Pretty much anywhere you go in the South Island of New Zealand will be perfect. After doing tons of research and getting all of the best recommendations, here is the perfect 3 Week South Island Itinerary for a road trip. We were in the South Island for 18 days total, so the route that we did would be possible in around 15-21 days. Ideally the more days the better!
We also were super efficient and wasted no time. If you’re looking for more of a slow traveling trip, or are wanting to do lots of walks/activities, you may need more days than 18!
But it was totally do-able in 18 days and we really saw most things that we wanted to! I also did an 8 day South Island road trip after this one, so I saved some activities I could have done this trip for that one.
Our journey starts and ends in Christchurch which is the best place to fly into and rent a van from.
Day 1- Christchurch
Get settled in Christchurch, do some exploring if you have time, and get ready to start driving tomorrow!
Day 2- Hanmer Springs and Kaikoura
Get up early for a big day! Drive about 2 hours to Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa where you can spend the day in the hot pools, on the waterslides, laying out, having your picnic lunch that you can bring in, and getting lots of relaxation time in before you live out of a van for the next 3 weeks!
We spent almost the whole day at Hanmer Springs and left around 2:30 pm to head to Kaikoura which is also about a 2-hour drive.
Once you get to Kaikoura, take a drive to the lookout point, get up close to the seals that are laying out on the rocks, and head to your campground for the night.
I highly recommend Kaikoura Peketa Beach Holiday Park to stay for the night. We had a beach front campsite and it was AMAAAZING.
Day 3- Kaikoura to Nelson
Get up at the crack of dawn. Before that actually, and get to the Dolphin Encounter by 5:30 am to watch the sunrise on the boat and swim with hundreds of dolphins.
Seriously swimming with wild dolphins while the sun rose was one of the top 10 best things I’ve ever done in my life. And I have done some pretty cool stuff.
Please don’t miss it. Totally a splurge-worthy activity.
After your swim, take a walk around the cute little town, get some great wifi at the library if needed, and get ready to get some exercise.
Walk up to the Mount Fyffe Lookout. It’s about a 2-hour return walk with a lovely view.
Time to hit the road again! Head up north about 30 minutes for fresh lobster (they call it crayfish) from Nin’s Bin. I was so stinkin’ excited to eat a fresh lobster tail on the beach, I was literally counting down the minutes until we got there. And it was freakin’ closed and I was hangry and could have cried. Not really, but I’ve heard so many amazing things about Nin’s Bin. Please go there and try it so I can live through you. Thanks.
Continue your journey north an hour to Yealands Winery. The views at the Winery are insanely gorgeous, and once you get to the winery, they will give you free wine and chocolate tasting. I mean, what more could you want?!
From there, head to Nelson for a place to sleep!
Day 4- Nelson to Parapara
Start the morning off with a walk to the Centre of New Zealand! It is about a 20-minute uphill walk to the point, but it is not nearly as tough as yesterday’s walk in Kaikoura. The views up there are rewarding.
We got some groceries and headed towards Kaiteriteri.
If the weather is nice like it was for us, spend a beach day at Kaiteriteri on the gorgeous beach.
After that, keep headin’ up and make a quick stop at Hawkes Lookout.
Also, you can’t miss the Te Waikoropupu Springs with the most amazingly clear water!
And finally, end your day at Golden Bay Holiday Park, where you can stay right on the beach! Literally best views ever. They also have ovens in their kitchen which were a major plus!
Day 5- Golden Bay to Murchison
Check the tide times, and when it is low tide, make your way to Wharariki Beach. It is about a 20-minute walk to get from the car park to the beach. It is a gorgeous beach, but it’s not for swimming. You know what it is good for? Playing with BABY SEALS!
My favorite part of our trip so far.
It was like a zoo, in real life. The seal pups were so cute and would just come right up to you! They even put on a little show and were swimming and jumping out of the water. So. Stinkin’. Incredible.
Next, head to Tata Beach for a little walk and a place to have lunch.
After that, visit Wainui Falls. It is about a 40-minute “jandal” approved walk. (Bonus points if you know what jandals are 😉 )
From there, head towards the Nelson Lakes National Park. We drove back through Richmond because the drive is less windy and supposedly faster.
We visited Lake Rotoiti and would have loved to also go to Lake Rotoroa, but it was dark. The lake is GORGEOUS and there are so many eels that live right under the dock! A pretty surreal thing to see!
We spent the night in Murchison so we could head West in the morning!
Day 6 – Murchison to Franz Josef
Start heading towards Franz Josef and make a stop in Punakaiki to see the Pancake Rocks.
We also stopped in Hokitika, but there’s not much to see there.
And finally, make it to Franz Josef!
If the weather was better, we would have hiked the Franz Glacier on this day, and then stayed near the Fox Glacier. The campsites there were much better.
You can also visit the Kiwi Centre if you haven’t seen a Kiwi… or if it’s raining because I can already tell you, it’ll rain.
Day 7 – Franz Josef to Fox Glacier
We hung out in a café for the morning because it was rainy and windy. Once the weather cleared up, we saw a Kiwi at the Kiwi Centre and walked as close to the Franz Josef Glacier as we could get!
Then we drove to Lake Matheson to see a gorgeous view of the mountains over the lake. Try to go when it isn’t windy to get that reflective view!
At Fox Glacier, we stayed at the first Top 10 Holiday Park of our trip. Wow was that a treat!
Day 8- Fox Glacier to Wanaka
In the morning we did a short 20-minute walk to view the Fox Glacier.
We hit the road for a day of driving, but it was an easy day because there are so many stops along the way.
Make sure to stop at Thunder Creek Falls.
And the Blue Pools.
You’re probably going to make many more stops along the road because it’s freakin’ stunning.
If you’re feeling adventurous, walk up to Roy’s Peak.
I didn’t visit all of those places on this trip to Wanaka, but on my 10 day South Island trip I did.
We loved camping at Wanaka Lakeside Holiday Park. Those views thoooo.
Day 9 – Wanaka to Queenstown
The day we’ve been waiting for! I’ve heard so many people who adore Queenstown so it’s what I was most excited about.
It’s a short drive to get there from Wanaka. We stopped at the famous bra fence and Lake Hayes along the way.
Then we got to the lovely Queenstown!
The first thing we did was eat, of course!
We had to try the most famous burger in New Zealand – Fergburger.
It was good, don’t get me wrong, but I’m from California, home of In-N-Out, so I think nothing could ever beat In-N-Out.
The line at Fergburger can get pretty long, so pro tip: Call in your order and pick it up so you don’t have to wait in line.
There is a TON to do in Queenstown. On this trip, we didn’t do a ton of crazy activities, but I did do all of them on my 10-day trip.
Queenstown is also so lovely for just relaxing, window shopping, and taking in the view.
We went up the Skyline and spent our afternoon sipping tea and looking at the view. (They also have a great wifi connection up there if that’s what you’re into.)
The Luge—like gokarting—at the top of the Skyline is also super fun for kids and kid-at-hearts!
We stayed the night at the Queenstown Top 10 which was lovely and had a much-needed fireplace in the lounge area!
Day 10- Queenstown to Te Anu
If you’re like us, we wanted another day in Queenstown.
We started our morning by walking up to the Queenstown Viewpoint. About a 2-hour walk return.
I actually liked the view from there better than the view at the Skyline! It was seriously UNREAL.
After we worked up an appetite, we went to Yonder for lunch. I’m all about finding Insta-worthy cafes in cute cities and Yonder was at the top of my list.
Super unique, healthy, and delicious.
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the streets of Queenstown and enjoying the live music and Friday markets that were going on.
We made a Pak n Save stop near Queenstown, and headed to Te Anu.
Day 11- Te Anu to Milford Sound to Te Anu
A day trip to Milford Sound is a must do.
I did not do the typical boat trip this time but check out my experience with that on my 10-day guide and activity guide.
I opted to go for a walk to Key Summit instead. I loved the walk and view. It was a perfect way to spend the morning.
I was pretty exhausted after that, and we just headed back to our campground for some meal prepping and rest!
Day 12- Te Anu to Owaka
We didn’t know too much about the Catlins before we went, but we were so pleasantly surprised!
If it’s low tide, visit the Fortrose shipwreck. Let me know how it is because it was high tide when we visited, so there was nothing to see.
Make your first stop at the Waipapa Point Lighthouse.
Next visit one of the best waterfalls I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to A LOT of waterfalls!) – McLean Falls.
And finally, stop at Purakaunui Falls for another stunning waterfall. We had it almost all to ourselves and it was magical.
Right around the corner are the Cathedral Caves which are supposed to be really amazing, but they were also closed when we were there.
When you’ve completed your daily adventure, head to one of our favorite campgrounds, Thomas’s Catlins Lodge and Holiday Park. We seriously loved it so much, we spend a whole day just relaxing there.
Day 13- Rest Day
Take this day whenever you need it. We just happened to feel all of our efficiency catch up with and decided to take a wifi and face mask day. You’ll need it sometime!
Day 14- Owaka to Dunedin
Another activity-filled day!
Start your journey by visiting Nugget Point.
Next, drive to Dunedin and go to Tunnel Beach.
Take a drive down the Otago Peninsula to see Albatross at the very end of the Peninsula, and Sand Fly Bay.
There was nothing specifically super spectacular on the Otago Peninsula, however, the whole drive was gorgeous, and we kept stopping for pictures.
At dusk, take a drive up Signal Hill for all the views!
Day 15- Dunedin to Oamaru
In the morning, get my FAVORITE brunch at Starfish Café in St Clair and take a walk on the beach after.
Then get your exercise in by walking up the steepest street in the world! – Baldwin Street.
Start the drive towards Omaru and stop at the Morakai Boulders.
Take your time heading to Omaru, but be there by dusk!
At dusk, you can go for a walk along the waterfront, especially where the boats are sitting up on land, to see penguins!
Keep a close eye out. They like to hide under the boats and listen for them. You might hear them before you see them!
Day 16 – Omaru to Mt Cook.
In the morning we took a walk around the cute town of Oamaru and headed to Mt. Cook.
We had to stop along the road a few times to get some photos, and then once we arrived in Mt. Cook, we walked the Hooker Track!
It is about a 3-hour walk that was pretty, but the weather was pretty bad. I’m just spoiled with so many amazing New Zealand walks and this one wasn’t my favorite.
Day 17 – Mt. Cook to Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
We were on a mission this day because it was raining, so we decided to go all the way back to Christchurch! All of that driving isn’t the most ideal, but is totally an option!
We left Mt. Cook early and headed to Lake Tekapo. The color of the lake Is UNREAL. We had so much fun taking photos in front of the lake that looks like it’s made of blue Gatorade!
We mostly just walked around the lake and saw the famous church.
We made the long drive back to Christchurch that night and enjoyed a nice dinner out to celebrate the end of the best road trip ever!!
Day 18 – Christchurch
We had to be at the airport early on this day and didn’t get to explore Christchurch, but I did get to see it on my 8-day road trip! Check that out for suggestions on where to go!
And there you have our super amazing, efficient, and perfect 3 week South Island itinerary! The South Island is pretty dang amazing, so take as much time as possible to see it! But if you have limited time, we were able to pretty much see it all in just 18 days!
Pin me and go book your flight and van!