Lonely Planet's 18 best free things to do on New Zealand's South Island

While there are many attractions for people with big bucks, there are also endless free adventures in amazing places.
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While there are many attractions for people with big bucks, there are also endless free adventures in amazing places.

The biggest bargain here is the conservation estate, which covers vast parts of the South Island, offering endless free adventures in amazing places. In between is a raft of other experiences that won't cost the earth, from food-foraging and festivals to wildlife-spotting, gallery-hopping and admiring colonial architecture.

Looking for the North Island's best free experiences? Click here.

1. Canterbury Museum

Canterbury Museum.
Grant Matthew

Canterbury Museum.

In the category of free cultural attractions, Canterbury Museum is up there with the best. The wow factor comes via characterful local content, such as Fred and Myrtle's Paua Shell House, Māori artefacts, a replicated street from Christchurch's colonial era, and frequently changing exhibits of admirable diversity. Try to time your visit for free guided tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3.30pm.

canterburymuseum.com; Rolleston Ave; 9am-5pm; free.

2. Eastern Southland Gallery

The Eastern Southland Art Gallery.
Brittany Pickett/Fairfax NZ

The Eastern Southland Art Gallery.

Fondly known as the 'Goreggenheim', this outstanding art gallery occupies the old public library in the unassuming rural town of Gore. Highlights include works by Ralph Hotere, a Māori artist famed for his poetic 'black' series, while the John Money Collection combines indigenous folk art from West Africa and Australia with works by New Zealander Rita Angus.

esgallery.co.nz; 14 Hokonui Dr, Gore; 10am- 4.30pm Mon-Fri, 1-4pm Sat + Sun, free.

3. Victorian Precinct

The historic Victorian Precinct in Oamaru.

The historic Victorian Precinct in Oamaru.

With its colonial architecture befitting one of those costly outdoor heritage museums, Oamaru's Victorian Precinct packs plenty of punch for the price of perhaps a pie and a slightly foxed paperback. Stroll through its cobbled lanes lined with Dickensian stone buildings, dodging penny-farthings and visiting period-vibe shops, including a bakery, bookshop, antique store, artist studios and galleries. Costumed locals add atmosphere and moustaches.

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victorianoamaru.co.nz; 2 Harbour St; free.

4. Five-dollar gigs at the Mussel Inn

The Mussel Inn, at Onekaka near Takaka.
James Greenland

The Mussel Inn, at Onekaka near Takaka.

Although you could easily blow your budget on this brew-pub's tasty beers alone, a rollicking night out at the Inn needn't cost your shirt. Genuinely rustic – complete with creaky timbers and a rambling beer garden – it also hosts regular NZ$5 gigs featuring musicians from all over the show. For a little libation to get the toe tapping, we suggest the manuka-infused Captain Cooker.

musselinn.co.nz; 1259 State Highway, Onekaka; 11am-late (closed mid-Jul–mid- Sep); NZ$5.

5. The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film sets

Lord of The Rings locations.
Ian Brodie

Lord of The Rings locations.

There's no need to go on a costly guided movie-location tour, as a personalised one requires little more than your own transport, reliable intel and a vivid imagination. South Island landscapes stole many a Middle-earth scene, with the Queenstown region showing some star quality as Lothlórien, the Ford of Bruinen and Gladden Fields, among others.

Look for Ian Brodie's The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook, or search for Middleearth on newzealand.com. Free.

6. Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre

Aoraki Visitors Centre.
supplied

Aoraki Visitors Centre.

Spectacularly located in the shadow of its tallest mountain, New Zealand's grand-prize national park visitor centre does Aoraki justice with impressive exhibits alongside racks of maps and feathery fridge magnets. Intriguing natural history vies for attention with spine-tingling stories of human endeavour amid the Alps.

People would pay good money for this, so make sure you feed the donation box... doc.govt.nz/parks-and- recreation; 1 Larch Grove, Canterbury; 8.30am-4.30pm May-Sep, 8.30am-5pm Oct-Apr; free.

7. Catlins Wildlife Tour

Nugget Point, Catlins, South Otago.
Stephen Russell

Nugget Point, Catlins, South Otago.

On the Southern Scenic Route, the Catlins is a beguiling blend of rolling farmland, wetlands, forest and rugged coastline punctuated by caves, cliffs, blowholes and various other oddball  phenomena. Inhabiting this wild place are scores of special animals such as penguins at Nugget Point, spoonbills at Pounawea, and sea lions at Surat Bay. All you need to see them is walking shoes, patience and a modicum of good luck.

catlins.org.nz; free.

8. Climb Avalanche Peak

Climb Avalanche Peak.
Wiki Commons

Climb Avalanche Peak.

It ain't Everest, but this summit can be bagged in a day by moderately fit hikers unfettered by oxygen tanks. Saddle up with appropriate gear and supplies, check on conditions at the national park visitor centre, and may the glory be yours. It's a 1100m grind to the 1833m-high peak where the views rival those of the mighty Himalayas (well, nearly, and this one is free).

doc.govt.nz; Arthur's Pass NP, Canterbury; free.

9. Glacier Lookouts

The West Coast's twin glaciers – Franz Josef and Fox – are magnets for ice-hikers and scenic flight-takers happy to part with big bucks to get right up close. Budget travellers, however, can admire their awe-inspiring forms from excellent vantage points within the glacier valleys, along walkways featuring sublime forest, waterfalls and epic rock gardens, and where interesting information panels will serve as your guide.

doc.govt.nz; Westland Tai Poutini NP; free.

10. Kaikoura Seal Colony

Can't afford whale-watching? No worries. Head to Point Kean to see blubbery seals for free. It's not exactly all-singing, all-dancing entertainment, but watching these whiskery critters sleep, sniff the breeze and loll around the rocky reef is strangely mesmerising. Seal TV can be combined with the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway, a three-to- four-hour loop featuring whirling seabirds and stupendous ocean and mountain views. Priceless.

doc.govt.nz; Fyffe Quay, Kaikoura; free.

11. Kiwi-spotting on Stewart Island

There are an estimated 20,000 kiwi (tokoeka) roaming wild on Stewart Island, a few of which will probably appear on a pricey night tour. Bag a bargain by befriending a local and asking them on the quiet about a particular Oban sports field, upon which the inimitable bird may forage around dawn and dusk. While you're at it, ask about the penguin parade near the wharf.

Oban, Stewart Island; free.

12. Stargaze in the Mackenzie Country

Stargazing is a mind-expanding trip into mysterious worlds. One of five International Dark Sky Reserves, the Aoraki Mackenzie region offers nightly astronomical tours at Lake Tekapo's Mt John Observatory (earthandskynz.com; adult/child NZ$145/80), but you could rug up on a blanket, for free. Use an app to identify constellations such as Matariki and the Southern Cross.

mtcooknz.com; free.

13. Watch bungy jumpers

The numerous reasons not to partake of a bungy jump include many compelling ones, such as the prospect of leaping head first from a great height while attached to a rubber band… Then there's the cost. Fortunately, it is possible to hijack the heart-stopping thrills by watching others jump, with the best place for spectators being the world's original jump site at creaky Kawarau Bridge.

AJ Hackett Bungy, SH6 btw Queenstown & Cromwell; free.

14. West Coast Wilderness Trail

This is just one of 23 New Zealand Cycle Trails constructed in recent years, each representing a mammoth investment of time and money. And you, dear traveller, can reap the benefits. The trail is a 120km-long humdinger between Greymouth and Ross, revealing spectacular landscapes along historic pathways at the foot of the Southern Alps. Bike-hire depots make these adventures affordable, although they can be walked.

westcoastwildernesstrail.co.nz; nzcycletrail.com; admission free

15. Cockling at Marahau

On the fringe of Abel Tasman National Park, Marahau beach hides beds of delicious cockles (aka clams) that can be gathered when the tide is low. It's by no means easy work, and each cockle yields merely a nibble, but simmered open with garlic and white wine and served on pasta, they make a first-class meal at a rock-bottom price. Catch limits are posted by the beach.

Marahau Beach Rd; free.

16. Marlborough wine tasting

Spread across several golden valleys, New Zealand's vinous colossus offers refreshingly snoot-free touring around 35 small-scale cellar doors. Many of these can be reached by hire bike, or even on foot around vine-lined Renwick, and although some venues on the Marlborough Wine Trail charge a small tasting fee, it's still a cheap and cheerful education and is normally refundable against a purchase. Some spectacular wines can be sniffed out at bargain prices – just follow your nose!

winemarlborough.co.nz; free-NZ$5.

17. Christchurch World Buskers Festival

Shake out your pockets and head to the garden city's colourful annual outdoor extravaganza, held over 10 days around mid-January. Acrobats, jugglers, stand-up comedians and burlesque performers join a crazy Christchurch line-up of more than 40 acts that assemble from around the world. Hagley Park serves as the performance hub, with many other hotspots drawing crowds throughout the city. Check the website for details.

worldbuskersfestival.com; venues & dates vary, Jan; free.

18. Queenstown Winter Festival

New Zealand's fanciest Alpine resort can get pretty blingy during the ski season, but budget travellers are able to bluff their way in during the 10-day Winter Festival. There are loads of free events amid all the frivolity, beginning with a firework-laden, lake-front party, followed by a street parade, craft markets and musical events. It's also free to enter the 'suitcase race' down the slopes of Coronet Peak.

winterfestival.co.nz; late Jun-early Jul; free.

Book extract courtesy of Lonely Planet.  

Lonely Planet's The Best Things In Life Are Free
Published this month, Lonely Planet's The Best Things in Life are Free is the ultimate money-saving travel guide, packed full of money-saving tips, tricks and recommendations for the best-value sights and experiences around the world.

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