A South Island road trip is the best way to see this beautiful part of New Zealand!
New Zealand’s South Island is much bigger than most people think. If you plan on seeing the whole of the island, it can be a long and arduous trip, but it’s well worth it!
There are many great places to visit on the South Island, such as Milford Sound and Queenstown.
You won’t be short of incredible places to see during this road trip!
The problem with driving around the South Island is that there are so many places to see, it’s hard to fit them all into a single road trip!
However, I have done my best to devise a South Island road trip itinerary that will take you to the best places without breaking the bank!
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
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South Island Road Trip
The South Island is the biggest of the two main islands that make up New Zealand. Christchurch is the main gateway in and out of the South Island, which makes it a natural starting point for a South Island self-drive itinerary.
There are a lot of beautiful and interesting places to see on the South Island. If you have limited time it can be hard to squeeze everything in!
My itinerary only lasts for 10 days, but if you want to spend more time on the road that’s perfectly fine. You can stretch your South Island itinerary out over more days, and see more of this beautiful island!
If you want to do a shorter road trip, you can drive from Christchurch to Queenstown. The trip doesn’t take in as much of the island as this road trip, but you will still see a fair amount of the island nonetheless!
Before Setting Off
Before you do any road trip in New Zealand, it’s important to have everything you need! There are a lot of secluded places on the South Island.
You can drive long distances and not come across many towns, especially if you’re navigating passes such as Arthur’s Pass!
It’s best to be prepared at all times. Accidents can and do happen! I would advise looking at my road trip packing list before you leave to ensure you have all the items you need during your trip!
It’s best to have a few basic supplies with you at all times. Carrying food and water is essential in case of any worst-case scenario.
The odds of you encountering trouble are quite small, but it can happen, so it pays to be prepared!
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when driving around New Zealand is that they drive on the left. If you’re from a country that drives on the right, this is the most important thing you need to know.
Another important thing to consider is your driving licence, as you won’t get very far without one!
If you have a valid English language licence then you can drive in New Zealand without too much trouble! This is as long as you have no traffic infringements and you rent the vehicle less than 12 months before you entered New Zealand!
Things are a little more complicated if you’re not from an English-speaking country! You’ll need a valid translation to be able to drive in New Zealand. Alternatively, you can use an international driving licence to convert to a New Zealand Licence.
Before doing any road trip in New Zealand, ensure that you have proper travel insurance!
I use SafetyWing to keep me safe on the road, it’s designed for backpackers and adventurous travellers. You never know what can happen on the road. Keep yourself protected against all eventualities! Click here to get a quote!
Why You Should Do a South Island Road Trip
The South Island is arguably the best of the two main islands in New Zealand to visit.
I spent the majority of my New Zealand working holiday on the South Island, and loved it!
No matter where you go, there is beauty around every corner. I don’t recall visiting a single place on the South Island that I didn’t like!
One of the main reasons to do a New Zealand Road trip around the South Island is that it’s the most practical way to get around. Apart from Christchurch and Queenstown, most of the other places in the South Island don’t have an airport.
Travelling around the South Island by car is the only way to get around and explore all this beautiful island has to offer, such as Milford Sound, Abel Tasman National Park and Mount Cook.
There aren’t many main roads in New Zealand, and trains aren’t as frequent as they are in other countries. Driving around the South Island is simply the best convenient and practical way to get around.
You could do the trip as part of a tour, but as much as I like tours, I much prefer doing a road trip. This way you have the freedom to where and whenever you want. You’re not tied to someone else’s schedule, you can make your own!
Where to Stay on the South Island
The good thing about a South Island Road trip is that you aren’t short of places to stay.
Wherever you go, you are guaranteed to find hostels and hotels. The South Island is geared towards tourism, and the accommodation is top of the range.
The South Island has some of the best hostels in New Zealand! I’ve listed a few of them below, so you can stay in the best during your drive around the South Island!
|Jailhouse Accommodation||Christchurch||A hostel in a former jail! It’s not far from the centre and has great facilities, including free parking.||Book Now|
|Albatross Backpacker Inn||Kaikoura||Lovely hostel that has a great vibe, a big kitchen and a great outdoor area.||Book Now|
|Piwaka Lodge & Backpackers||Picton||Not far from the beach, this hostel has comfortable rooms and a great breakfast.||Book Now|
|YHA Nelson||Nelson||A great hostel in the middle of the city that has spacious rooms and good facilities.||Book Now|
|Noah’s Ark Backpackers||Greymouth||A hostel that feels more like a home. Nice rooms and there are hammocks and a BBQ in the garden!||Book Now|
|Wanaka Bakpaka||Wanaka||Nice hostel that has a great view of Lake Wanaka and lovely rooms.||Book Now|
|Adventure Queenstown Hostel||Queenstown||A great place to meet fellow travellers at this hostel in the centre of town. Activities are held 7 days a week.||Book Now|
|On Top Backpackers||Dunedin||A chilled vibe at this hostel close to the centre. Big kitchen and a billiards table downstairs||Book Now|
|YHA Lake Tekapo||Lake Tekapo||A lovely and clean hostel with a big lounge area. Great view of Lake Tekapo too!||Book Now|
Places to Visit on a South Island Road Trip
There are plenty of places to see on this South Island road trip. I’ve listed some of the best you have to visit below.
Christchurch has suffered a lot recently, with the fallout from the devastating earthquakes in 2011 still being felt. Thankfully, the city is well on its way to recovery.
Despite the upheaval, the city is still a fantastic destination with lots to see and do! There is a lot of natural beauty around Christchurch.
There are some pristine golden sand beaches such as Taylor’s Mistake, and a walk up the Bridle Path to get an incredible view of Lyttelton Harbour is an absolute must!
It’s also a good starting point for the road trip, with Christchurch being the main point of entry to the South Island. It serves as a gateway to the rest of the Island!
Read more: Christchurch Travel Guide
Fiordland National Park
Fiordland is one of the most beautiful parts of the South Island. During our road trip there, I was constantly gazing out of the window in awe at the beauty in front of me!
The drive to Milford Sound was one of the best I’ve done. It was incredible to see the towering mountains and fiords up close. It truly is an incredible sight!
Basing yourself in Te Anau is a good choice. Not only is the town beautiful, but it’s also not far from Milford Sound at just over an hour. You have to visit Milford Sound as it’s the main attraction in Fiordland and should not be missed.
I recommend doing a boat tour to get an overview of the sound and see it up close. There is also Doubtful Sound to visit if you want to see more of stunning Fiordland!
Golden Bay is a beautiful spot in the Northwest of the South Island. It’s not far from Nelson, and is a must-visit during any South Island Road trip!
There are many great sights to explore in this region, with Abel Tasman National Park not far from Golden Bay.
One of my favourite spots here was Farewell Spit. It’s the northernmost point of the South Island and is a 30 km long sandbar.
The views here are spectacular as you walk over dunes to reach the Tasman Sea.
Golden Bay is one place you have to include on any road trip on the South Island!
One place you have to visit during your South Island Road trip is Queenstown! It’s a haven for backpackers, and is a beautiful place!
The scenery is out of this world! Ideally, you’d want to spend 3 days in Queenstown, but a day and a half will suffice for this trip.
The views across Lake Wakatipu are incredible and they get even better when you venture up into the hills surrounding the town!
If you’re looking for a dose of adrenaline, Queenstown is the place to go! You can do everything from bungy-jumping to skydiving.
Plus, during the winter, you can head to the ski fields in The Remarkables!
Queenstown is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit during a South Island self-drive itinerary! You’ll regret it if you don’t visit!
Read more: Queenstown Travel Guide
Example South Island Road Trip Itinerary
This South Island Road trip itinerary takes 10 days. It’s a great road trip to do, however, it should be used as a guide.
There are a lot of places to visit on the South Island. If you wanted to see them all it would take at least three weeks.
This itinerary is a slimmed-down version you can complete in 10 days without too much trouble. There are several varying South Island driving routes you can do.
If you have more time, that’s fantastic. You’ll be able to more of this beautiful island and venture into Southland and the interior if you wish.
If you’re strapped for time or backpacking New Zealand on a budget, my 10-day South Island Road trip itinerary is a good guide to base your travels on!
Day 1 Christchurch to Kaikoura
189 km (117 miles)
Time without stops
2 hours 28 minutes
The drive from Christchurch is a relatively easy one. It only takes about two to three hours to reach Kaikoura from Christchurch, and there are lots of beautiful sights along the way to keep you occupied as you head towards Kaikoura!
One place I would recommend stopping is Amberley. There are some great cafes here, and it’s a nice place to relax for an hour before continuing with the drive.
Another interesting place to visit along the way is Waipara. A micro-climate exists in the area, with the seaward low hill blocking the cool sea breeze.
During the summer this results in temperatures that are significantly higher than the surrounding area!
Once you get to Kaikoura, there is a lot you can do. The town is an excellent place to go whale-watching. The best times to visit are between November and March. Outside of these months, there aren’t many whale sightings.
Kaikoura is an incredibly scenic destination. The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is a great way to see more of the beauty of the town.
You can encounter a lot of wildlife along the way, such as seals and many types of birds.
There are plenty of other things to do in Kaikoura such as kayaking, diving and snorkelling. It’s a must-visit stop while driving around the South Island!
Day 2 Kaikoura to Picton
156.4 km (97.1 miles)
Time without stops
2 hours 2 minutes
The drive to Picton isn’t a long one, it takes about 2 hours. Despite the short journey, there is a lot to see along the way.
The primary attraction is the Marlborough Sounds. They are a collection of ancient sunken river valleys that have been filled with waters from the Pacific Ocean. The sights here are beautiful, and it’s a place you must stop!
You could spend the night in Marlborough if you wish, and drive onto Picton the next day. This would give you time to explore the sounds, and perhaps do a boat tour. This would be a good option if time isn’t an issue!
Otherwise, you can drive on towards Picton. Marlborough is also renowned as a wine-growing region. If you’re a wine lover, a trip to one of the many wineries may be in order!
Once you get to Picton, you’ll find an interesting town with a few things to do! The sounds aren’t too far from Picton, so it’s a good opportunity to explore the Queen Charlotte Sound by boat!
You can do the Queen Charlotte track, which is a beautiful hike around the stunning scenery in Picton. It’s a long track, so I would recommend doing a small part of it if you need to head off early the next day!
Day 3 Picton to Nelson
144 km (89.4 miles)
Time without stops
1 hour 46 minutes
Much like the previous day, the drive from Picton to Nelson is a short one. It only takes about two hours to reach the city on the West Coast of the South Island.
There are several routes you can take to get to Nelson, and perhaps the most scenic is Queen Charlotte Drive.
On this route, you come across amazing places such as Shakespeare and Ngakuta Bays. As you edge closer to Nelson the road follows the side of the Pelorus River.
Along the way, you will come across Pelorus Bridge, which is the location of one of the best swimming holes on the South Island! It’s a great place to stop for an hour or two and relax before completing the drive to Nelson.
Once you get to Nelson, there are a few things you can do. Walking around the city is a must. It’s a beautiful place with lovely architecture, and it has a bit of an English feel towards it!
The nightlife in Nelson is particularly good, and I would recommend checking it out if you want to have a few drinks late at night!
Day 4 Nelson to Greymouth
328 km (203 miles)
Time without stops
3 hours 43 minutes
Before heading off down the West Coast to Greymouth, I recommend heading north towards Golden Bay.
You have the Abel Tasman National Park, as well as Farewell Spit and in this area. Both places are incredibly beautiful and well worth checking out. I particularly liked Farewell Spit, it’s a beautiful sandbar, with spectacular views!
Heading north will extend your drive to Greymouth, but the aforementioned places are two of the best you can visit on a South Island Road trip, and it’s well worth the detour.
There are several places to see on your way down the wild west coast to Greymouth. Buller Gorge is a great spot to stop for a while. You can go zip-lining across the gorge, and there’s a nice track to walk around too!
You can go whitewater rafting at Buller Gorge, which I recommend. It’s suitable for beginners and experienced rafters. It’s a lot of fun and although you’ll get soaked, it’s a great experience and a lot of fun!
You can also detour to Nelson lakes national park but this will make your drive longer and require you to drive inland. I’d only do this if you really want to visit there.
Perhaps the best place to stop along the way is at Punakaiki. This is where you will find the famous rocks pancake rocks. They are named this way because they look like layers upon layers of pancakes.
It’s a beautiful spot and well worth stopping at! There aren’t an awful lot of things to do in Greymouth, but if you like interesting seascapes, a walk along the shore is worth doing!
Day 5 Greymouth to Wanaka
458 km (284 miles)
Time without stops
This is one of the longer drives on my South Island road trip itinerary. The 458 km will take you about five hours to complete. However, there are some interesting places to stop along the way.
This is glacier country and the best places to stop are Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Both are incredible sights, it doesn’t matter which one you stop at. You could even visit both if you wish!
If you’re keen you can do a glacier walking tour, although this would require you to spend the night in Franz Josef, as it would be a long drive otherwise!
There are a few places to see once you get past the Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Mount Aspiring National Park is one and the Blue Pools is another. There’s also the beautiful Lake Matheson, which might be the most underrated lake in the country.
After these places, it’s only a short drive to Wanaka, one of the most beautiful places you can visit on any of the numerous South Island road trips you can do!
One of the primary attractions in Wanaka is the lake, which is beautiful and gigantic. Admiring the view is a must when you arrive.
The famous Wanaka tree sits in the lake. It’s a popular image for photographers. If you like taking photos, then getting a snap of the tree will be high on your list!
If you visit during the winter, you can go skiing at nearby Coronet Peak in the Southern Alps. It’s a great ski slope and a great way to spend the day!
Day 6 Wanaka to Queenstown
67.2 km (41.7 miles)
Time without stops
1 hour 6 minutes
This may be one of the shorter drives around the South Island at about an hour, but it is also one of the best!
The views on the way into Queenstown are simply stunning! You meander your way through the snow capped mountains, and often above the clouds before you drop down into Queenstown.
I’ve done a lot of road trips, but the views of the surrounding mountains on the way into Queenstown were something else!
Once you get to Queenstown, there is no end of activities you can do. It’s the adventure capital of New Zealand, and arguably, the world! You can go bungy jumping, jet-boating and skiing during the winter months!
You certainly be short of things to do! One place to eat is Fergburger. It’s a legendary burger joint, that has some of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted.
They have vegetarian and vegan options too for non-meat eaters!
If you have the time, I recommend spending an extra day or two here if you can. If not, make the most of your day here. It’s one of New Zealand’s best places to visit!
Day 7 Queenstown to Te Anau
172.5 km (107 miles)
Time without stops
2 hours 5 minutes
The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau isn’t too difficult. The 172.5 km takes just over two hours to complete. It’s part of the Southern Scenic Route and one of the nicest drives on this New Zealand South Island itinerary.
It’s a scenic drive as you hug the coastline of Lake Wakatipu on the way out of Queenstown. There are a few places you can stop along the way before you get to Te Anau.
One of them is Kingston, where you will find a vintage steam train! There is also Lumsden and Mossburn further along, where it’s possible to do a tour of a farm!
When you arrive in Te Anau, you will be greeted by one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. The lake of the same name is simply beautiful and is incredibly scenic.
There isn’t an awful lot to do, but there are some shops and cafes to explore. Plus, there are a few walking tracks you can explore to see more of the beauty of this small lakeside town!
Day 8 Te Anau/Fiordland to Dunedin
289.2 km (179.7 miles)
Time without stops
3 hours 24 minutes
Before heading to Lake Tekapo, you absolutely must visit Milford Sound. It’s one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand, come rain or shine.
We visited in the pouring rain and we were still blown away by the beauty of the place. This was despite being unable to see all of the Sound due to the low-lying clouds!
I recommend going on a Milford Sound cruise to get the best perspective. You’ll get up close to the sound, and learn a lot about its history and formation via the onboard tour guide.
Once you’ve made your way back to Te Anau, the drive to Dunedin takes about three and a half hours. There isn’t an awful lot to see between Te Anau and Dunedin, but there are a few interesting stops.
One, in particular, is the Hokonui Moonshine Museum. Located in Gore, you can dive into the history of illicit whiskey-making which originated in Scotland!
When you reach Dunedin, there are a few things you can do. The city is beautiful and should be explored as much as possible. A visit to Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle, and The Octagon are musts!
Day 9 Dunedin to Lake Tekapo
287.1 km (178.3 miles)
Time without stops
3 hours 29 minutes
The drive from Dunedin to Lake Tekapo is a long one, but it’s one that’s worth it on this South Island trip. One place to stop on the way towards Lake Tekapo is the Moeraki Boulders.
They are giant boulders that have been formed over millions of years. They lie on a beach outside of Dunedin and are a strange sight. It’s definitely worth stopping for an hour to check them out!
Once you pass the boulders, there isn’t an awful lot to see as you pass through Oamaru and Timaru.
You can turn off after Oamaru if you want to see Lake Pukaki too. It will add a few hours to the drive, depending on how long you stay there, but it’s just as beautiful as Tekapo.
If you don’t want to see Lake Puakaki, you turn off State Highway 1 after Timaru and head inland towards Lake Tekapo. This is where the scenery starts to pick up.
As you head inland you can start to see Mount Cook in the distance. It’s an imposing sight, and looks spectacular amongst the scenery!
Lake Tekapo itself is an incredible sight. The lake is gigantic and there are lots of things to do in the area, such as hiking, fishing or relaxing in the hot pools that are in the area!
Day 10 Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
220 km (136.7 miles)
Time without stops
2 hours 50 minutes
Driving from Lake Tekapo to Christchurch is relatively straightforward. At 220 km it’s not a long drive and should only take two to three hours without any stops.
Before setting off, I would advise making the most of your time in Lake Tekapo during the morning. Soak in your surroundings and go for one last walk, before you set off back to your starting point in Christchurch.
Once you leave Lake Tekapo, there isn’t an awful lot to see on the way back to Christchurch. An interesting part of the journey is when you approach the Rakaia Bridge, which is the longest in New Zealand.
There isn’t a lot of space to manoeuvre your car, so it can be a little unsettling going across the bridge while trying to stop the car from touching the sides of the bridge.
Once you’re over the bridge you’ll be nearly back in Christchurch as you pass through towns such as Dunsandel and Rolleston.
Back in Christchurch, I would recommend exploring the city again, or for the first time if you didn’t initially. There’s a lot to see, and this ever-changing city is a fun place to be!
How Much Does a South Island Road Trip Cost?
There’s no getting away from it, driving around the South Island isn’t cheap. With paying for a rental car and fuel, accommodation, food, day tours and activities, you could end up spending a lot of money.
I did the same when I was travelling around the South Island. However, it was firmly worth it. The South Island is beautiful, and you should do as many activities as you can to get the most out of your trip.
For a lot of people, travelling to New Zealand is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, why not make the most of it!?
The biggest expense of the South Island Road trip will undoubtedly be renting your car and the cost of fuelling it. Depending on whether you rent a car or a camper van, the amount you pay will vary.
I would recommend renting a car. It’s cheaper, and the hostels in the South Island are not overly expensive.
The other area of expenditure to take into consideration is food and drink. Eating out can be expensive in New Zealand. I would advise you to cook as much food as you can while you’re driving around the South Island.
There will be times when you don’t feel like cooking, and it’s fine to eat out now and again. However, if you do it daily, it will eat into your funds.
Take a look at my road trip food ideas to learn more about what you should be eating on the road.
This will mean you have less money left to spend on any activities or tours you may wish to do while you’re on the South Island.
Depending on how many people you do your road trip with, the cost will vary. It will be more expensive with fewer people, and less so if there are more of you.
Including accommodation, food and fuel, you could be looking at $50 a day on this road trip. This figure could vary depending on what you do, but it’s a rough estimate for you to go off!
Tips to save money
- Some hostels in New Zealand charge extra to use their WiFi. Most of the hostels along the West Coast didn’t but, if that’s the case, then finding a library or McDonald’s etc, will allow you to use free WiFi.
- Cook your own food as much as possible! This is a great way to save money. It’s more convenient to just buy food, but the costs soon add up. If you cook as much as possible and use pasta and rice as your staple ingredients you’ll save a fair bit of money!
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to drive around the South Island?
The answer to this question depends on how long you want your trip to be. You can drive from the top of the South Island to the bottom in two days, but you would see next to nothing along the way.
If you were intent on seeing everything the South Island had to offer, then the trip could easily take a month. However, a more reasonable timeframe is between 10 to 14 days. This will take you to all of the most interesting spots on the island.
The South Island is the most interesting and beautiful part of New Zealand as far as I’m concerned. You want at least 10 days to see all of the best spots. Any longer than that is a bonus!
When it comes to travelling, I believe that slower is better and this certainly applies to driving around the South Island. Take your time and bask in the beauty of this incredible place!
Is it easy to drive around the South Island of New Zealand?
Yes, it’s easy to drive around the South Island. This is because there’s only one main road between most towns and cities, so it’s almost impossible to get lost. Outside of the main cities, there’s not much traffic, either, so you can go along at your own pace without much trouble.
Of all the places I’ve done road trips in, the South Island is one of the easiest.
What is the best way to tour the South Island?
The best way to tour the South Island is by car. You can tour the South Island via a company such as Kiwi Experience, but I feel it’s better to rent your own car. This way, you can stop where you want, see what you want and devise your own itinerary.
How many days do you need in the South Island?
The absolute minimum you need in the South Island is 14 days. There’s so much to see such as Abel Tasman National Park, the Southern Alps and Lake Pukaki that anything less leaves you with too little.
Personally, I think you need a month to see everything the island has to offer. I lived here for almost a year and didn’t see everything, despite extensive trips around the South Island on weekends and when I wasn’t working.
There’s no doubt a South Island road trip is one of the best you can do in New Zealand! The sheer beauty of the island makes it an excellent location for a road trip.
The best way to see New Zealand is by car, and the South Island is no different! If you don’t venture around the island by car you will almost certainly regret it!
I hope my itinerary will come in handy! Have you driven around the South Island? Do you agree or disagree with my itinerary? Is there anywhere I’ve left off you particularly enjoyed?
Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear your feedback!
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Looking For More Road Trips?
Wellington to Auckland Road Trip – A fun drive between the two biggest cities on the North Island!
Auckland to Queenstown Road Trip – This trip takes you across both islands and allows you to see much of beautiful NZ!
West Coast of New Zealand Road Trip – A road trip specifically designed for the beautiful West Coast of the South Island!
Auckland to Christchurch Road Trip – A scenic trip from the North Island to the biggest city on the South Island!
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Tom is a travel addict who first left England to spend a year Down Under. Not satisfied with this, he then went to New Zealand, about as far away from home as he could get. He is now planning his next adventures in Europe and Canada while maintaining this blog. Check out the about me page to learn more!