A city guide to Christchurch, New Zealand

Shaken by a succession of earthquakes, this New Zealand city is now enjoying an era of reinvention, reclaiming its newly built streets with a determined Kiwi spirit.

By Emma Thomson
photographs by Susan Blick
Published 3 Apr 2019, 10:44 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 13:56 BST
The Cardboard Cathedral.

The Cardboard Cathedral.

Photograph by Susan Blick

"You could hear the roar, then a vicious shaking," recounts local resident Helen, her hands twisting in her lap at the memory. In late 2010 and early 2011, Christchurch — the largest city on New Zealand's South Island — was the epicentre of two earthquakes that hit less than six months apart. The second was the country's worst natural disaster, claiming 185 lives and liquefying the city's streets.

In the aftermath, faced with crumbling unreinforced masonry in thousands of homes and businesses, town officials decided to rebuild from scratch. "It's a fresh start. A chance to do all the things we've wanted to do for years — a complete reboot," says Caroline Blanchfield from the Christchurch Convention Bureau. With roughly NZ$100m a week being spent, the air is abuzz with possibility and necessity has bred brilliance. The city is even enjoying a newfound sense of rebellion: "We got to blow up the police station!" says Blanchfield, mischievously.

Post-earthquake, a city resilience officer was appointed, bringing about such initiatives such as Gap Filler and Greening the Rubble which beautified areas awaiting repair, by sowing wild flowers among the debris, setting up cycle-powered cinema nights and enlivening exposed walls with graffiti. Once lumbered with the fuddy-duddy moniker of 'English Garden City', Christchurch is forging a new identity of arts and innovation.

Formerly a doughnut city with nothing in the middle, they're now "filling up the hole with gusto", says Blanchfield. With the action centring on the four main downtown squares — Cranmer, Victoria, Latimer and Cathedral — the compact city centre is teeming with street art, sculpture, art-house cinema, oh-so-chic malls, roving food trucks and farmers' markets. For nigh on a generation, the city's younger residents had nowhere public to socialise. Now Oxford Terrace, overlooking the meandering River Avon, is lined with concept bars and a reincarnation of beloved jazz joint Fat Eddie's. What's more, wineries, white-sand beaches and adrenalin-inducing high-wire ziplines are all within a short drive.

"The city is changing so fast that the visitor experience won't be the same by the summer," finishes Blanchfield. Safe to say, if Rūaumoko — the Māori god of earthquakes — rumbles into town again he won't recognise this Pacific-Ocean phoenix. Christchurch is rock solid and soaring towards its re-evolution.

What to see and do

River Avon Punting: Hire a handcrafted boat where an elegant chap in full Edwardian attire (striped tie, braces and jaunty straw boater hat) will punt you down the city's meandering watery artery. It's more romantic in winter when you can snuggle under blankets and hug hot-water bottles. En route, keep an eye out for two sculptures by British artist Antony Gormley.

Canterbury Museum: Unravel the region's human and natural history at this free-to-visit cultural treasure chest of meteorite fragments, fossils of giant crabs, stuffed versions of the fabled huia bird and — best of all — Antarctica expedition memorabilia that once belonged to Amundsen and Shackleton.

Quake City: A spin-off of Canterbury Museum, this exhibition explains the two earthquakes that brought Christchurch to its knees and highlights the stories of those affected. Particularly poignant are the clocks from Canterbury Railway Station frozen at the times of the seismic shocks at 4.31am on 4 September 2010 and 12.51pm on 22 February 2011.

Tram City Tour: You can't fail to miss the cochineal-and-cream trams trundling around the city centre. It's a tradition that harks back to the 1800s when horse-drawn (and later electric) trams ran services back and forth to the suburbs. Hop on and off with tickets sold at Cathedral Junction.

Christchurch Art Gallery: The first building used for shelter after the earthquake, its old facade still bears the neon sign 'Everything's going to be alright' by Turner prize-winning artist Martin Creed — a message of comfort to locals. Later it got a broader arty revamp, and the collection of Māori, New Zealand and international artworks are now the city's pride and joy.

Cardboard Cathedral: Religious or not, it's worth paying your respects to this unique structure. When the city's main site of worship on Cathedral Square collapsed, this temporary A-frame made from cardboard-tube walls and a shipping-container roof was erected to serve the community during the rebuild. It's now a much-loved landmark.

Botanical Gardens: Wrapped around a loop of the River Avon, this 21-hectare green space is held dear by Cantabrians (Christchurch sits in the region of Canterbury), because it has remained unchanged in shifting times. Founded with the planting of an English oak 155 years ago, it's now a mix of habitats such as wetlands and sand dunes for native plant species. A place for picnics, strolls, sniffing roses and spotting owls.

Where to shop

Crossing Mall: This sleek new shoppers' paradise on Cashel Street houses high-end fashion labels, but it's worth a detour into the mall's Fresh Choice City Market. This is no regular supermarket. There are chandeliers, an espresso bar, and live piano performances. Harrods has a new rival Down Under.

The Tannery: If only all malls were as modish as the Tannery, a Victorian-style covered market with ornate ironwork and a browse-worthy gaggle of lifestyle shops such as Hapa — selling the works of local artists, designers and jewellers — and craftspeople proffering gourmet chocolate, artisan breads, and wood-fired pizza. A bonus? Cassels & Sons Craft Beer and Brewery is also on site.

Friday Night Food Market: Locals converge on Cathedral Square for this lively melange of food trucks serving such lip-smacking dishes as slow-roasted pork, dumplings and Transylvanian chimney cake all set to the sounds of talented buskers. 11am–9pm.

Where to eat

Little High Eatery: Can't decide which cuisine you're craving? Follow locals making a beeline for this new market with eight family-run restaurants/food trucks all huddled under one roof. There's tapas, Thai and Italian, but best of all is Bacon Bros Burgers whose vegan burger comes with a free hug. "Know how it's a vegan hug?" they ask. "Cause there's no beef between you!"

Kākano Cafe: Wrap your tongue around traditional Māori food at this passion-project cafe owned by chef Jade Temepara, who believes 'kai' (food) can heal. Everything is foraged, free range and organic and the prefab cabin is surrounded by planter boxes. Dine on manuka honey-smoked eggs, stewed mutton bird that 'tastes like anchovies' and mugs of stinging nettle tea, never coffee because 'it doesn't fit our ethos to use other people's land'. 100 Peterborough Street, T: 00 64 21 216 7281.

Gatherings: Billed as one of the best places to eat in New Zealand, bookings are essential at chef Alex Davies' vegetarian den where the ever-changing five-course fixed menu (with optional wine pairings) is built solely from sustainable and seasonal local ingredients. Here, furniture is recycled, plates are by local potters, and the walls decorated by local artists.

Where to stay

Jailhouse: Consistently voted Top Backpacker Hostel in Oceania by Hostelworld, set a few streets south of the CBD, this hostel operated as a prison from 1874 to 1999. Today, 'inmates' have Netflix in the cinema room, unlimited ultrafast wi-fi and an organic espresso coffee bar.

Distinction: Formerly the Millennium Hotel, this gleaming-white-molar of a building has been renovated top-to-toe and is the first post-quake hotel to open. It's couth, central and (fairly) kind to the wallet.

The Classic Villa / The George: It's a tie between these two five-star boutiques options. The first is an immaculate Italian-style period villa smack bang in the historic centre that miraculously survived the quakes. The second has drool-worthy dining, a one-to-one staff-guest ratio and park views.


C1 Espresso: Housed in the old Post Office, this coffee shop was the first business to reopen in the CBD after the quakes and became "a port in the storm", says owner Sam Crofskey. An industrial-style interior, collections of vintage Penguin paperbacks and a maze of clear Perspex tubes that deliver food to the tables all set to a backdrop of rap music.

Smash Palace: This star-lit converted bus surrounded by picnic tables and chairs is real a community hub. The owners are proud of their homemade burgers and chutneys, and you'll find locals tipping back a few bottles of Kiwi beers or wines while enjoying impromptu gigs.


Getting there & around
Air New Zealand flies daily from Heathrow to New Zealand via Asia and North America. Airlines such as China Southern Airlines and Singapore Airlines also fly from Heathrow via their respective hubs.

Average flight time: 24h.

Christchurch is a compact city designed for both bicyclists and bipeds, but if it's raining, a trundle around town aboard the quaint tram is fun.

When to go
Christchurch's weather is a veritable Vivaldi of four seasons. They don't call it the 'Garden City' for nothing: between September and November spring flowers and festivals are in full bloom. Summer (December–February) rarely pushes the mercury above 22C, autumn (March–May) is a riot of auburns, while winter (June–August) will have you pulling on a wool hat.

How to do it
Discover The World offers a three-night stay in Christchurch from £239 per person, including B&B hotel accommodation and Double Decker Discovery Tour, and can be booked as part of a tailor made tour of the North and South Island. Excludes flights.

Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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