The top things to do in New Zealand: South Island

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New Zealand is blessed with incredible natural scenery. With so many options, though, it can be hard to choose which classic experiences you probably shouldn’t miss. To try help, we’ve put together a list of the top things to do in New Zealand's South Island.

Overnight boat tour in Milford Sound, Fiordland

Top things to do in New Zealand South Island Milford Sound

With its incredible natural scenery, visiting Milford Sound is one of the top things to do in New Zealand's South Island for many visitors. What that means, though, is that things can get pretty crowded out on the water. Want to know a great way to avoid that? Take an overnight cruise of Milford Sound! These overnight boat tours let you admire the dramatic mountain peaks and pristine forests after the crowds have gone home, get up close and personal with Milford Sound’s dramatic waterfalls, spot seals, dolphins and penguins, have a gentle kayak or a walk onshore, watch the stars from the boat deck, enjoy a 3-course dinner, and then wake up in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Kayak the Pelorus river

Top things to do in New Zealand South Island Pelorus river

It makes sense that one of the top things to do in New Zealand's South Island is located at the very top of the South Island. Just 45 minutes from the Picton-Wellington ferry terminal, the Pelorus river flows from Richmond Ridge through staggering gorges to the head of Pelorus Sound at Havelock. The Pelorus is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful rivers, as well as one of the best kayaking locations in New Zealand. The aptly named Hobbit Kayak Tour lets you see the best of it – lush native forest, rare New Zealand wildlife, stunning scenery – while also paddling down a stretch of the river that was used to film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Franz Josef and Fox Glacier helicopter tour

Top things to do in New Zealand South Island Helicopter Tour

A helicopter tour is defintely one of the top things to do in New Zealand's South Island and the only way to see up-close the jaw-dropping natural beauty of the West Coast’s two world-famous glaciers. With a helicopter tour at Franz Josef Glacier, you actually get to land on the glacier and walk (with crampons) on this unique ice landscape, getting to explore inside ice crevasses and caves. For the scenic option, take a helicopter tour the full 13km length of Fox Glacier. Trace its 2,600 m descent through the Southern Alps and get face-to-face views of the West Face of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain.

TranzAlpine or Coastal Pacific train from Christchurch

Top things to do in New Zealand South Island Tranzalpine train

Compared with other countries, New Zealand doesn’t exactly have a lot of passenger trains – but the few they do have certainly make up for that with incredible scenery. Two of the best ways to see New Zealand's South Island are on the TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific train journeys. The TranzAlpine takes you from one coast to another, between Christchurch and Greymouth, in a little under 5 hours. It crosses the lush Canterbury plains before plunging into the Southern Alps, then cuts through miles and miles of native beech forest before emerging on the rugged West Coast at Greymouth, a great base for exploring the glaciers. The Coastal Pacific train, running in some places within just a few feet of the Pacific Ocean, traces the stunning Kaikoura coastline north of Christchurch before sweeping into the golden plains of Marlborough, New Zealand’s most famous wine region. It terminates at Picton, making it ideal for ferry crossings to or from Wellington, or as a starting point for exploring the Marlborough Sounds. A must-do experience in New Zealand's South Island!

Routeburn Track

Top things to do in New Zealand South Island Routeburn Track

Hiking probably comes to mind when one thinks of the top things to do in New Zealand's South Island to make the most of the great outdoors. And when it comes to hiking, it’s hard to beat the Routeburn Track. Starting on the Queenstown side of the Southern Alps and ending near the Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound, the Routeburn Track is the ultimate accessible alpine hiking experience in New Zealand's South Island. Over three days, the Routeburn takes you through huge sweeping valleys, under towering mountain peaks, past alpine gardens, and along reflective alpine lakes and rocky glacial formations linking Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. You’ll need to book in advance during high season, and remember that this is an alpine region prone to rapid weather changes. Pack accordingly.