A Breathtaking Christchurch to Dunedin Drive: A 4-Day Itinerary
No South Island trip is complete without visiting Christchurch and Dunedin. These locations offer culture, history, natural beauty and so much more.
If you're making the trip between Christchurch and Dunedin, there are plenty of places to stop along the way. In fact, we think 4 days is the minimum amount of time to see everything there is to see between these cities.
Here is a complete itinerary for an epic road trip between Christchurch and Dunedin. When you set out on this journey, you'll need a trusty rental car by your side. Our Christchurch Airport location is the perfect place to pick up your choice of vehicle for a comfortable and safe journey.
How long does it take to drive from Christchurch to Dunedin?
The direct route between Christchurch and Dunedin is State Highway 1. This 360km coastal route takes just over 4.5 hours to complete.
This drive is considered one of the more bland offerings among the many scenic routes of New Zealand's South Island. Our route mixes things up by taking you inland through Lake Tekapo on State Highway 8, adding a few hours of driving time onto the journey.
Either way, you're getting an eyeful of coastline, and we think the sights of the central South Island are well worth the added time.
Our route could be theoretically completed in around 7 hours, but we suggest taking 4 days to enjoy everything it has to offer.
Christchurch to Dunedin Drive: A 4-Day Itinerary
Since much of the trip from Christchurch to Dunedin is coastal, we've crafted this itinerary with a summer road trip in mind. If you decide to make this trip in winter, you'll have to swap out closed destinations like Skipton Animal Park and Totara Estate for ski fields, which is no great sacrifice when you consider some of the slopes on offer. In winter, remember to ensure you have some snow chains in tow (available to hire from Enterprise).
- Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch
- Day 2: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
- Day 3: Lake Tekapo to Oamaru
- Day 4: Oamaru to Dunedin
Christchurch to Dunedin Overnight Stays
This road trip requires 3 overnight stays. It's perfectly possible that you'll fall in love with a location below. In that case, feel free to spend an extra night or 2 there.
Christchurch – 1 night
Lake Tekapo – 1 night
Oamaru – 1 night
Arrive in Dunedin
Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch
Whether this is your first time in Christchurch or your hundredth, we bet you'll want to spend at least 1 night here to take in everything it has to offer. If you've just arrived on a long-haul international flight, make sure to spend the night here so you're well-rested for the driving ahead of you.
Things to do in Christchurch
Some of the most popular activities in Christchurch include:
Willowbank Wildlife Reserve
The Willowbank Wildlife Reserve offers a breathtaking chance to get up close and personal with incredible native species like the Kea, Tuatara, Kaka, Takahe, Kiwi and more. Best of all, kids under 5 can enter for free!
Christchurch Art Gallery
Considered one of New Zealand's most important art collections, the Christchurch Art Gallery has an exceptional array of permanent exhibitions, as well as new arrivals coming in all the time. Soak up some culture with a visit to this venue.
No visit to Christchurch is complete without hopping on the Christchurch Gondola. With incredible panoramic views of Christchurch and beyond, it offers an incredible perspective of the South Island's largest city.
Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Stop in at Christchurch Botanic Gardens to gawk at some of the beautiful flora the Southern Hemisphere has to offer.
Christchurch food and accommodation
Christchurch's culinary scene continues to impress locals and tourists alike. Some mouth-watering options include:
Chiwawah – Transport yourself to Mexico with the fiery flavours of Chiwawa. From classic tapas to something a little bit more out there (tobacco squid anyone?), there's something for everyone at this Oxford Terrace fixture.
The Birdwood Café – Whether you're after a morning espresso or a late-night carb rush, this Italian stunner is a must-stop destination for any foodie in Christchurch.
Bessie – Found on St Asaph Street, Bessie specialises in dry-aged meats, delivering a unique dining experience you can't find in many other locations. Bessie finishes its meat in a 250-degree charcoal oven, culminating in a meal to please any carnivore.
There are also plenty of options to consider when it comes to Christchurch accommodation. Here are a few local favourites:
- Chateau on the Park – With 5 acres of peaceful gardens and even a private vineyard, this high-end venue is a great way to enjoy your time in Christchurch in style.
- Jailhouse Accommodation – Want to have a cool story to tell once you arrive back home? Spend the night in this former prison, which has been renovated into a lovely hostel.
Day 2: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
Once you've finished up in Christchurch, it's time to head inland to the stunning Lake Tekapo. We promise you won't regret taking this detour once you arrive there.
Christchurch to Lake Tekapo driving distance
If you're driving straight from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo on State Highways 1 and 79, it should take just under 3 hours for you to chew up the 226km.
Our recommended stops will add approximately 10 minutes, plus the time you choose to spend there.
Take State Highway 77 from Christchurch so you don't miss out on seeing the Rakaia Gorge. It'll take you an hour to reach this location from Christchurch.
Give yourself plenty of time to take in the incredible scenery on offer here. From gorgeous turquoise water to breathtaking mountain views, Rakaia Gorge is an essential stop on any Christchurch to Dunedin drive.
Looking not enough for you? There is a range of walks on offer at Rakaia Gorge ranging up to 3 hours, or you can simply walk until you've had enough and head back to your car to continue your journey.
Skipton Animal Park
Hit the road for another 1 hour and 15 minutes until you reach Skipton Animal Park. Keep in mind this charming, family-friendly destination closes annually for a winter break.
Skipton Animal Park allows customers to feed a range of wildlife including but certainly not limited to:
- Fallow deer
- Kune Kune Pigs
We recommend packing a picnic to enjoy in this serene location.
Arrive in Lake Tekapo
Driving from Skipton Animal Park to Lake Tekapo will take another 45 minutes. Prepare yourself to see one of the most stunning lakes in the entire country and a charming surrounding township.
Lake Tekapo is packed with things to do, but you're best off starting with a stroll along its enchanting shoreline. You'll always want to stop in at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a beautiful structure that is perfectly framed by the surrounding landscape.
Stargazers have a range of options to enjoy the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the Southern Hemisphere, including the Mount John Observatory or Tekapo Springs stargazing tour. The latter offers a guided tour of the sky while reclining in hot pools for an experience you won't soon forget.
While our itinerary allows just one night to spend in Lake Tekapo, nature lovers should consider spending some extra time enjoying nearby locations like Mount Cook National Park.
Lake Tekapo food and accommodation
Fuel up at local hotspots like the Greedy Cow Café or Kohan Restaurant. Lake Tekapo has a range of accommodations on offer, from conventional hotels like Grand Suites, or scenic holiday parks like Lakes Edge or Peppers Bluewater Resort.
Day 3: Lake Tekapo to Oamaru
When you can pull yourself away from Lake Tekapo, it's time to carry on to Oamaru. Today, you'll cut back through the central South Island towards the east coast, so you'll get to enjoy a lovely mix of scenery.
Lake Tekapo to Oamaru driving distance
It will take you just over 2 hours and 10 minutes to travel from Lake Tekapo to Oamaru without any stops. Our recommended stop-over in the town of Timaru adds on 10 minutes of driving time – plus, we think you should spend at least several hours there.
Today's stop-over is worth spending plenty of time in, so there's no need to add in any more. The second largest urban area in South Canterbury is chock-full of things to do. To start, take in some culture at the South Canterbury Museum and Aigantighe Art Gallery.
You'll also want to take a look at the incredible Te Ana Maori Rock Art, and go for a summertime swim in Caroline Bay beach. You'll think you're in Europe when you check out the Sacred Heart Basilica, one of the most beautiful buildings in all of New Zealand.
If you're feeling peckish, The Oxford and the Speight's Ale House are great options for a spot of lunch.
Arrive in Oamaru
After another hour or so of driving, you'll find yourself in today's destination, Oamaru. This exceptional location has so much to offer, it's a wonder it isn't on every traveller's bucket list.
One of the top activities in Oamaru is checking out the Oamaru blue penguin colony. These tiny penguins make for incredible viewing for any animal-lover, so come along for a day tour any time between 1 and 4pm, or evening viewing from 5:15pm.
Love your steampunk? Then you simply must visit the aptly-named Steampunk HQ, an incredible art gallery filled with contraptions, sculptures and installations showing the future "as it might have been".
If you're in New Zealand to soak up the nature on offer, be sure to stop in at the Oamaru public gardens and the famous Moeraki Boulders.
Oamaru food and accommodation
For a meal in Oamaru, don't go past Riverstone Kitchen's seasonal offerings, or stunning meats at Cucina. Unique accommodation can be found at Poshtel, a boutique hotel with rooms themed around the owner's collection of memorabilia. Also, consider The Mews and The Vicarage Boutique Bed & Breakfast.
Day 4: Oamaru to Dunedin
Just like that, your road trip is coming to an end! Don't worry, as day 4 is sure to be an eventful one. You'll take in stunning coastal views as you make your way to one of the most underrated locations in New Zealand.
Oamaru to Dunedin driving distance
Driving to Dunedin from Oamaru will take approximately 1.5 hours without stopping on State Highway 1. Our suggested stop-overs will add around 20 minutes to your drive, and we think they're well worth it.
Step back in time at this Tohu Whenua heritage site. Discover the incredible agricultural history of New Zealand at this remarkable location, which is just a 10-minute drive from Oamaru. Called the "birthplace of the frozen meat industry", this location is a critical component of the local history and an education for New Zealanders and international visitors alike.
Hit the road for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes until you reach Port Chalmers. You might be eager to read your final destination of Dunedin, but this town is worth stopping in. From the Regional Maritime Museum to the Pea Sea Art Gallery, there's plenty to discover in this charming community.
You can also go for a swim at Whareakeake or Brighton Beach, and grab a cup at Union Co Café.
Arrive in Dunedin
Less than 20 minutes away from Port Chalmers, you'll find yourself in your final destination of Dunedin. It won't take you long to realise why you've travelled all this way, as Dunedin is a city filled with culture and natural wonder.
Here's just a short summary of everything you can do and see in Dunedin:
- Lanarch Castle – New Zealand's only castle is a stark reminder of Dunedin's proud Scottish heritage, as is an architectural marvel to boot.
- Tūhura Otago Museum – This remarkable location boasts New Zealand's biggest science centre and the Tūhura Tropical Forest. Bring along the family for an educational and fun time in the Dunedin city centre.
- Ōrokonui Ecosanctuary – Explore 307 hectares of incredible biodiversity in this serene native forest.
- Dunedin Chinese Gardens – Get a taste of an authentic Chinese garden at Lan Yuan, the Dunedin Chinese Garden. This location is known to change with the seasons and celebrates Dunedin's sister city relationship with Shanghai.
- Baldwin Street – Naturally, the world's steepest street is essential viewing on any visit to Dunedin.
- The Octagon – The Dunedin city centre includes sights such as a statue of famed poet Robert Burns, St Paul's Cathedral and the Public Art Gallery, all within easy walking distance. You'll spend hours in this beautiful location without even realising it.
- Cloud Forest of Leith – New Zealand's only cloud forest is just a 15-minute drive from Dunedin and is home to a famous skyline walk.
Dunedin food and accommodation
Enjoy great food at one of the following venues:
- Prohibition Smokehouse – This restaurant lives up to its name with a delicious range of smoked meats and extraordinary decor, delivering a dining experience you're sure to love.
- Emerson's Tap Room – Emerson's is much more than a bar, with a stunning menu any foodie will approve of.
- Starfish – Enjoy seasonal delights day or night and stunning beachside views at Starfish.
When it comes time to lay your head down at night, here are some top options for your Dunedin accommodation:
- Distinction Dunedin Hotel – If you want a luxurious room you'll look forward to returning to night after night, look no further.
- Lanarch Castle Lodge – That's right, you can even spend the night at Lanarch Castle. These lodgings are built beside the original historic stables.
- Beechwood Boutique Accommodation – With close proximity to the Botanical Gardens, Railway Station and more, this quaint motel is an excellent choice for busy travellers.
Final Thoughts on the Christchurch to Dunedin Drive
There you have it, the perfect itinerary for an immersive but relatively brisk Christchurch to Dunedin road trip. Is this itinerary not enough for you? Why not check out our guide to the Ultimate 14-Day South Island road trip? It's the perfect way to see even more of New Zealand's best-kept secrets. If you’re in New Zealand to enjoy some vino, we also have a guide to the best wineries in the country.
You won't get very far on this road trip without a trusty vehicle. Browse our wide range of vehicles to find the perfect car for you. Be sure to ask the friendly staff at our Christchurch Airport branch for a few pointers before you set out on this epic trip.