It’s still one of New Zealand’s biggest cities and features the South Island’s busiest airport, but many travellers have skipped Christchurch in recent years, expecting to find only ruin after numerous, large earthquakes. This busy, one day (or leisurely two day) itinerary below is designed to help you discover just what they’re missing.
Assuming you arrive late in the afternoon, check into your hotel and pick up a city map that highlights the city’s transitional art projects alongside its traditional attractions. While things are still not “business as usual”, a good range of accommodation options have returned, including the Rendezvous Hotel, ideally located alongside Cathedral Junction, where, if it’s still light, you can catch a sightseeing tram for an overview of this reawakening city. If you’re staying at the Rendezvous or nearby, the colourful terraces of New Regent Street have been fully restored and offer wonderful options for dinner or breakfast. The street also harbours several small bars offering New Zealand wines and delicious craft beers.
Map in hand, pay a sombre visit to the ruined Christchurch Cathedral site. The fate of this beautiful building remains in the balance, and small display tells of the fight to save and restore it. Continue west to the Canterbury Museum. Largely unaffected by the quakes, this extensive and free (donations are appreciated) museum includes galleries devoted to local history, Antarctic exploration, Maori culture, natural history, an exquisite period collection, plus a fun recreation of Christchurch life during early white settlement. You can also have a laugh at the Paua Shell House, a recreation of Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s famous living room, which proudly displays Fred’s collection of Paua shells, alongside other icons of Kiwi kitsch. The silvery green-blue shells are undeniably beautiful, and you’ll find them used in jewellery and souvenirs across New Zealand.
Right behind the Museum, spend an hour or several roaming the Christchurch Botanic Gardens and Hadley Park. There are daily tours, lush greenhouses, and gardens showcasing native New Zealand environments. The Gardens’ Rose Garden feels like something pulled from a grand old English country house. Christchurch is often described as New Zealand’s most English city, but nothing in town is more English than punting on the Avon. Drop by the Antigua Boat Shed and let one of the city’s punters take you on a leafy, half-hour boat tour under the willow trees.
It’s almost enough to make you forget the city’s seismic woes. Still, a visit to Re:START Mall is a must. This innovative outdoor mall combines open air markets and food vendors, plus traditional fashion, book, and other retail stores that have taken up temporary residence in shipping containers. The result is one of the most leisurely and enjoyable pedestrian malls you can explore. Shop for souvenirs, drop by the information kiosk to see the city’s long-term recovery plan, and on a hot day, relax in an oversized grass armchair with some freshly made kiwi ice cream. The mall also houses Quake City, a museum dedicated solely to telling the story of the quakes through local eyes. It’s a confronting and inspiring testament to the community spirit rebuilding Christchurch. End your mall visit by popping into Ballantynes department store, a local retail icon and quake survivor.
If you have extra time, take a walking tour of the city’s temporary art installations. You’ll see quite a few on the above itinerary, but they’re constantly changing, so you never know what you’ll discover! Really try to include the temporary Cardboard Cathedral, facing Latimer Square, and just behind it, 185 Empty White Chairs – a moving memorial to the quake victims.
Battered, but far from beaten, Christchurch starts your South Island New Zealand vacation with culture, gardens, art, history, and optimism. While its name today may be steeped in tragedy, it remains an enchanting city, and one of New Zealand’s great cultural hubs.
Chris was a guest of the Rendezvous Hotel, Christchurch.