An Easter visit to Christchurch, NZ – a city still rising
What’s changed since the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011?
I haven’t spent a great deal of time in Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, yet it’s strangely special to me. I’ve experienced some memorable and enlightening moments there, and it’s a place in which I feel very much at home. This Easter visit was no exception. I wasn’t sure what to expect, not having passed through for quite some time – long before the cataclysmic events that changed the city forever.
New Zealand records around 15,000 earthquakes a year, most of which are minor and cause little to no damage. However, in the early hours of 4 September 2010, a magnitude 7.1 quake struck, centred some 40 km west of Christchurch. It caused widespread damage but no loss of life.
Then, 5 months later, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked the city, at a lesser depth than the first, so the effects were much more devastating. 185 people were killed, and buildings were extensively damaged – including the Christ Church itself – the Cathedral – built in 1864.
Much of the city centre was subsequently cordoned off and declared a ‘red zone’ while at-risk buildings were demolished or stabilised. The main cordon has gone, but work is still going on.
The Cathedral’s future was the subject of much ongoing debate for a number of years. Meanwhile, subsequent earthquakes in June and December 2011 caused even further damage to the building. Eventually, the decision was made to restore rather than demolish. Designs, consultations and plans followed and work finally started in May 2020. Completion is expected in 2027.
You can visit Quake City, a special exhibition from the Canterbury Museum, to learn more about the earthquakes, their effects and the human stories of courage and hope that emerged from the events that followed.
Despite preparing myself for what I might find, arriving in Cathedral Square was a bit of a shock – and rather upsetting. This once-lively central thoroughfare felt like a wasteland, although it was good to see the Cathedral under restoration at last. Other buildings looked abandoned and derelict, scrawled with graffiti. A huge hole gaped where an underground car-park used to be. There’s clearly still a long way to go.
Fortunately, this turned out to be the worst of it – at least, of what I saw during our brief visit. Other areas of the city have changed significantly, but in a good way. So I want to focus the remainder of this post on those aspects of Christchurch that are just as good, new and exciting, or even better than before.
Although it’s beautiful at any time of year, the wonderful thing about visiting at Easter was that Hagley Park was full of fabulous autumn colour. Trees had yet to shed their copper and gold leaves, but the brisk northerly breezes whisked them off and sent them swirling around like a snowstorm, until they settled and crunched under our feet.
You can literally spend hours wandering in this huge park, following the Avon river and waving to the passing punters. Behind the Curators House restaurant, we discovered tucked-away little gardens of herbs and roses, with paths leading off to even more hidden gems. Similar delightful discoveries can be found throughout the park. There’s something for everyone.
It was in this park that I felt a moment of bliss, years ago, that enabled me to resolve a difficult situation in my life. I wrote about this in my post 11 breathtaking travel moments that made me glad to be alive.
Oxford Terrace was once a fairly nondescript street of dull commercial buildings backing onto the River Avon. It’s now an attractive, lively area of pavement cafes and bars that make the most of their riverside location. I can’t imagine a nicer place to spend a couple of hours on a balmy evening in summer or early autumn.
We visited one of the restaurants, a tapas bar called Castro’s. Entered at street level, the restaurant is on the first floor of a new building which forms part of the Riverside Market (see next section). The restaurant has a covered outdoor terrace overlooking the river. While it was a little too cold and rainy that night to enjoy sitting outdoors, we still had a wonderful evening thanks to the delicious authentic Spanish food and friendly staff.
Incidentally, the Curators House in Hagley Park is another place for wonderful authentic tapas. If you love Spanish food, you’ll be very happy!
Having pre-booked our table at Castro’s for Easter Sunday evening, we decided to take a walk there during the day to make sure we knew where to find it. Most shops in Christchurch were, naturally, closed, and the city was strangely quiet. That is, until we entered the lane leading to the new Riverside Market. It was as though everyone had descended on this one spot! Crowded and bustling with activity, it was a haven of chaos in a deserted city.
This new indoor market opened in 2019 after a 5-year build, at a cost of $80m. The idea for it was conceived from a temporary pop-up retail centre called ‘Re-Start’ which was set up after the earthquakes, to enable shopping to continue after the devastation of the city centre mall. Micro businesses were housed in colourful converted containers. The concept was hugely popular with locals, who were keen to preserve their experience in some way. The new market provided the solution.
Businesses operating there include artisan food producers and eateries of just about every cuisine that you can think of. It’s hugely popular and successful – and lovely to visit, if a little hectic at times. Our photo was taken on a much quieter weekday morning!
This city centre mall, previously a rather down-at-heel place, has been rebuilt and reborn. It’s now a much more stylish, upmarket and pleasurable place to shop. It also feels much safer than its predecessor. The mall has some lovely new cafes, a posh-looking health club and some interesting independent shops.
One thing I really love about the redeveloped shopping streets in Christchurch is the incorporation of laneways. This modern version of the atmospheric lanes of old European cities has worked really well.
One of the Christchurch malls is even called The Laneways. It interlinks with the main shopping streets and has a mix of designer boutiques, high street stores and cafes.
Adding to the character of this area, and still trundling down Cashel Street itself, are the much-loved Christchurch trams. First established in 1880, the trams operate around the central heritage circuit. This criss-crosses the city centre and extends out along Hagley Park to Armagh Street in the north, and Ash Street in the south. Visitors can buy a day pass for the City Tour tram and hop on and off as they please.
A wonderful new addition is the Tramway Restaurant. This specially fitted-out tramcar runs around the heritage circuit for about 2 and a half hours, while diners are served a delicious 3-course meal with a wine match option. We just had to try this unique experience – and we were not disappointed.
What the on-board chef managed to dish up, in that tiny kitchen space, was nothing short of miraculous. The evening reminded us a little of our British Pullman trip. The period carriage, the high quality of the food, the professionalism of the staff – and the number of waves we received from delighted onlookers – were all very reminiscent of that experience.
Rolling gently around the city at night was truly magical. A couple of stops were made during the evening for restroom visits and photo opportunities. We highly recommend the Tramway Restaurant for something unique and different to enjoy during a visit to Christchurch. It’s very popular however, so book in advance if you’d like to try it.
New Regent Street
This attractive pedestrianised street has Category 1 heritage listing. Built in the Spanish Mission style of architecture during the 1930s, it was badly damaged in the earthquakes and has since undergone a fabulous restoration.
Attractive outdoor seating areas run alongside the eclectic shops and cafes, which are decorated with Spanish-style tiles. You can enjoy your food and drink in this Mediterranean-style setting while the occasional tram passes by.
The Arts Centre
Unlike other cities in New Zealand, Christchurch boasts some stunning period architecture that is more typical of old England than the New World. The Arts Centre, which is located in a series of buildings that once housed Canterbury University before it was relocated to the suburbs, is one of my favourite places. I’d heard that, like the Cathedral, it had not withstood the earthquakes well.
I was therefore delighted to find the Arts Centre looking wonderful, following a multi-million dollar restoration which was only completed in 2022. It’s now possible, once again, to walk through the lovely quadrangles behind the main buildings, attend lunchtime music recitals in the Great Hall, and explore the arts and crafts studios and shops.
A fascinating exhibition describes the challenges and engineering miracles achieved during the restoration. You also learn about the fantastic skills of the many craftspeople involved, particularly the stonemasons, many of whom were recruited from Europe.
One or two buildings remain unrestored, due to a $12 million funding shortfall which, sadly, is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
Getting to Christchurch
Christchurch airport receives international flights from north America, Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands. Domestic flights are available from 16 other New Zealand airports. The city is easily accessible by road and there are Inter City bus services from other major towns in the south island.
From September to April, the Coastal Pacific scenic train travels once a day to and from Picton on the northern tip of the south island. (You can read my separate post about the Coastal Pacific train). Interisland ferries run between Picton and New Zealand’s capital Wellington.
Central Christchurch is easily walkable, or you can hop on and off the heritage tram. There’s also a good local bus service to the outer suburbs. Most local and long-distance bus services arrive at, and depart from, the Central Bus Interchange on the corner of Lichfield and Colombo streets.
Where to stay
There’s plenty of choice in Christchurch depending on how much you want to spend on your accommodation. We favour boutique hotels as they tend to be more individual and memorable. The George, located on the fringe of the city centre opposite Hagley Park, turned out to be the perfect choice. The local neighbourhood was lovely and we could take the 15-minute walk into town through the park. Read our review on TripAdvisor.
An interesting alternative would be The Observatory, a new boutique hotel within the Arts Centre precinct – an amazing and unique location. Depending on your own preference, there are plenty of chain hotels, motels and AirBNB options in the city centre.
When to visit
Christchurch can be visited and enjoyed in any season, so the timing of your visit will depend on which activities you plan to include in your trip. If you’d like to travel on the Coastal Pacific train, any time from spring to early autumn would be perfect. If you like the idea of taking New Zealand’s most famous scenic train of all – the TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth – then winter can be a great choice for a truly magical, snowy alpine experience.
Autumn is a beautiful time to visit and enjoy the stunning colours of Hagley Park. In retrospect, we probably wouldn’t choose Easter weekend due to so many holiday closures. But then again, there was an aspect to our Easter travels that we hadn’t really considered before making the trip.
Whether one is Christian or not, Easter is not a bad time to take a pause for reflection. How’s the year going so far? Come to that, how is life going? Does anything need to change? Are there any new goals that need to be set?
My better half and I did find ourselves having these conversations while strolling through the park into town. Meanwhile, all around us in Christchurch were signs of lingering devastation, but also of renewal, innovation, optimism, determination and change for the better. All of which felt inspirational – and kind of appropriate for Easter.
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Unfortunately I missed out on NZ and Christchurch when I had to cancel my sabbatical in 2020. I would have loved to visit. Your pictures capture a beautiful and charming city that reminds me a lot of England. The punting on the Avon in particular has some serious Cambridge-vibes. I’m positive I’ll visit one day and then I would have the Earthquake exhibition Quake City very high on my list.
Carolin | Solo Travel Story
Spot on, Carolin – Christchurch is definitely the most English of NZ’s cities, and there is indeed a Cambridge connection. The local university, in its early days, was named after Christ’s College, Cambridge – and the city itself was named after Christ Church College, Oxford. Hence the punting tradition! Although the river Avon is not named after the English river, but a Scottish one of the same name. Hope you get another chance for your sabbatical in the near future!