Are you planning a trip to New Zealand and want to know what not to miss in the South Island?
Then you are in the right place! I’ve put together an itinerary with 9 must-do cultural highlights on the New Zealand South Island – all tested by myself.
On this blog, I want to promote the idea of travelling consciously and getting to know local culture and people. Like other parts of the world, the South Island has become one of the most popular holiday destinations through social media. But as beautiful as the photos of Lake Tekapo and Milford Sound are, they often don’t show what a place is really like – what its history and who its people are.
This is why, in this article, I always provide some background information about a place’s history and people. I want to give you an idea of what the vibe of that place is like.
Let’s jump right in:
Must-do’s on the South Island
1. Street art in Christchurch
How do you get there? I’m starting with Christchurch, because this is where you’re most likely to arrive when coming to the South Island. Look out the window just before you touch down. You’ll get a pretty good idea of what the New Zealand South Island looks like: green hills, snow-capped mountains, and loads of sheep.
What is Christchurch known for? Street Art! Despite the hurdles Christchurch and its people had to overcome (heavy earthquakes in 2010/2011 and the mosque shootings in 2019), or maybe because of them, the city has developed a vivid street art and culture scene. It was made the street art capital of the world in 2017.
What’s the vibe? I love Christchurch because it’s ever changing, rebellious, and colourful. Some spots around the city look like the perfect scene for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie – abandoned buildings, whole sub-divisions that have been wiped out (declared “red zones” after the earthquakes), and murals in between, speaking from Christchurch’s soul.
Things to do in Christchurch
- Interactive map of all the street art hotspots
- Canterbury Museum: Historical exhibition of the Canterbury region
- Quake City: Exhibition about the 2010/2011 earthquakes
- Botanical Gardens
- Tūranga City Library: One of Christchurch’s coolest buildings
- Lyttelton: Harbour area – awesome restaurants and second-hand shops!
2. Giants’ houses & wildlife in Akaroa
How do you get there? The Banks Peninsula reaches into the Pacific just south of Christchurch. Depending on where you’re staying, the drive from Christchurch to Akaroa takes about one and a half hours (take care on the winding hill passes).
What is Akaroa known for? Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula are famous for their wildlife. You can book a cruise in Akaroa and see the rare Hector dolphins, seals and – if you’re lucky – even whales. But the best thing about those tours are the stunning views of the rough coastline! Ok, the dolphins swimming up to the boat are pretty awesome, too.
What’s the vibe? Akaroa is a picturesque little place with a harbour, plenty of good restaurants and a paradise for arts and crafts fans. A highlight is definitely The Giant’s House – the artist Josie Martin’s estate with mosaic sculptures overlooking the harbour.
3. Station life in the Mackenzie Country
How do you get there? The Mackenzie Country is a large highland area that spans across parts of the southern Canterbury and Otago region. The drive from Christchurch to Fairlie (the entrance to the Mackenzie) takes about two and a half hours. Tip: take the inland route via Ashburton – way more beautiful than the Timaru route.
What is the Mackenzie Country known for? This area is one of the most iconic areas of the South Island, and of New Zealand – both for tourists and locals alike. Because the landscape in the Mackenzie region is so vast, it is home to some of the biggest sheep and cattle stations (ranches/big farms) in the country. In terms of outdoor activities, the Mackenzie Country offers numerous bike tracks, hiking tours and water sports.
What’s the vibe? Some places (especially Tekapo and Twizel) can be veeeery busy in main season. I’d suggest going there in late New Zealand summer (March/April) or early spring (October) to avoid the masses. Please be careful driving here! The roads can be winding and bumpy. I know, the views are amazing – but please stop your car to take photos and have a look around.
Side Note about Station Life
Most of the farms in the Mackenzie Country have been owned by the same families since the first European settlement of the South Island.
Often these huge farms – stations – are not run by the owners. The owners rather function as shareholders and employ farm managers to handle day-to-day business. The stations are often home and workplace for up to twelve people.
The “station life” in the Mackenzie County is remote, hard work, and utterly beautiful. Because sheep mobs are kept right up to the highest peaks, shepherds are out for days to muster them. That means steep hikes and a lot of walking, but the views are a bit of a reward. The region is still one of the most iconic and highest producing of New Zealand’s farming industry.
Potential Stops in the Mackenzie Country
- Lake Tekapo: deep-turquoise, icy-cold lake, lupins burst out colour in December
- Lake Pukaki: stunning views of Mount Cook (on clear days)
- Twizel (and surrounding area): for Lord of the Rings fans, this are is where most of the Rohan scenes where filmed
4. Middle-Earth-feels in Queenstown
How do you get there? Queenstown is another three to four hours south from Tekapo. It also has an airport. So, if you’ve got little time, you can jump on a flight down from Christchurch.
What is Queenstown known for? Queenstown is New Zealand’s (if not the world’s) outdoor capital for many reasons. You can bungee jump, go white water rafting, skiing, paragliding or jump on the luge – it’s the adventurer’s paradise. There are also a few good bars and restaurants.
What’s the vibe? Unfortunately, most of the adventures aren’t free. Queenstown is one of the most expensive places in the world to have a holiday. In Queenstown, you actually feel like you are at a huge fair – you want to try out all the attractions but you only have ten dollars. So, if you’re on a budget, choose wisely! Would you rather throw yourself off a bridge or jet boat down a river at 90kmh!
Off the beaten track in Queenstown: One reason for the popularity of Queenstown is probably the Lord of the Rings movies. A lot of the scenes were shot in this area. And luckily, most of the shooting spots you can go to for free! My tip would be to hire a car and explore the area. There are some secluded spots not that far off from the masses. I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan. So here are some of my favourite Middle Earth places around Queenstown:
Free Lord of the Rings locations around Queenstown
- Skipper’s Canyon: The river where Arwen fights off the Nazgûl. Careful driving here! The canyon road is on the list of the most dangerous roads in the world!
- Paradise: Isengard. Take a picture of Isengard with you and go look for the exact spot where the camera sat!
- Kawarau Gorge: River Anduin (where the Fellowship leave Lórien in boats)
5. The Eighth Wonder of the World – Milford Sound
How do you get there? The Fiordland region is so special because it’s remote and hard to get to. Milford Sound is the easiest place to access in the region – that’s why it’s the busiest and most famous destination. You can go on a tour bus from Queenstown, which takes about three to four hours one way. If you want to stay in the Fiordland region, Te Anau is the best place.
What is Milford Sound known for? The iconic landscape of Milford Sound, especially the prominent Mitre Peak, has always been one of the most popular postcard motives of New Zealand. The region has starred in several Hollywood blockbusters, like Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), and Alien: Covenant (2017).
What’s the vibe? The English writer Rudyard Kipling (author of The Jungle Book) once called Milford Sound the eighth wonder of the world. And when you’re there, you’ll see why. I recommend going on a cruise tour to fully take in this place. Navigating through sky-high peaks reaching out of the sea and getting soaked by spray of huge waterfalls is an experience that will stay with me forever!
Other things to do in the Fiordland region: Besides Milford Sound, there is also Doubtful Sound and some of the most popular tracks in New Zealand, the Kepler and the Milford Track. Both tracks have restrictions on how many people are allowed to enter it. If you want to walk one of the four-day routes, best book the huts way in advance (like a year before). There are also a few one-day walks in Fiordland.
6. The West Coast – Remote kiwi life
How do you get there? The West Coast region is – who would have thought – located on the western coast of the South Island. It stretches from Fiordland all the way up to the top of the South Island. It takes about three hours to get from Queenstown to Haast, the most southern settlement on the Coast. (Note: locals often shorten “West Coast” to “Coast”. As in “we’re heading over to the Coast on the weekend.” However, “Coast” really does only refer to the “West Coast”. Kiwis wouldn’t call any other coast of the country “Coast”. I hope this makes sense.)
What is the West Coast known for? This area is a wonder of nature in many ways – its wildlife, climate, and topography are unique to the world. On the west coast of the South Island, it is possible to stand on top of a glacier and look out onto rain forest and the vast Pacific Ocean. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spot some exotic looking birds (maybe even a Kiwi) along the way.
What’s the vibe? In my opinion, the West Coast is one of the most neglected areas by travellers. Most people just stop by the glaciers (Franz Josef and Fox Glacier), but the Coast has so much more to offer! This is the perfect place for explorers. New Zealanders call people from the West Coast “Coasters”. Even though other areas of the countries are miles away from civilisation as well, the majority of people on the West Coast live even more remote. There is a common stereotype amongst Kiwis that “Coasters” are a bit crazy. That they’ve gone mad so far away from “the modern world”. Well, I have to say, the people I’ve met there are a little different – but not in a bad way! They are welcoming, happy, and enjoy a simple life.
7. Flower power in Nelson & Golden Bay
How do you get there? If you’ve had a good look around the West Coast, Nelson and Golden Bay are some awesome next stops! It takes about three to four hours to get there from Greymouth.
What is Nelson & Golden Bay known for? It’s a popular destination for locals in the summer holidays, which makes it very busy around Christmas. Kiwis and travellers alike come to the region for the Abel Tasman track – one of the most famous New Zealand tracks. The track route guides you through native bush and along stunning golden-sand beaches. The Nelson region is also of significance to New Zealand history. The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman wanted to land there in 1642, but met resistance by the local Maori tribes. Hence he sailed on to land on the North Island. Nevertheless, the region kept the name “Tasman Region”.
What’s the vibe? The area around Nelson is known for it’s relaxed Hippie-vibe. In summer, you’ll find alternative festivals and gatherings around every corner. There are also some hippie communes in the Golden Bay region. This is the perfect place to enjoy life by the beach and relax!
8. Off the beaten track in the Marlborough Sounds
How do you get there? Going to the Marlborough Sounds is going into very remote country again. Which can be nice after the slightly busier Nelson! Depending on where you want to go, it takes about two hours to get there from Nelson. Tour busses usually don’t come here because the roads are narrow and often only gravel. So I would recommend renting a camper or a car to go there, and camp on one of the camping grounds around the area.
What are the Marlborough Sounds known for? This is another region that is widely overlooked by people visiting New Zealand – because it’s hard to get to and there are hardly any shops or restaurants. When you come here, make sure you’ve got a good supply of food and water with you!
What’s the vibe? The Marlborough Sounds are one of the most beautiful places in the country for me. The idyllic landscape of green hills reaching into the sea is perfect to enjoy a quiet few days away from the tourist masses. Well worth the winding gravel roads!
9. Maori heritage & whales in Kaikoura
How do you get there? Kaikoura is the perfect last stop for your tour around the South Island! It’s a three-hour drive from Nelson. Kaikoura brings you back into the Canterbury region. So it’s close (about two and a half hour drive) to Christchurch if you have to catch a flight.
What is Kaikoura known for? Kaikoura is the most popular whale-watching destination in New Zealand. You can take a boat tour to see whales and other wildlife around the Kaikoura peninsula. The region also has a significant Maori heritage. There are tours to explore Maori traditions and history.
What’s the vibe? Kaikoura is located by the beautiful east coast of the South Island. Unlike the beaches in the north, which have deep blue water and golden sands, the beaches in Kaikoura have black sand (from volcanic activity) and turquoise water. This makes the mood at the beaches very mystic. The mountains behind Kaikoura offer some wonderful walks and the little town itself has some excellent restaurants and pubs.
I hope this blogpost helped you plan out your South Island itinerary!
If you want to read more about New Zealand food you have to try, Maori culture and the Kiwi way of life, check out my New Zealand culture guide for travellers.
And remember – always respect nature and wildlife, be aware of local culture, and drive safe on your travels!
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