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If you’re planning on visiting New Zealand, but aren’t sure where to go, South Island is where it’s at. Filled with breathtaking mountainous views, South Island will make your heart stop.
To help my fellow travelers, I’ve put together a 10-day New Zealand South Island itinerary, based on my own road trippin’ experience!
Who is this itinerary for?
If you’re short on time, 10-days is just enough to experience the best of the South Island.
While some might recommend the North Island too, honestly you will probably feel rushed if you have 10-days to see both New Zealand’s North and South Islands.
10-days is just enough time to experience New Zealand’s South Island without feeling like you’re missing out.
Psst: for my budget travelers, make sure you check out my guide to visiting New Zealand on a budget.
Here’s a quick snapshot of my suggested itinerary:
Day 1: Tekapo
Day 2 – 3: Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park
Day 4 – 5: Wanaka
Day 6: Milford Sound / Te Anau
Day 7 – 8: Queenstown
Day 9: Franz Josef
Day 10: Arthur’s Pass
This is a tight itinerary, and to feel less rushed, I would recommend 2-weeks if possible. We had 2-weeks in New Zealand, and the extra days either end made it feel less rushed.
Note: You can also do this itinerary in the opposite direction too!
Psst: want to know how to shorten or add extra days to this itinerary? I’ve got advice for you – check out the bottom of this article!
Day 1: Tekapo
This 10-day New Zealand South Island itinerary starts in Tekapo.
The town of Tekapo is home to the oh-so-famous Lake Tekapo, which is known for its aqua blue water. Tekapo is also part of the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, making it the perfect place to go stargazing.
If you’re visiting during spring, this is also a beautiful spot to see the lupin that lines the banks of Lake Tekapo.
3hrs from Christchurch to Tekapo
Things to do in Tekapo:
- Walk around Lake Tekapo
- Drive up to Mt John Observatory (or hike 1hr up, so you save $8 on parking!)
- Enjoy a coffee or snack at the Astro cafe (at the Mt John Observatory)
- Church of the Good Shepherd
- Take a nighttime stargazing tour
Where to stay in Tekapo:
For budget travelers: Tailor Made Tekapo Backpackers Hostel
This is where we stayed when visiting Tekapo! They have dorms, but we stayed in a private room. It was comfortable, clean and had everything we needed! The hostel is located in a quieter part of Tekapo, which is great especially if you’re not a fan of big groups of tourists.
Mid-range travelers: Lake Tekapo Village Motel
The Lake Tekapo Village Motel is a great option if you aren’t traveling on a budget but don’t want to spend too big. The motel is located in the town center which makes it a convenient walk to the Church of the Good Shepherd and nearby restaurants.
Treat yo’ self: Lake Tekapo Lodge
Lake Tekapo Lodge is where I would stay if I got to visit Tekapo again. This bed and breakfast has views overlooking Lake Tekapo, includes breakfast in the nightly rate and beautiful designer styled rooms which are an eclectic mix of classic and modern decor.
Day 2-3: Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park
If you want to experience those sweeping mountainous views, this is where New Zealand starts to show off.
Aoraki (which is the Maori name for Mt Cook) is New Zealand’s highest mountain. Regardless of whether you’re an avid hiker or a beginner, there are hiking options for here for you!
1hr from Tekapo to Mt Cook
Things to do for beginner hikers:
- Kea Point Track
- Blue Lakes and the Tasman Glacier Walk (this is a great spot to see the glacier!)
- Hooker Valley track (note: this track is currently closed)
Things to do for more advanced hikers (or those after a challenge!):
- Hike up to Sealy Tarns
- Hike to Mueller hut (via the Sealy Tarns, note: you can hike this in a day, or if you prefer to enjoy the views you can stay overnight at Mueller Hut) For more information, make sure you check out my guide to hiking to Mueller Hut!
Where to stay in Aoraki:
For those who are keen hikers, I’d recommend spending a night at Mueller Hut. It’s a beautiful spot to spend the night, and on a clear day, you get up-close with Aoraki / Mt Cook!
If you’re looking for accommodation that you don’t need to hike to, here are some suggestions:
For budget travelers: YHA Mt Cook
When we weren’t staying in Mueller Hut, this is where we stayed! We got a private room (shared bathroom) but the room was cozy, clean and well looked after. Our room even had incredible mountain views for 140 NZD per night (approximately 95 USD)
Mid-range travelers: Aoraki Mt Cook Court Motel
The Aoraki Mt Cook Court Motel is excellent value for those on a mid-range budget. The motel is located in Mt Cook Village, making it a convenient place to base yourself for your hiking adventures. Every room has mountainous views, making it a great place to wake up!
Treat yo’ self: Mt Cook Lakeside Estate & Retreat
The Mt Cook Lakeside Estate & Retreat is a true getaway. The retreat is located a 30-minute drive from Mt Cook Village and overlooks Lake Pukaki. It’s located in the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, making it the perfect place to stargaze at night! The nightly rate also includes breakfast and dinner.
Day 4-5: Wanaka
This adorable lakeside town is a must on your South Island itinerary.
When planning our trip to New Zealand, I was confused about why people recommended visiting Wanaka, but honestly now having visited… I completely understand!
Wanaka is home to some incredible hikes. If you thought your New Zealand South Island itinerary wasn’t going to get any better, well you’re wrong, my friends!
2.5 hr from Tekapo to Wanaka
Things to do:
- Sunrise hike up to Roy’s Peak (don’t miss the summit!)
- Rocky Mountain Summit Track
If you have time:
- Sunrise hike up to Isthmus Peak
- Outlet river track
Where to stay in Wanaka:
For budget travelers: Kiwi Holiday Park
The Kiwi Holiday Park is a great option if you’re on a budget and don’t mind staying a short 5-minute drive away from Wanaka’s main town area. We stayed here when in Wanaka, and found all the facilities to be clean and well maintained. We were especially impressed with the showers and toilets which were sparkling clean.
Mid-range travelers: West Meadows Motel
The West Meadows Motel is a modern motel, located a 3-minute drive (or 15-minute walk) from Wanaka’s main town area. Free transfers are available to the town upon request – so you can park your car and not worry about driving once you arrive! All rooms also have a kitchenette (microwave, fridge and stove top).
Treat yo’ self: Lakeside Apartments
The Lakeside Apartments are serviced apartments with incredible views of Lake Wanaka. Every apartment has a full kitchen and washing machine – basically anything you could need for your stay in Wanaka!
Day 6: Milford Sound
Milford Sound is when the itinerary heads to the west coast and heads to a part of New Zealand called Fiordland. Yes, you read that correctly – Fjord with an ‘i’.
Fjords are a long, narrow water inlet that has steep sides or cliffs (like mountains) which have been created by a glacier. They’re most common in places like Norway, but New Zealand has Fjords too!
Milford Sound is New Zealand’s most famous fjord, known for towering mountains and waterfalls.
Psst: Milford Sound is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand. There’s an average of 182 rainy days every year (nearly half of the year!) Chances are, it’ll rain when you’re in Milford Sound. If it does rain during your visit, remember this is part of Milford Sound’s magic… Plus the waterfalls will be more majestic!
4.5 hrs from Wanaka to Milford Sound
Things to do:
- Sunrise kayaking tour with Rosco’s Milford Kayaks
- Take a cruise of Milford Sound
If you have the time:
- Foreshore walk
- Lookout walk
- The chasm
Where to stay in Milford Sound:
There are limited accommodation options in Milford Sound. If you have a camper van / RV or want to treat yo’ self, I’d recommend staying at the Milford Sound Lodge. This is the only accommodation option in Milford Sound.
We stayed here when in Milford Sound, and loved the property – everything was beautiful, well maintained and found it an incredible place to soak in the beauty of Milford Sound. Read TripAdvisor reviews here.
If you’re not traveling in a camper van or are on a budget, I’d recommend staying in Te Anau. Te Anau is the closest town and has many more accommodation options. The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is approximately 1 hr 45 min, but prepare for longer, as there is a one-way tunnel on this route!
Day 7-8: Queenstown
Queenstown, like Wanaka, is a lakeside town.
This is where the similarities end because Queenstown is very different compared to Wanaka. Queenstown is a bigger town and busier than Wanaka – it even has an international airport!
Here, you’ll find some nice hikes, but where Queenstown shines is in its extreme sporting options. If you’re not into extreme sports, there’s still lots to do in Queenstown.
Psst: For my Photography friends (or those who are Instagram obsessed!) make sure you check out my guide to Instagrammable places in Queenstown.
4 hrs from Milford Sound to Queenstown
Things to do in Queenstown:
- Queenstown Hill Walk
- Burgers from Fergburger (which some people call the best burgers in the world!)
- Day trip to Glenorchy (make sure you visit Bob’s Cove and Glenorchy Wharf)
- Walk along the shore of Lake Wakatipu
If you have time…
- Moke Lake Viewpoint
- Ben Lomond Summit or Saddle
- Onsen Hot Pools
Where to stay in Queenstown:
For budget / mid-range travelers: Alexis Queenstown Motor Lodge and Apartments
We stayed here when in Queenstown, and would honestly recommend this both budget and mid-range travelers. The rooms are modern, clean and incredibly spacious. I had the best nights sleep during our New Zealand trip here. All rooms have a kitchen (stove tops, microwaves and toasters) making it an excellent option if you want to prepare your own food.
Treat yo’ self: The Spire Hotel
If you truly want to treat yo’ self (and your loved ones) the Spire Hotel is the place to do it. This stylish boutique hotel is located in the heart of Queenstown. Each room is tastefully decorated, each with a private balcony and gas fireplace to warm up on cold nights. Room rates also include a delicious breakfast!
Day 9: Franz Josef Glacier
Visiting Franz Josef Glacier was on my bucket list ever since I visited New Zealand as a teenager and learned that glaciers existed. I vowed that if I were to visit again, I would 100% visit a glacier!
In this part of New Zealand, you’ll also find Fox Glacier. We ended up choosing the Franz Josef Glacier because it turns out the more dramatic formations occur when the glacier moves towards a steep gradient. Franz Josef is on a steeper gradient, whereas Fox Glacier is on a more gradual incline!
To visit the glacier, you’ll need to book a tour; we ended up going for a Heli Hike tour with the Franz Josef Glacier Guides.
While this tour comes with a hefty price tag, it was well worth the investment. The experience was incredible from beginning to end, and you even get free entry to their hot pools so you can warm up after your tour!
5 hrs from Queenstown to Franz Josef
Psst: regardless of whether you’re visiting Franz Josef or Fox Glaciers, make sure you plan enough driving time, especially if you have booked a tour!
Things to do:
- Franz Josef Heli Hike
- Lake Matherson Track, Fox Glacier
Where to stay in Franz Josef:
For budget travelers: The Terrace Motel
We stayed at The Terrace while in Franz Josef. While this wasn’t the best budget accommodation from our New Zealand road trip, it was the most reasonable and budget friendly place to stay we found in Franz Josef. The rooms also had a small kitchenette which was convenient to eat leftovers. Note: it was a bit hard to find the reception desk to check-in, but once we did it was all smooth sailing!
Mid-range travelers: Aspen Court Franz Josef
If I were to visit Franz Josef again, I’d opt for the Aspen Court Franz Josef. The rooms here are modern and worth it if you have the budget. This modern motel is located in the heart of Franz Josef, making it a convenient place to stay. All rooms have a kitchenette, which is a great option if you’re not keen on eating out.
Treat yo’ self: Te Waonui Forest Retreat
If you want to get away from things, the Te Waonui Forest Retreat is a great option. The property is located a short drive away from the Franz Josef Village and is surrounded by rainforest. Cooked to order Breakfast is included in your room rate, as is a degustation dinner (yum!)
Day 10: Arthur’s Pass
When we were planning our trip, we weren’t going to include Arthur’s Pass on our itinerary. But the drive from Franz Josef to Christchurch was far too long (can you tell we hate driving long distances?!)
Arthur’s Pass is smack bang in the middle, making it a great place to stop, even if you want some down time before going onto exploring the city of Christchurch. This township is a great place to base yourself to explore Arthur’s Pass National Park too!
3 hrs from Franz Josef to Arthur’s Pass + 2hrs from Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch (next day)
Things to do in Arthur’s Pass:
- Devils Punchbowl Falls
Where to stay in Arthur’s Pass:
For budget / mid-range travelers: Alpine Motel
We stayed here when in Arthur’s Pass, and loved the homely, family run feel to this adorable motel. The room had everything we needed (including a kitchen and DVD player where you can brorrow movies from their office) and the owners made sure we had everything we needed for our stay. We loved staying here and would definitely stay again if we were to visit again!
Are you short on time?
If you have less than 10 days in the South Island, I’d recommend skipping Arthur’s Pass. Arthur’s Pass National Park was beautiful, but we didn’t love it as much as some of the other places we visited.
Remember: if you don’t spend the night at Arthur’s Pass, you’ll end up driving for nearly 5 hrs in the one day.
If you don’t want to drive for 5 hrs in one day, I’d recommend not visiting the Franz Josef Glacier or driving through Tekapo on the way to Aoraki / Mt Cook (rather than spending the night at Tekapo).
If you’re not keen on adventure sports, you can also remove a day from Queenstown.
Do you have extra time?
If you have extra days to explore New Zealand, a couple of suggestions…
We spent an extra day at Milford Sound, which was nice to have a bit of extra resting time. Milford Sound is an expensive place to spend an extra day, so if we were to do it again, we’d add the extra day to Wanaka, Queenstown or Aoraki / Mt Cook.
There are so many hikes at both these places; we could have used the extra rest days in between the challenging hikes.
Are you heading to New Zealand?
What are you adding or removing to your 10-day New Zealand South Island Itinerary?
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