An Awesome Dunedin to Queenstown Drive: 7-Day Itinerary
Dunedin and Queenstown are 2 of the big attractions of New Zealand's South Island. Whether you want to get your adrenaline pumping or unwind surrounded by natural beauty, these cities are essential stop-overs for any local or tourist. Nestled between them is a bevy of jaw-dropping sights.
With so much to see between these locations, don’t even think about making a straight-line drive. We recommend stretching out your drive from Dunedin to Queenstown to a full week-long road trip. It's an amazing way to explore the South Island.
An Enterprise rental car is the perfect choice for a vehicle to take you through this epic trip. Check out the cars available at our Dunedin Airport branch to find the perfect companion for you.
How long does it take to drive from Dunedin to Queenstown?
The direct route between Dunedin and Queenstown is State Highway 8. On this road, it takes just over 3.5 hours to travel 279km between these destinations. So if you're in a desperate hurry, there's your route to follow.
How did we manage to blow out a 3.5-hour drive to take a week? Well, State Highway 8 is unfortunately a rather boring drive. The much more exciting way to get from Dunedin to Queenstown is to take what's known as the Southern Scenic Route, a 610km stretch of road featuring some of New Zealand's most stunning sights.
You could theoretically complete this route in around 12 hours of driving time, but we say you need at least a week to enjoy everything it has to offer.
Dunedin to Queenstown Drive: A 7-Day Itinerary
The Scenic Southern Route is an enjoyable drive any time of year. Swimmers will find the South Island's waterways most tolerable during summer, but if you plan to take to the snow, you’ll have to plan your trip in winter.
Several of the stop-overs we've suggested are not open during winter, including the Lost Gypsy Gallery and Cathedral Caves. If you decide to make this drive in the winter, remember to ensure you have some snow chains in tow (snow chains are available with your Enterprise rental).
Arrive in Dunedin
Dunedin to Balclutha
Balclutha to The Catlins
The Catlins to Invercargill
Invercargill to Te Anau
Explore Te Anau
Te Anau to Queenstown
Dunedin to Queenstown Overnight Stays
The itinerary is quite flexible – if you can't get enough of one location, feel free to tack on an extra night or 2. If our description of one area doesn't catch your fancy, you can simply cut it out of your trip and carry on to the next destination.
Dunedin – 1 night
Balclutha – 1 night
The Catlins – 1 night
Invercargill – 1 night
Te Anau – 2 nights
Arrive in Queenstown
Day 1: Arrive in Dunedin
Internationals and locals alike must take a night to stay in Dunedin. The South Island's second-largest city is home to a stunning array of incredible things to do, see and eat.
Below are some of the top activities to partake in when you visit Dunedin.
Lanarch Castle – Nothing captures Dunedin's Scottish heritage like Lanarch Castle. New Zealand's only castle was built by William Lanarch, and features a grandiose range of rooms and gardens for visitors to marvel at.
Port Chalmers – Less than 20 minutes away from Dunedin is the historic town of Port Chalmers. It's a must-see destination for history buffs and art fanatics alike. Stop in at venues like Port Chalmers' Regional Maritime Museum and Pea Sea Art for an authentic slice of South Island culture.
Dunedin Street Art Trail – Head to the Dunedin i-SITE Visitor Information Centre and grab a map to follow the Dunedin Street Art Trail. You'll get to see some incredible pieces of art from the city's incredibly talented local scene.
Toitū Otago Settler's Museum – This museum offers 14 themed galleries that show off different aspects of Dunedin's rich history. It's the perfect way to step into New Zealand's past.
Breweries – Dunedin is also well-known for its range of stunning breweries. Popular stops include Emerson's, Noisy Brewing Co and the historic Speights Brewery.
Dunedin Botanic Gardens – Incredible botanic gardens are a common feature throughout New Zealand. The Dunedin Botanic Gardens boasts a breathtaking array of local flora, the Dunedin Volcano Trail, an aviary with over 100 birds and four hectares of rhododendrons.
Dunedin food and accommodation
Dunedin boasts an impressive culinary scene. Some top choices for a bite to eat include:
Two Chefs Bistro – This venue offers French classics and Parisian decor for a dining experience you won't soon forget.
Bracken Restaurant – Dunedin's Scottish history is a point of pride in the city, so stop in at this eatery and enjoy 4, 6 or 8-course degustations as well as a fully-stocked whiskey bar.
The Perc Café – This is the perfect place to stop to grab some breakfast and a morning coffee before heading off on this epic road trip.
For the perfect place to spend the night in Dunedin, check out these venues:
The Amross Hotel – Enjoy a central location and luxurious amenities in these self-contained apartments.
Fable Dunedin – This historic venue received an overhaul in 2020. Today, guests can enjoy an antique atmosphere with all the bells and whistles you want in a modern venue.
Ocean Beach Hotel – Stop in at the Ocean Beach Hotel for surprisingly affordable prices and picturesque views.
Day 2: Dunedin to Balclutha
Once you've soaked up everything Dunedin has to offer, it's time to hit the road. We kick off this trip with a relatively short jaunt to Balclutha and a couple of great stops along the way.
Dunedin to Balclutha driving distance
Driving straight from Dunedin to Balclutha takes just over 1 hour over 78.5km via State Highway 1. Our suggested stops will add around 10 minutes to your travel time.
The seaside town of Brighton channels the spirit of its English namesake. It includes several gorgeous bays and beaches which will make for welcome stops on your trip. All you need to do to get to Brighton is take a quick detour onto Brighton Road off State Highway 1.
Once you've worn yourself out while taking long walks along the beach, grab a bite and a cuppa at the Brighton Beach Café.
Hit the road for another 15 minutes until you arrive at Taieri Mouth. This stunning location offers brilliant views as the Waipouri River meets the South Pacific Ocean. It's a hotbed for fishing and water sports. Alternatively, you can stay terrestrial by following along the 4km Taieri River Track.
Arrive in Balclutha
Get back on State Highway 1 for another 40 minutes and you'll arrive at your destination for today, Balclutha.
Arguably the best attraction in Balclutha is the mighty Clutha River. The South Island's longest river is a gorgeous sight, so take your time to stroll along the adjoining Blair Athol Walkway when you arrive.
Other points of interest within the town include the South Otago Museum. It offers a unique perspective on the pioneering endeavours of Otago and its citizens.
Balclutha food and accommodation
Despite housing a population of just over 4,000 people, Balclutha has a surprisingly eclectic range of cuisines for you to sample. The Raj Indian Restaurant, Casafuego Mexican Eatery and Rusticus Italian Restaurant are the perfect dinner spots before you retire for the evening.
Balclutha also has a range of affordable and charming motels including the Helensborough Motor Inn, Rosebank Lodge and the Fern & Thistle.
Day 3: Balclutha to The Catlins
You'll want to jump up bright and early for this one. The Catlins Conservation Area is one of the hidden gems of New Zealand, and it's jam-packed with things to see. There's just so much to do in this region, so we'll go through some of the highlights before letting you know your options for laying your head down at night.
Balclutha to The Catlins driving distance
The Catlins is a large region, but your first stop should be the township of Kaka Point, home of the famous Nugget Point Lighthouse. Nugget Point is 22km away from Balclutha, and it will take around 20 minutes to make this trip.
From there, your exploration of the Catlins could take you to the town of Niagara and beyond. It will take you around 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach Niagara from Kaka Point.
Perhaps the most mandatory stop in The Catlins is Nugget Point. It's home to breathtaking ocean views, an iconic lighthouse and a fur seal colony. The nearby township of Kaka Point is the second largest in the Catlins.
The Catlins is known for its exceptional array of waterfalls, and McLean might be the very best. These stunning 22-metre falls are accessible via a 2.1km walk near the township of Papatowai.
The Lost Gypsy Gallery
One of the most eccentric and unique locations in all of New Zealand is the Lost Gypsy Gallery in Papatowai. It's a veritable cabinet of curiosities, filled with weird and wonderful artworks and artefacts.
Open from October to April, your exploration of The Lost Gypsy Gallery should begin with the famous bus, which offers free entry and is the perfect introduction to the venue. If you need to see even more, The Winding Thoughts Theatre has even more weird and wonderful contents to discover. Finish off your visit at the Little Rocket coffee cart.
We couldn't mention just one waterfall in the Catlins. The Parakunai Falls Walk is an easy walk to one of the South Island's most photographed locations. It's even wheelchair accessible, meaning no one is excluded from exploring some stunning natural beauty.
These awe-inspiring caves, located on Waipati Beach, reach 30 metres into the sky, creating an eye-popping spectacle. Access to the caves begins in late October, and you'll need to time your visit properly, as they can only be enjoyed during low tide.
The Catlins food and accommodation
The Catlins region is best enjoyed by spending the night under the stars in a campsite. Some top choices include the Pounawea Motor Camp near Owaka, Purakaunui Bay Campsite for those exploring the nearby Purakaunui Falls and Whistling Frog Holiday Park, which is conveniently located near many of the Catlins' top attractions.
If you can't bear the thought of going wild, there are other options available as well. Townships like Kaka Point, Owaka and Niagara also have a range of accommodations to make use of.
For fuelling up your body after a long day's adventuring, stop in at the Niagara Falls cafe, Kaka Point's The Point Café and Owaka's Lumberjack Bar and Café.
Day 4: The Catlins to Invercargill
Once you've taken in as much of the Catlins as you can manage, it's time to head towards Invercargill. One of the southernmost cities in the world, we think it's also one of the most charming and delightful.
The Catlins to Invercargill driving distance
Your driving distance to Invercargill will depend on where you spend the night. For example, if you stay in the Pounawea Motor Camp, it will take around 1 hour and 50 minutes to cover 136km. You can cut down your day 4 driving time by staying at a closer location like Niagara, which is situated about 1 hours' drive from Invercargill.
Bluff is located 30km south of Invercargill, so you can choose to pass through the city and head straight there, or hang your hat before making the trip. Bluff is one of the oldest European settlements in New Zealand and is considered by many the de facto southern frontier of the country.
Attractions include Stirling Point and its famously comprehensive yellow signpost, Bluff Hill lookout and the Bluff Maritime Museum. The town is also home to shark-diving experiences fit for any adrenaline junkie.
Arrive in Invercargill
When you set down in Invercargill, you'll find yourself in an urban yet quaint city that epitomises so much of what makes New Zealand great. It's packed with bars, restaurants and attractions.
Some of the top locations to check out include the Invercargill South African War Memorial clock tower, the serene Queens Park and The World's Fastest Indian motorcycle at the E Hayes and Sons hardware store. Be sure to end your evening watching the sunset at Oreti Beach in the nearby town of Riverton.
Invercargill food and accommodation
Invercargill doesn't skimp when it comes to delivering delicious food. Some excellent spots to check out include the Vietnamese Delight Restaurant, Emberz and Amigo's Mexican Grill. You can grab your morning cup at venues like Tuatara and The Batch café.
The city is packed with great-value motels like 295 On Tay, Tower Lodge and Homestead Villa. Higher-end venues include the Langlands and the Beersheba estate.
Day 5: Invercargill to Te Anau
We hope you enjoyed the urban delights of Invercargill, because day 5 will see you back in the thick of New Zealand's rugged wilderness. Your target today is the town of Te Anau, the gateway to iconic South Island locations like Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound.
Invercargill to Te Anau driving distance
Without stopping, you can get to Te Anau from Invercargill in just under 2 hours. Our suggested stops will add around 20 minutes to your trip, plus the time you choose to spend there.
Gemstone Beach, found in the town of Orepuki, is just what it sounds like. It eschews boring old sand for a stunning collection of stones, including quartz and sapphires. It would be travelling malpractice not to stop over at this iconic location when you undertake this road trip.
Tuatapere is one of the most beautiful townships in all of New Zealand. It stands as the gateway to much of the breathtaking wilderness you will explore when you arrive at Te Anau. The Bushman's Museum is the perfect place to continue your education about the South Island's pioneering history, and you can refuel with the Tui Base Camp Bar's world-famous, award-winning sausage.
Arrive in Te Anau
In Te Anau, you've arrived at the doorstep of some of the most exceptional scenery in all of New Zealand. But it's far more than a quaint tourist town, with plenty of great food and accommodation to check out.
Spending 2 nights in Te Anau is a bare minimum. Here are a few sights close to town you can check out upon arrival. We'll go over some of the more expeditious attractions in our day 6 rundown.
Te Anau bird sanctuary – The Te Anau open-air bird sanctuary is very near the township and shows off some of Fiordland's most beautiful and unique bird species. Entry is free but donations are encouraged.
Te Anau glowworm caves – Your tour of these incredible caves, located on the shore of Lake Te Anau, begins with a scenic cruise of the stunning lake itself. Then, you'll enjoy a guided tour of a breathtaking geological network replete with unique glowworms.
Lion Lookout Point – Finish off a long day at Lion Lookout Point, offering a unique perspective of Lake Te Anau and its township.
Te Anau food and accommodation
Te Anau offers a delectable range of venues including the fusion restaurant Ditto, the Redcliffe Restaurant and Bar and the Ristorante Pizzeria Paradiso.
For accommodation, lounge at Distinction Te Anau Hotel or the Aden Motel. Or, you can opt for lakefront options like Radfords on the Lake or the Lakefront Lodge.
Day 6: Explore Te Anau
You simply can't spend just one night in Te Anau. Here are some highlights to check out on your second day in this jaw-dropping area, before returning to your base camp. If you can't make up your mind about which of these activities to choose, consider adding a third or fourth night to your stay in Te Anau. Trust us, you won't be bored.
The Kepler Track was developed to show off the very best of Fiordland. From eye-popping lakes to stunning mountain vistas, taking on any part of this walk is sure to offer a slice of the South Island you'll never forget.
The full Kepler Track walk takes 3-4 days to complete, but you can easily shorten your walk to fit into a single day. For instance, you can book a water taxi to drop you off at Brod Bay and simply make the approximately 2.5-hour walk back to Te Anau.
Considered by many to be the most essential stop in all of Te Anau is Milford Sound. Described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world, it's home to mountainous peaks, waterfalls and exceptional greenery.
The most common way to explore Milford Sound is on a cruise. Take in all the sights on a cruise, usually lasting 2-3 hours. You can even opt for an overnight option if you want to explore absolutely everything it offers.
Want a more wild and rugged experience? Doubtful Sound is larger and less visited than Milford Sound. It's also an incredibly beautiful destination, with loads of cruises and even scenic flights offering a breathtaking perspective on this natural wonderland.
The Fiordland is perfect for a serene, relaxing experience, but it wouldn't be New Zealand without some adrenaline-pumping adventure. Jump on a jet boat and explore waterways like Waiau River to Lake Manapouri in style.
Day 7: Te Anau to Queenstown
Once you can finally tear yourself away from Te Anau, you're ready for the final leg of your trip. You could easily spend a whole extra week in Queenstown, so be sure to save some energy for the world's adventure capital.
Te Anau to Queenstown driving distance
Driving the 171km between Te Anau and Queenstown via State Highways 94 and 6 will take you around 2 hours and 5 minutes. Our suggested stop-overs are completely on-the-way and will add virtually no driving time to your trip.
Your first stop on your way to Queenstown is Mossburn. The deer capital of New Zealand is home to the Bracken Hall Café and its famous venison pies. Ensure you don't start taking the South Island's natural beauty for granted at this point in your trip by taking in even more stunning mountain vistas and the Oreti River.
Five Rivers Café and Art Gallery
Next, it's just a 15-minute drive to the Five Rivers Café and Art Gallery. Grab a latte and a muffin and enjoy the rustic stylings of this café, gallery and farmyard all rolled into one. The pieces of art on display show off some of the top artists of the Otago/Southland region, so don't miss out on stopping here.
Arrive in Queenstown
Your odyssey is complete! Queenstown is the perfect place for you to be, whether you want to catch your breath and relax or keep the adventures coming.
Here's just a taste of everything you can get up to in Queenstown:
Hop on the Queenstown gondola for some exceptional city views.
Hit the slopes in one of New Zealand's top skiing destinations (winter only, of course).
Drink up a wine tour from local providers like Appellation and Queenstown Wine Trail.
Enjoy a spa day at Onsen Pools, which offers incredible views of the Shotover River.
What better place to diminish your bucket list than Kawawau Bungy Centre, the birthplace of the commercial bungy jump? It's located just 25 minutes outside the city.
Get those legs moving on a world-famous walking track like Queenstown Hill or the Ben Lomond Walkway.
Rent a bike to enjoy Queenstown's 130km of exhilarating cycling trails.
Need even more water sports? Lake Wakatipu is the perfect place for a jet boat, raft or kayak.
Queenstown food and accommodation
When it comes to grabbing a bite to eat, the world-famous Fergburger is essential. Other great options are the Fogo Brazilian BBQ experience or Perky's Floating Bar.
Queenstown is home to some truly amazing hotels, including the Sofitel Hotel and Spa, luxury apartments at the Rees or something more affordable like the Pinewood Lodge. A week's road trip can be a bit tough on the bank balance, so consider busting your camping gear back out at a local campground.
Final Thoughts on the Dunedin to Queenstown Drive
Once you've finished up in Queenstown, this exceptional South Island road trip itinerary is complete. If you want to see even more of this incredible part of the world, you can check out our guide to the Ultimate 14-Day South Island Road Trip.
The most important part of any road trip is your car! Enterprise Rent-a-Car has an impressive array of vehicles available for you to browse at our Dunedin Airport branch. Our vehicles will be your trusty companion as you take on this mammoth road trip. International visitors should check out our guide to driving in New Zealand with everything you need to know for a safe and successful journey.