7 Days in New Zealand: A Road Trip Itinerary

Click through to learn how to road trip New Zealand in just ONE week on a relatively low budget.

New Zealand may be small, but it has a lot to offer. From big, sprawling cities on the waterfront to the wild and beautiful mountains and lakes of the South Island, it can feel overwhelming to plan only 7 days in New Zealand. However, it is possible! You’re not crazy.

You can use this guide to plan your own 7 day New Zealand tour or tweak it as you see fit. If you’d rather spend more time in the South Island you can always do that and take off some of the stuff in the middle.

Make this itinerary your own, but remember you can enjoy New Zealand in 7 days.

Tips for One Week in New Zealand

Taking on New Zealand in one week can be intimidating, but one thing that will always help is if you start your days early. New Zealand is a relatively small place, so if you get an early start you can be at your next destination pretty quickly, leaving the rest of the day free.

The best part about a self driving New Zealand is it’s the journey that’s so amazing, not the final destination.

7 Days in New Zealand Itinerary

Days 1-2: Christchurch

The first stop for your 7 days in New Zealand is Christchurch. I knew before leaving for New Zealand that Christchurch was in a state of disarray and destruction, but I wasn’t prepared for the almost post-apocalyptic feel to it. Walking down the streets in the center, shops are boarded up and buildings sit vacant with curtains flapping in the wind.

Christchurch Cathedral being rebuilt, first stop 7 days in New Zealand

Stairs leading to nowhere, Christchurch New Zealand

The sound of construction follows you everywhere, a constant reminder of the hardships the city faces. However, in stark contrast the city is still beautiful, with its quaint little river running through the center of the city surrounded by blooming magnolias and green grass.

Spring flowers in bloom, Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch may still be being rebuilt, but there’s still a lot to enjoy. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens are lovely and at 52 acres, you’ll never be bored. Nearby is Hagley Park, where you can rent kayaks and canoes to float down the river. This is also a wonderful place to walk around and admire nature.

Hagley Park, Christchurch, New Zealand. Day one of 7 day New Zealand tour

Another site you should make your way to is the Christchurch Air Force Museum, which is well worth a stop.

The Air Force Museum is a bit further out of the city and kind of a pain to get to, but it has awesome planes and an interesting exhibit on prisoners of war, plus lots of interactive activities as well. Even better? It’s totally free of charge. 

Christchurch Air Force Museum New Zealand

Some notable mentions are the Big Green Chair, the wheat sculpture and ReSTART, the new outdoor mall made out of shipping containers. This shopping mall was so unique and sort of bizarre, but also totally awesome and you don’t even really notice that the shops are shipping containers.

Big Green Chair, Chistchurch, New Zealand

reSTART shopping center Christchurch, New Zealand

Where to Stay in Christchurch

Day 3: En Route to Wellington

Next up on your 7 day New Zealand tour is the train from Christchurch to Picton. The most popular train from Christchurch to the tip of the north island is the TranzAlpine. This train goes through the mountains and has breathtaking views, but it’s quite expensive and wasn’t necessarily in our budget, so we chose to take the KiwiRail Coastal Pacific.

Sadly, the route suffered extensive damage due to earthquakes and is indefinitely closed. It’s likely to open again in late 2018 and when it does you can also have stunning views of the mountains and ocean.

The train takes you along the coast and past the Kaikoura Ranges, which are probably some of the most impressive and beautiful mountains I have ever seen. The train has a back car is a viewing deck with it has no windows so you get an unobstructed view of the gorgeous scenery.

Although I’m sure the TranzAlpine train is lovely, it’s hard to imagine more spectacular views than what I saw on KiwiRail Coastal Pacific route. If you want to read more about trains and how to get around New Zealand, read up on this New Zealand travel guide.

KiwiRail New Zealand train views

Kaikoura Ranges New Zealand, KiwiRail train journey, 7 day New Zealand tour

Kaikoura Ranges New Zealand with some cows in a field

The train is about 5 hours and arrives into Picton, a coastal town on the tip of the South Island. From there you make an incredibly easy connection to the ferry across the channel to Wellington. Two ferries go across, but the Interislander is the better one because it’s more modern and it has a bar so you can enjoy a couple of drinks during the 3 hour voyage across to the North Island.

Cook Strait Interislander New Zealand from Picton

Mountains towering in the water in the Cook Strait, New Zealand

The views from the ferry are breathtaking. We sat in an enclosed area full of windows facing the rear of the ferry, which was best because we got to see Picton, nestled among the mountains, disappear into the distance and enjoy the amazing view of the mountain islands in the channel.

I’ll be honest, because of an incredibly early start that day I slept for about half of the journey, but I was still able to capture some photos of the incredible view and our first glimpse of Wellington.

Picton, New Zealand off in the distance, New Zealand trip itinerary

View arriving into Wellington, New Zealand from Cook Strait passage

Days 3-4: Wellington

My one big regret from this New Zealand trip was that we didn’t build more time into Wellington because it’s such a cool city with a great vibe and some super yummy food. It’s said Wellington has more restaurants and cafes per capita than New York, and after walking down just a couple streets it’s obvious that is the case.

We ate dinner at a southern style restaurant called Sweet Mother’s Kitchen, and oh man was it ever delicious. I think I ate my jambalaya in about 2 minutes so I can highly recommend it.

The first thing you should do is take a tour of the Executive Wing of the New Zealand Parliament Buildings (also known as the Beehive). You’re not allowed to take anything with you on the tour so I haven’t got any photos for you of the inside, but the tour lasts an hour and is really informative and you see everything from the chambers, to the library and to various conference and function rooms.

The Beehive in Wellington, New Zealand

Fun fact: Wellington is the capitol of New Zealand because it’s approximately right in the middle of the country. Back in the day when people needed to travel via horse and cart, it could take them three months to get from the bottom of the South Island to Auckland. Clearly, this wasn’t viable, so it was moved to Wellington.

Following the tour of Parliament we wanted to take the cable car up to the viewing area overlooking the whole city, but the line was so long we figured we’d be there at least an hour and a half. We shall walk! Now, it’s not far, but if you think San Francisco has hills wait until you see these. I felt like I was dying.

The walk is worth it though because on the way to the viewing area, in the Botanic Gardens, you pass an observatory, which I found fascinating, and some beautiful areas to sit and have a much-needed rest.

Walking up was even better because there was zero line for the cable car going back down so we still got to go on it and didn’t waste any time waiting below. If you plan on taking the cable car, it’s $4 one way and $7.50 for a return fare.

The view is amazing and there’s also a cafe and a free cable car museum. The Botanic Gardens themselves are beautiful, and they even have a whole section dedicated to my favorite flower – the tulip. They had them in white, yellow, orange, red, multicolored and even frilly. I didn’t even know that many varieties of tulips existed.

Wellington, New Zealand view from Botanic Garden

Orange tulips in Wellington, New Zealand Botanic Garden

After that we wandered the city a bit and then picked up our rental car and made our way up to Auckland via Taupo and Rotorua. For more tips on car rentals and driving tips, check out these practical tips for traveling to New Zealand.

Where to Stay in Wellington

Days 4-5: Taupo

Taupo is the third stop on these 7 days in New Zealand and it is probably one of the coolest. It’s a very volcanic region and is also where they filmed some parts of Lord of the Rings, so if you’re like me you can geek out.

I highly recommend driving the volcano scenic route, where you get amazing views of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, the real-life Mount Doom in LOTR. The drive is really pretty and crazy impressive and you also pass by the waterfall where Gollum went fishing and alternated between good and evil in LOTR, so I won’t lie, I was pretty excited.

Mount Tongariro New Zealand, 7 days in New Zealand itinerary

Waterfall from Lord of the Rings New Zealand

There’s also the huge Lake Taupo surrounded by mountains. I’m sure in warmer weather it’s filled with people, but since it was still a bit chilly when I was there it was pretty much deserted. From the lake you get incredible views of the volcanos as well.

Lake Taupo, New Zealand with mountains towering in the background, 7 day New Zealand tour

Another must-see in Taupo is Huka Falls. These impressive whitewater rapids go for miles and drop off the edge with incredible force (the falls) and flow out into a beautiful clearing. I was shocked with how blue the water was and the speed of the rapids. There is a walk where you get lots of views of the rapids (further down called Aratiatia Rapids) but it takes a couple of hours and we didn’t particularly want to go but I’m sure it’s amazing.

Huka Falls, New Zealand gushing water

Huka Falls, New Zealand

From Taupo, Rotorua is just a couple of hours drive away, but it quickly turns from a volcanic landscape to geothermal hot springs and geysers. You can easily arrive into Rotorua by late dinner time.

Where to Stay in Taupo

Days 5-6: Rotorua

Rotorua, the mid point of New Zealand’s North Island, is amazing in a way that no other part of New Zealand is. We were staying at the Holiday Inn and it had an awesome geothermal outdoor pool. Don’t mind if I do. We enjoyed a night swim in the chilly weather in the steaming pool.

One thing to note about Rotorua is a lot of the attractions cost money, but very few are worth paying for. What we found is it’s better to shell out a bit more for one impressive attraction than small amounts for a bunch of mediocre ones.

The first must-visit place is Kuirau Park because since this is a public park it’s free and it has lots of hot springs to admire, including a steaming lake, my personal favorite.

Rotorua, New Zealand lake steaming

Another free area that’s so worth of a visit is Okere Falls. The falls and river here are superb, with many easy and enjoyable walks, plus a really cool cave.

The best part about Okere Falls is there are quite a lot of glow worms at night. This isn’t something that’s advertised anywhere, but we read it somewhere and went to check it out and were blown away by how many there were and how amazing it was. We were the only people there and since there are no lights for miles there are also incredible views of the stars.

It was truly an experience I’ll never forget.

Okere Falls through the ferns, New Zealand

Okere Falls, New Zealand glow worms

Hamurana Springs is another free attraction that that you absolutely must visit. The water is the clearest I have ever seen in my life, there’s a redwood forest, and the spring that fuels the river pumps out 1 million gallons of water each hour. If that’s not impressive I don’t know what is.

Hamurana Springs, New Zealand, crystal clear water and ferns

So what’s the paid attraction you should shell your money out for? That would be Orakei Korako – an island filled with mud pools, hot springs and more. The boat ride over takes about a minute and the walk through the geysers and hot springs is more than impressive.

An adult ticket is $36, but you get a discount if you book online ahead of time.

The walk is about 2km and includes an impressive cave and gorgeous views. Although the price is a bit on the steep side, it’s well worth the money and you see everything you could possibly want without needing to visit any other attractions.

Orakei Korako, New Zealand bright colors from sulfur

Orakei Korako, New Zealand bubbling mud and turquoise water

Orakei Korako, New Zealand steaming water pools, nearing end of 7 days in New Zealand

From Orakei Korako it’s approximately three and a half hours up to Auckland.

Where to Stay in Rotorua

Days 6-7: Auckland

The last stop on your one week New Zealand itinerary is Auckland. By the time you reach Auckland you may be a little worn out and don’t want to do as much exploring as normal. I can tell you that definitely happened to us. While you can do New Zealand in one week, it can be exhausting!

The city is nice though, although I’ll be honest I preferred Wellington.

The highlights of Auckland are the waterfront, the Sky Tower and Aotea Square. If you want to go to the top of the Sky Tower it’s $29, a price I think is a little steep. If you want to be really adventurous, you can even bungee jump off. (That was a hard pass for me though.)

Auckland, New Zealand skyline

Auckland, New Zealand Sky Tower

The black sand beaches in Piha are only about an hour from Auckland and are worth the extra driving because it’s even more impressive in person. The volcanic rock basalt is what makes the sand black and they’re fairly rare.

The road there is very steep and windy, but seeing the beaches makes it worth it.

Piha, New Zealand black sand beaches

Very black sand at beach in Piha, New Zealand with rocky cliffs

Where to Stay in Auckland

I absolutely loved New Zealand and I feel like we saw everything it had to offer from the breathtaking mountains and volcanoes, to rolling hills, to the ocean, black sand and amazing cities.

It’s a wonderful country full of natural beauty and with just these 7 days in New Zealand you will able to witness far more than you ever thought possible in a one week itinerary.

You don’t need to spend 3 weeks backpacking and spending all of the money in the bank to see what New Zealand has to offer and experience the beauty of the country in its entirety. Have you taken a one week New Zealand road trip? Tell me about it in the comments below!

Don’t forget to follow my Instagram account where I regularly post photos from all of my adventures!

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