Gateway to the South Island

Home to almost 400,000 inhabitants, Christchurch sits on the sprawling green and gold patchwork of the Canterbury Plains. This is a city reinventing itself: innovative architecture, vibrant street art and pop-up dining have given Christchurch new life after the devastation wrought by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.

As Christchurch continues to evolve and be rebuilt, it is emerging as a low-rise, recreation-friendly city that is retaining the English-style charm for which it is known. From museums and galleries to rugby matches and renowned gardens, the South Island capital has it all.

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Top Christchurch attractions

To understand Christchurch today, you must first appreciate the extent of the devastation wrought by the earthquakes that flattened the city. The best place to start is the dramatic, interactive Quake City exhibition at Canterbury Museum.

One of the most moving art installations in the city is ‘185 Empty Chairs’, a memorial to those killed in the 2011 earthquake. The chairs – all kinds, from rocking chairs to highchairs and baby car seats – are painted white and each represent a lost soul. Nearby is the Transitional Cathedral; a stand-in for the neo-Gothic stone edifice that was once the symbol of the city. Made of large cardboard tubes, with eight shipping containers forming the walls, it is also known as the ‘Cardboard Cathedral’.

It’s oh-so-very-English, but punting on the Avon River is a Christchurch tradition. Boater hat-wearing punters expertly wield the pole as you glide along in comfort (blankets and hot water bottles are provided on chilly days). The river winds through Hagley Park, a 164 hectare green space in the heart of the city which encompasses the Botanical Gardens and is spectacular in autumn when the trees provide a blaze of colour. Hire a bicycle to pedal around the park’s flat five kilometres of tracks.

Among the city’s animal attractions is Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. It has a successful kiwi-breeding programme, tuataras (the world’s only living relative of the dinosaur), and a Maori cultural experience. There’s also Orana Wildlife Park with tigers and white rhinos, as well as a nocturnal house for kiwis. At the International Antarctic Centre (next to the airport) you’ll see Little Blue Penguins and find out everything you ever wanted to know about Antarctica.

Sports fans will find plenty here too. Don red-and-black and head to the Christchurch Stadium to watch the home rugby team, the Crusaders, hit the field (the stadium also plays host to rugby union internationals featuring the All Blacks). Canterbury’s largest ski area, Mt Hutt, is 90-minutes’ drive from Christchurch and offers skiing to suit all levels of skill.

Finally, no trip to Christchurch is complete without venturing out into Canterbury’s wine country: to the north is the Waipara Valley with nine wineries including the Waipara Hills winery, cellar door and bistro, housed in a beautiful stone building with views to the Teviotdale Hills, while on Banks Peninsula, the Selwyn Food and Wine Trail provides plenty of places to linger on a day trip to the French colonial village of Akaroa, which is studded with galleries, boutiques and cafe.

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