I was born and raised on the South Island of New Zealand, but it took me until my adult life of traveling the world to come to appreciate how beautiful and unique this island really is. But the more I travelled, the more I heard from people along my way how much they dreamed of visiting New Zealand. My curiousity was always piqued – where would you like to go? The answers were always similar; Queenstown usually came up, or perhaps they’d heard of Auckland, or wanted to visit the Hobbiton set.
But what about the small towns? I thought.
Well, it turns out that most people haven’t heard of the charming small towns smattered throughout the South Island, and in the spirit of #backyourbackyard I reached out to some fellow travellers & travel bloggers to ask them what was their favourite small town to visit in New Zealand. Combined with some of my own personal favourites, here’s some of the South Island’s most gorgeous little towns.
1. | Lyttelton Canterbury
A personal recommendation of mine
Lyttelton is a tiny portside town on the outskirts of Christchurch, which thanks to the handy Lyttelton tunnel is only a 10 minute drive into the bigger city, yet feels a million miles away. The town is magical and life revolves arounds a steady buzz of the ports, a main street full of charming stores and a bustling weekly farmers market.
This town is special to me for a number of reasons, and it remains so undiscovered by most tourists. This is where my grandmother lived whilst I was growing up, and then many years later when we ended up back in New Zealand by surprise (thanks 2020 pandemic!) this is where we took a six month rental, and enjoyed the small town little life over the autumn and winter.
It’s worth a visit if you like seaside life, lovely little streets lined with wooden villas & english country style gardens, a strong sense of community atmosphere and some trendy bar, restaurants and cafes. The Sunday farmers market is a highlight of the week too – it would make a great day trip from Christchurch.
2. | Arrowtown Otago
Recommended by Sinead, at Map Made Memories
Arrowtown is a leafy town nestled between hills on the banks of the Arrowtown River, 13 miles from its famous neighbour Queenstown. If Queenstown is too busy or expensive for you, then quieter, cheaper Arrowtown is a great base for exploring this region. Originally a farming area, Arrowtown transformed into a mining town after gold was discovered here in the 1860’s.
Today, Arrowtown’s historic main street retains a 19th century feel with wooden shop fronts and vintage telephone boxes. Charmingly quaint miners’ cottages are dotted around the town, many of which are available for holiday lets. Don’t miss the small but excellent Lakes District Museum in the town centre. This award-winning museum is packed with mining memorabilia and charts the history of the area. For a few dollars, museum visitors can hire gold panning equipment and head to the tree lined banks of the Arrowtown River (which featured in The Lord of the Rings movies) to pan for gold.
We initially decided to stay in Arrowtown in order to visit Queenstown but ended up spending most of our week exploring the friendly laidback town and enjoying peaceful hikes in the beautiful locality.
3. | Akaroa Banks Penninsula
Recommended by Delphine at LesterLost
On the South Island of New Zealand, the Banks Peninsula is a great day trip from Christchurch. Akaroa is the main township on this volcanic outpost and a charming little town. The Banks Peninsula is only an hour away from Christchurch and a paradise of rolling hills and scenic roads… Few people know this, but Akaroa has a strong connection to France, which may sound strange since New Zealand was colonised by the British… But indeed, the township of Akaroa was first settled by French whalers in 1840.
The British convinced the French to leave after only ten years by buying them out… And yet, over 150 years later, the French influence is still visible. The cemetery, some street names and overtly French cafes and restaurants maintain the flame of a distant and short-lived settlement… I discovered Akaroa by accident on my honeymoon to New Zealand and I keep going back, not just because of its French history, but the scenic summit road, colourful houses and unique volcanic harbour make the Banks Peninsula one of my favourite destinations in New Zealand. If you are keen on wildlife experiences, Akaroa also has a number of eco tours and cruises where you can observe seals and dolphins.
3. | Glenorchy Otago
Recommended by Margarita Steinhardt at The Wildlife Diaries
Glenorchy is a beautiful little settlement surrounded by the towering snow-capped mountains, glacial lakes and ancient beech forests, 46 kilometres north of Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy along the shore of Lake Wakatipu is one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand, which is very high praise considering that virtually every road in New Zealand is a scenic drive.
The town of Glenorchy is very laid-back. There are a couple of pubs, a cafe, a general store and the iconic red boatshed on the lakeshore. One of the best things to do in town is to explore Glenorchy Walkway that meanders through the wetlands of Glenorchy Lagoon. On a clear day, you can see the reflection of Mt Earnshaw reflected in the still waters of the lagoon.
And if you are looking for adventure, you can explore the Tolkienesque landscape around Glenorchy on horseback or on foot, in a 4×4 or in a jetboat, from a helicopter or from a mountain bike. And don’t be surprised if the landscape looks oddly familiar, the area around Glenorchy served as a filming location for Isengard, Lothlorien and Amon Hen in the Lord of the Rings movies.
4. | Kaikoura Canterbury
Recommended by Mikaela of Voyageur Tripper
Kaikoura is often overlooked by tourists to New Zealand, but it’s such a charming little seaside town that really shouldn’t be missed. I grew quite fond of this town after I spent a few months on the South Island between the delicious food joints, affordable places to stay, and outdoor activities.
Honestly, I had one of the best experiences of my life here when I got to swim with wild dolphins! I would go back just to see the dolphins again. You’re given a wet suit and a snorkel then you hop on a boat in search for the gorgeous animals.
Once you find them you hop in the water and they swim right up to you. They are super playful animals and will even “talk” to you if you start making noises at them!
The most popular activity in Kaikoura is whale watching though. You can do this either by boat or helicopter and with both you only have a 5% chance of not seeing a whale. The boat option is cheaper than the helicopter but on the helicopter, you also see beautiful views of the peninsula.There are so many fun things to do in Kaikoura and great opportunities to view wildlife. I’ll be planning a return trip as soon as I can!
5. | Twizel Mackenzie District
Recommended by Chris of Aquarius Traveller
At some point, when you’re driving around the South Island of New Zealand or looking at visiting Mount Cook, you will pass by the small town of Twizel. With a population of 1500, it’s the largest town in the Mackenzie region, on the other hand, numbers can triple during the tourist season. This is your number one gateway town for Mount Cook National Park and some of the best Mountain views on the South Island.
There is nothing like waking up every morning to a backdrop of the Southern Alps, or wandering through the friendly town at several cafes and eateries. Have some fun fishing for salmon or trout from the canals that run through the town, or take the easy way out and visit the local Salmon farm for the local delicacies. It’s all of this and Mount Cook, that keeps me coming back time and time again.
A range of accommodation options are available from Hotels, Motels, Cottages, Bed and Breakfasts, and Airbnb’s. Whatever your situation, there is going to be something to suit your style and budget.
Mount Cook National Park is less than an hour away, and there is are so many ways to experience this part of the South Island. Seeking adventure on one of the many hiking trails like Hooker Valley Track or Tasman Lake. Fly like a bird above the snow-topped mountains, or kayaking on one of the many rivers.
Twizel is known for its low light pollution and dark skies, which means it’s the best place to stargaze and see the wondrous Milky Way. Don’t forget to check this out on your visit!
5. | Te Anau Southland
Recommended by Nicholas of Rambling Feet
My main reason for visiting Te Anau was to enjoy a shorter drive to Milford Sound. However, I found plenty to make it worth staying a couple of nights or more. Being on the shores of Lake Te Anau, it comes with some stunning waterside views of the mountains. It’s a town that is incredibly close to nature such that it’s the gateway to Fiordland. From the surrounding area, trampers start three of the Great Walks of New Zealand: the Kepler, Milford and Routeburn tracks. Head 30 minutes south to Manapouri and you’ll be at the start of the cruise to the quieter but more dramatic Doubtful Sound. There are even scenic flights if you prefer to see the Eighth Wonder of the World from above.
You’d expect a lot of traffic, given how much there is to do. However, most of it is transient, so the town still feels unhurried during even the day. You can take a cruise or kayak around the lake, and there are tours that take groups into the caves to see thousands of glow worms light up the darkness. If you’re even less adventurous, there’s still a leisurely stroll along the lakeshore to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, where you can see native feathered critters, some of which are endangered. You can even get close to the takahe, a flightless bird that was thought extinct only 100 years ago, during their feeding times.
6. | Oamaru South Canterbury
Recommended by Lotte from Phenomenal Globe Travel Blog
Just short of 14.000 residents, Oamaru is one of the ‘larger’ villages on the South Island, though it’s still far from a big city. Despite its modest size, Oamaru has plenty to offer for visitors and should be included on any New Zealand road trip itinerary.
Oamaru likes to call itself Steampunk HQ. Steampunk is a quirky genre of science fiction that features steam-powered technology from the 19th century. When strolling through the city center you’ll undoubtedly come across many funky steampunk machines and art, resembling anything from human faces to a weird (and slightly scary looking) locomotive. There are even a Steampunk Museum (open 7 days a week from 10.00 am – 4.00pm) and a Steampunk Playground, so plenty to keep the kids occupied for a couple of hours.
There is more to Oamaru than steampunk though, one of the other highlights is the large blue penguin colony that calls Oamaru home. Well, not the streets of Oamaru obviously, but you can spot these cute little guys waddling around the beach from a special day viewing area. Keep in mind the Blue Penguin Colony is a protected habitat and be sure to follow the guidelines as not to disturb these wonderful creatures.
Back in the center of Oamaru you’ll notice plenty of charming old buildings in the Victorian Precinct, most of these warehouses have been converted into galleries and boutique stores. Don’t forget to check out the pretty railway station and the imposing Bank of New South Wales building.
7. | Franz Josef West Coast
Recommended by Jon from See the South Island
Franz Josef is a tiny glacier town on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The main draw is obviously the glacier, which you can see on a large number of hikes or from a helicopter, but the town itself is about as quaint and picturesque as you’ll find in New Zealand. The town, home to around 500 people, is surrounded by lush green hills and snow-capped mountains, and you’ll see some amazing views by just walking the quiet streets. There are plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating areas, and there are even some hot pools – perfect after a long day of hiking.
To see the best views of Franz Josef Glacier I’d recommend doing the Alex Knob Track. It takes 6-8 hours and takes you high above the glacier-carved valley. If you’re keen for something a little easier you can see the glacier from one of several short tracks, including Sentinel Rock and Peters Pool. Weather is key to these tracks – you’ll be blown away if you see this area on a nice day, but you won’t see much if it’s cloudy!
8. | Wanaka Otago
Recommended by Karen of Big Adventures for Little Feet
When visiting the South Island of New Zealand the majority of tourists flock to Queenstown however we found nearby Wanaka to be the stunning, relaxed mountain escape that we were seeking. Nestled next to picturesque Lake Wanakaand only an hour from Queenstown airport this resort destination is the perfect place to visit for a short or longer stay.
Known for its adventure sports, Wanaka is brimming with outdoor activities both in winter and summer. Snowsports dominate the winter scene but if summer adventures are more your thing this is the place to be for breathtaking hikes, water sports and a plethora of other activities.
We loved strolling the foreshore of Lake Wanaka, relaxing in the small village shops and cafes and simply taking in the views of the surrounding mountains from the hot tub at our accommodation. I highly recommend a couple of days exploring Mount Aspiring National Park which can be done by utilising Wanaka as your base. The Mount Aspiring National Park is such a pristine and untouched National Park allowing you to drive through the mountain range before opening up on the expansive Haast Pass. Make sure you stop for all the short hikes and waterfalls along the way with some favourites being the Blue Pools walk and the Fantail Falls.
9. | Cromwell Southland
Recommended by Bailey from My Queenstown Diary
The Otago region in New Zealand is a busy place to visit. Tourists fill the roads traveling between the small but very touristic towns of Queenstown, Glenorchy, and Wanaka. However, one town often forgotten is Cromwell. This quaint town sits on the shores of Lake Dunstan and is surrounded by vineyards, cherry trees, and even mountains. It’s a beautiful place to visit where visitors can enjoy a quieter time surrounded by beauty.
There are a ton of awesome things to do in Cromwell but few are as iconic as taking a trip to some of the local wineries. What’s unique about wine touring through Cromwell is you can actually do it on foot. Via the 4 Barrels Wine Trail, which leads you through some of the best and brightest wineries in Cromwell, you can explore without the worry of driving.
Another activity that’s a favorite of mine is to simply have a BBQ on the shores of Lake Dunstan. Around the lake, you’ll find BBQ’s dotted around the shoreline. Go into town and grab some food before heading town for one relaxing afternoon and maybe even a swim!
Despite Cromwell remaining off the beaten path, it’s one of the cutest towns in New Zealand that everyone should add to their bucket list!
10. | Punakaiki West Coast
Recommended by Daniel from Destinationless Travel
If you take a drive up the stunning West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island you’ll pass by many beautiful towns along the way. One that stands out and a place I love to visit is the quaint town of Punakaiki. Made up of only a few streets, this small town packs quite the punch when it comes to breathtaking landscapes. The entire town is surrounded by lush forest and the coastline on which it sits is not only rugged, but filled with wildlife.
Of the many amazing things to do in Punakaiki, visiting the famous Pancake Rocks is one of the best. On a huge boardwalk, you’ll explore the rock formation that got its name because it actually looks like stacked pancakes. It’s the reason most stop here, but unfortunately for them, they never seem to stay. For those that do though, you can enjoy much more including hiking the Truman track and kayaking down the Pororari River. One of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks starts nearby too, the Paparo Track!
In a town so small there isn’t much else to do other than explore the area, but that’s what makes it such a bucket-list town to visit! If you are hungry though, and after a fun night out, head to the Punakaiki Tavern for a look inside a classic New Zealand country pub.