New Zealand is famous for its beautiful mountains, sheep grazing on green pastures, evergreen forests, crystal clear lakes, glaciers and Polynesian culture. The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies introduced stunning landscapes of New Zealand to the rest of the world. New Zealand – South Island is especially beautiful with the mountain range through the whole island and plenty of things to do.
This proven 10 days itinerary aims to explore the best of the South Island in the short period of time. Firstly, you will start from the largest city in the South Island – Christchurch. Then, you will visit the largest mountain in New Zealand – Mount Cook. After that, it’s time to go to Dunedin – wildlife capital of New Zealand. Next destination is Te Anau, town next to famous Fiordland National Park. After Te Anau, visit the gem of New Zealand amazing Queenstown. Finally, you will Glacier country with famous Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.
Day 1 – Christchurch
Most visitors to South Island would fly to Christchurch airport. This is the largest city in the South Island with unfortunately not much too see. However, majestic Mount Cook is just a short drive away, so get your rental and start your journey.
Things to do in Christchurch, New Zealand
Christchurch Botanic Gardens
This botanic gardens are located right in the center of Christchurch and allow for the great way to relax after your flight or before the long drive. Gardens were founded over 150 years ago alongside of the charming Avon river. There is a nice rose garden, paddling pool for kids and great tree collection. Therefore, the atmosphere contributes to the lovely walk.
There are surprisingly a lot of excellent restaurants and cafes in Christchurch. There are a lot to choose from and following are just some we can recommend.
Ground Floor Cafe
This is great little cafe perfect for brunch or lunch. It’s conveniently located next to Botanic Gardens. Try their eggs Benedict or french toast, they are delicious!
Zen Sushi and Dumplings
This is another great place for lunch, if you like Asian food. It serves both delicious Chinese dumplings and fresh Japanese sushi. The ingredients they use are very fresh and the service is friendly.
Twenty Seven Steps
Head to Twenty Seven Steps for dinner. This restaurant has some wonderful food cooked to perfection. It’s usually busy and therefore, it’s a good idea to make a reservation. Once you are there, try grouper, beef or duck for main and creme brulee for desert.
You are spending just one night in this city, so choose a hotel or AirBnb accommodation, which is close to the airport. Airport Palms Motel or Merivale Manor are great, if you are on the budget. If you would like some more facilities Commodore Airport Hotel would work for you. And for luxury book The George Christchurch.
Day 2-3 – Lake Tekapo – Mount Cook
Following Christchurch head to Mount Cook area. There are some great hikes starting from Mount Cook village. You can stay anywhere in the area, Lake Tekapo, Twizel or Mount Cook village itself depending on the availability and your budget.
Things to do in Mount Cook area, New Zealand
Lake Tekapo – Church of the Good Shepherd
This small, but picturesque stone church overlooks crystal clear Lake Tekapo and surrounding Alps. Moreover, Lake Tekapo is part of dark-sky preserve with low light pollution and the perfect place for stargazing. It’s the best spot in New Zealand to observe Milky Way and if you are lucky, you can even see Aurora Australis (southern lights).
This is not a natural spring like you have in Rotorua and more of the heated pools. However, Tekapo Springs have some amazing views across Lake Tekapo and perfect place to relax after full day hiking. It also offers a stargazing tour, so you can relax and watch the stars floating in the hot pool. How cool is that!
New Zealand Alpine Lavender
This organic Lavendar farm is the largest in the southern hemisphere. It’s definitely worth the stop on your way to Mount Cook. Try lavender ice cream on the warm day.
Hooker Valley Track
Hiking or trekking how it’s called in New Zealand is what South Island is famous for. Hooker Valley Track is one of the best on the island. It’s an easy 2-3 hours hike, which originates next to Mount Cook village and suitable for the whole family. It has some amazing views to Mount Cook and surrounding mountains. You would pass through 3 suspension bridges and reach glacial lake with floating icebergs! The icebergs are visible even during summer months and most of the walk is on the flat surface.
Sealy Tarns Track
If you have time and energy, Sealy Tarns Track is another great hike in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It also starts close to Mount Cook village and takes around 3-4 hours to complete. This is much harder hike with 2000 stairs to climb 600 meters of elevation, so you would need to be a decent physical shape to do it. The views at the top are magical and worth all the effort. There is also a good chance you will see Kea (Alpine parrot) at the summit.
Restaurants around Lake Tekapo
This cafe & restaurant serves delicious lunches and dinners. Try their lamb curry or fish of the day dishes, they won’t disappoint.
New Zealand has some great Japanese restaurants and Kohan is one of them. Their bento boxes and sushimi are very fresh and make for a great meal needed after the full day.
Lake Tekapo and area accommodation
If you are on the budget try Aorangi Motel or Lake Tekapo Village Motel. If you like more luxurious stay, you would enjoy Matuka Lodge or Aoraki Court Aoraki.
Day 4-5 – Dunedin
Dunedin is the second largest city in the South Island famous for its Victorian and Edwardian architecture and abundant wildlife. In fact, it’s called a wildlife capital of New Zealand. It also known as the Edinburgh of the South because of it’s Scottish heritage. Over 10% of Dunedin’s population are students and city’s University of Otago is the oldest university in New Zealand.
Things to do in Dunedin, New Zealand
Moeraki is the small fishing village located about an hour drive from Dunedin. You can visit on your way from Mount Cook area. The main attraction are mystical boulders on the beach. These boulders are formed by mineral cement and exposed from mudstone by coastal erosion. It’s worth a stop over and make for a great photo.
Otago Peninsula runs parallel to the mainland for 20km and this is what makes Dunedin a capital of wildlife. There is the only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross. There are two types of penguins living in the area. You can spot endangered Yellow Eyed Penguin at Sandfly Bay (3pm till sunset and during sunrise). Also, small Blue Penguins can be viewed with the tour from Royal Albatross Center. There are also plenty of seals, sea lions and occasional sea elephants.
Dunedin Botanic Garden
This is a pleasant botanic garden with multiple areas to explore. It has a beautiful Mediterranean garden, rose garden, winter garden and even bird aviary.
Tunnel Beach Track
Tunnel Beach area offers spectacular coastline with the track, which leads to the hand-carved rock tunnel to the Tunnel Beach. This is relatively short hike and takes around half an hour to get to the beach with stunning views on the way.
Restaurants in Dunedin
Ironic Cafe and Bar
This a very cosy cafe close to the train station with some contemporary choices. Try their delicious seafood chowder or portobello mushrooms.
1908 Cafe Restaurant
This little gem has great view of the harbor and serves delicious dishes. Try their lamb shanks and you won’t be disappointed.
Day 6 – Te Anau – Milford Sound
Things to do in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
Drive to Milford Sound
Milford Sound is the most famous fiord in Fiordland National Park. You might find that the drive to Milford Sound is actually more interesting than Milford Sound cruise itself. Therefore, allow as much as time as possible for this drive. There are a lot of tour buses on the way and the drive is slow with frequent stops. However, the scenery is breathtaking and most of the attractions in the area are located on this route. You will be surrounded by majestic mountain peaks, crystal clear glacier creeks, waterfalls and pass through tunnels.
This amazing feat of engineering pierces the Darran Mountain range and therefore allows a connection from Te Anau to Milford Sound. It’s 1.2km long and until it was sealed, it was the longest gravel-surfaced tunnel in the world.
The Chasm Walk
This is a quick and easy walk on the way to Milford Sound shortly after Homer Tunnel. The views to gushing waterfalls (the Chasm) are mesmerizing. You can feel the power of the water and see how it curved the solid rocks below. If you are more adventures and in the good shape, you can go down to the crystal clear waters below. There is an unmarked path on the track just before the low bridge. This is not part of the official trail, therefore you would need to be very careful going down.
Milford Sound Cruise
Milford Sound Cruise goes through natural wonder – Milford Sound fiord surrounded by towering peaks and tumbling waterfalls. There are a lot of options for the cruise with most going for around 2 hours. There is a good chance you will see dolphins, seals and penguins. Go for the later cruise, so there is less reflection from the sun and you can take your time driving to the terminal.
Key Summit Track
If you have time and like hiking, you would love this hike. It’s located on the way to Milford Sound and part of Routeburn Track. Key Summit track is relatively easy, so suitable for the whole family. It takes about 2-3 hours return with be spectacular views of lake Marian and surrounding mountain peaks at the top.
Restaurants in Milford Sound
Redcliff Restaurant & Bar
This charming restaurant has great ambiance and delightful service. Try venison or wild hare with some local produce for a treat.
Miles Better Pies
There is nothing special about this place, except there is a huge variety of delicious pies. Take a pie here for your journey.
Day 7-8 – Queenstown – Wanaka
It’s time to go the most beautiful town in New Zealand – Queenstown. This
popular skiing resort is surrounded by magnificent snow-capped mountains, beautiful lakes and rivers. However, this makes Queenstown the most expensive for accommodation and resort town of Wanaka located 1 hour drive away makes a good alternative.
Things to do in Queenstown, New Zealand
Queenstown and surrounding areas are considered an adventure capital of New Zealand and there are a lot what you can do. If you can extend your stay we suggest you to stay 1 or 2 nights extra in either Queenstown or Wanaka to be able to experience it in full. Otherwise, stay 1 night in Queenstown and 1 night in Wanaka to enjoy the best this area has to offer.
This mountain range is one of the most popular ski resorts in New Zealand. However, if you visit in summer it’s still worth to drive on the windy road leading to the closed skifield and enjoy panorama of magnificent Queenstown below. It’s a short drive and only takes around half an hour.
Gondola and Ben Lomond
A gondola ride to Skyline Queenstown complex is exciting and has exceptional views. However, it’s also expensive and alternative is to take free 1 hour hike. Complex has a nice restaurant and popular luge tracks.
If you enjoy hiking you would love Ben Lomond track. This popular track takes around 3 hours return from Skyline complex. Ben Lomond is a demanding track, therefore prepare well. You should preferably wear hiking boots, take at least 1 liter of water, some snacks, hat, sunglasses and a jacket if you are going to the summit. The summit open amazing 360 degrees view of Queenstown and surrounding area.
This most photographed tree in New Zealand and worth a quick visit to check it out. The best time to see it would be at sunrise or sunset.
Roys Peak Track
Another attraction in Wanaka is famous Roys Peak track. This is considered as one of the best hikes in New Zealand with amazing views. It’s a relatively easy, but demanding and long hike, which takes around 5 hours. The track is exposed to the elements and it’s best to start as early as possible to avoid full sun. You would still need plenty of water, snacks, hat, windbreaker and ideally wear hiking boots. This is considered a most instagammed hike in New Zealand with amazing views over surrounding mountains.
Another interesting attraction in Wanaka area is Puzzling World. It has a great outdoor maze, optical illusion rooms and a collection of puzzles for you to enjoy.
Rob Roy Glacier Trail
If you still have time and energy you can visit another interesting hike around Wanaka – Rob Roy Glacier Trail. This trail is located in Mount Aspiring National Park and it takes around 40 minutes of exciting drive to reach by mostly gravel road through cow and sheep pastures with crossing 9 fords. The hike takes around 3 hours and you will cross a swing bridge across the river, go through the beech forest and finally reach a valley with a good view of the Rob Roy Glacier.
Restaurants in Queenstown
This restaurant serves Asian fusion as well as Polynesian food. It has a great atmosphere and with share plates you can try fabulous array of dishes.
This hidden restaurant has ‘rustic’ feeling to it and a good choice for a fine dining experience. Their degustation menu with matching wines is outstanding.
Fergburger & Fergbaker
Fergburger in Queenstown is legendary and famous for the variety of delicious burgers made from fresh ingredient, including exotic choices like deer burger “Sweet bambi” and pork beely burger “Chief Wiggum”. It’s a delight to have one of these burgers after exploring Queenstown. Unfortunately, Ferburger is extremely popular and queues could be very long. Next door Fergbaker is a quick alternative with fresh organic sandwiches.
Day 9 – Glacier Country
It’s time to drive to majestic Glacier Country region. This area is famous for its 2 glaciers (Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier), glacier lake Matheson and Moraine forests.
Blue Pools Walk
This is a great stop-over on your way from Queenstown to Glacier country. Blue Pools Walk is a short beautiful walk where you can refresh yourself, however watch out for sand flies in this area. If you are sensitive to mosquito bites wear pants.
Another short walk on the way to Fox Glacier is Moraine Walk. It’s a bit hidden and located on Glacier View Drive, before you reach lookout for Fox Glacier. Moraines are piles of debris formed when glacier retreated and this place is truly majestic. If you have time you can come here after the sunset for the show of glow worms who cast their webs under the fallen tries. (bring your flashlight, as it gets pitch-black very fast).
Franz Josef Glacier Walk
Unfortunately, both Fox and Franz Josef Glacier retreated a lot in last few years due to climate changes and walks on ice are only possible using helicopters. Heli hikes are popular, but very expensive. Franz Josef Glacier Walk would get you to what is left visible from this once great glacier in 1 hour. You might want to start early morning before mist covers the view.
Lake Matheson Walk
View from this legendary walk is one of the most iconic postcards scenes in New Zealand. It’s a short and easy walk around this glacier lake with Mt Cook reflection on the mirrored surface of the lake. Try to make it right after sunrise or just before sunset. That’s usually the time when
lake Matheson is still and it’s not cloudy.
Restaurants in Glacier Country
This charming cafe enjoys beautiful setting with amazing views on Southern Alps. Try their seafood risotto or chicken satay, both of which are excellent.
Day 10 – Return to Christchurch
Finally, this is the last day of the trip and time to get back to Christchurch. It’s a long 5 hours drives, which would take you most of the days with stops.
Have a stop over in a small town of Hokitika. The town and surrounding areas are famous for New Zealand’s greenstones (nephrite jade). You can try your luck to spot one right on Hokitika beach, which is also famous for the large amount of driftwood in all shapes and sizes. If you have some time take a carving class where you can carve your own jewelry from jade using your own or one of the studio designs.
From West Coast you will take highway 73 to Christchurch. The route goes through beautiful Southern Alps, passing Arthur’s Pass National park and Arthur’s Pass village. The scenery on the way is spectacular, so take your time to enjoy it.