The Queenstown to Christchuch drive is, without doubt, one of the most incredible quick-drive vacation offerings in New Zealand.
With amazing scenery, adrenaline-inducing adventures, immersive nature and world-renowned Kiwi hospitality, a South Island road trip really is the pinnacle of any trip to Aotearoa. If you’re short on time, or just want to have a good look around whilst minimising the distance you travel, you really can’t beat the well-worn drive from Queentown to Christchuch.
Not quite sure what’s must-do and what you can miss though?
Don’t worry – we’re here to help! Having completed the Queenstown to Christchurch drive many, many times, we’re pleased to share our personal favourites from the region.
The Queenstown to Christchurch Drive – One of the Best in New Zealand!
How Long Should I Spend in Each Area?
The beauty of this itinerary is that it can be completed in less time but also in much more. Each stop offers so much, but can also be reduced down if required.
We broke our week apart as follows:
- Glenorchy: 2 nights
- Queenstown: 2 nights
- Wanaka: 2 nights
- Lake Tekapo: 1 night
- Christchurch: 1 night (optional)
Had we never been to Queenstown before, we’d probably have opted to add at least an one more night (maybe even more) to our itinerary.
With more time up our sleeves, we’d have loved to have undertaken the full Routeburn (over 2-3 nights), could happily have spent another night in Wanaka exploring the lakes and would have even ventured over to Milford Sound.
As it was though, 8 nights felt pretty spot on and saw us returning to Auckland with a renewed appreciation of our beautiful country.
How Am I Best to Get from Queenstown to Christchurch?
Hands down, New Zealand is best experienced with your own transport.
Us Kiwis are a car-loving nation. We’re fairly used to limited public transport and love the flexibility and freedom to explore as and when we like.
Though there are plenty of tourist buses in operation throughout the country now, there’s nothing better than having your own wheels and being able to travel at your own pace. So much of New Zealand’s beauty is found in those little spur-of-the-moment roadside stops which just can’t be done unless you’ve undertaken a self-drive itinerary.
Whilst travelling New Zealand, we choose Thrifty. We love the comfort that comes from using a global brand (with a local flavour) and have always found their cars to be top notch.
This time around, we elected to rent a slightly larger car than we’d normally rent and we couldn’t have been happier with our choice.
Our new-model Toyota Rav4 was surprisingly fuel-efficient, super comfortable and most importantly, drove exceptionally well and felt safe on the road. By far, the worst part of the whole experience was having to hand the keys in upon arriving in Christchurch, knowing that we’d be returning to our own car when we got home!
Does the Direction Matter? Queenstown to Chrischurch? Christchurch to Queenstown?
The order in which you undertake this self-drive itinerary really makes no difference.
We decided to start in Queenstown for two reasons. Firstly, the flights were cheaper for us when travelling in that direction and secondly, we liked the idea of relaxing in Tekapo and Christchurch before flying back home again.
Regardless of where you start, this is an amazing trip!
What to Do in Glenorchy:
Hike the Routeburn Track
One of New Zealand’s incredible Great Walks, the Routeburn Track offers incredible scenery to those with between two and four days to explore. Though we’d have loved that much time to hike, we simply didn’t have it – enter Guided Walks New Zealand! Offering guided day walks, complete with a knowledgeable guide (it really felt like there was nothing she didn’t know!), a delicious packed lunch, transport (from Glenorchy or Queenstown) and any additional clothing/hiking gear you might need, this really is hiking made easy.
With spectacular mountain views, untouched native bush, raging turquoise rivers and the birdlife for which New Zealand is known, a day hike on the Routeburn delivers exactly what tourists come in search of – incredible beauty in the great outdoors.
Funyak in Paradise
The perfect combination of fun, adventure and natural beauty, a day out on the Dart River is beyond incredible!
Starting with an exciting jet boat ride you’ll head upstream before jumping into a double inflatable funyak (like a two-person raft) to explore further.
With incredible, crystal clear rivers, native forest and a delicious (and generous) lunch waiting for you it’s an awesome day out on the river. Just when think it can’t get any better though, you’ll hit the chasm – literally one of the most beautiful secrets spots we’ve seen in all of New Zealand!
Swing by Glenorchy’s Biggest Icon
Down on the lake, you’ll find what is easily the most photographed building in all of Glenorchy (granted, it’s not a big town, but nonetheless). Glenorchy’s red boat shed is a favourite amongst tourists and with the lake lapping behind it and mountains in the background, it’s easy to see why it’s such a popular little stop.
… and Whilst You’re There, Watch the Sunset on Another Day in Paradise
To the left of the boat shed, you’ll find the Glenorchy wharf – it’s the best place to be in town as the sun starts to set. Take your tripod and filter for beautiful long exposure snaps like this one…
Where to Eat in Glenorchy:
- The Bold Peak Lodge: Fabulous lunch/dinner food at awesome prices.
- The Trading Post: Perfect for a quick bite; you’ll find delicious slices, savoury muffins and coffee for the road.
- The Glenorchy Hotel Restaurant: The fanciest restaurant in town, we recommend the ribs!
Where to Stay in Glenorchy:
A truly unique property, Camp Glenorchy almost has to be seen to be believed.
An environmentally-friendly glamping lodge (or as they like to say, “New Zealand’s first Net Zero Energy Retreat & Cabins”, they walk the tightrope between comfort and eco-friendly values perfectly, without having to skimp on either.
There, you’ll find the creature comforts that you’re used to, amazing self-catering facilities (including induction cookers and an amazing outdoor BBQ area) and perfectly matched rustic decor, all whilst enjoying the fact that our plant isn’t suffering for the sake of your holiday. Water is reused where possible, energy is generated onsite and, most memorably, composting toilets take care of your bathroom visits.
We’re delighted to report though that none of their enviro-moves even remotely affect the comfort of one’s stay – quite the opposite.
What to Do in Queenstown:
Test Yourself on the Canyon Swing/Canyon Fox
With the best staff in town, the Shotover Canyon Swing is the best overall adrenaline-seeking experience in Queenstown!
The swing platform itself sits 109m above the Shotover River, providing guests (victims?) a 60m freefall and 200m arc – all at speeds of up to 150kmph.
With incredible scenery (but let’s be honest, you might be too nervous to really enjoy it), a team that absolutely will mickey out of you, a solid focus on safety and an awesome range of jump styles, you’ll definitely want to allow the time to jump the Canyon Swing twice!
For those that are wanting to test their nerve before taking on the big jump, the Canyon Fox is an amazing starting point (and Nathan’s personal favourite). At 182m high, with two ziplines and a nice wee dose of freefall, it’s great fun.
Squeal Your Way Along the Shotover River on the Shotover Jet
Though we’d already been on the Dart River jet, we were pumped to jump back aboard the Shotover Jet!
I’ve enjoyed many a ride out on the Shotover River, each and every one tremendous fun.
Skillful captains carve their way along the river, cutting dangerously close to the canyon walls – don’t worry though, they know exactly what they’re doing. Whipping up crazy speeds and 360° turns, the Shotover Jet is a whole lot of fun.
Hike Lake Alta
Previously unknown to us, Lake Alta is easily accessible (as long as you have your own car) and a great little part-day hike.
This hike begins at the top Remarkables carpark and takes approximately 45 minutes to the top (longer if you’re out of shape and stop to take dozens of photographs, like I did!)
The track itself is easy to follow and signposted. Basically though, you’ll follow a gravel track towards the top of the chairlifts, before turning to the right and heading over an alpine wetland and up to the lake.
We got there a little late in the afternoon and almost lost the sun over the top of the mountains, so if you’re really wanting to enjoy that incredible water, we’d recommend getting up there no later than 3pm (outside of summer, when you’d have more time to play with).
Pro tip: On the drive back down the Remarkables, be sure to stop by the trig station to snap photos of the view – it’s absolutely incredible!
Check out Arrowtown
Packed with plenty of old-town charm, Arrowtown is one of the most authentic historical towns in all of New Zealand. With lots of cute little shops, beautiful old buildings and tree-lined mountains (not to mention, the best fudge in New Zealand), it makes for a fun afternoon out.
Pro Tip: Arrowtown makes for the perfect lunch stop as you travel between Queenstown and Wanaka. Though you can definitely do it as a day trip whilst staying in Queenstown, we recommend stopping off on your way through the Crown Range.
Where to Eat in Queenstown:
- Fergburger: A real Queenstown institution, this place has lines going down the street day and night. It’s worth it though! Pro tip: If they’re not flat-out busy, Fergburger do accept phone orders. We recommend eating outside of normal meal times (they’re open from 8am until 5am the next day) and phoning your order through.
- Devil Burger: A great Fergburger alternative – locals will even tell you this spot has food that’s just as tasty (and it’s nice and quiet)
- Kinross Bistro: Top quality cuisine, served in an intimate, cosy setting. The slow cooked Otago lamb rump (with braised puy lentils, caramalised kumara purée, crispy pancetta and a red wine reduction) is out-of-this-world good. Seriously, who knew lentils could taste so good?!
Where to Stay in Queenstown:
Kinross Cottages Boutique Vineyard Hotel
Tucked in a valley, nestled amongst vineyards and shrouded in early-morning mist, waking up at the Kinross Cottages is absolutely magical.
With incredibly comfortable beds and unsurpassed views, Kinross is sure to put a smile on your dial.
A daily (and fabulous) cooked breakfast buffet (and complimentary barista coffees) are included in your stay, along with a wine tasting afternoon. Be sure to plan your stay around the tasting so you don’t miss out!
Getting to Wanaka
There are two main routes to choose from when driving from Queenstown to Wanaka but in our book, there’s only one you should consider – up and over the Crown Range. The highest main road in the whole country, it offers spectacular high-country views and memorable sweeping turns (making for an awesome drive).
On the way, you’ll also pass through Cardrona and its infamous little hotel – it’s a great place to stop for a bite to eat or a drink, should you have time.
What to Do in Wanaka:
Snap Photos of #ThatWanakaTree
Last time I was in Wanaka, this little willow at the shore of Lake Wanaka wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
How things have changed!
Now, if you look to the left along the lake, you’ll find a collection of people, camera poised, at almost all times.
Equal parts daft and striking, there’s no better place to be as the sun starts to set, than at ‘that’ Wanaka tree.
Pro Tip: If you have a camera that will allow you to slow down your shutter speed, I suggest you take a filter and tripod along, allowing you to really pick up all of those beautiful sunset colours.
Take on Roys Peak
An absolute mammoth, Roys Peak is regarded by many as New Zealand’s best day hike.
To avoid the crowds at the peak, some set out as early as 4am. Sure, the early-morning wakeup would be difficult but the views from atop Mt Roy, as the sun rises and the clouds below slowly clear, would be out-of-this-world.
If, like us, you’re a little lazier, we’d still recommend making an early start (we hit the trail at around 7.45am) to allow plenty of time for the hike. You’ll also want to take $2 each for the honesty box, enough food/water to last the whole hike, decent shoes and walking poles (if you have them).
It’s a pretty serious hike – entirely up hill for 8km (with an elevation gain of 1km), and right back down again when you’re done. It is, however, entirely worth it.
Visit the Cutest Little Movie Theatre in New Zealand
Loved by locals and by those in the know, Paradiso is Wanaka’s best kept secret. One of the last independently owned cinemas left in the country, they serve warm, homemade cookies, ice cream and beer at intermission and host guests in comfy armchairs (and even a couple of converted cars).
It’s as Insta-worthy as it is cute – a Kiwi treasure by any measure.
Where to Eat in Wanaka:
- Thai Siam Wanaka: Delicious, authentic and affordable – a winning combination.
- The Doughbin: Whilst visiting New Zealand, you just have to try a good ol’ Kiwi pie! The Doughbin has a great selection of award-winning flavours for you to enjoy on the lakefront.
- Pembroke Pâtisserie: Fancy French pastries and coffee galore.
Where to Stay in Wanaka:
Whilst in Wanaka, we were fortunate to stumble across an awesomely private Airbnb which offered value for money and a close proximity to town.
Out of the hustle and bustle of Wanaka (though, honestly, the town is pretty quiet by any standards), our little setup was comfortable and fairly good value; a solid recommendation, for sure.
Tekapo (via Mt Cook)
What to Do in Aoraki Mt Cook:
Hike your Little Heart Out!
Home to the tallest mountain in the country, Aoraki Mt Cook offers a great array of hiking tracks and a number of iconic photo spots.
We’d been told that the Hooker Valley Track was one of the best in the area but when we got there, we found the track was closed from the first bridge – about 20 minutes into the walk.
Though we briefly considered heading out on a different hike, we instead decided to move onto Tekapo nice and early, resting our tired legs (from Roys Peak the day earlier).
Mt Cook – we will be back another day!
Where to Eat in Mt Cook:
- Old Mountaineers’ Cafe, Bar and Restaurant: Tasty food at semi-reasonable prices (considering where you are)
- Better still, pack a delicious picnic for your hike – just be sure to swing by a supermarket before you leave Wanaka.
What to Do in Lake Tekapo:
Soak Under the Stars
Home to the largest dark sky reserve found anywhere in the world (4,300sq km, including Mt Cook, Twizel and of course, Tekapo), this sleepy lakeside town is practically build for stargazing.
Though there are a number of stargazing operations in town, we really can’t think of any better way than to spend an evening on in-water-hammocks, floating around the hot pools whilst looking up to the stars.
With an incredibly knowledgeable and passionate guide (and supporting team), impressive telescopes and a great dose of Māori storytelling, you’ll head away at the end of the night informed, engaged and super relaxed.
If you’d prefer to enjoy beautiful views over the lake, Tekapo Springs are also open throughout the day.
Massage Your Worries Away
Whilst relaxing at the pools, we wholeheartedly recommend booking in for a full-body massage. With aromatic oils, talented masseuses (and that hot water beckoning you back afterwards), it’s the cherry-on-the-top of any hot pool visit.
Pay a Visit to the Church of the Good Shepherd
Few historic buildings in New Zealand are as recognisable as the Church of the Good Shepherd, sitting aside Lake Tekapo’s striking blue waters.
Whether visiting on sunset/sunrise or for a dose of astrophotography, the Church of the Good Shepherd is a must-see in Tekapo, regardless of your religious affiliations!
Where to Eat in Tekapo:
- Kohan Restaurant: Pretty good Japanese food. It’s not the best you’ll ever eat but considering where you are, it’s a pleasant surprise. The restaurant frequently books out though so be sure to book ahead (or be willing to collect takeout).
- Astro Cafe: The best views in town!
Where to Stay in Tekapo:
Peppers Bluewater Resort
Taking pride of position right on Lake Tekapo, Peppers Bluewater Resort is a great base from which to explore.
The entry-level rooms really are tight (and fairly basic for a high-end hotel) but they do exactly what they proclaim to do – provide a place to rest your head, in comfort, at the end of a busy day. Should you prefer, larger rooms and multi-room suites are available, as are a range of different outlooks.
On this occasion, we opted to relax with friends whilst in Christchurch but there is plenty to do whilst visiting the Garden City.
To plan your own visit, we recommend checking out our South Island itinerary.
The Queenstown to Christchurch drive (and all of the stops in between) is one of the best road trips you could possibly undertake in New Zealand.
Taking in most of the real tourist hotspots, it’s a Kiwi must-do!
Headed out on an adventure around New Zealand? The Queenstown to Christchurch drive really is one of the best – be sure to pin it!