Christchurch, New Zealand’s first official city, is the largest city on the South Island with 390,000 residents. That makes it the third-largest city in the country, behind Auckland and Wellington.
A stop in “The Garden City” is a must when visiting New Zealand.
You may know that it has been hit hard with several massive earthquakes as recently as 2016, which deserves attention. When you first arrive, it’s difficult to look beyond the chaos of fallen buildings and orange traffic cones. There are hundreds of hard hat-fitted construction workers putting the city back together. Paired with the sounds of construction, it can be an overwhelming introduction to a city.
Don’t let this deter you, though. The community is thriving, and improvements continue. Innovation and creativity fill the holes left behind. It is a city in recovery, and your tourist dollars can make a big difference with its progress.
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Getting To & Around Christchurch
Arrive by plane, train, bus, or car
Christchurch International Airport services the city and region, making plane travel easy from within New Zealand or abroad.
Regional buses, like InterCity Bus, stop daily in Christchurch. These buses travel to and from Queenstown, Greymouth, Picton, and Dunedin.
Use the Metro
Getting around the city and surrounding suburbs is easy with the local bus system called the Metro.
Pay $4 NZD cash on the bus per ride or buy a card, and every ride will cost just $2.55 NZD. The card is $10 NZD (this cost does not contribute to future bus fare), then you add as much money as needed.
You can set up automatic top-ups on the Metro’s website once you create an account. This method is best for long-term stays in Christchurch.
Travel by Train
Train travel in New Zealand is limited to three scenic routes. Two of the routes travel through Christchurch, the Coastal Pacific and Tranz Alpine.
However, the Coastal Pacific route is currently closed to passenger trains due to damage from the Kaikoura Earthquake. This late 2016 earthquake-damaged roads and train tracks, halting all traffic in this area along the coast for several months.
Get updates on the KiwiRail Scenic Journey website.
Tips for Visiting Christchurch
1. Don’t rely solely on Google Maps, carry an actual paper map of Christchurch
Especially so if you are driving. As wrecked buildings come down and new buildings replace the old, working streets change. Once working roads one day might be closed to traffic the next.
2. Be earthquake ready
New Zealand is an extremely tectonically active country. I felt a small earthquake nearly every day I was there. Christchurch is still recovering from two devastating earthquakes, so it’s important to know what to do if one happens during your visit.
Here are some tips:
- Keep an eye out for emergency exits in buildings.
- If you’re indoors during an earthquake, do not run outside, get under a table instead and hold on to a leg.
- Move outside only once the shaking stops and it is safe.
- If you’re outdoors or in a car, move away from buildings and trees that could fall.
- Avoid ramps, bridges, or any structure that could have been damaged.
- Always listen to the instructions of emergency officials and get updates via the radio.
- Find more tips on earthquake safety here.
One way to stay informed on nearby earthquakes (and tsunamis and volcano eruptions) is to use GeoNet (an app and website), which gives minute-by-minute updates of tectonic movement across the country. The app is available for iPhones and Androids; search for GeoNet Quakes.
3. Most shops, city services, and cafes close in the afternoon, usually before 5 pm
You’ll come across this in most cities and towns across the country. If you’re from the US, where many places are open late (or 24 hours) to accommodate 9-5 workers, this will take some getting used to.
Plan to run errands, mail postcards, or get coffee earlier in the day. However, grocery stores and most restaurants stay open until 9 pm or later.
4. Be prepared for four seasons of weather in one day
The weather has a mind of its own and will change at the drop of a dime. Dress in layers that are easy to remove as the day heats up and put back on as it inevitably cools off.
Depending on the time of year, it’s a good idea to carry a rain jacket or umbrella in case of a surprise rain shower.
5. Go on day trips
Christchurch makes a perfect base to explore the entire Canterbury region of the South Island.
See the ocean and mountains within just a few hour’s drive. Spend a day at the beach watching surfers in New Brighton or walking the less crowded beaches of Southshore.
Head to Akaroa to see wildlife such as whales and dolphins. Visit Lyttelton, a small seaside town with an American wild west appeal, and take a ferry to Diamond Harbour.
Head into the mountains to enjoy the thermal pools, skiing, or fishing in Hanmer Springs. There’s something for all tastes and interests.
Explore other parts of New Zealand:
- Things to Do in Queenstown for the Less Adventurous
- Wanaka, New Zealand City Guide
- Rotorua, New Zealand City Guide
- 5 Best Day Hikes in New Zealand + Helpful Hiking Tips
6. Take advantage of local i-Sites
Please go to these visitor information centers, i-Sites, and use the resources they provide. I think I saw one in every location I stopped at, even the small towns.
The employees truly know about New Zealand tourism and will help you book the best tours, bus tickets, and accommodations.
Things to do in Christchurch
1. Learn About Earthquakes
If you have limited time in Christchurch, at least learn about the city’s history with earthquakes. Many people may not realize that New Zealand is on the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire. The boundary of the Pacific and Australian plates runs directly through the country, making it extremely volcanically active.
Christchurch experiences daily shaking, mostly unfelt, but two massive earthquakes struck the city within six months of each other in 2010 and 2011. These two earthquakes and the resulting aftershocks were so damaging that the city is still cleaning up and rebuilding six years later.
Learn more about how these two earthquakes affected the city (its buildings, infrastructure, and most importantly, the people) at Quake City. A comprehensive museum in downtown Christchurch near the ReSTART Mall. There are multi-sensory and interactive displays, and relics pulled from the rubble. The entry fee is $20 NZD.
There are two sites dedicated to the 185 lives lost during the second earthquake in 2011. The first is a temporary art installation called “185 Empty Chairs.” The second is the newly finished Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial on Montreal Street. Both somber sites but well worth a visit to reflect on the event.
2. Self Guided Street Art Tour
You’ll learn that Christchurch is a city of resilience. Artists from New Zealand and around the world have come together to create beauty among the wreckage. You will see murals, sculptures, art installations, and interactive spaces in what was once vacant spaces, all designed to promote community healing.
There are two ways to make sure you see as much art as possible. Pick up a Christchurch Mini-Map from inside the bus interchange. Also, print out a Gap Filler Map for updated information on art in the ever-changing Christchurch city landscape. Take yourself for a walk around the city for an hour or two with these maps in hand. Don’t forget your camera!
3. Re-START Mall
Innovation and creativity have gone a long way in the city’s redevelopment. A perfect example of this is the Re-START Mall, an outdoor retail hub in the city center. It is constructed of brightly colored, strategically stacked shipping containers. Throughout the zig-zagging alleyways between shops, you’ll find food trucks, picnic tables, sculptures, and activities to entertain kids.
4. Christchurch Botanic Gardens
The nickname for Christchurch is “The Garden City” because of the bounty of public parks and English-style gardens. One such garden is the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Tucked away inside a loop in the Avon River by Hagley Park, the Botanic Garden has collections ranging from classic rose gardens to flora native to New Zealand. The garden is free to walk around and offers several free community events like live music and a treasure hunt. Additionally, there is a visitor center with a cafe and gift shop.
5. Canterbury Museum
While you’re visiting the Botanic Garden, stop by the Canterbury Museum. It’s inside a beautiful stone building from 1870 next to the garden. The museum’s exhibits include ancient Maori tribes, early European settlers, natural history, and local ties to Antarctic expeditions and Asian art. Admission is free, and there are an onsite visitor lounge and a cafe.
6. Christchurch Gondola
Enjoy sweeping views of the Christchurch cityscape and neighboring town Lyttelton. On a clear day, you’ll even see the Canterbury Plains, Southern Alps, and Banks Peninsula in the distance. After a 10-minute cable car ride to the top of Mt Cavendish, part of an extinct volcano, enjoy these views and a bite to eat at the Red Rock Cafe. Hikers can explore the area on three different tracks ranging from 30-60 minute walks.
Related: New Zealand Working Holiday Visa (podcast)
Where to Stay in Christchurch
Budget – Hostels
Hostels in New Zealand are not in short supply. There are plenty to choose from including well-known chains such as Hostelling International and YMCA. Plus a variety of smaller, private backpackers. They all offer a range of room styles ranging from 12+ bed dorm rooms to private rooms.
Mid-Range – Airbnb
I had needed a break from the hostel scene when I arrived in Christchurch. So, I opted for a private room at an Airbnb rental. The cost was only slightly higher than if I chose to stay at one of the local hostels. Many Airbnb hosts will offer a discount for weekly or monthly stays.
The only downside to Airbnb rentals is they are usually in the suburbs, not the city center. Using the Metro, or better yet your own vehicle, makes it the better option. Alternative accommodations, like campsites, are plentiful outside the city center.
Click here to find your next Airbnb.