Small towns in New Zealand tend to either be irrelevant for tourists (places to pass through) or incredibly scenic spots full of walks, viewpoints and, if you’re lucky, some interesting history. These small towns in the South Island all have populations below 3000 (as of 2022) and were mostly chosen because they are right in amongst some of the best scenery in New Zealand. Check out our post about the top 12 cities and big towns — those are the proper tourist towns where you’ll spend most of your nights while travelling around the South Island.
Karamea is a long way from anywhere else, which is a big part of its charm. There are some good beaches around Karamea as well as the Oparara Arches. The Heaphy Track starts just north of town — it’s a good place for a day walk (check out the track to Scotts Beach).
An historic town centre and its position at the start of the Otago Central Rail Trail sees Clyde get a spot on this list. It’s the perfect town to stay in for a a few days if you’re exploring the area — it’s central to pretty much everything in Central Otago and there are lots of places to eat and drink including Olivers, one of the best restaurants in the South Island.
The main street of Tākaka is home to cafes, restaurants and boutique stores. It’s a metropolis compared to the rest of Golden Bay, but the main reason Tākaka made this list is the incredible nature on its doorstep.
A short drive from town is Rawhiti Cave, Te Waikoropupū Springs, Tākaka Hill and Abel Tasman National Park (Totaranui) — so much to explore and Tākaka is a comfortable little town to base yourself in for a few days while you do it.
Reefton isn’t on the main tourist route along the South Island’s West Coast, which means you’ll need to make an effort to visit (or pass through when driving between Nelson and the West Coast). Dubbed the ‘Town of Light’ for being the first town in New Zealand with a public power supply, Reefton’s goldmining heyday is long gone.
Broadway, the main street in Reefton, is full of old buildings and throwbacks to the past, and there are walks and bike rides in the hills surrounding town. An interesting spot to spend a night or two, especially if you’re taking your time travelling around New Zealand (you’ll almost definitely miss this place if you’re just doing a quick West Coast trip).
Riverton is located along the southern coast of the South Island, around 35 minutes from Invercargill. Beaches are the main reason to visit Riverton, from the calm sands of Mitchells Bay to the windswept and rocky Back Beach and Colac Bay.
Our favourite view in Riverton is at Mores Scenic Reserve. There are several viewpoints and short walks to explore.
This town in North Canterbury is wedged between the mountains and the sea and is most well-known for whale watching just offshore. The main beach in Kaikōura is just in front of the town centre – it’s one of the few places in the east coast you’ll see snow-capped mountains right next to the ocean.
There’s also a stunning coastal walk (Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway) and some delicious seafood.
The largest town in Fiordland and gateway to Milford Sound, Te Anau is perfectly positioned on the South Island tourist trail. The town sits on the shores of Lake Te Anau — the perfect spot for a relaxing stroll after a long day of sightseeing.
If you’re tired of the bustle of Queenstown you could trade it in for some time in Glenorchy. Located at the western edge of Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy is perhaps most famous as the end point to one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand. The town isn’t bad either, especially the area by the red boat shed as well as the Glenorchy Lagoon (Glenorchy Walkway).
Kaiteriteri swells with locals from the top of the South Island over the summer holiday period, and the reason for that is obvious. It’s one of the best beach towns in New Zealand — Kaiteriteri Beach is right in town and there are a few others close by that you can walk to (or drive to in the case of Split Apple Rock) — it’s also right on the doorstep of Abel Tasman National Park, where you’ll find the South Island’s best beaches.
READ MORE: Top 12 Beaches in the South Island
The French influence is strong in Akaroa, and so are the harbour views, winding hilltop roads and deserted bays. The drive to Akaroa from Christchurch is worth it as a day trip — you could see a lot in that time but it’s worth spending a night or two to enjoy the dining scene and maybe stay in a cute old cottage.
The town has a picturesque harbourside location and is small enough to walk around in an hour or two. You’ll also want to get out on the harbour when visiting Akaroa as it’s one of the best places to see dolphins in New Zealand.
Lake Tekapo is a small town in the Canterbury High Country, on the shores of a beautiful lake. Highlights of Lake Tekapo include Mount John Observatory, Church of the Good Shepherd, the beach in front of town and the road out to Lake Alexandrina. You’ll likely pass through Lake Tekapo when visiting Mount Cook (from the north) — there are lots of hotels and restaurants making it a good base for exploring the region.
I love a small town where you can see the surrounding scenery from the main streets, and Franz Josef definitely fits that bill. The Southern Alps loom large over Franz Josef, and travel a few kilometres out of town and you’ll reach some of the best walks in New Zealand, from the challenging summit of Alex Knob to the wheelchair accessible track to Peters Pool.
There are heaps of places to eat, drink and sleep and countless things to do nearby. Franz Josef is a must-see South Island small town even though the glacier is melting away at worrying speed — the valley it is carving is one of the most scenic spots in New Zealand and always will be.
Oban is the main town on Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island. Not technically the South Island so I added it at the end of this list. It’s a beautiful village — so many different places to walk and the views are incredible throughout.
It’s a very special part of New Zealand but not a lot of foreign tourists (or other locals) make it that far south. Highlights in Oban include Observation Rock, Bathing Beach and the various bays and beaches close to town.
Did you enjoy our top 12 small towns in the South Island? Disappointed your town didn’t make the cut? Let us know in the comments below!
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