Driving from Christchurch to Dunedin is a long drive but it’s one of the best things to do in New Zealand. Christchurch is actually the largest city on the South Island and a convenient place for visitors to fly into – hence why road trips from the city are so popular.
This drive is one of my favorites on the South Island as it’s one of the best regions in the country for seeing unique wildlife like the New Zealand fur seals and the rare yellow-eyed penguins! All up, the road trip takes around 4 hours and 30 minutes (without stopping) and follows the coastline with plenty of places to stop along the way.
Some of the best activities on the drive include the chance to see Maori cave art in Timaru, the blue penguin colony in Oamaru, and the unique and photogenic Moeraki Boulders.
In this blog, I list 13 of the best stops on the drive from Christchurch to Dunedin so you can easily plan your road trip!
About the drive from Christchurch to Dunedin
The drive from Christchurch to Dunedin is 360 kilometers (224 miles) and takes 4 hours and 30 minutes without stopping. With that said, those who plan to enjoy the attractions on this list will need at least an entire day. Better yet, after renting a car in Christchurch (I use Discover Cars for this) spend a night along the way and turn this road trip into a two-day adventure. The best towns to spend the night in, in my opinion, are Oamaru or Timaru.
If time allows, I recommend stopping at every attraction on this list – I just love them all. However, those short on time should skip the longer hikes.
This scenic drive follows State Highway 1 (SH1) the whole way. State Highway 1 (SH1) is a well-traveled road and one of the most extensive motorways in the country, and it typically isn’t hit by any snow or ice in the cold winter months. Therefore it’s a safe and easy road to drive, especially if you aren’t too familiar with driving here in New Zealand.
Because this road trip travels along the main highway, there are lots of fuel stations, cafes, and supermarkets to fuel you and your vehicle for the long journey. This makes it very convenient and safe to drive.
With that said, many of the attractions on this list are off the main highway so be prepared to drive on backcountry roads – especially if you’re in a large motorhome. This can mean taking your time and going slower than normal (allow for that time.)
The BEST Stops on the Drive from Christchurch to Dunedin
Christchurch is a large, fun city – in fact, it’s the largest city on the South Island and the second largest in New Zealand (behind Auckland). With a population of just under 400,000 people, as you can imagine there are loads of great things to do and excellent places to eat.
As your starting point, don’t pass on the chance to explore the city on one of Christchurch’s best tours. Jump on the historic tram for a fantastic city tour. You can hop off at one of the 17 different stops at attractions around the city, and then jump back on to finish your tour. Tickets are also affordable at only $35 NZD per adult and can be purchased here.
Riverside Market is also a great place to go to eat lots of different food! This indoor market is located right in the CBD and has everything from breweries to specialty cookie shops. There are also some unique boutique shops to check out. Wander around and see what catches your eye!
And, while I’m speaking of places to eat, one of my favorite restaurants in the city is 5th Street on Elgin St in Sydenham. I love the southern fried chicken, and if you dare, their 700g rib eye! For your coffee fix in Christchurch, C1 Espresso can’t be missed. Your food is delivered by pneumatic tubes, which you can watch overhead. It’s one of the trendiest coffee shops I’ve ever been to!
As for things to do in Christchurch, the National Antarctic Center is a must-see and offers a unique insight into life in Antarctica. It is one of the most popular attractions in Christchurch and is a great day out with kids. Experience the Storm Dome, which gives a feel of the freezing cold weather in Antarctica. There’s also a Penguin Rescue Center, 4D Cinema, and the opportunity to ride a Hagglund (an amphibious Antarctic vehicle). Admission is $49 NZD.
A drive from the CBD in Heathcote Valley you’ll find the Christchurch Gondola. It offers spectacular 360-degree views and is a great family-friendly activity too. Once at the top, there are some cool hiking trails as well as a cafe to relax at. Tickets to the gondola are $55 NZD for adults and $25 for children. Other outdoor activities I love are the Christchurch Ziplining tour and the Adrenalin Forest Obstacle Course.
A stroll through Christchurch Botanic Gardens with a coffee from one of the amazing cafes in the city is a great way to spend an hour or two. And no visit to Christchurch is complete without visiting Quake City, which tells the story of the devastating 2011 earthquake. Other worthy sights to pay your respects to the earthquake victims include Oi Manawa National Memorial located on the Avon River in town, and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, which was left a ruin from the earthquake and is currently undergoing reconstruction.
There’s just so much to do in Christchurch – in fact, I advise spending at least two nights in this fascinating city (if time allows).
Hot Tip: Consider renting a campervan in Christchurch for your road trip! Having a home-on-wheels is so much fun!
Related Read: Visiting Christchurch on a budget? Check out all of the free and cheap activities in Christchurch!
Where to stay in Christchurch
There are lots of different hotels in Christchurch to choose from. One of the best places out by the airport is the LyLo Christchurch. It’s actually located within walking distance of the airport! Another cool hotel close by is the Commodore Airport Hotel Christchurch. Although a short drive away they offer a free shuttle and have amazing reviews.
In the city center, the Crown Plaza Christchurch is perfect for those wanting a typical luxury stay. It’s a large hotel with amazing views of the city. For budget travelers, the social but comfortable YHA Hostel is a good option. Although cheap, it’s located in the heart of the city and only a short walk from Hagley Park. You also have the option to book on either Hostelworld.com or Booking.com to find the best deal!
Ashburton, just an hour’s drive from Christchurch, is a large town surrounded by gorgeous farmland. Therefore some of the best things to do in Ashburton involve getting out into nature. Lake Hood, a short drive from town, is a popular spot with locals for fishing, boating, and waterskiing. The picturesque Ashburton Domain is also a great place to see nature on a walk with 37 hectares of lawns and gardens.
In town, the Ashburton Art Gallery and Heritage Center delves into the town’s history and also showcases lots of unique art. If you’re a shopping fan or just want to pick up a few unique souvenirs, head out to Ashford Village, which is set in and around an old Mill. There are lots of quirky gift shops and a Cafe.
Did you know – Ashburton was an aviation training base during World War Two, and the Ashburton Aviation Museum (near the airport) is a great place to see historic and modern aircraft.
If you have plenty of time then consider driving out the Ashburton lakes and visiting Mt Sunday aka Edoras from Lord of the Rings. It’s a 2-hour drive into the mountains but the 1.5 kilometers (each way) walk from the parking lot is stunning. You can also visit the film location on a tour from Christchurch! LOTR fans will love this!
Related read: Check out the best LOTR tours from Queenstown
Timaru is a pleasant large town built around the golden sand of Caroline Bay. One of the best things to do in Timaru is to enjoy a walk along Marine Parade at dusk to see native blue penguins! Unfortunately, the only safe spot to view the penguins is behind a roped section on the path (just look for a large group of people if you’re struggling to find it).
From here, watch the adult penguins come ashore, their return at this hour of the night is to feed their chicks who are nesting on the beach. It’s quite a sight to see these beautiful creatures feeding their young right in front of you!
In Timaru town itself, the South Canterbury Museum is a great way to pass a few hours. Here, you will learn about the region’s history and culture. If you’re an art fan, the Aigantighe Art Gallery is the third-largest art gallery in New Zealand and is located on Wai-titi Road in the town.
A truly unique activity in Timaru is to join a guided tour with Te Ana Maori Rock Art. On this hour-long tour, you will be shown Maori art painted on caves at some of the most important cultural sites on the South Island. Worth noting is you must drive yourself to these caves, your guide will tell you the way. This is an incredibly unique experience and gives insight into the history and culture of the native Ngau Tahu people (the prominent Maori tribe on the South Island). At the Rock Art center itself, you can hold a Moa bone and create your own rock art.
A famous tourist town in this region is the beachside town of Oamaru – it’s a very popular stop on the drive from Christchurch to Dunedin. For the best viewpoint of the town, head to Oamaru Lookout Point, it’s especially pretty here at sunset. You can also take on one of the many scenic walking trails from here.
Bushy Beach is my top recommendation for Oamaru, and here you can see yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals, and sea lions from the viewing platform. It’s a 10-minute leisurely walk from the parking lot on Bushy Beach Road to the viewing platform. The best time to see the unique wildlife here is at dusk.
The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony is another excellent way to see blue penguins (also known as the world’s smallest penguin) – this is a paid experience. The Colony is located 5 minutes from Oamaru and typically, the viewing tours begin at 8 pm each evening.
In Oamaru town, the Forrester Gallery is a truly impressive building (neo-classical style). In fact, it reminds me of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Inside there’s an amazing collection of local and international art. Or, take a stroll through the interesting Studio Realm boutique art store and find something quirky to take home or just enjoy the decor. For wine and cheese lovers, take a wine and cheese tasting tour at Whitestone Cheese.
5. Moeraki Boulders
The Moeraki Boulders are one of the most-visited tourist sites in New Zealand around 30 minutes from Oamaru. Would you believe there are about 50 large spherical boulders scattered along the beach – some of these boulders are up to two meters tall! Even more unique, some have cracked open like eggs, others are still intact, but one thing is for sure…they’re weird!
Did you know – hundreds of years ago, according to a local Maori tale, these giant boulders were washed up on the beach by the voyaging canoe Araiteru when it was wrecked after hitting land.
Visiting the boulders only takes an hour or so and the best time to photograph the boulders is at sunrise or sunset. There is a café nearby with parking and access to the beach. They do require a small fee to use the beach access though. If you don’t want to pay, you can also access the boulders via the DOC parking lot nearby. Just be sure to look on Google Maps and go to the public parking area, not the café.
As far as interesting places to visit on the South Island go, Moeraki Boulders is a clear winner! If you want to stay nearby so you can visit at sunset, the town of Moeraki is the best option, but Hampden is also nearby. Alternatively, just stay in Oamaru – that’s what I do!
6. Katiki Point
Katiki Point is the perfect scenic spot to see fur seals and even yellow-eyed penguins. The lighthouse here, also known as the Moeraki Lighthouse, was built back in 1878, and the Lighthouse Keepers House is used as a rehabilitation center for sick and injured penguins. This center is run by Penguin Rescue New Zealand. There’s a donation box at the entry gate where I recommend donating to the penguin center (about $5 – $10 NZD per vehicle is appropriate).
The reserve here is strictly open from 7:30 am – 5:30 pm daily to protect the penguins. At dusk, no flash photography is allowed, and you are not permitted to go within 5 meters of the penguins and other wildlife.
Katiki Point is located at Lighthouse Road near Moeraki.
7. Shag Point Lookout
This is another quick stop on your drive from Christchurch to Dunedin. From the Shag Point Lookout, you can see loads of fur seals lazing on the rocks below. Worth noting – it may take a few moments to spot the seals as they blend in so well with the rocks. One man we met at the viewing point told us he had been there a few days before and seen over a hundred seals on the rocks!
From the parking lot, it’s just a few minutes to the viewpoint. Be sure to bring a camera with a good zoom lens to get some great shots of the seals. We got some great photos when we visited! Nearby there are also some boulders similar to the Moeraki Boulders although they are nowhere near as impressive!
The Lookout is located on Shag Point Road around 20 minutes from Katiki Point.
8. Huriawa Historic Site
Huriawa Historic Site is home to the Huriawa Pā Walk – a 45-minute easy loop track (2.4 kilometers) that boasts spectacular views of Taiaroa Heads and Butterfly Bay. Although not one of the best hikes in New Zealand, there are even several blow holes to be seen along the track – watch in awe on a windy day as the waves crash into the caves below the blowhole and water shoots out. This short walk is truly breathtaking!
It’s a great walk for kids too as several plaques along the walk tell the history of the area, and they can earn a Kiwi Guardian Medal here too (this is a children’s activity program that encourages learning about nature).
The reserve here was once an important Maori village (pa) and was the home of Ngai Tahu Chief Te Wera. It is believed to have been built in the late 18th Century. So, as you can imagine, the area is a very sacred place to the native Maori people of the area.
9. Blueskin Bay
Just 25 km from Dunedin, Blueskin Bay is an estuary filled with “cockles,” also known as Southern Clams and oysters. In fact, these clams and oysters are exported overseas in abundance making this one of the biggest industries in this small area.
As you drive past the lake, look out for Arc Brewing Co. This small local brewery crafts amazing beer but they are only open Friday to Sunday.
The quirky little village of Waitati is built overlooking Blueskin Bay and I love the Blueskin Nurseries Cafe for a coffee break. This little village supports an alternative lifestyle, with most residents being alternative energy enthusiasts. The village has no sewage system and has become an important center in New Zealand for the development of composting toilets.
Nearby, is the Orokonui Scenic Reserve which is a nice hiking area. The 3-kilometer loop track is a peaceful stroll. Or, drive out the Doctor’s Point Reserve and enjoy a walk on the beach to explore some caves at low tide.
UPDATE: Google is saying Doctor’s Point Reserve is closed, however, I am unsure if this is true.
10. The Mole (sea wall)
The Mole (official name Aramoana which is Māori for “pathway of the sea”) is a man-made breakwater extending out 1200 meters. It was meant to be extended another 600 meters, but this was impossible due to instability.
Take a walk along The Mole and enjoy the scenic views of the surrounding coastline. You’ll be sure to see huge albatross swooping into the ocean in search of food (pack your binoculars for a closer look at them). On top of that, this area is popular with seals and they sometimes lay on the sea wall itself. Be cautious though as they have been known to chase visitors who get too close.
There’s also a walking track here called the Heyward Point Track that takes you to Heyward Point Scenic Reserve. The 5-kilometer return track offers stunning views of the area and is a must when it comes to hikes on the South Island.
The Mole is located at Moana St Portobello in Aramoana.
11. Orokonui Ecosanctuary
Orokonui Ecosanctuary, 20 km from Dunedin CBD, is the only cloud forest in New Zealand. It is home to rare and endangered native birds like Kiwi, Kaka, Takaha, and Tuatara, and there are no pests here to threaten these unique birds. There are 9 different walking tracks you can take within the reserve – the most popular being the 1.5 hour Kaka/Bellbird/Kiwi Track, which takes you on an easy path to see Kaka and Bellbirds and, if you’re lucky, the elusive Kiwi (they’re notoriously shy)!
The visitor center is often referred to as a “showpiece of environmental design”. There’s a cafe inside the center that boasts excellent views over the cloud forest and has a varied menu.
The reserve was built by the Otago Natural History Trust, and the idea for the reserve first came from local cartoonist Burton Silver.
12. Leith Saddle Walk
The Leith Saddle walking track is a 3.5 hour (5.8 km) return easy walking track. With that said, in the beginning there’s quite a steep climb, so some level of fitness is required. Nevertheless, the trail is one of the most popular hikes near Dunedin and climbs through the unique cloud forest and up to a spectacular viewpoint of Dunedin CBD. After this viewpoint, the track up to Swampy Summit becomes a little trickier, and more resembles a tramping track.
It’s a great walk for bird-watching fans with the opportunity to spot native birds like the fantail and kaka. The walk is also flush with unique flora like the Dicksonia tree fern, rimu, miro, and totara.
You can start this track from Waitati Valley Road, about 12 minutes from Dunedin.
Dunedin is the second-largest city on the South Island and is surrounded by gorgeous coastlines and even a cloud forest. The city of Dunedin is a historic city filled with Victorian-style buildings. An interesting fact about Dunedin is that the city has a distinct Scottish heritage ( a lot of locals are of Scottish descent). The best example of this influence is Larnach Castle which is well worth a visit. There’s also a Highland Games and Festival held at the beginning of April every year – which is one of the best things to do in Dunedin.
If you’re spending a few days in the city (which I recommend doing), then be sure to visit the Otago Museum, which has one of the largest collections in the country. There’s even a Planetarium and an interactive Science Center, which houses an immersive tropical butterfly experience.
The Toitu Settlers Museum is another worthy attraction in the city that tells the story of Otago’s first people in a unique way. There are loads of super-informative interactive displays dotted throughout the museum, which tells the story of the gold rush era and the settlement of Scottish Presbyterians in the city.
Dunedin is known as a “student city” and as a result, there are a lot of quirky restaurants and Cafes in the CBD. Check out The Good Earth Cafe and Morning Magpie for great food and coffee! Emersons Brewery is also a fun spot to try some local craft beer.
Some of my favorite places outside the CBD are St Clair Beach to eat at one of its seafront eateries and the chance to see sea lions on the beach itself. Tunnel beach at the end of Green Island Bush Road is gorgeous and well worth a visit too. For a great overview of Dunedin’s natural attractions, consider doing this top rated Wildlife and Wilderness Tour with an Ex Ranger.
Did you know – the steepest street in the world is right here in Dunedin. Baldwin Street is a popular attraction and perfect for taking some fun photos.
Where to Stay in Dunedin
Also known as New Zealand’s ‘little Scotland’ Dunedin is a great place to spend a night or two. First off the city center isn’t too big but has everything you need and is easy to stroll around. Thankfully, there are also lots of fun things to keep you occupied too. Plus, there’s a fantastic array of great restaurants.
Spend your days here exploring the Dunedin Botanic Gardens, the Otago Museum, and the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. A must-visit too for good food and locally crafted beers is Speights Brewery or Emerson Brewery. A short drive from the city is the famed Larnach Castle, Tunnel Beach, and Signal Hill Lookout – all highly recommended.
And not forgetting Baldwin Street – the world’s steepest street. Make sure to take your camera for this one!
Some great places to stay in Dunedin include:
538 Great King Motel – this 4-star motel is within easy walking distance of the city. The rooms are clean and comfortable and there’s a guest laundry on-site.
Distinction Dunedin Hotel – once a post office this hotel is historic and charming but has recently been upgraded. It has a restaurant and bar on-site and the rooms are luxurious. Also, a cool feature is that you can choose to dine privately in one of the original vaults of Dunedin’s former Post Office.
On Top Backpackers – just a few minutes walk from many of Dunedin’s attractions. With its very own Cafe & Bar with 19 pool tables, it is a fun, comfortable, unique, bright, and sunny Hostel with a relaxed vibe. You can choose from shared dorms, single and double rooms with shared facilities, or our deluxe double private rooms with en suite.
If you want a stay a little out of the city, then I love St Clair and Brighton. St Clair is one of my favorite areas in Dunedin, just an 8-minute drive from the city center. There’s a long white sand beach here, where you can spot sunbathing seals if you’re lucky. There’s a small but varied selection of great bars and restaurants too. Hotel St Clair is a great place to spend the night.
Brighton Beach is an 11-minute drive from the city and boasts a white sand beach and a long ocean jetty. The jetty is a beautiful place to catch the sunset. Stay in School by the Sea is a lovely home accommodation option in Brighton.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (QUEEN5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually purchase it as soon as we land in the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
The road trip from Dunedin to Christchurch has always been a well-traveled route and one that should not be missed. I’m sure you’ll agree there’s some incredible wildlife, stunning viewpoints and some very unique towns listed above. Whether you stop at just one or all of the above stops, the drive from Christchurch to Dunedin is sure to be one to remember.
I hope this blog helps you make the most of your Christchurch to Dunedin road trip. If you did find it helpful then check out some more in-depth blogs about New Zealand on My Queenstown Diary. I have tons of road trip guides, hiking guides, and tons of information on Queenstown, Wanaka, and more. Enjoy!