There are hundreds of beautiful beaches in the South Island of New Zealand, so it was hard to carve this list down to 12 entries. We’ve been travelling around New Zealand for over six years now and have visited every region and (most) of the top-rated beaches — here are our top 12 beaches in the South Island!
Whites Bay, Marlborough
Whites Bay is our favourite beach on the whole stretch of coastline between Christchurch and Picton. Other contenders were Gore Bay, Manuka Bay and Kaikoura Beach (North Canterbury) and Rarangi Beach (just south of Whites Bay).
Whites Bay is backed by forest with rocky headlands at either end. There is very little development (just a surf club and a basic camping ground) but it sees a decent amount of people as it’s only 25-minutes from Blenheim.
Sumner Beach, Christchurch
If you’re going purely on sand + water + backdrop then Sumner Beach has no business being on this list. It’s the main Christchurch beach and it’s busier and more developed than most others on this list. Sumner is one of the few places where you can sit outside and eat right next to the beach, and just back from the sand you’ll find lots of other places to eat and drink.
READ MORE: Where Are the Best Beaches in Christchurch?
Great hiking as well — you can walk along the cliffs all the way from Sumner to Taylors Mistake to Godley Head (or the popular option of walking from Taylors Mistake to Godley Head).
READ MORE: 19 of the Best Things to Do in Christchurch
Caroline Bay, Timaru
Considering I was born in Timaru it’d be a bit hard to leave this one off the list. The sand at Caroline Bay is decent and the water is a nice shade of blue when you strike it right, but it’s the fact it’s the focal point for a small city (or large town) that it gets on this list.
Surprisingly, there aren’t a huge number of beaches within walking distance of city centres — in Timaru you could be eating at one of the restaurants in town and 10 minutes later be strolling along the beach. Timaru is perfect for active tourists as everything is walkable.
READ MORE: 14 of the Best Things to Do in Timaru
Kaiteriteri Beach, Tasman
Kaiteriteri Beach is a favourite with South Island locals as it’s a taste of the quality of Abel Tasman National Park beaches without the effort or cost of getting to them. It takes just under an hour to drive there from Nelson, making for an easy day trip.
READ MORE: Nelson Itinerary: How to Spend Three-Seven Days in Nelson
You’ll find plenty to do once you’re there, including kayaking, walking to nearby beaches, Split Apple Rock and more — it’s all in the post below.
READ MORE: Kaiteriteri Beach + the Best Things to Do in Kaiteriteri
Governors Bay, Marlborough Sounds
You’ll pass by Governors Bay while driving between Picton and Nelson. The view from the road is stunning, and it’s short walk down from there to the beach. What a beach! A good spot for a picnic — lots of local boaties had the same idea!
Scotts Beach, West Coast
Scotts Beach gets our vote for the best beach on the West Coast, both for the beach itself and the journey to get there. Head north of Westport for 90 minutes and you’ll reach Karamea — 15 minutes past there is the Kohaihai River and the start of the Heaphy Track.
READ MORE: Where Are the Best Beaches in Karamea?
Walk along the Heaphy Track for an hour or so and you’ll see the imposing headland and white sand of Scotts Beach. A beautiful part of New Zealand that many locals have never been.
READ MORE: 10 of the Best Things to Do in Karamea
Allans Beach, Dunedin
The Otago Peninsula can’t be beaten in terms of coastal views and wildlife. With over 10 excellent beaches on the Otago Peninsula it’s hard to choose one, but Allans Beach won for a few reasons. The view of it from Sandymount is one, as is the quality of the beach at ground level.
You’ve also the beach by Hoopers Inlet, with the clear blue water a world away from the main beach.
Cannibal Bay, The Catlins
Any one of about seven beaches in the Catlins could have made this list — to be honest it ultimately came down to which beach we had the best photos of! Cannibal Bay sits between two lush green headlands – with the southern one separating it from Surat Bay.
You’ll see sea lions around these parts but probably not too many other tourists! Other beaches in the Catlins that were unlucky to miss out include Curio Bay, Jack’s Bay and Tautuku Bay.
READ MORE: 10 of the Best Beaches in the Catlins
Wharariki Beach, Golden Bay
This popular spot in Golden Bay is one of the more visually striking beaches on the South Island, with its caves and offshore islands. Wharariki Beach is just south of Cape Farewell and Farewell Spit, the most northern point of the South Island — visiting at sunset is recommended if you can!
Totaranui Beach, Abel Tasman National Park
I reckon Totaranui Beach is one of the very best beaches in the South Island that you can drive to (although it’s down a long gravel road ages away from anywhere). There’s a big camping ground there, and while it’s not the official end of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, it is where a lot of people choose to finish (or start).
Walk up the eastern side and you’ll get a spectacular view of Totaranui Beach. A little further you’ll find Goat Bay, one of the best beaches I saw on the coastal track (I’ve done around 75% of it).
St Clair Beach, Dunedin
St Clair Beach is only 5 km away from the city centre of Dunedin and is by far the best beach in the South Island for eating and drinking. Cafes, restaurants, a walkway overlooking the beach and some of the best sand (and nicest water) you’ll see on the east coast of the South Island.
St Kilda Beach is at the northern end (it’s the same stretch of sand) and is even better in terms of views. Walk down John Wilson Ocean Drive to Lawyers Head and you’ll see what I mean – you can also walk down through the dunes to the sand.
The Winner(s): Various Abel Tasman National Park Beaches
This post could easily be full of beaches in Abel Tasman National Park and Dunedin / the Catlins, but variety is key in lists like this. I bundled the Abel Tasman beaches together here as they’re almost all beautiful and kinda similar at times. Some of the best ones I saw (pictured below) were Goat Bay, Anapai Bay, Bark Bay and Anchorage Bay.
You’ll see them while walking the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, or you can do a boat trip, kayaking or a boat / walk combo. It’s one of the most accessible national parks in New Zealand and you’ll see some of the best beaches in the country whether you’re there for a day or you’re doing the full coastal track.
READ MORE: Abel Tasman Day Walk: Bark Bay to Marahau
We left a few beaches off this list as they’re a part of the Top 12 Rock Formations post I’m working on. Koekohe Beach (Moeraki Boulders) and Tunnel Beach in Dunedin would ordinarily both be in our top 12 beaches in the South Island. The point of these Top 12 lists is to show you around the island and give you a few places to add to your itinerary that you may not have known about. We published our Top 12 Lakes in the South Island list recently and there are a lot more to come.
Unlucky to Miss Out
The beaches in Southland are pretty good (Oreti Beach, Cosy Nook) and there are heaps more West Coast, Marlborough Sounds and Golden Bay/ Abel Tasman beaches that could make this list. The same is true for Dunedin and the Catlins, while the beach in Kaikoura, with its mountain backdrop, wouldn’t look out of place on here either.
I’ve done a post about the top 12 lakes in the South Island, so I didn’t want to talk too much about lake beaches here. There are heaps of nice ones though — check out our posts about the best beaches in Queenstown and the best beaches in Wānaka.
Other lakes with good beaches include Lake Manapouri, Lake Dunstan and Lake Te Anau.
I didn’t include any Stewart Island beaches on here, but Bathing Beach definitely would have made the list. There are heaps of others too – don’t miss this place if you’re into coastal walking!
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out our South Island Travel Guide!
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Monday 20th of February 2023
We are blessed with the most amazing beaches in the South Island. You van travel widely in Europe but nothing matches the beaches in the Abel Tasman.
Tuesday 21st of February 2023
Thanks for the comment Denise. The beaches in Abel Tasman are world-class - we need to go back in summer so we can actually swim there!
Friday 17th of February 2023
Granity Beach would have been a good choice too after being determined as NZ cleanest beach out of 250 NZ beaches https://www.1news.co.nz/2021/12/27/project-underway-to-determine-pollution-on-kiwi-beaches/
Thursday 16th of February 2023
Waikouwaiti. Great swimming. 40 mins north Dunedin. And has Jonny Jones cottage on hill at one end.
Thursday 16th of February 2023
Great choice Jack -- we love Waikouaiti, especially the old farm buildings!
Saturday 11th of February 2023
Riverton rocks a collection of beautiful little beaches and Oreti Beach where you can drive on the beach. Southland beaches.
Sunday 12th of February 2023
Good call with Riverton Rocks-- it wouldn't be out of place on a list like this!