Home to hundreds of sprawling parks and the long lazy stretch of the Avon river, Christchurch is rightly known as The Garden City. But these days it’s the sense of reinvention at the heart of the south island’s most populous city that makes it one of New Zealand’s most dynamic places to visit.
When a series of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 forced the city to reimagine and rebuild itself, the strong cultural traditions of Christchurch brought a sense of youthful courage and edgy creativity to the city centre. Now historic buildings sit alongside street art trails, you can dance at an outdoor disco in the morning and drift on a gondola in the afternoon.
Around every corner you’ll find a city ready to showcase a vibrant art, food and outdoor culture that embraces visitors of all ages and from all walks of life.
The Gateway to the South
Driving New Zealand top to bottom showcases some of New Zealand’s incredibly diverse terrain. Through cities and countryside, you can pass mountain ranges in the morning and be at the beach by the afternoon. Auckland to Wellington is 640km, around an 8 hour drive. The 3 and a half hour ferry ride across the straight to Picton is a picturesque journey in itself, with dolphins often following the ship through the clear water. Then it’s a shorter 340km leisurely drive to Christchurch, around 4 hours by car.
Limited rail links run across the country. From Picton, you can catch the Coastal Pacific line to Christchurch. Then grab a _Mode rental to explore the rest of the less-accessible south.
Buses run from some major cities to and from Christchurch but routes to smaller cities are less frequent and to get to some of the hidden spots on the outskirts of town, you’ll need a private vehicle.
Arriving by air is a popular and easy option. There are regular services to more than 16 airports throughout New Zealand and more than 130 international flights departing from Christchurch airport each week. _Mode rentals are available from the airport to start the rest of your adventure.
It’s a short drive from the airport to the city centre, taking about 20 minutes. But before you get there, the International Antarctic Centre, right next to the airport, invites visitors into an incredible world of ice and mystery, ambition and endeavour.
If Christchurch or the Antarctic Centre are your final destination, do note you cannot sleep at the airport. There are however numerous hotels close by and there is a free shuttle service to many that are less than a 5 minute drive or short walk from the airport.
Christchurch activities for free
Historic architecture: As restoration continues, much of the famous Arts Centre of Christchurch still buzzes with activity. It’s worth a look for the largest collection of category 1 heritage listed buildings in New Zealand.
Contemporary Art: There is a proud tradition of supporting the arts in Christchurch. Some of New Zealand’s best contemporary artists are on show at world class gallery CoCa, open Tuesday to Sunday.
Street Art: For a glimpse of more edgy work, stimulate the senses on a street art walk. Many of the first buildings that were rebuilt after the earthquakes are covered in brilliant murals. As rebuilding continues, all manner of colourful creatures continue to appear. Walk the trail at your own pace or on a guided 2 hour tour.
Antiques: There is plenty of colourful window shopping across the centre too. But on Ferry road, antiques take centre stage with around half a dozen shops in a row. One of the best is Chaos, with an array of retro to colonial pieces. And if you want to venture into real shopping, you can come away with something quite unique and special for hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.
Botanic Gardens: A more organic option to seek out colour, the 21ha botanic gardens allow you to immerse yourself in the peace and splendour of curated colour.
Cardboard Cathedral: For even more peace and quiet, the Temporary Cathedral provides a temporary home for worship from 9am-5pm and is the world’s only cathedral made of cardboard.
Memorial: To understand more how the earthquakes shaped Christchurch, the Oi Manawa memorial hosts 185 white chairs to remember those who lost their lives, and you’re encouraged to dip your hands in the water and touch a giant piece of precious ponamu (local greenstone) set in the white marble wall.
There’s more just outside the city centre too:
Port Hills: The hills surrounding Christchurch boast an impressive number of walking and cycling tracks for a variety of abilities. From Bolder Bay to Goldley Heads, you can see across the peninsular, across tussock, then down to pools of deep water swirling with bull kelp.
Sumner: A vibrant seaside town with a surf vibe, bespoke cinema and safe beaches around 25 minutes from the city centre. An easy activity is walking the short, accessible promenade (about 25 minutes). And the playground by the beach is a wonderful place for children to play while enjoying the great icecreams on offer.
Lyttleton (Pictured): The unofficial artist’s quarter, an easy 20 minute drive from the centre. Previously a port town it was essentially a collection of 10 pubs catering for the nautical trade. Now the big pubs are gone and artists and musicians like Marlon Williams, choose to call it home. It’s a wonderful place to eat, shop and if you’re looking to soak up the sun, a quick ferry across to Diamond Harbour (named after the way the sun glints across the water) is the perfect place for a picnic.
Little River: Like Lyttleton, is on the edge of the Banks Peninsular by Lake Forsyth, and is another wonderful stop with a well-established arts community and unique handmade goods. A 30 minute drive, you can also cycle there along the old railway line and be collected at the end, so make sure to book a bike rack with your rental as you travel.
Christchurch at night
There are a myriad of bars and restaurants across the city. And in the summer months, the arts scene explodes with The World Buskers Festival taking over large areas of the city with a world class program of entertainment for old and young.
Other great eating options with good atmosphere and a little edge are places like Alfred, Amazonita and Evil Genius.
When the centre was shut down for an extended number of years, the suburbs developed their own centralised vibe and hubs popped up boasting everything from restaurants, second hand shops, yoga studios, and breweries to small boutique retail offerings.
The Tannery in Woolston is one of the larger offerings.
The Welder in Welles street is a smaller offering but currently boasts a great Sake bar.
Christchurch with (and without) kids
With so many outdoor areas to explore, the city is a great place to travel for younger visitors, and those young at heart.
Outdoor adventure: The Christchurch Adventure Park is a large scale centre you can easily spend an whole day at. It hosts everything from trampoline parks to zip lines and mountain biking trails. Set in the Port Hills it’s a quick drive from the centre or airport.
Rope Courses: For older families (entrants must be over 1.4m) Adrenaline forest is an action packed course of outdoor high ropes designed to challenge strength agility and fortitude!
Museums: There are a wonderful selection of museums in Christchurch. From the Canterbury museum with lots of free activities for kids, to Quake city charting the city’s experiences in 2010 and 2011, to the Airforce Museum of New Zealand with full sized aircraft and a flight simulator.
Wildlife experiences: For hands on time with animals, Orana Wildlife Park boasts New Zealand’s only free range wildlife reserve where you can get up close and personal with many of the 80ha centre’s animals including gorillas, giraffes and rhino. Or for a slightly lower key experience, you can ride a donkey, feed a lemur or be a junior keeper for a day at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.
There are plenty of less high-octane attractions too.
Tūranga: The new Christchurch library is far from the staid, sombre libraries of the past. Looking out over the broken cathedral, it takes the reimagining of the city to heart, and you can just as easily find a group of musicians, a 3D printing workshop or a video gaming program as a wonderful collection of books.
Playgrounds: In an ode to a great local creator of books, Christchurch opened the Margaret Mahy playground in 2015 and it’s the biggest, brightest, boldest playground in the city.
Outdoor dancing: For something entirely different, you can have your own private disco with Dance-o-mat, a coin operated dance space.
Outdoor Video games: Or even a giant game of outdoor space invaders on High Street.
Kid friendly cafes: And if you’re looking for kid-friendly sustenance, C1 offers incredible coffee while the kids watch your plate of hand-made sliders race around the roof and arrive at your table via a network of pneumatic tubes. Or try one of the many other great options tried and tested by local families.
Close to Christchurch – things to do nearby
While the city centre contains a wealth of attractions, the incredible natural surrounds of the greater Christchurch region provide a whole different scale of activities. Many locations are only accessible by private vehicle, and if you’re looking to get right off the beaten track, you can only camp in certified self-contained campers.
Banks Peninsula Bays: An area rich in wildlife and epic scenery, twin volcanoes formed the harbours of this area. They were immediately attractive to local iwi and then later to settlers from Britain and France. There are a wealth of walking options, and the multiple day walks are some of the most popular in the area. Private vehicle is the best way to explore this area, with picturesque stops like Le Bons and Hickory Bay inaccessible otherwise as you head towards Akaroa. Camping is only available in certain areas with a self-contained camper.
Akaroa (Pictured): Is New Zealand’s first and only French settlement and despite the local attractions being uniquely kiwi, there is much that feels utterly French in the area including the street names! There’s even a three day French Festival and strong affection for local cheeses. Try Barry’s Bay cheese on your way. But it’s the great outdoors that’s the real drawcard, with visitors able to see and sometimes swim with Hector’s Dolphins, the smallest dolphin in the world. For something entirely different, try the stand-up-paddle boarding tours in the dark.
Waipara Valley Vineyards: The gorgeous vistas of the Waipara valley are a reason to visit this region in itself, but for wine lovers, this cluster of vineyards is paradise. Just under an hour from Christchurch, this area is best known for its rich, deep pinot noir and Riesling, but look out for other varietals making a splash on the world scene. There are 31 wineries, 4 winery restaurants and 10 cellar doors that rival the best of what Hawkes Bay and Europe have to offer. One of the first to create a full visitor experience is Pegasus bay vineyard. If you make it there make sure to try Aria if you can, a Riesling so opulent you almost need a knife and fork to drink it.
Kaikoura and Whale Watching: If you’ve picked up a rental to drive to or from Christchurch, Kaikoura makes a great stop around half way from Picton. The albatross capital of the world, it’s also a mecca for lovers of all ocean life. Sperm whales, dusky dolphins and seals are usually on display in the waters all year round, with a range of companies set up to get you the best viewing experience possible. And if you’re there at the right time of year, orca, humpback whales and blue whales often put on a show.
If you’d rather stay on land, there are spectacular mountain bike trails, horse treks and even guided quad bike tours to see the harbour from a different angle.
Christchurch’s alpine surrounds
Christchurch and its surrounds have the incredible advantage of being flanked by the ocean on one side and a spectacular range of mountains on the other. During the winter months, the area gets a good dusting of snow in many quarters, not just the snowfields. Remember, if you’re heading up towards the mountains, make sure you book snow chains with your rental vehicle.
Hamner Springs (Pictured): For a longer day trip, Hamner has relaxation and adventure for all ages. Just under a two-hour drive from Christchurch, the thermal springs are legendary and arriving via the Lewis pass provides jaw dropping vistas for selfies and updating your Instagram feed. After a day’s skiing, many of the springs tucked under the craggy mountain ranges promise the spectacle of snowflakes falling on your shoulders while soaking in the heat. But it’s also a great place to enjoy in the summer months with white water rafting and waterslides.
Arthur’s Pass: This National Park owes its fame to its incredible vistas. The village has a myriad of accommodation options and is the starting point for its many walks. From easy strolls like the Millennium walk, the longer Devils Punchbowl and Otira Viaduct lookout to expert only tracks on the Avalanche Peak route. And if you prefer two wheels, the Poulter Valley track is a must for seasoned mountain bikers.
Skiing near Christchurch
The search for great powder is never-ending for some, and the fields around Christchurch don’t disappoint. Again, if you’re heading to the snow fields, snow chains are essential so, make sure you book them with your rental vehicle.
Main slopes: At just an hour from Christchurch, Mount Hut is the closest and therefore most popular. But it is a favourite for many reasons. The area has some of the best snow in Australasia, boasts an award-winning ski and snowboard school, excellent chairlifts and magical heli-skiing opportunities for the more adventurous.
Smaller groomed slopes: Mount Lyford has slopes for beginners to advanced, while Porters Heights is more advanced. Both have lodges available for accommodation and a good range of facilities but are less packed than the more commercial Mount Hutt operations.
Backcountry skiing: If you’re a serious skier, there are a clutch of club fields like Temple Basin, Craigieburn, Broken River and Mount Cheeseman that offer unique backcountry experiences for more advanced riders. Don’t expect European facilities in the often-basic accommodation, and the fields are ungroomed, so if you’re unconfident in powder they might not be for you. But for those looking for an authentic adventure, these are some of the most picturesque slopes around.
The costs of traveling in Christchurch
Christchurch and Canterbury are high value destinations, but whether you’re travelling on a tight budget and making a camper van your only source of accommodation, or splashing out in some of New Zealand’s most luxury lodges, there are options for everyone. According to independent sources, the average hotel room in Christchurch costs between $75-130 per night, and dinner for two costs an average of $65.
If you’re looking to supplement your travel budget, Christchurch is a great base from which to find seasonal work. Canterbury is home to various sectors requiring seasonal work, including vineyards, farming and hospitality. Hot spots for finding employment include Waipara, Hanmer Springs, Kaikoura and the Mackenzie region.
If you’re from overseas, do remember that you’ll require a working visa rather than a tourist visa if you intend to work at any stage during your visit.
Safety in Christchurch
In March 2019, a significant attack occurred in Christchurch, conducted by a foreign national targeting the Christchurch Muslim community. While visitors should always check up-to-date travel safety information themselves, it’s worth noting that at December 2019, there are no travel advisory warnings for any part of New Zealand. Further, Loren Heaphy, ChristchurchNZ General Manager of Destination and Attraction, notes:
After dark - Christchurch is widely regarded as a safe place to visit at all times of the year. In 2019, Big 7 travel named Christchurch one of the friendliest cities in the world.
Post-quake: The earthquakes that changed the face of the city occurred almost 10 years ago, and any associated dangers with these natural phenomena are now considered minimal. The city’s rebuilt infrastructure is some of the safest in the country.
Post-March 15: March 15 was a tragic occurrence that rocked the peaceful country of New Zealand, and the inclusive community of Christchurch. The response from all sectors of society was indicative of our collective rejection of such acts. Residents of all religions and backgrounds feel at home in our city and have been brought closer together as a result.
Written by Michele Powles