Christchurch Travel Guide


Arts Centre
The original site of the University of Canterbury has been transformed into Christchurch's Arts Centre, opposite the Botanic Gardens. The Gothic Revival buildings now house galleries, craft studios and shops, theatres and cinemas. There is also a selection of cafes, restaurants and bars, a weekend market and ethnic food stalls.

Science groupies will get their kicks from a visit to the former lab of 'Father of the Atom', Ernest Rutherford. The Arts Centre also contains an annex of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery (the main site is across the road near the entrance of the Botanic Gardens), housing its contemporary New Zealand collection.

Banks of the Avon
The Avon is a delight to simply stroll along, or, if you're up for its watery delights, find the historic Antigua Boatsheds and hire a boat, or better still a punt. The river meanders right through the unmissable Botanic Gardens, which has an amazing collection of exotic and indigenous plants. Hagley Park lies on the other side and is a draw for the sports-loving locals on weekends. More gorgeous gardens can be found on the other side of North Hagley Park, at Mona Vale, a Tudor-style homestead with extensive gardens, fountains and ponds.

Cathedral Square
Cathedral Square, at the heart of Christchurch, is the best place to start exploring the city. Although attracting its fair share of tourists, it's also well used by locals. The Cathedral, built in Gothic Revival style and symbolising the Church of England bedrock of this city, dominates the square. There's a visitor centre-cum-souvenir shop and cafe, and you can climb the spire (for a small fee). Look out for the Wizard, a famous eccentric who takes up a soapbox most fine afternoons somewhere in the square. An enduring, if more temporal, Christchurch landmark, he's been coming here for over 25 years.

Nga Hau e Wha
Visiting a marae (a traditional complex of Maori buildings) is one of the best ways to gain an understanding of Maori culture. Experienced guides, employed from local tribal groups, explain the culture, customs, history and traditions represented by the marae, which features two of New Zealand's most spectacularly carved whare (meeting houses).

Sign of the Takahe
For scenic views and a sense of history, the s-shaped Summit Rd offers a great ride, walk or drive. To the south of the city, it follows the ridge of what were once volcanic craters. Liberal thinker Harry Ell fought against the closure of various walking tracks scattered across this area as early as 1900, believing the preservation and appreciation of natural heritage was intrinsic to local identity. He envisaged a network of scenic reserves along the Port Hills, connected by a specially built road, with walker's rest houses at regular gaps.

The last rest house to be completed (in 1949, after Ell's death), and by far the grandest, is the Sign of the Takahe. This Gothic-style building, sited at what was once the last tram stop from the city, now houses tearooms, a restaurant and a function centre. The simpler sandstone shelters - the Sign of the Bellbird, Sign of the Kiwi, and Sign of the Packhorse - were built from 1914 to 1917 and designed to blend with the natural landscape. The walk is accessible by bus from Victoria Square, near the Town Hall.

Off the Beaten Track

Sited on a scenic harbour, this oh-so-pretty town is 82km (50mi) from Christchurch, on the Banks Peninsula. As the site of the first French settlement in New Zealand it offers a glimpse (albeit slight) into what might have been. Akaroa was claimed by the British just days before a ship of French colonists arrived in 1840. They stayed regardless, and left their Gallic mark via street and house names and historic wooden villas. The good restaurants came later, but help with the Francophile image. There are some beautiful swimming beaches nearby at Le Bons Bay and Okains Bay. Several coach lines make the 1.5 hour trip.

International Antarctic Centre
Not as far off the beaten track as the name might suggest, this huge complex is located (sans ice) near the airport. Visitors can experience Antarctic-type stuff such as being very cold (the 'Snow and Ice Experience', lets you explore a sub-zero snow cave and slide down a tunnel swept by freezing winds) and rides on a Hägglund Snowmobile.

Christchurch has been the base for the USA's Antarctic programs since the 1950s, and this is also where the New Zealand and Italian operations are administered. It's all very well presented and hands-on, with the added bonus that most of the staff have lived and worked on the great southern continent.

Although only 12km (7.5mi) from Christchurch itself, the town of Lyttelton has a distinct personality and a harbour setting framed by the pretty Port Hills. Fans of Lord of the Rings' director Peter Jackson may recognise Lyttelton as the setting for his earlier film The Frighteners. As it's still a working port, expect noisy docks and lively bars as well as historic buildings. If you're looking for something more salubrious than seedy waterfront pubs, there are some good drinking and dining options nestled in the streets that fan up across the hills. The Timeball Station is a rare piece of maritime history for which the town is famous - it's fabulously restored and boasts a spectacular view. There are regular buses from Cathedral Square, but as they go via a tunnel, you'll have to drive to appreciate the views.

Mt Hutt
Mt Hutt, which offers one of the longest ski seasons in the southern hemisphere, is just over an hour's drive from Christchurch. There are slopes to suit all levels of ski experience, with open faces also ideal for snowboarding. Although off-piste facilities are limited, the stunning setting more than makes up for it, with a patchwork of Canterbury farmland stretching away to the sea below. Most skiers opt to base themselves at the resort town of Methven, which lacks any particular alpine charm but is well serviced for accommodation, pubs and places to eat. The Mt Hutt Forest and Rakaia Gorge, good for walking and fishing respectively, are close by.

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