Our family has lived in Christchurch for about seven months, and I thought it would be fun to do a roundup of some of our favorite things to do in the city.
First, as the world is aware, Christchurch endured some major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011; the big one on 22 February 2011 killed 185 people and did billions of dollars in damages throughout the city. Because of the destruction, Christchurch has undertaken a massive rebuild. Thousands of buildings (residential, office, businesses, etc.) have been torn down and many have been rebuilt or the spaces renewed in other ways.
What does this have to do with our family’s favorite Christchurch-based activities?
Quite a lot, actually.
Christchurch lost about 80,000 people after the earthquake. Some moved far away, others moved just an hour or so north or south of the city. But the impact was profound, and the marks left on the city, while the city’s resilience has shown through, are indelible. I think perhaps there’s a hesistancy on the part of some international visitors to spend a lot of time in Christchurch.
I would say that Christchurch alone isn’t reason to come to New Zealand, but I do think that a visit to the South Island without at least a day or two in its largest city is a missed opportunity.
Here, without any further ado, are the 6 top Christchurch experiences I recommend to visitors! Five of them are completely free!
- Hagley Park and the Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Oh, Hagley Park, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways… you are centrally located, you are verdant and luscious. You have countless paths that connect in pleasing patterns and routes for any length of walk, run, or stroll I may want to do. You are the nearest place I can go to run without having to cross major roads. You welcome people from all walks of life to pass through you and enjoy some green space in the middle of a city.
Hagley itself is divided into two sections: North and South. North Hagley has a public golf course and the Botanics, South Hagley has a sports venue and a million netball courts. Combine the two in a single perimeter loop and you’ll go about 6km. But the possibilities are endless… just ask James.
The Botanics are open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk (approximately). Even in the dead of winter there are beautiful sights in the gardens. My favorite is probably the New Zealand section, but the hydrangea walkway is stunning in bloom, and the rose garden–although I’m not a huge fan of roses myself–is stellar.
They are also completely free. And parking around the park and gardens is also all free.
2. Crater Rim Trail in the Port Hills
Probably one of our go-to for trail runs near the city as well as walks with amazing views, the Crater Rim trail runs along the top of the Banks Peninsula, from one end of the mouth of the bay to the other. James ran along it on his epic trail run last year, we run it together, and we’ve done a couple family hikes there as well.
I recommend driving up Dyer’s Pass Road (it takes about 20 minutes from the CBD) and parking at the Sign of the Kiwi, then walking south from there. The Sign of the Kiwi is a now-shuttered 100 year old building that used to house a tea room for travelers passing over the hill. The earthquake damaged it, although I understand a group is trying to rehabilitate and reopen it. Parking here is free, and there is a water fountain and toilets at the Sign of the Kiwi.
On clear days the views over to the Main Divide, 60kms to the west, and over the Banks Peninsula, are breathtaking.
If you want additional distance without some of the craggy or muddy challenges sometimes presented by the Crater Rim trail, I’d suggest parking at Victoria Park and walking up the Harry Ell walkway, which is nicely maintained and graded.
3. CBD with the Christchurch Cathedral, Cardboard Cathedral, and ReStart Mall
I admit that I delayed going downtown. Our visit in 2004 had led us straight to the central business district (CBD) and I worried that revisiting it post-earthquake would just make me sad.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in spite of the Cathedral’s destruction, historic downtown Christchurch feels like a vital, busy, beautiful place. There are art installations all over the place, new construction going in, and people walking around at all times. On Friday nights there are often food trucks in the square, with all kinds of food and drinks available, and live music.
I like to take a moment or two in the little green memorial area. It’s mesmerizing watching pigeons draft in and out of the decimated cathedral facade.
One of Cal’s favorite places, the Imagination Station, where there are hundreds of thousands of LEGO, is right around the corner. Parking costs a few dollars, but admission to the Imagination Station is free.
If you’re only in town for a day and/or don’t have a car, you can take the tram around town on a tour, and it starts at Cathedral Junction.
The Cardboard Cathedral, which I expected to look like it was built out of old refrigerator boxes, is a few blocks further away. It’s still pretty cool to see. Just don’t overlook it because it’s not full-on cardboard.
The Re:Start Mall is a made of shipping containers; it’s intriguing to see how different they each look although they all started as plain old metal containers.
4. Willowbank Wildlife Reserve
Want to see all the best New Zealand birds? Then Willowbank is the place to go. Within the city limits but far enough away that the 20 minute drive from the CBD feels like you’re heading out into the countryside.
Some favorite animals to visit: the eels (they’re tame and like to be fed… food is available at the entry for NZ$3 per container); the kea (you walk through a large enclosure and can see these alpine parrots fly around, eat, and play); the farmyard animals (llamas, rabbits, cows, horses, peacocks, chickens, sheep, goats, etc.); and the kiwi.
The kiwi are housed in a naturalistic house that is kept very quiet and dark during our daytime, since kiwi are nocturnal. Every time we go we have seen at least a handful of these funny birds, snuffling around for food. It’s really cool to spy them amidst the dark foliage.
Tickets aren’t cheap ($29.50/$12, adult/child), but I do think it’s worth it, because some of the money goes back into the work done at Willowbank by the New Zealand Conservation Trust, releasing kiwi into the wild.
5. Sumner Beach
Drive to Sumner, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and buffered by the cliffs of the Banks Peninsula, and you’ll feel like you’re on holiday from the city. It’s so close to the busy-ness of downtown, but Sumner Beach operates at its own speed (parking is free, as is beach access).
This is a great place to take a surf lesson or two (I recommend Learn to Surf); the water is often a bit warmer because of the shallows of the bay. The beach is often not patrolled by lifeguards, though, so be cautious. Whether you’re there to surf, swim, sunbathe, or walk a dog (and you won’t be the only one–we’ve noticed it’s quite the popular beach for canine-lovers), Sumner is a lovely and easy excursion to the beach, right in Christchurch.
It’s busy on weekends and holidays but still not mobbed like mid-Atlantic beaches are…
6. Godley Head Walkway
For my money, one of the most exquisitely beautiful views in Christchurch! To get here, drive past Sumner and up over the hill to Taylor’s Mistake. Park there, then walk along the beach past the adorable little tiny baches. The Godley Head Walkway is nicely maintained–there’s no way to get lost. Stay off the mountain bike trails, though, as they are harder-packed and cyclists can go pretty fast on them.
The trail winds along the cliffsides up through scrubby pasture. On clear days you can see all the way up the coast to the Kaikoura Range. It’s also cool to look back toward the city of Christchurch and know that you’re up and above the cars and people going about their days.
Interesting features abound on the ~3hr (walking) loop track, including precipitous cliffs, swirling blue water, beautiful plantlife, World War II battlements and lookout stations, and caves half-turned into dwellings. Definitely use caution when walking there with children; there are some serious dropoffs.
Finally, some of our favorite places wouldn’t make a visitor’s must-see list but I want to do a shout out anyway: to our kids’ schools, Ilam Primary School and Kirkwood Intermediate School, and to the Christchurch City Library system, especially Upper Riccarton.