Christchurch Travel Guide: A Broken City

Christchurch is a city that has experienced a traumatic recent history. Devastating earthquakes in 2011, caused great damage to the biggest city in the South Island and its people and it is only just beginning to get back on its feet.

I spent 10 months living and working in the city during on my New Zealand working holiday visa. I couldn’t believe the impact the earthquakes had when I first arrived. It was like entering a war zone, such was the damage!

However, the people didn’t let the earthquake damage their spirit. The recovery was in swing, from the Re:start Mall, to the rebuild, Christchurch is on the way back, like a phoenix rising from the flames.

My Christchurch travel guide comes with a caveat, as the city is still in the midst of a massive rebuilding project. However, it’s still definitely worth including backpacking Christchurch on your New Zealand backpacking itinerary.

Christchurch Travel Guide

General info

Christchurch was established by European settlers in the 1840s and is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand. The name Christchurch was suggested by John Robert Godley, who attended Christ Church College at Oxford University.

Christchurch is known as the Garden City and has gained a reputation as being the most English city outside of the UK.

I can testify to this, as there were a lot of areas, especially Fendalton, that reminded me of England! Christchurch is the oldest established city in New Zealand; it was given city status by Royal Charter in 1856.

 

Broken buildings in Christchurch

The Broken City

This Christchurch travel guide would have been very different had it been written before 2011.

The earthquakes that hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011 have wreaked havoc with the city. Buildings and even whole neighbourhoods have been destroyed. In fact, it is eerie walking and driving around areas that are now empty, especially as in some places the houses still remain standing, unoccupied.

The city is doing its best to recover and work is well underway to repair the city to its former glory. As someone who had never seen Christchurch prior to the earthquakes, it is hard to imagine what it looked like without decimated buildings and shipping containers everywhere.

When I first arrived in Christchurch in February 2014, I couldn’t believe the scale of the damage, it was extraordinary. The damage was so evident, I felt like I was walking through a war zone, especially in the centre of the city, which should have been full of people, yet apart from a handful of tourists and locals, it was empty.

The city has greatly improved since I first arrived, as more and buildings are going up, but there are still old buildings that remain as a testament to the power of nature!

The ingenuity and spirit of the people in Christchurch should be applauded, as they have remained firm in the face of adversity and are seeing their city rise from the ashes again as a result.

It can be difficult at times living in Christchurch, as the rebuilding work is evident everywhere, and if you are working in the rebuild, then you will be working long hours.

So, it can feel as if you have a lack of time to see things in and around the city and just have time to relax!

However, despite the earthquakes and the damage, Christchurch is still one of the best places in the South Island to visit! There is amazing natural beauty from the Port at Lyttleton to Taylor’s Mistake, which I believe is one of the best beaches in New Zealand!

Perhaps the best thing about Christchurch is that it is gradually improving, so there are also new things to see, new places opening. The city is ever-changing and is certainly a more lively and vibrant place than when I first arrived!

 

New Regent Street, Christchurch

Getting to Christchurch

Christchurch is the main entry point to the South Island, and as such, you’re likely to first enter the city via the Airport. A flight to New Zealand is a long haul flight in every sense of the term. Even flying from Melbourne takes around 3 hours!

The city centre is easily accessible from the airport, there are a number of shuttles that drop you off at your hostel, which might be the best option if you’ve never been to the city. Otherwise, you can get a bus to the bus station in the city centre and you can go from there.

If you are coming from another city in the South Island, then it is not too difficult to reach Christchurch. The road network in New Zealand means that there is one main route on the East Coast and another on the West Coast. So, just following the signs and staying on these roads and you won’t go far wrong!

The South Island is quite big, so driving to Christchurch and can take a while depending on where you are coming from. For instance, it takes around 5 hours to drive there from Queenstown, while it takes about 3.5-4 hours from Dunedin.

 

Backpacking Christchurch

Backpacker work in Christchurch

Christchurch is perhaps the best and easiest place to find a job as a backpacker in New Zealand. This is especially true for men, as the rebuild means that there are a number of jobs in the construction industry. There are probably jobs here for the next 10-15 years, due to the scale of the rebuild needed in Christchurch.

To get a job, you’re going to have to go to one of the numerous recruitment agencies that operate in Christchurch. As there is so much choice, it can be hard to know which one to go to. I used a few during my time there, and my friends also used a few different ones.

I highly recommend Adecco, as this is who I worked for most of my time in Christchurch. They were very good and I was hardly out of work, from May to when I left in December. TurboStaff were also very good, and a lot of my friends got good jobs through them.

I would also recommend Max Contracts, although they don’t pay holiday pay, unlike Adecco, so this is something to consider. One thing I don’t recommend is advertising yourself for hire on Gumtree. Or, you could end up working for gypsies like me and my friend did for two weeks!

In the way of other jobs, there are not as many as there are in construction, but there are a few out there. Retail is a big employer, with many shops and malls in the city, so don’t fancy the construction industry, or you are of the fairer sex, then this might be the route for you.

You can also work for rent in hostels, but I don’t think there is much point in Christchurch, with getting a job relatively easy. Also, the fact that you aren’t getting paid is enough for me not to consider this option, if you don’t plan on working and are just backpacking, then I would recommend it, otherwise don’t bother.

 

Rebuild in Christchurch

Where to stay in Christchurch

Despite the recent troubles, there are no shortages of hostels in Christchurch. The city centre is slowly being rebuilt and with that comes more accommodation for travellers of all types.

Below are a few of my recommendations for where to stay in Christchurch, whether you want to stay in a hotel or a hostel.

Christchurch YHAA recently renovated hostel, which is conveniently located in the centre of Christchurch. Spacious kitchen and living area!
Jailhouse AccommodationThis is a former jailhouse turned into a hostel! If you like staying at quirky places, then the Jailhouse is the place for you!
Point Break BackpackersLocated by the beach in New Brighton, this is an ideal place to stay if you want to get away from the centre!
Ibis HotelA nice hotel right in the heart of Christchurch. A good option for budget travellers.
NovotelA lovely hotel close to Cathedral Square in the centre of the city. Great facilities, ideal for families.
Ramada SuitesIf you want a bigger space when staying in Christchurch, then the Ramada Suites are for you. Located close to the centre.

 

View above Christchurch

Things to do in Christchurch

Despite being ravaged by earthquakes, there are plenty of things to do in Christchurch. Perhaps, the best part thing about the city is that it is constantly changing, with new buildings rising out of the ashes all the time. The surrounding areas also offer great places to visit during your time here.

As well as the places listed below, visiting Quake City is a must if you want to know more about how the earthquakes have damaged Christchurch.

Re:start Mall

If you are staying in accommodation near the city centre, and if even if you are not, you are going to see the container mall, which sprung up in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Based on the site of the previous Cashel Street Mall,

Based on the site of the previous Cashel Street Mall, Re:start Mall is a symbol of the city defiance and resilience in the face of adversity.

There are many great shops and eateries here, definitely check out Dimitri’s Souvlaki’s, as they are great. The thing that struck me the most, was the way that something as bland and uninspiring as shipping containers could be turned into beautiful shops and cafes. This just highlights the ingenuity and resilience of Kiwis for me!

The thing that struck me the most, was the way that something as bland and uninspiring as shipping containers could be turned into beautiful shops and cafes. This just highlights the ingenuity and resilience of Kiwis for me!

 

Re:Start Mall, Christchurch

Lyttleton

Lyttleton was one of the areas that was heavily affected by the earthquakes, with many houses and business being destroyed. However, the town is recovering and it’s a beautiful location, on Lyttleton bay, with great views. They are best appreciated from Gondola bay, which sits atop this ancient volcano.

However, the town is recovering and it’s a beautiful location, on Lyttleton bay, with great views. They are best appreciated from Gondola bay, which sits atop this ancient volcano.

I don’t recommend the Gondola, as I feel it’s a waste of money for what you get. I would advise you walk up the bridle path instead to see the views. Driving around Lyttleton bay is a great way to spend the day, with many different vantage points offering great views of the amazing landscape! For me, it’s definitely one of the best

Driving around Lyttleton bay is a great way to spend the day, with many different vantage points offering great views of the amazing landscape! For me, it’s definitely one of the best things to see in Christchurch.

 

View of Lyttleton Bay

Cardboard Cathedral

The symbol of Christchurch prior to the earthquakes was its majestic cathedral. Unfortunately, it sustained quite a lot of damage and like a lot of other buildings is no longer safe to be used. There is still a lot of debate over whether to rebuild or build a completely new cathedral. 5 years after the quake, the cathedral still lies in ruins.

There is still a lot of debate over whether to rebuild or build a completely new cathedral. 5 years after the quake, the cathedral still lies in ruins.

To combat the lack of a cathedral, a new one was constructed, made out of cardboard, yes you read that correctly, cardboard! Even the cross is made out of cardboard!

The cathedral is an impressive sight if a little strange and is another testament to the spirit of the people of Christchurch. It’s free to have a look around and it’s definitely worth a visit, to see a unique building!

 

Inside the Cardboard Cathedral

Godley Head

Godley Head is a fair distance from the city centre, but it’s definitely worth a visit. The view from the Head is one of the best in Christchurch, as you can clearly see the city and the coastline. There is quite a lot of things to do here, which is surprising as it’s not a destination that is well-known.

There is quite a lot of things to do here, which is surprising as it’s not a destination that is well-known.

Godley Head was the site of an old army base from the Second World War and the remnants are still visible today. The barracks are still intact, and there are large battery stations on the cliffs as well. The bunkers remain also but are not accessible as they are padlocked. If you like exploring, this is a great place to visit.

The barracks are still intact, and there are large battery stations on the cliffs as well. The bunkers remain also but are not accessible as they are padlocked. If you like exploring, this is a great place to visit.

 

Godley Head

Sumner area

Sumner was my favourite part of Christchurch, even if it’s a little out of the way. They are some of the best beaches in New Zealand! Taylor’s Mistake being one you absolutely have to visit for great views and surf!

There are also some spectacular views of the coastline. There’s also clear evidence of the damage from the earthquakes, with houses overhanging cliffs due to landslides!

You can get the bus to Sumner if you don’t have any transport. From there you can relax at the beach or get a coffee and some food at one of the numerous cafes in the town.

Cycling to Sumner is also a great idea, as then you can really take in the incredible views!

 

Sumner, Christchurch

Concluding thoughts

Christchurch is a city on the mend, despite this, it’s still a great place to visit. Once you get over the initial shock of shipping containers and broken buildings, there are plenty of things to do in Christchurch. The city should be a part of any New Zealand backpacking itinerary and is a great base from which to explore the incredible South Island!

If you are planning on working in New Zealand, then I highly recommend travelling to Christchurch. There are plenty of jobs, mainly in construction, but on the most part, they are well paid and there are jobs in retail and admin if building work is not for you!

Do you agree or disagree with my Christchurch travel guide? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!

Tom

Tom is a travel addict who first left England to spend a year Down Under. Not satisfied with this, he then went to New Zealand, about as far away from home as he could get. He is now planning his next adventures in Europe and Canada while maintaining this blog.

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19 Responses

  1. Hung Thai says:

    Man the damage is real and devastating but gotta love ingenuity and resolve though – that cardboard cathedral is pretty awesome haha

  2. Alana Gidycz says:

    We have a container food court here in Seoul but nothing made out of cardboard (yet).

  3. Marteen says:

    I loved reading the little bit of history of Christchurch. Taylor’s Mistake, interesting name for a beach 🙂 I remember watching the news and hearing about the earthquake but it’s difficult to comprehend the scale of devastation. When you said there would be jobs in construction for the next 10 – 15 years to reconstruct the city, I was shocked.

    • Tom says:

      I was really taken aback when I first arrived. I couldn’t believe how bad it was. I think it will have improved a fair bit since then, that was two years ago now. Yep, there are jobs there for a long time, lots of buildings to go up and houses to be built!

  4. Terrible to see the destruction from the Earthquake but good to see they are resilient and rebuilding. We are heading there in November and looking forward to our first trip, we will definitely add a visit to Gondola Bay, the views look incredible!

    • Tom says:

      It should be in better shape when I left at the end of 2014, it had improved a lot from when I arrived in the February of that year! Lyttelton and Godley Head are great spots!

  5. Chris says:

    This place is rather interesting. Very pretty yet very…broken. If this place abandoned?

  6. Claire says:

    I didn’t realise how huge the impact was on Christchurch! Good to see that it’s being rebuilt and not completely ruined though

  7. Rodrigo says:

    Even with the destruction I would love to visit this place. New Zealand is on the top of my list!

  8. Tami says:

    A cardboard church?! Wow, they really are a resillient people… Thanks for the great description of fun things to do and see in Christchurch. It was a good read!

  9. This makes me sad but wow, look at that natural beauty! Thanks for sharing and happy travels 🙂

  10. Aisha says:

    Mother nature’s fury can be so devastating. Thanks for shedding light on this.

  11. Nathan says:

    I didn’t know about how sever the damage was before this post. Nicely done- it was very thorough.

  12. Wow, they’ve had to overcome to much. I’d love to visit New Zealand one day, especially Christchurch. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  13. Nancy says:

    What I love about the New Zealander’s is that they are very resilient! If they see something that needs to be done it gets done! Good to hear they are cleaning up after the earthquake and getting things back to the way it was.

  14. Paul says:

    We have family living out in Christchurch so we know how badly the earthquakes have affected people, as their house was fully destroyed. Their new house is finally just being finished and we are going out to stay with them for a while next year, so we can’t wait to visit.

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