If your time is limited to one week in New Zealand, having a well-planned itinerary is absolutely crucial. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Therefore, we have created this comprehensive guide to designing your perfect New Zealand South Island 7 Day itinerary, with some suggestions of our own.
We have laid out the bones of several 7-day South Island itinerary options that vary based on pace and interest. Those of you who prefer a structured itinerary can simply follow them as we have suggested. However, we have also provided all important considerations on how to amend our proposed itineraries in order to fit your personal interests.
With that in mind, we strongly suggest you begin by opening our Ultimate South Island New Zealand map. Keep this open in a new browser to reference throughout this blog. In this map, we have included EVERY point of interest we know of on New Zealand’s South Island, as well as added one of our own photos for each pin. This is truly a great resource for planning your itinerary and deciding on what interests you most.
If you have not already booked your trip, careful consideration should be given to the month of your visit as well. We will discuss that in this blog, but have also written extensively on the topic in our guide to the best time to visit New Zealand.
One last thing to note as we dive into the suggested one-week itineraries is that we have had to assume your starting point will be Christchurch, as that is the primary airport. If you are taking the ferry over from the North Island, you will still benefit from the map we mentioned above, but will not find much further guidance from this particular guide.
Is One Week in New Zealand South Island Enough?
One week on the South Island is enough time to see the most popular highlights, but very little else. Still, a well-crafted itinerary, like this one, will allow you to tick off most of the items that are likely on your New Zealand travel bucket list.
There is a lot more to see on the South Island of New Zealand than you could possibly explore in a matter of weeks, which gives you reason to come back! No matter how much time you have, you’ll wish you had more.
Where should I go with only 7 days in New Zealand South Island
The right 7 day itinerary for New Zealand’s South Island will allow you to visit most, maybe all, of these places:
- Christchurch: You’ll most likely arrive here.
- Lake Tekapo: Impossibly-blue lake famous for stargazing.
- Mt Cook/Aoraki National Park: Best NP in New Zealand.
- Lake Pukaki: Vibrant glacial water on the doorstep of Mt Cook.
- Queenstown: The adventure capital of Oceania.
- Milford Sound: Considered the 8th Wonder of the World by many.
- Wanaka: Incredible mountain town with world-renown hiking.
- Haast Pass: Numerous waterfalls and blue pools dot this scenic road.
- Fox/Franz Josef Glacier: Hike to some of NZ’s prettiest glaciers.
- Hokitika: Home to glow worms, seascapes, and a blue-water gorge.
- Arthur’s Pass NP: One of the most impressive scenic routes in NZ.
Only the truly ambitious travelers will be able to actually hit every stop on our ULTIMATE New Zealand South Island 7-day itinerary. However, we’ve structured it knowing that different people will remove different places from the list, allowing a pace they personally enjoy. We did not want to make that decision for you!
Accordingly, most of you will have to prioritize which destinations are most important to you, and which should be skipped. Some require a greater time commitment or better weather conditions than others.
Following the ULTIMATE South Island Itinerary below, we mention alternative routes and factors to consider that will help you customize this to fit your taste.
The ULTIMATE New Zealand South Island 7 Day Itinerary
Our ULTIMATE New Zealand South Island 7 Day itinerary allows a lot of sightseeing but very limited time at each. Most will find this too exhausting to follow at an enjoyable pace. However, we have designed it this way so you can simply eliminate the items that interest you least.
We recommend starting with this itinerary and amending your route based on your personal preferences. After you have read about all the places you could visit in this itinerary, continue reading for insight regarding ways to customize it most effectively.
Key Things to Note for the ULTIMATE 7 Day South Island New Zealand Itinerary:
- The total direct route drive time is 25 hours, meaning 3.5 hours of driving (on average) per day without detours!
- Eliminating Milford Sound removes 7.5 hours of drive time alone; that’s 30% of your drive time!
- Many people will find this too much driving and not enough time enjoying each stop. That’s to be expected; use the photos and suggestions to decide what places do not interest you. Free up time strategically by omitting them from your final itinerary.
Day 0: Christchurch to Tekapo
Drive Time: 3 hours
Suggested Stops: None
**Note: We are calling the day of arrival Day 0, because your time of arrival is too variable to create a uniform itinerary otherwise.
If you find this puts you a day behind, we suggest simply driving straight to Mt Cook after loading up on supplies, stopping only briefly at Lake Tekapo. This will put you back on schedule.**
Grab your rental car or camper van and hit the nearest Pak-N-Save immediately to load up on groceries and supplies. Pak-N-Save always has the cheapest gas and groceries in New Zealand. If possible, try to stock up for your entire 7-day South Island visit. This way, you won’t have to take time out of a busy week to pick up more supplies.
As soon as you are stocked up for your road trip, plug Lake Tekapo into your GPS. This is where we recommend staying the first night.
Lake Tekapo is famous for its impossibly-blue water, the Church of the Good Shepherd, star-filled night skies, thermal pools, and seasonal lupin blooms. Though it sounds like there is a lot to see, it is actually a pretty small area.
If you get there early enough, drive around some of the lakeside roads and enjoy your first New Zealand sunset from the Church of the Good Shepherd. Or, spend the night relaxing in the Tekapo Springs thermal baths.
This area is also known for its stargazing, though the relentless night tour buses have made that a pretty disappointing experience at this point.
Day 1: Tekapo to Mt Cook
Drive Time: 1h 20m
Suggested Stops: Lake Pukaki / Road to Cook
We recommend trying to get an early start on your drive toward Mt Cook. This will ensure that you have plenty of time for stops along the way, and for hikes upon arrival.
Wake up and photograph sunrise at Lake Tekapo, then grab breakfast from a cafe and head out early! Of course, if you arrived late the night before and have not had time to enjoy the area yet, be sure to do so before leaving.
On your way to Mt Cook/Aoraki National Park, you will first pass by Lake Pukaki. Situated at the doorstep of the Southern Alps, this incredible glacial lake radiates a magnificent aqua color and frames the regal Mt Cook in the distance. There are plenty of places to stop and photograph the scene, which we suggest you do despite photos rarely doing justice to the visual experience.
Road to Cook
From here, you’ll be on a straight shot to Mt Cook National Park. However, those of you who are using our NZ South Island Points of Interest Map will notice a pin we’ve added where the Road to Cook creates a perfect S-curve. Keep your eyes open for this incredible photo op!
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
You won’t have a ton of time, but that’s ok as the two best hikes in Mt Cook / Aoraki National Park can both be done easily enough. When you arrive, set out immediately for the Hooker Valley Track.
This hike is only about 60-90 minutes each way. However, you will be stopping every few steps for photos and for this reason, will likely end up using the entire day for this walk! That’s ok, bring a flashlight, snacks, and warm clothes so that you have everything you need if this short hike takes you through sunset. Enjoy the scenery as the sun descends and stay late for the incredible stars!
Mt Cook is one of only 11 National Dark Sky Reserves in the entire world. We captured one of our all-time favorite photos of a beautiful night at Hooker Lake on our last visit. This image is now the front cover of the Mackenzie Region visitor guide!
There are a few accommodation options at Mt Cook as well as a campground, depending on how you are traveling. We recommend staying the night if possible so you can enjoy Tasman Lake at sunrise. This is one of our favorite places to photograph sunrise on NZ South Island. If, however, this is impractical for you, it is only a 45 minute drive to Twizel where you can find a broader range of accommodation options.
READ MORE: Road Trip Quotes to Inspire your Adventures!
Day 2: Mt Cook to Queenstown
Drive Time: 3h 19m
Suggested Stops: Clay Cliffs, Lindis Pass
Scenic Detour: Lake Ohau
Note: You may have noticed that we recommend skipping Wanaka for now. Visiting Wanaka after Queenstown instead, on your way to the West Coast, will provide a more fuel and time-efficient route.
Assuming you decided to stay overnight at Mt Cook/Aoraki NP, you will want to wake up and catch sunrise from Tasman Lake. The hike time is only about 15 minutes each way and the scene is spectacular. Often times, large chunks of ice float peacefully on a deep blue lake surrounded by the Southern Alps. It is truly one of the best sunrise destinations in New Zealand.
From Mt Cook, the drive time is about 3 hours and 20 minutes to Queenstown (eliminate 45 of that if you stayed the night in Twizel instead). However, we do suggest a detour to Lake Ohau for the nature lovers and landscape photographers. This will add about an hour to your trip time for driving, plus however much time you spend photographing.
Lake Ohau received high accolades in our New Zealand landscape photography guide as one of our favorite views that most people skip. It will take you at least 30 minutes off your natural route, followed by 30 minutes back to the main road. Therefore, we do recommend browsing the photography guide linked above and deciding whether it looks beautiful enough to justify including in your itinerary.
You will see the Clay Cliffs from the road as you drive to Queenstown from Mt Cook. But you will have to make a slight detour if you want to hike about them. We strongly recommend stopping in as these are an extremely unique phenomenon. They, too, received a spot on our Top 10 list for landscape photography destinations. The Clay Cliffs are a more moderate 40-minute detour.
If you wish to visit this unique place, be sure to set your GPS to the Clay Cliffs on Henburn Road. There is a small fee requested by the owners of the land with an honor-system box at the gate.
The best part of the drive from the Mackenzie Region to Queenstown is cruising through the Lindis Pass. This mountain range and the viewpoints here make the Lindis Pass both a destination and a through-route.
There will be some pull-offs to stop and take pictures along the drive, as well as a few trails here and there. As beautiful as the Lindis Pass is, our recommendation is to take the time for the Clay Cliffs. If you got an early start, visit Lake Ohau as well, but limit your time at Lindis Pass.
The reason for this is that you will be able to enjoy the scenery as you drive through. Plus, you can quickly stop for a few photos without detouring and the hikes that do exist nearby do not offer substantially improved vistas. Also, Queenstown is incredibly pretty and vibrant, and you will surely want some time to enjoy the town. The less you lose along the way, the more you’ll have to enjoy QT!
Queenstown is a mecca for backpackers, outdoor enthusiasts, and adrenaline junkies. It is considered the “Adventure Capital of Oceania”. Any night of the week, any season of the year, expect a vibrant pulse.
Do not make the mistake of confusing this for a “big city”, however. Queenstown has some fun nightlife, good restaurants, and plenty of things to do, but it is a very compact little town.
Even if none of that description sounds enticing to you, it is also worth noting that the setting of Queenstown is as idyllic as it gets. Located right on Lake Wakatipu, the entire city is nestled into the mountain range known as The Remarkables. There is something here for everyone and all budgets.
On a longer visit, we would have a variety of viewpoints and activities in Queenstown to consider. However, a one-week New Zealand South Island itinerary simply does not allow enough time to partake in much.
Here are a few things we do recommend squeezing into your first evening:
“Epic Viewpoint” aka Remarkables Ski Area
Scramble up the corkscrewing road toward the Remarkables Ski Area and choose one of a number of incredible lookouts for sunset! It is not far from town and worth the short drive!
Queenstown Bay Beach
Whether you arrive in the evening or daytime, there is always a pulse and a stunning view from the beach! Enjoy a cold beverage and take in the views, culture, and vibes from the Queenstown Bay Beach.
Dinner at Fergburger
Expect long lines that go a ways down the road any time you visit this place. It is the most famous burger in maybe the entire continent!
Pro Tip: Call Fergburger to place your order in advance. This way you can avoid the line and just swing by to pick up!
Day 3: Queenstown to Milford Sound
Drive Time: 3h 49m
Suggested Stops: Remarkables Lookout, Devil’s Staircase, Fjordlands NP
Scenic Detours: Bob’s Cove, Moke Lake, Glenorchy
IF and HOW you decide to visit Milford Sound will be a massive decision that will affect your entire 7 days on the South Island. This decision must be carefully considered. We will do our best to help you with that by breaking the decision down for you.
First, let’s talk about the HOW.
Milford Sound by Car
By car, Milford Sound is only accessible via one in-and-out road. There’s also only one option for lodging (which is often full months in advance). The straight drive time would be about 4 hours. However, that is not accounting for the litany of stops and photo ops you will encounter on your way. Realistically, it will take you 6-8 hours to get there from Queenstown by car, plus another 2 hours BACK out the same day to Te Anau, where you will find the nearest lodging.
Milford Sound Flight and Cruise
For our longer itineraries, we structure the visit to Milford Sound very differently. With only a 7-day NZ itinerary, however, your best option is to sign up for a “Milford Flight & Cruise“ tour. While a bit pricey at $585 NZD, this does promise to be one of the most special experiences of your entire week. You will board a small plane and fly 40 minutes over the incredible Fjordlands. From there you’ll take a 2-hour boat cruise through the Milford Sound, and return via another small plane.
The downside of this tour is that you miss a lot of beautiful stops on the drive to Milford Sound. The upside is that the views are unbeatable from the sky, you save a ton of time, and you give yourself more time to enjoy Queenstown.
Another benefit is that you won’t have to waste precious time packing and unpacking. Instead, you can reserve the same accommodation in Queenstown and stay another night. This frees up some time to see some of the other amazing places near Queenstown (Moke Lake, Glenorchy, Bob’s Cove, etc.).
Milford Sound by Coach Tour
You can also book a day tour that takes you via coach one way and flight back, or coach both ways. This doesn’t eliminate the time required and limits your freedom somewhat. However, it means you can rest on the coach and not have to worry about the long drive.
If you skip Milford Sound
If neither of these options seem appealing or you just don’t think Milford Sound is worth the effort, you are liberating an entire day of your schedule (and a big chunk of money) by skipping it altogether.
You could spend the day visiting the scenic detours mentioned above. Begin with Bob’s Cove and venture up to Glenorchy and Paradise, and perhaps stop in at Moke Lake. This is a beautiful region of New Zealand and one we always suggest for longer itineraries.
There is another option you should strongly consider, which is going straight to Wanaka today and partaking in a day hike! Our two favorite hikes on the entire continent are both near Wanaka and deserve your attention: Roy’s Peak and Rocky Peak.
Day 4: Milford Sound to Wanaka
Drive Time: 4h 35m
Suggested Stops: Fjordlands NP, Arrowtown, Cardrona Pass
Scenic Detours: Te Anau Glowworm Caves, Roy’s Peak, Rocky Peak,
Drive to Wanaka
Those of you who decide to drive to Milford Sound from Queenstown will wake up somewhere between the Milford Lodge and the city of Te Anau. From the lodge, you will have a 4.5 hour journey to Wanaka, WITHOUT stops. We recommend waking up for sunrise and getting out early.
Personally, we do not highly recommend the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. However, we also appreciate that some of you may rank seeing these amazing bioluminescent creatures over anything else. Therefore, we will mention that this option exists if you would like to look into it!
Otherwise, your day will consist of a long, beautiful drive through the Fjordlands National Park, The Key, Devil’s Staircase, and the Cardrona Pass. These places are all on your natural route so no planning is needed. But you should be aware of just how often you’ll be compelled to stop and will need consider that in your itinerary. Definitely get an early start to Day 4!
If you arrive in Wanaka with a few hours before sunset, we cannot recommend the hike to Rocky Peak enough. We discussed it thoroughly in our NZ Landscape Photography guide, and it may well have been our favorite hike of all.
The Roy’s Peak hike is also amazing, and should at least be considered in your itinerary. However, it would likely be tough to squeeze in unless you make it a true priority.
If you are exhausted, just drop your bags off at your Wanaka accommodation and find yourself a spot along Lake Wanaka to enjoy the sunset.
Wanaka was our favorite town on the New Zealand South Island. The scenery here is as pretty as Queenstown, but things just feel calmer. If you are tired and just want to be still, surrounded by the iconic New Zealand landscapes for which the country is known, Wanaka is the perfect place to take a night off.
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention “That Wanaka Tree”. It has become an iconic symbol of the country and a place on every landscape photographer’s bucket list. It is located right on Lake Wanaka and is another place to consider photographing sunset, if you don’t mind crowds. Sadly, someone recently cut off one of the low limbs from the tree in an act of shameful vandalism.
Day 5: Wanaka to Fox Glacier
Drive Time: 3h 29m
Points of Interest: Blue Pools, Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls, Depot Creek Falls, Roaring Billy Falls
You will want to get an early start to your day anyway, so we recommend enjoying sunrise at That Wanaka Tree. While still crowded, it tends to be a slightly more peaceful time there. Afterward, grab a quick breakfast and head out with some mild urgency.
The direct drive to Fox Glacier, your destination for the night, is about 3.5 hours. However, this route takes you through the gorgeous Haast Pass. There are a lot of short hikes through here, followed by some beautiful coastal lookouts. Including time for short walks, photos, and meals, we would expect it to take you the entire day to finish the drive to Fox Glacier.
On that note, the name “Fox Glacier” is a bit confusing, so allow us to clarify. This is the name of both a small town, as well as the natural feature nearby; there is also the “Fox Glacier Walk,” which is the trail to the glacier itself. We recommend booking accommodation in the town of Fox Glacier and attempting the hike tomorrow.
There are a lot of beautiful and photogenic waterfalls along the road and all throughout the Haast Pass. This is the scenic route you will drive to get to Fox Glacier from Wanaka. Stunning blue rivers, vivacious greenery, and roaring waterfalls all dot your path through the center of the South Island before spitting you out on a gorgeous Western coastline.
Pack a meal, if possible, as options may be sparse and you will likely spend a fair chunk of time sightseeing in the area.
Blue Pools Track
The absolute must-see place on your way through the Haast Pass is the Blue Pools track. This short hike is only 1.5km (1 mile) roundtrip, but you will likely spend an hour wandering around and photographing it from different angles. Even if you get a late start, be sure to visit this stunning place.
This is basically a roadside gem, though it technically requires a very short walk. Fantail Falls is a picturesque waterfall along Haast Pass and a popular stop for anyone passing through. The trail is only about 0.3km (less than a quarter mile), so even those on a tight timetable should consider stopping.
Thunder Creek Falls
This is another 5 minute stop along the way. Thunder Creek Falls is a towering waterfall that splits through lush forest and drains into blue-green water below. As with Fantail Falls, you should at least poke in for a photo as the trail to the falls is so short.
Depot Creek Falls
This one has no signage and can be tricky to find, but it’s one our favorite waterfalls along Haast Pass. It is also pretty much roadside, but you may need some extra time to locate it. We have dropped a pin in our Ultimate Map as close as we possibly can, so do some research and keep your eyes peeled!
You will notice plenty of other roadside cascades, especially following rain systems. We have listed our favorite notated stops, but there are plenty of other beautiful vistas along this stretch without signs or names!
It is unlikely you will arrive to Fox Glacier in time to do the Fox Glacier Valley Walk. However, if you get an early start and move quickly, you just might! The walk from the parking lot to the ending viewpoint is a moderate 2.5km (1.5 mile) journey, so you really only need 1-2 hours.
Our recommendation is always “see what you can, while you can” as there is always more to see if you can find the time. If you arrive with a couple hours to spare before sunset, you may as well get this knocked out so you have more time for tomorrow’s stops and detours.
Day 6: Fox Glacier to Hokitika
Drive Time: 2h 15m
Suggested Stops: Lake Matheson, Franz Josef, Glowworm Dell
Scenic Detours: Hokitika Gorge, Dorothy Falls
Sunrise at Lake Matheson
Regardless of whether you arrived in time to walk the Fox Glacier Valley already, we recommend once again starting early and enjoying sunrise at Lake Matheson. This is actually one of our favorite places in all of New Zealand for sunrise. It is also world-famous for its incredible reflections.
The reason it’s best to do this short, easy walk in the morning is that this is when the water is most calm and the reflections pristine. Also, because Fox Glacier is in a valley, the light won’t be great until the sun gets a bit higher.
Grab some breakfast at the cafe at Lake Matheson, then set out for the Fox Glacier Valley Walk if you have not yet tackled it. Otherwise, it is off to Franz Josef Glacier.
Franz Josef Glacier Walk
The Franz Josef Glacier Walk is a bit longer than the Fox Glacier Valley Walk, requiring a 5.4km (3.3 mile) roundtrip walk. This should still only take you about 45-60 minutes each way. Plus, it is definitely prettier than the hike to Fox Glacier.
If the region has had some recent rain, expect the whole valley to be flowing with streaming cliffside waterfalls, spilling onto mossy green stones.
When you’ve finished this hike, it will be a straight shot to Hokitika. We recommend booking accommodation here.
Day 6 is one of the shorter days of driving you’ll have. Therefore, you should have time to visit all of the recommended stops and detours listed, unless you are traveling during the short days of winter.
If you arrive to Hokitika with only a few precious hours of daylight, skip Dorothy Falls as you will have seen plenty of waterfalls already and this one is 30 minutes each way out of town. While it is a beautiful waterfall and located near the scenic Lake Kaniere, we were far more impressed with the Hokitika Gorge, especially if you can get a good sunset!
Some of you may be sick of insanely blue water and suspension bridges by now. But, if you’re anything like us, you can’t get enough of them! The Hokitika Gorge is also about 30 minutes each way from town, though you can shortcut it on the way to Hokitika if you don’t want to check in to your accommodation first.
A short trail reveals views of more lush greens and deep blues in a remote setting along the Hokitika River. Despite its incredible beauty, this spot was never busy on any of our visits and proved extremely photogenic.
Hokitika Glowworm Dell
While just thinking of going out again after dark may make you tired, you will never have an easier opportunity to experience the incredible glow worms native only to New Zealand!
The Glowworm Dell is a small area that requires almost no walking where you can see these amazing little glow-in-the-dark creatures come to life. Have some dinner, keep your shoes on, and go check this out quickly before calling it a night!
Just remember not to shine a light source directly on the glow worms as this can disrupt their natural glow and in turn their feeding.
Day 7: Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch
Drive Time: 3h 24m
Suggested Stops: Otira Viaduct Lookout, Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, Avalanche Creek Falls, Cave Stream, Castle Hill
This is it; the final stretch! And what a stretch it is!
Arthur’s Pass is both the road you will take from Hokitika to Christchurch and a National Park. This beautiful stretch of highway cuts directly through the mountains, passing by numerous points of photographic interest along the way.
While you could easily spend a few days just exploring Arthur’s Pass, we will only note the highlights that you will have time to visit on your drive back to Christchurch.
Otira Viaduct Lookout
This requires just a quick turn off of the main road, rising quickly in elevation and revealing a beautiful view of the Otira Viaduct running through Arthur’s Pass. It is also a common spot for the beautiful and extremely intelligent Kea to congregate.
If you see Kea, be sure to roll up all of your windows and ensure your valuables (including your glasses) are firmly attached. They are not just “smart for birds,” they are downright clever! One will distract you with a show while another sneaks behind and robs you blind. As always with wildlife, please do not feed them as it disrupts their natural feeding behaviour.
Enjoy the lookout, and the birds, but don’t turn your back on them.
Devil’s Punchbowl Falls
This gigantic plunge is one of the tallest waterfalls in New Zealand. It is well worth the short, easy hike to see up close. You will see it from the road as you pass by, but you may as well hop out and get a photo worth keeping.
The hike is only about 30 minutes each way and remains relatively flat with only a slight elevation gain.
Avalanche Creek Falls
Tucked away behind the visitor center, this little gem gets missed by many. It is a decent cascade requiring almost no hike, and we think it makes for a great photo.
The waterfall itself is fairly small, especially by New Zealand standards. However, the crystal clear water and lush environment give it a pleasing aesthetic quality that translates well to photographs.
Cave Stream Scenic Reserve
Many people miss this one entirely as well, and even those who visit often don’t truly see the cave. If you want to visit the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, check at the visitor center on conditions and make sure you go with company and with spare flashlights.
This underground stream cuts through a mile of cave and you can actually walk from one end out the other. There is a stream and even a waterfall in the cave itself, but getting your camera equipment in there is another story. Often times, you will encounter water at least chest deep and are being dripped on through much of it.
Again, be sure to check conditions and absolutely have two flashlights. It gets terribly cold in there and is the definition of pitch black. If your light gives out, you could be in a world of trouble!
Massive white boulders that seem entirely out of place decorate the green and yellow fields of Castle Hill. A short and easy walk takes you directly into the boulders, where the trail splits off in all directions.
While we find Castle Hill entirely worth the stop, our photos have never really done justice to the experience. Still, we highly recommend hitting this one last place before cruising the long, boring drive back to Christchurch.
You made it! If you haven’t missed it, we love watching sunset from the New Brighton Pier and grabbing some fish and chips nearby. It feels like the perfect way to end your New Zealand South Island 7 day itinerary, doesn’t it?
If your flight out is not until the following afternoon or evening, consider a day trip to Akaroa tomorrow. While we don’t recommend missing any of the other places covered in this jam-packed itinerary, it is worth a visit if you have an extra day and don’t want to stray too far from the airport.
Things to Consider when Planning Your New Zealand South Island 7 Day itinerary
The ULTIMATE NZ South Island 7 Day Itinerary we have just gone through above requires a breakneck pace and does not allow a lot of time for sleep. In our opinion, it is the MOST anyone should attempt to cover with just a week in New Zealand… a starting point, if you will.
However, we know that this constant on-the-go action is not for everyone. Accordingly, we also think it is important to consider amending the itinerary to fit your personal tastes and pace. The rest of this guide will explain the most important factors to consider to customize your own perfect itinerary.
The following sections all must be considered when crafting your ideal 7-day itinerary for the South Island. While many places will be on every logical route, some of them may have to be compromised in order to allow you to travel at a pace you enjoy.
Should your 7-day NZ South Island itinerary include Mt Cook NP?
Mt Cook/Aoraki National Park is our favorite destination in all of New Zealand for photography. However, it is also the most weather-dependent experience. Therefore, Mt Cook should only be excluded from your 7-day itinerary if the weather forecasts are unfavorable.
If the weather is poor, you may never see the mountain peaks or even most of the mountains! This can last for days on end. In that instance, it would be better to skip this stop and free up extra time for an alternative day trip, such as the incredible Roys Peak Track near Wanaka.
If the forecast is for mostly clear skies, however, you absolutely must visit Mt Cook and hike the Hooker Valley Track.
Should your 7-day NZ South Island itinerary include Milford Sound?
Milford Sound is considered the 8th Wonder of the World by many people around the world. However, it may actually be wise to leave it off your 7-day South Island itinerary if you prefer to travel slowly and/or on a budget.
While incredibly beautiful, Milford Sound is a very difficult day trip, especially for budget travelers, due to its remote nature.
The only lodging within 2 hours of Milford Sound is at the Milford Lodge, which costs about $350+ NZD. This means you are likely driving a minimum of 2 hours in from Te Anau (plus time to stop for photos) and 2 hours back out on the same day. In fact, our itinerary calls for closer to 6-8 hours of driving to squeeze this destination in as you will be beginning in Queenstown!
In addition, there is almost no point in visiting the Milford Sound if you are not going to do a cruise of the sounds, as so little is accessible via land. Cruises are moderately priced from $50-$100 NZD. Factor in gas, high food costs and limited options, as well as the cruise, and you see how quickly it all adds up.
All of that said, those with an extra day or larger budget will definitely want to visit and even consider a scenic flight or overnight cruise as it is one of the most special, unique places in the world.
Should your 7-day NZ South Island itinerary include Akaroa?
The only people who should include Akaroa in their 7-day New Zealand South Island itinerary are those who get back to Christchurch early due to fatigue or foul weather cutting their time short.
Akaroa is a beautiful peninsula about an hour from Christchurch. It is a great option if you find some free time on your visit. However, it is not worth cutting your time short at places like Wanaka, Mt Cook, Queenstown, or Milford Sound.
What day hikes should be included in your 7-day itinerary?
A week is simply not that much time to see everything you’ll want to see on the South Island. But there are a few hikes that may be worth taking extra time to include, even if it means cutting time short in other places. These are our favorite day hikes that you will have to research and consider:
- Hooker Valley Track: Our favorite short hike in NZ (Mt Cook NP)
- Roy’s Peak Track: Most popular day hike in NZ (Wanaka)
- Rocky Peak Track: Less popular, arguably prettier than Roy’s Peak (Wanaka)
There are, of course, endless more incredible hikes on the South Island. However, we have done a lot of them and if we only had a week to explore New Zealand, the three listed above are the only ones that would need consideration to add to an already busy itinerary.
What is the most you want to drive per day?
This is a massively important decision to make when crafting your perfect 7-day New Zealand South Island itinerary. If you are unwilling to spend more than 1-2 hours per day in a vehicle, your route will have to focus much more aggressively on one or two regions.
If you are willing to drive 3-4 hours, this opens up a lot more of the South Island to you. Note that almost no drive will be a direct A-to-B as you will undoubtedly stop for photos constantly on any road in New Zealand. It really is that pretty.
If you are limiting your time-in-vehicle to less than 2-3 hours per day on average, you will have to basically ignore the ULTIMATE Itinerary presented above. Instead, begin crafting your itinerary from one of the alternative options below.
It may help to load up our Ultimate South Island NZ Map in another browser. This way you can click on the destinations to see photos taken in different regions and decide what interests you most.
What season are you visiting New Zealand?
The season you decide to spend your week on the South Island will have a tremendous impact on what you can explore. If you have not yet booked your trip, you will want to first read our guide to choosing the best time to visit New Zealand!
There are two primary reasons to consider the time of year in your 7-day NZ itinerary. First, the length of day varies widely from summer to winter. At the winter solstice (around March 20th), the daylight lasts only 8h 30m. At the summer solstice (around June 21st), the daylight lasts almost 16 hours!
To help you plan your visit, we have created this useful table that shows sunrise and sunset times in Christchurch throughout the year:
|1st of the Month||Length of Day||Sunrise Time||Sunset Time|
Based on this table, you can see that summer visitors will have almost TWICE as much daylight as winter visitors. Accordingly, this is a crucial factor to consider when booking your trip.
Will weather affect my South Island itinerary?
While you may run into some minor trouble during the winter months, it is unlikely anything less than a massive snowstorm will impact the NZ South Island 7-day itinerary we have provided. Because one week is enough time to see the most popular destinations but not explore any backcountry, you will only be driving maintained roads and should not be affected by snow.
However, tt is possible that a big storm could hit and affect the passes. Check the weather forecasts the day you arrive in New Zealand. Also, be aware that the places most likely to be affected by inclement weather are:
- Mt Cook National Park
- Milford Sound and Fjordlands National Park
- Haast Pass
- Lindis Pass
- Arthurs Pass
All of the passes listed above are on your natural driving route. You should, therefore, be mindful of this if your schedule is tight and you have impending winter storms.
Alternative 7-Day itineraries
For those of you looking at the amount of driving and rapid pace of the 7-day ULTIMATE itinerary above with concern, we have also put together a few alternative options to consider.
Each of the following alternative itineraries are about 14 hours in total direct driving time, which is an average of just 2 hours per day. Of course, you will have to skip a few places in order to create this more manageable pace. However, that is absolutely worth doing if it means you will enjoy your time more.
Alternative 7 Day Itinerary Option 1:
The MOUNTAIN LOVER
The MOUNTAIN Lover itinerary ensures a slower overall pace with more time available for hikes and activities in the Southern Alps.
Key things to note for the MOUNTAIN LOVER itinerary:
- The total direct drive time is 14 hours (2h per day on average).
- You will spend almost the entirety of your time exploring different lakes and mountain-scapes.
- Because of the high elevation and passes, this itinerary is not recommend if conditions are snowy or icy.
You should chose this itinerary if you…
- Prefer to do more hiking, exploring, and full-day activities.
- Are willing to exclude Milford Sound from your itinerary (or spend some extra money on a scenic flight).
- Are interested in shooting night sky photography.
- Are not facing impending snowstorms.
- Want to focus your sightseeing on idyllic mountains and lakes.
- Are traveling on a budget.
- Prefer flexible itineraries to rigid ones.
If this sounds more enjoyable to you, consider following this New Zealand South Island 7 day itinerary instead.
The MOUNTAIN LOVER Itinerary by Day
Day 1: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
Day 2: Lake Tekapo to Mt Cook
Day 3: Mt Cook to Twizel
Day 4: Twizel to Wanaka
Day 5: Wanaka Day Hike
*recommend Roy’s Peak or Rocky Peak
Day 6: Wanaka to Oamaru
*See the penguins in Oamaru!
Day 7: Oamaru to Christchurch
Alternative 7 Day Itinerary Option 2:
The EAST-to-WEST 7 day itinerary allows you to see a lot of the island in a limited time by eliminating the major detours. It is a happy compromise for those interested in the ULTIMATE Itinerary, but less inclined to spend so much time driving.
Key things to note for the EAST-to-WEST itinerary:
- This itinerary does not include Mt Cook, Queenstown, or Milford Sound, but it does include a FREE DAY which can be used to visit any of these locations.
- By excluding these locations, the total drive time is only 14.5 hours and covers as much of the South Island as could be reasonably expected in a slow-paced, one-week itinerary.
You should chose this itinerary if you…
- Prefer extremely slow-paced travel.
- Want to see as much diversity of the South Island as possible without spending too much time driving.
- Are most interested in seascapes and coastlines.
- Want to avoid the backpacker-zoo (but beautiful) city of Queenstown.
Because this itinerary only requires 14.5 hours of driving, it can be modified to include more points of interest if you like, or kept light to allow more time at each destination. If this sounds appealing to you, consider beginning with this itinerary.
The EAST-to-WEST Itinerary by Day
Day 1: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
Day 2: Lake Tekapo to Wanaka
Day 3: Wanaka to Haast
Day 4: Haast to Fox / Franz Josef Glacier
Day 5: Fox Glacier to Hokitika
Day 6: Hokitika to Christchurch
Day 7: BONUS DAY
As you can see, this itinerary leaves one day clear, which can be used for a flight to Milford Sound, a day at Mt Cook, a day hike from Wanaka, or any other day trip you like!
Alternative 7 Day Itinerary Option 3:
CENTRAL SOUTH ISLAND
The CENTRAL SOUTH ISLAND 7 day itinerary requires the least amount of time spent in your vehicle. It is also the most adaptable for adding in day trips, hikes, or other activities.
Key things to note for the CENTRAL S. ISLAND itinerary
- Shortest total drive time at 13.5 hours (less than 2 hours per day).
- Involves a general route that takes you to some of the prettiest regions on the South Island, with the expectation that you will arrange some tours, day trips, hikes, or other activities.
- Neither Mt Cook nor Milford Sound are included on this itinerary, but you could consider adding one or both if you feel you have time.
You should chose this itinerary if you…
- Are just using our 7 day itinerary guide for research and not looking for a structured plan.
- Prefer an extremely flexible itinerary.
- Have the budget to book scenic flights, or are traveling on a tight budget and want to limit fuel consumption.
- Seeing penguins is important to you.
- Plan on doing lots of hiking and/or taking part in some full-day activities.
- Prefer spending time in restaurants, pubs, hotels, and with locals instead of sightseeing.
If most of this list sounds like the ideal way to spend a week on the South Island, consider using this structure to begin mapping out your perfect week in New Zealand.
The CENTRAL SOUTH ISLAND Itinerary by Day
Day 1: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
Day 2-5: Tekapo / Wanaka / Queenstown
Day 6: Queenstown to Oamaru
*recommend sunset at Moeraki Boulders
Day 7: Oamaru to Christchurch
*recommend seeing the penguins in Oamaru
As you can see, this itinerary is extremely vague and allows you to fill in the blanks. Perhaps you will blow through the Tekapo region quickly and want to spend multiple days in Wanaka doing day hikes. Or in Queenstown white water rafting or paragliding, or even a flight and/or overnight cruise at Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound!
The idea with this itinerary is to simply demonstrate an effective driving route with some diversity and points of interest, but allow you to fill in the blanks on how you want to spend your time in New Zealand.
Final Thoughts on our Ultimate New Zealand South Island 7 Day Itinerary
If it isn’t obvious from the photos and descriptions, there is a LOT to see on the South Island of New Zealand, and a week is simply not a ton of time to explore it all. Still, we do hope we have demonstrated how much you can experience with the right plan and preparation.
We honestly put a lot of work into providing you with inspirational, educational, and digestible travel guides. If you found this blog confusing or encountered inaccuracies, please let us know in the comments below. Likewise, if you’ve found it helped you understand the country and prepare for your visit, we’d love to hear that as well!
Thank you for your comments and support, and feel free to leave any questions you have. If you know someone who would benefit from this 7 day South Island itinerary, please share it!
Most importantly, enjoy your time in New Zealand!