Although it’s not an enormous country, distances in New Zealand can be deceptive due to rural roads, mountainous landscape, and points of interest that are spread out. Therefore, if you only have one week to spend in the country, it makes more sense to hone in on a broad area than to try to cover too much ground.
New Zealand is comprised of two main islands: the North and South Islands. Auckland is the largest city in the North Island (and in the country), and Christchurch is largest city in the South Island. Travelers often wonder which island is better, but that's a question that can't really be answered. Both have their highlights. Trying to see them both in a week would hardly be possible—you’d spend more time driving or in airports than spending time enjoying the country—so it's best to pick one.
However much time you have in New Zealand, self-driving is the most convenient way of getting around. Although there’s a reasonably extensive private bus network that connects the main centers and tourist attractions, and some limited (but very scenic) train journeys, in general New Zealand’s public transport network is not adequate for locals, let alone tourists. If you had the luxury of time you could use the buses and trains to get between cities, and then rent cars for the odd day here and there while in particular destinations. However, with just a week, it’s far more convenient to hire a car for the whole trip. Many visitors to New Zealand hire an RV, and although these aren't cheap, they'll save on accommodation costs.
If you have longer to spend in New Zealand—which would be a good use of time if you were flying from far away—then these two, week-long itineraries can be combined to create a complete tour of both islands. While domestic flights and self-driving are easiest if you're short on time, try to travel between the major cities via rail if you can. Not only is rail a more environmentally friendly means of transport, New Zealand's rail routes pass through some seriously scenic parts of the country, and allow you to enjoy the views without having to keep an eye on the road.
North Island Day 1: Auckland City
Most travelers to New Zealand will land in Auckland International Airport, making it a great place to start your trip. Drop off your bags at your hotel and start exploring. Auckland is an attractive city on a large harbour, characterized by its many volcanoes. Take a ferry to Devonport on the North Shore to enjoy the city views, or climb Mount Eden for aerial view. History buffs should spend some time at the War Memorial Museum in the sprawling Auckland Domain park. It is one of New Zealand's first museums and tells the story of the country's history. After explore the expansive Pacific and Maori collections, browse the boutiques, cafes, and bars of the upmarket Parnell neighborhood and enjoy a waterfront dinner at Viaduct Harbour.
North Island Day 2: Explore Auckland's West Coast
Head out west through the Waitakere Ranges to the dramatic, black-sand beach of Piha. Enjoy a beach walk, have a swim if the weather’s good (stay within patrolled areas, as the sea conditions can be dangerous), and enjoy a coffee overlooking the beach. Bird and wildlife enthusiasts will want to check out the nearby Muriwai Gannet Colony, to the north of Piha. Once you're done at the beach, visit one of the many wineries in the area.
North Island Day 3: Hobbiton and Rotorua
Leave Auckland and head south, inland, to Rotorua. Stop in the town of Matamata in the Waikato region en route to take a guided tour of the Hobbiton film set. You don’t need to be a "Lord of the Rings" fan to appreciate the film set here, although it helps. Continue to Rotorua, a city rich in geothermal activity and Maori culture. Spend the evening relaxing at a naturally heated thermal spa. There are spas for all budgets, from basic to luxurious.
North Island Day 4: Rotorua
The steaming vents, spurting geysers, bubbling mud pools, and brightly-colored rocks in and around Rotorua will make you wonder whether you’ve stepped onto another planet. Spend some time visiting the geothermal parks in the area, such as Wai-o-Tapu, Hell's Gate, or Orakei Korako. In the evening, enjoy a Maori cultural show with singing, dancing, food, and opportunities to learn about traditional ways of life.
North Island Day 5: Coromandel Peninsula
Head back north today, to the Coromandel Peninsula that juts out into the Firth of Thames and Hauraki Gulf. This peninsula encapsulates all that is good about norther New Zealand—dense forests, immaculate beaches, and geothermal activity. Coromandel town or Whitianga are good places to stay.
North Island Day #6: Coromandel Peninsula
While the summer is a good time to head to the beach, Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove (Te Whanganui-A-Hei) on the Coromandel Peninsula can be enjoyed year-round. At low tide on Hot Water Beach you can make your own spa pool, just dig a few inches beneath the surface to get at the thermally heated hot water. Don’t forget your shovel, and be sure to plan your visit for low tide, to avoid disappointment. A little further up the coast is Cathedral Cove, a lovely beach with some spectacular rock formations. It’s a marine reserve, making it a great place to go snorkeling or kayaking.
North Island Day 7: Auckland
Return to Auckland and enjoy any last sightseeing activities that you didn’t get the chance to do on your first day. A great way to end your week in the North Island would be to enjoy dinner with a view from the Sky Tower, Auckland’s most prominent landmark.
South Island Day 1: Christchurch and Queenstown
After flying into Christchurch, connect to a domestic flight to Queenstown, in the west of Otago province. The small city on Lake Wakatipu has the Remarkables mountain range as a backdrop, and is gorgeous at any time of year. It’s a major tourist attraction in the South Island, so if you want to avoid the crowds, consider staying in nearby Wanaka or Arrowtown instead, and just visit Queenstown for the day.
South Island Day 2: Queenstown
Queenstown is known as the adventure sport capital of New Zealand, and if you’re looking for exciting ways to get your body moving, there are no shortage of options; you can go white-water rafting, kayaking, bungee jumping, skiing (in winter), skydiving, hiking, and so much more. If you prefer more sedate pursuits, take a gentle walk along a lakeside track, take the cable car to the top of the hill for sweeping views of the city, or enjoy a scenic cruise on Lake Wakatipu.
South Island Day 3: Te Anau
After spending a couple of days in touristy Queenstown, it’s a good idea to head to one of the more remote parts of the South Island. The Fiordland National Park is the biggest in the country, but apart from popular Milford Sound, it’s not very crowded. Although the park is close to Queenstown, the mountainous terrain means that the road journey from Queenstown to the small lakeside town of Te Anau takes longer. After arriving in Te Anau, take a boat out to the glow-worm caves on the other side of Lake Te Anau.
South Island Day 4: Doubtful Sound
Te Anau is a great base for day trips to Doubtful Sound: a gorgeous, moody expanse of water with mountains rising out of it. You’ll need to cross Lake Manapouri to get there. Forged by glaciers over many centuries, Doubtful is the deepest of the fjords in Fiordland. You might see fur seals and crested penguins, and if the weather’s wet—which it very often is in this part of the country—you’ll see some spectacular waterfalls.
South Island Day 5: Central Otago and Dunedin
Head back east to the city of Dunedin, through the Central Otago countryside. The further east you travel, the smaller the mountains become, but Central Otago is a rich wine-growing region, and there are many opportunities to drop in on wineries, have a taste (or pick up some bottles for later), enjoy lunch, and admire the views. There are also a lot of orchards across the region.
South Island Day 6: Dunedin
Spend the day exploring Dunedin, a historic city full of character with a strong Scottish heritage and large student population. In the city itself you can enjoy excellent museums, art galleries, boutique shopping, and eating, while on the nearby Otago Peninsula you can see a range of wildlife, including seals, albatross, and penguins.
South Island Day 7: Christchurch
Assuming your international flight departs from Christchurch, return to the city via a domestic flight and spend a bit more time exploring before leaving the country. Attractions worth checking out in Christchurch include Quake City museum, the International Antarctic Centre, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, and the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial.