I’ve spent a lot of time in Christchurch.
My partner, Dave, hails from the small town of Ashburton, located roughly an hour outside of the city; his parents still live there today. He went to university in Christchurch, has lived there numerous times, and regularly returns to visit his friends. I subsequently find myself swinging through this charming city on a near-yearly basis.
It’s been such a joy to discover Christchurch through his eyes.
This is a city that is defined by its resilience. Back in 2011, Christchurch was hit by a devastating earthquake; one that resulted in the loss of thousands of homes and businesses. Its iconic cathedral was destroyed, 60% of the city’s buildings were damaged, and over 10,000 homes had to be demolished and rebuilt.
It’s enough to make you want to give up, but Christchurch chose instead to transform. It rose up from its rubble, embraced the plentiful opportunities for innovation, and in the process, reshaped the urban landscape. It pioneered the shipping container malls that are now commonplace across hipster suburbs around the world, its Greening the Rubble initiative saw volunteers transforming newly-empty lots into parks and gardens, and it built a new cathedral — made almost entirely out of cardboard — to showcase what can be achieved in construction post-disaster: 10 years later, it’s still standing.
As a result, Christchurch today is a modern, vibrant city. From the architectural marvels that now grace its skyline to its flourishing arts scene and plentiful green spaces. Travelling to this city is no longer a sobering affair; now, it’s about uncovering a destination that’s turned tragedy into triumph.
Head to Riverside Market for some of the best eats in the city, then wander through the botanic gardens to immerse yourself in nature. Punting on the Avon River is a tourist must-do while Sumner Beach will have you hanging out with locals. Quake City is an important stop if you want to learn more about the earthquake, and the Christchurch Gondola will whisk you up to the best views in the city.
In other words, there’s so many things to do in Christchurch. Let’s start looking at them all in more depth.
Dine at the Riverside Market
Part farmers’ market, part vibrant food hall with a smattering of boutique shops, Christchurch’s Riverside Market has many layers. Open seven days a week, take your time peeling back all of them as you shop for artisanal cheese, mouthwatering pastries, sweet treats and craft drinks.
Once you’ve treated yourself to the fullest extent, walk as much of it off down the market’s laneways as you browse the homegrown offerings. Discover some of the coolest fashion in town between such places as Nevada Cashel and Mievel’s Store. After finishing up at the Beehive Collective, experience the most exciting part of the Riverside Market.
Above the marketplace is an enclave of unique bars serving anything from craft beer to boutique gin. Under the warm New Zealand sun, sit out on the balcony and enjoy the views of the Avon River. Stick around after nightfall to discover a lively hub where young and old mingle within a captivating and social atmosphere.
Visit Quake City
On the 22nd of February 2011, the city of Christchurch was rocked by the second Canterbury Earthquake. The city, from both a human and architectural perspective, would never be the same. Although still redeveloping much of the urban landscape, Christchurch has rebounded in a typically spirited fashion. With a lot of what you’ll love about the city having risen from the tragic events.
One such attraction that exemplifies the can-do positive attitude of the local population is Quake City. Few museums balance the somber events with an air of humor and grace as much as Quake City. The exhibits are masterfully curated, offering a series of multi-sensory displays that are both educational and uplifting.
Some highlights of Quake City include the enormous bell from the Roman Catholic Cathedral along with a thorough documentation of first responders and how they helped in the time of crisis.
Ride the Christchurch Gondola
A huge part of the reason travelers make the journey to New Zealand is because of its incredible landscapes, with the mountains in the Southern Island being a prominent example. The hills around Christchurch and along the rugged but scenic east coast provide exceptional views both of the city, the surrounding ranges and the ice-cold South Pacific Ocean.
A relaxing way to capture these memorable views is via the Christchurch Gondola. The gondola carries you for over 3200ft (1km) to the summit of Mount Cavendish. Sit in comfort as the views continue to get better the higher up you go. From the top, find a seat in the Red Rock Cafe for a nice hot beverage as you take it all in.
If you’re up for a hike, you’ll have a few options without serious elevation gain thanks to the gondola ride. A popular trek is the Bridle Path, which will guide you back down the hill to where the Christchurch Gondola departs. For a serious challenge, begin the hike down in the valley.
Stroll through the Botanical Garden
With ten stunning gardens covering over 50 acres, the historic Christchurch Botanical Garden is one of the most mesmerizing sights in town. Over 150 years ago, the gardens opened for the first time and not a day since has it lost its luster. Each garden represents a different climate, with plants hailing from the four corners of the globe.
The Botanical Garden is alongside the sprawling Hagley Park, which is within walking distance of downtown. Though we won’t blame you for taking a fun ride on Christchurch’s electric scooters. Because of its location, the garden avoided damage during the earthquake and remains in pristine condition.
One of the most popular gardens to be found here is the Rose Garden, with 250 different types on display. The buffet of colors provides a tranquil and aromatic experience as you wander through.
Kayak with dolphins in Akaroa
Around 90 minutes south of Christchurch, the seaside town of Akaroa is home to one of the rarest and smallest dolphins on earth. The Hector’s dolphin rarely venture far from their home harbor, creating consistent opportunities for guests to kayak alongside the majestic animals. If one takes a liking to you, who knows, you may walk away with a new best friend.
There are several dolphin tours that will take you out into the Akaroa Harbour, however this small group experience will leave you with more room to get to know the Hector dolphins who are renowned for their playful personalities. If you’re a confident kayaker, it also helps to distance yourself slightly from the group for more opportunities for one-on-one interaction.
With its southern location, you’ll also come across penguin and seal colonies along the way.
Go punting on the Avon River
If you’ve ever spent time in Venice, Italy (or even Venice, Las Vegas) you may have a fair idea of what punting is. In this instance, it has nothing to do with kicking a ball. Similar to a gondola ride, rather than “rowing” with the single oar, your pilot guides your flat-bottomed boat forward by pushing off from the riverbed.
In what has quickly become a popular sight in Christchurch, you’ll see several of these classic boats traveling along the Avon River. Each boat featuring a punting pilot befitted in an Edwardian-themed outfit. As one of the most romantic things to do in Christchurch, the boats tick off many of the best sites in town. As you travel along the Avon River, you’ll meander through the lush Hagley Park, by the Botanical Garden and the Town Hall as the willow trees hang off the river’s edge. On this punting experience, climb aboard your Edwardian boat and choose between the aforementioned sites, or the city center. Plus, afterwards enjoy an included trip up the Christchurch Gondola.
Have a picnic in Hagley Park
With a north and south section, Hagley Park is the biggest urban park in New Zealand covering an incredible 164,000 hectares, making it larger than the famous Hyde Park in London. Created in 1855, the public park is the ultimate nearby escape from the city bustle and the perfect example of why Christchurch is the Garden City,
The miles and miles of walking paths will guide you along the Avon River, past towering native trees with ample room to find your own peaceful paradise. Bring a cozy rug, a full picnic basket full of treats from the Riverside Market and have yourself a day under the lovely blue skies with plenty of shade to make use of.
In and around the park, you’ll find several top attractions, including the Botanical Garden, the Canterbury Museum and the New Zealand World Peace Bell.
Queenstown, the Adventure Capital of the World, may be a spectacular (and road trip worthy) 5-hour drive away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of the action while you’re in Christchurch. Like its famous sibling, Christchurch has a smattering of action-packed adventures on offer, from bungee-jumping to jet boating, but if you’ve ever wanted to jump out of a plane, then Christchurch is an amazing place to do just that.
Whether you’ve done it before or it’s your very first time, tandem-dive with your experienced instructor who will do his or her best to calm your nerves as you jump over the insane coastline with Christchurch the lone black dot in a sea of green and blue.
As you fall (pun intended) into a groove, you’ll fall in love with the incredible scenery that offers more and more clarity. Point out the surrounding mountains, smaller towns like Akaroa and Timaru before cruising back down with the help of your trusty parachute.
See the Brockworth Street Art Gallery
Christchurch has a burgeoning street art scene from massive murals worked onto the side of old buildings or something more dainty down a quiet alleyway. The scene boomed after the tragic earthquakes as a way to lift local spirits and also bring color and culture back to a shocked city.
You’ll discover much of the street art scene accidentally as you adventure around the city. But if you’re excited to see a fantastic selection of art in one place, then you can venture along to the Brockworth Street Art Gallery. In Riccarton, west of the city center and along Hagley Park, the gallery boasts a captivating selection of murals that best explain the city’s growing love and admiration for the scene.
Explore the International Antarctic Centre
Christchurch has long had an affiliation with the Antarctica through their own scientific endeavors. The city is also a waypoint for biologists, scientists and staff who are moving to the end of the earth to work at the various research stations. Now travelers can get a feel of what life is like in Antarctica at the family-friendly International Antarctic Centre.
Close to where cargo planes take off to the Antarctic, you can explore world’s end on the exciting Hagglund Field Trip which replicates the what it is like to drive through such rugged and icy landscapes. Later, venture to the Storm Dome, which is chilled to -8 celsius with a wind chill of -18 to show you what it’s like to experience a storm in Antarctica.
After feeling the bone-chilling cold, cozy up in the 4D movie theater, a wild viewing experience that will put you right in the action. Feel the world shaking around you and mist blowing in your face as you immerse yourself in the on-screen world.
Visit the Adrenalin Forest
The International Antarctic Centre is one of the best things to do in Christchurch on a rainy day. But if the sun is out, the entire family will love the Adrenalin Forest. The multilevel aerial course is northwest of Christchurch near the Brooklands Split and promises to be a rewarding challenge that will get the heart racing.
The forest comprises a range of activities that will force the entire crew to problem solve and work together to complete. These include the hire wire rope course, the exciting zip lines and the flying fox. Meet fear head on and overcome it across the six courses on offer. Start on one of the easiest courses to get your footing and progressively reach a higher level, gaining an inspiring sense of personal achievement. Maybe even some family bragging rights.
Explore the Canterbury Museum
Next to Hagley Park, the Canterbury Museum is a great attraction for history buffs or anyone who wants to get to know Christchurch and its surrounding regions on a deeper level. The Canterbury Museum opened in 1870 and features a wide range of exhibits that cover human and natural history, from prehistoric animals and local geography to the city’s connection with Antarctica and Christchurch’s foundational years.
One of the most popular exhibits is the Maori displays that explore the history of New Zealand’s first people through the likes of ancient treasure and tools that date back hundreds of years. You’ll also stumble upon the Christchurch Street exhibit which recreates the city as it was in the 19th century. If you’re interested in the natural world around the Canterbury region, then head to Fred and Myrtles Paua Shell House home to over 1000 gorgeous puau shells.
Finish off by learning about the museum’s extensive Antarctic collection, one of the biggest on earth. With all this and no entrance fee, the Canterbury Museum is one of the best free things to do in Christchurch.
Take a trip to Quail Island
With all the popular local attractions In Christchurch, there are a few that fall by the wayside. As everyone ventures to museums, gardens and explores the markets, the beautiful Quail Island remains an underrated destination. Only a short ferry journey lies between Christchurch and exploring the relatively remote island, known also as Otamahua.
Steeped in Maori and European history, the island actually lies in a flooded crater on an extinct volcano in the Lyttelton Harbour. For years, Otamahua had two quarries that were used to create ballasts for ships returning to the northern hemisphere or for the development of Christchurch and the nearby towns.
But with successful ecological restoration, the island is returning to its former glory. The island offers casual but beautiful walking trails where you can find a variety of native bird life, penguins, along with lizards and geckos who make an appearance to bake under the summer sun.
Hike to Godley Head
Speaking of beautiful hikes, one of the top treks near Christchurch begins at one of the most popular beaches in town. Taylor’s Mistake Beach is the perfect destination for beachgoers looking to take in some sun or enjoy the brisk Pacific Ocean. From the sandy shores, you’ll find the trailhead for Godley Point from which you’ll be able to embark upon a spectacular hike.
The 4.3 mile (7km) hike traverses the stunning coastline offering panoramic views throughout. The coast, which soars out of the ocean with a purpose, once served as a defense during the Second World War. There are some reminders of this thanks to several military buildings placed along the cliff-side. When you aren’t taking breaks to learn about the region’s wartime history, you may spot the odd dolphin jumping gracefully above the surface or the penguin colony tightly packed in front of the crashing waves.
From Godley Head, the views reach their zenith as you admire the endless ocean with nothing between you and the southern regions of Chile.
Visit the many local markets
In the days, weeks and months after the Canterbury Earthquakes markets boomed as farmers pivoted away from damaged and closed grocery stores. They also represented a way for the community to come together, to share and regroup. Many markets around Christchurch have since become mainstays in local life, providing everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to ornate gifts and clothing.
One of the top markets in the city is the Christchurch Farmers Market held every Saturday from 9am to 1pm. Held in the historic Riccarton House & Bush, the market is home to over 60 stalls which sell delicious goods under the century-old trees, with the Avon River trickling by.
Other popular markets include the Friday Street Food Market, where friends gather and try eats from around the world. There is also the Riccarton Sunday Market complete with food, secondhand ware and plenty of live music.
Take in the Ko Tane Maori Experience
Over 700 years ago, the Maori arrived on New Zealand’s shores, beginning what is the shortest human history of any country around the world. An incredible culture that can be appreciated all around New Zealand, one way to learn about Maori history and life is through the Ko Tane Maori Experience.
Taking you through a replica Maori village, you’ll embark on a series of interactive activities as you learn all about the tools used by the Maoris, the games they played, and their living quarters. I may be biased, but the best part is the chance to see the traditional techniques for cooking, which often involves the use of a hangi. A hangi is a pit oven where food is placed on heated rocks and left for three to four hours.
Before tackling the delicious 4-course meal, made with traditional methods, you’ll be captivated by the 45-minute performance featuring dancing, singing and even some Maori weaponry.
Go on a winery tour
The Marlborough Region at the top of the South Island is renowned for its world-class wineries. But in North Canterbury, just one hour away from downtown Christchurch are over 90 vineyards that offer exceptional pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay on the Waipara Wine Trail.
However you choose to arrive in North Canterbury, you’ll first be blessed by the scenic 60-minute drive through the countryside with the snow-capped mountains ever present in the distance.
Take the kids to Margaret Mahy Playground
Starting from the Riverside Market, take a scenic walk along the Avon River through the edges of downtown. Along the way, you’ll pass the historic Bridge of Remembrance, dedicated to those who died in the World Wars. The monument is a towering arch that looms over the bustling Cashel Street. From there, you’ll wander past the Christchurch Art Gallery before the water courses through Victoria Park on its way to the Margaret Mahy Playground.
The playground opened in 2015 and was an instant hit with kids and the young at heart. It’s the largest playground in the southern hemisphere. Free, inclusive and for all ages, bring the entire family here for a boisterous day out on the swings, slides and obstacle courses that will spark your child’s imagination and curiosity.
Perhaps the best part of Margaret Mahy Playground is the huge flying fox. From an elevated platform, fly across one end of the park for an exhilarating experience. Later, fire up the free BBQs for a family lunch.
Wander the Christchurch Art Gallery
The Brockworth Street Art Gallery may have the murals and edgy personality, but the Christchurch Art Gallery is home to the most significant collection of art in the city. As a replacement for the city’s Robert McDougall Art Gallery, the new and improved space opened in 2003. After the events of the Canterbury Earthquakes, the Christchurch Art Gallery was transformed into a base for civic defense. Damage the to building also caused it to remain closed for four years until 2015.
Now, with substantial refurbishments, the gallery is better than ever, housing a combination of national and renowned international exhibitions throughout the year. Discover some of the best local artists and national favorites alongside works that have traveled the length of the globe.
Get Your Lord of the Rings On
Beyond the stunning landscapes and Maori culture, a major drawcard for New Zealand is the fame that’s risen out of the iconic Lord of the Rings films. Travelers have the chance to explore Middle Earth all over New Zealand. Mount Doom is on the North Island in the Tongariro National Park. The Hobbiton Woods are right outside of Wellington, and Queenstown was home to several film sites from the Ford of Bruinen to Lothlorien.
But you don’t have to venture far from Christchurch to find yourself in Middle Earth. Just out of the city in the Canterbury Region, you can hike to Mount Sunday, the set for Edoras, explore the Gardens of Isengard and visit Helms Deep.
Shop ‘til you drop on Cashel Street
Cutting through the center of downtown Christchurch, Cashel Street is the main shopping hub in the southern city. Along the street, you’ll find rows of boutique shops tempting you to walk in and have a cheeky browse. Visitors will also find several large malls featuring homegrown brands and international stores.
The pedestrian-friendly Cashel Street is a breeze to get around, inviting residents and travelers in great numbers to enjoy the many stores on offer. In what often feels like a quiet city, the commercial hub offers a real sense of atmosphere that makes it an exciting place to be. After your legs give out and you need a break, the Riverside Market is just a hop, skip and a jump away. But if you have more in you, then wander down to photogenic New Regent Street.
Catch a show at the Court Theatre
Just outside of downtown in the suburb of Addington, the Court Theatre has long been the go-to place for live entertainment. Performances at the Court Theatre range from kids concerts and adult comedy to classical music and traveling Broadway shows.
The theatre has moved to a former warehouse space offering more seating and better views of the performances. Importantly, the acoustics are on point, making it easy to hear the action from way up in the nosebleeds.
After enjoying some low-key nighttime fun, the area surrounding the Court Theatre is surrounded by several offbeat bars for a post-show drink.
Eat it all at Little High Eatery
A rival to the Riverside Market as the best food hub in town, the Little High Eatery is a selection of trendy bars, cafes and restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world. A combination of indoor and outdoor space, the “food court” is a lively venue that is great for couples to hang out and friends to gather.
What allows the Little High Eatery to stand out among the crowd is its eight diverse food options. While each is different, they’re all owned and run by different families, adding an air of authenticity and one of a kind flavor to each meal served. The Little High eatery remains open until 10pm, Sunday to Thursday, and stays open an hour later on the weekend, so it’s a great way to celebrate your time in Christchurch.
When You’re Leaving: Enjoy a scenic railroad experience
Departing from Christchurch are two enchanting overland train journeys that will grant access to some of the most amazing scenery on New Zealand’s South Island. The first one is the TranzAlpine Rail Journey that connects the east coast city to Greymouth, a foggy but beautiful town on the west coast.
The five-hour train journey will take you across the Canterbury Plains on your way to the spectacular Southern Alps. As the mountains grow taller, you’ll feel dwarfed by the glacial landscapes, home to Aoraki (Mt Cook) the most iconic mountain in New Zealand. On the other side is the rugged west coast from which you can explore Fox Glacier and the stunning Lake Brunner.
The other rail option runs between Christchurch and the north coast town of Picton. Traversing along the water, have gorgeous ocean views along the Coastal Pacific Scenic Railway. Watch the endless waves crash along the crumbling shoreline as you enter the Marlborough Region, where you’ll find an excellent concentration of local wineries.