Middle Earth. That’s what many people compare New Zealand to and the breathtaking scenery of the South Island is a huge reason for that. Oh and those films of course…
Planning an itinerary for the South Island from of New Zealand can leave you feeling overwhelmed and stressed because there are so many amazing and beautiful sights to see and things to do. You might be planning a 7 day South Island itinerary, or maybe you have enough time for anywhere up to a 4-week trip. Either way, it’s overwhelming! I know because when I was planning on going home to New Zealand for our honeymoon I felt that way, and I’ve lived in the country most of my life! I spent hours pouring over South Island road trip routes and things to do that I really wanted to compile them all in one place to share with you, and make your trip planning easier!
It is so incredibly hard to choose just one South Island itinerary route, so first I’ll go through all the best places to visit in the South Island with tips on how long to stay, where to stay, and what to do, and then some different itinerary ideas! That way you can make up your mind for yourself which places interest you the most and then schedule in what fits with your timeframe.
Ideally, you should have at least 2 weeks for the South Island (or even 3-4!) but I know many people split their time in New Zealand between the North and South Islands, and have limited holiday time. Luckily, you can still see a lot in the South Island in one week!
Below I’ve outlined all the best places to visit in the South Island from north to south before giving the itinerary ideas at the end. All driving times are estimates and you should always drive to the weather conditions. Use the table to contents to see whatever you like!
Table of Contents
- 1 Marlborough
- 2 Nelson
- 3 Abel Tasman National Park
- 4 Kaikoura
- 5 Hanmer Springs
- 6 West Coast
- 7 Lewis Pass
- 8 Arthur’s Pass
- 9 Christchurch
- 10 Aoraki/Mount Cook & Surrounds
- 11 Wanaka
- 12 Queenstown
- 13 Fiordland
- 14 Dunedin & Surrounds
- 15 Southland
- 16 South Island Itinerary Ideas
- 17 How to get around the South Island
- 18 Tips for driving in New Zealand
Marlborough encompasses a large area of the northeast of the South Island of New Zealand. It’s best known as the largest wine growing area in the country and many of the wine you’ll see abroad from New Zealand, especially sauvignon blanc, is from this region.
If you catch the ferry over from the North Island then Marlborough is where you’ll start your South Island road trip journey. Many people drive on through to destinations further south but if you’re staying for longer consider at least a day in the area to appreciate it and longer if you plan to do the Queen Charlotte Track.
Things to do in Marlborough
When you see New Zealand wine overseas it’s often from Marlborough, particularly if it’s a Sauvignon Blanc that put New Zealand on the world wine stage. As the largest wine-growing region, there plenty of wineries with cellar doors and restaurants to visit. You can explore the wineries on your own, or join a tour that means you don’t need to designate a driver!
Queen Charlotte Track
The Queen Charlotte Track in Marlborough is usually a quieter option than the Abel Tasman if a little steeper in parts. The coast is less beach than Abel Tasman and there’s more varied accommodation along the track. Unlike the Abel Tasman Track, Queen Charlotte also allows mountain bikers. Some people choose to walk small sections of each!
Where to stay in Marlborough
I used Booking.com to book the majority of our accommodation throughout New Zealand, and I would always recommend checking them for the best deals and to compare locations. Always check the cancellation policy, but many also offer free cancellation 24 hours before!
Marlborough covers quite a big area so there are lots of accommodation options. You can get away from it all in a remote cottage or lodge in a scenic location, consider staying amongst the vines, or on the shore of the Marlborough Sounds. Check options on Booking.com!
Drive time from Picton: 1 hour 45 minutes
Nelson is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand and the second-oldest settled city. It’s often used as a base to explore other places in the area like Abel Tasman and Malborough, but it has its own beautiful beach, a slice of New Zealand history, and craft breweries and wineries.
Closely located to Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson is often seen as a stopover on a longer journey or as a base to explore nearby. Add it to your itinerary if you’re driving over to the West Coast or want to spend more time at some beautiful south island beaches.
Things to do in Nelson
- Visit the huge Tahunanui Beach and sim, paddle board, or kayak
- Stand on the centre of New Zealand
- Wander through the Founders Heritage Park, a living example of a pioneer village
- Sample some beer in the self-proclaimed craft brewing capital of New Zealand, and wine in nearby Richmond
Where to stay in Nelson
Nelson is a small city, and staying near the beach means you’ll be able to take advantage of it and the local amenities. Holiday apartments are popular if you’re planning a longer stay, although I would recommend branching out to stay closer to Abel Tasman or Golden Bay as well. Check Booking.com for Nelson accommodation that suits your budget.
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park may be the smallest national park in New Zealand, but it’s certainly big on beautiful beaches and scenery. It’s well-known and popular with hikers looking to do the Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. However, its also possible to kayak alongside the track, or take a boat in and out of the isolated coves for a day.
Things to do in Abel Tasman National Park and nearby
- Hiking (Tramping)
- Visit nearby Kahurangi National Park
- Visit Golden Bay & Farewell Spit
- Diving at Tonga Island Marine Reserve
Where to stay in Abel Tasman National Park
At just over one hour from Nelson, many people choose to visit Abel Tasman on a day trip, however, it’s definitely worth spending longer in the region if you want to relax and enjoy the coast and beautiful beaches, or go hiking.
If you walk the Abel Tasman Coast Track, kayak alongside, or take a boat in then you can stay in one of the many campsites or huts along the way. Be warned though that these book out in advance, especially during the peak summer season so you’ll need to plan in advance! Check the Department of Conservation website for more information.
If you don’t want to stay in the park itself then there is plenty of accommodation just outside in places like Kaiteriteri or Marahau, but you’ll also need to plan aside during summer as its a popular destination with locals and tourists. There are campgrounds, holiday apartments, and beautiful hotels and resorts. Also, consider the northern side of the park if you want to be able to access Golden Bay and Farewell Spit as well!
Drive time from Picton: 2.5 hours
Kaikoura is a small town located on the east coast of the South Island, known for its proximity to amazing wildlife. Travellers often stay in Kaikoura when heading south off the ferry from the North Island, and take the opportunity to connect with nature and see as many different kinds of wildlife as possible.
Things to do in Kaikoura
- Whale Watching Tours
- Take the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway to see Fur Seals
- Swim with dolphins in the wild
- Take a Seabird Tour, or watch out for them while you’re on another boat trip
Where to stay in Kaikoura
The population of Kaikoura is only just over 2000 people, but owing to its inclusion on many South Island itineraries there is a range of accommodation on offer. Try campgrounds, hostels, B&Bs, and farm stays, motels and apartments, or even luxury lodges like The Factory, Manakau Lodge, and Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses.
Drive time from Kaikoura: 2 hours
Drive time from Christchurch: 1 hour 45 minutes
Hanmer Springs is an alpine resort town, like Banff in Canada but on a much smaller scale. Surrounded by mountains and home to natural springs that fuel the Hammer Springs Thermal Pools, it’s a favourite weekend escape for many South Islanders. Hanmer is a relaxing addition to your South Island itinerary, and somewhere to visit if you want to experience the hot springs in a mountain resort town.
Things to do in Hanmer Springs
- Walk up Conical Hill for one hour to see the views
- Take the Weka Pass Railway historical journey on a steam and diesel-electric engine train
- Mountain bike or walk through Hanmer Forest Park
- Relax at the Thermal Pools
Where to stay in Hanmer Springs
As a resort town, Hanmer has fantastic heritage and historical accommodation, as well as the usual backpackers, motels, apartments, and spa hotels.
Driving time varies as it’s a large area that can be reached via the north from Nelson or the east coast over Lewis or Arthurs Pass.
The West Coast of New Zealand is one of the most remote parts of the country, and least populated. It’s a beautifully rugged place where you can experience at least a little of what it would have been like for early settlers coming to New Zealand, plus take advantage of the gorgeous scenery and epic adventures you can have there. Greymouth is the largest city with around 13,500 people, but it’s really about getting out and seeing the wild West Coast!
What part of the West Coast you add to your South Island itinerary will depend on where you’re coming from and going to. If you’ve travelled to Abel Tasman and Golden Bay then you may end up driving the whole length of the coast from the north, passing through or stopping at all the places below. However, many people cross from the east coast to the west through Lewis or Arthurs Pass (more on those below) and end up turning left and heading south towards the bottom half of the West Coast and the Glaciers.
Things to do in the West Coast
Karamea limestone arches
There are a number of arches and natural wonders at Oparara Basin just north of Karamea. There is a size restriction on vehicles on the gravel road (large motorhomes and buses will not fit) but once you reach the carpark the caves are an easy walk.
If you’re driving down from the top of the South Island then you’ll pass through Westport which is about 3 hours from Nelson. It is predominantly a mining town, but also one of the best surf spots in the South Island. There are also mountain biking trails and plenty of walkways to explore.
Another mining town and underrated destination along the northern part of the West Coast! In Greymouth you can learn more about the New Zealand mining industry at the Brunner Mine Site, visit Lake Brunner, or visit the home of Monteiths Beer, amongst other adventure activities like surfing, cycling, and quad biking.
I also loved visiting Shantytown just 10km south of Greymouth, a town created to resemble the gold mining towns of the 19th century. You can even pan for your own gold!
Punakaiki is a tiny community that gets very busy in the summer, thanks to the nearby Pancake Rocks, which are given their name due to looking like giant stacks of pancakes. These natural wonders can be seen in a 20-minute loop walk from the main highway.
Many people stop only to see the rocks and blowhole but consider helping out the local community by making it your stop for the night too.
Hokitika is often just a pit-stop for weary travellers looking for somewhere to rest after driving down the West Coast or over one of the passes from the east coast, however, there are plenty of things to do there too!
Visit the stunning Hokitika Gorge with its mile blue waters, watch a gorgeous sunset on the beach, or learn to carve your own pounamu (New Zealand jade).
Frank Josef & Fox Glacier
These small townships are the draw for many people adding the West Coast to their South Island itinerary. The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers that give them their namesake are two of the most accessible glaciers in the world. What makes them so amazing is the fact they come down from high in the mountains into the rainforest and end so close to the coast. Sadly, like many glaciers around the world, these two are shrinking. You can walk to viewpoints to see the glaciers, and these are constantly being moved closer as the glaciers recede further.
The best way to see the glaciers is the take do a Heli Hike Tour from one of the small townships by each, which go by the same names. You’ll be flown up onto the glacier in a helicopter and taken on a hike over and through crevasses and maybe even through an ice cave before being flown back down again. We did the Franz Josef Heli Hike Tour and it is seriously one of the BEST things I’ve ever done! You also get to relax back in the town in the lovely Franz Josef hot pools after your epic adventure.
Curly Tree Whitebait Company
Just 10 minutes north of Haast you’ll find the Curly Tree Whitebait Company, and it’s well worth the stop! The family-owned and operated company source whitebait (small juvenile fish around 4-5cm long) from some of the best spots on the West Coast, and make delicious whitebait fritters in a small stall next to the river. Whitebait fritters are a must try food when you’re in New Zealand and why not try them from one of the best!
Haast Pass in a mountain pass over the Southern Alps that allows you to travel from the West Coast to Wanaka. It began as a rough track and wasn’t actually fully sealed until 1995! Give yourself plenty of time to drive the pass, due to the winding road and the opportunities to stop and take in the beautiful scenery. You’ll also need to check the weather in the colder months as sometimes the pass can be closed in heavy rain or snowfall, or when rock falls occur.
You’ll spot lots of signs for walking tracks along the way, including Faintail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls, and Roaring Billy. However the most popular is the Blue Pools walk. The walk is fairly flat and takes around an hour return. Many people stop at the pools to swim or have a picnic. Note there are no bathroom facilities, the nearest being a 25-minute walk at Cameron Flat Campsite or a 5-minute drive further down the road.
Where to stay on the West Coast
Although this area of New Zealand is considered to be some of the most rugged and remote, there are also lots of things to draw tourists and locals to the area. This means you can find all sorts of different accommodation along the coast, depending on where you choose to break your journey. We travelled over from the east coast via Arthur’s Pass and stayed in Hokitika and Franz Josef before travelling through Haast Pass.
Check out accommodation options in Westport, Greymouth, Hokitika, Franz Josef, Fox Glacier, and Haast.
Lewis Pass is the northernmost of the three passes over the Southern Alps (Lewis, Arthur’s, and Haast). Usually, travellers choose to go through either Arthur’s Pass or Lewis Pass when travelling between Canterbury and the West Coast. If you are adding Hanmer Springs to your South Island itinerary then it makes more sense to cross over via Lewis Pass, as Arthur’s Pass would mean backtracking.
Lewis Pass is slightly lower than Arthur’s Pass and therefore the scenery is a little less dramatic, but in the summer, in particular, the Beech forest is beautiful!
Arthur’s Pass is the highest of the mountain passes in the South Island, reaching more than 900 metres. It has the most dramatic alpine scenery and is considered to be one of the best drives in New Zealand. You can stop for a break at Arthur’s Pass village and take Devils Punchbowl walk to see a stunning waterfall.
Keep an eye out for Kea’s, the only alpine parrot in the world. If you stop anywhere in Arthur’s Pass you might see them hanging around. Beware they ’re cheeky and very curious, and won’t hesitate to come close to investigate your car and belongings. Please DO NOT feed them.
On the way to or from Arthur’s Pass, I’d highly recommend a stop at the pie shop in Sheffield. New Zealand meat pies are delicious and these ones, in particular, were SO good!
It’s also possible to travel through Arthur’s Pass on the TranzAlpine Train between Christchurch and Greymouth. Many people choose to get off the train at Arthur’s Pass village and explore for 5 hours before catching the return train to Christchurch.
Drive time from Picton: 5 hours
Drive time from Kaikoura: 2 hours 35 minutes
Christchurch is the biggest city in the South Island and often an entry or exit point for travellers. The city is known for it’s similarity to England, with a comparable climate to the south, punting on the Avon River, lots of green parks and gardens and many heritage buildings including the Christchurch Cathedral making it feel reminiscent of the motherland”. Sadly, after devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, many of Christchurch’s historic buildings were destroyed and the heart of the city was closed.
Although you will still see signs of the earthquakes around the city, as there are empty lots and the ruins of the cathedral still there, there has also been a lot of rejuvenation.
Things to do in Christchurch
- Visit Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens. Christchurch isn’t called the Garden City for no reason!
- Visit Quake City to learn more about the recent earthquakes and what has happened to the city since
- Go to the beaches of Christchurch, including New Brighton with its long pier
- Walk around the Port Hills
- See the new cardboard Christchurch Cathedral and the nearby empty white chair memorial to the 185 people who lost their lives in the earthquakes
- Browse the markets that are found across the city all year round
- Try some delicious food at the Little High Eatery, a unique food hall with 8 different businesses and bars to choose from
- Shop at the Re:START mall made out of shipping containers
- Ride the Christchurch Tramway between attractions
Where to stay in Christchurch
Like any city, Christchurch has a lot of accommodation options and caters for every budget. Staying in the city centre means you will be close to most of the major attractions. We stayed at the new Southwark Apartments and found they suited us for our short stay and we could walk everywhere we wanted to go.
Aoraki/Mount Cook & Surrounds
Drive time from Christchurch: 4 hours
Aoraki/Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, and the surrounding Mount Cook National Park is well worth a stop on your South Island itinerary. Driving towards Mount Cook Village alongside Lake Punakaki is one of my favourite drives in the South Island.
Things to do in Mount Cook & Surrounds
There are a lot of things to do in Mount Cook including hiking, star gazing in the Dark Sky Reserve, and visiting the Tasman Valley and Glacier. Nearby Lake Tekapo is the home of the small but beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd and some hot springs. Other central Otago towns like Twizel and Cromwell can be used as bases for watersports in the summer and skiing in winter.
Read more: Best Things to Do in Mount Cook
Drive time from Mount Cook: 2 hours 30 minutes
Drive time from Franz Josef: 3 hours 40 minutes
Drive time from Queenstown: 1 hour
Wanaka is a resort town on the southern bank of Lake Wanaka. It’s a popular alternative to Queenstown, given its close proximity, and has grown hugely in popularity in recent years. With nearby ski areas and access to lots of adventure activities, it’s somewhere you must stop on your road trip through the South Island!
Things to do in Wanaka
There are lots of walking tracks around Wanaka, from just a few hours to whole days or even more. The most popular and a regular feature on Instagram is the Mt Roy hike. It is actually quite long however and can get very busy, so consider some of the other beautiful walks around Wanaka. Try Mt Iron for a shorter walk with beautiful views.
Wanaka is a great place to try mountain biking, with lots of tracks available. Our Airbnb hosts were kind enough to let us borrow all their bikes and gear and we headed along the river from Albert Town towards Wanaka itself.
Like its neighbour Queenstown, Wanaka is one of the best places to try adventure activities in the South Island. Skydiving, Canyoning, Paragliding, jet-boating, kayaking,
Yes, there is a tree in Lake Wanaka that continues to grow and change with the seasons, and it has its own Instagram hashtag. It’s likely you’ll want to head down and take your own picture, but don’t expect to do so on your own! If I had turned the camera around you would have spotted the crowd gathered as the sun went down.
Within 45 minutes of Wanaka you can be at four different ski fields, Treble Cone, Cardrona, Snowfarm and Soho Basin, making this a great place to stop for snow lovers!
Wanaka Lavender Farm
I LOVED the Wanaka Lavender Farm. Established around six years ago as a family business, the Lavender Farm is best visited in summer when the lavender will be in full bright purple bloom against the backdrop of the mountains around Wanaka.
Read more: How to Visit the Wanaka Lavender Farm
Puzzling World is a favourite attraction for families in Wanaka, and it kept my husband and I plenty entertained too with a giant outdoor maze and lots of illusion rooms.
One of New Zealand’s most iconic hotels, Cardrona Hotel has been around since the gold rush era in 1863. Cardrona was a hub for gold diggers and actually had 4 hotels, but this is the only one left. Stop by on your drive between Queenstown and Wanaka to see what a real New Zealand historic pub looks like and have a refreshment!
Where to stay in Wanaka
As a popular holiday destination for Kiwis and international travellers alike, Wanaka has plenty of accommodation options. Check out backpackers, motels, hotels, and apartments!
We stayed in nearby Albert Town which had cheaper options but we needed to drive about 5 minutes into town.
Drive time from Wanaka: 1 hour
Drive time from Dunedin: 3 hours 40 minutes
Drive time from Franz Josef: 4 hours 40 minutes
Drive time from Mount Cook: 3 hours 15 minutes
Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, with TONS of awesome adrenalin activities to do in the area, as well as the vineyards to explore and day trips to scenic towns.
Things to do in Queenstown
- Bungy Jumping & Swing: Try the original jump at Kawarau Bridge, or something more extreme in Nevis Canyon.
- Skydiving: Lots of companies will take your skydiving around Queenstown
- Luging: similar to luging in Rotorua where you head up a mountain in a Gondola and can luge on tracks around the top.
- Shotover Jet: The Shotover Jet speeds along the Shotover River, narrowly avoiding rocks and cliff faces in extremely shallow water.
- Skiing & Snowboarding: Nearby Coronet Peak and the Remarkables
- Whitewater rafting: Travel on a precarious road into Skippers Canyon and then journey back down the river through high-grade rapids and a 170-metre long dark tunnel.
Try a Fergburger
You’ll likely notice the queue before you see the actual shopfront of Fergburger, the most popular burger joint in town. In summer it can be particularly long! Call ahead with an order to avoid waiting, and then head down to eat it on the Queenstown waterfront.
Explore the wineries
There are over 200 vineyards within 40 minutes drive of Queenstown! Many of them have a cellar door where you can try the wines, and also restaurants attached as well. We visited Amisfield where we had the “Trust the Chef” menu, a multi-course option where you have what the chef has decided to cook that day based on available ingredients. You can also have the wine pairing with it. It was a unique dining experience in a beautiful setting and great fun!
Visit towns nearby
Arrowtown and Glenorchy are two small towns near Queenstown that I would recommend you add into your itinerary. If you’re driving to/from Wanaka then stop by Arrowtown, a historic mining town. The streets will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, and you can even hire a gold pan and try it for yourself! Unfortunately, we had no luck. In autumn the town is at it’s most beautiful, with the abundance of trees in the centre changing into autumn colours.
The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is so picturesque that it’s worth doing even if you have no reason to visit the town itself! There isn’t actually a lot there, but it was nice to wander around the lakefront and grab something to eat at the Glenorchy Cafe. If you have more time you can try horse riding or take a tour into Lord of the Rings country.
Where to stay in Queenstown
We had an unfortunate first night in Queenstown where our accommodation definitely did not live up to expectations, however, we then moved to the Oaks Shores apartments. Accommodation in Queenstown can be very expensive and you need to consider whether you want to have cooking facilities or not as well.
For us, the stunning view of Lake Wakatipu against the backdrop of the Remarkables and having our own kitchen to cook in was so worth it and really made our stay and honeymoon feel special. Check hotels and apartments here.
I truly fell in love with Fiordland on our honeymoon in New Zealand. I think our time there was my favourite of our whole South Island itinerary! For a sparsely populated area, there’s plenty of things to do and see.
Things to do in Fiordland
Drive time from Queenstown: 2 hours 10 minutes
Drive time from Invercargill: 2 hours 30 minutes
Te Anau is often seen as the gateway into Milford Sound and the Fiordland National Park. Many people stay there and drive into Milford Sound and back in one day, given accommodation there is sparse. There’s a lot to see and do on the drive so if you don’t plan on staying in Milford then Te Anau is your next closest option!
The town itself is small but there are a few other things to do there too. Visit the bird sanctuary to see rare New Zealand birds like the takahe, or take a boat to the Glowworms Caves. Te Anau is also the start of the Kepler and Milford Great Walks, multi-day hikes that you’ll need to plan for in advance.
Drive time from Queenstown: 2 hours 5 minutes
Drive time from Invercargill: 2 hours 5 minutes
Manapouri is smaller than Te Anau and located just 20 minutes further south. The lake is the second deepest in New Zealand and is the home of a large hydropower station. It’s possible to arrange tours if you like. Manapouri is also the gateway to Doubtful Sound. We stayed for several days, relaxing and enjoying the picturesque surroundings as well as taking trips to nearby places in Doubtful Sound and to the southern coast of New Zealand.
Many people skip right on by Doubtful Sound in favour of visiting Milford Sound. While I do think Milford Sound is well worth the visit for the epic drive there and the stunning scenery, Doubtful Sound is just the same! Except you travel by boat across Lake Manapouri before driving in a bus over a gravel mountain road to get down to Doubtful Sound.
The sides of Doubtful Sounds aren’t as steeply dramatic as Milford Sound but they are covered in beautiful rainforest right down to the fiord itself. We opted to go kayaking in Doubtful Sound and it was the perfect choice, and not just because we saw dolphins! It is possible to stay overnight on a boat or kayak trip in Doubtful Sound but we, unfortunately, didn’t have time, so just went for one day.
Drive time from Te Anau: 2 hours
Drive time from Manapouri: 2 hours 10 minutes
Drive time from Queenstown: 4 hours
Milford Sound was a huge highlight for me in our South Island itinerary. Standing on the banks of the fiord watching the sunset behind Mitre Peak was stunning. Except for all the sandflies of course!!! Be sure to bring lots of insect repellent with you when visiting Fiordland, and in particular to Milford Sound.
The drive to Milford can be broken up with lots of stops at places like Mirror Lakes or even with a hike up Key Summit. You also need to drive through Homer Tunnel, which passes through the Southern Alps to allow you to reach the west coast. The whole drive is extremely scenic with the mountains only getting higher and higher as you get closer to Milford Sound!
At Milford Sound itself, most people choose to take a boat trip, as did we. Since we had been kayaking in Doubtful Sound we opted to take a boat trip to be able to see more of Milford Sound than we would have on kayaks, and I think it is the better option. We went all the way out to the ocean and were able to go close to waterfalls pouring down from towering cliffs, thanks to the depth of the fiord.If you’re looking for where to stay in Milford Sound then there’s only one option. The Milford Sound Lodge has a combination of campervan parks, backpacker-style rooms, and luxury chalet rooms. We stayed in the Mountain View Chalets which were beautiful and had a gorgeous view. Staying overnight in Milford Sound meant we had more time to explore when there weren’t a lot of other people around and we didn’t have to worry about the stress of driving in and out and seeing everything we wanted to within one day.
Dunedin & Surrounds
Drive time from Christchurch: 4 hours 45 minutes
Drive time from Queenstown: 3 hours 30 minutes
Drive time from Invercargill: 2 hours 45 minutes
Dunedin is a city on the southeast coast, known for its university and strong Scottish background. Many of the names of the streets and areas in the city are the same as in Edinburgh!
Things to do in Dunedin & Surrounds
In Dunedin itself, you can visit the Otago Museum and the Otago Settler’s Museum, as well as the steepest street in the world! Baldwin Street is the steepest residential street in the world and a great place to take a photo where it looks like the houses are sinking! Dunedin also has tons of great street art to see as you wander around.
The coastline around Dunedin is also beautiful. Try Tunnel Beach, and keep an eye out for all the wildlife on the Otago Peninsula, like penguins and seals.
Otago Rail Trail
The Otago Rail Trail is actually between Queenstown and Dunedin. It’s the most popular cycling track in New Zealand and follows where the old rail line was originally built to transport goods to and from the gold fields. You can hire bikes and cycle along the trail as part of a tour or self-guided. It takes around 4 days on average but depends on you of course! You can stay in B7Bs and other accommodation in the towns along the route.
Drive time from Dunedin: 1 hour 30 minutes
Drive time from Invercargill: 2 hours
Adding the Catlins to your South Island itinerary takes you off the beaten path a bit, as it’s not a hugely touristy area but is a great stop if you’re driving south of Dunedin towards Bluff.
The Catlins actually straddles the border between Otago and Southland. It’s an art of dramatic scenery with a rugged coastline and remote rainforest. Most of the awesome things to do there relate to the landscape and include visiting Nugget Point for the views, walking to waterfalls like Purakaunui Falls, McLean Falls and Matai Falls, exploring the Cathedral Caves, and much more!
Where to stay in Dunedin
Consider staying Downtown to be closest to all the attractions, otherwise there is also accommodation at St Clair beach, or further out at Portobello and on the Otago Peninsula but you will want a car for these and will need to travel into the city for the main things to see and do.
Bluff is the southern-most point of the South Island. It’s known for the delicious oysters that come from there and as the Gateway to Stewart Island, the third biggest and most southern island in New Zealand.
Things to do in Southland
Just like at the top of the North Island in Cape Reinga, there’s an international signpost in Bluff that you just have to take a photo with to prove you were there! While you’re in Bluff, do try the Bluff Oysters that are grown in Foveaux Strait as they’re some of the best in the world.
Just 20 minutes north of Bluff is the southern-most city in New Zealand, Invercargill. Like Dunedin, it has a strong Scottish heritage and the accent of people in the region even comes with a slight burr or rolling of the ‘R’. Explore the heritage trail round the city and stop to eat some deliciously fresh seafood.
Southern Scenic Route
While we were staying in Manapouri in Fiordland we spent a day travelling south along the Southern Scenic Route. It actually winds all the way from Queenstown down to the southern coast and back around to Dunedin.
Travelling through old forestry towns and down to McCracken’s Rest was a unique experience as we saw far fewer cars on the road than elsewhere around the South Island. Along the way, we stopped at the Clifton Swing Bridge and Tuatapere, the self-proclaimed “Sausage Capital of the World”, but I’d love to go back and see much more!
One of the main reasons people travel this far south in New Zealand is to journey over to Stewart Island. Only 400 people live on New Zealand’s third largest island, and 80% of it is a national park. Native forest, wetlands and untouched beaches provide ample opportunities for viewing wildlife like penguins and the elusive Kiwi bird. At night, the lack of light pollution means fantastic stargazing and a chance of seeing the Southern Lights.
Where to stay in Southland
Where you decide to stay in Southland will depend on which area you want to explore and how much time you have. It’s actually pretty big! Check out accommodation in Invercargill, the Catlins, and other Southland destinations.
South Island Itinerary Ideas
Ideally, you would have at least 3-4 weeks to plan an itinerary for the South Island, but I know this is far longer than many people have. So here are some ideas for one and two week itineraries, with extra additions if you do have longer (which you should try to!).
South Island one week itinerary
Christchurch Loop one week:
Christchurch – Mount Cook – Queenstown – Christchurch
This would assume you want to spend quite a bit of time in the Queenstown/Wanaka area doing lots of activities there, including a possible day trip to Milford Sound.
Christchurch – Hokitika (via Arthurs Pass or Lewis Pass) – Franz Josef/Fox Glacier – Wanaka – Queenstown – Mount Cook – Christchurch
This would assume you would be spending limited time in each place, but still just enough to do things like visit the glaciers and do activities around Queenstown/Wanaka. It could easily be extended to 10 days or two weeks.
North to South one week:
It’s hard to do a north to south itinerary since it depends if you want to end up in a centre like Christchurch or Queenstown to fly out, or you want to go back up to Blenheim and take the ferry north again! I’ve tried to give a few options to compensate.
Blenheim – Christchurch – Mount Cook – Queenstown/Wanaka – Christchurch
This should allow you plenty of time to do activities around Mount Cook and Queenstown/Wanaka, including a possible day trip to Milford Sound, and end up in Christchurch to fly out or return to Blenheim if you’re taking the ferry back up north.
Blenheim – Nelson (Abel Tasman) – Hokitika – Franz Josef/Fox Glacier – Queenstown – Mount Cook – Christchurch
This is a very long itinerary for just a week and means you only have around a day in each place, but it gives you the highlights! You could easily stretch this into 10 days to 2 weeks and I would actually recommend that.
Blenheim – Westport – Franz Josef/Fox Glacier – Queenstown/Wanaka – Christchurch
This is similar but possibly gives you a little more time in Queenstown and the surrounding area.
If you do only have one week in the South Island and are looking for beaches and beautiful coastal scenery you could cut out Queenstown altogether and concentrate on seeing the north, spending almost the whole time around the Abel Tasman area and wine tasting in Marlborough!
South Island two week itinerary
Christchurch Loop two weeks:
Christchurch – Hokitika (via Arthurs Pass or Lewis Pass) – Franz Josef/Fox Glacier – Wanaka – Queenstown – Manapouri/Te Anau – Milford Sound – Queenstown/Dunedin (somewhere to break the journey to the next stop) – Mount Cook – Christchurch
This gives you more time in each place, generally around two nights, leaving you lots of time to do activities and relax. You might only do a day trip to Milford Sound, or decide to stay in either Wanaka or Queenstown instead of both.
North to South two weeks:
Two weeks is a much more realistic time frame if you’re coming into the South Island via the ferry, as you can see a lot more instead of having to drive for a longer time down to Queenstown. I don’t want to sound like Queenstown is the only place to go but I know it’s high on many people’s list and it is a great base for activities!
Blenheim – Nelson (Abel Tasman) – Westport/Hokitika – Franz Josef/Fox Glacier – Wanaka/Queenstown – Te Anau/Manapouri – Dunedin – Mount Cook – Christchurch
The best South Island itinerary
This itinerary would take around 2-3 or even 4 weeks, depending on what stops and detours you want to add. It starts in Christchurch but could be done in reverse if you take the ferry over to Blenheim, or as a loop from Blenheim.
If you want to start and end in Christchurch and don’t have too much time then from Hokitika you could take Arthurs Pass, or Lewis Pass and add in Hanmer Springs and Kaikoura only if you have the time.
If you have more time then continue from Hokitika up the West Coast, circle around Golden Bay to Abel Tasman and Nelson, down to Kaikoura and to Christchurch, although this means cutting out Arthurs or Lewis Pass.
Christchurch – Mount Cook – Wanaka – Manapouri/Te Anau – Milford – Queenstown – Franz Josef/Fox Glacier – Hokitika – Lewis Pass – Hammer Springs – Kaikoura – Blenheim
Added stops and detours you could make along the way:
- Punakaiki just north of Hokitika
- Arthurs Pass instead of Lewis Pass, although that means a little more backtracking
- See Queenstown in place of Wanaka, and after Milford travel south to the bottom of New Zealand, around to Bluff and even Dunedin, and up to Wanaka and continue to the West Coast.
- Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park at the end
Our South Island honeymoon itinerary
My husband and I recently travelled to New Zealand for our honeymoon, and I planned the following itinerary for us, which is similar to the best itinerary above but in a slightly different order and beginning and ending in Christchurch. Since I had some friends to visit this made the most sense for us! It worked out fantastically and you could follow this and continue north.
Christchurch – Lewis/Arthurs Pass – Hokitika – Franx Kosef/Fox Glacier – Wanaka – Manapouri/Te Anau – Milford – Queenstown – Mount Cook – Christchurch
There are so many more places you could add into these itinerary ideas and of course you can reverse many of these as well. It’s all so dependent on your starting point, where you want to end up, and the kind of activities and scenery you enjoy, but I hope this gives you some ideas at least!
Map of the top spots in the South Island
Use this to help you visually plan a trip!
How to get around the South Island
Travelling with your own vehicle is by far the best way to see the South Island. It will allow you to stop where you like and see so much more. You have the option of hiring a car, a small van that has been converted into a camper, or a full-on campervan.
Personally, we preferred to travel by car and stay in accommodation to allow us to stretch out and be comfortable driving a smaller vehicle. However, campervan is a very popular way to travel and there are a lot of paid camping sites, as well as freedom camping sites. If you choose to freedom camp, please be considerate of the environment and the local people.
Tips for driving in New Zealand
All the driving times in this guide should be taken with a pinch of salt! Driving on New Zealand roads is definitely no picnic and you need to stay alert and be vigilant about weather conditions. There are a lot of tourists driving on the road, especially in the South Island, which means a lot of people who are unfamiliar with the way to go or sometimes the exact rules. It’s always better to err on the side of caution!
- We drive on the left.
- Most of our roads are only one lane on each side, so you need to be VERY careful to stick to the left, especially when turning onto another road.
- Add in extra time for travel. It will take you longer than Google Maps says. This is because of the small roads and because of the traffic. Although the rural speed limit is 100 kilometres per hour it’s unlikely you’ll be doing this on a lot of South Island roads. If you’re travelling over the summer it’s likely you’ll encounter a LOT of campervans on the roads and there aren’t always safe passing places.
- When it comes to passing, there are passing lanes at times, but otherwise, you need to make an educated decision to pass when it’s a safe, straight stretch of road. If you’re not comfortable with it then wait.
- On the other hand, if you see a build up of traffic behind you because you’re going slower than normal, you should look out for a safe space to pull over on the left and allow the traffic to pass.
- Double yellow lines means don’t pass, but just because they’re not always there doesn’t mean it’s a safe area to pass either.
I hope this inspires you to create your dream New Zealand South Island Itinerary, fitting in the top spots but considering some of those that are off the beaten path too! Check out the New Zealand section of the website for further trip planning help, or get in touch!
If you liked it, pin it!