If you are travelling through New Zealand’s South Island, chances are you will pass through Christchurch. Known as the “Garden City” due to its mega Botanical Garden, Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city. It also just so happens to be my next kiwi road trip destination. An earthquake in the coastal city of Kaikoura destroyed the main highway a week prior to our trip. This meant that we were diverted inland on our way south from Marlborough to Christchurch. While it took us a few hours longer to get to our destination, the drive was as scenic as it gets.
You may recall that Christchurch fell victim to a series of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. The biggest and most devastating occurred on 22 February 2011. Not only did it kill 181 people, but also forced thousands of people out of their homes and left the city in ruins. In doing my research on things to see and do while in town, one thing was very clear – the earthquakes and the rebuilding efforts play a major role in defining today’s Christchurch.
Heading into Christchurch I had no idea what to expect. Part of me thought that years had gone by so while it impacted the city, I wouldn’t necessarily see that impact. I was wrong. In fact, none of what I read about prior to arrival was an exaggeration. The city didn’t quite feel like a city and had cranes propped up everywhere you looked. The rebuilding efforts were still taking place and Christchurch appeared to be in a state of change. It was almost as if five years later the whole of Christchurch was still a construction site.
To be clear – a lot of what made Christchurch a great city prior to the earthquakes is still very much there. The resilience of the people continues to live on as the city embraces innovation, creativity and sustainability through their rebuilding efforts.
If you are heading to Christchurch, here are some great ways to experience the changing city.
//ride the CHRISTCHURCH TRAM
Want the easiest way to see the city? Hop on the Christchurch Tram. The tram runs through central Christchurch from New Regent Street through Cathedral Junction to Cathedral Square and along Worcester Boulevard. There are 17 total stops along the way and your ticket gives you the ability to hop on and off as it zips around town in restored heritage trams. Go punting on the Avon, visit the Botanical Gardens or stop off at the Canterbury Museum. These and many more Christchurch highlights can be found along the route.
Central Christchurch is easily walkable but doing so means you miss out on the friendly tram drivers in the process. Our driver shared with us the history of Christchurch and narrated the whole of the journey around town. It was a great way to get an orientation of the city to help us decide where and how we wanted to spend the rest of our stay.
//Get Underneath EARTHQUAKES
It only takes a few minutes walking around town to see the destruction left by the earthquakes. Having never experienced an earthquake I find this natural phenomena interesting. If you too are curious about earthquakes – and more specifically the ones taken place in the Canterbury region between 2010 – 2011 then you have an opportunity in Christchurch.
The Canterbury Museum created a special exhibition called Quake City. This multi-sensory attraction helps to inform people about the earthquakes that took place. You’ll get to hear the stories of locals who lived through the quakes and get insight into what it takes to rebuild a city that has been devastated by one. Earthquakes are quite common in New Zealand – if there is anywhere you can learn more about them, it’s here.
//experience the REBUILDING
When something like an earthquake comes through it can devastate more than homes. In the case of Christchurch, you will find that it devastated significant amounts of infrastructure and the community. During our visit, there were still loads of buildings that were boarded up or fenced-off waiting for demolition. There were also shops that were opening for the first time – which baffled me. It had literally been five years and it seemed like advancements on this front were molasses slow. Cranes were becoming staples in the “skyline” of Christchurch. Our tram driver said that to complete the rebuilding efforts, it will cost about NZ$40 billion. That’s a massive chunk of New Zealand’s annual GDP!
What I find fascinating is how the people have taken the opportunity to introduce a more eco-friendly and sustainable approach to rebuilding it’s town. They are also infusing a quirky, artsy vibe to these efforts – like this mural that can be seen in a parking lot off Cathedral Square.
Now synonymous with Christchurch, the Re:START Container Mall is a great example of an innovative way the city came together to create post-earthquake solutions. This retail mall made entirely out of steel shipping containers offered local businesses the opportunity to set up shop and run again. It caught on so much that there has since been a similar one built in Shoreditch, a trendy neighborhood in London. The Re:Start mall was always meant to be temporary and five years later was closed to make way for traditional shops and markets. Hopefully elements of Christchurch’s rebuilding period will be retained for its community and visitors to it.
We visited Christchurch twice during our road trip through New Zealand. The first time was to break up our drive from Marlborough to Dunedin. Christchurch then served as our final stop in NZ as we made our way from the gorgeous west coast to catch our departing international flight. Both times we stayed on Cathedral Square for ease. Accommodation in Christchurch is simple. We opted to stay at Hotel 115 – a cute, boutique hotel. It has all the ingredients to make a great, funky stay – except for the poor service. Our last stay was at Quest Serviced Apartments. Like an Airbnb, the latter has a kitchenette and is more like home than a standard hotel. While it was no frills, it also had no attitude – which is more than we can say for our first stay.
If you are heading further south through New Zealand, be sure to take advantage of the surrounding towns in the Canterbury plains. Those making their way through Christchurch often visit Lyttelton, Akaroa, Timaru and Oamaru. Whether its great bars and restaurants you are looking for or swimming with dolphins and spotting wildlife – be sure to visit a couple of these coastal towns. Our next destination was Dunedin, so we planned to continue much further south and visited the Moeraki Boulders. Fun times.