A New Zealand South Island road trip is a great way to see all the best points of interest & attractions. Discover the best that South Island has to offer!
New Zealand's South Island is full of amazing activities and unmissable experiences. There are a lot of ways to see everything the South Island has to offer, but none that give you the freedom to explore like a road trip around the island.
If you want to make sure you visit the important South Island points of interest, we have put together a South Island itinerary to help you make the most of your time in New Zealand.
When planning your journey, a great starting point is Christchurch. If you're visiting from afar, you can touch down in your plane at the Christchurch airport and enjoy the city before hiring a car and beginning your adventure.
Standing proud, the city's energy pulses with urban art and style. On foot, explore streets with colourful murals that speak of unequivocal strength or hop aboard a heritage tram supplying easy access to explore the city's galleries, theatres and street markets.
What to do in Christchurch?
Hit the SALT district for great shopping in an area that's unashamedly bold; bursting with alternative fashion, thrift shops and eateries like Unknown Chapter, serving specialty roasted coffee and unfussy food. Then go for a wander through the Christchurch Botanic Gardens before heading back toy our Christchurch hotel.
Where to stay in Christchurch?
Christchurch has so many things to offer and when it comes to accommodation, you're spoilt for choice.
You might want to start this leg of your trip in modern elegance like you'll find at Novotel Christchurch Cathedral Square. The Novotel is 20 minutes from the airport and moments from the city centre, making it the perfect choice for visitors that want accommodation that's flexible and designed to welcome families. You'll enjoy modern conveniences, amenities, styling and accessibility to the alluring city of Christchurch.
If that isn't close enough to the action of the city for you, BreakFree on Cashel, Christchurch puts you right in the centre of it all. BreakFree sits in the heart of the CBD and is just a quick walk from trendy cafes and bars. Quirky meets cutting edge at BreakFree—a great choice for Christchurch visitors on the go.
Finally, there’s the option of resort luxury for visitors to Christchurch. A little way out of the city and removed from the hustle and bustle of it all, you’ll find the Peppers Clearwater Resort. From here you can make a day trip into the city before heading back to relax with a cup of tea or a glass of wine as you take in the serene views Canterbury is so well-known for.
Where to eat in Christchurch?
There are so many amazing options for dinner in a city as thriving as Christchurch, but one option worth considering is Café 165. Café 165 is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, inviting you to pop in whenever it suits you to sample the versatile menu that features both Kiwi classics and Asian fusion dishes.
No list of Christchurch restaurants is complete without mentioning Twenty Seven Steps. The restaurant sits in a heritage building on the picturesque New Regent Street, a historic aesthetic that’s complemented by the elegant dining experience you’ll find within.
For the nights that you aren’t in the mood for extravagance, just around the block from Twenty Seven Steps is The Square, the perfect choice for understated charm, local produce, and kiwiana flare. A trendy place to escape to enjoy a meal and a glass of wine before adjourning for the evening.
Where to from Christchurch?
As you prepare to set out, you might consider going straight from Christchurch to Queenstown, but that would mean missing so many amazing things along the way.
What to see between Christchurch and Lake Tekapo?
Around an hour out of Christchurch is the Rakaia Gorge, specifically the Rakaia Gorge Walkway. This walkway traverses the edge of the Rakaia Gorge, passing through forestry to come to a lookout point that grants impeccable views that you just can’t find anywhere else in the world. The trip to the lookout point is a roughly 45-minute walk, but from there you can see rolling hills, fantastic mountains, and the Rakaia River with water so blue it seems otherworldly. If you’re looking to start your road trip with something to take your breath away, the Rakaia Gorge is one of the best South Island attractions.
Continuing towards Tekapo, a great place to stop for lunch is Geraldine. Geraldine is a country town full of small town charm. You can pop into local arts and crafts stores before grabbing a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. Maybe even grab a snack for the road from the local bakery.
The last stop on today’s itinerary is actually a little beyond Lake Tekapo, but worth the small detour. If Rakaia Gorge piqued your interest and made you want to see more of this beautiful country, you’ll want to visit the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. Here you can take in the majesty of mountains and the gentle glide of glaciers. The range is made up to 23 peaks over 3000 meters high, which you can take in from the safety of the ground—the National Park features space for activities (great if you’re travelling with kids who need to run around and tire themselves out). You can also go for a walk on one of the 10 short walking tracks that begin near the Aoraki Village.
Once you’ve had your fill, it’s time to head to Lake Tekapo and settle down for the day.
In the heart of the Mackenzie Basin region is Lake Tekapo. When it comes to serene South Island places to visit, you can’t go past Lake Tekapo. Fed by glacial rivers the Lake is turquoise in colour and spectacular to behold. Notable points of interest include the Church of the Good Shepherd, standing prominent on the shoreline against the backdrop of the Southern Alps, and the noble "Sheepdog monument" nearby. Sculptured to honour the districts debt to the hardy sheepdog “without the help of which the grazing of this mountain country would be impossible”.
Whether you’re looking to bike, hike, camp or laze beneath the starry night sky you can do it all (and more) here. Of all the things to do in New Zealand’s South Island, lake Tekapo is essential for a moment in nature, separate from the hustle and bustle of city life.
What to do in Lake Tekapo?
While Christchurch is a bustling city full of activies and things to see and do, Lake Tekapo is the most relaxed stop on this road trip. Here you can unwind in the Tekapo Springs (great for soothing any muscles that are sore from the walks on the way). Spend your evening outdoors and looking up. Lake Tekapo is one of the best places in the world for stargazing, it’s even park of a reserve that ensures a dark sky to help you see the stars. Visit the Mt John Observatory to see the sky through state-of-the-art telescopes, or settle down on a picnic blanket and look up at the stars by yourself.
Where to stay in Lake Tekapo?
If you’re on this road trip with the family, you might be feeling a little cramped. You might decide you’re in the mood for the space and amenities of an apartment with separate bedrooms so you can enjoy some alone time and take in the serenity of Lake Tekapo. Fortunately, the Mantra in Lake Tekapo has separate apartments (choose two or three bedrooms) so you can all have your own space for the night.
If you’re not interested in an apartment and would rather spend your night in a hotel room or even a villa, the Peppers Bluewater Resort in Lake Tekapo has you covered. The hotel looks out over the lake and township with lake view rooms available for visitors that can’t get enough of that amazing vista.
Where to eat in Lake Tekapo?
The Rakinui Restaurant and Bar is a part of Peppers, but it’s a great dining option for anyone in the region. Take a seat at one of the outdoor dining tables and enjoy the breeze blowing over the serene lake as you enjoy your breakfast or dinner. There are also smaller restaurants open throughout Lake Tekapo, though thanks to the area’s sparse population, you won’t find as many options as you did in Christchurch.
Once you’ve enjoyed breakfast in Lake Tekapo, it’s time to hit the road again. Now we’re on the road to Queenstown and we’re making a few stops along the way.
What to see between Lake Tekapo and Queenstown?
First stop is Omarama. Omarama itself is a small town, about an hour from Lake Tekapo, but the reasons t’s worth adding Omarama to your road trip are just 10km left of the town: the Omarama Clay Cliffs. The Clay Cliffs are natural rock formations that jut upwards into the air, originally formed from the flow of ancient glaciers, over a million years ago. The Clay Cliffs create an atmosphere that feels unearthly, like you’ve left a calm South Island town and driven onto a set from a Star Trek.
The next item on the list isn’t actually a stop (though you can access a viewpoint and make a stop if you like). You’ll be driving through Lindis Pass, one of the most popular South Island points of interest. The pass is a stretch of road, a dramatic mountain pass that provides panoramic views from the comfort of your car. You’re surrounded by lush greenery and snow-capped mountains in the colder months. If you want to make the most of your road trip through the South Island, you’ll want to make sure you travel along Lindis Pass.
The last stop before Queenstown is Cardrona. Cardrona is a popular spot for winter sports and if you want to take a moment to go skiing or snowboarding, you might want to stay in Cardrona overnight. If you’re not the winter sports type or if you’re visiting out of season, Cardrona is still a great visit. Visit the Cardrona Distillery and try a local gin, whisky, vodka, or liqueur. Maybe even grab yourself a bottle to enjoy later. And if you’re looking for some fun in Cardrona, take a quick trip to the Cardrona Bra Fence. Yes, it’s a real thing. The Cardrona Bra Fence is a stretch of fence with bras of all shapes, sizes, and colours attached to it. You can simply drive past and look at this quirky attraction on your way as you come into Cardrona or have a quick look before heading on to your next destination: Queenstown.
It’s hard to see all that Queenstown has to offer in just one night, so if you have the time you’ll want to spend at least a few days here to explore Queenstown and surrounds. From its quaint township, endless heart-stopping adventure activities, to high mountain peaks, it’s a place of endless discovery.
What to do in Queenstown?
Challenge yourself with a climb to the summit of Ben Lomond and be rewarded with sweeping views across crystal-blue Lake Wakatipu, and on clear days out across to Mount Aspiring. Be sure to pack the essentials as the climb will take 6-8 hours return based on experience.
Soothe the muscles and re-centre post-climb with a spa experience like no other at Onsen. Nestled on Arthurs Point and overlooking Shotover River, bathe in cedar hot tubs and unwind whilst taking in the spectacular views.
A nightcap on a chilly evening beckons at Eichardt’s Bar. Melt into a squashy sofa in cosy surroundings and take your pick from the specialty cocktails and spirits, or tuck into a share plate or two.
Where to stay in Queenstown?
If you’re longing for more picturesque lake views, you’re in luck in Queenstown. The Mercure Queenstown Resort is just out of Queenstown centre and looks out over the breath-taking Lake Wakatipu.
Also on the shores of Lake Wakatipu is the Novotel Queenstown Lakeside. The Novotel is located in the middle of Queenstown’s fine dining district, so it’s the place to stay for any foodies visiting.
If lakeside isn’t your preference, you might be more likely to opt for the French luxury of the Sofitel Queenstown - Hotel & Spa. Here you’ll be able to enjoy sophistication and Parisian charm in the heart of Queenstown. You’re only moments away from enjoying local attractions as you soak up the style of the Sofitel.
Where to eat in Queenstown?
If views are your priority, you won’t want to overlook Lombardi. Open for breakfast and dinner, Lombardi features classic, handsome interiors that pair spectacularly with the impressive mountains just outside the window.
For a more elegant evening consider a visit to 1789. Inviting, velvet textures, a warm fire, and decadent cocktails are waiting upon your arrival. Here you can enjoy a bistro-style menu and a perfectly paired glass of wine as you relax in front of the fire.
For a more contemporary experience, pop into Elements—a restaurant that offers fresh, seasonal cuisine. Enjoy your meal in the stylish interior or al fresco to make the most of the fresh, mountain air.
What to see between Queenstown and Nelson?
This stretch will be the longest of the road trip, and you may prefer to stop along the way and complete this leg over two days. Whichever option you choose, there are some amazing things to see between Queenstown and Nelson, along the west coast of the New Zealand South Island.
First up is Glenorchy. A picturesque 45-minute drive from Queenstown, Glenorchy is beautiful and melancholy. A sought-after film location, this destination is a must-visit for hiking, biking and nature lovers. Go wild and explore the rugged terrain and grassy plains solo or book a tour on foot or by kayak for a truly authentic New Zealand experience.
Once you’re ready to move on, it’s time to visit the Milford Sound, Fiordland. Dramatic and imposing, Milford Sound is unmissable. Located on the west coast of the South Island access is via a long, winding (and sometimes inaccessible) road, so it’s best to plan ahead and ensure you check the weather forecast before beginning your journey. One of the wettest locations in the world, Milford’s beauty is amplified by rain, swelling the waterfalls that thunder from the sheer cliffs into the fiord below.
From here, it’s time to drive north along the South Island’s west coast. If you want to split this trip into two days, consider stopping along the coast. However, it’s entirely possible to make the journey in one day. Enjoy the scenery as you make your way north until you finally come to the next must-see attraction, the Abel Tasman National Park.
A slice of coastal gold, Abel Tasman Park is New Zealand’s smallest national park – making it easy to navigate for a visit that’s filled with adventure and fun. Discover sandy beaches here and clear waters that are particularly inviting during the warm summer months.
The southern beaches are the most protected in unreliable weather conditions; Medland and Anchorage being some of the most popular stretches of sand. Nature enthusiasts will love the trails on offer to view local seal colonies, marine and bird life.
Finally, it’s time to head into town and check in to Nelson.
Nelson is a city full of sun and energy. On the northern tip of the South Island, Nelson gets plenty of sunshine all year, and the locals take advantage of that with plenty of outdoor activities in any season.
What to do in Nelson?
Nelson is home to a vibrant arts scene and any visitor to the city should wander through one of the many galleries that call Nelson home. There are also boutique shops to visit (and maybe grab a memento) and historic buildings to wander through and learn about.
Every Saturday, you can walk through the Nelson Market in Montgomery Square to view local produce, handmade goods, and yummy street food. If you’re visiting Nelson with kids or animal lovers of any ages, the Natureland Zoo may be calling your name. Finally, you can go wind carting on the beach and race across the sands, powered by the wind.
Where to stay in Nelson?
The city of Nelson embodies the old-meets-new belief, and to continue that atmosphere into your accommodation, you’ll want to stay somewhere like the Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco Apartments (currently preparing for their grand re-opening in December 2020).
In terms of aesthetics, Grand Mercure is all vintage charm: warm brickwork and soft lighting make up the outside façade and the indoors are filled with dark wood furnishings and soft touches. Positioned on the shores of the Tasman Bay, the Grand Mercure looks out over the fresh water giving visitors cooling breezes every morning and evening.
Where to eat in Nelson?
The Monaco Kitchen sits just to the side of the Grand Mercure, enjoying the same vintage aesthetic and ocean breezes. If you’ve spent your day walking through the amazing city of Nelson and you’re ready to enjoy a feast of a meal, the Monaco is the place to be. Order sharing plates with friends to try a bit of everything or choose that standout item you’re not willing to share, lest you lose a single bite of flavour.
Choose from a hand-selected offering of craft beers, local wines, and non-alcoholic beverages to go with your meal. Eat al fresco in the courtyard, surrounded by lush plants or looking out over the water from indoors where you can enjoy the views and keep warm on a colder evening.
By now you’ve spent a few days exploring all the wonderful things to see in New Zealand’s South Island. You can finish your trip here in Nelson or complete the circular track by heading back to Christchurch.
If you choose to finish at your starting point, you'll have to decide if you want to take the inland route or the coastal route to Christchurch. Inland you can enjoy the rugged, natural beauty you’ll have come to expect from New Zealand. Along the inland path you can stop at Muchison and enjoy the view of the Kahurangi National Park or perhaps go white water rafting or kayaking.
Your other option is the coastal route, where you can look out over the water and maybe stop for a fresh seafood lunch along the way. Visit the Ohau Point Look Out for one last photo op to remember your trip. Keep an eye out for the local Fur Seal Colonies who make Ohau Point their home.
Finally, back in Christchurch. You can finish up by spending some more time in the city, visiting any attractions you missed the first time, or call it a day and head home for some much-needed rest.
If you’re ready to start your South Island adventure, Accor has plenty of options when it comes to choosing the right Christchurch accommodation for the start and end of your journey. Or start somewhere else along the loop and consider Queenstown accommodation for your start and end point. Wherever you want to stay in New Zealand, Accor has you covered.