New Zealand South Island Travel Guide: Including the “Can’t Miss & Must Do” Places!

During my husband & I’s New Zealand Road Trip, we spent 2 weeks in the South Island and 1.5 weeks in the North Island. We fell completely in love with this country as it is our #2 favorite place in the whole world!  Every corner you turn is something new and completely breathtaking. 

This is my New Zealand South Island itinerary from Christchurch to the ferry in Picton and all the beautiful scenes, stunning roads and speechless spaces in between. Two things to mention before we get started is 1)this itinerary starts in Christchurch, but you could start in Picton and make your way to Christchurch too, and 2)even if you spend 2 weeks in New Zealand like we did, don’t expect to see everything! New Zealand has so much to offer, you just simply cannot experience it all in anything less than a few months, however I think i’ve created the ultimate travel guide for all the “Can’t Miss & Must Do” places!

With that said.. let’s begin!

Christchurch 

Christchurch is a vibrant, energetic city where you can explore the city by double-decker bus, vintage bicycle, gondola, tram or by grabbing your walking shoes.  There is a lot to be seen such as : city’s award-winning Christchurch Botanic Gardens, Canterbury Museum, The Arts Centre, Ōtākaro/Avon River, and International Antarctic Centre. Unfortunately, we didn’t spend anytime exploring the city due to a lack of time. We are very outdoors people, so we wanted to optimize the time we had in nature.  From Christchurch make your way south towards Lake Tekapo. Along the way stop in the small town called Geraldine to taste test local cheeses & jams/jellies.  Both shops are right next to each other and are called: Barker’s of Geraldine and Talbot Forest Cheese. 

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is a scenic little mountain village and worth stopping at especially during Mid November – late December. Within this time frame millions of Lupin flowers are blooming turning the scenery into shades of pink, purple, blue and green. Tekapo is New Zealand’s Dark Sky Reserve, which means it’s an awesome spot for any astronomy and astrophotography enthusiast. From Tekapo make your way down towards Mount Cook National Park. 

 

Mount Cook National Park

The scenery to and in Mount Cook National Park is second to none. Your drive into and out of the park passes Lake Pukaki, which has unique blue color due to the glacier flour that runs off the mountains. This lake was used as Lake Town in The Hobbit trilogy.

Hooker Valley Trail 

A must do while at Mount Cook is hike along the Hooker Valley trail. This relatively flat 5 km hike has some of the most scenic views in the whole park. From White Horse Hill carpark the route travels all the way through the Hooker Valley eventually ending up at the Hooker Valley Glacial Lake. Here iceberg’s can be seen carving off the glacier and floating all the way down to near the shoreline. We ate lunch here and were able to experience seeing a piece of glacier falling into the lake. It was incredible to witness and even more to hear-it sounded like an earthquake! Once you return back to your vehicle, grab a snack and head out on foot on another hike that leaves from White Horse Hill carpark (Kea Point (2 hrs total) or Sealy Tarns (3-4 hrs total))  or drive to Tasman Glacier Viewpoint. 

 

Visit Tasman Lake and Glacier Viewpoint

Take the road back toward Lake Pukaki about 2 km away from Mount Cook Village and turn left onto Tasman Valley Road (Highway 80). After a short drive to the carpark, the 40 min-1 hour return route can be started. Similar to Hooker Valley Glacial Lake icebergs can be seen here in the summer and it does freeze over in the winter. From here start your journey to Queenstown.

Queenstown

Be warned, Queenstown is a very expensive little town and will suck your wallet dry. However, with that said…Queenstown is beautiful! It’s known as the adventure capital of New Zealand and offers a plethora of activities for thrill seekers. From hiking to bungee jumping to skiing and snowboarding, paddle boating and even jet boats. The list goes on and on. We personally got our thrill Bungee Jumping x 2! One time just wasn’t enough for us!!

Spend some time exploring the town and grabbing a bite to eat.  Ferburger is a very popular hamburger joint, i’m sure you have seen it. We didn’t try it because my husband wasn’t willing to stand in the 1 hr long line haha. Plus, we heard the burgers are nothing special from a local, but I am a foodie so I definitely think it is worth trying if you’re willing to wait in line. You can also call and order take out! 

If you have the time consider driving the road to Glenorchy. It’s a beautiful scenic drive that we drove on to capture some drone footage & witness the beauty in real life. Make sure to stop for a photo at the Bennet’s Bluff Point. 

From Queenstown make your way to Te Anau – the gateway to Fiordland National Park. Though it is only 170 km, the first stretch off the road which starts 20km south of the centre of Queenstown will get very windy. This scenic drive has been named the Devil’s staircase. As unappealing as it may sound, it is another amazing stretch of road so make sure you’re not driving at night.  

Te Anau

Te Anau is about 2 hours from Milford Sound. Make sure to stop at the Fiordland National Park Visitor’s Center and grab a map of the park along with all the must-see things! After stopping at the visitors center you could either explore more of the area or make your way into the park. We spent some time exploring and hiking Manapouri and Te Anu before going into the park. From Te Anau, the whole journey will take around 2 hours to reach Milford Sound, however I would recommend staying in one of the campsites/lodges along the way to Milford Sound.  

Fiordland National Park 

Taking a boat cruise on Milford Sound is a MUST DO. I recommend talking the earliest morning cruise and then exploring the rest of the park in the day. This allows you to stop along the roadside stops(MUST DOs) and participate in any hikes you choose to after. We spent 1 night and two days in Fiordland National Park, and wished we had time to spend at least 1-2 more days! 

We did the Gertrude Saddle Hike and half of the Key Summit hiking trail. We were definitely sore the next day! Both hikes I would recommend, just make sure you have proper equipment and footwear for the Gertrude Saddle as it is more intense. After exploring Fiordland, make your way back towards Queenstown and on to Wanaka. 

Wanaka

Wanaka is yet another mountain paradise…except I think it’s the best one! Out of all the towns in New Zealand, Wanaka is my favorite!  To reach this small town you must drive through the famous Crown Range. The Crown Range is unlike any other drive you will take in your life. The view is…undescribable. It’s everything you imagine New Zealands South Island would look like and at the same time nothing like you could ever imagine. When you arrive in Wanaa the amazement continues. Lake Wanaka stretches on into the distance as the mountain tops reflect on the beautiful water.

Water sports are very popular here because of how perfect the water is and how beautiful the views are. There are plenty of places to rent equipment, give yourself lots of time – you’re going to want it! Wanaka is also known for its awesome mountain biking. On top of that, there are a ton of great hikes in the area, Roys Peak is probably the most popular one, and for good reason! The hike is strenuous, but amazing! Other popular hikes include Rocky Mountain and Mount Iron; however like mentioned before there are a ton of other hikes! Make sure to go to the Mount Aspiring National Park Visitor Centre to get a map of Wanaka and the National Park. They will provide you with everything you need to know.

Of all our time in New Zealand, this was our favorite place and somewhere in our dreams to live! 

  

Fox Glacier/Franz Josef

From Wanaka to Franz Joseph it’s about 3 hrs & 40 mins. On this route you’ll be going through another super scenic rode on the Haast Pass where I recommend you stop at Thunder Creek Falls – just a minute’s walk from the road. Then don’t miss the Blue Pools of Haast. This is an 1 hour return walk through forest to some of the clearest and bluest rivers.

There isn’t as much to see at Fox Glacier, but that doesn’t mean taking a drive up Glacier View Road isn’t worth it because it definitely is. I mean, how often do we get to see glaciers everyday? Am I right or am I right? Unfortunately they have closed the Fox Glacier Terminal Face hike, but there is still a 20 minute walk from the carpark with promising views of the glacier. From here start the journey to Franz Josef. 

Franz Josef is a small town on New Zealands South Island that’s located at the base of the famous glacier of the same name. This small town is surrounded by towering mountains and is actually a partial rainforest. The accommodation in this town is typically very unique and the campground is its own rain-forest!

The glacier can be seen from the middle of town and there are multiple hikes that allow you to get close to the glacier. If you want to walk through the glacier and see the magnificent blue color you can book guided helicopter tours that take you to the top of the glacier and then walk you through the icy canals (beware these can be expensive). From Franz Josef make your journey towards Punakaiki. 

Punakaiki 

The town of Punakaiki is home to the countries coolest rocks and blowholes. Known simply as the Pancake Rocks, these limestone formations and blow holes are especially magnificent during high tides. Formed 30 million years ago from dead marine creatures and plants these rocks were once over 2km under water and were slowly raised through seismic activity. Over time wind, rain and seawater have turned these rocks into odd and interesting shapes. The blowholes can only be described as intense and are extremely powerful. The journey from Punakaiki to Nelson is approx. 3 hrs and 30 mins, however i recommend stopping at Cape Foulwind to see the most beautiful black sand beach and fur seal breeding colony. You can also hike to a lighthouse if you’re up for it. 

Nelson

The city of Nelson was a great place for us to stop from our travels. We stayed at a holiday park to shower, charge phones and my laptop, and wash our laundry. We left in the morning early towards Abel Tasman National Park so we didn’t actually explore the area, but if we had more time we would have explored Tahunanui Beach and experienced the best of Nelson’s cuisine. Other things to do include a stroll through Queen’s Gardens,  Founders Park, or the Natureland Zoo. If you’re there on Saturday make sure to visit the Nelson Saturday Market.

Abel Tasman National Park 

Located on the North Coast of New Zealands South Island, Abel Tasman is known for its wicked beaches. There are plenty of water activities and hikes in the area too. Bring a canoe or kayak or rent one to paddle around the shorelines and discover some amazing natural rocks and flora. There is a great walkthrough Abel Tasman you can do as well that is a few days long. My husband and I started on the walk for a few hours and then turned around, so you don’t actually have to do it in a few days, you just won’t be able to get too far. One important thing to mention is that you have to either walk the track or pay for a boat to drop you off to where you want to go. There isn’t actually a road that you can drive to in the middle-there are just two carparks at the top and bottom of the park. 

Whether you’re coming from Abel Tasman Park or Nelson, be sure to take the Queen Charlotte Drive to Picton…unless if you get car sick easy then don’t. It’s a windy road, but the views are incredible. We stopped about halfway at Momorangi Bay for the night. 

Picton

This picturesque seaside town is the South Island base for the ferry service that links the main islands of New Zealand and the heart of the Marlborough Sounds. Some fun activities to do include: kayak around the harbor, hike the famous Queen Charlotte Track hiking trail, or just use this as a day to relax and catch up on rest. Make sure to stop at Picton Village Bakkerij and grab some local meat pies or baked goods. Also, it’s important to mention that the library here is amazing! It was built in 2018 and the wifi wasn’t time-limited. From Picton it’s time to board the ferry to New Zealand’s North Island!

I highly recommend that you spend a good amount of time in New Zealand as a whole, but more specifically plan a little bit of extra time on New Zealand’s South Island. This list doesn’t include all the places the South Island has to offer, however, it does include all the “can’t miss & must do” places! Above all, make sure to spend your time in New Zealand doing the right things that suit what you love to do; hopefully, my list helps you narrow that down!

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