First things first, I’m the realest. This isn’t a travel blog. But I love to travel, and Christchurch happens to be one of my favourite cities.
Since so many of my clients are from other parts of New Zealand, and the world, I thought I would share why I think Christchurch is so special, and give you my top 10 things to do and see in Ōtautahi, from a local’s perspective.
Lyttelton’s a small port town over the hill from Christchurch. It has an extra special place in my heart because it’s where I grew up. Infamous for its Saturday markets (the best Christchurch market, in my humble opinion), and what it lacks in size, it makes up for in personality. Lyttelton is worth the 15-minute drive from central Christchurch on any day of the week. Go straight through the tunnel, or add a few minutes to your drive and take the scenic route via Sumner or Governors Bay.
Lyttelton from the Port Hills
There is a glut of great places to eat including SUPER, The Shroom Room, and Arbour Woodfired Pizza. Eruption Brewing or Civil and Naval have you covered if you're after a drink, and it’s easy to find live music most nights. If you’re looking for some retail therapy, there’s a range of beautiful boutiques selling on behalf of local artists and makers. Once you’ve explored, you can take the ferry to Diamond Harbour or Qual Island, or walk down to one of the bays that make up the Lyttelton Harbour.
The thing I appreciate the most about The Garden City is how easy it is to get out in nature. We are very lucky in Christchurch to have so many incredible and varied beaches, just on the outskirts of town. If you’ve got dogs, Magazine Bay is the place to go. If you’re keen for a swim yourself, or you want to sit on the grass and have a picnic, you’ve got to visit Corsair Bay. Of course, if you’re a surfer, Sumner or New Brighton are the beaches for you.
3. New Brighton
Walk south from the New Brighton pier, and you might even spot the local penguins waddling to the dunes at dusk. Walk north, and you’ll eventually end up at Bottle Lake Forest. No need to stop there. If you’ve got a few hours to kill, the beach extends until the Waimakariri River mouth, and you may even come across seals basking in the sun, or dolphins swimming in the shallows. If the easterly wind’s howling, the Estuary Edge walkway is a sheltered favourite for native birds, on the other side of the New Brighton Spit.
New Brighton beach and pier
Despite the incredible natural attractions, the eastern suburbs of Christchurch suffered immensely as a result of the earthquakes. Over 10 years on, the He Puna Taimoana Hot Pools has finally put New Brighton back on the map. The sauna alone is worth making the visit. Sit in the warmth while you watch the waves come in, or head to the pools and watch the sun go down and the pier light up. Even the library is stunning, with front-row views of the ocean.
4. The Port Hills
The Port Hills tower above Christchurch from the southeast and are made up of a number of mountains forming two distinctive harbours, which were once active volcanoes. The Port Hills are every Christchurch local’s go-to for hikes. There are barren hillsides, native bush, waterfalls, secluded beaches, and the best views in Christchurch. My favourite walks include Victoria Park, Sign of the Kiwi, Godley Head and the Bridle Path.
If a hike isn’t your style, it’s worth the price to take the gondola up, so long as you’re not afraid of heights. The view from the top is panoramic, spanning from Christchurch to Lyttelton and everywhere in between. If you’re staying in Christchurch for a while, the annual pass is a great investment. I regularly head up there with my laptop, grab a table at the cafe, and enjoy the view while I work.
5. Innovation Hubs
It’s no secret that Kiwis are an inventive bunch. Culturally, we’re unafraid to give things a go, which often results in creative new developments. In support of this, there are innovation hubs and co-working spaces for startups in all of the bigger cities in New Zealand. Christchurch is no exception.
Whether you live in Christchurch, or you’re passing through with work to do, they are a fantastic place to bounce ideas off other innovators. They have all the necessities of a corporate office without having to commit to an office. Some of my favourites include ARGO, Saltworks, XCHC, and understorey.
I realise that Christchurch isn’t exactly known for its food… Hear me out, as someone who doesn’t eat meat, but often goes out to eat with people who do, I feel so lucky to live in Christchurch!
The CBD has excellent eateries like Little High, The Welder, Riverside Market and the Terrace. It’s effortless to find somewhere that caters for everyone. Not to mention all of the vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Christchurch like Grater goods for the best rueben sandwich, Welcome for the cheapest tasty Chinese food, Water Drop cafe, if you’re also keen to check out their art gallery, or Portershed if you need a quick meal on the go.
There are so many vegan and vegetarian restaurants and cafes here; I could probably do an entire blog post on that alone!
7. The New City
Christchurch is hardly recognisable if you haven’t visited since before the earthquakes, or during the first few years after. The central city has become a modern and exciting place. With the recent opening of Te Pae, large events finally have a venue that isn’t weather dependent. Just a short walk away is Tūranga, which is one of the most well set up libraries I’ve ever been to! Plus, we still have plenty of vacant lots currently being used as seating areas that will be built up eventually.
Many of Christchurch's heritage buildings were able to be restored after the earthquakes, and some new buildings were built to be indistinguishable from the older buildings we lost, so as to keep Christchurch’s old-school charm.
One of my favourite restored buildings is the Sign of the Takahe. It is a gothic style building that is a cafe and restaurant now, overlooking the city from Cashmere. It’s truly spectacular, but I especially love eating there because it was one of the buildings used to film The Frighteners - if you haven’t seen it, I can highly recommend it.
The tramway, New Regent Street, the Arts Centre, Ferrymead Heritage Park, and the Lyttelton Time Ball are beautiful shadows of what our city would have once looked like and are all definitely worth checking out.
Maybe it’s a reflection of the world as a whole, but I think that Christchurch values art a lot more these days. We have world-class art galleries, walking around the city you’ll find murals around every corner, and there are stunning sculptures in the botanic gardens, and in many of our city's rivers. I truly feel that Christchurch has more colour, creativity and lustre than ever before.
Mural seen from outside O.G.B. - Donna Robertson via CCL
10. The Red Zone
This one’s a bit quirky, and I realise it needs some explaining for anyone who has never been here. Christchurch was built on a swamp. The water was drained, and rivers were redirected. Unfortunately, whole suburbs in the east of Christchurch were flattened during the earthquakes because of the swampy ground. It was determined that the land was no good for rebuilding on.
The majority of roads and trees in this area were left as they were, and now the council maintains the land as a park. There is an eerie feeling in the red zone; it’s easy to see where people’s fences and houses were, and imagine the lives they lived and had to walk away from. A horrible ordeal for the people who called these places home, there has been an unexpected silver lining… The red zone hosts a huge variety of edible plants and fruit trees, so locals go there to forage. Because there are no concerns about disturbing residents, it’s also become a place for concerts in the evenings and energetic dog walking during the day.
The Cherry on Top
Christchurch is the perfect place to set up a base if you’re keen to explore the South Island.
Drive for under two hours from Christchurch and you could be swimming with dolphins in Akaroa, whale watching in Kaikōura, skiing in the alps, or soaking in the hot pools at Hanmer Springs or Ōpuke in Methven.
Nowhere in the South Island is more than a day of driving away. You could set off from Christchurch in the morning, stop for lunch in Waipara, Wanaka, Dunedin or Queenstown, and be having dinner on the golden sand of Kaiteriteri, in the wilderness of the West Coast, next to the lighthouse in Bluff, or with a view of Milford or Marlborough Sounds.