Only have one day in Christchurch and wondering what to do and see? Luckily you can easily see all the main sights in the city in 24 hours – from the Cathedral to punting along the river to visiting the beach and more! Here I have put together the top 10 things to see in the centre of Christchurch, as well as day trips and excursions you can take from the city!
Before we look at what to do in Christchurch it is important to know it’s recent history and how the 2011 earthquake has changed the city.
2011 Christchurch Earthquake
At lunchtime on 22nd February 2011 a magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch. This devastating earthquake, considered an aftershock from a previous earthquake several months earlier, took the lives of 185 people and injured several thousand more.
The earthquake occurred on a fault line, so the shaking from the earthquake was particularly powerful and thus the damage caused was even more destructive. Many buildings fell down as a result of the quake – in particular many heritage and old brick buildings. Many other buildings were damaged by the earthquake too and later demolished – in fact over a quarter of the buildings in the CBD, including Christchurch’s tallest building. The centre of Christchurch was then cordoned off for over 2 years. Several thousand homes also had to be demolished as they were so badly damaged.
As you can guess, Christchurch turned into a shell of it’s former self. And even now 9 years later Christchurch is still recovering from the devastating earthquake. There is still evidence of a lot of damage and you will see lots of buildings boarded up. Empty spaces and rubble where buildings once stood. Historic buildings propped up with metal frames to prevent further damage (see below left). Many of the damaged buildings will not be repaired or restored as it is too unsafe and too expensive. It was unlike anything I had seen before. It made me sad to think that every day people are still reminded of this earthquake, and I wondered what the future holds for Christchurch.
The city is a lot quieter than it once was and feels almost desolate in places. It sounds bad but we kept thinking there must be another part of the city we were missing as we couldn’t believe this was it. It is important to tell you this so you are prepared for what you will see.
However not all of Christchurch was ruined and still some beautiful parts remain. I am so glad we got to see the city and how it is trying to get back on it’s feet. And I really recommend you to do the same. Some people ask is it worth it to go to Christchurch and spend time there. I believe yes – spend time in Christchurch, the biggest city on New Zealand’s South Island. Spend your money local here and support local businesses. This will really make a difference to these people as tourism is definitely not what it used to be here. You can feel the sadness, but also the sense of hope and optimism for the future.
1. Christchurch Cathedral
In the middle of Cathedral Square sits Christchurch Cathedral. Christchurch Cathedral was once the epicentre of the whole city but sadly it suffered terrible damaged from the 2011 earthquake. The facade collapsed, and the Cathedral used to have a beautiful and impressive tower which also fell down in the quake.
The Cathedral laid derelict for years since the earthquake whilst they decided whether to restore the 110 year old building or build it again from scratch. Restoration work has only recently begun in the last couple of years. It will certainly be a long road to recovery – the front is still wide open so you can see right inside the roof and all the pigeons that have made it their home there now.
I visited Christchurch in January 2020 and this was how the Cathedral looked:
It was really saddening to see a place of worship like this. I don’t know what I was expecting before I visited Christchurch, but I certainly didn’t expect to see something so raw and exposed as this. Especially since 9 years had passed since the earthquake. It was a real eye-opener of just how powerful and terrifying the earthquake must have been.
For your safety the Cathedral is cordoned off: this is as close as you can get to it. You can see there is a barrier and gates all around the Cathedral preventing public access. There are gaps in the gates where you can see through and take pictures though.
Behind the Cathedral is the Post Office tower – a beautiful brick building. The windows and the clock tower have been boarded up since they were damaged in the earthquake.
If you are here on a Friday there is the Friday Street Food Market in Cathedral Square that is certainly worth a visit!
2. Cardboard Cathedral
Since the devastation of the earthquake damage to Christchurch Cathedral, a temporary Cathedral was unveiled not long after so people could continue to worship. This was known as the Transitional Cathedral, which later became known as the Cardboard Cathedral.
As it’s name suggests, it is made from cardboard! Strong waterproof and flame retardant cardboard tubes line the inside of the roof. Poly-carbonate makes up the outside roof (to protect it from the elements), and wood and steel help support the walls. It is 130% earthquake proof and can hold up to 700 people. The building of the Cardboard Cathedral was a symbol of what is possible after post-disaster situations. It was always built as a temporary structure, showing that nothing is permanent in life, and is a fine example of emergency and sustainable architecture.
The Cardboard Cathedral is just a short walk away from Christchurch Cathedral (click here to see location). From the outside it looks nothing special and you could easily miss it! See below right picture to see how it looks from the outside. It is planned that the Cardboard Cathedral will be used for several more years until Christchurch Cathedral is restored.
3. 185 Empty Chairs
Just behind the Cardboard Cathedral lies the 185 Empty White Chairs art installation. This is the memorial to the 185 lives lost in the earthquake. The chairs lie on 185 square metres of grass – the grass symbolising regeneration and new growth. All the chairs are hand painted white and are different shapes and sizes – no two are the same. They are all individual and unique. This is to symbolise that all the 185 people who lost their lives were also all unique and individual. A very simple, yet very effective and thoughtful memorial.
The memorial was inspired by several artists, including Van Gogh, who have used an empty chair to depict the loss of someone. It was also inspired by recent memorials, such as the empty chairs memorial to the September 11th victims, the empty chairs memorial for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, and the empty chairs memorial to the Jews in Krakow.
There is a book where you can leave any comments and you are welcome to walk amongst or sit in any of the chairs if you wish.
The 185 Empty Chairs is free to access and is a temporary exhibition, although they are hoping to make it permanent. Click here to visit the 185 Empty Chairs website, where there are several ways you can support, including signing the online guest book or voting for a location for the permanent exhibition. Click here to see the current location on Google maps.
4. Christchurch Tram
The Christchurch trams are a highlight of Christchurch. In their heyday they were used all over Christchurch, but nowadays they function as a tourist attraction. The tram tracks were badly damaged by the earthquake but after 3 years of restoration the tram now runs through the streets of Christchurch once again.
Note this is a tourist sightseeing service and not a regular tram for locals to get from A to B! It is like a hop-on hop-off service, doing a loop of the city stopping off at all the tourist attractions in Christchurch. It takes about 50 minutes to go around the whole circuit and you can get on and off where you wish. A full day pass costs $25NZD for adults and children are free.
If you don’t want to go on the tram there are still plenty of places where you can take nice photos of it! The trams come along less than every 10 minutes so you’ll never be waiting long! My favourite place to take a picture of one was in the Cathedral Junction shopping centre (see below), where you can see the sign ‘beware of trams’.
Below is the route of the tram, taken from the official New Zealand website. As you can see, the centre of Christchurch is compact enough to explore on foot, so you can still easily see all the sights along the route without having to pay to go on the tram if money or time is tight.
5. New Regent Street
Walk through Cathedral Junction and you’ll come to New Regent Street: hailed as New Zealand’s most beautiful street when it opened in 1932.
Perfect pastel coloured Spanish style terraced buildings line New Regent Street, Christchurch’s only intact heritage streetscape. The tram runs through the quaint street and there is lots of life down here, with many cafe’s and restaurants having outdoor seating. New Regent Street has lots of unique and boutique speciality stores and cafes/restaurants lining the street. Click here to browse more on the official website.
6. Punting on the River Avon
A punt tour along the River Avon is a really popular and fun activity to do when in Christchurch! It is very similar to the punting in Cambridge, England with the flat bottomed boats and the punter wearing an Edwardian outfit.
There are two different routes: one that goes through The Botanic Gardens and one that goes through the city. The one that goes through The Botanic Gardens starts from the historic Antigua Boat sheds (a must see!) and offers really tranquil relaxing views. Click here to book a tour starting from the historic Antigua Boat Sheds – adult tickets are priced at $30NZD, children at $15NZD and under 5’s are free.
The ride is 30 minutes long and roughly 10 people can fit in the boat. Although you can also book a private 45 minute boat ride for more privacy or romance if you wish!
7. Botanic Gardens
The Botanical Gardens are free to enter, and here you’ll see why Christchurch is known as The Garden City as it is full of greenery! The gardens are connected to Hagley Park, and the stunning Christ’s College is right next to the gardens.
There are lots of beautiful little gardens and flowers in the botanic gardens, such as the Azalea and Magnolia Garden, so make sure to wander round! I think it is amazing all the Botanic Gardens in New Zealand and Australia are free! In many countries it costs several dollars to enter!
The River Avon also runs though Christchurch Botanical Gardens. So if you don’t want to go punting you can still enjoy watching the boats go past regularly!
8. Canterbury Museum and Christchurch Art Gallery
Located on Rolleston Avenue just next to the Botanic Gardens is Canterbury Museum (below left). It is free to visit and you can learn all about the history of New Zealand here.
The Christchurch Art Gallery (below right) is just down the road too, also free to visit. The Art Gallery has a light installation ‘everything’s going to be alright’ on the side of the building – giving residents hope in the aftermath of the earthquake.
9. Christchurch Street Art
Since the 2011 earthquake a lot of street art has popped up around Christchurch due to all the empty spaces that now stand. The vibrant street art scene in Christchurch is growing and you’ll find many wall murals which really brighten up the city. There are lots of murals down side streets tucked away and on the sides of buildings so keep your eyes open! Here are a few ones that stuck out to me, although there are many more!
I also like the ‘Made in China’ street installation, although I am not sure how permanent this is.
Click here to see the Watch This Space Christchurch Street Art website that shows you all the locations of the street art as new murals are constantly being added! They also have a real great 1.5 hour street art tour which you can do!
10. Sumner Beach
A short 20 minute drive from the centre of Christchurch takes you to Sumner Beach. When the weather is good this is a perfect place to relax and go for a dip in the lovely shallow waters! The beautiful white sandy beach is a 400 metre long stretch and you can also go inside and climb on top of the famous cave rock (‘Tuawera’ in the Maori language) whilst you are here.
Sumner is a charming little seaside town and there is a lovely relaxed vibe here with stunning mountain and sea views. There are also lots of nice places to stop off for food or an ice-cream that offer perfect views out to sea. It really reminded me of a typical British seaside town!
If you’re in Christchurch with your children, definitely head down to Sumner Beach as it is a great place for them to enjoy! Click here for more free things to do in Christchurch with kids!
Other places of interest:
Shipping Containers Mall
Whilst the Shipping Containers Mall is no longer here, I felt it important to include here to learn a bit more about the aftermath of the earthquake.
After the earthquake destroyed City Mall, Christchurch’s main shopping area, businesses and shops could no longer occupy their original premises so they had to find an alternative place for their companies. The whole of the CBD was cordoned off and so they found an alternative place in the shape of cargo shipping containers! Talk about being resourceful!
The companies occupied shipping containers and it became really popular with residents and tourists! It became a vital part of Christchurch as it was really important to keep the city shopping alive in the aftermath of the earthquake. The mall was originally named Re:START and took 6 months to build. It became one of the world’s only pop-up malls and was open for several years before closing permanently in 2018, much to the sadness of the stall owners who had built a strong community there and have had to look elsewhere for a new home for their businesses.
The mall has since been dismantled, which is such as shame as it really added a nice quirky vibe to the city.
International Antarctic Centre
The International Antarctic Centre is located right next to Christchurch International Airport and is a great experience for all the family. Here you can have an interactive experience of being in the Antarctic – go in the storm room, see huskies and penguins, go on an all-terrain vehicle tour and learn about the first expeditions to the Antarctic! Adults are priced at $59NZD and children at $29NZD.
Visit the Christchurch Gondola for stunning views out on to the peninsula. The cable car is located a little out of the city and goes above the Port Hills. From the top you can see Christchurch, the impressive Banks Peninsula and the Canterbury Plains. Tickets are priced at $30NZD.
Learn about the stories of both hope and loss from Christchurch’s earthquakes at Quake City. Here you’ll learn how the emergency services heroically responded to the earthquake, and about the science of earthquakes and the aftermaths they produce.
Entrance: $20. Open daily from 10am-5pm.
Day trips from Christchurch:
Usually tourists will spend 1 day in Christchurch exploring the centre, and then a couple of days making day trips from the city. Here are some examples of popular day trips people take from Christchurch:
Go on one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys when you are here! The TranzAlpine train goes from Christchurch to Greymouth through beautiful landscapes.
Visit the quaint alpine spa village of Hanmer Springs located 2.5 hours away from Christchurch. Not only is Hanmer Springs a beautiful place, but the drive here is stunning too, passing over several impressive rivers (see below right). Hanmer Springs is all about thermal springs, relaxing, hiking and adventure! The village is surrounded by mountains (I felt like I was in the Italian Alps!) and there are lots of tracks for walkers, horse riders and mountain bikers where you can see some beautiful waterfalls. A must do walk is to Conical Hill (1 hour return) where you can get a 360 degree view of Hanmer Springs from the lookout on the top of the hill.
Also visit the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa. There are over 15 freshwater, thermal and sulphur pools, and the natural thermal waters are very rich in minerals – perfect for some r&r! There’s also a lazy river and water slides for the kids to go down.
If that all sounds a little tame for you, you can go white water rafting along the river or bunny jumping off the bridge! Click here for more information on Hanmer Springs Attractions!
A 2.5 hour drive from Christchurch takes you to stunning Lake Tekapo. During late November and December there are many lupins around Lake Tekapo – click here to read my article where I tell you exactly where to find them!
Kaikoura is a lovely coastal town that makes a nice day out from Christchurch. It is known for it’s wildlife, including it’s abundant sperm whale population, dolphins and it’s seal colony on The Rocks platform. You can see the wildlife from land, swim with the playful dolphins, go kayaking with the seals or go on a boat trip to see the whales (Whale Watch Kaikoura have a 95% whale spotting success rate). There are also lots of nice walks and viewpoints you can visit such as Point Kean Viewpoint.
Dolphin Encounter is the best place in New Zealand to swim with dolphins in the open ocean. You’ll see lots of dolphins here, and tours operate all year – 3.5 hours long (weather permitting).
You can also go whale watching by helicopter (South Pacific Helicopters) or swim with the seals with Seal Swim Kaikoura.
If you plan to drive from Christchurch north towards Picton, beware that the roads get very bendy! Visit the NZTA website for detailed information on the road status.
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