Is Franz Josef worth visiting?

Aug 15, 2023 | Franz Josef Glacier

Is Franz Josef worth visiting? Yes, visiting New Zealand’s famous Franz Josef Glacier and its town of the same name is a must-do when planning any trip to the South Island. The great news is there is plenty to see and do in Franz Josef even before you take the glacier into account. There are lots of fun places to explore, excellent accommodation options and plenty of places to eat! Read on to find out our recommendations and insider tips in this complete guide to Franz Josef.

How To Get To Franz Josef

The town of Franz Josef (and the glacier of the same name) is located roughly halfway down the rugged West Coast of the South Island. Franz Josef is accessible by road, via car or bus and by air via scenic charter flights or a combo of both!

By Car or Train

Car rental is available from all the major centres, including Christchurch, Greymouth, Nelson, Queenstown and Wanaka, which makes the self-drive option easy for those who wish to explore at their own pace. The Tranz Alpine from Christchurch to Greymouth is ranked amongst the best train journeys in the world and booking a rental car to collect in Greymouth is a popular option.

Franz Josef Drive Times By Car

  • Christchurch to Franz Josef 5 hours
  • Nelson to Franz Josef 6 hours
  • Greymouth to Franz Josef 2 hours
  • Wanaka to Franz Josef 4 hours
  • Queenstown to Franz Josef 5 hours

By Bus or Shuttle

The bus route to Franz Josef is part of the nationwide network from carrier ‘Intercity’. You will find bus travel times to Franz Josef are significantly longer than by car, expect to add between 2 – 5 hours onto the commute – but the bonus is you get a good view along the way!

Locally Glacier Shuttles provides a shuttle service around Franz Josef town, to the glacier and to Fox Glacier or Okarito. They can also be chartered for South Island tours, collect you from your flight into Hokitika or train to Greymouth on demand. Booking in advance are essential for these charter options.

By Plane, Helicopter or Charter Flight

If it’s the ultimate viewing experience you’re after, you simply can’t beat flying to the West Coast. Scheduled Air NZ flights are available into nearby Hokitika once or twice a day, but then there is a 1 hour 40 minute drive from there to Franz Josef. A popular option is to source scenic charter flights by helicopter. Charter flights are one of the most efficient ways to travel around the South Island, they allow you to save big on travel times between destinations meaning you get to make the most out of your holiday destinations.

Where To Stay In Franz Josef

Even though Franz Josef is a small town, it has plenty of accommodation options for all budgets and tastes – in fact, you might find a few surprise favourites among the line-up. To help you narrow it down we have put together this handy guide to the best places to stay in Franz Josef.

  • Best Luxury Stay – Rainforest Retreat. One of the few places we’ve seen do budget to 5-star well! Rainforest Retreat covers all bases for accommodation including backpackers and campervans right through to their luxury 5-star units with spa baths on their two-story decks set amongst the treetops. All facilities are set amongst several acres of rainforest with tracks and paths throughout the facility you don’t feel like you are on top of anyone else. Everyone staying has access to all of their great facilities include several spas and a fantastic onsite Monsoon Restaurant and Bar – make sure you try their buffalo cauliflower bites and massive gin collection including the West Coast’s own award winning Little Biddy Gin!
  • Best Bed & Breakfast – Ribbonwood Retreat. Offers both a separate garden cottage and Suite on the top story of the house. They are located a few minutes north of Franz Josef and only one minute from our helicopter hangar. The breakfast is grown in their own garden or locally sourced and Ribbonwood Retreat is a credit to the hosts impressive environmental ethos.
  • Best Air BNB – 6 Kamahi Place. Located in a peaceful side street just 5 minutes’ walk from the town centre this fully furnished house has three bedrooms inside & a self-contained studio outside that can be rented together or separately. Holding up to 12 guests 6 Kamahi Place is perfect for groups or families, pet friendly and always spotlessly clean!
  • Best Boutique – Te Awa Cottages. Just one minute drive from Franz Josef with a gorgeous view of the mountains are these two modern cottages. Both one bedroom with a king bed & fold out couch if needed. Te Awa Cottages has a lovely atmosphere with the owner’s handful of sheep & beef cattle sharing the property.
  • Best Campervan Site – Orange Sheep. Located in central Franz Josef with a rainforest feel they have great facilities at a bargain price. Orange Sheep has free unlimited wifi, hot showers and BBQ sites are all included. Both powered and unpowered sites are available & start from $15 per person.
  • Best Budget – Glow Worm Accommodation. If you’re on a bit of a budget, the Glow Worms Accommodation kiwi backpacker-style accommodation is the perfect option. These guys have basic private ensuite and dorm rooms catering to affordability and convenience. They also have a fire in the common room, WiFi, breakfast, homemade soup, popcorn, a spa pool & BBQ facilities all included!


Where To Eat In Franz Josef

While everyone is focused on finding the best place to stay and the fun to be had in Franz Josef – there is one pressing matter that needs to be taken care of – where to eat! The good news is Franz Josef has a good range of eateries with something for every possible craving – here are our top 4.

  1. Blue Ice Restaurant & Bar.  Our top pick in Franz Josef, the Blue Ice Restaurant provides a modern dining experience complete with bright décor indoors and a great deck with outdoor seating for summer and of course yummy food. They are one of the partners in our winter Helicopters & Hummers package with their courtesy coach being a town icon and hummer limousine! Open from 4 pm year-round and lunch time in peak season. Friday night is pizza night & we highly recommend the Salmon Pesto Pizza! They have a variety of dishes on their menu from Filipino Beef Cheek Caldereta to the more traditional Kiwi Lamb Shanks. Make sure you leave room for the beautiful desserts too! They are also the only bar in Franz Josef with a takeaway licence if you want something more than the beer & wine available at the local Four Square.


  1. The Landing Bar and Restaurant. Perched on the corner of SH6 and Cowan Street you simply can’t miss The Landing. Expect a relaxed dining experience that is open all day with a huge range of food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Staff favourites include the Seafood Chowder, Lamb Salad, Johnny Cash Ribs & Roast Pork Belly. Their popular cocktail hour kicks off at 5.30pm daily with 2 for $25 cocktails!


  1. Snake Bite Brewery. For arguably the best burger in town, Southeast Asian Street food with a kiwi twist and some epic craft beer including Sprig & Fern, head on over to the Snake Bite Breweryon Franz Josef’s Main Road. With much of their food made from scratch, you can expect a fresh, appetising menu with some staff favourites including the Dumpling Soup, KFC Burger, Gua Bao and moreish desserts in the cabinet.


  1. Full Of Beans. Located on the main street this café has great coffee, a full lunch menu and affordable cabinet food. They are also a stockist of the award winning West Coast Pie Co premium wild game pies – well worth splashing out on one!


  1. Alice May located on Cron Street of Franz Josef takes you back in time with its interesting history on the story of Alice May Parkinson who became a subject of socialist and feminist campaigners in the early 1900s. Included on their menu are two kiwi favourites of Venison Bangers and Mash and seasonal Whitebait Patties and they have a line of West Coast Monteith’s Brewery drinks on the menu.


The Franz Josef Glacier

One of the most popular adventure destinations on the West Coast, the Franz Josef Glacier car park is located just a couple of minutes’ drive or an hours scenic walk from the Franz Josef Township. This impressive glacier spans a distance of over 8 km as it makes its way through the western edge of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, terminating just 19km from the sea.

The Franz Josef glacier is popular because it is one of two New Zealand glaciers that are very easily accessible. Although neither the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers can be accessed by foot anymore, they have several beautiful short walks near and are, in fact, both located within 30-minutes drive of each other.

Named after an Austrian Emperor, the Franz Josef Glacier is New Zealand’s fastest-moving glacier with recorded daily movements of up to 4 metres! For local Maori, the glacier is known as Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere – the tears of Hine Hukatere. This relates to a Maori legend where a woman who lost her beloved while climbing in the mountains of Westland cried an immense number of tears, and that is what formed the glacier.

The Franz Josef Glacier may be the main reason why people plan to visit Franz Josef, but it isn’t the only reason why everyone chooses to stay on – read on for some of the fun things to do in Franz Josef!

Top 10 Things To Do In Franz Josef

Franz Josef may be small, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in outdoor adventure activities! Check out our top 7 things to do in Franz Josef below.

1. Join Us On Scenic Flight With Snow Landing

If you want the best views of the glacier, then a scenic flight complete with snow landing is the best way to do it. We don’t think we’re bias but we at Glacier Country Helicopters are the people to see for our popular scenic glacier flights. Starting from 25 minutes the “Glacier Explorer” helicopter flight includes epic aerial views of the Franz Josef Glacier, the surrounding Southern Alps and Mt Elie de Beaumont, an included 10-minute snow landing allows you to disembark and take photos and soak up the views of the Southern Alps in their full glory. If 25 minutes in the air just isn’t enough, our extended scenic flights go up to 60minutes (see the Fox, Tasman & Shackleton Glaciers and Mount Cook), private charters. Check out our Glacier Country Helicopters website for more information.

2. Explore On A Quad Bike. Feel the need for speed? Jump on a 2-seater bike or 3-seater 4WD buggy from Across Country Quad Bikes and make your way through the glacier valley and rainforest of Franz Josef on a 2-hour guided tour. All gear is provided along with operating instructions and safety guidance. Ride by yourself or with a buddy and get stuck into river crossings, rain forest and rocky trails. Their slogan is ‘the wetter the better’ so if you’re here on a rainy day don’t miss this!

3. Visit The West Coast Wildlife Centre. Making the time to visit Franz Josef’s West Coast Wildlife Centre is well worth the effort. The centre is home to the largest kiwi hatchery and prevention organisation and offers visitors an inside look into the nation’s bird and other native species. Don’t miss the VIP Guided Backstage Tour where you can get behind the scenes for a more in-depth look – tours are limited to eight people, so be sure to book ahead!

4. Kayak The Okarito Lagoon. Okarito Lagoon is the largest unmodified coastal wetland in New Zealand and the abundant bird life, sunsets and stars that call it home are incredible. The lagoon has beautiful safe kayaking, you can take a guided tour or hire freedom kayaks to head out on your own from Okarito Kayaks. Also the home of Okarito Sandfly Repellent and the annual GorseBusters.

5. Enjoy A Scenic Cruise On Lake Mapourika. Prefer to travel in comfort with a little less effort? Then check out a scenic cruise on Lake Mapourika. These peaceful tours take around 2 hours and come complete with a knowledgeable tour guide, a warm cup of tea or coffee and the opportunity to learn about the region’s wildlife and history. Expect to see a range of native birdlife nestled amongst forest surrounds with the majestic Southern Alps providing the picture-perfect backdrop. During trout and salmon season their fishing tour is fantastic option too!

6. Go See The Glow Worms On The Night On The Terrace Walk

At just 1.8 km in length for the round trip, this brief nature walk is ideal for the kids, and if you walk it at night you might just get to see the glow-worms! This easy walk is a lovely introduction to the beautiful West Coast native forest and a great filler if you have time to kill. You will find the forest-clad Terrace Walk at the southern end of the township just past the ‘Our Lady of the Alps’ church, make sure you take a warm jacket and don’t forget your torch if you’re going at night!

7. Walk The Glacier Valley With A Guided Tour

Walking up the Franz Josef Glacier valley is very limited due to river damage now but there are several other good tracks nearby. Taking a guided tour with Glacier Valley Eco Tours is a great way to get the most out of the valleys different walks while getting to explore a little further into the wilderness. As you enjoy the beautiful scenery, learn all about how this stunning valley was formed, the associated Maori legends and a little about the local flora and fauna.

8. Hike on the Franz Josef Glacier

If you want to stand on the Franz Josef Glacier and get amongst its blue ice caves and crevasses, you’ll need to book a heli-hike. Unfortunately, there is no longer a way to access the glaciers on foot or to fly onto the glacier for 10minutes for photos on the glacial ice. This is a half day experience which includes a 2-3-minute helicopter flight then 2 and half hours of hiking on the ice. The only company in Franz Josef who does heli-hikes is Franz Josef Glacier Guides and a moderate level of fitness is required.

9. Carve your own pounamu (Greenstone)

Te Koha Aotearoa is a family-run workshop where they will guide you through the process of carving a special piece of jewellery from pounamu, much of which has been sourced from local West Coast riverbeds. Allow approx. 2 hours for this authentic experience which runs in all weather!

10. Soak in the Waiho Hot Tubs

Rather than share a hot pool you can book a private wood fired hot tub amongst the rainforest at the Waiho Hot Tubs. Handily located in central Franz Josef, you can book instantly online, and the tubs are drained and refilled with fresh glacial water between each booking. These are fantastic on a rainy day and suitable for all ages, but after 6pm is adults only.


Looking for scenic flights and glacier landings in Franz Josef or need more information? The team at Glacier Country Helicopters is happy to help!Book online or give us a call today to arrange your next Franz Josef adventure.