There is so much to love about New Zealand. For starters, it has some of the best alpine trekking in the world, a seemingly infinite number of beautiful lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, a booming wine region, wild beaches with pumping surf, and a crazy assortment of adrenaline-fuelled activities that might make you seriously question why you didn’t think of rolling down a hill in a giant ball sooner.

All of this packed into two tiny islands makes NZ one of the best road trip destinations of all time, with incredible scenery and adventure at every turn. If you’re only just starting to plan your trip, here are 13 of my very favourite spots in New Zealand, plus all of the best things to do in each!

Exploring Milford Sound with Descend Dive

1 | Milford Sound

Milford Sound, although technically a fjord rather than a sound, is one of the most spectacular natural attractions in all of New Zealand, its dramatic landscape drawing millions of visitors every year to the far tip of the South Island.

It’s one of the wettest places in the world, but on a clear day, you can see sheer, densely-rainforested cliffs rise thousands of metres out of the sea as waterfalls carry icy freshwater back down to the glacier-carved fjord below. And even in a thick mist, Milford Sound is eerily beautiful, lush mountains faintly visible in every direction. It is, no matter how you experience it, simply unmissable.

What to do in Milford Sound

  • Enjoy a scenic cruise through the fiord to see waterfalls, NZ fur seals, penguins, dolphins, and heaps of amazing mountain scenery, like 1700m Mitre Peak
  • Scuba dive in otherworldly conditions underneath the surface of Milford Sound with Descend Dive
  • If you’re not up for diving, visit the Underwater Observatory to glimpse some of the amazing marine life unique to the fiord
  • Splurge on a scenic flight over the mountains and glaciers of Milford Sound

Descending towards Crow Hut

2 | Arthur’s Pass National Park

Just a quick drive from Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, Arthur’s Pass National Park is another excellent place to get outside and explore the dramatic beauty of the NZ wilderness, summiting peaks and challenging yourself on rugged backcountry tramps.

Less popular than other National Parks in the region, it’s not hard to lose the crowds and get off-piste in Arthur’s Pass, but you’ll probably be joined by a few kea along the way. These cheeky alpine parrots are known for picking zippers and nibbling holes through just about any material, but it’s not a trip to New Zealand without a few alarming encounters. Keep those snacks close.

What to do in Arthur’s Pass

  • Climb steeply to the summit of Avalanche Peak for amazing views of the surrounding mountains
  • Stay overnight in backcountry Crow Hut
  • Walk out to Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, a spectacular 131m waterfall just outside of the Arthur’s Pass township
  • Ski or snowboard on rugged, un-groomed runs at Temple Basin

Bungy jumping at Kawarau Bridge

3 | Queenstown

Set against the spectacular backdrop of The Remarkables and bright Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a lively, backpacker-filled resort town in the SW of New Zealand’s South Island, best known for its seemingly infinite number of adrenaline-fuelled activities.

The incredible landscape and palpable energy of this town are almost magnetic. With alpine peaks perfect for tramping in summer and skiing in winter, beach access onto countless lakes and rivers, endless biking trails, and the world’s first commercial bungy jump, there is truly no shortage of things to do in the kiwi adventure capital.

What to do in Queenstown

New Zealand’s capital, Wellington

4 | Wellington

Few travellers come to New Zealand for the cities, but the country’s compact capital is surprisingly delightful and a worthwhile addition to any North Island itinerary. With all the feel of a small town, you’re sure to be pleasantly surprised by Wellington, its thriving cultural scene and surrounding natural beauty appealing to just about every kind of visitor.

Set on the Wellington Harbour at the bottom tip of the island, windy Wellington is gam-packed with inner-city beaches, charming waterfront shops, and trendy local breweries. Especially if you’re already in town to catch the Interislander Ferry across to the South Island, be sure to save at least 1 day to explore this underrated city.

What to do in Wellington

  • Lounge on the sand or go for a dip right in the middle of the city at Oriental Bay
  • Walk up to Mt Victoria Lookout for views of Wellington from above
  • Ride the adorable red Wellington Cable Car for panoramic views of the Bay
  • Walk out to the weird and wonderful Putangirua Pinnacles, also used as a film location for LOTR
  • Wander along the beautiful waterfront on the wide footpath, checking out local markets and inner-city beaches
  • Visit delicious Mexico for incredible tacos, margaritas, and some of the best hot sauce I’ve ever had (you can even buy some and bring it home with you!)

Trekking to Mueller Hut

5 | Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park

It would be hard to choose a favourite National Park in a country that is literally covered by beautiful spots and amazing views, but Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park might just be it. Snow-capped mountains, calving glaciers, and arctic streams dominate the lanscape, and with New Zealand’s tallest and most iconic peak, Mt Cook, as the centrepiece of the park, there isn’t a single bad angle.

Located on the western side of the South Island just under 4hrs from Christchurch, Aoraki/Mt Cook is the first place many travellers visit after getting off the plane. And what an insane welcome to New Zealand it is! A few days is never enough.

What to do in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park

Huka Falls near Lake Taupo

6 | Lake Taupō

The North Island’s answer to Queenstown, Taupō is an action-packed, mountain-fringed town set on the shores of the country’s largest lake, an enormous caldera formed by the nearby Taupo Volcano some 26,000 years ago. Just like its southern counterpart, if you can dream up an adventure, whether it’s bungy jumping, skydiving, white water rafting, or jet boating, chances are you can do it in beautiful Lake Taupō.

What makes Lake Taupō even more special, though, is the incredible geothermic landscape in which it’s set. Framed by 3 active volcanoes, surrounded by geysers and hot springs, and nestled up against vibrant Tongariro National Park, there are countless trails to enjoy and just as many thermal pools to indulge in afterwards.

What do to in Lake Taupo

Monkey Creek, Fiordland National Park

7 | Fiordland National Park

At the chilly, distant tip of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to some of New Zealand’s most stunning landscapes, perhaps none more breathtaking or better known than Milford Sound. But the beauty of the National Park certainly doesn’t end here!

There is so much to discover in this region, including 3 of the country’s Great Walks, countless lesser-explored fiords, and incredible views of the surrounding peaks and glacial rivers right off the side of the road. Take a few days to soak it all in.

What to do in Fiordland National Park

  • Walk the spectacular Milford Track, Kepler Track, or Routeburn Track, all official Great Walks of NZ and some of the country’s finest tramping
  • Enjoy the scenic drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound
  • Admire glaciers from Pop’s Lookout, Monkey Creek, and other awesome viewpoints within the park
  • Visit less-explored Doubtful Sound and kayak through the fiord

Looking over Lake Hāwea

8 | Wanaka

Nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps just an hour’s drive from Queenstown and about 5 hours south of Christchurch, the little town of Wanaka is emerging as another fantastic adventure destination on the South Island. And not only that, but the town itself is entirely charming, family holidaymakers and relaxed backpackers mingling with adrenaline-junkies and dirt-covered hikers back from a long day on the trail.

Much like popular Queenstown, Wanaka sits on the shores of a large lake, within a few minutes of popular snow resorts, and is surrounded by tall peaks perfect for tramping. Between chilling out at Lake Wanaka and exploring the surrounding region, there is no shortage of fun to be had.

What to do in Wanaka

  • Drive around Lake Hāwea, stopping on the side of the road for awesome views of the bright blue water
  • Hire bikes and pedal through town, exploring the lively lakefront and relaxed greenspaces
  • Go skiing/snowboarding at Treble Cone or Cardrona
  • Hike up to the summit of Isthmus Peak for panoramic views of the Southern Alps, Lake Hāwea, and Lake Wanaka
  • Snap a photo of #ThatWanakaTree, the insta-famous tree poking out from the middle of the lake
  • Check out RedStar Burgers for some delicious bites in town

The scenic drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy

9 | Glenorchy

On the border of Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks, Glenorchy is a positively magical spot dominated by reflective lakes, rippling mountains, and wildly textured valleys. The drive along Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown is also one of the best scenic routes in all of New Zealand, the roadside views more vibrant and spectacular at every turn.

From Glenorchy, explore the Southern Alps and Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area, discovering the otherworldly region that served as a primary film location for the fantastic Lord of the Rings films.

What to do in Glenorchy

  • Enjoy the scenic drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, stopping alongside the road to snap photos from lookouts like Pig & Pigeon Island Viewpoint
  • Tramp from Glenorchy to Fiordland National Park on the Routeburn Track, one of NZ’s official Great Walks
  • Take a Lord of the Rings tour to see beautiful spots used as filming locations in and around Glenorchy

Paddling along the Abel Tasman Coast Track

10 | Abel Tasman National Park

For a dramatic change of scenery and something completely different, head to Abel Tasman National Park on the northern shore of the South Island. Swapping alpine peaks for coastal views, secluded beaches, and impossibly turquoise water, explore this marine paradise from a kayak, one of the amazing water-access-only campsites, or even just the comfort of a beach towel.

Large populations of New Zealand fur seals, penguins, and dolphins inhabit the waters around Tonga Island Marine Reserve, making for a fantastic paddle, and the Abel Tasman Coastal Track winding along the shores of the National Park is, well-deservingly, the most popular Great Walk in the entire country.

What to do in Abel Tasman National Park

  • Tackle the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, NZ’s most popular Great Walk, with a mix of trekking and kayaking
  • Paddle along the shores of the National Park, discovering some of the best water-access-only campsites, like Mosquito Bay
  • Explore Tonga Island Marine Reserve to see New Zealand Fur Seals, penguins, and dolphins

Fox Glacier by helicopter

11 | Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers

In Westland Tai Poutini National Park about 5hrs south of Christchurch, New Zealand’s most famous glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef, are sandwiched between the rugged, wind-whipped beaches of the west coast and the icy Southern Alps. The result is an incredibly varied and dramatic landscape quite unlike anything else in the country.

Jurassic-era rainforests with gigantic ferns and trickling waterfalls back onto blue-ice glaciers at both Fox and Franz Josef, most impressive when viewed from the air or directly on the ice. And while the tiny townships of the same names may not offer much, the glaciers alone are reason enough to make the journey out to the west coast for a few days.

What to do in Fox Glacier

Kaikoura coastline

12 | Kaikoura

On the idyllic northeastern coast of the South Island, Kaikoura is a tiny mountain-framed town known for its tranquil beaches and abundant marine life. This is actually one of the best places, not only in New Zealand but in the world (!!), to see giant sperm whales, as well as humpbacks, dolphins, albatross, and huge colonies of adorable fur seals (best at Ohau Point Seal Colony).

Although slower-paced than many of the South Island’s most popular destinations, there’s an undeniable charm to this peaceful stretch of coastline, making for the perfect escape from busy backpacker towns and a much-needed respite from hard days on the trail.

What to do in Kaikoura

Flower field just outside Lake Tekapo

13 | Lake Tekapo

Set against the snowy Southern Alps and wild fields of lupin in every shade of pink and purple, Lake Tekapo and its impossibly turquoise water is one of the most colourful places on the South Island. And at only a few hours from Christchurch, it’s the absolute perfect way to wrap up and wind down from a spectacular trip around New Zealand.

Attracting a mix of backpackers and local families to its shores, there’s always a lively buzz around Lake Tekapo as boats and jet skis cruise by, walkers return from gentle trails, and couples fire up the BBQ in the evenings— but this is the kind of place where you can be equally content just taking it all in from the comfort of your camp chair.

What to do in Lake Tekapo

  • Hike up to Mt John Observatory for sprawling views of Lake Tekapo
  • Frolic through endless fields of lupin and foxglove in every shade of pink and purple
  • Go for a swim in the chilly waters of Lake Tekapo, or hire a stand up paddle board from the beachfront
  • Stop off at Peter’s Lookout over nearby Lake Pukaki for amazing views of Mt Cook
  • Star-gaze in one of the best locations on the entire planet, said to have some of the lowest light pollution and one of the most vibrant night skies

*NZ travel resources

Use these travel guides and itineraries to help you plan the ultimate road trip around New Zealand!

THE ULTIMATE NEW ZEALAND TRAVEL GUIDE

ADVENTURES ON THE SOUTH ISLAND: 11 OF THE BEST HIKES IN NEW ZEALAND (UPDATED 2020)

BEST OF THE SOUTH ISLAND: 10-DAY NEW ZEALAND ROAD TRIP ITINERARY

THE ULTIMATE SOUTH ISLAND NZ ROAD TRIP: 3-4 WEEK NEW ZEALAND TRAVEL ITINERARY

15 ESSENTIAL TRAVEL TIPS FOR ROAD TRIPPING AROUND NEW ZEALAND