Tips for Visiting Christchurch
The city of Christchurch has found a second breath of life since the devastating 2011 earthquake. Artists have come out of the shadows and taken over the streets. Many travellers extend their stay in the city, including backpackers as jobs are plentiful. Plus, the best of the South Island is within a few hours’ drive.
However, many still have a mixed review of the city. While some struggle to find the right spots where it happens, others are completely unprepared. We’ve asked Vicky, who managed a hostel in the city for over two years, to compile some Christchurch travel tips for first-timers so you can see how to make your stay in Christchurch a great one.
While you’re here, don’t miss more essential tips in the 31 Tips for Travelling in New Zealand!
1. Christchurch is Not Totally Destroyed (and Earthquake Danger is Not Constant)
What most people know about Christchurch nowadays is that it had a major earthquake in 2010/11. Since then, Christchurch has changed tremendously with most of the redevelopment completed! Therefore, you’ll find that most of the city is no longer “under construction” making for some fun photo opportunities, contemporary architecture, and a new era of charm!
The exception to the rule is that some of Christchurch’s heritage buildings, such as the Christchurch Cathedral, are still getting a delicate rebuild in order to preserve their old-worldly features.
Oh, and note that the earthquake that impacted Christchurch truly was an exception to the rule. You are not in constant danger of earthquakes when visiting, which you can read in more detail in this explainer, A Guide to Earthquakes in New Zealand.
2. Book Accommodation in Advance
We’ve all done it and I’ll admit it myself. You’re fully organised and starting your trip: suitcase or backpack in hand and ready to go. You’re pretty sure you’ve thought of everything and then you get on the plane, train or bus and suddenly realise you’ve forgotten to book accommodation! Either that or you think you can get away with booking in somewhere when you get there. In most cities in New Zealand, especially the North Island, you can get away with it but not Christchurch.
I know it sounds daft, but even in the winter it is hard to find accommodation on the day and there is nothing worse than having to drag your giant overfilled backpack or suitcase around the streets looking for a bed. Given that many accommodations are on the outskirts of the city, after walking the length of Hagley Park and back again and not finding anything, you’re ready to overpay for a hotel.
The solution? Booking even three days in advance will stop you from stressing on the day about accommodation. Start by browsing the 20 Best Hotels in Christchurch or go for something more affordable in the 10 Best Budget Accommodations in Christchurch.
My best tip: If you’ve checked every website, called every hostel or hotel and nowhere has space, don’t just head here and hope for the best. Stay one more night where you are and see if anywhere will take you the night after.
3. Ditch the Car
Now, I’m not saying you have to ditch it entirely but just for the city centre. Cars are great for getting to those hard-to-reach places in Christchurch, like Taylor’s Mistake, Sumner Beach or Lyttelton, but around the city, you’ll hate yourself for even trying to drive to PAKn’SAVE.
Since the earthquake, we’ve had a lot of roadworks and, take it from someone whos lived here as long as I have; you start to swear the one-way systems and diversions are changing on a daily basis! So leave your car at your accommodation (find one with car parking) and walk into the city. If you’re staying somewhere outside the city like the beach or a holiday park, drive as close to the city centre as you can, then park up and walk. Just don’t forget where you parked your car!
You can also check out the public transport options in Public Transport in Christchurch, while the hop-on hop-off Christchurch Tram (more info on Viator and Klook) is always a fun way to explore the city centre.
4. Rent a Car for at Least Part of Your Stay (and Use Christchurch as a Base to Explore the Best of the South Island)
If Christchurch is your main base for your holiday in New Zealand, then we fully recommend taking the time to get out of its little bubble and see some of the real New Zealand. Rent a car or a campervan and do a road trip to Akaroa to see a French-inspired town combined with dolphins and penguins, Hanmer Springs to relax in the town’s famous hot pools, or Arthur’s Pass for world-class mountain scenery.
Take a look at some of The Best Car Rental Companies in Christchurch or The Best Motorhome & Campervan Rentals in Christchurch, as well as places to visit in The Best Day Trips from Christchurch.
5. Some of the Best Things to Do in Christchurch are Free!
This is a city that won’t burn a hole in the wallet in order to enjoy its top attractions. Hagley Park, the Botanic Gardens, the Canterbury Museum, the Port Hills, the Air Force Museum of New Zealand, the Christchurch Art Gallery, the Avon River and the city’s street art: all of these are free! Plan your whole itinerary for free (or at least very cheap) using the 26 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Christchurch.
6. Pack a Jacket
Needless to say that you will need to pack warm clothing for Christchurch in winter (June-August). Even during the warmer months, however, it’s smart to have a warm layer with you. While Christchurch experiences warm and long sunny days during summer, it can get pretty chilly when the sun goes down or is stuck behind a cloud all day.
Get more packing tips in What Clothes to Pack to Travel in New Zealand, as well as the right weather expectations from A Guide to the Weather, Climate & Seasons in Christchurch.
7. Don’t Underestimate the Airport
This one I’ve only put in as it is a great thing to know in advance about Christchurch. It’s more of a tip to help those who have booked an early morning flight out of New Zealand. The airport in Christchurch is very different from other New Zealand airports. In most New Zealand airports, if you’ve got an early morning flight, you can head there the night before and get away with spreading out across the floor somewhere to get some sleep until check-in opens at 4 am. Not in Christchurch! They do not allow anyone to sleep in the airport overnight. So no lying down and you can’t pull out the sleeping bags or blankets either. If they see you getting comfortable, you’ll be asked to leave immediately.
Save yourself the stress and find a place to stay for the night before. A good night’s sleep before a flight is worth it for the cost of a shuttle and accommodation.
8. Ask About Everything
I am writing about this for all the quiet travellers we have staying with us in Christchurch who don’t want to rock the boat. You need to ask about everything. Don’t worry about annoying the staff at your accommodation. They are there for you to speak to about issues. If your hostel or hotel offers breakfast but you don’t know where to go to get it, ask. If you’re not sure how to get somewhere, ask.
Take it from someone who works in a hostel: there is nothing worse than seeing reviews of hostels or even the city itself that have complaints about issues that could have been resolved. You just feel bad that those guests could have had a better stay and enjoyed themselves more.
9. Respect the Neighbours
This is a huge one for Christchurch and for you. To get why this is a big issue you have to understand that there still isn’t really a centre to Christchurch.
As I mentioned before, many of the hotels and hostels in Christchurch were rebuilt on the edge of the city centre after the earthquake. This means that some of them are nestled in residential areas. So if you are enjoying yourself in the garden of your hostel or motel and drinking alcohol at night, try and keep the noise down and respect the fact you will have families living next door. The louder you are the more restrictions your accommodation has to enforce. Besides, Christchurch has lots to offer on the bar scene!
10. Finally, Relax and Go with the Flow!
Enjoy yourself! Respect all the rules put in place in your accommodation and please remember that not all guests at your hostel are going to be as respectful as you are. So if anyone, staff or guests, are making your stay unpleasant in any way, politely make a staff member aware of what is going on so they can make your stay more enjoyable.
Don’t expect your accommodation to look immaculate on the inside either. A lot of the hostels in Christchurch are rundown, generally because they are still waiting to be able to fix the place after the earthquakes. It may make the place look a little bit less clean, but most places are clean and tidy.
More Christchurch Travel Tips
Want to know more about what to do when staying in the South Island’s largest city? Check out these other NZPocketGuide.com articles, packed with Christchurch travel tips for first-timers!
Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in The Complete Guide to Christchurch.