Overlooked by most visitors to New Zealand, the East Coast of NZ South Island holds some fantastic gems. Eager to explore a bit more of this versatile country? Then make sure to add a few of these 15 must-do highlights of the South Island East Coast to your New Zealand itinerary!

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15 reasons why the East Coast of the South Island NZ is worth visiting

Zarina looking out over Kaikoura's risen seabed
Kaikoura, New Zealand

Most visitors to New Zealand’s South Island skip the East Coast in favour of the famously rugged West Coast. Sure, lacking the West Coast’s majestic snow-capped mountain tops and breathtaking waterfalls, the landscape of the East Coast might not have the same level of drama as its more adventurous and wilder counterpart. Yet, you’d be surprised by the incredibly unique and diverse landscape of the East Coast. Partially formed by powerful volcanic activity and earthquakes, this side of the South Island has some of the best places to see unique wildlife in New Zealand. From majestic whales to fur seals, to some of the world’s rarest penguin and dolphin species.

But besides amazing fauna and flora, the South Island’s East Coast is also home to various cute towns and vibrant cities. It’s therefore the perfect destination to enjoy a New Zealand city break! However, being New Zealand, the great outdoors is never far away so even during your cultural city trip you can still fully immerse yourself in nature. Curious to discover some must-see New Zealand gems? Then check out the following highlights of the NZ South Island’s East Coast!

Pressed for time and rather explore the spectacular West Coast instead?
Then check out my detailed West Coast South Island 1-week itinerary.

Map of NZ South Island: East Coast highlights

The following fifteen South Island East Coast highlights are listed in geographical order, from North to South. However, this isn’t necessarily the ideal driving route. If you’re planning to see more of the South Island, then it’s better to travel counterclockwise or drive more inland on certain parts as that’s far more scenic. To help you on your way, I’ll be sharing my complete South Island road trip itinerary on my blog in the future.

15 Must-do highlights on the East Coast of the South Island, New Zealand

Please be aware that, subject to weather conditions, certain roads might be closed temporarily. Also, this article is based on my New Zealand trips prior to Covid-19 so please refer to the official New Zealand tourist website for the latest updates.

1. Picton

Picton Marina with boats and fiords in the background
Picton Marina

If you’re arriving on the South Island by ferry from Wellington, you’ll be getting off at the charming seaside town of Picton. Known as the gateway to the South Island, visitors don’t often take the time to explore Picton. This is such a shame because although it’s a quiet port town, Picton is a lovely place to spend the day.

Picton is located in the Marlborough region, which is famous for its fantastic wines and food. When visiting Picton, it’s therefore a must to tuck into a fabulous meal of green-lipped mussels, a local specialty, accompanied by a glass of locally produced wine. Other Picton highlights include a stroll along the picturesque Picton Marina and a boat trip into the stunning Marlborough Sounds which is next in this list!

Click here to book a scenic cruise ride on a working mail boat from Picton!

2. Queen Charlotte Track

Portrait of Zarina with the Queen Charlotte Sound in the background along the Queen Charlotte Track
Spectacular view over the bays along the Queen Charlotte Track

Often described as a coastal paradise, the Queen Charlotte Sound is the most eastern part of the larger Marlborough Sounds. Besides protected wildlife sanctuaries and numerous bays, the magical sound is also home to the 72-kilometre long Queen Charlotte Track. If this sounds rather daunting to you, then don’t worry. Hubby and I aren’t diehard hikers either but booked enjoyed our relaxing day cruise + hike from Picton with Cougar Line.

Depending on the route you choose, walks vary from 2 hours (4.5 km) to 5 hours (17 km). We opted for the pleasant 3-hr walk from Resolution Bay to Furneaux Lodge. This easy walk leads you through fabulous native bush where you’ll be surrounded by beautiful bird song. Along the way you’ll also get to enjoy stunning coastal views which are truly memorable and make the hike more than worth it.

3. Blenheim

view over a vineyard in Blenheim, in the Marlborough region of New Zealand's South Island
Vineyards in Blenheim, Marlborough (NZ) (Photo credit: Dan Nelson / Flickr)

Known as one of the sunniest places in New Zealand, Blenheim is the perfect destination for foodies and wine lovers. Located in the heart of Marlborough, New Zealand’s top wine region, Blenheim is surrounded by award-winning vineyards.

Must-do activities in Blenheim therefore obviously include a wine tasting tour (or two). For your culture fix, I recommend a trip to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre or Marlborough Museum. Both museums offer great insight in the region’s history and are great family-friendly activities.

heritage planes in the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, Blenheim (New Zealand)
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Bleinheim, New Zealand (Photo credit: Povl Abrahamsen / Flickr)

4. Ohau Point seal colony

Ohau Point seal colony
Ohau Point seal colony

About 130 kilometres south from Picton you’ll find Ohau Point seal colony, one of the best places to see fur seals in New Zealand. This large seal colony consisting of hundreds of seals suddenly appeared here a few years ago following the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake. Before that devastating event that led to permanent changes in the landscape, the seal colony lived 31 kilometres south from here at Point Kean. (You might even still find this old location in most tourist guides.)

Following the seal colony’s relocation right next to State Highway 1, local authorities built the Ohau Point lookout and car park. From here you can safely observe the amazing fur seal colony on the rocks right beneath you. Since it’s located literally next to the highway, I truly recommend a stop at Ohau Point whilst travelling between Kaikoura and Picton. It’s the easiest way to see wildlife in New Zealand and the largest fur seal colony I’ve seen there!

In this embarrassing travel story, I tell you all about how we failed twice (!) to locate the Kaikoura seal colony before we found them at Ohau Point:
Kaikoura seal colony and whale watching.

5. Kaikoura

best places for whale watching in New Zealand
Whale watching in Kaikoura, New Zealand

Once you enter Kaikoura, you’ll immediately sense the unique character of this sleepy seaside town. The compact city centre consists of some lovely independent cafés, shops and also the must-visit Kaikoura Museum.

But the main reason for visiting Kaikoura is its spectacular wildlife as this is the best place to see whales in New Zealand. In fact, Kaikoura is the only place where you can see sperm whales all year round! And if you’re lucky enough, you might even get to enjoy a special encounter with orcas or other whale species such as the humpback whale or blue whale, the largest creature in the world. Imagine seeing one of those from up close!

During our tour, we were followed by a pod of playful dusky dolphins who were happily showing off their beauty and swimming skills. After catching sight of majestic whales earlier on the tour, the dolphin encounter was such a joyful experience.

6. Cathedral Cliffs, Gore Bay

dramatic view over Cathedral Cliffs a true gem of the New Zealand South Island East Coast
Cathedral Cliffs, South Island New Zealand

This is a lesser known attraction in New Zealand which I discovered by chance through social media before our trip. Situated along State Highway 1 between Kaikoura and Christchurch, this is a real New Zealand gem worth stopping for!

Resembling tall Gothic cathedral spires piercing the skies, this spectacular natural highlight is an eroded clay formation. Shaped by the elements over a period of 2 million years, these weathered rocks look just incredible in real life!

7. Christchurch

Cardboard Cathedral Christchurch
Cardboard Cathedral Christchurch

If you’re arriving on the South Island by plane instead of the ferry, then Christchurch is most likely to be your arrival point. Similar to Picton, most visitors tend to merely pass through Christchurch instead of spending some time in this remarkable city.

Once known as the most English city in the southern hemisphere, Christchurch has gone through some devastating events in recent years. The scars of the deadly 2011 Christchurch Earthquake are still clearly visible in the cityscape. But yet, wandering through Christchurch, you can really sense this great feeling of resilience, optimism and positive rebirth.

Large wall painting of two children playing hide and seek on Manchester Street in Christchurch
Christchurch street art

Surviving historical buildings stand alongside modern redevelopments including inviting independent cafés and restaurants. Post-earthquake Christchurch also boasts an impressive street art scene which made my heart as a street art lover sing. Yet besides its urban side, Christchurch is also home to some wonderful green spaces, such as the 74 acre Botanic Gardens right in the heart of the city. I initially only visited Christchurch for its street art, but fell in love with this city for its unique character. There’s just something special about it that I hope you’ll get to experience one day as well!

Related article: Top things to do in Christchurch

8. Banks Peninsula

Looking down on Banks Peninsula with views of its horseshoe shaped bay
Enjoying the stunning landscape of Banks Peninsula

Located only an hour south from Christchurch, Banks Peninsula is one of the top highlights on the East Coast! Its extraordinary landscape is the result of enormous volcano eruptions that took place about eight million years ago. Driving along the peninsula you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the rugged coastline beneath you. Consisting of two large harbours and various bays, Banks Peninsula offers some amazing hiking and biking trails.

Besides stunning landscapes, you’ll also find the picturesque town of Akaroa on Banks Peninsula. Akaroa is located on Akaroa Harbour and was founded by the French in 1840 making it the only French town in New Zealand! With its pretty streets filled with European-style shops and buildings, Akaroa is one of the most beautiful towns in New Zealand.

9. Oamaru

streetview of Oamaru with festive bunting hanging in street with historic stone buildings
Oamaru Victorian heritage precinct

Similar to Akaroa, Oamaru is a beautiful historic town in New Zealand with its own distinct character. Known world-wide as a steampunk town, the Victorian heritage precinct in the heart of Oamaru is not to be missed! Filled with great second-hand bookshops and delightful 19th-century limestone buildings, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

In this article, I’ve listed all the top things to in Oamaru!

10. Moeraki Boulders

row of the mysterious Moeraki Boulders on the beach
Moeraki Boulders, New Zealand

Imagine aliens landing on earth and leaving behind mysterious pods along the coastline. That’s exactly what the Moeraki Boulders look like. These spherical boulders lay scattered along Koekohe Beach and make for the most curious sight. The boulders can be up to two metres big, weighing a few tonnes each. Some of the boulders you see on the beach are believed to have been formed about sixty million years ago. They’re the result of concretion, the hardening of the sea bed. (Sorry to disappoint you these are not the leftovers of messy aliens.)

11. Shag Point

three fur seals on rocks at Shag Point
Shag Point (Photo credit: russellstreet / Flickr)

Fans of the Austin Powers films might get a chuckle out of its name, but Shag Point actually refers to a great fur seal lookout point. Similar to Ohau Point, Shag Point is one of the easiest places to see fur seals. It’s located a few minutes off State Highway 1 which makes it a more peaceful experience.

We were spoiled after seeing the large fur seal colony at Ohau Point, so were less impressed at this smaller group. Yet, you have better vantage points at Shag Point and can see the fur seals relaxing in the water much clearer. And if you’re lucky, you might even spot a whale or dolphins along the coast! (We weren’t so lucky unfortunately.)

12. Dunedin

exterior of the Dunedin Railway Station built in Flemish Renaissance-style
Dunedin Railway Station

The vibrant student city of Dunedin is famous for its Scottish heritage. It’s one of the bigger cities in New Zealand where you could easily spend a few days for a proper city break. Besides its large modern city centre, it’s also home to various lovely galleries and museums. And as both an architecture and street art lover, Dunedin was really the perfect city for me.

Following the 1860s Otago gold rush, Dunedin became the fastest growing city in New Zealand. This is evident from its elegant architecture which is largely a mix of Edwardian but also Renaissance Revival architecture. The most famous example would be the gorgeous Dunedin Railway Station.

Wandering through Dunedin’s rejuvenated warehouse precinct, you’ll find some fantastic independent cafés and restaurants. But it was mostly the stunning Dunedin Street Art Trail that caught my eye here. The combination of revitalised warehouses and street art was really a dream come true for me!

Large mural of a girl lying in a bed of flowers
Dunedin street art

13. Otago Peninsula

aerial view of Larnach Castle on Otago Peninsula near Dunedin, New Zealand
Larnach Castle on Otago Peninsula (Photo credit: Pseudopanax / Wikimedia Commons)

As I said earlier, wherever you are in New Zealand, even in a larger city, you’ll always have the glorious outdoors right on your doorstep. That’s definitely true for Dunedin as it’s blessed to have the scenic Otago Peninsula just outside of its city centre.

Otago Peninsula is home to various beaches, including Allens Beach where you’ll find sea lions basking in the sun. The most famous attractions on Otago Peninsula are Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle, the Royal Albatross colony and the incredibly rare Little Blue Penguins.

Discover more things to do on Otago Peninsula in my Dunedin city break itinerary.

14. Nugget Point Lighthouse

looking out over the Nugget Point Lighthouse located at the end of a thin stretch of land with rocks sticking out from the water beneath
Nugget Point Lighthouse (Photo credit: Mariano Mantel / Flickr)

The iconic Nugget Point Lighthouse is located in the north of The Catlins, a spectacular and untouched region along the southern coast of New Zealand. Built in the 1870s, the Nugget Point Lighthouse is one of the oldest lighthouses in New Zealand. Around the lighthouse you can see brown rocks sticking out of the water. Resembling pieces of gold, explorer Captain Cook called them nuggets, hence the name Nugget Point.

The walk from the car park to the 9-metre tall historic lighthouse takes only ten minutes. Located at the end of a thin stretch of land overlooking the dramatic coastline, Nugget Point Lighthouse is certainly worth a visit. Watch the waves crash into the cliffs whilst you search for the fur seals that are known to frequent the area.

15. Slope Point

group of bent trees at Slope Point, New Zealand, standing in a tight group and growing completely towards one side because of the wind
Slope Point bent trees (Photo credit: mhx / Flickr)

Welcome to the most southerly place in New Zealand! You access Slope Point by a walk through private farmlands. Located relatively close to the South Pole, this area is characterised by its strong chilly winds. The bent wind-swept trees, mangled by the brutal winds from the Antarctic Ocean, make for an extraordinary sight. The trees were planted here by farmers as a shelter for their flocks. Can you believe this tempestuous area is used as farmland?

Besides the curious trees, the yellow sign right on the coastline is the most iconic sight at Slope Point. Indicating your distance to the Equator and South Pole from this landmark, its surroundings are nothing short of spectacular. The perfect ending to our round-up of the must-see highlights of the South Island’s East Coast.

yellow sign at Slope Point with an arrow point left saying Equator 5140 km and an arrow pointing right saying South Pole 4803 km
Slope Point sign (Photo credit: itravelNZ / Flickr)

Which of these amazing East Coast highlights on New Zealand’s spectactular South Island would you definitely like to visit?
Let me know in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx

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Photo credit top photo: whiz-ka / Flickr

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