The Southland region of New Zealand is as beautiful as it is remote, and you'll be amazed at the variety of experiences on offer in regional hub Invercargill. Those with a need for speed, nature-based escapes and stunning night skies have come to the right place. Here's a checklist of ten amazing things to do, thanks to Choice Hotels.
Invercargill is the most southerly city in Aotearoa New Zealand and the gateway to some of the most wonderful wilderness areas on the South Island.
Stewart Island, the Catlins and Fiordland National Park are all within relatively easy reach of the ‘City of Water and Light’ (which refers to Invercargill’s location alongside the Waihopai River estuary, and the fact that it enjoys the longest summer days in the country).
Special mention to the southern hospitality you’ll experience in this city; the locals are always warm in their welcome. It’s a theme that’s repeated across the Southland region.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Invercargill.
1. See the World’s Fastest Indian at a hardware store
Invercargill was home to world-famous motorcycle racer Burt Munro, who broke the land speed record in 1967 in Utah on his highly modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle — named the World’s Fastest Indian. The same name was used for the movie about Munro and his achievement, starring Anthony Hopkins in the lead role. Munro’s record setting set-of-wheels is on display in Invercargill and draws thousands of visitors each year. But you won’t find it in a museum. Irving Hayes, the late owner of E Hayes and Sons hardware store, and an old friend of Munro, purchased the bike and put it on display in his shop. Today the bike is the store’s centrepiece and is accompanied by more than one hundred classic, vintage and modern motorcycles and automobiles. But this is still very much a hardware outlet. Entry is free and the entire collection is displayed throughout the shop, making every corner you turn a treat.
2. Turbo charge your visit to two transport museums
If the thought of a visit to the hardware store has you revved up, the good news is that the motorised fun has only just begun. Invercargill is also home to two very impressive museums that hold extensive collections of motorcycles, automobiles, trucks and more. Spread across three levels, Classic Motorcycle Mecca is a dedicated motorcycle museum and houses a fantastic collection of bikes from all eras. Then there’s Bill Richardson’s Transport World, which has more than 300 vehicles on display. This has to be one of the largest and most impressive private transport collections in all of New Zealand.
Tip: Purchase a Turbo Pass and get discounted entry to both Classic Motorcycle Mecca and Bill Richardson’s Transport World. Both venues have cafés on site, which serve great breakfast and lunch options. You’ll need a good hour or two at each museum. Allow even more time if you’re a motoring enthusiast.
3. Take a walk in Queens Park
Queens Park is a stunning green space spanning 80 hectares in the heart of the city. No visit to Invercargill would be complete without spending some time exploring these remarkable grounds, which include well-manicured plots, rose gardens, a tropical hothouse and several themed gardens. The bird aviaries and animal enclosures are a big attraction for families, as are the wonderland castle and playground. If you want to work off those holiday kilos, there’s a fitness trail with twenty exercise stations. Or go the other way entirely and max out your calorie count with a high tea of cakes and scones at The Cheeky Llama park café (which sounds much more fun).
4. Combine history and culture at He Waka Tuia
Art and history buffs will love a visit to the He Waka Tuia transitional art gallery and museum, which brings together the collections of the Invercargill Public Art Gallery and the Southland Museum and Art Gallery under one roof. There are countless Māori cultural treasures on display, along with the work of well-known New Zealand artists such as Charles F Goldie, Rita Angus, Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere. He Waka Tuia is open Tuesday to Sunday, with shorter hours on weekends.
5. Drive the Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail
East of Invercargill, the Catlins attract outdoor enthusiasts keen to soak up the beauty of the region’s wild coastline, lush forests and plunging waterfalls. To experience everything the Catlins has to offer would take a few days, but the Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail road trip provides a delightful snapshot for time-poor travellers. It begins at Fortrose (just half an hour’s drive from Invercargill) and can be done as a half or full-day activity, depending on how many times you choose to stop along the way.
If you need to grab a coffee, there’s a lovely cafe at Fortrose. From there, head to Fortrose Cliffs for a close-to-the-edge encounter, then on to the Waipapa Point Lighthouse. It’s a short walk from the car park to the lighthouse, and there are several walking tracks leading to and from the beach. Watch out for the wildlife (including sea lions hidden in the long grass!).
Continuing along the Heritage Trail, the next place of interest is Slope Point — the most southerly point on the South Island. From the carpark, it’s a 20-minute walk through farmland to reach the official signpost. Hold on to your hat!
Make your next stop Curio Bay — a popular holiday retreat. Curioscape serves as an information centre, cafe/restaurant and souvenir shop. Here you’ll learn that Curio Bay is home to a petrified forest — a fascinating phenomenon that you may like to see for yourself. You’ll also have the opportunity to spot amazing marine life, including rare yellow-eyed penguins, Hector’s dolphins (the smallest and rarest members of the dolphin family), and New Zealand fur seals.
Two of the last stops on the Heritage Trail are Waikawa and Niagara Falls. There’s a quaint little museum in Waikawa worth calling into (closing time is 5pm). Niagara Falls, which is not far up the road, was named by a surveyor who had quite the sense of humour. The ‘falls’ are more like a set of rapids. From there, it’s an hour’s drive back to Invercargill.
6. Eat oysters in Bluff
Situated just a twenty-five-minute drive from Invercargill, the coastal town of Bluff is best known for its oysters. Visitors come from far and wide to feast on this delicacy during the harvest season, which runs from March through to August. If you’re visiting in season, you can purchase these slippery snacks from Fowlers Wild Bluff Oysters fish and chip restaurant, or the 4 Square supermarket on Gore Street. Alternatively, push the boat out on a more upscale culinary experience at the Oyster Cove Restaurant and Bar at Stirling Point. Those keen to learn more about the history of the industry can do so at the Bluff Maritime Museum. Also check out the Monica — a large oystering boat parked right next to the museum (the cost to go below deck is just $5 for adults). Finally, drop by quirky Oyster Allsorts, which serves as an information centre, souvenir emporium, museum, cinema, art gallery, second-hand store and café.
7. Cage dive with great whites
The waters off Bluff are home to more than just oysters. At the opposite end of the oceanic food chain is the magnificent great white shark. The female, which is the larger of the two genders, can typically grow to more than six metres in length. Shark Experience is based in Bluff and offers great white cage dives from the start of December through to the end of May. Being at the bottom end of the South Island, expect the water to be rather chilly. But that’s nothing a wetsuit and pumping adrenalin can’t fix, as you come face to snout with this incredible apex predator.
8. Spend a day on Stewart Island
Rakiura Stewart Island lies roughly 30 kilometres south of the southern coastline of the South Island. It deserves more than a day visit, but if a day is all you have to spare during your stay in Invercargill, then so be it. Stewart Island is the third largest of New Zealand’s islands (after the North and South Islands) and is 85% national park. It’s accessible by ferry or flight. Ferries depart from Bluff, and the trip across the typically rough Foveaux Strait to the island’s only town of Oban takes an hour each way. The flight time from Invercargill to Oban with Stewart Island Flights is just 15 minutes, and this is obviously a much better option if you’re short on time.
While on the island, you can do various tours with Stewart Island Experience. Two that are worth considering are the Ulva Island Explorer and the Village and Bays Tour. Ulva Island is a pest-free sanctuary that’s home to many rare native wildlife species, including the Stewart Island brown kiwi and the critically endangered New Zealand sea lion. To see either is a treat. The Village and Bays Tour is a bus trip with a local guide, which takes in the highlights of Oban and nearby points of interest.
The other option is just to do your own thing. Hire an electric bike from Stewart Island Electric Bikes and explore the bays and lookouts around Oban. Leave enough time to call into the new Rakiura Museum to learn more about the island and its history.
9. See stars
At certain times of the year, Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) appears in the very south’s night sky. While the phenomenon is visible from the mainland, Stewart Island is a designated Dark Sky Sanctuary — one of only a handful in the world — which makes spending a night on the island essential for dedicated stargazers. The appearance of Aurora Australis is not easy to predict, but the best time of the year to see it is generally between April and September. The skies tend to be clear and there is little or no moonlight. But don’t despair if you miss it or the timing isn’t right, as you can experience a magical night sky all year round. Anywhere along the Southland coast and away from man-made lights will give you a stellar interstellar view.
10. Enjoy a southern brew
There’s nothing like a hearty pub meal to warm the cockles on a cold Southland day, or a cold beer to refresh you in warmer weather for that matter, and Speights Ale House on Dee Street will see you right in both instances. While it’s not brewed in Invercargill (that honour belongs to Dunedin), Speights is a popular southern beer and this is the perfect place to try one of their many brews. Even better, you can purchase a tasting tray and try them all. Open from 11am to late, their extensive all-day menu caters for most dietary requirements. You can’t really go wrong here.
Where to stay in Invercargill
Comfort Inn Tayesta
Comfort Inn Tayesta is a cosy accommodation option that offers comfortable one and two-bedroom suites. The hotel is conveniently located within five minutes’ drive of the airport, city centre and Queens Park.
The mostly ground floor rooms come with unlimited free Wi-Fi, 50+ Pay TV channels, guest-controlled heating, and plenty of off-street parking. Hosts Mike and Jan are friendly faces that will welcome you with a smile and allow you to experience the fantastic hospitality that the south is renowned for.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Invercargill? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Bill Richardson’s Transport World. Image: Alamy. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. At the end of 2015, Karllie left her teaching profession, sold her home and became a nomad for the next few years. It sparked a real passion for budget solo travel, which she now loves to inspire others to do. In the last few years alone, Karllie has visited over twenty countries and ticked off more than 50 cities across three continents. She loves the great outdoors — especially hiking and anything to do with the ocean.