Small Towns in New Zealand’s South Island
There are a few places in the world that I would like to re-visit and explore in more detail and time – New Zealand is one of those places. While New Zealand’s larger cities of Auckland, Wellington, and Queenstown are often at the forefront of a traveler’s mind, the country has more to offer. I teamed up with other travel bloggers to bring you the best small towns to visit in New Zealand’s South Island. If you have a favorite that didn’t make the list, feel free to let me know in the comments & I’ll add it as a reader favorite!
I split these guides into the North and South Islands so trip planning is as easy as possible. There’s also a map at the end of each post so you can see where the best small towns are!
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Nestled comfortably on the Banks Peninsula, a volcanic outpost, Akaroa is a charming small town in the South Island of New Zealand. It’s often a day trip from Christchurch (and how I discovered this gem). It’s an hour away from Christchurch and is an idyllic paradise of scenic roads on rolling hills. Once in town, you may notice a distinctly French feeling. While New Zealand was colonized by the British, the township of Akaroa was first settled by the French in 1840. The British bought them out ten years later, but the influence of the French is still there.
The colorful buildings complement the vibrant blues and greens of the nature surrounding Akaroa. The Banks Peninsula is home to Hector’s dolphins. These white and grey dolphins are a local celebrity. You can take a harbor cruise, rent a kayak, or even try swimming with these wild animals. Since the dolphins are wild, not fed by humans, and tour guides are certified, it is considered an ethical animal encounter. For a glimpse into history, the Akaroa Museum gracefully documents the town’s development (including both the British and French colonial history)
For a great view of Akaroa Harbor with easy access to downtown, stay at the Akaroa Harbor View – Holiday Home. With gorgeous views of the harbor, it’s impossible to not fall in love with Akaroa.
Arrowtown is Queenstown’s smaller, cuter sister town and a must-see stop on any South Island road trip. Arrowtown is particularly stunning in autumn when the streets and the river path are lined by fiery foliage.
Located 20 minutes from Queenstown up the Arrow River, Arrowtown was historically a gold mining town. One of the best things to do in Arrowtown is go for a walk along the beautiful Arrow River path and visit the Arrowtown Historic Chinese Settlement. The settlement, dating back to the 19th century, is a fascinating example of life during the South Island gold rush.
Arrowtown is in the centre of the famous Central Otago wine region that is world renowned for its pinot noirs. The best way to explore the area is by hiring a bike (or e-bike) in Arrowtown and cycling up the Arrow River trail, stopping at wineries along the way. Favourites include Mount Edward Winery and Peregrine Wines, both very different experiences. Staying closer to the Arrowtown township, you can spend an afternoon testing at The Winery on Ramshaw Lane, pairing wine tastings with platters from Gibbston Valley Cheese Company next door. For a more substantial meal, head to Provisions of Arrowtown for a classic Kiwi brunch or The Chop Shop for seasonal fusion cooking.
Arrowtown has a range of accommodations. The Settlers Cottage is a quaint affordable motel. For a more luxurious option, Millbrook Resort is unbeatable.
Cadrona is world-famous as a ski resort destination, but even if you’re not a snow bunny, there are several activities to do in Cadrona, making it a great place to visit.
A visit to the Cadrona Alpine Resort is a must. In winter you’ve got some of the best ski fields in NZ. Make sure you do your research in advance, as the resort is popular but being on the scenic Crown Range Road isn’t suitable for every vehicle.
At the resort, once the snow has melted, you can head up here for some high adrenaline mountain carting. And if you like cross country skiing, there’s Snow Farm on the other side of the valley.
Back down in the town itself, you’ve got the Cadrona Distillery which has an amazing cocktail and dining menu. They also do regular tours of the facility. And you better take a peek at the bra fence while you’re nearby. Or add to it if you like.
For those who enjoy a hike, the track to Meg Hut is beautiful, and a great spot for an overnight trip. The 14km return hike is manageable for most people in a day. Just make sure you bring lots of water.
The one place you need to eat and stay in Cardrona is the Cadrona Hotel. Built in 1863 it’s one of the oldest pubs in the country, and always has a great atmosphere.
Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier, located on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand, is very popular and many travellers like to stop by and give a try at glacier adventure. The region enjoys fairly mild temperatures in the winter which allows glacier hikes to be open all year round. Knowing this, you only have to decide when you want to visit. The tourist season is from November to February, I would recommend visiting Franz Josef glacier out of season, to avoid the crowds. I would even say to opt for the winter season, from June to August to discover the most spectacular glacier features. Although the temperatures are cooler in winter, the weather is also generally more reliable and calm.
Franz Josef isn’t just about the glacier. There are many other things to do in the area including taking a scenic flight to discover the surrounding area from a birds-eye view. You can spend a day relaxing in the hot springs or contemplate the perfect reflection of the mountains on Lake Matheson.
A great place to stay near the Franz Josef Glacier is the Rainforest Retreat. It offers a range of accommodations depending on your budget. From cozy chalets to campgrounds for campervans, you will surely find something that suits you. Just a short walk from the main town centre. Perfect to head in town for a lovely dinner.
After a day of glacier adventure, you deserve a good meal and drink. Thankfully Franz Josef has many amazing restaurants and bars to try out. The Landing is a pub within walking distance from everything located right on the main roads. If you’d rather enjoy a cosy dinner by the fire, head to Moonson Bar!
Glenorchy is a charming, little town found just a 40-minute drive from Queenstown. Due to its location, paying a visit to Glenorchy is one of our favourite things to do in Queenstown.
There’s not too much to say about the town itself, there are a few restaurants (including a good but pricey dumpling shop called Queenie’s) and a convenience store. The reason people visit Glenorchy is for it’s stunning scenery and natural beauty. A sunrise trip to Glenorchy is a must-do, making sure to bring a coffee and some breakfast from Queenstown. The old jetty in Glenorchy village is our favourite sunrise spot. As the sun rises over the mountains behind you it illuminates the mountains in front of you in a gorgeous, golden glow.
It’s also worth exploring the wider Glenorchy region. Evidence of its beauty is shown by its popularity in the famous Lord of the Rings films. Fans of the trilogy can enjoy visiting some recognizable spots.
We particularly enjoy a good hike, and Glenorchy has many. Longer hikes include the epic Routeburn Track or sections of it. Diamond Lake and Lake Sylvan are our favourite short hikes in the region.
There are a few decent accommodation options in Glenorchy, including Glenorchy Peaks Bed & Breakfast. However, we prefer to stay in Queenstown and visit Glenorchy for day trips. The Rees is our favourite place to stay in Queenstown.
The jewel of the West Coast, Hokitika is a quirky, artistic town in the middle of mining country. Settled during the gold rush in the 19th Century, Hokitika has an interesting history which encompasses shipwrecks, precious stones and, of course, gold. Spend your visit wandering around the historic town, visiting the pounamu (greenstone) workshops and admiring the driftwood sculptures on the beach. There are some good food options in town, including The Gatherer, which offers a good selection of delicious, plant-based food.
On the edge of town, you’ll find the Glow Worm Dell. Visit after dark to see glow worms lighting up the trees – a truly magical site. And just half an hour’s drive away, you’ll find the Hokitika Gorge, with an extraordinary turquoise river. There are also two beautiful glacial lakes just outside of town, which reflect the Southern Alps on still days. Back in town, you can also visit the National Kiwi Centre to see kiwis up close, as well as eels and tuatara. Hokitika is also on the West Coast Wilderness Trail, a four-day cycleway through old towns and native bush. If you enjoy cycling, spend a day (or more) doing a section of the trail.
Stay at Amberlea Cottages, within walking distance of the town center.
This small town is the perfect stop on any New Zealand tour. You’ll want to spend at least two nights in Kaikoura to take advantage of all of the fun things to do.
Nature lovers will be awed by the Kaikoura Peninsula Walk. This easy 2-hour hike leads you over the rocky cliffs of the Pacific coast. You’ll see breathtaking views of the turquoise waters from high above. Then wander down to a fur seal colony, where you can watch wild seals up close.
Sleep early so you can wake up at 4 am to go swimming with wild dolphins. The blue-nosed dolphin that frequents the coastline is a playful species that will twirl and squeak with visitors. It’s a sustainable tourism activity, and part of the proceeds go to funding wildlife research for the coast.
New Zealand travel tip: you can only swim with wild dolphins in Kaikoura now. Everywhere else has been banned. If you prefer to stay dry, you can go on a sperm whale-watching tour or search for albatross. Cods & Crayfish is the best spot to get local fish and chips after a long day of exploring. Don’t forget to try crayfish, which gave Kaikoura its name!
Purepods offers the most unique place to stay in Kaikoura, where you can sleep in a glasshouse to watch the sunrise from bed.
Tucked away on the edge of Banks Penninsula, and separated from Christchurch by only a tunnel; the small portside town of Lyttelton has a strong sense of small-town community despite its proximity to a much larger city.
But don’t let its tiny size fool you – there’s plenty to keep you busy. Catch the delightful ten-minute ferry ride over to Diamond harbour, where you may even spot some hectors dolphins in the harbour on your way.
If you prefer to stay portside, head down to the weekly farmers market every Sunday, where they block off the main road from cars and people travel from all around Christchurch to enjoy the atmosphere, music & delicious food.
For such a tiny town, Lyttelton also packs a punch on the food and coffee front. The Lyttelton coffee club is an institution for locals and visitors on the hunt for an excellent flat white & brunch, bomba gelato makes some of the best pizza around, and visit the Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant to eat freshly caught seafood from their own fishing boat, whilst dining right on the seafront.
As for where to stay, Lyttelton is small enough that everywhere is walkable, although many of the properties come with a steep walk come (but an amazing view). There aren’t any traditional hotels here, but the town is full of quirky guesthouses, charming airbnbs, and vacation homes such as Manaaki Mai Lodge with sweeping sea views to choose from.
The diminutive size of the small South Island settlement of Milford Sound belies its status as New Zealand’s most visited attraction with a million visitors each year. Most arrive on day trips from Queenstown, staying long enough to enjoy a cruise of the magnificent fjord. Those who choose to stay longer can enjoy Milford Sound from the air, by kayak, underwater observatory, or hiking the tail end of the Milford Track.
Overnight accommodation is limited to the Milford Sound Lodge, with various levels of accommodation from camping to luxury chalets. Meals can be prepared in the communal kitchen or enjoyed with table service in the lodge restaurant. Cafeteria-style meals are available at the Milford Sound Visitor Centre and Café.
The most convenient, and best way to see Milford Sound, is by boat. A plethora of cruise options exist, and most visit the same scenic points within (and just outside) the fjord. There are overnight cruises or day cruises with add-on options that include kayaking or visits to the underwater observatory. Onboard commentary helps visitors appreciate the history, wildlife, and natural beauty of the fjord.
One thing to keep in mind is that in this area of New Zealand, rainfall is measured in metres! It rains (a lot) so it’s important to come prepared for cold, wet conditions and with hopes for a clear, sunny day.
Punakaiki is a small community on the South Island of New Zealand and is a charming place to visit along the wild west coast.
The setting is spectacular amongst the beaches and wild scenery and cliffs of the coast and the most famous of all things to see in the area is the pancake rocks and blowholes. The rocks, as the name suggests, resemble layers of pancakes and water shoots up between them in blowholes.
There is a paved track that you can take for a short walk down to the pancake rocks which makes it an easy option if you are with children. Apart from the stunning views of the rocks, there is also a coastal forest to see and if you’re lucky some wildlife.
If you want to get out hiking or mountain biking in nature then the Paparoa Track in the nearby Paparoa National Park is one of the best hikes in New Zealand to do. It is 55km long but you can just hike a part of it on a day trip if you don’t want to do the whole thing.
In Punakaiki, a good place to stay is the Punakaiki Beach Hostel and the Pancake Rocks Cafe is a great place for a bite to eat.
If you’re looking for the best small town in New Zealand, don’t miss Te Anau. It may look like a small boring town, but it’s the gateway to the most beautiful scenery in New Zealand. These are the 5 best things to do.
- Kepler Track – beautiful hike in the mountains with the most incredible views over Lake Te Anau and Doubtful Sound. (The photo below is from here).
- Milford Sound cruise – boat cruise around the fiords surrounded by hundreds of waterfalls.
- Drive to Milford Sound – it’s worth going to Milford Sound just for the drive. You’ll stop every five minutes for photos.
- Doubtful Sound cruise – Even better than the Milford Sound. More waterfalls and less tourists.
- Te Anau Glow Worm Caves – I wouldn’t go out of my way to go here, but it’s worth visiting if you’re staying in Te Anau.
Make sure you go to Bao Now (an amazing food truck specializing in bao and dumplings) and Redcliff Café (a local neighbourhood bar outside with a fine dining restaurant inside). If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, I’ve stayed at a few hotels in Te Anau near the lake but they were all very dated and I wouldn’t recommend any. It’s a small town so if you have a car you can stay anywhere. When I go back next, I’ll book a cute Airbnb and prioritize cute interiors over the location.
Twizel is the getaway to Mount Cook / Aoraki National Park, which is home to New Zealand’s tallest mountain. Positioned near the southwest corner of Lake Pukaki, Twizel is the last sizable town before Highway 80 enters the park. This makes it an excellent jumping-off point for adventures in the park.
Twizel has a few options for accommodation. There is a holiday park for those with tents, RVs and campervans. For those requiring roofed accommodation, Twizel has several hotels and lodges (Kowhai Cottages or the Heartland Lodge).
Twizel is also a great place to stock up on food and snacks before heading into the national park. In addition, there’s a great restaurant called Poppies Cade & Restaurant that does brunch and dinner seven days per week (they also have an excellent Creme Brule). Another great restaurant is Top Hut Bar & Bistro, which is the best place for meaty entrees like lamb, beef and salmon.
Following your resting and dining in Twizel, head to Mount Cook / Aoraki National Park for some of the best hikes on the South Island. The Hooker Valley Track is a great hike for beginners; while the trail to Meuller Hut is fantastic for more experienced hikers.
Wanaka is easily one of the most popular towns on the South Island. Although small, Wanaka is full of fun things to do and see. This vibrant town has no shortage of activities and you can do everything from canyoning to lake cruises to wine tasting here. In the winter, be sure to hit up the nearby ski fields of Cardrona and Treble Cone. In the summer, be sure to spend some days at the beach and enjoy a sunset with the famous Wanaka Tree in the distance.
Hiking is super popular in Wanaka all year round. Wanaka is located on the doorstep of Mount Aspiring National Park making it the perfect place to access some of the best hiking trails in New Zealand. Be sure to tackle the iconic Roys Peak if you’re up for a challenge. For something a little easier, drive out to the Blue Pools and walk the suspension bridges to get to the bluest water you’ve ever seen!
Wanaka is also full of amazing restaurants and bars. Truthfully, there are so many that you’ll have a hard time deciding where to go. For a restaurant on the lakefront try out Big Fig. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – you can’t go wrong with any of their slow-cooked meats! For a drink with a lake view, head to Trout Bar & Restaurant, this is my favourite place to go at sunset for cocktails.
In terms of places to stay, you have a lot of choices! I recommend picking a hotel close to Ardmore Street (the main street along the lakefront.) Any hotel within walking distance of here will allow you to enjoy both the town and lake with ease. The Moorings Hotel and Apartments is always a safe choice.