New Zealand is a natural wonder in the world. Having the privilege to spend 6 months working in New Zealand South Island under New Zealand Working Holiday Visa, I totally agree with that. The untouched beauty and unique landscape make you feel like you’re not on planet Earth. It might sound a bit exaggerating but trust me, New Zealand must be in your bucket list for a thousand reasons. If you’re planning a visit, here’s a 10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary for your road trip.
To be honest, New Zealand South Island is best explored using your own vehicle, whether it’s bought or rented. Since there are dozens of car rental companies, renting a car is almost effortless. If you’re traveling for a longer period, say, several months, I definitely suggest buying your own car.
Check out my Ultimate Guide to New Zealand Road Trip and find out how.
Here’s the thing. I made this itinerary especially for those who plan to have a road trip to South Island. If you’re going to travel by bus or hitchhiking, don’t close the tab just yet. Use the suggested attractions and integrate them into your own itinerary.
One more thing, this itinerary assumes that you start from Queenstown. You’ll eventually get back to where you started. If you’re starting from Christchurch, start from Day 6.
Are you ready for your New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary? Let’s dive in!
- 1 New Zealand South Island Itinerary Day 1 – Queenstown
- 2 Day 2 – Arrowtown
- 3 Day 3 – Wanaka
- 4 Day 4 – Moeraki & Oamaru
- 5 Day 5 – Mount Cook & Lake Tekapo
- 6 Day 6 & 7 – Christchurch & Akaroa
- 7 Day 8 – Arthur’s Pass National Park and Hokitika
- 8 Day 9 – Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier
- 9 Day 10 – Back to Queenstown
- 10 Alternatives If You Have More Time to Spare
New Zealand South Island Itinerary Day 1 – Queenstown
So you’ve arrived in Queenstown all tired from the long flight. First thing first, get your car. There are various car rental companies that offer pick-up on airport arrival. Super convenient, right?
If you’re into that, check out Jucy and Maui. Make sure your driving license is in the English language, or else it won’t be valid!
After getting your own car, check out Queenstown’s most famous burger restaurant at Fergburger. In fact, Fergburger is super popular with tourists so you might want to queue for some time. If you’re not into that, go for Devil Burger, which is popular among the locals while offering mouth-watering quality as well.
Not into burgers? Queenstown has more to offer when it comes to food! Check out Flame Bar & Grill and try their pork ribs. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted in my entire life and you definitely shouldn’t miss it.
Queenstown at Night
Your first night in New Zealand South Island should be enjoyed to the fullest. If you’re a party-goer, you’re in the best city in South Island for that. I’m not one so I couldn’t give much valuable info for that but check out this guide for what to do in Queenstown at night!
Not into parties? Take an evening cruise tour in Lake Wakatipu and enjoy the barbeque dinner! Click here for more information.
More into budget traveling? Drive all the way to Lake Hayes for the light-pollution-free dark sky and enjoy your first stargazing experience in New Zealand! It’s located around 20 minutes drive from Queenstown. After that, you can drive all the way to Arrowtown and spend your night in Arrowtown Holiday Park.
Where to spend the night?
I’ll not be getting in-depth with these because Campermate has almost everything you need to know about campsites. I’ve never spent a night in hostels or motel on my road trip so I guess I’m not in a position to give much advice. Feel free to check about the hotels in Queenstown here.
Not inspired to visit yet? Here are the photos that’ll inspire your travel to New Zealand.
Day 2 – Arrowtown
A road trip in your New Zealand South Island itinerary wouldn’t be complete without visiting this historic old gold mining town. Spend some time walking around the unique town and venture onto the short tracks around. Arrowtown is a perfect place to grab a coffee.
If you’re staying in Arrowtown Holiday Park, you’ll definitely enjoy an ever-satisfying breakfast to kickstart your day.
Arrowtown is more about chilling and relaxing as the town is kinda slow-paced. If you want more, spend the rest of your day in Queenstown. Or start your day in Queenstown, and leave a few hours in the afternoon for Arrowtown. Consider trying the world’s first-ever bungee-jumping in Queenstown too!
If you’re visiting during autumn, you’re in luck. Akarua Arrowtown Autumn Festival is held in Arrowtown every year because the autumn view is the most stunning in this town.
Consider spending a night in Albert Town campground after catching a glimpse of Wanaka when you drove through it.
What to do in Arrowtown?
Learn about the history of Arrowtown in Lakes District Museum & Gallery. It’s established in 1948 and showcases the rich heritage of this former gold mining town. You’ll learn hands-on in the early Maori life and pioneering days of early European settlers and gold miners.
Get a pie in Arrowtown Bakery & Cafe. Treat yourself something great after a morning exploring the lovely Arrowtown. Again, you might have to queue up a little.
Day 3 – Wanaka
Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Wanaka in New Zealand South Island is one of my favorite town of all-time. It’s a paradise when it hits winter but still offers otherworldly views all year round.
Wanaka is resided by Lake Wanaka, which is famous for the Wanaka Lone Tree. It’s a very touristy town but again, I wouldn’t miss it despite the crowds of tourists.
After Wanaka, it will be a long 3-hours drive to Moeraki. You could take a longer path passing through the lovely Dunedin and that would take 4 hours. Have a spare day? Spend one day in Dunedin and challenge the world’s steepest street, Baldwin Street.
What to do in Wanaka?
Hike Roys Peak. It’s one of the best things to do in New Zealand South Island.
The hike will take you 3 to 5 hours depending on your stamina. In early winter, you’ll progress from lush green farms to low alpine bushes and finally hiking through thick snows. Upon reaching the peak, you’ll enjoy the 360º panoramic view surrounded by the mountains and lakes. See the picture below!
Photographing the Wanaka Lone Tree. The tree still blooms green leaves during the spring despite growing in midst of the lake. It’s best to do it during the sunset when the light isn’t that strong. See the photo below!
If you love skiing, visit Wanaka during winter and ski at Treble Cone, the largest ski field in South Island.
I did my first ever skydiving in Wanaka with Skydive Wanaka. If you’re into that, I would say definitely do it in Wanaka because the views are simply the best there.
If you have more than two weeks in your New Zealand South Island itinerary, spend more time in Wanaka! It has a lot more to offer than you think.
Day 4 – Moeraki & Oamaru
Home to Moeraki Boulders. It could be a bad time to visit Moeraki Boulders if you depart from Wanaka in the morning as they will be flocked by tourists in dozens of buses.
The best time to visit Moeraki Boulders is in the early morning when the sun rises. Take this opportunity to get the perfect sunrise shot featuring the boulders. Tourists start coming around 9-10am. So my suggestion is to spend your night nearby and wake up early the next morning for the shot.
Make a stop in Oamaru, the lovely Victorian town south of Moeraki. Oamaru is one of the best places in New Zealand to get close to Blue Penguins without paying. When the sun sets, simply drive to Waterfront Road, park your car nearby and wait patiently for the penguins to come back ashore and cross the road.
Note that you’re not allowed to touch the penguins or do anything that will possibly disturb them. So keep a safe distance and admire their cuteness.
When my travel partner and I were there, the penguins walked straight up to me so I had no choice but to stand still and let them literally pass by my feet. They almost crashed onto my feet with their clumsy movement. That is one of the most precious moments of my life.
I don’t want to say this but if I were to choose between Oamaru and Dunedin, I’ll pick the former. But it’s different for everyone so you might find Dunedin better.
What to do in Moeraki & Oamaru?
Other than the Moeraki Boulders, try the chowders in Moeraki Cafe just by the cliff facing the boulders. Other than that, there are not many things to do in Moeraki.
If you want a less touristy spot and don’t mind missing Moeraki Boulders, look up for Campermate. There is a beach in the residential area with more eroded spherical boulders. We spent more than an hour just chilling there, not even a single person showed up so we had everything to ourselves.
There are generally two penguins in New Zealand South Island, the blue penguins as mentioned above and yellow-eyed penguins. If you want to catch a glimpse of the latter, head to Katiki Point Lighthouse in early morning and evening. You’ll have to check the hours for the penguins came back ashore or back to the sea.
Oamaru definitely worth your time just walking around but if you want to do something special, add Steampunk HQ into your New Zealand South Island itinerary and get wowed.
Day 5 – Mount Cook & Lake Tekapo
Again, a big driving day with 3 hours driving. I actually enjoyed driving in New Zealand South Island, that’s why I don’t compensate the driving in this itinerary. Every kilometer offers a unique and spectacular view like none other.
From Moeraki, drive past Oamaru to Omarama after you tasted the sunrise in Moeraki Boulders. This route offers more to see compared to the coastline highway in my opinion, hence my recommendation.
Make a stop in Omarama if you’re into the views, but there’s nothing much to do here particularly. Continue up to Mount Cook National Park and make a stop here. There is one track you absolutely must try. Read on.
After that, drive all the way to Lake Tekapo, and spend a night near there. If you love photographing the Milky Way or simply stargazing, Lake Tekapo is one of the best places to do that. There are tours taking you to Mt John Observatory (one of the best places in New Zealand for Stargazing) as well but that’s a bit pricey. Check it out here.
What to do Mount Cook & Lake Tekapo?
Definitely try Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook. It’s one of the best tracks in the world offering one of the most spectacular views in New Zealand. More information here.
When you pass by Lake Pukaki, make sure to stop by the i-Site and try their salmons. You’ll never regret it. The tender texture and sweetness…
In Lake Tekapo, pay a visit to Church of Good Shephard. Perfect for photos. Excellent for stargazing.
There are a lot of campgrounds nearby, most of them around $6-8 per person per night. My recommendation is to spend a night camping in Mt Cook National Park area. Imagine the nation’s tallest mountain facing you. Bone-chilling cold in winter!
Day 6 & 7 – Christchurch & Akaroa
I’m not sure for you but I personally don’t like Christchurch a lot. Since the earthquake in 2011, construction works have been going on throughout the entire city. It somehow becomes an attraction for visitors and tourists.
Two weeks aren’t a long time for a road trip in New Zealand South Island, so if you’re not a city-goer, I would suggest skipping Christchurch and head straight to Akaroa.
Akaroa is the first place in New Zealand that turned my mind upside down with its otherworldly impressive landscape and night sky. It’s around an hour drive from Christchurch along the curvy winding roads.
You will first arrive in a small French town in Akaroa, also the busiest part of the peninsula. You’ll find a handful of restaurants here serving western cuisines. Park your car and spend some time walking around, have a picnic by the lake. It’s a great place to relax after a long drive.
The best place to spend your night in Akaroa is way out of the town. Check the BBH website for more information about the hostels in Akaroa. I stayed in Onuku Farm Hostel and was tremendously satisfied with the environment and the starry night sky. Zero light pollution, I’ve never seen such a beautiful night sky in my life.
I would suggest spending two nights in Akaroa to truly absorb what this peninsula has to offer. Do yourself a favor and add Akaroa into your 10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary.
What to do in Christchurch & Akaroa?
In Christchurch, pay a visit to Canterbury Museum to learn more about the history in this artistic city. For a more natural touch, Christchurch Botanical Gardens and Hagley Park are excellent choices.
For Akaroa, definitely treat yourself with a decent meal. I kinda regret not doing that because I was tight on budget. Restaurants in Akaroa are well-decorated due to the French influences. You’ll also be able to get a “Kingdom of Akaroa” passport stamp on your passport in Akaroa i-Site.
Go hiking around the peninsula. Not sure for other hostels, but Onuku Farm Hostel does provide their guests with a map with hiking trails nearby. I tried almost all the trails in 2 days, each of them offers a different view and experience. But there’s one thing in common, the trail is full of sheep poops.
And lastly, stargazing. Most of the BBH hostels built outside of the town make perfect choices for stargazers as the light pollution in Akaroa is minimal.
Day 8 – Arthur’s Pass National Park and Hokitika
Since we have only 10 days on this wonderful island, we’ll skip the northern part of South Island. But if you have more time, then you should definitely travel further north. For now, we’ll head straight to the west coast by driving through one of the most scenic highways in New Zealand, Arthur’s Pass.
It’s a wise choice to stop by any attractions you came across along the highway. There are a lot of unnamed attractions along the way but the most famous attraction goes to Castle Hill.
Remember when Aslan appears like a boss and took on the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia movie? Yup, that took place in Castle Hill.
Arthur’s Pass National Park is also home to several legendary hiking trails, like Avalanche Peak Track. So if you’re a hiking fanatic and have extra time, definitely go for this. Note that the track is closed in winter due to… You guessed it, avalanches.
The landscape will change drastically when you arrive on the west coast, all the trees look all different now. Drive south to Hokitika and that’s where you’ll spend your night. My best-recommended campground would be at Lake Mahinapua, which is less than an hour drive south of Hokitika.
What to do in Arthur’s Pass National Park & Hokitika?
As I mentioned, stop by at Castle Hill and be impressed by those massive boulders. Snows can get pretty intense during winter here so make sure you have snow chains in your car.
Definitely attempt Avalanche Peak Track if it’s your thing. It’s one of the best-rated tracks in New Zealand. For more tracks and trails, visit the DOC Page here.
If possible, arrive in Hokitika or at least the west coast before sunsets. Because you’ll get the chance to see the sun sets into the horizon, and the sky turns all orange. Fascinating. The best place to do this is in Hokitika Beach.
If you arrived early, visit the Hokitika Gorge. It’s around 33km out of the town so plan your trip accordingly. Did I mention there’s a swing bridge there?
For more things to do in Hokitika, visit here.
If you followed my words and spend a night in Lake Mahinapua campground, you’ll catch one of the most stunning sunrises, in your life, with snow-capped mountains as the backdrop if you wake up early.
Day 9 – Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier
Yes, it’s totally possible to do both glaciers on the same day. After watching the sunrise in Lake Mahinapua, drive all the way south to Franz Josef and take the track to the glacier.
There are not many things to do in Franz Josef Glacier other than the glacier itself so let’s head further south to Fox Glacier.
But if you’re into skydiving, Franz Josef Glacier might be the best place for you to do it. It has the highest tandem skydive in New Zealand at 18,000ft!
Fox Glacier is one of the most well-known tourist spots for tourists and travelers alike. The best way to get close and actually walk on the glacier is by helicopters. It’s not really expensive to book one as it’s really popular there.
I would suggest adding both of them into your New Zealand South Island itinerary.
What to do in Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier?
Take the track to see Franz Josef Glacier. It will take around an hour or so to get there but note that the glacier is melting away really fast. It might be completely gone is several years from now so grab your chance and visit as soon as possible!
Skydiving in Franz Josef Glacier if that’s your thing. More information here.
In Fox Glacier, take helicopters tours into Fox Glacier and truly experience the tiffany-blue world of glaciers. Have dinner in one of the many restaurants in the lovely town below the Southern Alps.
Drive to Lake Matheson in the morning to catch the reflective mirror view of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, the two tallest mountains in New Zealand. It can be really crowded in the early morning as Chinese tourists love there so much and occupied the deck with tripods.
There are blue mushrooms on the track around Lake Matheson too, one of the rarest mushrooms in New Zealand. Pretty vibrant color. Don’t eat it.
For the night, I would suggest sleeping in one of the hostels in the town. They’re all lovelier than other hostels you find in other towns.
Day 10 – Back to Queenstown
So it’s finally the last day of your 10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary. And you’ll have to spend most of it in the car driving back to Queenstown. According to Google Maps, it will take you 4 hours but I expect 5 hours because you’re gonna catch your last glimpses at the legendary New Zealand landscape.
There are a lot of stop points along the way, which are worth stopping by for. Waterfalls, creeks, very short tracks, etc. So if your flight is at late night, then it’s perfect! Just be careful while you’re driving, you don’t want your last day ruined.
The drive along the highway is super scenic especially when you’re driving through Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Stop points are abundant for photos and merely chilling.
Return your car to its home after packing all your stuff. It’s time to go home.
What to do on the way back to Queenstown?
As I mentioned, there are a lot of attractions along the highway. I couldn’t remember them all well, but the creeks and waterfalls are definitely worth stopping by and visiting. Most of them require a short walking time to reach. So make sure you don’t drive too fast and pay attention to the signboards. You don’t want to miss them and drive right past. It’s kinda dangerous to make a U-turn in the single-lane highway.
Stop by in the viewpoints between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. There are a lot of them so need not to worry if you missed the first one. Most of them have small carparks for visitors right beside the highway. Again, don’t drive too fast.
When you drive through Cardrona, you might notice a fence hanged full of bras. It’s called Bradrona, a fund-raising campaign for breast cancers. Quite a popular attraction for travelers on a road trip too!
Alternatives If You Have More Time to Spare
10 days for New Zealand South Island, to be honest is a little bit too rushy. So I’ve listed some destinations which you can consider to tweak your New Zealand South Island itinerary a bit. Here are some of my recommendations.
Mount Aspiring National Park
Mount Aspiring National Park is sandwiched between Wanaka town and the west coast of South Island. Many travelers prefer to stay in Wanaka as their base for visiting the most untouched national park in New Zealand.
While it’s a great spot for landscape photographs, Mount Aspiring National Park is also a paradise for hikers and outdoor lovers. With several world-class multi-days and day hikes, it’s suitable for visitors of all ages.
The most famous track there would be the Routeburn Track. This ultimate alpine track takes you through meadows, reflective tarns, and alpine gardens, rewarding you with mind-blowing views over the valleys and mountain ranges.
This multi-day track can take up to 2-4 days, depending on your stamina and your choice of track.
However, you could also opt for the day hike, which covers a section of the whole route. Check out these day tracks: Earland Falls Track, Key Summit Track, Lake Howden Track, and Routeburn Nature Walk.
It would be a crime to not mention Rob Roy Glacier Track. This is the track where Roy was robbed. Just kidding.
Rob Roy Glacier Track is perfect for those who want to enjoy spectacular views on the alpine mountains, glacier, waterfalls, and valleys in a single day. The track takes 3-4 hours to complete, starting at the swing bridge across Matukituki River.
Keep your ears open to hear the avalanches in the glacier! And remember to not feed the Kea birds, aka the most annoying birds in New Zealand!
If you prefer a mega short track, then go for the Blue Pools Walk. But note that you can only see the ‘blue’ color of the pool on a bright sunny day.
Fiordland National Park
I’ve just mentioned about Routeburn Track, but do you know that the track is so long it connects both Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park?
Well, I think it’s time to finally shine the spotlight on one of the most dramatic landscapes in the world, Milford Sound.
Imagine cruising in a river, surrounded by kilometers-tall steep alpine mountains beside you, with waterfalls plunging down. Imagine dolphins swimming side by side with your cruise. Now if you’re not a fan of cruises, what about kayaking in the river?
That’s the magic of Milford Sound, putting a wow-face on every visitors, guaranteed. The landscapes are so magical that you’ll have to see with your own eyes to believe.
But great rewards always come at a great price. The reason I did not include Milford Sound into the 10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary is that the drive from the nearest town, Te Anau to Milford Sound takes 2 hours alone, one-way.
That means 4 hours drive to get back to Te Anau. And there is no other way you can get there other than the Te Anau-Milford Highway.
But if you ask me, I’d say it’s totally worth the drive, there are plenty of stops with amazing views along the way. Include this in your itinerary if you have extra time!
Stewart Island is the southernmost island in New Zealand, located approximately 30 kilometers off the southern coast of South Island.
To get to the island, you’ll either take the ferry for around an hour or by flight for 15-20 minutes.
For ferries, you’ll have to get to Bluff Visitor Terminal as ferries depart there to Stewart Island. Stewart Island Experience provides service for transferring you from Invercargill to Stewart Island.
Getting from Invercargill Airport to Oban, Stewart Island takes around 15-20 minutes. For the prices and details, check out Stewart Island Experience.
Now here comes the main point, why bother visiting this barely inhabited island. Well, there are plenty of reasons.
For starters, since it’s the southernmost place New Zealand, you’ll get the best chance for witnessing the southern lights, or Aurora Australis. Due to the low population, there’s zero light pollution there!
If you love hiking, then you should really check out Rakiura Track, where you could find footprints and hear the kiwi birds! Note that this track is a 3-days track.
Take the Wild Kiwi Encounter tour with Stewart Island Experience to see the legendary flightless birds with your own eyes when the cruise passes through Ulva Island, a predator-free sanctuary.
Excited For Your Road Trip in This 10 Days New Zealand South Island Itinerary?
So that’s what I have for the 10 days New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary. How does it sound? I would appreciate all kinds of comments and feedback in the comment section below, so don’t hesitate to tell me what you think about this itinerary.
And lastly, New Zealand South Island is one of the best places in the world for a road trip. 10 days are definitely not enough to take it all in, but it’s understandable if you couldn’t spend more time on this wonderful island. Don’t miss out on the North Island too if you could spare the time! Anyway, happy traveling and hope you enjoyed reading!
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