Experience one of the world’s most spectacular playgrounds, where nature, history, food and wine combine in unrivalled fashion. From Nelson’s northern beaches to New Zealand’s most southernmost city, a South Island road trip is the perfect way to sample some of New Zealand’s finest at your own pace. Our South Island itinerary gives you around a week (or more) to take in the island’s two largest cities, awe-inspiring national parks, glacial lakes and acclaimed wine regions. Buckle up and get ready to hit the road!
New Zealand South Island Itinerary
Length of stay: 1 – 2 days
A gateway to some of New Zealand’s most picturesque locations, Nelson is a vibrant artistic hotspot on the doorstep of the Matai Valley and Nelson Lakes National Park. Hire a car from Nelson Airport, only 6km south-west of central Nelson, and take some time to explore the surrounding beaches, waterways and national parks that mark the beginning of your trip.
Situated in Nelson’s beautiful Botanic Reserve, the easy Centre of New Zealand Walk introduces you to the start of the Matai Valley with fantastic views over the Nelson Tasman – not surprisingly this was a central survey point in the 1800s. From the summit, follow a trail down to the Black Hole swimming hole in the warmer months and enjoy a refreshing dip.
Only 15 minutes from town, the Brook Waimārama Sanctuary is another lush sanctuary that is home to endangered native plants and animals. Explore the scenery on one of the peaceful trails. In the afternoon you can stretch out on the warm sands of Tahunanui Beach, a family-friendly strip of beach that encompasses nearly two kilometres of rolling dunes and rockpools.
Famed for its thriving arts community, take some time to explore Nelson’s galleries and artist studios, including the wonderful Suter Art Gallery – one of the oldest galleries in New Zealand. This gallery houses many works of national significance, ranging from 19th-century artworks to contemporary abstract collections. Find some other local treasures at the weekly Saturday Markets in Montgomery Square, or drop into Craig Potton Gallery & Store for a browse of artworks, books and jewellery.
Ready to unwind with a glass in hand? You won’t go disappointed. Nelson is home to acclaimed vineyards known for their chardonnay and pinot noir. Enjoy a meal at the Honest Lawyer Restaurant, with spectacular views of the Waimea Estate. The surrounding region is also home to Kahurangi Estate, Waimea Estates, Te Mania Wines or Seifried Estate Cellar Door.
Where to stay in Nelson
Enjoy some country charm in the English-style comfort of The Honest Lawyer, Ascend Hotel Collection with sweeping views of the Waimea Estuary, Tasman Bay and the distant mountains.
Distance from Nelson: 409km / 5 hours
Length of stay: 1 – 3 days
Prepare to enjoy a day (or three) of rich heritage, vibrant arts and exciting outdoor adventure. Covering just over 400 scenic kilometres from Nelson, the road to Ōtautahi Christchurch takes you to one of New Zealand’s most famous cities via some stunning scenery.
Take a breath an hour’s drive south of Nelson at Nelson Lakes National Park – an alpine landscape of sweeping forests and gl\acial lakes. If you have time, make a day trip here on your way and take in the spectacular landscape on the Lake Rotoiti Circuit.
What alpine stroll doesn’t build an appetite? You’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy your arrival in Christchurch, with award-winning restaurants and thriving backstreet eateries around High Street and Victoria Street. For a fine fine dining experience on wheels, book yourself a ticket on the Christchurch Tramway Restaurant, a heritage dining carriage that will serve you delicious seasonal dishes as you tour the city’s central sights. Book ahead and enjoy the ride.
Another great way to experience the city and its surrounding wonder is by the Christchurch Gondola. Soar over the city and enjoy awe-inspiring views that stretch from the snow-capped Southern Alps to the Canterbury Plains and Pegasus Bay. At the summit station you can also explore walking trails and learn about the area on the Christchurch Discovery Ride. Grab a bite to eat or a drink while you’re there at the Red Rock Cafe.
For outdoor adventures that will suit young and old(er), the Christchurch Adventure Park is an epic experience. Situated in the Port Hills only 20 minutes from town, this 358-hectare property features ziplines, mountain biking and hiking trails and New Zealand’s longest chairlift. For an amazing wildlife adventure, don’t miss Orana Wildlife Park where you can explore lion habitats and feed giraffes.
Immerse yourself in the cultural story of Christchurch at the heritage-listed Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora, home to a huge variety of exhibitions, concerts and cinema – as well as restaurants and bars. For natural and cultural heritage, the fascinating Canterbury Museum is packed over 2.3 million treasures. Explore this institute’s vast collections, from fossils to significant historical artefacts including Roman and Egyptian antiquities.
Where to stay in Christchurch
Christchurch is home to hotels that match every taste and budget. Settle yourself amongst beautifully manicured rose gardens, close to the heart of town at Quality Hotel Elms. Close to the Riccarton Bush farmers market and Hagley Park, Quality Suites Amore is another great option. Located in the events district of Christchurch, Econo Lodge Canterbury Court offers spacious and comfortable accommodation.
Distance from Christchurch: 162km / 2 hours
Length of stay: 1 – 2 days
Just over two hours from Christchurch, Timaru is a beachside destination renowned for its glittering Caroline Bay and encompassing attractions. Take some time out here to marvel at Maori rock art, enjoy walks through botanic gardens and let gentle waters lap around you as you take a dip at the local swimming beach. You’ll also find plenty of enticing restaurants, bars and cafes.
Home to striking Edwardian and Victorian architecture, Timaru is a rich meeting point of contemporary and historical sites. The region’s vibrant past is on proud display at the South Canterbury Museum on Perth Street, where an extensive collection of Māori artefacts, whaling relics and natural history wonders are just some of the wonders that have been fascinating visitors for 150 years.
At Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre you’ll find out more about the cultural legends of the region on a Māori rock art tour. Te Ana’s knowledgable Ngāi Tahu guides – descendants of the people that created the rock art – will take you in the footsteps of their ancestors and give a voice to these artworks that speak from a treasured past. This limestone-rich region is home to a major concentration of Māori rock art, and Te Ana is dedicated to protecting its legacy.
One of New Zealand’s most popular waterside destinations, Timaru’s beach is protected by the harbour breakwater. Close to the cafes, gardens and restaurants, this slice of Caroline Bay is a great place to relax. It’s also home to some of the smallest penguins in the world, who nest in the area. The walkways give you a great vantage point to watch these little marvels – but make sure to respectfully keep your distance!
Must See: The best beaches in New Zealand
In nearby Queen Street, you’ll also find the Timaru Botanic Gardens, a 19-hectare reserve that is adorned with ornamental ponds and walking trails. At the Aigantighe Art Gallery you can also enjoy a stroll through the Sculpture Garden, winding your way through 25 outdoor artworks and sculptures. Don’t miss some of the gallery’s seasonal exhibitions.
Where to stay in Timaru
Comfort Hotel Benvenue is located right on Caroline Bay is within easy walking distance of everything Timaru’s great attractions. It is an easy walk to the waterfront, Aquatic Centre and Aigantighe Art Gallery.
Distance from Timaru: 401km / 5 hours
Length of stay: 1 – 2 days
There is plenty to see on the drive to historic Invercargill. If you have time, you can explore some of the attraction on the Southern Scenic Route as you make your way to New Zealand’s southernmost city. As your final destination, Invercargill offers plenty of history to discover. Boasting a mix of Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco architecture, explore its historic architecture on the Invercargill Heritage Trail, which encompasses the Invercargill Water Tower, City Hall and the 19th-century Railway Hotel.
Take in some of the surrounding beauty at Queens Park, an immaculate 80-hectare expanse of beautiful gardens and wildlife habitats that are home to a bird aviary and farmyard area. This town is also known as the ‘City of Water and Light’ due to the brilliant Aurora Australis night sky over the Waihopai River estuary. You can marvel at this counterpart to the Northern Lights on a moonless night – it is particularly vivid throughout spring and winter.
It might be the end of your roadtrip, but you can keep the wheels turning at Classic Motorcycle Mecca. With over 300 motorcycles on display, from American to British European and classics from local legend John Britten, this incredible collection delivers one of the best motorcycle museums in the southern hemisphere. Bill Richardson’s Transport World also boasts over 300 beautifully restored classic cars.
Give that sweet tooth what it deserves at the Seriously Good Chocolate Company. This local institution crafts a range of exquisite treats, from indulgent native (and chocolate) New Zealand birds to spirit and champagne-infused delights – grab some ‘Knock Your Socks Off Pink Gin Delights’ as a (short-lived) memento of your trip. Enjoy!
Where to stay in Invercargill
Situated near the heart of town, Comfort Inn Tayesta opens the door to many attractions, including the Southern Scenic Route and the Bluff, only 25 minutes away.