Fun Things to Do in a Day in Christchurch, NZ

My wife and I spent a day in Christchurch, New Zealand before embarking on an REI hiking trip in the southern island. We had no real plans in Christchurch, so we decided to just head to the city center, walk around, and play it by ear.

Luckily for us, Christchurch is a super charming city with lots to do and see within easy walking distance in the central business district!

About Christchurch

Christchurch is the largest city in the southern island of New Zealand. In 2011, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake hit the city, destroying much of the downtown business district and killing 185 people. Christchurch is still recovering with many old buildings still shored up with steel beams.

More recently, Christchurch was hit with another tragedy with the mosque shootings that left dozens of people dead. We arrived just three days after the shooting to find thousands of bouquets laid at the entrance to their botanic gardens in remembrance, an indication to me of the compassion of the New Zealand people.

Flowers mourning the mosque shootings in front of the Botanical Gardens in 2019
Flowers mourning the mosque shooting victims in front of the Botanic Gardens, three days after the shootings

Things to Do

Here are the best attractions we found during our day in Christchurch. Most of these were free!

1. Christchurch Botanic Gardens

You could spend the better part of the day in the wonderful 52-acre Christchurch Botanic Gardens. We really enjoyed our time here. There’s a Central Rose Garden, Heritage Rose Garden, Herb Garden, Rock Garden, and more.  For us, the highlight was the Dahlia Garden (my wife loves Dahlias).

Dahlia Garden at the Christchurch Botanical Gardens
The Dahlias are in bloom from January through March. New Zealand breeders started manipulating species from Mexico and Central America over 200 years ago.

We also loved the huge trees and ponds.

Christchurch Botanical Gardens
Christchurch Botanical Gardens

There is no charge to enjoy these marvelous gardens!

2. Canterbury Museum

The Canterbury Museum features both the natural history and human history of New Zealand, as well as general science exhibits. Some of our favorite exhibits included the exhibit on Antarctic exploration, the Bird Hall, and the Geology exhibit.

Geology exhibit at the Canterbury Museum
Geology exhibit at the Canterbury Museum

Amazingly, admission is free (except for a $2 NZD Discovery Room geared towards kids).

Kiwis at the Canterbury Museum
These were the only Kiwis we saw during our trip to New Zealand, as they are pretty rare and nocturnal

3. Coffeehouses and Cafes

Christchurch has a ton of charming independent coffee houses and cafes. Our favorite was the quirky C1 Espresso.

C1 Espresso in Christchurch NZ
C1 Espresso

In addition to having great coffee, teas, and food (curly fries!), the atmosphere is pretty unique. Housed in a former bank, they kept the bank’s air tube delivery system and actually use it to deliver your food to your table!

Some meals at C1 are delivered via air tubes right
Some meals at C1 are delivered via air tubes right to your table!

They also had a water dispenser made from an old Singer typewriter. The door to the bathroom hallway was behind a sliding bookcase!

Keep in mind that you won’t find any drip-brewed coffee in Christchurch. All of the coffeehouses that we found serve espresso.

Calling this just a “gallery” doesn’t do it justice. the Christchurch Art Gallery is a full-fledged museum housed in a modern glass building, with two levels of exhibits of mostly modern art.

Christchurch Art Gallery
Christchurch Art Gallery

The bull on the grand piano in the front is a prime Instagram location!

"Chapman's Homer" by Michael Parekowhai in front of the Christchurch Art Gallery
Me seated at “Chapman’s Homer” by Michael Parekowhai in front of the Christchurch Art Gallery

5. The Arts Centre

The Arts Centre is in Gothic castle-like stone buildings which were formerly used by Canterbury College and two of the city’s secondary schools.

The Arts Centre Christchurch, NZ
The Arts Centre

You’ll find interesting stores, restaurants, and galleries here. Definitely worth a visit!

A wood shop at the Arts Centre using antique hand tools
A wood shop at the Arts Centre using antique hand tools. They feature classes in basket-weaving, string-making, and spoon-carving (we found this funny for some reason).

6. Cathedral Square

Located in the center of town is the heavily-damaged Christchurch Cathedral. Worth a look to get an idea of the magnitude of damage the city endured.

Damaged Christchurch Cathedral in Cathedral Square
Damaged Christchurch Cathedral in Cathedral Square

The church spire was completely destroyed in the 2011 earthquake, but the church intends to rebuild.

7. The Retail Precinct

This is an area of the city with lots of retail stores, clothing shops, and drug stores centered roughly at the intersection of Cashel and High Street.

The Retail Precinct in Christchurch, NZ
Cool building in the Retail Precinct

We picked up some basic supplies (an iPhone case, bug repellent) and had some ice cream in this area of town.

8. Avon River

If you’re walking around the center of town, you’ll definitely cross the Avon River at least once. You might cross via the Bridge of Remembrance, a war memorial dedicated to those who died in WWI and subsequent wars.

Avon River in Christchurch, NZ
Another thing you can do on the Avon is take a punting tour of the river

If you’re not alert, you might not realize when you pass by the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial, located on both sides of the Avon River near the Montreal Street bridge.

9. Public Art and Architecture

Christchurch struck us as being an “artsy” town, with lots of public art throughout the central business district. Even a temporary wall around a construction site was colorfully decorated!

Colorful wall around a construction site that would normally be an eyesore
A colorfully decorated wall around a construction site that would normally be an eyesore.

Near the central square are the “oversized chairs”, a quirky outdoor art installation consisting of oversized furniture covered in artificial turf. Definitely Instagram-ready!

We also liked the architecture of the city, a mix of new and old. With so many buildings destroyed in the earthquake, there are many cool modern buildings!

Other attractions

There were a few more attractions that we skipped like the Cardboard Transitional Cathedral, Quake City earthquake museum, and the Margaret Mahy Family Playground.

Overall, we really enjoyed our day in Christchurch and hope you have a chance to visit too!

See the rest of our New Zealand trip

Check out my day-by-day rundown of the rest of our hiking and kayaking trip in New Zealand’s southern island.

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