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Top 12 Cities (+ Big Towns) in the South Island, New Zealand

Top 12 Cities (+ Big Towns) in the South Island, New Zealand

Most of the South Island’s charm lies outside of its towns and cities, but if you’re travelling around the island you’ll find plenty of interesting urban areas. Our top 12 cities and big towns in the South Island are all great places to spend a few nights and are close to heaps of incredible natural sights — let us know if you agree with our choices at the end of the post!

Note: I capped these cities and towns at 3000 residents (a couple were just under at the last census but are probably over that threshold now). Check out our recent post about the top small towns in the South Island!

Invercargill

Sitting right at the bottom of the South Island, Invercargill is the gateway to Stewart Island, the Catlins and the southern coast. It’s not the most exciting city in New Zealand, being insulted by everyone from your typical kiwis who hate the cold to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

The city centre is nice to walk around (and there’s a new mall right in the heart of the downtown area) but you’ll want to get out and explore, especially around Bluff, Riverton and the southern Catlins (Curio Bay is a good one to drive to from Invercargill).

Bluff, a short drive from Invercargill, is an interesting place to visit whether you’re catching a boat to Stewart Island or just want to see some impressive views at Bluff Hill.

Cromwell

Famous for stone fruit and its proximity to Queenstown and Wānaka, Cromwell is firmly on the South Island tourist trail. Heaps of people pass through it on the way to or from Mount Cook / Lake Tekapo, but there’s heaps to see in and around town. The historic centre, by the shores of Lake Dunstan, is one of the most atmospheric old quarters in New Zealand.

There are lots of vineyard surrounding Cromwell, as well as scenic areas such as Bannochburn, Bendigo and the drive to Queenstown through the Kawarau Gorge.

Cromwell travel guide, New Zealand

Timaru

Timaru was classed as a city until the late 80s, and at around 30,000 people it’s the biggest town on this list. It’s the second largest urban area in Canterbury and is home to one of the island’s most important ports.

It has one of the nicest high streets in New Zealand, with rows of old buildings and some nice cafes and shops. Caroline Bay, one of the South Island’s best town beaches, is a short stroll from the downtown area. I was born in Timaru, so might be slightly biased, but I reckon it’s one of the more underrated New Zealand tourist towns.

Hokitika

There are no cities on the South Island’s West Coast, only three big towns (Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport) and lots of smaller ones. Hokitika wins the battle out of those three for a number of reasons. There’s a beach right in town (good spot for sunset) as well as a nice town centre with galleries and places to eat (slightly better than Greymouth and Westport in that respect).

And then there’s Hokitika Gorge, one of the most beautiful stretches of river in New Zealand. The West Coast Treetop Walk is just south of town, and Lake Kaniere (especially Dorothy Falls) is also worth a look.

Hokitika Gorge, West Coast, New Zealand

Nelson

At over 50,000 inhabitants, Nelson is by far the biggest settlement at the top of the South Island. It’s perfectly positioned within an hour or two drive of some top nature spots, including Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson Lakes National Park and the Marlborough Sounds.

The city itself is good for some downtime between outdoor adventures. You’ll find lots of good places to eat and drink and the usual collection of museums (we loved Founders Heritage Park), boutique shops and galleries. If you’d prefer to hang out by the beach check out the seaside suburb of Tahunanui— lots of places to eat, drink and sleep and it’s a bit quieter than the city.

READ MORE: Nelson Itinerary: How to Spend Three-Seven Days in Nelson

Christchurch

With a population of just under 400,000, Christchurch is the South Island’s biggest metropolis. You’ll likely fly in or out of Christchurch (or at least drive through) and it makes for a good place to get your bearings before heading out into the wilds of the South Island.

Avon River, Christchurch, New Zealand

The city centre sits around the banks of the Avon River, which you can walk or cycle beside for hours (or do some punting / boat trips on the river). New Regent Street, with it’s colourful shop houses, is another place to check out nearby.

New Regent Street, Christchuch, New Zealand

Further out from the city centre you’ll find beaches (Sumner is our favourite), walks (Godley Head) and the Port Hills (lots of viewpoints, walks and cycle trails).

READ MORE: Christchurch Itinerary: How to Spend Three-Seven Days in Christchurch

Arrowtown

Arrowtown is a short drive from Queenstown and sees lots of day tripping tourists. They’re drawn in by the cute old buildings of the main street, Lake Hayes, the Arrow River (especially in autumn) and the old historic Chinese village.

It’s also home to some great restaurants as well as one of New Zealand’s top resorts (Millbrook). Arrowtown is one of the smallest towns on this list but its proximity to Queenstown means it sometimes feels like a bustling city.

Walking the historic streets of Arrowtown, New Zealand

Picton

This mid-sized town in the Marlborough Sounds is the first stop you’ll make in the South Island if you’re travelling by ferry from Wellington. Cruising through Queen Charlotte Sound makes for an impressive entrance to the island, and if you stick around in Picton a while you’ll find some excellent walks (especially the Tirohanga Track) and a cute town centre.

From Picton you can explore the rest of the Marlborough Sounds. Scenic drives, boat trips and walks (from very short strolls to the multi-day Queen Charlotte Track) are the main reasons to explore this beautiful region of New Zealand.

The best things to do in Picton, New Zealand

Queenstown

Towns and cities in the South Island don’t get any more scenic than Queenstown. This rapidly growing town will one day be a city — it already feels like it at times!

There are heaps of fun things to do in Queenstown, especially if you’re into the outdoors. Short walks, day hikes,  multi-day treks, skiing, mountain biking and adventure sports for active travellers. Long lunches, boat trips, boutique shopping and scenic drives if you’re keen to rest your legs a bit. There’s a speed to suit everyone in Queenstown.

READ MORE: Queenstown Itinerary: How to Spend Three-Seven Days in Queenstown

Wānaka

Wānaka is a similar mountain resort town to Queenstown only smaller. It still feels like a bustling city at times but mostly it’s a relaxing place to be. The beach is the most popular spot to hang out at in town — the perfect spot to bring some takeaways.

Wānaka is one of the best spots in New Zealand for hiking (Roys Peak, Isthmus Peak, Rocky Mountain), boat trips (Mou Waho Island, Stevenson Island) and lazy lakeside strolls.

Stunning view of Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak, New Zealand

Being a popular tourist town you’ll also find lots of good places to eat, sleep and drink. There are also some nearby towns (Lake Hāwea,  Cardrona) if you prefer to stay somewhere a little quieter.

READ MORE: Wanaka Itinerary: How to Spend Three-Seven Days in Wānaka

Oamaru 

Oamaru (population 14,000) is a large town in North Otago famous for its Victorian architecture, steampunk aesthetic and wildlife. It’s 90-minutes north of Dunedin and you’ll pass some special places along the way, including the Moeraki Boulders.

Oamaru is so high on this list for a few reasons, the biggest being the wonderfully restored streets of the old town. It’s home to the best Victorian architecture in the country — a walk down Harbour Street will transport you to another time.

Things to do in Oamaru, New Zealand

There are also penguins in Oamaru (little blue / yellow-eyed), beaches (especially around Kakanui) and some unique galleries and museums.

Dunedin

The best city in the South Island is an obvious choice. Dunedin, the Edinburgh of the South, has so many strings to its bow. It’s the best city in New Zealand for historic architecture — just walk around the city centre and you’ll see lots of cool stuff. Places to look out for include the Dunedin Railway Station, the Warehouse Precinct and Larnach Castle. Port Chalmers is also worth a trip if you love strolling around old streets.

Dunedin Railway Station, New Zealand

Then you’ve got the Otago Peninsula with its beaches, scenic roads, viewpoints and walks. Drive all the way out to Taiaroa Head and you might see albatross or penguins.

St Clair Beach gets our vote for the top city beach in New Zealand  — there are lots place to walk around there as well as cafés and restaurants.

For the best view of Dunedin head up to Mount Cargill. You can see pretty much the entire Otago Peninsula from there as well as the city and northern coastline. You struggle to find a better view of a city anywhere in New Zealand. Dunedin is the second largest city in the South Island and is the one you’ll want to spend the most time in, especially if you love the outdoors.

Unlucky to Miss Out

There are several other cities and big towns in the South Island that could have made this list. Blenheim, Alexandra, Westport and Greymouth were the other main considerations.

Other Top 12s

Check out our other Top 12 lists to discover both popular spots and hidden gems in the South Island: Lakes | Rivers | Small Towns | Beaches | Scenic Drives

Do you agree with our list of the top 12 cities and big towns in the South Island, New Zealand? 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.