Experiencing the TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific trains are just two of many things to do in Christchurch, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time!
This article includes the following sections:
- Visiting Christchurch: a city of history and elegance
- Christchurch must-do activities
- TranzAlpine train - One of the world's great train journeys
- Coastal Pacific train - Cruise along the Pacific Ocean!
- Restaurants and bars in Christchurch
- Where to stay in Christchurch
- Christchurch transport links
- A little bit of Christchurch history
Visiting Christchurch is a relaxed affair. Set at the heart of Canterbury's rural plains, Christchurch mingles olde English quaintness with modern city style. Historic nineteenth century buildings sit elegantly alongside the city's brand new architectural creations. Classic haute-cuisine restaurants sit alongside lively modern food alleys. Clinks and chortles from the city's gastropubs and wine bars blend harmoniously with the howls and cheers of sports bars and pubs. Christchurch is a small town city of close-nit diversity!
Experiencing the TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific trains are essential activities for your New Zealand holiday and the relaxed and refined city of Christchurch makes a great accompaniment to your great train journey.
For those planning their New Zealand itinerary by campervan, be sure to take time-off from the road and camp-stove to experience one of the world's great train journeys followed by a evening or two in Christchurch!
Whether you are looking to explore the city's rich history, kick back and enjoy a couple of relaxing days or pack in the action for a top family fun day out, Christchurch's must-do activities cover it all! A great way to discover the best things to do in Christchurch is to read online reviews, but to whet your appetite here are our top picks:
Take an historic tram ride:
The Christchurch tram has been running since the turn of the twentieth century and with so few trams still operating around the world, this really is a wonderful opportunity to ride back in time. The Christchurch tramway is quite extensive and it is a good way of seeing the city. However, the thrill of catching a tram is the real motivation for jumping aboard!
Red Bus tour of Christchurch:
Young or old, everyone feels a tinge of excitement when an old London Routemaster bus greets them at the curb. You can either do a full organised red bus tour of Christchurch or a hop on and off tour at your own pace. Go to the Hassle Free Tours website to find out more about red bus sightseeing tours.
Take a punt on the Avon River:
What could be more relaxing or romantic than a slow punt along the Avon River on a sunny afternoon? The gentle swish of the pole, the chatter of bird song and the slow ripple of water are the only distractions on this journey into tranquility. So drift off for an hour of bliss with a skilled punter at the helm from the Antigua Boat sheds.
Learn the history of New Zealand's oldest city in the Canterbury Museum:
The Canterbury Museum has everything to keep young and old amused for many, many hours. Experiment in the interactive science zones, explore the frozen world of Antarctica, ride on a penny-farthing as you walk through a life-size model of 19th century Christchurch and discover Canterbury's rich, colourful, history. It is undoubtedly one of the best museums in New Zealand.
Wander the streets of Christchurch and witness a great city rising up:
Following the devastating earthquake of 2011, Christchurch was a sombre city filled with poignancy and derelict buildings. But not anymore. Inspiring modern architecture is rising from the rubble and giving the city a positively futuristic feel.
Christchurch has long been base camp for exploring the world's most remote continent, Antarctica. From Scott's great race to modern scientific research, the International Antarctic Centre covers everything you could want to know. And, with its interactive icy exhibitions, it is probably as close as you want to get to the dark, hazardous, chilling world of Antarctica!
Christchurch is home to sport all year round. In summer, international cricket takes to the field with New Zealand's cricket team, the Black Caps, playing Tests, One Day Internationals (ODI) and Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is) at Hagley Oval. During winter (and autumn and spring!), the Canterbury Crusaders rugby union team takes on the Southern Hemisphere in the Super Rugby competition. Rugby League Park (AMI Stadium) is where the action takes place - and it is conveniently located in Addintgon, very near to Christchurch Station.
Revel in railway history:
New Zealand's first steam train ran from Christchurch to the nearby port of Ferrymead in 1863. By 1867, New Zealand's first railway tunnel had been constructed through Port Hills to Lyttelton. To learn about this early history, head to the Ferrymead Heritage Park. There you'll find many lovingly restored 19th century locomotives and railway equipment - including the first New Zealand built steam locomotive, which was manufactured at Addington, on the site of Christchurch Station.
Addington: the home of New Zealand trains
Christchurch was the home to New Zealand's first railway, which ran from Madras Street to the harbour at Ferrymead. Christchurch was also home to New Zealand's first railway workshops where New Zealand's first home built locomotive was constructed in 1889. The workshops were located in Addington on the site that the modern Christchurch Station stands. Located next to the station, the Addington Water Tower stands testament to its rich history. The tower was built to deliver high-pressure water to the workshops and was one of the first reinforced concrete structures ever built.
Without doubt, one of Christchurch's best attractions is the TranzAlpine train, which runs daily through the magnificent Southern Alps from Christchurch to Greymouth on New Zealand's West Coast and back. This day-long experience marries relaxation with exhilaration as it climbs through some of the South Island's finest scenery - which is why the TranzAlpine is ranked amongst Christchurch's top attractions.
Arguably even more beautiful than the TranzAlpine is the Coastal Pacific train, which departs daily from Christchurch to Picton, connecting with the Interislander ferry to Wellington. The Coastal Pacific train also stops at the seaside town of Kaikoura and New Zealand's wine capital, Blenheim. So when it comes to getting to Christchurch or away, be sure to investigate this incredible train journey!
With a happy mixture of business types relaxing after work, students looking for cheap eats and fun, and adventurous tourists looking to experience something interesting, you will find a vibrantly varied selection food and restaurants in Christchurch that matches any taste and budget!
Most bars and pubs in Christchurch serve good food and coffee, and most restaurants and cafes in Christchurch serve a good selection of beer and wine. In fact, the differences between bars, pubs, cafés and restaurants are quite narrow in New Zealand. It is worth noting that restaurants in New Zealand close when they feel their night is done - which may be as early as 9pm during the week.
Finding the best restaurants in Christchurch
With new venues popping up and international chefs frequently arriving to experiment with New Zealand's fresh local produce, we recommend checking online for the best restaurant for your tastes (we will say that eating on the Tramway Restaurant is an experience you will never forget!).
If you prefer the old fashioned way of finding food, then walking around the city in the early evening is an excellent way to take in the sights, work up an appetite and sniff out somewhere great to eat!
Wine bars, sports bars, Irish pubs and clubs; you'll find them all in Christchurch! With the city centre coming alive with new venues, it is hard to keep up with what's new and what's good. So we recommend using TripAdvisor to find the best bars in Christchurch to suit your style!
If you are thinking of taking to the streets of Christchurch to find something that suits, then you can work up a real thirst. There are pockets of bars, but they are quite spread out. There are a number to the immediate northeast and southwest of Cathedral Square, with a pocket at the southern end of High Street and many more scattered along Victoria Street and the bottom of Papanui Road.
The TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific trains services operate from Christchurch Station to the south of Hagley Park. There are hotels and motels conveniently nearby, but it is only a brisk 30-40 minute walk through the park to the city for those who like to stretch their legs or a cheap taxi ride. So we recommend staying a bit farther afield to experience central Christchurch (some B&B owners will even give you a lift for no charge - so be sure to mention you are travelling on the train when booking your room!).
Central Business District (CBD):
Just to the north of Christchurch CDB, Merivale has its own flourishing community and provides a more localized buzz. Merivale sits on the edge of Hagley Park and is within easy walking distance of the CBD. So if staying in the city centre doesn't suit your style, Merivale probably will.
The coastal suburb of New Brighton is a twenty-minute bus ride from Christchurch CBD and features a huge sandy beach, magnificent pier and sizeable seaside themed children's playground and splash park. It is a perfect spot for families looking for a holiday letting on a budget and wish to explore the city without being confined by it.
Farther south along the coast is Sumner, which has a lovely beach and several great restaurants. If you are looking for a refined break by the sea within easy reach of Christchurch CBD then this is your spot.
Find a rural retreat:
Beyond the immediate vicinity of Christchurch there are plenty more options, including boutique lodges, holiday parks and farm-stays. So whether you are looking for a spa weekend or a week on a farm, you will be able to find the perfect place to stay.
Christchurch is the South Island's major transport hub, so getting there and away is phenomenally easy. Simply get on board any of these modes of transport:
Christchurch railway station:
Christchurch Railway Station has two daily services, both of which are scenic long distance passenger trains that can be taken as a wonderful day experience or as phenomenal alternative to standard transport. The most popular train is the TranzAlpine, which departs daily to Greymouth on the West Coast; stopping at Springfield, Arthur's Pass National Park and Moana (Lake Brunner) arriving back in the early evening.
Christchurch international airport:
Christchurch International airport is New Zealand's third largest airport and has flights to most domestic airports and several international airports, including Australia, China, Singapore and Dubai.
InterCity national coaches:
International cruise ships connect with Akaroa Port and Lyttelton, offering both domestic and international cruises around New Zealand's famous ports and beyond.
For many international visitors, hiring a vehicle in Auckland and driving around the North Island before catching the Interislander ferry to the South Island and eventually flying out of Christchurch is their dream trip around New Zealand. This is easily done, as most rental firms will allow you to hire in Auckland and drop off in Christchurch (you might find it cheaper in reverse, as companies are keen to get their vehicles back to Auckland!).
For domestic customers, flying into Christchurch and hiring a vehicle is also a popular choice. However, with State Highway 1 between Picton and Christchurch reopen, this beautiful route now offers extra intrigue with designated viewing points for inspecting ground upheaval caused by the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016.
If you are an AA Member, then be sure to investigate their discounted rental vehicles and transport options. You can save heaps on New Zealand transport; including cars, campervans, train and ferries!
Christchurch car hire:
There is nothing more convenient than a car and you won't struggle to hire one in Christchurch, providing you book in advance.
For those wanting to travel on the Coastal Pacific train, it is worth noting that car rental firms operate from the Interislander Picton ferry terminal and Wellington ferry terminal. These allow you to drop off a car at Wellington and pick another up in Christchurch, or vice-versa, allowing you to ride the Coastal Pacific without any car concerns. Your baggage will even be transferred between the Interislander ferry and train for you, making travel between Wellington and Christchurch an incredibly relaxed and scenic affair.
Similarly, most rental firms have offices in Greymouth, allowing you to drop one car off and pick another up in Christchurch, or vice-versa. Most people who do this agree that ditching the car or camper for a day or two and relaxing on our great train journeys is an excellent way to unwind and recharge.
Christchurch campervan hire:
The forums on TripAdvisor are a good place to find experienced feedback or read the ultimate guide to campervanning in New Zealand!
Christchurch's history began in England in 1848, with the creation of the Canterbury Association. The association was backed by the Church of England with the intention of helping impoverished parishioners. The industrial revolution was in full swing during this period and many of England's skilled rural labourers were unemployed and surplus to requirement. The Canterbury Association promised a new life in New Zealand, where their skills were needed and the land would be theirs.
The association decided it would build a city called Christchurch and began to plan its design before the first immigrant ship had even arrived. The city's name was based on the Oxford College of Christ Church and its design would reflect its English namesake. The Canterbury Association successfully applied for city status in 1862, despite having a population of only 3000. This status was later revoked and officially Christchurch became a city in 1868.
City status was important to the Canterbury Association as it made Christchurch more attractive to the prospective English immigrants that were needed to build the city! Introducing New Zealand's first steam train in 1863 also made Christchurch an attractive proposition. Soon an English city was taking shape on the Canterbury Plains.
Building the city's municipal centre with limited labour and funds proved difficult. Although the city's plans were drawn up in the 1850s, it wasn't until the turn of the twentieth century that the city began taking shape. At its heart was the magnificent Christchurch Cathedral with its 63m spire broadcasting the city's status across the region. Around the Cathedral were college buildings and premium residences and the city fanned out from there.
Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011
A 6.2 magnitude earthquake in 2011 devastated Christchurch, both physically and emotionally. The trouble began in September 2010 when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked the city and weakened many of its structures. Life in Christchurch resumed, but many structures were no longer earthquake proof. Tragedy struck at 12:51pm on 22nd February 2011 when the second huge earthquake shook many buildings to their foundations with the people of Christchurch working at their desks and enjoying their lunch breaks.
New hope and inspiring architecture
The city is now alive again with inspiring modern architecture rising up all around. A glittering array of new shopping centres, offices, bars and restaurants now line the streets, giving the city an audible buzz of excitement. Attention is now firmly focused on the future.
Hope of a full recovery was given a massive boost in 2017, when one of the biggest and most saddening issues was finally resolved. Christchurch Cathedral, the heart of the city, will be rebuilt. It is hoped that by 2027, this beacon of Christchurch's strength, prosperity and rich history will once again stand proudly at the heart of the city.