South Island best of: Culture

Waka on Avon

The Arts Centre, Christchurch. Image: Nancy Zhou

Larnach Castle. Image: Camilla Rutherford


Fiksate Studio & Gallery

South Island best of: Culture

Te Waipounamu’s thriving arts communities, Māori cultural experiences and colonial architecture form a rich tapestry. Dip your toe in some local heritage wherever you are, or dive into a cultural road trip and explore all the parts that make Aotearoa truly unique.


Christchurch, Dunedin and Oamaru each have their own distinct, beautiful ,and historically significant architecture. Oamaru’s Victorian precinct is the most complete streetscape of Victorian heritage buildings in the country, many of them made from the distinctive Oamaru stone. Dunedin is known as the Edinburg of the South, with Edwardian, Victorian and gothic architecture combining to make it one of the most significant architectural cities in the Southern Hemisphere. Christchurch’s historic buildings tell the story of early European settlers, and a newer story of survival and recovery since massive earthquakes rocked the city in 2010 and 2011.

Historic homes

Dunedin’s Larnach Castle and Olveston Historic Home have both been beautifully and sympathetically restored and are open to the public for a fee. Put on your best lordly gait to walk the halls of New Zealand’s only castle, or tour Olveston House and picture the life of the Theomin family who lived in it from 1906 to 1966. In Kaikōura, you can visit the picturesque pink Fyffe House, the oldest surviving building in the area, once part of a pioneer whaling station.

Māori heritage

All pounamu – New Zealand jade or greenstone – comes from the South Island, hence the island’s te reo Māori name Te Waipounamu which means ‘the waters of greenstone’. The West Coast is the richest source of pounamu, a taonga or sacred treasure in Māori culture. There are several places on the West Coast to see a master carver at work creating beautiful pounamu, and you can even take workshops to carve one yourself. Those looking for a cultural experience in Christchurch can float down the Ōtākaro Avon River on a traditional waka (canoe) with Waka on Avon, or visit Ko Tāne for performance, history and kai (food) all wrapped in one visit.

Pioneering past

Delve into the history of New Zealand’s pioneering era on the West Coast, starting with Shantytown in Greymouth, a replica village that gives visitors an in-depth glimpse into life as an early European pioneer. You can also pan for gold and try to strike it lucky at Goldfields Mining Centre in Otago, a historic reserve where gold was mined for over 100 years.

Street art

Christchurch underwent an incredible street art renaissance after the earthquakes, and the movement is still flourishing, putting Ōtautahi on the map as one of the world’s great street art destinations. Take a walking tour to discover some of the most significant works and learn the stories behind them, or just see how many you can spot while you’re out and about in the central city. Dunedin is also billed as a street art centre, featuring modern works by local talent and world-famous artists hidden in between historic buildings.


You’ll find truly world-class museum collections up and down the South Island, in the main cities and also in smaller towns. Canterbury Museum houses internationally significant displays on Antarctica, natural history and Māori and European settlement, and Otago Museum’s Tūhura Science Centre and Perpetual Guardian Planetarium will delight the kids. The South Canterbury Museum in Timaru has a great collection of Edwardian fashion and a replica of Richard Pearse’s first aircraft. And if it’s aircraft you’re interested in, the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre in Southland has the largest collection of de Havilland aircraft in the Southern Hemisphere.

Art galleries

Modern art, historical paintings and contemporary studios featuring droves of talent are all on display in the South Island’s art galleries. Christchurch is home to several, including the Christchurch Art Gallery, the Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCa), The Central, and Fiksate Studio & Gallery. Timaru’s Aigantighe Art Gallery is the third-largest in New Zealand, with a formidable collection of national and international art, and Nelson is known for its humming art scene, with The Suter Art Gallery and many local artist studios making this an essential stop on any art trail.

Pro theatre

Christchurch is home to New Zealand’s biggest producing theatre, The Court Theatre. All productions are created in-house start to finish, featuring internationally acclaimed actors alongside local rising talent. Pro theatre lovers should also check out Little Andromeda and Lyttelton Arts Factory in Christchurch, and Fortune Theatre in Dunedin. Not to mention the plethora of excellent community theatres all around the South Island!

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