If you are planning to travel to the South Island in New Zealand to tick off some major photography spots, and you’re limited on time and budget – this is for you!
New Zealand is hands down an ideal photography travel destination. Everything from its glorious Alpine mountains, great plains, majestic fiords and snow-covered glaciers make it very appealing.
(Updated August 2022)
Tips to Plan your South Island New Zealand Photography Spots Itinerary
This short three-day itinerary through the South Island in New Zealand covers most photography spots worth visiting. A road trip through the South Island is possible all year round. However, if you are after seeing the famous lupins in full bloom you need to go between mid-November and January.
This itinerary starts in Wellington (on the North Island) and includes a cheap and must-do route to see some of the South Island of New Zealand’s highlight photography spots! The starting point can, of course, be modified to you flying directly into the South Island.
Also, a lot of the itinerary is based on getting up fairly early – I’m an early riser. And to my defence, it was in summer when I travelled – so I got daylight from 7 am up until 9 pm.
How To Get Around New Zealand’s South Island
The trip is also based on the idea that you find yourself a rental car. I think it was through Beth’s stories on Instagram (@bethsandland) that I first heard of relocation cars. Car rental companies do always need their fleet to be redistributed through the country. So you basically pick up a car in one place and return it to another – free of charge! If that doesn’t sound like the best deal, I don’t know what does.
After some research I found the best deals to be over at Transfercar. You can easily search for locations and dates and it tells you what deals are available, for which period. Sometimes you have only one day to drive it to the final location, other times you have five – it depends.
I found a great rental car deal with Aerodrive for two days, one tank of fuel included to be returned to Queenstown. I purchased additional insurance to bring my liability down to 0.00 NZD – which cost me 28.00 NZD per day.
For some of those deals you get a full tank free of charge at others you have to return it full. Also, insurance and liability vary from company to company so please make sure to read the respective terms and conditions.
An almost complete list of rental car companies that do need to move their cars around the country is Rental Car Relocation.
You can also go directly to some of the rental car companies such as Hertz or Jucy and check if they got a deal on.
How to get to New Zealand’s South Island
One of the more economical flight routes is Wellington to Christchurch (instead of Wellington to Queenstown for example) on Jetstar. I booked this trip last minute for the upcoming Christmas period and got a basic flight deal for 129.00 NZD, with 7 kg hand luggage only.
Take an early morning flight (like 7 or 8 am) to arrive before midday. I found 10 am to be a great time to pick up the car – which allows me 48 hours to return it to the final destination.
South Island New Zealand Photography Spots Itinerary
Day 1 Christchurch to Twizel
From Christchurch airport, you can take the scenic route towards Darfield and Geraldine. This first leg of the trip is about 160 km long and can take around 2 hours.
In Geraldine, you can have a stop at The Running Duck. It has a lovely outdoor area to enjoy the sunshine and serves great coffee and a varied food menu.
From Geraldine, you’d take the 75 and State Highway 8 towards Burks Pass and Tekapo. This part is another 90 km and about 1 hour of pleasant drive time.
This part of the trip to the South Island of New Zealand is hands down one of my favourite photography spots. You just drive down the hill and in front of you opens up the view of the turquoise Lake Tekapo, with the Southern Alps in the background. It was stunning to the point that my mouth dropped.
South Island New Zealand, Epic Photography Spots in Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo Reserve
Once you come into Tekapo there comes a viewpoint near Lakeside Car Park and the Lake Tekapo Reserve. It’s a great stop for some initial photos, away from the crowds.
Church of the Good Shepherd
No trip to Lake Tekapo would be complete without having seen the Church of the Good Shepherd. It’s an iconic photography site and therefore super popular for wedding, astrology- or commercial photography. Keep on driving towards the down and before the river, turn right. By that time of the day you probably have to park on the nearby grass – as it does get busy with tourists and tour buses!
I’d argue the best time to go is actually in the morning, as early as possible.
The Russel lupin is actually an invasive species to New Zealand, growing near rivers in purple, pink or yellow. You can find the mesmerizing lupins around the Church of the Good Shepherd and on the other side of the bridge, near the water. Tekapo and Pukaki are one of the main areas in which hundreds of them blossom every summer, roughly from November to January.
One of my favourite articles (and photography inspiration) about lupins and how, and where to capture them best is from Daniel Murray here.
Night Tours Dark Sky Project
The Dark Sky Project lead world-class astrology-tourism experiences. The only of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, the 4300 square kilometres area was declared the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve.
View of Tekapo
Head up to Astro Cafe within the Mount John Observatory for some panoramic views of Tekapo Lake and the Southern Alps.
Fly Over The Glaciers
Tekapo is one of the best places to go on a scenic flight over Mount Cook, Fox and Franz Josef Glacier. With flights departing at various times during the day you can easily fit this into your schedule. Possible options are Air Safaris for an aeroplane flight or The Helicopter Line for a heli ride.
Lake Pukaki Viewpoint
Once you are ready to leave Lake Tekapo, you will head towards Lake Pukaki. The total drive time should take around 35 minutes for the 49 km.
The views from Tekapo towards Lake Pukaki are literally one of my highlights – the whole trip is just breathtaking. Everywhere you look are fields of purple lupins, snow-covered mountains as the backdrop and yellow plains.
Once you get to the Lake Pukaki car park head towards to end of it to see the full spectrum of the lake’s beauty. Here you’ve got an amazing view of the striking blue, created by glacial flour.
A major photography spot: when you leave the car park towards Twizel, shortly after ascending there are a few stopping bays on the left which you should take advantage of – the look from up there over the lake is superb!
A non-photo but must-see stop: Salmon Shop
One very authentic stop – Mount Cook Alpine Salmon. If you are a salmon fan, you better don’t miss out on that one. Just before you leave the area, include a stop at the fish farm and sample their freshwater salmon in the form of sashimi or packaged to take home.
You are now about to leave Lake Pukaki and would make the last leg of the trip, towards Twizel. It’s only a stone’s throw away and should.
Twizel is the largest town in the Mackenzie District and got this amazing small-town vibe going on. It serves as the perfect basis for tourists who want to explore Mount Cook, Lindis Pass and of course, the surrounding Pukakai and Tekapo Lakes.
It’s fairly easy to get around Twizel by foot – so why not end the day with a short walk along the river and back through the park. After all that driving it’s nice to stretch and enjoy a leisurely walk.
Where To Have Dinner in Twizel
Try Ministry of Works Bar & Eatery for some veggie burgers and craft beer
For Wine, head next door to Shawtys Cafe Restaurant & Bar. I had one of the best Chardonnays from Peregrine there.
Where To Have Breakfast in Twizel
Go over to Poppies Cafe – for some great coffee and a lovely outdoor area.
If you’ve missed the Salmon Shop in Tekapo, you got another chance to sample some of New Zealand’s finest salmon over at High Country Salmon. It’s between Twizel and Omarama and makes a great breakfast spot or early lunch spot.
Where To Stay in Twizel
Budget: High Country Lodge – a lovely place with free parking, right in the centre of Twizel. They got lots of green space, perfect to practice yoga before or after a long day of driving.
Midrange: Skyscape – a brand new hotel consisting of glass-roofed bedrooms to admire the Mackenzie Region by day and the dark sky by night. Just stunning!
Luxury: Matuka Lodge – a luxury resort to enjoy stunning views of the Southern Alps, right from your own deck.
Day 2 Twizel to Wanaka
I’d suggest leaving Twizel after breakfast to arrive in Wanaka around lunchtime. It allows enough time to explore the city and even squeeze in a little hike.
The drive will take about 1 hr 45 minutes and covers around 144 km.
Wanaka is a genuine alpine town that is the ultimate hub for adventure and outdoor lovers. With its scenic Mount Aspiring National Park close by, it makes it easy to go on day adventures. From skydiving, climbing and canyoning – there is something for everyone to choose from!
The city by the Southern Alps itself is small enough to walk around, and makes the perfect stop to visit the South Island New Zealand Photography Spots.
South Island New Zealand, Epic Photography Spots in Otago
The dramatic Lindis Pass sits right in between the Mackenzie Region and Central Otago. It reaches 965 metres above sea ground and in the middle of it, is this fantastic scenic spot that offers some epic views of the surrounding mountains.
That Wanaka Tree
No visit to Wanaka would be complete without having laid your eyes on the tree. It’s one of the main attractions of the South Island in New Zealand and a beloved photography spots. That Wanaka Tree is as Insta-famous as it gets, with not only having its own website but also visitors showing up in the midst of dawn, ready to take the perfect picture.
Hike Up Mt Iron
From Wanaka city, it’s like a 30 min walk (2 km) towards to start of Mount Iron Trail. It can be done as a loop track and offers a lovely 360-degree view of Wanaka and its surroundings. Great place to take some scenic shots!
Length: 4.5 km loop | Duration: 1 hr 30 min
Roys Peak Track
As one of the South Island of New Zealand’s most Instagrammed hike and top photography spots – this half-a-day track offers some of the best views of Wanaka, its lake and the Southern Alps. It can get so busy that a queue forms on top of the summit!
Visit A Winery
Wanaka has some great wineries just at your doorstep. You got Rippon Winery and The Rippon Hall, as well as Aitkens Folly Vineyard. For Rippon Winery you need to make a booking first. Otherwise, you are good to just show up.
Photo Walking Tour
If you are only about getting beautiful imagery of the Wanaka region, have a look at Google Maps list of the best spots in Lake Wanaka region. It shows the region’s best spots to take instagrammable photos – hikes and views included!
For some more inspiration on what to do in Wanaka – have a look here at Lake Wanaka.
Where To Have Breakfast in Wanaka
Federal Diner – tucked away from the crowds and just next to Fedeli Cafe, it offers some great specialty coffee and varied breakfast options.
Where To Have Coffee in Wanaka
The Ritual Espresso Cafe has some interesting coffee, serving various vegan milk and food options. They did have beans from a roastery that you cannot find in Wellington.
Where To Have Lunch in Wanaka
Go to Fedeli Cafe for their Soba Salad – it’s the item on the menu that never changes. Apparently, people travel into town for it. After trying it, I can testify, it’s amazing!
Where To Have Dinner in Wanaka
For some healthy dishes try the ever-so-buzzing Big Fig on the waterfront.
Budget option: go to nearby NewWorld to buy some groceries or snacks and make yourself a nice dinner, sitting by the Wanaka lake.
Where to have a Drink with view in Wanaka
For some of the best views of the Lake, while sipping on a drink is Lake Bar, on the second floor on the main street.
Where to Stay in Wanaka
Budget: Holly’s Backpackers – My place of choice. It’s super central and it got a big backyard garden where its easy to do some yoga. I find it the ideal place to meet fellow travellers. The owner is very knowledgeable and happy to help you sort out your stay in Wanaka. Great value for money!
Midrange: Mahu Whenua offers daily yoga classes overlooking Mt Aspiring National Park & Lake Wanaka. Who would not want to start flowing into the day with a view like that?
Luxury: Aro Ha – An award-winning yoga retreat that “(…)gives you a full physical and emotional overhaul” – by Vogue Magazine.
Day 3 Wanaka to Queenstown
The last day is here! You will make your way to Queenstown, past the famous winter sports hamlet of Cardrona and the charming Arrowtown. The first part of the trip will take around one hour over 55 km.
As I had to return the rental car at 10 am I left Wanaka around 7 am. As I heard the Cardrona Hotel is one of the must-sees, I had a quick stop.
Dating back to the times of the New Zealand gold rush era, this cute hotel brings you back in time. It’s a fun stop-over for some photos and to see a part of the “old” New Zealand.
Crown Range got some steep and windy roads, lined by the occasional lupins. There are some great panoramic views to be seen from various viewpoints. From the summit onwards, it’s a steep drive down, passing through a few hairpin bends – take it slow!
I just made it to the petrol station, so my biggest tip here – put in fuel while you are in Wanaka!
Arrowtown, I’d argue is a real New Zealand South Island gem and one of my top surprising photography spots. A charming little gold-mining village, that got around 70 buildings & features left from that era.
It’s now one of New Zealand’s most engaging places. Every autumn it attracts photographers that want to capture hues of golden and orange natural sights. It’s also a place that has been used in the filming of Lord of the Rings. It’s a place that transports you back in time.
Without even knowing of this place it became one of my favourite places on that whole trip.
What to See and Do in Arrowtown
Browse through antique-looking sweets shops, sample some wine from the region or visit a jade & opal factory to learn more about the creation of those pieces.
Settled in the old Bank of New Zealand, the Lakes District Museum offers great insights into the Pre-European Maori and gold mining history. There is also a luxurious boutique cinema that showcases contemporary & arthouse films, underneath a Chinese silk ceiling.
Book a historic tour through Arrowtown and get your photo taken in a Victorian Costume. On that note, if you wanted to experience a unique dining experience that feels like being back in 1860, Goldrush Arrowtown got you covered.
If you are tight on time, just walk through the pedestrian street, soak in the relaxed atmosphere and admire the buildings that just look like from an old Western movie.
There is a free all-day parking space just one street down the pedestrian road.
Where To Have Breakfast & Coffee in Arrowtown
For some cozy outdoor-seating and great coffee, head over to Provisions of Arrowtown. Such a gem!
Once you refuelled you will make your way to buzzing Queenstown. It’s only a 15 km drive and you are at the end of your three-day trip to explore South Island New Zealand Photography Spots
Just shy of 9.30 am I made my way back towards Queenstown airport in Frankton, to drop my rental car off. Save yourself the confusion (and detour!) and make sure to check for the rental company’s address again.
From Frankton and the airport, you can take one of the local buses towards Queenstown. The price is 10$ towards Queenstown, or 2$ if you are a GoCard holder.
That’s it, a three-day or 48-hour itinerary that allows you to capture some of the South Island of New Zealand’s finest photography spots and natural highlights.
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