Before coming to New Zealand’s South Island, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the places to see. I’d heard and read so many stories regarding other people’s favorite places and sights; I wanted to ensure I was able to see it all. I spent the first seven or so months of my New Zealand Working Holiday Visa exploring the North Island here and there, while working to save money toward my South Island adventure.
Our South Island trip lasted a little over three weeks. Although we definitely could have explored the region for a longer period, I do think it was a good amount. New Zealand’s South Island is special. It’s home to the most pristine landscapes that exist on our planet and the locals are proud to call it their home. There is a feeling of peace when you’re down there; serenity unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.
There are a few ways to explore the country, and it all depends on your preference and availability. Remember: there is no wrong or right way to travel. Do what makes you happy! Here are some options:
Camper van: This is a super popular option for the adventurous souls. Some of the vans you can buy or rent here come equipped with stovetops, toilets and a few even have showers! If yours doesn’t come with these luxuries, there are plenty of holiday parks you can rest your bones, cook and shower. If you want to compare prices of accommodation, I recommend downloading the Holiday Parks NZ app on your mobile device.
Car rental: I’ve met quite a few people who have chosen to rent or buy a smaller car and stay in hostels. Excellent option for those traveling solo or in a pair!
Public transport: While there are quite a few bus and train systems throughout the country, I wouldn’t say this option is the best. I met a few people who were traveling New Zealand’s South Island relying on the public transportation and they were quite frustrated.
Stray: For those of you interested in purchasing a hop on, hop-off bus ticket, I highly recommend Stray.
The itinerary I’ve detailed can be amended to suit your trip depending on your mode of transport.
The ultimate itinerary for three week’s on New Zealand’s South Island:
Day 1: Christchurch
A lot of people I’d met referred to this little town as “boring.” While that may be true, I personally found a lot of heart in Christchurch. As many people know, New Zealand’s South Island is vulnerable to earthquakes; Christchurch is often impacted. While many of the town’s famous landmarks and businesses were severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake, the citizens are doing what they can to rebuild.
There are quite a few quirks to this town and plenty of opportunities to give back to the community at the shops and restaurants.
Things to do in Christchurch:
Visit the Cardboard Cathedral
The 2011 earthquake not only affected the local businesses and infrastructure, but it completely changed the skyline of Christchurch. In fact, the Christchurch Cathedral, one of the town’s most iconic and historical landmarks was a structural victim claimed in this tragedy.
Although there has been some frustration from the locals due to the fact it’s taking so long to rebuild the original cathedral, the locals have taken things into their own hands and have built the Cardboard Cathedral. This unique little spot evoked a sense of joy in me. The transitional space is made up of elements of wood, steel, and polycarbonate; several images from the original cathedral have been incorporated into the windows.
The modern building is well-known within the architecture realm; its designer Shigeru Ban was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2014.
Pay your respects at 185 Empty White Chairs
Behind the Cardboard Cathedral sits an art installation that will surely tug at your heartstrings. In a tribute to the 185 lives lost in the 2011 earthquake, artist Peter Majendief placed 185 empty chairs in a lot to honor the dead. The energy in the area was enough to bring me to tears.
Dine inside a shipping container
Cost: $8-15 NZD ($6.20 – $10.30 USD)
Many businesses throughout Christchurch have turned to the use of shipping containers as temporary spaces to maintain business as usual. One of the coolest in town spots doing so HOME, a restaurant aimed at offering affordable and healthy comfort foods from around the world. I had the vegetarian Hawaiian poke bowl and still think about it.
Location: 99 Victoria St, Christchurch Central, Christchurch 8013
Explore the Re:Start project
Cost: Depends on what you purchase
As I mentioned before, the use of shipping containers is quite popular in Christchurch. Some of the locals recently launched the Re:Start project, a temporary shopping mall located in the heart of town. This area has it all: wood-fired pizza joints, clothing stores and even temporary banks! It’s certainly worth a visit and an awesome opportunity to help out the community.
Walk around Hagley Park and the botanic gardens
James and I were fortunate enough to visit during the autumn months and boy was it lovely! We had such a great afternoon perusing the gardens and walking along the waterfront; I found lots of joy petting random dogs. There are some insanely gorgeous flora in New Zealand’s South Island, and the gardens definitely have them on display!
Go on a hunt for street art
One of the things I loved most about Christchurch is that there are more than 100 street art murals on display. Amazingly enough, someone created a neighborhood guide to help those interested in spotting them around town!
Grab a pint at The Bog
Cost for a pint: $7 NZD ($4.80 USD)
This cozy Irish pub was one of my highlights in Christchurch. The atmosphere was so warm and welcoming and they had a decent array of beers on tap. It seems they have quite a few food and drink specials throughout the week, although we weren’t there on a day they offered such. Bonus points if you’re Irish and visiting – they serve Taytos!
Where to stay in Christchurch:
Kiwi Basecamp Backpackers
Cost for a mixed dorm: $31 NZD per night ($21.41 USD)
We stayed here our first time around and were super pleased with it. The staff offers freshly baked bread each morning free of charge and is in an excellent location, close to many restaurants and bars. It is also a short walk to and from the Christchurch Airport bus shuttle stop.
Day 2-3: Picton
After a decent night’s sleep, we headed back toward the airport to be picked up by Stray. The drive from Christchurch to Picton was a long journey – 11 hours in total – but included several stops along the way.
Where to stop en route from Christchurch to Picton:
If you’re using your own transportation, I recommend making a stop at the Lewis Pass and stretching your legs by walking through the St. James Walkway loop. It’s about 20-30 minutes and offers some incredible views. If you’re keen on staying longer, I’m sure you can!
What to do in Picton:
Go on a walk
One of the great things about this sleepy town is there are excellent walks. Here are a few options:
- Shelley Beach to Bob’s Bay – 30 minutes
- The Snout Walkway – 2 hours (Recommended for the view)
- Esson’s Valley Bush Walk – 1 hour
- Tirohanga Track – 1.5 to 2 hours (Recommended for the view)
Visit the EcoWorld Aquarium
Cost: $15 NZD ($10.35 USD)
While I didn’t visit during my stay, I wish I had. This aquarium is a refuge for rescued sea creatures, and the money supports the little critters. A friend told me there were fish with missing fins, abandoned penguins and others that need a little extra assistance. Your ticket will include the opportunity to watch the animals get fed in the morning, which is pretty cool!
Location: Zealandyq, Picton 7281
Munch on a delicious savory pie
Cost: $4.50 – $5.50 NZD ($3.10 – $3.70 USD)
I loved the vegetarian pie I tried at Village Bakkerij. It was so perfectly creamy and hit the spot for a mid-morning snack. My carnivore friends enjoyed theirs as well!
Location: 46 Auckland St, Picton 7220
Where to stay in Picton:
The Villa Backpackers
Cost for a mixed dorm: $28 per night ($19.32 USD)
This hostel was actually one of my favorites! The building is a former nursing home, and some of the old decor still stands. The kitchen was well-equipped and the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. I highly recommend staying here!
Address: 34 Auckland Street, Picton 7220
Day 3-4: Abel Tasman Marahau
This leg of the trip holds some of the most beautiful memories. Although Abel Tasman National Park is the smallest park in New Zealand, the beauty found within is unmatched. There are a few things to do while in town:
Take a water taxi around the different islands
Cost: $35 – $75 NZD ($21.19 – $51.14 USD)
This is an excellent option for those who are interested in a cheaper option getting from the mainland to the beaches. Some friends who chose this option got a mini tour of the surrounding islands.
Hike to the beach
James and I did a three-hour trek from our hostel to the beach. From here, we took a sailboat back to land. It was an incredible accomplishment to trek to the beach and then chill on the water for the afternoon.
Cost: $270 ($186.60 USD)
The more adventurous souls can climb up, slide down and jump off rocks for an afternoon. It’s often revered as a favorite activity for the area.
Kayak around the national park grounds
A wonderful option for those looking for a bit of relaxation after a hike through the forest!
Where to stay in Abel Tasman Marahau:
Cost for a mixed dorm: $32 NZD ($22.11 USD)
I really loved this hostel for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s super near to the entrance of the Abel Tasman National Park. The kitchen was large, well-equipped and features family-style seating. The Barn isn’t close to any grocery stores, so be sure to stock up before you arrive. Pro tip: The kitchen has an oven – bring a frozen pizza!
Address: 14 Harvey Road, Marahau 7197
Day 5: Westport
This sleepy town once thrived as a gold mine haven but has since lost its luster. While there isn’t much to do in this forgotten village, I still think it’s worth a visit.
Things to do in Westport:
Take a tour of a brewery
Cost: $30 NZD ($20.60 USD)
Westport is home to quite a few breweries, but I am partial to West Coast Brewery. James and I did a tour of the establishment and had a nice time. While the interior may not be as fancy and well-equipped as the American breweries I’ve visited, the beer was fresh and 100 percent organic.
Catch some surfing
Cost: $30 NZD ($20.60 USD)
While the North Island’s Raglan is known for the best surf in the country, the beaches in Westport have gained popularity down south. I didn’t partake in this, but those who did said they had a wonderful time! Surf’s up, brah.
Peruse the Coaltown Museum
This is an awesome way to learn a bit more about the town itself and the history of the region.
Walk along Cape Foulwind
Day 6-8: Franz Josef
This town will always have a piece of my heart as it was something really special. The Franz Josef Glacier area may not be the most “booming” spots along your journey, but the beauty you’ll come across is nothing short of spectacular. One thing is for certain: you’ll never be bored in this town.
What to do at the Franz Josef Glacier:
Take a unique adventure on the heli-hike
Cost: $449 NZD ($313.85 USD)
When will you have the opportunity to get in a helicopter, witness that helicopter land on a glacier and then hike along the glacier? Exactly.
Dare to jump out of a plane 16,500 feet above the New Zealand alps
Cost: $450-ish NZD ($314.55 USD)
I had a deal with myself that I would jump out of a plane before I turned 30. I not only achieved this goal, but I managed to do so at what has been said to be the best jump in the world. If you do anything in New Zealand, I highly recommend doing something extreme like this. PROTIP: Rather than purchasing the photo/video combination package, I recommend only buying the video and screenshotting the still frames.
Hike along the trail to get better glacier views
I chose to walk to the head of the trail from town. The views were well worth it and I’ll never complain about walking extra miles!
Where to stay at the Franz Josef Glacier:
Cost for a mixed dorm: $26 NDZ per night ($18.23 USD)
This hostel legit had flatscreen TVs mounted on the walls, which was convenient for consuming the news while getting ready for bed/the day. There’s also a cat who chills out in the kitchen and it looks like a bread loaf/is awesome.
Address: 46 Cron St, Franz Josef 7886
Day 9 – 14: Wanaka
I don’t think I can truly put into words how much I love this town. We were meant to stay just one night and ended up staying for five. I think the fact that we visited during the autumn months made it all the more magical; I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It’s smaller than Queenstown and has a charm to it unlike anywhere on New Zealand’s South Island.
What to do in Wanaka:
Walk to the top of Mt. Iron
When will you have the opportunity to get in a helicopter, witness that helicopter land on a glacier and then hike along the glacier? Exactly.
Tone your bum walking up to Roy’s Peak
This is one of the most stunning walks you will do on the entire trip. While it may not be the easiest (it’s legit all uphill), it will be totally worth it once you make it up to the top.
Stroll through the vineyards at the Rippon Vineyard
Cost: Free (Wine tasting is also free!)
Cycle through town
Cost: Varies (Details in the hostel section)
There is a pathway that encircles the entire town, and I highly recommend it! There are quiet spots along the way, so pack a lunch or bring a book.
Check out #ThatWanakaTree
This goes without saying. If you don’t know about this Insta-famous tree, it gained its fame about five years ago when it was featured on a New Zealand tourism website. Expect dozens of humans crowded around said tree.
Devour some gelato at Patagonia
This gelato is said to be some of the best in the country, and I would say it’s on par with Italian gelato. It’s incredibly delicious; some of the flavors award-winning. Treat yo’self.
Watch a film at Paradiso
Cost: $15 NZD ($10.48 USD)
I didn’t partake in this activity, but I wish I had. The theater seats consist of old couches and the interior includes a classic car. It certainly seems like a unique movie watching experience!
Learn to fly a plane
Cost: $150 NZD ($104.85 USD)
James and I didn’t go on our trip with Stray expecting for him to take a flight lesson, but I’m glad he did it! Although I was a bit scared, James was a natural. BONUS: The pilot pays for the flight and the passenger is free!
Where to stay in Wanaka:
Flying Kiwi Backpackers
Cost for a mixed dorm: $28 NZD per night ($19.57 USD)
I fell in love with this place after spending ONE night at Base. Not only does this place come equipped with a stocked kitchen, it has a backyard area with hammocks, a ridiculous amount of movies available, board games, and super comfortable beds. We paid for the cheaper dorm beds, and I was still extremely impressed as each pod was private.
If you’re keen to cycle around Wanaka, I suggest renting the bike from this place. It was advertised at Base for around $60, but we were able to score bikes for the entire day for just $20 NZD.
Day 15 – 19: Queenstown
This city is arguably the most well-known in the entire region and for good reason. It’s a tourist hotspot and is home to some of New Zealand’s most incredible scenery. Not only is this place a party town, but it’s also known as the “adventure capital of the world.” There isn’t much you *can’t* do in this town.
What to do in Queenstown:
Hike to Queenstown Hill
The photo featured above was taken on my walk to the top. Although it was pretty chilly, it was one of my favorite days.
Eat a Fergburger
You can read more about that here.
Walk up to Gondola Hill
This pathway is a bit rugged and steep, but it was honestly not that difficult. It took us about an hour, but I think it can be done is a shorter time. Once you get to the top of Gondola Hill, there are plenty of activities. Which brings me to…
Whiz through the luge
Cost: $50 NZD ($35.07) and up
Atop Bob’s Peak lies one of Queenstown’s most enjoyed activities. This luge is an 800 meter gravity ride that allows riders to breeze along the twists and turns with ease. There are a few tracks to choose from and you can buy packages for multiple rides. It’s a lot of fun – seriously!
Mountain bike on crazy paths
Cost: $65 – $95 NZD ($45 – $66 USD)
There are a few options for this, but I will say I am definitely not badass enough to do this. I loved watching the bikers whiz by off the jumps when I was walking up the hill, though.
Test your endurance on the Ben Lomond Track
The weather did not permit us to do this particular track, although I wasn’t terribly upset. This is one of Queenstown’s most famous trails and also one of the more challenging in the region. I’ve been told the summit requires climbers to get on their hands and knees.
Where to stay in Queenstown:
Adventure Q2 Backpackers
Cost for a dorm: $33 NZD per night ($23.14 USD)
This is by far and wide the best hostel in town. It’s clean, modern and always booked – so make sure you’re planning ahead for this one! Adventure Q2’s well-travelled owner made a list of things he loved and disliked about other hostels abroad, as well as a list of things he missed from home. With these factors in mind, this incredible hostel was born.
Day 20: Gunn’s Camp*
I’ll admit this was one of my favorite spots for the sole purpose that it was so different than anywhere else. This camp was initially set up back in the ___, and housed workers (and their families) while they helped build the road. Guests sleep in cabins but will have access to a kitchen and clean bathrooms. There is a museum on the premises, and it is worth visiting as it showcases the town’s history.
Day 21 – 22: Invercargill/Stewart Island*
Invercargill was honestly nothing special. Other than the fact it is one of the most southern cities in the world, there wasn’t much to offer. Should you choose this part of the Stray trip, I recommend using it as a chill night in. For those of you who are interested in going to Stewart Island, a few of my friends were able to spot some kiwis – so it does happen!
What to do in Invercargill:
Have a pint in the cozy Wazy O’Shea’s
Cost: ~$7-9 NZD ($4.90 – $6.30 USD)
This place has a fireplace and the staff is super kind. I ordered a cider while I waited for my $5 Domino’s pizza, which wasn’t fully cooked. You had one job, Invercargill Domino’s.
Where to stay in Invercargill:
Tuatara Backpackers Lodge
Cost for a dorm room:
This place has pretty tasty food, but the rest of it is lacking. I personally loved the TV lounge, which was stocked with VHS movies – a welcomed blast from the past!
Day 23 – 24: Queenstown*
If you haven’t yet, I suggest you use this opportunity to bungy jump in Queenstown.
*You can also use this as an opportunity to rent your own car and drive down to Dunedin.
Day 25 – 26: Aoraki/Mt Cook
In all honesty, I was completely blown away by this area. First of all, I had no idea that avalanches sounded like thunder in the distance. I watched as snow collapsed from a far and it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. I don’t even like snow, but I loved this area so much.
What to do in Mt. Cook:
Hike the Hooker Valley Track
This trail is not only scenic, but there are virtually no hills. It’ll be a nice break for your legs!
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get some clear skies after watching the sun set behind the mountains surrounding the town. While there is an option to pay $70 NZD to go on a stargazing tour, I personally opted for the free version and saw them myself by merely walking outside. The benefits of a stargazing tour would be the ability to see the stars a bit closer using the company’s high-tech gear as well as an educational lesson on the constellations. It’s really up to you!
Where to stay in Mt. Cook:
Mt. Cook Backpacker Lodge
Cost for a dorm: $39 NZD ($27 USD) per night
This was not my favorite spot on the trip, but it was in an excellent location. The beds were uncomfortable and the food in the pub attached was mediocre at best. I did meet a few Steelers fans in the pub, though.
Day 27: Tekapo
This area is quite possibly one of the most photographed spots in all of New Zealand. This peaceful town doesn’t offer much to do, but it is certainly worth stopping to take in all the natural beauty.
What to do in Tekapo:
Take a peek at the Church of the Good Shepard
This church is actually New Zealand’s most photographed building. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s situated along such a gorgeous riverbank or it’s so secluded, but it is quite a sight to see.
Go trekking nearby
Tramp through the Southern Alps for a few days if you’re keen to hang around the area!
Where to stay in Tekapo:
YHA Lake Tekapo Backpackers
Cost for a dorm: $36 NZD ($25.40 USD) per night
This lakefront accommodation has a BBQ, communal kitchen, and bicycle rental.
Day 28: Christchurch
If you didn’t get anything you wanted to get accomplished on the first leg of the trip, now is your chance! Whatever you do, be sure to travel responsibly and support the local community in every way you can. Safe travels!
Please keep in mind this was the itinerary that I did through Stray New Zealand; your itinerary will be subject to change based on your mode of transport. If you’re a bit more curious about this company, click here to read more about my experience.
Disclaimer: I was a guest with Stray during my three-week adventure through New Zealand’s South Island. Regardless, all opinions are always my own.