The 10 Best Free Things To Do In New Zealand: South Island

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The 10 Best Free Things To Do In New Zealand: South Island

As mentioned in our “10 Best Free Things To Do In New Zealand: North Island” New Zealand can be expensive. As budget travellers we are constantly on the look out for cheap or even better, free things to do in each country.

We were told by a few different locals while travelling through the North Island that you cannot say you’ve seen New Zealand until you’ve travelled through the South Island. After exploring perhaps the most beautiful island in the world, I’d have to agree.

Imagine snow capped mountains, rolling green hills, immense glaciers, hidden waterfalls and some of the clearest night skies in the world. Think about coming face-to-face with penguins, sea lions, and whales. The South Island is truly one of mother nature’s most stunning creations.

After spending three weeks crisscrossing this breathtaking island, we were able to find some unforgettable things that should blow your socks off and all at zero cost! Here now is our list of the best free things to do in New Zealand’s South Island.

Best Free Things To Do In New Zealand: South Island

1) Observe Sea Lions in their Natural Habitat on Sandfly Bay

Sea Lion on Sandfly Beach

Sandfly Bay on the Otago Peninsula is a bit out of the way but absolutely worth visiting. Relax, no need for bug repellent here, the name refers to the way the sand flies in the wind. The look out from the start of the thirty minute trek down to the beach offers stunning views of one of the most pristine beaches in all of New Zealand. We had the entire beach to ourselves and came face-to-face with half a dozen massive Hooker’s Sea Lions. At a safe distance we even witnessed a standoff between two massive males; like watching two giants duking it out! There’s even a hide where, if you’re patient, you can see Yellow-eyed Penguins at sun down.

2) Watch Baby Seals Playing at Ohau Waterfall Walk

Heading north from Kaikoura, pull over and walk inland to where the fresh stream water flows into the sea and watch the seal pups make their way up to the Oahu stream. Perhaps our favourite experience in two and a half months in New Zealand was having a front row seat to dozens of adorable baby seals joyfully playing together in the waterfall pool. Keep your eyes open while walking as the pups and mothers rest and dry off in the foliage along the path.

3) See the Mystical Moeraki Boulders

Moreaki Boulders New Zealand

Definitely one of the natural wonders of New Zealand, the Moeraki Boulders are large spherical boulders lying along a stretch of Koekohe Beach in coastal Otago. The weather didn’t cooperate while we were there but they were quite impressive up close. Maori legend deems them to be the remains of eel baskets, calabashes, and kumara from a wreck of a large sailing canoe. To avoid paying beach access fees, keep going past Moreaki Boulders Restaurant and head to the DOC access point down the road, just make sure its low tide!

4) Find Your Spiritual Centre at Castle Hill

Castle Hill New Zealand

The Dalai Lama called Castle Hill one of the “Spiritual Centres of the Universe” and the positive energy you feel as soon you arrive is palpable. This site is not only stunning up close but as the picture above proves, breathtakingly juxtaposed against the towering mountainscape. Embrace your inner child climbing up the celestial limestone boulders then grab a place in the sun to enjoy the tranquillity. Surprisingly you will not find this spot mentioned in many guidebooks but its certainly worth the short trip from Christchurch.

5) Trek Mount Sunday – Lord of the Rings Shooting Location

View from Mount Sunday, New Zealand

As I mentioned in our post on Lord of the Rings shooting locations, the fictional village of Edoras was built atop Mount Sunday for the LOTR Trilogy. This has got to be one of the best 360 degree views anywhere in New Zealand. Even if you are not a fan of the movies you’ll appreciate the spectacular, unspoiled panoramic. It takes quite a long time to reach this location as the road is quite rocky but this also means that there is a solid chance you’ll have it all to yourself as long as you miss the LOTR charter tours.

6) Marvel at the Views at Clearwater Lake

Lake Clearwater, New Zealand

There are many New Zealand lakes that offer serene mirrored images of the mountainous landscape. Our favourite was Lake Clearwater not only because it was heart-stirring to look at but also because of the great little campsite we viewed it from. Located way off the beaten path in the Canterbury region, pretty much guaranteeing you’ll have a little patch of paradise all to yourself.

7) Drive to Milford Sound from Te Anau

Highway to Milford Sound

In my opinion the highway from Te Anau to Milford Sound is the most extraordinary highway in the world. The weather was totally wretched for us with near horizontal winds and rain forcing our boat tour of Milford Sound to be cancelled but the drive was so stunning that we didn’t even mind! As you get closer to Milford Sound you will notice how the mountains seem to hug the road on either side of you while hundreds of waterfalls rush down the slopes toward the road. In the rain, the waterfalls seem to burst from the rock and the mist hangs so low you’ll feel like you’re in a whole other world.

8) Swim with Dolphins in Porpoise Bay

Porpoise Bay

There aren’t many places in the world where you can swim with dolphins in their natural habitat but Porpoise Bay is one of them. In the summertime dolphins head into the bay and if you are respectful and float quietly they may even come right up to you. This is a bucket list item for most people and swimming with them here is so much better than doing it at a resort.

9) See Blue and Yellow-eyed Penguins Around Oamaru

Yellow eyed penguins New Zealand

We love these crazy creatures so we were all over any opportunity to see them in the wild. Oamaru is one of the best spots to see two of the most elusive penguins in New Zealand. Just before dusk along the coast you can view Yellow-eyed Penguins surfing into the shore from the wildlife hide at Bushy Beach.

You can pay to watch hundreds of Blue Penguins coming back in the early evening to nest at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony private facility OR head to Marine Parade and wait on a park bench or in your car and see a few dozen little guys come on shore to nest under the buildings. We were lucky enough to see the little guys walking right through the campsite to sleep in their nests under the shower facilities at Oamaru Harbour Tourist Park.

10) Marvel at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowhole

Pancake Rocks New Zealand

Along the West coast is another natural wonder, the Punakaiki “Pancake” Rocks. The rocks get their pancake layering by immense pressure on alternating hard and soft layers of marine creatures and plant sediments. During high tide you will also have a front row seat to a blow hole spewing sea water high up into the air.

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Wrapping Up

We appreciate you stopping by and reading this post and we hope you found it entertaining and useful for your own travels. If you haven’t checked it out already, make sure to read the sister post to this one, “The 10 Best Free Things to do in New Zealand: North Island”.

Do you have any other must-see free attractions to see in the South Island? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Cheers and thanks for checking us out,

Ross & Alyse



Lover of travel, photography, nature, movies, and nachos. If you love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings we'll probably become best friends.

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