A Step-by-Step Guide to an Unforgettable New Zealand Itinerary

I first visited New Zealand four years ago. Upon landing, I had no idea, not even an inkling, of what to expect.

As I took those first fateful steps off the plane it felt like walking through the closet door and stepping into Narina. New Zealand is a jaw-dropping beautiful country full of untouched landscape I could easily spend a lifetime exploring.

On that first trip, I spent a month driving around. I didn’t want an itinerary for New Zealand. Instead, I succumbed to the allure of total freedom as I drove carefree through the rolling hills, gorgeous bays, towering mountains, and jagged coastlines.

After two more epic visits, I’ve spent over 7 months traveling through New Zealand. And I still can’t get enough of the country….. I am officially addicted to New Zealand.

Sadly, most of us don’t have months and months of time we can commit to exploring one country. So planning your trip to New Zealand carefully is recommended.

That’s where to blog post comes into play. I’ve spent hours and hours dissecting my favorite places in New Zealand in order to help you come with up the perfect travel itinerary for 7, 16, and 30 days.

If you want to cram as many epic vista’s, adventures, cities, coastlines, and mountains into your trip you’ll love this New Zealand itinerary.

Let’s jump right into it.

How is this New Zealand Itinerary Different?

This itinerary is different, and in my humble opinion better, than many other ones you will see on the internet. I am not going to tell you where yo go because I am not you.

I don’t know your likes or dislikes, how much time you have, or what’s on your bucket list.

Instead, I am going to give you a list of options and you can mix and match, essentially crafting your own unique itinerary and craft your own adventure. The important thing is to do what makes you happy, whether looking at the various New Zealand Ski packages, or road tripping across the country.

Doesn’t that sound better?

What Does This Itinerary Cover?

This literary covers both the North and South Islands. It covers some of the most popular places in the country, as well as, some lesser-known places that I love.

Budget Tip – If you are renting a car and driving both islands your best bet is to drive the north island, then fly to the south island and rent another car.

You can find an insanely cheap flight for around $50 -$60.

Taking your car on the ferry is insanely expensive with a price tag of around $250.

Of course, if you have five to six people in your car who are splitting the fee then the ferry is worth it.

How long to do I need to Travel New Zealand?

If you want to make a major go of the country I would recommend a month.

However, you can still see a lot of the country in 7- 16 days.

Be warned though New Zealand can destroy your budget if you’re not counting every nickel and dime.

I almost gave myself a heart attack after looking at how much money I’ve spent in New Zealand.

But while it is not the cheapest place to visit in the world every penny I spent in New Zealand was worth it.

North Island Itinerary

AUckland (2-4 days)

Auckland is a good launching point for your New Zealand itinerary. It is the country’s largest city and there is a lot of variety for travelers such as hiking, nightlife, walks, adventures, and day trips – like the hot springs around Auckland.

So plan to spend a few days exploring the city before moving on.

Things to do in AUckland

Mt Eden – An Incredible hike that gives you sweeping views of the city, coast, and volcanoes. This is one of the more popular things to do in Auckland. If you have a car it is just a short hike to the top from the parking lot.

Giapo Ice Cream – New Zealand is known for it’s Ice Cream, let’s be honest. However, there’s something special happening just a short walk from Britomart at 12 Gore Street in Auckland.

Giapo is not only the most luxurious ice cream you will ever have but it is a total experience. From the colossal squid ice cream to the fact that every single ice cream is specially made for each customer, it is an absolute must do in Auckland.

There’s not just chefs behind this either, there’s science! Not to mention, there’s a special way which the experience unfolds.

From the beginning, you can’t see the ice creams so you can only rely on testers and reading the menu to decide. Giapo and his team are dedicated to giving dessert eaters a whole other level of experience, just try their colossal squid.

There truly is something for everyone here as well from the vegans to the culinary foodies. Including some special references to their Maori culture, using their local herbs and vegetables. You can not miss the chance to try one of these crazy innovative sweet treats!

Cheltenham Beach – Honestly, Auckland doesn’t have the best beaches. However, Cheltenham Beach worth an afternoon. It is a cool place to spend an time relaxing, cooking out, or sipping on a cocktail.

There is also a Burger Fuel nearby, and almost anyone will tell you that traveling New Zealand without trying Burger Fuel is like going to France and not eating crepes.

Rangitoto Island – You can see this island from the shores of Cheltenham Beach. Rangitoto Island is a safe haven for precious plant and wildlife.

You can kayak to islands and spend the rest of the day hiking, exploring, and enjoying the panoramic views of the city.

Sky Tower – Sky tower is a landmark of the city. It is an observational tower in the downtown. There is a restaurant, bars, a casino, and the theatre are at the top. As well as a great view of the city.

Harbor – With their being almost as many sailboats as people in Auckland it is easy to see why the nickname the city of sails stuck.

Auckland harbor is a great area to explore in the city. While most restaurants and shops are out of my price range it is still a nice place to walk and enjoy all the boats drifting on the water during sunset.

Bay of Islands: (1-2 days)

Lying above Auckland in the winterless north is the bay of Islands. The bay of islands has massive rocks jutting from the ocean. I spent a day kayaking between these rocks.

Many of which have small remote beaches (where the tide claimed my favorite pair of flip flops I’ve ever owned).

The bay of island is known for sunsets, lying back on the beach, kayaking to private islands., and swimming.

The whole area has an easy going vibe, and there isn’t much to do at night.

However, if you love the outdoors you will quickly fall in love with the Bay of Islands.

Coromandel: (1-3 Days)

If you are looking for one of the most scenic drives on the North Island than do yourself a massive favor and drive the Coromandel Peninsula.

It is miles of epic coastline. There are places to camp, day trips, beaches, and hiking.

Personally, I think Coromandel is one of the most stunning and underrated spots on the north island.

It amazes me that this small section of the world that is so scenic remains off the major tourist trail.

But don’t take my word for it! Visit yourself and let me know.

Things to in Coromandel

Drive the Coastline – Driving the coastline only takes hours. It is one of my personal favorite day trips in NZ.

Hot Water Beach – This beach has a lot geothermal activity running under it so once you straight digging a little hole in the sand you will find hot water.

It is basically making your own hot tub using only the tools mother natures has given you.

Cathedral Cove – This epic landmark has been used in various films such as the Chronicles of Narnia. It is known for cliff jumping, kayaking, swimming, and hiking.

Waitomo: (1-2 days)

Waitomo is a popular area of the North Island for a couple reasons.

First, the glow worm caves. Imagine rafting down a cave-like has tiny glowing dots, almost like you see in Waitomo Glowworm Caves, that appear as endless stars lighting your path.

Things to in waitomo

Glow Worm Caves – As I mentioned above these caves are spectucluar. There are a few different boats and hiking tours that take you through the caves.

Black Water Rafting – These also take you through the glow worm caves. However, instead of being on a boat you are wading through water, fitting through tiny cave cracks, falling off tiny waterfalls, and floating through small rapids. It is a glow worm cave /adventure tour that is a lot of fun.

Mangapohue Natural Bridge Walk – Beautiful walk through surrounded by stunning landscape.

rotorua (3 days)

Rotorua is one of the coolest spots in New Zealand for the culture, landscape, and movie sets. It also has a couple of lively bars at night but don’t expect too much nightlife.

Things to in rotorua

Maori Culture Dinner or Homestay – First, it lets you explore and discover the Maori culture. These are the indigenous natives of the country with a long history of loving and respecting the land. There are some great dinner shows, and homestays around Rotorua where you eat traditional meals (cooked in the ground), learn about the history, and of course do the Haka!

Kuirau Park- Another reason to visit Rotorua is the geothermal landscape at the nearby Kuirau Park. These steaming pools carry an otherworldly feel with their steaming pools and odd colored water.

Fair warning the geothermal activity make the entire area smell like someone has hidden cartons of rotten eggs around the park as if it was the cruelest easter egg hunt in modern history.

Hobbiton – For fans of Lord of the Rings Hobbiton is a no-brainier. Buses leave from Rotorua. Tickets are a little pricey but it includes the bus, a guided tour, a free pint at the Green Dragon. It is also a spot where the Hobbit was filmed.

Lake Taupo (2-3 days)

Lake Taupo has the biggest lake in the country. This scenic lake so big that it is said that the entire country of Singapore could fit inside it (although that is debatable)

Lake Taupo is home to a couple of my favorite adventures in New Zealand.

Things to in Lake Taupo

Maori Culture Dinner or Homestay – First, it lets you explore and discover the Maori culture. These are the indigenous natives of the country with a long history of loving and respecting the land. There are some great dinner shows, and homestays around Rotorua where you eat traditional meals (cooked in the ground), learn about the history, and of course do the Haka!

Kuirau Park- Another reason to visit Rotorua is the geothermal landscape at the nearby Kuirau Park. These steaming pools carry an otherworldly feel with their steaming pools and odd colored water.

Fair warning the geothermal activity make the entire area smell like someone has hidden cartons of rotten eggs around the park as if it was the cruelest easter egg hunt in modern history.

Hobbiton – For fans of Lord of the Rings Hobbiton is a no-brainier. Buses leave from Rotorua. Tickets are a little pricey but it includes the bus, a guided tour, a free pint at the Green Dragon.

Wellington: (2-3 days)

Wellington is a stunning city. I love the food, especially the hamburgers, the shopping, the laid-back atmosphere, and picturesque harbor. It is also the capital of the country so utilize all my New Zealand travel tips to explore as much as you can.

Things to in Wellington

Mount Victoria – This hill is an easy hike and gives you an iconic view of the entire city and bay.

Zealandia – Set around a charming lake and home to some of New Zealand’s unique and remarkable wildlife.

Wellington Museum – This free museum tells the history and inspiring stories about New Zealand and specifically the Wellington area. It is the best museum in the country in my humble opinion.

Weta Workshop – Weta Workshop is a movie design and digital effects studios. They have worked on major films like Lord of the Rings, Blade Runner 2049, and Thor: Ragnarok. The tour gives you behind the scenes glimpses and lets you check out movie props from famous films.

Cuba Street – Cuba Street is the main shopping street in the city. There are also a lot of trendy restaurants covering everything from tacos to hamburgers – check out where the word taco comes from in our facts of Mexico – .

South ISland Itinerary

Nelson: (1-2 days)

Nelson is a smaller town in New Zealand. It is not a place to head if you are looking for nightlife, the best food, or adventures like bungee jumping.

However, it is a charming little town with beautiful views and a lot of outdoor escapades.

Things to in Nelson

Abel Tasmin – Hands down the big draw to Nelson is that lies on the doorstep of Abel Tasmin. This is a gorgeous national park that stretches along a stunning coastline. Like Camping in Yosemite . Well, since it has coast maybe it is more like Camping in Big Sur.. It has great outdoor adventures like kayaking, biking, and hiking.

Kahurangi National Park – Another fun-filled day of grand vistas and world class hiking. I’ve only seen a little of Kahurangi but I am eager strap on my backpack and start exploring more of it.

KaiKoura (1-2 days)

Kaikoura is a tiny little city on the west coast of the south island.

However, it has one of the most memorable moments you can have in New Zealand which is swimming with the wild dusky dolphins.

Things to in Kaikoura

Drive the Coast – The west coast of the South Island is incredible. I highly suggest taking a road trip from Kaikoura and checking it out.

Swim with Dusk Dolphins – Imagine spending you morning snorkeling through crystal clear water surrounded by hundreds of wild dolphins that are just as curious about you as you are about them. It is an awe-inspiring experience.

Whale Watching – If swimming with wild dolphins isn’t up your alley (if this isn’t the case maybe reassess your life priorities )

Then whale watching is the other main draw of Kaikoura. Boats leave daily and get you close to these colossal creatures without disturbing them.

Franz Josef (1-2 days)

Franz Josef is known for skydiving, its massive glaciers (that are melting rapidly) and the helicopter rides.

Sadly, Franz Josef seems to always be shrouded in fog and rain which mean you need to be flexible because things often get canceled. But being flexible is something every good traveler does well.

Things to in Franz Josef

Glacier Hike – This hike takes on an icy adventure through the rapidly melting glacier in the area. It is the top adventure in the area. I recommend traversing through this glacier before it is too late.

New Zealand’s Biggest Skydiving: The biggest skydive in the country is found in Franz Josef  at 18,000 ft. (I am ninety percent sure it is 18,000 ft.) , but as I mentioned the weather is always unreliable which means it is often canceled.

However, if you get the timing right it is an epic skydive. Or so I’ve been told, the weather has always been rainy and foggy when I’ve visited Franz Josef so I have not gotten to do this skydive. (insert crying noise here)

Helicopter Tour – As with the skydive mother nature has always stopped me from forming doing the helicopter tour. This tour gives you a birds-eye view of the glacier and I’ve been told by other backpackers that it is one of there favorite New Zealand adventures.

CHristchurch (2-3 days)

Christchurch is the biggest city on the south island. It is most likely the where you will fly into from Auckland.

It is a city still recovering from a catastrophic earthquake that hit the city years ago.

Things to in Christchurch

The TranzAlpine – The TranzAlpine is one of most epic activities on the South Island. It is a legendary train that leads you on a guided tour of some of the best landscape in New Zealand.

As you enjoy the gentle swaying of the train, and the clunking of the cars on the wooden tracks you will rush past tall cliffs, deep valleys, stunning ravines, racing rivers, and dense rain forest. The train cars are modern with comfy seats. There is also a free audio explanation.

Canterbury Museum – Canterbury Museum is arguably the most popular museum in the city. It honors the cultural culture of New Zealand. It tells the story of the Maori throughout history and showcases valuable artifacts. There is also an Antarctica display which tells the narrative of New Zealand’s age of exploration.

Jet Boating – Adventures enthusiasts will have the excitement of their lives as zoom through the water at blazing speeds. All the while barely missing jagged rocks, and cliffsides. This is a jaw-dropping day of adrenaline.

Adrenalin Forest Christchurch – Fight the stomach-churning feeling as you soar, swing, and climb your way through Adrenalin Forest. This is a fun adventure that lets you defeat your worries as you challenge yourself to up to 100 different courageous ventures high in the trees.

Quake City – Born out of paying tribute to the families suffered and endured in recent years, and also to increase earthquake recognition around the world. In 2010, a catastrophic earthquake. It was a terrible event devastated the entire area. Quake City pays recognition to the countless people who helped including the rescue teams, and volunteers who kept the city together in a time on unmatched sorrow.

Wanka (1-3 days)

Wanka doesn’t have a lot of things to do.  It is a scenic little town in the mountains. Wanka has an gorgeous backdrop of mountains, a crystal clear lake, and some beautiful roads to drive.

I always picture Wanka like a little Queenstown without all the tourist.

The lake is beautiful and there are some spectacular hikes around the area.

Things to in Wanka

Wanka Tree- This tree growing out of a lake has become instafamous, as well as a massive iconic on the south island. I guess you would even call it Wanka’s claim to fame.

Cardrona Hotel – NZ legend says that this same hotel is the most photographed building in the entire country. This gold rush era hotel and pub is also one of the oldest pubs in the entire country. It is on the road between Queenstown and Wanaka.

If you want to travel NZ right then stopping for a drink at the Cardrona is a must.

Roys Peak – This hike gives you unparalleled views of the entire area. For you outdoors lovers Roys Peak will be the highlight of your trip to Wanaka.

Queenstown: (4-5 days)

Ah, where to start with Queenstown. This tiny town holds a massive part of my heart. I lived in Queenstown for half a year still couldn’t get enough of this scenic city. This is where I based myself when backpacking New Zealand.

Queenstown a good base for backpackers, adventure junkies, hikers, and partiers.

One thing I am certain about is that you will never get bored in Queenstown.

Things to in Queenstown

Nevis Bungee or Swing – Queenstown is the birth of bungee jumping. The Nevis Bungee isn’t the biggest bungee in the world, However, this is the very first place people could go bungee jumping. Today they have three different options, the original bungee jump, an impressive 134-meter bungee jump (that’s just shy of 450 feet) and a swing.

Skyline Luge – Race your friends down one of the biggest hills in the city in tiny little carts. While that sounds crazy these things aren’t they are just plain fun. This is something I wouldn’t recommend for solo travelers because it is much better with friends.

From the top of the hill is also another smaller bungee jump that overlooks the city. This bungy is different because it lets you be attached at the waist instead of the feet.

Shotover Canyon – I like bungee jumping, however, this canyon swing might be my favorite adventure in Queenstown. The staff is friendly and funny as they toy with you right before leaping off the edge. They have over 70+ ways you conquer the highest cliff jump in the world!

Queenstown Hill – This easy hike gives you some massive panoramas city and surrounding mountains. It takes an hour or two to climb to the top of the hill and they are some of the best views in the immediate area.

Milford Sound – Milford has become a major day trip from Queenstown. TO get to Milford is a long bus/boat ride.

The drive takes you through some of my favorite landscape in the south island. However, note that this trip takes the entire day and you will spend much more time on the bus than actually at the Sound.

This is a great adventure if you have the time, if you don’t have an entire day to commit to it then I would choose something else.

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