Nelson to Christchurch drive – An epic 5-day itinerary by car

Map plotting the driving distance from Nelson to Christchurch.

The upper half of New Zealand’s South Island is full of spectacular places to discover. From hiking in the many protected ranges of Nelson Tasman to relaxing in the superb Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools, you can expect exceptional views and entertaining attractions everywhere you go.

And the best way to explore all the best things from this region is with a rental car, which lets you travel at your own pace comfortably and affordably. Hiring a rental car is convenient, especially if you’ve just gotten off the plane at Nelson Airport – the Pegasus Car Rentals Nelson branch is only a minute away from the terminal. Our affordable vehicles, friendly staff, and expert local knowledge make us one of New Zealand’s favourite car rental companies. Read on to find the best places to discover on your rental car road trip from Nelson to Christchurch!

Day 1: Nelson City Centre to Abel Tasman National Park

1 hr – 59.6 km

Kick off your Nelson road trip in the city itself! Sunny Nelson is a hotbed for culture and craft. If you’re arriving at the airport on a Saturday, be sure to head to the city centre bright and early for the Nelson Market, which runs from 8 am to 1 pm and showcases all aspects of local creativity, from clothing to homeware. Enjoy delicious food as you browse the stalls before going to the Queen’s Gardens, a few blocks away, for a beautifully curated horticultural experience. This long-standing botanical park features a diverse range of plants to view on your leisurely stroll. A short drive away lies the Centre of New Zealand Monument, which marks Nelon’s location as the historical central point for surveys in the 1800s. 

Go back down State Highway 6 for the Nelson Classic Car Museum and marvel at over 150 antiques from over a century of motoring. Once you’ve experienced the best of Nelson, take your rental car 30 minutes on a scenic coastal route around the Waimea Inlet to Mapua Wharf. Here, you’ll find a vibrant collection of galleries and stores – not to mention cafes full of delectable dishes for your lunch.

Kayakers at Able Tasman
Photo Credit:

Another 45 minutes up State Highway 60 takes you to Abel Tasman National Park, famous for its golden beaches and graphite cliffs. Take a short hike to see the brilliant coastal sights, or try mountain biking at the nearby Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Park. Drive further around the park for a relaxing kayaking adventure by a Golden Bay beach.

Day 2: Abel Tasman National Park to Marlborough Sounds

3 hr – 199 km

Drive back down State Highway 60 and State Highway 6 for 3 hours to visit the famed Marlborough Sounds. Discover amazing views out at sea with guided tours by informed local experts. You could even try whale watching when the baleen whales migrate annually from June to August.

Two cyclist overlooking the horizon on a beautiful day at Marlborough Sounds.
Photo Credit: Tourism New Zealand

If you’re going for a full-day experience, you’ll need to leave as early as possible for a 9 am departure, or you could do a half-day tour starting after 1 pm if you prefer to take things slow. Either way, be sure to book ahead of time.

Take an overnight stay in the coastal town of Picton, where you’ll experience quality dining by the waterfront, and indulge in drinks from local wineries such as Cloudy Bay.

Day 3: Marlborough Sounds to Murchinson

2.5 hr – 189 km

Drive along State Highway 1 for 25 minutes to reach Blenheim, home of the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. This museum features a wide collection of World War I original and replica aircraft, as well as larger-than-life models built by Weta Workshop. Immerse yourself in history and knowledge before heading south along State Highway 63 for 1 hour to reach St. Arnaud.

This quaint little town is the gateway to the Nelson Lakes National Park, a region that holds a unique setting of freshwater lakes among mountain ranges. Hike on one of its many walking tracks to see the stunning scenery for yourself!

Once you’ve experienced the beauty of this Nelson Tasman treasure, drive another hour west to Murchison, where the whole family can engage in exciting jet boating adventures on the awesome white water rapids. Or try gold panning in the Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure & Heritage Park – you can keep what you find!

Day 4: Murchinson to Hanmer Springs

2 hr – 175 km

Another day means another incredible natural setting to explore, and as New Zealand’s second largest national park, Kahurangi National Park has amazing walks accessible right from Murchinson.  You’ll also find shorter nature walks present south of the township, such as the Johnson Creek Track or the Maruia Falls Track, both of which showcase the impact of the 1929 Murchison earthquake on the environment.

After the hike, it’s time to relax. Head down State Highway 65 for 1 hour to Springs Junction. Go another hour east through the Southern Alps by the Lewis Pass inland route. Stop by Maruia Springs if you want a break to dip in a peaceful hot pool, or keep moving along Lewis Pass towards Hanmer Springs for a more extensive resort town experience.

Hot pools overlooking the mountains at Hanmer Springs.
Phot Credit:

Here, you can soak in the many natural hot pools of the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa while the kids rush down the exhilarating hydroslides. It’s sure to be an enjoyable experience for everyone!

Day 5: Hanmer Springs to Christchurch

1.5 hr – 133 km

You’re finally on your way to Christchurch – just another 1.5 hour drive down a stunning East Coast route! Before you head into the garden city, visit the Waipara Springs Winery for a delectable wine-tasting brunch or taste fresh food by the riverside in Kaiapoi. Once you’re in Christchurch, you can easily park your car in the city centre to walk around its iconic spots, including the 21-hectare Christchurch Botanic Gardens and the Canterbury Museum.

yellow hägglund at the International Antarctic Centre
Photo Credit: International Antarctic Centre –

Take a drive to the International Antarctic Centre, a short distance away, to find informative, hands-on exhibits about the coldest place on Earth. Try boarding the all-terrain Hägglunds vehicle or going up against the -18°c Storm Room. Plus, learn about New Zealand’s own wildlife at the little blue penguin viewing area!

You’ll also find the Christchurch Gondola nearby. This unmissable attraction takes you up the slopes of Mount Cavendish in Port Hills for a breathtaking panoramic view of the city and its coastline on a sunny day.

Explore the beauty of New Zealand at your own pace

From rugged coastline routes to vast landscapes, New Zealand offers a plethora of natural beauty. Get started on your Nelson Tasman road trip with Pegasus Nelson, or start from our five other locations dotted around the South Island. All of our branches, including Pegasus Christchurch and Pegasus Dunedin Airport, are conveniently located near the country’s major airports, meaning that wherever you fly in, you’ll always find a rental car to drive with for your South Island adventure.