The adventure-strewn surrounds of Queenstown might get most of the South Island glory but Christchurch, on New Zealand’s south-eastern coast, is actually the largest city on Te Waipounamu (the isle’s Maori name). Large may be a relative term – the population of permanent residents in The Garden City hovers around 400,000– but the low-key, English-esque destination manages to squeeze a lot within its CBD and surrounding countryside.
To fully appreciate the classic architecture as well as the street-art decorating newer buildings, explore the compact CBD on foot. Christchurch has undergone a remarkable period of rebuilding since the devastating earthquake levelled much of the city.
Traversing town on two feet also allows you to follow the snaking Avon River toward Hagley Park, replete with sport fields, vast lawns, quaint flowerbeds, and the gardens that hug the city’s western edge. Further afield, the wider Canterbury region is easily explored with Christchurch as home-base: nearby are scores of wineries, rugged hiking trails, pristine national parks and steaming hot springs to warm you up on a crisp winter’s day. Here, we’ve picked our favourite things to do.
Punt down the river
This most English of pastimes is a must in Christchurch; it’s the best way to appreciate the tranquillity of the Avon River that cuts through the city. Board at Cambridge Terrace, at a gentle curve on the waterway, and you’ll either glide past the willows into the fairy-tale surrounds of the botanic gardens or be propelled towards the centre of town, passing some of the iconic sights at water level. If you prefer to cut your own path past the ducks, canoes are available for hire from the boatshed – but when your punter will supply you with a blanket and hot water bottles on chilly days, why not simply sit back and watch the world go by?
Stroll beneath the branches
The Garden City all started with a single English oak tree, planted in 1863 in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. These days, the sweet-smelling grounds are home to hundreds of native species – including the delicate silver fern so often associated with New Zealand – as well as roses, succulents, a garden dedicated solely to magnolias and azaleas and the charmingly named, two-hectare Daffodil Woodland. Pack a picnic, find a spot in the sun and do nothing but revel in the serenity.
Understand recent history
For better or worse, you can’t separate Christchurch from earthquakes. Quake City, a permanent exhibition at the Canterbury Museum, charts the events and aftermath of the two most recent quakes, in September 2010 and February 2011. As well as offering moving accounts from survivors, the exhibition also explains why the city looks the way it does today, making it an essential stop on your first days of exploration.
Feel the chill of Antarctica
You may never get the chance to step foot on the icy sheets of the world’s southernmost continent; but you can get awfully close at the International Antarctic Centre. This interactive exhibit gives visitors a taste of authentic Antarctic experiences. Take a turn in an all-terrain amphibious vehicle, the transport of choice for scientists deployed to the South Pole. While you’re at it, don the get-up: there’s serious cold-weather gear to try on. And speaking of keeping cosy, observing the habits of the colony of little blue penguins in the on-site rescue sanctuary will warm your heart.
Explore a one-of-a-kind church
The iconic Christ Church Cathedral, a symbol of the city, was felled during the 2011 earthquake. In its place, as plans to reinstate the Anglican place of worship move forward, is a fascinating structure known as the Cardboard Cathedral – an A-frame building comprised mostly of paper tubes designed to last for at least five decades.
Take to the skies
New Zealand is best explored from every possible vantage point – you can only truly appreciate the scale of its massive alps by looking at them from both below and above. Helicopters leave from the airport several times a day on aerial excursions that take in the staggering peaks of the South Island; hot air balloons hover over the lower reaches of Canterbury at sunrise and sunset.
Whiz across the water
It’s possible to get an adrenaline fix without skydiving– simply head to the mouth of Waimakariri River to the north of the city and board a citrus-coloured jet-boat to spin atop the shallows at speed.
Plan a day at the beach
Don’t go to Sumner Beach expecting to see cerulean waves gently lapping at golden shores – this stretch of sand is enticing for its rugged, rough-around-the-edges beauty. It’s popular for swimming and surfing (though, be warned, a wetsuit is a good idea for anyone accustomed to warmer waters and the rocky outcrops hide a series of secret caves. Walk to Cave Rock and look back at the beach for an arresting view of the snow-capped mountains in the not-too-far-distance, or drive another 20 minutes to Godley Head Lookout for a better glimpse of the coast and the harbour that leads to Quail Island.
Meet the natives
This pristine, isolated South Island is the perfect environment for a range of weird and wonderful species to thrive. Pohatu Marine Reserve, at nearby Flea Bay, is home to both hoiho and korora penguins, plus a plethora of other native birds and – if you’re eagle-eyed in the summer – pods of Hector’s dolphins. For guaranteed animal sightings, Orana Wildlife Park is an 80-hectare free-range zoo that houses local species (see sweet kiwi birds nibble on their lunch at 1.30pm each day) as well as international émigrés, including a family of endangered Tasmanian devils.
See mural masterpieces
The street-art scene in Christchurch is vibrant and the dedicated artists within it have enlivened otherwise nondescript walls and buildings. You can simply stroll around and see what you can spot down side-streets and laneways but there are also official 90-minute walking tours that take in some of the most worthy works, and explain a little of their creation story. The Christchurch Art Gallery (Te Puna O Waiwhetu) also houses some of the country’s most significant public art collections, and is completely free, too.
Plan a daytrip
Christchurch is the ideal jumping-off point for several stunning and easy-to-complete excursions. Akaroa, a turquoise-and-emerald harbour haven 90 minutes drive away, is the spot to meet little penguins and kayak along gentle bays. North of the city are two destinations that ease you into a cruisy frame of mind: drive for an hour to reach the wineries of Waipara, known for their pinots and rieslings, and then continue on (with your designated driver) for another 60 minutes to get to Hanmer Springs for a long, hot soak in rock or sulphur pools.
Get your bearings
The Christchurch Gondola, a 20-minute drive from the city proper, reaches almost a kilometre up the slope of Mount Cavendish. From the top, you can look back over Christchurch, as well as further afield in all directions. Descent is either via a return gondola ride, or one of the epic mountain-biking trails straight down.
This article was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.