A one-day self-guided walking tour in Christchurch, New Zealand: check out the highlights and key attractions in Christchurch’s CBD, and find out how the city is revitalizing after the devastating earthquake in 2011.
New Zealand’s South Island
Being the two biggest neighbors in Oceania, Australia, and New Zealand is a world of difference in terms of its landscape and natural wonders. Australia has amazing beaches, koala bears 🐨, crocodiles, the Uluru, and a habitat ranging from tropical jungle 🌴to desert. New Zealand, on the other hand, has volcanoes, glaciers, geothermal areas, fjords and sounds, kiwi birds…; and so when I was in New Zealand, I met with quite a lot of Australian folks. For anyone who traveled to New Zealand would tell you the same thing – the landscape in South Island is much more dramatic; the Southern Alps is a dreamy place for trekking, wild camping, star gazing, glacier walking… that’s why I decided to spend some time on the North Island first before venturing to the south.
Flying to the South Island from the north in New Zealand was pleasurable as we were passing the Kaikoura Ranges. The two parallel ranges of mountains could be seen from a great distance, including the southern coast of the North Island. I was on a plane from Rotorua to Christchurch in October and I was already stunned by the marvelous landscape of the South Island before landing.
Staying on an alpaca farm
After a smooth landing, we checked into our farm stay cottage at the Silverstream Alpaca Farm. The farm stay is a mere 30-minutes north of Christchurch city center and the owners, Kit, and Sheryl kept an elite herd of 200 alpacas. They operate two cottage farms that stay next to their home, and both of them were warm, comfy, and homey. Once we settled down, I couldn’t wait to interact with the lovable alpacas, quietly grazing and being adorable in nearby fields. The farm stays organized farm tours but as we were house guests, we could walk around the nearby fields and play with the alpacas anytime. When we entered the field, we were advised by Kit to sit on the lawn and kept ourselves lower than them so the alpaca felt less intimidated. It was so much fun when so many alpacas (yes, a hundred of them) approached us curiously!
Christchurch’s travel highlights
Christchurch is the third-largest city in New Zealand and the largest on the South Island. It’s known as the “Garden City” due to its warm weather, abundant sunshine, flower beds, and expansive Botanic Garden. On 22 February 2011, the city center of Christchurch was devastated by being the epicenter of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake. Although it was not as intense as many other earthquakes that happened, it was close and shallow (merely 5 kilometers from the surface) enough to cause serious damages. The CBD (Central Business District), including the city’s landmark Christchurch Cathedral, collapsed and left in shambles. In the past 5 years, there have been a lot of discussions about how to make the city an exciting and fabulous place again. The revival of the city also faced challenges due to Soil liquefaction and many of the buildings have no choice but to be rebuilt gradually within the public exclusion zone (CBD Rebuild Zone).
As we were talking with the lady at the alpaca farm, Cheryl, she said it might take 20 years for the restoration to be done, and lots of tourist activities are basically suspended for the last few years. That’s why I could still see lots and lots of construction sites, and restoration work in the city center.
However, it could be hard for tourists to avoid Christchurch completely as it’s still the hub for flights to enter the South Island, and the starting point of the TranzAlpine Train and Coastal Pacific Scenic Train. Besides, the surrounding towns in the Canterbury region remained intact, such as Akaroa and Kaikoura; and there are several places in the city that worth a visit.
Historic tram in Christchurch city center
Although we drove from the alpaca farm to the CBD, it’s a nice way to get around in the city center by taking the Christchurch Tramway.
The tramway has 17 stops along the route and it begins at Cathedral Junction. The tram travels through Cathedral Square before passing the Avon River and High Street, then it moves forward as a loop and passes the Canterbury Museum, Hagley Park, Victoria Square, Botanic Gardens, and New Regent Street.
For a full-day hop-on-hop-off pass of NZD$20, the tourist could hop-on-hop-off for 24 hours at their own pace. While the humorous and knowledgeable tram driver would give rather entertaining commentaries as we traveled around the city.
The entire tram ride is about 50 minutes, but each stop has something for you to see and do, you would probably get on and off on your tour. The trams run every 15 – 25 minutes.
- (October to March, Summer) 9 am – 5 pm
- (April to September, Winter) 10 am – 4 pm
The stops are:
(1) Cathedral Junction > (2) Cathedral Square > (3) Mill Island > (4) Re:START Mall > (5) Ballantynes > (6) The Crossing > (7) Manchester Street > (8) High Street > (9) City Punting > (10) Art Gallery > (11) Worcester Boulevard > (12) Museum & Botanic Gardens > (13) Hagley Park Corner > (14) Cranmer Square > (15) Casino > (16) Victoria Square > (17) New Regent Street > (1)
There are two tram lines running in a circle so it’s not exactly in a sequence, but they are numbered from 1 to 17, which made it easier to navigate.
The city center is not big which could have been done on foot. As we were exploring the city on the tram, we saw construction sites everywhere. Now this area is rather quiet while most of the commercial activities seem to remain in the less affected areas like Lincoln Road or Riccarton Road. We wondered if there would be enough construction workers for so many projects happening at the same time. Not only the buildings above ground needed to be rebuilt but also the pipework underground.
Cathedral Junction: Transitional Cathedral (1)
The Cathedral Junction is the starting point of the tramway and the Transitional Cathedral, or Cardboard Cathedral, is a 5-minute easy walk across Latimer Square. Acted as a transition of the Christchurch Cathedral, the structure is designed by Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, who is notable for his innovative work using recycled cardboard to quickly and efficiently create shelter for disaster victims. The Cardboard Cathedral was also made of cardboard, with wood and glass, and the triangular pieces of stained glass are really something to see.
The 185 White Chairs, or the 185 Empty Chairs, is an earthquake memorial and a tribute to the 185 who lost their lives in the 2011 earthquake. It is located at the intersection of Madras Street and Cashel Street, behind the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral. Created by local artist Peter Majendie, it was his original intent to keep the memorial for a week. But then, the city desired to keep this temporary installation into a permanent fixture. The main inspiration for this memorial came from paintings by Vincent van Gogh of empty chairs – representing their owners’ different personalities. It was emotional to see baby chairs, wheelchairs, and high chairs when I thought about the pain for those who lost their loved ones during the disaster.
Cathedral Square: Christchurch Cathedral (2)
The Christchurch Cathedral was significantly damaged and I couldn’t even recognize it when I was first walking past the site. Survived numerous earthquakes over the last hundred years the tower was finally demolished in 2012, due to the core of the tower was seriously damaged after the 2011 earthquake. It was later the Anglican Church decided to demolish the building and replace it with a new structure but came to a halt when various local groups opposed the idea and brought the case to court. While the judgments have mostly been in favor of the church, no further demolition has been taken place since the removal of the tower in early 2012; and now the fate of this landmark remained unknown.
Mill Island (3)
The historic mill on the island was adorned by the beautiful cherry blossom during springtime!
Re:START Mall (4) & Ballantynes (5)
The city is filled with modern art and creative ideas. The Re: START Mall was a temporary shopping area with shops and delis that operated in containers (now the mall is permanently closed in 2018). The area is now a development project of five new buildings under construction. It is also closed to the Cashel Street Mall, the iconic Ballantynes Department Store which survived for generations, and the main pedestrian zones in the city center. A little bit further, the Riverside Market is a hip locale with food retailers and cafes.
Visit the Quake City Museum as there will be more information about the 2011 earthquake.
City Punting (9)
After passing the developing district of Manchester Street and High Street – Punting on the Avon is one of the must-dos in the city of Christchurch! While there were originally two locations to hop on the punt and now only begins at the historic Antigua boat shed on Cambridge Terrace. It is really special because there aren’t that many cities in the world that commercialized punting as a tourist attraction except the United Kingdom.
Museum & Botanic Gardens (12)
Afterward, the tram went straight through Worcester Street to the Botanic Garden before turning it right to the Hagley Park Corner and returns to the Cathedral Square. We disembarked for the Canterbury Museum and the Botanic Gardens. I got my favorite black coffee at the ilex Café in the Botanic Garden Visitor Centre, and appreciated the beautiful flower beds and bushes in the garden as I met some barn birds freely roaming on the lawn and saw cherry blossoms during its full bloom!
The Botanic Gardens was founded as early as 1863 when an English oak was planted to commemorate the solemnization of the marriage of Prince Albert and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. The Gardens lie adjacent to the loop of the Avon River and are about 21 hectares in size. While there’s no way to compare to many of the big urban parks across the world, it is the Garden City’s pride and joy. The Armstrong lawn was dedicated to one of the early curators of the Gardens, John Armstrong, and check out the beautiful bedding displays of petunia, begonia, and salvia bloom through spring and summer with tulips, polyanthus, and Iceland poppies in the winter. The Gardens is a collection featuring different themes and designs, from New Zealand Gardens, icon Garden, Herbaceous Border, Central Rose Garden, Rock garden, Cockayne Memorial Garden, Azalea and Magnolia Garden, Heritage Rose garden, to Water garden. The area also features a Daffodil Woodland, and a beautifully constructed Peace Bell and Band Rotunda. Imagine walking from one garden to another as if entering a wonderland of flowers. For those who didn’t want to walk, it is possible to enjoy the entire garden in an all-weather electrical vehicle.
Cranmer Square (14)
Cranmer Square is a small park in the north of Cathedral Square, and it is home to a number of important buildings in the city that were destroyed during the earthquake, including the historic Cranmer Court. Now, the major arterial route of Montreal Street skirts the edge of the square.
Victoria Square (16)
Victoria Square is a place to gather because it’s originally known as Market Place, where lots of markets, fair, and trade happened before its redevelopment at the end of the 19th century. It’s part of the red zone after the earthquake and reopened in 2012. The centerpiece of the square is the Captain James Cook statue, a well-known explorer of the country (which you will also hear a lot of places was named after him), and the square also features the country’s oldest cast iron and stone bridge, the Hamish Hay Bridge.