There's no shortage of iconic destinations on New Zealand's South Island, from nature reserves to bustling metropolises. Explore a few of the best spots on this 12-day, self-drive itinerary across the island. Get your fill of cosmopolitan cafés, museums, and architecture in Christchurch, Dunedin, and Queenstown, and connect with nature and the boundless night sky at Lake Tekapo, Wanaka, and the Otago Peninsula.


  • Take a tour of Christchurch in a punt on the Avon River / Otakaro
  • See the Milky Way and millions of stars at Lake Tekapo
  • Climb to the top of Tyrwhitt Peak on Mou Waho Island 
  • Spot rare yellow-eyed penguins at Penguin Place in Dunedin

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Christchurch & Explore Christchurch
Day 2 Christchurch City Tour Christchurch
Day 3 Drive to Lake Tekapo, Visit the Dark Sky Projects Observatory Lake Tekapo
Day 4 Drive to Wānaka & Explore Wānaka
Day 5 Lake Wānaka Cruise & Island Nature Walk Wānaka
Day 6 Drive to Queenstown, TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner Queenstown 
Day 7 Shotover River Canyon Jet Boat, Skyline Queenstown Gondola Queenstown 
Day 8 Visit Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Queenstown 
Day 9 Explore Dunedin & the Otago Peninsula Dunedin
Day 10 Monarch Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour & Penguin Place Dunedin
Day 11 Drive to Christchurch, Historic Tram Dinner Christchurch
Day 12 Depart Christchurch  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch & Explore

Christchurch Botanical Gardens
Christchurch Botanical Gardens

Welcome to New Zealand! On arrival, you will be met by your driver and transferred to your hotel. Once you've settled in, start exploring Christchurch, the country's second-largest metropolis. The city is known for its green spaces like Hagley Park and the Botanical Gardens—it's nicknamed "The Garden City," after all—so a stroll through one of them is always a good idea. For something more history-inspired, take a tour down the Avon River / Ōtākaro led by guides in Edwardian costume, or ride one of the city's 19th-century trams past Cathedral Square and the Canterbury Museum.

Day 2: Christchurch City Tour

Punting down the Avon River / Ōtākaro
Catch spectacular views and learn about Christchurch's history on today's guided hop-on/hop-off bus tour. Highlights of New Zealand's oldest established city include the bustling Cathedral Square and the Avon River / Ōtākaro, where you can stop for a peaceful punt down the river. Though many of the buildings in the city center were destroyed by or demolished after the 2011 earthquake, new building projects and efforts to revitalize the city have been popping up all over the area in the decade since. You'll have the chance to hop off to explore several city landmarks like 

Day 3: Drive to Lake Tekapo, Visit the Dark Sky Projects Observatory

A view of the stone Church of the Good Shepherd by Lake Tekapo
The historic Good Shepherd Church on the shores of Lake Tekapo

Today, you'll pick up your rental car and drive toward Lake Tekapo, a turquoise lake in Mackenzie Country. The route takes you through the pastoral Canterbury Plains—consider taking a break in Geraldine, a small town by the woods with plenty of cafés, shops, and restaurants. Continuing on, you'll pass gorgeous scenery like the aptly-named Beautiful Valley. The last part of the drive ascends Burkes Pass, bringing you into Mackenzie Country's basin and the picturesque town of Lake Tekapo.

Travel to the Dark Sky Projects Observatory on the shore of the lake to learn about the southern sky using telescopes and even the naked eye. Lake Tekapo sits within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, an area that restricts light pollution, so the views are unparalleled. Your guide will point out highlights like the Milky Way Galaxy, Southern Cross, Magellanic Clouds, and Orion as you peer, unobstructed, into the sky.

Day 4: Drive to Wānaka & Explore

The Lonely tree of Lake Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand, at the morning light and the snow clad Buchanan Peaks at the Backdrop
The Wānaka Willow in Lake Wānaka

It's time to leave Lake Tekapo behind and drive to Wānaka, a resort town to the south. Within just 30 minutes, you'll reach Lake Pukaki, with clear views of Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. Consider stopping in the park for a hike to the 10-mile-long (15 km) Tasman Glacier. Other solid rest stop options include Twizel, the largest town in the Mackenzie District and a location for many "The Lord of the Rings" scenes, and Bendigo, an old gold mining town with several preserved mineshafts and other buildings.

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Wānaka, your final destination today, sits on the shores of one of the largest lakes in the Queenstown Lakes District. Known as the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park, Wānaka's remote wilderness, high mountains, and beautiful river valleys are also popular with hikers, making this the perfect place to stop for a trek on your way to Franz Josef Glacier. If you're visiting in the wintertime, consider hitting the slopes at Treble Cone or Cardrona, two wildly popular ski resorts in the area.

Day 5: Lake Wānaka Cruise & Island Nature Walk

Moh Waho Island on Lake Wanaka
Mou Waho Island on Lake Wanaka
While visiting Wānaka, the must-see spot is Mou Waho Island Nature Reserve. Mou Waho Island is one of five islands in Lake Wānaka, a scientific reserve and home to native New Zealand wildlife. But its most famous feature is probably Arethusa Pool. This small lake on the island also has an island inside—you can catch the best views of this unusual feature from the top of Tyrwhitt Peak. You'll also get panoramic views of Lake Wānaka and the surrounding glacial mountains and valleys.

Day 6: Drive to Queenstown, TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner

Crown Range views
Crown Range views

Leaving Wānaka, you head over New Zealand's highest sealed road, the Crown Range Road, before dropping into Queenstown, your home base for the next few days. Along the way, you might want to take a detour east to Gibbston, a community by the Kawarau Gorge known for its pinot noir wineries. Or consider visiting the Kawarau Suspension Bridge, the site of the world's first commercial bungee jumping outfit. If you're feeling up for it, get out of the car and try the 141-foot (43 m) leap!

Once you've settled into your accommodations in Queenstown, head to the shores of Lake Wakatipu and step aboard the TSS Earnslaw steamship for a ride to the Walter Peak High Country Farm, where you'll have a barbecue dinner of New Zealand's signature dishes. After the meal, join a sing-along with the ship's pianist and breathe in the fresh night air as you watch the lights of Queenstown come into focus.

Day 7: Shotover River Canyon Jet Boat, Skyline Queenstown Gondola

Aerial view of a jet boat speeding through the Shotover River, with a steep, tree-covered canyon wall on the left
A jet boat speeds along the river

Queenstown is known as New Zealand's adventure capital, and for a taste of its famous thrills, head to the Shotover River Canyons to ride in a high-speed jet boat. The Shotover Jet, owned by Ngāi Tahu, a local Māori iwi (tribe), hits speeds up to 55 mph (90 kph) as your driver navigates the narrow canyon. Fly over white water rapids, make 360-degree spins, and do other gravity-defying stunts on this wild ride.

Later, take a scenic ride on the Skyline Gondola, the steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere. As you rise to over 1,400 feet (450 m) above Queenstown, enjoy panoramic views of the many peaks around the lake. While up there, visit the Skyline Complex and take an exhilarating ride down the 5,250-foot (1,600 m) luge track past banked corners and tunnels. 

Day 8: Visit Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Stirling Falls, Milford Sound
Stirling Falls, Milford Sound
Today, take a tour of Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, a fjord in Fiordland National Park, located in the southwest corner of the South Island. Start with a boat tour across the fjord and enjoy views of rainforests, the 495-foot (151 m) Stirling Falls, and the steep Mitre Peak. If you're lucky, you'll spot some of the area's wildlife, including seals, dolphins, and penguins. At the end of the day, fly 45 minutes back to Queenstown in a fixed-wing aircraft and get a birds-eye view of the fjord and the surrounding peaks. 

Day 9: Explore Dunedin & the Otago Peninsula

Larnach Castle
Larnach Castle

Drive southeast from Queenstown to reach Dunedin, known as the "Edinburgh of the South" for its strong Scottish heritage. The city also has Chinese and Māori influences and is famous for its eclectic architecture, like the gingerbread house-style Dunedin Railway Station and the Gothic Revival Larnach Castle. While in town, sit at a café or wine bar in The Octagon, drive off to the coast to sunbathe, or visit the Otago Peninsula, the home of the only mainland royal albatross colony in the world.

Day 10: Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour & Penguin Place

View of Dunedin from the hills above the tow
View of Dunedin from the hills above the town

Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula are known for their abundance of native New Zealand wildlife, so spend the day today on a tour through Dunedin Harbour to meet some of the residents. The tour includes a cruise around Taiaroa Head, a spot on the peninsula, the area's famous royal albatross colony. You'll see another rare bird when you stop at Penguin Place, a private conservation reserve that supports the yellow-eyed penguin, an endemic endangered species.

Day 11: Drive to Christchurch, Historic Tram Dinner

Christchurch Dinner Tram
Christchurch Dinner Tram

Today, you'll circle back north to Christchurch, driving along the South Island's east coast. Consider taking a break at Koekohe Beach to see the spherical Moeraki Boulders dotting the shore or at the white Omaru limestone Riverstone Castle on the border between the Otago and Canterbury regions. For a quirky dinner option in Christchurch, ride a colonial-style dining tram around the city center. Feast on a multicourse dinner while driving a city loop, passing famous sights such as New Regent Street and Victoria Square.

Day 12: Depart Christchurch

A large tree in the foreground hangs over the Avon River in Christchurch
Trees along the Avon River / Ōtākaro

All good things must come to an end, and today marks the end of your New Zealand self-drive tour. Remember to drop your rental car off in Christchurch before heading to the airport for your departing flight. Safe travels!

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Map of South Island Self-Drive City & Nature Highlights - 12 Days
Map of South Island Self-Drive City & Nature Highlights - 12 Days