This New Zealand South Island itinerary includes some of the most sought-after tourism destinations in the country. Unlike the North Island, it does not have as much volcanic activity, but has incredibly large, snow-capped mountain ranges, fjords and glaciers.
So, the best way to travel is by car, allowing you to adapt your itinerary, if needed, since many of the attractions change their conditions and accessibility according to the weather.
But assuming the weather is on your side, here is a two-week itinerary that showcases the very best that the South Island has to offer.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet New Zealand (Travel Guide)
Two Week New Zealand South Island Itinerary
3 Days in Canterbury
Canterbury is packed with hundreds of cute seals, sheep, penguins and beautiful landscapes. Three days is hardly enough when Canterbury comes into question.
If you ever have the option of going back, add to your itinerary Arthur’s Pass, a picturesque road, full of curves, bridges, mighty rivers and rocky walls. Several of the landscapes that served as a backdrop for Lord of the Rings are at the side of the road here, magnifying the fantasy that New Zealand inspires.
Christchurch is the largest city on New Zealand South Island and historically the first to be established in the country. The city is your best starting point for the South since it has the largest international airport on the island. Christchurch is known for its vibrant artistic atmosphere and its charming streets.
Today, it is popular because of the transformation experienced after the earthquake of 2011, which destroyed the city. It’s now possible to walk among ruins and see the city renewing itself creatively.
Some of its sights include: Christchurch Cathedral, 185 Empty Chairs Memorial and Regent Street. Banks Peninsula is also worth a visit if you have some time to spare in Canterbury.
Our top recommended tours in Christchurch:
- Akaroa Harbour Tours
- Willowbank Wildlife Reserve Tours
- International Antarctic Center Tours
- Christchurch Gondola Ride
- Christchurch Botanic Gardens Tours
Kaikoura, where the ocean meets the mountains, is a must stop between Christchurch and the Tasman region if you are interested in wildlife and marine mammals. The most attractive and famous tours of Kaikoura include whale and dolphin watching.
But, if you do not want to spend too much money, it is possible to witness a community of fur seals at Point Kean Seal Colony. To make it a perfect day why not take a break at Allure Cafe and have a lovely meal at Pier Hotel restaurant, famous for its crayfish dish.
The blue turquoise Lake Tekapo is in a little village named Tekapo, which is base for those on the way to Mount Cook National Park. Known for its amazing starry skies it is part of the largest International Dark Sky Reserve.
From here you can see thousands of super sparkly stars and depending on your luck, Aurora Australis!
Mt Cook (Aoraki in Maori) is the highest mountain in NZ, at an altitude of 3,724 meters (12,200ft). On its foot there is a glacier that ends in a frozen lake. To get to this lake, follow the Hooker Valley Track which takes 4h to get there and back to Mt Cook Village.
The hike is very flat and easy with 3 bridges that sway over the Hooker River, it has stunning views all the way. For the bravest there is also the possibility of hiking to the peak which takes an average of 6 days!
Don’t forget: New Zealand (National Geographic Adventure Map)
3 Days in Tasman
The Abel Tasman Coast Track is a 34 miles (55km) trail that takes at least 3 days to complete and sleeping options include huts and camping. Being a very long trail, you have several options to take it on: walking is the most popular but doing part of it by boat or kayak can add some adventure.
The trail takes you over bridges, onto soft sandy beaches, climbs up hills in the middle of the forest, and across wide estuaries and flowing rivers.
The whole trail offers beautiful forested landscapes with views of blue oceans and golden sands. But remember to prepare beforehand. For camping or sleeping in the huts you need to book in advance.
To cross the estuaries you need to keep an eye on the local tide information because they’re only possible to cross during low tide.
If you are not up to hiking for 3 days, Kaiteriteri is a great alternative. Here you can take on a small trail of just 20 minutes and observe the iconic Split Apple Rock or visit Te Waikoropupu Springs which houses some of the clearest waters in the world.
Another option is to visit the pretty town of Nelson known as the craft-beer capital of NZ.
Our top recommend tours of Abel Tasman:
- Abel Tasman National Park Cruise
- Full-Day Abel Tasman Kayak and Walk
- Fly Golden Bay & Cruise Abel Tasman Day Tour
- Abel Tasman Vista Cruise
2 Days in West Coast
Punakaiki, near Greymouth, is known for the famous Pancake Rocks. It is possible to take a very easy walk to see them closely and witness columns of seawater spouting through Punakaiki craters during high tide, known as Blowholes, which can even result in colorful rainbows.
On the west coast of New Zealand South Island, you cannot be indifferent to the natural beauty with which the region was blessed. From the superlative Fox glacier to the bluish silence of Franz Josef’s ice, passing a foray into the mirrored Lake Matheson, this is a trip through the iconic Westland National Park.
Franz Josef Glacier is in the micro town of the same name and there are several ways to get to know the glacier better. The simplest is a 30-minute uphill walk through a valley which offers views across the glacier.
The Fox Glacier provides a similar hike but slightly longer at 40 minutes long, down a gorgeous valley surrounded by waterfalls. For both icy landscapes there is the option of taking a guided tour on top of the glaciers with the help of a helicopter to get there.
Besides that, driving from this region to Wanaka you will cross the Haast Pass where you will have the chance to visit Blue Pools, Fantail Falls and Thunder Falls.
Our top recommend tours of Franz Josef Glacier:
- Heli-Hike Franz Josef Glacier Walk
- Twin Glacier Helicopter Flight from Franz Josef
- Kayak Adventure from Franz Josef Glacier
- Franz Josef Glacier Valley Eco Tour
- Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk
3 Days in Otago
The town of Wanaka is one of the great winter destinations in NZ due to the snow sports resorts close by. The lake, of the same name, is internationally known for its famous tree, which rises among the waters.
Take a walk up Mt Iron (1.5h walk) where you can admire the view of Lake Wanaka and Mt Aspiring or hire a mountain bike and follow the trail which wraps around the lake.
Most people save their skiing and snowboarding experience for Queenstown but what they must not know is that Cardrona Alpine Resort is just as amazing and less touristy.
Other than snowboarding or skiing, Wanaka is famous for its kiwi (nickname for New Zealanders) atmosphere with pubs and young people vibes.
Our top recommend tours in Wanaka:
- Half-Day Mount Aspiring National Park Jet Boat and Wilderness Walk from Wanaka
- Half-Day Kayak Tour on Lake Wanaka
- Classic Wanaka Wine Tour
- 35-Minute Helicopter Flight Including Glacier Landing from Wanaka
Crown Range Road, the road from Wanaka to Queenstown, is beautiful and the village of Arrowtown is the perfect stop on the way. Take a walk around the village, visit the Chinese Settlement and enjoy some ice cream at Patagonia Chocolate.
Despite what some people might say, one day is enough in Queenstown. Take the gondola up to the Skyline in the morning to appreciate the view of the region with the Remarkables mountain range in the background and then have some fun in a Luge – Skyline’s stroller carts.
After lunch, relax on a cruise upon Wakatipu Lake while enjoying some fine wine or hot chocolate.
In addition, Ferg Burger in Queenstown is said to be the best burger in NZ and its long queues reflects its fame. Another great tip is Cookie Time. This Cookie branch from NZ has its own store in Queenstown with a happy hour (6pm to 7pm) everyday when cookies can be bought for half the price!
Our top recommend tours in Queenstown:
- Queenstown Skyline Gondola and Restaurant
- Skyline Stargazing and Gondola in Queenstown
- Queenstown Skyline Gondola and Luge
- New Zealand’s Biggest Swing: Nevis Swing Queenstown
- Queenstown Nevis Highwire Bungy Jump
Dunedin is one of the largest cities in New Zealand South Island, mainly because of the University of Otago. Its proximity to Queenstown attracts many tourists. One day is plenty to witness the Moeraki Boulders, a well-known natural tourist spot.
The boulders are almost perfect stone spheres carved by the sea and arranged along one of the region’s beaches. Moreover, 15 minutes from Dunedin center is Tunnel Beach, known for its unique access through a tunnel inside a rock.
Our top recommend tours in Dunedin:
- Dunedin City, Wildlife and Scenery Tour
- Dunedin and Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour with Optional Larnach Castle Visit
- Speight’s Brewery Small-Group Guided Tour from Dunedin
- Full-Day Dunedin Tour with Larnach Castle & Gardens, Speight’s Brewery
- Half-Day Iconic Dunedin City Tour
3 Days in Fiordland and Southland
Milford Sound is the most popular tourist destination in Fiordland National Park and NZ’s most visited attraction. The cruise through Milford Sound fjord is mandatory and it begins with an amazing view of the Miter Peak.
However, as it rains here on average 200 days a year you will need to be lucky to see it.
Due to the high chance of rain it is recommended to take a waterproof jacket and dress in layers. But all that rain creates beautiful waterfalls which can be seen during the trip through the fjord.
If you are adventurous and well prepared you can take the tour of the fjords via kayaking. The road to get to Milford Sound is itself an attraction and one of the most beautiful in NZ.
Our top recommend tours in Milford Sound:
- Milford Sound Mariner Overnight Cruise
- Milford Sound Nature Cruise
- Milford Sound Kayaking Day Tour
- Milford Sound Scenic Flight and Nature Cruise
- Full-Day Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park Tour including Milford Sound Cruise and BBQ Lunch
Invercargill and Catlin’s Forest
Invercargill is where the commercial area of this part of the country is concentrated. Invercargill does not have many attractions, but serves as a base for anyone looking to explore Bluff, the point where the road that crosses the whole country from north to south ends (or begins), or those heading for Stewart Island, the third largest island in NZ.
From Invercargill, you can also extend your trip to Catlin’s Forest on your way to/from Dunedin. It is quite remote and beautiful, taken by nature, where several endangered animals reside. One of its attractions is Slope Point, the southernmost point of New Zealand South Island.
It is quite tricky to find Slope Point since it is hidden in farmland and the path from the road is not particularly clear. But, the view of nothing but ocean is like something you have never seen. Just by looking at it you feel an indescribable feeling of freedom.
Some other sights you should take a look at on your two days around the Catlin’s are Nugget Point with a community of sea lions and Curio Bay with its penguins.
Our top recommend tours for Invercargill and Catlin’s Forest:
- Invercargill to Dunedin with Stewart Island Option
- Private Tour: Dunedin to the Catlins
- Stewart Island: Village and Bays Tour
- 3-Day Deep South Adventure from Queenstown
Have more time and plan on heading to the North Island too? Read our Two Week North Island New Zealand Itinerary.
More on New Zealand:
- New Zealand Travel Guide
- 51 Epic Things to Do in New Zealand
- Tongariro Crossing is the Best Hike in New Zealand
- Blue Pools: New Zealand Best Kept Secret
- 25 New Zealand Photos That Showcase the South Island
- 19 North Island New Zealand Photos That Inspire Travel
- Piha Beach Planning & Surf Guide
- Karangahake Gorge: Off the Beaten Track in NZ
- Travel Recap- 5 Weeks in New Zealand
- 5 Things To Do In Queenstown
- Complete Queenstown Accommodation Guide
- Our Encounter with the Yellow-Eyed Penguins in New Zealand
- New Zealand’s Moeraki Boulders In Photos