The largest city on New Zealand's South Island and the third-largest in the country, with a population of 400,000, Christchurch offers an interesting mix of art, culture, history, nature, and outdoor activities not far from town. Although it experienced two devastating earthquakes in late 2010 and early 2011 that destroyed many homes and buildings in the central city, it has well and truly brushed itself off and rebuilt. Whether you're just passing through on a longer trip around the South Island or plan to spend a few days in Christchurch and the surrounding Canterbury region, here are the top 15 sights and activities you shouldn't miss.
Pay Your Respects at the Earthquake Memorial
In 2010 and 2011, Christchurch and surrounding areas were hit by two powerful earthquakes, plus a series of major aftershocks in the following months. The first, on Sept. 4, 2010, was more powerful (7.1 on the Richter scale), but the second, on Feb. 22, 2011 (6.3), was more destructive. The Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial was unveiled in 2017 and commemorates the earthquakes and the lives lost. Designed by Slovenian architect Grega Vezjak, the names of the 185 killed are carved into the marble panels of a wall that stretches along the banks of the Avon River in the central city.
Punt on the River Avon
Flowing from the hills of western Christchurch, the Avon River winds calmly through the central city. A popular activity is to go on a sightseeing punt ride (a flat-bottomed boat propelled by a long pole pushed against the bottom of the river) with a guide dressed in old-fashioned English dress, which you might see in the English city of Cambridge. Alternatively, you can rent a kayak and go for a self-guided paddle. The water quality here isn't great, though, so swimming should be avoided.
Be Intrigued by the Unusual Cardboard Cathedral
One of the second Christchurch earthquake casualties was the partial collapse of the city's namesake Anglican cathedral, Christchurch Cathedral, in the center of the city. The Christchurch Transitional Cathedral (aka the Cardboard Cathedral) was constructed and opened in 2013, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. It's an A-frame building constructed largely out of cardboard tubes and decorated with colorful triangular glass windows at the front. It's more robust than it sounds and definitely weatherproof.
Take a Day Trip to the Banks Peninsula
The bulbous, volcanic Banks Peninsula extends south-east of Christchurch city and makes an ideal day-trip destination for outdoor activities. Hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and dolphin watching can all be enjoyed here. Dolphin watching via kayak is a charming experience, as you have the chance to see the world's smallest and rarest dolphin, Hector's dolphin, close up without the disturbance of traveling on a large boat. To experience some rare French culture (and food!) in New Zealand, check out the village of Akaroa, which French colonizers settled in 1840. Historians believe that the French settlement of Akaroa prompted Britain to speed up its annexation of New Zealand.
Swim at Sumner Beach
All coastal cities have their go-to beach playgrounds, and Sumner Beach fills this need for Christchurch's residents. About a 20-minute drive southeast of the central city, Sumner has a 1,300-foot stretch of sand, a paved promenade, cliffs, and a rock cave to explore, and is good for swimming as lifesavers patrol it in the summer. Scarborough Beach, east of Sumner, is good for surfing but less suitable for swimming.
Learn About the Frozen Continent at the International Antarctic Centre
As New Zealand is one of the closest countries to Antarctica, New Zealand scientists have long been involved in scientific study and exploration of the frozen continent to the south. Christchurch's International Antarctic Centre has interactive exhibits about the continent that few people experience for themselves. It's also home to around 25 rescued little blue penguins in a habitat that has been designed to resemble the Banks Peninsula.
Go on Safari at Orana Wildlife Park
While New Zealand is home to some unique native birds and wildlife, to see more exotic species, head to the Orana Wildlife Park. The 200-acre open-range park allows visitors to see animals like lions, rhinos, meerkats, gorillas, monkeys, and giraffes from the back of a safari vehicle (safely caged in!). You can also watch various presentations and feedings. Orana is involved in numerous conservation projects, including breeding programs for endangered exotic species and Department of Conservation (DOC) recovery programs for threatened New Zealand birds.
Ride the Heritage Tram
Although trams (streetcars/trolleys) are no longer used as a mainstream way of getting around Christchurch, some historic tracks remain in the central city. The restored heritage trams are an atmospheric way of sightseeing and let you leave the car at your accommodation, so you don't have to worry about parking. The tram runs on a hop-on hop-off circuit, and drivers provide interesting live commentary. The seventeen stops include popular must-see attractions like the museum, botanic gardens, and New Regent Street. A full circuit takes just under an hour. Tickets last all day, and kids ride for free.
Admire the Architecture of New Regent Street
Central Christchurch's New Regent Street has been called New Zealand's most beautiful street. In a country full of English and Scottish-inspired architecture, the Spanish Mission-style architecture is certainly eye-catching. Built in the 1930s, behind the pastel-hued facades are a range of high-end souvenir shops, jewelers, bars, coffee shops and restaurants, hairdressers, galleries, and other shops. The heritage tram runs through New Regent Street, but otherwise, it is pedestrianized. It's a perfect place to go for an alfresco drink on a summer evening when the days are long at this southern latitude.
Taste Wine in the Waipara Valley
Not to be confused with the Wairarapa wine-producing region of the North Island, the Waipara Valley is home to the majority of Canterbury's vineyards and wineries. It's about an hour's drive north of Christchurch. Red pinot noir is the most common wine produced in the Waipara Valley, with some chardonnay and riesling whites. Drop into cellar doors for some tastings or visit a winery with a full restaurant.
Stroll Through the Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Part of the larger Hagley Park in central Christchurch, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens offer a calm, shady, and free place to chill out while sightseeing in the busy city. As well as an abundance of New Zealand flora and glass conservatories, the gardens feature permanent and temporary art installations and sculptures, and the first New Zealand Peace Bell, one of many around the world created by the Japanese World Peace Bell Association. The Avon River runs through part of the gardens.
Birdwatch at Lake Ellesmere
Shallow, brackish, coastal Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora) is south of Christchurch and west of the Banks Peninsula. It's technically a lagoon as there's a small opening into the Pacific Ocean on its southwestern end. Lake Ellesmere is an important wildlife area, particularly for birds: the wetlands provide a habitat for 133 native New Zealand bird species. Enthusiastic bird watchers should take a pair of binoculars.
Check Out New Zealand Art at the Christchurch Art Gallery
The distinctive curved steel and glass exterior of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu houses one of New Zealand's most important public art collections. The permanent and temporary exhibitions tell stories about the history and culture of Christchurch and Aotearoa New Zealand. Entry is free, and the gallery is open late on Wednesdays.
Drive Through the Tunnel to Lyttelton
Over (or, rather, through) the hills from central Christchurch is the historic, quirky settlement of Lyttelton, on the side of an extinct volcano overlooking Lyttelton Harbour. The harbor was the landing site for the first four settler ships to Christchurch from England, so Lyttelton is an historically important place. A heritage walk around Lyttelton is a good way to learn about this history, and maps with numbered stops are available from the Lyttelton Information Centre. Visitors also come to enjoy the Saturday markets, cafes, and boutiques, walking tracks around the hills, and to visit the former quarantine station and leper colony of Quail Island in the harbor. Getting to Lyttelton from Christchurch requires traveling through the longest road tunnel in New Zealand, at 1.2 miles long.
See What's Left of Cathedral Square
Christchurch's Cathedral Square used to be the heart of the city, with the grand spired Christchurch Cathedral at its center. First built in 1850, it was a focal point of city life. This changed somewhat with the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, which damaged the imposing cathedral and other heritage buildings at the square. One landmark that remained is the 59-foot metal sculpture "Chalice" by Neil Dawson, constructed in 2001. Since the earthquakes, local government and organizations have worked to revitalize Cathedral Square without the cathedral's presence and its soaring spire. The process of rebuilding the cathedral has started but will take many years. Even though the public space is not as architecturally unified as it once was, it's still highly worth visiting.