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When Is the Best Time of Year to Visit the South Island?

When Is the Best Time of Year to Visit the South Island?

A trip to New Zealand’s South Island will look quite different depending on when you choose to visit. From the cold depths of winter to those endless summer days when you might sometimes beat the sun to bed before it finally sets. When is the best time to visit the South Island, for both weather and events? That may depend on a few factors — keep reading and hopefully it’ll become a bit clearer!

Summer (December | January | February)

Summer is the obvious choice when visiting the South Island as that’s when the best weather is. It doesn’t often get too hot either — you’re unlikely to get caught in a heat wave or spend nights sweating away in temperatures over 25 degrees. Long daylight hours is another handy aspect of travelling the South Island in summer. In the height of summer it’ll be light from around 6am ’til 9.30pm — that’s a lot of time to explore the abundant nature on offer in all regions of the island.

The main negatives to travelling the South Island in summer is the potential for crowds in popular local holiday spots, especially over the Christmas / New Year / School Holiday period in December and January. Another downside, particularly for those who love hiking, visiting beaches and exploring nature, is that summer tends to be when sand flies are at their worst — they can really ruin an otherwise peaceful experience (really only around Fiordland, West Coast and some other inland areas).

READ MORE: 25 of the Best Things to Do in Fiordland National Park

Winter (June | July | August)

I’m writing this post at 4am on a cold morning in June in Dunedin, and I can understand people being reluctant to travel this far south in winter. The days are short (8.15am – 5pm at the moment) and it does get cold, but not so cold that you can’t still get out and about (definitely not Northern Europe/ Canada levels of cold!).

The Southern Alps look spectacular in winter and if you’re into skiing you’ll have a great time in Queenstown or Wānaka. Throw in some good value accommodation in the regions as well as deserted attractions and travelling the South Island in winter makes a lot of sense. Definitely not for everyone though!

READ MORE: South Island Travel Guide: Tips For Planning Your Trip

Spring (September | October | November)

In September the darkness of winter quickly lifts, with slightly longer days and more colourful surroundings. It’s a great time of year to explore the Southern Alps — you might even get some snow days which are always exciting in spring.

Spring is shoulder season in the South Island — a good mix of quieter attractions and slightly livelier tourist towns. The weather tends to be more volatile in spring but you’ll still likely get a good mix of weather — as is generally the case in New Zealand. One downside to note is some tracks are closed for lambing in September / early October. By the time November rolls around it’s starting to feel like summer!

Autumn (March | April | May)

The colourful leaves found in many South Island towns and nature spots makes autumn a special time to travel around the South Island, especially in April and early May. It’s also a much quieter time to travel around than the height of summer and the weather is at its most settled (that’s not saying much though!).

In both autumn and spring you’ll usually get some days that feel like summer, some that feel like winter and a few that are somewhere in between. It can be hard to plan what to wear and whether to do that big mountain hike, but a little extra planning is a small price to pay for cheaper hotels, quieter roads and less crowded attractions.

READ MORE: The Ultimate Two-Week South Island Itinerary

Events

There are events all year round in the South Island, from small-town summer fetes and festivals to world-class sporting and cultural events. For somewhere so isolated and sparsely populated it punches above its weight in terms of events, especially in music and sports. For music there are the summer festivals (Rhythm and Alps etc) and tours and shows by big artists. I’m not a fan at all but Ed Sheeran played some massive shows in Dunedin a few years back — a pretty good get for a city of 120,000 people on an island at the end of the world.

Musicians, comedians and other artists seem to tour at any time of year so have a look at some upcoming events and consider planning around them. Sports is another one to look out for — in summer you can catch quality international / domestic cricket and in winter there is plenty of rugby to go to. Also, netball, golf, rugby league, tennis, yachting and more!

Other Considerations

If you’re into hiking and other outdoor pursuits you’ll probably want to visit in shoulder seasons as the tracks won’t be too busy and the weather should be good but not too hot. You can do plenty of hiking in winter but it obviously has its own challenges. Summer is fine too — I’ve said a few times that places get busy but it’s nothing like popular places in Europe outside of a couple of weeks over Christmas and New Years and only in local holiday hotspots.

READ MORE: Top 12 Natural Wonders in the South Island

So, When Is the Best Time to Visit the South Island?

Whenever! As you’ve probably learnt by now, New Zealand’s South Island is a year-round destination. Consider what you really want to do and what kind of temperatures you’re comfortable sightseeing in and decide from there. And you’ll almost definitely be back again in the future, so try and see it in different seasons if you can!

Are you planning a trip to the South Island? Let us know in the comments below!

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.