Wildlife, rugged clifftops, beaches, and other wonders of nature dominate the coastal drive from Dunedin to Christchurch in New Zealand. Intermixed are fascinating cities and an eclectic mix of architecture. While this South Island road trip could be completed in half a day, you would miss so much.
From a historical perspective, you will travel from the Scottish influence of Dunedin, through the Victorian era in Oamaru, before arriving at the redeveloped and modern city of Christchurch.
New Zealand South Island driving itinerary from Dunedin to Christchurch
First, let us whet your appetite …
Travelling along this road trip
We love Dunedin and can spend several days in town without a vehicle. However, self-driving is the easiest way to get out to the peninsula and see the penguins, albatross, seals, sea lions, or New Zealand’s only castle.
Therefore, if you flew into Dunedin, we recommend enjoying the first few days on foot. Then, rent a car at least one day before you are ready to venture out on this South Island road trip and drive to the peninsula.
The road trip we are recommending is all easy driving. A normal (two-wheel drive) car will be fine, although the smaller the vehicle, the less petrol you will use. And in New Zealand petrol is very expensive, typically running between 150% – 200% of the prices in the USA.
When we don’t take our own vehicle, we hire (rent) from RentalCars.com. We simply put in our dates and requirements and they present us with a list of available cars from various companies. Importantly, they also provide dealership ratings to help us make the best choice. To date, we have been thrilled with their customer assistance (we had a few local issues in South America).
Driving tips for your New Zealand South Island road trip
- In New Zealand, we drive on the left side of the road.
- Relax and enjoy the journey, don’t be in a hurry.
- New Zealand speed limits on the open road are up to 100 kph (62 mph). However, they are slower as you pass through towns, or on windy or rural roads.
- Know New Zealand’s driving rules. Be sure to understand how to cross the one-way bridges.
Where to stay on your Dunedin to Christchurch road trip
Exploring the South Island, we let this under five-hour drive take us three days, plus four days on each end, totalling eleven days. It could be done in less time, or more.
Dunedin accommodation recommendations
Distinction Dunedin: We spent three nights at the Distinction Dunedin. Spacious and comfortable, it was a perfect choice. Not only did we get an outstanding night’s sleep, enjoy delicious breakfast, and have secure car parking, it is also in walking distance to the Octagon (the centre of town and restaurant nightlife), the museums, and the Chinese gardens.
⇒ Check price and availability: Distinction Dunedin
Larnach Castle: If you have a car for the entire stay, another interesting option is to stay at New Zealand’s only castle. Note that most of the accommodations are in the converted stables, but dinner is served in the castle itself.
⇒ Check price and availability: Larnach Lodge
Oamaru accommodation recommendations
We spent two nights in Oamaru, arriving late on the first day. This gave us nearly two days to explore this fascinating town, before heading to Christchurch late on the second day. We opted to stay in one of the motels along the highway. On our next visit, we will aim to stay at the Oasis on Orwell.
Oasis on Orwell Bed and Breakfast: Attracted by the “exceptional” rating on the booking site, we had to read more. With both double and family room options, it caters to everyone, offering a touch of luxury with slippers and bathrobes in the rooms. Plus, they can cater to vegetarian or gluten-free diets. Note: Payment is by cash only. Check price and availability: Oasis on Orwell Bed and Breakfast
Tekapo accommodation recommendations
The Mackenzie Suites are a five-star option with lake and mountain views. This luxurious option offers one-bedroom suites with kitchenettes and pick-up service from Tekapo Village if you arrive via bus, or free parking.
⇒ Check price and availability: The Mackenzie Suites
Christchurch accommodation recommendations
Crowne Plaza: We stayed three nights in Christchurch at the plush and elegant Crowne Plaza, a hotel living up to its international reputation. Comfortable beds, modern bathroom, and everything we needed. While an easy walk to most tourist sites, be aware that it is in an area still being redeveloped following the quakes.
⇒ Check price and availability: Crowne Plaza Christchurch
Other options to travel from Christchurch to Dunedin or reverse
- Private tour: While we haven’t taken private tours in New Zealand (as we live in the country), we have taken them all around the world. We always start with ToursByLocals. Having a look at the reviews, we feel comfortable recommending Dermot, and encourage you to read his reviews. This tour looks like it would hit nearly all of the highlights we recommended above, and Dermot’s suggested itinerary can be pre-arranged to be adapted to your interests.
- Flights: Dunedin to Christchurch are available on Air New Zealand, but you will miss all the fascinating sites above.
- Dunedin to Christchurch train: There is currently no train service between these cities; however, the Dunedin Railway offers some scenic day excursions.
- Bus: Intercity bus travels between the two cities daily.
Read next: 18 Extraordinary Things to Do in the South Island NZ
Save on your NZ trip with these resources
These are our go-to companies when we travel. We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Accommodations: we use Booking.com (hotels) or BookABatch (self-contained).
- Cars (gas or electric): we use RentalCars to search for deals and dealer ratings.
- Campervans or Motorhomes: we use Campstar where Albom Adventures readers get a 3% discount
- Activity discounts: we check Bookme.com for discounts of up to 70% on activities.
- Private guides: we love the private guides at Tours by Locals
- Travel Insurance: our go-to is World Nomads*.
Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
*World Nomads provides travel insurance for travellers in over 100 countries. As an affiliate, we receive a fee when you get a quote from World Nomads using this link. We do not represent World Nomads. This is information only and not a recommendation to buy travel insurance.
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What will be your highlight of this South Island road trip?
Disclaimer: We worked with Enterprise Dunedin and ChristchurchNZ, the local tourism boards. We were also provided with many complimentary entrances, tours, sample items, or media rates to assist in the writing of this document. The opinions expressed here are strictly our own.
Catlins Rainforest is not optional to me! That looks amazing and I didnt know anything about yellow-eyes penguins until now.
Love this road trip! So many people miss Dunedin when they’re in New Zealand, but it’s so beautiful.
Sounds like you might have a tough time deciding which place is your favorite. I’m not sure why, but the one that stands out to me as most interesting and unique would be Steampunk Capital! The Victorian Era had such an impact on these cultures so it will definitely be an experience worth checking out!
I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand so hoping to be able to make that happen someday — a road trip sounds like the way to go. Lake Tekapo looks stunning! <3
When we visit New Zealand we’re hoping to plan a thorough road trip, so this is going to be really helpful. It looks like an amazing area to drive around!
Linda (LD Holland)
When we originally thought of visiting New Zealand, we considered a cruise. But we have since realized that we really need to stay for a longer time and do many great road trips like this South Island itinerary. I love the mix of city sights and awesome natural beauty. We would definitely plan for lots of side trips like the one to see Lake Tekapo.
My dad lived in New Zealand before I was born and has always talked about how much he loved it, I’ve wanted to go for as long as I can remember! I love the road trip you suggested with the addition of Catlins rainforest! Beautiful!
New Zealand looks like such a gorgeous place! There’s so much to do and see there too! My bucket list is getting longer and longer
What a gorgeous place! The side trips to Catlins rainforest and Lake Tekapo sure look worthwhile. Would love to go stargazing there one day.
I love a good road trip and this one looks packed with activities. I also love the way you presented everything in such a nice organized manner! Awesome post 🙂
Penguins and Steampunk? This is a destination I have to visit. The only thing that could be better is if there were Steampunk Penguins. The rest of the nature look beautiful. I’m always up for visiting a waterfall and/or lake views.
betty - NZ
Great post about the beauty of NZ and how to experience it.
My mom is headed to New Zealand early next year – will be sharing your post and NZ content with her! This looks a beautiful section to explore – love the penguins! Cheers from Copenhagen, Erin
You always share such interesting and beautiful places.
I cannot get over the beauty of this place! Your tips on what to see, do, when to rent the car and all those amazing photos, has be more deperate to visit now!
I would love to visit New Zealand someday. These look like some beautiful places.
Beautiful corner of the world!
The area was beautiful Rhonda. I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to come to New Zealand so every time you show these beautiful photos I love them and I feel like I’m there. Thanks my friend.
Did you stop into Larnach Castle at all?
Yes, I included info and photos on Larnach amongst the 25 things to do in Dunedin article/
I love taking 3 days for a 5 hour drive – that’s my kind of road trip! The boulders are incredible; I’d not spotted that beach before when researching South Island. And I’m loving the thought of penguins, fur seals and sealions – I could spend hours spotting wildlife.
I didn’t visit the South Island when I was in NZ. Looks like I missed out 🙂 Love the sound of a Steampunk capital, and Lake Tekapo looks very nice, Christchurch too.
Such a great and very detailed post. This could be a useful guide in planning a trip to New Zealand.
We are planning for a NZ trip but not so soon, seen so many nice picture posted in IG and even Lord of the Ring was shooting in NZ.
I’m not a city goer but I loved Dunedin and hope to go back soon! I also havent gone down to the Katiki lighthouse yet but I want to go and photograph wildlife especially those cute penguins !! AH NZ such a beautiful place eh 🙂
The South Island of NZ is beautiful. There are spectacular places around every corner! My daughter got home yesterday from a month in a motor home in NZ.
The South Island of NZ is beautiful. There are spectacular places around every corner!
Wow, now I need to visit! Great photos!
Wow! I’ve heard a lot of beautiful places to visit in new Zealand. Wish I could be here right now!
It’s winter right now. 🙂
Do I have to pick just one highlight? A lot of your scheduled and optional stops look amazing. The Moeraki Boulders and Catlins Rainforest look like must-see places to me.
I would love to see New Zealand one day. It’s been on my bucket list ever since I saw the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Alex J. Cavanaugh
A lot to see along the way. Definitely stopping to see all the steampunk.
We as a family have travelled to the North Island but not the South, so reading your post and your tips on what to see and when to rent the car with added photos was just amazing, almost like I was there myself
I love a good road trip and nature spots and New Zealand is perfect for all of it!
Explore The 6
Wow, this is my dream trip. New Zealand has been on my bucket list for a while now
That is soooo beautiful, no not only beautiful, it is gorgeous!!! I’d love to make this trip one day, amazing.