9-Day South Island New Zealand Itinerary
You won’t want to miss a thing on your trip to New Zealand. There’s so much to see and do, and so many unique encounters to find all across the country. We’ve put together this nine-day itinerary for the South Island, helping you to find all the must-see places and experiences over just nine days.
Day 1 – Christchurch
On the first day of your South Island New Zealand itinerary, you’ll arrive in Christchurch. Known as New Zealand’s Garden City, it’s known for its lush greenery, beautiful parks and public gardens, and tree-lined streets.
Christchurch has plenty to see and do, whether you’re looking for exciting outdoor activities, if you want to do something cultural, or just want time to relax. Hagley Park is the city’s central park and offers wide open space to relax or take part in sport, as well as the Botanic Gardens to wander through on a quiet afternoon.
If you’re looking to tick off the tourist hotspots, head for Cathedral Square. Here, you can enjoy the historical architecture, including the Cathedral itself, as well as food trucks selling local cuisine and markets selling hand-made wares and souvenirs. The square also regularly holds events and offers entertainment.
If you want to get your adrenaline going, head to Christchurch Adventure Park. Here you’ll find a variety of activities that aren’t for the faint-hearted, including a zipline tour and mountain biking.
Day 2 – Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
On the second day of your South Island New Zealand trip, you’ll travel from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo. The most direct route will take you around three hours driving, depending on traffic conditions.
The journey provides gorgeous mountain views no matter which direction you look and there are plenty of places to stop on the way if you want to extend the trip. The Rakaia Gorge is a great place to stop and take in the picturesque scenery and Geraldine is a small town that offers the perfect stop to grab a bite to eat.
Lake Tekapo itself provides breathtaking scenery as well as fun activities, like water sports on one of the lakes and mountain hiking on the slopes. There are plenty of hotels and accommodation around Lake Tekapo, but it’s best to book in advance, especially in the popular summer months.
Lake Tekapo is well known for its stargazing, with amazing views of the night sky. It’s one of the largest dark sky reserves in the southern hemisphere, so whether you’re a pro astronomer or trying it out for the first time, be sure to take part in a stargazing tour overnight.
Day 3 – Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook (Return)
Driving from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook only takes an hour, so it’s perfect for a quick day trip, using Lake Tekapo as your base. Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, and the national park is a popular attraction, so it’s a must for your South Island road trip.
There are a few places you can stop on the journey if you want to extend it a little. Lake Pukaki has stunning blue waters and makes for a great place to stop and stretch your legs and NZ Alpine Lavender is a huge field of gorgeous purple lavender that makes for the perfect Insta stop.
The Mound Cook National Park has various walking routes of differing intensities, so whether you’re just going for a gentle wander, or you want a real hike, you can find what suits.
Day 4 – Lake Tekapo to Queenstown
After a couple of days in Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook, your next stop will be Queenstown. Driving from Lake Tekapo to Queenstown takes around three hours, but you can make a day of it by stopping off at some of the destinations en route.
The town of Twizel makes for a great place to spend time fishing, mountain biking, or kayaking, or if you’re short on time just make sure you go to the High Country Salmon Farm for some fresh fish.
You’ll drive through the Lindis Pass which provides some spectacular views and has areas where you can pull over to take a breather and enjoy the scenery.
Once you arrive in Queenstown, you’ll find plenty of accommodation although, again, it’s always best to book in advance to save any disappointment.
Day 4 – Queenstown
You can start your first full day in Queenstown by riding the Skyline Gondola. This is the steepest skyline gondola in the Southern Hemisphere, running to the top of Bob’s Peak. Once you reach the top, you’ll enjoy views of Queenstown, as well as Lake Wakatipu and the mountains. If you want a more energetic start, you can hike to the top instead. To get back down, there’s a luge course, with banked corners, tunnels and dippers.
Queenstown is said to be the birthplace of bungee jumping – so whether you’ve bungee jumped before or not, you should definitely make time for a jump while you’re here. There are three different places you can bungee from. The Nevis Bungy is the highest (and some say, the scariest) and the Kawarau Bridge Bunny is the original. The Ledge Bungy is the best one if you’re coming from Bob’s Peak, as it’s the closest.
After your bungee jump, you can travel back to the main part of town for lunch. There’s plenty of choice – Fergburger has great reviews and isn’t far from the Ledge Bungy, and the Public Kitchen & Bar is also well-regarded, close by, and has the added benefit of lake-side dining.
You can then head to Queenstown Bay Beach to relax and recover from your exciting morning. If you hang around here long enough, you’ll be treated to a beautiful sunset.
Day 5 – Queenstown to Milford Sound (Return)
Queenstown to Milford Sound takes just under four hours, so it makes for a long day. If you don’t want to drive yourself, you’ll find a choice of day trips and tours that also include a cruise in Milford Sound.
Even with the long journey, Milford Sound is totally worth it. Gorgeous and spectacular in any weather, you’ll enjoy cascading waterfalls, towering peaks and stunning lakes. A boat cruise is a great way to take in all the sights, or you can kayak or go diving.
There’s an underwater observatory at Harrison Cove where you can learn and view the sea life of Milford Sound. There are also many walking and hiking trails for you to explore.
Day 6 – Queenstown
For your second day in Queenstown, you can begin with a jet boat ride across the Shotover River. This is a great opportunity to explore the canyon and with 360-degree spins and a thrilling 25-minute ride, the thrill-seekers will be satisfied. You can finish with a soak in the cedar-lined hot pool at Onsen Hot Pools, where you can relax and enjoy views of the river.
Alternatively, you can start the day with a hike to Queenstown Hill. This can take around three hours and provides gorgeous views of the mountains and lake.
A trip to New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without trying some of the world-famous wine. There are many wineries around Queenstown – you can choose to go on an organised tour of a few, or just pick one or two to visit yourself. You can try the wine and learn about how the wine is made.
Make sure to finish your last day in Queenstown by enjoying the nightlife. Queenstown is known for its great nightlife. Take part in an organised pub crawl or take a wander and see where the night takes you. The Lodge Bar is popular and has a stylish, sophisticated vibe. Ferg’s Bar in central Queenstown provides an intimate, cosy setting to enjoy a cocktail. For clubs, Loco Cantina is popular with the hostel crowd and Vinyl Underground often has live music and dancing until 4am.
Day 7 – Queenstown to Franz Josef / Waiau
Driving from Queenstown to Franz Josef / Waiau takes around 5 hours, depending on traffic and how often you stop. With many lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and viewpoints along the way, you could find it takes you quite a bit longer.
Cardona Hotel is a popular stopping point and photograph spot. It’s one of the oldest hotels in New Zealand, having been built in 1863, and offers gorgeous architecture as well as a place to stop for lunch or a coffee.
Alternatively, you can stop for lunch at Lake Wānaka. There’s a huge choice of restaurants here and you can take a walk along the lake for a breath of fresh air. Thunder Creek Fall is another popular stopping point on the journey from Queenstown to Franz Josef. It’s a 28-meter-tall waterfall that’s just a 5-minute walk from the car park, so it’s a great pitstop on the long journey.
Day 8 – Franz Josef / Waiau
The town of Franz Josef / Waiau is named after the glacier, which was named in the 1860s to honour the Emperor of Austria. Before that, local Māori called the area Waiau, meaning swirling waters. The town is now officially known as Franz Josef / Waiau.
A must for your trip to Franz Josef / Waiau is to hike the glacier. You can heli-hike, using a helicopter to get to the glacier, but many of these are cancelled due to extreme weather. Even so, they can offer some of the most unique experiences, taking you straight to the glacier itself. Ice walks will need to be organised with a guide company, to ensure you have the relevant safety equipment and protection.
Alternatively, you can hike the Franz Josef Glacier Walk, which takes around an hour and takes you to the bottom of the glacier. It’s around 5km from the town, so it can be best to drive or get a bus to the nearby car park at the start of the walk.
You can follow your hike with a dip in the Franz Josef Hot Pools that are located in the town. The water temperature ranges from 36C to 40C and though these pools are outside, they’re protected with coverings in case of rain.
Day 9 – Franz Josef / Waiau to Christchurch
For your final day of your New Zealand South Island road trip, you’ll travel from Franz Josef / Waiau back to Christchurch. This journey will take around five hours but there are lots of places to stop off on the way, whether you want to find some more views or just take a break.
The West Coast Treetop Walk lets you wander amongst the trees, 20 meters in the air. Walking the route takes around half an hour, so can be a great short stop off on the way to Christchurch.
Hokitika is a small town on the coast where you can stop off for a bite to eat or to enjoy some sea views. If you have some extra time, you can stop at Arthur’s Pass National Park, where you can hike the Avalanche Peak and visit the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall. From here, Christchurch is less than two hours drive away.
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