3 Places to visit in 3 days in New Zealand – where to go?

If I only had 3 days to spend in New Zealand – e.g. during a short stopover or layover – and could only visit 3 places, where would I go? I asked myself…

The first time I visited New Zealand, like most tourists who do, I wanted to see it all.

But the thing is, you cannot see it all unless you take three to six months off from work to travel from the North Island to the South Island of New Zealand.

So the best compromise was taking three weeks off to travel from Auckland to Christchurch via Wellington, do a ferry crossing to Picton and include Queenstown in the trip.

While three weeks were not enough, I did get a very good taste of what New Zealand has got to offer.

By the way, if you are wondering how I split up my days in days to spend on the North Island and days to spend on the South Island, I spent one week on the North Island and two weeks on the South Island.

As I was recalling that first solo trip to New Zealand, I wondered, “What if I were given the choice to pick only three places I could visit and had only three days to spend in New Zealand? Where would I go?”

That proved to be a mighty difficult question to answer, but I boiled it down to a combination of fun, nature, and culture.

Because I’d have only three days to spend in New Zealand, I’d have to cut down my travel times by replacing driving in New Zealand with domestic flights.

Air New Zealand flies between a large amount of cities and towns in New Zealand, so you can book all your flights with Air New Zealand.

A Kiwi (New Zealander) once told me, “We use airplanes as taxis.” It is true.

A flight between two cities in New Zealand can cost less than a taxi ride to the airport – depending on where you are driving from, of course.


To put things into perspective: I once caught a 20-minute taxi ride from Porirua to Wellington City, which cost around $65 with not much traffic on the road. For $49 you can already fly from Wellington to Christchurch.

Here is another example: I once made a day trip from Wellington to Christchurch to visit the Christchurch Botanic Gardens for spring blossoms and came back on the same day. The trip cost me $116, but I could have gotten it for under $100 had I booked the flights earlier.

So here’s what my 3-day itinerary would look like…

Day 1: Auckland

For fun, I would fly to Auckland – what most international flights do anyway – and visit the Sky Tower and spend a night at the SkyCity Hotel, which is exactly what I did on my first trip to New Zealand.

The SkyCity Hotel reminds me a lot of hotels in Las Vegas with their casinos and multiple restaurants and bars. Although I did not stay there for that, if that is your idea of fun, you may want to look into it.

While you could do some shopping in Auckland on your stopover, if you are into sightseeing, you could do a harbor tour with Fullers to one of the islands near Auckland. Waiheke Island and Rangitoto Island are popular islands to visit.

Day 2: Queenstown

The following day I would catch a flight to Queenstown and do a pre-booked Fly-Cruise-Fly tour.

Note that normal domestic flights from Auckland to Queenstown sometimes fly over Mount Cook National Park, so if you are lucky and your pilot got permission to do so, you could experience an extra Mount Cook flyover for free on your way to Queenstown.

Southland mountain peaks, Milford Sound, New Zealand

Southland mountain peaks, Milford Sound, New Zealand

Because scenic flights and other tours generally require two or more participants, it can be a bit difficult – and become expensive for you – if you do the tour all by yourself.

So what I would recommend is booking such tours through a booking center like The Station in Queenstown, because generally there are more people who are interested in doing the same tour as you would like to do, but just like yourself might be traveling alone.

This way the booking center can ensure that the tour is filled up with the minimum amount of people required without it costing you a fortune to go on the tour.

Another thing you could do to ensure success in joining a tour is to visit New Zealand when it is best for solo travelers to visit. The pool of tourists wanting to go on tours would be greater then.

I can highly recommend doing the Fly-Cruise-Fly tour to Milford. Basically, if you are staying at a hotel in Queenstown, you can have the tour operator pick you up on their way to Queenstown airport.

Then you’ll hop onto a small airplane and fly over gorgeous mountain peaks (mostly snow-capped) and alpine lakes and land at Milford Sound airport [Photo: Scenic flight airplane at Milford Sound airport (33 KB)].

In Milford you are then transferred to board a ship that explores Milford Sound where you’ll see impressive mountain stacks, waterfalls, and sometimes dolphins and seals [Photo: Boat and Bowen Falls at Milford Sound (39 KB)]. After the cruise you’ll fly back to Queenstown.

It all takes half a day and is worth the money if you can afford it. If you had to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, you would lose approximately four hours driving and miss out on the scenic views from above.

If you are not leaving Queenstown immediately after the tour, you could go back to Queenstown city center and visit the Queenstown Gardens or just walk along the lakefront and enjoy scenic views of Lake Wakatipu, Cecil Peak, and other mountains around Queenstown.

If a leisurely walk is not your thing and you are someone who is quite energetic and fit, you could walk up Queenstown Hill and get spectacular views of Lake Wakatipu and the mountains surrounding Queenstown. The walk is short enough to be back in time for other Queenstown activities.

Later in the day, you could take a ride up with the Queenstown Gondola to enjoy iconic views of Queenstown as the sun sets and the city lights come on.

Finish your Queenstown visit with dinner at the restaurant that is located at the top end of your gondola ride.

Day 3: Rotorua

Finally, from Queenstown I would fly to Rotorua, visit Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland during the day (if time permits), and then attend a Maori cultural show in the evening.

And then the following day I would fly back to Auckland and head home or wherever I was planning to go after arriving in New Zealand.

Final words on where to go in 3 days in New Zealand

While New Zealand has got much more to offer than what I’ve described here, a 3-day journey like this should provide you with a tiny taste of what you can expect to experience in New Zealand if you visited and only had a few days to spend.

If I had to describe, in just a few words, what makes New Zealand unique compared to other countries, it would be its natural beauty and people (both Maori and Pakeha).

So if you visited New Zealand without seeing mountains, you cannot say that you have visited New Zealand.

Of course there are other natural features such as waterfalls, beaches, lakes, rivers, volcanoes, thermal areas, etc., but the mountains on the South Island are the things that capture people the most.

While experiencing the Maori culture is not a must, Maoris make New Zealand unique – in my opinion – and experiencing the energy of traditional Maori dancing is something that will highly likely move you.


This article falls under Travel Guide.

Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details
directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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