The South Island New Zealand is one of the most astonishingly beautiful places on earth. Yes, we’re born and bred Kiwis, but that doesn’t stop us from being gobsmacked every time we visit this very special part of our country.
Towering snow-capped mountains, incredible glaciers, thick rainforest, turquoise blue lakes and pockets of untouched isolation make this such a beautiful part of the planet.
We’ve just finished a whirlwind New Zealand trip driving from Auckland to Queenstown and back in 10 days, which is a long way! But if you skip the North Island portion and concentrate on south New Zealand only, then it’s entirely possible to do a 10-day road trip of South Island New Zealand.
A word of caution – it will be rushed, and you may not have time to see absolutely everything. This is definitely a guide to the main highlights of the region, rather than an in-depth overview. But if you’re short on time, then it’s perfect.
Having visited the South Island and done a number of New Zealand road trips over the years, here’s our guide of how to best spend your time and visit some of the best parts of New Zealand – South Island.
- 1 New Zealand South Island Map
- 2 Day 1 – Christchurch
- 3 Day 2 – Christchurch to Franz Josef
- 4 Day 3 – Franz Josef
- 5 Day 4 – Franz Josef to Wanaka
- 6 Day 5 – Wanaka to Queenstown
- 7 Day 6 – Queenstown
- 8 Day 7 – Queenstown to Milford Sound
- 9 Day 8 – Milford Sound to Queenstown
- 10 Day 9 – Queenstown to Tekapo
- 11 Day 10 – Tekapo to Christchurch
- 12 How To Get Around – Self-Drive
- 13 New Zealand Driving Tips
- 14 How to get around – New Zealand tours
New Zealand South Island Map
Here’s a useful map as you tour New Zealand, to show you the route and distances travelled on your New Zealand South Island itinerary.
Day 1 – Christchurch
Welcome to Christchurch! Also known as the Garden City because of the green flora and fauna everywhere, Christchurch is the best place to start your New Zealand South Island road trip. If you’re not visiting the North Island, then you’re likely to fly directly into Christchurch, making it ideal for beginning your trip to New Zealand.
Christchurch is New Zealand’s third largest city (behind Auckland and Wellington), and the biggest in the South Island.
You may have heard about the devastating earthquake that hit in 2011, destroying much of the city centre. Thankfully things are now well on the road to being rebuilt and the risk of earthquakes is again as slim as any other part of New Zealand you’ll be pleased to know!
Some of the top things to do in Christchurch include:
Visit Hagley Park
Hagley Park is a beautiful inner city park that’s the largest open space in Christchurch at 407 acres.
It’s a great place to wander through and get your bearings (ideal if you’re still jetlagged) and has a number of different paths for walking or jogging. Spring is when the park is looking stunning, with thousands of daffodils and spring flowers appearing, but it’s a really lovely spot any time of the year.
Sporting events and concerts are often held in the park at different times of year, and you can find out more about the park on the city council’s website.
See the earthquake-damaged Christchurch Cathedral and city centre regeneration
The city centre is in the midst of the massive re-build, and it’s an interesting place to visit to see it being recreated.
There are a number of fun pop-up parks and spaces with events, street art and things going on.
If you are travelling with kids, a visit to the Margaret Mahy playground is a must-do – our kids rate it the best playground in New Zealand!
To get a sense of what the city was like pre-earthquake, then wander over to the damaged Christchurch Cathedral. A decision has been made to re-construct the stone cathedral which was the centre point of the city. For safety reasons you can now only view it from behind a cordon.
After viewing the cathedral ruins, wander 5 minutes along to Hereford Street where you can visit the innovative ‘Transitional Cathedral’ which is in place until the main cathedral is re-built. It’s known as the ‘cardboard cathedral’ thanks to its construction predominantly from cardboard, the only one of its kind in the world!
Take a gondola ride to view stunning snow-capped Southern Alps mountains
The Christchurch gondola offers stunning 360-degree views across the city and wider afield to the Southern Alps mountains (which you’ll be seeing up close over the coming days!), up to Kaikoura and out to Banks Peninsula.
The gondola ride is almost one kilometre long and lifts you up during a 10-minute ride to 500m above sea level on top of the Port Hills.
Once at the top you can relax and take in the views at the local cafe, or explore further on one of the walking trails at the summit.
To access the gondola you can either self-drive, or take a shuttle bus from outside the i-Site in the city centre for a small fee.
Visit the International Antarctic Centre
It’s pretty tough and expensive to visit Antarctica, but in Christchurch you can experience the next best thing by visiting the fabulous International Antarctic Centre.
It’s handily located right by the airport and features fun activities like riding on an all-terrain vehicle that’s used to get around in Antarctica, experience a snow and ice storm down to -19 degrees celsius, learn about life at Scott Base and see penguins and husky dogs.
The International Antarctic Centre gets really great reviews, so is well worth a visit if you have the time.
Recommendations for the best places to stay in Christchurch
Distinction Christchurch Hotel – this 4.5 star hotel is located right in the heart of Christchurch, and is in a great location. The hotel staff are fabulous and the beds are extremely comfortable. Click to see the latest prices here.
Quest Christchurch Serviced Apartments – this condo hotel is again in a great location in the city centre, only 3 minutes walk to Cathedral Square and close to shops, bars and restaurants. It also offers amenities to cook your own light meals if you’re on a budget. Click to see the latest prices here.
All Stars Inn on Bealey – this purpose-built new hostel is as good as staying in a hotel – for a fraction of the price! There are dorm rooms as well as private rooms with ensuites available and it’s a short walking distance into the city. Click to see the latest prices here.
City Centre Motel – this motel offers great value for money for travelling families, including a one bedroom apartment that has a queen, twin and sofa bed. The rooms also feature a kitchenette which allows you to prepare your own light meals. Click to see the latest prices here.
Day 2 – Christchurch to Franz Josef
DISTANCE: 381 KILOMETRES
It’s best to get an early start today as you head out towards the beautiful West Coast of the South Island.
As you leave the city, you’ll come across the Canterbury plains area, one of the flattest parts of New Zealand (which is known for its hills and mountains!) and widely utilised by dairy farmers.
Approximately 1.5 hours out of Christchurch on State Highway 73 you’ll come to Castle Hill, or the Kura Tāwhiti Conservation Area. Here you’ll see amazing limestone rock formations and karsts. It’s well worth taking a break to stretch your legs and check out these incredible natural works of art and find out a little more about the history of the area.
Continuing onwards, you’ll start to come across the first stunning rainforest in your South Island New Zealand tours – and experience a first taste of the windy roads as you travel through Arthur’s Pass. It’s a breathtaking stretch of road, so be sure to pull over and grab some photos of the beauty of this area.
Continue through Arthurs Pass, through the cute towns of Kumara and Kumara Junction where you will officially reach the West Coast of the South Island and the sea.
After another 20 minutes or so, you’ll come to the town of Hokitika, an ideal place to stop for lunch.