Known for its magnificent mountains, beautiful lakes and stunning glaciers, the South Island of New Zealand is one of the most beautiful regions in the world. Most of the attractions here are outdoor activities, hiking, wildlife watching, and just soaking up the views.
While many of the things to see and do often appear in South Island guidebooks, it’s safe to say that the area also has some lesser-known landmarks and attractions. If you’re planning a trip to this place and want to think outside the box, we’ve dug deep and picked the 20 most unique opportunities that await you.
Marvel at the magical fjords.
A truly iconic tourist attraction, Milford Sound is an awe-inspiring place to visit. The fjord attracts a large number of visitors each year to see the huge granite cliffs of the Tasman Sea, beneath which the world’s most numerous black coral trees are accompanied by a unique flora and fauna. The fjord, which is just a five-hour drive from Queenstown and the only one in New Zealand accessible by car, makes it a popular destination for South Island visitors.
Visit one of the steepest streets in the world
There’s the steep road, and then there’s Baldwin Street. Located in Dunedin at the head of Port Otago on the southeast coast of the South Island, this street is so steep it looks like houses are sliding down it. The reason for its unique appearance is some rather slapdash urban planning, but instead of being ashamed, the street wears a badge of honour as one of the steepest streets in the world and hosts various charity events along its treacherous parameters throughout the year.
Discover the natural wonders of the icy sky.
Located in Westland’s Grand Putney National Park and spread over 8.1 miles of ice-caverned terrain, Fox Glacier is a haunting natural wonder, made even more impressive by the surrounding rainforests and mountains. Happily, it is also one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, with regular guided tours taking intrepid visitors to explore its expanse. The glacier can only be reached by plane or helicopter.
Through the boulder-lined landscape.
Nestled in the eastern mountains of the Southern Alps, an hour’s drive from Christchurch, Castle Hill is a large farm area dedicated to grazing cattle and sheep. But it’s the huge boulders and rock outcroppings that dot the landscape and give the impression of castle ruins that make it such a unique attraction. So unique, in fact, that the Dalai Lama referred to it as the “spiritual center of the universe” after his visit in 2002. In addition to the average climber, the mountain is a popular attraction for rock climbers.
Scratching his head against a fence full of bras.
Back in 1999, a variety of bras appeared on a fence in the central Otago town of Calderona. At first, no one knew what it might mean, but soon there were a lot of people putting their women’s underwear on the fence. Today, the number of bras hanging around here is in the thousands – with or without theft – and that number continues to grow, making the Cardrona Bra Fence one of the most unusual landmarks you’ll find anywhere. And people still don’t know how or why the fad started.
look up at the stars
As an international dark sky reserve, Lake Tekapo is known as one of the best places in the world for stargazing. Many tour companies host stargazing tours here, inviting guests to get away from the artificial lights of Lake Turkapo and visit the Mount John University Observatory. Here, as you gaze through the observatory’s powerful lens, you’ll be told what to look out for, including pointing out the constellations with a green laser pointer, and then letting your eyes loose to enjoy the magic.
Step into the world of fantasy.
Steampunk may be a niche interest, but those interested in the odd branch of science fiction and fantasy will want to visit the seaside town of Oamaru during their visit to the South Island, where relics of the 1800s boom can be seen everywhere in the buildings and public spaces – which inspired the Steampunk movement. Highlights include a huge warehouse filled with exhibits, including exhibits, locomotives, and old-fashioned blimps.
Take a look at it, a cluster of trees, all clumped together when viewed from the side.
On Slope Point, the southernmost tip of the South Island, these ruined, oddly shaped trees are a sight to behold. The trees perched on the rugged cliffs, and over the years they had been battered by fierce cold winds, causing them to be permanently bent and tangled together, that is to say, they were oriented to one side, not up. As a result, it has become a tourist hotspot, with tourists clamoring to visit in hopes of finding the most exotic clusters of trees here.
Experience the thrill of human ejection.
Tailored for adventure sports enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies of all kinds, the Nevis Catapult became the world’s first manned catapult – no pun intended – back in 20018. The installation offers a traditional bungee experience, inviting thrill-seekers to be strapped into the catapult’s high-tech winch system and then launched out of the Nevis River Valley at 492 feet and over 60 miles per hour.
Travel through the tunnels and enjoy a delicious meal at the end.
Located a few miles from Dunedin, Tunnel Beach is part of a large area of rugged sandstone cliffs, rock arches and caves. Among the area’s main attractions is a tunnel that leads visitors all the way down the 72 steps to the beach’s waterfront, which descends about 500 feet above sea level. The tunnel itself isn’t for the faint of heart, as it’s quite dark and eerie inside, but you’ll be rewarded when you step outside and are greeted by a wide and beautiful ocean.
Paying tribute at chair-themed memorial
Sitting in a clearing near the centre of Christchurch, 185 chairs were placed there to symbolise in a unique and powerful way the lives of those who died in the Great Christchurch Earthquake on 22 February 2011. Each white chair is the work of local artist Peter Majendie, and each chair takes on a different form – armchair, dining chair, dining chair, beanbag, wheelchair, baby cabin – and each chair honors the personality and identity of the victims of the tragedy.
A quirky art gallery by candlelight, awe-inspiring
By day, the Lanyop Gallery is a fairly ordinary art venue, but once dawn arrives, it becomes a unique night scene. The gallery’s owners entertain visitors with live piano music, illuminated by candles in the hands of guests, while the gallery’s owners entertain visitors with an ever-changing art exhibition featuring works by both established and lesser-known New Zealand artists. The entrance to the gallery is completely free.
Participate in a winery tour
For wine connoisseurs, the South Island is a veritable wine mecca. With world-class wineries and vineyards spread throughout the region, anyone interested in wine will find endless opportunities to learn, taste and explore the variety of grapes and varieties produced here. Many companies offer winery tours where guests are invited to explore the mechanics of the wine making process and, of course, enjoy delicious tastings.
Exploring Victorian castles.
New Zealand has many natural wonders, but relatively few man-made historical landmarks. Of these, Larnach Castle, which is limited in number, attracts a large number of visitors with its beautiful gardens, magnificent architecture and backstory full of family drama. Located in Dunedin, this Victorian-era castle features luxurious stones and materials imported from around the world on the exterior and vintage furniture and striking artwork on the interior. The gardens within the castle are also worth a visit. Tours of the castle can be booked online.
Immerse yourself in the vibrant artistic atmosphere of Christchurch.
Art lovers visiting Christchurch will not want to miss one of the South Island’s most popular art-themed experiences – the Christchurch Street Art Trail. One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the city’s lively art scene is this colorful trail, launched by local street artists after the 2011 earthquake, with a variety of esoteric artworks to enjoy along the way, including artwork depicting giant red lip grills, interactive punching bags and a friendly group of penguins.
The vibrant turquoise Hokitika Gorge is another magical natural attraction on the South Island. The canyon is surrounded by lush, pristine jungle and is most often seen from the safety of a small lookout point accessible by foot from the parking lot along a forest trail, but more adventurous people can often be seen swimming here as well. Either way you like it, this is one of the most fascinating spots on the South Island.
Riding through awe-inspiring canyons.
The thundering waters of the Shotover River can be felt even from a bystander’s perspective, but those adventurous visitors can get up close and personal on a Shotover jet boat that can reach speeds of up to 85 km/h. Accompanied by adrenaline-soaring spins and squirts, visitors are pushed through rocky cliffs, skirting boulders, gliding over towering rock walls and navigating narrow canyons.
Go skiing after dark.
If you’ve never tried night skiing, Coronet Peak in Queenstown is the place to be. The starry night sky adds a touch of charm to the picturesque mountain scenery, and the pristine slopes here are picturesque and challenging to ski until 9 p.m. Visitors can purchase special sunset passes online or over the phone.
Stroll through the historic lighthouse and enjoy the world class scenery.
Tokata Lighthouse, located on the Catlins coast at the southeast corner of the South Island, is one of the oldest lighthouses in New Zealand. The lighthouse sits on a set of rocks called Nugget Point, named by Captain Cook for its resemblance to gold, and the views around the lighthouse are stunning, including frequent sightings of a herd of fur seals frolicking in the waves below.
Enjoy a culinary journey with a breeze.
New Zealand’s Nelson Tasman region is a paradise of golden sandy beaches, pristine coastline and artistic vitality. It is also home to many of New Zealand’s top artisans, the surrounding ocean is home to some of New Zealand’s finest seafood, and the sunny coastal climate yields exceptional grapes. A stroll along the Great Taste Cycle Trail, a network of cycle paths that runs inland and along the coast, is the most delicious way for visitors to explore the area, with plenty of foodie hotspots along the way that offer plenty of opportunities to stop.