Top 10 things to do in Christchurch
The largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, Christchurch is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the east and the majestic Canterbury Plains to the west. Its distinctive English heritage and a vital role in early Antarctic exploration, ensure there is plenty of historic and cultural appeal for the visitor. But there is also much to discover here, from arts and cuisine to a notable coffee scene. In recent years the city was badly damaged by a series of earthquakes, and the subsequent regeneration efforts offer a powerful insight to the ingenuity and fortitude of Christchurch and its inhabitants. If you’re visiting Christchurch soon, then here’s 10 unmissable things to do in New Zealand’s ‘Garden City’.
Explore the city’s culture and heritage
Where: Across the city.
What: Wander around a vast array of iconic fighters, transport aircraft and gliders that have seen combat around the world, while learning about New Zealand’s storied military aviation history at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand. You can sit in the gun turret of a WWII bomber, take a Mosquito Mission flight simulator, and pose in a pilot’s uniform for a unique photo opportunity. Closer to the city centre on the edge of North Hagley Park, the Quake City exhibition at Canterbury Museum celebrates the heroism of the emergency responders and civilian responders who worked around the clock to save lives following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Also charting the causes of the earthquakes, it features exhibits including the damaged spire of Christchurch Cathedral and the railway clocks which stopped at 12.51pm on the day of the 2011 quake.
Highlights: Besides Quake City, at Canterbury Museum you can also learn about the history of Antarctic exploration - Lyttelton Harbour in Christchurch has served as a vital gateway to the frozen continent for many important expeditions including those led by Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott. Discover the lives of early European settlers, see a reconstruction of a Maori village, spot rare and extinct species such as huia, kiwi and kea in the fascinating Bird Hall, and explore other interesting curios like the wonderfully kitsch Paua Shell House.
Step back in time at Riccarton House and Bush
Where: 16 Kahu Road, Riccarton.
What: In the mid-19th century two pioneering Scottish brothers, William and John Deans, arrived in Canterbury. Deans Cottage, a rustic timber structure which is now the oldest building on the Canterbury Plains, was their home while constructing a grand farmhouse nearby. Tragically both men died early and never set foot inside the finished Riccarton House, but John’s wife, Jane, and his son later moved in. A grand Victorian / Edwardian homestead built in three stages over the late 19th century, Riccarton House has been beautifully restored with authentic period decor and furnishings, and a guided tour of the property is a real eye-opener into what life was like during colonial times.
Highlights: Riccarton Bush, just a short walk from the main house, is the last remaining section of kahikatea floodplain forest in this area. Some of the amazingly tall trees here are up to 600 years old. Guided eco walks through this tranquil scenery are led by rangers who can explain the ancient forest’s significance and how it is preserved.
Take a punt on the Avon River
Where: City centre.
What: The Avon River, or to give it its Maori name, Otakaro, begins in the suburb of Avonhead before meandering its way out into the Pacific Ocean. It was given its European name by John Deans, owner of the Riccarton House, in tribute to the river that flowed near his ancestral home in Ayrshire, Scotland. Punting along the river is probably the most relaxing and refined form of sightseeing in Christchurch and best of all requires zero effort on your part. You’ll be smoothly transported along the water by a professional punter dressed in typical Edwardian attire past sights including the Antigua boat sheds, the botanic gardens or, depending on the route you choose, the Mona Vale estate, a classic English-style garden. During the winter months blankets and even hot water bottles can be provided to help you stay warm.
Highlights: Renowned British sculptor Antony Gormley fell deeply for Christchurch when he visited the city in 2007, and following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 he contributed two cast iron sculptures to help with the healing process. Keep an eye out for the standing figure that has been positioned in the river, just upstream from the Gloucester Street Bridge.
Discover a vibrant creative scene in Christchurch
Where: Across the city.
What: Christchurch has a wonderfully diverse artistic community with a flurry of galleries, arts ‘n’ crafts markets, performance venues and festivals. The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu holds a superb collection of artworks, with permanent and temporary exhibitions that you could easily spend a day exploring. Riccarton Market, held on Sunday mornings, is the largest outdoor market on the South Island with over 300 stalls selling everything from artisan local produce to second-hand clothing, antiques and fresh flowers. The Little River Gallery out on Highway 75 showcases the work of rising local talents across mediums including painting, print, sculpture and jewellery. This is a great place to discover and support Canterbury artists as well as to find some unique gifts.
Highlights: The annual World Buskers Festival is one of Christchurch’s best-loved events. You can expect to encounter jazz musicians, comedians, dance troupes, magicians and plenty of bizarre oddities around the city streets over 10 days in mid-January. Then, just when you thought you were out, Christchurch pulls you back in. As soon as the World Buskers Festival comes to a finish, the Great Kiwi Beer Festival gets underway. You’ll be able to sample hundreds of tasty craft beers sourced from around the country. The microbrewing revolution has taken the world by storm and New Zealand is certainly no exception.
Have a blooming good time at the Botanic Gardens
Where: Rolleston Avenue.
What: Christchurch is known as New Zealand’s ‘Garden City’ and the Botanic Gardens, founded in 1863 with the planting of an English Oak, is the green oasis at its heart. Spanning 21 hectares alongside the Avon River, the complex is divided into several zones including a herb garden, a handsome Victorian conservatory, and a water garden. You can see a wide range of indigenous plants and trees as well as species from around the world. Perhaps most impressive is the Central Rose Garden which has over 250 varieties and is almost overpoweringly beautiful in the summer months.
Highlights: The best way to explore the gardens is with the Caterpillar Botanic Gardens tour, an hour-long journey by comfortable electric vehicle. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides will inform you about everything from growing medicinal herbs to the survival tactics of hardy sub-Antarctic daisies, and even which trees are best for making bows and arrows!
Take a walk on the wild side
Where: Across the city.
What: Willowbank Wildlife Reserve is a great family attraction in Christchurch. Here you can meet tame fallow deer that will eat from your hand, orphaned wallabies, lemurs, cute capuchin monkeys and native New Zealand species including cheeky kea parrots and tuatara, often called ‘living dinosaurs’. Meanwhile, the Orana Wildlife Park on the city outskirts has many larger animals such as gorilla, giraffe, lion and white rhino in New Zealand’s only open-range zoo.
Highlights: At the International Antarctic Centre, located close to the airport, besides experiencing the winds of an indoor Polar storm and learning about scientific expeditions over the years, you can cuddle up with huskies and meet the charming Little Blue Penguins in a Banks Peninsula-themed environment.
Tour the city by bicycle, bus or on foot
Where: Across the city.
What: Guided bicycle sightseeing tours in Christchurch are a fantastic way to take in the city’s many landmarks while also getting plenty of exercise. A wide choice of itineraries is available from different operators, so you might for instance be touring the CBD to see the changing faces of Christchurch as it rebuilds after the earthquakes, going past the Cardboard Cathedral, New Regent Street and the Shipping Container Mall. A popular alternative theme is a foodie cycling tour where you’ll be stopping off at some of the city’s finest culinary hotspots such as microbreweries, coffee roasters or eco-friendly restaurants to sample their fare. Christchurch bus tours are another excellent way to get around the city, offering convenient and comfortable sightseeing with the advantage that they are suitable for any weather.
Highlights: There is an extensive vintage tram network around the city centre too, making for a very stylish form of travel. If you really want to get a great view of the city and the surrounding area, you can take the gondola up to the summit of Port Hills, from where you can see Lyttelton Harbour, the Canterbury Plains and the Southern Alps.
Soak up the scenery on the coast
Where: East of the city.
What: Situated around halfway down the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Christchurch is a perfect place to spend a day at the beach. Whether you’re interested in a family-friendly picnic on golden sands next to calm shallow water, or exhilarating watersports such as surfing and stand-up paddleboarding, there are no end of scenic spots located just a short distance from the city centre either by car or public transport. Within half an hour you can be walking along the pier at New Brighton beach, treating your sweet tooth at an ice cream parlour in Sumner, or just dozing gently in the sunshine at gorgeous Corsair Bay.
Highlights: Said to have earned its name from a sea captain who accidentally ran aground in the 19th century, Taylors Mistake sits at the northern end of the Akaroa Banks Peninsula. Lined with historic bachs - New Zealand coastal holiday homes - the bay is a local favourite for swimming and surfing. Keep your eyes open on a clear day because seal, dolphin and even occasionally whale can be observed out to sea.
Indulge your appetite with delicious local cuisine
Where: Across the city.
What: Feeling peckish? Christchurch enjoys a dynamic culinary scene that would put many a larger city to shame. This is in part due to the reconstruction efforts that have spurred entrepreneurs to experiment with new types of venue, but also because despite its small size, New Zealand is covered in fertile, volcanic soils that provide a bounty of fresh produce throughout the year. Then there’s the fact that because Christchurch is such a popular visitor destination, it offers a superb proving ground for talented local chefs. From gourmet dining to delectable Asian street food, farmer’s markets to food festivals, world-class wines to a thriving coffee culture, Christchurch is sure to give you a healthy appetite.
Highlights: A good rule of thumb when travelling is always to try and eat where the locals eat, and in Christchurch it’s not hard to get a reliable recommendation. Two of the city’s hottest restaurants right now are King of Snake, serving up a sizzlingly modern take on Asian cuisine, and Fiddlesticks, which offers delicious seasonal ingredients and a warm, inviting ambience in the heart of the trendy Arts Precinct.
Test your nerve with white-knuckle adrenaline experiences
Where: Across the city.
What: New Zealand is the home of jaw-dropping adrenaline experiences. This, after all, is where commercial bungy jumping was born, where a local farmer’s ingenuity led to the extreme sport of jetboating, and where the weird but wonderful concept of zorbing first took off. Christchurch has a reputation as being one of the country’s more sedate and refined destinations, but if you’re seeking adventure, you won’t have to look for very long. Skydiving, snowboarding, mountain biking and helicopter flights are just a smattering of the action-packed pursuits available here.
Highlights: Adrenalin Forest in nearby Spencerville, around a 20-minute drive south of Christchurch, is the definition of high-concept excitement. Tackling a series of thrilling obstacle courses set up to 20 metres in the tree canopy, you’ll be crossing rope bridges, leaping into nets and swooping along Flying Foxes under the watchful eyes of the professional team. Just try not to look down.
Uncover the sights of Christchurch with these recommended tours & stays
Heritage Christchurch Hotel
The George Hotel
Eliza's Manor Boutique Hotel
South Island Coast to Coast Self-Drive (12 nights)
The Spectacular South Escorted Tour (8 nights)
Southern Splendour Independent Coach Tour (9 nights)