When you think about the South Island of New Zealand what comes to mind? Is it the endless waterfalls coming down from the sky in Milford Sound, or the massive snow-capped Alps? How about diving in a glacier lake in Tekapo or bungy jumping in Queenstown?? All the nature from your wildest dreams comes true on the stunning South Island of NZ! Join us for 4 fun ideas to help put together your own amazing South Island itinerary.
Quick South Island New Zealand Tips
1. The best way to explore New Zealand is with a Jucy camper! We spent over six weeks driving around the North and South Island in a van and loved every moment.
2. If you’re not renting a van you’ll still need a vehicle to get around. We use Discover Cars when traveling and enjoy having the freedom to go wherever we want. Check out these tips if you’re renting a car from Queenstown.
3. If you take the ferry from Wellington, your South Island itinerary will start in Picton. Also, it’s possible to fly into the airports of Christchurch or Queenstown and get a set of wheels from there.
4. The South Island of New Zealand is extremely popular, especially in the summer months. If you’re traveling during peak season plan ahead! We use booking.com for hotels or Airbnb for long-term rentals. The Campermate App is the go-to source if you’re freedom camping or staying in holiday parks. See our individual articles for more recommendations on where to stay!
6. Each New Zealand South Island itinerary has a good amount of driving. Know that New Zealand is all about the scenic routes, and not solely about the destinations. If you’re looking for a more relaxing trip consider cutting out some stops to condense the routes.
7. While each South Island Itinerary is one week, you can combine them to make the ultimate month in New Zealand!
4 New Zealand South Island Itinerary Ideas
Route: Kaikoura – Marlborough – Picton/ Havelock – Abel Tasman National Park – Wharariki Beach – Nelson
Start & End: Christchurch to Nelson
Driving Distance: 769 km/477 miles
Day 1: Kaikoura – Fly into Christchurch and drive to beautiful town of Kaikoura. Take to the water on a whale watching trip or kayaking seal tour! After that, head to Kaikoura Seafood BBQ for seafood. For a long hike consider the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway to visit the seal colony.
Day 2: Marlborough – Welcome to the largest wine region in New Zealand! Drive between the wineries, or better yet hop on a full day wine tour. In addition to drinking plenty of wine, we recommend spending the night at an actual winery for a unique experience.
Day 3: Picton to Havelock – Picton is the cute port town that the Interislander ferry arrives in from Wellington. Make sure to stop into the Picton Village Bakery then cruise the Queen Charlotte Drive. Also, don’t miss out on Havelock, the mussel capital of NZ!
Day 4 & 5: Abel Tasman National Park – From the gorgeous beach town of Kaiteriteri you can hop on the Abel Tasman shuttle and do a range of different hikes. Not a fan of camping? Stay at the famous 4 Star Awaroa Lodge located inside the park.
Day 6: Wharariki Beach & Golden Bay – Make the long drive along Golden Bay to Wharariki Beach! Known for its sea caves and Archway Islands, this is considered one of the most stunning beaches on the South Island of New Zealand.
Day 7: Nelson – From here backtrack to the city of Nelson. You can either make the long drive to Christchurch or consider renting a car one way. Then you can drop it off at the Nelson airport to fly from there.
Popular South Island New Zealand Itinerary
Route: Lake Tekapo – Mount Cook -Wanaka – Queenstown
Start & End: Christchurch to Queenstown
Driving Distance: 697 km/433 miles
Day 1: Lake Tekapo – Leaving Christchurch, head straight to magical Lake Tekapo! If visiting in the spring you’ll be welcomed by an incredible display of lupin flowers. Hike the Mt John Summit Circuit Track, soak in Tekapo Springs, and star gaze at the Mt John Observatory.
Day 2 & 3: Mount Cook – Time to pack your hiking boots for Mount Cook National Park! Start with Hooker Valley Track which is one of the best day hikes in the country. From there you can conquer Kea Point, Sealy Tarns Viewpoint, or Mueller Hut.
Day 4 & 5: Wanaka – This amazing lakeside town is one of our personal favorites. Visit some local wineries, hit the hot springs, and get out onto the lake. If you’re not too tired from Mount Cook it’s time to take on Roy’s Peak. This day hike overlooks Lake Wanaka and the mountains, so it’s truly not one to miss out on!
Day 6: Glenorchy – Pass Queenstown and head out to the small, but charming town of Glenorchy. The road snakes along Lake Wakatipu and is quite possibly the most scenic road in the country. If the town is too tiny for you, you can stay in Queenstown for two nights and day trip to Glenorchy as well.
Day 7: Queenstown – From bungee jumping to paragliding, Queenstown has it all. You can hike, bike, or even hop on a boat tour of Lake Wakatipu! There’s a reason they call this the adventure capital of the world, and it definitely lives up to the hype.
South Island Itinerary From Queenstown
Route: Queenstown – Te Anau – Milford Sound – Bluff – Catlins Forest Park – Dunedin
Start & End: Queenstown to Dunedin
Driving Distance: 898 km/557 miles
Day 1: Queenstown – You could honestly stay in Queenstown for months and not run out of things to do! Rent a bike and ride through the wine region or grab a lift on the Skyline Gondola for a one of a kind view.
Day 2: Milford Sound – From Queenstown make the drive to the world-renowned Milford Sound. Be sure to book your boat and hotel well in advance. You’ll have options from a basic nature cruise to an overnight boat with water activities. Also, pack a rain jacket as one of the rainiest places in the world.
Day 3: Te Anau – In the past, this was just a stop-through for travelers venturing in and out of Milford Sound. Yet, there’s so much more to see! Take a Doubtful Sound Cruise and then explore the interesting Te Anau Glowworm Caves.
Day 4: Bluff – Head South driving along the scenic route for some unreal views. Both Bluff and Invercargill are famous for their seafood and Bluff Oysters. After getting your fish fix, drive out of town and spend the night along the water.
Day 5 & 6: Catlins Forest Park – Discover this remote and unique part of the South Island of NZ. Some of the highlights of the Catlins Forest Park are Nugget Point, Purakaunui Falls, the Cathedral Caves, and Mclean Falls!
Day 7: Dunedin – Dunedin city center is nice, but make sure to see the surrounding area. Stop by Larnach Castle, hike down to Tunnel Beach, and see the penguins at the Royal Albatross Centre. Stop at Emerson’s Brewery for a pint and hearty New Zealand dinner.
West Coast Adventure
Route: Christchurch – Arthur’s Pass – Paparoa – Franz Joseph – Fox Glacier – Wanaka – Queenstown
Start & End: Christchurch to Queenstown
Driving Distance: 868 km/539 miles
Day 1: Christchurch – Start this South Island New Zealand route by hitting the Riverside Market, strolling through Hagley Park, and visiting the International Antarctic Centre. You may want to hit the road early! You’re in for a long, but stunning drive.
Day 2: Arthur’s Pass National Park – Arthur’s Pass is without a doubt one of the most beautiful drives on the South Island of NZ. Spend a night here instead of just passing through! Don’t miss Devils Punchbowl, Otira Viaduct Lookout & Arthur’s Pass.
Day 3: Paparoa National Park – Cruise North to Paparoa National Park and check out the famous Pancake Rocks. Continuing on, head to Punakaiki Cavern before setting off on one of the great hiking trails. Note that you will have to backtrack to get to Franz Josef.
Day 4: Franz Josef – Walk up to the Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint or go on a tour. With a guide you can hike up, or even take a helicopter to the top! Also, be sure to experience the Tatare Tunnels Walk and Callery Gorge.
Day 5: Fox Glacier – Fox Glacier is the star of the show, but don’t miss out on nearby Lake Matheson! At night head to the Fox Glacier Glow Worm Forest to experience the magic of nature.
Day 6: Wanaka – Relax by the charming lake, see the famous Wanaka tree, then bicycle along the waterfall creek track. For a quick hike check out the Mt Iron Trail.
Day 7: Queenstown – The best place to end your South Island New Zealand itinerary is Queenstown! Chow down on a giant Ferg Burger and sample some local craft beer. Hike the famous Ben Lomond Track or take on Queenstown Hill.
After Your South Island New Zealand Itinerary
Heading to the North Island next? If you loved our New Zealand South Island itinerary make sure to check out our posts on the North Island below. We cover everything from Cape Reinga to the Geothermal highway, and even the best beaches to swim and surf.
- 14 Helpful Tongariro Crossing Tips for the Epic Hike in NZ
- Cape Reinga: How to Visit the Famous New Zealand Lighthouse
- 17 Fun Things to Do in Taupo New Zealand Around the Lake
- 9 Amazing Waiheke Wineries & Island Tastings Not to Miss
- Hot Water Beach NZ: How to Dig Your Own Natural Spring Hot Tub
- New Zealand Clams: Digging for Tua Tua in the Bay of Plenty
Have any questions on this article or want to share your own tips for the South Island of NZ? Leave us a comment below!
Brigitte and Jake
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