula
- Things to do in Queenstown
- Things to do in Fiordland & Milford Sound
- Things to do in Hanmer Springs
- Things to do in Akaroa
- Things to do in Blenheim
- Things to do in Nelson
- Things to do in Picton
- Things to do in Greymouth
- Things to do in North Island
- Things to do in New South Wales
- Things to do in Tasmania
- Things to do in Victoria